languages

Last week, my grandpa turned 80.Despite the physical distance, we are very close – and whenever I get to go back home, I like to spend as much time as possible with him. He is a wealth of jokes and stories, and one of the most adventurous people I know. He is a doer (less of a thinker) – and I’ve always admired him profoundly for that.

Grandfather's 80s Birthday

His stories captivate people from around the Globe. Wherever we go, he will always has a memory to share that will make you think, laugh or simply love him even more than before. Occasionally, his stories are followed by one of his life lessons.

Immerse in the culture

The greatest way to build a relationship with someone else is to understand their culture and traditions. My grandpa made numerous friends and colleagues while traveling to Japan by simply not hesitating to eat what’s on his plate. Back then, Sushi hadn’t become as popular in Europe as it is today (and even less were other exotic meals such as fish heads or raw sea urchins). Not only did he try it all – but he embraced it and soon became one of them.

There’s no such thing as a language barrier

Opa speaks a few languages – but only one of them well. Still, he almost always has manages to convey his message and understand what others try to say. I have caught him speaking broken spanish with a tip of portuguese and a top of italian. I learned that it’s not necessary to be fluent to communicate – flexibility and openness to understand will already help you go a long way. Sometimes, he sits next to someone who doesn’t speak a word of German (nor spanish nor english, as a matter of fact) and 5 minutes later, they’re already having a blast. He’s a real charmer.

Everybody likes music

Even when talking to someone in another language isn’t quite easy, he always finds something in common – and usually, this is music. He surrounds himself with artists and musicians and is always up for joining a jam session anywhere he goes. Madonna knows it best: Music makes the people come together!

Don’t work too much

Whenever our conversations turn towards a more professional topic, he always tell me not to work too much. I know what he means – balance and have fun. Don’t allow work to define you and rule your life. As an entrepreneur in the fifties, he worked very hard to create and expand his business. But he always made sure to have fun, too.

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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?

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?