Travel Truths: The Realities of Living Abroad

You can’t be disappointed if you don’t have unrealistic expectations.

Anquanette Gaspard
Anquanette Gaspard
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It was 8:30 a.m. and I was standing at a bus stop in Valencia, Spain, trying to figure out why Autobús 41 wasn’t running that day. With signage in a foreign language and Google Translate failing on me due to shoddy cellular service, it took every ounce of my being to fight the urge to go home to watch old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix rather than figure out how to get to my intended destination. The observance of a Spanish holiday changed the regular bus schedule, and my language school didn’t inform students of this holiday since it didn’t affect the school’s schedule. However, it did affect almost everything else, like operating hours at government offices, the post office, and shops around the city. Once I realized that the bus wasn’t coming, I was forced to decide if I should take the 30-minute walk to school to face four grueling hours of Spanish lessons or call it quits on a day that had barely started.

When I decided to move to Spain to learn Spanish and experience life outside of the United States, this was not the scenario I had in mind. I had pictured late nights drinking craft beers at the local tavern and jet-setting across the country unearthing hidden gems—not dealing with the frustration of public transportation. Unfortunately, I came to realize that the realities of living abroad often failed to align with my perception of this adventure, sometimes resulting in disappointment, anger, self-doubt, and undue stress.

Here are five important things to remember so that you’re not too disappointed when your new, exciting life abroad doesn’t turn out exactly as you imagined.

Sitting pretty in Plaza de Espana in Seville.
photo courtesy of Anquanette Gaspard

Mastering the art of loneliness
Even as you make new friends and create a network of people in your new home, there will be moments when you yearn for the comforts of what you left behind and feel singularly alone because you don’t know anyone else going through this same transition in your new city. This woe-is-me feeling can strike at any given moment, like while you’re at the grocery store and no one looks familiar or when you overhear other people’s conversations but find yourself not understanding a word. Days staying inside bundled up in bed rather than exploring your new surroundings can easily become a regular occurrence because you feel alone yet exhausted from interacting with people. While it’s okay to have these moments from time to time, you must have a plan to combat this lonely feeling. If staying active is a favorite pastime of yours, join a yoga class or sign up at the local gym. Take a walk around your neighborhood and get some fresh air. The key is to get out and get moving to acclimate yourself to your new space so you feel like you belong there.

Mercat de la Boqueria is a food lover’s dream with fresh fruit, juices and just about everything else.
photo by Anquanette Gaspard

The void of familiarity: missing family and friends
You don’t think about how being away from family and friends will affect you once you move abroad. While there are countless ways to stay connected with family between video and phone calls and text messages, there’s nothing like physically being with family for holidays and special occasions. Once you realize heading home is not an option for these family get-togethers, plan an outing to visit a local museum or attraction that you’ve had on your wish list. It gives you something to look forward to and serves as a healthy distraction from what you’re missing back home. Or you can share your holiday with new friends you’ve made, perhaps creating a whole new tradition for yourself.

Discovered there’s more than one Arc de Triomph in the world in Barcelona.
photo by Anquanette Gaspard

Friends can be hard to come by
You imagined that you would be making new friends everywhere you went in your new home abroad—from the market to the neighborhood café to the dainty corner bistro. Your social calendar would be jam-packed with things to do every day of the week! The reality is that it’s a challenge to make new friends the older you get, regardless of how much of an extroverted social butterfly you may be. Also when living in a country where your native language isn’t primarily spoken, you’re naturally self-conscious when communicating. Am I saying the right phrases? Do I sound stupid? As with everything else in life, you’ve got to have a plan. Attend a language-exchange event nearby to practice the new language. Grab a seat at the local bar and strike up a conversation with the cute bartender. Find meetups online for activities that spark your interest, like hiking, biking, book clubs, or foodie events. The key is to put yourself in spaces where you can find meaningful relationships.

Calçots in Mallorca, one of my most unique dining experiences to date.
photo by Anquanette Gaspard

Culture adaptation is a marathon, not a sprint
One of the reasons you moved abroad is to experience life in a different part of the world. This includes adapting to the possibly different ways that another culture eats, works, and plays. Though you thought you’d be able to fall right in line with these new-to-you cultural differences, it can take a substantial amount of time to become acclimated. Be patient with yourself and with others as you learn the ins and outs of this new culture. For instance, every afternoon many Spanish shops and stores would take a siesta. They closed their doors from 1 p.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. to give their staff a long break and a short nap. In turn, the businesses stayed open into the evening, until 9 or 10 p.m. In the United States this notion is unheard of; people don’t close their shops in the middle of the day. Imagine my constant frustration when needing to exchange currency or add data to my cell phone when my afternoon classes ended and these stores were closed! Over time, I adapted the siesta into an afternoon routine where I’d have a long lunch with my Spanish host mother that often included a few glasses of wine or beer. Afterwards, I’d enjoy a 30-minute nap to recharge my batteries and complete my errands later in the evening. Trust me when I say afternoon naps are an unexpected gift.  

The myth of becoming a global travelista
Your expectation is that you’ll be traveling to different countries or cities more frequently while living abroad because it should be more affordable since you’re closer to new destinations. I never imagined I’d take a long weekend trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, while living in Spain. A three-hour flight landed me in a city I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl. But the reality is that you’ll likely end up going on trips solo, which many people love doing, but it’s not for everyone. And these trips can be just as costly as if you flew in from your hometown if they aren’t planned carefully. Find a few travel buddies you can take trips with, and the likelihood of jet-setting across the world can increase since you’ll have friends who are equally interested in visiting new places!

Living abroad can be a fantastic journey, but it is not without its challenges. Keep these tips in mind, and your life abroad can be the most rewarding experience you’ll ever have.