“Why live abroad? What’s so great about that?”
I get this question a lot from my homebound friends. And so I thought I’d give you a Top 10 list of the very best aspects of expat living, in no particular order.
Let’s get right into it.
Can I have a drum roll please?
Exploring a Whole New World
Mass tourism may have shrunk the world, but every traveller has a bit of explorer in them. We’re fascinated by strange landscapes, odd customs and exotic foods. The opportunity to touch the echoes of history on the very stage where events took place will give you the sort of perspective that the Grand Tour was intended to convey.
If you go to the world’s marginal places, you’ll also quickly learn that your philosophy and the philosophy and moral code of your culture doesn’t apply everywhere else. People live differently and they get along just fine.
The harshest culture shock is the one you experience on returning home. It causes you to question everything, and to reject some of what you’d always taken for granted: foundational beliefs of your culture and your society. Living abroad makes you realize what shaky intellectual ground we are all standing on.
Learning a Language
The best way to learn a new language—bar none—is to live in a place where people speak it.
It’s easy to slack off when you’re taking a class in your home country. But learning becomes a necessity when you’re immersed in that culture and you need to know the difference between “hospital” and “beauty parlour” (they sound very similar in Japanese, and I still can’t remember which is which).
Most importantly, until you learn at least some of the language, you’ll also find yourself eating a lot of rather questionable food.
The greatest gift of travel is the ability to reinvent yourself. You have the freedom to try on hats and costumes of your own choosing, to experiment with different viewpoints and different ways of life.
As I wrote in my book Vagabond Dreams, we come to know ourselves through how we reflect off other people. They are our social mirrors. And when you live abroad, surrounded by people who know nothing about your past, who know nothing about the person you’re ‘supposed to’ be, you get a very different reflection back. And that will change the way you see yourself.
Expat Life Gives You a New Appreciation for Your Home Country
I spent so much time trying to escape my small town life in Canada that I forgot all the things that were good about it.
Living abroad helped me to appreciate things like comfortable carpeted homes with central heating, broad paved highways with functioning traffic rules, shops that are open on Sundays (or even 24 hours), good public libraries, tradesmen who actually show up when they say they will, and the availability of a wide range of quality products at decent prices.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country…” Expat life lets you see your home again, as if for the first time.
Making New Friends
You can meet some very strange people when living abroad, and penetrate social circles you’d never be a part of back home. I’ve met explorers, cabinet ministers, rock stars, coffee plantation owners, and artists of all kinds, simply because I was a stranger in a strange land, and exotic in a way I could never be at home.
But those meetings abroad don’t have to be superficial.
Friendships abroad can also be deep ones, because you’re thrown together in an unknown place. I wrote in Vagabond Dreams that road friendships develop in compressed time. In a week you can reach a depth of familiarity that would take a year under normal circumstances. I think it’s because time is limited: we’re more open, more willing to share, and less afraid of judgement. Relationship development is a process of mutual self-disclosure, after all.
The island where I live gets 3,000 hours of sunshine per year. That’s apparently the highest in Europe. Sure, these old stone houses get cold as a crypt in winter, but they’re made for the heat, and that’s what I get for most of the year. In summer it doesn’t rain at all. I look up from my courtyard to see day after day of clear blue sky. And I’ve got a permanent tan.
Sometimes I think about those long dark Canadian winters when I’m sitting on my terrace reading without a shirt in December. But I don’t think about them very often.
And that’s the thing about expat living. You can choose sunshine or snow, depending on your preference. And you can even change hemispheres during the cold season if that suits you.
Life Slows Down
Time thickens on the road, and the same is true of expat life. Years of experiences can be crammed into a few weeks or months, while back home life plods along and nothing changes.
It’s a lot like your formative years. Think about your childhood memories, how vivid they are compared to all the years that blurred by after. Those brief two month summer holidays felt like they lasted a year. Expat life is like that too. The world is fresh and new again, and even the smallest things—like buying bread, or learning how to navigate the medieval streets of your neighbourhood—become an adventure.
When you’re living abroad and learning so many new things, your personal growth is accelerated. You live a lifetime in a moment, and you come back changed.
Lower Cost of Living
Living abroad gave me a standard of living I couldn’t possibly aspire to in Canada. For the first three years, I rented a 400-year old palazzo with eight bedrooms, a billiard room, two cellars and a hot tub on the roof. And it cost me less than renting a house or a lakeside condo in Toronto.
Services are very cheap here, too. It costs very little to hire a housekeeper, for example. My standard of living has improved dramatically in many ways.
The best part is that you can enjoy “renting” experiences that are normally reserved for the rich. I’d never want to own or maintain an eight bedroom palazzo, but I sure enjoyed the opportunity to live in one.
You’ll Learn New Skills
Living the expat life will teach you all sorts of new skills.
You’ll perfect Intuitive Navigation while learning to find your way through the ancient maze of European villages. You’ll learn the Maltese Look-Away while piloting your car through a place with no functioning traffic laws. You’ll become a highly adept mime as you communicate with shopkeepers who speak no common language.
And by the end of it all, you’ll be able to get by anywhere. You will truly become a citizen of the world.
You’ll Have Cooler Stories Than Anyone You Know
“Did I ever tell ya about that time we broke the transmission of the jeep in the middle of the Gobi desert…?”
[Cue the theme music…]
That might be the best thing about expat life. You’ll have the coolest stories of anyone you know—and that can get you a lot of free drinks!
But more than that, you’ll have memories. And that’s all we really have, isn’t it?
When you’re old and frail and everything has been stripped away from you—strength, health, good looks, money and purpose—you’ll sit and gaze out the window, through the raindrops that streak the glass, and travel back to all those places where you were lucky enough to live. And you’ll experience them all over again.
Are you an expat? Please share YOUR Top 10 with me in the comments, or add anything that you feel I’ve left out.
And stay tuned for Part Two. No coin is one-sided, and there’s no light without dark. Next time I’ll share my bottom 10 list of all the things that make expat life a challenge. You won’t want to miss it.