Notes to my pre-expat self

annalondon

It’s been six months now since we moved to France. Six months of ups and downs and sideways. It’s been one of the most exciting, enlightening and emotionally challenging six months of my life.

Being an expat has opened my eyes to a whole new world and I recently got involved in a HiFX campaign where expat experts offer tips for moving abroad from their own experiences. The tips, which you can find on the HiFX Expat Page, range from personal to financial and are worth reading for anyone considering moving abroad.  While doing that, it made me think more about what I would tell myself if I could pop back in time and visit pre-expat me.

I’d leave a giant pile of research about expat groups and French paperwork on my desk, throw some instagram polaroids around for motivation, then I’d put ten post-it notes on my wall…

TAKE THE TIME TO ADJUST

Change is good! But good doesn’t mean easy. I don’t think I grasped just how different France could be from England. It’s something you can only really see if you move to a different country.  Initially we tried to go head first into everything.  We’d already been travelling for six months so we were looking forward to settling, and I didn’t quite realise that wouldn’t just fall into place hard that would be in a foreign country.

LESS DAYDREAMING, MORE PLANNING


It’s hard not to start daydreaming when you’re looking at a future in a foreign country. Before we got here we imagined a picture perfect ‘vie en rose’ which, according to instagram, it probably is. But everyone knows social media is the filtered version of life; I’m not exactly going to go instagramming pictures of tax forms #nofilter. In France, of course we don’t just go for bike rides and eat croissants and sip wine in the sun all day. When we first got here it was a bit of a long way to fall down to earth but once we got back up, avoiding stepping in dog poo, and looked around we realised that the reality, with all its flaws, was actually a heck of a lot more interesting than the daydreams.

EMBRACE BEING THE AWKWARD FOREIGNER

You are going to say some stupid things and you are going to look like an idiot at times. You will translate it later in your head and go, wait, did I just say I needed to cut my horses instead of my hair?! DAMNIT! But it’s ok – the more mistakes you make, the more you learn and the more you bond with people who will laugh with you (not at you though, they get glared at). It is hard not being able to be your full self in a foreign language but it can also be fun as you really have to make an effort, and eventually you may find yourself growing your own little foreign personality.

TAKE TIME WITH DECISIONS, DON’T FEEL YOU HAVE TO ‘SETTLE’

I’m naturally quite an indecisive person but sometimes the pressure to just decide and sort everything quickly in a foreign country can backfire.   It’s sometimes seen as a weakness not making decisions straightaway but there should be no shame in saying: I just need to take a bit of time to decide, I need some more options before saying yes or no. We put pressure on ourselves to sort everything out straight away and take what we could get, because we hadn’t been there long enough to know any better. Sure, you need to be realistic and be flexible but don’t undervalue yourself just because it all feels foreign.

TAKE LESS STUFF

Downsizing when moving abroad is something I’ve talked about before and comes up time and time again from other expats who agree that the fewer ‘things’ you have with you, the better.

I packed lightly when we came to France, but our ‘stuff’ has started building up again, something which made moving house way more painful than it needed to be.

RELAX AND ENJOY IT

We spend so much time focusing on what was, and so much time worrying about what will be instead of focusing on the here and now. Sometimes you need to remind yourself to take life for what it is, enjoy it, chill the heck out and be.

STAY IN TOUCH

I don’t do this enough and it’s advice I’m still giving myself because I’m honestly not a great ‘sharer’ in general.  But making the time to talk to people properly is something I need to make an effort to do more of.  Posting pictures on facebook and ‘liking’ someone else’s doesn’t count. It’s like watching a play and clapping; it’s not going backstage and shaking their hand.

GO OUT OF YOUR WAY TO MEET PEOPLE

Making new friends is something that is just harder when you get older. And they’re not going to come to you. Going out of my way to meet people and do things has kept me sane while I don’t have loved ones near by. Expats are a great support and through expat groups, sites like couchsurfing.com (more that just a place to offer your couch), meetup.com, and just saying yes to invitations, even when we don’t feel like it, has given us an actual social life in this funny French place.

BLOG IT

I already had the blog when we moved but I wasn’t doing a huge amount with it and I was very shy of having people actually read it. Yes, I know that’s the point of a blog but well, I’m just full of contradictions. I thought it would just be an avenue for me to write the odd story but somehow, along the way, I got to find my blogging groove, gained confidence, met some brilliant people, and occasionally got opportunities through it. Keeping this little bad boy going has been much more rewarding personally than I ever thought it would be and for any other expats out there I would say the same: write it down and share it; it’ll be good for you and somewhere along the line it might be good for someone else.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back before moving abroad?

