Whether I’m jet-setting off to an island in Greece or sharing photos on Instagram of the Alps, life abroad can seem pretty glamorous. I feel like ever since I moved abroad the question I’m most often asked is: how?? or “That’s my dream!”. The truth is that it wasn’t easy. Not any part of this journey. And truthfully, living abroad is very difficult.
Much harder than I ever expected. And I can’t believe I’m hitting publish on this blog post but I also think I needed to express how I really felt.
I often feel a bit on the outside when other bloggers talk about living abroad. While I love this life and know I chose it, I also wanted to talk about the ugly side. Because sometimes I just flat out hate living abroad.
So often, travel, and living in another country is depicted in the best light. The stunning buildings, cobblestone streets, and charming cafes that beckon you are all here. I admit: Germany is much prettier than Dallas, Texas. It’s true! But it’s also true that living here has its ups and downs. And it’s time to shed light on the downs.
If you make the decision to uproot your entire life I have lots of respect for you. If you make the decision without a plan I’m telling you now: don’t do it. Ours took years to plan. We saved up money. We even hired a lawyer at one point. Moving abroad takes support from family and friends, confidence in yourself, and yes, money.
I thought I’d share the hardships of living abroad. Since I know some of you might want to do the same, or just might be curious about the reality of living in a foreign country.
Full disclosure: we (my husband and I) moved abroad with two suitcases, our two dogs, no visas, and we’d never even been to the country before. You can read that full story here if you’re interested. Many people move abroad with a student visa, a work permit, or some support that brings them abroad.
It’s harder to move and get a visa, like we did, but it is possible. And I’m thankful every day that we got approved to live abroad as freelancers in Heidelberg, Germany. We spent a lot of time to meticulously choose Heidelberg as our home base and I’m thrilled we did. You can see right here why we chose this as our home base. And after traveling around for two years, I still think this spot was the best for us.
But it hasn’t been all cobblestones and castles…
What I hate about living abroad:
Convenience is out the window. In so many ways. But let’s take a look:
Grocery stores and all shops are closed on Sundays. I will never get used to this. I have the flexibility of not having a regular 9-5 job. But if I didn’t?! Whoa nelly this would anger me. There’s really only one non-work day a week to get the shopping done. Also, if you’re in a pinch and feel a cold coming on or just need one more ingredient for your pumpkin pie and it happens to be Sunday then you’re just out of luck.
Oh, and, if you’re a truck driver in Germany you can’t work on Sundays. Can you imagine if you end up your drive somewhere you don’t want to be? You just have to sit there and wait for Monday to come!
Banking. To move money or send a payment I have to have a small book next to me to make sure I follow the right process. I have multiple pins and codes I feel like I’m trying to get into the Ministry of Magic. When I do send someone money or pay off a bill I am told a secret number that I then need to look up that corresponds to a pin that I must input. This is real! Also, it’s a little much. I understand security but this seems over the top.
Out of stock? They won’t be getting any back in. I’m always surprised by the supply and demand problem here. Example: we were buying an air conditioner for our apartment last year. When we went to the store they were out of stock. When we asked when they were getting more in they said, “That’s it. No more.” Despite the fact that, clearly, they were sold out so wouldn’t you want to sell more? Not here.
Once, when we were trying to buy a car Michael asked if they had a certain make or model. The response? “No. Go look somewhere else.” Most car dealers, one would think, want you to buy their car. Apparently, not this one.
Customer service seems almost obsolete.
I like a tip based customer service model. When you have a waiter wanting to make a tip they are generally nicer and come around more often. In Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, you have to practically yell to get their attention. Since most customer service positions have a full salary they don’t go the extra mile. It can be infuriating. It’s interesting, I’ve talked to my European friends and they think Americans are either fake-nice or the waiter comes around too often. Just goes to show you like what you’re used to.
Since we travel so much we often deal with the many headaches related to travel: delays, flight cancellations, parking, late trains, etc. But once on our way home from Croatia was true insanity. We parked our car in airport parking and left the ticket on the dash, so people could see we did, in fact, have a ticket. When we went to put the ticket in the machine to pay and leave it was unreadable. I went into the airport for help and no one would help me. What did I need to do? Call a number of the parking central office 5 hours away. Keep in mind, it was 10 pm at night and we were tired. After multiple attempts to call they let us know that the ticket had faded since we “shouldn’t have left in on the dashboard.” The entire time we were made to feel as if we were the stupid ones and that we simply, “should have known.”
