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  • Writer's pictureLeon de Leeuw

Reflections on moving abroad

Living abroad, albeit for a short period of time, will change your life. If you’re open to it, your host country will influence your very being. If you open up completely and let the daily habits, the culture and the people you get in touch with into your life, you will become another person. You’ll see things from several perspectives at once. In your home country you, hopefully, had a steady and fulfilling life. Still, you decided to go for a change. This means you are already open to the world – you do not settle for what comes naturally to you. You’ve realized that the world does not end at your doorstep and you get ready for change. It takes a level of confidence to leave your hometown. Even if you stay in your own country, leaving the cosy nest is not an easy step. Leaving abroad may even be tougher, no matter how pleasant the surroundings you may find yourself in. After all, no matter how long you stay abroad, you will change as a person. It happens gradually. You might get a culture shock, although that entirely depends on what you’re used to and how different the place is of where you come from. Most likely, you will do just fine. But, as with any challenge, there are moments when you think “Why did I even do this?” Hopefully, these are short-lived. Because one change you go through, for sure, is that you get more independent, more confident and you do develop a whole lot of life experience. No matter how good or bad your experience may be, it's put in the suitcase of experiences you will carry around for the rest of your life.

Who would’ve thought

From being a small child, most of us already know whether we’re meant to settle down or not. Whether we want to see the world first or live abroad for a while. Deep down, we know we wouldn’t be satisfied with the cookie-cutter lifestyle. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, on the contrary, it can be nice and peaceful. However, not just yet. We are meant to explore and absorb what the world has to offer first. After all, we’re young and what’s really stopping us? If you meet someone, you can always settle down. Once you decide to take the move, you’ll know if you make the right decision by the way it feels. Yes, it’s exciting and even downright scary. But that’s fine. As long as you still feel some level of excitement, or at least mixed feelings, you’ll be alright. If you’ve decided that you want to spend a period abroad, you’ll take steps to reach that goal. Each decision you make, will consciously and unconsciously get you on the right path. You start reading up about the host country or even find a job. There’s perhaps a volunteering job, maybe you have enough money that you don’t need to work for the first period. If not, you’ll probably start saving and looking for a place to stay. The excitement grows once a place such as an apartment caught your eye. There’s butterflies in your stomach if you call a broker. You check what’s to do in the area. What supermarkets are there? What restaurants and what do they serve? You look around with Google Streetview and already imagine yourself walking along these city streets. Or on the boulevard along the beach. Not a bad life at all, you imagine. Right until you pack your suitcase and say a very heavy and emotional goodbye, at least for now, you’re off. Once you’re in the plane you probably think “Who would’ve thought..” So far, you made it. The adventure is only just starting!

Feeling disoriented

Depending on the country you go and how much you prepared yourself, you might feel rather clueless upon arrival. You might be picked up or you might have to find your way to a hotel or apartment all by yourself. You’re with a couple of suitcases and exhausted of the emotions. You’re figuring out how to get to the city and some people help you with your luggage. You might take a train or bus and look around, soaking up the first impressions. You’re probably too tired to really take it all in, you’re just breathing heavily. Still, there’s a bit of excitement left! Once you find your hotel, most likely it’s time for a shower. If you found an apartment and it’s good, you’ll probably sign a contract soon. Then, it’s time to unpack your suitcases. Or sleep. Or head into the city right away. Any decision is fine, we all deal with the first days in our own way. Most likely, cooking will be the last thing on your mind. Now it’s time for the first benefit; communicating internationally has never been easier. You may call anywhere for free, using Facetime for example. Perhaps, if this was no option, you wouldn’t even have left home. You can see your loved ones and wave at them. This will make your life abroad so much easier on the long run. It truly helps to see people. Just imagine people abroad used to have to write letters, post them, not even being sure if they’d be read. Times have changed. If you’re European, staying in Europe, you have one less hassle, most likely no visas or work permits for you. Yes, you’ll have to register, but this is a breeze compared to the heaps of paper to be signed if you’re moving to another continent. As you go through the first days, you’ll see more of the direct neighbourhood. Perhaps, if you do it smartly, you have a few days off before starting your job/school/insert challenge. You might even have time to go meet some people or travel out of town.

The home front

It feels strange to just talk to your loved ones over the phone. Your phone becomes a life line. You wouldn’t want to lose it, as it’s the easiest way to get in touch with your folks at home. Depending on the relationship with your family, you might call them very often. That’s totally fine. They will understand that you miss home and obviously, you’re missed as well. When a person leaves home, it leaves a gap that’s filled with silence. Please, don’t get out of touch. It’s essential to call regularly. Not only to make an easier transition for yourself, also for the people whom love you dearly and are concerned about what you’re going through. Most probably, you’ll want to show the home front that you’re willing and able to live independently. You want to convince them that you’re an adult, that you were raised well and that you can find your way into this world. You’ll start your day at, for example, work, full of hope and optimism. You look in the mirror, perhaps with a fresh haircut, and tell yourself you look perfect. You’ll be welcomed at your job with excitement, these are the people whom you will spend a lot of time with. You introduce yourself, perhaps speaking a bit of the language already. You’re probably also really nervous not to make a mistake and hope that they really like you. After the first day, you’ll most likely call home in excitement. This will really help the people back home, it gives some assurance that you’re in good hands. No matter your age, people can worry about what you’re up to if you go abroad. Often, people think of the negative aspects so it helps to assure them that you’re enjoying yourself. This doesn’t mean they are pessimists, they just worry about your well-being. It’s unknown, therefore it’s scary.

