Expat living

Becoming Madame: Realities of an expat life

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What's expat life really like after the initial sparkle fades away? An american expat provides 10 truths to the most frequently-thought myths about living abroad as an expat.

Over the past two weeks, three different readers (a gentleman and two ladies) from three different countries on two different continents have written to me asking about the realities of living in a new country. They asked: How did I make a life for myself in France? How did I find a job? Was I scared to give up my career and my entire life? How did I make the final decision to embark on the big move? And how in the world did I learn French well enough to live in a French society?

I see the timing and similarity of these correspondences, from authors literally thousands of kilometres apart, as a nudge from Mother Serendipity that perhaps it is time for me to write a little more seriously about life as an expat.

I try to be as honest as possible in my posts about living abroad. But you, dear reader, must remember that I have been here for nearly six years now, so naturally all the trepidation, the worry, most of the confusion and the anxiety of the first few months and years have dissipated. My 'Big Move' was in large part a personal adventure at a time in my life when I needed to make a decision as to whether I was going to dedicate my life entirely to one path or to make a change in search of something new.

Like my new correspondents, and perhaps like many of you, I wanted more out of life than what I had created for myself thus far. I felt an unexplainable void and an indescribable need for new air, new scenery, new people, new everything. And to be quite honest I didn't want any part of the life that I had – even if it meant giving up a lucrative career, a fiancé, a long-lost love, and my family. I was prepared to start all over again, which is the single most important part of an adventure like the one I'm on. You have to be willing to start again from the beginning.

Some of you might say, "Yeah, well, all that's okay with me. I just want something different."

Fair enough. I understand and commend you on your desire for adventure and change, and your yearning to undertake a challenge and to widen your comfort zone. I applaud taking life by the reins and making it what you want it to be. Indeed, I did just that.

I distinguish my adventure from the countless number of temporary expats I meet here in Europe, those who have rented their house out back home and who have taken a position in the European division of their company. Theirs is an excellent way to experience life through a different cultural lens, especially for children, but it is not the same as stepping off a plane in some new place with a completely blank slate before you. This latter experience is what I'm writing about to you now. 

Realities of expat life
If you move to a new country, particularly one where you don't know the language, you will feel as if you're starting life over from the beginning of adulthood. You'll likely have to go back to school to earn credentials to open up the work possibilities of your adopted homeland. You will, at the very least, need to take language classes. So returning to a student life is an essential ingredient.

(2) Since you quit your job back home and you don't know the language of your new home country, if you aren't enrolled as a student when you arrive, you will not be able to obtain a working visa – unless, of course, you come over with a company and then your experience is more akin to the temporary expats I mentioned above. As a student you can generally only work limited hours – in France for instance, it's 19 hours a week, or in the Netherlands, 10 hours per week. The most common part-time jobs available for non-French speakers are serving in one of the American or Anglo restaurants/pubs (again back to the beginning when you worked your way through college), teaching English at Telelangue or Wall Street English or babysitting. Even these jobs require a visa if you want to them legally.

(3) A visitor's visa generally lasts only about three months (in most European countries), so you will need to come prepared:

  • Have a job lined up (or at least interviews set up) or acceptance to a study program. Know the visa requirements. In France, if you come as a visitor and then enrol in a study program, in most cases you will have to return home to apply for your visa through the proper channels.
  • Have a place to stay arranged before you jump on the plane.
  • Come over with about five month's worth of savings just in case. When you don't know anyone in a new place, you are forced to go out all time to meet people – this is not an inexpensive endeavour.

(4) If all this going back to school business seems a little daunting, which I can understand as someone who has spent a great deal of her adult life in post-graduate study, you may want to think about trying this experience in an English-speaking country. If you're Canadian, try England, Scotland, Ireland or Australia. If you're American, why not Toronto or Montreal? Finding a job in your field will be infinitely easier in such cases.

(5) Your new job prospects might not be ideal in the new country, especially following the global financial crisis. Try not to trick yourself into thinking, "I hate my desk job so I'll move abroad and never enter an office again." Or the other great misconception: you'll walk right into the same standard of living that you enjoyed back home. In reality, you will probably revert to 10 years earlier and plant your roots in the soil of a younger you. You will most probably regain your standard of living but it takes time and patience.

