Lessons learned your first year as an expat

As you come to the end of another calendar year, you look back and reflect on what you did and what you learned. As an expat, you have had some unique experiences. Now that I have lived in both Spain and Portugal for part of the year, there are some universal lessons that I think I’ve learned. Here are some of the valuable things I would like to share as an expat in 2016.

It wasn’t as hard as I thought. Well, sort of. Yes, in Spain, it was painful to try and finish my visa when I didn’t speak the language. Even once I started having a local go with me to my appointments. The process of leaving was much easier, both the paperwork and making myself understood. Interesting. I still love Spain and visit as often as I can. But the red tape is killer. Moving to Portugal has been easier, in part, because I hired someone to help me with the process. But most people also speak English, making it SO much easier to correct small things on the spot, saving time and extra appointments.

It takes a while to get used to different customs, holidays and ways of living life. From trash pickup to eating out, tipping to religion, give yourself a few months to figure out how things work in a different country.  Try not to get too frustrated and stress over things you don’t have much control over. Learn language basics like please, thank-you, hello and goodbye. Making an effort will be rewarded with extra patience and free translation by those who see you doing your best to respect your adopted country. Give yourself permission to mess up and keep trying. You will get there and luckily, forget many of your faux pas as time passes. Or at least, you’ll have lots of amusing stories to share with your friends.

Other countries work on their own time schedule. Just expect that most tasks will take a little longer than you might expect. In the U.S., we are known for our work ethic, to the point of overwork. We always seem to be in a hurry and patience is not a word associated with Americans. Most other countries don’t operate like that. Especially in warmer countries, people seem to prefer a slower pace. If I were younger and working on establishing myself in my occupation, I might get frustrated. But being older and a little wiser, I appreciate the emphasis on family and relationships and less on rushing from point A to point B. Waiting in line? Strike up a conversation with someone new. Allow extra time wherever you go. Your party guests will show, just maybe an hour or two late. The upside is that the table at the adorable sidewalk cafe is yours for the evening. No one will rush you to get up and leave so someone else can use it. You will be able to spend lots of quality and quantity of time with friends or family on a Sunday afternoon.

No matter how much you may try to fit in, you will always be an expat. Yes, you will be excited about your new life. And you may learn the language and dress like a local. But don’t be upset if the locals still treat you a little differently. You may want to be considered a local, but let’s be honest, you’re not. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course you are proud of where you came from. But don’t hurt your own cause by reminding others how they should do things the way you do “back home”. Remember, no one place is perfect and no one place is the “best”. There are and will always be differences. And isn’t that part of what made you want to move? So don’t worry if you’re never quite considered a local. And revel in your uniqueness. It’s only an issue if you make it one in your own mind.

Panic. It will happen. And it will pass. Whether you see your time in another country as a major event or not, it is. The language, the people, the food, the customs, the government. Everything about it is different. That’s what makes it a great adventure. But sometime after the intial rush of activity of getting yourself established subsides, you will panic. You may question the move, the place, and your sanity. You may feel overwhelmed. Understand now that everyone goes through these feelings, to one degree or another. Take a deep breathe and know that it will pass. Reach out to other expats or call family or friends that support you. It IS a big deal to make a move. But it has BIG dividends and very few people regret their decision. So go easy on yourself, take a step back and know the feelings will pass. And you will be left with unlimited opportunity for the adventure of a lifetime.

Your Takeaway – As an expat, there are some universal issues you with be faced with. Knowing about them ahead of time allows you to stay sane when they occur. Everyone deals with them differently but knowing others are going through the same thing may bring you some comfort. And once you get through them, used to them, or find your best way to address them,  nothing will stop your expat adventure!


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