How to Be a Happy Expat Living Abroad

How to Be a Happy Expat Living Abroad

Nina Hobson is a 35-year-old British national and a blogger married to Jose Castello, from Spain. They have two children, Sebastian, three, and Rafa, one, and a third on the way. Having lived in 13 locations around the world – she has just moved to Santiago in Chile – she is well placed to provide some useful insights on expat life and tips for moving and living abroad.

If you’ve lived abroad you’ve no doubt argued about expat life, be it over a shot of local ristretto or a mug of English breakfast tea. What’s the difference between a migrant and an expat? Do second homeowners help or hinder the local economy? When does holidaying abroad become living abroad? What is an expat, anyway?

Ask anyone living overseas what it means to be an expatriate and you’ll get a different answer. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines one as “a person who lives outside their native country”, in truth it isn’t so straightforward.

As for me, I spent my formative years hanging out with third-culture kids (children raised in a different culture from their parents), “diplobrats” (children with parents in the civil service and the like) and “exbrats” (expat kids). I’m married to a “flexpatriate” (someone who moves regularly for work) and I’ve been labelled a “Brit abroad”, a “foreigner”, “damn foreigner” and more recently after the consequences of the 2016 EU referendum, a “Brexpat”.

An expat for most of my life...

However you define the term, I’ve been an expat for most of my life: from a study semester in my teens in Germany to a work placement in France, my first job in Belgium to giving birth in Switzerland, with a little volunteering in Africa and the Middle East in between. Extended holidays with my in-laws in Barcelona and at my mother’s second home in Andalucía have given me an inside scoop on expat life in Spain too.

My husband works in finance and by the nature of his work he travels a lot and needs to stay flexible, so that means that as a family we need to be flexible too. Expat life was once the bane of my professional life – I’d master the local lingo and culture to secure a job, then it’d be time to move on. But now after so many moves (we average one every nine months), I’m paying my way. I started an expat blog last March and by September I was thrilled to be getting requests for sponsored work.

I’ve worked as a personal assistant and a public relations executive, but blogging and journalism are what I really love. I feel immensely grateful to do work which I love, from wherever I choose to live in the world.

Not greener grass, just a different shade

We expats are a varied bunch and move for a variety of reasons, but statistically speaking we don’t move for the money but for the sunshine and a better quality of life. According to a poll by YouGov for HSBC Expat, 44 percent of British expats are aged 55 and over, and 13 percent of them retire overseas in search of sunnier climes and a better quality of life. Spain, Germany and France are the most popular destinations. A separate survey by InterNations, a global expat network, found that living costs in Spain are about 20 percent cheaper than in the UK, which along with its sunny climate no doubt explains its top spot.

Life isn’t necessarily better abroad, though, just different. Like many, I found Switzerland to be very expensive, but I got to know the best places to shop and adapted my family’s lifestyle. We switched our grocery shopping from local convenience stores to hypermarkets and surprisingly cheap organic fruit and vegetable markets. Previously dining out at least five times per week in London, we cut down to weekly meals out but opted for truly incredible experiences when we did.

Expats living abroad

Weighing it up: time to make the move?

On rainy trips to London, pushing my way onto a crowded bus only to avoid the rush-hour hell of the Tube, I wonder why more people don’t make the move. But I know that sunshine and cheap living don’t compensate for the hundreds of miles separating expats from their loved ones. Add to this the stresses of a different culture – everything from foreign food to figuring out complicated local tax systems in a foreign language – and it’s understandable why many get cold feet.

In my experience expat life takes commitment, openness and a willingness for adventure. As I’ve found, money and a cool head also come in handy. Factor in the costs which come with any relocation – professional cleaning before leaving one home, rushed trips to Ikea to set up the next, as well as administration fees and hotel costs for the interim period – and it all adds up. 

Now with two children, I never leave for a new destination without comprehensive medical cover and at least enough savings to get us all back to the UK in an emergency. While I’ve been described as a happy-go-lucky type, I’ll re-evaluate if I’m not happy for any reason and if necessary I won’t feel ashamed to cut our stay short.

Our children are pre-school age and I understand other parents’ concerns about taking their kids out of a stable educational system. Prior to our most recent move, we had found a truly fantastic nursery and along with friends this is the thing I miss most about “home”. For us, it’s been relatively easy to find good nurseries after each move abroad, and I’m not worried about their ability to soak up new languages, but as we are discovering with our eldest child who will start school soon it’s not always so simple to keep switching schools. I’m not sure how mobile we’ll feel when our children start their GCSE or A-level equivalents.

Expat life is good for your heart

According to one survey for MoveHub, an international relations company, 69 percent of expats rated their health as good or very good compared with 58 percent of people who had lived in just one country. 

