What Happens When You Live Abroad
MAY. 21, 2012 By CHELSEA FAGAN
A very dependable feature of people who live abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups of ex-pats aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in America, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Europe, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter.
But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.
It’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on qualities, mannerisms, and opinions that define the new people around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s often part of the reason you left in the first place. You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.
So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.
Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.
But there are the fears. And yes, life has gone on without you. And the longer you stay in your new home, the more profound those changes will become. Holidays, birthdays, weddings — every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back. We all meet the ex-pat who has been in his new home for 30 years and who seems to have almost replaced the missed years spent back in his homeland with full, passionate immersion into his new country. Yes, technically they are immigrants. Technically their birth certificate would place them in a different part of the world. But it’s undeniable that whatever life they left back home, they could never pick up all the pieces to. That old person is gone, and you realize that every day, you come a tiny bit closer to becoming that person yourself — even if you don’t want to.
So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.
When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs. To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home
16/10/2013 - Thanksgiving in Zurich
This weekend I went to Zurich with a group of international students as Thanksgiving is not normally celebrated in Europe. Zurich is very close to Konstanz so it was perfect to get away for a quick vacation and experience some Swiss culture. After walking around aimlessly like tourists for a few hours, we arrived at our first destination; a famous Swiss chocolatier called “Spruengli”. Like kids in a candy store, our eyes instantly lit up at the sight of exquisite truffles, macaroons, and other fine delicacies. Chocolate in hand, we continued our journey downtown and into the Altstadt.
The weather was generous enough to allow for a postcard-worthy view of the Swiss alps. Even though I had seen them many times before in pictures and in real life, I still could not help but stop and admire their beauty every opportunity I got. We took some pictures, grabbed a quick lunch of Doner kabob, and checked out the local shops and culture. Some of the other international students had to leave back to Konstanz in the evening, so after a quick goodbye, myself and my Turkish friend Ipek continued on by ourselves to find accommodations for the night.
Out of nowhere, we were lucky enough to find a hostel right downtown and that was relatively inexpensive for Zurich. Only 4-bedroom rooms were available for the night as it was a weekend, so we stayed with two other young travelers; Thai - an international student studying in Germany from Vietnam, and Maverick - an Australian backpacker who was finishing up his 19 months of travel in Zurich. We shared our stories over a bottle of wine and some Swiss chocolate, and then another bottle of wine, until we were out of wine and decided to go out into the cold fall night to explore the Swiss nightlife. Most of the clubs were ridiculously expensive (40 francs for cover) but we managed to find a place called “Club Heaven” with good music and great atmosphere. We had met some other Swiss students before coming to the club, so we met up with them after to go for a few drinks at a popular bar. After, we went to a club called “Cabaret Voltaire” - where Dada art originated from(a famous postmodern art movement). We marveled at the abstract art and people dressed in animal costumes, and then decided to go back to the hostel and call it a night.
The following day we checked out of our hostel and made our way downtown to the tourist center. We took a trolley tour through the downtown area to get some perspective on the history behind the beautiful city. Afterwards, we took a boat ride on Lake Zurich which was absolutely breathtaking. We sat with an old Swiss couple and exchanged stories over the backdrop of the Alps - they also gave us a list of things to do next time we come visit Zurich. Before leaving for the bus station, Ipek and myself relaxed and enjoyed a dinner and Swiss chocolate ice cream in the park by the water.
I may not have bonded with my quirky family over Thanksgiving dinner this year, but I sure as hell had one of the best weekends ever.
Until next time, Zurich.
"Ein Prosit" (One Cheers)
Traditional German drinking song, often played at Oktoberfest and other drinking events and festivals. Everyone in Germany knows all the words to this song and go crazy when it’s played.
On Friday, I had my first real taste of true German culture by going to the Konstanz Oktoberfest with a group of other exchange students. We arrived early (6 pm) in order to ensure that we reserved a table, as there was a large group of us. My first impression of Oktoberfest fit the preconceived notion of Germany’s most popular drinking event to a tee; liter beers, table dancing, loud music, singing, pretzels, wurst, hats with feathers in them, dirndls, and a ridiculous amount of lederhosen. When we arrived our waitress took our drink orders and then came back soon after carrying all of our beers in just two trips. Keep in mind, there were twelve of us. Now I’m not the best at math, but this is equivalent to approximately 6 1 liter beers per trip… It baffles me how German women are not more muscular! After getting our beers, we drunkenly danced on the tables (which is totally acceptable here) and ordered some traditional German cuisine. The music was so upbeat and happy and everyone just seemed to be high on life and having a great time. By far, I think this night has been the best night of my stay here in Konstanz.
Instead of having class yesterday, our language teacher had us do a scavenger hunt around Konstanz in order to practice our German in “real life”. It was pretty stressful at first because none of the people in my group spoke very much German but after a while we learned that it is, in fact, okay to ask someone for something if you do not know the answer yourself. Most of the locals we asked were actually really nice, and some even physically showed us our next destination in order to ensure that we did not get lost. In total it took us over three hours to find everything. This aside, I feel like I learned more about self-sufficiency and the German language/culture from today than I have learnt about anything while sitting in a classroom over the past few weeks.
One of the destinations was the Konstanz Muenster, a beautiful, old church located in the heart of the Altstadt (the old city). For 2 euros we were able to climb to the top of the church to get a bird’s eye view of the bustling city. Although the winding staircase to the top was nothing short of brutal, I will admit the scenery was absolutely breathtaking and definitely worth the climb. Here is a short video of the view from the top of the church (perhaps I will also post some photos as well…)
But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.