"Brooke & Rory: Overcoming small fears while living abroad"

Brooke & Rory: Overcoming small expat fears

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Suddenly small daily tasks become intimidating when trying to navigate a foreign country. How can expats overcome the small fears after they first move abroad?

'My chest tightens as the fuel gauge slides towards empty. Can I make it home without stopping at the petrol station? Which pump do I use? Do I pay first or pump first? Will they take my gas card?' – Rory Williamson

'The machine at the grocery store freaks me out. I've never returned a bottle in my life. What if the instructions are only in Dutch? What if it spits the bottles back at me? Oh forget it, where's the recycle bin'. – Brooke Miller Hall

We're American expats living in the Netherlands, and we've discovered that routine, mundane tasks in unlikely places can sneak up and scare us. And we're not alone.

We have expat friends who are afraid to drive, and some afraid to ride a bike – even though they did it all the time in their home countries. We've been known to panic over buying stamps, scanning train tickets and riding an unfamiliar bus route. Even getting a haircut or checking out at the grocery store can suddenly become intimidating.

At the same time, we realise this is a bit ridiculous. We're certainly not wimps. In the last year, we've each said goodbye to our extended families; sold a home and cars; given up careers; yanked kids out of school; and started over in a place where we didn't speak the language and didn't know a soul.

And maybe that's the key.

It seems that a lot of expats expect the move itself will be tough and can anticipate the obvious tests of living abroad. Like many others, we planned and prepared for the big stuff for weeks; we read articles, took classes and had a team of professionals helping us.

At the same time, we didn't expect it would be so confusing to pump gas. Yet eventually, we've started getting over the little things (phew!). Here's how.

1. Take a step back

Driving a car in Europe is a challenge in many ways. For example, in the Netherlands, there are cyclists everywhere and the rules of the road, which are second Little things that scare expats living abroadnature to Dutch drivers, can feel completely bizarre to foreigners. It's easy to get flustered when trying to remember that the vehicle on the right always has priority in the Netherlands. Or that you can't turn right on a red light.

But instead of focusing on how confusing the differences can be, it's more helpful to remember that getting pushed out of your comfort zone helps you learn and grow. For example, learning to drive in another country can easily help improve your driving skills in the long run. And like anything else, the more you do it the more comfortable you will become.

A previous Expatica article shares the helpful reminder that expats like us need to keep our chins up and look at every day as an adventure and a learning experience, even while tackling daily chores: "You will face numerous challenges, but this is all part of the experience. Always remember the reasons you moved abroad in the first place – it is an unforgettable, once in a lifetime opportunity!"

2. Stay curious

As someone who's lived on multiple continents, cultural and intercultural trainer Henriëtte Wentholt advises: Stay curious! Instead of focusing on what you find frustrating, try to understand what's behind it. She adds that staying curious and digging for deeper explanations can even help us adapt and transition better – or at least make the process more fun and interesting.

"Back home you had daily activities that were no brainers," adds Wentholt. "Now you face yourself questioning how to proceed in this new country with daily activities, like going to the bakery, the grocery and drug store. Becoming aware that these automatic procedures suddenly aren't automatic at all anymore, and moreover very tiring, does frustrate."

It was a shock to Rory that the garbage truck only comes twice a month in the Netherlands – it came twice a week at her home in the US. But then she learned about all the ways the Dutch recycle, and it all made sense.

For example, the Dutch have specific recycling methods for glass, plastic and cardboard, as well as food and garden waste for compost. In the US we also recycled cans, but we couldn't find the proper way to do it in the Netherlands. Finally Brooke asked a grocery store employee who explained that they do in fact recycle cans but they do it with a giant magnet at the landfill – so we just throw out our cans with our garbage. The more you experience life in another place, the more you realise there are so many different ways to do everything.

Moving abroad: Tips for overcoming small expat fears

3. Take a friend

Brooke is still embarrassed at just how easy it was when she finally used the bottle return (no Dutch necessary). To help get over that moment of fear, her children joined in the experience – and they still ask to come along so they can set the bottles down the conveyor belt and press the button to print the receipt.

Many areas in Europe, such as the Dutch city we live in, are rich with expats from all over the world. The community of people we have found through expat groups or while waiting to pick up our children at the international school has been incredibly helpful in overcoming some of these fears. Finding people who are in a similar situation can also help relieve that feeling of isolation.

Am I the only one who didn't know where to buy baking soda? Friends who have been in a country longer can really help you find where everything is.

It's also nice to have someone to take along when discovering something new. Brooke gets around by bicycle and often gets lost on the winding, unfamiliar streets and bike paths. So she took a friend to explore unfamiliar bike paths and new areas of town, which made it less daunting and a whole lot more fun.

4. Just do it – set a date, if necessary

Expat fearsOur Dutch may never be perfect (or even understandable) but we live here now and sometimes have to do things like make doctor appointments and arrange to have the car serviced. We might sound terrible or look silly, but we muddle through the best we can. As much as we might want to avoid it, sometimes you just need to clench your teeth and get over it.

If you are tempted to continue avoiding your fear, try setting a date or making a personal challenge. For example, set aside every Sunday morning to practise driving in your new country. Or decide to take a different bus route once a month. We've challenged ourselves to always order in restaurants using the native language.

In the end, we find that with every challenge we overcome – even the very smallest – not only do we feel more comfortable in our new country, but it also feels more like home.

We'd love to hear from other expats. What are the silly, little things that scare you?


