Life As An Expat: The Ups And Downs Of Living Abroad

Life as an expect can be a challenging but very rewarding experience. Today, seven other bloggers share their experiences living abroad as an expat.

I know I’ve been terrible about blogging this month and for that I am sincerely apologetic and I thank all of my readers who stick with me through thick and thin! As you know, I’m living in Berlin now and when my internship ended in the summer I was trying to find full-time work but that didn’t go so well for me since I don’t speak much German. As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of freelancing and it takes up so much of my time, it’s definitely an adjustment to balance blogging with that. On top of that, we move out of our current sublease on Monday and are still sorting out the details of the next one so things have been rather stressful. However, I thank you all for continuing to support this blog even if life sometimes gets in the way.

Today, I’m super excited to share with you a topic that’s very close to my heart: life as an expat. If you’ve never heard the term, it’s short for an expatriate, which is a person living permanently in a foreign country. Originally from the US, I’ve been living abroad since June 2014 when I moved to the Netherlands, then from there onto Australia, the UK and now Germany. Being an expat is an amazing experience, but there are also some struggles that come with it as well.

Life As An Expat

Having lived in a few different countries, there are a few things I find most challenging, many of which are touched on later in the post. The first is the language factor if you’ve moved somewhere where your native tongue isn’t spoken. This can feel very isolating and being in a grocery store and not being able to tell the difference between laundry detergent and softener may make you break down in tears (I’ll admit it).

However, language isn’t even the toughest part. Making friends can be difficult and you’re in a whole new place where you know no one and frankly everything is foreign to you. Every country does their own thing and even the smallest factors that you never think about have their own variations, like style of folders. When you’re acclimating yourself to a new environment, every small thing will seem like a huge thing and that can be stressful.

Despite all of that though, life as an expat is immensely rewarding. I have learned so much about other cultures, languages, the world and have made friends from all corners of the planet by living abroad and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

If you’re thinking of moving to another country or are currently living abroad and want to find some solidarity with others who have been through it before, then you’ve come to the right place. Today, I’ve invited seven of my travel blogger friends to share their ups and downs and experiences with expat life. It’s a wonderful, if not sometimes difficult, journey.

Amy: 🇺🇸 Living In 🇫🇮 From Newly Fleds

amy

As the hand on our expat clock has passed the 2-year mark, we are starting to feel like old veterans at this game. We know the city, we have our favorite spots, our weekends are full of social activities and we have really gotten used to not understanding a single conversation around us. In fact, we are so used to the Finnish language that we feel overwhelmed when we go back to an English-speaking country and can hear everyone’s conversations.

And as the “old pros” that we are, it is exhausting to look back and remember the real struggles of when we first moved: Constantly using a map. Awkwardly stumbling into the wrong shops. The terror of the first store runs, with a list in one hand and a translator app on my phone in the other, that took hours to accomplish. I was terrified of being identified as an outsider- an imposter! But each time a store clerk spoke to me in Finnish (my blonde hair helped hide my identity until I opened my mouth) I would have to reveal myself.

Here’s the deal: not only are you going to get lost in this new place, you are going to look lost– all the time. Be ok with looking foolish. Be ok with being lost– sometimes that is half the experience! You can, however, ease your discomfort by giving yourself time to get the lay of the land. Turn on your GPS tracking and go wander, checking every 10 minutes or so to check your map and visualize where you were and what you saw along the route.

Use your technology!  Smartphones are much easier to use than their unwieldy printed map counterparts of yore. Pretty much every maps app has the ability to save maps for offline use now. Google Maps allows saving a specific section of a map you choose while our personal favorite, HERE WeGo Maps, allows downloading entire countries so that you can search for places and get directions even when not connected to the internet.

Now, as I meet ex-pats that are in those first uncertain weeks, I feel so much empathy with them. I know it’s tough. I’ve been there. I’ve felt two years of struggle with Finnish social customs that leave you feeling isolated. I’ve lived with strange languages and dark winters. I’ve lived with the “what the hell am I doing” feeling-all the time. However, these days, all the shop owners in the neighborhood know me and we have a short chat about on-goings in Helsinki or food or recent travels. I know almost the whole city by foot. I have friends. I have purpose. I don’t feel like an imposter- I almost feel like I belong here.

So to those of you still struggling to discern which bag of flour to buy or what bus stop to get off on, I sincerely promise: it gets better. So much better. And, whether or not it is clear to you, this season of your life is fruitful. Whether you are with a partner or solo, you are looking farther inside yourself and outside into your world. You are doing it! You are taking the leap that so many people never would- and that is the biggest accomplishment. You dared to step outside your cozy little comfort zone…and live!

For that, I am sending you a virtual pat on the back! Go, you!

