Coping with Living Abroad

By: Wendy Hollands - Also see author's expat blog listing & expat interview

The glamour of jet setting or that dreaded feeling of homesickness? What does living abroad mean to you?

For me, moving away from home was an escape from a world that felt like an old pair of jeans — comfortable, familiar and reliable. That old pair lacked the sparkle I desired, and I was ready to embrace a new and colourful alternative.

Typically, preparing to move to another country involves making a packing list, researching the new country, planning ahead for accommodation, transport, jobs, childcare and other daily needs, and perhaps even learning a language. The practicalities cannot be overlooked, but the emotional preparation often is. I’m one of many who didn’t consider how a move would affect me emotionally when I first left Australia for the big city lights of London. I was unprepared for the oddest of moments, like looking into the night sky and realising that the Southern Cross constellation isn’t visible from the Northern hemisphere. I felt like I was on another planet!

Birthdays and other family events can be particularly tough when you first move abroad. Unlike my moment of looking into the night sky and being overwhelmed unexpectedly, these events can be planned for. You have time to think about how to cope with them before they take place. Can you arrange a time to call loved ones? Can you organise a night out with your new friends? Can you work or explore somewhere new to keep your mind occupied?

Some things, however, cannot be planned for. When the planes flew into the World Trade Centre buildings in New York in 2001, I was working in London. The company boss gathered us around and told us to go home and be with loved ones for the rest of the day. My loved ones were a 24-hour flight away, and with all flights grounded until further notice, I wondered what would happen if war broke out. Would I ever see my family again? How would we get back in touch? Just hours after the attack, nobody was sure what had happened and whether there was more to come, so war seemed as plausible as any other scenario. I looked out the window and the world felt suddenly strange, with no queue of planes heading for Heathrow, and no way of being with loved ones that night. I felt utterly isolated.

But for every low point, I’ve had a hundred highs, like exploring the Roman ruins I had loved reading about in school books; watching the Bolshoi Ballet perform in Moscow; learning to snowboard; making friends from every corner of the world; learning useful words in other languages; tasting new flavours; exploring cultures, and finding new skills. These moments are what I think about at the odd times when I start missing home.

With each move, I’ve learnt new ways to cope emotionally with the changes. Here is my checklist:

1. Accept that your daily habits will change and give yourself time to adjust to your new habits

Your favourite breakfast food night not exist in your new country, and that radio station that you listened to since you were a kid, whose DJs you know like friends, is definitely not available! Perhaps you’ll be sleeping on a friend’s couch while you find your own accommodation, living out of a suitcase and having no room of your own for privacy. You will find alternative habits, but not immediately. Treat yourself to something you love and try to identify the habits you miss most so you can work on replacing them first. They become your rewards.

2. Embrace the unexpected

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. Your new place of residence will be full of oddities that will make you compare them with how things were back home. For example, I didn’t realise why people glared at me at my regular bus stop in London until it occurred to me that they were queuing for each bus, and I was effectively jumping the queue. We tend to cluster for buses in Australia, so this concept seemed bizarre to me. Rather than fight it, I joined in, and found myself glaring at others who jumped the queue. It made me feel local.

3. Take people up on their offers

It’s easy to turn down an offer that feels too generous, but is it always the right thing to do? The person offering probably feels endeared enough to you to want you to say yes, and it might be the start of a great friendship. And if they’re offering just to be polite, shame on them, not you. One of my best friends is a Swedish girl who I met on a street in a tiny French ski village on a freezing winter’s day. She was looking for accommodation, but the agency was closed for lunch. I invited her in for a hot chocolate while she waited. Her mum called to check on her while we were chatting, and she seemed normal, so I invited her to stay and share the rent with me. Neither of us knew anyone else, so we instantly had a skiing buddy. Although she probably thought I was being generous to offer her my spare bed, I needed a friend too, so we both benefited. That said, try not to take advantage of people’s generosity and kindness. There’s a balance.

4. Language will cause communication problems: smile and hope for the best

Even if you’re moving to the country that speaks the same language as you, there will be nuances and phrases that might cause a stir. I had a workmate suggest I should not talk about my underwear at work after I mentioned I’d bought a great pair of red pants and how it wasn’t thong weather just yet. In Australia, that would mean a new pair of trousers and not summery enough to wear flip-flops, but in England, both pants and thongs are types of underwear. Add in a foreign language and brace yourself for some embarrassing mistakes. Smiling is usually the best response.

5. Be a tourist

If you’re in a new place, you may as well familiarise yourself with the area’s tourism. I’ve been living in the same area for more than five years, and there are still plenty of local things I’d like to explore, like local gorges, historic war sites, museums, ski areas, lake sports, walks, restaurants and more. One of the things I love most about living away from home is that I don’t have to read about this place in a book: I can walk out my door and explore more of it every day.

6. Use modern technology to keep in touch

When I first left home in 2000 my close friends and family received a steady flow of postcards and photos in the mail, and we emailed each other simply to arrange times for phone calls. Things are now much easier, with products like Skype and Facebook, plus mobile phones and digital cameras. My mum can now see my photo of a marmot that I took on my phone and uploaded to Facebook within minutes of the marmot posing for the snap. She can ask a question and I can reply. I don’t feel that far away anymore. Embrace the technology.

7. Enjoy the ride

It’s easy to feel frustrated about all that paperwork or sad that you’re missing your favourite band or team play, think of all the amazing experiences you’ve had in your new country. Or if you’ve just arrived, get ready for the rollercoaster ride of your life.

About the author:

Wendy Hollands said she'd be back in Australia in a year's time. Twelve years later, she's still telling them she'll be back one day, but there are too many places she has yet to explore in the French Alps. After two years of the excesses of living in London followed by a winter in Méribel, she lived in Cambridge during summers, working two jobs so she could be a ski bum in winters. She eventually moved to France permanently and started her blog to highlight the bizarre aspects of living in a foreign country - along with some interesting stuff along the way.
Blog address: Twitter: @Wendy_Hollands
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Contest Comments » There are 8 comments

Janelle wrote 11 years ago:

Well written piece on living abroad. I can definitely relate to all of it, especially the emotional change that you are never fully prepared for. Wendy has given excellent tips on how to cope and enjoy the ride!

Dave wrote 11 years ago:

If this doesn't help people take that tentative first step into the unknown, then nothing will! Embrace the adventure of a lifetime and go for it...thanks for sharing!

Keith wrote 11 years ago:

Great write up by Wendy. Liked the personal touch and the reference to the Southern Cross as a reference-point for us Aussies.

Sam wrote 11 years ago:

Well done Wendy. Very entertaining and well written. Your article is certainly insightful and descriptive, especially for those, like me, who aren't that well travelled. Best wishes, Sam

Sue Watt wrote 11 years ago:

Makes me want to plan a trip somewhere straight away - Thank you a great read.

Cal T wrote 11 years ago:

Sums up expat life brilliantly and it is great advice for the new (or old) expat. (& I think every Aussie has fallen into the 'pants' trap in the UK!)

Tasha wrote 11 years ago:

So easy to read and it certainly held my interest. Well written and should be a winner! More please.

Annie West wrote 11 years ago:

Loved it and could so relate. So helpful to keep in touch electronically.. Making all those at home wish they were with you actually makes it feel like they are! Great read that makes me want to take the ride back to France!

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