Wednesday, July 3, 2013

So You're Going To Be An Expat?

This post is dedicated to Kate of Listography fame, from Kate takes 5. She is about to become an expat. An expat with kids. Always eager to help, I asked my wide circle of expat friends, via fb, to give me their top tips for new expats. As an expat myself of 25 years standing (England to Israel), I identified with everything they said. So here are my (and my friends') top tips for expat success.

1. The centre of your world is where you live. When you change where you live it takes time for your brain to re-centre your world to its new location. You feel disorientated, literally out of place. It can take a good couple of years to feel fully centred again.

To illustrate this, a friend of mine was asked by summer visitors if she was happy after being here for almost a year. She replied that it wasn't about being happy - this was the place they had to be. it was right for her family to be here. A year later those same summer visitors came again and asked if she was happy. She thought for a moment and said: It's a good life. The next year, almost three years after she'd arrived, the same summer visitors said they didn't need to ask. They could see in her face that she was happy.

Of course some people are deliriously happy from the moment they arrive but, as my friend Gilly from Brainstorm says, don't underestimate how long it can take to adjust.

2. It might help to approach the new life as one long holiday adventure but if you are planning to stay for any length of time this won't help you to ultimately feel at home. You don't want to spend your whole life as an outsider. My friend Keren David lived in Amsterdam and befriended a group of expats there. One serial expat gave her the following advice. Approach the place as if you will be spending the rest of your life there. She meant to learn the language, make local friends, get involved in the community. You may intend to stay for only a few years but what if it's extended? You could live for 10 or more years on the fringes of society because you'd put your life on hold for the duration of this 'holiday'.

3. Obviously the first thing is to get the family settled and into their new frameworks of schools and jobs. It's easier if you have a job yourself but, as Gilly said, SAHMs have the hardest time because there is no ready made community network that you are a part of. You need to find something to do that gets you out and about, interacting with the locals and making a life for yourself outside of enabling the other family members to live their lives.

4. Take a crate of whatever comfort food you need - Cadbury's chocolate, English tea, Heinz salad cream, Branston Pickle, cheddar cheese, whatever your favourites are.

5. Book your next trip home so that you have a date to keep you going when you feel homesick. And, as soon as you are settled, invite your closest family and friends to visit. Start booking them in according to how much room you have and how much time you want to give them. Low cost flights mean that most people could manage a long weekend at some point. This will make you feel still connected to home without the cost of actually going there. Do both of these things for the children too. You will only be as happy as your unhappiest child so do whatever it takes to make them happy.

6. On the other hand - don't be a sitting duck for other people's cheap holidays. Your nearest and dearest may be welcome but don't start putting up every friend of a friend for a few days throughout the summer - unless you are running a guesthouse and they are paying.

Slightly less intrusive (but only slightly) you also have to be careful of people holidaying locally who call and say, 'we're staying nearby (this means within 100 miles), can we come and visit?' (This could mean for the day.) You could end up making dinner for guests every other night in the high season. And even if you suggest they meet you at a local eatery, they may think you invited them and you are paying. One friend of mine has drinks on her terrace once a week from 8.30 till 10 pm. She puts out a few nibbles and asks guests to bring a bottle. That's the invitation, take it or leave it.

7. Don't dwell on the differences between here and there. It's not there, it's here and it's not pretending to be there. Focus on the good things. Adapt yourself to the more irritating things. Bureaucracy is burdensome wherever you are and moving countries is full of paperwork and getting connections sorted. Aim to accomplish one thing a day. Get to the office early and take a book to read while you wait. If you accomplish two or more things in one day that's fantastic but don't kill yourself trying. Go with the flow.

8. Find an expat friend or two to advise and help you. Ask them for the names of their plumber, electrician, carpenter, doctor, dentist, language teacher, pool person (if you're lucky enough), car mechanic, hairdresser, etc... Invaluable. Expat friends, especially ones from your home country, can fill the gap of childhood friends - they share your cultural references and collective memory. They can make easy company. As Gilly said, you can make a new life but you can't make a new history to share with friends.

9. Language is the key to everything. If you learn their language the locals will respect you for it and accept you into their communities.

10. Consider the concept of first-year friends. When you arrive you must befriend everyone who's willing to be friendly. You don't know them at all but you need friends and whoever is around gets the job. After a year or so you get to know who your real friends are going to be and who you really connect with. It's a process but first-year friends are essential even if you know very quickly that these are not your soul mates or going to be your forever friends.

11. On the other hand, don't have an affair with a local until you understand the culture better. This is more for singles who might get swept off their feet by some loser and not realise who they are contemplating marrying.

12. Every expat deserves cable television. You can also download, for example, expatshield in order to watch the BBC on your computer.

I'm sure there's more. Thanks to all my friends who contributed their wisdom to this post. And thanks in advance to any expat readers who can add to the list in the comments below.

Have wonderful new life Kate. xxx


  1. Brilliant advice my expat pal! Particularly agree with the advice of getting out into the community and integrating. Sticking with the expats and moaning about what you miss from home may feel reassuring at the time but will leave you with a homesickness hangover! Vx

    1. Thanks Vix, homesickness hangovers - I like that.

  2. Great post. Just wanted to clarify: Minot against a fling if everyone involved knows it's a fling--but I'd wait until I I ew the culture better before entering a serious relationship.

  3. I am still dealing with no.1 to be honest. Some very valuable tips here. Good luck Kate! :)

    1. I'm also dealing with no. 1 to some extent and I've been here 25 years!

  4. Thank you so much for writing this - all fabulous advice. I look forward to adding to it once I've learned my own lessons...Not long now!

  5. I'm very excited for you. It will be a great adventure and I look forward to reading all about it. xxx