My 10 Big Lessons from 10 Years of Expat Life

Pop open some bubbles and raise a glass with me! Today is my 10-year expativersary!

…or a bottle…Amy knows…

In August 2009 I arrived in Pau, south-west France, to join my fiancé and enjoy a three-year career break filled with boulangeries, champagne and je ne sais quoi…

Little did I know… etc.

Well, you know the story. One marriage, two children, five countries and seven moves later, that je ne sais quoi has turned out to be quite an adventure. You can’t go through a decade of non-stop transitions and culture shock without learning a thing or two.

So here, in sort-of ascending order, are the 10 biggest lessons the school of international living has taught me:

#10: Find the people who are positive about the place

This was the best advice I received before we moved to Uganda. It came from a friend who had recently arrived in France, after being evacuated from Libya during the Arab Spring. She would surprise everyone she spoke to by declaring how much she had loved living there. Those words have resonated with me many times in the years since. I’ve been able to recognise the flow of negative energy from people who only complain or make unfavourable comparisons, and to spend less time in their company when I need more positive input.

There’s one caveat to this though: be compassionate. Everyone has bad days, I’ve certainly had my fair share, and I’ve walked away from conversations knowing that I’ve been the ultimate Minnie the Moaner, hoping the other person won’t hold it against me. On bad days, we all need a compassionate listener. On better days, I try to be that listener and…

#9: Be the people who are positive about the place

No matter where you live, there are elements you won’t like. That’s certainly been true for me: French living was a sea of bureaucracy; Kampala had too much traffic; Congo was cut off and corrupt; Denmark is way too controlling. Then again, when I’m ‘home’, I wish Scottish culture could be more open and enthusiastic, and the baguettes and Danish pastries there leave a lot to be desired.

But as much as those downsides can can get to you from time to time, there’s nothing to be gained from making those negatives the focus of your emotional energy. Nowhere is perfect. You can make the best of a place when you focus on the positives (even if you do need to create an exit strategy in the meantime). And when you do, your positive energy will spread, and bring you the people who’ve learned #10.

#8: Say yes

Quick disclaimer: even in my pre-expat life, I was never one to shy away from trying something new, or that no-one else was doing. But the last ten years of surprising adventures has shown the true power of this fact: when there’s nothing to lose but your pride, you might as well say yes.

Just saying yes to life abroad in the first place can feel like the biggest hurdle. There are a lot of no‘s in that one big yes – so many expectations that you leave by the wayside. But it’s the unexpected results of the yes that make it so worthwhile. The one big painful no my expat yes dealt me, was leaving behind musical theatre. In my thirties I’d rediscovered the exhilaration of being on the stage, playing a variety of roles back in Aberdeen. I was ready for a career break, for sure. But leaving the footlights behind was a real wrench. I still miss that particular group.

But without that wrench, I wouldn’t have had any of the following to say yes to: singing Star Wars choral pieces in a huge arena with a full French orchestra; a production of Under Milk Wood with an on-stage husband who went on to become a Ugandan soap star; making an impact in a performance of music and monologues for the 1 Billion Rising campaign, being part of a vocal harmony group lead by a musician with the Carnegie Hall on her resume; performing in French as part of an diverse group, giving me some of my absolutely proudest moments on stage. 

If you’d told me 11 years ago that I’d have been saying yes to any of those, I’d have said, eh…no. But one yes leads to another, and can bring adventure and surprise to your expat life. (More on saying yes here.)

#7: Make every home feel like home

When we first left for France, I put my Denby dinner service in storage rather than risk it breaking in transit (it was only for three years after all) and moved into our French furnished apartment, seeing it as a temporary base. I didn’t hang pictures or change the rug I didn’t like, because I didn’t think it would be worth the investment.

18 months later, I realised that my life wasn’t happening in a storage container, it was happening there and then, in our bare French apartment. But, half-way through our time as we were, I was still resistant to investing much in the place. My next two moves were really temporary: 9 months back in the UK and just one year in Uganda. Each time there seemed little point in adding anything more than the most useful features to our home.

