Dear America: I Do Weird Things Here
Advice on living abroad, from a woman who's spent her entire adult life in foreign countries
I have spent more of my adult life abroad than I have at home in the United States, which makes me part immigrant, and part “very good at adding beans to every meal.”
(They’re never that good, and yet, I love them???)
When you live in foreign countries for a long period of time—especially during your 20s, when you’re still trying to figure out if balloon sleeves make you look like a pirate—you learn different rules about how the world works. You get exposed to different realities. You take different precautions. And, you operate differently.
At least, you do in subtle little ways that will drive all of your friends back at home to drink.
A few other fun-filled quirks I’ve imported after fifteen years abroad?
Never leaving my laptop downstairs when I go to bed, “to not give ‘em a good reason to break in”
Bringing my laptop with me everywhere I go “in case someone breaks in”
Only buying purses with zippers and cross-body straps “in case someone tries to steal my laptop when it’s with me because I brought it in case someone breaks in” (wow, am I fun)
Eating with my purse in my lap at a restaurant (anytime I see anyone put their purse on the back of their chair I get ACTUAL ANXIETY FOR THEM.)
Being a hyper clean freak in the kitchen (no dish goes unwashed and no crumb goes unwiped, and if I see dirty dishes in anyone’s sink, all I can think about is cockroaches and mice and ants and ohmygod how does anyone ever walk barefoot, ever)
Ordering endless industrial-sized bottles of those weird little ball thingies that make your laundry smell REVOLUTIONARY
Ordering industrial-sized bottles of everything because, corporate greed be damned, I am living on the thrill that is one-day shipping
Not knowing what to do with all the boxes one orders from Amazon?????????????????????????????
Learning that people burn boxes in their yard???????????????????????????
Is this a hillbilly thing??????????????????? It is, isn’t it.
Driving without wondering if today’s the day I’m gonna lose my life
Re-learning how to smile & say hello to those prize-winning dingleberries known as others (I dunno, sometimes big cities make you sorta dick-ey??? Even when you are not dick-ey??? Or try to convince yourself you are not dick-ey???)
Going into Target just to walk around Target because now I can walk around Target
Buying a fresh loaf of Italian bread and immediately rushing it home to cover it up and protect it like it’s a baby in my womb (in Central America, the humidity means that there’s virtually no good bread, which, yes, has been tirelessly stressful)
Assuming asparagus should cost $15
Trying to kiss everyone on the cheek
Going in for a hug when it’s clear you should not be kissing anyone on the cheek???
Feeling like a volcanic cock fossil during any social interaction, ever???
Writing about it on the internet, because that’s exactly what you do when you live abroad, and now you don’t know any other way of life
Rest-assured, living abroad doesn’t cause OCD, me being me causes OCD, and I’m not even being facetious because a therapist recently told me I probably have OCD??? And I was like, really? I’m pretty chill. And she was like, really??? You have been fidgeting since you were fourteen years old, Ash. Because, apparently, she remembers when I was fourteen years old, because that is another exciting thing you get to do when you buy an old farmhouse in your hometown after being abroad for most of your adult life: you get to go see your old therapist! And your old therapist remembers things about you that you didn’t even know were true about you, and then you go down this thrilling rabbit hole of memories, like how your mom died and you left town and you started traveling and never stopped.
Shit, did this just get deep? Shit’s getting deep.
What I really came here to do is put out a nice little encouraging essay with my hard-won advice for anyone who’s daydreaming about life abroad and opening a cozy little bookstore in Scotland and drinking tea and wearing plaid and saying things like “failing means yer playin’,” which might actually be the best wisdom ever. Should we start saying this?
SO—let me give you my most delirious / honest thoughts on whether it’s worth it to upend your life and go abroad and date mysterious new people and eat tiny little baby lambs (or something). Because, I know there are a lot of you out there who are thinking about changing your life and trying something new and going location independent and finally taking the leap to go live somewhere else for a while. And, who better than someone who’s been doing it longer than Gen Z has had their period???
Yes, it’s fucking worth it.
You will never regret this. You will never regret leaving your current life behind, at least for a little while. You will never regret quitting your job. Selling your house. Selling your car. Putting your things in storage. And going on the adventure of a lifetime. So, while there are some logistics involved, there are no mistakes. You cannot screw this up. You are making the right choice. If you’re being called to go explore, you need to go explore. Nothing else will make you feel at peace until you do. Travel is medicine.
Storage doesn’t cost as much as a life you don’t want to live anymore.
