I was 22 when I moved abroad alone for the first time.
I had finished college a few months earlier and had decided that I wanted to take a gap year before entering the “real world.” So I chose to teach English in Toulouse, France for the school year.
Well, I loved it so much that one year turned into two. Then, after spending another six months at home trying to figure out my next step, I decided to move back to France–but this time to Paris to continue my studies.
A year and a half later, with one Masters degree under my belt, I once again moved abroad alone–this time to Brazil–and this time, without a job or Masters program lined up ahead of time. I spent nine months in Rio looking for a job, teaching some English and doing a bit of journalism before I ultimately decided to move back to the U.S. (it was too hard to find a work visa in Rio for the type of career that I wanted to pursue…and this was before I even considered remote work as an option).
I have found that it’s one thing to travel – but living in a foreign country is a completely unique and life-changing experience. Here is why moving abroad alone is one of the best things you can do when you are young, free and independent:
1) You will become a stronger, more self-reliant and independent individual.
If you can face the challenges that come along with moving alone to a foreign country, then you can do just about anything.
Moving abroad alone has made me far more self-sufficient and independent than I used to be.
For starters, I am now totally comfortable doing things on my own – going to a cafe by myself with nothing and no one but my own company? No problem. Going to the movies by myself? Sure! Couch surfing solo in the apartment of a total stranger? Check.
Whether you move abroad thanks to a job transfer or with no job and only a few hundred dollars in the bank, you will inevitably encounter problems along the way that you will be forced to solve on your own (especially if it’s the latter).
I know I dealt with my fair share of stressful situations, especially that first year in France…here are a few examples of some situations that I had to deal with and solve on my own:
Problem #1: When I got to the airport to check my luggage, I found that I would have to pay some ridiculous fine, like $500, due to my overweight bags (I did try to weigh my luggage before going to the airport, but clearly that didn’t work out so well!). Luckily, some nice American guys, who were standing in line behind me, overheard the situation, and offered to carry my belongings in plastic bags as their carry-ons for me. A bit of creativity, resourcefulness, and kindness from random strangers helped save me $500!
Problem #2: So I got to Germany (I was stopping over in Munich for Oktoberfest before heading on to Toulouse) without an international phone and realized that my couchsurfing host still had not gotten back to me with his address. For those of you who don’t know, couchsurfing is a website in which people host travelers in their home–free of charge. Lesson learned: always make sure to get the address and phone number of where you are going before leaving the country (duh).
I still clearly remember this scenario: I ended up, with all of my ridiculous amounts of luggage in hand, on the streets of Munich, trying to figure out a game plan.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before I spied an Internet cafe, where I was able to look up the phone number of my couchsurfer who I then called using the phone of a random, kind German guy (thank goodness for nice strangers!).
That nice stranger then helped me haul my luggage down the stairs of the subway. Why in God’s name I decided to take the subway and not just hail a taxi is still beyond me. The things you will do to save a few dollars when you are 22…
But I finally made it. And proceeded to have several of the most memorable days of my life.
Minor Issue: In France, I was teaching in a small town called Lannemezan, in the middle of nowhere, about an hour and a half from Toulouse. I chose to live in Toulouse and make the commute three days a week, because for me, commuting costs and waking up at 5AM once a week was a small sacrifice to make to live in La Ville Rose (Toulouse). The other Chilean teaching assistant from my town chose to live in Lannemezan. I am so glad that I lived in Toulouse, because I know that I would have had a completely different experience had I chosen to live in that little small town.
Problem #3: I moved to Toulouse not knowing a single soul. That quickly changed when I joined the Facebook group dedicated to Teaching Assistants in Toulouse (thank goodness for Facebook!). Before moving abroad, I have to admit that I was totally closed to the idea of meeting people online. This was before couchsurfing and meetup.com were really popular…before the advent of dating apps and the like. But when you move abroad not knowing anyone, you have to meet people somehow!
One of my first nights in Toulouse, I ended up going out with some new friends I made through that Facebook group.
Before arriving, I had also started speaking with an Irish girl from the Facebook group and we even talked about living together. In the end, it didn’t work out since she had to live in the small town where she worked (and commuting wasn’t an option for her).
