As of this week, Colin and I have been expats in Prague for three months. Being an expat is an adventure! Some of the things I expected but a lot of things totally caught me off guard. Being an expat is like being trapped between two worlds: you’re not a local but you’re not a tourist, you’re not on vacation but you’re not at home, and you have a home back in your old country but you also have a home in your new country. All I know for sure is that our expat year in Prague is going to be one that we remember forever.
If you missed it, here’s a quick recap of our expat story (click on any of the links for more details): We decided in mid-2018 that we wanted to move abroad and originally decided on the UK. After some more research, we changed our minds in early 2019 and eventually settled on moving to Prague. After receiving our visas, we rented out our apartment in Surrey and moved into my mom’s place for a month to finish up our moving abroad checklist. Finally, on June 1, 2019 we took off for our new expat life. We stopped in Paris and Munich before arriving in Prague on June 7. Since then, it’s been a lot of discovering our new city, travelling around Europe and figuring out this new expat life.
Before I launch into the 19 things no one tells you about being an expat, I want to note that, of course, this is specific to our situation. While I think many of these things are applicable to a lot of expats, I know they’re not universal. Plus, I had a few legs up on the expat game. I moved from Toronto to Vancouver in 2010, which means I’ve spent almost a decade communicating with friends and family across timezones through Skype calls, snail mail and annual visits. And, because I work remotely as a freelancer, I was able to continue my work when we moved to Prague, which means I didn’t have to find a new job here.
All right, without further ado, the 19 things no one tells you about being an expat!
There’s a countdown
Being an expat means living life on a clock, at least for some of us. Many expats have an expiration date on their expat life. For Colin and me, it’s the fact that our Czech Youth Mobility visas are only good for one year. So as of June 2020, we are no longer legally able to live and work in Prague. Many expats have similar visa restrictions or they’re only in a place for a predetermined job contract length or school term.
Because we only have a year in Prague, every day feels like a countdown. Every day we’re one day closer to when we have to leave. We constantly look at each other and exclaim, “I can’t believe it’s already been three months!”
You want to do and see absolutely everything
Since we only have a year in Prague, there’s this panic that sets in that we don’t have enough time. So we want to see and do and visit and eat absolutely everything we can. We have our Prague bucket list that we’re working through and a long list of places in the Czech Republic and the rest of Europe that we want to visit. Each day, I want to do something that feels worthy of the limited time we have left in Prague, even if it’s just taking the time to look up and admire the beautiful buildings as I walk Ellie.
Of course, I know that we can come back. And I know we will come back. I’m certain Colin and I will visit Prague again one day, walking down memory lane and swapping stories as we stroll through our old neighbourhood. And I know we’ll travel to Europe in general even sooner. But I also know it will never be for as long as we have right now and it will never be as convenient. We need to take advantage of our expat opportunities!
You realize expat life isn’t vacation
Sadly, all of those things I want to see and do just don’t fit into a day that also needs to include walking Ellie a few times, going to the grocery store, making dinner, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom and doing laundry. Not to mention actually doing some work!
Being an expat is a constant battle between vacation life and real life. If we were only in Prague for a few days on vacation, of course we would be seeing all of the sights and doing all of the things. But since we live here, we can take our time. Sometimes we choose running errands over visiting Prague Castle. Or we decide to do take-out and Netflix instead of trying a new restaurant. It’s a balancing act and I don’t think I have it all balanced quite yet.
You can’t travel everywhere all of the time
I’m still in denial about this one. What do you mean I can’t travel 24/7? But everyone on social media is doing it! And since I work remotely, live very close to a train station and have access to budget flights, how am I not spending every other week in a new place?
It comes back to that expat balancing act. As much as I would love to travel all over Europe from now until our flight home leaves in June, I know that’s just not possible. We have an apartment in Prague with a year lease. I have work that I need to do. And I actually do want to get to know Prague on a deeper level and have a life here. So while I sigh wistfully whenever I hear about someone backpacking around Europe for a few months or heading out in a campervan indefinitely, I know that’s not what being an expat is all about – at least not for us.
You won’t feel like a local
I’ve heard of expats who live abroad for years and years and still don’t feel like locals. And that’s especially true for us here in Prague. We’re only here for a year, which really isn’t enough time to blend into local life and culture. We don’t speak Czech and, sadly, we don’t have any Czech friends. We still go out to the tourist sights and take photos of things that locals don’t even glance at.
