Moving On – An expat’s guide to moving abroad



Moving On: An Expat’s Guide to Moving Abroad

Being an expat is hard, but there are ways to overcome feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

By Leigh Cann

Global Living – Issue 12 | May/June 2014

“Let’s move to the Netherlands,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”

Okay, it wasn’t as simple as that; first he was head-hunted by old colleagues from 13 years ago; then we ummed and aahhed about it; then we decided to make the move to Europe – all at great expense (not paid by his company) and with an enormous amount of stress. Anyone who has done this will know: moving abroad is not for the faint-hearted. Here are some tips on how to overcome the transition to your new home.

The most important thing for me was to feel settled, and I can honestly say that being surrounded by my own belongings helped a great deal. We had seriously debated the pros and cons of moving all our stuff over with us. Of course there is the expense of sending everything over in a container, but you will pay less for an unfurnished apartment or house. I know some people who came across to the Netherlands, where I currently live, and chose to buy new furniture, which is great if you can afford it, but it will usually be cheaper to bring your household goods over than to replace everything with new.

When we packed up our household, we ended up giving many things away, or selling a few choice items. See it as a massive clear-out, which we all need to do every now and then but never get around to doing. We got rid of about 30% of our ‘stuff’, which goes to show that you really don’t need as much of the stuff as you think you do!

Be ruthless in your clear-out: clothing and shoes, especially, if not worn in the past year (okay, two years), can go to a second-hand shop. I gave all mine to our housekeeper who managed to sell them and make some cash. All those old ice cream tubs you thought would be handy for leftovers ‒ chuck them. The CDs you haven’t listened to in years ‒ donate them.
You get the picture.

Google all the international movers in your area and ask for quotes. Some of them will have options to use part of a container with other people moving to the same country. It might take longer to get to you, but it will be worth it if you aren’t taking everything and want to split the costs.

Also, something to know: the movers will have to pack everything for you, for insurance purposes. For an average, three-bedroom house, it should take them roughly three days to pack. It also saves you from having to do it.

Hopefully, you’ll decide to take your pets with you, which will require a separate file of paperwork, precise timing of visits to the vet for blood tests, micro-chips and shots, and more. If you’re undecided about whether or not to bring your pets with you, I advise that you do. It will help you to settle in your new country, having them by your side. Yes, it is another expense, but one you won’t regret.

The debate is ongoing about whether or not animals should go into quarantine. Any country regarded as an ‘island’ ‒ a country which is not surrounded by others, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and so on – will require a quarantine period. Many people choose to find alternative homes for their pets, rather than go through the expense of quarantine. Often, the reason is that it is too stressful for the animals. Yes, it is stressful, but probably more for you, their owner. Thousands of animals are quarantined every year, and come through it just fine. If you can afford it, do it.

Google the animal transport companies in your area and ask for quotes. I used Global Paws in Cape Town, and they were extremely helpful, and answered my many, many questions with patience. All of their websites will have information on what you will need to get done in good time before moving abroad. Give yourself a good six months beforehand for things like micro-chipping, rabies tests and other blood tests.

Know this: as an expat, you will feel a sense of loss. You will initially miss many things from home: family, friends, places… while at the same time discovering all the things your new country has to offer. You will be at a loss in the supermarkets too, not knowing which brand of washing liquid to buy, or where to find good lamb, for example. Give yourself time to find out these things; you cannot expect to know it all at once. It will be frustrating and exhausting at first, especially if you move to a country where the language is different from yours.

Get lost, literally. Buy a map of your new town and just go walking. Getting lost is part of finding out where everything is. In a city like Amsterdam, where the streets run in a semi-circular pattern, it can be extremely frustrating … especially for someone like me who comes from a city with a massive mountain slap-bang in the middle of it, which is enormously handy when you want to know whether you’re facing east or west. I found I had no sense of direction when I first came to the Netherlands, as I had no reference point to show me the way. But, as I said, it is all part of the journey, and you’ll discover shops, restaurants and interesting places you never expected to, by getting lost.

