Scribbler in Seville

The E-X-P-A-T of moving abroad

expat, move abroad, moving abroad

Which country would you like to live in?

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog spreads itself widely, nay extravagantly, over three classic blogging genres: mummy/parenting, travel and expat. As I live in a supremely photogenic area – sunny southern Spain, where even a technically-challenged individual like myself can manage to take half-decent pictures, thanks to the excellence of semi-professional compact digital cameras – most of my posts tend to be about places to visit in this area. I’ve been nominated for some mummy travel blogging awards, which was very gratifying. But I also dip into the expat blog world too, typically from my own personal perspective of living in Spain.

As someone who’s been living away from my home country for 12 years now, I am often asked what advice I would give to expats. So when international money transfer site HiFX asked me to contribute to their Expat Tip Page, I thought I’d give it a go. While I don’t think of myself as being in a particularly strong position to give advice, since my life is not a model of smooth organisation, financial competence or inter-cultural harmony, some of these pearls of wisdom might be of use to those looking to move abroad. All common sense really, but there’s no harm in spelling them out. Especially since I forgot (and indeed, still forget) half of them myself on occasions – I came here on a whim, so my situation was different from a planned relocation with its premeditated schedule. So here it is: my E-X-P-A-T of being an expat.

EExperience

Whether you’re moving to a different country for a few months, a few years, or an unknown length of time, you need to throw yourself into your new life. Many people are posted abroad, or apply for a new job, for a set period of time – say one or two years. If you know how long you’ll be living in a place for, then you make it your project to see and experience as much of it as possible during those months or years – some events are annual, so be sure not to miss them when they come around. Don’t say, we can always go next year, as you might not be there. Similarly, if you’re invited to an odd-sounding local fiesta, jump at the chance. There may be moments of boredom and confusion, but these will be balanced by unforgettable memories to treasure forever; the opportunity to attend such events are often one-off chances which should be grabbed with both hands.

X – eXpect

It’s more a case of don’t – when someone moves to a place to live, they’ll have spent months planning, dreaming, building up certain expectations about everything from the people, to the weather, to the food. Keep an open mind. None of it may turn out to be as you thought. Perhaps you visited in mild spring, and you’ll be arriving in scalding high summer, or chilly winter. Or the food that seemed so gratifyingly exotic/quaint/simple will pall after you realise that’s all there is on offer. In any case, one of the most important prerequisites for any expat is not to make up your mind about anything until you’ve been in your new home for a while, and have experienced plenty of inevitable ups and downs. Adapt to your new country as far as possible, and try not to compare it to home (too much, anyway).

P – Prepare

The boring-but-important bit. Paperwork; taxes; health care; language skills. Leave yourself plenty of time, as doing these kinds of things in a last-minute panic is horribly stressful and risks costly mistakes. What do you need to do before you leave – are you renting out your home in your own country? What are you storing, sending ahead, packing to take with you? Will you try to the learn the language of your new country before you leave, if appropriate? Have you looked into health care and education (if you have children) in the country? Draw up lists, have a notebook (whether paper or digital) to check off tasks and have handy contacts and references. While many larger multinationals have special staff dedicated to helping employees and their families to relocate, there’s no harm in keeping an eye on these things yourself. Read expat blogs, email those already living in the city or area where you’re going, visit forums, join Facebook groups – all great ways of getting practical tips and suggestions, as well as answers to specific queries, so that you don’t get any (well, not too many) nasty surprises when you arrive.

A – Advice

Once you’re in your new home, you’ll need to build a network of people, both natives and other expats. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help – for everything from how to fill in paperwork and where to take it to (often you can pay someone else to do this for you), what to wear to local fiestas (one friend was the only parent to turn up to her daughter’s nursery Carnival party not in fancy dress. She was mortified), where to find a language teacher, or recommending a reliable plumber or builder. When I arrived in my village, I had little practical guidance. Now an Australian family has arrived here, and I’m only too delighted to offer my tuppence worth on anything they care to ask me about. Most people are very happy to offer their time to a new arrival, to help them settle in, find their feet and let them in on where the best/nearest hairdresser/softplay centre/English language cinema is. Again, Facebook groups and local forums can be very useful for this too – a whole virtual knowledge bank out there waiting to offer the benefit of their experience. Use it!

T – Try

What? I hear you ask. My answer: everything! You’re out of your comfort zone now, away from familiar surroundings, so what have you got to lose (apart from your health, wallet, dignity etc)? Join local associations (the American Women’s Club has branches in cities all over the world) which organise outings, tastings, and talks; visit the library to find out about language classes; take up a hobby; volunteer. Experiment with the local food – so you may want to stick to established family favourites or home-country traditional dishes on birthdays and holidays, but go to the market and buy the strange-looking fruit, or weird, knobbly vegetable. Ask a friend or neighbour how to cook or eat it – you adventurousness is bound to impress them. Stray into the realms of the unknown. You’ll make mistakes, sure, but we all know that’s an important part of the learning. As long as you don’t poison anyone, or (possibly worse) offend them, you’re doing fine.

For more tips, look at the experts’ offerings on HiFX, where those better qualified than me have wise words for would-be expats.

7 thoughts on “The E-X-P-A-T of moving abroad

  1. Rena Dunne

    All so true Fiona. My love of tapas before moving to Spain was my big eXpect mistake, there really was very little choice in Seville 8 years ago. Thank God the choice has broadened since then.

  2. Joe Cooper

    All good solid advice, Fiona. If you are going to live in foreign country, the speed at which you hit the ground running is directly proportional to the amount of preparation you do before you leave. The old Foreign & Commonwealth Office motto of “know before you go” applies and the FCO website is a good place to start (see https://www.gov.uk/browse/abroad/living-abroad).

    Try and learn the language. Spanish is not a difficult language to get a basic grasp of as its structure is not that different from English and it is much easier to learn to read and write it as it is entirely phonetic. I always feel sorry for Spaniards trying to learn to read and write English! In addition the Spaniards are much more forgiving of people who do not speak perfect Spanish than some other Europeans (no names, no pack dril) as they appreciate that you are making an effort to learn their language and to integrate. Try not to make too many comparisons with the UK. What you may lose in terms of speed and efficiency (and even that is debatable these days) you gain in terms of quality of life and good weather.

    And finally, do try to integrate. You and I are lucky as we are married to locals which makes integration so much easier. But unless you make the effort you will end up living in a ghetto and struggling to come to grips with all the problems that this entails.

    Toodle pip!

  3. Sophie (@GoGranadaSpain)

    Great advice here Fiona. It is so hard to ‘jump in’ sometimes but actually once you start it gets easier.

    It’s Bibsey’s carnival party on Friday, but no body has mentioned disfraz… but I know what I have to do this year after last year’s debacle.

  4. Mad Dog

    I agree with Joe Cooper above. Learn the language, join in with local people and don’t stick to ex-pat friends because it’s easy. Go native 😉

  5. bavariansojourn

    Such a great list… There’s still so much to learn though isn’t there? I am still learning, and discovering new experiences (both good and bad) two countries and five years down the line! 😀

%d bloggers like this: