When I was in England and dreaming of living abroad – specifically in Paris, France – I imagined me walking through the beautiful, tree-lined boulevards, pink blossom falling, the Eiffel Tower poking it’s head out in the background and gorgeous, dark-haired French men with sexy accents conversing with me as I sat outside a café drinking coffee and dipping fresh baguette into hot onion soup.
When I actually moved to France, the reality was a little different… I still did all of those things (!) but I also had my fair share of the “bad” too – it’s not all skipping through the streets in a Parisian fantasy!
So, if you’re thinking of making a move – or you’re required to make one for your job or studies – I’m about to give you the real truth about what it’s like to live in a foreign country. The good, the bad, and whatever else I think you need to know 😜
Firstly, it’s normal to showcase the ‘best’ bits of our lives… but it’s not necessarily the whole truth!
Lots of people are good at posting only the “good bits” on their social media, or telling people their highlights – after all, nobody wants to moan endlessly or complain about things, so naturally we tell each other the happy and fun things we’ve been up to.
But sometimes this lack of revealing the ‘real truth’ can give people a false idea of what it’s like to be living in a country other than your own.
And for the many people who have to make a big move abroad for family, jobs, university courses (and all other reasons)… well, they can be unprepared for the reality of the situation.
Living abroad is NOT like a holiday – I repeat, NOT LIKE A HOLIDAY.
It is HARD. And it is CHALLENGING. But it can be incredibly rewarding too.
So here I go – the truth about what it’s like to live abroad. It’s not all bad! – but it’s not all good. 😉
What is it really like to live abroad?
First of all – the GOOD stuff!
1. You’re always learning and always being challenged.
It’s true that moving abroad can be hard, but I see it like this: when I lived in the UK I knew how everything worked – the local transport, the job market, the daily routines – I was comfortable. And I quickly sunk into complete frustration because I felt like I was on a hamster wheel with no difference in the day-to-day, no matter how much education I gained, training I did, trips I took etc. I always felt bored and trapped.
Once I got to France that was it – there was no comfort, no daily routine, just everyday trying to figure stuff out; trying to navigate in a different language; trying to make friends; trying to figure out how to find the cheapest supermarkets (yes, this is important!!)…!
You may laugh but in the UK I knew exactly how and where to go to do the cheapest food shopping if I was strapped for cash. When you’re abroad it’s different; you don’t know the “living hacks” so you have to figure it out. And that’s before finding friends, an apartment, and trying to adjust to a new routine, culture…. and probably job too, if you’re relocating.
2. It’s easy to travel and explore
Being in mainland Europe (for me) has been so useful for travelling. It’s so easy to get around and can be super cheap too! That means more exploration of different cultures, more challenges, more friends abroad, and generally more ticking places off the travel bucket-list!
3. You learn to be independent
When you’re in a new country and you don’t understand how things work, you have to figure it out. You have to negotiate with local services (like social security, health services, banks etc) in their language and you have to be patient and understand that there are processes in place that are different to what you’re used to.
You get used to doing things alone – chances are that when you arrive you don’t have a large network of friends and family around. This means you’re basically on your own. Figuring out the transport – it’s down to you. Finding your way to the local supermarket – up to you. Finding the best deals on phone plans – there’s nobody you can ask for advice so you have to figure it out.
It can be extremely stressful and tiring when navigating everything as it’s all totally new and if (like me) you arrive with limited comprehension of the language, it’s not just harder, it’s excruciatingly frustrating and can even make you feel angry (this is normally the time you want to go home). But after a little while, things get easier and you become proud that you managed to do it alone!
TIP: Find local Facebook groups or Meetup groups – or anyone who might be able to help you a little bit with things like opening bank accounts etc.
If your knowledge of the language is limited, find specific local groups in your language, whether Italian, Spanish or Arabic – whatever. You’re going to learn the country’s language in time, but right now you have to do urgent administrative tasks and you’ll need help.
4. You make friends from different countries and cultures
Don’t underestimate how making friends from different cultures, countries, religions, world-views etc can completely change you. Be open and willing to accept people for who they are and how they live their lives and they’ll be more open to letting you into their lives. I now have friends from all over the world (that also means more opportunity for travelling!), and all of them have taught me something that has changed me for the better.
And now… the IFFY stuff
1. It’s hard to adjust to the language
I learnt French in the UK. I now know that the language-teaching efforts in the UK are questionable at best. Sitting and studying a language is not how you learn a language. Physically speaking it is.
And so when I arrived in France with a qualification proving that my level of French is ‘B2’ on the CEFRL (defined as ‘independent user’- that means you can get by in everyday life and have conversations, express your opinion etc)… well, it wasn’t true.
