It rained the whole way through France as I drove up towards the Channel Tunnel on the day I returned to the UK. Two years of living abroad were coming to a close. And all I had to show for it was a tiny Spanish car, rammed full of memories.
I had always wanted to live abroad. Growing up in the UK, it felt like a no-brainer. Why were we so different? Why were we an hour behind? Why did we go through that agonising ritual of attaching monstrous adaptors to all our plugs just to charge our phones abroad? Why did we have pounds in our pockets? And why could we only ever hope for a week of summer, a week of winter, and eleven and a half months of autumn in between?
It was that feeling that first got me interested in languages. Languages were an escape. They allowed me to dream. They were a window into a different life, and one that I was sure I wanted.
My first taste of that life was on my year abroad in Russia. After that, I was hooked. At times it was tough, but every day was an adventure. Every day brought me closer to my flight home, and so I made the most of them. Immersion was exhausting, but exhilarating. I had conversations and formed relationships in a language that just a year before I couldn’t speak. I spent a year of my life like that, and it was a year that I would never forget.
After I came home, I knew I wanted to go back out there. I knew I needed to. If I didn’t, I’d never forgive myself. But this time, I had no intention of ever returning home.
On 31st July 2014 I packed two suitcases and boarded an easyJet flight to Budapest with no return ticket. During the flight I was struck with horrendous toothache and spent the whole two hours with my head on the tray table. As we landed, it passed, and with it – so I thought – passed my life in the UK.
Living in Hungary was an adventure like no other. In many ways it couldn’t have been more different to where I’d grown up. Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade and Ukraine were now all just a few hours from my front door. A brand new exotic language was now what I used in shops and restaurants and all areas of my daily life. I did a CELTA course the moment I arrived, and quickly made friendships that are with me to this day. I remember walking home once along Budapest’s beautiful, crumbling streets with the sun setting over the Buda hills in the distance and just smiling, because I was so happy.
But starting a new life meant leaving an old one behind. The one feeling I couldn’t shake was guilt. My choice to live abroad was my own and for me it was a good one, but at times it felt inescapably selfish too. By choosing to live my dreams, I was denying my closest friends our friendship, and my family their son. We could Skype, we could WhatsApp, we could even visit — but somehow there grew a distance between us that no technology and no transport could ever fully bridge.
Living abroad brought its complications with it too. After a year in Hungary I moved to Spain, where I speak the language well enough to handle most situations. Yet even there the thought of doing simple, every-day tasks exhausted me. I was roped into paying a crippling six month deposit for my apartment because I didn’t understand the system. Then, when I went to the bank to set it up, I was nearly robbed of €200 by the bank because I didn’t read the contract properly.
Fortunately my Armenian estate agent, who had already taken my enormous deposit, knew the system well enough to come with me and query it. She had lived in Spain long enough to know what to look out for, what to say, and most importantly how to say it. To the eyes and ears of Alfonso the bank manager, my protestations alone would no doubt have just sounded like the baseless complaining of a careless foreign fool.
I felt foreign in Spain to a degree that I’d never experienced elsewhere, not even in Russia. I stood out from the crowd, and people did not always hold back.
Once at the airport a woman trying to flog me a credit card, on finding out I wasn’t Spanish, looked me squarely in the eyes and told me: “Yes, now I see it. You haven’t a trace of Spanish blood in you. Ni pinta de español.“
Another time, a waiter was so shocked that my friend ordered a sandwich with sobrasada in it, that when it came he stayed to watch him eat it. “I’ve never seen a guiri eat this before,” he said. “Es que es muy español.”
A final time during Fallas, the yearly Valencian festival that makes the city sound like Baghdad, I politely asked a lady to stop throwing fireworks at my dog. She replied that she couldn’t as it was “in her roots” to do so. She told me if I didn’t like it, I should go back to my own country. A few weeks later I did.
It’s interesting that for each one of these examples there are hundreds more of when people were lovely and welcoming to me in Spain. Yet for some reason, it is these nasty few that stick in my mind. I think it’s partly because I know that these things and far, far worse are said on a daily basis to foreigners in the UK. It’s just I needed to move to a different country first to start seeing it for myself.
I think I have finally started to understand what it’s like to be an immigrant in the UK. To spend your life working for a salary from which huge chunks are taken in tax that you won’t be in the country long enough to benefit from. To spend months and years learning a language that you will always be patronised and outwitted in. To be thousands of miles away from the family and friends you grew up with, your peers and the people who were always there for you. And yet on top of this, to constantly be accused of stealing benefits and profiteering from a system that in reality you contribute more to than you will ever get back.
Living abroad is a great adventure. You will learn things about the world that you will never see at home. You will be enriched, enlightened and humbled. But it can be hard to get into a routine, and hard to ever truly feel settled.
For many people there is no choice. They may not have a home they can return to. I now have infinite respect and admiration for those people, for whom the strain of living in a foreign country will never pass, yet simply have to put up with it. Not for them, but for their children, and their children’s children, and the future generations that they will never meet but know that thanks to the selflessness of their decision to move, they will grow up living in a better place.
If like me, one day you’d like to live abroad, this is my advice to make it work:
- Plan, plan and keep planning.
If you can do a course when you arrive, you will make friends quicker. Also look for Meetup events and anything else that will introduce you to people you can share your experience with.
- Always have a reason to move.
Find a job, study, always have a good answer prepared for the “So what brings you to X?” question. Don’t just spin the globe and move wherever your finger lands.
- Enjoy every day.
Take advantage of the many things you can do in your new home that you never could before. The sun, the snow, the sea, the food — all those treats are there just for you.
- Remember nobody said it was easy.
You will have ups, you will have downs. Without your friends and support network to rely on, these downs may feel more intense. Just remember that you’re not going crazy, it is normal to feel that way.
When I emerged from the Channel Tunnel and proceeded to drive on the wrong side of the road (or is it the right side?), the sun was shining that day. When I got home, I signed up for a French course, found a Hungarian teacher, and started the next chapter of my life.