Expats are like dandelions. We make a wish, and the winds take us to new ground. We grow quickly on our new land. And the taproots of new friendships grow deep. Like a dandelion, when something pulls on it to uproot it again, friendships can be pulled all the way out, the deep tap root too—and suddenly—because the side roots which stabilize other plants are not as well developed.
There is common wisdom that you make the strongest friendships in high school or prep school, when you are thrown into a common environment during a time when your identity is being formed and you are renegotiating your relationship to family and traditions.
It is exactly like this as you become an expat.
Your adopted country is your campus. Your dorm rooms are a bit farther apart than in prep school. And you have a select group of people to choose from.
Like prep school, you share some common characteristics by virtue of the method in which you were chosen to be there. You are all adventurous, independent, curious, come to be relatively self-reliant, and eager to learn. Most folks come from fascinating backgrounds, with much diversity in the mix. When there is a language barrier to overcome in the new country, you also can find yourself hungry for meaningful conversations, the kind that kept you up all night in your dorm rooms with your friends.
And nothing bonds like common activities. Since you are “traveling” to some degree at all times, on this newly uncommon ground, your other expat friends become traveling companions, available for side trips, tips, and excellent advice on how to understand the culture and assimilate cultural differences.
I have observed there is a life-cycle to expats. There is the expat-wanna-be time, when folks (usually women, surprisingly) think they would like to like in another specific country, so they take exploratory trips during which they interview current expats to get their experience (what will it be like to live here?) as well as confess their emerging plan (I really think I might…) (For students on junior year abroad, 80 to 85% of the students are female. We tend to take the lead in living abroad.)
Next there is First Leap. It can be a month, or two months, usually the first leap is no more than three. That now is determined by the Schengen Visa requirements in the European Economic Community. Folks without EU passports are allowed to visit only for three months. Longer than that they need to procure a Visa, and in Italy, a Permisso di Sigiorno. Used to be, you could step outside the EU to Switzerland for even a day, and come back in and your 3 months would be renewed, but that is no longer the rule.The rule is, three months in, three months away, then your three months renew again.
During First Leap, you figure out how much you like your dream. What does it really feel like to live abroad? How do the cultural differences fit you? How do they wear on you? Comfortably, or do they rub the wrong way against your native grain so much that it is uncomfortable? How are the connections to family back in your native land? Can the communication methods present work well enough to maintain the connections you want? How is it for you to live with the uncertainties of the fluctuating exchange rate ? How are the friendships? How welcoming or hostile is the community you have picked to live in?
Not all towns are equal in welcoming stranieri (foreigners). Some places, just as in the US, find foreigners annoying or worse, threats to their own culture, while other places range from accommodating to welcoming.
Perugia (the capital of Umbria, Italy) for instance, is very accommodating to foreigners who are there to study the language–there is an excellent language school there, Universita per Stranieri di Perugia. The shopkeepers in Perugia are patient with your attempts to speak Italian. It is not the easiest city for people not wishing to speak Italian, though.For that, go to a destination you can readily find in a guide book, like Florence, Siena, Assisi, Cortona, or Rome. Here you will find the atmosphere easier to speak English, but it will be a bit harder to access the experience of living a day to day Italian life.
After First Leap comes The Yearning.This is the period when you have returned to your native land, perhaps thinking you might shake this wandering lust. Then the yearning begins.You feel a part of your heart was left overseas, and you wish you could go back. So you begin planning the Next Leap.
Next Leaps are usually longer than First Leaps, and better planned. You know how to wrap up your affairs in your native land more easily, how to forward mail, how to get cell phones set up and your insurances paid, absentee voting ballets procured. You have your travel insurance at the ready. Next Leaps you do not make the same mistakes you made on First Leaps. You make new mistakes.
With Next Leaps, you also have community to return to in your adopted country. So you are “caught” when you leap. It is a more gentle re-entry. This is my second leap.