Three years ago, I was unhappy in my job and had gone through a difficult breakup. I was restless and wanted to escape. So I quit my job, packed my bags and booked a one-way ticket to Europe. Three years later, my European expat adventure is coming to an end. I’m cancelling utility contracts, obtaining quotes to ship belongings back to Australia and planning one last European hurrah before I return home.
Part of my expat experience was planned (a 2 year Tier 5 Working Holiday visa in London) but there was plenty that was initially unplanned too (a 1 year Working Holiday Visa in Amsterdam). In all the frenzy of packing up, saying goodbyes and squeezing in last minute day trips, I always seem to turn sentimental.
I remember certain moments this time last year when I was wrapping up my time in London. The automated message to “Mind the Gap!” on the underground. The vibrancy of each borough’s high street. That breath that caught in my chest each time I lay my eyes on Tower Bridge, even though I had passed the iconic structure dozens of times before. In Amsterdam, I’ve been noticing things in finer detail during the last few weeks too. The bump in the bicycle path I always try to avoid as I exit the roundabout. How I catch myself obsessively check the weather forecast almost every morning and exclaiming that 8 degrees celsius is t-shirt weather. The chirping of the birds in Vondelpark on a Saturday morning. The boldness of my bicycle bell as I warn pedestrians to jump out of my way. Will the strangers I’ve come to recognise on my 7.48am bus to Haarlem wonder where I’ve gone? The tall large man who always occupies the front right window seat. The punk kid who always tries to cut the line onto the bus. The skinny gentleman with a side satchel, his nose always buried in a novel. These strangers, people who I’ve never uttered a word to but who have become a regular presence on my daily commute.
As this chapter comes to a close, I’ve caught myself silently mouthing expressions of gratitude to no one in particular. Being an expat has given me more than I ever expected and more than I can express in words alone. It has been the most challenging but by far the most rewarding life experience to date. You’ll be pushed out of your comfort zone and come away with some battle scars but you won’t regret it.
Here’s why you should be an expat at least once in your life.
Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer
This old adage. And it’s epically true. If you end up being a European expat, it’s likely that you’ll mark all the holidays in your calendar and then book your long weekends accordingly. With some luck, you won’t work like a mule and you will receive a reasonable salary affording you the opportunity to cross off those bucket list destinations.
Use your time wisely. Take advantage of the proximity of historical cities. Sip wine in wicker chairs. Wander down cobblestoned lanes. Savour regional specialities. Dance with the locals. Explore cultural sites and memorials. Savour the moment. Make sure you’re travelling to a place because you actually have a vested interest; not to just add another country to your count.
Friendships that will last a lifetime
I’m not talking about the people you add on Facebook after the pub crawl in Prague. I’m talking about those friendships that have developed from meaningful face-to-face encounters. I went on a blind friend date during my first month in London. Set up by a mutual friend, we met in front of Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street and went to a café for coffee. From the same city in Australia, we met on the other side of the world. Three years later, together we have explored the Cotswolds, sung S Club 7 during karaoke and gone skiing in Val Thorens.
People thought I was crazy going on a blind friend date. But had I not taken this leap of faith, I wouldn’t have this amazing person in my life. So be open to these encounters. Some people may come into your life for a fleeting moment but others will hang around for many years to come.
Before leaving Australia, you could say that I had lived a sheltered life. I had followed the “traditional” path of graduating from high school, completing university, buying my first car and starting my career at a top tier firm. I hadn’t moved out of home yet (out of convenience and laziness – thanks Mum and Dad!) but at that point where I was dissatisfied and restless was an indication to me that something had to change.
Becoming an expat has meant that I had to learn to look out for myself. You overcome life admin obstacles like looking for a job and finding a room to rent. But being in a foreign place, adapting to local life and culture also forces you to evaluate or re-evaluate what is truly important to you. You come to realise where you want to allocate your f*@!%, which relationships you’re willing to invest time in and the bullshit you’ll no longer stand for.
If you have strong ties to people or to a particular place, there is a high chance that you will feel homesick. Should you find yourself in a new city with no contacts, it is not uncommon to feel miserable and isolated. The time difference is also a bitch.
