March 22, 2016

The Harsh Truths behind Living the “Dream Life” Abroad (as told by an Expat).


Up until five years ago, I had no idea where Croatia was on a map, but now I find myself living here. A small town girl from Milton, New Zealand, I took the ultimate risk, bought a one-way ticket and moved my life across the globe for love.

It sounds like something from the movies but every time someone said, “Oh my god, you are living the dream life,” I wanted to shake them and scream, “You have no idea!”

After the honeymoon period wore off, the reality of my new life sunk in and there was so much more to the story than anybody knew—the behind the scenes, so to speak. These are some of the harsh truths I discovered about living the “dream life” abroad.

There were tears

There were tears. There were a lot of tears. Oh god, the runny-nosed, blubbering, hyperventilating messy tears. I definitely could have made the most unattractive movie-montage of tears from the first few months of my time in Croatia. I was like a hormonal teenager, prone to burst at the smallest infraction from life; anything and everything could make me cry, from missing family and friends, to not knowing how to ask for bread at the local supermarket.

There were even tears about the tears! One night I found myself in the throes of yet another fit of tears, flanked on either side by depression and self-loathing, while my ever patient husband looked on, bewildered and asked, “What is wrong?” After repeating the usual: “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…” Another voice came up and roared from my depths, “I don’t like me!” There was a deafening silence that surrounded this statement; it startled even me and was enough to bring me to my own attention. How could I not like myself, the one person I am invariably stuck with?

Looking back throughout all of my adventures, travels and challenges, I can honestly say that there has never been a still moment where I sat back and looked at myself honestly, let alone allowed myself to ask the question: Do I like me? Perhaps it is a question we all run from in some way or another. With nowhere left to run, my demons caught up with me and I found myself cornered; the only thing left to do was to stand and face them. It definitely wasn’t easy, in fact it is probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But hearing the words, “I don’t like me” coming out of your own mouth is enough to shake most anyone awake.

I realized then and there that I needed to start having a relationship with myself. The harsh truth was that my tears and fears had nothing to do with my external situation (okay, it definitely exasperated matters, but it was not the sole reason) and everything to do with me. If we are to survive anything in life, the one person we need on our side is ourselves. There is no instant fix, but I started from a very simple place of being kinder and more forgiving towards myself. Every time the negative words of self-doubt and depression piped up, I would gently replace them with more loving and encouraging words. Very slowly, step-by-step, I started to believe these words. This new-found confidence and the beginnings of self-love, started filtering through into every aspect of my new life and was the foundation of starting to live the “dream life” for real.

We cannot make old friends

I was furious at the beginning when anyone dared tell me: “You really should go out and make friends,” I felt like screaming at them: “How can I? I am a mess, my confidence is shot and I can’t speak Croatian for the life of me, so how on earth do you expect me to make friends?!”

It was true. But unfortunately, the harsh truth is, that if we want to make friends, we have to go out and make them because no one can do it for us. After six months of my self-imposed isolation and longing for my friends from home, I was tired of feeling miserable and alone. I found a local expat page on Facebook, went to one of the meet-ups and the rest is history. I was thrilled to meet others in my exact situation, hearing their stories and similar struggles with life in Croatia, filled me with hope that not only was I not alone, but they were living proof I could make a life here.

From there, my circle grew to the point where I now find myself in a community of truly wonderful, strong, supportive women. The old adage goes—we cannot make old friends, which is true, but nowhere does it say we cannot make new friends. It is not about replacing what we had, but rather opening ourselves up to what we have—which is a perfect opportunity to build new and wonderful friendships.

The language barrier

Living in a country where English is not the native language, is unquestionably a barrier to building a new life. In the movies it always lends itself to hilarious encounters, but in reality it led to tears and crazed outbursts. Every time I was in a situation surrounded by the Croatian language, my mind filled my head with thoughts that I was isolated and stupid for not being able to speak the language. I stopped going to social outings, or if I was out I would feel my chest contracting in anxiety over the impending interactions. I was agitated over conversations that hadn’t even happened yet!

Mostly people tried to include me or make me feel welcome, but I was oblivious to this. All I could see was the impenetrable barrier of language standing before me. In line with the relationship I was starting to have with myself however, a painful truth surfaced about my struggle with the language—the only barrier to learning the language was me. I had been so negative towards myself and dismissive of people around me out of my own insecurities, that I had built a wall around myself. Learning a language is not easy, it takes time, but above all, we need to show ourselves patience and kindness when we are learning a new skill. This light-hearted approach won’t mean we will be able to speak a new language in a matter of months; but it will break down any walls and leave us feeling more confident to try and speak, or at the very least be able to laugh at ourselves more often than bursting into tears.

