Considering Expatria? Five Questions!

A few weeks ago, a fellow Australian contacted me with a question; he’s thinking about retiring and fancies moving a bit closer to the rest of the world. How should he choose where to live?

I pondered. Budapest, Paris and Istanbul are the only places I really chose, without any particular push from study, work or life. And those were relatively spontaneous decisions. But sifting through what I’ve learnt from moving around so much, I realised I do have some general thoughts

There are a couple of things I won’t get into. The first is cost of living, it’s important, but it’s also utterly dependent on your fabulous wealth or lack thereof. If you want a comparison, just visit one of the many sites – I like Expatistan – and research the city of your dreams. And I won’t discuss hot vs. cold, ocean vs. mountains and other personal preferences. Pour over an atlas or do some virtual exploring with Google Earth

So, without further ado, my top five questions for choosing a home in Expatria.

Where can I legally reside?

People do stay in places longer than they should, but while I take plenty of risks in life, that’s not one of them. I’ve always thought of myself as “passport limited” but once I started living in Expatria, independent from company or family relationships, I realised that the options were more extensive than I’d thought.

There are many routes to residency; property ownership, company start ups, non profit projects, study, the arts, research, just to name a few. If you decide you like the look of a place, make enquiries; check out all the fine print about visas and extensions and permanent residency. Go online to the expat forums and ask there. Seek advice from agencies that work in this area (I used Helpers Hungary). They can give you an indication if you’re eligible and some only require a fee if they manage the process for you.

Requirements vary tremendously. Some governments, like Turkey’s, grant residency without much formality if you hand over a pile of cash. Hungary, on the other hand, requires thorough substantiation of your purpose and how you’re going to live.  Austria seems happy as long as you bring money into the country. If you persist, you’ll find a place you want to live, that also wants you.

Can I communicate?

If you’re up for it, the opportunity to learn a language is a great reason for heading to a new country. It’s one of the reasons I chose Paris and Istanbul. But even for the non-linguists, after a bit of settling in, any major city with an international community will probably be fine.

With English at your disposal, you’ve won the Expatria lottery. And you’re not limited to countries with English as a first language. Never rule anywhere out; despite fourteen vowels and unpronounceable consonant clusters that threaten a brain bleed, I get along superbly in Budapest. Most Hungarians speak at least some English and with a bit of patience, communication is generally smooth. It’s a little sad that the incentive to learn is so low, because despite its difficulty, I’d love to speak Hungarian. I’m interested in language so I’ll keep trying, but the point is, it’s a choice not a necessity.

That said, if you want to really experience the culture of your new country, and develop local relationships, you will want to invest time in the language. Without it, you might still have a fantastic time, but you’ll always be skating on the surface. And it’s utterly inexcusable not to have a handle on the pleasantries – hello, goodbye, please, thank you, sorry, etc. (I also find “Can I have another glass of red wine please” essential in every language).

What will I eat?

As travelers we either love it or hate it; sometimes it makes us sick for days, or we put on ten monstrous kilos. But the food we love when we travel is not always so loveable when it’s our only choice, day in, day out.

That’s why my question is this; what do you need to eat? We all have diets we were raised on and there are certain things we just aren’t happy living without. I’m not talking about Vegemite or your particular childhood comfort food. I’m talking things like fresh fruit and vegetables, meat products, decent bread, cereals and lest we forget, low-fat, soy or lactose free products.

And as you stroll down the supermarket aisles trying to locate these elusive products, it’s a good idea to know the local words for basic foodstuffs, because it’s easy to make mistakes and end up pouring sour yoghurt over your cereal, or spreading duck dripping on your toast.

I’ve already written about the dire meat situation in Switzerland here and after more than a year in Budapest, I still long desperately for non-fat milk. The lowest is 1.5% and I tolerate the standard 2.8% for the sake of my daily cappuccino, but at first I could barely drink it.

At Budapest Central Market

Speaking of coffee, a year spent drinking the equivalent of dirty dishwater with a foam top before decent coffee started to dribble into cafes in Istanbul…that was an endurance test.

It’s not always bad news! A new food culture can be fantastic; the fresh markets throughout Europe with their seasonal product are brilliant. You’ll discover and fall in love new foods. But be prepared, because your diet will change and you’ll have to live with it.

Still on the topic of food, if one of your key pleasures is eating out, there isn’t any point moving to a city without a thriving (and varied) restaurant scene. Which leads me to…

How will I spend my (spare) time?

You may have some friends in the city already, but if not, Google the expat community. Are there news or information sites for expats, expat organisations, get-togethers, events? Are there English language shows (if you like that sort of thing), how about sports clubs?

