Travelers at heart, Patricia & Bruno have lived in France, Scotland, Taiwan, Germany, and the USA and discovered 30+ countries worldwide, from Australia, China, Thailand, Benin, Senegal to Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and Canada.
Make sure you check out their website for more of their whirlwind adventures; www.zewanderingfrogs.com
Life moved us around in a surprising way: I met my better half Bruno, also French, in Edinburgh; followed him for his work in Taiwan for 15 months where I found a position that later sent me to Germany. After three years in the land of Goethe, we moved to sunny California, our home for the past 14 years.
As newcomers in any country, the first six months were the hardest. Regular activities faced immediate struggles. Rent a safe and affordable apartment, buy a car, get insurance, open a bank account, file legal paperwork, ride a bus, find a grocery store, understand food labels, or try to anyway. On the social front, we found it hard as introverts to meet people and make friends. The language barrier made this even more difficult though we tried with more or less success to learn the language of our new residence. Explaining our symptoms to the doctor was stressful when we did not speak the language. In the long term, and regardless how good we mastered the country idiom, a different sense of humor, childhood or cultural references would still get lost in translation.
Is it worth living abroad then? I could not picture not to!
Residency in various countries gave us a better understanding of the world. It helped us grow personally and offered career opportunities we would not have had in our native country. We had to rethink our assumptions and expectations.
Even within “Western” culture, which shares lots of commonalities, our day-to-day is filled with unexpected situations. In moments of isolation, when we dealt with the bureaucracy or were unable to read the menu, we asked ourselves why we moved across the planet. Then a family offered us a dumpling soup. A stranger led us to our train when the notifications were in Chinese. A friend invited us to a wedding in Germany. Our neighbor in California welcomed us with homemade cookies. And we remembered why we lived abroad, the joy of discovering new places and cultures.
As far as getting into the expat mode, Scotland is a great country for an initial international experience, as least from a French point of view.
With some English to get around (even with a strong Scottish slang), a similar way of life, food and culture, helped the transition. More difficult elements included driving on the left side of the road, primarily as my French car had a right-sided steering wheel. I discovered draft beer, hot scones, haggis, Ceilidh dances, highland games, and bagpipe music. Fish and chips and rainy summers did not stand top of our list though. The casual work environment, the use of “you” and first-name basis made for smooth business relations. Scotland will always have a special place in our heart because it was my first “home abroad” fresh out of college, and I feel a wee Scottish…
When we heard Bruno was assigned to Taiwan for his civil service, I confess we thought of Thailand… Taiwan represented a shock, given the distinct culture and language. But we felt welcome right away. Finding a place to stay happened to be tricky as we could not read the newspaper ads written in Mandarin. Thankfully Bruno’s colleagues helped to call potential places.
English is not widely spoken so communication was done using our few words of Chinese and hand gestures.
Shopping for food led to surprises when the photos on the cans did not represent the actual products. Clothing was a challenge too. Without falling into a stereotype, the petite size was broadly available but not wide enough to fit my Western body. We tried to learn Mandarin with mixed results. I asked my boss to kiss her or headed to the wrong direction when we mispronounced the name of our destination. Any travel outside Taipei demanded planning. Since we only had a scooter, we could not ride far. Car rental was expensive, and the heavy traffic made it hard to drive around easily and somewhat prevented further exploration of the island. As in many Asian countries, pollution darkened every item on the balcony. But we appreciated the kindness of the Taiwanese always ready to help and discovered millennia-old civilization. Chinese food became a favorite, particularly pearl tea, Nio Jo Mien and Teppanyaki from the nearby night markets. We learned not to put our chopsticks in food as they looked like pray incense sticks. We drove hours on our scooter to explore lush vegetation in the hills around Taipei, nestled temples in tiny villages, and scenic roads around Keelung. Outdoor activities included picnics by cool rivers around Wulai and hikes around Yangminshan National Park. Our first karaoke experience took place in Taipei – hilarious!
The transition to a small town after Taiwan’s capital was interesting, from fast-paced to slow motion.
Germany is great for work-life balance, with little stress and where overtime is frowned upon (as it meant a poor workload management).
Stores closed early in the evenings and on Sundays, which allowed time with family and friends though we had to learn to make our grocery shopping ahead of these. We fell in love with German bread! These Broetchen with pumpkin seeds or cheese, are the best thing ever, and we were lucky to have a bakery right by our place. The traditional breakfast is yummy, filled with sausages, hard eggs, savory spreads, salmon… Germans tend to be formal and can seem cold upon the first encounters. But friendships are built and a few of my oldest friends are from Germany. One thing that put us in trouble is that Germans are very punctual, whereas French think being 15-minute late is normal. We biked everywhere thanks to a fantastic biking network, around the city or to the countryside up to nearby small villages. Germany is compact and allowed us to easily visit Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, up to Denmark, The Netherlands, and Czech Republic. We did however miss the quick access to snowy mountains or water sports. Cash was king. I recall leaving our weekend groceries on the cashier table because I did not have the money and the store was about to close. On the clothing side, I finally found clothes that fit my full-body shape, though it was twice too long…
Contrary to Germany where we biked everywhere, our first order in California was to buy a car due to the lack of public transportation and possibility to walk around. A credit card proved to be tricky to secure as we needed to have a credit history to get one but needed a credit card to establish our credit history. It did not matter we had money in our bank account, we had to prove we could reimburse our expenses. Luckily, the credit union of Hewlett-Packard, Bruno’s employer back then, issued us a card. Additional taxes and tipping took time to get used to as it added around 25% to the base prices. The freedom of choice can make things unnecessarily complicated and there are always gazillions options for everything. From a simple sandwich with several choices of bread and toppings to health insurance with complex coverages and doctor’s networks. The health care system is expensive and unaffordable for many, where even insured patients might end up with huge bills because of low coverage. The business environment can be stressful with little work-life balance though hard work is usually rewarded by success. This is the land of opportunities where reinventing yourself is accepted. In Europe, people stay in the same career and many times the same job all their life, with change or failure considered shameful. Americans on the other end are supportive to a second chance. Develop a new career path, explore new ideas, build up an original business, and people will encourage any entrepreneur. I have never seen a place where citizens stand so deeply proud of their country. Flags are everywhere and the 4th of July is celebrated with streets’ parade, fireworks, balloons, concerts, all in the red white blue stars and stripes. As a new US citizen, I find this moving. Last but not least the US is a paradise of scenic landscapes, extensive natural spaces, unique formations like Monument Valley, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. From hiking, snowboarding, to kitesurfing, kayaking and whitewater rafting, California is especially great for outdoor lovers, which is one reason we like it so much.
Each country has a lot to offer. Every person is different and will have distinctive experiences. This is what living abroad is about, and worth every single moment.