5 Things I’ve Learned In 5 Years Abroad

On January 8th, 2009, I touched down in Prague. It seems like a minute ago and a thousand years ago, all at the same time. I think it’s been magnified as well, because my sister is actually in Prague right now. She’s doing the same TEFL course that I did, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the first weeks here in Euro-land. There have been major ups, MAJOR downs, and a lot of nights on the couch watching bad TV. Through all of it, I’d like to think that I’ve learned at least a couple of things and I’d like to share some of them with you wonderful internet people. As a disclaimer: of course these are my opinion only, and others may have totally different experiences. And I might ramble. That’s why we blog… to share our experiences. This is what I think, and you can feel free to disagree.Disclaimers aside though… here we go: five things I’ve learned in the last five years…. at least, I hope so.

1. Drop the “plan.”
I’ve done so many things, met so many people (not that they were all good), that I wouldn’t have ever met if I had done what is “normal.” If I had graduated college, got some job, met some guy, etc., etc., none of these things would have happened. Gott sei Dank. That’s “Thank God,” for all of you playing the home game.


Let go of the fact that some people think you “have to do” this, or “must do” that. Do what you want to do. Go where you want to go, say what you want to say. There is no script for life… it’s what you want it to be. And to be honest, I have been feeling a little too comfortable these days. It’s true, my life hasn’t been too crazy, I have no major plans at the moment, but it’s okay. I’m much more settled than I was in Prague for example, but I don’t remember the last time I said, “I’m bored.” I’m looking for new things to see and do, but I’m not bored with what I have now. It’s not a life I ever could have imagined, but I think that’s the beauty of it. 

Anything is possible with giant strudel.

2. The only obstacles are the ones you make for yourself. 
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about being afraid to do the strangest things. Some I can agree with; for example, I never risked a haircut when I lived in Prague because I didn’t want to sport a mullet, or purple hair, and both of those are pretty popular in that city. To me, that wasn’t a risk worth taking. But some of the stories I’ve heard about supermarket anxiety for example, just baffle me. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You buy the wrong kind of vanilla?

If you build these things up as impossible tasks in your mind… then sure, you’ll have problems. I got a little anxious just this evening trying to figure out how I was going to climb over people to get off of the crowded train. But when the pivotal moment came, I high-stepped over a backpack and got myself out the door. That’s small potatoes, but it’s the same principle. If you decide that you can do something, you’ll do it. Done and done. 

3. Just because we’re from the same country, doesn’t mean we have to be friends.

I’m not sure, but I think RZ took this picture. If so, thanks RZ.

This one is harsh, but it’s true. And guess what? Not everyone is going to like you either. Expats tend to bond over their shared love of Tex-Mex, and their longing for Target; we are all in the same boat on that one. But, just like in college when there were “bar friends” vs. “everyday friends,” when you’re abroad you have to find the line. A pompous asshat in the States becomes a pompous asshat with a scarf and a stamp in their passport abroad. Again, I know this sounds harsh, and I also know that I’m not always the easiest person to get to know, but I’m at the point in my life where I want to be friends with someone because of their redeeming qualities, and not because of a geographic similarity. Wild, I know.

While I don’t feel the need to trip over myself to befriend every American I meet now… I do feel incredibly lucky to have met some truly amazing people in the last five years. Today they are literally all over the globe, which only means more places to visit in my mind. And that’s pretty sweet. 

4. People will never stop asking when you’re coming (or going) home.
I do want to check this point with some people who’ve been abroad longer (and feel free to weigh in with a comment), but I still get this question a fair amount. Thankfully, my family has never been the badgering type (though we are Badgers – sorry, bad joke), and have never been on the “get married, have babies, etc.” train, and they don’t ask this question very much. Other people abroad ask, like we’re all on some sort of kitchen timer. Students ask, and they seem surprised that I don’t have a timeline. But like I said before, no plan. If this is working for me, I’ll keep doing it. Do I want to teach English forever? No, probably not. It’s working for now though, so we’ll stick with it.

