20/20 Hindsight Advice
December 31, 2006 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Moving to a New Country - if you had to do it again, what would you do?

This is for any American expatriots who have moved overseas and learned a few things from the experience they'd like to share. I have my eye on Amsterdam or Copenhagen and at present the only thing I can think of doing is getting there and scouting around. Much thanks, and Happy New Year.
posted by rougy to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend this book: Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America.

Now if I could only convince Mrs. Camworld that Argentina is an awesome place to live right now.
posted by camworld at 11:44 AM on December 31, 2006

I love living abroad. I wish that I had brought less stuff though.

I would strongly suggest visiting the cities that you're considering moving too before picking up and leaving. I know a lot of people who love visiting Amsterdam but hated living there, for example.
posted by k8t at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2006

I would have got more contact details of people I knew from school (I emigrated when I was 10). I would have also tried to dress more like the locals and not stick out like a sore thumb as this just leads to you looking like an outsider. I would also have made more effort to immerse myself in my cultural community in my new country of residence (e.g if you were Jewish and moving to London, you would spend weekends in Golders Green or even better move there).
posted by mycapaciousbottega at 12:20 PM on December 31, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to both of you. There is a difference between living somewhere and visiting. I learned that after a few years on Cape Cod. The new wears off of everything.
posted by rougy at 12:20 PM on December 31, 2006

The Getting Out book recommended above does not cover any Scandinavian countries, and in my opinion is not incredibly useful.

Good luck! I've got an eye on Copenhagen myself.
posted by digitalis at 12:25 PM on December 31, 2006

Not US ex pat specific but in general I find that I miss silly little things.

You leave a place and expect to find certain differences. Thus these differences don't bother you.

But you will find that you miss odd little things you hadn't considered. Works both ways of course as you also discover new thigs which you will appreciate greatly...this ranges from food to nuances of social conduct and language!

Seconding the suggestion about not taking too much stuff with you - I would go so far as to make a very conscious effort to minimise your possessions - both those which you take and any you might put into storage...thus reducing the baggage you carry round with you both literally as well as figuratively!
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:31 PM on December 31, 2006

Keep an open mind about the perception of the US from the outside. I was a bit defensive when I first moved and that needed to change. Also, try not to compare where you end up with the US. There are going to be things about the US that are better and things about your new place that will be better. Focus on the positives rather than the negatives and it will make it easier.

Living abroad is an adventure so try to make the most of it. Don't confine yourself to cities. Take weekend trips to small villages and towns and meet with locals. Traveling to surrounding countries in Europe is also relatively cheap andook into it. easy so take advantage of that.

On the practical side, I'm glad I kept my US bank account open. Just change the mailing address to a relative's house. Also keep your US driving license if you have one. Lastly, shipping my 1 year old car over from the US was very cheap compared with the cost of selling it and buying the same car here. Other than that, try to ditch stuff that is not important to you. I kick myself when I look at some of the useless crap I shipped all the way over here.
posted by gfrobe at 12:44 PM on December 31, 2006

I'm not an American expatriot who have moved overseas - in fact, I'm the opposite (a Canadian who's moved to America) but have one tiny suggestion for a resource. You could always try searching for expat American groups located where you're planning to head - a version of what mycapaciousbottega said. Obviously you don't want to spend your total time hanging out with folks who'll reminise about the food you can't get in Copenhagen, but the expats might help with some practicalities and the scouting around for things you're looking for since they're already 'on the ground' there. There are expat groups online (check the usual suspects like expat sites, Yahoo Groups, etc.) and you can always milk things like alumni associations overseas etc. for connections as well.

Good luck and let us know how the great move goes!
posted by rmm at 12:46 PM on December 31, 2006

A lot of the stuff I have learned (and there has been a LOT of it) has been location-specific.

But, generally, I would echo the "don't take too much stuff" advice. Part of the trick is learning what will be easily to acquire on the other end and what won't.

When I left the States, I sold off practically every thing I own, because I calculated the amount I would pay for even two years of storage would allow me to buy it all anew when I returned. YMMW depending on how nice your stuff is and how much of it you have.

