"I never know where I belong": Reflections on moving, studying and working abroad
Occasionally I am contacted by acquaintances on Facebook who ask questions about moving, studying and working abroad. I decided to write about my thoughts and feelings on the matter in this post. I know many of you will relate to this since you have had similar experiences.
In my mind, I have my own definition of living somewhere, traveling somewhere and being a tourist. I consider living somewhere to be when you have some obligations to do daily, like going to school or work. This usually means you have to deal with administration, get a bank account or a long-term apartment rent. Traveling is when you go somewhere and try to explore the life of the locals also making friends with them. Tourism is pure holidays. You eat in restaurants where most people are tourists, and for example, go to a beach surrounded by expensive hotels with no locals. I was lucky to be able to travel and be a tourist in various countries, but this post is going to be about what I consider as "living in a place".
I have just turned 26 and Switzerland is the 5th country I have lived in.
I have just turned 26 and Switzerland is the 5th country I have lived in. I grew up in Stalowa Wola (Poland). I studied and worked in Barcelona (Spain). I did an internship in Madrid (Spain), Warsaw (Poland), and now in Lausanne (Switzerland). I went for a year-long student exchange to Sydney (Australia), where I also worked two jobs. I received the Fulbright scholarship to study in Boston (USA), where I will soon return to finish my master studies. You might think this all is so amazing and envy me or you can (like most of my family) feel sorry for me – for not having a stable life. I feel both at the same time.
You might think this all is so amazing and envy me or you can (like most of my family) feel sorry for me – for not having a stable life. I feel both at the same time.
Sometimes, people think I am just very lucky. They assume I just go to places and manage to find a job that makes it possible for me to survive. The truth is that I do not pick a country at random and just fly there the following week. For months before deciding to move somewhere, I research the job and the housing markets carefully. I connect to people online and bother them with questions. Will I be able to afford it? Can I work when I am on a student visa? What paperwork will I need? Any immunizations? How much will that cost? How does health insurance work? What type of accommodation can I afford? When I move somewhere, I have tons of information usually coming from Google searches stored in my brain.
Wherever I go, I learn much more than school could ever teach me. No YouTube video or story told by a friend can teach you things you learn when you live abroad. I have made so many incredible friends from all over the planet. I know that if I need something in Australia, Spain, Brazil, Italy, UK, France and so on, I can just make a call. I can speak four languages fluently and even though I sound ridiculous, I can even make sentences in Catalan.
I currently have four bank accounts, two in Spain, one in Australia and one in the US. My laptop charger has two adapters. I bought it in Australia, then I needed to plug it in in Europe, and then in the US. So, when I am in the US the US adapter is plugged into the European one. My boyfriend and I have an expense management app for Dollars, Swiss Francs, Polish Zloty, and Euro.
Paperwork drives me crazy. To make myself feel better, I imagine it as a computer game where I get to a new level every time I solve an issue by navigating the complex structures of international bureaucracy.
Paperwork drives me crazy. To make myself feel better, I imagine it as a computer game where I get to a new level every time I solve an issue by navigating the complex structures of international bureaucracy. Every time I moved, I had to go through a procedure of adjustments to the new system. For example, you need to get yourself a place to stay. Sometimes, to do it you need some other documents to be in order first, but you cannot have them in order because you do not have an address or a local phone number. You also need a bank account. And then the online system of your other bank account, in the previous country fails to work because your old sim card will not connect and you cannot get the authorization code to work. You need health care. You need to find yourself a new doctor, and a new gynecologist (In the US they call him/her "an OB-GYN". I generally feel that people in the US love abbreviations). Your gynecologist will probably treat you very differently depending on the country and say that the techniques used in the other country are wrong. You need to understand what a family doctor / general practitioner can do in a specific country and how your insurance works (Bear with me! I am a hypochondriac). They usually do not know your previous history and if you have some documents to show them, they might not understand the language. You then find yourself trying to translate the medical documents to another language. You also need to figure out where to buy your food, and what the products are. You learn to eat so many things you never saw in your home country. In a few months, you will get used to eating them and you will even know where you can buy them at a cheaper price. With time, you will also end up learning local tricks to save money or do things more efficiently.
We tend to think that culture is food, dance, art and all the things sold to us by travel agencies but there is so much more to culture.
We tend to think that culture is food, dance, art and all the things sold to us by travel agencies but there is so much more to culture. Things that you should say, things you should not say. In some places, you may be expected to smile often while in others constant smiles make you look like a crazy person. The same facial expression or gesture can mean different things in different places. People care less or more about their wardrobes and houses depending on the country. They also buy different things with their money and have other priorities. They are taught to expect different things from the state. They even make water for tea differently. They date differently and they expect different things from the people they date. They clean the house differently. They use different beauty products and they have different definitions of beauty. Simple things like changing at the gym are different. In my town in Poland, I learned to cover all my body when I was changing my clothes, whereas the Catalan women could not care less about other women seeing them naked after a shower. For me, it was a paradise of freedom! It allowed me to discover how different female bodies are as opposed to the beauty cannon I saw on Instagram.
The worst part for me is missing people. I left my friends and my whole family in Poland when I was 19. My grandfather said he would die without me and I could not just leave him and go. It was heartbreaking, but it was my life I had to create. (I could not fly to his funeral a couple of years ago because it was too expensive, but the truth is, I guess, I was just afraid to see it).
I found myself in a new country without a network of friends - trying to adapt to people with a very different background, different values, and different ways of doing almost anything. It is not like I moved to another continent. It took 3 hours to fly from Warsaw to Barcelona and everything was so different to me. Then, when I finally had real friends I moved to Sydney because I wanted to see more, and then I had to calculate time zone differences every time I wanted to talk to my friends that were on the other side of the globe. When I got used to living in Australia and had made friends, it was time to move back to Europe.
I represent Poland differently. I try to make sure people know that Marie Curie Sklodowska was Polish and not French as many people think and that Nicholas Copernicus was born in Poland. I tell people who love music to come to Warsaw and discover the city full of Chopin's music. I am extremely proud of the Polish economy that grew so fast after the communist oppression that ended just in 1989.
I never feel 100% at home anywhere I go because I grew up somewhere else. Even when I go back to Poland, I do not feel at home either because I spent so much time in other countries where my values and priorities changed. People say I have an accent in Polish, and I forget many words. I do not usually think in Polish because I do not use it with many people daily. I do try to read books in Polish though. Sometimes, I get the impression that some people are angry at me because I should never forget my mother tongue. I also get the impression that some Polish people expect me to cook Polish food and care about going to find some Eastern European products on the other side of the city. I love Polish food and I sometimes cook it (you should try my Bigos), but seriously, you can survive without it. When I go to the doctor, I do not ask people if they know a Polish one because I prefer a good doctor, independent of his/her nationality. My mother is sad when I do not come home for Christmas. She does not like that I do not celebrate Easter, coz even if I am not Christian, she says, it is a Polish tradition that I should cultivate. I represent Poland differently. I try to make sure people know that Marie Curie Sklodowska was Polish and not French as many people think and that Nicholas Copernicus was born in Poland. I tell people who love music to come to Warsaw and discover the city full of Chopin's music. I am extremely proud of the Polish economy that grew so fast after the communist oppression that ended just in 1989.
I never know where I belong. For my Spanish friends, I do not smile enough, and I am too serious. For my Polish friends, I am too open. For my American friends, I am too straight forward. I find myself constantly questioning and updating my values and habits. It is a process that makes me emotionally exhausted, but even though it has been hard, I would do everything again.