When we first moved from our native United States, we hadn’t even arrived at our destination before we were whisked into a holding cell at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. We were held there for eight hours and eventually booted from the Schengen Area over a lack of proper paperwork. It was our first experience being held by a foreign government, our first experience being flanked by federal agents as we were forced to buy tickets on a flight out of the country, and our first visit to Europe. Willkommen. Not.
While it ended up being just a small hitch in our grand plans to see the world, it opened our eyes to the fact that we’d left our country of birth and put ourselves into the hands of foreign powers. It was, in many ways, the start of a journey toward understanding the world through different eyes.
We still don’t know what it’s like to be migrants forced to leave our homes and beg for asylum in foreign countries, as so many Syrian nationals were doing during our time in Hungary, or as many Central American migrants are doing now as they pass by us here in Mexico on their way to the United States of America.
We do have much more empathy for migrants now, though. We made the choice to leave our home; it wasn’t because of violence or poverty, it was just because we could. So many people out here in the world don’t have that choice.
Frankly, life for most of the world is vastly different than the only life we’d known living in the far Northwest corner of the United States. One reason we’re grateful for the experiences we’ve had in countries other than our own — yes, even that experience in Germany — is that they’ve forced us to realize that the world is so much bigger and more diverse than we’d previously understood. Traveling has changed us for the better.
Here are a few ways that’s happened. Some are arguably less important than others, sure, but these are all things we’ve learned from stepping outside our nation of birth.
You can get by with less
Probably the first thing we noticed after we sold our house in preparation for this move was that we didn’t need to make so many trips to housewares stores for odds and ends to fill random nooks in the abode. For years, we’d subconsciously been collecting lamps, mirrors, end tables, wall art, wicker baskets and a jillion other things to fill the house’s odd empty spaces.
Fast forward a few years later, and we’re using rickety wooden crates as end tables and a wicker ottoman with more holes in it than actual surface area.
What happened during those intervening years? For one thing, we learned to be less materialistic.
Renting instead of owning, certainly, was one key to that. Playing a larger part, though, was the simple fact that it’s neither easy nor fun to move a bunch of stuff halfway around the world. Preparing for that first move to Hungary forced us to prioritize our things, deciding what was worth stuffing into a suitcase and lugging across the globe. We got it all into 17 individual pieces of luggage, from large suitcases to small backpacks for the boys. On our second move, after two years in Budapest, we brought even less stuff with us, and at least half of that was homeschool materials we still needed for the kids’ education.
Speaking of getting by with less…
It’s possible to not have a car
Yes, before traveling we really thought that owning a car was a necessary part of life. If you’re from New York or San Francisco or Boston or London or Madrid or Mexico City or any other major city with decent public transportation, you’re probably laughing right now. And that’s completely fair. But the truth is, living just north of Seattle, in the sprawling Pacific Northwest, the trusty old Honda Civic was how we got around. Church was half an hour out of town. Grandparents were an hour or more.
We shudder in shame to think of it now, but we used to drive to the grocery store three blocks from our house, justifying the act with pathetic thoughts like “I need to buy a gallon of milk and a case of beer and oatmeal and at least six boxes of macaroni and cheese, and that’ll be too much to carry home at once.” And that’s true. It was too much to carry at once. That was the mistake in our thinking — that it all needed to purchased at once. We hadn’t paused to think at the time that the same principles that apply to a Costco run for enough groceries to make the car bottom out needn’t also apply to a simple jaunt to the local supermarket for daily needs. In Budapest, for example, we learned that grocery shopping is done at least once per day. Wisely, the stores there don’t sell milk in containers larger than a liter for exactly the reason that a gallon (or two liters or whatever is the European equivalent) is too much to carry home at once along with a handful of apples, several small containers of yogurt and some sort of breakfast chocolate.
As most urban dwellers are aware, the need for a vehicle is obviated by great public transportation, the proximity of necessary businesses and walkable infrastructure. If we hadn’t left our corner of the world, we’d never have truly understood that.
