What is an expat, a traveller, an immigrant… everyone has their own definition of those words, but here are some aspects of our Serial Expat lives which, while they may not define who we are completely, gives you an idea of how we live. If you’re considering taking the plunge and moving abroad, either for long term travels or as an expat, you’ll probably become familiar with at least some of the following totally weird but all too common expat facts:
1* Where are you these days?
Conversations with family and friends sometimes start with “which country are you in?” Honestly, some of our family and friends sometimes have a hard time keeping up with our travels and current location. You can’t blame them, really. Just think, I travel on average to 3 or 4 different countries every year and over the summer holidays, it can be 3 countries within a month.Those are the main countries I’ve lived in and visited regularly since 2012:
2* What’s Your Address?
I don’t have an address to put on forms or give to family. I use some friends’ address and FAO all the time when a bank or something like that asks for an address. An old friend (old= known him for a very long time + he is now past 80 years old) once told me that he had to buy a new address book (see i told you he was old) just for me. He used to send me holiday cards every year around Xmas, but he crossed out and amended my address so many times he ran out of space. I’m sure many expats can relate. Other friends have (jokingly) suggested I buy a camper van as it would suit me better than a house.
3* Where is Home Anyway?
The other day, I saw a poll online asking people where they felt safer, whether it was in their current location or “back home”. That got me thinking. Not about safety or security but about the concept of “back home”. What is back home, if like me, you keep moving forward? “Back home” is a concept that is only declined in the present tense for me, the here and now is Home. Wherever I decide to drop my suitcase is home. Where I live, where I work, where my kids go to school is home. The rest? The other countries I’ve been to and lived in? I guess we can call that background, a part of my history and something that shaped the person I am today, but none of those are Home or “back home” since I have no plan to move back to any of them. I’m still not 100% sure where I’ll be in a month time but most likely it won’t be Home forever either. We are already talking about at least another 2 countries we may move to in the future.
4* Time Zones
It is sometimes difficult to remember the exact time in all the countries where my family and friends are, so my computer shows 5 different world clocks at the moment. After I’ve skyped people in the middle of the night or at 5 o’clock in the morning, I decided it would be bad for my relationships if I kept doing it. On top of that, when you are job hunting internationally, having all the world clocks right there on your screen makes it easier to schedule interviews and so on.
5* International Dialing Codes
You can easily spot an expat by looking at their phones. In my phone, all the phone numbers are listed with the international dialing codes, even the local ones: they won’t be local forever. Before becoming a serial expat, I had trouble remembering international dialing codes. Now it’s like currencies and exchange rate, I know quite a lot by heart.
6* Currency Converter
It is quite common for people to have at home a little box with some coins and notes gathered from traveling abroad, and of course I have one too. In fact, mine came in really handy not too long ago.
Shortly after starting work in Libya, we found ourselves waiting and waiting for that first salary to come in. Having just moved in town, our expenses were many so we were totally counting on our salaries to keep us going. Unfortunately, those didn’t come and we found ourselves completely broke, with a capital B! So we thought “money is money”, no matter where it comes from. We started looking everywhere around the house for notes and coins and gathered quite a lot of them from Bahrein, Qatar, England, France, Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia… My husband went to town to try to exchange the money into Libyan Dinars. Well, what do you know? They accepted ALL our money (even coins) and we ended up living on the money for a week. Not bad, right?
Ohhh and next time you need a currency converter, ask your expat friends. Living abroad, and keeping relationships going in many different countries means that I also know quite a few currency exchange rates from memory. I also currently have bank accounts in four different countries that I keep just enough money in to keep open. It helps when travelling there: I can simply transfer some money that I can withdraw on arrival.
7* TCK (Third Culture Kid)
Talk about TCK, my children are somewhere at the fourth or fifth level by now. I was born in France, my husband in Tunisia. My oldest child was born in England where he lived just over 2 years before moving to Libya with us. My youngest son was born in France, where he lived for only 2 weeks before we took him back to the UK where we were living at the time. He turned 1 year old in the UK, 2 years old during our holidays in Tunisia after we had moved to Libya. Who knows where my children will be next time they have a birthday?
