The Expat Pyramid (A la Freytag)

Freytag’s Pyramid is a diagram to explain the general plot structure of dramatic works such as novels, film or plays. We’d like to believe that in real life our journeys are unique. Though each experience molded by unique events and variability, there are undeniable patterns between them.

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For someone who moves out of their country to live abroad, this is no exception. As such, I made a tailored version to fit the journey of the expat, using relationship analogies:

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Let me show you what I mean…

(1.) The Move:

This period is more about the transition from the previous chapter of your life than it is about the actual place you move to. Before newlyweds really begin to enjoy one another, they must make peace with the fact that their single life is in the past now; that they must move on.

(2.) The Honeymoon Phase:

Like in a marriage, this is a period of being totally mesmerized and enamored. You notice the beauty in small details and wake up grateful every day. When I was in it, here, it didn’t matter how bad of a day I was having, I would look at Los Cerros (the mountains) off to the east and instantly feel calm, again.

(3.) The Lovers’ Quarrel:

Remember that new spouse who had the most precious nose? And you could stay awake just watching it sit there on that pretty face as it snored adorably? Well, little by little, that precious nose and adorable snore become less and less precious and adorable. You notice, now, that the pores in this nose are HUGE and that there two families of blackheads living in gated communities above each of your lover’s nostrils. One day, you stop thinking about everything that is where you live and only think about everything it isn’t. It begins to have prison-like qualities. It is your ball-and-chain. You yank the covers to your side of the bed, because, in a way, you feel cheated.

For me, this stage came when I began piling work onto my schedule. At first, it felt great: I contracted classes for myself without any sort of institute or agency; I perfectly factored in the time needed for commute by bike; I was making money; I was gaining experience. I was working about five, 2-hour classes each day; plus commute, which was about two hours of commute each day; plus lesson planning and cooking my meals in the evening. I was clocking in at about 5-6 hours of sleep a night, which began taking a toll on my nerves. To make matters worse, the construction for a six-story apartment building was in full-swing outside my window. (The construction is still happening, now, by the way, but at least there isn’t a concrete truck churning thunderously anymore.) All this bustle (a) made naps impossible and (b) brought dozens of hungry-eyed construction workers in to the neighborhood. Even when leaving my house at 7 AM, I would get attention in the form of flagrant staring or hissing or whistling or kissy faces or grunts or grumbling some other sort of unwanted two cents directed my way.

I began thinking about how Bogotá was chipping away at me: I had even begun shaving my arm pits, which compromised a preference I had rocked for the past year. It brought me great pride to use my body to say, “The media cannot tell me what is beautiful and what I should feel ashamed of.” Alas, as a woman in a South American country and particularly as a foreign woman, I got to the point that I wanted to do anything and everything in my power to not call attention to myself. I put my shorts back into the suitcase collecting dust under my bed. I stopped going for jogs. The rumble from construction drilling plus living near a major highway made the outside world feel uncomfortable and repelling from the moment I woke up. I felt stuck and resentful.

(3.) Decision Time:

To many people, the expression, “The world is your oyster,” seems uplifting and inspiring. Many expats with whom I’ve spoken—including myself– think, “If I could move here and find an apartment and a job and friends, I could do this anywhere! I could do anything!” And the thought of it is not uplifting, but frightening as all hell. It is after one becomes settled in a foreign country, after a significant amount of time passes and the concept of “home” is transient and intangible, that the stress of possibility kicks in. When you realize the amount of options that truly exist in this world, you realize how much potential you have to screw up and pick the wrong one. The weight of this doubt makes you re-examine if you’re happy where you are: if the reasons for such happiness or unhappiness stem from the place or from you. You examine yourself on a deeper level (blah, blah, blah), figure out what it is that you want (or, at the very least, you try) and you address the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma. (Every wonder where that gust of wind came from? It is the collective energy from millions of ex-pats all over the world flipping coins.) Some people are able to reignite the flame with this new home of theirs or they divorce themselves from it, hope for a more lasting connection in the future.

As for me? I decided to stay; for now, at least. In terms of the fight-or-flight response, I’m damn stubborn. This is not to say that the “flight” response is not a good fit for some people, as staying in a relationship that isn’t working isn’t so much fighting for something as it is beating a dead horse.

(4.) Dealin’ With It:

It’s at this point that the stock, ex-pat character must deal with his or her decision and move forward. He or she either moves out or decides to go to couples therapy or whatever. The problem is that one can’t help but think about all the other potential pearls in your ambiguous oyster. Though I haven’t fully completed this pyramid, I already can sense the importance of putting the doubt to rest. If you can’t do so, it really doesn’t matter which path you end up choosing because the doubt will ruin it; nagging every step of the way, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

At the end of this month I’m taking a month-long vacation back to the states, which will hopefully allow me some time to miss Bogotá and return reinvigorated. I know I was right when I realized that I needed a change, but at least for now, I’m testing the theory that it can be pursued through my outlook rather than my location.

 – –

The banal eventualities of the pyramid which I presented may suggest a kind of disenchantment, to think that all your fretting is some stock grievance in a diagram that has already been set. This self-discovery thing you’re doing has already been done before. However, if you can put aside the fact that you aren’t as unique as you had supposed, you can appreciate the fact that you are not alone.

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