Our latest expat guest blogger, Ryan Neal, tells us all about his experiences of moving abroad…and then coming home
Image Source: creativecommons/Flickr
By far the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life is to move to a new country. The second hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is move home again.
I moved to Brussels, Belgium in May of 2012 at the age of 23. Arriving alone at Gare du Midi train station with nothing but a rucksack and my guitar, I didn’t know a single person in the entire country. With my level of French, communication with the locals was difficult unless I wanted to know where the nearest library was, or perhaps tell a passing stranger that my dog is brown. The only prior time I had visited the city was one month before, for a meagre two days while I desperately hunted for accommodation. In retrospect, it’s safe to say that I was in way over my head.
My first month in Brussels was the hardest month I’ve ever endured. My days were long and exhausting as I tried to establish my new life; opening bank accounts, setting up telephone, internet and electricity contracts, registering with the local commune, even trying to figure out where the hell to buy a damned smoke detector and all in a language that I could barely comprehend. When you live abroad in a foreign speaking country, you have to accept that the simplest of tasks are going to take you at least twice as long as they would in your native country, and require thrice the mental energy. My evenings were mostly spent alone, recuperating from the long days, and the immense mental exertion.
But all of this was okay, because it was what I had been prepared for. What I had not been prepared for, was the jolt of moving back to the UK a little over two years later.
When you move abroad, it’s a complete culture shock. There’s so much to adjust to, whether it be the language, driving on the other side of the road under unfamiliar road rules, or simple things like where to do your grocery shopping. When you move home again, it’s exactly the same.
One of the most noticeable things for me, obviously, was the language. In Brussels, heart of the EU, I was submerged in a melting pot of culture. A short ride on the Metro could expose me to half a dozen languages, none of which I’d be able to understand. On returning to the UK I suddenly found that I could understand everything that was going on around me, and it was exhausting, much like my first days in Brussels had been.
Add to that the re-adjustment to a completely different style of communication – making small talk with cashiers, deciphering local colloquialisms that had sprouted in my absence – and it was a little overwhelming.
On top of the language there are so many other things in my day-to-day life that require constant conscious effort and attention. If I had a penny for every time I have ordered a beer in French or looked the wrong way before crossing a road then I would be a rich man by no means, but I would have enough small change in my pocket for it to be a vague nuisance.
And that’s not even to mention the logistical difficulties in coming home. Over the last week I have been refused credit cards and telephone contracts due to a two-year period of inactivity and the risk that I may up-and-leave the country again. Of course, this is completely understandable from a business perspective, but I’d be lying if I said that I anticipated this much difficulty in coming home. Where is the big welcome mat and all of the ‘welcome home’ banners and party poppers that I was expecting? Not here.
So far, all minor grievances. But the absolute hardest thing about coming home? Realising that, in the time that you’ve been away, life has changed. People have changed, friends have moved on and, most of all, you have changed.
Somewhat naïvely, I had expected everything to be more or less as I had left it. The completely alien shop fronts and bar names that lined the high street of my hometown were a welcome surprise compared to the changes I found in the loved ones that I had left. Relatives seem suddenly much older than when I last saw them – from the lines in the faces of the elderly, to my youngest brother who has learnt to walk and talk in my absence – and friends have less time than two years prior, now committed to girlfriends, careers and the lives they have built in the time I’ve been gone. The realisation that life moves on without you can be hard to come to terms with for the egocentric traveller.
Much greater, however, was the realisation that I have changed. I no longer value the same things that I did before my voluntary exile, I no longer seek the same things from life that I had always thought were important to me, and I no longer search for the same qualities in friends and companions. I’ve spent the past few months looking forward to coming home and, now that I’m here, I’m not sure that it’s quite where I belong anymore. With new horizons to conquer, places to discover, people to meet, and an insatiable hunger to satisfy, the beaten path seems little more than a dingy, narrow side street; the most direct route to a dead end.
I’m going to give this whole living-in-the-UK thing a go for a while. I’m going to give myself a chance to adjust to this alien culture. But, in the meantime, I’m keeping my rucksack and my passport next to the front door because here’s what they don’t tell you about being an expat: it changes you. What you make of that change is up to you and that alone is the most exciting thing about being an expatriate.
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About the author
Ryan is a freelance writer, musician and globetrotter. Having spent two years as part of the thriving expat community in Brussels, he has trouble keeping his feet in one place and is currently looking forward to his next adventure. When he's not in an airport he can usually be found blogging about travel and music. Follow him on Twitter or check out his blog.