I’m addicted to novelty; my happiness stems from new sights, smells and encounters. I’m easily bored, move on fast, and in spite of taking everything in as slowly as possible – I tend to be running in order to keep up with my own thoughts.
So, you might ask….what was I thinking when I signed up to spend my days behind a computer, in an office, and live on the side of an isolated Costa Rican mountain? To put it simply – I was testing myself.
Oh, and what a test it has been.
I have been learning through experience – and what I have to offer new expats is a direct result of that. Because the fact is, not all expats are meant to settle down. A lot of us do it out of necessity; those trips have to be funded somehow. And then a few of us do it for sanity because not everyone can juggle bus schedules and hostel living as their day-to-day lifestyle. No matter what your reason, being an expat is significantly different than being a traveler. Even though I’m still settling in, here are some notes on how I’ve learned to call another country home, and not just another stop along my route:
Find comfort in consistency
One of the biggest differences between travel life and expat life is a consistent schedule. For all the years I’ve avoided the dreaded “9-5” cubicle, I often find it laughable that I ended up doing exactly that – disguised as an exotic experience because of its location. Go to any backpackers hostel or travel hub and you’ll hear vagabonds and wanderers talking about “routine” and “consistency” as if that were the end of life; the last-gasped words of the adventurous spirit. I used to be one of them, and the learning curve felt like it almost killed me…but I am here and alive to tell the tale. The truth is, there is something to be said about routine. For starters, it creates predictability which can lower stress levels considerably. It means doing similar things in a similar order in a similar environment. What I have discovered is that routine only becomes toxic if you let it. When you start going about your routine without thinking, without taking time to be grateful or “stopping to smell the roses” is when you lose control and suddenly are just another drone going to your office only to repeat the same thing over and over and over again. But if you stay thoughtful, and stay present, you will see routine as nothing more than a skeleton that you can build your day around. You can find comfort in knowing what to expect – whether it be the fact that you get off at 5pm, or will definitely have a meeting at 12pm – and fill the rest in however you choose. Tired of your typical commute? Change it up and go a different way. You’re still going to the office (I know, the urge to jump on the next bus to anywhere can be tempting…but hang in there), you’re just doing it differently.
Learn to live in the present
Travelers are always making plans. Always. Being an expat gives you the chance to plan less, and practice living in the present. When you are traveling, you are always thinking about the next thing.
“I can enjoy the Louvre now, but I have to make sure to leave enough time to take a picture with the Mona Lisa and grab a croissant on the Champs Elise before catching the last bus back to my hostel where I need to research places to stay in Italy for when I head that way…”
Living somewhere means that your immediate future is secure. You can focus on the present because you feel secure in your future. It takes patience, and practice, but will allow you to make real connections and be truly productive if you can make it a habit. I’m not enlightened enough to naturally “Just be” but you can bet that when I make it a daily goal, life slows down and I can feel the difference. Being an expat is your chance to slow down, escape the hustle bustle of packed itineraries and truly experience a place in real-time.
Become an Expert
Who needs guide books when you know your pueblos roads like the back of your hand? While you rarely get to know much more than the winding path to your hostel while traveling, living abroad will give you the chance to explore your new home, and get to know it. You’ll learn where to buy the best homemade cheeses, and you’ll wave to the neighbor’s-daughters-brother-in-law’s-cousin on your way to the “locals-only” bars. You’ll become the part of a city and you might even become a resource for those kindred spirits traveling through town. Plus, you’ll forever be able to say “I lived in ______, rather than show pictures of landmarks you rushed by, giving you much more credibility. You’ll also make friends, build relationships and when you inevitably go back to your wandering ways, will have a little piece of home somewhere else in the world.
Shake it up
“Settling down” doesn’t translate to “settling” for a ho-hum lifestyle. If you are a traveler at heart, get out there and do what makes you happy! Sure, you’ll have a home base and if you’re like me, you might even have a job that restricts your romping to 48-hour segments. But one weekend is better than none, and having beaches, volcanoes, and jungles in your backyard for the next 14 months means that the adventures are more accessible than ever. Sure, you won’t be splurging on the best food or hotels like you might during a 10-day vacation, but a weekend of riding horses into an ocean sunset makes heading back to the office for 5 days suddenly bearable, if not enjoyable. The key is to allow yourself enough of a routine to live somewhere, but not get so comfortable that you lose sight of what’s around you.
Living in another country isn’t about traveling; it’s about tying your wandering soul down (even if it’s only temporarily) and finding the same joy of discovery in the little things. It’s about taking time to smell the cilantro, taking advantage of surf breaks in your backyard, and getting to know your butcher. Living abroad is about practicing “real life” in a new and exciting culture. It’s realizing that leaving isn’t the only solution – staying in one place can be an adventure too.
What about you? Are you an expat or have lived in another country? What tips do you have on settling in before moving on?