Finding Yourself Far Away From Home

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Living abroad is not easy.  I know this from experience. 

My first attempt, a semester abroad in Barcelona, was a complete disaster. Before leaving, I imagined myself not just “studying” in Spain but actually living there- taking classes at a local university, speaking Spanish, assimilating to the local culture and making Spanish friends.  But this fantasy had nothing to do with reality.

An illustrative anecdote: I signed up for an economics class taught in English at a private university. The first day of class, the Professor announced that if everyone wanted him to teach in Catalan (not Spanish mind you, but Catalan) he would have no choice but to oblige.  He then asked, “Who actually wants the class to be taught in English?”  Me and about ten other exchange students tentatively raised our hands, causing everyone within a two-row radius to turn and stare at me as if I had just announced General Francisco Franco’s return to power.  Needless to say, I dropped the class.

To be fair, I was a victim of my own expectations. Given that there were almost 300 Americans on my program, six of whom were my roommates; all five of my classes were taught at the program’s private institute; and I didn’t exactly speak Spanish, it was unrealistic to think that I could live in Barcelona while studying abroad there. Luckily, I fell in love with the city, traveled around Spain and Europe, and met a few people, albeit fellow countrymen, who helped make the experience a little less painless.   Nevertheless, if I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t.

I say “probably” because if it wasn’t for the terrible time that I had that semester, I wouldn’t be where I am today: living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Right before I graduated from college, my mother invited me to be her date to a wedding in Buenos Aires.  Jokingly, I replied, “What if I go if I go with you and don’t come back?”  But with time, the idea began more attractive than funny.  I spent the summer after graduation living at home, working, saving money and preparing for my move to Argentina in November. 

Living abroad, round two.

The original plan was to take an eight-month sabbatical from life, to live off of my savings and just enjoy myself. But thanks to the lessons learned in Barcelona, I achieved what had been impossible for me in Spain- I built a life in Buenos Aires, complete with a real job, health insurance, and Argentine friends.  Three years later, I’m still here.

This victory was hard won.  Since arriving in Argentina, everyday has been a battle and an existential crisis. Mundane tasks such as opening a bank account, paying the bills, or making a set of keys become a test of will. I am confronted daily with questions that most people don’t ask themselves in a lifetime – Who I am?  Where do I come from? Where am I going? What the hell am I doing here?

When you compare life abroad to life at home, where social security numbers are granted at birth and everyone speaks your language, you realize that life doesn’t have to be this hard.  But if you can make it work, it’s worth it.  Living abroad is one endless opportunity that opens your mind and shapes you in ways that you cannot even imagine.

Unfortunately, there can never be a “how to” guide for carving your place in the world, nor a yardstick for measuring the results.  Still, we expats, past, present, and future, can benefit from, take comfort in, or just laugh at each other’s travels, trials, triumphs and failures.  That is why I created Expat Essays – to share insights on life, living abroad, and finding yourself far away from home.

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