Moving Abroad: What To Do When You Do The Unexpected

Most twenty-somethings fly the nest at some point. Moving home is a big step for anyone – new friends, new job, new town. But generally, you are probably within driving distance of your family home and at the very least, all you have to do is ring someone if you need support or just want to catch up. Now I’m not saying this is easy, but what about those who can’t pop home on the weekend or pick up the phone to mum whenever you feel like? I am, of course, talking about those of us who take moving that one step further (or a few thousand miles) and live abroad. Everything ‘new’ is amplified, added challenges like language and currency now become everyday issues while isolation is a concern for many.

Hi, my name’s Helen, and I moved about as far as you could possibly go – London to Auckland to be precise. All 11388 miles if you like a good statistic. Everyone knows a wandering soul who constantly has itchy feet and has always dreamed of living in a new country. That wasn’t me. I’d love to see the world but had never extended beyond holidays to neighbouring Europe. Backpacking, while tempting, was too scary as I’d have to go it alone with a bunch of total strangers. Yet still, I ended up moving further than anyone I know (for love, what else?), and while I wouldn’t change it for the world, I wish I had been more prepared emotionally, or at least have the comfort of hearing ‘Yes! I struggled with / enjoyed that too!’

So here is my guide to moving abroad – what to expect when you do the unexpected. I hope you find it useful, or at least find comfort in knowing it’s not just you. We will all have a different experience of living abroad but there is plenty of common ground too that makes us a truly unique community of travellers!

1. I’m so pleased for you! Frequently heard upon the announcement that you are making the Big Move. Can be roughly translated as anything from ‘I’m genuinely pleased’ to ‘Man, I’m jealous’ to ‘Why are you leaving me?!’ and everything inbetween. It’s a big adjustment not just for you, but also for your nearest and dearest who will of course be worried about you, and have to deal with not having you so readily available in their lives. Stand by your decision and ease those fears by making it clear you’ve thought it through and will definitely not vanish of the face of the Earth. A teensy bit of jealousy can creep in too, so just roll with it (a promise of free accommodation when they visit you usually helps sweeten the deal for those green-eyed monsters).

2. Admin Tedious at best and down-right frustrating at worst, but it has to be done so get your flights, visas, accommodation and transfers sorted early then you’ll have one less thing to worry about when you get to stage 3. Break up the paperwork with a few shopping trips too – new gear will always make you feel better. I definitely had a lot of travel-related Christmas and birthday presents in the months before leaving so enjoy it! – you get lots of useful stuff for free and people like to get involved and feel a part of your big adventure (remember stage 1. it’s not just you making a change).

3. The Freak-out stage Common just before leaving. Some people manage to bounce through this period so eager are they to start a new life, but I found no matter how excited you are, the reality of leaving everything and everyone you’ve ever known can be terrifying. Mine came at the airport when my mum broke down in front of me and gave me a very poignant letter to read on the plane which set me off too. It’s a lonely time waiting for the plane to whisk you away from everything you love, like teetering on the edge of a precipice unsure whether to take the jump or back out now. My advice? Breathe. Grab a snack or a magazine to keep busy. Breath again. then take the plunge. It’s better to try and fail than regret not trying at all.

4. Getting started If possible, make contacts before you go – maybe an online forum for people travelling to the same place or, if you are not keen going it alone, spend the first few weeks lodging with a local family to make the transition easier. If you are working, you will need to set yourself up with a bank account and tax code – your employer should help, or pop into a local branch for advice setting up financially in a new country. Immigration websites also tend to have a help desk and advice section for once you have made the move.

5. Fall in love Don’t make the move all about admin and work – take some time to see as much of your new country as you can; there’s a reason you moved there after all. Use local knowledge or explore like a tourist and hop on an organised tour. I’ve had au pair friends who used their agency as a community within which to make friends in a similar position to themselves, then go on local expeditions every weekend, whether that’s checking out the nightlife, restaurant scene or a good old-fashioned hike. All of them booked themselves on a popular bus tour at some point during their stay to make the most of their time living on the other side of the world. I myself had about 3 weeks exploring New Zealand before starting work and frequently go on domestic mini-breaks or long weekends. If you’re in love with your new country, it can help to ease step 6.

