Moving abroad can be challenging at the best of times, but moving to a new country to be with your foreign partner can present a whole host of different challenges. Elisa Scarton, an Australian expat living in Italy, shares her experiences of moving abroad to be with her Italian husband, and offers some advice to those contemplating a move abroad for love.
It might sound like the ending of a Hollywood film, but moving overseas to be with your significant other can be an isolating and distressing experience. Cutting ties with your home country, packing up your life and readjusting to a new culture, language and city are all gargantuan tasks. Often the true impact of your decision only hits after you move, when the excitement wears off and you’re left to decide what to do next.
I recently moved to my husband’s home country, Italy, so I know what it’s like to live abroad for love. Here’s some advice to help you prepare and cope.
Before you move
It’s easy to tell yourself that everything will fall into place when you arrive in your new country, but the only way to secure a smooth move is to plan for every eventuality before you leave. Sit down and make a list of all your worries and concerns and all the things you’re going to need and miss when you move.
It might sound pessimistic, but the trick to surviving a life-changing experience like this is to be honest with yourself and your partner. They have a much easier ride than you; it is their country after all. Being dishonest can lead to resentment, and your partner can’t give you the proper support if he/she doesn’t know what you’re worried about.
Once you have your list, you can start planning how you’re going to cope. If you have a strong support network of family and friends at home, set up a regular communication schedule. Services like Skype and WhatsApp make video chatting a breeze. Work out what days and times you’re going to call and stick to them. The routine will make the distance easier for you and your loved ones. If you like the idea of being able to pick up the phone and call home, invest in a VoiP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone. They’re cheap and work just like a landline, except they use your Internet connection instead of the phone line. There are plenty of companies online that offer competitive monthly or prepaid rates for VoiP phones.
Visiting before moving
I was lucky to spend some time in my husband’s hometown in the years before I moved permanently. It’s something I would recommend to anyone considering a move abroad. It’s easier to adjust to your surroundings if you have some forewarning and the threads of a new support system. If that’s not possible, the next best thing to do is get some books on your new country and start researching online. Pick out the biggest things; usually that’s the language, healthcare and finding a job.
Language and residency
If you don’t speak the language, get lessons. There’s nothing more isolating than not being able to understand the people around you. Get your head around the healthcare system next. What are your rights as a non-citizen? Are you immediately entitled to citizenship or do you need to apply for permanent residency? In Italy, the spouses of Italian citizens are given permanent residency first. The process can take an extremely long time and you can’t apply for anything, be it a healthcare card or a job, until you have permanent residency.
You should consider arranging your international drivers’ license before you leave. If you’re not careful, living abroad can be a serious hit to your independence and sense of self-worth. Getting out and about and running your own errands will help you assimilate a lot faster and reduce the burden on your partner.
When you arrive in your new country
Make finding a job your first priority. It’s not all about the money – you’ll be surprised at how easily a job can boost your confidence and sense of independence. It’s also a great way to make new friends and engage with someone other than your partner.
Friends, or at least acquaintances, can make or break your move. A lot of people who move overseas to be with their partners can become clingy and jealous. After all, your partner still has their old support network, while you have no one. But it can be trying on your relationship if you want to dominate their attention and get antsy when they go out without you.
There is some disagreement over whether you should make friends with locals or expats. My advice is to have a mix of both. You might shudder at the idea of making friends with people from back home, but you’ll quickly find it’s extremely comforting to meet someone who understands your culture and your love of bacon or rugby or English soap operas.
If there are children involved in the move, get them into a routine as soon as possible. Don’t just think school, consider extra-curricular activities and playgroups too. Make sure they understand the culture they’re moving to and, if necessary, consider a few in-country therapy lessons. Moving abroad is traumatic, no matter how well you’ve prepared, and your children might need to speak to someone other than you about their feelings towards leaving their friends, family and life behind.
The same goes for you. Extra-curricular activities are a great way to meet people with similar interests and a little bit of therapy can give you the tools you need to survive those first few difficult months. As the excitement of moving and unpacking dies down, things can get pretty bleak, pretty fast. If you have a really close connection with your home country and your family and friends, the realisation that you don’t live there anymore and won’t see them often is like being hit with a ton of bricks. You need to be prepared for when that happens. Therapy, friends and keeping yourself busy will soften the blow.
In the weeks, months and years that follow the best advice I can give people who live abroad is don’t go cold turkey. The first year is the hardest. It can be incredibly reassuring to have an idea of when you’ll see your family, friends and home country again. Whether it be a month, six months or a year down the road, make a plan and stick to it. It will give you something to look forward to and make the adjustment period easier to handle.
Keep an open dialogue with your partner. They need to understand your frame of mind if they’re going to be able to support you. At the same time, try to regain the same level of independence you had in your home country. It’s easy to begrudge your partner because they seem so comfortable. It’s one of the things that set expat couples and people who move for love apart. Expat couples struggle and adapt together, while a person who moves abroad for love can feel alone. It’s likely your partner doesn’t know what it’s like to adapt to a new country. You need to speak up and not put on a brave face.
It’s inevitable that those cultural quirks that once seemed cute will become annoying. In my case, there was only so much pasta I could eat before I started to miss the taste of home. A couple of cookbooks and some Australian-themed dinners helped ease the ache. But the only way to avoid culture shock is to understand and accept. Italians are renowned for their bureaucracy and snail-paced way of doing business. It took me so long to find the self-control and stop getting frustrated and angry. The more familiar you are with your new country’s way of life, the better your chances are of coping. You can’t beat them, so you have to join them.
That said, living abroad does not mean abandoning your cultural identity. I know expats who have thrown all their energy into assimilating and have ended up upset and alienated. It’s especially important if you have kids to keep your heritage alive. Share your food, culture, history and language with your new friends and family.
If you’re living in a country where your first language is not spoken, it’s important to take a break every so often. I find there are days when I just can’t speak Italian anymore. My language skills are good, but sometimes I can’t express my ideas and thoughts as well as I’d like and that’s frustrating. Now I speak to my husband exclusively in English at least one day a week and it’s incredibly therapeutic. If your partner doesn’t speak your first language, they should get lessons. Your language is a huge part of your identity and you need to be able to share that. In the meantime, seek a temporary salve in television shows, movies or books in your first language.
And finally, the hardest but most important thing you must do is find your own reason for living in your new country. Your partner cannot be the only thing that ties you to a place. If you hate everything about your new country and are only there to make your partner happy, you may become bitter and your relationship could falter. You need to accept that you’ve moved and you need to make your own ties and your own peace with your new country. That might be in the form of friends, a job, hobbies, food, shopping or sights. Learn to love your new home and you’ll find life will become a lot easier.