But you won’t feel like a tourist either
This is another one of those in-between spots that being an expat is all about! Even though you aren’t a local, you’re not a tourist either. One of the pros of travel with a dog is immediately feeling more connected to a place. When we’re out walking with Ellie, people mistake us for locals – we get stopped for directions all the time. We also get to know our neighbourhood better because we’re out walking in it a few times a day.
And we love to act local when it comes to the tourist hate. We scoff at Lime scooters parked carelessly on the street, shake our heads as drunk British bachelor parties walk into overpriced tourist pubs, and snicker to ourselves whenever we see a photo of trdelnik on Instagram.
You build new routines
A lot of expat life is starting from scratch. This can be a great thing, because it means you get to build new routines and habits. One routine I’ve loved that I have here is Ellie’s morning walk through Riegrovy Sady. Back home in Surrey, we always walked Ellie in a boring grass field right in front of our apartment. But with this park, Ellie gets a nice long walk through the trails, plays in an off-leash dog area, and we get to take in one of the best views of Prague. I love taking my time on this walk and having the whole place to myself at 9:00 AM. (Ask me again when it’s freezing cold in December how I feel about this nice long walk.)
Another routine we’ve developed is prioritizing sightseeing. We regularly check our Prague bucket list and cross a few things off it each month. Instead of sitting in front of a TV screen each night, we’ll go out to the park to read our books during sunset. And I’ve started working from a local cafe, instead of just from my desk at home.
But you also fall back into a lot of old ones
While we have started up some new routines, we’ve also fallen back into a lot of old, comfortable routines. We still watch TV during most meals. We still spend a couple nights a week watching Netflix until our eyes glaze over. And we still head out to the Potraviny to buy late night snacks, even though we know we shouldn’t.
You won’t magically become a new person just because you’re living abroad
Which leads me to this point. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And they say that you can’t run away from your problems – that they follow you wherever you go. Well, “they” must be right.
As much as we had dreams of reinventing ourselves in Prague, that hasn’t happened. I know a lot of wannabe-expats think about all of the ways their lives will be different abroad. And yes, life in Prague is different from our life back in Vancouver. But it’s also the same because we are the same. We’re pushing ourselves here to try new things and make the most of our time, but we’re not new people. Which means I didn’t magically take up running, start exclusively shopping at the farmers market or wake up early for daily meditation and yoga, just because I moved abroad.
You spend a lot of time with your significant other
If you move abroad with your partner, get ready to spend A LOT of time together. Luckily, Colin and I like each other (at least, we still do at the time of writing. Someone check in again in a few months). We enjoy each other’s company and like exploring Prague and the rest of Europe together.
However, it is really important to ensure you don’t spend 24/7 together. Colin and I have gotten really good about asking for our alone time. As introverts, we both need that time to recharge and just do our own thing. We’ll often have a meal together, then separate and do some work, go out and do an activity together, like hitting a museum or just grabbing groceries, and then take some time alone again to play videogames and watch Game of Thrones (him) or write a blog post and plan our next trip (me). We also try to spend time with other people. I have a freelancer group that I meet up with a few times a month and we have expat friends we enjoy hanging out with.
You feel very far from home
Being an expat often means being many miles, and many timezones, away from your loved ones. In our case, we’re nine hours and 5000 miles away from our friends and family in Vancouver. That’s a big distance! And it can really feel huge when you’re struggling to set up phone calls (their lunch break and our bedtime?), missing out on big moments like birthdays and holidays, and falling out of regular routines like weekly dinners.
But modern technology helps
While 5000 miles is very far, I am so grateful that we are doing expat life in 2019 and not 1999. I have no idea how we would be able to stay in touch without Skype, Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and more. It’s the best thing in the world to be able to call our parents or catch up with friends just through our phones.
Old-school approaches to staying in touch also are important for our expat life. I’m a huge fan of snail mail and love sending postcards. Even though mail here takes forever to get anywhere (I sent a birthday card to Toronto on July 7 and it was still MIA a month later!), I’m so grateful whenever an envelope arrives in our mail box. I was so thrilled to receive a couple of birthday cards back in July for my 27th birthday.
Plus, visits! There’s no better way to stay in touch than having loved ones come and visit. We’re currently in the middle of our three week adventure with our moms, and have plans to get my dad’s side over to visit us in 2020.
You miss the weirdest things
Being an expat means keeping a laundry list of things you miss from back home. And oddly, it’s the smallest little things that make all of the difference. I really miss being able to go to a public bathroom without having to pay first (c’mon, Europe!) – and why is it that the paid toilets are always the grossest? I miss free tap water at restaurants. I miss signs being in Engish.
And I really miss air conditioning. Can we get some more of that in Europe, please?
