10 Unexpected Realities Of Living Abroad I Wish I’d Prepared For
I’ve never really settled. I go from country to country, trying out different foods, jobs, climates and eventually, move on to the next one. Having never stayed in one place for more than 7 months in the past 3 years, the prospect of moving somewhere alone – and living there for a year or more – scares me a little bit. I’m not one to shy away from commitment when it comes to people but a country? Not quite yet. Having grown up in London, I’ve always wanted to use the better part of my 20s to see the world, learn who I am and what I want and eventually, yes, I’d settle down and choose a country to call home. My current country of choice, the Netherlands, may or may not be that, but I’ve learned plenty along the way.
I’m very happy with my decision to travel so much and have done so with a purpose and a way to support myself. However, there are certainly some things I would’ve loved to do differently, or wish I’d prepared for. Here are the 10 realities that I wish had known before I started traveling:
1. You’ll end up spending a lot of quality time with yourself.
You won’t be surrounded by your safety net of friends, family or your familiar neighborhood spots. You’ve got to start from scratch. That takes time and effort and you’re going to have a lot more “me” time than you might be used to. Never before have I realized how much I like my own company than when I was forced into a situation where it was all I had. At first, it will be an adjustment period. Eating alone, cooking alone and watching tv alone. I started out hating it. The loneliness was palpable. I missed having my best friends alongside me to mock trash TV with, and having a regular social schedule that used to get me through the week.
Appreciate the unlimited time you have to be by yourself. Be as creative, or not creative as you like. Binge watch that new Netflix series or try out that Pilates YouTube channel you’ve been putting off. I sometimes try out new recipes and it’s great, because there’s no one around to watch me mess them up.
2. You will almost always feel like a foreigner. (Not necessarily in a bad way, though.)
No matter how much you try to learn the local language or assimilate yourself into local life, you won’t fully feel like you belong. Maybe you’ll feel very much at home, but being from somewhere and feeling at home are two very different things. Maybe this is completely subjective, but for me, home will always be home. And wherever I go, I can never fully replicate that feeling.
3. People are nicer than you think.
Something that I have learned from all of my travels is that people are inherently nice. Whenever I have been in a situation where I felt lost or needed help with something, I was able to find someone to point me in the right direction.
Don’t be too shy or hesitant to ask those around you. Foreign languages can be intimidating but knowing the basics, “excuse me” and “thank you” can go a long way. I prefer not to rely solely on technology to get me around, it’s great as a back-up, but I’ve always found that if I’m unsure about something, asking works. Of course, you have to use your best judgement when approaching strangers and be aware of your surroundings.
4. Making friends as an adult will make you wish you were 10 again.
I never had to think about making friends. It just sort of happened. I’ve always moved to places with a group of people alongside me or worked in an environment that naturally bonded me with like-minded people who would, eventually, become my people. When I moved to the Netherlands, however, this was not the case. Making friends as an adult will make you wish you could go back to a simpler time.
Trying to make friends as a grown adult can feel forced and unnatural, especially in a new place. At first, I resisted it. I refused to go out alone and talk to strangers. Why should I? When I have all the friends I need back at home, and in other parts of the world. I’ve noticed that every country is different. Social circles can be closed in some places and you’ll need a mutual friend to join the rest of the group. I’ve had to play the waiting game on more than a few occasions.
5. Your friend’s lives back home will go on without you.
It’s hard not to feel left out when you see photos of them having fun without you on social media, or when your phone is blowing up from the latest ‘you had to be there’ group chats on WhatsApp. But, just remember, that it’s not intentional. They’re just living their lives and you, yours. Being the one that leaves is always difficult. No matter how amazing the country and experience, missing out on birthdays, weddings and sometimes even funerals, is the toughest pill to swallow. This is the flip side of moving abroad. Your peers may envy you and your new life that looks glamorous on the outside, but it’s still okay to miss home. Being homesick will happen often, but how you deal with it is what matters. Staying involved and in touch is vital to keeping up to date with the latest from your hometown. Visiting friends and family will help to create new memories together that you can look back on.
6. Maintaining relationships requires constant effort.
Losing friends is a part of growing up. I can safely say that after traveling for 3 years, I’ve realized who really matters. Those are the ones that stay. They care and they are there for you, even though they can’t physically be there for you. However, this is very much a two-way street. Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and Facebook are your friends. I’ve grown so much closer to some people and completely lost contact with others.
The best friends are the ones who always make you feel like you picked up right where you left off, even if you don’t talk everyday. Hold on to those people, they will keep you grounded.
7. Navigating paperwork alone is a challenge.
I don’t know enough about taxes and the legal system as it is, let alone figuring it all out in another language. Once you’ve moved to your new country and hopefully started work, you’ll need to register at the city council, start paying taxes and generally do other frustrating, immigration-related tasks.
I’ve found there’s usually a person at work that speaks your language and is more than happy to help out. This person will be your savior when it comes sorting out your tax return, getting a phone plan and calling up the bank. If you don’t have someone like this, consider reaching out to neighbors or seeking advice from other expats on local Facebook groups. Join these groups prior to moving to your new location, since other people’s experiences will help you pack. Some of these sites are also dedicated to apartment searching and selling furniture as people come and go in the city.
8. You will learn a lot about who you actually are.
This year has been both the toughest and best year of my life. Before I made this leap, I really didn’t think through how big of a step it was. Because I was so used to bouncing around, the location didn’t phase me when I was applying for my current job. An exciting country and a great job awaited, and I assumed that was all that mattered.
In hindsight, I now see how much I’ve changed. Pushing myself way outside my comfort zone has allowed me to grow in ways that I never would have if I’d stayed put. Independence, self-sufficiency, confidence, assertiveness and mindfulness, are just a few of the qualities that I’ve strengthened and gained this year and am honestly proud of myself for it.
9. Be aware of your bank account, but don’t be too hard on yourself.
For the first time, this year I’ve been truly self-sufficient in terms of finances. It feels amazing. I understand the value of money, and ensure that I’m saving alongside spending. But, I can also be too hard on myself. Moving abroad and supporting yourself financially will be overwhelming. Once the bills have been paid, the little that you’re left will be precious and you’ll want to save some of that. But, make sure that doesn’t entirely dissuade you from experiencing the country you’re in. Be frugal, don’t “treat yo self” too regularly, but make sure you aren’t just staying home.
10. Learning to accept your new home as a “home” is something I may always struggle with.
Even though it may be temporary, it can be hard to truly accept that you, for the time being, live here. Try to set aside a few undisturbed weeknights or weekends in a row where it’s just you and your new city. Look it in the eye and take it on. Once you get to know it, it won’t feel so foreign. It can be easy to live your life on a constant loop, between work and home, in order to keep yourself busy. But you can’t accept the city as your own unless you stop to reflect, and allow yourself to be immersed.
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