Flexibility is key to survival
Mexico is an incredibly noisy place. At any hour of day, we can expect to hear: the guy across the street blasting music while he washes his car; the roving gang of dogs barking idle threats at passing cars; calliope music from the guy pushing the ice cream cart; piercing whistles from the various camote (smoked sweet potato) sellers; any of four jingles played loudly by competing natural gas companies as they drive around looking for customers; the droning sales pitch from the fellow whose pickup truck rattles by several times per week selling strawberries and playing a recording that shrieks the price as “CUARENTA PESOS POR KILO“; laughs from the gentlemen hanging out on the sidewalk sharing large bottles of Corona; shouts from schoolchildren as they head home at 1 p.m. for lunch; raucous crowing from the roosters on the next block; shouts we haven’t yet been able to interpret from the guy who walks around using a milk jug with the bottom cut out as an improvised megaphone; and (whew, time for a breath!) many, many more.
In the States, we’d sometimes get frustrated when the neighbor’s dog would bark or when cars would honk at the intersection four blocks away. That attitude just won’t fly here. It’s a vibrant place with a lot of bustle, and if we want to live here, we have to get used to it. Adapt we must.
The same could be said for a lot of things that are done differently elsewhere. The driving here in Mexico is notably crazier than in the U.S., for example, and we’ve learned we need to be more accommodating — and less prone to get angry — when getting cut off by a fellow turning right from the far left lane. And in Hungary, the people aren’t as friendly when you pass them on the sidewalk; we’ve needed to learn that in Budapest it’s nothing personal when we say “jó napot” (“good day”) to passing strangers and are completely, 100-percent, not-even-a-gruff-grumble-in-response ignored.
Humility is a fantastic trait
Since we’ve moved abroad, I have felt foolish and/or stupid waaaaay more times than I can count. There was the time in Budapest, for example, when an octegenarian woman chased me for two city blocks to tell me my son — who was happily strapped to my back at the time — had his poor head uncovered in the rain. I’m pretty sure she cussed at me.
Living in a different culture, with a different language and different customs, you are bound to make mistakes often. Every single day, trying to say something in Spanish, I get all sweaty and splotchy and gross from the stress of making a simple comment like “Do you have any chili powder?” When you’re living abroad, even the daily “easy” things are, sometimes, hard as heck. Honestly, that’s part of the fun of living abroad, but to be successful you truly do need to be able to laugh at yourself now and again. Over time, living abroad has helped us grow more humble (if I do say so myself) and more understanding with others, too.
You learn to decide what matters to you
Living abroad, for us, has been a success for one simple reason: It has allowed me, as a husband and father, to spend more time with my wife and kids. In fact, I think that’s the sole greatest reason we decided to move abroad. Working remotely gives me the flexibility to choose when and where I work, and living abroad makes working remotely affordable. The pay may not always be great, but spending less than $600 per month on housing and utilities makes remote work a viable option for us.
Obviously, there are other ways to achieve these goals. It’s possible to work from home in the States, of course. And remote work doesn’t necessarily mean lower pay. But moving to a place with lower living costs at the same time as transitioning from an office job, just gave us more flexibility. It gave us the opportunity to take any low-pay, low-stress job that came my way.
We were trying to align our finances with our values in the States but ran into some ceilings — some external, some internal. By helping us to focus our priorities, moving abroad has allowed us to continue improving our financial integrity, as described in Your Money or Your Life. We first read the book years ago and have come back to it recently for its cogent principles on how to think about money.
Living abroad and working remotely does not, by any stretch, mean that we have lots of free time to build sandcastles with the boys at the beach. That is a subject for another post, coming soon, but the truth is that we honestly feel busier than ever some days. That feeling of busyness is a constant struggle for us, but so far it has been worth it, because we are spending our time and money on things we care about — the family — and not on things we only seem compelled to care about, like cars and houses and other things.