After ten months of trying to adapt to life in Spain, I was very excited at the prospect of moving to the UK last fall. I’d spent a nearly a year living in a city where I struggled to converse with everyone, so I was more than looking forward to living in a land where I already knew and understood the language.
I looked forward to easy conversations and no longer feeling afraid to go to the bank.
I looked forward to reading menus and signs without questioning what I thought I understood.
And boy, did I ever look forward to eavesdropping. I know this sounds bad, but trust me, when you can’t understand a single conversation going on around you, you really start to miss it.
I so naively believed knowing the language would make integrating into a new city and making friends a breeze, when in fact, now that I look back on it, it might have actually made it harder.
No Need to Learn the Language
In Spain, thanks to daily Spanish lessons, I was able to get out and meet new people.
In Leeds, this wasn’t an option. I already knew the language so there was no need for me to take lessons or join practice groups. Immediately, one easy avenue for making friends and connections was taken away from me.
Because I didn’t have a class or a group to attend, my first few weeks in the city were quite lonely. I spent my time either at home (sans internet) or at the library, scouring the web for job opportunities.
Until I finally started working in late-October, I had few opportunities to meet new people and make new friends. Yes, I struck up a friendly relationship with the barista in the coffee shop near the library, but this wasn’t exactly the social outlet I was looking for.
Thankfully, the part-time job I picked up was full of amazing people and characters, so very quickly after starting, my social needs were being met.
Lack of Expat Community
Although there were many foreigners living in Leeds, thanks to the Universities, there was almost no expat community for native-English speakers. In Madrid, there were groups like Girl Gone International and Internations where you could connect with other expats, make plans, attend events, etc., but in Leeds, other than a once a month dinner, there was nothing.
This made it really hard to meet other people at first. Thankfully, on three separate occasions, we were approached in bars or restaurants by other North Americans who recognised our accent. We got to chatting about our lives and experiences and have since become great friends.
As an expat, it’s nice to make local friends but it can also be very hard to break into already established groups. It’s also nice to have people in your life who know what you’re going through, who can commiserate and who can reassure you that you’re not going completely crazy!
Learning from my past experiences
As we kick off our year of living Swedishly, I’ve been looking back at my experiences in both Spain and the UK in hopes of learning from each to ensure that our time here is as amazing as possible.
And, although we’ve been here a week, I feel I am well on my way.
Join the Expat Community Early On
Weeks – nay months – before we were set to move, I joined a couple of local online communities for those living abroad. I did this initially to learn more about the visa process and get tips that could help us navigate the complicated housing market, but I almost immediately gained so much more.
By joining the Stockholm expat community before we arrived, I’ve helped ease the transition to our new city. I’ve found groups and events that I can’t wait to join. I’ve found more information than I know what to do with. And, most importantly, I’ve found a supportive network who have been there before, know what I’m going through, and who can answer even the stupidest of questions I might have.
Join A Club
I’ve never been much of a joiner – and to be honest, I’m still not really – but the older I get and the longer we live abroad, the more I see the value of joining and being a member of a club.
This year, I’ve really stepped out of my comfort zone and have looked into joining a social sports team, something I never thought I would do on my own. I connected with a few people who are part of a netball club (a sport I’ve barely even heard of, let alone played), explained my situation and immediately they invited me to give it a try. I’m a bit nervous to get out there, but I’m also looking forward to it. Finger’s crossed I’m not the absolute worst!
Additionally, Dave and I have found a curling league to join. Yup, we’re those Canadians. We curled the winter before we left Canada and really enjoyed it, despite not being very good (well, at least I wasn’t). We always joked that it would be fun to join a curling league in Sweden, and I’m so glad we were able to find one nearby that wholeheartedly welcomed beginners. Not only is it nice to have something we can do together, but it’s nice to have an activity that will keep us occupied when the darkness of winter starts to set in.
Learn the Language
This wasn’t an option in the UK, but it is here, and trust me when I say, I will be taking advantage of it!
Basic Swedish courses are offered to immigrants for FREE in Stockholm, which is pretty amazing if you ask me. Even though almost everyone speaks English here, I feel absolutely horrible that my knowledge doesn’t extend further than hello and thank you at this point, so I’ve vowed to make every effort to learn at least the basics. Plus, these classes are FREE, so I’d be stupid not to say no to this opportunity.
Unfortunately, the free classes are only available to residents with a personnummer, a personal identity number that you need for pretty much anything in Sweden (library cards, gym memberships, you name it and you need a personnummer to sign up for it). As we’ve only just moved, it will be a few weeks until we obtain our personnummers and I can sign up for the free classes. Until then, I’ll be taking not-so-free classes and relying on Duolingo to get a handle on the language.
Attending classes and learning the language will help me meet new people and further adapt to life in our new home and neighbourhood, with the added bonus of hopefully not feeling so bad when I don’t know how to ask for a bag at the grocery store (or the local H&M).
Expat life is hard and knowing the language will only ease a few of the struggles. Thanks to my experiences in Spain and the UK, I’ve learned that no matter where we go, by making an effort, putting myself out there and establishing a mini-community, I’ll start to feel right at home in no time.
What tips do you have for expats on getting over the hurdles of living abroad?
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