What No One Tells You About Moving Abroad

So you’ve spent months planning for this move, possibly years fantasising about it, and now you’re six months in and depressed.

Which is pretty difficult to accept when all you want out of this, and all you wanted before you took this big, scary step, was to feel excited, to face this big challenge and adventure with enthusiasm and courage. There’s something noble and romantic about taking a big step into the (relative) unknown, especially as a 20-something, and coming out the other side with wisdom and “life experience”, coloured by exciting stories about interesting cultural experiences. But there’s something almost equally disillusioning about finding yourself in the thick of this experience and totally overwhelmed and ill-equipped for dealing with the sudden wave of emotions you’re drowning in.

Six months in, this was where I found myself.

The two biggest culprits in dragging me under this wave are some pretty strong emotions that I’ve flirted with a few times in my past but that recently showed up in a big way. These feelings are, in a nutshell, ISOLATION and SHAME.

The isolation wasn’t something that I was expecting: I can’t remember ever having much trouble making friends and I enjoy socialising. While I really value and enjoy alone time, I love connecting with people. As it turns out, that’s because there is a fundamental difference between being alone and being lonely. For me, the loneliness really hit when, in between desperately trying to sort out my living situation in a foreign country, while juggling projects from a course I hadn’t yet completed and one that I was just starting, I realised just how much I needed that network of friends that was now thousands of kilometres away. Social media in this respect becomes both a blessing and a curse: I wasn’t waiting weeks to receive news by traditional post, and could WhatsApp call pretty much everyone back home easily. But this also meant that I was seeing, through the flattering light of a Facebook/Instagram feed, my friends having fun with each other as I sat alone after an exhausting day of very non-fun settling-in-to-a-new-place activities.

But it’s not just about the people still at home, there are also the pictures from people (friends, acquaintances, strangers) who have also moved abroad and look like they’re killing it. As you scroll through the highlights reel of whatever social media app you’re addicted to, you see what seems to be the tangible excitement of other travellers, people who have moved abroad meeting new people and having all those cultural experiences you dreamt about, eating wonderful food, and just generally making the best of their time. In a way, my own personal social media feeds into this glossy image of travel, because why would I want to share the worst of my experience when I so want to feel the best about it? And that for me was where the shame began to creep in. Because, how can you feel so low when you’re doing something that should be so exciting? Something that not many people have the privilege to experience and that so many people would kill for? Not only that, but no one forced you into doing this, this was your choice, and you did it, how could you possibly be unhappy? Does this make you ungrateful? Selfish? Stupid? And on and on the thoughts went, with the shame becoming something that I could physically feel, burning, inside my chest.

Fortunately, I didn’t shut up about it, and when people asked how I was doing, I talked, and I said exactly how I was feeling. Some people, not understanding why I felt the way I did, confirmed the shame; how can you be feeling this way when you’ve had it so easy? Some people have it so much worse than you do, you know. At first, that stung, but then other voices drowned those out, the majority comforting, understanding and realistic: people back home who remind you that they miss you and that you’re far away but not forgotten; that they support you and that they can’t wait for you to visit; that you’re doing something scary but exciting and that it’s going to take time. And then there are those who truly understand, because they are the ones behind the social media highlight reels: the ones who have also made the Big Move, and they are the ones who let you know that those feelings you thought only you had? Yep, you’re not alone.

Because as exciting as it is to move abroad, whether it’s for study or work, it can be an isolating and rather traumatic experience. Once I’d opened up to others, those wonderful people opened up to me, and that’s when I heard the stories that didn’t make it to the travel album, the stories about nights spent crying alone at home, about the times when they felt deeply insecure and scared and lonely and all they wanted to do was to go back to their real home. These stories, the ugly ones, the ones that feel like failures at the time, are the ones that made me feel like this change could truly be the adventure I so proudly proclaimed it to be. Out of those “failures” these people sharing their stories with me had grown, and were giving me help and guidance on how to get through the worst of times. And I began to feel human again.

Christmas away from home

At home, Christmas is my favourite time of year. Though perhaps not very traditional at other times, I eagerly look forward to our December rituals, the ones that bring back the sights, smells, textures, sounds that are undeniably Christmassy, and that set the scene for our family celebrations.

The fact that so many of us can share in its joy while all having our own quirky traditions and celebrations to look forward to is what makes Christmas magical. This year, I’ll be celebrating in Portugal, and slotting into other people’s traditions. Some of these are familiar, but there’s nothing quite like the familiarity of one’s own customs.