Yes, it can be expensive to store your family photo albums and your Grandma June’s hand-made pottery. So what??? It’s not as expensive as the subpar life you’re currently financing. I’m always amazed at how much Regular Living™️ costs. You’ve got mortgage payments, and car payments, and property taxes, and health insurance, and heating bills, and water bills, and cell phone bills, and gas bills, and TV bills, and Amazon bills (haha???) and roof repair bills and ballet bills and Christmas bills and the list goes on and on and on and on. Regular Living™️ is almost bound to always cost more than living abroad, because when you live abroad, you do things with a temporary mindset, rather than a “let me buy this $2,000 Anthropologie hutch because it would be perfect in the dining room.” You don’t buy cars. You don’t buy houses. You don’t buy crap online. You walk everywhere, and eat fresh local produce, you do it like the locals, and you replace the constant pain of boredom with the constant stimulation of discovery. Life becomes the main event, not all the things you can fill it with. (Shit, maybe I need this advice. I’ll call my Amazon delivery guy and let him know.)
Start consulting online. It’s the easiest way to start making money remotely.
Most people have no idea how easy it is to start earning money remotely, because most people have never worked for themselves. But, really? It’s one of the best ways that you can earn a living without needing to jump through 1,000 hoops, dealing with work visas, and trying like hell to get a job where an international company will hire you. You don’t need that. You need the guts to put yourself out there, and try something new. And that something new is as simple as setting up a Calendly, and charging for your time. If this seems like an oversimplification, it’s not. We live in the knowledge economy. People want to know what you know. People want advice from real people who’ve done it. So, pick something you’ve done—I don’t care whether it’s running your own event planning firm for the last 20 years, or running an Etsy shop making daffodil-print underwear—and start advertising your services as a consultant to help others who are trying to figure out how to do the same thing. You will be surprised how many people will give you their money in order to cut their learning curve in half—and have you as their secret weapon. Consulting is, by far, the fastest and easiest way to start making money remotely. (Definitely subscribe below if you’re curious about online business: I write about it often.)
It’s fine if you miss their wedding / baby shower / kid being born.
You will stress about being a “bad friend” at least 17 times a year. At first, you’ll probably buy expensive plane tickets to rush home to your loved ones and their big events. I remember flying from Santiago, Chile to Boston, Massachusetts—a 12-hour flight—to make it to a college friend’s wedding. Do we even talk now? Hardly—just because that is life and evolution and time. But my point is: you don’t need to go out of your way stressing that your decision to go on this adventure will also morph you into a bad, selfish person who thinks of no one but themselves. You’re the only one who’s going to think of yourself! Less important than the big, in-person events are the small, everyday moments: the Facetimes when they’re sad, the voice notes giggling about something that just happened, the remembering of the birthdays and their kids’ birthdays. These things are the real fabric of friendship, not a $2,000 plane ticket back home.
Nothing is that different. Nothing is that intimidating.
Recently I was in a gas station in Slovenia and I was dying for a cup of coffee and I couldn’t figure out how to get the coffee, because apparently I needed to pay for it first and then go over to the little machine. I spent a good 3 minutes searching all over this machine, and then you know what I did? I went over and asked the cashier. And you know what the cashier did? She told me what to do! And just like that, crisis averted. Everything gets much easier when you learn how to drop your pride and just ask. You aren’t stupid, and most people will be happy to help. And then, you know! YOU NOW KNOW HOW TO GET COFFEE IN SLOVENIA, AND HOW BADASS ARE YOU.
The language barrier is not a big deal—promise.
I get this question a lot: what about the language barrier??? Obviously some languages are tougher than others, but I look at it like this: learning to communicate in a new language is part of the joy of being in a new culture. That’s what you’re doing there! It isn’t a barrier, it’s a blessing. This is part of the fun. And, most people are patient and even excited to get to chat with someone from a new place. Think about how you respond anytime you meet someone from Norway. You’re not like, oh my god, will this marble-minded fish fucker get on with it, already??? No way! You’re like SQUEEEEEEE! WHAT ARE YOU WEARING? WHAT IS THIS ACCENT??? DO YOU LIKE MY COUNTRY??? WHERE ARE YOU GOING NEXT???? YOU’RE SO FASCINATING! PICK ME UP AND HUG ME! And, people will be like that with you, too. Go forth and enjoy it.
You need local friends, local food, and local language.
We’ve already been over the language piece—now let’s talk about the other two! You need local friends. Don’t go abroad and then (just) find all the Americans (or Canadians, or Aussies, or whatever). Local friends are what will make your experience so much more rich and meaningful; full and layered. You’ll eat dinner at their house; visit their 90-year-old grandmother; go to local hang-outs; shop at the grocery store; and learn about life through their lens. And, this is truly the only way you can have a shot at really seeing the culture, because otherwise you will only be seeing it through your own lens—which, of course, is clouded by your own culture. Try like hell to make friends with locals, and if you have trouble doing that, I highly recommend signing up for some Airbnb Experiences that are led by locals. I almost always make a friend that way, or can make connections that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. (“Hey, do you happen to know anyone who knows anything about the architecture of the neighborhood???”) And, surely, when all else fails, a pub is a surefire way to make a new friend. Which brings me to the next point: EATING IS CRITICAL. Find the local neighborhoods, and go to the local restaurants. Avoid tourist areas at all costs. It’s okay if you feel a little out of place at first—you aren’t supposed to feel right at home. That’s the point. But, doing this will almost always result in (a) Real, authentic food that’s true to the culture, and (b) Locals who are also there eating and drinking! If anything, your standing out as a foreigner goes in the plus column, because it opens up a door for conversation. Obviously, that’s not how it works in all cultures—in some cultures, they’d rather eat bat poison than make small talk with strangers—but all you can do is show up and try. Which might actually be my new mantra for LIFE.
Yo, there’s gonna be so much fish.
I had to add this. Everywhere else in the world eats metric fucktons of fish—and your throat will have to wrestle some really interesting creatures. Sort of like earlier this year when I (barely) swallowed percebes, which look exactly like tiny little p - - - ses. 😂 On the upside, it’s healthy. On the downside, you will sometimes wish you could just order a fucking pizza. Do not order the fucking pizza. (Says the girl who’s probably going to order a pizza tonight???)
Don’t worry about the tiny little dumb obstacles, like the mail.
I’ve used this company for over a decade. They’ll receive your mail and scan it and email it to you, and voi-fucking-la. You don’t have to inconvenience your neighbor for the next three years…AND you get to keep a permanent address for yourself that you can use for all of your legal stuff, like banking. There are solutions for everything! Nothing is too hard, too complicated, or too impossible.
Speaking of banking: don’t give up your bank account in your home country.
You’ll need it. The end. Love, a person who hates old-fashioned banking, but still needs an old-fashioned bank.
FUN PERK FOR U.S. CITIZENS.
If you stay outside of the United States for at least 330 days each year (doesn’t have to be consecutive), you don’t pay taxes on your first $120,000 in income. Yup, you read that right. It’s called the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. (And yes, you still need to pay U.S. taxes, even if you aren’t there. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that plays this game.)
God, whatever you do: if you’re thinking about moving abroad, don’t lease a car anytime soon.
It’s much better to buy a car now, and then be able to sell it when you’re leaving. If you lease a car, on the other hand, you’ll end up having to pay a pretty hefty price tag to turn it in early. Ask me how I know.
Depending on which country you’re in, you’ll probably be on a tourist visa at first.
Most tourist visas are 3 or 6 months long. That means you’ll have to leave every 3 or 6 months, and go somewhere else. I LOVED this, because it’s a great opportunity to force yourself to go explore other places. But, it also means you’ll have to make room for those bonus trips in your budget. So, try to think of this as a recurring living expense, and budget a week in a new place every 3 months or so, including plane ticket, accommodations, food, and entertainment. There are worse things to spend your money on. (Like diapers.)
That said, there are tons of digital nomad visas these days.
But, I wouldn’t necessarily get one of those unless you’re sure you’re moving to X COUNTRY and you want to STAY IN X COUNTRY for at least a year. This isn’t the case for most nomads, who want to do some traveling and have some long & leisurely stints here and there, without necessarily moving there. But, it might be the case for you if you fell in love with Spain and want to go drink gin & tonics the size of your head for super duper cheap for a very long time.
And finally? Nothing is as scary as it seems, even if you are paranoid that people will break into your house and steal your laptop the moment you go to buy some string beans.
Nothing is going to happen. And everything’s going to be great. And you are going to figure out how everything works—and you will have a ball doing it. This will be the time of your life. You will learn how to take chances. And be brave. And teach yourself new things. And step into a version of yourself that you haven’t even met before, because everything you’ve ever done has been the result of routine, or habit, or cultural norms, or family norms, or relationship fucking norms, or the kinds of norms that people have who spend their whole lives growing up together, digging in the same dirt, crushing on the same girls, buying the same pot roast ingredients, telling the same stories. Wipe all that away, give yourself a clean slate to start fresh and explore what your life might look like if you, rather than your circumstances, were in charge of it. You can dance. You can pray. You can draw. You can sing. You can be bold. And big. And self-assured. Or, you can be quiet, and calm, and introspective, and sweet. You can drink tea. Or drink whiskey. Or you can drink both, and tell everyone else to go fuck themselves—you are having FUN. You can laugh and you can laugh and you can laugh and you can be free. You can read books, or you can get into science, or you can wear swishy trench coats, and take photographs of nothing but flowers. You can study architecture, or you can study art. You can watch the world go by, or go take a lap around it. You can be extraordinary, you can be a force. And, you can design your life the way you might a new house: what do I want to fill this new life of mine with??? What things would make me feel good this year??? What things will I curate here in this new heart of mine??? How can I fill myself up with beauty??? With passion? With strength? With pleasure? How can I be the kind of person I will respect? And love? And want to thrust out into the open world, over and over and over again, because I have the confidence that only a person who trusts themselves has??? If you want to be this person, you must go. You must go now. And you must make the plans you’ve been dreaming to make, because as you will find? You can do anything, in this world.
Even eat fish.
What would you add to this list???
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