6. Homesickness A completely natural phase that hits some as soon as they move, others further down the track, and for some, never happens. For those of us who do struggle, it’s important to remember why you made the move in the first place – was it the draw of this particular country, following loved ones or an amazing job opportunity? It can feel so lonely at times being so far from friends and family, so try and get involved with your new community to reduce feeling of isolation, and remember that social media has come along way – chances are you can Skype/ Facetime/ Viber etc. anyone you are missing. Regularly calling home lets your family stay in the loop and share your adventures as well as maintaining close ties to boost you back up when you are feeling down. My partner uses another trick if he can see me missing home – he takes me somewhere beautiful in New Zealand to remind me how much I love this country and why I choose to stay.

7. FOMO Fear of missing out can arise on both sides. You may worry your friends are moving on without you, while they may fear you have so much new in your life you may not need them anymore. Communication is key here, for both sides. I felt homesick during my first year because, thanks to social media, I could see all the awesome things my mates were doing together yet I didn’t hear regularly from them. But in the midst of my moping, someone asked me if I’d bothered to message them first. Yes, it can be hard with different lifestyles in separate countries with but maintain that line of communication with those you left behind – I guarantee it will benefit both sides. And remember nothing stays the same – friendships evolve and change shape even if only subtly. It can be a hard lesson to learn especially if you feel your social group is at its peak and don’t want things to change. I am one of those people, but change is inevitable – you can either constantly fear drowning in it or relax and ride the wave.

8. Coming home For me, Christmas time is a mix of excitement and worry. I’m excited to see friends and family but am concerned things may have changed in my absence – will they still want to hang out with me, will we have anything in common anymore? The best thing you can do is stop worrying and try to arrange to catch up with everyone then at least you made the effort – the rest is up to them – and chances are they can’t wait to have you back! But if some friends have fallen by the wayside, it’s OK to be sad, but maybe there were many reasons you lost contact so don’t dwell on it – pick yourself up and turn your attention to those that are still there for you. Treat your trip home as a chance to get to know your home country through fresh eyes and I assure you, you will appreciate it more for living abroad. Personally, I can’t wait to move back to England and to a proper tour of the British Isles to show my Kiwi boyfriend around and visit places I should’ve been to as a native but didn’t. A home visit is a great big refresh button to touch base, appreciate those in your life and get you ready to return to your new country and carry on making the most of this amazing opportunity.

9. What if it doesn’t work? Admitting a wrong move is never easy but it is nothing to be ashamed of – it is not failure, it just wasn’t the right path for you at that time. Give it a good go, but there is no point staying somewhere that makes you utterly miserable no matter how much other people may tell you they’d kill to be in your position. You are not them and everyone reacts differently – no one will blame you, and it shows great courage to admit a wrong choice and then go seek a way of fixing it or a take different path. Maybe you will learn you have bigger priorities that you’d like to focus on, or perhaps you still hold the travel dream – if now is not the right time, you can always try again some day. Listen to your heart, push through your fears and try something new, but at the end of the day, only you will know whether this move is right for you or not.

10. I want to stay here forever! So you’ve fallen head over heels for your new country, new lifestyle or maybe a local stole your heart. Whatever the reason, welcome to the growing number of families whose members are scattered across the globe. It can open not only your eyes, but also those of your nearest and dearest. I’ve had friends visit me who never would have dreamed of coming here before, I’ve made friends from all over the world and my parent’s house is now a treasure trove of Kiwi memorabilia. If the Big Move is for you, the world will become that much smaller and more accessible, and let’s face it, if you can move to a new country, what else are you capable of?

Hi, I’m Helen and three years ago I made the Big Move. Yes, I’ve been afraid, I’ve doubted, I’ve felt lonely and out of my depth, but you know what? I am a much stronger, more open-minded and more confident person than I was when I left Gatwick all those years ago. And now I have the choice of two fantastic, unique island-nations to live in. Wherever I go, my heart will remain split, but now I’m OK with that and richer for it – I have two homes, two families and a world of opportunities at my feet. Now it’s your turn: will you do the unexpected and move abroad?

Helen Shelvey