Everyone spoke too fast. Everyone spoke with a weird accent. They used slang I’d never heard of. They ran words together so two words sounded like one. They said “uuuuuuuur” every time they took a break from speaking, before diving straight back into fast chat again. It felt impossible and I felt stupid and hopeless, like a baby. After being super independent and happy to express myself as and when I wanted or needed, suddenly I could say and understand nothing. I have never, ever been in that position before.
When I first arrived I was absolutely exhausted from trying to figure it out. Imagine your brain working at 100% the whole day just to understand what’s going on, whilst trying to adapt to a new country and lifestyle. It was very, very hard.
2. Lack of job opportunities
I already explained in this post about how I work abroad. Even though I’m qualified in a few things, I didn’t actually have much choice for employment.
As well as that, if you want to live somewhere for something like a year or just a short while, taking a professional job can be too much of a commitment for such a short stay. This way, you’ll find there’s limited job prospects, and if you don’t speak the language fluently you’ll find it even harder.
Some countries will require you to get a visa that is sponsored by your job. It can be tricky to navigate or even find a company willing to do it.
3. You miss your family and friends
If you moved alone, it’s hard to suddenly have nobody people around. Like – literally nobody. You have to make a real effort to make friends (hard when you’re already exhausted from everyone else). You feel very isolated at times.
And making friends and acquaintances takes time – it’s not something that can be changed in one day. You have to be extremely patient and have faith that things are going to get better.
4. You’re learning endlessly – and it’s tiring
Learning new processes; a new culture, a new language, the times the shops open and shut, where to go for certain things, how public transport works, how your new job works, how making friends works, traditions, the daily routine, how people speak to each other… it’s endless!!
And doing it all in a new language (for most people). You need to make sure you sleep enough every day because this is exhausting, and you may find your brain unable to focus at all by the end of the day (mine physically hurt!).
5. You miss the comforts of home
To be honest I don’t feel particularly tied to my country – I’ve never been patriotic. But some things are just so unique to the UK that no other country can replicate them.
Stuff like the British humour!! So DRY and so many jokey insults… it’s hard to explain to people who aren’t accustomed to it! But I follow all the British meme accounts on Instagram which keeps my daily dose of British humour topped up.
In England our go-to food – the food we will eat as a midnight snack, or when you get home a little bit drunk, or when you’re just hungry and fancy a quick snack – is toast. Jam on toast, peanut butter on toast, or just toast with loads of butter… with a nice cup of tea. I always love Marmite on toast (an English salty spread)… but people in France don’t eat it, and when it is sold it’s a ridiculously high price because it’s imported.
The bread here is also super weird – mainly white, bleached bread with no crusts. None of the normal English snacks are here…
As you can tell from my complaining, it can be quite hard to live without the things you normally take for granted… cheddar cheese, real English tea, real milk (not UHT), and don’t get me started on the CHIPS… and the small things can make you miss your country A LOT.
6. It’s expensive to visit family & friends
Something that I really hate is that to take the Eurostar back to see my friends and family in the UK it’s almost £300 a time for a return ticket. If I book way, way in advance I can halve that amount but I never know what’s happening in my life 2 or 3 months in advance, much less whether my friends and family will be free too! The only other option is taking a bus but it’s long and can be just as expensive as the Eurostar – except twice as long.
It can be really frustrating. And if you’re living on another continent or you’re further away, it can be super expensive, a really long journey, and you may not have the time to work a long trip in to your schedule what with work/study/other commitments.
7. It can be hard to lose autonomy and independence
The biggest thing I’ve learnt since living abroad has been: BEING HUMBLE.
In the UK I could get stuff done fast; I knew how to get things sorted out if there was a problem, where to go for further information, how to get round things, how to make things happen quickly by taking shortcuts, and basically how to sweet talk people.
Everything abroad is so different that what you would normally do just doesn’t work; the processes are different, the people have different ways of interacting with each other; you just can’t do things how you normally would. If the language is a problem then that adds another layer of difficulty.
One last GOOD thing I’ve learnt about living abroad (because we always have to leave on a good note) is how to be humble and accept help.
Before I was so independent; I would do everything myself because it would be quicker and easier. But abroad I just have to ask for help; I have to negotiate things, I have to ask how things work and if there is a quicker way to do things; I have to sometimes put my business in the hands of other people in order to make any progress and that is something I find really hard – relying on other people.
But at the same time it has made me more humble, more open to asking for help and less “sure” of myself, but not in a bad way. In a way where I lose a lot of the stubbornness that I know I sometimes have!!
So hopefully this has showed that there is both good and bad stuff when it comes to moving abroad; it’s not a magical, never-ending holiday but it’s not all bad either. I think you get out what you put in.