lessons I've learnt living abroad

The Lessons I’ve Learnt Living Abroad

My first night in Barcelona. Getting changed in a cramped hostel room with the two girls I came here with. Skipping dinner and eating a banana each as we roamed around Gotico, amazed at the men openly selling pot and beer on what seemed like every corner. My first, and last, taste of absinthe in Raval’s Bar Marsella, and then Pipa Club in Plaça Reial to end the night.

That was the 14th of January 2012, a date I’ve celebrated ever since as my ‘barçaversary’, the day I arrived here. So much has happened since then. And, as a result of these opportunities to live abroad, both here in Barcelona and before that in Thailand, in many ways I’m a different person to who I was when I left the UK.

These two very different experiences in two very different countries have taught me so much. And so, in honour of my sixth barçaversary, here are six of the many lessons I’ve learnt living abroad.

NOT TO take things too personally

I’ll admit that sometimes I take things to heart. But, one of the key lessons I’ve learnt living abroad is to not take things too personally.

Being faced with different cultures and the different ways people express opinions has helped me get some perspective. Not only can a lot get lost in translation, I now see how the intention behind someone’s words isn’t always the same as the meaning I might take from them.

In Thailand, people think nothing of telling someone they are fat – for them it’s just a fact. And in Spain, rather than beating around the bush with, ‘You look tired’, they will come right out and say, ‘You have a bad face’. My husband Gastón tells me that in Argentina, friendly insults show that someone likes you. And that when he and his family mimic my accent, it’s a sign of affection. Similarly, some of the things I do innocently may be rude or offensive to people from other cutures.

I’ve also learnt that if someone’s intention is to exclude, insult or undermine me, it says more about them than it does about me. So when I hear people talking about me, thinking the foreigner won’t understand, or they let their insecurities or biases show, I don’t let it get to me like I once did. It seems that years of being told I have a bad face or that all Brits are drunken louts has toughened me up a bit.

When to let people go

This could be something I’ve learnt as I’ve got older rather than necessarily one of the lessons I’ve learnt living abroad. But, living far away from everyone and everything you once knew can highlight how to distinguish real friends from those who bring more negativity to your life than anything good.

Distance can put a strain on even the closest of friendships. So I’m eternally grateful to the people who have kept in touch with me despite this distance. I’ve also been lucky enough to make good friends living abroad. Some of them now live far away but I try to keep in touch with them as much as I can. Even if we’ve only lived in the same place for a few months, I value their friendship and the positive impact they’ve had on my life. And I hope that they can say the same about me.

However, I’ve also experienced a lot of loneliness living abroad, and this has brought out the worst in me at times. I clung onto friendships which weren’t really there and became someone I didn’t want to be. One of the girls I knew when I first came to Barcelona took advantage of this, but only because I let her. I got messages when she needed help, but not when she had a party. She didn’t contact me for months and then asked if she could stay at my flat. We had friends in common so I had always been reluctant to tell her what I really thought of her. But finally  I found the strength to say no, and lost her with it.

And it felt good. Without her false friendship, I was free. I have no time for one-sided friendships like this anymore and have since cut several other people from my life. As I see it, if I have good news and you’re jealous, you’re not my friend. If you want my help but you’re never there when I need you, you’re not my friend. If I feel worse after I spend time with you, you’re not my friend.

Friendships will have their ups and downs. But if it’s all downs then letting them go is best for both of you.

lessons I've learnt living abroad

That Nothing is forever

Time seems to flow differently living abroad. Maybe it’s because of the phases I’ve had to go through as I’ve become more integrated, as well as the different stages of learning Spanish. And in a city like Barcelona, time is also marked by the constant flow of people coming and going.

As a result, one of the lessons I’ve learnt living abroad is that nothing is forever, and that every moment has its time. This has taught me to recognise that while I will have to live through difficult periods, they will pass. And that also, it’s important to really appreciate the good moments while you are living them.

The graffiti above says, “Happiness is: like soap bubbles that float freely, until they hit something which makes them disappear”. I hope happiness is not as fragile as a soap bubble, but if it is then I’d like to think that sadness takes the same form. Your happiness may be affected by small changes and the challenges you come up against. But, feelings of sadness can be dissolved just as easily by all the good things which unexpectedly enter your life.

I’ve gone through many changes living abroad, and many times my situation has been changed for me against my will. Now I approach these changes as another phase in my time here, knowing that it’s all part of the learning process.

when to accept AND WHEN TO PROTEST

I thought I was a patient person, and then I went to live in Thailand. There I realised that even my patience had its limits.

