After being gone from my native country for a few years, living in multiple countries, I’ve finally returned home. Throughout the course of living abroad, I’ve faced incredible challenges, learned more than I could have ever imagined, and have some pretty unbelievable memories to look back on. I’m not sure if I’ve come back “a changed person” as some say travel does, or if it was merely a factor of time and growing up. Whatever it was, I’ve learned some lessons I don’t think I would have otherwise if I had simply stayed at home doing the same thing day in and day out. So after giving it a lot of thought, here are the top things I learned from living abroad:
After frequenting many Mediterranean markets, African souks, and Eastern European bazaars, I learned my way through hassling a major deal. The trick is to set a max price you’re willing to pay in your head, then go in with a low-ball offer. If it’s still above your max price, simply walk away. This usually does the trick. If not, I have some others up my sleeve. Now that we’re back on North American soil, our friends can’t believe how we negotiate at regular stores. I even talked my way through 25% off at Homesense (a Canadian big-box home & furniture store). No shame.
2. Creative Problem Solving.
When you’re on foreign soil, dealing with foreign situations and people, you find yourself unable to resort to your once-tried-and-tested methods. You have to learn to work with what you have and what’s available around you. You need to get creative. Case in point, when we faced possible “eviction” from Europe thanks to visa issues, we tried other never-been-done methods of obtaining residency that led us to be the only Third Party National (Non-EU) common-law couple in Malta.
3. How to be easy going.
The number of times shit has seriously gone wrong while traveling is laughable. While it used to really get under my skin when things didn’t go according to plan, I’ve now come to terms with “shit happens” being the inevitable. So now when plans change I go with the flow. The perfectionist in me has learned to overlook the unimportant details, and simply adjust according to whatever comes my way. It has made me much more adaptable.
4. How to live with less.
When I moved abroad I left with one suitcase. Although I would like to say here that that single suitcase carried all my worldly possessions, the truth is, I had an attic-full of storage back at my parent’s place. Fast forward three years and still living overseas, knowing I would soon return home, I couldn’t accumulate too much stuff. I wanted a hairdryer? Tough. I learned to deal without. Same went for many baking accessories I longed for that I knew I had back in that attic and I could not re-purchase. The few items I did give into I had to end up leaving behind once we did move back, which was both sad and freeing. When I returned home and had to go through all my storage bins, I couldn’t believe half the crap I had bought, let alone kept all these years.
5. How to make great friends.
Moving cross-country where you know no one is tough. But moving across continents to a place where your native language is not theirs, is a whole other ball game. You start from ground zero. Finding a place to live becomes harder than you could have ever imagined. Finding friends and making connections seems impossible. Luckily, finding good friends is easier than you think. Let me explain. When you’re forced into a situation that takes you outside your comfort zone and challenges every preconceived notion you’ve ever had, you need to adapt (see point 3). If you’re shy at home, you can retreat to your well-known safety net. But in a different country, there is no net. You are forced to do new things. And doing new things leads to meeting new people. If those people happen to be in a similar situation as you, you can talk about it, and have a deep understanding of what each of you are going through. While living in Ukraine we went to language meet-ups and met some great people both local and from around the world that helped us navigate through foreign territory. In Malta, I made some incredible friendships through expat meet-and-greats, joining classes, and going to events. You have to put yourself out there and afterwards, you’ll be happy you did. We made some of the best friendships of our entire lives abroad, and I will always cherish those as I know how hard they are to come by.
6. You’ll come back with stories that no one will want to hear.
After a few years of exploring the world, you have SO MANY ADVENTURES you want to share with everyone. The thing is, no one really wants to hear about them. Except your Mom. I actually haven’t quite figured out why yet (perhaps it’s a jealousy thing?), but people back home who haven’t shared the same experiences will not be hanging off of every juicy detail that comes out of your mouth. We’ve since learned not to offer any out-of-context comments stemming from our travels (“this one time in [insert some exotic place]”), unless we are outwardly asked.
7. Your Perspective Broadens.
I distinctively remember how much I used to detest walking through Chinatown. I found it dirty, out of place, and I generally tried to avoid it as much as possible. This past summer I briefly visited home, and found myself passing through Chinatown en route to another neighbourhood. I was fascinated with it. The food looked delicious, the stores unique and interesting, and the chaos transported me straight back to the busy shopping streets of faraway lands. I laughed at how I used to view this fascinating part of my home city. Now, very little surprises me or appalls me. It’s just different. And different is what makes things interesting, and what allows us to learn and widen our perspective. I guess that’s why they say travel is the best educator.
8. How lucky I was to see the world.
Make no mistake, I know I am blessed. To be able to have quit my job, packed up a single suitcase, and boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to the Mediterranean, is not something everyone can just do. However, if you’re as fortunate to read this (i.e. have access to a device, etc.) I think it’s a lot more attainable than people think. There will always be reasons against going. Family and friends, stable incomes, and responsibilities all threaten us to stay. But those things won’t necessarily fly out the door the moment you move abroad. I am proud of myself for having taken that leap when I did, and I won’t hesitate to do it again should the hunger arise for the experience. If you are thinking of living abroad, just do it. Figure out how and make it happen. I could write an entire other post on how to get there, and maybe I will someday.