Nearly all my American friends and relatives think I’m bonkers to live abroad. “But you’re from California,” they point out in bewilderment. “That’s where people move to. Why live anywhere else?”
No doubt some suspect that I’m hiding out in foreign parts because I’m secretly up to something, like the expat writers in William S. Burroughs famous quote: “They lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.” (For the record, I do not own a pet gazelle.)
Most of us move abroad for much the same reason we went away to college — not because we love our parents, our country, or our upbringing any less, but because they have prepared us to go out and embrace a bigger, brighter future. I often say that moving abroad is the greatest opportunity to reinvent yourself outside of the witness protection program. But to be more accurate, you’re not so much reinventing yourself as removing the external props that keep you confined within a particular cultural identity, so that now you can find out who you really are.
People considering a move abroad often send me emails asking if it’s worth it. The short answer? Yes. At least, it is for me. The long answer? Yes, because you learn and do amazing things. Like what?
Get comfortable with being outside your comfort zone. Worried about being in a rut? You can kiss that problem goodbye. As Bill Bryson put it, "Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."
Don't take yourself too seriously. Sometimes those interesting guesses lead to linguistic and cultural pratfalls. For instance, you might innocently ask the man at the farmers' market if he has huevos (literally eggs but slang for testicles) causing other shoppers to roar with laughter as he responds with a pithy zinger you can’t fathom and probably don’t want to.
Make do with less. In the early years, our shopping efforts often floundered to a halt in a welter of confusion and embarrassment, forcing us to flee the scene without the eggs, screwdriver, or other planned purchases. Eventually we managed to outfit our entire apartment, but as we originally intended to stay just a single year, we did it simply and cheaply. Nearly fourteen years later, minimizing possessions has become a way of life. On the road, I can easily live out of a single small suitcase for months and occasionally enjoy traveling without any luggage whatsoever.
Be patient. Eventually, you really will learn to accept with equanimity waiting in line for hours at the Foreigners’ Office, only to be told that your residency card application is delayed because you didn’t provide the document that this very same clerk refused to take from you three weeks ago when you presented it.
Talk with anybody about anything. One of the true joys of expat life is meeting extraordinary people from around the world (often while waiting in line at the Foreigners’ Office). I’ve learned if I ask the right questions (and stop talking about myself) most people have incredibly interesting stories to tell.
Appreciate America. Nothing gives you fresh perspective on your own country like living outside of it and learning how it appears to others. I don’t always find it easy to explain things like the 13th Amendment, the electoral college, or gerrymandering, but these conversations give me a lot to think about. And it’s encouraging to hear a Spanish friend say, as one did a few years ago, “Your country’s founders got it right. Democracy is always a messy business, but your constitution is an incredible document. You’re lucky to have it.”
I agree. Living in post-dictatorship Spain, traveling to countries occupied for decades by the Soviets, I have grown more passionate about democracy. That’s why I helped start a group here in Seville that provides American expats with information about issues, candidates, and how to vote from abroad. And why this summer, Rich and I decided to put off a long-planned, many-month train trip around the Mediterranean rim to work on voter registration in the US during the run-up to the midterm elections.
Last month in California, Rich and I signed up to do voter registration following the ceremony in which 800 immigrants from 84 countries were sworn in as American citizens. We arrived early, snuck into the back of the room, and listened to the crowd explode with cheers as their citizenship became official. Many were moved to tears, and I have to admit, I was too. Just like my own ancestors, they’d worked hard, gotten lucky, and found their place in the (admittedly somewhat dysfunctional) American family. I was thrilled for them and spent a good part of the morning congratulating and hugging the people I registered. One man told me he’d been working toward this day for 24 years.
Some people will always question the wisdom and sanity of my move abroad, but I believe it’s made me a better person, a more thoughtful citizen of the US, and an unofficial ambassador for my country. “I’ve never really talked to an American before,” one Spanish friend told me. “You’re not what I expected.” Since many Europeans base their views of the USA on The Simpsons, I wondered if she’d feel more at ease with me if I dyed my hair blue. Or got a pet gazelle. And it’s moments like this, when I see myself through the lens of another’s cultural perspective, that I realize how truly fortunate I am to live in a larger world.
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10/4/2018 06:02:20 pm
Love this! Great perspective.
