25 years ago I became an expat for the first time

life Oct 06, 2021

25 years ago today I moved to a foreign country for the first time.

I was 20 years old and I was moving from the UK to Nice, France as part of my French and Spanish degree (that's a photo of me in Nice at the time.) 

I clearly remember being at Heathrow with two of my uni friends, saying goodbye to my parents, feeling a mix of excitement and fear at what lay ahead of me.

It was the 6th October and we left a cold, rainy London to arrive in a sunny, balmy Nice.

Being driven down the Promenade des Anglais is engraved in my brain as I took in the BLUE sky and the BLUE sea (BLUE because they are just so blue!), and the palm trees that lined the road.

For someone who had spent the last 2 years of studenting in Liverpool it felt like I had somehow arrived in heaven.

I remember exactly what I was wearing that evening as I called my parents from a payphone to tell them we'd arrived safe and sound.

"It's 6 o'clock and I'm wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt!" I announced delightedly to my mum. (I really feel the cold so, for this Brit, wearing short sleeves on an October evening is something to write home about.)

Over the next 5 months I fell in love with the different way of doing things, and was driven mad in equal measures.

I quickly abandoned lectures, realising I was learning more by going out and meeting French people than from sitting in a big room, listening to a bored teacher drone on.

As my time in Nice drew to a close I celebrated my 21st birthday by partying for 24 hours, starting in Monte Carlo, not bad for a poor student (we knew all the tricks to make our money stretch by then).

I had a brief stint of one week back at my parents' house before it was time to repack my bags and head to Spain this time, to Murcia, near Alicante.

This was a far bigger culture shock.

I knew France and the French language.

I'd been going there on holiday since the age of 8 and was in love with the language, which I'd been learning for 10 years.

Spain was a whole other ball game.

I barely knew the country and as for the language, I'd started learning it from scratch at university just 2 years before.

On top of that, after 5 months in France, all Spanish words seemed to have deserted my brain - partying during my time in Nice might also have contributed to this issue...

So I arrived in Spain - flying alone this time - with no university halls to go to, 3 distant friends / acquaintances from university to meet up with, and a temporary hostel as my home until I found my own private accommodation.

I realised when I arrived in Murcia that a) they speak seriously fast there, roll all their words into one long word and don't move their lips - a nightmare for me as I lip read massively, and b) I seemed to only have a vocabulary of about 20 words.

With my pocket dictionary in my hand permanently (this was 1997 so that was our only option) my friends and I visited several apartments before signing a lease on one of them, then went about getting a phone line, electricity and water set up. All in a very foreign language.

Again we quickly realised that lectures weren't the best use of our time for learning Spanish, and we spent our days practising the language with Spaniards, listening to the radio and watching TV - "la ruleta de la fortuna" (wheel of fortune) and "los vigilantes de la playa" (Baywatch) were the easiest for learning Spanish.

In 3 months I went from having a handful of words at my disposal to being able to debate in (fast) Spanish about politics with the locals.

(Sadly after my degree ended I stopped using Spanish and forgot most of it, but over the last few months I've been gradually re-learning it with the Duolingo app.)

After this year abroad it was time for me to return to Liverpool for my final year of university.

The cold and grey was a bit of a shock to the system after spending a year in the south of France and south of Spain.

Plus I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. It was a strange time.

So on the 1st July 1998, shortly after finishing university, I got on a plane to Nice for a 3 month "let off steam" break with 2 friends I'd met there the year before.

The plan was to work in a bar by night, go out and party afterwards, sleep a bit then spend a few hours on the beach in the afternoon before doing it all over again.

I thought if I did this for 3 months I would be ready to move back to the UK and be a proper grown-up, get a sensible (i.e. boring) job, and do the whole marriage, mortgage and kids thing.

But about a week into that 3 month break my friends and I decided to prolong our stay indefinitely (oh the joys of life pre-Brexit when you could do such things so easily).

I ended up finally moving back to the UK 12 years and 18 days after I left it. With a French husband (Ben), daughter, dog and cat in tow.

We moved to London, which was a big shock after being abroad for so long.

I'd forgotten how cold and wet it was.

And having spent most of my adult life in France I knew no grown-up vocabulary in English. I didn't know any car, home, mortgage or gynaecology terms in English, yet could comfortably discuss all such things in French. It was weird.

It took a few months but then I was delighted to be "home". I'd missed English humour, it being normal to go to the pub for drinks with colleagues after work on a Friday, the sheer delight when the sun came out and stayed out - I still believe there is no better place in the world than London on a warm, sunny day.

After a few years my French husband was craving sunshine; as he told me shortly after we arrived "this is the longest I've ever gone without seeing the sunshine over my head", I laughed and suggested he get used to it as it was August and the height of summer!

5 years and 3 months after I landed back in the UK it was time to leave again.

This time for the complete unknown.

The tropical island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, in Africa.

It was a first for both Ben and me.

A new continent.

New cultures and religions, with a new language (Mauritian creole, even though English and French are also official languages in Mauritius).

A place where we knew no one.

A place where we had never set foot.

In a few weeks it will be 6 years since we left our safety net of family and friends in the UK to move here, bringing only 5% of our belongings with us.

On the eve of our 40th birthdays, and as our daughters turned 9 and 3, we set up a new life as expats again.

And we couldn't be happier.

Mauritius is everything we hoped it would be and more, showing that the best things really are outside of your comfort zone.

Living as an expat has taught me so much.

Love and appreciation for where I come from.

Respect, understanding and honour of other people's way of life, language, culture, tradition, skin colour, beliefs.

Daily gratitude for this incredible, diverse world and all its incredible and diverse inhabitants.

I sometimes wonder if we would have fewer wars and climate issues, less prejudice and racism, if those in power were made to travel the world and live as locals before making any major decisions...

Who knows?

All I know is that it is THE biggest gift of my life and I am grateful for my expat life and experiences every day.

Moving to Mauritius was a decision that my husband and I took in a matter of seconds (before subsequently spending a long time researching it to make sure it really was right for our family), because over the years we have got really good on decision-making.

I know this is something that can be tricky for lots of people so I put together a free decision-making guide to help you with this.

In this guide I let you in to 3 decision-making secrets that will help you deal with indecision and ensure that you never make a wrong decision again.

Click here to download this free decision-making guide

Life is too short to stay in jobs, relationships, homes, countries, situations that don't make you happy. Maybe it's time for you to make a change, if so this free guide will definitely help you.

Here's to being happy and fulfilled in this fabulous life :-)

Big love,
Sophie xx


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