fluency

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? 

Phew, Five years – that’s easily said.

Lavaux, Switzerland

I first moved abroad when I was at University. Deciding to study European Business Management meant that half of my time would be spent abroad. For me, abroad was Germany. During this time, I also took the chance to do a 6 months internship in Zürich, Switzerland. I loved the city, the landscapes and the people I worked with and always promised myself I would return some day…

After graduating from my Master degree in Madrid, that opportunity came back to me: I had an offer to move back to Switzerland – this time, Lausanne. Even though it was hard to adapt to at the beginning, I fell head over heels with this lakeside city, its views over the french Alps and nearby vineyards. After two years, time had come to move on. And here I am, just celebrating the end of my 5th year abroad, from London.

So for this 5 year anniversary, I’ve prepared a list of 15 life lessons I’ve learned (some of them, the hard way).

  1. Ask questions. I used to be the sort of person at school that hoped for someone else to raise my question, or otherwise, ask after class to avoid possible embarrassment. The thing is: there is no reason to be embarrassed – There is really no such thing as a stupid question.
  2. Follow your gut. Whenever confronted with a decision that has to be made: follow your instinct. Something that doesn’t feel right is certainly wrong.
  3. If others think your ideas are crazy, then you must be on the right track. Not everyone will understand your choices and support your ideas. Don’t ever let this pull you down. The only reason to quit is because you feel it’s the right choice – not because others don’t believe in your dream.
  4. Do it, even if you don’t get paid for it. Getting paid to doing what you want is great, but very often you’ll have to start doing it, as I would say, por amor al arte (literally meaning for the love of art, or fun the fun of it).
  5. It’s OK to fail. You don’t have to be right the first time. You can be right the second. The third. Failures provide us with great learning experiences and prepare us for our big success. Never stop doing something because you’re afraid to fail – remember: the secret of winning is playing often.
  6. The most interesting experiences usually happen when you get off the beaten path. In your career and while traveling, it’s good and comfortable to have a plan – but always be ready to get off that plan whenever it feels right, as the best is waiting for you somewhere completely unexpected.
  7. Your reputation is the most valuable asset. After quitting your job or graduating from Uni, you might feel like throwing a nasty email to your boss or that competitive class mate, but this will never pay off enough to cover the huge hole you’re creating in your reputation. They say never burn the bridges. You never know when or where you’ll meet them again.
  8. You choose the way you view the World around you. A swiss village can be dead boring or incredibly charming. London can be too crowded or full of buzz. It is all in the eyes of the viewer.
  9. Laugh. Often. Laughter is the best medicine. Surround yourself with people who will make you laugh out loud and cry of happiness. I’m pretty sure you’ll have less wrinkles and live longer.
  10. Languages are a virtue. Languages take you to places. Today, it’s quite common to see job offers asking the candidate to be able to write and speak a second language – sometimes even a third. Even when english is widely spoken, languages are very much appreciated and will open many doors!
  11. Stereotypes are only that: stereotypes. We’ve all heard about them. Spaniards always sleep siestas. The swiss clockwork punctuality. German’s don’t joke and all Latin-Americans dance. Well let me tell you something: I know Spaniards that don’t take naps, swiss that were late and germans that made me pee in my pants. Oh, and I’ve also met an awful lot of Latin-Americans that can’t dance! Always keep an open mind.
  12. You’re not as different as you think from everyone else. As soon as I started to tell people who I was quitting finance to move into events, I started to realize that so many others are on their second life or have a dream career they’d love to approach. Finding something in common with someone is much easier than you think.
  13. Learn to enjoy your own company. Do activities by yourself. Immerse in a book, go for a walk/run, visit an exhibition. Travel! Don’t wait for others to join your plan, otherwise, you’ll never do it.
  14. Stop checking your phone when you’re with other people. Seriously, I can’t think of anything more disturbing and disrespectful than sitting with friends or colleagues and realizing everyone is more engaged in their online life than in what is happening right here right now.
  15. You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Time is precious, so think about you really want to do, prioritize and do it.

What valuable lessons have you learned, living abroad?

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?