expat

Ah, jeez. So, I guess it has been a while since I last published a post around here. I didn’t really plan for this to happen and yet I don’t feel guilty. I’ve been sorting out some new and exciting stuff coming up, but I’m not ready yet to put it all out there – so lets just pretend that I never really stepped away from here, yes? 

I promise to share a post about what I’ve been up to while I was away as soon as things have slightly settled! 


I recently came across a brilliant quote from Chris Guillebeau about living abroad:

“Beware of moving overseas! It’s tough, confusing, disorienting… and ultimately, extremely rewarding. When you move back home, if you ever do, you’ll be a different person than you were when you first left.”

Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-Conformity

This quote made me look back at all the worries and insecurities I felt before becoming an expat for the first time in 2009, and made me realise that, out of all my decisions, moving abroad has been one of the best ones in my life.

Expat life in Switzerland and the UK has been an adventure in itself and, while I might not call myself an expert, I love giving advice to new London expats and friends moving abroad. Below you’ll find tips I wish I had known before I first left my home country (admittedly, I really didn’t know much back then!).

Invest in experiences over possessions

Lavaux, Switzerland

While it may seem tempting to invest your hard earned expat salary in furnishing your new apartment and making it feel homely, you should look at your time as an expat as an opportunity to not only explore a new country and region, but also a new you. Take this time to accumulate experiences rather than things. Because, well, even a bad experience eventually becomes a good story!

Try anything and everything that sounds interesting to you. Take a road trip to the next town. Start that french cooking class. Learn about the regional wine. Sign up for ice skating, architectural sketching, climbing. Join an improv group or a band. Become a volunteer or a mentor. Whatever it is that you fancy – give it a try.

But don’t just take my word on this: Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, has been studying the question of money and happiness for over two decades. His studies confirm that our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our things!

Learning the language is not easy

Cadaqués, Costa Brava (Spain)

Simply being in a new country will not make you fluent. You won’t just soak up the local language – even if you already knew a few phrases before landing (though – wouldn’t that be nice?).

Learning a new language takes time and dedication so the earlier you start learning and speaking the better! 

“Whether you learn it or not depends on your commitment, not on changing your latitude and longitude.”

– Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

One of my biggest regrets from my 2 years in Switzerland was not learning enough french to call myself fluent. I moulded myself into a thriving expat community, surrounding myself with others that either spoke English, Spanish or German (or a combination of any of those three).

I kept on postponing my lessons. Whenever I spoke french, I was conscious of my mistakes and cave man style and tried to limit its use to extreme cases only. When I finally began to open up and take the language journey more seriously, it was time for me to move to London.

So here’s my advice: start now – learn before arriving, speak at any opportunity, make mistakes and don’t give up.

Learn to laugh about yourself

Skiing in Lech, Austria

Never did a simple trip to the supermarket become as embarrassing as my very first attempt to ask for a bin bag in Lausanne. After walking around the shop for about 20 minutes, I lost my patience and decided to ask for help. I crafter a story about an item in the kitchen that stores things you no longer want that is later on picked up by a “big car”. At first, I received blank stares. Later on, laughs! Joining the laughs was what kept me going. 

As an expat (or, well, a foreigner), you are an easy target. You’re new, you don’t understand how things work, you have a funny accent, eat strange stuff (morcilla, anyone?) and have weird customs. Heck, even after years of living in the same country, you may still suddenly realise that you’ve actually been pronouncing something wrong for the past 25 years (that’s right – I actually spent 25 years asking for biscuits instead of biskits!).

You’re going to have many embarrassing moments (and usually want to run back home right after). Don’t act defensively – just laugh about it and move on!

PS: I also spent 25 years saying Greenwitch instead of Grehnitch and Edinburg instead of Edinburrá (which got me into a heated argument because – why?) and I still can’t get myself to say kei-oss instead of kaos (chaos). Oh well.

Surround yourself with positive people

Torres del Paine, Chile

You’ll find negative people anywhere – at home and abroad. You’ll have people back home telling you that you’re wasting your talent and potential abroad. That you’ll never be able to have the same career progression in a foreign country. In your new adopted home, you might encounter locals and expats that are tired of life and insist in telling you about all the things that are wrong.

You can’t avoid running into them, but trust me, when you’re still adapting to a new country, you don’t need all this negativity in your life. Instead, surround yourself with positive people who are flexible, open and up for any adventure.

These people will be your strongest pillars and the main reason you’ll make it through the toughest expat days – the homesick days (see more on this below).

Feeling homesick is normal

Masca, Tenerife (Spain)

 Maybe it’s the morning fog, the crowds, the commute and the constant stress. Maybe it’s because I can’t seem to get out of eating al desko (because that’s really a word). Maybe I miss the warmth, humidity and weekend siestas. Maybe it’s because I miss my small family. Or maybe it’s because of Facebook. Because I realise I have missed friends’ weddings, birthdays and baby showers and wonder: did they miss me? I don’t know what causes it – it could really be anything. All I know is that, even after nearly 13 years away from home, I still get homesick.

Homesickness is, indeed, quite widely spread among expats. From my personal expat experience I would suggest that, in order to get through homesickness, you understand the emotion, accept it as part of the expat experience and don’t let it sink you. After all, feeling homesick simply means you miss something or someone that you love!

What advice would you give a new expat? Or, otherwise, what are your worries as a new / future expat? 

Masca, Tenerife (Spain)

Where is home?

Have you ever hesitated in answering this question? I certainly have. Home might be where my belongings are, but this place differs from where my family and many friends are, too. Is it really home, if your family is over 5000 km away? Can I call it home, if I don’t always feel that I belong in my adopted country?

