When I was 19 years old, I left my homeland to live in a foreign country. For a year, I said, to work as an au-pair. Then I met my husband… on my very first day in Germany, but that’s a whole other story! 25 years later, I’m now back in the place where my adventure began, in a small town in Bavaria.
In the intervening years, we’ve moved home 8 times, with four international moves and we’ve gathered a whole lot of experience. Here are my top tips on how to love expat life.
1 Set a Time Limit
Give it at least a year, if possible longer. You cannot say within six months of moving, “Right, that is IT. I am off home”. This is particularly important if one of the family members is not keen to move.
Before you make the decision to move, set a time limit of not less than a year not more than 3 years. If one member of the family is still not settled and happy within that time frame, give a firm promise that you will review the situation at the end of that time and consider a move home.
No matter how much you love the place, if your partner or child is seriously unhappy then the whole family will suffer. In return, the person who is reluctant to move has to promise to give it their best shot.
2 Don’t Go Home Too Soon
…or too often. I have noticed that the expats who are really miserable here are the ones who fly home the minute school breaks up and stay there for the entire summer holidays. It is tempting, you want to go home and see family but if your life here is all drudgery and no holiday, then you will never learn the sweet side of life as an expat.
When we moved to Geneva, we were advised not to go home within the first 6 months, better a year, of arrival in Switzerland. Particularly the children suffer if they go back to their old home town, as the wrench of leaving again is worse than the first time. When you move they are going somewhere exciting and new. Six months down the line they are heading into Phase 2 of the Expat Adjustment Curve. A trip home now will unsettle them, so if you can stay and explore your new country, that would be better.
I know it is difficult if Christmas falls into the first six months, but consider taking a trip to somewhere special in your host country over the festive season, eg. if you are in Europe, then a chalet in the Alps or Christmas trip to Disneyland.
3 Expect the Unexpected
Try and go into your new life with the expectation of things being different. Sounds obvious but many come to Germany and are surprised at the short opening hours of the shops, or the strange laws on keeping quiet at certain times of the day and night.
And that’s NOTHING like the shock you’ll get at the state of Germany the weekend before Ash Wednesday when Fasching or Karneval takes over the country.
Be prepared for many surprises over the years and embrace them!
4 Don’t Be Negative
A lot of expats (or even tourists) constantly compare the way things are done with their homeland. This is totally normal but try not to fall into the habit of comparing negatively. “In UK we do… that would not happen in UK… “. Just because it is different, doesn’t mean it is worse, and it gets really annoying for your co-workers or local friends.
If you do want to point out differences, do it in a positive way. “In UK our schools don’t finish till at least 3 pm so it is great that the kids finish just after lunch” is much better than “OMG, how do you cope with having the kids home at lunchtime already!”
5 Accept the Local Customs
They may be strange to you, but they are completely normal to the locals. While we found it amusing/annoying that Swiss neighbours would call the police if someone were to use a leaf blower at the wrong time of the day, that is how things work there. If you accept this instead of ranting about it for days, then you will have a better life. And lower your blood pressure.
6 Learn to Cook Local Food
Depending on where you are, sourcing the ingredients for your favourite recipes can be difficult. This is the time to discover the local cuisine. Search online for recipes from the local area, look on the supermarket websites for recipes, ask neighbours and friends.
Don’t spend all your time driving around specialty stores, save those recipes for occasional use if you need some home comfort food. In Germany, I rarely baked because I could not find self-raising flour and my cakes never rose with just baking powder, which I have since discovered is due to the difference between German/Swiss baking powder and the US/UK one. Now I know to import baking powder or use German cake recipes.
7 Learn the Language
Easier said than done, but even if you speak a few words of the language you will feel more comfortable in your host country, and the locals do appreciate when you attempt to speak their language. If you simply do not have the time/ability/wish to learn the language at least learn how to ask “Do you speak English?” and don’t go into a shop and launch into a long explanation in English. It is rude.
If you do speak English with local people, try to tone down your accent but don’t speak LOUDER and S L O W E R. They are not deaf or stupid, they don’t understand English. At the same time, don’t bitch about the locals in English – you may be surprised that they do understand more than they let on!
8 Accept Homesickness
… but try not to dwell on it. Have a day every so often where you moan about missing home, eat food from home, have a weep. Then get on with daily life. Allow yourself to feel sad and unhappy and to miss home but then list the good things about the country that you are living in.
There ARE good things, even if the nitty-gritty of daily life has convinced you otherwise. Think back to the first day in the country. What did you like? Was there something you did, or a place you visited that you loved? Go back there, and remind yourself of the things that you enjoyed when you first arrived.
9 Get a Dog
Ok, perhaps not for everyone, but having a dog to walk gets you out of the house several times a day, and gets you chatting to some of the locals.
You will be amazed at how many previously surly and unhelpful people suddenly open up when you have a pooch with you. The dog is also great for families with kids, as they have someone to talk to and cuddle, who doesn’t mind if their fur gets wet from too many tears.
10 Explore and Enjoy
Don’t sit at home and mope at the weekend, get out there and explore your host country. There is so much to discover, so many things to do. Get out there and do them. You only live once and since you have the opportunity to see a different country, use it well!
Featured Image by Ged Ryan