5 Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

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Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

If moving abroad were easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

With only about 35% of the American populace holding passports, I think it’s safe to say that most of our knowledge of the big wide world comes from the idiot box and the internet, not from firsthand experience.

Personally, I cannot STAND it when people make incorrect assumptions about other countries. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I have made it my life mission to encourage and help as many people, especially young people and women, to travel the world and move abroad. Hence this massive, rather long-winded blog.

Whether it’s from movies, books or TV, I feel like the image of “the rest of the world” and “moving abroad” has become so idealized and misconstrued in American media today that it’s no longer relevant to the actual experience.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

Whenever I tell people I lived in Spain or I’m moving abroad (big announcement soon guys!) I generally get the half-assed “Oh that’s so nice! You’re so lucky; you’re going to have the time of your life, and maybe you’ll fall in love” response. Ok, have you met me? I’m a walking-talking disaster! No one in their right mind would call me lucky and the day I have a successful international relationship is the day pigs fly.

And secondly, the next person who tells me I’m going to fall in love abroad is going to get smacked, family members included. What makes people think that going abroad is equal to a young woman searching for love, and what makes you think it’s socially acceptable to say that to my face? Hey, what about me?! Can’t I just go abroad for myself? I’m only 24 damnit! All I want is to see the world, maybe make out with some cute boys, sleep under the stars, drink whiskey with cool people and have adventures and write about it later. Is that asking too much?

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

We get so caught up in the “American Dream” of finding the perfect 9 to 5 job, the perfect husband, the perfect house with a white picket fence, two cars and 2.5 kids that we forget that there is an entire WORLD out there to explore! For all you young’uns out there, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You only have one chance to be young, don’t throw it away.

I don’t know anyone who has regretted moving abroad but I know plenty who have regretted staying behind.

But I’ve waxed poetic enough about why I think everyone and their mother should move abroad right this instant. This post is about myths and breaking down the facts about living overseas for you guys, something I’m painfully good at.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

1. The movies got it all wrong

From watching the Olsen twins frolic around Paris on VHS to Diane Lane getting romanced after buying a villa in Tuscany, my generation was raised on glamorized half-truths and idealized travel experiences. No matter how many times I’ve been to Rome, I have never met my pop start doppelganger and been invited to sing on stage in the Coliseum like Lizzy McGuire. Damn you Disney!

Moving abroad is hard; it’s challenging, and you don’t always find what you are looking for. Modern media has romanticized traveling and living overseas, making it seem both effortless and easy, when in reality, it can be the biggest pain in the ass. The movies rarely talk about the hard times, and they make it look so effortless when the reality is far from rainbows and unicorns.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

From sorting out residency papers and visas (the bane of my existence in Spain) to negotiating rent and setting up a bank account, nothing is simple, easy or familiar while transitioning abroad. While these daily occurrences are glossed over on film, they are all part of the experience and make it all the sweeter. I always likened them to personal challenges. Liz – 1, Spanish post office worker – 0, winning.

So for all the people who think moving abroad is a piece of cake or a long-term vacation, you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a daily battle that almost always leaves you questioning – is this what I really want? while crying on the Madrid metro and stuff your depressed face with Kinder Bueno bars.

But if it is, then all the challenges that go into moving abroad make the experience all the more rewarding and memorable. There is not a movie out there that can truly capture just how amazing it is to have that experience under your belt because, it’s one of those “you really have to be there” moments.

These are the best moments you can have while traveling, spending the day with new local friends and laughing, getting invited to a family dinner, becoming part of your new community. Moving abroad is so much more than a new country, a place to tick off of a bucket list. It’s about the experiences you have and the people you meet. Don’t forget that getting caught up in the glamor of it all.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

2. Get rid of all your crap

I’m totally serious – you’ll thank me later; burn it, sell it, or throw it in storage, but whatever you do, try to keep the stuff you bring with you to a minimum. It took me several years, and several international moves abroad to realize that less really is more.

With hundreds of books in my collection and a penchant for high heels, if I can travel light, by god anyone can. A huge part of moving abroad is about integrating. You can buy clothes and bath products in your new country, don’t waste all your luggage space on 10 pairs of jeans and hair products.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

Do you really need to pack everything you own? Do you need to bring a pillow with you? Can you not buy shampoo wherever you’re going?

One of my favorite things about Spain was the shopping! They have great stuff for so much cheaper than the US. I always had more problems going home, trying to bring home all the stuff I bought during sales and smuggle in cheap wine and Spanish ham, than when I moved over in the first place.

Whether you are moving abroad for six months or six years, the less shit you bring with you, the better. Trust me on this one.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

3. Learning another language is not easy

Before I moved to Spain, I thought I knew Spanish. What a joke!

Aside from the fact that America has just about the worst teaching foreign language methodology I’ve ever experienced, no two ways about it, you won’t become fluent until you move abroad.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

Even that isn’t enough. I’ve known plenty of Americans in Spain who get by speaking English and put in zero effort to learning Spanish. You have to try, really try; commit to it and make it a priority and it will happen. Live with locals, join a club, go out frequently, make a fool of yourself with locals. You will never learn to speak a language well from a book, you will only learn by practicing. Drink a beer first; it helps.