Building a new life is scary

I think it is safe to say that the idea of forever scares most of us; my mind latched onto this, surrounded me and made me feel trapped under the weight of the permanence of my situation—is this really where my life will be forever?  The mind is a cunning thing and its power lies in disconnecting us from the present moment. Rather than focusing on everything I could do to begin building my new life, I felt paralyzed and daunted by the seemingly impossible task and the concept of forever.

Finally, after some serious pep-talks, my inner voice (who I was now in a steady relationship with) whispered the truth: Nothing is permanent. This thought freed me from the idea of forever and I no longer felt trapped. Life is not meant to be that serious. By realizing that nothing is permanent, I was free to really begin living my new life, to throw myself in head first, knowing that if I give life in Croatia my all and it still doesn’t work…then I can always change something. Building a new life can be scary as hell, but the harsh truth is, being frozen by inaction is worse. I never want to look back over my life and realize that I wasted a large chunk of it sitting on the sidelines.

Life moves on without us

Making the conscious decision to start building a life away from family and friends is one of the poignant realities that all of us expats face. The mind torments us with everything we will miss, telling us we are selfish for choosing this life and will forever be cut off from the lives of our families and friends. I have had more than my fair share of guilt and tears over missed birthdays, weddings, gatherings or just the small moments of life in general. Following our hearts and living a life less ordinary comes at a cost and this is undoubtedly one of them. However, the harsh reality is that life keeps moving, whether we want it to or not; so we can either choose to live our life focusing on what we are missing, or look to see what we may be gaining.

Talking to fellow expats, I discovered there are a few shared comforts that we all find solace in; while we may not be in the day-to-day lives of our family and friends, when we do finally get the chance to visit, our time together means so much more. We appreciate every moment. Then of course, there is the reverse; if family or friends cross the globe to visit us we feel extremely privileged to have them, to show them our new lives and in many cases, give them their first experience of the new country we now call home. Lastly, I cannot fail to mention the new family we find ourselves in (if we are lucky enough), to be welcomed into the lives, hearts and culture of another family, is a crazy, beautiful thing.

There are no comfort zones, everything is uncomfortable

For all of us expats, there is no side-stepping the huge question of what will we do for a career now that we find ourselves living in a foreign country. Unless we already had an online business or job lined up, this is no small feat and creates plenty of anxieties at the beginning of our journey. The harsh truth I discovered was that comfort zones no longer exist—everything is uncomfortable. But herein lies the beautiful irony…there is so much scaring the sh*t out of us already, that starting a new job or career is actually just one of these many things, so why would we choose to do anything other than what makes us ridiculously happy?!

So with no comfort zones to fall back into, we are forced to think more creatively, to look inside and see what truly makes us content. For some of my expat friends, this has come in the form of starting a brand new business, for others it has been following their creative pursuits with more gusto, for me it has meant all of the above. Never one to do things by halves, I have thrown myself in the direction of anything that has ever been written on my heart. In the past year I have worked on a luxury yacht, been dabbling in creative and free-lance writing, photography and I am presently a Play School teacher. There is no way in my ordinary life that I would have allowed myself to even contemplate these roles, let alone attempt them. Being forced outside our comfort zones is exactly the push we need towards creating the life we dream.

The ultimate harsh truth

There is no denying that packing everything into a suitcase, saying goodbye to everyone you love and starting a new life abroad is a difficult task; but it is not impossible and I am definitely not the first person to do it. In fact, I am well aware that this piece is wide open for criticism in the wake of the current refugee crisis. Even my own Grandmother faced extraordinary circumstances of life abroad when she fled Kenya during the wars of the 1960s with her husband and son (my father) in tow. I cannot even begin to imagine what that must have been like, the courage and strength she had are immeasurable. And yet, my mind didn’t remind me of any of these things, it cut me off from the bigger picture and made me feel helpless and alone in my endeavors. The unchecked mind is a powerful force and can convince us of the most incredible things.

However, after I started having a relationship with myself and stopped giving so much power to my mind, I finally realized that I only had two choices (we only ever have two choices), I could choose to be happy in my new life, or choose to be miserable—it was as simple as that. But this is the ultimate harsh truth that we all have trouble accepting, that no matter our journey or challenges: The only thing standing between us and the lives we dream, is ourselves. It is up to us to take responsibility for our lives and ultimate happiness, because like it or not, no one is going to abracadabra our lives to where we want it to be.

There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.

So, inevitably there is a happy ending to this tale. Two years down the track, I am still living in Croatia. Is this where I am going to be forever? That was a test, we won’t fall for that one again, right? I don’t know if this is where life will be forever, but in this moment I am happy and now when someone says, “You have such a dream life, I almost have to agree.





Author: Tash Pericic

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Antoine K

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