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The expat life

I’ve decided to write about a topic I am really fond of: expatriation. This will be my first article written in English, on purpose. I believe more people will be able to read it, and hopefully relate. As English is not my native language, I hereby apologize for the (many) mistakes I will be doing.

As far as I can remember I’ve always seeked to have an expat life. As a child I had decided to move to Brazil when I would be older. I fell in love with Brazil when I was around 12, funnily enough, because of football. My grandpa was a football fan, I watched all the games with him and Brazil was my favorite team. Since then I never changed my mind: I’d be living abroad. While nobody took the 12 yo me seriously, my relatives had no other choice than accepting it over time. When I was 20, I did an Erasmus in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and lived one year in Spain. Not only did I learn to speak Spanish but I also bloomed. It was my first time living outside the borders of France, I caught not only the travel bug but the expat bug. It never left. As soon as I was back to France, I had only one wish: leave again. In Spain I was outside my bubble, far away from everyone I knew and forced to cope. The rather shy child I was, was definitely pushed to its limits and became a confident adult. Not only I met many lifelong friends, but I also shaped my dream: I would be living abroad. Resting assured that I could actually do it, not only dream it.  

Chances are, the 12 year old me going through the divorce of her parents just wanted to escape. I often reflected on this to understand if I genuinely wanted to live abroad, or just run away. Truth is there was always more than that. I always felt like a stranger inside my comfort zone. I grew up in a village in the North of France, right at the Swiss-German border. We are quite wealthy there, life is pretty sweet. But life is also quite predictable. Most of the people I know never left the region, probably never will. We can work in Switzerland and earn shitloads of money, a lot of people don’t understand why I flew. I always felt trapped, in a world too big not to be explored. I could never relate to my pairs, nor wish for a life of comfort: a nice job, enough money to buy a big house, a fancy car, get a husband from the village next to mine to have 2 children with. I wanted more. 

Early enough I chose to study languages, then later business, as I was assured it would allow me to get a good job abroad. It was not a lie, my studies allowed me to travel to Amsterdam for my Masters Degree 6 month internship. In the end I never left, as I fell in love with both the city and its vibe. It’s true, I never moved to Brazil. I would still like to, but as an adult I adjusted the criterias I find important to select a place to live. Brazil’s political environment does not feel safe enough to me. While I would never have expected to ”end up” in The Netherlands, I’m quite pleased with my move. 

For the first time in my life I feel at home. How come will you tell me, if I’m a born and raised 100% french style frenchie? It’s quite simple, I bloom again in a multicultural city where I can meet people from everywhere. I struggle too, everyday, with the language and the culture but not only. But that is exactly what I’m longing for: something different. Busting my comfort bubble repeatedly, everyday. I came to realize this was one of the things I feel proudest about. Somehow I fulfilled my child’s dream: to live abroad and an expatriate. It also turns out I’m not one of a kind but one out of many: a lot of people have the same love for the expat life. It seems that a lot of them can also be found in Amsterdam. 

While the expat life brings me a fair amount of joy, it also comes with its struggles. Living abroad is hard, it definitely has its pros and cons and I trust it is an endless process of searching and finding yourself. I chose to embrace it though and I’m learning to be a forever foreigner: stranger in my hometown as I have changed so much since I left, and stranger in my new town as I am not Dutch and never will be. The duality is interesting, life-changing, really heavy to carry on my shoulders sometimes.

I figured I could share both my successes and my struggles, along with my everyday experience of being an expatriate. 

Why leaving?

The first thing that pops in my head are the reasons why one would decide to leave its native country to live abroad. There are many reasons, I just talked briefly about mine. Some people decide to leave to start from scratch again, others to fly away from their routine and so on. Long story short, I decided to leave because I can’t spend my whole life at the same place. I feel like I had enough time to discover my hometown, along with all the great perks of living and working in France. I long for something else, not necessarily for something more. One could easily compare the pros and cons of living either in France or in The Netherlands.

My goal is not to convince you that life abroad is way better, but to have you understand why it is for me. To be able to strive and feel motivated, I have the need to be surrounded by different people, different cultures, different nationalities. I like to discover new Dutch traditions – regardless of how weird they (often) are, I enjoy learning about how people get things done here. I love to try new food, confront my opinion and meet new people in general. Had I stayed in France, I would get less of that, probably not at all as everything is familiar, tried and approved. Evolving in a different environment helps me grow, learn, be open-minded and in the end a better person

Why The Netherlands?

