Happiness is catching up with a friend after decades apart and finding that you continue to share many things in common. That’s how it was when I caught up with Nicole who is in the same profession, and leading a similar life to mine as an expat in France no less! So in between talks of the Paris bombings, the Greek crisis, the carefree days of our youth in Australia and how men are the same no matter where you go, Nicole asked a question from one expat to another: “What advice would you give to an expat who has just moved to another country?”
“I’m not the person to answer that question because I’ve never felt like an expat,” I said, sweeping aside her query. Then, it occurred to me that the reason I don’t feel like an expat in Greece or in Australia – ever – is because that’s all I’ve ever been. Born a Greek in Istanbul, living as a minority in Sydney and an Australian in Athens is about as expat as you can get. So here’s my advice as a seasoned expat and outsider forever looking in:
1. Do your homework and be prepared. Regulations and laws vary around the world, so ensure you do your research before moving abroad. Contact your embassy or consulate for information that is relevant to expats. Ensure you take all the documentation you could possibly need in your new country of residence. Don’t delay for too long, however, as it will never happen if you overthink the move. Do as much as you can in advance, but also take the leap of distance – and faith – and know that everything will fall into place when the time comes.
2. Take Greece for a test drive before you decide to stay. The idea of living on an idyllic Greek island is different in winter than in summer so try the destination of your choice in the worst possible conditions while living on the income you can expect to get before deciding to pack up everything and make your home there.
3. Try and build a support network. There are many expat groups in Greece that act as a source of information and friendship so that you don’t feel alone. Some worth checking out include Newcomers, Internations, Foreigners Living in Greece, Foreigners in Athens, GRaussies, American Womens Organization of Greece etc.
3. Mingle with Greeks. Eat moussaka and pastitsio, try to learn the language and speak with locals, learn some Greek dancing and put your comfort zone to the crash test. Immersing yourself in a culture is what it is all about, so keep an open mind and try out as many new cultural experiences as you can. You may not like all of them, but you’ll be a better person for having tried.
4. Place experiences over possessions. Becoming an expat is about changing your priorities and what you consider to be important. The physical movement makes it impossible to take everything with you so you strip down on “stuff” in favour of experiences and emotions. This is true whether you’re a Syrian fleeing to Greece from a war-torn battleground or a Westerner from an English-speaking country. You will never find what you left behind, and chances are it will be a difficult haul financially in a land that faces so many problems, but stick around and learn from the experience and your time in Greece could turn out to be very rewarding.
5. Don’t impose your cultural views on others. Far too many people make assumptions of how Greece could be improved before they set foot in it. Usually, the mentality, organization and moral ethics of a nation are far more complex than they would appear to an outsider. It is best not to judge and to overlay what you see onto your own perspective. Embrace it for what it is, do as the Greeks do to see how it works out before you rush to apply what you believe is common logic. And by all means, never say: “You should all speak English!” Worst yet, never ever make the mistake of telling a Greece that the country’s problems would be solved if everyone paid taxes!
6. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. The same applies to Greece. To truly be happy you must adapt so if chaos is something you can’t live with, then you’ll be unhappy in a land where people whizz by red lights, fail to follow the protocol when it comes to being politically correct at the workforce and get things done at a slower pace.
7. Living overseas is not a panacea for all your problems. Ensure that you are aware of your goals when moving abroad and be realistic in your expectations of what you’ll get out of it. A change of lifestyle may distract you from your problems for a while, but you’ll find old habits and patterns re-emerging after a while. You’ll have the same issues and phobias you always had with the only difference being that you’ll be in a different country with a different mentality.
8. Treat your move as a relocation rather than a vacation. Only by taking your experience seriously and viewing the move as permanent will you be able to overcome the little problems without rushing back “home” at the first available opportunity. Embrace your new lifestyle and grow from the experience.
9. When you move back home, if you ever do, you’ll be a different person. Know that every year away from your home country is distance placed between yourself and the people you left behind. Your experiences shape you but the people back home continue to be defined by their own lifestyles. Realize that you’ll be different if you ever return and that your relationships may need to adjust.
10. Don’t look back! When life hands you lemons, as it inevitably does regardless of your location, don’t rush to look back at what your life could have been had you not made the brave decision to move. Remember, it takes courage to walk away from one life, to say goodbye to everything you knew. So don’t look back. Look forward without regrets.