Living abroad can feel like you’re in this strange in-between space where you call two places “home.” You probably know this feeling if you’re one of the thousands of international or exchange students in Montreal. Or you might just know it because you’re like me: someone who desperately wanted to live abroad for a while, just because.
Living abroad is a time for growth, exploration, and pushing your boundaries. A lot of the time, it’s about learning what it's like to live with yourself.
“Living abroad” anxiety
Of course, there are times when the grass looks a little less green than we thought it would. We all know the feeling of homesickness, of missing your favourite diner's specialty food, or that one lovely bike path near the lake.
However, sometimes we tap into a different kind of discomfort. It’s not homesickness, but we feel a need to name it so we can tell people about it, and find a way to make peace with it.
Everyone who lives abroad experiences homesickness at one point.
I think of this feeling as "living abroad anxiety." For me, it came as an acute realisation that there are many things I could do effortlessly back home - like answering the phone, for example! - that I feel less capable of doing than a ten-year-old child in this new country.
It comes in waves, from mundane issues like figuring out how tax returns work, to more personal problems such as finding a therapist you can trust.
There are, of course, many ways to cope with this anxiety. Although I am still learning, I have found certain helpful tips to stay grounded in this new space, and feel truly at home.
Take the time to get to know your city. I know it’s tempting to just rely on Google Maps to get anywhere, but there's something incredibly rewarding about knowing the little side streets, the off-grid, family-owned eateries, and the many other routes you can take to get to your destination. Knowing how to orient yourself in the city will definitely increase your feelings of autonomy and self-confidence.
Keep essential information at the tip of your fingers
Get a neighbourhood or city guide, or any other free resource you can get your hands on to teach you about the ins-and-outs of your new living area. It’s always worth being well prepared.
Get your hands on a city guide to learn all about your new home.
Know the essential emergency numbers - police, hospitals, and fire stations. I also like to know which pharmacies are open 24/7, which buses serve the night route, and which numbers to call for any legal aid. Thankfully, you can find this information at municipal websites or tourist info sites.
It’s also a good idea to call a friend or neighbour to find out other everyday necessities, such as reputable gyms, budget-friendly hair salons, and specialty groceries.
Openness is key
Pangs of homesickness are a normal side effect of living abroad. You may miss people you once took for granted. When you need to, call home, and strengthen your bonds.
But at the same time, nothing shields us best from homesickness than having reasons to call your new temporary home, home. Make it a point to make new friends! Living in a new place means learning about its culture and its customs, and what better way to do that than by meeting new people?
Get to know the baker at your favourite bagel place or chat with the barista during a slow shift. Open yourself to your community and make friends by volunteering or by going to free events. More often than not, these new connections will serve as a reminder of all the excitement that comes with living abroad.
Eventually, the novelty of being in a foreign environment wears off, as we sink into the everyday, "I live here now" perspective.
It creeps in subtly, when you realise you know which metro line has the least amount of people during rush hour. Then you find yourself having favourite grocery stores, preferred bus routes, and an opinion on the local bagel competition. In a way, these moments are beautiful. You are in tune with the city: you’ve settled in.
For those of you who live in this in-between space, it is worth remembering that you have a relatively short time to call this new place your home. Embrace the unfamiliar. Know that your new home can at times surprise you. Allow yourself to learn, treat people with respect and openness, and acknowledge your growth. You’ve come a long way.