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 kilometers 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. There are plenty of things to consider before you move abroad, but you need to be 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, who often face dilemmas at school in a new country), 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.
You’ll feel like you’re starting again
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.
Sort your visa out before arriving
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.
This means sorting out work, accommodation, and finances in advance
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. Acclimatize yourself to the local business culture. In France, if you come as a visitor and then enroll 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; that amount will differ based on your situation and the cost of living in the country you’re moving to. 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 endeavor.
Think about language issues
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, and the culture shock will be far less.
Be realistic about your prospects
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.
Social isolation is the norm in the beginning
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. Times around holidays that you would observe at home (like Ramadan or Chinese New Year) can be especially isolating. 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. If you move with children, they’ll probably immerse themselves quicker than you, owing to the fact that children learn languages with greater ease. You might not become fluent, but arm yourself enough to eventually be able to have a social life in the language. Take baby steps, but just keep taking them.
Be sure that you want to move in the first place
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.
You’ll need humility
Becoming part of another culture is quite a 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 18 square meter 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 defense, you can imagine the shift in my self-definition.
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. Expat relationships can be a journey, but her experience is more than what anyone should have to deal with.
Take time to understand the new culture
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; hiring an au pair won’t solve all of life’s problems. 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…’
Born 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).