uncertainty

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? 

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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Remember how, not so long ago, I was craving for some stability and predictability in my life? How I was so tired and drained of being unsettled? Sure, I still made the best of all that uncertainty that shadowed me throughout most of 2013, but the truth is I was pretty happy to suddenly have figured myself out.

Or did I?

Playa Papagayo, Lanzarote, Canary Islands (Spain)

Now that I’m on a slightly more stable position than a year ago (I guess anything is more stable than an unpaid work experience with no future employment opportunity), I find my mind wandering off into spontaneous decisions to bring in some adrenalin and excitement. This makes me realize that, as much as I want to fight it, I’m just not cut out for routine.

Torres del Paine, Chile

While I thought I was kind of settling down – Subconsciously, I’ve been taking decisions that would break my daily predictability:

  • I joined a profession in which I might be pulled into 2 weeks travel on a super short notice (like 3 days notice!).
  • I’ve moved to a flat on a rolling short-term let agreement, which allows much easier (and quicker) moves across the city.
  • My weekends are as spontaneous as my wallet allows them to be.

All those months I thought I just couldn’t deal with another day of insecurity and instability, and now I come to believe that this unpredictability, freedom and change are precisely what fuels my energy and motivation – and my gut already knew about it all this time!

Sailing in the Canary Islands, Spain

Maybe I do need some uncertainty after all.

Sunset in London, UK

You see this? This is me giving up on holding this blog on maintenance mode to rework on the layout, design and format. Who am I kidding? I’m not a web designer. In fact, I’m not a tech person. I’m not even very savvy when it comes to social media – and I’m a Gen Y! (How did this happen?).

I’m impatient, unsettled and a bit unstructured at the moment – and that’s exactly how this corner of the internet is as well. Don’t judge – We are both work in progress.

I’m just about to move flats for the 14th time in 11 years (my 4th move in my 2 years in London). I’ve misplaced my photos from my time in Switzerland (but on the flip side just found 6 years worth of Uni pictures – which I’m pretty sure my friends will agree are priceless). I’ve also misplaced a few things on the blog: Some posts are lacking a featured image and some may even contain links that won’t be taking you anywhere. I’m still not happy with the colour of the navigation menu and am on the mission of figuring it out using a highly complex fundamental problem solving method called trial and error.

Under the warmth of winter sunshine in the Canary Islands, I occasionally sit down and stare blankly at the CSS sheets and let my mind wanders to everything else but code. I realized that I was too impatient to get it perfect – what I really wanted to do is write.

I used to think that 2013 was a rather boring year. No treks in Patagonia. No glacier hiking in New Zealand. No climbing the Grest Wall of China. I didn’t leave Europe in 2013. In fact, my longest flight this year has been 4.5 hrs to return home. But looking back I realize that I was wrong – 2013 was eventful and exciting! I travelled, hiked, learned how to ski. I moved to Barcelona and back to London. I worked for a private jet company, experienced the FINA World Swimming Championships and am now continuously surrounded by inspiring people leading a global creative agency. I couldn’t be happier!

If I had to pick one word to define 2013 this would be
UNCERTAINTY.

Before 2013, I linked uncertainty to the lack of security; risk, and the possibility of loss. I was looking at it all wrong. Uncertainty this year has meant freedom of choice, absolute flexibility and dreams as big as they can get. I was anything but settled and at some point in Barcelona it stopped being scary and became exciting.

I always had a choice. I chose to change my career risking my steady paycheck. I decided to temporarily move to Barcelona. I chose to cut on travel to focus on building a new career. I chose to take on a new role and move back to London. I don’t regret any of these choices – they have brought me to where I am now: ready to take on 2014!

I might not have travelled as much as I had in the previous years, but I’ve still had my fair amount of adventures:

January

Chamonix, France

In January, I took off on a week long trip to Chamonix with one clear mission – to learn how to ski. I’ve given up on my hopes of becoming a slope legend, but at least I can glide down blue slopes without major hiccups – it’s a start! During our time in the Mont Blanc region, we also took the highest vertical ascent cable car in the World which took us to Aiguille du Midi (from where I took the above picture). It was amazing to watch people climb the Mont Blanc and ski down off piste some of the steepest parts I’ve ever seen.

February & March

Hiking from Seaford to Eastbourne, UK

While February went unnoticeable, March was quite eventful. Despite the still wintery weather, I took my visit to explore the Seven Sisters from Seaford to Eastbourne. It may not have been the best time of the year to do so (I would erase the hour walking in mud from our already wet itinerary) – but it was still a beautiful sight.

