Expat Confessions: The Truth About Living Abroad
If you happen to know any expats (like me) or follow any on social media, you probably get the impression that living abroad is a permanent, glamorous, care-free vacation. And no wonder! That’s what “digital nomads” and passionate travelers post about. It’s an endless stream of laptop-on-the-beach photos and exciting adventures to remote parts of the world.
But is that really how expats live? In short, NO.
Not even close. Sure, there are exciting moments, but the reality is that it’s not a constant party. So before you feel clinically depressed about how boring and monotonous your own life is, let me give you an honest assessment of my expat life.
In fact, living abroad roughly breaks down like this: 50% bureaucracy, 30% confusion, 20% party.
BUREAUCRATIC SITUATIONS aka B.S.
Yes, you read that right: approximately HALF of my time is sucked dry by administrative headaches. This is to be expected at the beginning, but it never actually ends. NEVER! When you’re not a citizen of your adopted country, there is an insane amount of red tape to get through upon arrival: visas, ID cards, residency papers, drivers license, bank accounts, health insurance…the list goes on and on and on. Once you finish the initial round, it’s been 6–12 months and then some of these things need to be renewed. And the fun starts all over again!
Real expat life is full of paperwork wrapped in mysterious logistics. It’s not just understanding WHAT you need to do, it’s also knowing HOW you do it. To complete one seemingly simple task (like getting an ID card) is a long, complicated process of figuring out: which forms to complete, how to complete them, where to submit them, when to submit them, what other documents are required, how much it will cost, how long will it actually take to process it all…shall I go on? You get the idea.
Even in first-world countries, there is absolutely nothing stream-lined or logical about it. Living in Italy, I’ve learned to expect hurdles at every turn. For example, I tried to buy envelopes and stamps at the post office, only to be informed that they sell neither. Of course not. That would be too easy. Maybe it’s intentionally impossible in order to deter most people from even trying. A clerical “survival of the fittest,” if you will.
It’s a never-ending online information war filled with contradictory or outdated information and indecipherable instructions. It’s a constant battle fought in rundown administrative buildings staffed with the most disgruntled people you’ll ever encounter. You’re armed only with a numbered ticket and endless patience for waiting in lines. The struggle is real folks.
Let me give you just one little example…
Last summer, my husband and I had a change of address from one region in Italy to another (like changing states in the USA). I’ll spare you the details of this process (for now) because my memory is rather fuzzy — I must have blocked it out due to the trauma it caused — but I ended up making my husband do it. In short, it takes about 5–10 steps and 4–12 weeks to officially change your home address. Piece of cake, right?!
Now we get to change our health insurance cards to the new region and select a primary care physician. There is no way to do this online, naturally; it must be done by multi-step, in-person torture.
First off, the office that handles requests like this is open 6 hours PER WEEK. Seriously! Three hours on Monday morning and three hours on Thursday afternoon. (Thank goodness I don’t have a normal 9–5 job or this shit would NEVER get done.)
So, I go the following Monday morning. The place is packed. I take a number and get in line. I wait for over an hour in an unventilated box of a waiting room where elderly people shout at each other and babies scream in syncopation. When it’s FINALLY my turn to make my request (which I’ve rehearsed repeatedly during the long wait), I explain what I need and why I need it IN ITALIAN. I wait for some kind of helpful response…which never comes.
The woman just stares at me blankly for much longer than polite society would consider normal. Meanwhile, I’m starting to panic: “Am I in the wrong office?” (wouldn’t be the first time) or “Can she not understand me?” (happens regularly) It turns out that she’s just deciding if she actually wants to put in the effort it will take to assist me — I know that look now — or turn me away so I don’t inconvenience her by asking her to actually do her job. So, I try to remain calm and maintain eye contact. For some reason, that usually works.
Mercifully, she finally speaks, but only to inform me that I can change my Italian husband’s card and physician here, but ONLY with written consent from him first, and ONLY if he can’t come to this office directly, because he has, you know, a job to be at on weekdays. (Great, a repeat visit to this lovely lady is in my near future.) But I, as a foreigner, have to go to a different office in a different city to make the same request. This other office is only open for ONE HOUR per day, Monday to Friday. It’s a miracle anything ever gets done here! And there’s no guarantee that we can get the same doctor. (Isn’t this fun?)
