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3 Years Overseas: The Highs & Lows of living abroad (as we prepare to say goodbye)

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As the sun rises a little earlier each day and the cherry trees in our neighborhood fill with fruit, our three years in Europe are coming to a close. With only a few weeks left of this European family adventure, I find myself thinking back over all that we’ve seen and done and learned living abroad.

Highs like winter paddleboarding in Barcelona, nighttime tobaganning in Slovakia and hiking by herds of sheep along the south Coast of Wales together. Eating dark chocolate gelato with whipped cream in Rome and caramelized banana oatmeal in London. Watching Croatian fireworks explode above our balcony on New Year’s Eve and Hungarian light shows at the Christmas markets in Budapest.

Lows like croup in Nuremberg and COVID in Split, Scarlet Fever in Tuscany, a broken arm in Spain and a CAT scan in an Austrian emergency room. Lows of loneliness that could creep in unexpectedly, anxiety that could catch hold in that moment when I’d realize just how little backup was behind us if we hit a rough patch.

So here we are, getting ready to say goodbye, and I just wanted to share a little of living abroad. Maybe you’re thinking of coming overseas yourself, or maybe you’ve tuned in a bit to our adventure, and you’re interested to hear how the story ends. Today on the podcast, let’s talk about the good stuff, the medium stuff, and the tough stuff.

You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

The Highs of Living Abroad

People often ask us: “Why Slovakia?” Even our Slovak friends seemed shocked at first that we’d choose to leave the United States to make our way to the city of Bratislava. “Really?” They’d say, brows lifted, “Slovakia?”

But from the beginning, we’ve liked the country. People have been kind to us. The Old Town is stunning and never, ever crowded. We love the way restaurants have play areas for kids, the way kids can wander the neighborhood on their own without fear, the way family life is prioritized within company work schedules. When my husband opens his email on a Monday, his colleagues usually haven’t emailed him over the weekend. So cool, right?

Maybe our favorite thing has been the location. Bratislava is an hour from Vienna, two hours from Budapest, three from Prague, and within a day’s drive of places like Slovenia, Croatia, and even Northern Italy. We’ve road tripped to the Swiss mountains and Tuscany, to see the yellow flower fields of the Czech Republic, and to snorkel the Blue Lagoon on the Croatian coast. Our family has so many road trip traditions now, from car bingo to family podcasts, games of Password to an endlessly growing playlist of each family member’s favorite songs combined called “On the Road Again.”

We’ve also loved our children’s school, which has given us our first major exposure to a system outside the American take on education. They have a half hour break every morning to go outside as well as an hour at lunch. The youngest children spend a morning every week at forest school in the mountains nearby. The kids head seasonally to gymnastics, swimming, or ice skating off campus as part of their gym program. They don’t have homework until secondary, and a ton of their learning is project-based. We’ve attended our daughter’s “Trashion Show,” in which first graders created full outfits made from recycled materials and then narrated each other’s marches down the catwalk, as well as her class’s hour-long musical complete with sets, costumes, and songs about a village of brave people who confronted a dragon in the mountains. We’ve listened to our son’s stories of his class’s weeklong trip to the Austrian mountains.

Our children will probably always be nostalgic for their favorite Slovak foods – the Slovak take on Mac-and-Cheese, which is a combination of tiny potato dumplings, sheep cheese, and specks of thick-cut bacon. The bags of chips shaped like Teddy Bears called “Pom Bears.” The oval slabs of chewy cheese that melt gently on the grill. My daughter has developed a love for Jelly Straws, brightly colored lychee and mango puddings, and Kimbap after sharing many of these with her friends at school from Korea, and I’m sure we will be looking for an H-Mart wherever we live next.

Then there’s the incredible pizza we’ve tried – discovering, surprisingly, our very favorites in Barcelona and a tiny Slovak mountain town, rather than Rome or Florence. The gelato here, there, and everywhere. And the pastries – caramel dipped cinnamon rolls in Prague, ham and cheese croissants in Budapest, palmeras de chocolate in Spain, jammy scones in England. Discovering new foods and new twists on old foods has been such a gift throughout these years.

We’ve got a map of Europe on the wall of the upstairs landing, and a piece of paper next to it with our travel ABCs. Each time we’ve returned from a trip, we’ve added the name of the city and country to the ABCs and added a new dot or star to the map.

Over three years, we’ve been able to visit seventeen countries together: The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, Hungary, Bosnia & Herzegonia, Spain, England, Wales, Denmark, Iceland, and Turkey.

Though our eight-year old still tends to mix up cities and countries and memories, I love to think that she will remember seeing the leaning tower of Pisa lean, looking out over the city of Mostar from its Minaret high above a twisty blue river, climbing the walls of Dubrovnik, staring up at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, and wandering over the Charles Bridge in Prague in all weathers.

I hope our son will remember cliff jumping into Lake Bohinj, seals popping up between light blue icebergs in Iceland’s Jökulsárlón National Park, staring down into the Colosseum, watching the 3 Kings Parade whirl by in Barcelona, and hiking the Seven Sisters cliffs in England.

I also hope they’ll remember going to school with kids from Serbia, Iran, Korea, Japan, Slovakia, England, and so many more places. Going to the mall with them. Playing laser tag with them. Swapping Cheez-Its for Rose puddings. Making friends on the playgrounds of new countries and figuring out how to hang out even if it means using the Google Translate app or a soccer ball and lots of gestures to talk to each other.

The Lows of Living Abroad

Coming to live abroad is a lot of work on the front end, so it helps if you really want to do it! There are documents galore to have sent to you, notarized, and then mailed to various offices and bureaus. When we arrived here we had to go immediately to the “Foreign Police” to get our Slovak identity cards, but lucky for us, my husband’s school hired a consultant to shepherd us through what would otherwise have been a very onerous process.

