Living Abroad: Five Essential Survival Skills

Living abroad– the idea of taking your hard-won savings and moving overseas for a better life– is as alluring as it is polarizing. Every day, without fail, an article or blog post is written about the “Top Ten Cheap Beach Retirement Destinations,” and it’s easy to see why. After all, who wouldn’t want to upgrade their lifestyle while downsizing their budget? Who wouldn’t want to trade their humdrum existence back home for a tropical island, culture-filled city, or even just the peace of mind offered by a country offering universal health care?

Living abroad, as imagined from a cubicle
Living abroad, as imagined from a cubicle

When the topic of geographic arbitrage comes up in the Financial Independence community, most responses can be divided into one of two camps.

The optimists would have you believe that moving abroad is the secret to living well on the cheap. Every morning you will wake up refreshed and walk to the local coffee shop, where you’ll recharge with lattes costing just pennies. You’ll rub elbows with cultured, worldly people all day before retiring to your villa (which may be located in the countryside, on a coffee plantation, or on a beach ideally suited for surfing). You’ll eat the best food, cooked by your combination housekeeper/cook, before retiring to the master bedroom for a good night’s sleep, smiling with the deep satisfaction that tomorrow will be just as fulfilling as today.

The pessimists are quick to remind you that living abroad isn’t the idyllic fantasy you think it is. First off, there’s the language barrier. If you are not an advanced-level speaker of the language, good luck negotiating a lease, activating utilities, enrolling your child in school, or– heaven forbid– dealing with the local bureaucracy. Even if you speak the language, there’s the fact that you haven’t been programmed with a lifetime of cultural cues and knowledge necessary to make friends or be accepted. The pessimists are sorry to break it to you, but you will be forever an outsider and there’s simply no changing that. Shortly after moving, you’ll come to learn that living abroad wasn’t that great after all, and you’ll come running back to the safety of your home country with your tail between your legs.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. The optimists and the pessimists are both right in their own way, but there are as many experiences of moving and living abroad as there are people doing so. Only one thing is perfectly certain about living abroad: wherever you go, you will not leave behind what is going on inside of you. Your marital issues, your childhood trauma, and all of your other emotional baggage is making the move too. Making a success of living abroad doesn’t start with a change of address. It starts with a change of heart.

A Confession

If we’re being perfectly honest, I experienced moments of real anxiety when we first moved to Spain. Just about everything seemed to go wrong. We arrived in Madrid late at night to find that our four-month-old daughter’s stroller and car seat had been lost in transit. We had intended to take a taxi to our hotel for the night, but without a car seat we had no safe way to do it. We ended up renting a car for two hours to get all of our luggage– everything we were moving with– to the hotel.

The next day, I picked up our leased car and ran out to buy an inexpensive car seat, as we needed to head for Granada that day. Then we headed to the cargo terminal to pick up our dogs, who had just been unloaded from their morning flight from London. The massive binder of animal import paperwork needed to be certified by a customs officer before the dogs could be released to us.

Unfortunately, it was Good Friday and there was one customs official in the whole airport… and she was on the wrong side of the arrivals door. Once I managed to illicitly sneak in, I learned that the customs computer system was down nationwide. Thus began the four hour ordeal of rescuing our dogs. They waited, cooped up in airline crates in a customs warehouse, while I tried every tactic: pleading, reasoning, and demanding, to get them out. When we finally managed to retrieve the rest of our family, half of the dog bowls and food that had been attached to their kennels had gone missing. Had they even been fed or watered as they sat in the warehouse?

After less than 24 hours in Spain, I was emotionally exhausted, angry, and most of all hoping that I hadn’t made a huge mistake. Though our move has ultimately been one of the most satisfying choices of our lives, I was confronted with the fundamental truth of life abroad: I hadn’t arrived a different, better version of myself. When the airline had lost our luggage, couldn’t they have lost my fears, worries, and imperfections instead?

I was, for better or worse, the same me that I had been 24 hours earlier when we said goodbye to our old home.

Setting Up For Success When Living Abroad

Of course, that wasn’t the end. Ultimately we would find the perfect house, amazing friends, and settle into a routine that is better than we could have imagined. Spoiler alert: life abroad agrees with us, but that doesn’t mean it was always easy.

