Things to Remember When You Move Abroad
Moving to a new country is equally thrilling and terrifying. It’s an opportunity to call another country home, learn a new language, and foster your own independence. It also means you’ll be far away from friends and family, will be surrounded by a completely unfamiliar culture, and will need to build a whole new community from scratch. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and frustrating and adventurous and lonely and heart-burstingly full all at the same time.
This move to Zurich was different than any other “life outside of the states” adventures I had embarked on before. Yes, I’ve lived and travelled in many places. I studied abroad in Rome, I backpacked solo for a year through Latin America, I moved to Honduras for a job. But this was the very first time I moved to a place without any sort of immediate connection to the country or the people there. There wasn’t a built-in “new friend community” through school, a job, or other backpackers, the language was completely foreign, and our timeline was indefinite. And while a lot of that has changed - Raunaq and I have made a motley group of fun friends from all over the world, I got accepted into a grad school program studying something I love, the language is *slightly* less unfamiliar - I thought it important to look back on the last year and make some notes on the things that I have learned throughout this specific process. Because moving abroad may be an incredible experience, but hell, it’s a doozy.
The paperwork will end...eventually.
Becoming a legal resident of a foreign country does not happen overnight. Be prepared for more paperwork than you thought possible, and get very comfortable with dealing with bureaucracy. The visa applications is only the beginning. There will be paperwork for apartment rentals, for shipping your belongings, for setting up a bank account (especially if you are a US citizen - welcome to worldwide tax life), for receiving a driver's license, for background checks, for transit passes, and maybe even for joining the loyalty rewards program at the local grocery store. In Switzerland, each of these included an appointment in-person, nearly all the paperwork required an accompanying photo, and most of the time, it had to be mailed in hard copy. The Swiss love their postal system. Remember: it will all be worth it in the end, and this too shall pass. Make sure you have an ample amount of passport photos (I find it’s always a good idea to have a couple extra on hand), multiple copies of important documents, and embrace the legal introduction to your new home.
Making new friends is tough, but doable!
As a remote freelance writer (and as a self-proclaimed social introvert), this was one of my biggest personal challenges: making new friends. Now, this might be a little easier if you move for work or for school, because then there will (hopefully) be a new social group with colleagues or classmates. Or maybe you are the kind of person that easily chats up the Uber driver, airplane seatmate, bartender, etc etc etc (I’m looking at you, Miss Kristina Lee). But no matter what, it will be necessary to branch out, and if you are like me, it’s going to be really uncomfortable and awkward at first. Every city has a different social scene, and some countries are known as being more outgoing than others. Sorry Switzerland, you don’t necessarily have the reputation of being the “approachable” type. You make us work for it. But Zurich, like many big cities, has lots of “networking for friends” opportunities, and I tried them all: city-sponsored networking events, blind date-style set-ups from a friend of a friend, language classes, Meet-Up events, random strangers that I met at a Christmas market. If I talked for you for more than five minutes, you could bet I was probably going to ask for your number at some point. It turns out that I’m a very promiscuous friend-dater. Who knew? And like dating, some of these connections will be misses. In fact, making new friends is exactly like dating, but that’s a different post for a different day. It won’t happen all at once, but slowly, you’ll find yourself building a community.
But don’t forget about your friends back home
In the past, this has always been one of my biggest struggles - staying in touch with friends once I’ve moved away. I knew I had the type of friendships where we could easily pick up right where we left off, but that also made me a bit neglectful. Social media has confounded this problem because now, I can easily see photos from a friends life - their new baby, their vacation, their weekends, their life updates - and feel like I was staying in touch because I knew what was going on. But it is so important to be intentional about staying connected.
Maintaining relationships while abroad takes effort, and it’s more than commenting an emoji on an Instagram photo. Make WhatsApp or Skype dates (literally: put them on your calendar, just like you would a work meeting) and keep them. This might mean you have to wake up early on a weekend or stay up late to accommodate time zones, but do it anyway. Little gestures like sending hand-written cards go a long way. Rediscover the lost art of a personal email. I’ve recently started a virtual book club with my college friends. We meet once a month via Google Hangouts to drink wine (or coffee, depending on the time zone), discuss the month’s read, and simply catch up with each other. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of your new life, but it’s important to make the effort to stay in touch with the old. And of course, there is the hard reality is that you might lose friends. You’ll be surprised by those that reach out, and also, by those that don’t. I’ve learned that this is okay, too.
Celebrate the little victories
Learn to recognize and celebrate the victories, no matter how small. It takes courage to move to a new country, and that courage sometimes manifests itself in ways that you would never even notice in your home country. Of course, the first time you successfully communicate in a foreign language is a big deal. But so is the first time you navigate a route on public transportation without needing the help of Google Maps. Or go alone to a networking event where you know absolutely no one. Or successfully mail a letter. Or figure out the bagging system at the grocery store. Or the first time someone on the street asks you for directions, assuming you are a local. With each tiny challenge, I found I naturally was becoming much stronger and more confident. There are going to be days where you’ll want to cry in frustration, but if you take a step back and acknowledge all these seemingly small wins, you’ll see that they start to add up.
Laugh off the mistakes
Moving to a new country is a bit like living in Newton’s Third Law - for every small victory there is an equal and opposite faux pas. On our first day in Zurich, Raunaq and I thought we had broken the front window of our temporary apartment. In a panic we called the building manager, who had to make a trip all the way to our place, only to laughingly inform us that the window was supposed to tilt open like that (like most windows in Europe, it’s normal that windows can open fully, and also just tilt open from the top). Whoops. I got yelled at by an old man for putting my feet up on a public bench (which I soon found out was very un-Swiss! The feet on bench, not the chastising), I couldn’t figure out where to buy Zuri-sacks for garbage, I took multiple trains and buses in the wrong direction. Trust me: you will make so many mistakes. Laugh them off. You are going to feel like a misfit fish-out-of-water foreigner for a while. That’s OK. Lots of things are going to get miscommunicated or utterly lost in translation. That’s OK. You’ll need to ask really dumb questions about really simple things. That’s OK. One day I walked past a sign that was blinking the phrase “Amused and Confused,” and that has become my motto to encapsulate the expat process. Feel free to adopt it as your own.
Accept that you’ll be homesick.
Establishing a life and community in a new country doesn’t move neatly in a straight line. It’s possible to absolutely love your new life and the experiences it brings while being intensely homesick, and to feel these opposing emotions at what seems like the same time. The first few months here were so jam-packed, the Swiss summer life so intoxicating, that it was hard to feel anything besides excitement. Then the season shifted, it got colder and darker, and I hit a wall. One day I was walking on air because I felt our life here clicking into place, and the next I was wishing to be back home where things are easy, where everyday tasks aren’t difficult, and where I can feel like myself without having to try. Everyone has their own way to combat homesickness. For me, I let myself feel a little sad for a bit, and then I go for a walk in the old town or along the lake, reminding myself why I’m here in the first place.
But I think the more difficult pill to swallow is this one: accepting that the show goes on without you. People will still have birthdays and concert nights and wine nights and bachelorette weekends and new jobs and new babies and new relationships. Life doesn’t stop even though you aren’t there. It goes on. You aren’t irrelevant, but it can be easy to start feeling that way. I sometimes find myself wondering if I’m being forgotten. I know rationally that I’m not (sending out these blog newsletter helps to remember me, right? You are subscribed, right?), but this is why it is so important to keep connected to those important relationships in your life. You need them.
Things will just weigh you down
The more you move around, the more you realize you simply don’t need so many things. A big move generally requires an equally massive purge, as you try to par down all your belongs to fit into a couple suitcases (or if you are lucky, a small shipping crate). I remember when Raunaq and I were in the thick of this process in San Francisco, and I was overwhelmed and slightly disgusted by the amount of stuff we had bought and accumulated. So much STUFF. Moving abroad gave us an opportunity for a fresh, minimalist start. I felt the same way when I was backpacking, when everything I needed was literally on my back. It’s easy to get caught up in the consumer culture, especially in the United States. There is the consistent pressure to buy. Switzerland’s way of life may have been the forcing mechanism (I talk about why in this post here), and I’ll be the first to admit that not having access to Amazon helps! But since moving to Zurich, Raunaq and I have found ourselves just generally consuming less things. I’ve learned how to ask myself: what adds bulk, and what adds value? And, in doing so, found myself focusing more on creating instead of consuming. It’s been the most welcome change of pace. Less is more, my friends.
**Disclaimer: The one thing I did start buying like crazy once I moved was plants. The best type of home decor you can have, right? My goal is to turn our home into a jungle. Stay tuned.**
Continue to be intentional
I wasn’t expecting to hit a deep loneliness valley 11 months into our move. We had been in Zurich for nearly a year. I had made good friends, I had the train system down pat, I got accepted into graduate school, and best of all, the summer season was just coming alive. But a confluence of events and coincidences meant that for about 10 days, I was pretty much alone. And I felt not just alone, but for the first time, pretty lonely. In fact, I started writing my one-year reflection about moving during this time, and the entire first draft was about frustration and failures. I knew I wasn’t in the right headspace to accurately summarize my true thoughts. But I realized something those 10 days: I had stopped being intentional. I had stopped trying, I had stopped putting myself out there. I got comfortable and if I’m honest, I got a bit lazy.
Things aren’t going to just happen for you. You have to make them happen. Don’t be scared by the loneliness valley if it hits you - but try to understand what it is saying to you. For me, it was a reminder that this move was still a work in progress, and I had to continue to work to get to where I wanted to be.
Embrace the adventure
Can I get some wine to go with this cheese? The whole “life’s an adventure” saying might be one step removed from a “Life. Laugh. Love.” poster, and maybe it’s cliche and a bit trite, but you know what? It’s also true. Living outside your home country is a life-changing experience. It’s an opportunity to discover a new country, new language, new food, new culture, new perspective, new people. It’s a whole lot of fun. It’s challenging, and will take time, effort and some cajones getting out of your comfort zone, but one day, you’ll feel like you belong. It will become a home. And that’s a sense of achievement that will stay with you forever.
Here’s the thing. Of course, I’m writing this list through the lens of moving to a new country, and specifically, moving to Switzerland. But I think these are good concepts to keep in mind universally, no matter where you happen to be in life. It’s always a good idea to challenge yourself, to get yourself out of your comfort zone, to see other perspectives, to be kinder to yourself, and to get rid of the things weighing you down. You don’t need to move to foreign country for any of that. But hey, if any of you want to move to Switzerland, come on in. The water’s great!