Being an expat is great. You see the world, meet new people, jaw-drop at weird customs, and enjoy unprecedented freedom. But “expat mode” is not a preset feature of your personality: you need to get used to it.
Here is everything I wish I knew before moving abroad. Some of the things I will discuss are incredibly enriching; others caused me more than one headache. I will begin with the latter ones and leave the gems for the next post.
If you are considering moving abroad any time soon—or you just want to peek into other people’s struggles—that’s the post for you.
Headache #1: Finding decent accommodation is a chore
Let’s start with a tough one. Yes, finding a place where to live can prove hard. Especially if you move in an unknown city. And you don’t speak the local language(s). And you don’t know anybody to help you out. But nothing is impossible, and you just need to try harder.
- Use a real estate broker or agent. If you can’t afford one, browse the internet dutifully. Don’t limit your research to the top three Google results! Look through rental listings, Facebook groups, real estate websites, etc. Don’t beat yourself down, and you will get there!
- Once you put together a list of suitable addresses, schedule at least three or four rental visits ASAP. If your goal is to become a homeowner, attend as many open houses as possible before buying. And keep in mind that the best properties sell quickly.
- STAY AWAY from cheap solutions: the cheaper, the crappier.
- Always always always visit the place in person. And never agree on “blind rental deals” before arriving in the new country–unless someone you trust can visit the property for you.
- Choose the location with care. Living by train, tube, bus, or tram stations is key if you don’t have a car. Walking is pleasant, but not when you carry some heavy grocery bags, it’s raining, and you are late.
- If you go for a rental, don’t underestimate the character who will rent you the house. As enchanting as the place might be, it’s not worth dealing with an asshole.
Headache #2: Language barriers are real
Truth is, English is not spoken fluently everywhere–or spoken at all for that matter. That’s a fact. Consider it “outrageous” in a XXI century globalised world if you wish, but that won’t change it.
Luckily enough, though, we all belong to the same species and can sort things out using body language–Italians rule. But while that will save you from starving, it won’t protect you from feeling an outsider.
So unless your stay is very limited in time, you must speak the language. I am not saying you need to master it, but at least learn the basics. Don’t be like me. Don’t wait five years to get serious about picking up the local language!
- Sign up for language classes. The sooner, the better. Consider it as an initial investment as securing a place where to live, comply with visa requirements, and so on. You won’t regret it.
- If you can’t afford a language course, remember that Google is your friend. Just type “learning + your language of interest” and you will get all you need for the rest of your life.
- Don’t like desktop learning? Download a language-learning app! For the sake of transparency, I have used none of them. But names such as Babbel and Duolingo somehow resonate with me–kudos to the marketers!
- Sceptic about apps? Log on to YouTube. Endless free and increasingly qualitative content is waiting for you!
- Maybe you don’t believe in self-education. Fair enough. Just speak to locals then. At work, at the gym, in the street. Seize the opportunity. And don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You will learn faster.
Headache #3: Why the heck did I do this?
Let’s be clear here: leaving out of choice is always a blessing. You are not escaping famine, bombs, or floods; you are seeking fulfilment and happiness. Nothing wrong with it, but you need to acknowledge that you are on the lucky side of history.
Yet, rainy days do happen. And you will wonder why you moved in the first place. I would argue this is not always a spike of homesickness. Yes, you will feel even more detached from your supposedly comfortable past, but that’s a consequence of your grim mood.
In my experience, why-did-I-do-this days occur when things go unplanned, or you fail at something. You are frustrated, not missing home. So don’t get trapped in sweet memories. Try to focus on your reasons for leaving your country instead. Remember: it’s not about “why”; it’s about “because.”
Headache #4: Culture shock is a thing
When you immerse yourself in a culture you are unfamiliar with, chance are you will feel lost. It takes some time to get used to it. In some cases, you will never fill the gap.
Personally, moving from Italy to Belgium wasn’t such a big deal. My confusion was way greater when I was in the UK, for example. (And yet, I consider it “the country of my heart”–a Brexit-broken heart actually.)
I still find some Belgian customs hard to understand, but I got used to “la Belgitude” quite quickly. And you know what? I love it!
However, the feeling of not-belonging can be daunting at times.
A lot of your time, particularly in the early months of living in a new country, is taken up with bureaucracy. Filling out banking forms, scheduling appointments at the “commune” (oh boy, the “commune!”), negotiate with landlords, the list is as long as my arm. Plus, you go through all of that in a different language!
Rest assured though, things get even worse when you are held accountable for tax returns you allegedly didn’t fill. (For the records: I wasn’t even working yet!)
Half-jokes aside, problems get fixed eventually. What struck me, though, was how I struggled to sort the whole “Belgian system” out. I couldn’t grasp the basic principles underlying the red tape I was faced with, and that put a lot of stress on me.
Moreover, locals rarely realise how difficult it is for a foreigner to keep up with their country rules. They look at you puzzled, wondering why you are so dumb. In those cases, admit you need clarification and ask them to repeat. Looking stupid is better than walking away thinking that you have been fooled.
Cultural differences and social situations
Social situations might prove uncomfortable. That’s not because people are unfriendly or they want to mistreat you. You may feel an outsider because you see that there is a whole other frame of reference that exists, but you can’t very much relate.
Your social cues are different, your points of reference are different, and more often than not, your upbringing was different too. You have nothing to do with your local friends. So what?
You may either seek out your fellow countrymen, or make an effort to blend in. Try to pick up some points from your host country culture and make them your own. Ask your native contacts about places you should visit, food you must taste, and things you can’t miss.
When you are more familiar with your local friends, go further than that. Ask them about their childhood and teenage years. How was school? Did they have as many holidays as in your country? Which cartoons did they watch? What about Christmas celebrations? Trivial questions for an adult, but their answers will help you have a clearer understanding of the culture you are in.
That’s how I got to know that there are approximately 3,000 castles scattered all over Belgium, Sinterklaas brings way more presents than Santa Claus, and Belgians eat French fries at least once a week. That’s also how I fell deeply in love with this wonderful country.
Headache #5: Loss of connection
You will miss, be missed, and miss again. People, places, routines, you name it. Even the silliest things such as your favourite pasta brand or a particular Italian formula lip moisturiser you can’t live without become a matter of life and death. (These items are clearly randomly selected.)
But more than anything, you will be away from your support network. Not only that will take a toll on you whenever you feel down, but it will also hit you badly when you realise how much you have missed out on.
This “expat guilt” is my greatest concern. Often I thought I would drop everything and go back. This feeling becomes particularly intense after spending some time with my loved ones–being it where I live or back home.
I have found no remedy so far–and never will, I guess. Life is about trade-offs, after all. So I am trying a different approach: I work twice as hard to achieve my goals and make my stay abroad worth it. I hope I am making the right bet.
Moving abroad is challenging. Whether you like it or not, prepare to get acquainted with your host country customs. Consider it as a “survival strategy” that will help you carry on! You may oppose those oddities you can’t genuinely stand, but try to remain open-minded. And for the rest, follow a wise advice and shrug it off!