by Melinda Gallo
While living overseas for most of my adult life, I have met many expats from around the world. Even if our experiences abroad were unique, many of the factors that motivated us to become expats were similar. Each one of us was motivated to live abroad for a variety of reasons, like furthering our studies, taking advantage of a job opportunity, accompanying or following a loved one, embarking on an adventure, or just escaping our current lives. For over 20 years, I have lived in three different countries and became an expat multiple times, thus experiencing first-hand each of these reasons we decide to become expats.
Studying abroad is a great way to dip your toe into the expat pool. Generally the length of your stay is pre-defined, which allows you to plan out your time abroad. One of the challenges is that you might be more exposed to foreigners than to locals. Since immersion into the new place’s local life is a vital part of the expat experience, being in school with other foreign students might not be beneficial. It is, nonetheless, a great way to have a taste of what life is truly like as an expat.
My first expat experience was when I went to Lyon, France for a year during my university studies. I distanced myself almost immediately from the other American students because I knew that if I spent time with my schoolmates I wouldn’t improve my French. It wasn’t a popular decision because when I did bump into them at school, they ignored me. Instead of sharing an apartment with other students, I became an au pair for a French family and received room and board in exchange for watching their four kids.
At times, living with a family wasn’t ideal, but I was able to completely immerse myself in the French language and get a taste of life in France. I knew I made the right decision when I met up with my fellow American students at the end of the school year. A few of them came up to me and said that they wished that they had done what I did. They were disappointed that their French didn’t improve much.
One other decision that allowed me to improve my French was staying in Lyon for the summer instead of returning to the US. I worked as a waitress in a restaurant thanks to my student visa, which allowed me to work 20 hours a week.
My year studying in France was definitely the springboard from which my entire expat life was born.
Probably one of the most common ways that we become an expat is for work. We either search an opportunity somewhere else or we allow a job to lead the way. We can sometimes define how long we stay; however, other times we are sent for a specific amount of time.
At the beginning of your expat experience, work can be a great distraction while you adjust to life in this new place. Work gives structure to your days and offers you a unique opportunity to discover more about the culture, adapt to the daily life in the country, and better understand the locals.
After I graduated from university, I immediately searched for a job in France. After studying abroad, I couldn’t wait to return to France and become an expat. I was fortunate enough to have been offered a job in Paris at a French software company. Three months later, I moved into my first studio apartment near my office in Paris.
Work filled my days, but left my evenings empty. I kept myself busy after work, but didn’t go out much during the week. On weekends, I ventured out to discover Paris on my own. I thought that I would be able to make friends quickly since I already spoke French, but it took longer than I expected. Over time, I gradually filled in my life with friends, activities, and new interests.
During this expat experience, work was definitely a benefit. Not only did it allow me to stay legally in France, but it was the one stable thing in my life while I adapted to life abroad. At any rate, my job also allowed me to enhance my knowledge of French, learn more about the French culture, make more friends, and deepen my connection to France.
Sometimes we don’t choose to become an expat; sometimes it chooses us. We fall in love with someone, but he or she is “geographically incompatible.” We try living apart (in different places or even in different countries), but we know that the distance is a strain on the relationship. We are willing to do just about anything, like leaving our lives behind and moving across the ocean, to stay in love’s embrace for as long as we can.
While I was living in Paris, I fell in love with an Englishman who lived just outside of London. Within a few months, I decided to quit my job to become a freelance consultant and to move to England for him. And that was my mistake. I thought I was moving for him when I was actually moving for us. In my mind, my boyfriend was the only reason I left France. Later when the relationship began to crumble, the line between him and the country became unclear. Anything that I didn’t like in England suddenly made me wonder what I was doing with him.
After we broke up, I made a point of staying in England. I couldn’t let myself leave a country that I had called home for a year and a half without truly knowing it. I dove deep into my life in England, trying to immerse myself in daily life, to expand my knowledge of it, and to meet more people. I eventually left England because I was ready for an adventure, not because I had become a disgruntled expat.
I found it rather challenging living in a country that I didn’t choose. I had to make a concerted effort to create a connection with my new home. I realized too late that I couldn’t let someone else be the link between a country and me because I wasn’t able to appreciate England until I created my own connection with it.
You might sometimes feel that there has to be more to life than what you are living. Your life may appear completely fine where you are, but maybe you sense that something is missing or that it might be interesting to live in another place. You might not know much about the place or even its language, but your desire to live there and explore it is great. A satisfying part of the adventure is just diving in; however, we always know that if we fail we can just return home where we already are.
The first time I went to Florence, I was in search of an adventure. I was enjoying my life in England, but felt that something was missing. I didn’t want to go back to France, where I had lived for six years prior to living in England because I felt it would be too easy and I needed to be challenged. Since I had always dreamed of learning Italian, I decided to go to Florence for three months. I signed up for Italian classes and rented a room from an Italian family. I packed up a few of my things, left many boxes in storage, gave all my clients to a colleague, and hopped on a train (actually three trains) for Florence.
It wasn’t until I was lying in bed that first night that it dawned on me that not only did I not know the language, but I also didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t scared, but I did feel a bit lost. I didn’t meet anyone in my Italian class, but I did befriend a couple of the Italian teachers who were more my age.
On my third day of being Florence, I was strolling the streets by myself and entered a church that I spotted on a side street. I sat down on a wooden pew and felt a wave of peace come over me. The words, “You are home,” circled in my head. It was the first time I felt as if all the pieces of my personal puzzle had landed perfectly in place.
I was determined to stay in Florence even though I didn’t have a permit and didn’t speak much Italian. I knew things would fall into place, and fortunately for me they did. I found an apartment to share with an Italian student and landed a job teaching English before the end of my first month there. I ended up staying in Florence for two years and only left because of a family emergency in the US.
For me, this expat experience was the most rewarding because I was able to create a life for myself from absolutely nothing: no job, no housing, no friends, and a limited knowledge of Italian. In the time I was there, I became fluent in Italian, discovered more about Florence, and met many locals (with whom I am still friends today).
Sometimes we want to just escape from our humdrum existence and live someplace else. We want to go to a place where we can forget our troubles, wipe the slate clean, and start all over again. This impetus to become an expat is powerful, but we sometimes forget that even if we leave everything behind, we still bring along the “us” who created the life we now want to escape from.
I moved back to Florence a second time under different circumstances. It wasn’t an adventure for something new, but rather an escape from my five-year hiatus in the US during which both of my parents had passed away. I thought that if I could just leave California, my sadness would dissipate. By moving back to Florence, I could start my life over and talk with people who didn’t know about what I had just experienced. I thought that if no one knew about the sadness welling inside of me, I could be happy. But, of course, grief followed me across the ocean and stuck with me until I allowed myself to go through it and accept that it will always be a part of who I am.
It took time to finally be at peace with my grief, but Florence was the perfect place for my escape. The city’s powerful creative energy infused me with love and inspired me to create a fulfilling life for myself.
While the way you arrive in a new place and become an expat might differ slightly, the same challenges arise. You have to adjust to a new culture, improve your language skills, meet new people, and find a balance between fitting in and staying true to yourself.
Being an expat is probably one of the rare occasions in your life in which you will have to open yourself up so much that you are thrust out of your comfort zone. At times, it can be downright challenging, but the gifts you receive in exchange are well worth it.
This article was published in separate posts by Insiders Abroad in May/June 2014.