Brooke Miller Hall and Rory Williamson / Expatica

Brooke and Rory: Expats in the NetherlandsBrooke spends her days butchering the Dutch language, wrangling kids and hunting for mini-marshmallows. She's from Wisconsin where she worked as a journalist, corporate editor, blogger and aspiring screenwriter. Find her blog at Brooke Miller Hall.

Rory was born in Iowa and raised in New Jersey. She has travelled to 26 US states and lived in seven of them. She moved to the Netherlands with her husband, two children and Fred the cat in 2012. 

 Photo credit: Tabsinthe (photo 1), psd (photo 2), wonder_j (photo 3), michal_hadassah (photo 4) / Updated 2013; 2015.

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6 Comments To This Article

  • Dyno posted:

    on 14th October 2015, 15:54:36 - Reply

    Lived in Belgium for 1 year and everything scares me.Everyone is overconfident and all I want to do is go back home to U.K but I married a Belgian so I have to carry on but it`s damn hard !

  • carrico posted:

    on 22nd September 2013, 23:51:08 - Reply

    I like the suggestion of appealing to old gals at shops, for example. On our last extended stay in Amsterdam, I got hopelessly lost looking for an Albert Hijn. A fine old gal was coming out of her house. I stepped back, bowed, and in my best, cassette-practiced Dutch, began, "Pardon, mevrouw, waar is het Albert Hijn?" She was delighted to 'mother' me. And, fer cryin' out loud, keep your sense of humor!
  • BrookeMillerHall

    on 5th September 2013, 17:12:40 - Reply

    Thank you Sarah for relating your own experience, it is exactly what we were talking about! I also really appreciate you defending the content, Edna, and your encouragement for us to write more.
  • Edna posted:

    on 5th September 2013, 13:16:09 - Reply

    It's not ridiculous at all Will and the fact that millions of Dutch manage to find living in the country and culture they were born and raised in a snap is to be expected. Human beings are uncomfortable in new situations, they find it stress producing and, contrary to your claims they "all" don't manage to do the things they want and need to with anything approaching ease. Everyone isn't nice! The number of immigrants, their educational level and the difficulty of their backgrounds (what ever that means) is utterly irrelevant when you find yourself lost, embarrassed, lonely, scared and unable to accomplish what you need to accomplish. I both enjoyed and related to this article. I look forward to more.

    Will? I imagine your Chinese is excellent since over a billion Chinese speak it with such ease?
  • Will posted:

    on 5th September 2013, 06:48:18 - Reply

    How ridiculous! Just remember that millions of other (Dutch) citizens manage each of these tasks - they can't be that difficult. And consider that many immigrants come to the country with much less education and background, from much more difficult situations. And they all manage to see doctors, empty garbage, and drive - so why wouldn't you be able to? It's just details.
  • Sarah Morse posted:

    on 4th September 2013, 15:25:52 - Reply

    I am an Australian who has been living in Madrid for 2.5 years. I loved this article and could totally relate! For me, it's the butcher I am afraid of! One day early on, my husband and I felt like a good roast lamb (an Aussie staple comfort food). As a new Spanish speaker, I armed myself up with the appropriate vocab, and set off to our local butcher. As I entered, and began to look at the unfamiliar cuts of meat and strange vocab, I began to panic. Literally. A trickle of cold sweat started running down my back as I tried to swallow down the sick feeling in my stomach. I was tempted to turn on my heel and tell my husband we would have last night leftovers for dinner, but the butcher had already made eye contact and asked me what I wanted. Ten pairs of eyes suddenly trained themselves on me, as the collection of five-foot tall old ladies already in the shop suddenly became incredibly interested in what this foreign girl was having for dinner. Resisting the urge to run, not wanting to disappoint them all, I took a deep breath and launched in. Suddenly the vocab I had been practicing under my breath disappeared, and the remaining Spanish I had came out in a stutter. I made a brave attempt, only to have ten pairs of eyes (eleven including the butcher) staring back at me blankly. I resorted to every expat's last resort - the mime. I started "doing the sheep" and pointing to my leg. A rapid discussion erupted amongst the old ladies "what does she want?" "I can't understand her", "does she want sheep?". Suddenly one lady exclaimed "I've got it.....leg of lamb!" "She'll have a leg of lamb" she ordered the butcher as though he was blind to the chaos I had created. He reached knowingly under the counter for the magic item. "Is this what you want?", he asked displaying the tiniest leg of lamb I had ever seen. "Yes, that looks like it." I replied uncertainly. The ladies began slapping each other's backs, celebrating their collective success. I began to relax somewhat until the butcher weighed the tiny fragment and informed me it will cost ten Euros! On a tight budget, I didn't want to pay ten euros for two mouthfuls of lamb, but with all the old ladies grinning at me and congratulating themselves on being so helpful, what could I do? I took the lamb, paid for it as fast as I could, and bolted from the store, only breathing again once I was outside in the bright Spanish sun.

    The mystery of the expensive lamb was only solved for me recently as a friend explained that in Spain, lamb is sold according to the age of the lamb - the younger the lamb, the more expensive it is. To add to that complication, each age-group category has a different word, which is what led to the vocab confusion. I had most likely bought a three-day old lamb, which is the most expensive cut you can get. Well, we cooked up the roast veggies and enjoyed our mouthful of the poor darling little lamby, but I have never dared to enter the butcher ever again, and instead visit the supermarket where meat is displayed in neat plastic packaging, and I am not required to speak to anyone.
    So, that's my fear of the butcher! Don't even get me started on visiting a gynaecologist....