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.
E – Experience
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.