From houses to cities, states to countries, continents to hemispheres, I have changed my address some 26 times to date, relocating roughly every 2 years of my life. The longest I have spent in one house is around 7 years, and that was when I was a child. It all started with a father who worked for a large company relocating him regularly throughout Germany, to me moving abroad to attend university and meeting my husband who had a similarly nomadic upbringing.
As a young family, we decided to embark on a serial expatriate life that has taken us from the UK to Muscat, Oman; Dubai, UAE, to Melbourne, Australia; Paris, France to Doha, Qatar, and various other places in between. It’s been challenging, exciting, and superb fun living in different places, among different cultures, languages, and traditions.
Taking all our possessions with us each time, bringing up our daughter across six different countries, and still suffering from itchy feet and restlessness that generally sets in after around 16 months in a place, it has not only been fun (and continues to be so), but it’s also been a learning curve.
I wanted to bring together the seven most important things that I have learned over the years and decades of living and moving abroad — apart from being an excellent packer and unpacker — to help others who might be contemplating moving abroad, retiring to another country, or just spending a lengthy time somewhere foreign. This is not the ultimate guide to expat life, but just a series of learning experiences that helped me over the years and that you might find useful when landing in a new country.
1. Start Nesting Immediately
The first time we moved abroad as a young family, we had signed a 2-year contract and initially lived in a furnished home with only a suitcase or two worth of clothes and personal belongings, including toys, for each of us. After a year or so, I realized that this “limited living” did not help us feel at home abroad.
We decided to move our belongings, which had been in storage back in the UK, to our current location and make it our home, never mind how long we were going to stay. In the next location, I had at first held off decorating, because, again, we thought we’d only be there temporarily and that it would not be worth it.
Now, as soon as I set foot in my new house or apartment, I make it my home. I decorate, put pictures up on the wall, paint the walls if I wish to, and create a little reading nook and a work corner, never mind how long we anticipate we will live in that particular place. Wherever I move, it is home from the word go. It makes a huge difference in your mental well-being and eases all the other challenges ahead.
2. Go Out And Explore
I have seen more of other countries than I have of my home country of Germany, simply because I make a conscious effort to see as much as I possibly can within the short period of time I will enjoy living in that part of the world. Even before I land somewhere, I check out sights and events, cities, and natural wonders to be explored.
With large countries such as Australia, I checked out flight routes of the local carriers, made a priorities list, and, for example, booked New Year’s Eve in Sydney Harbour before I even arrived in Melbourne. You never know how long your stay lasts, so I have learned to hit the ground running.
3. Do Not Say No To Anything (At First)
When you land somewhere where culture shock is a distinct possibility and everything around you is different, it is an understandable reaction to want to hole up in your home and feel safe there. As an introvert myself, that is what I would like to do every day, but I have learned to challenge myself and always say “yes” to every invitation, every opportunity that comes my way in a new place. At least once, and always in the beginning.
As we say in Germany, by jumping over my own shadow, i.e. doing things that would not normally come naturally to me, and grabbing every opportunity, I have ended up with a dream job, went to unique places I would never have found on my own, met great friends, and learned so much, all of which I would not have had the chance to if I had said “no.”
4. Have Something Continuous
Moving with your partner or family helps a lot when it comes to the very real feeling of isolation in a foreign country, but even members of the closest family need friends outside the family unit at times. While for many people it’s sports that get them out of the house and join up with new people, for me it is mahjong, and wherever I move to I try and find a group of players to connect with. Cultivating a hobby that allows you to have an interest outside your family unit and which gets you to meet others is a useful tool to integrate somewhere new.
5. One In, One Out
Moving around the world with all your possessions in tow is not only a logistical challenge but also pricey, so it is important to not let your “stuff” get out of control. I am forever envious of my parents-in-law who have lived in the same house for more than 30 years now and have an attic full of memories, and useful as well as much useless stuff. Alas, I don’t have the privilege of having continuous storage and need to streamline as I go to make sure it all still fits into the shipping container next time.
With clothes, and sometimes even knickknacks, I operate on a one-in, one-out basis and tend to throw old things out before replenishing the wardrobe, not including seasonal or special items, such as winter jackets or evening gowns. But I have an Achilles’ heel when it comes to books. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I move around the world with 1,000+ books, but do donate books I did not really enjoy to charity as a compromise.
6. Keep In Touch
One of the best things about moving constantly is that I am part of a continuous current of expatriates that flows around the globe, and have friends on every continent (except Antarctica, sadly) and in the most amazing places. Keeping in touch with the ever-shifting diaspora has become so much easier over the last few decades with social media, and I now have a wonderful selection of like-minded friends whom it is fun to catch up with whenever I travel, because, chances are, I know someone in that destination already.
7. Embrace Change
This is probably the most important factor to allow you to truly enjoy living abroad: You need to not only be able to handle change but try to embrace and enjoy it. While I am always a little worried about what I will find in a new destination, I positively thrive on those early days and months when I get lost at every turn and struggle with the language or even the weekend (during my first move to the Middle East, my weekend fell on Thursday/Friday, leaving me forever confused). I might be an exception, but delighting in the differences from your “life before” is what makes moving abroad a true adventure that is denied to many.
A Final Note
It is scary to move abroad to a different culture, have to learn a different language, and cope with much change, but we live in a world with so many interesting differences that being a foreigner in a new part of the world, at least for a while, has many more positives than it has negatives.