Moving abroad to another country implies choosing a new country. It can be to seek better work opportunities, a different lifestyle etc. For me it was not motivated by anything, just by an internship opportunity. While living here, I learned to get to know more of the country. While I can’t really say why I moved to Amstedam, I can definitely tell why I stayed.

First of all, The Netherlands is a country of freedom, which ranks pretty high on my list of criteria for choosing a living environment. Not only are they really tolerant with drugs or prostitution, but the Dutch are also really open-minded. They do care about the environment in general. Take the number of windmills, solar energy panels and bikes in the country, it will start giving you an idea of the Dutch lifestyle. As vegetarian or vegan it is no struggle to find suitable (and delicious) food being in restaurants or in your small buurt supermarket. Options are here, nobody makes a big deal out of it. Same thing for gender and sexual-orientation: Dutch people are amongst the most liberal. Here Pride is celebrated as the National Day, and being surrounded by such openness and respect fills me heart with pure love (not to exaggerate, but this is really important to me). 

Amsterdam is a liberal city, so beautiful that words can only slightly describe the magic behind the many canals and crooked houses. There hasn’t been one day where, while strolling along the grachts, I haven’t been totally amazed by the beauty of this city. Tiny little pearl of beauty in central Europe, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more wonderful place. On top of that, Amsterdam is a melting pot, so multicultural it becomes hard to distinguish locals from expats or tourists. I work with people from around the world, I have friends from everywhere. I trust that the most important thing when moving abroad is, finding a place that suits you. This according to what is important to you. For me it’s a multicultural and liberal environment, but it can be anything else really.

The move

When I came home from my year in Spain, I couldn’t wait to go abroad again. I thought it would be super easy, because I had already done it. Truth is it wasn’t, and it never is. Moving abroad can be quite stressful as it requires a lot of organization. For example, finding a new place, which can be quite tricky. Amsterdam is probably one of the most difficult cities to find an apartment in, it is overcrowded and really expensive. Since 2016 (the year I arrived in Ams) I moved places 5 times, which is quite average. It wasn’t easy, even if I am used to carry my whole life in a couple suitcases, with time it becomes more and more difficult. Then there are all the other things to think about: insurance, bank, phone number. When I left France I closed account I had there and went full Dutch, it was just easier. Also, I’m not thinking of going back so I have no use of a french bank account for example.

Generally before moving, you’ll have to think it through really hard before taking the decision. This includes having the necessary financial resources or career opportunities. If you’re moving with your partner or children you’ll have to take this into consideration for them as well. I deliberately chose not to go on about this, as 1) i’m not concerned by it, 2) i’m not interested in it. 

The diferent stages of expatriation

According to the theory of Black et Mendenhall (1990) there are 4 different stages of expatriation.

The honeymoon phase: This is the time when everything is new, surprising. You are amazed by your new environment, you barely know the culture and are getting hints of it. In that phase you usually only see the pros of your move, you are still dreaming about your new life. 

The crisis: That’s the time when the culture shock hits you, fully, without warning. You feel disoriented, lost. Everything seems strange, different. Congratulations you’re out of your comfort zone. Hang in there, you’ll have doubts, you’ll be anxious, you’ll have days when you’ll feel you’ll never be able to adapt. Don’t let it ruin your mood.

The adaptation: You’ll simply get used to the culture, understand its codes and start adapting. You’ll slowly modify your own behavior to blend in. You’ll open up to your new destination. 

The maturity: The adaptation period can last longer depending on the individual. When feeling at ease in the new country, the expat can be really happy abroad, confident about his move. 

For me it’s always been a bit different. I remember the time right before flying to Amsterdam for my internship, I was super stressed, and quite anxious. It is one thing to think about your move, it’s another one to do it. That’s the moment when your comfort zone has to be left behind, it’s rarely easy. In general I need a couple days for acclimatation. The first days in Amsterdam were complicated, I felt lost about everything from finding my way to the closest bakery to opening a bank account. Usually I start feeling at ease when I meet people, I figured that it makes it all super easier. You feel better, you get help and you start building a new life. Friends are everything, so my advice for you is to make friends as soon as possible when moving abroad. 

