My expat story started very close to the start of my life. I was only 7 years old when we moved from Baltimore to Ireland.
After graduating from a bilingual high school in France, I returned to the States for university… and felt like an expat all over again.
After graduation, it was on to Panama for a job, before finally returning to Paris about three years ago.
My goal had always been to move back to France as soon as I got the chance. It only took 11 years.
After all this moving around and more than two decades of expat experience, what have I learned?
I’d say that, for me, moving to a new place boils down to these four things:
- What to take and what to leave behind…
- Adjustment to environment…
- Adjustment to culture…
- Appreciating the new…
Let me elaborate…
1. What To Take And What To Leave Behind
We talk often about what to take with you and what to leave behind, but I feel we don’t really give the whole shebang its due.
It’s a big deal to say goodbye to big chunks of your life—a house where you may have been living (and raising a family) for decades… your book collection… your car… the dishes that you love… the perfectly comfy armchair that took years to find.
These things become a part of us. Yes, it’s materialistic and we’d all be better off if we could shed all our earthly possessions. But let’s get real… most of us like our stuff.
It’s an emotional process to sort through a lifetime and make fatal judgments that sentence your beloved treasures to an untimely death. It’s hard and exhausting. I’ve struggled with downsizing during every move I’ve made.
All that said, I wholeheartedly recommend getting rid of as much as possible. I’ve seen too many people spend money on shipping things that just ended up making no sense for one reason or another—including my own family and myself… on multiple occasions.
One of the biggest reasons things don’t work in your new home is size. This is especially true in Europe. You bought things that fit the proportion of your current home—likely far, far bigger than any home you might own in Europe. They’ll just look crammed in if you try to bring them over. You need to think through every item. Your kitchen cabinets will be smaller, so you might not want to bring over your giant turkey platter either.
Plus, keep style in mind. If you’re living in Florida with a tropical-themed rattan living room set, it’ll feel out of place anywhere but the tropics.
What should you keep for sure? Anything of sentimental value. And be honest with yourself, because if you get rid of some trinket that you thought you could live without but realize you miss, it could be a regret you won’t be able to shake.
Also keep books and any other language-specific items. Those cost an arm and a leg in foreign countries. Likewise, laptops or anything else that uses a typing keyboard—those are language-specific. A Spanish, French, or Italian keyboard is practically useless to an English-speaker.
And, when you’re in the middle of a downsizing session and having trouble being ruthless, remember that anything you don’t take with you, you get to buy anew. Shopping in your new home is not just fun, it’s a great way to get to know your new home town.
You’ll have to shop around, ask folks where to find things, figure out the lay of the land… and you’re guaranteed that whatever is for sale won’t clash with whatever kind of décor theme seems best suited to your new home.
2. Adjustment To Environment
This is a funny one, because some of your new environment’s aspects can be harder to acclimate to than cultural ones, yet we lump it all in under “culture shock.”
In Ireland, my mother and I realized a couple years in that we were succumbing to seasonal depression. At the height of winter, we might only see the sun for a few hours a day… if it managed to peek out from behind clouds.
In Panama, I could never get used to a mono-season—I so missed a change in temperature. Now back in Paris, I’m struggling to get used to the hours of daylight—far too few in winter and too many in summer.
These are all environmental factors I’ve had to adjust to in various homes, but similarly forming new habits to meet your new environment can be tough.
If you’re used to driving but give up your car in a move, you suddenly need to get used to walking, biking, or reading bus and metro maps. If you’re accustomed to a predictable diet, the local gastronomy might be an upset. Even just moving to a hilly city, a sandy beach, or a humid mountaintop will be an adjustment if you’re not already familiar with that kind of terrain.
What Can You Do?
My advice here is to be aware of yourself. You need to recognize that your mood is dipping in the winter or that your schedule is all out of whack because you’re no longer able to wake up with the sunrise.
You need to be able to identify the issue and then figure out a fix. Take a weekend trip to see some sun. Change your schedule to wake up earlier or later… and (very important) be flexible enough to do so.
Tomorrow we’ll tackle the next two things on the list of my top four tips for anyone considering living or retiring overseas—adjustment to culture and appreciating the new.
Editor, Live and Invest Overseas Confidential