Fresh ocean air, swaying palm trees, June Gloom, people surfing, skateboarding, or playing beach volleyball. I’ve always imagined mornings to be on California beaches as centers of activity. I took a stroll on the boardwalk to see if my image of the Golden State lifestyle, in which everybody is photogenic, athletic, and surrounded by friends on the beach, is real. More importantly, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I needed to find out why millions around the world dream about a relocation to California.
I struck up conversations with local surfers and lifeguards so I could learn more about Californian stereotypes. Now, I’ve always thought that there is no better way to get to know a country than to blend in with locals. Usually, I learn much from these conversations. However, this particular one shocked me; one surfer said he’d never been outside his home state. He loved California so much that he couldn’t imagine ever living somewhere else. But how could he possibly know what he’s missing if he had never left home?
My Relocation Experience
I was born in Poland and for as long as I can remember, I always wanted to visit other countries, learn foreign languages, try new cuisines, and get to know other cultures. More than that, I always felt fascinated by the idea of living abroad in as many countries as possible.
When I was a student, international travel and foreign student exchanges weren’t a thing. There weren’t many countries Polish people could freely travel to.
When I was 22 years old, I was fortunate enough to take part in a three-month work experience program in Germany. Since this was my first relocation, I played it safe by going to a neighboring country whose language I learned in school.
This wasn’t the case with my next relocation to the UK. On a whim, I decided to move there with just a few words of English, no plan, and barely any air travel experience. This relocation proved to be very difficult and challenging. Nonetheless, my adventurous soul always wanted to experience a vagabond life, even though it meant operating outside my comfort zone.
I went from feeling scared to be away from home for three months to falling in love with living abroad in just a few short years. In the UK, I also learned that “home” is where you make it. It’s not a fixed location.
A year before I turned 40, I made one of my biggest dreams come true. I went for a 15-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. I ended this adventure in the Caribbean. I’m glad to report I’m now a permanent US resident who now calls Puerto Rico home.
My main relocation tips would be to go for it and don’t look back. Prepare for things to go wrong, or at least not according to a plan.
Moving abroad is not for everyone but, in my opinion, everyone should give it a try at least once. I’ve met dozens of very unhappy immigrants abroad. They count their days before their return to their home country. However, none of them ever regretted trying it. They all said that they became more independent, responsible, and learned new things about themselves while living abroad.
I am not the best person to give advice on how to responsibly and carefully move abroad. All I had before I moved to Germany was a fax printout with a hotel address. Leaping into the unknown felt both terrifying and thrilling. I took an overnight bus to Germany followed by a train ride and a boat journey. I did it all without much research ahead of time.
Fueled by Spontaneity
Moving to the UK was also very spontaneous. I traveled to London for a long weekend, which planted an idea for moving there. After graduating from university four months later, I boarded a plane to Manchester. I went with the flow, without expectations or any plan to return home.
The older I got, the more spontaneous I became. At an age when most of my friends had settled down, I packed 13 years of my life in the UK into a couple of boxes. I pursued my lifelong dream to backpack around the world for a few months. Five months after I started my trip, I ended up inviting my family to my wedding in Puerto Rico. America became my new home.
As a child, I spent many holidays in Hungary due to my dad’s work. Often, I would pick up a few Hungarian words or phrases and use them to impress the folks back home. I had so much fun learning something new that I could put to use immediately. I couldn’t say the same about chemistry or physics.
Falling in Love with Foreign Languages
I started learning German in primary school. At first, it seemed like just another subject to learn. But as soon as I had an opportunity to use what I learned to travel to Germany, communicate with native speakers, and place orders in restaurants, my approach to learning foreign languages changed a lot. It took me a long time, but I stopped being embarrassed, overthinking, or analyzing every mistake I made. I learned to keep talking and not worry about all the grammatical and pronunciation mistakes I made. In addition, I started to take unnecessary trips to different stores just to read the signs and price tags, or start a conversation with salespeople about random products.
I listened to songs in the new language, watched TV with subtitles, and read newspaper headlines or advertisements. Every time I heard a new word, I wrote it down. Every time I saw a new word, I highlighted it. I often associate new foreign words with a place, color, person, or situation to bring the new language to life, making learning much more enjoyable than rote memorizing with a book.
Picking Up the Second Language
Learning English in preparation for my relocation to the UK was a real challenge. I only had six months to prep, so I tried to find the most dynamic and fun way to become conversational. Since this was my second foreign language, I knew boring textbooks wouldn’t work for me. My priority was to learn useful daily phrases that would allow me to function in society, such as asking for directions, counting numbers, etc.
I settled on what was back then a very new, innovative English course called the Callan Method. The method focuses on improving students’ speaking and listening skills by repeating foreign words and phrases over and over again without thinking. After six months, I was ecstatic to be able to speak and understand basic English. Unfortunately, after moving to the UK, I had a bitter pill to swallow. I quickly realized that the course hadn’t prepared me as much as I expected.
A Different Ballgame
Learning English turned out to be much tougher than German, mainly because I haven’t had any foundational language knowledge from school. But, more importantly, the UK is a very multicultural place and it took me a very long time to comprehend international accents. None of the English courses back home could possibly prepare me for this.
Now that I find myself in a Spanish-speaking place, I have no choice but to start all over again. Luckily, these days there are plenty of language-learning apps and websites that are extremely handy. I already know from experience that I am not looking forward to struggling with multiple varieties of Spanish.
Living in a foreign country surrounded by unfamiliar customs can be very challenging, but by leaving your comfort zone behind you may discover a new and happier way of life that suits you better.
Relocating abroad might not be on your bucket list at the moment, but have you ever wondered why some people move abroad and never return home? Or do you love to listen to stories about their time abroad and wish they were your own? If so, don’t waste any more time and make it happen! Don’t be like the surfer I met years ago in Hermosa Beach. He’s probably still never left California and wouldn’t have anything new to say about himself if I ran into him today.
by Anna Lech