Because there is so much time off here sometimes you can’t get hold of the right person for months. MONTHS! Once we were passed off to three different people because they all had “out-of-office” messages. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I won’t go into detail since I already have a post about my surgery abroad but man that was an experience! Despite the language barrier (my lack of German) there could have been a way to be a bit more kind. Especially when removing tubes in my leg.
Rules. Rules. And more rules.
When I first moved to Germany I learned quickly that you wait to cross the road when the little electronic green crosswalk man signals you to go. I like that. It helps teach children to follow the rules. But man, I’ve never seen such a rule-oriented society and a willingness to correct others.
People love to tell you if you’re breaking a rule. Whether or not it affects them. For example: if you have your bike on the tram when it’s a busy time, someone, not even getting on said tram, will yell at you to not be on it. They just have an urgent need to let you know you’re breaking a rule.
Also, you know people are German if they start waiting in line long before it seems reasonable to do so.
The driving here is so incredibly difficult. City driving means you have to watch out for pedestrians, bikes, scooters, trams, and other cars on streets that are constantly way too small to fit one, let alone two cars. But everyone always talks about the famous German Autobahn where you can drive unlimited speeds. But here’s the catch: you only get to do that for a short time. The “unlimited” driving only seems to last, at a maximum a dozen miles. After that, you’ll be driving around 120 kilometers (about 75 miles an hour). But if it’s a construction zone (which also seems to be every few miles) then you will drive at a snail’s pace. I’ve never in my life seen so many speed limit changes. I once counted on my way home from Stuttgart airport, (an hour drive) and on the “Autobahn” the speed limit changed 26 times.
It also appears they don’t know how to merge. There will be a 20-minute delay (conveniently, on your way to the airport) simply because the lanes are going from 3 to 2. Or sometimes for no reason at all.
You can’t get your staples
Pumpkin pie spice? Nope. Regular bread flour? Forget it. Cling wrap that works? Not happening. Bath and Body Works candles? LOL. How about plastic tampons? Apparently, those aren’t sold around here. I know this might be strange, but you get used to certain things in your life. For me, that is plastic tampons. Those are not sold here. If I happen to see them in say, Spain, I’ll cram them into my carry-on bag because I’m so excited to find that.
On the other hand, I do love that the world isn’t so globalized that we can just get the same products everywhere. Then travel might feel too familiar. But still. The plastic tampons? Can we at least get that?!
Not once have I had my hair highlighted properly. Not. One. Time. I’ve shown pictures and been as specific as possible. Every time, it’s not right or looks yellow or that one time where I’m not sure he put any dye on it at all.
It’s hotter here in the summer.
I am from Texas. Any given day in August is fry-an-egg-on-your-windshield hot. But in almost all of Europe there seems to be no A/C. We will specifically look for hotels that offer A/C only to find out a dinky contraption that can barely spurt out enough air and makes so much noise we can’t sleep.
I might get in trouble for this one… but I have to say it:
Germans can be quite rude.
Or maybe I should say upfront? People will tell you outright if you look bad. They will ask questions such as: why are you so pale? Or, if you ask for something at the bakery. For example: do you have croissants? The response might be something like: “Well, I assume so.” Their frankness can be very hard to get used to. In that, I haven’t after two years. Maybe it’s part of their unspoken rule to be as direct as possible along with the rule to not barbecue too much on your porch?!
Bottom line living abroad is challenging. From the languages, visas, residency, all around bureaucracy, and the differences in culture make it tough to feel at home.
Tips if you get burned out living abroad:
- Head to the Facebook Group Grumpy Expat and commiserate with others.
- Write a blog post… like this one.
- Spend a day at home doing things you might not do abroad: aka make that pumpkin pie and buy that $12 overpriced pumpkin pie spice on Amazon because you deserve it!
- Be a tourist in your own city and relive what you love about it.
- Find friends via Meetup.com or Internations. This is how we made friends when we moved abroad.
*Keep in mind… this is my opinion. Some of this stuff is even quite silly. Some big stuff makes me realize America will probably always be my home. But I think it’s important to share the good and the bad. And really, my opinion. Thanks for letting me be therapeutically grumpy. I surprisingly feel much better after writing this post!
There are OF COURSE some incredible wonderful things about living abroad: great food (cheese, bread), ease of travel, I bike or walk almost everywhere, flowers and food are very inexpensive, wine is better here, Christmas markets, along with festivals in general, and, in my opinion, it’s a much prettier place to live. But sometimes you have to share the bad.
Hope you enjoyed this and would love to know your thoughts!
You might also like to read: What I’ve Learned About Germans Since Living in Germany