Join in some online forums and ask about tennis clubs in Kraków, or tap dancing in Lisbon. You can check out gyms, ask people about the best places for hiking. You’ll quickly get a sense whether the lifestyle will suit you.

But I’m not going all that way just to hang around with expats, you say. Nice theory, but without those local connections (not to mention the language) when you arrive the expats are your people. Obviously friendships change as you spend more time in a city and meet more people, but this network – usually very friendly, welcoming and full of advice – will get you started in a new city. Even if you’re a semi professional jello wrestler, your fellow expats are a source of information to help you pursue that particular…interest.

How will I get around?

This one is absolutely essential. Most of us hate the daily grind of commuting, be it by car or public transport. So when you can choose, why choose somewhere where the logistics of getting around are a daily struggle? I will never again live in a city, no matter how alluring, unless there is decent public transport.

(Sorry Istanbul, that means you. So many things to do, so much to explore, but sitting for hours in gridlock in an overheated bus, jammed up against undeoderised strangers, is not exactly heaven on a stick).

Even in London, with a relatively extensive underground network, you spend so long getting from one end to the other that when you finally pop up above ground, blinking like a puzzled mole, you’ve forgotten what you came for. And don’t even get me started about night transport.

Budapest Trolley Bus

On the other hand you can live in a city like Budapest, with a public transport system that really works. You might have to jump between train, tram, trolley car and bus but you’ll get to within one hundred metres of where you’re going and it runs like clockwork. My one month travel pass gets me all over the city. Brilliant.

A new set of issues arise if you have a car, but I can’t be bothered with one myself.

There are many other questions; What happens if I get sick? Will the culture be too different for me? Will I be able to easily travel to (home/desired destination)? Will I be able to find a romantic partner? But those questions – and the answers – depends on your personal circumstances.

But don’t over-think it, let your decision be equal parts inspiration and preparation. There are always delights, and always disappointments, that’s the nature of it. But even when Expatria is at its most challenging, I have never regretted my choice to leave home. You can do it too.

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8 comments

  1. Excellent post!! I never considered any of this but can definitely attest to these factors making my life easier in Austria. Just a heads up on residency in Austria though – it ain’t easy!! At least for Australians….unless you have a company sponsoring you (to the tune of 3k) or a student Visa (again, courses start at €2,500k not necessarily in English. Or you need a sister school) then its exptremely difficult. I took the ‘easy’ option and married my Austrian but even then it was a struggle to get everything finalised within the 90 days Aussies are allowed in Scheengen. My advice?? Prep beforehand!! Snap decisions are great but add extreme stress!!

    Love the writing here, thank you.

  2. Virginia, why do not you mention between the good things of being an expat in Budapest the fact that Hungarians do not speak proper English because they do not learn English(lingua franca) in schools, the fact that they are grumpy people and the LACK of customer services in shops.Also they wear black all the time, like life is an endless funeral for them, the have straight faces, they don’t smile and they do not like to smile to people on the street like in California for example……..People should know how are Hungarians in reality…isolated because of culture and history etc etc

    1. Hi Landi, this post isn’t about whether people should or shouldn’t come to Hungary, I’m suggesting questions they should ask themselves if they are considering expat life in general.
      In other posts I talk about my cross-cultural experiences in the countries I’ve lived in, not just Hungary and some of these are good, some bad. Every culture has positives and negatives – how you feel about it depends on your own attitudes and values. That’s why I specifically didn’t address the question “Will this culture suit me?” because it comes down to individual tolerances and the type of behaviour you’re used to.
      I think you’ve been quite harsh on the Hungarians, by the way. Yes, sometimes I want to tear my hair out but I’ve also met lovely cheerful Hungarians, had great customer service and I’m constantly impressed by how many people do speak excellent English. And compared to some other countries, I wouldn’t it a dismal place to live. But it’s a personal experience, that’s the nature of life.

  3. HI Virginia. Great post. I fully get your point with regards to seeking out fellow expats. It can be a hit or miss affair as I am sure you have experienced. The danger is that some that have already gone through the process of finding their way in a new culture can sometimes tend towards the negative aspects of their experience because they want to boast of their ability to overcome them. So my only advice would be to listen carefully to what they say, and use positively angled questions to get a balanced opinion. On another note… just joined the blogging world and looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. Thanks Brett, really good point, some people love to dwell on the difficulties. And sometimes the difficulties are very specific to their experience – like horror stories of immigration processes, yet often they come from people who clearly didn’t do their homework. didn’t get all the papers and turn up just expecting it to work itself out. Everything has to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ll be checking out your blog too, thanks for reading!

  4. I can honestly say that in considering my move to Budapest, I didn’t factor in any one of your five points. Mind you, that says way more about me than about you 🙂

    1. What did you consider? We can expand the list!

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