I have lived in Dublin as an English expat for over four years now. As I prepare to move on, the time seems right to impart some of my learned wisdom on life as an expat. Apart from a firm handshake and a strong backbone, you need patience, because there is no pop-up life or instant contentment — that takes work.
Once an expat, always an expat.
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Those lucky enough to go to Uni may remember that weird sensation when you return home after your first term, ‘did home change, or did I?’. Living abroad brings a more disconcerting feeling, because you find yourself slipping into another society, clawing out a space for yourself while the gap from which you came gradually closes up. Whether consciously, or unconsciously, you assimilate. You adapt to your new environment. For some this may trigger an identity crisis, or a sense of isolation. Personally, I embraced Irish life and enjoyed the journey of integration — though at times, it was lonely.
However, the toughest part was always going home. I would feel mixed-up and confused, in those first three years, as though I had changed irrevocably and no longer belonged. I was a tourist in my own country. I struggled to convey my everyday reality to my friends and felt disconnected. In my fourth year, I am finally over this stage because I accept that Ireland is my current home.
However, I may not be returning ‘home’ to London because now I understand that once you’re an expat, you’re always an expat: that gap from which you came becomes old, partially closed and cramped. It is a normal part of life’s cycle for most. You have to keep moving and creating your own space. One day I may go back to London, but I will essentially be starting again and resetting my lifestyle to sync with London life. Of course, come what may, my family is always where my heart is.
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Moving to an English speaking country is like switching from a fluffy white pan to a grainy wholemeal loaf : it’s the same but with a bit more texture and flavour than you’re used to, right? I moved to Miami on a study abroad year and thought it would be like England, but with sun and salsa. I was wrong. I moved to Ireland thinking it would be like England, but with more rain and more pubs. I was wrong. This was probably down to naivety, or the kind of ignorance that makes English folk look bad.
After spending four years absorbing Irish culture and writing within it, I have to say that Irish culture is nuanced, it’s rich and getting underneath the banter and the craic may take some time. Each place has its own history, which shapes its people and the sense of national identity, making it unique. It would be too easy to define Ireland by its atrocious weather, good natured people and the love of a few jars. People here put on a front more than they may realise — more than the blunt London personalities I was used to. So to fellow expats I would advise you to ditch any preconceived notions of the country you’re going to inhabit, sit back, watch and enjoy spotting the difference. There will be a culture shock.
Soak it up, but don’t forget who you are.
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Assimilation can be a bit of a dirty word. The Irish suffered cultural assimilation at the hands of the British, resulting in the partial loss of the Irish language and parts of their culture. It’s a bit embarrassing really. However, as I myself slipped into the fabric of life in Ireland, I found myself naturally assimilating — I indulged in terms like ‘craic’ which means all kinds of fun, ‘yer man’ which could be anybody really and I even started turning statements into questions with ‘so?’ or ‘will I?’ at the end of sentences. It wasn’t deliberate, but it certainly created a flow to conversations, with less misunderstandings.
My personality changed a bit too, I became more laid back and literally soaked up my surroundings. Inside, I’m still a blunt and probably highly strung, English girl. It’s very easy to get lost when you live abroad, because you do change and you do grow faster. As you adopt a new culture parts of yourself are compromised — and that’s okay — but there comes a point when you need to stop soaking it all in and somehow define yourself again. Remember the person who you were, the person you are and the person you want to be. Always stay true to yourself. On a national scale, I have to say, the Irish are pretty good at this.
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All this talk of integration is grand, but if you’re going to move to a new country, you have to be prepared to be bold too. Speak up and speak out. Once you’re a foreigner, you realise how easily they are dismissed — especially in a close-knit community like Ireland. As an English gal this wasn’t so much an issue, but I do know that when faced with a culture you’re only just getting used to, your instinct is often to pale into the background. That’s fine, but if you want to start a new life you have to take part and engage with your environment first, otherwise you’ll just end up frustrated and at worst, forgotten.
The best advice I can give is to enjoy your differences and your quirks — it’s what makes you interesting! Your accent will always be a starting point for conversation and once you show others you’re willing to engage you’re much more likely to start building new relationships. Integration is hard work, but being bold and making a show of yourself is fun: let everybody know that you’ve arrived 🙂
Expat Friendships: starting from scratch.
When travelling you stay in hostels and meet fellow travellers and when studying you’re lumped in with a pool of fellow late-nighters: but how do you meet people when you move to a new country to actually live and work? Most people would try and strike up friendships with their colleagues, but this isn’t always easy or appropriate. Due to the limited age range where I worked, I was pretty much left to my own devices.
Fortunately, I moved into a great house in the inner-city with a bunch of like-minded nutters who took me under their wing. As my mother would say, all my eggs were in one basket and this worried me, a lot. Although I would take myself off to visit art galleries, go for cycles or read the paper in a cafe, when it came to going out to party I was totally reliant on my housemates: I felt like a tag along for a while and worried that I was a burden. This is when being bold comes into play — if I’d listened to those worries, life would have much more difficult.
I found the website meetup.com quite handy at first, as it enables you to meet up with other people from your community and indulge in shared hobbies: I opted for life drawing which included pints and chats afterwards. I also started a course which brought me into contact with other budding journalists and following a year of stress, a couple of great friendships were formed.
The problem is that it takes a while for friendships to evolve. After living in Dublin for four years, in two different houses, I feel utterly at home and surrounded by great people I love. I’ve been very lucky. For others, especially in non-English speaking countries, finding an expat community may have been necessary to really get the social life going.
Men: they’re not all the same.
I love rolling my eyes and whinging about men, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them and the strange varieties they come in. Dating while living abroad provides a great insight into your adopted country and promises to shatter stereotypes, while perhaps building new ones.
When you start dating in a new country, you have to be prepared for more of that culture shock. For example, an observation from Ireland would be that communication is less forthcoming with Irish men — particularly when it comes to feelings, the important stuff. In my first year in Ireland I was shocked at the charmless texts of a love interest, so matter of fact and devoid of any clues as to his feelings. By my second year I’d all but given up on Irish men. However, I finally met my match with a County Clare man. Which leads to another observation: plenty of Irish men are absolute gents and particularly from the country. They really look out for their female counterparts, which is lovely.
Despite going to Ireland with a head full of ‘PS. I Love You’ dreams of a hunky farmer/musician from Connemara, I managed to break through the stereotypes and find out a bit more about the inner workings of Irish masculinity. If you’re young and free, go seek. Just keep an open mind and don’t expect Irish lads to be wearing any of that ‘guy-liner’ or v-neck t-shirts…
*As seen on awolwithalice.com