Which brings me to the ‘found’ part: find your nearest supermarket, bookshop or bakery and become a regular visitor. Browse the aisles at leisure, getting to know all the new brands. Buy some of them; you won’t know what they’re like until you try them. Ask someone for an opinion ‒ also a good way to know what the locals prefer. Find a park near you and go for regular walks (this is where the dog comes in handy). You’ll start recognizing the faces of other regulars and they’ll recognize yours. Say hello to people you see daily; they’ll say hello back and you may even make a new friend. Dog walkers are especially friendly, and you can always start a conversation about their dog. (Handy tip: this is a great way to meet people if you’re single!)

You will miss your old haunts from home, so find a nice bar, restaurant or coffee shop and become a regular there too. It will help you to feel a sense of familiarity in your new home. Think of the fun you’ll have, tasting all those new wines, et cetera, while creating a new ‘history’ for yourself.

You also need to know this: people have become terrible communicators. Facebook, Twitter and What’sApp have become the communication du jour. As sad as that is, it is also the truth. You will find that nobody seems to have time to email or phone anymore.

At first, you will probably spend much of your time writing long emails about your new city or country. And you will receive very few missives in return. Annoying, I know, but try not to take it personally. Remember, you have moved to a new country while your family and friends have not. They will perceive your life as that of the international jet-setter while theirs remains mundane and dull in comparison. And while that may by no means be the case, remember that your life consists of new and seemingly exciting things, even if it’s just a new tram route you have discovered. For everyone else, life goes on.

I had considered discontinuing my Facebook account before leaving South Africa, but have discovered that it is, in fact, a great way to keep in touch. This is the age of the short attention span, and if it’s a one-liner comment or a ‘like’ on one of your posts that keeps a friendship going, so be it.

As hard as it is to admit it, you’ll discover who your real friends are once you move away. Honestly, people who I considered close friends have not emailed me once; and they were at my wedding. Shake it off. Move on. Make new friends.

The older you get, the harder it becomes to meet people and make friends. This requires effort. But it’ll be worth the effort as it will probably be the single most important factor in making your new country feel like home.

Join groups. A wonderful way to meet people is by joining Meetup (www.meetup.com). Browse the Meetup site for your area (in my case: Amsterdam) and you’ll be amazed at the groups you can join. They range from wine tastings to book clubs to IT clubs. Find one or two ‒ in fact, join several ‒ and go along to the organized event. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go again, but just be open-minded and go. Remember, all the other members are in the same boat as you, and will also feel a bit nervous about meeting strangers. You are not alone! No Knitting For Beginners group? Start your own! It’s simple, and you’ll be amazed at how many like-minded people there are out there.

Expatica is also a great site to browse (www.expatica.com). Go to your local section and read through it. They have informative subsections on everything ranging from legal advice to medical advice and where the best places are to rent. They also host expat events, which is another great way to meet fellow lost souls!

There are myriad expat communities and groups you can join, but try and meet locals too.
Join a business networking group in your area. Not only is it good for your career, but you will also meet people. I belonged to a great networking group called BNI (Business Network International, www.bni.com) while in Cape Town. It was a fantastic way to get more business, and give business, while making good local contacts and friends. It has branches all over the world with over 160,000 members.

Join a gym or sports club, such as tennis or golf. This is a great way to meet more locals. Approach others for a game and they’ll reciprocate. Befriend a colleague or two. Invite them out for a drink after work, or to a sports event. Do it often and hopefully they’ll return the invitation. Be open to meeting people wherever you go. You need friends more than you think you do.

If you’re moving to a country where a different language is spoken, try to learn it. Not only will this go a long way toward helping you feel more at home, but it will be appreciated. If you can speak just a few simple phrases, even badly, the locals will probably be kind enough to speak to you in English. A little goes a long way with some people, so do yourself a favor and try.

If you know in good time that you will be moving abroad, look into doing a course in that language before you get there. I was lucky enough to have almost a year of Dutch courses before moving to the Netherlands, and I’m so glad I put in the effort. Honestly, it is more exhausting than you think, moving to a country where all the product labels are in a language you don’t understand and you don’t have a clue what anyone is saying. Even I, with pretty decent Dutch, found it hard at first, having to translate everything I wanted to say in my head before saying it out loud. But practice makes perfect, and if you use the language often enough, it becomes second nature.

