When my parents left their home towns in the late 50ies they thought that they would spend a few years abroad and then return home, find another job, have kids… but life had other plans. They didn’t know they would embark on a 35 year expat journey.
After almost a year in Belgium they moved to Italy where they lived for almost 30 years, before moving to France and then Germany (but not to the place they came from). My sister and I were born in Switzerland (right across the Italian border) and grew up in Italy. – I continued living abroad for my whole life: Italy, Switzerland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands.
If you are to embark an expat journey, you may intend staying abroad only for a couple of years, but be prepared that you may stay longer… The term expatriate was originally used to define employees who are sent abroad by a company for a defined period of time with the intention to come back (i.e. where they started, which usually is their home country). The expat life has certain aspects I realized people who grew up in their home town or home country may consider different.
1) The expat way to make friends
If you are an expat on a short assignment, you will try to find like minded people, i.e. other internationals. Expats have a very strategic way to make friends: they literally scan you. If you can be helpful in some way you’re “in”, if not, well they won’t loose time to make you understand.
For expats, friendhips are the pillars of their life abroad, their village. They become their family abroad. Therefore, expat friends need to be solid, reliable and flexible at the same time. – No fuss, no long discussions.
Don’t expect to be everyone’s cup of tea. You won’t and not everyone will be yours either.
Because you outgrow friends, and they outgrow you. (Cold, but true.) Because you’ll have friends who will work too much, travel too often, fight with each other, get boyfriends and stop seeing you, or worse, have a baby and disappear into a black hole for years (I am that friend—I’m the mom of a toddler, after all). Because friends, including your very best ones, will move away.
The expat community is huge: online and offline you can stay in touch with everyone. – If you want.
This all may sound that expats are very superficial when it comes to friendships, but it’s not. They can have long lasting friendships and very close friends. I observed that expats have a quite healthy way to deal with friendships. Friend A is ok for visiting museums, friend B for taking classes together, friend C for doing business. Don’t expect to have one and only one best friend who will be able to stay with you the whole time you’re living abroad. This is simly not possible. Unless this friend is your partner, of course.
But for all the others: they will be part of your life for a certain time, then you or they will move on, you’ll stay in contact and meet. With some you will catch up and feel like if you never left, with others you will feel that you drifted apart. This is part of our life. Internationals are professionals in saying good-bye (after some training).
2) Expat partnerships are different
When living abroad with a partner, many expats undergo a profound change in their partnership. It is exciting and sometimes liberating to experience life away from family and friends. You can discover facets of yourself and your partner that you wouldn’t have experienced back home. Living in another “world” makes many things possible. But be aware that everyone adapts at his own pace. If one is already enrolling for the sailing course, the other one is still struggling with the language…
Adapting to a new life requires time, patience and frequent assessment of our expectations. Is this life how we expected it to be? Does our partner find fulfillment in his or her new role? Can we cope with all the new? Things that were “normal” in one place, may be completely different in the new one. If in one place you used to have help in the household this may not be possible in the new one. If in one place you found a job within weeks, it may require more patience in the next one. – Don’t forget to discuss this with your partner.
If you don’t work in the new place, maybe feel lost and lonely, try to find something you always wanted to do. Now is the moment to try new hobbies, learn a new language, meet people from other cultures, learn photography, writing, story telling… anything that makes you feel good. One step at a time.
3) Feeling different is the new normal
If you feel homesick, alienated, different, like a fish out of water: it’s normal! Everyone does when starting to live in another place. After the first honeymoon stage, when you get a certain routine, you’ll find that the food tastes different, the way people react is not what you expect and other things may feel “strange”. You’ll question your decision to embark on this journey and long for the life you had before. That is perfectly normal. Holing up will only make you feel worse. Try to go out, observe people around you as a tourist, try to find one new thing every day. You can keep a journal about what you experience. Re-reading what you wrote a few days or months ago will make you realize the big steps you’re making!
You’re great and you can do it.
It’s all worth it.
Barriers are only in our mind…
You may not look like locals, talk like locals or even think like locals. Does it matter? There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re simply not a local. If you accept that being different is normal, you can let go this urge of wanting to “fit in”. You’ll eventually fit in naturally by going with the flow, immersing into these new waters and… swim.
4) Discover and ask questions…
Discover the surroundings. The best way to do it is by walking. You really get a feel for the new place when you walk the distances. Especially in cities. You can discover your new place step by step. You’ll find the places you need (grocery shop, farmacy, school….) in the first weeks, then your action radius will grow with your growing confidence in the new place. – Enjoy the process.
I’ve always looked forward to new experiences. – No matter for what reason you’re living abroad, try to embrace that life. Make it as cozy and as “yours” as possible. Every coin has two sides and if you don’t understand something, or if something makes you upset, before building walls: ask. By asking questions about what we don’t understand we’ll give others the opportunity to make things clearer for us. We may understand that the person in the shop wasn’t rude, that she only meant to be honest and that this can be a merit. That she didn’t want to hurt us: it’s the way people talk to each other here. We can discover a hole new world by deciphering communication clues.
5) Communication is the key…
Yes, last but not least: communicate. Talk, learn the language! It doesn’t harm to know a few words in the local language and it surely doesn’t hurt anyone if you can even say a full sentence. On the contrary. Even in places like the Netherlands where most of the people can talk English and at least another language, being able to talk Dutch is an asset. You will get the better vegetables at the market (in my experience), have a lovely chat with the vendor, get to know the neighbour and you’ll come acquainted with the mother of your kid’s best friend, maybe even find a new friend.
If you have small children, observe how they do it. Observe how they interact with peers. They just chat away. Children have a natural way to communicate, with gestures, eye contact, monosyllables… If they can do it, we can do it, right?
The first thing that will make us feel good in a new place is when we have the feeling that we understand how we can live there. What our role is, our task, our mission, our passion.
These are only 5 things that will help you make your life abroad a joyful ride and there are many more I can add – you can find out in my workshops or during coaching sessions with me.