As a semi-experienced expat, I’ve had a few years to reflect upon both the ups and downs of living abroad, away from familiarity and home comforts. I’m a strong proponent of the expat life and truly believe everyone should be an expat once in their life. Yes, it can be daunting, lonely, frustrating and challenging, but in the end the benefits far outweigh the more difficult aspects of this life choice.
Perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones and have had good experiences so far, but trust me, I’ve had days, weeks, months when it’s been tough. Tough socially and tough psychologically. You have to take yourself out of your comfort zones, be proactive and sometimes it feels each day can be a daily battle when you know no one, when the language is different, the customs are unfamiliar and, particularly in Belgium, getting basic services installed, such as internet, is an uphill battle.
I’ve always craved living abroad, so perhaps the leaps to France and Belgium in my life thus far haven’t been too intimidating, as I actively relished the opportunities and challenges. Knowing that I’m not too far from home and having family in France has inevitably eased the process for me. And having a French mother means that France has always felt more familiar to me than other countries.
Why do I think living abroad is important? Because you learn bucketloads about yourself, your limits, and you get a much clearer perspective on your homeland. Well, granted, France and Belgium are not drastically different cultures from the United Kingdom, but different enough to feel like a foreigner and to feel like the different one.
That daily lived experience of being different changes your own opinions of yourself and forces you to reflect upon your habits and idiosyncrasies, which are sculpted by where we have grown up. It makes you more self-aware, more understanding of how your local culture is perceived by outsiders, more understanding of other cultures, better informed and I feel it makes you a better-rounded person.
Coping and adapting to another country, in another language, forces you to become more self-reliant and to laugh at yourself. The number of embarrassing incidents increased exponentially during my first expat experience in France. And you know what? I just shrugged it off and laughed, something I’m not sure I would have done as easily prior to then. There are the misunderstandings, the phrases lost in translation, the confused looks. My boyfriend and his friends always remember one of their first conversations with me; we were discussing cheese (as you do in France) and I got the name of one of my favourite cheeses wrong by omitting the accent, so declared quite happily that I loved women’s genitals rather than cheese!
One of the most surprising outcomes of living abroad has been that I have cultivated a greater love and affection for Great Britain than I ever had when I lived there. Seeing and experiencing both the positive and negative aspects of other countries has allowed me to better critique and analyse my home country. I have realised that, actually, Great Britain truly is great, and there are so many fantastic things about my country, such as how organised we are! And our quirky side, our very dry and self-deprecating sense of humour, the buzz of London, the cleanliness of our streets (note the lack of dog poo), our superb cakes and biscuits!
So many things which I could go on listing and which living abroad has enabled me to appreciate much more profoundly than if I had never lived away. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Having daily points of comparison enables me to appreciate the good points of my fatherland, but also more accurately critique the more negative aspects of my country. I still begrudge the very euro sceptic nature of the British and Britain’s enduring island mentality.
The expat life has bequeathed me a more informed perspective on politics, cultural differences and my country. I’m not saying you cannot be informed having never tasted the expat life, but the lived experience is always much richer than that gleaned from news or television.
Living in Brussels is, as I’ve mentioned previously, a hybrid space, a cultural melting pot of many different nationalities, and perhaps not a true representative of Belgium and what a Belgian is. However, living in this incredibly cosmopolitan environment has opened my eyes up to other countries which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to live in, a vicarious experience of other places unveiled to me by my fellow expatriates.
My friends keep asking when I’m coming back, and honestly I’m not yet sure when or if I’ll ever move back to the United Kingdom. Because as much as I adore my country, I also love what life as an expat is offering me now… and that each country you move to enriches those experiences further.