I don’t think I ever went through a full crisis mode, small cultural shocks hit me occasionally but they never overwhelm me. This is probably due to the fact that the Dutch culture is not too far from mine, and that Dutch people are really open-minded. One thing I’d recommend anyone who is moving abroad, would be to take it easy and to give yourself time to adapt. Don’t run away when things are complicated, don’t quit as soon as there is an obstacle (I tend to, and it’s not a great idea).

Expat life: things to consider (the cons)

Leaving everyone behind: it’s a harsh truth and fact, you’ll have to say goodbye to all your relatives: family, friends, everyone else. Depending on where you’re moving to, you’ll be rather far away from everyone you love and probably grew up with. This is without any doubt the hardest thing in an expat life, so you better be ready for it. Not only you’ll put distance between yourself and your loved ones, but you’ll also miss a couple important things. You probably won’t be able to attend all the important events: birthdays, births, bachelor parties, weddings, to only name a few. You’ll miss out on seeing your cousins grow, you’ll miss out on precious time with your aging grandparents too.

You’ll have to make compromises, to go home regularly but still have time off for yourself. If you chose to go on a different timezone, you’ll also have to deal with that, handle the time difference, long distance calls, flights and jet lag. You’ll miss your relatives, it will be hard, really, really, really hard. You’ll miss them on bright days, and even more on dark ones. Especially on dark ones. You’ll want only one thing: your loved ones, for support, and you won’t get it. Be prepared for that too. I left France when my mom had cancer. I had to complete my internship in order to be able to graduate. I missed her surgery, I was not there for the chemo, I am still in the process of forgiving myself for it. So here’s one other great advice: try not to blame yourself too much. As an expat, you might feel like an egoist for putting your life choices prior to everything else. Don”t, and focus on being present as much as possible. Find a balance, don’t beat yourself up. In the end your expatriation is a choice, and this is one con you will have to accept and live with. It will never stop being a struggle, you just have to learn to live with it. 

The Hellos and Goodbyes: Chances are as an expat you’ll meet tons of new people, including other expats. Relationships are more of less easy to build, especially abroad. The good thing is that you’ll make a lot of new friends, create a new circle. The bad thing? A lot of them will leave. Being to themselves move abroad or go back home. Since I moved to Amsterdam, I must have had my heart broken a thousand times, saying goodbye to people who happened to become really close to me, over a short period of time. In Amsterdam there are a lot of expats, people staying for a couple years or months only: for work, internships, missions abroad. Be prepared for that: with hellos come goodbyes, at a certain point, inevitably. You’ll have to learn to let go and to deal with it. In the end it’s a good life lesson: nothing lasts forever, it does not mean we can’t enjoy it while it lasts. 

Being a forever stranger: When I’m in France, I feel like a foreigner. Strange huh? I believe only expatriates can understand the feeling but I’ll try to explain. Since I moved things changed but mostly, I changed. I am not the same person I was when I left. I find myself confused, addressing people in English in stores, surprised (and slightly pleased) when they reply in French. I find myself looking around feeling uncomfortable in places that used to be familiar. I have no clue what TV show is trendy, which new french song plays on radio. I missed over 3 years of “french culture”, and I definitely miss the newest references.

When I’m in Amsterdam, I feel at home but I also feel like a stranger. I don’t speak Dutch, so there’s that. There’s not one day I don’t have to apologize for it, and gently ask people to address me in English. That makes me definitely stand out, not in a positive way. While Dutch are amongst the most liberal, especially in a big city like Amsterdam, let’s say that this is less the case in rural areas. I don’t want to speak badly of them, because I love Dutch people. It’s like anywhere else, you have some idiots. Here, some people can be really racist, especially towards expats. In a certain way, I can understand it. Amsterdam is suffocating with tourists and expats, and Ducth people might feel like we take over their houses, jobs and opportunities. However, I’m always trying not to be the stupid expat cliché, I’m respectful, I pay my taxes, I play my part so somehow I also expect not be assulated with unjustified racism. It’s not always the case, I had many people tell me to “go back to my country’ including Dutch police officers. Not cool. I guess you have to get ready for that, when you are not a local some might underlign it to make you feel not welcome. I’ll be forever a Frenchie, no matter how long I’ve been abroad. I am French, I will never stop being French, and that’s okay. I don’t think I have to choose and I accept what is both a blessing and a curse. This is the lifestyle I chose, I’m okay with having bits of myself in different countries. 

