One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences of living abroad so that others who couldn’t could live vicariously through me. It was also to inspire people to take the leap and move to a different place, if that’s something they’ve always wanted to do.
A year and a half ago, I was sitting in an Irish bar in Philadelphia that’s quaintly situated on a street full of cafés and restaurants tailored towards students in the neighborhood of University City. My company consisted of friends and colleagues who were in the same Ph.D. program as me, and the conversation took a turn to discussing what we wanted in our lives in the years to come.
Talking and thinking about the future is a big part of being a Ph.D. student. The program in the States is five years long, but after that, the chances of you getting a job in academia are slim. And unless you’re one of the few lucky ones, you will have no say in where you get to live next. If you choose to stay in academia, that is.
It’s quite depressing, and it was one of the many reasons I knew that I wouldn’t continue down the path of an academic researcher. I wanted to live out a different kind of dream, one where I got to throw myself in an entirely different lifestyle and culture.
Don’t get me wrong, spending five years in charming Philadelphia pursuing my Ph.D. was a different kind of dream. But when that was coming to an end, I wanted something different waiting for me at the end of the road.
I told my friends and colleagues that evening that something I wanted for myself in the next few years was to live in a small country in Europe. I would prefer to live in the Netherlands, but since I’m not an EU citizen, I would settle for wherever I could find a job. I even made a joke saying that it would be wonderful living in a city whose name I had trouble pronouncing.
To my surprise, the others at the table, all young and idealistic like me, did not share this dream. They didn’t think that living somewhere new, where you would often find yourself in unfamiliar, and therefore, uncomfortable situations, was something that would make them happy. They had a point there.
But in spite of the discomforts and the uncertainty that come with living abroad in an unfamiliar place, I want to reassure those of you on the fence of moving that it is worth the risk.
While each person may have their own doubts, from my perspective, I see three big barriers: work, friends, and cultural differences. From my experience, while these barriers may be hard to overcome, none of them are insurmountable.
Leaving aside the fact that some of us may not have the means to live out the dream of moving abroad just yet, I want to tell those of you who do have the means, but are hesitant, that there is a HUGE upside to facing the barriers of living in a different country and experiencing a different culture.
Huge upside number 1, you get to start fresh. Even if you don’t feel like you *need* to, resettling somewhere new forces you to make new choices and re-establish certain parts of your life.
Finding a new job, forming a new network of friends and acquaintances, and picking up new habits are not easy things to do when you’re in the same place. You may be happy with what you have, but even then, sometimes, we can forget how lucky we are to have those things. Moving abroad helps bring in a new perspective to old aspects of your life.
And for those of you looking for change, while I can say that moving abroad isn’t a solution to solve your problems, it can be a great way to help you reset. I know I personally felt that I was in a bit of a funk back home. I loved my friends, but I wanted to try something different career-wise, and I needed to feel more “alive” on a daily basis.
That’s the part that I personally feel people have trouble understanding. Yes, it sucks when you move to a tiny country in Europe and you think you should be able to do something simple like shop for groceries, but then you feel like a complete idiot when you can’t find anything in the store and have trouble understanding when and how you need to pay. On the other hand, there’s excitement when you see different products on the shelves. You suddenly decide that you like to buy different things, and you make meals you didn’t before. And just like that, you figure it all out and you’ve come up with a whole set of a new variety of options. Something new to share with friends and family back home. Or even new friends that you’ve made in your new country.
The next huge upside is that you may find that the way you do everyday, mundane things can improve dramatically. This point needs some explaining. If you move to a new country with a culture that’s completely different from what you’re used to, chances are big that they will do things that you’ve been doing one way your whole life in a completely different way. Being exposed to TWO ways of doing the same thing will allow you to choose which one you like better.
Let me share an example with you. Before I moved to the Netherlands, I would never have considered eating chocolate sprinkles for lunch. The Dutch love putting hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) on their bread, and I’ve been told that this is a perfectly acceptable meal for an adult to have. As an American, I would never do that, but now, I shamelessly cover my bread with chocolate sprinkles to consume on a semi-regular basis.
Something I decided was not for me? In the Netherlands, pre-Covid, getting coffee to-go in the mornings to work wasn’t really a thing. Generally speaking, the Dutch like drinking their first cup of coffee at home before work. I tried that out for a month or so, but quickly decided that I needed to own my ridiculous need to spend more money on something I could make for a fraction of the price myself. Clearly, I make my decisions based on practical outcomes, and not vague emotions.
When you immerse yourself in a different culture, you would be enriching your life similarly. You may think that these things are small, but when you experience it yourself, you may find that the saying “it’s the little things that matter” becomes more than just a cliché.
And finally, there will be a lot to discover and enjoy in your immediate surroundings. The cafés and restaurants you go to will be different. Depending on where you live, it may take years before you feel like you’ve really had a chance to try all of the ones on your list, even if they are in the vicinity of where you live. New museums and shows to experience in unfamiliar cities. And best of all, even just walking around can bring you such happiness. I walk on the streets of cities in the Netherlands, and I can’t help but admire the reflection of Dutch culture in what I see around me.