Things change forever when you live abroad

Because when you move away, when you turn your life into a journey filled with uncertainty, you grow up in unexpected ways.” Angie Castells

The post, ‘17 things that change forever when you live abroad‘ originally written in Spanish in June 2014 by blogger Angie Castells on her Más Edimburgo (More Edinburgh) site has resurfaced recently featuring a lot on my social media and reposted by many people all over the place. I really enjoyed reading it, liking her perspective on expat living and the post got me thinking (I know right reading and thinking all at once, good job I was laying down) about my expat journey and how these seventeen points relate to me and my family. So here’s Castell’s original post (in italics) and my thoughts on the points she raises and their relevance to me personally.

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1. Adrenalin becomes part of your life.

From the moment you decide to move abroad, your life turns into a powerful mix of emotions – learning, improvising, dealing with the unexpected… All your senses sharpen up, and for a while the word “routine” is dismissed from your vocabulary to make space for an ever rising adrenalin thrill ride. New places, new habits, new challenges, new people. Starting anew should terrify you, but it’s unusually addictive.

Not sure that adrenalin became a part of my life. I guess maybe it did at different stages of the process (something like that or maybe endless coffee and chocolate) but really I’m just a ‘get on with it, take it in my stride’ kind of gal so probably didn’t dwell on it too much. All I remember vividly was the copious amount of lists, lists, more lists (I do love a list and that fulfilling feeling of crossing off completed tasks) and then nothing but long empty days. I guess being eased in generally over nearly a year helped too (in some ways but I don’t recommend that approach) as the other half arrived first and we set up shop gradually and also closed down everything in the UK the same way too. From living on my own with three children to organising an international move and the eldest’s gap year, to actually leaving and processing everything here, settling two of the children into two different schools, I suddenly found myself alone in a huge sparsely furnished villa in the middle of nowhere. Even going to get a pint of milk was a challenge in those early driving days, the daily twice a day school run was positively daunting, it was ridiculously hot/humid and it was Ramadan, quite the baptism of fire!

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2. But when you go back… everything looks the same.

That’s why, when you get a few days off and fly back home, it strikes you how little everything has changed. Your life’s been changing at a non-stop pace, and you’re on holidays and ready to share all those anecdotes you’ve been piling up. But, at home, life’s the same as ever. Everyone keeps struggling with their daily chores, and it suddenly strikes you: life won’t stop for you.

This one I have experienced the most and it’s a weird sensation that triggers different emotions from pure annoyance to sadness. Going back to your hometown is surreal like someone has pressed the pause button on your previous life but when you press go, it looks exactly the same except it’s not the same at all. It’s always great to go back and visit and catch up with everyone but don’t expect everyone to always be accommodating as they are busy living their lives with people they see regularly and you will breeze in and out and be gone again.

3. You lack the (and yet you have too many) words.

When someone asks you about your new life, you lack the right words to convey all you’re experiencing. Yet later, in the middle of a random conversation, something reminds you about ‘that time when’…, and you have to hold your tongue because you don’t want to overwhelm everyone with stories from your ‘other country’ and come across as pretentious.

Wow, this one really strikes a chord in so many ways. I gave up long ago trying to explain to people that we don’t actually live in Dubai but down the road in Abu Dhabi. I have wanted many times to scream ‘I DONT LIVE IN DUBAI‘ but quite soon on I just realised it’s easier to just nod and agree that living in Dubai is good and then just actually underplay everything that goes on here. Not everyone really wants to hear how amazing or not your life actually is (even when if they’ve asked) and generally everyone has their own opinions pretty much formed anyway, complete with pre-conceived ideas about your ‘tax-free’ existence and other more cultural and regional connotations (media doesn’t help with that) even if they have never stepped foot in the UAE. Visit the region and then if you don’t like it fair enough be as opinionated as you want (mini impromptu rant there)!!

4. You come to understand that courage is overrated.

Lots of people will tell you how brave you are – they too would move abroad if they weren’t so scared. And you, even though you’ve been scared, too, know that courage makes up about 10% of life-changing decisions. The other 90% is purely about wanting it with all your heart. Do you want to do it, do you really feel like doing it? Then do it. From the moment we decide to jump, we’re no longer cowards nor courageous – whatever comes our way, we deal with it.