Moving abroad: Realities of an Expat Life abroad

(6) If you come to a country where you don't speak the language, prepare yourself that you will not only be going back to the beginning in your work life, as mentioned above, but you'll also have no friends or family. If you're like me, you'll know no one, not a single soul, when you walk off the plane. Periods of extreme loneliness are inevitable. The key is to get yourself out of your apartment and just keep going: get up each day, and get outside no matter how intimidating it is to walk into a world of confusing mumble-jumble all around you. Take baby steps, but just keep taking them.

(7) As I recently confided in one of my correspondents, know why you're making this move. Because at the end, once the excitement and fear and glee of starting a new life and being free from your old one have worn off, you will still wake up with yourself every single day. Whatever you might have been running from or trying to escape – a broken relationship, a tedious job, a dead-end career, your family – these things don't magically disappear. Your job will be replaced by another; you'll still have to pay the bills each month; you'll find another relationship that will at times break your heart; and your family will eventually track you down. This is important: No matter where you call home, you still have to wake up with yourself and life's problems. Keep that in mind.

(8) You'll need humility. Becoming part of another culture is quite an unique experience. You redefine your preconceived notions of people, culture, how life should be lived, and your perceptions of yourself. Take my situation as an example: A Big City attorney, ambitious and successful one day, and then just like that, woke up another day in a tiny 18sqm apartment, in a strange place where I couldn't communicate with anyone. For an A-type personality used to using her words as her first line of defence, you can imagine the shift in my self-definition. 

(9) Be cautious of following a lover half way around the world. I was recently involved in trying to help a woman who moved over to France at the request of her French boyfriend. They had met on a few business conferences in the States and one thing led to another. After a year-long, long-distance relationship, the charm of living in Paris won over this woman and she accepted her boyfriend's invitation to live with him until she got on her feet. In her mind, she was starting a life with him. That was until his wife showed up and threw a fit. Oops, boyfriend forgot to mention he was still technically married. It sounds like a novel, but very unfortunately for this woman it was not fiction – it was a terribly heartbreaking, disappointing and humiliating real-life experience. This woman is a successful, intelligent lady who simply got caught up in a dream, divorced herself from reality and refused to face it until forced to do so. (As a caveat, I met my husband in France and when I moved here love was the farthest thing from my mind.)

(10) Even though European countries seem to be very Western (and they are Occidental countries), their cultures are quite different from North American culture, and from one another for that matter. French people have their own ways of doing almost everything and sometimes they are amused to see how we foreigners undertake a particular action, but most of the time they are not in the mood. You have to remember that we're the ones in their country. It's us who need to assimilate, not the other way around.

Starting over at 30 or 40 or 70 years-young is as much about discovering more of yourself than it is about seeking new adventures in a new, far off destination. You have to let go of your former self to an extent and allow change to happen, all the while holding on to what is essentially you. It's easy to get lost 4000km from everyone you've ever known. And you will get homesick, even if it's your family from whom you've run away.

With time you'll build a new family, meet new friends, find a job, and live a life. But you still have to clean the bathroom every once in a while, take out the garbage in the morning and pay the bills no matter where you live. Life, at some basic level, is the same everywhere.

What you are giving up in progression and stability, you are gaining in life experience and adventure. That's the reality of it. And time heals all wounds.
A little food for thought dedicated to those of you who might be contemplating that old adage 'The grass is always greener...'


Reprinted with permission of Becoming Madame.

Becoming MadameBorn south of the Mason Dixon line, Becoming Madame is a North American attorney, writer and professor living in Paris with her French husband. Since moving to France six years ago, she has learnt fluent French and now teaches law at the Université Paris Dauphine to French students. She writes and runs the blog Becoming Madame, which provides an inside peek into real life in the French capital – les marchés, Soldes, boulangeries, cafés, French cooking, traditions and living as an expat. Photo credit (public domain): Pixabay (signpost and bird), physiognomist (swings). 




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19 Comments To This Article

  • Tom posted:

    on 30th July 2016, 02:53:40 - Reply

    Terrific article-- should be required reading for anyone thinking about taking the plunge and living in another country for an open-ended period of time. Our experience of a place is so different from staying as a short-term visitor on a holiday from 'real life', and it's vital to be aware of this.

    One thing I'd add is that nowadays getting a job doesn't necessarily have to be part of the expat experience. I was a budget traveler for years in the pre-Internet era when I was young, getting very menial jobs in hostels, bars, on farms, etc. This is totally different than my experience as a US expat in Bali, Indonesia today--and different from what I see with digital nomads.

    Especially in Asia, where life is cheaper and where funds you bring will go further, it's just not that hard to make enough money online to support yourself. You can start an online business if you're entrepreneurial, or do freelance work in any one of dozens of jobs if it suits you better. One could check Upwork.com for ideas, and also my site http://WageFreedom.com , where I talk about my experience and give tips about transitioning into online income.

    It's not for everyone, but imo it's never been easier to live in another part of the world if you'd like to try it.

  • Dom posted:

    on 7th December 2015, 18:53:31 - Reply

    You made some great points, it's really important to think hard about why you're traveling. It's costly and time consuming.

  • Sharon posted:

    on 7th April 2015, 02:32:35 - Reply

    In my 50's I left my life in Canada to live and work in Asia. My experiences over the past five years have been nothing like those of this author. I did not need to take language, as I worked in an environment where I was expected to speak English. I have never been homesick, because my home is wherever I happen to be. I think it is important to realize that we don't all experience things in the same way. In two months I will be moving to Africa, and I look forward to my next adventure. One thing that this author said, with which I heartily agree, is that we must remember that we are guests in every country we visit. Therefore, we must always be respectful of the people and their culture, even when things aren't done in a way that we deem familiar.
  • Ariane posted:

    on 8th January 2015, 20:47:14 - Reply

    Wonderful article............so truthful!
  • Yacine posted:

    on 21st January 2014, 19:24:33 - Reply

    There are lots and lots of language schools in France that hire foreign (english speaking) teachers. For instance I did work in a language school located in Clermont back in 2004. The name was ILS (www.ils-langues.com). It was a nice experience and since i have a valid EU passport, the Director made no problem hiring me.
  • Sandra posted:

    on 29th December 2013, 02:26:39 - Reply

    This was a very interesting article. I think it's important before making such a big move to do your homework and find out as much about your prospective new home as you can. I have been visiting France, mostly Paris, almost every year since 1990 and started learning French in 1995. I have wanted to live in Paris for many years, but instead of moving right away, I have continued studying French and spending vacations in France and in Paris. I made a couple of friends there and talked to one of them about how I how I would survive if I decided to make the move. I have decided to wait until I retire so I at least don't need to worry about needing to find full-time work. Meanwhile, I continue to visit and learn more each time about life there. I feel so at home when I visit that if I do decide to make the move , it will be an easy transition!
  • nehru desousa posted:

    on 26th December 2013, 22:24:15 - Reply

    Your piece of advise for an expat was really a blessings to live and choose this country and know their culture and very important is to know the basics of their French language.
    Thanks for your good advise madam to share with my face book friends and families and friends.
  • MarilynGould

    on 12th November 2013, 13:55:03 - Reply

    Thankyou for your well written article. While reading I could fully agree with all your comments. I had just turned 50. I have been living in Normandy France for almost 6 years. It's been a very exciting experience, challenging at times, frustrating many times but certainly enjoyable. I came to follow my dream of living in France. I didn't know how long I would stay. Six weeks, six months and now it's almost 6 years. I signed up for a house sit for the first 6 weeks, then would take it from there. It was a good way to test myself if I liked it or not, without too many financial commitments. I didn't speak more than 5 words, and didn't expect everyone to speak English! I have tried to have a totally French life. Living in a small rural community at first was daunting, with only the animals I was caring for to communicate with. I soon realized I needed to throw myself into my new life boots and all.
    I started off going into bar/cafés, yes daunting, but taking deep breaths as I entered and sat down with a coffee or a vin Blanc, I was lucky enough that people started to talk to me. Being Australian certainly helped, all French love Australia so that was and is always a good conversation starter.
    I couldn't understand anything they would say, but smiled and nodded hoping I was answering their questions. Apologizing for my lack of French, they were happy enough to keep chatting away. Afterwards I would go home, look up on google translate all the basic conversation questions I thought they had asked and practice them all week until my next visit.
    Soon I was able to hold a basic conversation and realized I need more tuition. I started going to conversation classes, didn't really work for me so I watched television with the subtitles and listened to the french radio all day, I still do. Learning a language is basically repetition just like when we were children. Pretty soon I could understand and stop converting English in my head and automatically understood in French.
    I soon found a group of French friends who didn't care my french was very basic, a few spoke basic English, and invited me to anything that was going on around the town. Later came a French man, phhhh! That's another story!
    Yes we are different, very different in our cultural differences and mentality of how we do things. It's something I still struggle with and try to accept it most of the time. You have to, we live in their country.
    Finally, my advice is try to integrate into the community when you first arrive, don't fall into the expat only trap, where the only thing French you do and have is your address...I have found many people that do. Listen and learn everyday, enjoy the area you live in, don't expect to get a job easily, be patient and tolerant. You will love it!
    A bientôt
  • Anna posted:

    on 3rd October 2013, 21:07:10 - Reply

    Here's my story: I came in Calif 4 years ago, because my husband is an American man. My English was good, I thought I understand the culture too....
    In Romania, my native country, I was RN, with every cell of my being. My Diploma is accepted all over in Europe. I knew I have to pass the NCLEX examination in order to get a License, and I could not imagine that they can ask me something and I will not know the answer. I could not imagine that my work experience in nursing would not help me at all, here. Oh boy, what a mistake!... Only when I came here I realized HOW different is everything! The test is not based on the real life, the test is based on the textbook, which is a perfect and unrealistic World of the NCLEX.
    I am still here, in the sunny California, close to "My Ocean"... and I am proud to be an American lady, but I am frustrated for not being able to pass a test...As further I go, I realize more and more then my only chance to get back in nursing is to start all over again with schooling. And I am not young anymore...

    I consider the article is realistic and very well written. Congrats to Madam!

    I wish you all to have a great life where ever you decide to live!
  • Jane posted:

    on 31st August 2013, 11:12:16 - Reply

    This one of the most wonderfully written, objective and balanced articles I have read in a long time.
    After two months in Luxembourg, I can definitely relate. I came here to work at academic institution, but was blown away by the difficulty to integrate into the local system. The excitement of contributing to a wonderful project was soon replaced by desperation, feeling that the administration here is an absolute mess, with every administrative step being processed with an error, and and that you are just not welcomed here.
  • carrico posted:

    on 28th August 2013, 16:00:11 - Reply

    BDP: You make a valid point. Of course my wife knows what 'madame' means, no one can top her at the supermarket shopping for food. Me, on the other hand, I've studied French and, consequently, am a push-over. On the overnight from Hendaye to Paris, the stuck-up train conductor kept condescending toward my wife. "But your passport will be returned in the morning, Madame." My damn ass, my wife reacted, having lived 2 years next to the Wall. She was rightfully furious.
  • BDP posted:

    on 20th August 2013, 16:57:11 - Reply

    'Regress', not 'revert'. 'At the request', not 'on the bequest'. Proofreading, anyone?

    To be honest, I don't think this article applies to all expats. I came to France already speaking the language and with a job set up. I guess it helps if you come straight out of university like that :p But I seriously do not understand why anyone would want to jump into a new life in a whole new country if they clearly know so little about its culture that they haven't bothered to learn the language before coming. How difficult do people want to make life for themselves?
  • Chantale R. posted:

    on 15th August 2013, 04:35:49 - Reply

    Your superb blog post removes the gloss from expat living that seduces many of us who view shows such as "House Hunters International" on HGTV. While I do watch that show, I do so for its entertainment value, including stunning location shots, because God only knows the rest of us will not magically be taken on a tour of three apartments or houses and be guaranteed shelter in an ideal climate for XYZ country.

    I do see myself relocating permanently to one of several countries I have had in mind for some time. The delay involves my having not yet visited one of those countries (and the specific region there that I love) but, more importantly my need to accept that -- as you described so bluntly -- I will get homesick no matter how much of an independent woman I think I am. It already can become a melodrama when one has waited (for good or bad reasons) six months or more since visiting one's parent, sibling, uncle, aunt, dear friend, adult child; but it's quite another matter, and perhaps a traumatic one to experience homesickness compounded by residing at an inconceivable distance from people one loves. I'm not a parent, but I feel empathic toward expats who are middle-aged and older because I cannot imagine living on a different continent than my child. Many of us whose parents(parent) still call(s) us "our[my] little girl[boy]" can put the proverbial shoe on the other foot and wonder at the depth of grief once that adult child is moving so far away. A little death happens. OK, I tend to get a bit melodramatic.