Getting a car, car insurance, health insurance, car repairs, doctor’s appointments, vaccines, help for issues with the house, etc. pretty much always requires help from colleagues, neighbors, and friends who understand the system better than we do. On the one hand, it’s amazing to have so many kind people help us with things, and we’re really grateful. On the other hand, it’s challenging not to be able to get things done yourself. Small things like getting a haircut, having your winter tires put on, finding a new product at the store, calling a restaurant to see if they deliver, or picking up a prescription take far more energy and effort, even courage, than they would at home.

Similarly, making friends in a new country can be challenging. We’ve been lucky to make some friends through our children’s school. Our neighbors have been very friendly and kind to us, but I always feel like we’re imposing on them as they help us with things and kindly switch over to speak in our language since our Slovak is very basic. We’ve spent a lot more time on our own as a family than we probably would in our own country. Sometimes that’s wonderful, like when we’re playing living room hockey after dinner or bocce in the yard. Other times when our kids are driving each other crazy I wish they could go outside and play with a friend in the neighborhood or that we knew a few more families with kids their age that we could have over.

Probably the biggest difficulty for us in living here has been health care, which I’ve mentioned before. In the end, we figured out how to make it work, mainly by driving over to Vienna for everything. We found a wonderful American pediatrician there, and a fantastic private hospital. But boy, we certainly did have some pitfalls until we figured that out. The kids have been sick a ton, with all kinds of illnesses that are common here and not so common at home. My son turned out to have a strong reaction to the water here, something that had us in and out of doctor’s offices and antibiotics for months before we figured out we just needed to switch him to bottled water. Symptoms in the kids like 104 degree fevers, choking coughs, and terrible stomach pain have definitely given me a lot of medical anxiety here, as I never know exactly what my next step will be if things get serious if we are in Germany, Croatia, Spain, or even at home. Of course I didn’t love it when they were sick back in the U.S. either, but at least I felt like I knew what to do.

The Mediums

Feeding the family overseas is both awesome and tricky. On the one hand – what a delight to explore restaurants, bakeries, and gelaterias across Europe! On the other hand, everything at the grocery store is different, and so is the oven and the stove. About half the recipes I’d normally make for the family just aren’t really possible with the ingredients available. Meat cuts, cheeses, and dairy are all different, and sometimes I’m really not sure if I’m putting plain yogurt or sour cream into a muffin batter. Vanilla extract is a rare find. Good luck buying chicken soup stock, shredded cheddar, or yeast as I know it. There is no cracker aisle, and cereal isn’t popular. Milk comes in a box and doesn’t have to be refrigerated until it’s opened. Individual snack-sized portions of children’s foods are simply unavailable. Cookies like Oreos come in packages of 8 instead of packages of 50. I don’t mean that any of this is inherently bad – people make lovely food here all the time. It’s just not what I’m used to, and we’ve found feeding the family and packing school lunches to be quite challenging.

Then there’s the challenge of being far from family and that general sense of back-up that comes with being at home. Last year at one point my husband was away on a work trip and I cut myself on a rusted piece of metal. I panicked, trying to figure out if I had had a tetanus shot, how I would get one if not, and who could take care of the kids if I had to drive to the hospital. Each step was more complicated than it would be in my home country, and I find that that is just true for many things. On the other hand, it’s been great fun to welcome friends and family to visit, and we’ve been glad to get to host people we care about in Europe and share what we love here with them. It’s also lovely how ex-pats from around the world share support and recommendations, through Facebook groups, Whatsapp threads, and even a Christmas cookie exchange.

Repeatedly we’ve realized how lucky we are that English is our first language as we’ve lived here and traveled elsewhere. Almost everyone we’ve met has had a little bit of English, even when they politely say that they don’t and we turn to our translation apps. But there is still a level of distance from your original self when every conversation you have outside of your family is with someone who is speaking to you in their second language. There are wonderful rewards to it – you get to learn about other cultures and perspectives, gain understanding and awareness. But there is also something a bit lonely about it, never understanding a word that’s said around you in coffee shops and crowds, always wondering if your joke made any sense or your story was understood.

So What, Living Abroad?

So maybe you’re wondering, do I recommend that you come abroad to teach? That you move your family to another country? Maybe it’s something you’ve dreamed about but you’re just not quite sure if it’s right for you.

In the end, I’d be lying if I said it’s not a mixed experience.

It can’t be all pictures of gelato on Instagram, dinner parties with friends from around the world, and cliffside hikes in Wales. It’s complicated, and it gets dramatically easier with practice.

Now I’ve lived in Salamanca, Spain, Oxford, England, Sofia, Bulgaria, and Bratislava, Slovakia.

Each time I’ve moved somewhere new I’ve been more familiar with the process of finding solutions and support living abroad, coping in ways that make me feel comfortable when things are overly challenging, and learning to have great travel adventures during breaks.

At this point, I can Google translate instructions in any language on my food packaging, turn on a European stove, sort of translate kilometers to miles, celsius to fahrenheit, and liters to cups in my head, navigate the British metro and the Paris airport, find lovely gelato in any city, recognize the European version of Tylenol, and spot a clear Jellyfish in the sea before it gets too close. But at first, I couldn’t do any of those things, and each one required a new kind of effort. And they’re just a few examples of the many things to be learned on a day to day basis of living abroad.

Was it worth it to me? For us? To have the adventures of these last three years? Yes, absolutely. I’m so glad and grateful that we could come, and share this adventure with our children. And for me, three years was the perfect amount of time. I’m ready to come home, though I’m sure it won’t be long before we plan another overseas trip. It will just probably be for weeks instead of years next time.

You might also like A Beginner’s Guide to Teaching Abroad.

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