Was it really brave or just plain crazy, not really sure which to be honest! It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities which don’t present themselves very often and you have to give it a go rather than look back and say I should have done that! Let’s face it you can always go back if you don’t like it but you owe to yourself to try was my mantra. I’m not sure I agree with the 90% of wanting it with all my heart bit of this point but I do believe if you make the choice to try it then you have to give it a proper go and try and not be too negative. Obviously you have bad days, in fact really bad days but they are outweighed by the good days on this amazing adventure and I truly believe that all my three children have benefitted enormously from this multi-cultural journey that has opened up the world to them and given them extraordinary opportunities and experiences and us too of course!

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5. And, suddenly, you’re free.

You’ve always been free, but freedom feels different now. Now that you’ve given up every comfort and made it work thousands of miles away from home… you feel like you’re capable of anything!

I think that making the decision and cutting ties is the hardest part but once you have been an expat and made that massive initial leap then you could probably live anywhere or at least consider the possibilities. We would certainly consider other options should the need arise.

6. You no longer speak one particular language.

Sometimes you unintentionally let a word from another language slip. Other times you can only think of a way of saying something… with that perfect word which, by the way, is in the wrong language. When you interact with a foreign language on a daily basis, you learn and unlearn at the same time. All the while you’re soaking up cultural references and swear words in your second language, you find yourself reading in your mother tongue so it won’t get rusty. Like that time when Homer took a home winemaking course and forgot how to drive.

I am 100% guilty of living here for over five years and only knowing a handful of pretty random words such as Shukran (Thank you, the most useful word I know), Inshallah (God willing), Ard (Floor) and Yalla (hurry up, which is mega annoying) that don’t even make a coherent sentence! It’s a disgrace and I have absolutely no excuse except I’m lazy and have that British attitude that everyone speaks English in some form or another. I also become quite adept at gestures and speaking in a slow terribly patronising way and so far I’ve got away with this method. I have had some interesting interpretations of my name in this multi-lingual society, you would think with a name as short and easy as Jo that was not possible, the best one being a telephone restaurant reservation booked as Charlie 😉

7. You learn to say goodbye… and to enjoy yourself.

You soon realize that now, most things and people in your life are just passing through, and you instinctively play down the importance of most situations. You perfect the right balance between bonding and letting go – a perpetual battle between nostalgia and pragmatism.

I am ridiculously bad at this one! I have not perfected the perfect balance when saying goodbye to close family and friends easily or with any grace in either countries and you can always spot me weeping at departures at Abu Dhabi airport when either of my sons leave. The airport is a strange one for me (and everyone else I’m sure) it’s super exciting waiting at arrivals trying to spot your offspring and horrendously painful and emotionally draining driving home from departures when you said goodbye, the woes of a mum eh! I also have this weird torment with the airport where I don’t get the ‘I’m home’ feeling in either place whereas the other half gets it when he lands in Abu Dhabi. Don’t get me wrong on the other hand as part of my expat existence I’ve met some fabulous people who will be good friends for life and have completely enhanced my expat journey and experience and on the other hand there have been some people I wasn’t so sad to see leave. The expat bubble is a real melting pot of people from different backgrounds and stages in their lives all thrown together and quite frankly I’ve met a few people who have been just batshit crazy (read this phrase last week and I love it, it’s so appropriate too)

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8. You have two of everything.

Two SIM cards (one of them packed with phone numbers from all over the world), two library cards, two bank accounts… And two types of coins, which always end up mysteriously mixing when you’re about to pay for something.

Yep, I certainly have two of everything and a pound in my purse when I need a dirham and vice versa. I quite like this part of my dual existence with two currencies, driving licences etc as it feels like the best of everything and a bit mysterious, not sure why that’s the case maybe I’m just strange! However I do prefer shopping in the UK where the other half doesn’t get a text message every time I use a card!

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9. Normal? What’s normal?