So, I take home the new paperwork for my husband to complete. The following Monday is a bank holiday, so I wait until Thursday’s opening hours to, once again, take a number and wait in line for over an hour…with seemingly the same crowd of people that was there the week before. Strange? Actually, no.
This time a different woman is behind the desk (hurray!) but that means I have to explain all over again what I need and why I need it. Luckily, this woman is more friendly and actually processed my request immediately. She must be new here. Whatever, I’ll take it. Overjoyed, I walked out with my husband’s new health insurance information (including primary care physician) and the promise that his new health card would arrive in the mail within 4 weeks. Hallelujah!
But we’re only halfway there. I still have to change my health insurance. So, the following week, I go to this other office in the other town, during the one-hour window they are open. As usual, I take a number and wait in line. Only about 25 minutes later (so quick!) I am called into an office where the employee makes no attempt at pleasantries of any kind and abruptly informs me the next available appointment to complete my request is 10 days later at 8:15am.
WHAT!?! I’ve come to the right office at the right time and waited in line, just to make another appointment to come back in 10 days to do this all over again???
Dumbfounded, I take the next available appointment and then I’m quickly dismissed. When I regain my bearings, I realize that of course this is going to take more steps to complete. Nothing, I mean NOTHING, gets done the first time around. In fact, I’ve found on average it takes 3–4 attempts to complete one request. After a few rounds of 3-part yogic breathing, I felt my blood pressure return to normal.
The good news: at this designated appointment 10 days later, I did finally complete this task. And I’m happy to report that about a month later our new insurance cards arrived and we both have the same doctor.* In the past year, we have not once been to see this doctor (knock on wood), but if we did need to see him, his office hours are 4–7pm Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. So it’s better to not feel ill to the point of needing medical attention outside of those 9 hours per week…
And I bet you thought 50% was an exaggeration? HA!
When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m tempted to respond, “Mostly I wait in lines, but sometimes I teach.”
*Update: Less than a year later, our primary care physician died. Very unfortunate. And also meant that I had to do this whole song-and-dance all over again! See? It never ends.
CONFUSION aka “Natives Think I’m an Idiot”
It’s a strange thing to be a fully-developed human and not be able to communicate with other people. It’s something we take completely for granted in our home country: speaking to one another is generally an easy, automatic exchange of information. It doesn’t require a lot of brain power. Your mind and mouth move in harmony. Input and output are processed instantly. It’s simple.
I moved to Italy knowing precisely two words: “ciao” and “grazie”. Not much to go on, even for the most basic conversation. Whenever anyone said anything to me, I’d freeze…mentally and physically. It was embarrassing, to say the least. I had no capacity for computing the input or vocabulary for producing the output. So there we were: me, wide-eyed and tight-lipped, unable to make myself understood; and the poor unsuspecting Italian, confused and still waiting for a response. It was not pretty.
After about a week of this nonsense, I signed up for a 4-week intensive language course. That got me up to the level of a 3-year old Italian. Sounds pathetic, I know, but condensing 3 years of learning into 4 weeks? Not bad. But I couldn’t find any pre-schoolers who wanted to hang out (read: wait in lines) and chat with me, so I challenged myself to go to one shop every day and try to talk to someone.
This worked out pretty well because a simple purchase doesn’t require much more than pointing at the item you want and a handful of 3-word sentences. I mostly bought food because what else would I need daily and where else would I have so many delicious options? I went to the market for “prosciutto crudo” and “parmigiano reggiano.” I went to the gelateria for “un cono” with “due gusti.” I went to the bakery for “foccacia al rosmarino.” Sounds delightful, I know, but remember I’m constantly sweating and riddled with anxiety about the prospect of trying to communicate effectively. Not super relaxing.
After about two months of total immersion, I could understand and speak basic Italian (and order almost any food I desired). Kindergarten level Italian, but still, it helped build some confidence! However, it took me another two and a half years to be able to follow (and participate in) a conversation with my Italian in-laws. And even now, sometimes it’s just too much. When 8–12 people are all having different conversations all at the same time, it’s impossible to keep up. So I’ve also gotten comfortable with just sitting back, enjoying another glass of wine and letting the melodic cackling just wash over me. It’s enough just to be there, part of an Italian family.
