The Adapter Expat

Expat / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

The Adapter Expat

This picture symbolizes for me my life, or at least my life as an expat, 16 moves, 11 countries, 4 continents, 3 Third Culture Kids and still the same wonderful 1 husband.

Why should I choose adapter plugs to describe my life? Would it not be more impressive to show a world map, or some stunning picture of my loved ones, friends and me in an exotic location or a plate of mouthwatering food from far away places? While I have those pictures together with wonderful memories, my daily life as an expat seems better represented by these adapter plugs. They are a constant reminder of other places I have been, of how I can make things work one way or the other by combining tools I have at my disposal and of the frustrations sometimes not being able to get things to work, when I miss THE ONE adapter plug that could make it all work.

I am pretty sure that every repeat or serial expat has one big box, that is filled with all imaginable adapter plugs and extension cords and is the last in and the first out of the removal truck. Somehow the collection of adapter plugs is growing with every move and every child. I keep buying more as the kids seem to creatively (mis)place adapter plugs and cables in the household, one of those household riddles that is almost as inexplicable as the mystery of single socks . I have boys, three boys, and another large box filled with single socks and the hope of someday stumbling across the missing socks again (at the least when we move again…behind beds and cupboards I keep finding both …missing socks and adapter plugs and other things…but that merits another blog post.). Anyway, back to my adapter plug box.

When we finally get to move into our new home, wherever it may be, we are desperate to get the stereo for energetic music going, the kettle boiling and computer for communication with loved ones connected and for all that we need adapter plugs. On a side note, I still cannot understand how it makes sense to have so many different plug forms all over the world instead of one uniform standard! But then there is power in diversity, I guess. So as soon as we arrive in our new place, we start digging for the “right” adapter plugs and the ideal combination. What worked in the last country does never seem to work in the new country. Inevitably there are new challenges. Take Brazil as an example: 220V and 110V power outlets in the same apartment, in the same room, often not marked clearly, and on top of that, different plug forms depending on the socket’s age. So we start being creative and resourceful, drawing on all possible combinations to make things work. I do admit to a bit of “healthy” competition between the boys, my husband and myself, who can come up with the most “elegant” solution.

It goes without saying that there ALWAYS comes the moment when no matter how many different adapter plugs we have in our box, THE ONE we need appears to be missing. Consequently we end up going on a long hunt across town to strange places to find THAT one. It may take days, so when we find it, the sales people usually become our best friends, so relieved are we to have found it. This is one of the reasons why I am pleading with all international newcomer clubs, expat organizations, embassies and relocation companies to provide a list of adapter plug selling places together with the emergency phone numbers of the new country as a welcome gift!

You see, how the adapter plugs are key to starting in a new country and making the things that are important to my family work. I even find the name fitting – adapter plug. I also have to adapt to different energy outlets, to different contexts. I need to adapt to keep my life, my family and my work and what is important to me going. So I rely on my “adapter box” of different cultural frameworks and experiences. Knowing how to combine different values, preferences and communication styles to motivate the plumber, cable TV person etc to a) come when promised, to b) fix or install what needs to be fixed or installed and to c) do so quickly and at a fair price without a 200% “expatriate surcharge”. Pick between soft-spoken charming and courageous yelling and focus on expertise, quality, honor, or respect and add some humor or utter seriousness. Combining styles correctly (and there are always more than one possible combination) will get the energy flowing and get things to work. Sometimes, I will be stuck without the most effective idea or solution, my emotions will get the better of me, there may be a short circuit or I may even explode, yet in the long run, I know there will be a solution, a way to get it to work, a jeitinho, as the Brazilians call it.

So you see how the adapter plug represents the resourcefulness and creativity of my expat life, as well as the frustration, when I cannot access energy and the utter joy of getting things in different contexts to work.

Treasure your adapter box!