Last week Hurricane Irene roared onto the Outer Banks of North Carolina and made its way up the East Coast of the US.
To my surprise, I found myself in the midst of massive evacuation. I was just trying to get from Massachusetts to Florida after delivering my daughter to college, but I got caught up in it all the same.
A 10-hour drive from Boston to my first stop in the western part of Virginia turned into a 17-hour ordeal.
Along the way, though, I realized this traffic nightmare had some lessons to teach me about being an expat.
1. You Can’t Plan for Everything
I left my Central Florida home on August 15. The plan was to spend a week getting to and spending time with family in the Rochester, NY area. Then we would head for Boston. I’d drop my daughter at college, spend a couple of days with friends in the area, then head home. I figured I’d arrive before two weeks was up.
So far, so good.
Then Irene came roaring up the coast from her landfall in the Carolinas. I planned to go around it, heading far enough inland to be out of its path.
On Friday, I drove south on I-95 into Connecticut and then cut across to the west. It was a good plan, except. . .
Coastal areas were ordered to evacuate and everyone and his brother was heading west across Connecticut last Friday afternoon.
Sometimes you get caught up in events bigger than yourself and you have to just do the best you can. Weather disasters, transportation strikes and other disturbances can throw your plans into complete disarray. Make your plan, do your best, and adjust as you go.
If you’re flexible and adjust well, you’ll have a much happier expat experience.
2. Practice Patience
My first hint that I would have some big problems came when I turned off I-95 to the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut.
This is a, tree-lined, winding road, two lanes in each direction, normally a pleasant alternative to the super highways.
This time, not so much. Traffic on the entrance ramp was standing still. It’s a long ramp, and after we inched along for 45 minutes (with more standing than inching) I was getting more than a little agitated.
I didn’t know what was going on ahead of me, how long I’d be at a standstill, or any other useful information. And I needed to pee.
When you’re stuck in a situation with a lot of unknowns, patience will lead to information and solutions. Learn to embrace the uncertainty. Your stress levels will thank you.
3. Talk to Someone Outside the Situation
After 45 minutes, I was getting the screaming meemies. (Note to self: must work on that patience/embracing uncertainty thing.)
Fortunately, I had my trusty cell phone. I reached out to my sister, who’s familiar with the route. She didn’t have any useful information or help for me, but talking with her calmed me down.
Sometimes you just need to have a conversation with someone who’s not where you’re at to give you some perspective.
4. Take a Break
After getting off the Merritt Parkway and across the Tappan Zee Bridge to New York, I needed to eat and I needed a break.
Instead of choosing someplace quick, I decided to give myself some real unwinding time.
I found a moderately priced, leisurely Italian place, took my time ordering, and enjoyed not being in the car.
Even in a stressful situation, you can find ways to enjoy the moment. When you’re able to seize a few good moments here and there, you can cope with the stress much better.
5. Learn to Accept Bureaucratic Roadblocks
In Florida, when a storm forces evacuation of coastal areas, they stop collecting tolls and let traffic flow.
Apparently the State of Pennsylvania does not.
One of the worst traffic tie-ups I encountered was at the toll booths on I-78, just inside the Pennsylvania border.
Traffic crept along for about four miles before the tolls.
It continued at a snail’s pace for several miles after the toll booths as well. In their infinite wisdom, the PA authorities were shutting down access to the left-hand lane in preparation for planned construction.
Anyone with a lick of sense would have sent crews out to open up lanes, not shut them down. Ah, bureaucracy. . .
There’s not much you can do about such massive stupidity, so learn to shrug your shoulders and move past it. As an expat, you’ll be dealing with a lot of bureaucracy that seems unnecessary to you. If you can’t deal with it you won’t last long in your new country.
6. Keep your Goal Front and Center — Don’t Get Bogged Down
Did I mention that the trip of 10 hours turned into 17? I was expecting to arrive at my sister’s between 10 and 11 PM.
By 10 PM, I was still hours away. I started thinking about getting a room for the night.
By the time I got far enough west to find an available motel room, I was just a couple hours away from my destination.
In a phone call, my brother-in-law pointed out that if I stopped for the night, I’d be driving in rainy, windy conditions the next morning. I decided to push on.
Sometimes you just need to grit your teeth and get on with it.
On a day fraught with frustration and hassle, hours 14, 15 and 16 of my 10-hour drive were particularly challenging. I was tired, emotionally and physically. My hands hurt, my feet hurt and my butt was sore from all that sitting.
Fortunately, when I was about two hours from my destination, traffic decreased, the roads opened up and I was able to move right along.
I counted down every five minutes that got me closer to being able to turn off the engine and get out of the car. I watched my GPS avidly as it counted down the remaining miles.
7. Remember You Won’t Always be Stuck
Eventually, you’ll move forward. When traffic on the Merrit Parkway finally started moving again, I was thrilled to reach the dizzying speed of 30 mph. After that PA toll booth incident, I heaved a sign of relief when I could increase my speed to 10.
Even the worst traffic jams eventually break loose.
As an expat, persistence will pay off and you’ll find yourself breaking through restrictive barriers of language and culture. Paying a bill, making a new friend, shopping for groceries, or negotiating a major purchase are skills we take for granted at home. Overseas, though, learn to celebrate those achievements.
This is a great list! It’s also not something just for expat life, but life in general. I need to keep this stuff in mind. 🙂