While living abroad is at times an exciting and enriching experience, it’s also challenging. There are times I feel dislocated. Misplaced. I’m neither here nor there. I’m in some kind of expat limbo. I’ve watched friends getting married, having children and buying flats (things that technically help to define home), while I’m slowly approaching 31 without anything tangible to settle with.

This makes me wonder – what makes home, home?

Lavaux, Switzerland

As a third-culture kid, I’m used to living in this grey zone in-between cultures, never entirely feeling part of any of them. And expatriate living only accentuates this further. I’ve learned to adapt quickly to other cultures but nowhere feels completely like home. I am different people, split between different places, and the longer my expat journey goes on, the less I recognise myself in one particular place. 

I have met fellow expats that have felt the call to settle down in their adopting countries. I haven’t yet felt that call. I love studying new languages, the thrill of getting around a new city, a new culture, making friends around the globe and collecting all these life changing stories. The thought of choosing one place among all unsettles me.

London, UK

My roots are divided. Home, to me, is both here and there. Some days I feel Spanish, some days I feel German. Some days I miss Switzerland terribly, some I fall in love with London all over again. And then there are days like today – days during which I long for a place I haven’t yet been. If home is where your heart is, then my home is in every place I leave a piece of my heart in. 

And truthfully, my heart belongs to the World. 

What defines home to you?


 

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Next month, it’ll be 5 years since I landed my first real job and moved abroad without a clear idea of when I would return.

Lavaux, Switzerland

Lavaux’s vineyards became my weekend escape

I remember the blend of contradicting feelings I had when I formally accepted that first job offer in Lausanne, Switzerland. On one side, I was happy to have a job in the field I wanted and excited about all the new experiences ahead of me. On the other, though, I was worried I wasn’t good enough for the job and wouldn’t fit into the new culture.

I was moving long-term to a new city, in a new country. I didn’t know anyone nor did I speak the language. And yet, I had to hit the ground running.

Skiing in Chamonix, France

Even better than hitting the ground running, was hitting it skiing

As I settled into my life in Switzerland, I learned a lot about self-sufficiency. Sometimes, I learned it the hard way – like that time I had to kick someone out of my flat using all the French words I had learned over those 2 years. But most of the time, all those new challenges – like flat hunting, moving or going to a doctor – were easier than I had thought.

Moving abroad has taught me a lot about what I can accomplish by myself once I break outside my comfort zone and step into the new and unknown. With every step I take outside, my comfort zone expands – and the more it expands, the bigger and more powerful the experiences I live.

Es Ram, Formentera, Balearic Islands (Spain)

Like that time I escaped the crowds in Formentera, Spain

At times, returning to Spain seems like an incredibly appealing idea – Spain is, after all, the heart of my comfort zone and London is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what I feel comfortable with – It’s noisy, big and crowded. But this kind of daily challenge keeps me on my toes. It pushes me to continue learning, developing and adapting every day.

London Eye, London (UK)

Of course, not all learning paths are a straight line. I have struggled, failed repeatedly and made a fool of myself – but most of the time I have come out on the other side knowing that this struggle has helped me grow and develop my strengths.

I don’t know how long I will continue in London or where I would go next if an opportunity rose. But I do know that I’m not done with being an expat – and I’m not sure I ever will.

In which ways has living abroad expanded your comfort zone?


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You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear.

Stephen Covey – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

After reading Sammy’s article on expatriate friendship, I took some time to look back at all the friends I’ve made during my years of expatriation. Some of us moved for career opportunities, others have been fuelled by pure wanderlust. But the truth is – it takes determination to leave a predictable life behind to jump into a pool of uncertainty and challenges.

They see challenges as opportunities

Mirador Las Torres, Torres del Paine (Chile)
My hike to Mirador Las Torres in Chile has been the most challenging hike so far.

Some of us see challenges as these maddening obstacles that keep us from where we really want to be. Some even feel so frustrated by them that they abandon their goal alltogether. Others, though, have learned to see challenges as opportunities to grow and learn, to strengthen ourselves. The difference between these two is a small shift in perception.

As an expat, each move will force you to learn almost everything from zero. Where can I buy a lightbulb? How do I say lightbulb in this new language? Where do I find an electrician that installs it? Is this price reasonable or am I being scammed?

There are times when these challenges might take the best of us and make us want to return to the comfort of home – but us expats, we hang in there and see these batches as opportunities to learn something new and test ourselves. In fact, there will come a point where challenges excite us.

They adapt to change

Huangzhou, China
I would probably find China not easy to adapt to – but wouldn’t say no to the challenge!

Flexibility and adaptability is the willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone and learn to adapt to the surrounding changes.

Expats keep an open mind and learn to adapt their behaviour to meet local policies and cultural norms. They make an effort to understand the habits of their adoptive home country, and understand the culture and lifestyle of its people.

Movine to another country will probably mess up with the routine you had in place in your home country – For instance, when I first moved to Switzerland, I had to learn to preplan my week’s food as most of the grocery stores closed before I left work. In London, I had to learn to become more of a morning person than ever before, considering that my commute went from a 10 minute walk in Switzerland to a 50 minute combined walk and tube ride in London.

They take (reasonable) risks

Los Gigantes, Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain)
Seeing the statistics of hikers hurt climbing down the Masca Ravine, I knew there was a risk – but it was one I was absolutely willing to take.

I once read that the main difference between entrepreneurs and project managers was that, while project managers are risk averse and try to control every bit of it, entrepreneurs are willing to take reasonable risks to explore options and test their ideas.

