When you are as excited as I was about living and working in Europe, you tend to underestimate the size of the challenge.
Emotions can and often do trump logic.
But moving is difficult. Even moving, as I once did, from one Midwestern state to another was very, very difficult. I was excited about that move too and thought it would be no problem. As soon as the house was sold, I figured everything else would quickly fall into place. I was wrong about that, as I have been about a lot of things in my life.
And then, two years ago, I made the decision to move across an ocean. Not from Illinois to Michigan this time, but from the U.S. to Europe, to a tiny country called Switzerland, with its beautiful scenery and quaint villages and of course cheese. I had been to Europe. I knew people there. I have an adventurous spirit. So, once again, I thought, “No problem.”
But moving from one place to another, one country to another, is – may I use this word a third time? – difficult. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I should say at this point that I thought I was following God’s call in my life. But of course all pastors say that. Pastors say a lot of things, and they can justify just about any decision or behavior, maybe you’ve noticed, by using a lot of clever religious language. “God placed this call on my heart” is always a good one. “God decided to have his way with me” is another one I like. We pastors are good at making every decision seem like part of God’s eternal plan. It’s a required course at seminary.
Here’s the thing, though: I still believe this was God’s call in my life. Have never been more certain, as a matter of fact. But somewhere I got the idea that God’s call in my life would be to something better or easier – like a nicer climate, or a higher salary, or a better job description. I must have missed all of the biblical fine print about taking up one’s cross.
Not long ago a member of my church’s youth group said to me, “I thought following Jesus would make life easier.” Let me tell you, kid: I used to think that too. A lot of people do. And then we’re surprised when following turns out to be a lot harder than we ever imagined.
Switzerland usually ranks at the top of the list of countries for expats. It also ranks right up there on the “happiest” places to live in the world. If you’re going to move or be transferred somewhere, you could do a lot worse than Switzerland. I heard presidential candidate Bobby Jindal say in the last Republican debate that “the left is trying to turn the American dream into the European nightmare.” These words sound strange to anyone living here. Swiss life is hardly a nightmare. A lot of expats I know have decided to stay.
I suppose that what makes the move so difficult is leaving behind everything that is familiar. I forgot how utterly immersed I was in American culture. And then to find myself suddenly in a brand-new culture, as splendid as it is, in spite of what Bobby Jindal thinks, is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. Looking back I realize that the first year was exhausting – emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. I was starting a new job, for one thing, and even though people here welcomed me with open arms, starting a new job is nearly always demanding and stressful.
And then there was learning a new language. If I were five years old, I’m pretty sure I would be a fluent German speaker by now, but I am a bit older than five, and learning a language is tough, especially for Americans who think that English is God’s mother tongue. I still struggle with it.
Even going to the grocery store was a challenge at the beginning. Going to any kind of store required careful planning. Setting up the cable TV box (with instructions in German, French, and Italian) took the better part of an afternoon.
The list goes on and on. Every day there was something. I stopped writing this blog six months ago at least in part because I needed time to focus on living, settling in, finding my way.
I wrote a book last summer mostly to make sense of this country and of my new church. (Though the manuscript was submitted last week, the publication date has been set for the fall of next year.) I write, as many people do, to sort out my thoughts, to figure out what I really think, and I hoped that a book about serving a multicultural, international church with almost mind-boggling diversity would help me to understand what in the world I was doing here. Mostly it did. I was proud of the result.
So, the blog is back, which is another way of saying I am far more comfortable now in my new home, my new country. I can get around easily on trains and trams. I have carried on entire conversations in banks and restaurants and even at the salon where I get my hair cut in a language that is still new and strange to me. I am not nearly as tired at the end of the day.
But I will never again underestimate the degree of difficulty in moving.
(Photo: I took that on a Saturday morning hike a few weeks ago. It’s further evidence, I believe, of the “European nightmare.”)