Saturday, 15 September 2012

On moving country...

So this week I moved to another country.

This is the second time in my life I’ve done this and, just like the first time, it’s had its challenges.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that nobody likes moving.

As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that it’s right up there with death in the family and divorce as one of the most stressful things you can go through.

Multiply that stress by oh, say two thousand, and you have a pretty good idea of how stressful it is to move to another country.

It looks something like this.
First there’s the visa application. 

There will be a list of things you need.  It will have some standard things, like your passport, bank statements, a few official letters, eye of newt and tongue of frog…  You know.  Easy stuff.  Then there will be a few things that will seem innocuous enough (get this form signed) but in fact are almost impossible to do (the only person approved to sign this form is a wizened old man who lives in a cave at the utmost reaches of the highest mountain in Timbuktu, and to get him to sign the form you must first answer all three of his riddles correctly).

His name is Ted.
But you will jump through all of these hoops because hey, you need the visa don’t you, and there’s no other way of getting it.  So you arrive triumphantly at the visa office, exhausted from the trek to Timbuktu but thinking it’s ok because now you Have Everything In Order.  Except you don’t.  “Where’s the vial of tears from the last surviving dodo?” they will ask you indignantly.  And you’ll say, the list didn’t say anything about a vial of tears, and they’ll look at you like you’re a total idiot and say, yes it did, and they’ll point to a dark and shadowy corner of the list where, sure enough, the tiniest footnote-of-a-footnote says that you need a vial of tears from the last surviving dodo.

He was really sad about going extinct.
So a few weeks later you return to the visa office panting and sweating, with the vial of tears and everything else, and they say “Great!  That’s everything!”  And just as you’re heaving a huge sigh of relief, they add “now we just need you to fill in this little bit of paperwork” and THWACK!  You feel the earth tremble at your feet as they deposit a giant tome, roughly the size of the Talmud, in front of you.  Oh, and by the way you only have 20 minutes left to fill it all out, because the office is only open from 10:30 to 12:00 on a Thursday don’t you know.
I had to learn Hebrew to fill it out.
(Just to put things in perspective, though: my Vietnamese hair dresser once said to me “Oh yeah, visa problems, I know what that’s like.  My family had to wait for five years in a refugee camp before their visas were ready”.  Gulp.)
Anyway.  You finally get your visa sorted and arrive in the country, and that’s when the real fun begins.  You have to do things like open a bank account (THWACK!  Another Talmud-sized stack of paperwork) and find healthcare (THWACK!  again).  And get a phone, and find out where to buy things like milk, toothpaste and bell peppers (don’t even begin to think that you’ll find all these things in the same shop). 
And let’s not forget the most difficult part: chances are, people in your adopted country speak another language.  Here’s a fun fact I’ve learned since moving to Ghent: apparently I look really Belgian!  This means that people keep coming up to me and babbling in Flemish.  Usually asking for directions (I must look really helpful, as well as really Belgian).  I know how to say “Ik wil graag een biertje” and “Kent u Meneer de Koning?”  Neither of these phrases are ever much help.
Of course when you move country you know that things will be different.  But that doesn’t make it any easier when they are different.  For instance, in the UK it’s normal for flats to come furnished.  In Belgium, it’s not.  So now that I’ve found a flat here (which was NOT easy – I could write a whole other blog post about that) I’m noticing millions of essential items – pillows, cutlery, cheese graters and so on – that I always took for granted.  Contrary to my belief, these items do not magically appear with a new flat.  They have to be bought.  Cheaply.  At Ikea.

No, they did not pay me to advertise for them.  But glasses for 0.50 each??  Yes please!
Anyway, I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives.  There are lots of great things about moving to another country.  Here are five that I can think of (and I’m sure you can think of many more):
1.       You’ll visit new places – This one is pretty obvious.  It’s why you’ve moved, right?  But I’m not just talking about the fact of being in a new country.  I’m talking about all the little places you’ll discover.  That coffee place that makes a mean latte without breaking the bank.  The beautiful country getaways you can explore on weekends.  The best place to get food at 2 am.  The funky museums, the chic boutiques, and the cool art galleries.  And when people come to visit you, there is no better feeling than smugly showing off all the amazing places you know about here.
2.       You’ll experience a new culture – Some of it will be completely baffling and some will be mildly irritating, but for the most part you will find it entirely novel and charming.  You’ll probably pick up little bits of pieces of it yourself over time.  (This is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don’t go too far.  That guy moping around Parisian cafes in black turtlenecks and berets, smoking cigarettes and quoting Sartre?  Nobody likes that guy.)