Expats are like entrepreneurs – we are willing to explore and test ourselves taking reasonable risks (and each one of us knows which risks are within reason – as these vary greatly for each one of us). Reasonable risks for one may be to try local food or to experience a tradition of their new home country. For someone else, it might be to drop a well-paying job at home to try their luck in a country they’ve always wanted to live in.

As in any risk (as small as it may be) – there’s a chance of failure. Expats learn from their mistakes and don’t let them lead their way. We get up, shrug it off and always maintain this sense of curiosity and wonder that keeps us continuing taking small risks.

They are not afraid to ask questions

Lavaux vineyards, Switzerland
I was the one always asking for tips on new places to visit around Lausanne, Switzerland – and that’s how I discovered Lavaux (one of my favourite hotspots so far!).

Expats are curious and interested in learning something new. We are also often stuck wondering how to navigate the daily tasks in a new country – Which is the best bank to open an account with? Where do I buy milk on a Sunday? Is this neighbourhood safe? Where can I find a taxi? Or, how do I spell my new street name to the cab driver?

We can’t (and won’t) figure it all out by ourselves, so we reach out to fellow expats, locals or pretty much anyone who’s willing to help.

They are patient

Sunset in Phuket, Thailand
It takes a lot of patience (and mosquito bites) to get to admire a sunset like this one in Thailand.

Starting a life from scratch in a new environment takes a lot of time and energy. Acclimmatisation will not happen from one day to another. Expats usually go through 4 phases of culture shock and, depending on individual experiences, reaching the feeling of truly belonging to this new country may take years of work.

It takes time (and effort!) to become fluent in a new language, to make a new group of friends and to feel at home in a new country. There are a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunications as well as terribly awkward moments, we learn from our mistakes and keep working hard. We know that persistence and determination will help us to reach our goal.

What other habits do you believe highly effective expats have?

I’m writing this posts from my large and bright bedroom overlooking a beautiful park south west of London. I’ve been living here for 1.5 years – which I’m quite sure is the longest I have stayed in the same flat (and neighborhood) for the past 7 years. Everything I bought and created to turn this place into my new home is now slowly being wrapped up again, ready to start a new beginning in yet another flat (and neighborhood) in London.

In the 2.5 years I’ve lived in the city, I’ve already lived in 3 (and soon 4) flats. I’ve gone from living in a studio close to Notting Hill (West London) during my first month in the city, to surrounding myself with top hipsters in Hoxton area (North East London) to finally settling for a bit longer in laid-back Clapham (South West). While always stressful and mostly frustrating, moving around in London has been a good thing – every move has taught me a valuable lesson:

Lesson 1: If you don’t like crowds, avoid famous neighbourhoods

Sunset from Chelsea Bridge, London

I’ve learned that Notting Hill, though beautiful, is too crowded for me – and thanks to this and working close to Oxford Circus, I realised that I actually have a problem with crowds, specially when they involve a majority of tourists (even after having developed the power of precognition).

Famous neighbourhoods such as Notting Hill also tend to have quite a heavy price markup on their flats. You’re paying for being close to Portobello Road – the heart and essence of Notting Hill (the neighbourhood and the movie).

Lesson 2: Don’t follow a trend – find your own style

Richmond Park, London

I moved to Hoxton because I was told so. All I knew at that time is that I didn’t want to live somewhere crowded. I was going to move in with one of my best friends, who continuously mentioned places like Old Street, Hoxton and Angel. I followed along – after all, I was the newbie.

Although the area was great for being next to the Regents Canal and some of the coolest underground bars in the city, I felt like an outsider among so much trendiness. I love to go for to the area for a dinner or drinks, but couldn’t imagine calling it home.

Lesson 3: If you find an area you like and can afford, stay

Stormy London (UK)

This sounds like common sense, but it wasn’t immediately what crossed my mind. One of the reasons I am moving once again is because, ever since my career change into something more creative than finance, my flat takes away more than 60% of my monthly income. Taking into account my monthly travel card and other living essentials, and I have been ending each month with an empty account. I had nothing left for savings. And even worse – there was nothing left for travel either.

I desperately looked for flatshares in the same postcode (postcodes are king in the UK), but all I could find was either flat shares with 5 or more people or rooms in the same price range I am currently paying. I started to lose hope and opened myself to other areas. I went to Putney Bridge, Parsons Green and even had a look around Richmond. I was devastated – not because I thought these places were wrong, but because I was sad to leave a neighbourhood I loved.

With so many changes and so much uncertainty in my life, I wanted to hold onto the one thing I could possibly keep constant.

I eventually found a room in a flat share closeby. A different postcode *sigh*, but a pretty, modern and more affordable flat nonetheless – only a 5 minute walk away from the park I currently overlook from my bedroom. I couldn’t be happier!

Practical Information

Finding a Neighbourhood (or Borough)

  • London’s Crime Map – This map shows in colour code which areas have had high / average / low crime (you can even see the trend of different types of crime in each area.
  • London Commuting Times Map – This one shows you the commuting time you can expect to central London. This obviously depends widely on where in central London you’re commuting to, but it’s a good start.
  • London’s Tube Map – An all times essential. To avoid long and tedious commutes, make sure to check the transportation links that best connect you to work / school. Some tube lines are more reliable and faster than others!
  • A Guide to London’s 33 Boroughs – This map shows all 33 boroughs. When clicking on one, a short descriprion appears, as well as links to its attractions, restaurants, shops, etc.

Whenever possible, I highly recommend to visit the neighbourhood you’re looking at during the day as well as night. Imagine yourself building a routine – do you have a supermarket? a gym? what are the people like?