You really crave food from home
But the biggest thing I miss from back home would definitely be the food. About a month in, I floated to Colin the idea of starting a list of foods we want to eat when we get back to Vancouver. He, sensibly, suggested we hold off on creating that list until we’re a bit closer to June 2020. That way, we don’t end up drooling all over a list of things we can’t eat for 11 more months.
But just off the top of my head, I’m so excited for: poke bowls, fresh sushi, honey garlic chicken wings (honey garlic is not a flavour that’s available in Prague), good Chinese food, affordable seafood, Banana Leaf, chicken wings from Phnom Penh, and a breakfast sandwich from Tim Hortons (I’m so Canadian).
You find new loves
While I would kill for a poke bowl from Poke Bar (how is that place still in business without me living in Vancouver and eating there all the time?), I’ve also found some new loves in Prague. Namely, Chilli & Lime. Chilli & Lime is my favourite Vietnamese food in Prague and I would order from there daily if I could. I’m also a big fan of the raspberry magnum tub (not the bar, but the tub) and the speciality Milka chocolate bars.
Sadly, Czech food is not on my list of loves. But the cheap price of Czech beer is!
You start a bucket list for back home
One thing that being an expat has taught me is that the desire to make the most of my time in Prague is an attitude that I should have back in Vancouver. It’s absurd how little of Vancouver I have really seen, despite moving out there in 2010. How have I lived there for almost a decade and never been to any of the local mountains? Why can I count the number of times I’ve been to the beach on one hand? Why don’t I go on weekend trips to the islands or down to Seattle?
When we get back to Vancouver, Colin and I really want to keep this sense of adventure and discovery going. We want to create a Vancouver bucket list, just like we have for Prague, and work at checking things off of it. People talk about Vancouver being one of the greatest places in the world to live, so we really need to make the most of it.
Life feels like it’s happening in a bubble
Being an expat can feel like you’re living in suspended time – like your entire life is happening in a bubble. The things we do here in Prague don’t really affect our life back in Vancouver. Colin’s x-ray job is simply on hold. Our apartment in Surrey is rented out. And our friends and family have no idea if we go out to a castle or head to Spain for the week. No one really knows what we’re up to and none of it really affects our life in Vancouver.
At the same time, our life in Prague also feels like it’s completely disconnected from our previous life in Vancouver. When Colin worked at the hotel, it didn’t matter that he had been an x-ray tech for the last five years. Our friends here don’t know about our life back home. It’s a bit hard to explain, but it just feels like everything we’re doing here is so cut off from everything before and after this.
Being an expat is really hard
Okay, maybe this is something you already knew. But it bears repeating: Being an expat is really hard. Even if you catch all of the lucky breaks (and we certainly caught a few), it’s still really difficult. There’s all the work that goes into the lead up to moving abroad – from renting out our apartment, to securing our visas, to packing up – and the actual physical move of dragging four suitcases, two backpacks and a dog through two airports, two hotels, three train stations and too many cabs and Ubers.
Then when you arrive, there are all the fun challenges of settling into expat life such as setting up your phone, internet and banking. There’s looking for a job and an apartment. There’s meeting new people, finding the grocery store, learning the language and working out how local transit functions. Basically, everything you knew and took for granted back home is gone and you need to start all over.
And that’s just the beginning! After that, you get to deal with all of the daily life challenges of living somewhere with different rules, a different language, and a different selection of items at the grocery store. You have to survive brutal heatwaves with no AC. You have to celebrate holidays abroad and all alone. And you have to figure out what to do when your sink starts leaking and the plumber only speaks Czech.
But it’s also really amazing
But despite all of those challenges, being an expat is also really freaking amazing. And, if I’m being honest, Colin and I had it easy on a lot of those hardships. Our first week here was pretty painless compared to some expat horror stories I have heard. We had already found an apartment, Colin landed a job within a week, the grocery store is just up the street from our house, and there’s enough English spoken for us to get by. Plus, we’re lucky that we even have the opportunity to do expat life. I know a lot of people don’t have the resources, the easy visa route or the ability to pick up and move.
Overall, being an expat is one of the best things I’ve done in my life. There are so many things I love about Prague. I love the beautiful old buildings and our awesome apartment. I love how many incredible sights, parks and restaurants there are in this city. I love that everything is about half-price when compared to Vancouver. And I really love how close we are to many more adventures in Europe. I am so proud and grateful that Colin and I made the decision to take on expat life. Even if someone had told me all of these things about being an expat ahead of time, I’d still get on that plane and move to Prague tomorrow (though I would have paid more to ship our bags ahead of time).
If you’ve been an expat, what surprised you about expat life?
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