As a rule, Thai people don’t like confrontation, and will often give misplaced reassurance to keep everyone happy. They will tell you that the bus will arrive soon, even if they know that it won’t be here for two hours. Or that everything is fine when really there is a big problem. At first we were frustrated by all the waiting and false promises. We complained and tried to make them see that we preferred to know the truth.

But we soon realised that our protests wouldn’t change anything. Instead we had to find ways to make the most of the situation. For example, rather than ask if the bus would be here soon, we’d ask if we had time to go to the market before it got here. Our group coordinator Chai wanted to keep us happy so he’d say yes. This way we’d be able to put our waiting time to good use by getting food or browsing the stalls. We started to see how things worked and changed our perspective and expectations accordingly. And so, one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt living abroad is when to accept what you can’t change.

I realised how patient and laid back I’d become when we were travelling in South East Asia after our teaching placement finished. Before a long bus journey our driver told us that we’d stop for food on the way. When we pulled up to a petrol station, we all rushed to buy snacks. As I was coming back to the bus, I overheard an American man complaining to the driver. He was saying that he and his wife were hungry and expected to stop at a restaurant. I rolled my eyes and thought to myself how he was wasting his time. And, that rather than complaining, he should buy some food because he won’t get another chance.

However, this acceptance doesn’t mean that I roll over and take everything that the world throws at me. Here in Barcelona, I’ve complained about everything from a broken boiler to incorrect charges on my phone and internet bill. And, although Vodafone didn’t respond to my protests, it was very satisfying to be able to tell them where to go in Spanish.

lessons I've learnt living abroad

Not knowing where you are doesn’t mean you’re lost

When I was living in my home town, I had a set route for everywhere I went; past the park to go down the town, along that road to the beach, and up that hill to work. I always knew where I was because I always took the same path.

In Thailand I lived with three girls in a small town called Khok Samrong. After a week or so of exploring, we knew where we were as there weren’t many places to be.

However, when I came to Barcelona, I never knew where I was. I was a private English teacher which meant I had to find my way to addresses all over the city. If smartphones were around in 2012, I didn’t have one. Instead I had a compass attached to my keys and directions copied from my laptop.

Then, that first summer I found myself with a lot of time and not much income as most of my students had gone away. Instead of getting the metro to classes, I saved myself the fare and got to know the city on foot. I soon realised that the city wasn’t as big as I had thought. I became braver and started wandering around with no destination in mind. And as I was discovering these new streets and hidden corners, more and more people started asking me for directions. I had no idea where I was but I must have looked like I knew where I was going.

One of the lessons I’ve learnt living abroad is to embrace this ‘lost’ feeling wherever you live, and not just when you travel. I make a point of turning down streets I’ve never walked before. And I’ll purposely take a wrong turn to discover a new hidden corner. Not only do I learn more about where I live, I also get to prolong the exciting feeling of being on holiday, even after years of living here.

That culture is fluid

My parents are both British but I never really felt completely British even when I was living in the UK. I always considered myself as European more than just British. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than the country I was born in. And one of the lessons I’ve learnt living abroad is that the origin of your beliefs and values is not always limited to where you physically come from.

From simple everyday customs to deep-founded opinions about society, I feel that I have absorbed aspects of the different cultures I have come into contact with while living abroad. And also, that I have found cultures which share the same beliefs as those I already had.

Here in Barcelona there is already a mix of Catalan and Spanish culture. People tend to identify as one or the other, or both. My family here  – my husband Gastón and his mum Mirta – are from Argentina. And there are immigrants from all over the world on my doorstep, Now, mint tea and Arabic pastries at Paloma Blanca or mate and Argentinian cakes at Pasteleria Mendieta are more of a regular occurrence than tea and scones ever were when I lived in the UK.

This daily contact with different cultures has had a big influence on how I see the world, which has been challenged and changing ever since I first moved to Thailand. So, although I may be an English girl living in Spain, I’ll always be a little bit Thai.

The lessons I’ve learnt living abroad

These years of living abroad have taught me a lot, both about myself and about the world I live in. I’ve come across a lot of challenges and made a lot of mistakes on the way. But, above all, living abroad has shown me what I want from life and how to achieve it.

Now that you’ve read the lessons I’ve learnt living abroad, I’d love to hear what living abroad has taught you. Let me know by commenting below.

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