Photo Credit: TN
The Joy of Being an Expat: What I Learned Living Abroad
On the evening of Saturday, October 17th, I found myself at New York City’s JFK airport with four overweight suitcases, negotiating baggage fees and trying to make sure I would arrive in Geneva with everything I thought I would need. I was scheduled to begin a new job in Switzerland, a country I had only passed through once, in two days, so I needed my entire wardrobe, I told the flight attendant. After paying a bit extra, I checked my luggage and boarded the flight, and the next morning I arrived in Switzerland ready to embark upon my life as an expat.
I didn’t expect, upon arrival, that I’d grow so fond of Switzerland and the time I spent there. In my imagined romanticized view, I thought I’d be an expert skier, speaking fluent French, negotiating policy changes at the UN and using Switzerland as a springboard for weekend trips around Europe. While my French improved vastly, my skiing skills only improved barely – and I didn’t negotiate a single thing at the UN. In hindsight, that moment in my life became a turning point and an often-cited example of when I started living my fullest life. This is because living and working in another country changed me.
I spent a lot of time alone – more than I ever before. I’m the eldest of five, a child of two parents very close to their siblings and grew up in a home with an open door policy. I was rarely, if ever, alone. But in Geneva, suddenly, I always was. All the moments I wasn’t spending at work or with the handful of friends I made early on were by myself. Not willing to be cooped up in my apartment, I started exploring the city on my own. Suddenly spending time alone turned into learning to be alone which turned into cherishing my independence.
I learned to make friends. Before Geneva, I made friends in academic settings – finding a few people with common interests during orientation that I liked and going from there. But when there’s no orientation, and people already have groups of friends, and everyone is grown – the process of finding friends proved very different for me. At first, to be honest, anyone who spoke fluent English was a potential friend. But after some time, I discovered a different, more successful approach – finding similarities between myself, and people who were very different from me and establishing friendship from that starting point.
I learned to listen. Because otherwise, I couldn’t speak to anyone. Understanding a casual lunch conversation between friends required a focus more intense than I had anticipated. And client conference calls did even more so. For the first few weeks, I told everyone “of course” when they asked me if I spoke French. After all, I had studied abroad at an American university in France and I could get by as a tourist in francophone countries. Very quickly thereafter I was humbled. So, I decided to shut up and listen more, and reap the benefits of doing so.
Everything they say about living abroad is true. It is always different than anticipated. Truthfully, it can be lonely when you first move somewhere alone – regardless of the size of the city. Very quickly, however, you move beyond that and grow from it. During my time in Geneva, I became more independent and more empathetic, and now I have friends to visit and couches to crash on all over the world.