Overcoming the Challenges of Living Abroad

Happy female tourist searching road to hotel on atlas in a forei

I was 19 the first time I made the decision to move abroad. Growing up in a small town, I spent my childhood dreaming of other places, wishing I could escape and see the world and all of its wonders. I developed a fascination with Ancient Egypt, learned French so I could order a café au lait without an accent in Paris, and made a list of all the places I would go when I was old enough to have the chance.

The first chance came in college when I studied abroad in Venice for three months. Although I had traveled some when I was younger, those three months cultivated my love for visiting new places and sparked a spirit of adventure. So it was no surprise that when I graduated from college, I decided to return to Italy. This time, to a new city.

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Living in Florence pushed me in ways that I never thought it would. I had little choice in who my friends were as a foreigner — it was hard to find others I could relate to. I was also living on an extremely tight budget and struggled with adapting to new cultural norms. I had almost completely forgotten the language from my time studying abroad in Venice, which made it difficult to communicate when I missed my train and more challenging to connect with locals. So, I spent most of my time with Americans.

I learned that I was more self-sufficient than I had ever thought possible when my roof started caving in, and I managed to convey the problem in my sparse Italian to the workers drilling a hole in the plaster ceiling above me. I spent time reevaluating who I was and what experiences I wanted to shape me. The truth was, the difficult times taught me more than the easy times ever could have.

There were also times when I missed my family and friends back home. I had broken phone calls and long Skype conversations, but it wasn’t the same as being there in person. I couldn’t attend my brother’s high school graduation, and I wasn’t there to comfort my best friend during a breakup. I had no one nearby to support me when times were frustrating and I felt alone. But I had chosen this life —how could I complain about it to people who missed me and wanted me home? How could I describe my feelings to people I had only just met?

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After landing a job with “USA Today,” I decided to move to another area of Tuscany for work. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to after the my last experience. I worried that I would have the same thoughts and feelings of loneliness and isolation. I didn’t want to navigate the difficulties of not knowing the language and missing friends and family back home again. But this time, I knew what I wanted. I settled in Lucca, a town not too far from Florence. It was a clean slate—a new place to call home.

This time, I knew the challenges of living abroad. I was intentional about making friends with locals to avoid loneliness. Though the language barrier kept us from connecting on a deeper level, they were truly invested in our friendships. I have fond memories of meeting over an espresso, of talking about the challenges of being a woman in every country and society.

I was more equipped to face the difficulties placed in front of me. When my boiler exploded, I was able to fix it on my own, bleeding the radiators into a coffee mug. When I found myself struggling to communicate with my neighbors at the grocery store, I returned to the classroom to relearn the Italian I had forgotten. I was able to take charge of my life–something I never would have been able to do if I hadn’t faced those problems before.

When my boyfriend from New York visited Lucca, he reminded me that what I had chosen was indeed magical, and it helped to recapture my childhood excitement for seeing new places. I left Lucca saying this was the last time I would ever live abroad. But I was wrong. I have plans to move back to Europe in the near future—this time, a little less alone, a little wiser, and much changed.

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Alex is an explorer in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and first and foremost a writer. She has worked as a freelance writer for years and has been published in publications such as the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, the Price of Travel, Pink Pangea, and many others. She was also formerly the Generation-Y blogger at Wanderlust and Lipstick and is currently USA Today’s 10Best Local Expert on Florence, Italy.