Finding a flat or flatshare in London

  • For flatshares: Spareroom and Gumtree. Spareroom also offers the possibility to buddy up (find other people looking for a room in a shared apartment).
  • For flats / apartment rentals: Rightmove or Zoopla.

Note that most of the flats listed are managed by a letting agent – so be aware that a number of fees will apply. Agency fees vary greatly among agents and could include (among others): inventory check fee, credit check fee, contract amendment fee and management fee.

Rental prices are usually shown as GBP per week (pw) while being paid per month (pcm). To calculate the monthly equivalent, you only have to multiply this amount by 52 (weeks) and divide it by 12 (months). Voilà!

Other bills to consider

  • Electricity
  • Heating – Victorian houses, although beautiful and romantic, are usually very badly isolated so your heating bills will probably be higher than in a new development.
  • Council Tax – This is a monthly tax based on the size of your flat and its borough. Wandsworth is the borough with the lowest council tax, while Richmond Upon Thames has one of the highest ones. You can check this borough comparison map from Natwest to get a general idea of the yearly costs.
  • Internet / Phone – Before choosing a broadband, I recommend to check Uswitch to compare all the current offers and check which broadband has the best reach in your postcode.
  • TV License – It is obligatory to pay for a TV license (don’t worry about finding out when and how – they usually send you a letter within days of your move to a new flat!). The license is not only needed for TV, but also required if you have a computer and an internet connection. Pretty much everyone is liable.
  • Water

Today marks the one week count-down to my departure from Barcelona. Aside from a week exploring Costa Brava and another week back home in Tenerife, I have no further travel plans. Nor life plans, as a matter of fact. I am moving out of Barcelona and into some kind of expat limbo.

It feels wrong, but also right – for the first time, I don’t have a plan (a major accomplishment for someone who tends to pre-plan everything up to her free time).

Swing dancers in Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

Barcelona has been an unforgettable and highly rewarding experience. I fell in love with the City the first day I arrived and have never felt any other way. I know I could live here for the rest of my life.

So then, why leave?

There are still many places I want to explore and many experiences I want to live before returning to Spain. I want to spend time indulging in outdoor sports and nature, learn a new language and be inspired by other cultures. I want to continue to evolve and be challenged by the World – adopting new skills, interacting with new people and adjusting to new cultures.

Certainly one of the traits (or possibly drawbacks) of being a Gen Y – seeking for constant newness.

What next?” is a question that has been popping up for the past month at least once a day. The truth is: I have no idea what I’m doing next. My Excel Planner – a financial manager’s alternative to an old-fashioned notebook – is overflowing with tabs, color codes, lists and calculations. My calendar shows a wedding in India late November that I can’t yet RSVP to due to not knowing which country or even continent I’ll be flying from. This is what Barry Schwartz must have meant with The Paradox of Choice.

September 25th, the deadline I’ve set to make a decision, is quickly approaching. In the meantime… any suggestions?

How do you choose a neighborhood in a city you’ve never visited before? How do you know whether you could fit in or will always be a stranger?

Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

Choosing a neighborhood in Barcelona was definitely no easy decision for me. While looking for rooms on a budget and having to rely on pictures and descriptions on the internet, I admit I was worried about ending up in a rough area. Or somewhere far from all the happenings. Or what’s even worse: in the heart of all the happenings. It’s not easy to decide where to live if you haven’t visited the city before.

Of course, some research beforehand narrowed the alternatives. But at the end – What really makes me feel at home is a place that fits me. And that, I could only find out once I was in Barcelona.

Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

Maybe I had great advisors in London, or maybe it was just damn good luck – but somehow I’ve got the feeling that, for the first time, I’ve found my place at the very first try.

Vila de Gràcia used to be the central area of an independent village called Gràcia. Barcelona slowly grew in dimensions by absorbing many of these independents villages that surrounded the city back in the XIX century. Gràcia, I was told, was one of the last villages to become part of the city – which is one of the reasons why it still has a village atmosphere. Neighbors recognize each other at the bakery and milk shops (well yes, there are milk shops!) and kids play football on their local square while their parents drink a cold caña and catch up.

In fact, you can still overhear older residents talking about baixar a Barcelona (which means going down to Barcelona in Catalan), as if they were outside the city.

Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

Vila de Gràcia belongs to the District of Gràcia which, while being one of the smallest districts in Barcelona, is also one of the most complete ones. As a friend recently told me: there’s no reason to leave Gràcia unless you are consciously looking for it. Everything you need is at arm’s length. Fashion, sport, nature, architecture, food and culture all melt together in an area of little more than 4km².

This closeness and village feel was exactly what I loved about living in Lausanne and later on made me move from East London to the South West.

Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

I know for certain that this place fits me and I equally fit it.

What do you like about your neighborhood? What makes you feel like it fits?

Life rarely goes as planned

Swing dancers in Vila de Gracia, Barcelona

The day I quit my job in the finance to pursue a career in corporate communications and events, I knew it was going to be tough to adjust to my new lifestyle lifestyle. I knew I would have to climb down a few steps of the corporate ladder and adjust my expenses to a lower salary.

But what I did fail to think of back then was how hard it would be to get a job in a new industry in the first place.

Although I secured a 3 month internship to gain industry experience, I know that this is only temporary and soon, I’d be facing uncertainty again.

Do this, move there, give up or go home.

BCN2013

My worries had been blurring my vision. I wrote lists of options, pros and cons and juggled with my future. The easy choice was to quit London and move somewhere else. The more painful alternative was to stay in London and continue to send out numerous job applications hoping to get a response.

