Finding "normal" isn't easy

My friends still in Moscow want to know what life is like where it's "normal." When I know, I'll tell them.

“I want to hear all about your new life,” my friend wrote, after I told her I was coming back to Moscow and hoped we could meet for coffee. “You seem to have made the transition back to ‘normalcy’…want to know your secret.”

I read her message several times before responding. How can I give anyone advice on how to readjust to the “normal” when I feel I am still searching for it myself? Maybe I’m looking for it in all the wrong places—or maybe it’s just that my definition of “normal” has changed.

I have come to believe that, living in Moscow, we overestimated the value of “normalcy.” I remember many trips to Finland—walking the clean streets, not worrying about getting run over, shopping without being tracked by a security guard—and wondering, after I left, if Helsinki really was the greatest city on earth or if it only appeared that way because it was the closest “normal” place to Russia. Likewise, we expat wives idolized life in America—minivans, Wal-mart (or Whole Foods, depending), pediatricians who didn’t keep moving away—because it was something we knew enough to fantasize about, but not enough to make a straight comparison. I was certainly guilty many times of exclaiming: “Life could be easier!”—usually while dragging a 5 liter bottle of water home from the grocery.

Is life easier now, back in the United States? In some ways, yes; in some ways, no.

Day to day, getting from place to place, running errands? Yes, it’s easier. It took me at least a year to really believe that you could accomplish more than one thing on a day that also involved going to Ikea.

The post office works. Reliably. No customs official is going to take home the wooden growth chart you ordered for your kids because the package looked like it held a snowboard.

To gain access to a library, it is not necessary to have a letter of reference from an educational institution—and you can take books home!

But this ease, this convenience, which is really more superficial than substantive, comes at a price.

It is not easier to make friends. Being an expat, you have a ready-made circle of acquaintances. Of course some will be more interesting to you than others, but you already have a very important thing in common, the kind of thing on which to build a friendship.

For me, it was not easier to find a job. What made me an attractive candidate in Moscow—my knowledge of Russian history, my skills as an editor…ok, basically, my skills as a native English speaker—were not selling points in the U.S.

And it is not easy when everyone around you expects you to be normal like them—to be the kind of person who has never bribed a doctor to avoid a school physical. Or flagged down the car of a complete stranger and used it as a taxi. Or be subjected to a test for leprosy in order to get a work permit. They expect you to be the kind of person who considers a good beach vacation Florida, not the Red Sea.

It’s not that I regret coming back. We had reasons for returning to our point of origin, and they were good ones—a better job, family ties, educational opportunities. But the thought that “life would be easier,” shouldn’t have factored into the equation at all.

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