What expat life is NOT
Living in a faraway land, immersing yourself in a foreign culture, filling Instagram with images of your new surroundings; life as an expatriate can be an eye-opening period of wonderment, full of daily challenges and a dose of curiosity. But what expat life is not is a non-stop thrill ride, unless the ride you are on is a roller coaster that jerks you around, up and down hills, with periodic moments of peace. The non-stop part is accurate but the thrills tends to die down after three years, and the subtle eccentricities you once found charming become screeching sirens that wake you in the middle of the night.
This post is not intended to burst bubbles of fervor, but instead meant to instill realities that most do not consider before taking the leap to live abroad.
Based on my experience, and my experience only, expat life is not...
...a life of constant travel. Followers of my Instagram account may assume that I am jet-setting to exotic locales every other weekend. However, a quick look at the hashtags will reveal that most of my photos are what Instagram has deemed "latergrams", meaning they were taken in the past but posted in the present. I snap so many photos when I travel that it is impossible to post all of them on IG when in the moment. Plus, I typically do not have a data plan or easy access to Wi-Fi when I travel (by choice) which affords me the ability to indulge in my experience rather than spend hours picking a filter, which is inarguably the hardest part of the posting process.
Others wonder how I can afford these seemingly lavish getaways. The truth is that flights from Barcelona to other European cities hardly ever cost more than 100 euros (approximately $105), and years of budget travel have taught me how to make it work on as little money as possible. Although my age has caused a shift in my lodging preferences from loud, cramped hostels to private rooms with (preferably) private bathrooms, which tend to be more expensive, I find other ways to cut costs while still having a worthwhile visit.
Expat life is not...a life of constant adventure. Sure, there are expats who crawl out of their shared flats every day to explore the novelties and nuances of their home away from home. I was one of these expats when I first moved abroad, eager to launch into the unfamiliarity of Phnom Penh, a city with no sidewalks and no Starbucks. This passion tends to wear off after some time, though, and life becomes life again. You pay rent, you shop at the supermarket, you visit a doctor (who hopefully speaks English), and life continues as normal. As you adapt, the unfamiliar becomes the familiar, and you start to blend in with your environment. Am I fluent in Spanish? Not yet, but I am approached on the street for directions at least once a week, so the assumption that I am a knowledgeable local has inched its way into the brains of foreigners.
Expat life is not...a life of constant partying. I am 31, and I have repeatedly echoed to friends that I should have moved to Barcelona when I was 21. The nightlife in this city does not stop, not even when the sun comes up. Sadly, it is a culture that I am not willing (or physically able) to enjoy. I have left those late nights back in my 20s, and I prefer quiet evenings, quality nights of sleep, and early, productive mornings.
For some expats, the party lifestyle serves as an easy transition into the community as making friends can sometimes be easier over a few pints or bottle of cava. Unfortunately for others, the cheap alcohol prices in some countries (e.g., Cambodia) can contribute to an individual´s escape from the real world and temporarily conceal existing problems. If you are moving abroad in hopes of leaving your issues behind, it won´t work, which reminds me that expat life is not...
...a way to escape your problems. Anxieties, fears, and insecurities do not need passports to travel with you, and they won´t be left behind at customs. So long as you refuse to face them, they will remain with you, and a new environment may be a decent distraction but it won´t serve as a long-term solution.
Now that I have tarnished all hopes and dreams of a shiny expat existence, what expectations do you have for life abroad? Fellow expats, what did you expect from a life abroad, and were your expectations met or declined? Comments below!
Lead photo: Via Appia Antica, Rome, Italy, December 2015.