03 March 2018

Lessons Learned in a Year Abroad

Just like my tattoo I got a year ago, I'm a lil worse for wear.  This experience has been difficult, but I'm still here.

Change is lawlessness.  I like laws.

I think that's why I love grammar so much.  There are rules, and I memorized them.

Study hard, you'll make good grades.  Be nice, and people will like you.  Move to a foreign country to work for the USO, and you'll love it and make best friends for life.

That last one tripped me up.  Germany is so utterly completely different than my experience in Afghanistan.  I thought I would instantly make friends, be a good boss, love my job and learn it quickly.  I have failed at each and every single one of those.

So, what have I learned after 1 year of leaving everyone I love, and a job that I excelled at, to plunge into a foreign country with no friends, and misplaced confidence in a new job?

1. Say yes.

It took me months, and months, and months to start saying "yes" to invitations.  I once had a boyfriend tell me he thought I was "really weird" when he first met me.  I have at least 2 other friends who have told me about how much they disliked me when they first met me.  I'm not great at first impressions.  Third impressions is when I really start to wow 'em.

Anyway, I didn't say yes to invitations.  Going with a buffer friend is easy, going by yourself with people you barely know somewhere is a little scary.

Go to the bouldering gym with acquaintances?  Say yes.  Fly to another part of Germany to see a band I have never heard of?  Say yes.  Put on a Facebook group that I'll be at a beer garden, and I'd really like to not go alone so would some other ladies come out?  Say yes.

Having the courage to say yes has opened me up to some beautiful new friendships.

2. There's a balance between boss, bitch, and best friend.

Many years ago I was sent to a center to help them during a staff transition.  The volunteers had been through a lot, so I wanted to be my bright, optimistic, open self.  They used my openness against me.  They went as far as to write a "review" to my superiors saying that I was inexperienced, young, naive, etc.

Moving to Germany for this position I knew I'd be supervising 4 people.  I will keep them at arm's length.  I will not open up.  They will use it against me.  People hate change.  It's instinctual.  If I want them to respect me, I need to be a strong leader.

Well, that backfired too.  Over whispers that weren't so quiet, I heard some of the most hurtful words I've ever heard said about me...that I didn't care, that I was just here for me to further my career, that I wasn't helpful to anyone, that I didn't understand military families.

It was awful.  I just wanted to go home and be with my friends who know me and love me.  Then I realized I hadn't given them a chance to know me.  By not opening up, all they were seeing was a new boss who made decisions, not a teammate who is trying to make the best choices for the military that she cares so deeply about.

There's a balance between bitch and best friend while you're being a boss.  As a woman it's insanely difficult to find the correct balance for yourself, and for your employees.  For me the answer was in being sincere to myself.  I'm a story-teller.  Sharing what I wanted to, and not divulging what I didn't want to, has worked for me.

3. More hugs and "love yous"

I can handle living alone.  I can spend an entire weekend reading a book, watching Netflix, and just being by myself.  But I can not handle not having a hug.  It just puts all the pieces back together sometimes.  I had a friend this summer who hugged me; I didn't let go immediately, so he didn't either.  It was absolute bliss that he just hugged me for as long as I needed it.

I say "love you" to my friends on the phone before we hang up.  I'm not sure when exactly it started, but it's important to me.  They're the longest relationships of my life other than my family.  I've known some of my friends for 27 years, and others I've lain in a ditch with during a rocket attack.  They mean so much to me, why would I not say, "love you, bye!"  I don't know why I didn't start this sooner.  It feels good.

4. You only fail when you stop trying.

Okay, so this one I can't take credit for.  I found it on Pinterest.  I have made many mistakes in this new position according to all the rules and regulations.  Any time the phone rang at work I cringed.  It was going to be something else I didn't do up to standard.  But I kept trying.  And I just tried to not make the same mistake twice.  So at least now when I mess up, it's in spectacularly new ways.

Shame is strong, and pride is powerful.

But persistence is a fantastic beast that teaches the fingers to tie shoes, the head to memorize multiplication tables, and the heart to keep trying even after its hurt.

(Those last two lines were all me...inspired by some Brene Brown.  She's amazing.)

5. I still love it.

A young private came into the center the other day, and I welcomed him, "Hi William!  How was your weekend, do anything fun?"  As he walked in to get a soda he told me he didn't go anywhere, but he had a good time.  He came back out a few minutes later, and he told me sincerely, "You know when you say hi to me it really means a lot.  Thank you."

I'm tearing up just thinking about it.  He's a 19 year-old soldier in a new unit in a new country, and because I learned his first name, he's happier than he was.  And he didn't know it, but by sharing that with me he made my day a thousand times better.  I was ready to give more and help more and do more because of what he said.

Literally, an agenda topic at our staff meeting last week was how to make our military and their family members happier.  Everything from learning our regulars' first names to making stronger coffee was discussed.  My job is to make other people's lives a little more fun and a little more joyful.  How could I not love that?

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