A Baptism of Fire

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This was not supposed to happen.

I never planned to live abroad, let alone make it a way of life. My introduction to the nomadic lifestyle was truly a baptism of fire. It was not graceful or particularly easy but, looking back, it is this year where I lived abroad for the first time – at the age of 16 – which has most shaped me and started me down the path I’m now on. If you talk to other nomads, many have a similar story of a time and place that was a turning point that led them to choose such a life. Maybe you have experienced this too?

My induction was an international Rotary youth exchange for which I – voluntarily – moved to a small town in Rheinland, Germany to live with a host family for one year, attend high school and to generally immerse myself in the local culture and language. I’ll never forget arriving at the airport in Cologne, a naïve, non-German speaking 16 year-old who had never really traveled abroad before and being greeted by my new host family ‘Herzlich Willkommen in Deutschland!’ –  Oh dear God, what have I done.

This was the only thought running through my mind before the panic and slight sense of nausea set in. I will spare you the nuts and bolts of my first three months, but let’s just say that they were not easy. I considered giving up altogether.

However, I realise now that it was in these initial dark days that I was developing the skills to face the challenges that I have come know as par for the course to anyone who moves to a foreign country: feelings of isolation and not ‘fitting in’; homesickness; the sense of disorientation; and the self-doubt about whether I have indeed made the right decision.  Am I making the most out of this opportunity? I’ve gotten better at managing and addressing these feelings but I find that no matter how often I move – now eight times – they seem to creep up again to varying degrees. Regardless, my baptism of fire in Germany forced me to learn quickly how to cope and these skills opened the door to the self-awareness that I can live abroad and thrive. It was one hell of a year, and one which I’m incredibly grateful for.

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Living in Germany as a student did not, however, prepare me for other questions and considerations that come with growing up, especially as a woman:  career; settling down in one place; settling down with a partner; maintaining friendships with friends who have set down roots.  As a student – whether in high school, Bachelors or Masters Programs – my living abroad was broadly acceptable as a youthful ‘frolic.’  It was seen by most, including some members of my family, as a fun adventuresome phase before I join the ‘real world’.

But what happens when your nomadic life continues once ‘real life’ with a job and all has started? I am just finding out now. I don’t agree with those that see an expiry date on the time of life when a  woman may live and explore one foreign country before moving on to another as  opportunity strikes (I think this is ridiculous). Their sentiment is, however, causing me to reflect more on my own choices. As I get older, I see the number of my peers who continue to live the nomadic lifestyle shrinking and I would be lying if I said I have no self-doubt.

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My days as an exchange student in Germany prepared me for the key challenges of moving abroad. However, it is a whole new ball game now as I learn to manage expectations from friends, families and colleagues, practical considerations (in which country to establish a pension!) as well as to understand what it is I want. This is why I’m thrilled to be a part of this amazing blog team who can provide voice and thoughts to these exact issues. I also feel lucky to be connected to a wider community of people like us who realise our privilege to be able to experience the world and move abroad by choice but who are also very honest with the personal challenges that accompany this.

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