But we met up in person when we were both in Toulouse and ended up becoming good friends. We even went traveling together during one of our many vacations — and just last year, we met up in Toulouse for a mini three-year reunion.
If I had come to Toulouse with a friend, I wouldn’t have been forced to get out there and use the Internet to my advantage like that – and I may never have made all the wonderful friends that I did.
Problem #4: When I moved to France, I also arrived with nowhere to live (Airbnb didn’t exist then and, well, good luck trying to find a permanent living arrangement from another country). I ended up getting lucky and living with a friend, who I had met upon my arrival, for several weeks…before finding an apartment. The problem in France is that, in order to get an apartment, you must have a bank account set up. But in order to set up bank account, you have to have an apartment/address. You can see my predicament…In the end, I sorted it out and ended up living with an Italian girl that I met through another friend I made on couchsurfing. Let’s just say that it did not end well…
Problem #5: Due to some serious miscommunication over an apartment guarantee (thank you language barrier), I found myself suddenly apartmentless in the middle of a trip to Spain. My roommate, who had made plans to move out, informed me, via a Facebook message, that I would have to leave the apartment immediately – despite the fact that she knew I was out of the country! Since flying back to Toulouse right away was out of the question, my friend and I spent the entire day trying to sort out how to get all of my belongings packed up within the next few days — without me being there (I had a lot of stuff too).
Problem #6: After getting kicked out of my apartment at the last minute, I was so desperate to find a new place that I ended up living with an older French lady — bad decision. It’s amazing how deceiving appearances can be. One minute she would be coddling me, saying things like “Ahh tu es très mignon” (you are so cute) and the next minute, she would be yelling at me for accidentally leaving one broccoli crumb on the kitchen counter or for flushing the toilet while she was sleeping (yup, true stories).
Ultimately, the situation was just too difficult and I decided to look for another place to live, but I knew that if I informed her of my decision, she would go ballistic and probably kick me out of the apartment right away (needless to say, she was a bit crazy).
I had already paid for the entire first month’s rent and didn’t have anywhere else to live, so getting kicked out wasn’t the most favorable option…I decided to wait until I had another apartment lined up to break the news that I was going to move out. Sounds reasonable right? Not to her. Two weeks into my stay, she found out about my plan by sneaking into my room while I was gone and snooping through my things (this was also something that she did on a regular basis…yet another reason why I had wanted to move out). Crazy, right?
After finding out, she said that I could stay there until the end of the month….then a few minutes later, she changed her mind, ordering me to leave her place that very minute. Amidst yelling at me, she started throwing my stuff out of the apartment – “Tu t’en vas” (you must leave) she repeated over and over.
But I told her that I would not leave until she gave me back the money I had paid for (two weeks worth of rent). Initially, she refused and I actually had to lock my bedroom door to keep her from literally throwing me out of the apartment. It was a pretty frightening situation and in retrospect, maybe not worth it (this woman could have been dangerous for all I know).
The neighbor also ended up getting involved and finally, she reluctantly handed over my money. But not before cornering me against the wall and grabbing my ear – physical abuse, I tell you!
Once again, I was left homeless. This time, I went to a nearby motel where I spent the night. And I still managed to make it to a friend’s party that evening!
I then spent a few days with a friend before landing my third apartment that year. I swear that I am actually an easy person to live with! Luckily the last situation ended on a good note. Sure, the guy I lived with left his nail clippings on the living room floor and smoked cigarettes in the apartment (not sure which is grosser)…but otherwise, no problems there.
Problem #7: Anyone who has lived in France knows about the infamous, nonsensical bureaucratic system that can cause extreme bouts of frustration amongst expats. If you can deal with this insane bureaucratic system, you can deal with anything. I learned that “no” does not actually mean “no” in France; it means, push me some more and I will say “yes.” You learn to be both patient and persuasive living in France.
I could go on but I won’t bore you with any more of my tribulations. For more on my adventures in France, you can click here.
What’s my point in all this? Moving abroad alone (especially the first time around) was so incredibly exciting–but it did not come free of difficulties. Dealing with all of these issues, both minor and major, made me a much more confident and braver person. I now know that I can cope with pretty much anything as it comes along–and I can do it all on my own.
How’s that for problem-solving skills, future employer?
2) You will gain a new worldview
When I was 16, I went to New Zealand for a one-month exchange. I stayed with an awesome kiwi girl and went to school with her, attended parties, traveled a bit. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Coming from an all-girls prep-school where everyone was so concerned about piling their workload with Advanced Placement classes and getting accepted to Ivy Leagues, here were people who looked at life a bit differently.
Getting into a good college was not the only thing that mattered. I was fascinated by how different the classes and school were from my own, as well as the lifestyle. Even through this short three-week immersion, I came to realize how different the US was from the rest of the world. I left craving more.
It’s impossible not to see the world in a new way after living abroad. I also see the impact my home country has made on the countries in which I have lived. And I see the US itself in a totally different way than I used to–for both the good and the bad.
I was lucky enough to have a privileged upbringing. Growing up, and even in college, it’s not something that I thought about too much. But when I moved abroad, and saw how the majority of the world lives, I began to realize just how fortunate I really was.
In addition to greater appreciation for the things that I have, there are little things about the US that I value more now. Like the wide grocery store aisles and unlimited options (I forgot how overwhelming it could be to go grocery shopping in the U.S.!); the efficiency and how fast things move; the good customer service; the friendly people; the high salaries and good jobs; the ease of starting a business; the unlimited water (and soda and coffee) refills at restaurants; the healthy food selection; American breakfasts etc..
And of course there are other things that make it hard to readjust here…like the overall lack of culture/history/beautiful architecture…poor healthcare and education systems… mediocre/nonexistent transportation systems and how spread-out everything is–no longer can I just hop on a train and be in a totally different country and culture in a few hours.
What also bothers me are all of the rules in the States. No drinking allowed on the middle of the street? Why should this matter if you are of legal drinking age? Since I’ve been back in the U.S., it feels like the cops are always out to get me.
For instance, the other day I was driving in a lane that is apparently closed off to less than two passengers during certain hours of the day. I literally could not have been driving in that lane for more than two minutes when a cop pulled me over. He was about to slam me with a $150 ticket, but I luckily talked him down to giving me a $10 fine (thanks to my persuasion skills partly acquired in France!).
Ant he week or so before that, I was driving and stopped at a red light. I never run through red lights, but this one time, I thought to myself: why not? there is nobody here? In Brazil, people run through red lights and stop signs all the time. And so the Brazilian in me went through that light. Of course, cameras caught it all on videotape, so I received a nice surprise in the mail one day: a $160 ticket. After living in Brazil, where things are just so much more relaxed, all of these strict rules are a bit hard to put up with.
Other things are simply surprising: the ENORMOUS portion sizes and the massive drink sizes. A medium here is easily the size of a large anywhere else–and maybe even bigger than that. Or the American flags everywhere — definitely never saw this kind of thing in France or other European countries.
Talking with foreigners also helps you to see your country through another set of eyes. Quite a few French people have told me that they found Americans to be fake and superficial–that they were just so nice to everybody but then would fall off the face of the earth.
They found the ties between Americans to be very weak. Whereas in France, people are generally not friendly. They have their friends and do not care to branch out much; but when they do make new friends, those are meaningful ties that they wish to preserve for life.
In what seems to be direct contrast, the Brazilians see Americans as cold because of the lack of physical contact (no PDA, we don’t kiss each other on the cheek upon greeting, we’re not as affectionate…), the fact that Americans are incredibly independent (in contrast to the dependent Brazilians, who live with their parents until they get married) and are not as welcoming.
Sure, you could learn a bit about these things by reading or by talking to French or Brazilians in your home country–but living abroad, you can actually see the difference yourself. You will likely return home with both a newfound appreciation for your own country, as well as disappointment in how you feel things should be or wish they were.
Traveling is like having a fling with someone. It’s more superficial and surface-level. You see all the wonderful things from the tourist perspective, but probably not how things really are. Living abroad is like being in a relationship…you are able to actually soak up the culture and experience the true depth of a country; you will see it for both the good and the bad.
Now, I see France as so much more than just the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and baguettes – I see Brazil as so much more than just bikinis, beaches, soccer and Carnival…I understand all the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of these incredible nations…and how the US compares.
