What Four Years Living Abroad Has Taught Me

When I waved goodbye to my best friends at the international terminal of LAX in late summer of 2009, I had no idea when I would be back, if ever (although there were certainly vivid fantasies of meeting the man of my dreams, and settling into a auto-sufficient community along the aquamarine coastline). My plans were rough, it was true that I didn’t really have a plan, aside from learning to live again, learning to love my life and appreciate a different kind of existence. I was convinced that I would find that in Spain – ironically a Spanish ex-boyfriend had echoed that it was a place where status didn’t matter, that there, people were happy being waiters or holding service positions their whole lives, and what truly mattered was being with your loved ones, or at the beckoning call of a friend for an afternoon beer in the sun.

I, like many labeled Generation Y kids, had been raised with a sort of silver spoon in my mouth, given the lecture that I could be anything. I worked hard for everything that I achieved, but success had come in rather frequent waves considering the lack of parental attention and elementary education I received. To this day I stand by some of my fondest accomplishments; great things attained both independently and as a teammate. We were crowned champions, and in some cases I the MVP, so when I walked across two graduation stages in spring 2006 I was prepared to show the world how mighty I could be outside of the pool. I became obsessed with one day becoming a high-paid executive, a strong female figure in a widely praised Fortune 500 business. I wanted success. I read Fast Company and Entrepreneur and watched The Big Idea.

Then something changed. I became sad. On one side it was due to the fact that nothing seemed to be happening quickly enough; after putting in the hours, projects and loyalty, I was being turned down from jobs – not being taken on full-time after un-paid internships – and sleeping on borrowed couches of friends and loved ones. Then I secured a well paying position with upward growth potential and settled into a routine. Until something else happened. As Steve Jobs stated in his commencement address at Stanford, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”; I woke up a few too many days in a row and wasn’t content with what I was doing, nor who I was becoming. Advertising sales had taken on a treacherous angle, I wasn’t helping society, I was attributing to the brainwash effect on humankind by those giant companies, those that I had once been so enamored with working for: “Moms, buy our chemically laden cleaning supplies, they are safe and smell good!” “Kids, you know what would go great on that peanut butter sandwich? Modified cornstarch!”

I had just burned myself out in the city where everyone wants to be on fire, where being hot means being an actress or model, or whatever. But I don’t think I was worked-out, I believe with my young age I would have diligently put in the hours and sweat to preform at a company or for a cause that I believed in. But I had learned an early lesson – that one should never settle – and knew that I had to quickly escape the looming ball and chain of cubicle lifestyle that had begun to rear its nasty head, with no signs of promotion or reward in sight. After all, we were facing the worst economic recession in decades; banks were making the news, students were SOL after graduation, and healthcare was still an issue. People within my corporation, in the newly deemed defunct business verticals, were losing their jobs at a rapid fire pace. I suppose without a mortgage, a car (I had sold mine 2 years before to live my life seamlessly within a 5 mile radius), and with no prospective suitors, I had nothing to lose.

Blessed is naivety, because I willingly packed up and started a new beginning in a country that would prove to have an even worse recession and economic downturn – outstanding emigration choice if you were to ask any economist. But I wasn’t phased by trivial matters at first. I was enraptured in becoming a better person than when I left. I dedicated time to cooking, spending hours meticulously choosing what parts and flavors would render the best meal, learning to be unafraid of fish heads. Putting myself in difficult social situations and practicing a foreign language that I didn’t dominate (the perfectionist in me hated this!). Volunteering again, coming to understand that since my personal development had been such, that I must give back to others, and thankfully had the renewed time to do so. I got a library card. I used the computer less and walked more. I spent a lot of alone time; sleeping in a cave on a Mediterranean island, a weekend in Paris with my camera and appetite for pastries, and watching the olive groves pass from a bus window.

So what did I really learn from those 4 years?

I learned:

To use the metric system – yes, America, besides Myanmar and Liberia you’re the only other country who doesn’t officially recognize this universal measurement. It was about time I learned my ml’s from my oz’s.

Listen to your inner voice – follow your heart, your gut, or whatever moves you. Cheesy as hell, but true; when you do this you’re much less likely to regret.

Be yourself – F ‘em. You have no one to impress but yourself, and if those “others” don’t agree with you or don’t invite you into their tribe, then they weren’t your people in the first place. You’ll know quickly, or sometimes after a few awkward encounters when to move on.

Have patience – All the good stuff doesn’t come all at once, neither does all the bad. Wait it out. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor will you learn Spanish in three months, find your perfect job right out of college, or discover who the hell you really are (see above) until you’ve faced enough challenges and tests from life. “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle” by Jon Acuff.

Money isn’t everything – But you still need it, you just can learn to live with less.

Do say yes – I often hear people talk about how they need to learn to say “no” more often, that they are spineless cowards and often say “yes,” putting them in uncomfortable business deals or personal commitments. I am also a self proclaimed yes woman, but I’ve now learned to say yes at the right moments, when it benefits all of those involved. The people that put you in “I want to say no, but I feel guilty and say yes” situations shouldn’t even be asking those tasks of you in the first place and if they are; A) they’re using you and are not true friends, so remove them for your friend circle, B) they’re using you and don’t value you as a beneficial member of their working world, so stop doing business with them, or find another employer who does respect you.

Don’t judge – It makes my insides turn when I hear people (I won’t succumb to generalizing) complain about how certain individuals should learn their language in order to live as a free man/woman, serve them or complete an order of some sort. Do those people have any idea how hard it is to transform your life? Uproot your family to a new country? Whilst learning to dominate a new tongue? I doubt it – so don’t judge, you don’t know the stories of others, and if you’re curious to learn, then take them out for a coffee and ask them.

The romance doesn’t last forever – Love hurts. You’ll probably be on top of the world the first few weeks/months/and in some cases years. But most commonly you’ll discover that something isn’t right: be that healthcare, education, jobs, commute times, mentality, social rights, etc. And when you do, you’ll begin to ween over your adopted situation, environment, and “changed” you, you may even come to the conclusion that you’ll have to find a new place to reinvent yourself.

Read more about this on my Huffington Post article, A Farewell to Spain:This American Is Going Home.”

2 Comments

  • Love that you put these down on paper, er, online.
    It’s true. You know I’m right there with you.
    So thankful for 2 years abroad. I miss it, especially as I re-integrate myself slowly. Now I know there is no such thing as “perfect” no perfect place to live, perfect country, perfect place.
    Everywhere has it’s goods and bads….

    Can’t wait for coffee dates, kitchen adventures and exploring dates!

  • lheineck wrote:

    Same to you Lauren! We are lucky to have these experiences in our back pocket!

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