But here’s the thing: each of those ‘temporary’ postings, put together, amounted to five years of my life.

Our next move, back to France, turned out to last a year too, but I committed to furnishing and decorating our house beyond the useful, in a way that made it feel like it was truly ours. And it felt like levelling up.

As I type, a year into our house in Denmark, there are still pictures waiting to be hung and cabinets that haven’t quite been organised since a box was emptied into them. Ain’t that always the way. But all the boxes are emptied, corners have been furnished with chic Danish decor, and I’m adding to a new Ikea shopping list for a few more finishing touches. Because this is our home now, and I want to make it feel that way.

#6: It’s okay not to be okay

I see this phrase pop up frequently in my social media feeds, about the importance of acknowledging sadness or mental health struggles. Here, I’m thinking about the days in expat life where you just get overwhelmed, and weary of all the newness. (I have a lot of thoughts about expat mental health issues though. Let me know in the comments if you want to hear more from me about that.)

In among the moves and transitions and culture shock, and when you’re surrounded by people who are having the same experiences as you, it all becomes normalised. You learn that once-daunting challenges are very doable, and the thought of, say, turning up in a brand-new country with no knowledge of the language, knowing that your husband will be travelling to another continent within a few days of arriving, so that you will have to settle the kids in the new school, go house-hunting, navigate supermarkets, and deal with the local admin all on your own, barely fazes you. This is a superpower I have definitely learned along the way.

But here’s another thing: that really is a superpower. Most people would never consider moving their family to another country and starting again – never mind doing it over and over again. When I think about how most people would react at the prospect of that life – with horror, or at least extreme caution – then I know that the moments of weariness and overwhelm are hardly surprising. It’s a lot for the body and spirit to take. While I can celebrate the superpowers, I’ve also learned to welcome the weariness, those days of ‘I can’t listen to another word of Danish’, or ‘I just wish everything was normal…’ I’ve learned to give myself those days, to sit in that weariness, and recognise the resilience that is building on all the other days. 

#5: Culture shock is hard work

The term ‘culture shock’ is deceptive. It’s not as short and sharp as the name would suggest. Though training and experience, I’ve learned that there’s so much more to it than that. When we interact with the world around us, there’s a constant process of interpretation going on in our brain. What we perceive is interpreted according to our expectations and experiences. Under the surface we are translating, making adjustments, making comparisons and judgements. And when everything we perceive is new and different, that process is working extra hard.

I love the way expat author Dina Honour describes it in her book, There’s Some Place Like Home: ‘…all that extra effort sucks the life out of your personal battery – just like the programs open and running on your laptop. You know, the ones you don’t see or hear but are essential for running the programs you do use.’ (p7)

No wonder we have those days of overwhelm and weariness! I’ve learned that it’s inevitable, and to give myself compassion, and also to…

#4: Give credit where it’s due

Sometimes it’s only when I look back and describe some of the circumstances I’ve encountered, that I realise just how much I’ve dealt with and come out the other end stronger. More resilient. I’ve learned to give myself credit for what I’ve adapted to, and for how I’ve learned, grown stronger and more resilient.  Well done me!

#3: Ditch the temporary mindset

It’s not just in home furnishing that the years sneak up if you’re thinking ‘just-for-now’. 

In the past, I’ve taken casual jobs based on not knowing how long I can commit to them. I’ve chosen to stay at home rather than seek out childcare, or take on a role that happens to be available at a given time and place. Those ‘decisions’ meant waiting to find out where we landed, waiting to find out if there was a place for me.

At some point I counted up the years again, and realised that I was letting life happen to me while I waited for some kind of ‘settled’. That’s when I decided to see my situation as an opportunity rather than as a set of restrictions. Admittedly, with teaching as my profession, I could pick up jobs as we moved, and sustain my career to an extent – but only according to whatever was available in any given place. But that’s not following a career path, more like constantly stopping on the way to camp out. (More on purpose here.)

