Friday, 10 October 2014

How to move abroad, part 2: how to live abroad

Should you wear sunscreen every day? How many beach towels do you need? Will you be deeply, profoundly lonely?

If you want to move abroad, there's lots to think about. And unfortunately, it's not all fun.

Adapting to a new country takes time and most people are nervous about how they'll cope. Take a deep breath, pour a strong drink, and I'll guide you through the realities of emigration...

1) Early days 

"Leaving on a jet plane..."

Bad news: you'll feel a constant low throb of stress in your first few weeks living abroad. Good news: this is completely standard and you'll get past it. Unless you're a quitter. You're not a quitter, are you?

You'll probably be adapting to a new job and a new language, plus new customs and ways of doing things. Also, you'll need to find a house, make new friends and get to know a new city. Smaller things are time-consuming too: you'll have to sort out a phone contract and an internet connection, buy furniture and so on. You're going to be busy and it'll be tough.

For me, the first 2–3 months were up and down. I kept getting mouth ulcers from the stress, and I haven't had those since I was a child.

Until you reach your happy place, just keep on keepin' on. You'll get there.

2) Bureaucracy

Enticing, huh?

Emigrating equals paperwork – tedious wodges of it. Bureaucracy is a way of life in some countries. In China, for example, 'bureaucracy lit' far outsells whodunnits and spy stories as the airport novel of choice. Let your mind boggle on that for a moment. Unless you're moving to China.

When I applied for my Italian residence permit, friends advised me to bring originals of the documents I needed, plus colour photocopies and black and white photocopies. In the end, my appointment went smoothly, but others have fared less well. In Italy's many temples of bureaucracy, much depends on the mood of officials, and whether they like your face. If one employee won't help, their colleague may happily assist you.

There's little you can do about this illogicality apart from keep smiling (literally, at the officials), seek help from native-speaking friends and persevere.

Once you've sorted the initial barrage of paperwork after arriving in a foreign country, you can usually stay the bejesus away from bureaucrats for a long time. You may even start to miss them.

OK, you won't.

3) The friend zone

Shake it to make it

I knew no-one in Milan when I arrived. The first time I was invited to a house party, I accidentally spilt a glass of red wine over the host's new cream sofa. Fortunately, he still speaks to me. However, do as I say rather than as I do, by not overusing Dutch courage to make friends.

I was lucky because I work in an English-speaking office. Since arriving here, I've been invited for drinks regularly, and had people translate for me and show me round Milan. It's hard to overstate how valuable this has been. But I've made an effort to make friends outside work too.

To find friends abroad, throw yourself into things. Attend language classes, go on free walking tours (Google "tours for tips"), play a sport or join a gym, search for Expat meetups, try to find a local language exchange partner or take up a new hobby.

If you're quiet, living abroad will almost certainly make you more outgoing. When you're forced to adapt to a new culture, you become more self-confident. I know I did.

And, to state the bleeding obvious, if you're single, hooking up with a local is a fun, easy way to meet people.

4) The language

Naturally, if you speak the language of the country you're moving to, you've got a huge advantage professionally, socially and administratively.

If you don't, you'll want to learn it, unless you're some culturally rude oddball (like, say, a Top Gear fan).

I'm going to address language learning properly in another blog because it's a huge topic. In the meantime, follow the basic principle from the video above: take every chance you get to practise. 

5) Shopping

The delights of the Asian food store

Shopping abroad can be confusing. In southern Europe, people typically earn much less than the UK but many goods cost more. A coffee in Athens may be €5. In Rome, a small bottle of soya sauce can cost €6. There are ways around this, but they may not be obvious when you arrive.

For example, kettles are rare in Italy. The first few Ms Ciao and I found were €40, which is stupidly expensive compared with back home. Eventually, we found one for €10 – it was just a case of knowing where to look (Media World).

Likewise, if you're in Italy and don't want to pay Esselunga supermarket's ridiculous prices for soya sauce, you'll find it's 75% cheaper in the local Asian food store. And vegetables cost much less at Italy's ubiquitous street markets.

Traditional Italian products can be very cheap – it's not unusual to pay €1 or less for a decent cup of coffee in non-touristy places. But for some things, it's just better to wait until your next trip back home to get a decent price or a style you like. I wouldn't buy a laptop here, for example. I can't buy shoes anyway, because shops don't stock my size.

6) Homesickness 

England, symbolised

Everyone worries about being homesick. Everyone has phases of feeling homesick. They pass.

Of course, you'll miss people and things from home when you live abroad. In England, I never drank tea. After I arrived here, I craved it for the comfort and familiarity it represented rather than the taste.

There are ways around homesickness. You can use technology to keep in touch (for example, Skype, Whatsapp, Viber and email). You can ask people to post you things you miss, or invite them to visit. You can reward yourself with a trip home if you need a few days' break from your new country.

Although it's one of the most talked about aspects of moving abroad, homesickness generally passes quickly if you make friends in your new country.

If you don't, it's harder. But you will.

7) Don't think it's forever 

The easiest way to adjust to the changes that come with moving abroad is to perceive emigrating as an experiment. Maybe it's an experiment that will last a year. Maybe it will last several years or your whole life. But if you go abroad convinced you'll never return, you're setting yourself up to fail.

Consider all the changes to your life temporary annoyances, and they'll be easier to handle. Then, in say a year's time, you can always leave if they're still bothering you. By that point, you'll probably be used to them.

8) The upsides

Lake Como, more or less on my doorstep

If you're passionate about wanting to emigrate, the upsides of living abroad will outweigh the annoyances above.

Personally, I love living in Italy, learning the language and absorbing the culture. I'd be lying if I said it has always been easy, but at no point have I seriously considered going home. I've had great experiences, met great people and developed as a person.

Hopefully, the upsides of emigrating are obvious. If they aren't, then it's not right for you.

You've read this far though. You wouldn't have done that if you didn't want to. So try it. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work out and you move back. The best is up to you.

How to move abroad, part 1: how to get an English-speaking job abroad

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Plane landing: Barry Harvey [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Paperwork: By Pizarros (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Handshake: By Lucas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tea: By Vanderdecken (Author's original own work.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Foreign produce: By Atinncnu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons