Monday, 18 May 2009

An Expat's Life for Me

I first lived abroad in 1996. I had taken a course at university because it required me to spend a year in Italy and at 18 that sounded like a wonderful thing to do. I hated it at first, I was lonely and isolated. That lasted about 3 months. Then I got brave. Then I got braver. By the time I had to leave, they practically had to crowbar me into the plane, I was so desperate not to go.

I lasted less than a year back in the UK. I couldn't bare the anonymity of London any more. I craved my life back in Italy, the lifestyle, the pace and the quality of life.

Two weeks after my final exams I was on a plane to Ireland to bond with my paternal family. Initially I thought I would just see how it went. I didn't go back to the UK for seven months, and only then to attend my graduation ceremony. Ireland is a pulse of the heart to me, as natural as breathing. I ache for it when I hear bad news. I celebrate its triumphs. My father is there and I try to get home as often as I can, which is never often enough. The smell of smoke from chimneys, peat fires, clean air, rain which leaves you damp to the bones even when its not raining. I thought I would never leave.

Two years later my company transferred me to Paris. I was ready for a change, my landlady in Ireland was getting married and I needed to find somewhere else to live. It seemed like a sign. I moved my belongings by FedEx, my father was horrified. "At your age I had you and yet you can FedEx your life just like that".

I knew no one in Paris. No one at all. I worked from home and for the first three months I firmly believed that I would never again hear English spoken other than on the phone. Too apprehensive of the metro system I walked everywhere that summer. Miles and miles in dusty sandals. I was astounded by how Paris squeezes your heart with its beauty, over and over again then casts you aside, gasping, at the arrogance of its natives.

In desperation I stumbled into an expat drinks night. Friday night drinks after work flowed seamlessly into midnight restaurant runs. Mouths stained with red wine, open and laughing. Talking and talking with people who knew and understood that hunger in the corner of your stomach which causes you to go out into the world, leaving your home country, looking for new experiences. Drinking buddies became dinner companions became family and remain so to this day.

It took me far too long to realise that Paris and I needed to part ways. I never stopped loving the city but I couldn't achieve what I wanted to achieve there and it was crippling me in tiny imperceptible increments.

I went to the only place I knew I could, to piece myself back together again. I went back to the UK. For a short while I revelled in speaking my own tongue all the time. It took me a while to realise that I was an alien in my own country. I had missed huge chunks of other people's experiences while I had been away. Things people expected me to be familiar with were incomprehensible to me. I learnt to stop talking about living abroad to avoid the inevitable "What? You lived abroad? Well, that's brave. Won't catch me leaving England. Why would you want to live abroad?" Nevertheless, I started to achieve and move on. I met the love of my life and somehow five years later I was still there.

I wept when he said he had been offered a job in Amsterdam. I had just started my dream job a month before, there was no way I could follow him and there was no way I could hold him back. So we began a strange hybrid existence. Straddling two coutries, racking up air miles and never really living in either country. We were homeless and it was too hard.

We talked it out and decided to make our home here in the Netherlands.

That was March 2007, we found a bigger apartment, shipped our belongings and transported the cat. He proposed in November 2007 and we married on a canal boat in August 2008. As much as I have loved everywhere I have lived, Amsterdam is home. The canals, the people, the way of life all of it feels completely natural. I love being an expat. I love the experiences it affords me and the people who cross my way on their own journeys. May it never end.


  1. Emmy, that bought a tear to my eye. What a beautiful, sweet story. I have travelled the globe but never lived anywhere outside of Australia for more than three months; it is on my list, however, and it will happen in the three most beautiful cities in the world (Paris, Manhattan and Amsterdam) before I die. Thank you so much for sharing! This is my favourite post of yours. xxx

  2. What an exciting life, and so beautifully written. I think one should always be open to living in far flung places.
    Sometimes a place just resonates with you and it sounds like Amsterdam does that.

  3. Sandra - I can't recommend living abroad highly enough. It is such fun and gives you such great experiences.

    Flora - Thank you. I'm not sure if my life is particularly exciting (I still have to do chores wherever I am - dull!) but I have to say I really love my life and I wouldn't swap with anyone. Hmmm, unless they were really seriously rich, maybe...

  4. I just came across your blog. This is a great post, and very inspiring to me. I don't know how long I'll be in the Netherlands, and I never want the exciting life of an expat to end. After reading this post, I can't help but hope that my life will take me on as many exciting journeys as yours has. I'm excited to catch up on reading your blog and follow along with your Amsterdam adventures!

  5. Ah, thank you, Emmy, for showing me the way to this post. I loved the way you gathered up huge swaths of time in each paragraph with tiny telling details like the wine-stained mouths. Lovely story, and true--my favorite kind.