Expat diaries: After 10 years in 3 countries, here is what I’ve learned about life abroad

I left Greece for a life abroad in 2011, with a budget of €1,000 in my parent’s credit card. I had secured a job though, so I immediately started earning a gross yearly salary of £13,000 (€15,000). Although this was half the average UK salary at the time (£26,000 or €31,000), it was a lot more than I made being unemployed in the Greece.

Since then, I have been writing some blog posts on the milestones of three, five and eight years abroad.

Ten years later, I’m finally at a great place in my life. Many times I had doubts whether I would make it or even deserve it, but here I am: engaged to my fiancee, Dora, I have published a couple of books, I work for Amazon, and I’m completing a Leadership Coaching certification, which could allow me in the future to work from anywhere. It has been a beautiful but challenging journey, and here is what I’ve learned:

Lesson 1: If you can move abroad, do it

To leave or not to leave. When I first moved to the UK, the only thing I had was a job that paid for roof and food. I knew it was just a stepping stone, so I didn’t mind. Living thousands of miles away from home meant that every new experience taught me something I didn’t know: about myself, about people, and about other cultures. Although I could never count this knowledge in euros or dollars, it has been my most valuable asset.

Lesson 2: You can only grow through things that challenge you

Life abroad threw me often out of my comfort zone. It was scary at first, but isn’t this how we always learn? Just look at a baby learning to walk; they fall down all the time until one day they wobble along. There may be times you feel lonely or helpless. Your family and friends are too far away, but they are proud of you. You just need to find other expats and let them be your safety net. You will be theirs, and together you will make it.

Lesson 3: No one owes you anything

Entitlement is the worst thing to pack with you when you move abroad. When you go to a new country, you are no one, no matter who your parents are or how much money they make. This doesn’t mean that everyone has an equal opportunity. Wealth and social inequality exist in most countries, but this is one more reason to not feel entitled.

From what I’ve seen through the years, being humble, learning from failures, and persevering are integral components of a successful mindset. I did not always have it. At my lowest points, I moaned about good things happening to others but not to me. Looking back, I was wrong. Yes, life is not always fair. Sometimes we profit, sometimes we lose; we just notice more when we are the ones to miss out.

Lesson 4: Dreaming big is nothing without a plan

I spent the first years dreaming the day that a great opportunity will take me away from a stagnated job. The opportunity came only when I became diligent in my job applications and when I opened up to the idea of leaving London. We may not always be able to achieve what we dream of, but we can accomplish what we plan for.

Planning requires both pessimistic and optimistic thinking (Here’s a simple technique for planning). For example: “What if I actually lack the skills for the jobs I want? Does it mean I will never get them? Well, it is a possibility. What can I do about it? I can identify option on acquiring these skills and set a goal by when I expect to see some progress.

Lesson 5: Working hard doesn’t always pay off. Working smart does.

You can give your everything to your job and still being surpassed by others who seem to work less. Maybe you are not ready yet, maybe the management undervalues you. There is also a possibility that you are focusing on the wrong things. The best way to progress is to focus on the added value. Working long hours and trying too hard means nothing, unless what you do has a measurable positive impact.

When I realized this, I found the added value tasks, and I focused on them. For those I didn’t really enjoy, I assessed how I could use my natural strengths (take this free test) to gain the edge. Capitalizing on your strengths is a skill, prioritizing is another. Combined, they can make the difference.

Lesson 6: Life abroad can make you feel powerless

Outside work, there are many times when I felt unable to do what I wanted. I missed my grandmother’s funeral. I walked along to the doctor’s with high fever, fearing I would collapse on the street. I fainted in the metro during rush hour, and people almost walked over me. All these were humbling experiences. There is always a price to pay for the life you lead. It comes with the learning that you can’t always control life.

Lesson 7: Success is not about the money you earn

Despite the jobs I changed the first six years, I only managed to reach the average UK salary. My London rent would eat up 50% of my monthly income. The rest barely covered my quiet lifestyle, and my occasional travelling. As a result, I had saved nothing after six years abroad. Within the next year, I joined Amazon. I now earned more money, but I also worked a lot more hours.

My life had taken a turn for the better, but I was still away from family and friends, and I was single. I didn’t want to be the guy who sacrifices everything for their career. Our happiness depends on meaningful relationships in life, and this takes time; not only to build them but also to maintain them. When I met Dora, who is Hungarian and lived in Luxembourg, I knew I had to move. It was one of the best decisions I ever took. After eight years, my life was complete: I was in a loving committed relationship, I had my friends close-by, I enjoyed a fulfilling job, and I lived in a humane city.

Lesson 8: Life abroad can cost you your native language

For most of the day, I speak, read, and write in English. I only use Greek with my friends and family, which amounts to only a few hours per week. Naturally, I’ve lost some of my Greek vocabulary. I still try to write fiction in Greek, but it has become more difficult over the years. I now think in English, yet, my English is not good enough for writing fiction. When I speak Greek, I have a tendency to use English words because I can’t find the equivalent one or because I don’t like how it translates. At the same time, I learn French, which clashes with my Italian. Dora’s friends have told her that her pronunciation in Hungarian has slightly changed. I notice the same with mine in Greek. Is it possible to lose your native language? It is frustrating and bizarre, but it is possible.

Lesson 9: Be comfortable with the possibility you will never return

The first years, I used to say there was no way for me to return to Greece. Since then, I have changed my mind a few times, and it would be hard for me to give a straightforward answer. Dora and I agree that life in Greece would be nice for the long-term, yet we would be ready to move anywhere under the right circumstances.

After many years, life abroad makes you comfortable to be uncomfortable. Moving to a new country is not anymore the scary task it used to be. It feels now that the longer you spend abroad, the more difficult the decision to go back becomes. The possibility you might never slowly molds into a probability.

Lesson 10: Uproot your national identity – you are now a nomad

Working with people from around the world has made me identify first as European and then as Greek. And based on a DNA ancestry test, I know that I’m also 12.5% Italian and 1.2% Middle-Eastern. It’s fascinating to think that I carry the genes of travellers, migrants and nomads.

Greece will always be a home for me, but not the only one. If Dora and I had children in Luxembourg, they would need to learn French and Luxembourgish at school, and Greek, Hungarian and English at home. The family would have three homes, and the multi-lingual children would have several countries to select from for their adult life. They would have multiple passports, and no single national identity.

Finally…

It has been a full journey and I’m looking forward to what comes next. If I could summarize all the lessons above in one key takeaway, I would say “be grateful” about your life abroad. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that there is a lesson in everything that happens. Let’s be grateful for these life lessons. It’s how we grow to become wiser.

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