What comes after that one-way flight: the struggles of living abroad

in Travels

One of my favourite stories to tell is definitely the story of when I spent a week or so supermarket-hopping in London, on a mission to find Wudy sausages. I had been craving them for weeks, but could not find ANYONE who sold them anywhere around London. I took buses and crossed the city on the tube to find them. I went in every Tesco’s, every Sainsbury’s, I googled it – all in vain.

This anecdote really makes people question my sanity, and I’m quite sure I’ve also lost friends when I told them about it – but this was somehow the most ridiculous example, or maybe precursor to a series of difficulties that come along with moving away from home, most of which I’ve started feeling some months after moving here in Florence.

Convinced I was not the only person to be going through this, I turned to a couple of friends and acquaintances who are also experiencing life away from home, and asked what is the hardest part of living abroad.

Starting over

“There are the hardships that everyone knows about; missing family, friends, food and sunshine but then there are those which no one talks about” Alexia, fellow Maltese who’s been living in London for the past years told me, “like calling your new country home yet being stopped at passport control and being questioned like you’re a potential intruder. Like being called out on your foreign accent (…) That safety blanket, that sense of belonging in your darkest hour, it goes away. It disappears as soon as your board that one-way plane to a new life.”

Also currently living in London (and being very missed by her best friend, i.e. me), Michela summarised the whole experience when she said that “for whatever reason you do so, moving to a foreign country is never an easy task. It’s like formatting your computer and starting from scratch. It’s about learning how to survive as an independent adult. Which in my opinion is quite a task for any Maltese person as we are brought up in such a cushioned environment. We learn that we’re alone and no one is there to help us but ourselves.”

Building a social life from scratch

Building a life from scratch is already tough, but also finding people to share that new life with might prove to be even tougher. Ellie, currently living in Glasgow told me that “the worst thing about moving abroad alone is probably the occasional loneliness that you may feel before beginning to form meaningful relationships with time”. Lyndsey, also living in Glasgow voiced what some of us might be reluctant to admit when she told me that “living abroad has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve gone through. You’ll miss your family, your friends, your dog!”. Same goes for Christina, currently living in Colchester “rebuilding a social life becomes challenging when moving abroad especially if you don’t move to study.”

“The trick, I think, is to occupy yourself with exploring the place and getting to know your surroundings. Visit cafes, discover new spots, and keep yourself as busy as possible. Rent a car or catch a train to somewhere new. You won’t regret it!” advised Ellie, whilst Christina also wisely advised to “go out, try new things and say ‘yes’ to invitations. Keep contact with people back home, and never forget your roots”, which was very much seconded by Lyndsey’s advice “experiencing life in a different country and culture is helping me to find myself more and more everyday. I keep in touch with friends and family constantly. No matter where you are, you can never forget where you’ve come from.”

A new lifestyle 

Getting used to a new city’s lifestyle, or else to the way things work is indeed a challenge. “I think the biggest ordeal is creating a new routine, a new norm so to say. We get cosy walking the same streets back home, seeing the same faces, catching the same buses etc… when one moves abroad, all of that which is ‘familiar’, ‘known’, ‘comfortable’ needs to be recreated. There’s this woman whom I started noticing on my metro ride who’s always wearing head to toe in the same colour. One day it’s green, the next is pink, the one after it’s blue. I don’t know her, but seeing her everyday creates a sense of comfort, a rainbow coloured routine …” other fellow Maltese currently living in Brussels told me.

“Little things that make a big difference. I found it very hard to stick to my daily routines, especially in Belgium, because things work so differently there. Shops close at 6, which means that you have to squeeze your errands at break time. Until i got used to it, I would sometimes forget to buy myself dinner in time and cold cereal would have to do,” says Lara, currently living life between Malta and Brussels (and also being my favourite, only sister).

Spotted in Vernazza

Giving me solace for my lack of understanding of how, in the case of Italy, things don’t work are Tiziana – Italian who’s just recently moved back to Florence after living in the UK for 10 years, and also Yanika, fellow Maltese currently living in Rome.

“I am now 32, living in Italy and although it may sound ridiculous there are times where I feel like I don’t belong in Italy. Yet in a way I am thankful for being here now because I am learning and growing in a way I’ve never even imagined…the amount of struggles this country puts you through bring out your strong character traits at some point…and the sweet little daily things made of passion transforms completely who were before Italy,” Tiziana tells me – which pretty much also sums up my feelings completely.

Yanika voices the struggles of foreigners and Italians living in Italy alike when she says that “Trying to understand how contracts and taxes work in Italy is probably one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do – to attempt to do, rather. Here, officially going freelance means you get to call yourself a fancy libero professionista and that you are forced to understand the percentages you never quite grasped in school (…) Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way of making life easier: find yourself a good commercialista. How? As with everything else, ask as many people as possible for a recommendation. If there’s one thing that Italians love to do, other than eat gelato, it’s to make suggestions and give advice. Which is why everything runs on word of mouth, accounting services included. Then, it’s ‘just’ a matter of deciding which accountant to pay to hold your hand through the salary-slashing process, and you’re all set.”

