When I first lived abroad, I looked forward to every visit from family members, and every trip home. Now, after more than a decade of living abroad (and a few years hosting my spouse’s family when we lived in Texas), the novelty has worn off and irritation can easily creep in on all sides. I thought I’d share some of my experiences in the hopes that you might be able to avoid my mistakes. Read on to minimize
family feuds annoyances and make the best of your time together.
#1: If at all possible, do not let your family members stay with you, especially if (a) they’re American and you live somewhere that is not America, and/or (b) you have a small house. We live in a 1250 square foot house in South London and it is the biggest property we’ve rented in this country. With two adults and two kids, there’s really not much room to spare. My best friend and her (German) husband and son recently crashed on a foam mattress on the floor for two nights, but there’s absolutely no way my parents or siblings would ever tolerate this set up. Much better for everyone if they get an airbnb or a hotel room (airbnb is always cheaper, plus you can cook). Otherwise, be prepared to put up with a constant stream of comments about how small everything else, how uncomfortable and old-fashioned everything is, yada yada yada…seriously, it was bad enough listening to my mother complain about the washing machine (and lack of separate dryer) at the airbnb property they rented.
#2: Think about local holidays that may impact (positively or negatively) on travel plans. If you live in a touristy city or area, make sure you let your family know if something is going on around the time they want to visit. My parents recently visited for two weeks that exactly lined up with the Easter holidays here, so all of the London places they wanted to visit were super busy. They managed, but it’s worth warning people in advance if there’s a local festival, holiday, sporting event, etc. – especially since it can also drive up airfare and accommodation costs.
#3: Give your relatives advice, but if they’re anything like mine, be prepared for them not to take it. My brother once flew over for three days to meet his new nephew. I was so flattered that he went to so much effort to come and see us, and delighted that he abided by rule #1 and stayed in a hotel (especially since at that time we lived in a 650 sq ft flat). Unfortunately, he did not listen to me when I told him a single room wouldn’t be big enough for his 6’3” frame, and he spent his three nights in a very cramped bed that was most likely designed for adults from Shakespeare’s time (you know, when everyone was shorter and smaller, right?).
Another example: my parents wanted to take a day trip to Oxford and when they looked up the train times, it said it would take just over an hour to get there on the train from London. Of course, what they didn’t know was that it would take at least another hour just to cross London on public transportation to get to the train that would take them to Oxford. And did they listen when I told them? No. And did they have a nice day out? No. They barely managed to see the spires at all. So like I said, feel free to give your relatives advice, but try not to stress out if they ignore you.
#4: Resign yourself to dealing with tourist cliches. I took my mom to Paris and she wanted American wine. Ha! My dad loves to make jokes about English muffins. Ugh. I’ve taken almost every guest I’ve ever hosted to a red telephone booth and Big Ben/Buckingham Palace/Tower Bridge. Mostly I take refuge in introducing them to one of my favorite pubs at the end of the day. Top tip: try to work in at least one thing you like doing during a day of sightseeing, otherwise you’ll be a miserable tour guide.
#5: Set clear expectations in advance. This one is slightly more serious. Some family members will want to spend all their time with you. After all, if they only see you once or twice a year, they want to make the most of it, right?! Other family members will want some distance. They’ll see you for a bit, but not all day, every day. Other times family members don’t feel comfortable traveling abroad and are reliant on your for everything, while a different group of folks might view you as a convenient stepping stone to expanding their traveling horizons.
It’s best to try and find out how much time they want to spend with you, and be up front about how much time you can offer to spend with them, even before they buy their tickets. This will prevent major arguments and hurt feelings down the line when, say, they’re tired and want to have a night in, but you’ve made plans to take them out for a meal. Or vice versa when they want to spend every waking minute with you but actually you’ve got to work and also it’s your friend’s birthday drinks, etc. Just try to have a conversation about it in advance.
And if this advice sounds totally bizarre and irrelevant to your life as an expat, congratulations: you win the family lottery. Otherwise, feel free to comment below with your own tips and advice.