growth

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? 

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 recently spoke with a good friend about New Year resolutions and how they never seem to last because, well, life gets in our ways. You see, after careful thought I’ve realised that the past few years have always held one huge life changing event that I would have never thought of in January of that year. Some examples:

  • 2013: I moved from London to Barcelona for 4 months on a 3 week notice.
  • 2012: I quit my well-paid and respected job in commodity finance to do something more creative.
  • 2011: I was offered to move from Switzerland to London on a 4 months notice.

Do you see what I mean? How am I supposed to set New Year resolutions if I don’t even know in which country I’ll be in or which sector I’ll be working in?

Playa Ancón, Tenerife (Canary Islands)

My life as it is doesn’t allow me to set very tactical goals on a long-term basis – I want my goals to be more strategic.

As I usually do, I looked for an answer in Google and came across a completely new approach to New Year resolutions that seems to adapt way better to my lifestyle – Choosing three Words that reflect my overall goals of the year (a method created by Chris Bogan).

Grow

30 St Mary Axe, London (UK)

Last year I lived in continuous uncertainty. Even though I learned to enjoy the excitement and curiosity about what’s next, the lack of groundness (is this actually a real word?) made it an impossible scenario to grow professionally. In 2013, I grew experiences – but 2014 is the time to become more intentional about my new career path. Obtaining an official certification in Project Management, learning Brazilian Portuguese and concentrating on developing new business contacts and opportunities are three specific goals I have set myself for this year.

Grow also resonates with my saving goals. I haven’t always been responsbile with my own money (which is rather strange for someone who has specialized in finance). In fact, 2013 beat my savings up hard. Whatever little income I had, I spent it in less than a month and from there on, tapped into my savings. This year, I’m moving into a more affordable flat, setting up a direct debit of 200 GBP a month to go into my savings account and am being more conscious about where I put my money in.

Simplify

Chamonix, France

I’ve learned a valuable lesson in 2013 – Being open to change is way easier when you don’t have other long-term commitments. You see, when I accepted moving to Barcelona, I didn’t really give enough thought to the fact that I was going to be paying for two flats at the same time (one of them being in one of the most expensive cities in the World). How easy would it have been if I didn’t have a long term contract, all my thoughtfully bought furniture and 10 boxes full of clothes!

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to turn all minimalistic (I do enjoy having more than one pair of jeans), but just simplifying things (both, emotionally and physically) whenever possible. I’m starting with decluttering my wardrobe and moving to a more flexible rental in London. I firmly believe that less complexities and clutter around you also brings clarity and reduces stress – an added bonus!

Radiant

Sunset from Las Terrazas del Sauzal, Tenerife

In 2014, I want to feel as radiant as the sun. One of the many definitions given to this beautiful word is having or showing an attractive quality of happiness, love and health. There couldn’t be any word more global than this one.

I want to feel energized, healthy and happy. I’ll continue to exercise regularly, go to bed before 11:30pm and get up in time to have a decent breakfast at home. But I’ll also be consciously reminding myself of the things I’m thankful for (specially on those days I feel like it’s me against the World). If there’s anything that 2013 has taught me is that in the end, everything will be ok.

What are your three words for 2014?

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?).