20 Responses to Notes to my pre-expat self

  1. Marisha says:

    This is all great advice! I’m looking to possibly teach abroad in the next few months so this advice is very helpful, so thank you!

    xx
    Marisha
    avidaebelaofm.blogspot.com

  2. Jenna says:

    These are all awesome recommendations and I can really relate to them… heck, I’ve been in South Africa for six years now and I STILL resonate with some of what you said! Especially the meeting people part – for some reason its really hard to make new best friends as an adult… especially abroad. But of course, overall I wouldn’t have it any other way :)

    • anna says:

      Yeah my sentiments exactly. I wouldn’t have it any way but making friends, especially if you’re not a student, is just not something you’re supposed to ‘do’ past a certain age it seems. Ah well. I’m learning to embrace the art of saying: hey, you’re nice, let’s go for a coffee… in a non-creepy way.

  3. Sammy Dorn says:

    All great advice! I agree with everything you have said. I always try to tell myself when I am having a home sick day ‘It’s not a bad life, just a bad day’ It’s hard being an expat, but on the good days you can’t imagine life any other way x

  4. So many great things to keep in mind. I am about to start my fourth month abroad and am slowly starting to feel a bit more at home, but I will admit I thought I would adjust quicker but now that I am actually here I realize it is not that easy to process like that. And making friends, ya who knew how hard that would be! Great post!

    • anna says:

      I was surprised by how long it took and there’s a period probably after a couple of months where the honeymoon period of the new place has gone that there’s a huge dip. But now we’re good! ;)

  5. Den Nation says:

    What would I tell my 2002 self?

    1. Tomorrow is another day.
    2. Don’t listen to people who don’t support your decision to move abroad.
    3. Think less about men and worry more about your future.
    4. Don’t say to a European, ‘I was born in Canada, but I’m one-fifth Italian, one…”
    5. Don’t buy things you don’t need. If you see something you like, go away and think about it overnight. If you’re still thinking about it the next day, go and buy it. 9 times out of 10 you will have forgotten. Save your money for travelling.
    6. Stop being so naive.
    7. However, don’t let your new-found cynicism kill off all your naiveness.
    8. Don’t make decisions based on what would be fun at the moment. Think about the repercussions your decisions will have on your future. Get informed.
    9. Keep true to yourself. Don’t try and mould yourself into something you’re not just to fit in. There will be other ‘misfits’ like you.
    10. You won’t feel the same about something that is very painful now or that you hate doing in the future. You will probably be thankful for most of these challenging experiences later on.

    Most of these points could apply to anyone, but I list them here in reference to experiences that I have specifically had being abroad.

    Great blog, by the way!

    • anna says:

      Wow – thanks for listing those. Those are really good points – personal but I think they apply to a lot of people. I’m a big follower of number 5, guilty of 4 (except it’s ‘English but half Polish and a bit of German) and not always so good at no 8. I think worrying too much about the future can have negative repercussions on the now so I try to avoid constantly thinking about it. Absolutely 100% on 9. Misfits rock. And number 10, it will get better. This is a great comment. Thanks so much for sharing your list.

  6. Sara Louise says:

    Such great advice, all of it! I think the most important thing is to have an open mind and to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone because life as an expat can be quite uncomfortable at times ;)

    • anna says:

      It really can. Awkward turtles everywhere (do they do that in your neck of the woods too?) But yes I think an open mind is absolutely the most important thing. Luckily moving abroad opens your mind too so that helps!

  7. Jamie Gunter says:

    I think 6 months is the perfect amount of time to give yourself. It’s only been 4 months for me. Looking back, I was so hard on myself that first month! Asking myself ‘what is wrong with you’??? I realized that I was being too hard on myself around month 2 and that I needed to take time to adjust and enjoy it!

    • anna says:

      I was SO hard on myself and I really struggled to adjust initially. But it’s good you managed to tell yourself that you were being too hard on yourself. It’s a learning curve and hopefully next time I do it I’ll be more chilled out about the whole thing!

  8. Ahhh yes, my daydream version of London ended up being quite different than the real thing. :) Good to know I’m not the only one who perceived my new country as it would look in a Hollywood movie staring ridiculously good-looking people. However, Christmas in London far exceeded anything my imagination could have dreamed up. It was perfect.

    • anna says:

      Ha I remember speaking to an American on the phone once when I was in London and they were like: ‘Oh WOW you’re calling from LONDON. Is it as magical as I imagine? Are you looking at Big Ben in the mist?!” I said: “Fog actually but sure, why not. It’s totally magical”… I didn’t want to ruin his dream (and it made me giggle that he was SO excited). But it’s not exactly Love Actually every day, just like New York is not just the set of Friends.
      It’s lovely you had a perfect Christmas! We’re loving France at the moment – it’s just taken a little getting used to :)

  9. Amanda says:

    This is an excellent post. I think all potential expats should sit down and have a read! x

  10. oh i’ve been that awkward foreigner more than once or twice. more like everyday that we lived overseas! you’ve got to embrace it and move on!

  11. Marianna says:

    SO many good points, and true, I wish I knew them before I moved here! But I guess that is how it goes, we learn on the way…. I have actually also started a blog about living in south of France, and you are free to check it out if inetersted :)

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