It’s no wonder that fellow country people will band together in suburbs, restaurants and Facebook groups to support one another and create a family away from home. Seek solace and comfort in the familiarity of these groups but don’t limit your social circle.
You will experience it. I would be very surprised to hear an expat tell me that they didn’t feel it. From the language barrier, to registering with a doctor and compiling your CV, it is highly likely that things will be different to what you expect or what you’re used to.
When I first moved to London, I thought I would be fine as there is no language barrier. I was wrong. Processes and procedures were different. Postcodes had numbers AND letters in them. I had to learn to use my elbows on the tube. You’re putting yourself in a new country where you need to familiarise yourself with the transport system, how to do your banking and where you may not know anyone. Don’t throw in the towel too quickly. Persevere. Soon, you’ll find your way and may even embrace the differences.
You won’t save any money. Period. Accept it now. When you transfer any savings to the currency of your adopted country, be prepared for ATM fees, commission payments and losing money due to the exchange rate.
If you find yourself in a position that pays you more than back home, then good on you! You will be able to comfortably pay your rent and bills. You will then watch the rest of your money disappear on beers at the pub, the latest food craze at hipster market stalls and those long weekend getaways.
WHAT YOU'LL LEARN
Be The Reed
Turns out Confucius was way before his time when he wisely said “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm”. Whilst the origins of this proverb are questionable, the lessons have remained fairly consistent over time. I remember my best friend passing on this advice to me at a time when I felt like nothing was going right in life. The analogy is something I have tried to return to time and time again when I feel or know that I can’t control certain situations or events.
Things will not always go to plan. It might take three attempts for the bank to set up your new bank account. You may not get your desired salary or you could end up with horrible flatmates. Go with the flow, bend with the waves and the storms. Despite the turbulence, you won’t break. Because you are more resilient than you think you are.
Make Your Own Definition Of Success & Wealth
Before deciding to move to London, I had a five year plan. My idea of success in my early 20s was to have a successful career moving up the corporate ladder, be married with 2.5 kids and a house in the ‘burbs by the time I was 30. How perspectives change.
Some people see success as owning investment properties or running a profitable business. Others may feel wealthy just by raising happy and healthy children. Since being an expat, I discovered that I’m in no rush to move up the corporate ladder. I have been reminded that there is no point in dying a rich skeleton with plenty of dollars in my bank account as when I’m dead, I won’t be able to spend it. Instead, wealth has come to me in the form of travel adventures and lifelong friends. Don’t let anyone define your success or wealth. You are in charge of the path that you lead, no matter how many detours. Success and wealth can be measured but you are the one who will dictate it.
Home Is Where The Heart Is
I have met several expats who have built a home away from their native land. For work, for love or by pure chance. Home can be a physical place that holds special memories or significant meaning. Home can change over the years or it can remain a constant. It can be somewhere that you leave but always come back to.
For me, Australia will always be home. Living abroad, I realised that I missed little things that I used to take for granted. Sunny days, the sound of rain on a tin roof, accessible beaches – yes, even Milo and Tim Tams. Whilst I fell in love with my temporary adopted home, I see myself making Australia my home-base and setting up my life there long-term. I count myself blessed to be able to return to a country as beautiful as Australia.
Note: Be aware that you may fall in love with your adopted country or one of their citizens and never leave! Cross that bridge when you come to it!
Research Before You Go
Visas are complicated. Some are quite costly and the application process can be lengthy. Check which documents you need. Do your research online, talk to expats who have completed the process, join discussion groups before your departure date or call a helpline. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Take It All In
Embrace the highs and the lows; the good, the bad and the ugly. Because there will be plenty of it. But once it’s all over, you’ll have a bucket load of memories and tales to tell.
Remind yourself to bend like the reed.
Things won’t all fall into place straight away. It will take time to make new friends, navigate your way in the foreign city and find your feet. Give it time.
Don't Wait. Do It!
Make it happen. Start planning your expat adventure now.
Are you a former, current or up-and-coming expat? Share your story or ask your questions down below!