3) You can learn a new language
“To have a second language is to possess a second soul,” Charlemagne once said. And I truly believe that. Speaking another language changes your way of thinking. Like your understanding of the country in which you reside, you will become someone of greater depth.
At first, being thrown into a culture where you have to speak the language will be challenging. You will struggle to express yourself and find the right words. And when you are frustrated or angry, you will find it even harder to get words out. Getting into an argument or fight with someone in a language that is not your own is really not fun (I have fortunately only experienced this several times, but it was very frustrating to say the least). But if you can learn to put your foot down in a foreign language, then it will be that much easier to do in your native tongue when you need to.
Need I add that it is great mental exercise (and being multilingual has numerous cognitive benefits, like the prevention of Alzheimer’s, for one).
Learning another language also helps you truly understand the culture you are in. You will discover new words that have no English translation–words that make sense given the culture. For instance, the French phrase “la douleur exquise” is a phrase that describes that gut-wrenching pain of wanting something you can’t have. As a whole, the French are a pretty gloomy, pessimistic bunch (this has been proven on more than one occasion). Knowing that, this depressing phrase seems to make a bit more sense.
I found the relaxed, melodic Brazilian Portuguese sound to fit perfectly with the laid-back Brazilian lifestyle. “Fique tranquila” and “relaxa” (relax) people would often say to me when I looked the slightest bit stressed about something.
I took French for many years in middle school and high school, but I never really learned it until I moved to France. Only after living abroad and speaking with natives did I really learn the slang and how to actually speak like a French person (or try to anyway).
I remember, at the beginning of one of the first English classes I taught in France, one of the students requested that I say something in French. So I said “Je ne sais pas” — pronounced just a typical American would – “je neh say pah”. They all laughed and thought it was the funniest thing ever and I had no idea why…I thought it must have been my cute accent perhaps. Despite my many years of French and even having taken a French course at the Alliance Francaise in New York that previous summer, I still sounded like a total idiot. I would later find that I was actually supposed to speak it much faster and blend the words, so it sounded a bit more like “Shay pah”.
Another example: In French class, I always learned to say “nous.” But when I moved to France, I learned that few people actually say “nous.” In colloquial speech, most people say “on” instead.
You get the picture…living in a country, you get to learn things that you just don’t learn in a normal language course.
Personally, I think that learning a new language is one of the best things about living abroad. I loved being surrounded by French when living in France, Portuguese when living in Brazil and Italian when in Italy (I spent a semester of college in Rome). One of the worst things for me about coming back to the US is having to speak English on a daily basis — I now miss speaking French and Portuguese so. much.
4) You become a more interesting, well-rounded person
Coming back to the US after nearly five years abroad (on and off), I may not have all of the professional experience as my peers, but I have something a lot of other people don’t have: experience living abroad and a unique worldview.
Good stories and amazing memories? Got plenty of ’em.
5) You get to be the gringo.
Okay, this is obviously not one of the principal reasons why you should live abroad. But personally, this was one of many reasons why I loved living abroad. I admit it: I loved feeling a bit unique and special.
Sometimes, you can even play the dumb gringo card to your advantage. Say, if you are trying to do something a bit sneaky, like boarding a train without a ticket (confession: I’ve done this). You can just say “oops, sorry! I’m American…I don’t really speak French”…Works like a charm. Hey, you might as well use it while you can!
I also loved being surrounded by foreigners/non-Americans all the time. And then when I was around other Americans, I felt a special bond — simply for sharing the same background in a foreign land.
Plus, being the outsider is an invaluable experience that everyone should go through. Once you come back to the US, you will emphasize more with foreigners in the US, as many of them struggle to adapt and speak this foreign language called English.
6) You meet people from different cultures and create lasting friendships around the world.
When you move to a foreign country by yourself, without the comforts of friends and family close by, you are forced to branch out and interact with people that you would probably never meet otherwise.
Having friends from various countries will also encourage you to look at things with a more wordly perspective than you would if you were with your American friends back home.
It’s the blessing and the curse that comes with living abroad. I love that I now have friends all over the world; but at the same time, it means that I only get to see some friends once every five years or so — if I’m lucky.
7) You get to date a foreigner.
Dating someone from another country opens up your eyes to an entirely different culture and background from your own.