None of them felt quite right.

And then I realised there was a third alternative. I reached out to my network – friends, alumni, family. If I could get one more experience in the industry, I would, hopefully, be fit for London’s competitive job market. Soon after I started, things began to fall into place – I got in touch with someone I knew from Uni who had also changed career paths and had landed a job in a small events agency in Barcelona. A few calls later, I got a temporary contract to work at the 15th FINA World Swimming Championships!

So, what’s next?

Cadaqués, Costa Brava (Spain)

For the next four months, I’ll be living and working in Barcelona. Sure, at the moments it’s something temporary – but it’s also the invaluable industry experience I am currently short of. It’s 4 months in a city I had never visited before, so I’m surely covering my need of travel and adventure as well. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that this city happens to be in the Mediterranean coast side and offer some of my favourite dishes in every corner bar (pincho de tortilla, anyone?).

In contrast to many bloggers that make a living out of their travels, I travel internationally because I have job, live frugally and save money for my adventures. I might have been able to live this lifestyle from my home island, but I chose against it. After all, despite not being a full-time traveler, I do consider myself a traveler of sorts. An expatriate traveler, maybe.

Rainbow after the Rain, LondonThe view from my previous office.

I enjoy taking time to explore a place and experience the local culture, but also like having a routine and pursuing my career, which is one of the many reasons for which I chose to become an expat. Many believe that moving abroad is risky and reckless:

You should be grateful: There are thousands of candidates that would kill for your job

Don’t be foolish: It’s already hard enough to get a job at home – you are doomed to fail if you try abroad

It will kill your career: You will go backwards in your career as you will have to accept a lower position and lower pay

Sure, moving abroad is challenging. There were times that I’ve felt frustrated, misunderstood and lonely. There were times I’ve even hated my adopting countries, and could only think of packing my bags and go home. After over 5 years of living abroad, though, I’m still an expat – and can’t imagine wanting life any other way.

I’m a firm believer of working and living abroad as a way to not only growing personally, but also professionally. I will write about the personal level some other day, but for now, here are the 5 reasons why moving abroad will help you professionally:

It proves flexibility.

Having the courage to up your sticks and move to not only a different company but a different country all in proves the ability to adapt to diverse work places. Having worked in 3 countries (Spain, Switzerland and the UK) I can assure you that each of them has different conditions and a contrasting approach to work.

I admit that, when I moved to London, one of the hardest things to get used to was commuting. I felt as if 1.5hrs to 2hrs of each work day were completely wasted. You see, a 45 minute commute to work in Switzerland was a sin – hardly anyone lived further than a 15 min drive away from the office. In London though, a 45 minute commute is completely normal (and almost a privilege!). I had to learn how to make commuting work best for me. The same goes for lunch breaks!

It increases your cultural awareness.

At first, I found the UK an odd place to work. People didn’t arrive on time – they arrived before time. The offices were mostly quiet spaces, interrupted by the fast tipping of its employees. In the kitchen, there was always someone looking outside the window and grumbling something about the weather.

It’s a cultural thing. The english value their time. If their work hours are from 8am to 6pm, they will do everything to avoid spending any minute after 6pm in the office. I can now perfectly understand this culture and am not shocked anymore – if I still have a long commute home after work, I will also want to get out of there, pronto.

You will learn how to communicate better.

I’m sure you’ve seen this: a communication misunderstanding that took a complete different route than it should have taken. E-Mails, specially, can be dreadful – is he/she ok with it or just being sarcastic? what exactly does he/she refer to with this request?

Add a group of co-workers that have english as their second (or third!) language and you’ll quickly learn how important it is to express yourself politely but clearly. You’ll become more patient and understanding, and will develop an important 6th sense: you’ll learn to perfectly grasp puzzled sentences from non-native english speakers.

You will build an international network.

Having friends spread around the World is damn cool, but having an international network of professional contacts is equally important. Previous professors, managers, co-workers, suppliers and clients; as well as people they have met in conferences, dinners and drinks – all of these are potential employers, business partners, mentors and friends.

A globalized agenda of contacts will open more doors than you could ever imagine.

You might even learn a new language.

There are plenty of non-english countries in which english is widely spoken for business, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Geneva. This would allow you to pursue and practice your french or chinese, without the initial language barrier affecting your career. Then there is Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, where the normal level of spoken english on is almost fluent, too. Even in countries that are known for a lesser level of english (ehem, Spain for example), you can find companies that work in english – it only takes some research!

Have you ever worked abroad? What skills do you think you’ve improved from this experience?

One of the many advantages of visiting a friend living abroad is that, after a short time, you can already get a grip of his or her daily life in this city. You’ll quickly understand which aspects they enjoy the most and which drive them mad.

After only 6 days in Shanghai, I already had built my thoughts over the city and the life I would live if I moved in for a few months time.

The Great

Shanghai's Skyline, from Bar Rouge

  • The Rooftops. I admit it – over the years, I’ve become a bar snob. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy drinks at the local pub. But give me leather sofas, a terrace, a breath-taking view, and an extensive cocktail menu… and I’m sold. I hardly ever step into these places in London (probably because the weather isn’t always good for outdoor lounges and because drinks are prohibitively expensive), but be assured that I would become a regular at Shanghai’s rooftops.
  • Beauty and Well-Being is affordable. During our 6 days in Shanghai, we managed to squeeze in a foot massage, a full body massage, a mani and a pedi. If I’d live there, I would probably make massages a weekly habit – who wouldn’t, for less than 20 USD?