When I first moved to Spain in 2007, I was so shy. It took half a year for me to come out of my shell, and look at me now! I can’t shut up – in English or Spanish! The day I won an argument with my Spanish roommates in April 2011 about kitchen duties was a sweet, sweet day for me.

But don’t delude yourself. You have to make the effort if you want to learn another language when moving abroad. Don’t just think it’ll happen.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

4. It’s ok to hate your adopted country

Don’t shoot the messenger! God knows I will never hear the end of writing a negative post about Spain. I’ve been called many nasty things in my 3 years blogging, but one of the worst ones was somehow being “ungrateful” for Spain.

Really? Have you read my blog?

Let me fill you in on another little secret; you are allowed to get mad, pissed and even hate your new country now and then. It’s like a relationship really. Don’t bottle in your feelings, otherwise they will boil over and explode, and that just never ends well. Ever.

You are allowed to have a complex range of emotions when you straddle two different worlds. That’s a normal part of moving abroad – there are even studies on it! For me, the hardest part of living abroad was feeling like I belonged neither here nor there. I would get mad at Spain and I would get mad the US, and I felt like I was in limbo.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

Sometimes shit happens when you live abroad. Sometimes nothing happens for a long time and you are really happy, and then suddenly it all sneaks up on you at once and attacks you. From fighting with the immigration officers, to my coworkers, to even doctor’s office, Spain always tested my patience. Hell, I am STILL fighting with them now! In December, my best friend mailed me home all my favorite books from Spain, and well, they lost them and have no idea where they are. And not only did they lose them, they are making my friend go through a rat race in Spain trying to even talk with the right person who can help! And I can’t do anything since I’m in the US and the Spanish post office phone number is a paid line unrecognized by Skype. Really Spain?

Deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. I love Spain, I really do. At the end of the day, I would go through hell and back to live there. And that’s how I know I can complain about it here and there; it’s like venting to a friend. It’s when your hate for a country bubbles up so much that you become negative and bitter is when you should start thinking about moving home. I didn’t even think about moving home til I was warned by a lawyer that I could be forcibly deported and banned from Europe if I didn’t leave.

Now that’s love.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

5. Travel changes you

People always talk about “finding yourself” or “going on a journey to self-discovery” as a reason for traveling, and as much as I think it’s way overplayed nowadays, I can understand where people are coming from. After all, Eat, Pray, Love was popular for a reason.

People  usually say that traveling or living abroad was the best time of their life and you should go too, Listen.

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

Travel does change you, for better or worse. Moving abroad was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it has helped shaped and continues to shape who I am today. It has taught me many lessons and has encouraged me to be independent, responsible, have respect, and above all, APPRECIATE the people and the world around me. Struggling to learn another language, to adapt to a different culture with a different set of rules and learning the difference between fiction and reality – those are the lessons that stay with you, that shape you, that change you.

Have you ever lived abroad? For you, what is something no one ever told you about moving abroad?

Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad


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  1. Love this post! Particularly get rid of all your crap (couches included, haha). I prided myself on only moving abroad with two suitcases, especially when I saw what some of the other people on my Prague TEFL course arrived with. By the time I moved to Germany I had acquired some more stuff, but it all fit into a compact car so I still felt okay. Now that I’m a bit more settled and am planning on being in Germany at least until my 2-year residence permit (and T-mobile contract) are up, I feel okay buying more things, but I still have to seriously consider anything that I think will ultimately weigh me down. Anything that goes on the wall, flower boxes for the balcony, kitchen supplies… I over think all of those things because what the hell am I going to do with them when I leave?

    As for the looooooove thing, I absolutely hated that reaction too! “Oh, maybe you’ll meet a hot Czech guy!” Yeah, those don’t really exist – sorry Czechs. And then we’ll zip around on Vespas in Prague and it’ll be so romantic.

    Not a chance. I moved abroad for MYSELF. To travel and to get opportunities that I wasn’t getting in America. If I wanted to get married, I could have just stationed myself at the local townie bars every night until a nice gentleman wearing a camouflage hat who’d had a few too many come over and hit on me until I gave up hope. Nein, danke. Of course now that I am dating someone here in Germany, I’m fully expecting that reaction to continue when we visit the States this summer. Not really looking forward to that one.

    I also dislike when people constantly ask how long you’re staying and when you’re going “home.” I’m sorry, but I feel perfectly at home here. Knowing more German would help, but I need to apply myself there, just like you said. Living abroad isn’t perfect, that’s for sure. But it’s the right thing for me right now, and I don’t see myself heading “home” anytime soon, so maybe it’s the right thing for me forever. Who knows.

    1. How many suitcases did you bring? I’m moving to China for a year and I feel like I’ve already purged sooo much, but I still have like 5 suitcases.

  2. A huge YES to whittling down the items. I keep wondering how I had (er, have) accumulated so much after a relatively short time abroad–I arrived with one suitcase but now it would be impossible to fit everything back in one place again :/

  3. Great post, Liz! I agree with everything you said here! My Portuguese is always so much better after half a bottle of wine! 🙂
    I still love the Lizzie McGuire Movie though — after all, this is what dreams are made of, right?

  4. I think this is a great post! I left the US when I was 21 yrs old, it was worth it, it changed me for the better, there is so much to see and experience in the world! Take advantage of it while you’re young, it will make you a more well rounded person later in life! 🙂 Danica

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