You can follow Amy on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest to keep up with her adventures. 

Sianna: 🇧🇬 Living In 🇵🇱 From EoStories

sianna

Going from one European country to another is not terribly shocking or different! Or so I thought when I went to live in Poland as an exchange student. It is funny how everything is the same yet completely different – the architecture, the holidays, the language, the working hours, the transportation. My biggest mistake was not preparing enough… Or at all. My advice to any future expat is–learn a bit of the language no matter how hard it is to pronounce. And Polish is one of the hardest European languages in my opinion! As it turned out only some of the young people were speaking English which meant that even basic communication in the supermarket was tough at the beginning. Speaking of supermarkets – be prepared to not even know what you are buying. Is that yogurt or is it a mayo, am I getting sugar or salt? Get a translation app on your phone, trust me it will save your life at the beginning… Or at least your dinner!

You can follow Sianna on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up with her adventures. 

Maria: 🇷🇺 Living In 🇩🇪 From GlobalMary

maria

I am originally from a small town in Russia and today I live in Hamburg, Germany. Before that, I lived and studied in Sweden, where I fell in love. Together we have moved to Germany, because we managed to find jobs here. I have a full-time job in communications, my travel blog GlobalMary and a bunch of friends. I speak fluent German along with my Russian and English, and I’m learning Italian at the moment. So, I guess that makes me a very integrated member of society here. The difference is that I don’t feel too attached to the place where I am living at the moment. I am traveling a lot and sometimes I think to myself that there are other places where I could move to.

I also think that traveling and living abroad had changed me a lot. The more I travel, meet new people and learn their cultures, the more I understand that, in fact, there are no differences between people. We create them all ourselves. This is why respect, equity and readiness to help are important values for me. If you don’t have a chance to live abroad, travel a lot and meet people — it will do great things to you!

You can follow Maria on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up with her adventures. 

Emily: 🇺🇸 Living In 🇳🇱 From Em Dashed

emily-photo

When I flew into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in 2014, I’d already been working and traveling abroad for almost four years. My Dutch boyfriend and I met as backpackers in New Zealand; after spending a year together in Australia, Europe seemed like the natural next step.

Unlike many expats who live in Amsterdam or other big cities, I live in a small town in the countryside. There’s no train station, all the shops are closed on Sundays, and there is a very real chance that while driving, you will get stuck going 15 km/hr behind a tractor. And unlike before, when I was sharing hostel dorms and living out of a suitcase, now I have an apartment, my own kitchen, and even houseplants.

It’s definitely given me a whole new perspective on what it means to live abroad.

You can follow Emily on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter to keep up with her adventures. 

Kelly: 🇺🇸 Living In 🇬🇧 From A Pair Of Passports

kelly-photo

My friends claim I lived every American girl’s study abroad dream – I spent a semester studying in London, met an English boy, and the rest was history. Now I’m happily married and living across the pond from the place I’ve called home all my life. London is quite similar to the U.S., so I do not really get homesick or miss certain things, and I can’t even say that I struggled to get settled at all. In fact, I totally love living here, and the travel opportunities it has given me!

However, one of the hardest parts about leaving the U.S. has been the fact that my friends from home feel like I’ve abandoned them. It’s hard to make friends as an adult, so outside of my husband and his friends, I don’t have many in London. That mixed with the feeling that I’ve been disconnected to my friends from home makes for an unsettling feeling sometimes. I try to solve this by constantly messaging my friends from home and being the one to reach out, but sometimes it feels like it isn’t enough! They never really say anything; just joke (but it sounds like it isn’t actually a joke), but it’s still something that’s always on my mind. It takes away from the things I love about living abroad a bit.

You can follow Kelly on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter to keep up with her adventures. 

Lyssie: 🇺🇸 Living In 🇪🇸 From She Went To Spain

alyssa

To quote Frozen’s Elsa in the song “Let It Go,” I know I left a life behind, but I’m too relieved to grieve. The life I left behind was my life in the U.S. Spain was my home for 8 months and every day was a challenge, a blessing, and a wonder.

Something I realized is that I won’t be happy unless I challenge myself. I’m at my happiest when I throw myself into a new and exciting situation. My life seems to have the most meaning when I’m working towards a goal, like learning a new language or adapting to a new culture. At home, I feel stagnant; nothing is new or challenging. A new job quickly becomes an old job and eventually I’m stagnant again. Abroad, I’m always striving to learn, be better, and discover new things.

After coming home from my time abroad, I know how much I miss my life in Spain. I’ll never forget the people I met in my travels and they will always be in my heart. Thank you to everyone who has taught me something or enriched my life in one way or another. Te quiero.

You can follow Lyssie on Facebook, Instagram, PinterestTwitter and YouTube to keep up with her adventures. 