Living abroad, like traveling, makes you realise that ‘normal’ only means socially or culturally accepted. When you plunge into a different culture and a different society, your notion of normality soon falls apart. You learn there are other ways of doing things, and after a while, you too take to that habit you never thought you’d embrace. You also get to know yourself a little better, because you discover that some things you really believe in, while others are just a cultural heritage of the society you grew up in.

Who knows what normal is anymore, it’s just a series of adjustments depending where I am! Which side of the road I’m driving on, whether I need to change gear or not, do I fill up my car with fuel or is it done for me, is that fuel ridiculously cheap or damn right expensive, do I valet or attempt to park myself and pay exuberant parking fees, what currency am I using, is it the air con or heating on full blast – you get the gist right? You certainly adopt the habits alright especially the manic driving and the being waiting on left, right and centre!

10. You become a tourist in your own city.

That tourist trap you may not have visited in your country only adds up to the never-ending list of things to do in your new home, and you soon become quite the expert on your new city. But when someone comes over for a few days and asks for some suggestions, you find it really hard to recommend but a few things – if it were up to you, you’d recommend visiting everything!

This is so true! ‘Brett Tours’ as we call ourselves (well alright me) does a right good Abu Dhabi and Dubai tour and as we’ve hit the tourist trail more and more over the years the experiences have been enhanced and perfected and it’s actually quite fun to see places again through new visitors eyes! The really good thing about Abu Dhabi is how much its developed and changed in the past five/six years and is still evolving so there’s always lots to do and see even as a resident. The funny thing is now I love being a tourist back in the UK especially in London and Brighton and I always have a packed schedule and full itinerary planned when I’m home with places already on my list for this summer.

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11. You learn how to be patient… and how to ask for help.

When you live abroad, the simplest task can become a huge challenge. Processing paperwork, finding the right word, knowing which bus to take. There’s always moments of distress, but you’re soon filled with more patience than you ever knew you had in you, and accept that asking for help is not only inevitable, but also a very healthy habit.

There’s a whole load of admin to do when you move here as I’m sure there is in any new country. The thing that phased me the most was the speed of processes (everything was Inshallah, grrrrrrr) and the distinct lack of customer focus and service, it was so frustrating! An early solo visit to the visa extension place was very stressful, tricky to find and then everyone was so unfriendly it reduced me to tears! I sat bewildered the only western person in an all-male Arabic typing centre having a document translated that allowed me to stay somewhere that at that moment I wanted to leave more than life itself, my whole self was screaming ‘What are you doing here?’, I was so nearly on a plane home that day! The visa medical process was incredibly daunting and unpleasant and it felt like never-ending red tape to get through but now it’s a piece of cake as your expectations are so ‘Abu Dhabi’ that nothing phases you!

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12. Time is measured in tiny little moments.

It’s as if you were looking through the car window – everything moves really slowly at the back, in the distance, while in front of you life passes by at full speed. On the one hand, you receive news from home – birthdays you missed, people who left without you getting the chance to say goodbye one last time, celebrations you won’t be able to attend. On the other hand, in your new home life goes by at top speed. Time is so distorted now, that you learn how to measure it in tiny little moments, either a Skype call with your family and old friends or a pint with the new ones.

Times flies ridiculously fast here as the weeks, months and years clock up at unbelievable rate. I have cried through days of missed birthdays (both sons 20th’s), hated life when my eldest didn’t fly to join us for his brothers 18th and vice versa for the second sons 21st. Facebook updates of friends going on theatre trips that I used to go on too or parties that we’ve missed tug at your heart. You grow an unintentional thick skin that helps as time goes on, after all we chose to leave and start this adventure but where the head sees reason the heart does not. Skype, Whats app and even Facebook have been my saviour as has this blog more recently. Real friends make the effort to stay in touch and come and visit (some lots of times which is amazing) and this journey has enabled us to make new friends hailing from all corners of the globe.

13. Nostalgia strikes when you least expect it.

A food, a song, a smell. The smallest trifle can overwhelm you with homesickness. You miss those little things you never thought you’d miss, and you’d give anything to go back to that place, even if it were just for an instant. Or to share that feeling with someone who’d understand you…

Yes, Yes, Yes! Really silly things trigger a feeling of home at the most unexpected moment, like in a supermarket!