The Good

  • Getting around. Shanghai, compared to Beijing, is fairly walkable. There are some beautiful parks and many leafy streets that allow pedestrians to walk in the shadow on those hot summer days. Being the largest city by population in China, with over 23m people, it cannot be compared to the walkability of Stockholm, of course. You can’t expect to go without public transport! However, public transport works well and is also very affordable.
  • Restaurant diversity. As a tourist, restaurant diversity isn’t something you particularly appreciate in a city – after all, tasting local food is part of the experience. And let me tell you – the Chinese have some really tasty dishes, but they also have quite exotic menus. So, when you’re expecting to stay for a longer period of time, having other cuisines at your disposal (maybe even your home food!) will make it easier to adapt.
  • The culture. China’s culture is very different from anything I had lived before, it’s fascinating. There are so many things to learn from it! If I lived in Shanghai, I know I would sign up for a dumplings master class, I would pick up Kung Fu and do Tai Chi in the park.

The Bad

Funny Chinese Signs

  • The Language barrier. Imagine you’re on your way to a stylish restaurant, and suddenly come across this sign. What do you expect? A toilet? A restaurant? A restaurant serving delicious food in a toilet? Chinese is hard to learn, and not all Chinese people will speak perfectly english. This makes daily life much more challenging!
  • Giving up your personal space. The first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped into Shanghai’s Airport was the amount of people – it was very crowded. I soon learned that this was not particular to the airports – but anywhere you’ll go. People grew up with little space and therefore, their concept of personal space is different from mine. They are more comfortable with up-close and personal interaction, so it’s common to notice people staring and pointing at you, pushing you in a line or looking over your shoulder to see what you’re doing. Having trouble not freaking out in Oxford Circus during lunch time… I doubt I could do this for too long in Shanghai.
  • The Goodbyes. This is something common to all big cities that have a wide expat community – expats often don’t stay more than a year (specially in developing countries), so even though it’s fun to constantly meet new faces… It is also tough and daunting to say goodbye to the friends you’ve made. I’ve been living away from home for 10 years now, and goodbyes haven’t become any easier…

The Ugly

Shanghai Skyline

  • Traffic, pollution and fearing for your life. Traffic is a big issue in Shanghai – there a re just far too many cars! Traffic jam is a common problem at any time of the day. As a pedestrian, you should never assume that green light actually gives you the right-of-way. I learned that, specially bus and taxi drivers, hardly ever obey traffic lights… which makes every road cross a scary adventure.
  • The ultimate culture shock. Before traveling to China, many people warned me about some of the customs that are different from the western World – the concept of private space just being one of them. The constant spitting is probably something I wouldn’t necessarily get used to over time, together with having children pee or poo in the streets or tube stations!

Have you been to China? What other things would you add to this list?

I switched cities when I turned 18. Sunny Tenerife for busy Valencia (and shortly after, even busier Madrid). At that time, I had to say goodbye to people I cared about – to friends I grew up with, to my closest family.

Hiking in Tenerife, Spain

I knew I was returning eventually – for summer holidays, Christmas, Easter and the occasional long weekend. But with time, these home visits became less frequent. Time had grown me apart from the island and so to most of my friends in it. We went separate ways and, although I do keep in touch with some of them, I must admit, I haven’t seen them in almost 3 years now.

Distance is the greatest test of friendship

It is easier to feel your heart close to someone who lives right around the corner (or, well, at least in the same city). In the moment the physical distance between you becomes larger, it won’t take long to realize whether they are one of your friends that you can count in one hand.

It’s true that proximity plays a very important role in friendships. Living close by, studying the same subjects or working together gives you something in common and, overall, makes it convenient. This said, proximity isn’t all – A friendship based on post codes doesn’t have enough base to go through thick and thin.

Having been living away from home for the past 10 years, my friendships have been continuously challenged. I’d like to say that I’ve become less apprehensive to goodbyes, but I haven’t. I still board on planes with a tear rolling down my cheek after every adieu. Some of the people I’ve said goodbye to, I will possibly never meet again – they were convenient, temporary friends with nothing left to share but occasional Facebook messages. In other cases, though, distance has grown the relationship stronger than ever.

Birthday Flowers, all the way from NYC to London

So far, yet still so close

On the day of my birthday, I was surprised with these beautiful orchids. An even bigger surprise was to realize that they came from New York! (Ok, not literally, but you know what I mean…).

What I have learned during the last 10 years is that, when it comes to maintaining a strong friendship, it’s not about distance but about connection. If it’s strong enough, it will definitely survive any distance. In fact, some of my closest friends haven’t shared the same country of residence with me in the last 3 years.

Formentera, Spain

It’s hard to get used to this physical distance – not meeting for an after-work (or after-class) drink, not having brunch together on a sunday going over all the weekend happenings, not improvising a weekend escape. But when it comes to real friendships – those with whom you follow through a regular connection – this drawback is quickly topped with greater advantages:

  • You’ll always have a couch to crash on when you travel. In the past 7 years, I’ve visited cities in England, Portugal, France, Spain, Australia, Germany and Switzerland (among others) without having to spend money on accommodation!
  • You’ll have the best city guides. Friends might not always be city experts, but they are experts on you, are excited about your visit and hungry for discovery.
  • You’ll expand your global network. Put it this way: if every friend you have that has lived or is living abroad has at some point met other expats or locals that you meet when you go for a visit, you might as well be increasing your network of friends around the World (and maybe one of these new friends gives you tips for your next trip to Stockholm or puts you in touch with people in South Africa!).
  • Plus, you’ll never run out of anecdotes and stories to tell!

