Expat Life: You Know You’re An Expat When…

While becoming an expat is a short-term arrangement, it’s no secret that after a while abroad the term “expat” takes on an identity of its own. See if you agree…

Before our family relocated to Barcelona to start our expat life, I would listen in awe to my husband share stories of other expat families.

At the time, Tony worked in the Global Mobility industry and was responsible for coordinating the logistics of moving employees and their families overseas.

How could they just pickup and move their whole life abroad, I wondered? Sooo many details and decisions, I couldn’t imagine being faced with such a life-altering experience.

Scary stuff!

And at the same time, I was fascinated by the whole thing. I started dreaming up my own life wandering the streets of incredible cities like Rome, Brussels, and Barcelona.

Then one day, it was our turn. And suddenly we went from suburban “white picket fence life” to the status of expat – global nomad. And we haven’t looked back. That was three years ago.

Now that myself, my husband and our three children are part of this elite group known as expats, it’s clear we are a different bunch.

We think about the world differently. We view the country we come from a bit differently, as well. Expats embrace other cultures and traditions with ease. We yearn to see more and do more regardless of how much we’ve already experienced abroad.

And these characteristics are only the beginning. I now realize there are some definite habits and attitudes that also develop over time when you become an expat. Some are deliberate, others evolve without us even knowing.

I assume if you’ve read this far, you are either currently an expat (in which case you’ll find this list humorous) or are planning to become an expat in the future (one of the best life decisions you’ll ever make).

For specifics on moving to Barcelona including finding an apartment, applying for a visa, and obtaining a Spanish drivers’ license, Expats in Barcelona will be your go-to guide. My fellow blogging friend, Jonian, visited our incredible city when he was young and couldn’t wait to settle down here with his own family years later. He’s a fantastic resource for starting a life here.

Speaking of starting a new life, have a fun time reading these highly unique characteristics that only expats can truly understand…

You Know You’re An Expat When…

You no longer text, you WhatsApp!

When you’re an expat and your circle of fellow expat friends comes from all ends of the globe, you use WhatsApp to communicate with one another. Why? Because it’s completely free to download and use regardless of where you come from.

That’s right. Two people from different continents can chat with each other without any additional charges. So it’s literally what everyone uses. It took some getting used to, as our families back home in the U.S. still do most chatting via traditional iMessage.

Honestly, I prefer WhatsApp these days! Don’t you? Particularly for its lengthy voice message function and endless amounts of group chats with quirky names and header photos.

We opted to contract with a Spanish phone company so we could have local numbers and cellular service. Just makes life easier in the long-run! For more info on how to go about getting a phone number in Spain, check out these tips from Expats in Barcelona.

You sometimes confuse languages

When we first moved to Barcelona, our language skills were sub-par at best! We could ask for the nearest coffee shop. But could we understand the response given back? Not usually.

But after about 6-9 months, small talk progressed into actual conversations. And that’s when things usually get interesting as an expat. Your natural inclination is of course to use your native tongue but once you can speak the local language, you sometimes cris-cross your words.

Last week, I went to the salon for a hair appointment. As I chatted with the stylist about color and cut, my words got switched from Spanish to English over and over again. Thankfully I got the point across and didn’t leave with a crew cut! But if you’re an expat, you’ve probably been in a similar situation before.

Your food choices are much more liberated

Expats are generally pretty adventurous people. Why else would they make the decision to move across the world into the unknown? And being an “out of the box” thinker doesn’t just include physical proximity. It also applies to food and drink!

You never know WHAT you’ll find in other regions and have to be prepared for anything, really.

Ox tail, baby eel, and red wine mixed with coke? Never would I have tried these dishes in the U.S. where cheeseburgers and pizza are widely available. But being an expat means you’re open to trying. And because you try, your pallet naturally matures.

Your friends come from all over the world

Turns out, deciding to move abroad and become an expat isn’t actually that crazy. Contrary to my personal belief before moving abroad, there are literally thousands of expat families relocating every day. I wouldn’t have realized that without taking this journey.

If you’re reading this as an expat, look around and count the number of countries your friends come from. It’s astonishing!

Our circle here in Barcelona…they’re amazing. And they’re almost ALL expats. Families in the same boat as us, living abroad and trying to adjust to a foreign culture. It’s comforting and reassuring. It also makes the world feel much smaller than it really is.

You’re busy planning your next trip while on vacation

Ask anyone, travel is addicting! Even if you’re a homebody who doesn’t love flying, the thrill of experiencing new things is a human instinct. We’re hungry and curious beings.

And as expats? Well, it’s like being a travel lover on steroids! Chances are, you have an ongoing and lengthy bucket list of places to see. And once one destination is crossed off the list, you”re adding three more.

Am I right? Happens to us all the time. We’re constantly looking for our next adventure. Two weeks ago we spent a summer holiday in Calpe, Spain and were busy discussing where to spend the Christmas season together in a few months.

The planning and imagining is too much fun and has become a real tradition for our whole family.