10/4/2018 06:06:23 pm
10/4/2018 06:59:24 pm
I'm coming way to your mode of travel Karen! It's so liberating. I love the feeling of checking in online, and then bowling up to the airport with only carryon ... the best way to travel. We doing a trip next year to Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and Granada .. by train, and I'd love to to carry on only, but my other half will take some convincing... fingers crossed.
10/5/2018 08:11:35 am
Delighted to hear you're gearing into traveling light, Jay. Let me know when you're heading to Seville — if you have time, Rich and I would love to show you two some of our favorite tapas bars!
10/4/2018 07:09:28 pm
Wait! You mean every expat doesn't automatically get a pet gazelle? Well, darn. :D
10/5/2018 08:14:14 am
Yes, Shéa, sadly so many of us are having to struggle along as gazelle-free expats. Apparently there is a shortage. Maybe someday!
10/4/2018 07:34:08 pm
Great article, Karen. A wider perspective, (and perhaps huevos, if not a pet gazelle) is what we all--perhaps Americans in particular--need.
10/8/2018 11:11:29 am
Glad you liked it, Tobey. Here's to wider perspectives and the huevos to act upon them.
10/4/2018 08:42:06 pm
As always, you have a way with words. And pet gazelles, too. If you ever got your hands on one.
10/8/2018 11:14:20 am
Maria, you summed up the expat experience beautifully. It's almost as if we've never seen ourselves properly until we get out of our home culture. Such an odd yet liberating sensation! Thanks for your kind words about the story, and here's hoping there will be pet gazelles (if only metaphorical ones) in our futures.
10/4/2018 09:34:06 pm
Great post and so timely for me. I've recently moved to Madrid and so much of this post feels so "right now" for me. This move has been wonderfully liberating and, at times, so staggeringly frustrating that I'm still working to find my balance. Your post was a refreshing lift. Thanks.
10/8/2018 11:19:33 am
Gayle, that dizzying sensation of feeling two opposite things at once is characteristic of expat life. I hope you will love living in Spain as much as I do; despite the challenges — or because of them — expat life here is so vivid and energizing, I know that I'd be a lesser person without it.
10/4/2018 10:48:43 pm
Bingo! You hit the nail on the head with this one. As we are unpacking boxes this week at our new American 'just in case place' and eagerly looking forward to returning to Greece, I took a break and found your most timely post. No one in this wonderful touristy, Lake Chelan (Washington State) can understand when we say, "No, we won't be living here. . .we live in Greece. This will be a second home until health (mental, physical) require us to return. They can't comprehend why anyone would choose to do what I have termed, 'live differently'. You two get it. So hoping this is the year we pull off a rendezvous on the other side of the pond!! Great post.
10/8/2018 11:32:46 am
Jackie, I knew this one would resonate with you! Yes, people (especially West Coasters) are baffled by the choice, but you and I know the many madcap joys of living abroad, even without pet gazelles. Greece is on our radar for spring/summer, so you will definitely hear more from me about that rendezvous as our plans firm up!
10/5/2018 05:26:49 am
I love this article and also the video...Karen, I love how you and Rich live life so abundantly, without all the “stuff” we think we need!
10/8/2018 11:34:35 am
Thanks, Faye! If expat life has taught me anything, it's that when it comes to stuff, less is more!
10/5/2018 06:02:03 pm
So good to hear from a happy American. I'm a commuter between UK and Portugal and I love my second family in the latter. My apartment there is small and not full of the clutter of a life and the only thing I miss is having a garden. Oh, and the weather gets plus points.
10/8/2018 11:36:41 am
One thing expat life teaches us, Carolyn, is that you never get it all in one perfect package. That's why you and I are so lucky to get to spend time in two homes, so we can enjoy the benefits of both — and know that the annoying bits are only temporary.
10/6/2018 04:08:36 am
Love your blog! You always hit the mark. And have fun while you're doing it. Thank you for some serious entertainment.
10/8/2018 11:37:44 am
Thanks, Linda! So glad you're enjoying the blog. It's terrific fun to write, as you can imagine, and it's a great excuse for going out there and exploring the world. Stay tuned!
10/9/2018 01:38:02 am
great article Karen.................and great picture of you and Rich registering people to vote.
10/10/2018 08:04:35 pm
So glad you like the piece, Frank! Even if you and Tammy aren't ready to embrace a luggage-free lifestyle, it's great to know you're kindred spirits. Happy travels!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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