Lessons from a decade of living away from home
At 16, I begged my dad to take me to the British Council in Lisbon, to find out how I could finish high school in London. For some weird reason, he played along. I am Portuguese, my whole family is Portuguese, and I had never been to the UK in my life. Still, I was sure I wanted to live in London.
But I ended up finishing high school in my hometown and graduating from university in Lisbon. But after that… oh, after that the world was mine!
Life took me to Paris first, I lived there for a while. Then, I made it to the UK, first to Bournemouth and then to my beloved London. And for the past three years, I have been living in Budapest.
I love the freedom and the experiences this lifestyle has given me. I’m a much richer and deeper person for having lived in all these cultures. I still get excited about the idea of living in different places, but things have changed. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s just me getting older?
Living abroad can be quite the dream, but it comes with downsides. If you’re planning to move, I have nothing but words of incentive for you. But make sure you’re ready to deal with the reality checks below.
1. You will miss out on important milestones of loved ones’ lives
Pretty obvious, right? But pretty painful too.
The other day, it was my grandfather’s 87th birthday. My whole family gathered for a celebration, which I joined shortly over a video call. The birthday boy started giving a speech and then, as usual, he started crying and thanking the family for having always been there for him.
I asked my mom to give him a hug for me. She did. He felt her arms around him. She felt him in her arms. And I felt nothing but emptiness and an urge to fight the tears coming to my eyes.
There is always someone’s birth, birthday, graduation, wedding, or divorce. And no matter how often you travel back home, you will miss most of those moments.
2. You will miss out on the daily life back home
Do you remember how my grandfather said that family was always there for him? Well, not me. I was living my life in Paris, London, and Budapest and coming home for a week every 3 months.
What happens during those 3 months? Life goes on. People cross each other on the street, stop for a little chat, take the conversation to a coffee shop. They go for dinner, talk about their day and their week, and about the knee pain that has been bothering them. They get wrinkles on the side of their eyes and handfuls of white hair.
And when you finally see them again a few months later, they look older and limp when they come to hug you. “Ah, nothing new, it’s just my knee”. But I never knew your knee was hurting.
3. Saying goodbye gets harder overtime
I am lucky enough to be 33 years old and still have all 4 of my grandparents. The youngest is 76, the oldest is 91.
For the past few years, every time I say goodbye, I wonder if this will be the last time I ever do it. What’s creepier, my oldest grandfather started mentioning it every time too. “Let’s see if I am still here when you come back”.
But it’s not only about grandparents. It’s about parents, siblings, cousins, friends, everyone. Pandemics happen, people get sick, and you get more fearful as you get older.
4. You will have fewer holidays than most people
You have the same days off per year as other people, or maybe even more than you would in your home country. But while others can use those days to wander off to other countries, you already are in another country. And if go home a couple of times a year, your holiday allowance will fly by.
When I lived in France and dated a half-Brit, half-French, we spent all our holidays going to the UK or to Portugal. Then we moved to the UK, and there we were… spending our holidays in either France or Portugal.
The pandemic and remote work have had a positive impact on this though. Before, I would go home and spend the days waiting for the evenings because that’s when people are free. Now, I can work from home during the day and meet people in the evening, saving up most of the holiday days.
5. Your circle of people back home will shrink
When you live abroad for a while, you develop a certain routine for when you visit home. A couple of weeks before you arrive, you start scheduling dinners and coffees with people.
If you go for a week, you get 7 evenings. Maybe you want more than just one evening with family. And maybe you want to see your best friend twice. In the end, you’re left with 2 or 3 evenings for other friends.
Over time, it will become very clear who your closest friends are. They are the ones you always meet when you go back. That fun colleague from high school? The roommate from university times? The fling you had and with whom you managed to stay friends? They all drop off the list. They are not essential. You go home to see essential people.
6. You will never feel whole again
I love the sunny, long days in Portugal. But I hate that we don’t have heating in our homes and it gets freezing in the wintertime. On the cold days, I much prefer to be in Budapest. But then it gets dark at 4 pm.
I love that supermarket lines go fast in Budapest. But when I go there, the cashiers could be nicer. They are so much nicer in Portugal! But they are also a lot slower…
You go back home and your friends mention trendy topics that are foreign to you. You are in your adopted country, and your other friends laugh at a joke you have no cultural background to understand.
You become richer because you belong to many places. At the same time, you don’t belong 100% to any of them. You live in limbo, always feeling like a foreigner, no matter which of your homes you’re in.
I have spent most of the past decade living abroad and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Living in a new country broadens your horizons and throws good struggles at you. It shapes you to be a more capable, open, and empathetic person.
There are very few experiences in life that can teach you as much as living abroad does. Try it, even if just for a few months. Think about it: which such a vast world, do you truly think you were made to stay put?
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Sometimes, it’s painful. Other times, it’s an uncomfortable feeling you can’t shake off. And some other times, you need to book a last-minute plane ticket for a weekend with your people. But then again, this is life. No matter where you live it.