For me, the key to long distance friendships is closeness – via E-mail, Skype, Facebook or any other media possible – and finding a way to keep the excitement to know about each other, alive. Unexpected text messages starting with a “Remember when….?”. A very short visit (even when having less than 5 hours between 2 flights). Planning an exotic holiday (or, uhm, hen party) together. Sending a postcard from a place you’ve recently visited or a flower bouquet for a special occasion. With every detail, I feel closer to my friends – even when having oceans, mountains and uncountable times zones in between.

How do you keep your long distance friendships alive?

Lavaux, Switzerland

There are a few things I regret from my two years in Switzerland – like, not putting more effort on learning how to snowboard, or not going more often to the gym. Not practicing ice skating, because I didn’t dare to go by myself. Not traveling more around the country. And, also, not socialising with more Swiss, but limiting myself to the expat community in the area.

But there’s one thing I regret more than anything of the above:

Not learning enough french to call myself fluent

The Reasonable Explanation.

Two years in a french speaking location, and I’m not fluent. Embarrassing? Maybe. But let me share my ridiculous excuse reasonable explanation. Before moving to Switzerland, I wasn’t too much into french. At University, I gave it a try – but there was something in its silent vowels and consonants that I found a bit fishy. I never thought I could have as much grammatical errors as I had during french class. If the teacher would have counted -0.5 points for every mistake I had made, I’m pretty sure I would have had a -20 as my final exam grade. I’m grateful that our system only allowed teachers to grade us between 1 – the best – and 6 – the worst. Management instructed them to give an overall grade to the pupil. I’m quite sure that my french “r” had something to do with me passing the subject.

And then, there was the easiness of working in an international company, in a latin-american team. I never used french at work – not even when talking to french banks. I wasn’t forced into it. Instead, I was helped out of any trouble by a swiss colleague (who also speaks spanish). Whenever I had to write a formal letter to, say, apply for an apartment or demand a housing insurance, she was there to write it for me.

After one year making my way through the french part of Switzerland with little more than 40 words, I thought it was time to give french another chance. But then there were the unreasonable course timetables in any of Lausanne’s academies, which seemed to assume that those who want to learn french are anything but full-time employees. My variable work schedule with the increasing number of business travels didn’t go well with pricey regular group lessons.

That was when I discovered the language courses by Rosetta Stone, and practiced whenever I had time to do so. Ok, maybe not whenever I had time – as I had to share this time with blogging, traveling and socializing; but I did practice al least for one and a half hours twice a week from February until July 2011 – 6 fruitful months.

I did improve from my 30 words vocabulary during these two years (specially when I started using Rosetta Stone) – but by no means can I call myself fluent in french. Not even intermediate.

Why I regret it (so much).

There’s a very simple reason for french being on the top of my biggest regrets – I don’t have the verbal capacity to defend myself when I was attacked in french. Even at the end of my stay, I could form sentences that made sense and expressed my desire or needs – but I couldn’t find the words that would help me out in a confrontation.

Picture this. The day before I left my apartment, a moving company was taking down and wrapping up my furniture and packing all of my belongings into big boxes that, at the end of the day, would take a ride all the way to the UK. I had to be there all the time – in case they needed access to the basement or doubted of whether I wanted to take an item with me or could live without it for 19 days. The door to my apartment was wide open.

I was sitting outside on the balcony, trying not to disturb their efficiency (and accidentally tanning a tiny little bit), when I heard a female voice in my living room.

I went inside expecting to find the local representative of my relocation agency. Or, at most, someone from my current real estate agency, who wanted to keep an eye on what I was doing. Instead, I found a mid-aged lady followed by an older woman with a walking stick inspecting my apartment.

Me: “Excuse me, can I help you?” Great Start. There are 2 strangers in my apartment and all I can ask them is if I can help them – maybe a cup of tea?
Lady: “Oh, I believe you are the agent. Nice to meet you!” and reaches out her refined hand
Me: “Oh, no. I live here. This is my apartment. What do you want?”
Lady: “I saw an announcement to rent this apartment in the internet, called the agent, who told me to come by and take a look. He even gave me the code for the entry door, downstairs. I’m looking for an apartment for my mother, you see.”
Me: “That’s not possible. This apartment is already rented. I personally searched for the next tenant. He signed the contract about 2 months ago.”
Lady: smiles and says “Well, you don’t decide on this but the agent does” while she walked outside to my terrace, “Oh look! What a pretty view.”
Me: “Madame, this apartment is not in the market. Would you please leave my private property?” Wow. Just so much power and conviction in those words. I’d feel threatened.
Lady: “I demand to see this apartment!”
Me: “Excuse me?! You are in private property and you can’t demand anything. I demand you leave my apartment.” There. I just remember the french word for demand.
Lady: “It was the agency who sent me here. This is none of your business!” Wow. So now I don’t even have rights in my own house.
Me: “They are not the agent of this aparment”
Lady: “Yes they are.”

I considered grabbing her arm and dragging her out. Instead, I called my real estate agency and asked them to talk with the crazy woman who wouldn’t leave my apartment.

I knew I was right. I knew she was completely wrong. And still, I couldn’t make my point with enough conviction to make her leave ashamed and with her tail between her legs.

The Final Take.

So, after the lady had spoken during 10 minutes on my phone, with my real estate agent and my anger kept escalating soon reaching uncontrollable levels, I had the same thought bouncing in my head – Language courses should have a master class in biting back. After all – isn’t it us, the expats struggling with local language, that are so often taken advantage of? I bet that lady would have left my apartment in less than a minute if this had happened to me in Spain.