14. But you know it’s not where, but when and how.

Although deep down, you know you don’t miss a place, but a strange and magical conjunction of the right place, the right moment and the right people. That year when you traveled, when you shared your life with special ones, when you were so happy. There’s a tiny bit of who you were scattered among all the places you’ve lived in, but sometimes going back to that place is not enough to stop missing it.

I think this is true because when you sometimes miss your old life but it’s not necessarily individual things but a combination of people, places, events and even routines. You might go somewhere that you remember as awesome but it was that way because of who you were with and why you were there rather than the place itself, well I know what I mean! Take a hobby you enjoyed, that simple weekly outing to play golf or go to a Pilates class for instance was good because you did it on a particular day in your week with a certain person/people and it was that which made it good not necessarily the activity or the venue but a combination, I’m sure that explanation is as clear as mud too!

15. You change.

I’m sure you’ve heard about life-changing trips. Well, they’re not a commonplace – living abroad is a trip that will profoundly change your life and who you are. It will shake up your roots, your certainties and your fears. Living in Edinburgh changed us forever in many ways, and if it weren’t for that experience, we probably wouldn’t be about to embark on our next life adventure right now. Maybe you won’t realise it, or even believe it, before you do it. But after some time, one day you’ll see it crystal clear. You’ve evolved, you’ve got scars, you’ve lived. You’ve changed.

I guess you change because you have new experiences and have conquered a huge life-changing hurdle that brings a new type of confidence and sense of achievement. Having only lived in one country besides my native one I don’t feel that adventurous compared to those serial expats who have moved from place to place with families in tow. I think these people have a nonchalance about them where they can remain detached on some emotional level as they have experienced frequent changes in their transient existence. images-1 16. You fit your home into a suitcase.

From the moment you squeeze your life into a suitcase (or, if you’re lucky with your airline, two), whatever you thought ‘home’ was doesn’t exist anymore. Almost anything you can touch can be replaced – wherever you travel, you’ll end up stockpiling new clothes, new books, new mugs. But there will come a day when you’ll suddenly feel at home in your new city. Home is the person traveling with you, the people you leave behind, the streets where your life takes place. Home is also the random stuff in your new flat, those things you’ll get rid of in the blink of an eye when the time to leave comes. Home is all those memories, all those long-distance calls with your family and friends, a bunch of pictures. Home is where the heart is.

We have definitely stockpiled and have pretty much two of everything. It really urks me when I’m using my stuff bought from Ikea here (defo being binned when departing) that I have lovely stuff in storage in the UK. I miss my leather sofas, beautiful leather sleigh bed with its uber comfortable his and hers side sprung mattress, my trendy Smeg fridge and Dualit kitchen items, I know I’m as shallow as the shallowest puddle. The saying goes ‘Home is Where the Heart is’ right? I think it’s ‘Home is where your family is’ but however deep and meaningful I want that to sound I do still actually sometimes crave my missing possessions too!

17. And… there’s no turning back.

Now you know what it means to give up comfort, what starting from scratch and marveling at the world every day feels like. And it being such a huge, endless world… How could you choose not to keep traveling and discovering it?

As I’ve already mentioned once you’ve made that initial jump the world seems like a smaller place with endless possibilities and exciting experiences to explore. I don’t think we have given up comfort in any shape of form in fact I think we live a more comfortable life on a day-to-day basis but I guess the comfort and support of old friends and family is lacking.

So all in all, my experience has been a mostly positive one and I would recommend giving it a try if you ever get the opportunity, after all what do you have to lose? If you have friends or family that live abroad go visit them and share their experience while you can and if you are a fellow expat let me know what you think about expat living and your experiences in the comments section below. Read more of my expat related jibber-jabber here in Readjustment and Pinch Punch. 

Visit Angie Castells Más Edimburgo blog here if you can read Spanish that is 😉

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A multiverse explanation‘ by Rune Guneriussen as used in Más Edimburgo

All expat images sourced from Google images or as otherwise stated. Brighton Pier and We Regret photo © Jo Brett 2014/15. All rights reserved