Expats in Lockdown is a special series (hopefully with a short lifespan) – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how we’re all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.
The first story in this series comes from a Portuguese expat man living in Denmark [note: Denmark went into lockdown on 11th March]. While he prefers to remain anonymous, he’s happy to share his struggles with us.
Continue reading to learn how he deals with feeling split between his life in Denmark and his family in Portugal during this lockdown, as well as having to suddenly find the motivation to work from home.
At the heart of it, he says, is the feeling of being a prisoner.
I’d like the readers to get to know you a little bit better and how you became an expat. To start off, what brought you to Denmark?
I wanted to broaden my horizon and get to know other ways of living and working beyond my own country and culture. Coming from Portugal I also wanted better career prospects. So at first I signed up for a study program so that I could leave my country and find a job locally. That was 6,5 years ago. These days I work as a project manager in a multinational company.
What keeps you living abroad?
First, my girlfriend and I have built a life here, although she’s not Danish. Second, quality of life. But also not feeling ready to go back to Portugal. I still feel like I’m developing myself a lot here.
What’s your favorite thing about living abroad?
My favorite thing is interacting with people from all over the world. I can really feel that I have changed in terms of who I am and how I perceive people, society and the world in general. I’ve learned how different people can be.
Since I’m mostly integrated in the expat community here, I see that everyone has their own struggles, their own objectives and their own goals. But I do feel that my life is so much more enriching here than it ever would be in my hometown in Portugal or in my home country.
What’s the hardest thing for you about living abroad?
The hardest thing is the split between your origins and the life you’ve built abroad. You still feel in a way like you’re just trying out stuff, you’re still away from home. At the same time, you already feel a bit settled here – like it’s actually your home.
So you start to ask yourself – where exactly do I belong? Do you belong in this new life or is this all just temporary and you belong in your home country? Of course, this is coming from someone that has only been abroad for 6,5 years.
Sort of building on that and linking it up with the current reality we live in today, I’d like to know more about how or when the Covid-19 virus started to have an impact on your life here?
The very first time was when I had a business trip to Berlin and it was the beginning of the crisis in China. Around end of January I think. At the time you thought that this is so far away – but there were already a few cases here or there in Europe. But I still thought that maybe this will be contained in 1-2 months.
But then you see that the situation is only getting worse. So when you wanted to plan your usual trips back home, plan a vacation, or even plan work trips because so much of my work is dependent on travelling and working with partners in different countries. That’s when I really started to think what I should do because things didn’t look like they were going to get better.
And now it’s here.
Already back when it first started I realized that I can’t leave or travel. But now you know for sure that you can’t leave [note: Denmark closed its borders on 14th March for 30 days].
The thing about Europe is that the whole continent is basically a 3-hour flight away. So whenever you’re feeling a bit down you can always just take a weekend trip to your hometown or somewhere else in Europe.
But now you really can’t get out. You could, technically, but you shouldn’t. All of a sudden you feel like you’re trapped. It’s a first world problem in a way, and something you can deal with it.
But then you start to think – what if something happens to your family back home? Then what? Because you also have your personal life here to take care of. So you worry for them, for yourself and your loved ones here.
And then you feel this divide or prison sensation where you don’t know what to do. And yet, you can’t do very much either.
How are you trying to deal with it all right now?
I’m literally taking it one day at a time. I’m no longer delusional that this will pass in one month or even a few weeks. We’ve seen in the case of China and South Korea that it takes 5 weeks to reach the peak. So I’m clinging to the hope that by sometime in May the worst has passed and things will start to stabilize again.
How have you tried to manage that prison sensation you mentioned?
In terms of managing that it’s quite hard. But I’m trying to let go of control. Realizing that there is nothing you can actually control here.
In practical terms, I just try to do activities that I enjoy. Cleaning is a good thing for me so I clean a lot. The thing that I’m trying to focus on is that me and my girlfriend, who I live with, are actually not in a bad position in the sense of having the basics covered in this situation. We can just ride this storm one day at a time.
I’m focusing on the fact that some people are being hit by this way worse than us. We could be in a foreign country with no job, no money, no home and no help. When you put things into such a perspective, you start to realize that this is manageable.
How are you trying to be there for your family back home and your friends here?
I’m in constant communication with my family. With friends I can see that I need to be more proactive. Because now I know that I’m not just going into run into them or be able to make plans with them anytime soon.
How is your family dealing with you being so far away during all this?
I know they miss me. We usually don’t spend more than 3-4 months without seeing each other. So obviously it’s hard right now. At the same time, they understand and they also want me to be safe. We just have to ride this storm.
What’s your plan for the coming days of lockdown?
As a person who doesn’t like working from home, my first goal is to learn how to do it properly. Self-discipline is going to be an interesting challenge. So my game plan is to build some sort of structure for the next few weeks around the things that I can control. But the challenging thing will be to motivate myself and not take this as a vacation.
Because right now you basically have this break in your daily routine. Normally, 5 out of the 7 days of a week you wake up and go to the office. You’re in this working mode, you engage with colleagues and socialize with people. Then you come home and you have a different environment and routine. So right now, being at home and still having to work is going to be an interesting challenge.
I’m going to take this one day at a time.
Readers, do you feel like you’re stuck between two worlds while being unable to make a move?
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.