The things you miss: By that I mean all the things you’ll be missing from your native country. As a French, it’s not difficult to imagine mine: wine, cheese and bread. Mostly bread. But you’d have to be French to understand the physical pain of lacking a fresh and crusty baguette just coming out of the oven. I don’t watch TV (don’t even own one) but sometimes I miss just watching french movies, series, commercials. I can always stream, but I guess it’s not the same. I sometimes miss everything being “easier”, as in when I have any issue here, I have to add the language barrier to the equation. Yes, everything from administrative stuff to the most common event would be easier for me in France. Apart from that I miss being there for cultural events, I guess I just traded it for Dutch events. 

Staying/Moving: the endless question: Discussing with other expats, I realized this is a common struggle: choosing to stay or to go. I feel like it comes with the expatriation bug, this need to always question your current location and future move. Since I moved to Amsterdam I felt like going home multiple times, especially when things are difficult or when they go wrong. The first thing you can be tempted to say is: “fuck it, i’m leaving”. In such times, going back to your country can be tempting. Why? Because it’s a way to fly away from your struggles. But wait… Is it really? I came to the conclusion that it is not. Then, you’ll simply have moments when you’ll miss your relatives, you’ll question your move and yourself in general. Should I stay? Should I go? Also, if I go, should I go home or move to another place?

The expatriate can be torn between the nice feeling of having adapted to a new place, and the endless desire to start over once again. Once you move, you’ll want to move again. It only depends on you to do so. I think the questioning is not only normal, it’s also essential. Don’t stress it, let go. Don’t rush a decision, I came to understand that the right choice will come along as the best decision. You’ll just know it. I moved to Utrecht for 6 months after a harsh breakup. I wanted new opportunities, without leaving The Netherlands. I hated it over there, but it taught me so much: first that moving wasn’t resolving my inner struggles, then it also comforted me in my decision to want to go back and stay in Amsterdam for a long time. I deeply missed the city I now belong to, I’ve found myself in Amsterdam and I am not ready to let it go. I want to be forever home here. At least that’s how I feel now. I’m certain that a new questioning cycle will come, and maybe I’ll change my mind, maybe one day I’ll leave. I stay open to that, I stay aware of my needs and wants, ready to adapt. 

Expat life: the pros

Of course the expat life has also tons of perks, depending on the reasons why you moved and also the things you were seeking. In this part I’ll expose mine. 

Personal accomplishment: For me living abroad is part of my personal happiness and accomplishment. I couldn’t feel accomplished hadn’t I moved, at least I don’t think so. I talked about a few reasons already, but here’s another one: I’m by nature a loner. I like to be alone, and apparently I also like to live my life by myself. Maybe putting some distance between myself and everyone else was also a decision motivated by this. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply miss my relatives but somehow I am also glad I am away, because it is who I am. I need this for myself. I mentioned earlier all the reasons that make me love my life abroad from the multicultural environment to the liberal aspect of my new country. It is all part of who I became and who I now am. 

Languages booster: Living abroad will help you learn a practice at least one new language, probably more. If you are not as lazy as I am, you’ll soon learn the language of the country you move to. There’s nothing better than full immersion to be able to master a foreign language. It’s a bit different here in Amsterdam because everyone speaks English. Dutch is not per se required to be able to live here. It’s always better to speak the local language, also appreciated by local people. I have to admit that Dutch is not a very appealing language to me, but I’m starting to think that I will have to make an effort. Living abroad made me entirely fluent in English. Even though I’m making a lot of mistakes, I easily work in English, switch from French to English and feel completely comfortable speaking English. Funny thing, my sister calls me Van Dammette (aka JC Van Damme), because I often speak Frenglish, I mix both languages all the time.