Looking for a place to live can be a challenge in the States, and moreso when you're abroad. I don't know a thing about the rental market in the Netherlands or Denmark, but, for example, in Buenos Aires apartments are generally rented only to those who have the deed to a property in Buenos Aires they can put up as a security deposit. Would have been nice to know that before I got here.

I don't know what kind of budget you're planning on, but I would build in some money for traveling back and forth. Maybe more than you think.
posted by veggieboy at 1:08 PM on December 31, 2006

It's expatriate, not expatriot, although I am sure the terms are not mutually exclusive.

A friend of mine who lived abroad for some time offers the following advice (which is pretty much echoed above):

"Sell everything you can. When I returned to the states I ended up selling everything I had stored anyway, so the money I spent to store it was wasted."
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:20 PM on December 31, 2006

Wow Holland and Denmark - two very, very different places in terms of taxation. Taxes. That's what I'd look at, especially if you're considering a long term residency abroad. A year in and out? Not much of a problem. Squatting or a student year abroad? Not much of a problem. But a longer term residency, perhaps where you are earning a decent income? This has to be carefully planned.

I've been living in London for about ten years, and since have learned lots of ways that would have helped minimise or avoid taxes and that's important since as an American you're taxed on citizenship rather than residency.

In other words, expect dual taxation at some level. But it ain't all bad - you've just got to plan well. And that's something that I think I could have done better, in retrospect : better financial planning to minimise taxes.

If you're not careful and prudent, some of those European countries - in fact both The Netherlands and Denmark - can and will tax you on worldwide assets. I'm in Amsterdam on business every other week, and hear lots of rants from Americans working there who didn't plan ahead and suddenly found out they are subject what's called the "Wealth Tax", or a levy of 1.2% of the value of their worldwide assets paid in advance annually.

And its being taxed twice on a dollars worth of income that can make the difference between a cash and experience rich time abroad or the opposite.
posted by Mutant at 1:42 PM on December 31, 2006

On the subject of driving licences: if you are American and wish to get a UK driving licence you must re-take your test (you can drive on a US driving licence in the short/medium term claiming that you are a visitor). The up-side is that UK driving licences last until you are 70 years old and can be used when visiting the US. This probably also applies in other EU countries.

If you do need to ship serious quantities of stuff then look at firms that will offer you space on a ship container.
posted by rongorongo at 1:54 PM on December 31, 2006

I lived in six different countries before I turned 18, including four years in Norway and Japan. My advice seems obvious, but:

1) Learn the language. Take lessons when you get there.
2) Do a bunch of touristy things when you first arrive; you'll start to get lazy later on.
3) Don't be afraid to do activities you used to do. You can still go to a Japanese gym, for example. Once you get more comfortable with the language, take classes (cooking, another new language) and do activities with locals.
4) Try all the different types of food from a country - from the stuff that's considered typical overseas (like sushi), to the stuff that locals eat that you can't get overseas (like Japanese curry and convenience store food in Japan).
5) Keep in touch with your American roots or whatever - there'll be expat groups in both of those locations - but don't be too dependent. For you, at least, there's a reason for moving to this new country.
posted by loulou718 at 1:55 PM on December 31, 2006

Lots of good stuff here. You'll find first-hand accounts from expats all over the world at www.escapeartist.com

From personal experience, I've found that it's much easier to acclimate to a new culture if you have a main focus for your time and energy when you get there, that involves being surrounded by locals. Classes, jobs, volunteer positions, book clubs -- whatever.

People tend to appreciate genuine cultural curiosity, and in my experience people have liked it when I've jumped right in. I don't mean being a pushy American or anything like that, but just not being shy about doing new things. Eating food from street carts in Latin America, dancing among locals at festivals, and that sort of thing. I've found that America can have much more of a "hey, that's not your culture, who are you pretending to be?!" attitude than other places I've been.