In my mind the question shouldn’t be, “when are you coming home?” because where is home? Home has so many different definitions to me, it’s crazy. Wisconsin will always be home to me, but at the same time, I feel like I am home here. Instead, I should really be asking, “when are you coming to visit?” And hey, we even have a light fixture in the bedroom now. Come on over and check it out!

5. Always carry an umbrella in Europe.
Practical advice is always good, right? If you don’t have an umbrella with you, it’s guaranteed to rain. And that means that your train/tram/bus will have some sort of a problem, forcing you to stand outside and/or walk much further than you had initially planned. You will spend the rest of the day damp, smelling like a wet dog, and annoyed. Also, umbrellas are a good defense against bears, both real and wooden. Although wooden is probably better. 

Bear fighting, Cesky Krumlov, 2009

When you read this, you might agree and you might disagree. You might think I sound like an ass, which I’m sure I do at points. But again, that’s the beauty of the expat experience. We all have a slightly different one, and they’re all equally valid. This is what I have learned, and that’s all I can say for it. I’ll raise my glass of champagne, and celebrate the fact that I’ve done something that seems crazy to so many people, and here’s hoping I can make it another five years. Scratch that, because it’s not a hope. If that’s what I want to do, that’s what will happen. If that’s what you want to do, then remove the obstacles and make it happen. To quote from the fantastic movie Empire Records, “In this life, there are nothing but possibilities.”



14 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned In 5 Years Abroad

  1. I don't think you sound like an ass at all. Making friends as an expat is really hard work, and feeling obliged to be friends with someone when you have nothing in common with them is no basis at all for a lasting friendship. I've been there too 😉 Great post 🙂

  2. All of these are so true! The one about being friends with people just because we're both American/ expats/ speak English always bothers me… French (and very well meaning of course) people like to introduce me to other English speakers. It's forced and awkward and I hate it.

  3. Well done on 5 years abroad!! Congratulations! As for the American expats- I couldn't agree more. I don't want to sound weird but– you know what I've encountered recently?- expats that are super rich and have no idea how to relate to you because you're a poor expat. It's like worlds apart even if we are from the same continent. I know you know what I'm talking about. Just because we come from the same land and speak the same language doesn't mean automatic friendship. I've met quite a few expats here and lots of them I never saw again. Congrats again and let me know if you ever want to come meet up, I have your books (!!) and also if you want to meet O.

  4. Now I have Go Your Own Way stuck in my head!! It's a good job I like Fleetwood Mac! 😉

    My friends and family are roughly 50/50 between people who ask when I'm coming “home” and when I'm next visiting. I don't think they'll ever stop asking when we'll be getting married though! (Answer: Probably never, thanks for rubbing it in!).

  5. Lovely post, dear sister.

    But seriously, when are you coming home? Haha, I kid.

    Home is wherever you want it to be. Wisconsin will always be home – for both of us! And if (when?) M&D sell the house and move, home will also be wherever they are and wherever you are and wherever I am. I think that's the beauty of our family.

  6. Thanks Frau Dietz, and I'm so happy to see you blogging again btw! I'm very much looking forward to some yummy food posts from you. 🙂

    And I'm very glad to hear that I'm not the only expat that feels this way about meeting people abroad… it can lead to some awkward encounters for sure.

  7. Thanks Sara Louise! The forced and awkward thing happens everywhere, but just think, you won't have to do it for that much longer. Soon you'll be repatriating, and trying to figure out how to relate to people who don't even have passports. I'm guessing that'll be a whole other bag of fun, and I'm looking forward to those blog posts from you!

  8. Thanks lady… I knew you'd get this one. 🙂 I've run into those people too, and it's always an interesting conversation (or horribly awkward but whatever). I would be delighted to see you and meet baby O; I hope that means you guys are all settled in and comfy at home now!

  9. Love Fleetwood Mac. Love them.

    Those questions are the worst, and it's beyond me why people insist on asking. It should be socially acceptable to electrically shock people when they ask. That'd take care of it… at least I hope so.

  10. Thanks Squeaky. And NEVER. Haha, I kid too. Maybe.

    And agreed. Even if I hate the thought of them selling the house, for more reasons than not wanting to go through all my crap in the basement.

  11. Pingback: Lest I Forget: 7 Years Down | Heather Goes to Deutschland

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