When I dated a French guy (in Toulouse), he took me home to meet his family and friends several times to a tiny village in Provence. While there, I was introduced to some of the most amazing food I had ever had in my life and was able to further enhance my understanding and appreciation of French culture.
Your partner will help you to look at your native country with a new set of eyes. You will have so much fun teaching each other things (such as your respective languages) and sharing national pastimes and traditions.
Whether you are casually dating several guys at once or whether you have fallen in love with a local, you will quickly discover that the dating rules are different in each country. For example, Swedish and British men do not tend to strike up conversations with people they don’t know…Brazilian men are pretty much the opposite….You will be forced to adapt to the new dating scene, however it may be.
Sure, at times dating a foreigner can be harder and more frustrating than dating someone of your own nationality, but it is well worth it. You will become a more open-minded person and a better partner overall after cultural conflict forces you to compromise.
And if you eventually get married and/or have kids with your foreign partner…the list goes on! Like raising multilingual, cultured children.
8) You get to share your traditions and adopt new ones.
During my second year in Toulouse, my American friend and I held a Thanksgiving dinner at my apartment (or the apartment I shared with an Italian guy). About 30 people ended up coming, all squeezed into my (or our) tiny living room.
Some people brought wine, others brought baguettes (always good choices in France) and others came with homemade dishes to represent their own cultures. The funniest part? Despite the fact that we were celebrating Thanksgiving, me and my co-host were the only Americans present. I loved that we were sharing one of our major cultural traditions with a bunch of non-Americans.
During my second year in Toulouse, my roommate and I threw a lot of parties at our apartment. They would get absolutely packed with people – suffice it to say that they were a lot of fun. See photos below for proof:
We liked to throw theme parties – which didn’t seem to be very common in France. Most people would not dress up, but occasionally people would and there would be some pretty awesome outfits. Like that 80s party we had…
We also introduced the wonderful games of flip cup and beer pong to our French (and other non-American) friends.
9) You will become more open-minded.
I remember when my French boyfriend told me that his parents were still together–but they were not married. I wasn’t sure that I had understood him correctly. Why would they not have gotten married? Coming from a conservative, WASPy town in Connecticut, where all of my schoolmates’ parents were married (or divorced), I had never known anything else.
I would later find that it’s actually quite common in Europe for a couple to stay together many years and raise children together–but never tie the knot. While I used to see this as strange, I now see absolutely nothing wrong with it. It made me realize that so many people in the US see marriage as the ultimate end goal. So many people put pressure on their relationships and feel that they have to get married by a certain time. And having a child “out of wedlock” is like the ultimate sin.
But why should people have to sign a bunch of papers and declare their love under the law in order to be together forever? Sure, it’s great to find the person you want to be with and eventually start a family with that person. And I do think marriage is a beautiful thing and I would love to one day get married myself. But I recognize that it’s not for everyone and now have equal respect for those who choose to never get married.
I also remember the first time I heard about couchsurfing (from a fellow teaching assistant, just before going to France). What?! You are going to stay on the couch of a random stranger?? I thought the idea was absurd. But once testing it out myself, I realized that it was generally quite safe, as long as you use good judgment and pick someone who has good reviews.
Bottom line? Living abroad has allowed me to try these new experiences and meet people from different backgrounds, which has made me a much more open-minded and less judgemental person.
10) You will learn more about yourself.
I learned that not everyone loves change, adventure and spontaneity. But that I do – I live for it.
I learned that I am not someone that likes to plan things out too much; I think the beauty of life is letting the unexpected happen and just going along for the ride.
I learned that while I am a relatively shy and reserved person, I also love meeting new people and socializing. I may not be the loudest person in the room, but I no longer feel that I have to apologize for that–and I will definitely stand up for myself if I am being treated like a doormat or with disrespect. So don’t mess with me!
When you step outside of your comfort zone and encounter tough situations (which tend to be inevitable when you live abroad), both your strengths and weaknesses will emerge. Not only will you get to know yourself better, but you will also grow up much faster and likely evolve into a different person than if you were to have just stayed put in your home country.
Finally, you are sure to acquire one trait that will increase your overall happiness and prove to be useful your entire life: adaptability.