I was recently asked to speak at a meeting for expats. It was one of those question and answer forums, which provided the opportunity for established expats to bare their souls about things that they both liked and disliked in their new lives, as well as providing an opportunity for newly arrived expats to learn something from the experiences of others.
I was struck by a comment from one lady who made the point that she both hated, as well as felt guilty, whenever her friends and family in the UK, made the comment that, “You are just so lucky…” Judging from the nods and murmurs of approval from others around her, she had made a point that many others also recognized. I certainly do, and it is a comment that also irritates me. In my experience, we create our own good fortune in life, and I can think of very few expats who have not worked hard to create a new life for themselves in another country.
The thoughts of moving to another country in the sunshine, when peering out of the window to endless rain and fog and surrounded by floods, is understandably appealing. However, many ‘would be’ expats forget the downsides of not being in a country that speaks the same language, the significant differences in customs and traditions, as well as dealing with legal and financial systems that may seem unnecessarily complicated to the newly arrived expat.
Many expats that I know are involved for years in fighting legal and property disputes with their neighbors, town halls or property developers. Of course, many problems stem from not understanding the language and culture, as well as the legal traditions of their new country, and being swept along by the idea of starting a new life in the sun.
When I worked as a reporter in the Costa Blanca, my colleagues and I often commented in despair that when Brits left the UK, many left their brains at home. So many expats seemed to get themselves into dangerous legal and financial situations that they would not have considered in their home country. Maybe it is the effects of the heady combination of too much sunshine, as well as gin and tonics that are at the root of the problem. However, back to the meeting…
Homesickness and missing family and friends, British food and British television were all some of the predicable responses to questions asked about what expats miss most. Interestingly, those expats who seemed to have settled best of all in their adopted country were those that had made an effort to learn the language, those who worked or were involved in local community or charity work, as well as those who had a sensitivity and interest in the local culture and traditions.
It was very easy to spot less successful expats who began most sentences with “When we lived in Preston, we used to…” or “Why don’t the Spanish do it in the same way we used to in the UK?” Indeed, the first rule of being a successful expat is, as tempting as it might be, to forget comparisons with your home country. Accept things as they are and try to work with them, rather than to fight against them.
Are we lucky? One thing became very clear from this meeting of expats; nothing is handed over on a plate; it is not luck, but courage that makes the difference. In short, you need guts to be a successful expat.