Moving abroad from Canada to Spain was one of the craziest yet most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made. Living in another country for two years has given me a variety of unique experiences, from doing job interviews in a language entirely new to me to residing in an apartment with 9 strangers from all over the world during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“…one of the biggest risks anyone can make in their lives: move to a new country.”
Two years ago today, my life took a huge, unexpected turn as a result of a spontaneous decision I made.
Earlier that year, I was sitting at my desk at the office of my cushy federal government job feeling unmotivated and uninspired when suddenly it hit me: I didn’t feel challenged or driven by what I was doing. I know what you might be thinking: “Typical Millennial” — I mean, after all, I had a great, secure job that paid really well and had a clear career advancement path.
However, I couldn’t shake away the lingering feeling of ennui. For me, loving what I do is extremely important because you only have one life to live — as far as we know, anyway — so for me, using my time doing something that doesn’t inspire me or fuel me with passion feels, frankly, like a waste of my limited time and energy.
So I decided I’d something about it. But what? I pondered what to do: “Should I just look for a new job?” I thought to myself. But that wasn’t it. I was craving a bigger change.
In January 2018, I ended up purchasing a one-way flight ticket to Europe on the spur of the moment. It was then official… I was about to take one of the biggest risks anyone can make in their lives: move to a new country.
Fast forward to the date of my flight ⏩ the plan to live abroad was finally about to become reality.
Migrating to a foreign country is literally like hitting the reset button on life and starting from scratch in a whole new place. You have to find a new job, get a new place, make new friends, and even potentially learn a new language, which I had to do in my case.
As of this month, it’s officially been two years since I packed up all my things and moved abroad. I’ve had many new experiences during my time here, so here’s a list of fifteen things I’ve learned while living abroad:
1. Being able to speak the local language enriches your experience
Thanks to the widespread use of the English language, you can usually survive abroad without knowing a single word of a foreign language. But honestly, it’s so worth your while to learn the local language. By speaking the language of the country you’re living in, you’ll connect with the people and culture on a whole other level and will be able to integrate yourself easier.
2. Learning a new language is hard but can be enjoyable
Despite adding significant value to your experience, it’s most likely not going to be simple for you to learn a new language. If language learning doesn’t come easy to you (it doesn’t for me!), the process is going to take time and there will be frustration. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun though! There are a ton of tactics to make language learning enjoyable which I’ll go over in a future blog post.
3. Growing up speaking English is a privilege
Continuing with the language theme, those of us brought up in an English-speaking country really lucked out in the language value department. English currently has the highest number of total speakers and seems to be the dominant lingua franca, giving us the luxury of not needing to learn another language when embarking on international travel or applying for a job. This is not the case for everyone, as many people in the world are practically forced to learn another language to open doors and advance their career prospects. I got a small taste of that when I did my first interview in Spanish (I ultimately didn’t get that job, but it was a fun trial!).
4. Studying abroad and living abroad are two completely different experiences
I’ve studied abroad twice and, in my opinion, it is a completely distinct experience from fully living abroad. Although you’re technically “living abroad” in both, studying abroad, especially if it’s just for a semester, usually tends to just be an extension of your regularly programmed university life. You’ll tend to hang out with other international students all the time, explore and party often, and won’t necessarily focus on meeting the locals or integrating yourself with the country and its culture and language; even if you tried, there probably wouldn’t be a sufficient amount of time to do so in just the span of a few months. While still super fun and a great time, studying abroad for a semester just doesn’t give you the full living abroad experience.
5. Just because you’re living abroad doesn’t mean you will always be on vacation or travelling
Chances are that you are/were moving abroad hoping that it would give you a chance to travel more often or escape your work responsibilities. While that may be the case in the short term… I’m sorry to have to tell you that you’ll definitely need to continue working at some point — unless you/your family is rich or something — and you’ll very likely end up travelling less than you expected in the long run. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I guarantee there is lots for you to discover within the city/country where you’re based.
6. Stereotypes are just that: stereotypes
I’ve never given much weight to stereotypes, but they exist and many people rely on them to make quick, convenient judgements about others. Although they can be true at times, there are some stereotypes that don’t hold up, and you can realize this by living in another country.
7. You get what you give
The New Radicals said it best. What you get out of living abroad is directly related to what you put into it. I’d say, in general, you’re more likely to have a good time if you’re going out to explore the city, meeting new people, trying new things, and so on. If you just stay at home and isolate yourself, it’s highly probable that you’re going to have a skewed view of the country and your experience won’t be as memorable.
8. You should make sure your destination suits you
In order to maximize your enjoyment of living abroad, I suggest you move to a place that is in harmony with your personality, preferences, and/or lifestyle. Each country — heck, even each city — has its own distinct vibe, so choose wisely!
9. The grass really is always greener on the other side
Although I’m completely enjoying my life here in Spain, there are times when I find myself thinking “oh, I miss ______ back in Canada” or “______ is so much better in Canada.” However, when I really reflect on it, I realize that I’d be saying the same things about Spain if I went back to Canada. There are many pros of living here and there are many pros of living there, so ultimately you should just pick the one that resonates with you more and try not to constantly compare.
10. Integrating yourself into a new country is a process
It always takes time to settle into a new place, especially if you’ve moved to a new country. You may need to find a new job, housing, friends, and more. That doesn’t typically happen overnight. And even once you have all of that, you might still feel out of place. There will be times when you’ll feel like you don’t fit in, other times when you’ll feel like you do, and there may come a time when you feel like both a local and a foreigner simultaneously.
11. Home is a state of mind
I know this probably sounds very hippy and zen, but I’ve learned that feeling at home ultimately depends on you and your way of thinking. If you allow yourself to feel at home, your mind will follow suit. I was even able to feel at home while living in an apartment with 9 strangers from all over the world for a year, including throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. If I was able to do that, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to make wherever you end up feel like home.
12. Bureaucracy sucks everywhere
Doesn’t matter who or where you are in the world, bureaucracy is something we all can agree just plain sucks. One of the biggest complaints anyone has when moving abroad is the bureaucracy and hoops you need to jump through. Brace yourself for miscommunication, senseless back and forths, and lots of paperwork. The administrative stuff is always a hassle and can be confusing, but be patient, use online resources and blogs, and ask around for help and guidance.
13. Living abroad is not for everyone
Living abroad is not for the faint of heart. I’ve seen it go both ways: some people have the time of their lives while others end up missing their family, friends, and the comforts of home. You may fall within either of these groups, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.
14. It’s not always going to be easy
People tend to paint a pretty, stress-free picture of living abroad. And, while yes, there are many moments of bliss, there will also be moments when you’ll struggle. Whether it’s visa complications, cultural differences, language barriers, or you simply get homesick, you are going to have to overcome difficulties periodically.
15. The risk is worth it
In the end, there is always something you can learn from living abroad (if not several things!) and you’ll be thankful you did it, regardless of whether you stay for a couple months, years, or forever.
So there you have it: fifteen things I’ve learned while living abroad. I’m sure there are some more I could add, but these are the ones that jump to mind first.
To anyone considering living abroad: if you can make it work for you, do it! Just make sure you go in prepared.