Five things no one told me about expat life…

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*Disclaimer: I am a new expat, having left the U.S. five months ago. Also, I live in Switzerland, so my expat experience is unique to my uber-efficient, super-expensive, chocolate-dipped country.

1. There is no ‘good time’ to move abroad. I’ve heard people say this about having children, but I think more people relate to the baby experience than moving to another country. Having a child seems like a natural progression for most couples, while moving abroad may seem like an extravagance or even a foolish decision. To us, it was a “now or never” moment.  We moved abroad three weeks after receiving our Swiss work visas, but four months after beginning the paperwork. After a lot of dreaming about Switzerland, the reality set in. I found myself making a list of events I would miss (my sister’s bridal shower, Thanksgiving, Christmas), instead of a list of new experiences I would have. Plain and simple, living abroad is a trade-off. But if living abroad is an urge you have, do not let the timing deter you.

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2. It is not like being a tourist. Granted, I have better access to amazing vacation destinations than I have ever had before, but living in Switzerland is far different from visiting. We have to pay rent, health insurance (no, it’s not free!) and taxes. We work Monday through Friday and sometimes more. We don’t drink wine in cafes every day, nor do we eat fondue regularly. We stick to a budget. We cook at home. (Moreover, it’s not a couple of pounds you gained on vacation; it’s just weight gain…had to learn that the hard way).

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3. It is also not like being a citizen. We are residents of Switzerland and citizens of the U.S. We are  not Swiss citizens and probably never will be (the citizenship test is in German…so, no…). That means we pay taxes in both countries, but don’t get the full benefits of either country. Since we don’t live in the U.S., we don’t get to physically benefit from our U.S. taxes. Since we are not Swiss citizens, our children born here will not automatically be Swiss. Doesn’t work that way over here. I know it sounds infuriating, but if you want to live abroad and not become a citizen of another country, you legally live in an “in-between” world.

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4. You develop a love-hate relationship with the United States. I’ve heard expats say both “now I appreciate the U.S.,” and “now I don’t want to live in the U.S.” You will see your home country with fresh eyes and sometimes it will be embarrassing. Sometimes it will fill you with pride. I have truly learned more about the U.S., its inner-workings and its laws since moving abroad. My new relationship with the U.S. is developing on a day-by-day basis, generally prompted by questions such as “Why does Switzerland do that?” (close shops on Sunday, play with the currency exchange rate regularly) and “Why does the U.S. do that?” (pay educators so little, have an open container law).

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5. You get to know who you really are. With email and Facebook, I never feel that far from my U.S. news and family…but I am removed. Since moving abroad I have realized that I let my opinions on a lot of issues be influenced by those around me: family, friends, co-workers, even advertising and TV. It naturally happens, especially when you respect the source. But when stripped of those small, daily interactions, I find myself better understanding what I want out of life. I can now see I made a few not-so-great decisions (bad jobs, bad investments), because I was having trouble discerning what I really wanted.

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A few of my favorite expat links:

  • One Big Yodel: Although this blog about an American living in Switzerland was helpful, I’ve since discovered that living in the German part of Switzerland is a lot different from the French part. For example: Flushing the toilet after 10 p.m. is not illegal in Geneva.
  • Motherhood around the world: This CupOfJo series taught me both about the funny things Americans do when it comes to raising babies and the cool things mothers do in other countries. For example: Leaving babies in strollers outside to nap is normal in Denmark.
  • Funniest signage in Switzerland: From the blog “Newly Swissed,” these Swiss signs are hilarious and real! For example: There are signs to denote where naked hiking is allowed.
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