Ups and Downs of Expat Life, a Real Perspective from a Parent

A few months after we moved to Portugal, I saw a post in a Facebook expat group that made me laugh. A person was planing their move to Portugal and trying to figure out what they should bring with them and what they could wait and get after the move here. Their question was “what have you had trouble finding in Portugal”. One of the answers was “A sense of urgency”. This response seriously cracked me up! Others though took offense and criticized the person for not appreciating life in Portugal.

I have to tell you-living abroad can be hard! I’m sometimes reluctant to talk about the struggles, for fear that it implies that we regret moving abroad (which we don’t) or that we don’t appreciate the country that we live in (which we do). I strive to be real, open, and honest in my posts (though I do clean up my potty mouth…). Since our students have many of the same experiences, I want to share some of the struggles with you.

We sold our house, got rid of many of our belongings, and moved into an apartment nine months before leaving the US. This helped us adjust to less living space before moving here. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss it sometimes though! Watching TV shows and seeing “typical” American houses is usually the trigger. Yes, I miss my big, organized, and modern American kitchen. I also miss central heat/air and spacious master bathrooms. And I really miss being able to run more than one appliance at the same time without blowing a fuse. Other than that, I miss consumer related conveniences like good customer service, ordering food online from around the country from Goldbelly, the abundance of resources to easily purchase anything I need (or want), and things being delivered to my door soon after I hit the “order” button on my computer. Of course, we miss friends and family, but Facetime helps us stay connected. In fact, I “see” one of my closest friends more now on our scheduled Facetime calls than I did when living in the US. Other than family and friends, most of the things I miss are fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things and have actually helped me gain some awareness about myself. For instance, I don’t want consumerism to be such an important part of my life, so the realizations around this help me to work on that.

More than missing things though, the hard part of living abroad is just how much effort is required for regular task of life. This includes things like: figuring out whether your landlord is taking advantage of your lack of knowledge about renter’s rights-and knowing what to do when they are, asking for help finding an item in the grocery store, figuring out which milk is skim/low fat/whole, finding a dentist and doctor, and figuring out how to make an appointment with that doctor when the phone prompt options are not in English. Then there are things that are a pain even in your home country, but doing so abroad adds an additional degree of difficulty. Calling utility companies, opening up a bank account, and figuring out what cell phone package to choose can take a lot of brain power! Bureaucratic systems can be another source of headaches, particularly in the early days when sorting out residence permits, trading in drivers license and such are required. And don’t even get me started on learning the metric system! I feel like I have to hold so much extra information in my head every time I leave the house-from how to convert kilometers to miles when I’m driving or kilograms to pounds when shopping, to the tax number they ask for every time I make a purchase, to how to say certain phrases, to remember the rules of the traffic circles. It can be really exhausting!

Despite the difficulties, I do not regret our decision to move one little bit! I love that my daily walks include an ocean view. I love exploring new types of shellfish, wines, and cheeses. I love the affordable cost of living-and that health care is also included in that affordability. I love the community we’ve started to build. I love that eventually, we will be able to easily explore other parts of Europe. I love that there is a five year path to citizenship, which will open up the possibility to live throughout the EU. More than anything, I love the feeling of accomplishment that came with following through on a dream.

What really blows my mind is when I think about our students experiencing these same struggles and benefits. As a middle-aged woman, I have significant life experiences that helped me through difficult tasks. The fact that they are handling these situations without those life experiences is truly incredible. Sam had to go to the embassy four times before he had all the documents in place to get his passport renewed. It was a pain, but what a learning experience around both bureaucracies and attention to detail! Our students also have to deal with difficult landlords, getting residence permits, grocery shopping, and the like. They would not have had this set of challenges had they attended universities in the US. And you know what? These difficult experiences lead to tremendous growth! Accomplishing these tasks gives them confidence in their abilities. They also realize that if they successfully manage the logistics involved with living in one foreign country, then they can also do so in just about any other country. They see the world as a place that is open to them. This is a realization I have had since we’ve moved also and I can only imagine the impact it would have had on my life if I learned this as a young adult!


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I often talk about how college in Europe provides life-changing experiences. This confidence and new perspectives about one’s place in the world is absolutely part of that. Though I love learning about the experiences our members have while studying in Europe, I’m also super excited to see how their lives are impacted in the years after they finish their studies.

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