As for me, expat life has definitely made me a stronger and more balanced person. After an attempted sexual assault in Angola and many stressful life-threatening instances, I know my limits. At one time I yearned to work in the humanitarian sector and while I have immense respect for the people who do this work, I know it’s not for me. These experiences also helped me to get a better perspective. I used to get very stressed about little things, but after living in some very challenging environments and seeing how other people suffer, it seems rather silly to worry about a horrible boss, a tyre puncture or losing a mobile phone.

On a less dramatic level, challenges like hunting out a doctor in a foreign country or learning to deal with foreign administration help. After years practising small talk, I feel confident to go up to people I don’t know to start a conversation with a stranger. I’m not timid like I was and feel better equipped to deal with daily life, be it in the UK or elsewhere.

Having lived abroad for more than 20 years, I admit that I’m now addicted to the expat lifestyle. Friends from “home” identify me as the “friend from abroad” or the “friend in Chile” and friends from abroad have talked about me as a “global nomad”.

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Not goodbye, but au revoir

After finally taking the plunge, it’s never easy to say goodbye.

Personally, I don’t tell anyone until I’m absolutely sure of our plans – there’s no point stressing family unnecessarily. While my friends and family are now used to me moving abroad, if there is any hint of anxiety on their behalf I’ll try to explain as openly as I can why we are moving and allow them time to voice their concerns. Then I’ll look to get a date in the diary for their next visit, be it in the UK or my new host country. Finally, even if friends or family may try to persuade my husband and me otherwise, I know that the final decision to move is ours alone.

Get involved

Making friends is a priority whenever I land in a new country. It can be tiring to start up small talk again and again with new faces and it may seem pointless if you’ve already got an address list packed with friends back home, but making friends is not just advisable on an emotional level, it’s a wise move for your health too.

Researchers at Harvard University found that doing without friends can be as harmful as smoking after discovering a link between loneliness and the levels of a blood-clotting protein that causes stroke and heart attacks. Another study by the University of York supports this, showing that lonely people are about 30 percent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart disease.

Friends are also useful on a practical side. Local contacts on the ground are worth much more than any search engine. Whether you’re looking for a new home, a nanny or a good restaurant, it’s likely that locals will have the most trustworthy, up-to-date recommendations.

It’s OK to miss friends and it’s normal to recall fondly life “back home” now and again, but it’s also important to keep moving forward. A group of British friends in France arranged a “bacon party” to celebrate a suitcase of the meat arriving from the UK and we toasted with locals over champagne.

Parlex-vous expat?

Learning a new language is a good way to meet friends, but it can be challenging, tiring and very frustrating. For English speakers, it can also seem pointless. According to the aforementioned InterNations report, more than half of British expats agree that it’s easy to live in their host country without speaking the local language, 10 percentage points higher than the global average.

Expats living abroad in the sun

Nevertheless, even a smattering in the local lingo provides a passport to a better quality of life. As for me, while most people in Antwerp spoke English, learning Flemish was well received by everyone I met. My local greengrocer would offer me extra produce on the house. “Your Flemish is so good,” he’d lie. Even if we soon switched to English, guests at parties seemed to appreciate my efforts. I felt confident enough to ask for directions in the street without a lame apology in English.

It’s not always been easy, however, and I’ve had my fair share of mix-ups: congratulating a widower on losing his wife, telling a stranger she looked fat along with frequent restaurant miscommunications (ordering a whole watermelon at a restaurant in Lebanon, for example). 

Staying in touch

Language classes have broadened my friendship circles as well as my mind. Nevertheless, while I try to make friends in my host country, I know all too well the importance of staying in touch with my best friends from before. They keep me grounded, make me feel stable and brighten my day.

Today my friends are based all over the world and social media, while no replacement for a face-to-face meet-up, is a great way for us to keep abreast of each other’s lives. Whatsapp, Facebook, Facetime and Skype have kept me sane over my expat years. And if I feel the need for a more personal form of communication, I’ll pick up the phone or my writing set.

Home is where the heart is

My blog is focused solely on expat life and a little piece of each country in which I’ve lived will always remain with me. In spite, or perhaps because of, this I feel British to the core. We have always rented homes, but now we want to get on the property ladder and are keen to explore buying options in Chile. Nevertheless, with or without our own home here, I’ll always be British.

According to InterNations, I’m not alone. More than four fifths of Britons abroad (81 percent) are generally happy with their lifestyle and more than half (52 percent) say they’re unlikely to return to the UK. However, almost a third (29 percent) still own property at home and only 14 percent have acquired citizenship of their host country.

In her bestseller Handle With Care, Jodi Picoult puts it succinctly: “Maybe you had to leave in order to really miss a place; maybe you had to travel to figure out how beloved your starting point was.” As I pack up my teapots, cake stands and Jane Austen novels for Chile, I’m inclined to agree.

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