Today, I realised that I’ve spent most of my twenties living abroad. I flew away from the nest in 2009 when I was 19 because I felt lost and purposeless in Paris. My first trip was Kent, England where I lived for a year as an au pair. Although the initial plan was to stay in the United Kingdom for a year to improve my English, I later decided to move to London and next thing you know I ended up staying there for 7 years. In the meantime, I also did a semester abroad in the US, and 9 years later here I am in Barcelona starting all over again.
As I said many times before, I think moving abroad was one of the best things I could’ve ever made. It taught me so much but was also extremely challenging and difficult at times. Whilst I know everyone’s experience is different I wanted to share some of the best and worst side of life as an expat, as well as some advice to overcome them.
You will make a lot of friends who will eventually move on
The good thing about living abroad is that you get to meet a lot of new people from all around the world. At the beginning you will naturally gravitate towards expats like you. It’s just easier at first because you are all in the same situation, and if like me you haven’t quite grasped your new country’s language you will feel more comfortable with other foreigners.
The thing with big cities like London is that it attracts a lot of young people, but eventually it comes to a time when people either choose to stay or go back to their countries for various reasons. Even with all the best will in the world it’s sometimes difficult – although not impossible - to stay in touch with all the great people you’ve met along the way. Same applies for friends from back home. I found that after a few years abroad, it was difficult to maintain certain friendships either because we didn’t really connect anymore or because life had got in the way.
Friendship takes time and intention so it’s important to carve out some time to check on all your old friends but also understand that they might not always be available when you want them to be. The thing with long distance friendship is that timing is everything and between work and other commitments it can take months to schedule a 10-minute call. My mantra when it comes to friendship and everything else for that matter is to value quality time over quantity. I only speak to some of my closest friends once a year, for an hour, but when whenever I speak to them I make sure to make sure to make those 59 minutes count.
It will make your love life a tad more complicated (or not)
Have you heard of the saying “The best way to learn a new language is on Tinder”? No? Alright, I may have made this one up but hear me out, what’s the best way to combine work and pleasure. Right, now I have got your attention! The point is, you will probably go on a few dates, and maybe even meet the “The One” whilst living abroad which is amazing in so many ways.
The part where it can get a bit complicated is when “The One” happens to be from a different country than yours. There are a few scenarios possible here:
(1) The one is from the country where you currently live in, but you want to go back to your country eventually to start a family and he doesn’t
(2) The one is from a completely different country i.e. you currently both live in London, he’s from Spain, you are from Paris and you want to stay in London for good, but he wants to go back to Spain eventually to start a family (Alright, this might be the situation I found myself in)
(3) The one is from (insert country) and you are both open to live anywhere in the world (In that case, you are all fine and I wish you all the best)
Again, I can’t reiterate this enough, everyone’s story is different but what I’ve learnt from my own relationship is that if you both really love each other, don’t let a country get in the way.
You will get lonely
Ok, so we talked about all the fun stuff like meeting loads of new people, and going on countless dates but the reality is, you will sometimes get lonely. I guess this also applies whether you are an expat or not but what I found when I initially moved abroad is that a lot of the relationship you make at the begin can be quite superficial. Of course, if you want to go out clubbing or have a drink with someone you will always find someone to come along, but what about the times when things aren’t that good?
Whilst I am quite good at making friends, it took me a long time to find people with who I could also share the bad stuff with. As an expat, I think there’s this misconception that we have it all – most likely perpetuated by countless chick flicks painting life abroad like this amazing fairy tale. However, sometimes, it can be difficult to be away from you loved ones and I remember feeling like I couldn’t really speak to anyone near me about some of my struggles.
Reach out to people in your inner circle, even though your family and friends might be away they will know exactly what to tell you to cheer you back up. Also, trust some of the new people you’ve met, you might think they are not interested about your struggles but who knows, they might prove you wrong.
You will discover new cultures
Living abroad will not only open your mind, but it will also expose you to things and people you’d have probably never interacted with otherwise. The food is one thing, the way of living is another. For instance, in Spain I discovered the concept of slow living. People take the time to eat, to live, to walk and even the conversations are longer. I love the discovering part of being an expat, especially when you plan on living in a country for a few years as it allows you to really grasp all the different complexities and nuances.
Like everything, there will be things that you’ll dislike in your new country. For instance, when I lived in Kentucky, one thing that shocked me was people’s laid-back attitude towards gun control. I actually met various people who showed me their guns and thought it was normal to have one at home to defend themselves.
Accept that everyone is different and that your way of seeing things isn’t necessarily the right or the only way to approach certain issues. I used to get so frustrated at first but with time I’ve learnt to understand that everyone’s opinion is valid and that part of living abroad is sometimes agreeing to disagree on certain things, and try and learn things in the process.