The Jolly English Pirate: Comfort zone to solitary expat
Five years after leaving UK comforts to live as a single, female expatriate abroad, the Jolly Pirate finds not planning is the key to living a happy solo-expat life.
Five years ago, I left London to live and work abroad. The time had come for a real challenge in life which would consist of learning at least one new language, working and studying in a foreign environment, making new friends, finding a new home and surviving without access to family.
If the time has arrived in your life to find out what life is like as an expat, great! But be prepared to cry, to feel alone, to go through many changes and to feel like an outsider even when people show you love and accept you into their lives. The life of an expat is no easy feat and it's not something most people can do for long. Few expats make it to the stage where they have in fact become a real member of another place in the world.
Most expats last a few years and then return to their native homes. This is particularly true of expats, like myself, who decide to make the move to live abroad on their own: no family, spouses, loved-ones, boyfriends/girlfriends children, anybody. I have seen many come and go just in the past five years. Believe me... it's tough when you really are a 'solitary' expat.
However, I have survived and I am happy living abroad and I have been outside of the UK for so long now that whenever I get the chance to go home (only twice in the past five years) I know that London is not the place for me in my life right now. London will always be my native home and I might find myself living there again at some point, but I have come to love other places in the world as my "in-my-30s-whilst-single-and-still-developing" homes.
What have I learned the most about being this kind of 'solo' expat?
I have learned that the key to survival, fun, personal development and inner-happiness is to avoid planning and be entirely open to whatever life throws your way.
This is harder than it sounds. Even if, like myself, you believe yourself to be a relaxed, "fly-by-the-seat-of-your-Julia-Roberts'-pants" kind of a girl, unaffected by the structured ticks of British culture, and like the idea of rejecting 'safe' and 'secure' for 'new and challenging'; being an expat may teach you that you love order and need to know what the future holds more than you had at first realised.
I thought I was pretty cool and definitely open to 'whatever', but five years of expat life has taught me that I had no idea what it meant to be 'cool' and 'open to change'. Now, after the tears, frustration, amazing opportunities and tough life-lessons about who I am and who I want to be, I know that the key for a successful ilfe abroad requires really understanding what it means not to plan and to live by the rule of acceptance – to the letter.
My story is just one example
It would be impossible to speak for every expat who has ever lived. I can only offer my experience and for that, a little back story information is required. So... what do you need to know about my expat experience? Does this sound like you?
1. I left the UK without a home to live in. I had enough money to pay for a month's accommodation in a hostel while I looked for a place to stay.
2. I left without a job to go to and found a job teaching English to three year olds when I arrived. I also helped out some afternoons in a local hostel.
3. I left without booking a return flight. There was going to be nothing to help me get out of the challenge I had set myself. This was to make sure I was going to give this expat thing a fair crack.
4. I left without being able to speak Spanish (I went to live and work in Mérida, Venezuela, a small city in the Andean Mountain Range where perhaps only 5 percent of the population speaks English). I was able to ask for a milky coffee in a café, but even when doing that it was with an awful accent and few people could understand me!
5. I left alone, with a large backpack on my back and a large suitcase in my hand. I sold my UK flat, all the furniture I had and I left a few books and things in storage with my mum. Nothing else.
6. I was nearly 28 when I left and, if I am honest, I was already feeling the need to find someone, settle down and have a family. My needs for exploration and my needs for security were already at war somewhat – although as I discovered, it's tough trying to find a partner, let alone someone to have children with, when you can't speak the language and when you come from an entirely different culture.
7. I chose to avoid moving to Europe as it was too close to the UK and therefore it would have been a lot easier for me to buy flights home and flee from any kind of difficult situation. Being in Latin America means I have had to integrate myself into society and make real friends here, which has been tough.
8. I had to accept a huge pay cut. HUGE! Don't underestimate how much you will miss just even being able to treat yourself to a coffee and cake in a café once a week.
9. As I made the move independently without using expat organisations, I had no job and therefore no health insurance plan, no retirement plan, nothing. Now that I am a self-employed travel writer I still don't have everything in place that I should have, but I am in a much better position than I was five years ago.
10. I left knowing friends and family would have to spend at least £700 each to buy a flight to come. In five years, only four friends have been able to visit. Family members have never been able to afford to come and see where I live. This disconnection between my two worlds is kind of like living a life (or two lives really) which isn't real. It feels odd and still hard to cope with emotionally at times.
The dangers of planning your move
Having explained the huge challenges I set myself for moving abroad, I can safely say that the most difficult thing I've learned as an expat – and which has been my saving grace many times – is that planning is not only futile but can be emotionally damaging.
Don't stick to a set of ideals you expect your new life to be. If someone offers you work, go for it. If someone invites you to their birthday party with friends they have known since they were six, tag along. If you can only afford to live in shared accommodation, do it. But whatever you do, don't plan. Because if you expect everything to unfold according to your imagined version of events, it's a goal which is simply too high to reach.
When you live abroad in a foreign-speaking environment, without friends and family, that's already a huge challenge. You don't need to set goals of 'making friends' and 'being successful in your career' to that list too – at least, not all at once. These things take time, and without planning them, you never know what might crop up. After all, new experiences are what being an expat is all about.
The Jolly English Pirate / Expatica.
The Jolly English Pirate is a freelance writer from London who is based in Latin America. She travels the world writing features for female-interest publications and independent travel blogs, including reviews of Latin American Cinema and ecological travel. She performs outreach work, writing for a variety of companies covering topics which include online marketing, health, cultures and customs and volunteering abroad. Feel free to email her directly, send her a tweet or visit her blog for more information.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.