I've also got a funny little theory, that you can tell a lot about a place by observing the footwear the local women wear on weekends, but that might not be universally enlightening.
posted by nadise at 2:46 PM on December 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

I've lived in Brazil with my Brazilian wife for 4 years. I love it. BUT... I was raised in a military family and grew up living abroad. So 'culture shock' was expected. Even with a wife that speaks fluent English, Brazil is NOT for the faint of heart. Few foreign countries are. Even an extended vacation will not really prepare you for the reality of living in most foreign countries. Especially those that we Americans consider 2nd World or 3rd World.

For example:

Like peanut butter? Virtually non-existent in Brazil except at a very few of the higher-end markets. And you will pay dearly for a small jar of the Skippy Chunky.

You a woodworker? I found ONE low quality tablesaw in ALL of Rio de Janeiro. Want galvanized nails? Ha! Ha!

You a cleanliness freak? Many restaurants (and houses and condos) have only cold water to wash dishes with.

Poverty? You WILL see it. Unless you are a very rich expatriate and eat/sleep/breath in a 'Gucci' Rio condo, you can not avoid it.

Grounded electrical outlets? Unless you live in a newer condo, dream on.

Suffer roadrage? Brazilian driving will put you over the edge in less than 10 minutes.

Inefficient government bother you? My Permanent VISA application was put in a drawer for 2 years by a lazy Policia Federale.

English is NOT common spoken in Brazil. Not even in Rio. Portuguese is a bit like Spanish or Italian, but neither is a perfect substitute.

Think finding a job will be easy? Think again. Legally hard to do. Pay? We had an extremely competent computer science university graduate spend 6 hours fixing my wife's computer. Cost? About $15. He was thrilled. Would you be?

Want to buy something like a flashy Jag or BMW to drive? The cost is 2X+ the US prices and not really suggested as you are a prime target for a car-jacking. Smarter to buy a Brazilian made Fiat or VW. Personally I take the bus and accept that at times I will not be seated and like a sardine in a can.

Like to shop on the internet? Fine. But the duty to import most items valued at over $50 (as I recall) is 60% of the declared value. And 'cheating' is not always effective.

I could go on and on. But you get the idea. I saw this posted a long time ago and think it is quite true: "Brasil is not a country for 'pu**ies'. If you think you can come to brasil and live like you do in Europe or the USA, then you better forget about your plans."

Sounds like a hell. An impossible place to live. Not to me. I have accepted that Brazil is NOT America and doubt that I will ever again live permanently in America.


Because I can and choose to live a simpler life. I have learned to not make comparisons and value judgments about everything that I see and experience. Even though I will always be a gringo there, I personally find most Brazilians far more accepting and generous with what little they have than most Americans. Outside the big cities I find the people are far less jaded. Far more sympatico. I am THE only American living in our small village and it is a non-issue there. It is refreshing to not be living where 9/11, the War on Terror, and needing to be PC permeates every last activity. I also don't need to hear Rush Limbaugh on the radio :O). But I also doubt that without my Brazilian wife, I could live there and be nearly as happy.

Take everything I say with a big grain of salt because my experience is only my experience. Ever current or former expatriate to Brazil will have had their own unique take on it that will differ from mine. I would not begin to encourage or discourage anyone from living in any foreign country. I don't think that anyone can really predict how they will adapt before they actually live in a foreign country. I have been temporarily living in Hawaii for a year. Even though I have visited many times, it is not my cup-of-tea at all. Others take to living in Hawaii like a duck to water.

My best advice for anyone thinking of expatriating:

Almost every country has at least one blog/chatroom/web site where American's post questions and answers about living there. Find them and ask a ton of questions. Almost universally you will read or be told: Before you cash in all of your chips in the US to live here, come and rent a place for a year (if legal - many countries, Brazil included, limit a tourist VISA to a total of 6 months residence per year) to see how it really is to live here. That is very, very sage advice!
posted by toucano at 2:47 PM on December 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I can't pick a favorite because all were good and useful.

Many points I knew, some I didn't. The tax thing in the Nederlands and Copenhagen was very eye-opening.

Cheers to all.
posted by rougy at 5:10 PM on December 31, 2006

My only advice is to learn the language as quickly as possible. Learn it by socializing and making friends with locals. You will learn it faster and better, and it will stay with you longer. Don't let people speak English to you. If they say something in English, reply in your horrible, poorly-accented, clumsy Danish. Otherwise you'll be like the American I met in Hofbräuhaus who had lived in Austria for 5 years and could barely order his Maß.

