Habitual Expats: Why Do So Many Expats Repeatedly Relocate?
Between the ages of 18 and 22, I lived in five different countries. Originally native to England, I spent one month studying in Iceland and caught the expat bug. It was only a short space of time, but I became quickly wrapped up in the culture and enamored with the Icelandic way of life. I had every intention of returning once I graduated from university to learn more about this beautiful place, but other countries got in the way. My life as a habitual expat had already begun.
After graduating in 2011, I immediately set off to become a teacher in the Czech Republic. Why the Czech Republic? Well, therein lies one of the secrets of the habitual expat. I never intended to settle in the Czech Republic, but somehow it just happened. I spent a month there training to be a teacher, but at the end, I simply didn’t want to leave. I fell in love with my second country. The architecture was beautiful, the public transport was like heaven after commuting to London all my life, and the language was an exciting challenge. What reason was there to leave?
Why We Keep Wandering
I think many people other than me have the ability to chameleon to suit another country and culture. In almost any country in the world there is something to fall in love with. Many people relocate over and over again because they don’t want to miss out on discovering new places and new things to love. In a way, being a habitual expat is a bit like being a philanderer; we appreciate the object of our desires deeply, but it’s hard to be faithful to just one.
I was in love with Prague, but after a year, there were other places I wanted to experience for myself. Besides, another complication had arisen: I’d met a foreign man. But first thing’s first: country number four. Since high school, I’ve studied German and visited the country frequently. Germany has always been a part of who I am, and originally I’d planned to teach there after completing my studies in Prague. Not wanting to let my language skills go to waste, I went back to my old love affair with Germany and stayed in Hameln for three months as an au pair.
Many habitual expats originally have split senses of identity. They might be multilingual or have a diverse heritage. They may have been born abroad and feel the need to return. This can account for an inordinate amount of country-hopping. For me, Germany has always been in my blood — quite literally, in fact, since my father lives and works there. Even if I had other places I wanted to visit, Germany felt like an old friend, a country to fall back on after a turbulent end to my time in Prague.
I might have settled quite happily in Germany for a while, but for the foreign man I met in Prague. He was an American. America is a country I’d never really wanted to visit. I enjoyed learning languages; Americans spoke English. I liked trying new cuisines; didn’t Americans just eat burgers? I wanted to explore beautiful architecture; America was just full of ugly cities, right?
But love makes us do crazy things, and I found myself flying to America after my time in Germany came to a close and I could bear the separation no longer. I quickly discovered something I had never suspected: America was awesome! The culture was vibrant and diverse, and there were too many beautiful places to even count.
Nothing Is Set in Stone
I feel as though many people develop an accidental affinity with a place after visiting on holiday or on a work trip. It might not be their first choice to move there, but circumstances — like meeting a special someone — can turn it into home. I’ve spent the past year exploring just a fraction of what America has to offer, and I’ve become a willing expat yet again, this time as the wife of a native.
So that’s another box ticked. Many people meet and fall in love abroad, which can make them swap countries as easily as you might switch seats on a train. It’s not unusual for expats to meet other expats — both natives of different countries — and end up settling in a third place.
Of course, marriage can also call a halt to the practice of country-hopping. For as long as I can remember it’s been my dream to live in Japan, but somehow I had to work my way up there first. England was home, Iceland was transitory and the Czech Republic was only an hour’s flight from my native land. Germany was never a risk — but Japan would be a huge step. Marriage and America got in the way of that, but if you think I’ve stopped there, think again!
To me, the mindset of a habitual expat is complex. On the one hand, the person has to be able to make a home anywhere and immediately feel a sense of belonging. On the other hand, this sense is always outweighed by the thought “what else is out there waiting for me?” The habitual expat is hungry, seeking new experiences, but taking as much time as needed to enjoy what’s in front of her.
There are many drawbacks to the mindset. Friends get left behind, careers get thrown away and language lessons are tossed to one side, half-learned. In my mind, though, the benefits greatly outweigh the disadvantages. You get to experience not one foreign culture, but many, learning something new from each one and taking it with you to the next. I know that I wouldn’t want to forget any of my experiences as an expat — and I hope that one day my husband and I will take to the road again. Habit is habit, after all.