An update feels appropriate as we mark this milestone, half of a year living in Tunisia. It’s not what I expected, but then again, I had no prior knowledge about expat life and I couldn’t even find Tunisia on a map. And of course I had no idea we’d be doing all of this during a pandemic. I asked Justin what I should write about today. I was drawing a blank because all of the “adventures” I thought I’d be sharing have been canceled or postponed. At this point I should have been jet setting off to Italy for the weekend, spending my Fall Break in Spain and Christmas in Paris…. But instead I’ve been lounging around the house like the rest of the world. In a lot of ways, it’s been good for me. In my search for adventure and meaning, I’ve stumbled upon something else: peace.
Recently, I was in a state of questioning. Have I chosen the right career? Are we on the right path? I was feeling a bit stagnant and my automatic response is to search for some excitement. I need that high- that next big thing. I was on a roll for quite a while in my life where every year seemed to bring some new adventure- marriage, new job, new baby, another new baby, another new job. I like change. I moved here for the adventure and here I was sitting around, staring at my phone, watching TV, doing a whole lot of nothing. Realizing this made me feel awful and a bit frantic. “We need to go out and DO something,” I would beg my family. So we’d go take a walk, have a picnic at a historical site, order from a new restaurant, but in my head I kept thinking, I need more. The Corona virus is holding me back. My job is holding me back. My family is holding me back.
And then I woke up one morning with this song stuck in my head- not the whole song- one particular line of a song I hadn’t listened to in months, all of a sudden, replaying over and over again. From Hamilton by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda:
Look at where you are
Look at where you started
The fact that you’re alive is a miracle
Just stay alive, that would be enough
If you know me, you know I’m a big believer in signs from the universe, and this was one of many. This one just happened to be so literal it felt like the universe was knocking me over the head with it; like “Hello! Look around you. You’re in it. Right now. Wake up and appreciate what’s in front of you!”
I thought back to a conversation with my husband where he called me out for always chasing something just beyond the horizon. Will I ever be satisfied? Will it ever be enough? Everyone’s heard the old adage, life is about the journey, not the destination. But this isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve caught myself racing ahead, goal oriented, focused on my future.
Well, as frustrating as this pandemic has been, it’s also been a wake up call. It’s forced me to stop. We have a curfew; can’t be out past 8pm, 7pm on weekends. Can’t cross borders into different governorates (kind of like states) No leaving Tunis- no road trips. The hospitals are at capacity. We know more and more people here getting Covid. We are not only following the rules placed on us by the government, but also trying to be responsible and limit our social interactions. It’s easy to feel stuck.
Luckily, I seem to have turned a corner with one simple technique: gratitude. I should clarify, it’s simple in the fact that it’s not a very strenuous or complex idea, yet it’s extremely effective for finding happiness and peace. However it’s not simple in the fact that it’s not always easy to break old patterns of thought and start positive habits.
Here’s the basic gist of it though: If you are thinking about what you are grateful for, you are automatically bringing yourself into the present moment, and simultaneously thinking positively. When you concentrate on the good, the little annoyances and problems in your life are no longer in the forefront of your mind. And when you are truly living in the here and now, it’s easier to find enjoyment in life and let go of stress.
But like I said, it’s hard to build a new habit. I needed reminders. One suggestion was to think of a visual signal, like every time you see a stop sign, think of something you are thankful for. I tried that but kept forgetting. I get that driver’s amnesia. I’d get to my destination and then remember, “Dangit, I forgot to pay attention to the stop signs!” (It doesn’t help that no one really pays attention to the stop signs here.)
Finally I found something that worked. I have this smooth stone. Kind of a long story, but I wrote “Be Strong” on it and gave it to my mom years ago when she was going through a tough time. When I moved to Tunisia she gifted it back to me. So I have this stone and I put it in my coat pocket and every time I put my hand in my pocket I rediscover it and remind myself to stop whatever I’m thinking in my head and say something I feel gratitude for.
A few days ago, I was feeling stressed at school. I was walking my class to lunch. It was cold and windy. I was hungry. The kids were loud. I’m sure I unknowingly had a scowl on my face. And then, I put my cold hands in my pockets to warm up and found the smooth stone and I forced myself to say one thing in my head that I was grateful for. I think I said something insignificant like, “The flowers are pretty today” AND I swear the clouds parted and the sun shone down on me that very instant. I genuinely felt thankful for the sudden relief from the cold. And then I kept going. Walking into the lunch room, I was thankful that food was ready and I didn’t have to make it. I passed by Justin’s room and felt thankful that I have a husband who loves me. All of a sudden, the campus was beautiful. The sounds of children laughing were joyful. Everywhere I looked, I could think of some amazing aspect of my life and how incredibly lucky I was just to be here.
It was a revelation. I was able stop my negativity in its tracks and change my mood. The rest of the day I was relaxed and happy, and I got a bit hooked on playing with this stone in my pocket and going through my gratitude list. The best part it is, it didn’t stop when the day was over. Of course, I’d be lying if I told you I’ve been 100% positive ever since. Nope. Not even close. But I have found that I’m not dwelling on the next big thing all the time. I’m not upset when we have a day at home with no plans. I’m not craving change as much as I was. And I am finding joy in the simple things.
I signed up for Masterclass (the online courses taught by famous writers, chefs, etc.). I’m enjoying learning new things. I’ve been reading and journaling more (sometimes in fun places like old Roman ruins). I don’t have to cook most days, but when I do, I enjoy it. It’s kind of therapeutic chopping and stirring and listening to music or having conversations with Justin. Instead of reaching for a quick beer, Justin and I have been taking the time to create signature cocktails. It’s just as much about the process as it is about the product. Getting our produce from the fruit stand or the bread from the bakery doesn’t have to feel like a chore. It’s a fun little outing and an excuse to practice our Tunisian Arabic.
I haven’t written a post in a while because I didn’t think I had anything “exciting” to say. But life doesn’t have to be exciting all the time. Focusing on adventure had me tuning out wonderful, little everyday moments. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to travel and have exciting stories to share, but at the moment, I feel pretty content with daily life. So that’s my update. After 6 months here, this feels normal. My life abroad no longer feels like an extended vacation. I’m used to the sights and sounds and food and driving. We have settled into our house. We go to work every day. Our kids go to school. We know the local cats and the best place to get ice cream. It’s not glamorous, but it’s comfortable. And when we go to our backyard to pick a lemon from our tree or get a glimpse of the beach, I am cognizant that I am fortunate to be here and these are not experiences I’d be having if I wouldn’t have taken this leap.