From the first moment I set foot in Europe, I’ve dreamed of what it would be like to live there. It didn’t hurt that my first visit to the continent took me to Switzerland, one of the most beautiful and livable countries in the world. As I criss-crossed the stunning countryside via the comfort of the luxurious and efficient Swiss rail system, I marvelled at how surprisingly easy everything felt. I could buy the best cheese I had ever tasted at a supermarket. No matter where I wanted to go, there was a train, a gondola, or a boat that could get me there. As an added bonus, nearly everyone spoke English. I zipped from one gorgeous mountain town to the next, eating a hunk of aisle-six Gruyère and a fresh baguette for every meal, communicating effortlessly with the locals… in short, I was making myself very much at home.
The first thing I did when I returned state-side was research the feasibility of a move abroad. Sadly, I did not meet a rich, Swiss husband on my trip, so it looked like I would need a boring, Swiss job instead. Employment would certainly interfere with my traipsing throughout the continent, but it seemed to be a necessary evil. Many of the job postings that I found called for knowledge of either French or German; so much for my magic English bullet. And come to think of it, eating bread and cheese for every meal may not actually be all that healthy. Suddenly my expat dream took on a new reality: I would be an obese, cubicle rat wallowing in my own solitude.
Living abroad is a common dream for those of us affected by wanderlust. But life in a new country is much different than taking an international vacation. Every time I ask a friend for input on whether or not I should move to Europe, I get the same advice: “Just do it.” Somehow I feel that this decision warrants more consideration. While it’s tempting to take the “you only live once” approach, I also understand the struggles associated with establishing a life in a new place.
When I was 24, I made the difficult decision to quit my Ph.D. program and move to Washington, DC. Receiving my graduate acceptance letter two years earlier had been like getting a package of insta-life in the mail; it came complete with a work study opportunity, a list of popular apartment complexes, and a whole new set of classmate friends, all wrapped up in a box and tied with a big red ribbon. A move to the big city would offer none of these; I would have to navigate a competitive housing market, find a job, and make social contacts, all outside of the confines of an insular academic institution. But I was ready for the challenge. It had turned out that my Ph.D. program was not the right fit for me, and the possibilities that lay before me, though unknown, seemed better than the discontent I was experiencing.
Seven years later I find myself waging the same internal war. My move to Washington has brought me some amazing life experiences. I’ve successfully established a home, a romantic relationship, and a social circle, all in the context of a world-class city, where I’ve developed a taste for sophisticated food, had my choice of cultural and personal development opportunities, and met people from all around the globe. Plus, I’m a short, one-hour plane ride away from my family, including my nieces and nephew, who are all growing up way too quickly. Yet, I can’t ignore that nagging feeling that I’m missing out on a dream that I’m meant to fulfill. And every day that I stall on making the decision on whether or not to leave it all behind in exchange for life in a new country, I move further away from making that dream become a reality.
In your 20s, everyone in your peer group is relatively unstable, seeking friendship and blindly carving out their paths. In your 30s, many of your counterparts have already settled into lives that often include established social circles and new and growing families. Making a big change at this stage feels more daunting than ever before. Not only is my own life fairly established, making it difficult to leave behind various comforts, but I worry that the lives of potential new friends and contacts living abroad are also already established; possibly too established to make room for a wide-eyed, 31-year old American girl… errr, woman.
There are, of course, other challenges to consider beyond whether or not I would easily be able to make friends. Could I get a job abroad? Will it be overly frustrating trying to navigate my new home in a foreign language? Will my boyfriend come with me? Who would rent my condo in DC? Would I miss my niece’s Cinderella-themed 4th birthday party? These questions still remain unanswered, and they weigh on me on a regular basis. But the biggest question is, will I eventually regret it if I don’t go?
I already know the answer to that one.