The Ups and Downs of Expat Life

By Lisa Webb

I love my life abroad; but no matter how great things are now, I’ll never forget that moving to a foreign country was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

It wasn’t the country itself that was difficult.  As far as foreign countries go, France was a pretty easy one to live in; I had traveled enough to know that.  It was the act of leaving the security I’d created in my life back home that was the challenging part.  It was the unknown that scared the pants off me.

I was in a time of my life that I was really comfortable in my own shoes.  My days as a starving student were over.  My career was successful and climbing.  I had family nearby and a great group of friends that I’d see often.  Girls nights out and weekly family dinners were my favourite things to do.  The new house my husband and I purchased was the icing on the cake of our very comfortable life.

And then the curve ball arrived.

The call to be expats.

Take away all those things I loved: my job, my friends, my family, our house, my security.  What was left?  It left like not much.

Things were a bit bleak at first.  There was definitely an adjustment period.  Sure I was living in France, and yes, they made great wine.  But without a job, or any friends; staying home and drinking wine all day didn’t seem to me like a good path to go down.

It took me awhile to find my happy place in my new life and I now know why.   I was looking for a straight across switch with my old life; the same job, the same kind of friends, the same routine.  I was trying to make something fit that wasn’t meant to be.  Instead of embracing the new, I was trying to replace the old.

Now that I’m not the new kid on the block anymore, when I see new expats arriving, I realise what a long way I’ve come since I left my home country.

If I could Marty McFly myself back to pre-expat life, here’s a few things I’d tell myself to ease my worries.

The Cloud

You will miss your family.

The Silver Lining

There’s no sugar coating the distance.  There’s literally an ocean between you and your people.  But the good news is, family will always be there when you need them.  They will love you no matter what your postal code is; even if you are crap at remembering your nieces and nephews birthdays.  It sucks being so far away, but it makes the homecoming that much more of a celebration.  And thanks to things like Facetime, Skype, and WhatsApp the distance doesn’t seem so bad.  Heck, you can even park your computer on the table and have your family over for dinner.  I’ve done it too many times to count!

The Cloud

Each time you return home the sea of distance between your friends feels greater.

The Silver Lining

It’s not all your friends.  Old friends are the best kind.  There’s no better feeling than picking up right where you left off with a friend you haven’t seen in ages, like no time has passed.  It’s one of the best parts of going home, where ever home might be.

Some of the friends you spent time with before you moved won’t be in the same place when you return.  Things might be different and that’s okay; you’ve been gone a long time and people change.  But the ones that want to stay in your life will, because they’ll make an effort and so will you.

Plus, being part of an expat community, you will make fast friends from all over the world.  These expat friends are a special kind, they become so much more than friends and they come from walks of life that you may never have otherwise come across.  Embrace your new friendships and cherish the old.  You can never have too many friends.  Ever.

The Cloud

I can’t get _______ where I live.

The Silver Lining

Sorry, you can’t.  There comes a time in every expats life that you will pay an obscene amount of money to have comfort food from home.  Whether you find it in the international aisle of the grocery store by fluke and clear the shelf, or you order it online and get charged an extortionate amount for shipping.  It’s going to happen.

Five years later I have finally stopped smuggling my favourite cheese, toothpaste and salad dressing into the country.  I’ve broadened my horizons and finally switched my Crest for Aquafresh, and traded my love of cheddar for an array of stinky French cheeses that I now love.  One of my favourite things about going home is still hitting the grocery store with my Mom and indulging in all of the foods I miss.  And yes, even though I’ve found new favourites where I live, when I go home, I still see what I can squeeze into my suitcase.  I don’t think that will ever change.


The Cloud

You’re a long way from home!  Good luck with that.

The Silver Lining

Once kids come into the picture getting back home becomes a far more difficult task.  I used to search my flights by the cheapest price.  I now search by the shortest travel time.  International flights with young children is hard work and much more costly than flying solo.

This one is more of a trade off than a silver lining.  You miss out on a lot by living so far away.    You might get to do exciting things like shopping in Dubai, sipping cocktails at fancy hotels in Hong Kong or filling your belly with amazingly fresh pasta in Italy; there’s no denying that being able to travel the world is an unbelievable opportunity.  It’s not to be taken for granted.   But there are also days you’d trade all that to have your brothers wrestle with your kids at an overcrowded and noisy family dinner at your parents’ house.

Living your life away from ‘home’ has its good points and bad.  It’s surprising what you can get used to and what can become your new normal.  There are sacrifices made, and life experiences gained.  Sometimes you’re the one missing out and sometimes you’re the lucky one.  It all depends on the day, and who’s defining lucky.

Lisa Webb holds a Canadian passport, but being an expat for the greater part of a decade has made her feel like a global citizen, calling a number of countries ‘home’. She spent five years in France, where her daughters were born; has since lived in Indonesia, and currently, Congo. When Lisa isn’t globetrotting with her family, she can be found writing the bestselling children’s book series, The Kids Who Travel the World, where each book explores a new country and culture. Lisa is also the editor of the anthology Once Upon an Expat, which has been called a ‘must-read’ for those thinking of moving abroad. You can find Lisa on her blog, Canadian Expat Mom, as well as Instagram and Facebook.

Gabriela O'Malley