After about two years here, I’ve seen expat individuals and families come and go. Those who tended to renew their visas and extend their stays had certain traits in common. They embodied certain survival skills that made it possible for them to adapt more quickly and more happily to the curveballs of living abroad. In no particular order, a successful expat must:

1. Embrace Failure

More than any other trait, the ability to boldly make mistakes and laugh them off is critical to life abroad. If we worry about saving face and as a result we don’t take risks, then living abroad is going to be an uphill battle the whole way. In this respect, the pessimists are half-right. You haven’t had a lifetime to learn language, culture, and mannerisms. You will be on the outside… to a point.

I am a pretty proficient Spanish speaker… and I make countless errors every day. I’ve said and done things that were outright embarrassing. But, our friends here have learned that I am the first to laugh at my mistakes, cheerfully accept correction, and thank them for helping me to improve. If I was so afraid of looking dumb that I didn’t take a risk and open my mouth I would have missed out on real and enduring friendships.

2. Avoid Expat Enclaves

I get it. When you’re living abroad in a foreign country, it can be really tempting to live in a city with a large number of people from your country of origin, to put your kids in the school with a high concentration of expats, and to join clubs and organizations that cater to you in your language. Being around other expats helps you to feel comfortable. It gives you confidence that if you run into trouble you will have a sympathetic ear to ask for help.

Having connections in the local expat community isn’t wrong, but it can make you complacent when it comes to connecting with locals. You have to ask yourself: what kind of life did you dream of having in your new home? Did you imagine a carbon-copy of home populated by people who speak, think, and act as you do? Or did you imagine the rich experience that comes with being accepted as, if not a local, at least a welcome addition to the community?

For us, a couple of things helped us in finding local friends. We joined our local Crossfit gym, where the coaches and our fellow athletes speak little English. Mrs. Vagabond signed up for immersion Spanish courses at a school that scheduled tons of cultural activities, allowing her to step out into everyday situations (going out for tapas, going hiking, etc.) with the confidence of having an instructor nearby.

For me, the gym was the big one. Even if all you learn to say at first is, “Well, that sucked,” or “You can do it,” nothing brings people together like shared suffering! After two years, we have extremely close friends who we socialize with nearly every week outside of the gym. We attended (and I gave a speech at!) the wedding of our closest local friends, and we often talk about how much our life here is enriched by having “our” friends, “our” bakery, “our” gym, and “our” restaurants. Feeling a sense of investment in the local community makes anyplace more of a home.

Of course, your opportunity to connect doesn’t have to be a gym– it could be a running club, an arts organization, or a local parent/retired persons group. Re-review rule number one. Learn how to say “Hey, my <language> is terrible but I love <activity/city/country> and I am so happy to be here.” Your new friends will smile and cheerfully correct (oftentimes in infuriatingly perfect English) your grammar and pronunciation. Laugh, and you’re already halfway to having your first local friend. I guarantee it.

3. Be Kind To Each Other

For expats coming with families, give each other a break. As wonderful as it is, uprooting yourself and moving your entire life halfway around the world adds stress and complication to your life.

I am the first to admit that this move hasn’t been as easy on Mrs. Vagabond as it has been on me. She had never lived outside of the city where we grew up, struggles at times with Spanish, and misses her family intensely. I arrived in Spain able to walk into a store, write a letter, and otherwise navigate everyday tasks. She didn’t. I needed to learn to be more patient and encouraging of her incredible efforts to fit in.

I am not a patient person by nature, but living abroad is helping me to be better at it. Being far from your comfort zone is a unique and person challenge for everyone. A little empathy goes a long way.

4. Preserve Personal Space and Time

Before living abroad, Mrs. Vagabond and I had never spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year together. It is not always easy. We get on each other’s nerves and we fight about stupid things. Living in close quarters at all times heightens our appreciation for the things about our partners that we love, and magnifies the things about them that make us crazy.

For this reason, it’s absolutely essential to design a lifestyle that includes personal time and space for each individual. Every day when our daughter goes down for her nap, Mrs. Vagabond and I generally retreat to separate spaces to read, use the internet, watch TV, or sometimes just to take a nap. Having this time to ourselves gives us both the chance to recharge our batteries.

It’s not enough to maintain space inside the home, though. Each individual should maintain their own friendships, associations, and activities, too. At least some of the time, resist the urge to say “Hey, that sounds fun! I think I’ll come along!” Let your partner do their thing.

In our everyday lives, it is work and a lifetime of friendships and family that provide us with healthy distance. When living abroad, we must to create it for ourselves.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ease In to Expat Life

Not every expat is ready to take the plunge with both feet. It’s easy to set out a set of guidelines for success assuming that everyone can be outgoing, pick up the language, and serve as an endless font of patience with their friends and loved ones. Some of us are introverts. Some of us struggle with trauma, depression, learning difficulties and other real challenges. So does that mean those people can’t be successful living an expat life?