Katechka: 🇨🇿 Living In 🇭🇺 From Hungarian Shenanigans

katechka

I never lived abroad during my university studies, and felt that I have to try before I get old and grumpy. I chose Hungary because the society works similarly like in the Czech Republic. The last drop that made me move was this. Living abroad has taught me to be a braver and a humbler person. It’s sometimes very difficult to figure out the local red tape (especially when you don’t speak the language) and to make new friends. Living abroad changed my life views and priorities. The biggest downside is that you lose contact with your family and friends. If you are curious about my observations about Hungarians, feel free to check out this post and this post.

You can follow Katechka on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter to keep up with her adventures. 

As many of these ladies will tell you, being an expat isn’t easy, in fact sometimes it’s downright terrifying, but you’ll come through it a stronger, more independent person and you’ll have learned more about yourself and the world than you ever would just traveling.

If you’ve lived abroad I’d love to hear about your experience as an expat, and if you’re thinking about it I’d love to hear about that too! And if you amazing readers ever have any questions about how to do it, I would be more than happy to share some advice and tips!

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  • I loved that you shared these stories! It’s amazing to hear stories from people who live abroad. Although I think about living in a different country–I know it would be difficult to make that transition!

    • Thanks, Kiara! It’s definitely challenging, especially if you’re in a foreign language, but it can be really exciting too!

  • Stephanie Parrell

    This is so awesome! I love these 🙂

  • Candy Kage

    We lived over seas for four years and traveled country to country just like traveling state to state. We learned the language and traveled all over. It was still great to come home.

    • I can imagine, Candy! If I ever go back to the US I’m always torn on how I’d feel– whether it would be great to come home or if I’d feel stifled. It’s always great to hear other people’s experiences.

  • Marissa Pedersen

    I’ve never heard of any of these bloggers before, so thanks for introducing me to some new faces to follow! I’m not an expat, but work remotely so I can travel whenever I want. It has so many advantages, but can be tough when you’re tired or can’t find good wi-fi.

    • Oh yeah, definitely, Marissa! It’s especially hard when you’re in more remote areas for sure.

  • Curious, do you set your phone in English? Or do you set it to the language of the country you are in? I’ve heard of people doing that to speed up learning the language faster.

    • Excellent question, Ashley! I did actually briefly change my phone to German shortly after we moved here, but when I would search for things on Google it wouldn’t recognize the words if they weren’t in German and it would only bring up German websites. After a while, this became really difficult for me because if I just wanted to quickly look up something while out I couldn’t because I didn’t know enough vocab to understand it yet. I probably should have kept it, but in the end it was stressing me out more than helping me haha. Now that you mention it though, I may try and go back to it because it’s been a few months and it might be a bit easier now. Thanks for reading!

  • This is super fascinating! I have always had an idealistic vision of living abroad, and I always get rose-colored glasses about it, so hearing about the difficulties alongside the ups is really eye-opening. When I moved to Georgia from Wisconsin two years ago I cried over such tiny things (like not knowing the layout of the new grocery stores, etc..) so your detergent story is like a whole new step in moving difficulties haha! Thank you for sharing this, and sharing these other bloggers! I am half Finnish and have always been curious about living there, so Amy’s blog is super interesting to me! And I love your “where you’ve been” map – amazing!

    • I think a lot of people have that, Joy! A lot of the material out there, whether it’s blog posts or TV, talks about how amazing it is to live abroad, and it certainly can be. But I think a lot of these things don’t necessarily focus on some of the hardships that come with it as well. I know exactly how you feel about the grocery store! It’s just when something you take for granted is suddenly different it hits you harder than something you kind of “expect” to change, if you know what I mean. That’s so cool that you’re half Finnish and that you found Amy’s blog! I would love to go to Finland someday– it’s on my list!

      I’m so glad you like the map! 🙂 Thanks for dropping by!

  • Wow, I love these perspectives! I have yet to travel abroad so I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to move there!

    • It can definitely be difficult, Adriana! I had a much less hard time when we moved to Australia and I think it’s just because it’s so like the US and it’s English-speaking, whereas here in Germany everywhere you go and everything you do makes you feel a little isolated. With that being said though, it’s an incredible experience that I would never forego!

  • These are awesome perspectives! What a cool round up! Do you think you’ll ever come back to the US?

    Rachel | http://www.theconfusedmillennial.com

    • Thanks, Rachel! My husband and I are thinking about it. He’s British so we’re thinking of applying for a greencard for him (which takes about 6 months) and then I’ll job hunt in the mean time. I think we’d only move if I were offered something, but we’re certainly open to it! I do love living abroad, but I’m definitely finding the job market pretty tough.