It’s language dominance what gives some people power and this feeling of being right against a foreigner. There are few things more frustrating than precisely that – understand the rude attitude but being unable to respond adequately to it.

And so I made a decision: it doesn’t matter if I am not in a french speaking country any more, I will still continue my course with Rosetta Stone. Hopefully, after completing all five levels and with a little help from some french-speaking friends, I’ll be ready to confront anyone who wants to fool me for being a foreigner.

Do you have any regrets from your life abroad?

How do you say Goodbye to a place that has been your home for two years. A place that has taught you many things – that has seen you rise professionally, has seen you mature and become independent. That has helped you to discover youself and develop new hobbies.

Well you can’t, really.

Instead, I’ll give it a see you soon, and will think of all the things that have made my life here beautiful.

Lausanne, Switzerland

Waking up with the sun shining on my bed. Walking to the office in the morning. In flip flops. Pain au chocolat and croissants from my favorite bakery. The owners of the little portuguese grocery shop, that greet me every morning. Fighting for fresh fruits every monday and thursday at work. My boss (a lot). The smell of mate in the morning. The view of the Alps from the kitchen window. Being able to complain about some moron (and even being encouraged to do so). Learning a new latin american expression every week. My work colleagues. Our common love for delicious food. Convincing them to ditch the gym and go and have a gourmet burguer at Holy Cow instead (it’s in the same direction anyways). Home-made Chilean empanadas. The so-called business walks. Engineering our way through the city to take as little hills as humanly possible possible. Having lunch in the park. Lazy afternoons.

Sunset in Lausanne (Switzerland)

Beautiful buildings and their romantic balconies. My safe, clean and quiet neighborhood. The fresh cut grass in the park. The careful and respectful drivers. The good faith of swiss people. Finding clothes and shoes in my size, even at the end of sales. Globus – and it’s Gourmet Supermarket. Saturdays street market. The cheese. The lebanese take away, which often gifted me with an extra dish or glass of wine, for free. The good taste of tap water. Making use of my french (now that I was finally picking up on the language!).

Crêpe in Lausanne, Switzerland

My apartment. The view from my bed. From my balcony. Sunbathing on my deckchair. My sun addiced neighbor (whenever I’m tanning, he’s too!) The Alps. The Lake. Sunsets from Vidy. Sailboats. The way in which the afternoon sun teints the Alps pink. My friends. BBQs at the lake until late at night. Drinking outside a bar on the pavement. Always meeting people I know in my usual pub. Always having a friend who’s up for a drink. Or a festival. Or a late night dinner. Eating too much raclette (and drinking even more wine). Cocktails at St Pierre’s (specially their custom made Bloody Mary), while playing board games on a rainy afternoon. Strawberry Vodka shots at Punk. The incredibly good looking swiss-french boys (who usually to sit or walk next to an incredible stylish and beautiful swiss-french girl). Walking everywhere, without worrying about safety.

Being so close to nature. The swiss railway. The demi-tarif, that got me moving around Switzerland always for half the price! The 10 minutes ride away to the vineyards in Lavaux. The 45 min ride to the nearest ski station. The snow (who would have said so!). People’s love for adventure. The crazy swiss who snowboard and ski down Lausanne’s steepest slopes. The way in which the city’s efficiency is not at all affected by the weather conditions. The charming little villages. How beautiful and peaceful the the streets look when they’re covered in snow.


I’m leaving on Wednesday. Until then, I’m making my best to visit, once more, my favorite places in the city, at my favorite meals and, specially, meet the friends I’ve met along my stay. Next time, I’ll be writing from London.

When Summer approaches, the only thing I can possibly think of is spanish food. Could there be anything that screams beach and sunshine more than a paella with meat and sea food?

I’m grateful for having found a bunch of people that feel the same way I do about food (and drinks) in Switzerland. People that, just as me, enjoy preparing copious meals just for the sake of it. People that prepare a paella with meat and sea food on a sunday, to share with a group of friends.

Spending a sunday afternoon getting tipsy on spanish wine and Orujo, talking about ingredients, cooking techniques and taste or texture preferences just felt great. Yes, I have been savoring some haute cuisine. Yes, I’ve also found spanish tapas near my work place.

What I didn’t find, until today, was the spanish attitude towards food, in general.

Switzerland enjoys a good meal, there’s no doubt about that – but once its finished, you’ll move on to the next activity. Spain, on the other hand, can spend 5 hours having lunch. Better – it can combine a lunch and a dinner, without ever leaving the table.

I’ve been keeping a secret from you, but can’t hold it back anymore.

I’m moving to London in September!

London Eye, London (UK)

I got the offer to move within the company and the current department I work for to London. Although the tasks and projects will still remain the same, this is a big jump in my career. In the new office, I will no longer have someone sitting next to me whom I could ask anything in case of doubt. I’ll be responsible to develop new business opportunities with UK-based bankers, I will be in between our in-house metals and energy traders and the external financing resources.

Thoughts and emotions have been roller-coasting in my head.

Can I hold up to my company’s expectations?
Do I want to move into the exact opposite of Switzerland?
Do I want to go through all the phases of culture shock, again?
Will I be able to deal with all the fog and rain?

Some of Switzerland’s characteristics I’ve loved before even arriving in the country, and others I’ve learned to appreciate with time. But, as any other place in the World, there are cultural aspects that, although I have partly learned how to live with, I do not share.

There will be countless peculiarities I’ll miss from Switzerland – more than I had ever thought I would – but there are also some luxuries I’ve missed from living in big cities. Not to mention about living in a country where I can make myself understandable without pointing on things and making ridiculous descriptions.