The Blog

The Exhausting Life of an Expat

In my new home, I thought, there would be fewer distractions and even fewer temptations. I'd have zero friends to start with, no pub-for-lunch-and-again-after-work culture, less pressure, and all of this is true, to a degree.

Just before Christmas, during a FaceTime conversation with my sister, Lucy, back in London, she noted, "wow you look really tired and puffy".

"Thanks, I guess. I actually feel on top of the world, but whatever".

I'd slept a solid eight or nine hours the night before and was just chilling on the sofa in my jimjams before going for a mince around Copenhagen. Must have be the lighting, or the fact I was holding my iPhone 10 inches below my chin.

Actually, though, upon closer inspection, she was right. I looked fucking dog-tired.

Three months ago I moved here from London for a sum of reasons, which I won't dwell on because I've beaten that horse to whatever place comes after death. But one of the motives for moving was time: in a nutshell, in London I had none, and believed that relocating to a new country (especially one which enforces shorter working hours) would give me more time - to relax, ponder, focus on personal projects and smooth out the furrows that had started to make me look and feel like a latex Gordon Ramsay mask.

In my new home, I thought, there would be fewer distractions and even fewer temptations. I'd have zero friends to start with, no pub-for-lunch-and-again-after-work culture, less pressure, and all of this is true, to a degree.

So why did I look like I'd been slapped out of bed by a mob of angry bees?

Because temptation and distraction are two very different beasts, and a French friend of mine who moved to London almost a year ago explained it rather succinctly.

Essentially, living somewhere for years means you become totally accustomed to your surroundings and your everyday activities, no matter how droningly dull or pant-soakingly exciting they may be; moving somewhere new destroys all that. You have to start again.

Suddenly, absolutely everything is novel - the language you hear, the food in the supermarkets, the streets you walk, the faces you meet, the sights and the smells, good or bad. And after years of process and habit living in one ecosystem, it's a bit like turning back into a child, albeit one with a job that it can do and walk to alone, and an apartment with beer in the fridge and size 10 feet.

All the wet information you've been storing up in your spongy little brain is suddenly and unceremoniously wrung out onto the floor of the airport arrivals lounge.

Now the sponge is dry again and you must go around saturating it with all the joy and wisdom of living in 'foreign', and even going for a leisurely stroll demands more energy because of the things you're taking in.

It's like playing Grand Theft Auto for the first time when you rely on the map legend in the corner of the screen to navigate the sprawl of San Andreas. Then after spending your entire seven-week school summer holiday shut in a dark room playing it you suddenly know your way around better than the town you live in and you know where the helicopters can be found and where the best cars can be stolen.

When you do all this subconscious map learning and culture vulture-ing in a new place, your mind is hyper-activated. Consequently, you need to let it rest more, or the bags under your eyes turn into suitcases.

This is commonly referred to as either 'cultural fatigue' or 'culture shock' - two phrases I absolutely eschew because they sound negative to the point of diagnosable, plus shocking certainly isn't a word I'd use to describe Denmark. And I haven't even scratched the icy surface of the culture here, so there's really no way I can be fatigued by it just yet.

If there does ever come a day, though, when I walk into a Danish bakery and have a violent meltdown at the sight of so many delicious things, or launch an open sandwich across a restaurant because I wanted two goddamn slices of bread, then I'll be sure to let you know.

And there's more. If you want to survive - or succeed - in a new environment, you absolutely cannot be lazy. On top of the involuntary acquiring of new information, there are mentally and physically demanding things you must do consciously, too: study a language, learn the requirements of your new job, find place where you can buy elusive products like Sour Patch Kids, Marmite or a two-way cable splitter, and maybe make some friends as well.

This last one probably deserves a whole separate think piece, and of course everyone's experience of this will differ, depending on where you are, your particular interests and whether you're a friendly person or a fucking dullard.

That said, seven years ago, during a stint living in Paris, one of our tutors gave us internationals some advice that really stuck: never decline an invitation (within reason - obviously). Become the Yes Man you were too complacent to be in your former home.

It works. Even if you've just landed and your new housemate invites you to a networking and pitching event at the local Business School and on the surface you really don't feel like it, just fucking go. Say yes. The absolute joy of living as a newbie in a new place is that you really have everything to gain and nothing to lose other than maybe your visa, job, home, wallet, phone, keys and dignity. That's literally it.

Yes, settling in as an expat can and will be laborious, demanding and it's the long-game to be played, but the rewards are tenfold, and I defy you to name me one single worthwhile and wholly satisfying endeavour that doesn't require at least a little sweat.