The Great Challenges of Living Abroad

To some friends and family our lives look awesome- they see us jetting around the world to beautiful locations, lapping up scenic vistas and sipping delicious drinks. Others see us as crazy for not owning a car, shopping frivously or saving for a house. Life is about priorities, and for years we’ve put the freedom of travel at the top. Traveling around Europe has been easier because we’ve lived on the continent for over 5 years. And while there are many wonderful things about life overseas, there are many challenges of living abroad that have made the past 5 years a bumpy ride.

Cliffs of Moher in County Claire, challenges of living abroad
An amazing drive with friends to the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, on the west coast of Ireland, was a recent reminder of why we continue living abroad.

1) Family and friends – Bell and I both care very much about our families and are fortunate to have some on the continent. As for immediate family, I’m American and Bell is Australian, so if we lived close to one home we’d always be very far away from the other…The solution, so it doesn’t seem like we’re giving preferential treatment?…To live far away from all of them! But in all seriousness, it’s tough to live a long distance from family and often go over a year without seeing parents or siblings. But at least it’s not the olden days where even in the Western world, some children left home and went decades without seeing their parents, or never saw them again. Up to the 1950’s emigration of children was like a death sentence to parents in countries like Greece, Italy and Ireland to name a few. My father emigrated from Greece to the United States in 1953 and did not return for 22 years.

challenges of living abroad
Bell and her mum taking in the view of Lisbon, Portugal on a visit of hers from Australia.

2) Finding an apartment – This is certainly one of the great challenges of living abroad, but varies greatly depending on your location and budget. When Bell and I moved to Amsterdam 5 years ago our budget was limited and housing in Amsterdam is pricey. We were earning less money than we did in Tampa but had to pay more in rent as foreigners (you really have to know people to get fair deals in the Dutch housing market). Most of the time housing ads were only posted in Dutch, which neither of us spoke. To make a long story short, in the 3 and 1/2 years we lived in Amsterdam, we had some serious housing issues.

Ireland has been far better in terms of housing for us and we can definitely say it’s better for renters than Holland. In the Netherlands, you typically need to go through a rental agency which costs the renter the equivalent of 1 months rent, which is never returned . In Ireland the owner pays this fee. In Holland we were not in the position where we could just dump 850 euro down the toilet, and even at that price most agents had few apartments available, so it was always difficult to navigate around that system. In Dublin our budget was a little higher but it was a huge relief to not have to throw a big chunk of money out the window to find a suitable apartment in our budget.

3) Finding a job – For many this would of course be at the top of the challenges of living abroad. But some people move to another country with a job already lined up, like we did in the case of Bell in Amsterdam. My situation was more difficult, when the economy crashed in 2008 most of the English speaking jobs in the Netherlands dried up. Most Dutch people speak English and often another language anyway. So if there is a shortage of jobs, good luck if you only speak English when that isn’t the official language of the country. Of course there are skill sets that are more marketable and on the other end of the spectrum, if you’re not fussy, there is often under the table pub or hostel work. And in that instance you can also circumvent that pesky visa business! Just be careful if you choose to go that route, be sure not to break any additional laws!

4) Language – When we travel to the west coast or certain rural parts of Ireland, communicating with locals can be very challenging…kidding! (mostly). Sometimes even when the national language is not English, but everyone speaks it, like in Holland, there is a negative side effect to the short term conveniences that come when you can communicate with the locals for everyday needs. You have less incentive to learn the local language if you can go to the grocery store and do all your shopping and get around just with English. If you live in a country where you need to speak the local language to get what you need, you are forced to look things up and learn. It assimilates you more into the culture, in a sense. Holland seemed awesome on the surface, but insurance, banking and taxes were always still in Dutch! And when you also know you will not live in a particular foreign country forever, and learning their language brings limited opportunities outside their nation, this also lessons the incentive to learn.

5) Food – We are not picky eaters so this applies less to Bell and I, but can certainly be one of the challenges of living abroad to others. But at the end of the day, many countries are big meat and potato consumers anyway. The US, Canada, Australia, Netherlands and Ireland all consume loads of meat and potatoes, and there are often only subtle differences in their preparation. I once read someone complaining about eating “weird food” in Holland, a dish called stampot. Stampot is basically mashed potatoes mixed with spinach and topped with a sausage and gravy. Bangers and mash anyone? Of course there are very picky eaters, luckily most countries come equipped with McDonald’s for them. We’ve only visited Asia, not lived there. I would say after awhile food might actually become an issue if we lived in Asia. You can eat good western style food in many parts of Asia, but it’s far more expensive to do so.