    If Mother Serendipity helps me a little when I am ready to make that move, I now know -- thanks to you, Madame -- that I need to have either a guaranteed position in the new home country or scheduled interviews. The whole visa process scares me, but, again, thanks to your article, I know to make arrangements with a trusted friend or relative should I need to return to America to satisfy the visa requirements before I can return to the expat country. Until then, I will continue reading your posts on expat life and treasure every day living my authentic self in full awareness that, as you cautioned us, we will wake up and deal with ourselves no matter where we plant ourselves in new soil,
  • Angelina posted:

    on 10th August 2013, 23:58:04 - Reply

    I am half Californian, but lived most of my adult life in the metropolitan areas of SE Asia and Middle East (Hong Kong, Manilla, Dubai), and went to the Hague briefly on work assignment just 2 years ago, but I must say that to me was a strong warning not to follow my Dutch husband to stay there permanently.

    In the places I worked, everything is well organized: the condo has laundry facilities, concierge staff, we have a live in maid to do housekeeping/cook/fetch the kids from school. From what I have seen in Europe, nobody has live in maids, or any kind of serviced condo buildings, so workers (especially career women like myself) have to pretty much devote ALL their spare time after work on getting their life organized. I just can't get used to that, sorry. My parents have maids in LA too, and life is just a lot more comfortable than there than the way they organized it in Europe. Apparently there are minimum wages which set the price level of maids to such an high level that most women would end up working just to pass on most of their salaries to a maid. In the East and the States the pay level for maids is more in line with what families would want to pay, and so more women stay working throughout raising a family. I think that model is best for expat women. EU is not an option for my family.
  • Mary posted:

    on 7th August 2013, 21:17:26 - Reply

    Excellent advice, I agree. I also quit a glamour job in Los Angeles and moved to Budapest 20 years ago in pursuit of a PhD, stayed 10 years, then moved to France for another 10. I spoke only rudimentary Hungarian and French when I arrived and it was utterly exhausting to make the adjustment until I learned the languages. Language is the key to understanding the culture and being accepted.

    It's also true that no matter where you live, you still wake up with yourself every day. If men/women weren't falling all over you at home, they probably won't in the new place, either. If you're an introvert in Des Moines, you'll probably have a hard time making friends in Paris.

    I've recently made the even harder decision to move back to California - for family reasons - and am having to adjust all over again. But I'm still me, just richer in experience than most people.
  • Bill posted:

    on 7th August 2013, 15:01:47 - Reply

    I can relate to these wise words. The expat life can be traumatic at times, but for the adventurous, the rewards can be great!

    My compliments to this young woman for her courage to live life well, on her own terms!!!
  • Magda posted:

    on 7th August 2013, 10:56:26 - Reply

    This is likely the most well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking article on expat life, that I've read in years. It is spot on, especially in highlighting the difference between short-term, company driven relocations, vs. long-term, self-initiated and self-sustaining moves abroad.
    I have lived in half a dozen countries and support every word the author has written. Bravo for your keen analysis and smart advice!
    --From: @GlobalExecLife
  • Ash posted:

    on 6th August 2013, 20:18:15 - Reply

    Thank you for Sharing your experiance, i'm in the way to do the same path, have to decide on my cross road. Going into a country without knowing the language, to leave the actual life even if i have a good job, a familly who hold on me. i know the life duty will be the same, but it's more about the environment, i believe that with changes comes more opportunity a great experiece.
  • Stephanie posted:

    on 6th August 2013, 12:19:37 - Reply

    Thank you so much for such a brilliant, simple but honest article. I've had itchy feet for a few years now, and everytime I get the confidence to pack up and go life somehow gets in the way (at least, that's the excuse). I've started to talk myself out of it, and there are a number of well-meaning people in my life who are also less than supportive of my move. You've managed to take all their arguments against going and turn them into positives, or at least point out that the difficult bits won't necessarily equate to failure - after all, the whole thing should be an adventure, even if it isn't plain sailing. I'm going to print your article out and pin it on my wall to remind me what i'm saving up for!