The “stranger” paradox

After reading through all of these experiences, I tried to sit down and think about the struggles I’m finding hardest at the moment. I think one of my first struggles (which was also the most unexpected) was missing an idyllic and serene atmosphere  after a couple of months living right in Florence city centre. I started to get claustrophobic living in a small room in an apartment. I missed being able to detach completely from the busy lifestyle a city brings along. My solution to this was moving to a town in provincia. This means having a 30 minute commute to Florence by train – but it also means stepping off the train after a day at work and being able to switch off work-mode a little easier. To me, it means a little bit of home away from home – but it also means being able to take long walks in the Tuscan countryside – looking out of my window and not seeing yet another building, but serene greenery.

I’ve also found that living abroad messes with your perspective. Surrounding yourself with locals sure has loads of advantages. However sometimes it messes my head because I find myself living the same identical lives as they do, but then realising that I’m somewhat missing some important factors such as meeting up with life-long friends for coffee or else popping by my parent’s house to say hello. It sort of leaves you with a void which can never be filled – and sometimes leaves me with a guilt feeling of “why can’t I have that”, and also “what am I really doing here?”. My solution to this is just to reset my perspectives again – I usually try to call some of my friends or family, or else just even go through photos or memories or do things which remind me the reasons why I am here.

I also weirdly miss being myself in Maltese – living in Italy, being surrounded with almost just Italians and speaking mostly Italian has definitely improved my fluency, however it has also made me miss the person I am in my mother tongue, and also my sense of humour which leaves much to be desired for in Italian.

I also do agree with most of my contributors when they’ve said that building a social life from scratch is tough, and also those who mentioned that getting used to the quirks of their new home isn’t easy. I think living abroad sort of throws you in the “stranger” paradox – that moving away from home not only makes you a stranger where you go, but also makes you feel like a stranger to the life you’ve left behind. I’m only recently trying to use this as a trump card – which helps me to never stop exploring where I am, where I’m from, and ultimately, where I’m going.

I’d really love to hear what your experiences with living abroad were or are. Leave a comment down below – we’re all in this together! – HSM fans rejoice –

10 Comments

  1. The worst thing of all is that when, and if you go back home, you will find that you no longer fit there either. The longer you stay away the harder it is to fit if you return home and you suddenly feel like a stranger at home. You become like a nomad, needing to change the scene every now and then. The here and there – the ‘no-real’ home sensation occasionally causing you to wake up foggy and confused because you seem to forget in what country you slept, where you were in your dreams and where you woke up in the morning.

  2. It takes quite a lot of blind courage to pack up and leave. Following the ‘honeymoon period’ reality sets in and it sometimes does bite a bit! At the end of my four-year stay abroad I had become absolutely exhausted with introducing myself every single day. The easiest way to form a social circle is through expat groups but most of the people are nomads themselves hence the many byes and hellos. Still worth the plunge of moving countries though 🙂 I write about this and more at http://www.faeryode.com 🙂

    • I agree! Sometimes I just feel like being surrounded by people who’ve known me for all my life – so I no longer have to introduce myself or any parts of my life anymore. But then again, one of my favourite parts of living abroad is meeting so many new people :). Well done on your blog by the way!

  3. I’m from Holland, but I’ve lived abroad for the last 14 years! First in Toronto, then Cambridge (England), and now in London. Cambridge was the hardest for me, because I wasn’t part of the university and I felt very isolated living there. Toronto and London I found much easier to adapt to. One of the things I’ve found hardest is to figure out what I missed from local collective pop culture knowledge. I didn’t watch the same shows growing up, so I don’t get all the references.

    • I really really understand! I grew up quite immersed in Italian culture even though I am from Malta – but still, I find myself missing out on either pop culture knowledge or else just feeling like I barely know anyone – given Italy’s tightly-knit society! Thank you for your comment 🙂

  4. Hi Christa, even tho I have been following you for a while, I came across this article, when I was looking for google’s help with me moving to Brighton in less then 3 months now, I am really looking for someone I can relate to and maybe give me help me on how understanding how difficult it is to get used to something new when you have lived in malta for your whole life. I am quite scared to be frank even if I am going with my british boyfriend, i still feel like I need something to ground my feet on.

    • Hey! Thanks for following 🙂
      I’m thinking of writing something along these lines in the coming days. Malta really shapes us as Maltese – whether we like it or not – but honestly, don’t worry too much. It might sound difficult but it’s so worth it. Just keep an eye out for the article soon – I can also email you the link once it’s up just in case xxxx

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