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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Preparing for life abroad

Not an extensive list, but a few things to consider when discussing the prospect of moving to another country.

As with many things in life, very little can prepare you for life in another country. I briefly touched on this in my first post, and the aim of this post is to further explore the preparatory phase of what many call the stages of adjustment on life abroad:

  • Preparation

  • Honeymoon

  • Culture Shock

  • Adaptation

  • Repatriation

The prospect of being able to start all over can seem appealing to many. Depending on the underlying reasons for making the decision to move abroad, one’s dreams, hopes and aspirations for the outcome of the move are different. However, making a better life for oneself and one’s immediate family is probably the number one priority for everyone who embarks on such adventure.

Whilst my family and friends were sad to see us go to London (and many reckoned that we would never return), others expressed a sense of admiration for us and told us they wished they had that kind of courage too. The term courage stuck with me and I soon realised that courage is exactly what it takes to make such life changing transition. As a species, humans have evolved over time, but in some ways, we’re still psychologically geared toward looking for safety and comfort in our lives.

Starting all over in a new country is a major step outside one’s comfort zone and for it to be successful, it requires for one to find a balance between one’s already established cultural values and identity and that of one’s host country. Little did I know when we embarked on the adventure, but I soon realised that for me to fully embrace and appreciate my new life, I would need to have a good look at what I carried in my personal baggage, and who I was as a person.

So where did I have the courage to do this from? My mother has always had an urge to travel to the Himalayan countries; my maternal grandmother, who was and still is a huge inspiration to me, travelled around Europe on her own shortly after the Second World War and her father was a founding member of a Danish traveller and explorer society. After I had lived in London for a few years, my father, who has also travelled extensively, lent me a book written by his mother’s niece. The book was a bibliographic description of the author’s mother who went to live in Wimbledon and Cobham on the outskirts of London between the two world wars. Not only was it interesting to learn about their lives and to read about places that was part of my own life and routines, but it became obvious to me that my need to live and explore outside of Denmark was part of my genetic make-up.

In my experience, many people who have living abroad on their bucket list never come around to fulfilling their dream as the prospect of setting up life from scratch is daunting. And depending on one’s personal circumstances, there are indeed many things to consider like where to live, which schools to choose, how does health care work in the chosen country, how do I set up a bank account (anyone who has tried this in England will know it is a nightmare), will the spouse be able to work or study, how is one’s purchasing power and how will one’s lifestyle become?

Many people find that these are exhilarating factors and are spurred on to making the move if they can make ends meet and perhaps even create a better life for themselves, materialistically speaking.

On the personal front, there are much more complex and less measurable things to consider. Prior to making the move, it is important to have sincere discussions about the possibility that some of the family/couple may have the time of their life whilst others may become lonely and suffer from severe homesickness. The latter tends to become less as one settles in, but there is always the risk of someone never finding their feet in the new environment. And what should be done about that? It is hard on all parties if someone continues to be miserable and wants to repatriate whilst others want to stay put; in my experience, it can be beneficial to have had extensive discussions about this matter before contracting to move.

Many families move abroad with their minor children without considering the risk of their marriage falling apart whilst living away from home. For some, the matrimonial unit grows stronger during a posting; for others, just as for couples staying at home, it means growing apart, falling out of love and divorcing. In such circumstances, one of the parties may wish to return to the home country with their children, but find that the Hague Convention prevents them from doing so. It is vital to take out legal advice on this matter prior to making the move. Furthermore, it’s advisable to check out GlobalARRK which is a charity supporting stuck parents around the world.

It's important to prepare oneself for the fact that settling in takes time; there is a lot less emotional support than at home and it can be an extremely challenging experience. At a time, where you need support changing your life, you are very much on your own and if one of a couple goes to work and is preoccupied with such, it can easily leave the spouse feeling lonely and possibly resentful of the move and their partner. Though starting up a new job role in a foreign working culture can be challenging, it does mean being around people, socialising and making friends as well as doing something useful with one’s time.

Being the spouse is a completely different scenario and requires a strong acknowledgement of the fact that one must create one’s own life – it is by no means handed to you. Adding to that, it is often the spouse who will take on the responsibility of settling in the children and this is no walk in the park. It can be tough on children to change schools in one’s home country, let alone in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language, different culture and possibly starting at a different academic level than the one they were used to at home. In my experience, to successfully transfer your children from one country to another, it requires time, lots of emotional and practical support, and more time. It is important to remember that contrary to the parents, the children – in most cases – did not choose to make the move and may be missing their peers, grandparents and life back home whilst being confused of being in a foreign environment.

If you are interested in having these tips elaborated alongside receiving many, many more tips on preparing yourself for expat life and how to support with your mental health during the other phases of expat life, you may be interested in purchasing my comprehensive guide on taking care of your mental health as an expat. You can find the guide here

In my experience, communication is key to making a successful transition. With friends and family back home, it can be difficult to find support in the initial phase – thankfully, the honeymoon phase works in one’s advantage.

Obviously, it is easy to sit in hindsight and pour out good advice, and moving to another country should be one’s own decision and not made under the influence of others. As previously mentioned, I never doubted that it was the right thing to do, but I did go through phases of being anxious about the whole thing. 

What ultimately carried me through was my mantra of rather regretting having done things I had dreamt of doing than regretting not having had the courage to go for it. And though tough at times, I have not regretted one single moment – it has been a most character building experience ever and has enable me to live my life in a much more satisfactory manner than I have ever done. Sometimes, life begins at the end of your comfort zone. 



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