April

Los Gigantes, Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain)

Right before my temporary move to Barcelona, I travelled back home to Tenerife to rest in between jobs. Exploring a new hiking path has become a ritual and this visit was no exception. In April, I was introduced to one of (now) my favourite hiking spots in the island – Masca’s ravine. I’ve set myself a challenge to hike the ravine down to sea level and up again next year.

May

Montserrat, Catalonia (Spain)

May saw me moving into a tiny apartment in Barrio de Gracia, Barcelona, sharing with far more people than I was used to. Having a tiny room and no living room meant spending a lot of time exploring Barcelona. I immediately fell in love with my neighborhood and was fascinated by the martian rock formations in Montserrat.

I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Madrid to visit old friends and celebrate my birthday with some of my favoruite people in the World.

June

Sitges, Barcelona (Spain)

Whenever I had some time in my hands, I spent it under the sunshine – at roof tops, balconies, beaches – You name it, I did it! This month I also visited Sitges – a beautiful small fisher town south of Barcelona known for its annual film festival and many nudist beaches just next to the waterfront paths.

July & August

FINA 15th World Swimming Championships BCN2013, Barcelona

During July and August I worked. A lot. The FINA World Swimming Championships took place between the 19th of July and the 4th of August, with the weeks leading up to the 19th spent closing contracts, making orders, finishing designs and supervising construction. I met amazing people that became great friends I still keep in touch with.

September

Costa Brava, Catalonia

The end of August marked the time I surrendered to uncertainty. I gave in. I had officially left sunny Barcelona and had no answer to what next. I road tripped around Catalonia – from Barcelona, along Costa Brava, all the way to Cap de Creus and back down through Garrotxa. I took in all its beauty and variety, going from visiting the medieval town of Peratallada to kayaking around Cadaqués. I also took the chance to return home for a few days and celebrate my grandfather’s 80th Anniversary. At the end of September, everything started to fall again place as I accepted my current job and moved back to London.

October

Sushisamba Restaurant, London

Apart from taking a weekend architectural sketching course in London, I visited friends in Frankfurt and had friends hopping over to London. I hardly shared any of this on the blog for one main reason – lack of time. All I was able to write about (because I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I left it out of common knowledge) is Sushisamba!

November & December

Playa Acón, Tenerife (Canary Islands)

…Which brings me to here and now. I was allocated my first project at the agency mid-November and lost track of place and time until it was over, some time early December. This project took me to Milan and Frankfurt (although I hardly saw anything else than the hotel and the streets in fast motion). I fell quiet around here partly to recover my energy and partly to redesign the blog (something I had been hoping to do for ages!). I’m spending Christmas and New Year’s back in Tenerife – taking the chance to spend time with family, go for walks and hikes and just read in the morning sun. There’s no place I’d rather be right now than here.

I will remember 2013 for being the year I discovered Barcelona (a first timer – which is embarrassing to admit for someone who lived in Spain for 22 years). It’s also the year I fully invested in my new career. The year I surrendered to uncertainty and gave in to the risk of failure. The year I took adventure trips in my backyard (so to say) and learned to appreciate what’s closeby.

Happy Holidays – I wish you all a wonderful start to 2014!

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?

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?).

It’s funny how life continuously tests your limits.

Most of us were told that if we studied hard, we would get the job we expected; and yet, when it comes to today’s work life, nothing really seems to go as planned.

Hiking from Seaford to Eastbourne, UK

Each time I start to feel a certain confidence and security, the ground begins to move again, reminding me that I live in a World that is not predictable anymore.

A degree no longer leads to a job. An MBA no longer guarantees a generous salary increase. And a career in banking is no longer a stable choice.

This is really not how I was told it was going to be.

Chamonix, France

I’m a devoted planner. I began working on a 2, 5 and 10 year goal a few years back, when I was going to graduate from University. These goals from back then haven’t changed significantly, but my strategy has taken a U-Turn. Instead of working backwards from my perfect job, I choose a direction I like and work on it. There’s no guarantee my perfect job will still exist 10 years from now – but a direction never will. There will always be the need for a planner. A leader. A negotiator.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to accept that you’re vulnerable to future developments. That you can’t plan and control your way into your dream job anymore. There’s no straight line to becoming who you want to be, but instead, a rocky path full of strong curves without warning signs.

These rocky paths are part of the adventure. But staring at the strong curve without seeing its end makes me nervous and unsettled.

My old self would have a plan lined up. My new self, though, wants to test my sense of adventure.

Walking on Lava, Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain)

Am I capable of walking the entire curve while enjoying the path, without worrying about what’s at the end of it?

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?