25 Things I Learned After Living Abroad Alone

Héctor Martínez / Unsplash

I didn’t set out to travel (and to move) in my 20s. I certainly never anticipated it would be quite as scary and unexpected as it was. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off staying exactly where I was at 18 and never moving away.

Then I think, Nah!

1. Travel *is* as fun as people say it is.

We’ve all been there, low-key stalking a travel blogger and thinking there’s no way this is that enjoyable. Someone has got to be playing fast and loose with the Photoshop. But it turns out being dropped into a new city with free time to explore and zero commitments (for at least a couple of days) is epic. Ice Cream for dinner? Sure. Tango classes, just because? Yes, please.

2. Just so long as you have money.

Please don’t turn your travel into a stint in begpacking. If you really need enlightenment, visit your local church or take up some class with your religious leader (if you have one). Western tourists going to countries where the living standard is already low, with little money in their pocket, and then begging to raise money for their tickets home because they ran out of funds? That is either spectacularly conceited or spectacularly bad planning.

3. If you stay in a place for more than a week, you better learn a thing or two about local customs.

If you stay somewhere long enough to qualify for a saver travelcard, you should also know how to interact with people in your chosen country. Cluelessness about customs is only tolerated when the other person is obviously a tourist (and will, therefore, be gone soon). If you’re neighbors? Learn to act neighborly.

4. You don’t have to know the language.

At least in the bigger cities.

5. But it helps. In fact, it’s an asset.

As someone whose mother tongue is only spoken by about 7-8 million people (if that) I had to learn English and French almost as a necessity. And yeah – trying to speak a language that is not your own is hard, awkward, and has the potential for so many misunderstandings. But it’s also showing the other person you’re making a damn effort, and in some situations, that counts for a lot.

6. Being a foreigner doesn’t exempt you from bureaucracy.

Trust me. It doesn’t. It so doesn’t.

7. Being a foreigner doesn’t exempt you from adulting either.

On holiday, we like to let go of certain day-to-day responsibilities. Cooking. Doing a budget. Doing the laundry. Vacuuming. It’s tempting to act like tourists when we go to a foreign country for a long period of time, too. But! Life goes on, the body doesn’t care where you are – you WILL run out of clean underwear, and buying new ones is not a long-term solution.

8. Don’t chalk up your dating misfortunes on cultural differences.

Regardless of where you are at in the world, the dating problems are more or less the same.

9. Don’t get pride confused with dignity.

One is something we can all do with giving up when the situation calls for it. (And let’s face it – being the foreigner, chances are we will need to defer to our hosts at least on one occasion.) The other we should always keep (like when, for example, our crush from the evening language class loses our number).

10. Dancing is a surprisingly effective way of making friends.

No talking required! And we can figure out how much we want that person around us based on how handsy they get on a salsa.

11. Be very, very careful who you cross your hands to.

Some cultures view it as offensive as the middle finger. I’m sure there’s a chapter in the tourist guide on it somewhere.

12. In fact, wherever you are, do everyone a favor and read the instructions first.

You know what’s more annoying than a grown woman not being able to work a launderette? A grown woman who couldn’t work the launderette because she didn’t read the guide printed in big bold letters RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER. IN ENGLISH. (Yes, I was an exceptionally dense 21-year-old.)

13. Currency conversion isn’t a problem.

Being confused whether to multiply or divide one currency by a factor of something is only cute in romance novels. Grown-ass people understand grade-school maths. And if you’re like me and maths makes your brain hurt, there’s an app for that.

14. Tourist traps aren’t so bad.

So long as you’re aware that the dodgy-looking place down the block serves better food and is actually a lot cheaper.

15. Nothing like living alone abroad teaches you about nostalgia.

Everything you hate about where you live right now? It’s going to seem a lot rosier when you’re there

16. It’s also a great way to learn not to romanticise a place.

I have had Paris syndrome – in fact, I’ve had it twice, and the second time around, I had to put up with it FOR MONTHS. I guess it’s true, the grass is always greener on the other side.

17. Letting go of expectations is surprisingly good for you.

On the flipside, not building up a new place in your head helps to make it easier to live in. My only impression of Bath came from Jane Austen novels, and I ended up living there 4 years.

18. Living alone abroad is not the same as traveling alone abroad.

I mean, yes, it is similar. But it isn’t the same. Being by yourself, traveling gives you the freedom to be flexible and spontaneous (or rigid and regimented, which is also great if you have anxiety and you don’t want to rely on other messy humans). Living alone abroad is all of those things, plus constant frustration and loneliness and wishing for the comforts of home.

19. Isolation is a real danger.

Especially when you don’t know or are not comfortable with the language.

20. But you have to learn to cope by yourself…

One of my favorite comics shows a woman waking up and screaming: “I WANT SOMEONE TO PAMPER ME!” and then adding “Oh, yes, I forgot. I’m a ‘strong, independent’ woman. Shit.”

21. It’s a challenge you will inevitably feel smug about.

Behold! I am the queen of the backpackers!

22. And your friends will inevitably roll their eyes about.

“You dragged two suitcases across the airport and brought your own butter, didn’t you?”


23. If you’re not careful, you might start having warm fuzzy feelings about other travelers/people living abroad.

You might even experience, ICK, empathy.

24. You might even consider doing it again.

It might be really, really refreshing to put my life in a suitcase and move to a place where I don’t know the language and the job market is precarious AF.

25. And then you’ll think, NAH.

Or YAS, depending on how much fun you had. I’m personally quite open to it, although the fact that my current situation may be a bit precarious anyway makes things easier to imagine.

Either way.

You can’t say it doesn’t change your life. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

“Oh no, what have I done” is the story of my life.

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