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What people never tell you about moving abroad

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

'It's great that you've come all the way from Holland to sort us all out!'

That's what one of the local councillors told me.

I was a bit taken aback.

I had worked for that particular local council for no more than six months. But I already felt a real part of it.

In actual fact, I was happy doing the work I was doing. It was engaging. It was interesting. I had a lot of freedom. I had nice colleagues. It was not too taxing. Plenty of time to hone my English language skills, especially in a business setting.

In other words, I was enjoying myself.

I didn't think I was 'sorting them all out'. I didn't really think of myself as 'from Holland' either.

Which was interesting. Because I'd only moved to the UK six months previously.

Why I moved abroad

You see, I never really wanted to move abroad. I was quite happy, living in the Netherlands. I had a good career, in real estate (believe it or not). My family was never more than 2 hours away (which - if you know the Netherlands - realise is logical, because NO ONE is ever more than 2 hours away!). It was safe, risk-free.

It was also getting a bit stale - although I only realised THAT a good few years later.

I wasn't like today's career-minded people. Who see moving abroad as a necessity for their career. Who feel that it is almost inevitable (and very good for your CV) to have lived and worked abroad for a while.

I would have quite happily toddled on in my career in real estate, climbing slowly - very slowly - up the career ladder. Being somewhat frustrated, but not enough to do anything as drastic as moving abroad.

And then I met my partner. He is British. He came to Holland for a while. Never really settled. We had our son. And we moved (in his case, back) to the UK. We never looked back.

Reasons to move abroad

In other words, I moved to the UK for love. Apparently, I was one of 11% of people who do.* There are, however a myriad of reasons why people decide to move abroad. To have a better quality of life. To experience other cultures. To have an adventure.

And of course, with the pandemic has come the ability to work from pretty much anywhere, allowing people to work abroad, even if they're still working for the same employer.

You may have had that same dream. To work abroad. To experience how other people live. Speak another language. Have the hot sun on your back instead of the October drizzle.

There are lots of advantages to moving abroad. What I want to do with this blog is to tell you about what I think the things are that people never tell you about. The hidden advantages or disadvantages, whatever way you want to look at it. These hidden things that you only find out when you actually do it. No, not about all the practical things: how to sort out a visa, which jabs to get, what to do about health insurance, how to get a job, buy a house, drive a car. This blog isn't long enough to cover all that.

No, I want you to know the things that you'll feel when you move abroad. How different everything feels. How different everything is to what you've experienced before. Not in a bad way, mind you! But in a real way.

So that you can make up your mind about taking the plunge.

What people never tell you about moving abroad

  • Speaking another language

When I came to the UK I spoke English. My partner and I had lived together for three years. We had argued and communicated in English. After a year of living together my partner said I spoke English in my sleep.

Then I came to the UK. And had to learn business English.

I was lucky. I had ten years of work experience that I could apply anywhere. There was a job available. I got the job offer the day after we moved.

And that's when I learned. Not only to speak the language, but also how to write it. Whatever I learned in the Netherlands - about how to write reports and other documents - was not applicable in the UK. I quickly found out that the British don't shake hands at the beginning of meetings (a habit that I'm SO glad to get rid of). I learned what 'procurement' was, and about partnership working. How councils work. I learned about British habits and how to behave professionally in another country. How to write notes and introduce myself in meetings.

But most importantly? I gained so much in confidence!

A year into that job I found myself standing up in front of a room of people and make a speech! In English! To people I barely knew!

Me! The person who absolutely hated doing presentations!

My lesson? No matter how well you speak a language, working in another country in that language is hard. Everything you thought you knew is wrong. It's an enormous learning curve. But one that's so worth it!

Especially when you find yourself having a total out-of-body experience and look at yourself doing a speech in a language that isn't yours. And actually enjoy doing it!

  • Being 'in-between'

I'm not quite sure what the occasion was. But everyone in the council office went outside. To raise the British flag for something. It must have been a couple of months in.

That's when it hit me. 'I'm actually here', is what I thought. I'm living in another country. In the UK.

A few years later, my son and I went to Holland, to visit my parents. My uncle laughed at me. Because of my British accent.

When you start living abroad you don't think about this. I thought of myself as Dutch. A Dutch woman, living in the UK. I still do.