In our family home, we weaved together several cultural conventions, passed down through generations, to create a colourful patchwork of Christmas traditions all our own. My grandmother, with her Scottish heritage, would prepare a batch of mince pies at the start of the season. In the hot and humid summer on South Africa’s south coast, we’d heat up the little pockets of sweet fruit mince. Biting in, they would burst in one’s mouth and mix with the cool cream we’d have poured on top, for added luxury. I don’t know when she’d make the fruit cake, but I know we couldn’t do Christmas without it. Occasionally, too, my mom would buy a Bolo Rei, the Portuguese ring cake crowned with crystallised fruit. That’s the beauty of mixed traditions: you often get more out of your Christmas.

Apart from the decorating and general mood-setting that kicks off at the beginning of the month, we have three full days over which to spread our celebrations: Christmas Eve/Consoada; Christmas day/Natal and Boxing Day. As per Portuguese tradition, we’d start opening presents on Christmas Eve, after dinner. But only one: the rest would appear overnight for us to find under the tree in the morning. Giddy with festive joy, we’d carefully open the wrapping paper (no tearing! We could reuse that) and delight at our presents. Important to note that this ritual can only be performed in pyjamas and dressing gowns, and the morning is spent in sleepwear until it’s maybe a touch indecent and you’re required to get changed for the massive Christmas feast at lunchtime. A full stomach on a hot summer’s day dictates an afternoon nap, another timeless tradition.

And then there’s Boxing Day, a dénouement to the festivities where the debris of the previous days is cleaned up and the fridge is dangerously overstocked with leftovers of ham, turkey and roast vegetables, and sometimes, bacalhau and cabbage and boiled potatoes. We’ll all protest how absolutely stuffed we are as we eat our lunch of Christmas pudding and tea, recovering from the indulgences of the day before, but not above the temptation of sweet treats.

And so, while looking forward to the experience of an undeniably Portuguese Christmas, I’ve also had some Woolworths Christmas cake snuck in to me, as well as a jar of mincemeat for the mince pies we’ll be making this week, according to Granny’s recipe. I think it will go well with the Bolo Rei.

The Big Move – Destination: Portugal

I’ve wanted to live in Portugal for as long as I can remember. And so, three months ago, I packed my bags and moved to Lisbon.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Moving is a process and the preparations for my move have been ongoing for quite a while now. Preparations extend past the physical, too, and into the emotional, the mental. So, for months now, since I had firmly made the decision that This Was Now Happening, I’ve been mentally preparing myself: I’ve been reading about moving country, talking to friends, sharing my fears, my excitement, my worries, my ecstasy and essentially trying to just be really, really prepared.

And then I landed in Lisbon, and I realised quite quickly that I wasn’t prepared at all.

This isn’t because I didn’t know what awaited me: I was greeted by loving family members at the airport, the sun shining happily down as we drove to their home, where I’d rest and eat a warm meal in a familiar environment. As a South African of Portuguese (and other) descent, my connection to Portugal is intrinsic to me. So the feelings of homeliness and happiness washed over me, even as the initial sadness of saying goodbye to OR Tambo lingered. This is the beginning of my new adventure.

But despite the sense of familiarity to my new environment, there is also so much that strikes me as alien. In other words, culture shock doesn’t necessarily have to smack you in the face the moment you land in your new country. It seeps into your daily life, and wears you down bit by bit: because everything is new, something as simple as ordering a coffee or buying groceries becomes a learning experience. This is especially true when you’re doing it all for the first time in a different language. And while I was trying to get the hang of this new country and all its idiosyncrasies, I began to miss my country, and all the little things that make it familiar.

I missed (and miss) talking and joking in English, and not just any English, but my English, with its inflections and particularities and expressions borrowed from and influenced by the many other official languages. As the days grow shorter here, I see the photos of people having poolside braais and drinking wine from the Cape (actually mostly Tall Horse), and I think it would be impossible not to long for dinners with old friends and good conversation. The winter rain here couldn’t be more different from the summer thunderstorms of the Highveld, where the lightning burns the sky shades of ochre against the city skyline. But these are the things you can’t be prepared for when you move away, I’ve now learnt; these are just the things you have to feel, and you somehow learn to deal with. 

So these last few months, the lead-up to the move, and the settlement here, have been far from easy. But while I do feel homesick and sad a lot of the time, I also feel excited and hopeful. This really is only the beginning.Moving to Lisbon