I knew that I wanted more than that. I had to find something that would let me stay on a path of my own, regardless of our location. I no longer wait and see when we get where we’re going.  I have my own purpose to attend to. The progress on the path may be slow, but I’m no longer just picking up what’s lying around, what I haven’t chosen. And ultimately, my expat journey has become my own, because…

#2: There’s opportunity contained in the sacrifice.

It is hard to give up so much to follow someone else’s career. To become dependent on them, to lose autonomy and let go of all the other expectations you had for the future. But it’s a liberation too. An opportunity for reinvention (sometimes over and over again). An opportunity for fresh starts, and to gain a unique perspective on life. It’s a perspective that lets you see each stage of transition as a threshold into something new. It offers an opportunity to reflect, trace your growth, your development, everything you’ve learned, and map it all along the way. And an opportunity to do things you might never otherwise have imagined possible.

#1: Adaptation does not mean fitting in

Although I think that lessons two and three above are probably more important, this one has snuck in at number one because it’s my most recent revelation, an idea that’s been niggling at me that I’ve recently tried to put into words.

Adaptation is a crucial part of moving into a new country. But often in the past I’ve been so caught up in fitting in, or trying to adapt to local cultures and behaviours, that I’ve lost something of myself in the process. One example is when hiring staff, where I’ve been so eager to conform to the local expectations that I’ve let others decide how things should be done. As a result, months have passed with me accepting things in my own home that are not entirely what I’m comfortable with, just to avoid offence.

With language, I’ve tied my tongue in knots worrying about whether I’ll sound like a French person, until it dawned on me that I’ll never sound like a French person, and that’s it’s pretty cool to speak French with a Scottish accent. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to adapt your behaviours in certain cultural contexts, but ultimately your greatest strength is in being who you are. Now, when I say tak for mad, I’m not doing it because I imagine myself turning Danish, but rather with a knowing tone, that says, look at me in all my foreignness, saying the Danish thing.  I’ve stopped taking Danish lessons for the moment, and ten-years-ago-me would have been horrified to think that I would move to another country and not strive to become fluent in the local language. Today-me knows that I’ll have a lot more to offer to this community in different ways, if I reclaim that time for my other skills.

I am adapting my behaviours for Danish living. I’ll turn up on time (a stretch after years of ‘Congo-time’), I’ll make sure there’s kage (cake), I’ll say tak for mad and tak for i dag,* I’ll fly Danish flags at every birthday celebration, and I’ll refrain from asking the barista how she’s doing. (That was an awkward moment – ‘How are you?’ is considered a personal question in Denmark!)

But I’m not adapting my self – they’ll have to take that as it is.

There’s a moment when that became clear to me. It’s a moment that followed years of knocking off the less desirable (to me) edges of my own culture. I come from a culture, rooted in Calvinist traditions, that is frugal, utilitarian, emotionally reserved, and wary of self-promotion. Sound familiar? Over my years of expat living, I’ve had those edges softened, and I’ve learned to publicly celebrate myself, my achievements, and my unique skills and talents. So, when I attended a cultural awareness workshop not long after arriving in Denmark, and learned about Janteloven, a cultural code in Denmark that downplays personal achievement and assumes conformism, you can imagine my resistance.

I can’t fit in with that. I have too much to celebrate. Cheers!

What have you learned from the school of international living? Is there anything here that resonated? Or surprised you? Or that you totally disagree with? Let me know in the comments! And if you think my words are worth reading, go ahead and share them with your people using the buttons below

To keep up with my expat insights, travel stories and more, click here to join my journey, and you’ll receive my essay, ‘Belonging, not Home, in Venice’, exclusively in your inbox. You can also follow The Frustrated Nester on Facebook and Instagram, for all the in-between comings, goings, and words of wisdom.

*’thanks for the meal’ and ‘thanks for today’

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2 thoughts on “My 10 Big Lessons from 10 Years of Expat Life

  1. I love this so much. I hope to join the expat world in few years. miss you, hope you’re well.

    Caroline

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