Growing confidence

After your first month, you’re already navigating yourself through the city effortlessly. You start blending in and in your free time, you visit some sights. Perhaps, you already made some friends from work or school. You might join a gym. You do your groceries and greet the cashier in the local language. It then dawns upon you that you’re already in auto mode. This is only good, it means you’re getting comfortable. This makes you more confident. Regardless of whether you have a relationship or not, a downside is that you will now and then feel loneliness creep up on you. You have not gone through your youth with your new friends. They lack knowing the part of who you were and who you’ve become. They know you only in the way you are now. You’ll mis your friends back home tremendously. You’ll call home but eventually find out it’s not the same. You keep digging up memories and cracking jokes about what you went through together. Yet, there’s no new shared experiences. You plan a visit or your friends visit you. Still, you talk about what’s been. You will hear some fun stories of the group but you’ve missed their birthdays and graduation parties. And they haven’t experienced your crazy night out or that beautiful trip you made in your new country. And it’s fine. It doesn’t have to be the same, we all know it won’t be. Still, keep calling and meet up. Good friends should not be thrown overboard when you leave your country. Never burn a bridge, as you never know if you’ll return. And besides, what’s more fun than catching up after a long time? One thing is sure, if you’re really good friends, your relationship will survive this. Yet, you’ll lose a few friends as well. Some relationships just water down as time moves on. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everybody is meant to stay and you’ll have new friends as well. Yet, keep doing the hard work. Don’t disappear. It might feel as if you’re putting in all the hard work, but we’re all busy and should not get out of touch simply for moving away from each other. It’s so easy to stay in contact. And if things really change, don’t be hard on yourself or the other if a relationship does eventually fade away.

New frame of reference

You’ll feel more and more independent. You have your own income, manage your expenses and take some trips. It's likely that you’ll get sick one day. This is part of it; if you don’t have a relationship, you’ll feel weak and alone. If you catch a flue, nobody will make you a tea. Your work friends are, well, at work, and during the week nobody really has time for you. It’s the first time you feel really sad and desperate. You’re shaking in bed, browsing through Facebook. You see a picture of your friends at some party. You might cry whilst pouring yourself a tea. It’s totally fine. These days are part of your experience and yes, they are terrible. Still, you have to continue. Don’t give up. By all means, call a friend, but keep the window blinds open and just remember that sunnier days are coming. You have gone through a lot until now, and one day off the field should not stop you. Relax, focus on your breathing and just surrender to it. You’ll be fine. In your frame of reference, you now have the experience of self-reliance. You coped with sickness when there was nobody else around. You did it, and next day you felt a bit stronger. Treat yourself with something nice. Have a walk through the park, appreciate your new country and realize it’s not all bad.

In your frame of reference, you’ll have reflections on your home country as well. Perhaps it’s not as bad as you always said it was. Sometimes, rain is actually pretty cosy. You might get tired of the sunshine and even long back for your hometown. That’s also entirely normal. You might even start being bothered by a couple of things. The cashier that ignored you or the driver that didn't give way at the pedestrian crossing. Maybe you have to go through bureaucratic procedures or realize your colleagues are not all just as nice. Small things might start to annoy you and you could start feeling very sensitive about little bumps in the road. It helps to take a break, perhaps take your first vacation. Even though you’re abroad already, you should still take days off to have your rest. You did this back home, so keep doing it. Once you’re off, you’ll again feel much better. It was just work or school getting on your nerves, which is perfectly acceptable as well. You’ll feel re-energized. This can also be the period that you truly fall in love with your new country, or maybe just with some things of it.

A benefit is definitely that your folks can come visit you. They will have a new vacation spot to visit, and you’ll be able to show them around. You can help them order drinks in the local language and they will be so proud of you. You can see it in their eyes. You’re their child and you’ve made it on your own. This can only deeply satisfy a parent. One huge downside; they will also leave back home. Tears will flow and possibly, you’ll feel worthless. You wish you could come back home as well. Again, you must pull through. Call them when they’re back home and things are back to normal. Have a drink with friends to take your mind off the goodbye. You’ll meet again soon.

A balanced life

Chances are, you’ll fly back home as well. Even though you feel bad for missing some birthdays, you’ll land with a suitcase packed with presents and just a few clothes. You’re picked up by your folks or friends and you’ll be so happy to be back home. You’ll notice some peculiarities about your own country, things you hadn’t noticed before. Maybe it looks so organized compared to your new country, or you’re bored by the fact that nobody’s out and people just sit inside their homes. It’s strange to walk into a supermarket and hear your language again. Just observe and enjoy your time. Your frame of reference is now growing, you will feel home in both places. This will tremendously help. If all goes well, a benefit is that you can feel at home in two places. You have two feet, one in your home country and one in your new country. Your legs are hopefully just as long. You’ll be a lucky person if you feel balanced, you’re home on either side of the flight. This will take a few years, but it will be easier to go back and forth. You’re an international citizen now, you’re home wherever you feel you are. You’ve become so much stronger and wiser. This is all that really matters. Your growth and your love, shared with the people around you. No matter where they might be.

For more of my stories, click here.

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