Homecomings: Going home is like any other vacation, but better. It is an event every time: the excitation of seeing your friends and family again, to be in your hometown. It is quality time, and since it does not happen often, you’ll make the most of it everytime. People will make time for you, you’ll make time for them. You’ll be able to enjoy familiar things for a short will: comfortable environment, comfort food. For a lot of expats it is also a time for relaxing or reconnecting. When I go home I like to go back to my former “usual” spots, for shopping or just chilling. Familiar feels good, even if I ran away from it. Of course, usually I also eat a lot of the things I miss. Most of them come from Switzerland, not only from France. My absolute missed products are: french baguette & cheese, Tzopf ( buttered brioche from Switzerland) & Zweifel chips (paprika swiss chips). 

Visits: Once you live abroad, everyone will visit you: family, close or remote friends. I really enjoy this, it’s a vacation every time. I am enjoying making people discover my new city, introducing them to my current life. I became an expert of strolling the streets of Amsterdam, and I’m able to give you the best local tips. The visits will allow you to bring a bit of your past life into your new one and to also enjoy quality time with the people you are fond of. Also, keep in mind that your loved ones will often bring a suitcase full of things you miss with them (you’ll recognize yourselves, I LOVE you!). 

Perks of the destination: Once you live somewhere else, you’ll be able to fully enjoy everything there is to see and do there. You’ll be able to become a local and to enjoy all the perks of the destination. For me, Amsterdam is a perfect compromise between city life and chill-out. The city is not too big, so the atmosphere is still very quiet (at least outside the main touristic areas). Commuting is really enjoyable as most of us cycle to work (and everywhere else). No need to own a car nor to spend hours in traffic. The life is Amsterdam is vibrant, there are lots of things to do all year round: cultural, musical, sports events, festivals, concerts, markets etc. The city is also full of lovely venues: cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, cinemas, libraries… it can literally please everyone.

Finally, for me Amsterdam is awesome because weed is legal here. I can easily swing by local coffeeshops to buy my stuff, stress and hassle-free, whenever I want. I used to live next to a coffeeshop, I’d pop by on Sunday mornings in my pajamas after buying my breakfast. Now it’s not the case anymore, but I have one next to my work place, so I usually go there to smoke a joint with my colleagues. Nobody makes a big deal out of it, grandpas are sitting there next to young people. Freedom: much appreciated, thank you! An example for France.

Job opportunities: Maybe that’s not the case for every destination but it is definitely the case for me. In Amsterdam there are lots of job opportunities. There are lots of international companies in The Netherlands that are willing to employ people from all over the world. The job market (unlike in France) is not saturated, you can actually find a job quite easily if you do speak English. Hadn’t I moved here, I would never have been able to work for multinationals and build a strong professional background. I was employed in different international companies leader of their industries. As I chose to work in Tourism, I was very pleased to start my career with Booking.com and now Expedia. I’m quite assured to always find a job in the sector with names like that on my resume. Where I come from the major industries are banking and pharma, it does not interest me at all. 

Friends everywhere: When moving abroad, you’ll make new friends and, as I explained earlier, people are everything. If like me you move to a melting-pot city, you’ll not only make local friends, but friends from everywhere. Even if they go back home at some point, you’ll be able to visit them around the globe. Pretty cool isn’t it? I met most of my friends at the workplace, I’m used to meet daily with people from Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil… Conversations are rich, insightful. You’ll learn about their cultures, traditions and ways of living. Also, you’ll be invited to dinners where you’ll try delish exotic food. Win win? Definitely! 

Expatriation: tips

For me, being an expat is a second nature. I genuinely don’t think I’ll ever move back to France. It does not mean that I do not love my country. I am proud to be French, proud of my culture and my heritage. But I long for more and my heart will always wander someplace else. Then again, I’ve always felt that way, because that is part of who I am. You might not feel the same way or you have ultimate blockers, that’s alright. I would say that, to be able to be an expatriate you’ll need at least a few things:

  • flexibility/adaptability: you’ll need to be able to accept change, and to enjoy it. If you like to keep things as they are, I’d not recommend expatriation. 
  • An open mind: you’ll face things you don’t like and you don’t understand. Without an open mind the culture shock might kill you. 
  • Basic language skills: especially if like me you are French (and not given by nature the gift of speaking easily other languages). Just know that with an average level of English, you’ll be able to have yourself understood pretty much everywhere. 

To finish, I wanted to mention that if you are having doubts or questions about a potential move, feel free to reach out to me. Also if you don’t agree with me, let’s talk about it! I’d love to hear about you and your experience.