  • Elizabeth Johnson

    Such a great article! I have never traveled outside the U.S., I would love to some day. I never thought about how difficult it would be. I only see expats on television shows and they always paint it in a positive light. Like there are no struggles. Thanks for getting these different perspectives together!

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! I know exactly what you mean. Everything they show on TV makes it seem so easy and like it makes no difference whether you’re in X country or “home”. I think it’s great if you have a fantastic experience, but I think most people have at least a few rough weeks when they move somewhere unfamiliar.

  • Wow! It’s really nice to read this right now. I’m an American. I spent a year in Mexico, starting the day after I married my Mexican-born husband. Talk about a rude awakening! It was a difficult first year–finding our way around marriage and me finding my way around a new country, one in which I didn’t speak the language, had no way to get around, and couldn’t even walk places. We were so happy to move back to the States. And right now we’re on a three-month assignment in Germany. It’s no where near as hard as Mexico, but there are still a lot of struggles. It was so much better when the weather was nicer and I could walk around, but now that’s it colder I feel trapped in the hotel room for the most part. I haven’t even left the hotel for three days at this point. It gets a little lonely, especially since it’s so dreary outside. And I basically only get dinner with my husband before he’s ready to sleep or has to make another call to the States. It’s really great on the weekends though when we get to travel, and I’m doing my best to stay positive. It’s still a really great experience and I’m happy to have it.

    • Wow, Megan thanks for sharing! Where in Germany are you? If you’re in Berlin I’d be happy to get together with you one day! 🙂 I know exactly how you feel though. Since I work from home primarily now, I feel the same way most days and there are definitely days where I don’t leave the apartment at all. It can feel really isolating and although it’s an amazing experience that I’m glad to have, it can certainly feel super boring and lonely. I know how you feel about the weather, it’s been terrible for weeks here and that totally doesn’t help. And now that it’s getting dark so early you feel like you should be in bed by 8! I always love hearing about other people’s experiences and feelings about being abroad, especially the “bad” bits, if you will, because not everyone has a perfect experience and sometimes you can feel kind of ungrateful or alone in the matter because most of the stuff surrounding living abroad is about how amazing it is. Thanks so much for sharing!

      • I know what you mean about feeling ungrateful! Everybody thinks it’s an amazing jetset life, and I’m like… “It’s a hotel room.” We’re about an hour outside of Cologne at the moment, but we’re mostly stationed in a little town called Marburg just outside of Frankfurt. I loved Berlin when we visited three years ago, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to make it there this time.

        Living abroad is an interesting and isolating experience that it’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there. I actually wrote a book about it! It’s called Sketchy Tacos, and its a YA travel novel based out of Mexico. I’m so thrilled it’s going to be published next February! If you’d be interested, but I’d love to co-author a post with you on great ex-pat novels! Travel novels have been a passion of mine long before I had the ability to just hop on a plane. They’re a great way to get a taste for a city and when I can I try to find a novel about a place I’m going so I can find out about those little restaurants and out-of-the-way places known only by those familiar with the area.

  • AmphoriaBello

    I love that you got so many expat’s perspectives! I lived in Germany almost 5 years and have been back in the US for about 1.5 years. I still miss Germany every day though, and that’s something I didn’t foresee happening.

  • Ashleigh

    Oh I love this so much!! I was an expat in Switzerland 2 years ago. I had to get a Swiss German tutor to help me. Even though my husband is from Austria and speaks German, in order for me to go out and about by myself was difficult at times. I actually had a baby while I was there and it was an experience. I loved living as an expat and can’t wait to do it again! And I love Berlin, a perfect city to live abroad! Thank you for sharing!!

  • I absolutely loved my time as an expat in Australia for 2 years. I moved there right after graduating for my first job. I guess I expected it to be very culturally similar so little differences bugged me after a while. But wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world 🙂

  • I loved reading about these experiences! I was an expat in London for my university studies and fell in love with it. Despite the similarities, there was always something just a little different to shake me out of my comfort zone. I hope to be an expat again, as I’ve found that I too am not really happy unless I’m challenging myself in a different place!

  • Brigitte

    Dutchie in Germany here! What Emily says about closed shops on Sunday has probably been my biggest culture shock in Germany: in my Dutch town all shops were always open, and in Hamburg, which is like 10 times as big, nothing is ever open 😀 It’s like the tiny Dutch village Emily is living all over again!!

  • I love reading the experiences of other expats, it’s always interesting to see how their experiences have either lined up with or differed from my own depending on place, time frame, language etc. I’m Canadian and I’ve been living in Rome for the past four years (with no end in sight!), and my own journey from wide-eyed, tongue-tied new arrival to feeling like this city is truly home definitely has some parallels with some of the stories in this post!