But back to daily life. Even though I can understand and be understood in general daily interactions, it still happens pretty often (about 30% of the time) that I feel like a complete and total idiot. Introduce one extra element into the scene — loud music at a bar, specialized vocabulary, or a heavy accent — and I’m back to being the village idiot. Terrific! For someone who really hates the spotlight and wants to blend in as much as possible, I find this maddening. It sucks being the permanent outsider, but I guess it’s just the emotional price to pay for going out of your comfort zone.
And other forms of seemingly simple communication, like phone calls (ahhh!) become a mental gymnastics routine. I have to prepare a speech for making an appointment or requesting items at a store and hope with all my might that the unfortunate person who has to deal with me doesn’t deviate too much from the prepared script. (You do NOT want to leave the pharmacy unsure if you purchased headache or hemorrhoid medication!) I do my best and I accept that it’s not going to go smoothly. And I don’t care if I make grammar or pronunciation mistakes — as long this other human being can understand what I’m asking for and give it to me, I call it a success. A big step, for a recovering Type A, I might add.
I admit, there are times when it’s just easier to avoid the whole confrontation. My new favorite thing is self check-out at grocery stores. Whenever possible, I communicate via text message. With emogis only. When it takes so much brain power to do the simplest of things, I take the easy way out when possible. Who wouldn’t?!
Another unfortunate consequence with not having full command of the local language is that I feel like I have a totally different personality in Italian. Mainly, I’m really, really boring. I have no sense of humor, I show very little emotion (except frustration — that translates just fine), and I come across as incredibly shy or snobby. Ugh! Honestly, I wouldn’t want to hang out with the Italian version of me either.
Ultimately, I’m not sure whether my language skills really matter at all. Before I even open my mouth and attempt to speak Italian, everyone immediately perceives that I’m foreign. I’m thin and pale, so clearly I’m not from around here. I’m not sure if it’s any particular feature or the overall package, or just some “weirdo” vibe I’m unconsciously emitting, but it’s obvious to everyone. Last week, a 4-year old pointed me out in a shopping center parking lot and loudly says, “Nonna, look how white she is! Where does she come from?” Planet Igiveup, I whispered under my breath and I just smiled at waved at them both. After all, the kid’s right. I’m from a different world. It would just be nice to not be constantly reminded of it.
PARTY TIME aka “The Instagramable Moments”
So now we finally get to the fun stuff! The sight-seeing, the culinary delights, the sunset selfies that litter social media. There is indeed a magical part of being an expat. Experiencing life in some of the most desirable destinations in the world is an unbelievable privilege. No need to go into too much detail here, but here are just a few personal (jealousy-inducing) examples:
I get to see the leaning tower of Pisa every time we drive to/from the airport. We like to joke, “Geez, it’s STILL crooked! When are they gonna get around to fixing that thing?”
My mother-in-law lives in Venice, so we always have a good excuse to go and a free place to stay. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself about this one.
Friend in Paris? Meeting in Barcelona? No problem! With less than 200 euro and in less than 2 hours, we’re there. One of my favorite things about living in Europe, for sure.
And the food, the art, the history, the culture…there are so many wonderful things to experience as an expat! And I love sharing those moments with friends, family, and followers — but remember these are the exceptions, not the rule.
When I’m home visiting my family, I regularly encounter people from my childhood who ask what I’m up to these days. When I say, “Oh, I’m living in [any European city] and -”
Usually, I can stop there, because I’ve lost them. This starry-eyed look crosses their face, surely triggering some memories (or fantasies) of what they imagine my life must be like.
I used to interject with, “Well, actually, it’s pretty frustrating sometimes…” and try to explain what it’s REALLY like to be an expat. But after a while, I realized that they don’t want to hear it, and frankly neither do I. I already know how tough it is! (And now, so do you.)
So when someone finds out where I live and they say, wide-eyed and jaw-dropped, “Oh my gosh! It must be AMAZING to live there!!!” I just answer, mirroring their enthusiasm, “IT IS!!!” Why bother bursting their bubble? And it helps remind me of how lucky I really am to live abroad (100% of the time).
Any other expats want to weigh in? What’s life abroad really like for you? Would love to hear other perspectives on this topic. Comments? Questions? Put ’em down below!