As for languages, well, English is our main language at home: first language for my children and second language for my husband and I. Outside the home, since we live in Saudi Arabia, Arabic is the main language here (Arabic is the lingua-franca in Libya too), my children’s second language and my husband’s first. The children currently attend a Franco-Tunisian International school, where they learn English as a foreign language. Finally, our holidays are often split between France, where French is the main language, and Tunisia, where the Arabic spoken is quite different from the one they picked up in Libya and the one spoken here in Saudi.
I gotta say I feel totally blessed that I can offer this to my kids and I consider it one of the best gift I could ever give them.
8* Long Term Friendships
I’m not the right kinda friend if you want me by your side every day, that’s for sure. But I am very loyal in friendship and no matter the distance or the years in between our meetings, I’m the kinda friend that never forgets you. Living a life of travel has many advantages but keeping strong long-distance relationships is not always easy. It takes the right kind of friends and of course social medias. I still have the same friends I met in my first year of university, the friends I met along the road in all the different countries are still my friends but of course I don’t get to see them much. Last summer was incredible as I got to visit France after a 2 year gap, and my old gal pals from uni were kind enough to fit me in their schedules so we could meet and spend some amazing time together. One of them I hadn’t seen in 5 years, the other in 15 years!!! And you know what? It was like those years had never happened! We laughed, and talked, and joked just like we had done the last time we were together.
Making friends and keeping them is one of the most difficult part of socializing as a serial expat. The fact that we move so much, that we start again from scratch many times means that when we meet new people, we know from the start that this new relationship has a (often short) use-by-date. I think maybe we have less friends than other people but I think our friendships are much more intense and strong. With our families, the relationship can sometimes be awkward as we miss so much of what makes family life: we are not always there for celebrations, births, weddings and all. They cannot always relate to us anymore because our daily lives are so different but all this means nothing if people keep an open heart and an open mind. The gap can be filled quite quickly and the little time you get to spend with your loved ones is ever more intense and amazing that if you saw them everyday. There is no boredom, no pretense or “love-you-by-habit” between us and that’s pretty good for sure.
9* Tell me What you Own and I’ll Tell you Who You Are
What does it say about me that I currently own more suitcases/travel bags than pieces of furniture. Honestly at one point in my life in Libya, I had at least 7 suitcases packed in just one room and only 2 pieces of furniture: a mattress (no bed) and a “wardrobe” put together with sticks and some kind of cloth. I guess it means I am not ready to settle just yet but I do love some comfort in my life. Suitcase or Wardrobe? That’s a really tough choice to make for someone like me.
I don’t own much (that’s freedom too by the way) as travelling tend to teach people that experiences are worth more than possessions. Besides, what’s the point of buying everything if you are going to leave it behind? I prefer to wait until the day I settle down for good. In the meantime, most of what I own and cherish is stocked up by my friends and family in different countries. I have some boxes of books and papers in Zawia, Libya, my parents in France are keeping a few things and in Tunisia, my husband’s family is storing all the things we moved from Libya when we left in 2014. Some days, I can’t wait to have a house to get all my stuff together again in one place, most days I don’t think much about it. Do you know what I miss the most? My books! I’m a bookworm, I love reading, I love books but with my lifestyle, I couldn’t keep buying books as it used to break my heart to part with them. For now, I make it do with reading on a Kindle but building up and stocking a proper library is somewhere at the top of my list once I move into a house-for-keep.
10* Treasured Possession
The one thing that I own and that I cherish above all is my passport. It is the key to my lifestyle and the key to freedom as far as I am concerned. Unlike some people, I know exactly where my passport is, when it expires and how many blank pages are left on it (not much). My kids have had passports from the youngest age. My oldest had one made when he was 2 months old so we could take him with us on a trip to Cairo, while the youngest had his passport made when he was ONE WEEK OLD. In fact, when we took him to the photographer for his ID picture, the poor guy didn’t know how to handle it: It was the first time in his career that he had to take ID pictures for a 5 days old baby!
Expat life is made of up and downs like everyone else’s but I wouldn’t change it. When I look back at all the things I’ve learnt abroad, how it all shaped me into the person I am today… yeah I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my life.