Knowing the local language will also help you to be understood and, frankly, to receive better service. If the locals hear you making an effort with their language, they’ll be happier to help you. Some may disagree with me on this, but I have several expat friends who have lived in the Netherlands for years and never bothered to learn the language properly. Their attitude is: well, the locals all speak English, so it’s fine. Well, they don’t, and it’s not.

These same friends are always telling me that they experience rude behavior from the locals, or bad service, and I have never, not once, had anyone be rude to me. Service is, admittedly, slow here, but never bad or impolite. I can only assume these people experience this because they don’t bother even trying to speak Dutch. Think about it this way: wouldn’t you expect an immigrant or foreigner in your country to speak your language? Why should it be different for you in their country? Frankly, it’s just good mann­ers, as far as I’m concerned.

It bears repeating: learn the language. If you can’t learn it before arriving in your new country, do a course once you settle. This is another fantastic way to meet new people too. And they’ll all be in the same boat as you.

Take a cooking course. It’s fun, interesting and another great way to discover where locals shop and what they eat. (Handy tip: another hangout for singles. Just saying.)

Learn to dance. You’ll learn a great new skill and impress your (new) friends. Other options are endless: photography classes, yoga groups, creative writing courses, etc. Many of these you’ll find online, through sites like Meetup or Expatica.

Don’t hop between your old and new country. Really make the effort to dig your heels into your new home and stay. Give it time. You will not feel like it’s home for a while, so don’t expect it to. Everyone is different, but I would say: give it about two years before you really feel like the new country is home. Well, that’s how long it took me. As hard as it is, try not to visit your old home too often. If you do, you will never make roots in your new country.

A psychologist friend of mine says there are three types of migrants:

(a)    Those who completely embrace everything about their new country; the food, the language (or even an accent), the culture. They support their new sports teams, wear local brands and become loyal to their new land immediately.

(b)    Those who refuse to let go of everything they knew back ‘home’. They moan about everything in their new country, expecting it to all be exactly as it was in their old country. They don’t try local brands and, instead, bring their favorite items from home, such as toothpaste, cereal and nail polish, even though the local stuff is just as good. Nothing is good enough for them, from the pasta to the bus service, regardless of the fact that their bus back home used to be ten minutes late every day. They make no effort to learn the language or to meet, and make friends with, the locals. More often than not, these people return to their old country after a while.

(c)    The intermediates, who retain ties with their old country but make an effort to embrace their new one. They learn the language, and will try the local brands, but will still keep a few of their favorites from back ‘home’.

Remember, there is, in a sense, a mourning period. It is a literal mourning of what you have left behind. Don’t worry about it; just allow yourself the time to go through it. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. If you are traveling to a new country as a couple, be gentle with your partner. Migrating is one of the hardest things you will do together, so go easy on one another. Allow for raised stress levels and irritability; you will both be feeling the strain.

Be kind to yourself too. You will feel tired and homesick at first. Give yourself enough rest and leisure time. Go for counseling if necessary. My same psychologist friend (who, herself, is a migrant) sees many expat clients. Their story is always the same: they feel like an outsider, they don’t understand the culture, they miss ‘home’. She tells them all: give it time. You cannot expect to feel at home right away. You will learn as you go, discover the new culture, meet people, make friends, settle in.

And remember: you are not alone.

Leigh Cann is LeighCanna South African woman currently living in the Netherlands. She is a graphic-designer-cum-writer, having spent many years working in the magazine publishing industry. She has also lived in England and has traveled extensively through Europe, the East and South America. She has written travel articles for magazines in South Africa and is now looking to expand her portfolio by writing and guest-blogging for various international publications and websites such as Global Living and At Home Abroad. She is also gaining valuable experience as a proofreader/editor for Dutch websites, as well as content writing for businesses that need help with translating from Dutch to English. She has written one novel, Rolling Towards the Sun, and is currently writing two more. 

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