(This is all anecdotal, so nobody better ask me for a source on this).
posted by !Jim at 5:33 PM on December 31, 2006

What Toucano says about Brazil can be echoed for the former Soviet Union, but (perhaps?) the former USSR has a great deal more corruption and red tape.

But the simpler life is great!
posted by k8t at 5:33 PM on December 31, 2006

Expat living in Australia here:

I would suggest avoiding expat groups in your new local, at least insofar as being the base of your social group. You can get great advice, but you really need to just jump in and start living as a local.

Don't bring too much stuff. We came here with two suitcases of clothing and a laptop each. It was easy enough to find a furnished flat, so we haven't needed to buy any major items. This is good if you decide to move around. Also, since it is a new city, you will have no idea where you actually want to settle. It takes at least six months to get the lay of the land, as it were.

If you are moving somewhere that speaks another language than your own, start learning it now. You may go somewhere that "everyone" speaks English, but if you can't read you will be functionally illiterate.

Consider getting a place with a spare room, as you may now be a vacation destination for all your friends. It sucks to have to live around them when they are set up in the living room on an air mattress...
posted by qwip at 5:45 PM on December 31, 2006

I agree with Toucano. Even if where you are moving is not '3rd world', this advice could get you beyond the expat ruts so common around the world.
posted by kch at 6:26 PM on December 31, 2006

I'm a german expat living in america. I have done the same thing in england, india and denmark.

I second taking as little as possible with you. you will be surprised how little you miss what you worship so dearly now. get a good digital camera and take it with you, you will run into so many things by complete accident and these will be memories you will adore for life (consider flickr). you will spend months figuring out how things work and make tons of silly mistakes but that's what it's all about. don't surround yourself with americans, be around locals. that's the way to learn the language (if you don't already speak danish, rest assured it's relatively easy to get a grasp of it, at least compared to german and the likes).

københavn is an awesome city. a little danish will go a long way, just because you get to make contacts easier. danish people are friendly as hell and the bars are great. you will have lots of fun. you do not need a car in that city. actually, getting a car is kind of expensive in denmark.

oh yeah ... get a laptop... something like the small 13" mac book. you want something small and reliable that enables you to check the local equivalents of craigslist (which isn't all that big in denmark or holland).

bottom line: be curious, be unafraid to make mistakes, explore. a smile goes a long way.
posted by krautland at 2:28 AM on January 1, 2007

I have my eye on Amsterdam

Okay, I'm from Amsterdam originally (well, Amsterdam's suburbia, to be honest) and moved to Toronto. I find that the image of Amsterdam as a tourist destination is very different from the image you get from actually living there. I noticed this same thing about Toronto after living here for a while. If I were to move to Toronto again, I would have tried to hear from locals how it is to live there before I went, rather than depend on my own limited touristy knowledge. For example: you want to hear people complain about public transportation rather than have people tell you how wonderful things are. That's nice for a short visit, but in the long run you want to know all the little details that travel guides don't tell you about.

I amsterdam is a "what's on" guide for the city, and it has a "living and learning" section about living in the city.

There are also sites aimed at expats in Holland. For example: expatica is a website for expats living in Holland. It has Dutch news articles, as well as discussions of more everyday things from an expat perspective. I often use it as source material to show people here that I am not making all these crazy things up. (Most recently I used this article about the New Year's Eve shenanigans.) It's great because it's written by people who know exactly what one might find odd when moving to Holland. The same is true for the book/website The Undutchables, but that is more about Dutch people's habits and other quirks (how to greet a friend, where the flush is on toilets, how people do the dishes, etc.).

For any other country/city (Copenhagen, or anywhere else you're interested in) I'd recommend finding similar sources.

