Updated: Nov 1
Or, a love letter to everyone living abroad 💌
The year is 2014 and I'm lying on my bed. It's a squeaky, metal bed frame with a thin mattress on top - renters' special - and there's just a plain white sheet over that. There are hardly any decorations on the walls - unless you count the blood spatters of dozens of squished mosquitos.
It's the middle of the afternoon, but you wouldn't know it because my shutters are closed against the Andalucian sun and I've just got a dim lightbulb for company. Outside the window, I can hear the sound of a marching band - maybe more than one? - and this tells me there's no point trying to leave the flat. My street is one of the routes the pilgrims take to the Cathedral and this week is Holy Week and I live in Seville. I could probably fight my way through the crowds perching on my doorstep, but I can't be bothered.
Let's jump back in time a further six months. I've been living in Spain for about eight weeks and I have no friends apart from my flatmate, Malena, who's at work. All week, my routine has been: sit on the roof terrace in the morning and read, go to the supermarket to get lunch, eat and have a quick nap, then head to work at 4pm. I haven't spoken to anyone but my colleagues and my flatmate, and I am struggling to leave the house.
My dad gives me the advice to go out with my camera and find things to photograph. It'll give me a reason to get out of the house, he says, and remove some of the awkwardness I'm feeling about wandering about on my own. (My dad's surgical attachment to his own camera at all social events is now making more sense).
And now let's jump ahead. I've been in Spain a year and I'm crouched on the floor of my classroom in tears. School doesn't start for another hour and I'm alone in the building. The woman I've been seeing - the woman who absolutely blew my world apart and made me realise that, "Oh sh*t, feeling nothing but anxiety in a relationship isn't normal, I was just always dating men and it turns out I'm gay. Who knew?" - has just told me earlier that day that we're at different stages of life and she's not looking for anything serious.
It's my first real heartbreak. And I'm a thousand miles from my friends. I ask my mum to fly to Madrid (flights to Seville are too expensive) and I spend a weekend with her eating nice food and wandering around, trying to work out where I want to go from here. "Well, you can just date men AND women," she says. My stomach turns at the thought of dating men again, but I fear it's too soon to let my mum know I'm 100% gay, so I just nod, "OK."
Why am I sharing this?
I'm sharing these three snapshots because all I ever heard - and all I've heard since - was how amazing it must have been to live in Spain!
The food! The sun! The lifestyle! The parties! You must've absolutely loved it! Did you love it?
The message I hear: Did you love it or are you a freak?
And I did love it - I did love the food, and I did enjoy being warm all the time, and I did enjoy eating late and good wine being affordable. (I never really enjoyed the parties, but I never enjoyed parties at home, either, so maybe that's by the by.)
But I was also 22, and people in Seville seemed so different to the people I was used to, and I really struggled to make friends that actually felt like friends. You know, the people who leave you feeling filled up rather than draining your energy.
Every time I stepped out of my house was a potential headache because of the language. Even when everyday exchanges became second nature, there was always the possibility that today would throw me a curveball - an old lady involves me in her complaint while waiting for coffee; my produce bag splits and tomatoes roll all over the floor in the supermarket; a student's parent wants to talk to me about their child's progress and the DOS leaves me to handle it alone.
Everything felt harder than it should have been.
It's basically gaslighting...
There can be such a positive narrative around living abroad and speaking multiple languages, that you can feel a little crazy when you experience it differently. You're seeing the world, you're learning about different cultures, you're gaining new experiences and opening yourself up to new opportunities, and learning new skills, and, and, and.
And that's all true.
But I worry there isn't enough acknowledgement of how hard it can be. Of the loss that can come with trying to put down roots in a place that isn't where you come from.
You're miles away from your support network and building a new one takes a lot of time and energy. Often the people you end up closest to are also foreigners, often people from your own country who you have immediate things in common with. These friendships are essential for keeping you sane, but they can prolong the time you feel like an outsider in this new country.
Your loved ones are continuing their lives without you - all the good things and the bad things. Your best friend gets engaged or meets the person they're going to marry and you don't have the chance to get to know him. Your sister gets pregnant, and you can't be there to help her prepare for the baby. Your father gets sick and needs to spend a few weeks in the hospital and you can't visit him, or talk to his doctor, or give him a lift back home when he's discharged.
You're racialised for the first time in your life. Othered. People see your skin, or your hair, or they hear your accent and they make assumptions about you. It's not always cruel or unkind but it reminds you that you're perceived as "a French person", "a Chinese person", or "a foreigner." You are reminded of this other-ness regularly, even when you yourself feel integrated. You move to a different city for work and everyone assumes you've just arrived in the country, rather than having lived on the other side of it for twenty years.
Your identity becomes "in-between". Are you Spanish? You've not lived there since you were 25. You've never worked or paid taxes there. Your children have never called Spain home. But are you British? You don't get all the references people make, even after all these years. You didn't grow up here and you don't have the memories of school or TV programmes or household celebrities that seem to bond everyone else together. You ask someone to repeat something you missed and they explain it to you like you're a child, even though you have a PhD from a university here!
You fall in love and have to construct a whole new language to communicate with them. It's something that's not quite your language or theirs. It's full of short-hand and in-jokes and most of the time it's amazing. But you wonder what it would be like if they just understood you in your own language. You're so much cleverer and more articulate and more nuanced in your own language. Every little fight seems to underline your communication struggles.
Your children speak a different language to you. And they laugh at your pronunciation and roll their eyes when you say something oddly. You try to teach them yours, sacrificing your own commitment to learning your new language to give them the gift of bilingualism. Ten years pass and you realise you've spent almost all of it at home, speaking Italian, and you worry you've missed your chance to master English. They don't seem to even appreciate it and refuse to answer you in Italian. Their grandparents blame you when they struggle to talk to their grandkids at Christmas.
Every single example above is taken from the clients I've had the honour of working with.
What can we do?
Is this negative picture 100% of the story? Of course not. Nothing ever is.
But acknowledging it is necessary. What you're doing is really hard.
If you find yourself crying about it sometimes, or getting angry sometimes, or wanting to give up sometimes... Well, that seems like a pretty reasonable response to me.
Positive psychology teaches us that looking to the positives is important: What can you do? In what situations do you feel fluent and confident? Think of an example of a time you did this really well.
We can harness that energy and employ it in moments of panic or stress or anxiety.
I use this approach a lot with my clients and it can be really powerful. I train them to see their wins and to celebrate their successes, and this exercise has unanimously good results.
But other powerful tools I use?
Nodding along while they share their pain.
While they cry, or swear, or sit and stare at a wall.
This is just as important in my coaching because you're doing a really hard thing, and acknowledging that fact is freeing.
My clients will come to me wondering why they're finding everything so hard. Wondering why everyone else seems to find it easy and they don't. They ask when it will get better, when it will finally "click". They look around and hear other stories of success and conclude: it must be my fault. It must be something about me that means I can't seem to fit perfectly into this life I've built for myself
But you're not struggling because you're uniquely weak, or broken - or bad at English!
You're struggling because what you're doing is difficult, and struggling is completely normal.
Do we want to struggle all the time? No. And together we can find techniques for handling what you're going through more effectively.
But equally important is reframing your parameters for success. Building parameters for success that fully acknowledge the scale of what you're doing and have done. Building parameters for success that acknowledge that you will always find certain parts of your life here challenging - not because you're really bad at this, but because it's a hard thing that you're doing!
You're struggling because what you're doing is difficult, and struggling is completely normal.