No! But it does mean that you need to tailor your experience around your emotional needs. When we made the move abroad, someone told me that we really needed to give it six full months before deciding if expat life was for us, and that turned out to be great advice. Really, I don’t think we had made this place home until the end of the first full year.

While you should come prepared to be patient and get through the hard stuff before expecting the rewards of expat life, if you look hard at yourself and decide that you cannot completely leave behind the life you have always known, then don’t. At least, not all at once.

Instead, design the perfect expat experience for you. Consider spending six months abroad and six months back home. Spend the whole year abroad, but split it between two very different locations. Spend your first year abroad in a country where they speak your native language before trying out a country with a language barrier. It’s absolutely ok to try out a place and find that it isn’t for you. Human beings can only process so much change in a short period of time. Honestly assess what amount of change you can make all at once, and use that to guide your decisions.

Temet Nosce (Know Thyself)

The optimists tend to focus on the trappings of life abroad: beaches, villas, housekeepers, and comfort. The pessimists tend to focus on the worst-case scenarios and social isolation. Our experience living abroad has shown that every expat family will find themselves along a spectrum between these two opposites. The good news is that this is a starting point, not an end.

None of us magically find ourselves a different person on the other side of a one-way ticket. The good news is, by going into the experience with open eyes, somewhere down the road it’s possible to find ourselves a transformed one.

10 thoughts on “Living Abroad: Five Essential Survival Skills

  1. Billie

    I would love to know which language class your wife signed up for! Or others that folks recommend! Thanks.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Sure! Mrs. V took intensive and non-intensive courses at Castila ( I attended a few of their extracurricular activities like the Friday Tapas Crawl and found the instructors really great.

  2. Jim @ Route To Retire

    Love this and I think you nailed some really helpful points! We moved to Panama last August and it’s definitely been different. But the key, like you said, is to just enjoy it and laugh at your failures along the way. You need to appreciate the adventure of the various nuances and roll with the punches that come up.

    We’re taking our life abroad as one year at a time, but we’re enjoying it so far. Finding a normal routine is part of the journey (it can’t all be drinking and beach time!). But the harder part is missing friends and family that you’ve left behind and trying to build some new relationships along the way.

    With our 9-year-old daughter with us, establishing a somewhat normal childhood was a big concern for us. She’s made a couple of minor friendships but she finally has a new BFF here which is such a sigh of relief.

    Great post!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thanks, Jim! The comfort and amenities for our daughter is probably the number one factor for us, too. Especially as she approaches school age (though admittedly, it’ll only be preschool at first), we think a lot about where the best place is for her, and therefore for us. Another move might be in our future, but we’re still working out all the options.

      Panama sounds amazing– I hope that you are finally starting to settle in, as it definitely takes time.

  3. Eric @

    Good insights! I think the personal space thing is the key to any relationship, but especially one where your partner is the only familiar face. We always try to build in alone time and it definitely helps. And embracing failure is the only way to go through life. Go out there and make mistakes. I try to make at least one mistake every day. lol

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thanks! I was thinking about you guys yesterday and about how some of the challenges must be especially acute for you. Being more nomadic than we are, it must be harder fo you guys to maintain healthy personal space. Any routines you guys preserve from place to place to “do your own thing?”

  4. Eric @

    I can’t say we have any specific routines, but both of us understand that spending 100% of our time together is too much. We still enjoy spending a ton of time together, just not all of it. We both have our own solitary activities (I play computer games & write the blog, she reads a lot of books & likes TV shows I don’t) so whenever either of us want alone time, we just call it. So far so good.

  5. Tenneal

    Thank you for the great article. I’m wondering how you’re doing during lockdown? We are in Málaga, and finding it very calm & quiet. We decided to stay rather than return to the states. I think we made the right decision, although the death toll here is shocking & I would like to go on a walk. Hope you’re staying healthy.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hi Tenneal,

      We are hanging in there, thanks for asking and glad you are ok as well. We too are glad we stayed here as, despite the death toll, at least there has been a coherent, national response including a full lockdown. We are also more confident in the medical system and the government’s commitment to stay the course to save lives and not put the economy before people.

      We too would love to go for a walk or know when our daughter could next go outside, and anticipate the lockdown will last for some time to come, at least another month or two. We should finally start to see progress in the cases as we hit the two week quarantine mark.

      Stay safe.

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