Lessons After 3 Years Abroad

I have a habit of holding on to things. Cards, concert tickets, little gifts and memories collected over time. Back in Canada, I kept a shoebox full of these little things and in the UK they somehow manage to be scattered all about my one bedroom flat in London. Occasionally I seek them out, looking for comfort in a tough time, but other times I stumble upon them in the most random of moments.

In this case, I was looking for my council tax account number in a pile of papers, when I stumbled on a stack of cards. They represented a significant moment in my life, the day nearly three years ago when I said goodbye to my friends and family and moved across the Atlantic. The messages were of jealousy of my new adventure, well wishes for my travels and promises to keep in touch. None of them mentioned how hard it would be and at the time, I certainly had underestimated the adventure ahead as well.

I recently listened to a podcast where several seasoned expats discussed candidly their own experiences of living abroad. As I listened to familiar sentiments, I had no choice but to reflect on my own experience. The voices came from several different countries worldwide, spoke of experiences of moving to New York, Berlin, Singapore and Beijing. Despite the wildly different experiences, it was remarkable how common the general sentiments were from each of the guests, as well as how much they rang true to my own experience.

The first lesson is that making friends as an adult in a new city is really fucking hard. The last time I’d had to set out to make new friends had been my first week at university, and London does not have an orientation week, let me tell you. I am extremely grateful for the friends I have now, most of which at some point took pity on a lonely Canadian and invite him along to a party or a concert. This does not take away from the fact that the first six months were extremely hard. I went from living within a half hour of a dozen of my best friends to a foreign city with no one to call on a Friday night. The benefit now is that I’m completely comfortable on my own. I’ll go to the movies or dinner by myself and not give two thoughts about it.

Next, is that there are no greener pastures. One of the writers on the podcast mentioned that you cannot truly call a place home until you’ve thought to yourself “fuck this place” on a delayed Monday morning commute into work, like a local. There are days where I can’t bear to leave my flat and face the hoards of Londoners, that is balanced with moments such as walking across a bridge over the River Thames that I can’t believe I live in such an incredible place. When I first moved here I was taken by an impression that the UK does everything better. After three years, I’ve learned that different does not always mean better. Some things from home, such as the wide open spaces, friendliness of the people and being able to watch my hockey team play at a normal time of day can never be matched. On the other hand, the ability to travel to so many countries in Europe for the weekend and the vast and rich cultural history of a place such as London itself are tough to beat. No pasture is greener, but it doesn’t hurt to explore them both anyways.

Staying up until 3 in the morning to see my Leafs play

The third and probably most difficult lesson of all is that you’re going to miss things. Living abroad opens up a whole new world of opportunity, but life at home still keeps going. I usually make it home at least two weeks a year, but that leaves 351 days that I miss and a lot happens in that time. I’ve missed holidays, birthdays and special occasions, all that made me close to hopping on a flight even just for a weekend despite the cost. The most difficult choice I’ve made was to remain in London this year for Christmas. As hard as it was on me, it was my decision and therefore much harder for my family. Tough decisions are common, but by not going home for Christmas I was able to be home for a week at a cottage this past summer and travel to Estonia for a week before the holidays, both of which were great trips. I probably speak to my parents on the phone more then I did living an hour away in Toronto, but it’s still not quite the same. The actual lesson here, I think, is that it’s okay to miss people, things and home and still enjoy yourself on your adventure, but to expect to not be homesick at all is unrealistic, even after three years.

Knowing what I know now, would I still have gone when I did? Absolutely. Would I recommend everyone does it at some point? 110%. It’s a life experience that broadens horizons, build self-sufficiency and self-confidence. The issue is, often all you read about and see on Instagram are the good moments, the ones that make people jealous and wish they did the same. Rarely does anyone talk about the hardships, but I suppose no lesson is earned easily.