If you are moving abroad, you have probably been overwhelmed with all the practical advice out there. Sensible stuff like Visas, bank accounts, accommodation and jobs. So I wanted to write something a bit different. A guide, if you like, on what to expect in your first year when moving abroad.
We moved from London to Basel, Switzerland on the 25th March 2014. I will never forget the feeling I had that morning; it was a strange kind of anticipation, and also sadness. Those feelings overwhelmed the excitement I had that day. I was heading to the airport just like I had a thousand times before, only this time was different, because I had no return ticket. I didn’t know when I was going to be coming back, and even though London is only a 1 hour flight away there was something eerie about not knowing when I would next be making that journey. Now don’t get me wrong, this sounds all doom and gloom but it really isn’t! I just want to be real with you.
One year on, my husband and I sat down together to discuss the things we wish someone had told us before we left for our new life abroad. They aren’t all scary, negative things, but each of them have been significant to us, and I thought it would be helpful to share these with you to think about if you have a move abroad on your horizon.
1. Learning the language IS important, even if people tell you it isn’t.
With us both being native English speakers and moving abroad to work at English speaking companies, so many people said to us “don’t worry about the language, you can get by in English,” and “it’s fine, everyone will speak English!”. Now, even before we left, I didn’t agree with these statements. I KNEW that I wanted to learn German because I don’t agree with the idea that just because someone CAN speak English, you should expect them to when you’re living in their country. However, I didn’t realise HOW much we need to learn German.
One of the first things I noticed is that it’s very easy to walk down the street and feel totally isolated when everyone around you is happily nattering away in a language you can’t understand. It’s not that you want to eavesdrop on everyone, but you can’t tune into anything other than your own thoughts when you’re out, and after a while that can be overwhelming. I also always had this nagging feeling of guilt when I was trying to ask someone something in German and I couldn’t find the words, or I did find the words and then couldn’t understand their answer. Being able to converse with people in the language they speak, even just to an everyday level, will help you feel much more a part of the community and country you are living in. Also, being able to speak another language will ALWAYS be a good skill, no matter what industry you work in.
(Picture: A view of the River Rhine from the centre of Basel)
2. Making new friends will be harder than you think.
Now, this will obviously vary from situation to situation and person to person. We have some wonderful friends in Basel, but we also live in a big expat community so the turnover of people is very high. After only a year we are already having to say goodbye to five friends who are moving onto the next place. The thing with being an expat is that most people move for around two or three years, so you may only cross over with people for a short amount of time. As it takes time to build up true, genuine friendship, you should be prepared for this not to come together and stick around how you might expect it to.
Make friends with locals! It’s very easy in an expat community to stick together; after all, you have so much in common! Language, situation, the fact that you are all living away from home… it’s great to mix with people you have lots of things in common with, but try to branch out and mix with people who are native to your local area as well. They will be able to show you the new place you are living in in a new, more experienced light, and you will be able to bring something new to them as well! Another great reason to learn the local language and practice it, eh?
3. You have to leave your old life behind.
This one might be cheating, because someone actually did tell me this before we left, but I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to believe that it would be true. The reality is that you have to accept that people will move on without you. You won’t be able to be at every milestone in your friends’ and families’ lives like you were before, and things will start to happen without you even being aware of them. Just know that this is ok. It doesn’t mean that they love you any less, or you them; it just means that you can’t live and be fully present in two places at once. If anything, we now look forward to and value time with our family and friends from home even more now!
After about 6 months of living abroad I went through a strange emotional stage where I didn’t feel at home in London, but I didn’t feel at home in Basel either. It was like I was grieving the old life I used to have whilst still not really feeling integrated where I was living now. This of course did pass, but it takes time, and it isn’t something that you can rush. Everyone adjusts at different speeds, so don’t beat yourself up if you feel a bit lost during your first year.
4. Material things matter much, much less.
When you are in those final weeks before you move, it’s a bit of a packing frenzy. I think the stuff to bubble wrap ratio for our packing was pretty equal, just to make sure nothing broke in transit (which it still did). We spent a lot of time packing as much of our stuff as we could, and we didn’t even have that much. You find yourself worrying about bringing every little thing with you, which is totally normal! You have visions of where you’re going to put stuff in your new place to make it feel more like home, only to get there and realise that it isn’t your stuff that makes a home feel like home.
That’s not to say that we don’t have those few special, sentimental pieces that will always travel with us from home to home, but all the other stuff you thought mattered so much… won’t. Fill your new home up with people, host dinners with friends, a local hobby group or even just invite people over for coffee! There is nothing that makes your new home FEEL more like a home, than filling it up with people and a welcome atmosphere. And also a lot of stuff from IKEA.
5. You won’t feel settled after a year.
You’ll be well on the way, but you won’t, it’s just the reality. When you make such a huge change as moving overseas, you cannot compare it to moving to the other end of your own country. In that kind of move you have a change of place, but everything else, such as culture and language, largely stays the same. The adjustment is just smaller. It’s impossible to feel totally settled and at home in a foreign country in a year if you move with no prior connections, no language skills and largely no experience. That’s not to say you will feel the same a year on as you do at the start, but it just won’t be 100% home yet. After a year I can now successfully cross the road in Switzerland and look the right way (although I now look the wrong way in London, which is probably way more dangerous); I even gave someone directions to their destination in German, and I think they even got to where they wanted to go. It’s all these little victories that add up over time and start to make a place feel like a home. So don’t be discouraged! Reach out! There are a lot of people in the same situation as you!
I hope you find this list helpful and not discouraging. I would never want to put anyone off living abroad if they get the chance. It has been one of the most enriching things we have ever done and has opened up more opportunities that I could ever have imagined. I just feel that alongside the wonderful things come some very real struggles, and I want to offer some genuine thoughts and advice now I am at the end of my first year. Do any of you live abroad? Have you had any of the same thoughts, or have any other useful suggestions? Please share in the comments!