Wouldn’t it be cool to live abroad? To bask in the Tuscan sun in short shorts like Armie Hammer, to become a samurai like Tom Cruise, or perhaps even ‘eat, pray, love’ your way around with Julia Roberts. Our films, books and popular culture have long been enamoured with the idea of leaving home for foreign shores. Whether for escape, adventure, or business, the expat life is captivating to many. In recent years, with the advent of air travel, globalisation, and EU citizenship (sigh), it has become an even more common experience to spend time in another country, among some groups even a right of passage. I mean, who hasn’t been in a conversation with that person who has shamelessly name-dropped every foreign destination where they’ve lived (“That reminds me of when I spend the summer on the Amalfi coast…ya ya ya.”) I should say now, as an expat myself (though I’m not really a fan of that word), if this has ever been me I’m sorry. And even as I write this, that almost seems a humble brag. So sorry, again.
I’ve lived in the Czech Republic for the past six years and have been reflecting on my time abroad in recent months, on the up and downsides of life in a country not your own. So this will be my attempt to share some of what I’ve learned of the good things that happen when you leave your home nation for a spell. I’ll follow it up with the not-so-good things in a later post.
Perhaps the best thing about being away from your home country is that suddenly your nationality becomes at once more and less significant. You automatically become both an ambassador and a scapegoat for the successes and failures of your nation. I didn’t really think much about being a Brit before I left England, but now every Brexit crisis and Royal drama is my concern, and I am the go to expert on anything to do with the UK. This can be a bit awkward, especially if someone tries to talk to me about the Premier League, of which I know nothing, but is also strangely affirming. I have become more proud of where I’m from as a result of leaving, not in a nationalist kind of way, but simply in terms of recognising the good things and the things I miss. Being encouraged when people speak warmly of my home and getting to bring my foreign friends home with me. Seeing home through others’ eyes has been a joyous experience for me.
But as I also said, your nationality also becomes less significant when you are away from your home. There’s a sense in which I’m simply ‘foreign’ when I’m here. Not Czech. I therefore immediately feel a greater affinity with other foreigners and, a bit like when you start University, feel an immediate closeness with others in a similar situation to me. This has led to forming fast and deep friendships with those I’ve met here, from all manner of nations. The unique ‘expat community’ is a wonderful thing to be a part of and I have been able to visit the homes of many foreign friends. I’ve had experiences in places I never would have thought to go without my experience of living abroad.
Perhaps a more subtle but nonetheless powerful thing about living abroad is in the way your underlying attitudes and ideas can change. You notice just how different perspectives are from different nations, yet also how much is shared. Before I lived in a place surrounded by Americans, for example, I think I felt that they were basically confident Brits with cowboy accents, yet I have learned so much about and from my American friends. I think that it’s more accurate to say that the only thing that is the same is the language, and that that is also quite different at times (my favourite recent example is learning that when you really need to use the toilet, Americans might say you’re ‘prairie dogging’ while Brits are more likely to go for the rather more literal ‘touching cloth’). I have learned from my friends and they have learned from me. We have changed and grown together in this funny melting pot that is international life.
It’s not one long Italian summer living abroad of course. There are real costs to moving far from home and I worry that some of the ways I’ve changed will mean it’s hard to readjust should I move home one day. But, I have to say, that I think the risks are worth it.