By Lauren Covino-Smith
Before our family relocated to Barcelona to start our expat life, I would listen in awe to my husband share stories of other expat families.
At the time, Tony worked in the Global Mobility industry and was responsible for coordinating the logistics of moving employees and their families overseas. How could they just pickup and move their whole life abroad, I wondered? So-o-o many details and decisions, I couldn’t imagine being faced with such a life-altering experience.
And at the same time, I was fascinated by the whole thing. I started dreaming up my own life wandering the streets of incredible cities like Rome, Brussels, and Barcelona. Then one day, it was our turn. And suddenly we went from suburban “white picket fence life” to the status of expat – global nomad. And we haven’t looked back. That was three years ago.
Now that myself, my husband and our three children are part of this elite group known as expats, it’s clear we are a different bunch.
We think about the world differently. We view the country we come from a bit differently, as well. Expats embrace other cultures and traditions with ease. We yearn to see more and do more regardless of how much we’ve already experienced abroad.
And these characteristics are only the beginning. I now realize there are some definite habits and attitudes that also develop over time when you become an expat. Some are deliberate, others evolve without us even knowing.
I assume if you’ve read this far, you are either currently an expat (in which case you’ll find this list humorous) or are planning to become an expat in the future (one of the best life decisions you’ll ever make).
Speaking of starting a new life, have a fun time reading these highly unique characteristics that only expats can truly understand…
You Know You’re An Expat When…
You no longer text, you WhatsApp!
When you’re an expat and your circle of fellow expat friends comes from all ends of the globe, you use WhatsApp to communicate with one another. Why? Because it’s completely free to download and use regardless of where you come from.
That’s right. Two people from different continents can chat with each other without any additional charges. So it’s literally what everyone uses. It took some getting used to, as our families back home in the U.S. still do most chatting via traditional iMessage.
Honestly, I prefer WhatsApp these days! Don’t you? Particularly for its lengthy voice message function and endless amounts of group chats with quirky names and header photos. Another messaging option, by the way, very similar to WhatsApp, is Telegram.
You sometimes confuse languages
When we first moved to Barcelona, our language skills were sub-par at best! We could ask for the nearest coffee shop. But could we understand the response given back? Not usually.
But after about 6-9 months, small talk progressed into actual conversations. And that’s when things usually get interesting as an expat. Your natural inclination is of course to use your native tongue but once you can speak the local language, you sometimes criss-cross your words.
Last week, I went to the salon for a hair appointment. As I chatted with the stylist about color and cut, my words got switched from Spanish to English over and over again. Thankfully I got the point across and didn’t leave with a crew cut! But if you’re an expat, you’ve probably been in a similar situation before.
Your food choices are much more liberated
Expats are generally pretty adventurous people. Why else would they make the decision to move across the world into the unknown? And being an “out of the box” thinker doesn’t just include physical proximity. It also applies to food and drink!
You never know WHAT you’ll find in other regions and have to be prepared for anything, really.
Ox tail, baby eel, and red wine mixed with coke? Never would I have tried these dishes in the U.S. where cheeseburgers and pizza are widely available. But being an expat means you’re open to trying. And because you try, your pallet naturally matures.
Your friends come from all over the world
Turns out, deciding to move abroad and become an expat isn’t actually that crazy. Contrary to my personal belief before moving abroad, there are literally thousands of expat families relocating every day. I wouldn’t have realized that without taking this journey.
If you’re reading this as an expat, look around and count the number of countries your friends come from. It’s astonishing!
Our circle here in Barcelona…they’re amazing. And they’re almost ALL expats. Families in the same boat as us, living abroad and trying to adjust to a foreign culture. It’s comforting and reassuring. It also makes the world feel much smaller than it really is.
You’re busy planning your next trip while on vacation
Ask anyone, travel is addicting! Even if you’re a homebody who doesn’t love flying, the thrill of experiencing new things is a human instinct. We’re hungry and curious beings. And as expats? Well, it’s like being a travel lover on steroids! Chances are, you have an ongoing and lengthy bucket list of places to see. And once one destination is crossed off the list, you”re adding three more.
Am I right? Happens to us all the time. We’re constantly looking for our next adventure. Two weeks ago we spent a summer holiday in Calpe, Spain and were busy discussing where to spend the Christmas season together in a few months. The planning and imagining is too much fun and has become a real tradition for our whole family.
Your kids have developed foreign accents
If you’re an expat with kids, your goals for exposing them to a foreign country probably include cultural awareness, exposure to different languages and building relationships with children from other countries.
What you may NOT have expected was them adopting somewhat of a foreign accent in the process. At least that’s what happened to us after our two older kids started attending British International school in Barcelona. Their teachers, administrators and many friends come from the UK which means that lovely eloquent English accent is heard all day long.
We’re from the Northeast of the U.S. just outside NYC, which means we have a very specific “Jersey accent”. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told! But sometimes my kids will speak and sound more like a monologue from a Harry Potter movie than an episode of the Sopranos! I find it quite adorable actually.
You have multiple drivers’ licenses
As an expat living in a big city, you may opt to rely on public transportation to get around. A very eco-friendly decision of course, but not the most practical if you’re anything like us – a family of five. With kids, the buses and trains aren’t always the most convenient option.
But an American driver’s license would only allow my husband to drive in Barcelona for six months. Eventually it was time for him to get a Spanish one. And man, what a process that was! For citizens of the EU, the process is a simple license transfer.
For a non-EU citizen? You’re treated like an 18-year old who ran over the orange parking cones in driving school. A lengthy written exam, road test and several hours of driving school will get you a Spanish license. But it’s not as simple as it sounds!
You make jokes about “tourists” with other expats
The first time I realized we were no longer “visitors” in Barcelona was when a friend joked with me about the annoying crowds of tourists come summertime. It was a rather normal comment but stuck with me. “Tourists” no longer referred to us. We were expats. This was our city, our new home. And we couldn’t take that lightly. Suddenly I felt more invested in being a part of this community and blending in…versus standing out. Can you relate to this feeling?
For example, some of my clothing choices, while perfectly acceptable in other Western parts of the world, would not be seen as very Spanish here. So I had to make some changes – leave the yoga pants and trainers at home if I wasn’t headed to the gym – and adapt to more local styles. Wondering how to dress like a local in Spain? Check out my ultimate guide.
These days, making jokes with one another about outside visitors, as an expat long-term visitor, is innocent and lighthearted – but also rather funny!
You refer to your expat city as “home”
We’ve all heard people say, “home is where the heart is” and expats can relate to this first-hand. Because when you’re a global nomad like us, you don’t identify home with any certain person, memory, or familiar surrounding.
You associate it with where you are in that chapter. Where you feel you’re meant to be in life. You’re with the people you love, doing what you love and experiencing life for all its worth!
Credit: The Expat Chronicle