But what's really happening is that you're in between. You're never British. You're not Dutch anymore. And the longer you live in your 'new' country the worse that gets.

I wouldn't want to live in Holland anymore. The flatness. The wind. The wetness. The busy-ness. The small-ness.

But with my Dutch accent and my distinctly Dutch name I'll never be British.

It's an unsettling feeling. Being in a permanent state of transition. In a state of non-belonging. I've decided to embrace it as 'the new normal'. A state I believe lots of people now live in.

  • Losing your identity

Alberteen Tames! The doctor called out from the door to her room.

You see, in Holland they've got a funny habit of giving you Christian names (often after one or more of your grandparents), but calling you differently in real life. So my first Christian name is Albertine (Al-ber-teen). Which is what I've written down on all official documentation.

The first time I was called that I felt I had just lost a piece of myself. Of course that was my name. Officially.

But no one ever called me that. My 'real' name is Tineke (Tee-na-ka), which I now spell out routinely.

When I go to the doctor, or the dentist, I change my identity. I feel like a different person, like I'm playing a part. It's disconcerting.

  • The honeymoon period

When you first move to a new country everything is better. The weather is better. The people are nicer. Everything is much easier. Even the politics don't drive you up the wall (well, it didn't then. Not until 2016 anyway).

The honeymoon period. That blissful period when everything is new and shiny. If you ever decide to move abroad be aware it exists. Enjoy it. Hold on to it. Remember it when you're having a bad day. Which you will. Because everything, even a honeymoon, will come to an end.

  • Opportunities

You see? This is the thing with moving abroad. All of a sudden, if you've been uprooted from everything you know, you look around you, you start looking at yourself with a new pair of eyes.

When I first came to the UK, I started painting again. I hadn't done this for over a decade (I know, right!).

I started developing some of my new-found skills. (Speaking English! Writing English! Partnership working!).

I started turning some of my idiosyncrasies into strengths. (Not a native speaker? Chances are that you won't talk the jargon either!).

And I saw a lot more opportunities as a result. Because I was no longer tied to my 'identity' as 'someone who worked in real estate'. Because I was willing to try anything new. Because I was enthusiastic.

  • Your family

Never will your family be less than two hours away. In fact, due to Covid, I haven't seen my family in over two years. Other than via Skype.

It's difficult, that. And it's a relief at the same time.

Which sounds weird.

What I mean is, when you do (finally) get to meet your family it is because you want to. Because you've made an effort to go.

Instead of having to rock up in a room full of uncles and aunts for someone's birthday or other occasion. And never getting to talk to someone for real.

It does mean the distance between you and your family grows. The same for your friends 'back home' (which is no longer home).

You're uprooted. It impacts your family ties. And the ties with your friends. There's no denying that.

However, there's also an opportunity to build better relationships. To - when you decide to be there - really BE there.

  • Immigration

A final word on immigration. When I first moved to the UK it was part of the European Union. My partner and I could move freely between the two countries - and the rest of Europe. Brexit has taken that away from us. All of a sudden it feels fragile, uncertain. It contributes to this sense of being in 'transition', of unsettled-ness (despite settled status).

I can only imagine what the immigration process does for people who had to leave their country, as refugees. For people who are vulnerable and haven't had the wherewithal to deal with these suddenly changed rules.

If a Western European woman can feel like this in a fellow Western European country, imagine what someone from Afghanistan must feel! Or from Syria.

And on that sober note I'd like to say - if you want to move abroad, DO IT!

It's by far the most fulfilling, exciting, unsettling, advantageous thing you can do. It literally opens your horizons and provides you with opportunities you wouldn't have had where you are now. But there are things that people will not tell you. That you will only experience when you do it. Things that feel personal to you.

I have told you how I felt, what I experienced.

I wonder what YOU'll decide.


Tineke Tammes is an ICF credentialed Career Coach, who supports professional women in making successful transitions to careers of Freedom, Flexibility and Fulfilment! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler. Oh, and she knows a bit about change management too.

Join her now in Pick 'n Mix - the FREE community for creative, multi-passionate women or sign up to the newsletter.

* Leading motivations for expats to move abroad - William Russell

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