And to add to a comment above: I'm also not to excited about expat groups. I do belong to a group of Dutch expats in Toronto, and while I try to attend their monthly get togethers, it always ends up with me feeling a little irked about all the complaining. As aptly mentioned in The Undutchables book I linked above, Dutch people LOVE complaining. And Dutch expats in Toronto either complain about Toronto, and how things are better in Holland, OR about Holland and how things are better in Toronto. I don't see the point of comparing at all. I'm here now, and I deal with the inconvenience of having to ride a bike in traffic rather than on Holland's designated bike tracks. Deal with it. Become a local.
posted by easternblot at 3:14 PM on January 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

My previous novel-length comment can be reduced to the last three words: become a local.
posted by easternblot at 3:19 PM on January 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Easternblot - thanks very, very much. Thanks to every one.

I do want to spend about six months in Amsterdam to get a feel for the place. Maybe it isn't for me after all. But I love the spirit of the place. The mere concept of the city has stolen my heart.

This might sound trite, but it's really important for me to live in a place where I can smoke weedski without having to worry about problems.

I'm a writer/poet and aspiring artist, and the herb just brings out the creativity in me.

And I want to be a part of the community - I really believe in that.
posted by rougy at 6:08 PM on January 1, 2007

"...it's really important for me to live in a place where I can smoke weedski without having to worry about problems."

I'd suggest you be very careful about relocating to another country based on that single criteria; Amsterdam's coffee shops are under threat, with the government seemingly determined to make business difficult.

In fact about three years ago the government tried to restrict customers of coffee shops to residents only, with customers being required to purchase entry permits. While this proposal was overruled, it does show that the desire for change is afoot in Holland.

Have you thought about visa requirements at all? The Netherlands is a signatory to the Shengen Agreement, and a US passport will let you stay for 90 days max. You'll have to leave and reenter, however I don't think this is possible (legally) for another 180 days.

That being said, they probably don't enforce this too aggressively however it would really mess up your life to be summarily ejected from the country at very, very short notice should be residing illegally and somehow come to the attention of the authorities.

Finally, in terms of the ex-pat groups I couldn't agree more - avoid them like the plague. I've been here for ten years, and have seen lots of Americans come and go both at the bank as well as University (I teach part time here in London and a large number of American students take a semester abroad). I made the mistake of going to a Fourth of July get together back in 1998; holy shit what a bunch of malcontents!! So much bitching and complaining about England, pointless comparisons of the two countries, the entire exercise seemed totally counterproductive.

Needless to say, I haven't kept in touch and I'd be surprised if any of those folks are still living in Europe; negative energy of that sort feeds on and reinforces itself.
posted by Mutant at 12:17 AM on January 2, 2007

Start taking language classes right away. Don't put it off. Even though everyone probably speaks English there, you will be so much more part of the culture if you can speak the language.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:30 AM on January 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks again to all.

Mutant - I do keep up a little with Holland, and I was under the impression that the ban was something of a knee-jerk reaction more so than a long-term goal.

The pragmatic Dutch can't help but know that much of their tourism rests on the fact that people can get high in their coffee houses. Aside from that, based on my research, Amsterdam (and Holland at large) doesn't have anything more to offer than Berlin or Brussels, or Stockholm or Dublin.

It is an important criteria for me, because it is an example of real freedom.

I live in a red town in a red state (conservative, conservative) and I'm sick to hell of it.

I do have means, and I would bring more to the country than I would take.

Thanks very, very much for your observations just the same.
posted by rougy at 11:16 AM on January 2, 2007

Not american, but my father packed up the entire family and moved us to Germany for three years when I was 12. We moved back when I was 15. I love Germany and miss it.

Food is complicated in Europe [in the part that I know - Germany, Austria]. Shopping for food is very hard. It took us very long time to perfect our shopping techniques - we had to shop in three or four different chains, each one holds different brands in different cost tiers.

You would have to go out and explore different chains and brands, find out what you like. Try to you find someone local who can help you figure out what to buy where - it's a major shortcut.

I don't know about the rest of Europe, but in Germany you have large American communities around the military bases. If available in your land of choice - it's a center of activities and social life, and most of the places have a store filled with goods from America which cannot be found elsewhere.
posted by ye#ara at 12:35 PM on January 2, 2007

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