Traditional Greek Christmas breakfast at my uncle and aunt’s house in Athens a couple years ago, with my dad, Bell and cousins. My father flew over from the USA so we could also experience his home country together for the first time.

And to conclude, the novelty of living abroad wears off. The honeymoon period usually lasts about a year and after that you start taking the adventure for granted. All the cute little Dutch towns started to look the same after a year. Oh, just another pub dating back to the 1800’s! Luckily in Ireland we keep ourselves occupied by constantly being on the lookout for those elusive leprechauns, a fun task that distracts us from the challenges of living abroad.

6 thoughts on “The Great Challenges of Living Abroad

  1. Among the ones you mentioned, the hardest for me are language and food. Language because not matter how good you are in German (and I’m not!), people in Switzerland will still keep speaking dialect, which is hard to understand even for Germans.
    I’m not picky with food, but I like to eat helthy, and here such a attitude seem to be absent in people’s mind. It is very difficult to escape meat or dairy products here. I was shocked to find dairy products in almost every food when I started to read tags in supermarkets.
    However, those “problems” are really not affecting my mood. I’m still extremely happy to live abroad, like I were predestined to be an expat.

  2. Hey Tuscan- I feel you on the dairy! I’m lactose intolerant (to cow’s milk). Thankfully I can better digest goat and sheep’s milk but these aren’t staples in the Irish diet. This can be a challenge going out even in any English speaking country because wait staff doesn’t always know if there’s dairy in certain foods. Though service in Ireland is generally pretty good so if they don’t know they’ll check with staff. This is obviously more of a challenge in non-English speaking countries so I always look up how to ask if there is dairy.

    One of the biggest challenges about living in Ireland is the weather. I left that off the list though because some people are expats who previously resided in bad climates and moved to good ones. I left Florida though! So no summer gets to me.

    How long have you been living in Switzerland?

  3. Ditto! we just got back from a trip and we only stepped into one castle but that was like for 5 secs .. how sad!… its true, honeymoon period is over after seeing so many castles and cathedrals. ( especially living in spain where towns have so many cathedrals and the huge one in seville, then there is the biggest at vatican- been there twice ) The only excitement i got from a castle of late was when we celebrated the marine corps ball in a 12th century castle where christopher colombus lived while mapping the americas! this is only a 15 min drive from our house… can it get any better than that? We also stayed in a castle in tuscany looking over a vineyard in Italy.. am i ever going to appreciate anything old ever again considering we live near (15min) a ancient ruin sight that dates back 1200 bc that was occupied by the phoenicans!? i need to go to egypt( i want too but the unrest is abit dangerous) however once we retire in australia we plan to travel heaps in oz and see the vast lands that the aborgines had for 40,000 year! havnt been to aluru yet and they say thats from the Paleozoic era (541 to 252.2 million years ago!)

    1. Thanks for sharing these amazing experiences Carolyn! Wow, that is a lot of wonderful castles and cathedrals you guys have witnessed!! Having the Marine Corps. Ball in a castle where Columbus mapped the Americas is just awe inspiring! I would love to see that- would be great to see some of Columbus’s doodles as he planned to set off to score wonderful booty for the Spanish court. What adventure! 🙂

      Personally we tend to take the scenery in our new home countries for granted the most, after the first year. Over the summer we had the incredible opportunity to eat at the foot of an amazing cathedral in the Bordeaux region of France, in gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage town St. Emillion. It was fantastic, one of our all time favorite towns, and we could have spent all night there had we not had to catch a train back to Bordeaux. There are certain things in life, some even small, that never get old.

      We’ve been looking into a potential trip to Egypt soon ourselves. I was briefly there some years back and saw the pyramids and Egyptian museum- Cairo is quite a city! It’s not a great time to visit, but would be awesome to do a cruise down the Nile one day…Love you guys’ plans to experience ancient aboriginal lands in Australia. Would love to see that some day as well. Cheers and happy travels! 🙂

  4. For me, I used to live in London for studying university, one the most difficulties is Food, yes, I missed the food my mom usually cooked and while in London, I had to learn everything and learn how to cook myself

    1. Sometimes there’s nothing like a homemade meal from your home country…Especially when you grew up somewhere with very different food- like Vietnam and England!

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