Only this cat can pull off the French look.
3.       You’ll meet new people – All kinds of fascinating, inspiring, funny, challenging, puzzling, and entirely loveable people.  They will make you laugh, they will make you cry, and they will inevitably change the way you look at the world.  Some of them will probably become your best friends.

4.       You’ll try new things – One of the best things about moving to a new place is that it opens your mind to all kinds of things you’ve never tried, and perhaps never considered trying.  Maybe in your old life you weren’t the kind of person to go mountain biking.  But here you are in a new country, and someone invites you out to go mountain biking with them, and suddenly it sounds like an awesome idea!  Now’s your chance to step out of the box.  For example, when I moved to Scotland I discovered that I love hillwalking.  I didn’t exactly get out every weekend, but when I did it was great!  I never would have done that if I stayed in Canada.

5.       You’ll learn a lot about yourself – I know it’s such a cliché to say you travel to find yourself, but to a certain extent, you do end up finding yourself.  (Mind you, you might not like everything you find.)  When you move to a different place you remove yourself from all those comfortable and familiar things that can keep you on automatic pilot and prevent you from encountering some (often painful) truths about yourself.  Being in a different country, setting up a new life from scratch, suddenly you need to figure out some really big questions about yourself.  What do I need to be happy?  What do I want out of life?  What kinds of people should I surround myself with?  Where do I want to be in 5/10/20 years?  It’s a massive learning experience.

6.   Ok, I lied.  There’s six things.  I hate to use the expression “broadening your horizons” (it makes me feel a bit queasy: I always picture one of those cheesy inspirational posters with someone walking into a desert sunset or something).  But there’s no other way of putting this, really.  When you move to a new country, you open all kinds of doors for yourself.  Just like you never thought about mountain biking before, you probably never thought of applying for a job in Hamburg.  But here you are, and here the job is.  You’ve just figured out a lot about what you want out of life and what will make you happy.  Will the job help with that?  Then go for it!

You walk into that desert sunset, baby!
So it isn’t the easiest journey, but for these reasons and many more, it is very much worth it.  Why else would I be doing it all over againWhy else would I go all the way to Timbuktu to get that old man to sign the paper? (Ok, so it was actually a doctor in Edzell, but hey, Edzell is very hard to get to from Glasgow!)

When you move to a new country, you expand your mind, you expand your world, and you expand your possibilities.  It is often frustrating, confusing and difficult.  But it is so, SO worth it.  For the things you’ll learn, the places you’ll see, the experiences you’ll have, and the doors you’ll open.

If you’re thinking of moving to another country, don’t be under any illusions. Don’t expect it to be like a big extended holiday. And don’t expect it to be smooth sailing from the moment you arrive.

DO expect it to be the biggest adventure of your life.


  1. Was really interested to read this. :) For me, the most important thing I learned about moving to a new country was something that may seem obvious (or perhaps totally negative) but for me was big, specifically:

    You can't outrun yourself. Even if you're in a different place, you will still be you. Your insecurities, neuroses, and baggage will still be there - in fact, they will probably be magnified a million times. Also, once the novelty of the new place wears off, it becomes basically just like a more difficult and frustrating version of being at home - kind of ordinary and same-old, except that relating to people and getting things done are really hard.

    In short, after a year and a half in Germany, I fully understand why pretty much everyone who comes from a place where the quality of life is good chooses to go back to their native country eventually.

  2. You hit it right on the nose, Jenny! That's exactly what I discovered when I moved to Scotland. I still had all my doubts, fears and insecurities from back in Canada, only this time I didn't have anywhere to hide from them. They were right there with me, out in the open, in a scary and unfamiliar place. Like I said, you'll find yourself, but you might not like everything you find. It is really difficult living in another place and being so intensely alone with yourself in that way. I think you end up learning A LOT, and not always in a pleasant way.

    I don't know if I'll ever come back to Canada - I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now I've accepted that I'm going where the work is, and I'll have to make some sacrifices in my personal life and my quality of life in general in order to pursue my career. I'm sure this is not the last time I'll move country, but I do think that it gets easier everytime. You kind of know what to expect, you get used to it, and you learn to laugh at all the ridiculous/frustrating/stressful things that come your way. I guess the important thing is to keep an open mind and heart, and always ask yourself "what can I learn from this?"

  3. Great attitude! I'm sure you will continue to find success. :)