Not an expat but still want to experience the excitement of long-term travel? Spain has something fantastic called a non-lucrative residence visa that isn’t difficult to apply for. For more info on this visa type and process, read on.

Your kids have developed foreign accents

If you’re an expat with kids, your goals for exposing them to a foreign country probably include cultural awareness, exposure to different languages and building relationships with children from other countries.

What you may NOT have expected was them adopting somewhat of a foreign accent in the process. At least that’s what happened to us after our two older kids started attending British International school in Barcelona. Their teachers, administrators and many friends come from the UK which means that lovely eloquent English accent is heard all day long.

We’re from the Northeast of the U.S. just outside NYC, which means we have a very specific “Jersey accent”. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told! But sometimes my kids will speak and sound more like a monologue from a Harry Potter movie than an episode of the Sopranos!

I find it quite adorable actually.

Looking for more info on how to prepare your children for a move abroad? Read my expat advice and what we did to help prepare our three little ones here.

You have multiple drivers’ licenses

As an expat living in a big city, you may opt to rely on public transportation to get around. A very eco-friendly decision of course, but not the most practical if you’re anything like us – a family of five. With kids, the buses and trains aren’t always the most convenient option.

But an American driver’s license would only allow my husband to drive in Barcelona for six months. Eventually it was time for him to get a Spanish one. And MAN, what a process that was! For citizens of the EU, the process is a simple license transfer.

For a non-EU citizen? You’re treated like an 18-year old who ran over the orange parking cones in driving school. A lengthy written exam, road test and several hours of driving school will get you a Spanish license. But it’s not as simple as it sounds!

Check out Expats in Barcelona’s article about How to Get a Spanish Driver’s License for more details.

You make jokes about “tourists” with other expats

The first time I realized we were no longer “visitors” in Barcelona was when a friend joked with me about the annoying crowds of tourists come summertime. It was a rather normal comment but stuck with me.

“Tourists” no longer referred to us. We were expats. This was our city, our new home. And we couldn’t take that lightly. Suddenly I felt more invested in being a part of this community and blending in…versus standing out. Can you relate to this feeling?

To shop Fashion/Beauty and Home trends from Spain, check out The Expat Chronicle Storefront

For example, some of my clothing choices, while perfectly acceptable in other Western parts of the world, would not be seen as very Spanish here. So I had to make some changes – leave the yoga pants and trainers at home if I wasn’t headed to the gym – and adapt to more local styles. Wondering how to dress like a local in Spain? Check out my ultimate guide.

These days, making jokes with one another about outside visitors, as an expat long-term visitor, is innocent and lighthearted – but also rather funny!

You refer to your expat city as “home”

We’ve all heard people say, “home is where the heart is” and expats can relate to this first-hand. Because when you’re a global nomad like us, you don’t identify home with any certain person, memory, or familiar surrounding.

You associate it with where you are in that chapter. Where you feel you’re meant to be in life. You’re with the people you love, doing what you love and experiencing life for all its worth!

For me personally, I refer to Barcelona as home because it’s where we’ve built our present day life. My family’s biggest growth has happened in this city. We’ve made the most mistakes and learned the biggest lessons. Our traditions lie here, our greatest adventures have been had.

Yes, you will always refer to the country you come from as your home country – but the more an expat lives abroad and is embraced by their foreign surroundings, the word “home” takes on a different meaning.

12 Comments

  • Nadine

    Totally agree with all these, except sadly for the language thing which i havent got at all. I love your positive take on the expat life. Its all too easy to focus on the negative which im guilty of sometimes. I love that you keep the postives at the top of your mind x

  • amanda ramirez

    This is so funny, and so true! We lived in Israel for two years (originally from US) so I love this! Whatsapp, broader food palate, planning vacation while on vacation…yes! I might also add your currencies tend to add up. We have this little bag of foreign money(small amounts) that we never got around to changing in. Probably 6 currencies total!

    • Lauren Covino-Smith

      Ahh I’ve heard Israel is stunning! We haven’t had the chance to venture out there yet. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and could relate 🙂 Yess totally agree that the currencies could become a collection over time hahaha. Great one!

  • Vinn

    I’m feeling nostalgic about this post, being an expat in Qatar for about 10 years. Oh boy, some Arabic words and phrases get me by. Forget about the writing and reading. But indeed so much fun memories, I guess I have made the most multinational friends and tasted food from different origins. If they say life comes around again, I still want to live in other parts of the world!

  • Linda

    Thanks for the laugh and reminder that we are an elite group. Totally relate, I’m Australian and spent 11 years in London and we moved late last year over to Barcelona with the family. Would i ever be able to head back home to Australia And adapt after being away for so long?

    • Lauren Covino-Smith

      Wow you hit the nail on the head! It’s a strange thing to be away from the place you come from for so long. But it also makes you question certain things you otherwise never would have. Being an expat can be a confusing but truly remarkable thing! 🙂 thanks for the comment!

  • Caroline

    This all resonates so much! I especially love the fact that your son has an English accent and despite being in Spain, my son now has an American accent!

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