English Speaking Therapists in Barcelona

The Truth About Expat Life

The Truth About Expat Life

The following is a brief informative article written by Leigh Matthews, Australian Psychologist and Founder of Therapy in Barcelona,  in response to the story “Two-Dimensional Dreams Versus 3D Reality: Friendships & Loneliness in Rural Italy” by Elizabeth Heath in the wonderful and enlightening collection of expat women stories “#Living The Dream: Expat Life Stripped Bare” 


Disillusioned adjective Disappointed in someone or something that one discovers to be less good than one had believed.

Some think of expatriation as an escape, but escaping implies moving to someplace better.  In many ways the chosen destinations of our expat hearts ARE better than where we were, but not for the reasons we initially thought they would be. Expatriation is a U curve shaped story. 

The Honeymoon – We start off on the high point of illusion with rose-coloured glasses, vacation memories, stills from films, a suitcase full of stereotypes and cliches wrapped up in naivete. That high point is the la vie en rose where we are living the life we had imagined. The Italy of sunflower fields forever, wine in plazas, art and history for days. The Spain of flamenco, tapas, Picasso and sun soaked lazy mediterranean playas. The Bali of paradise, lush green rice terraces, spiritual awakenings, yoga and massages. Our Instagram country, the postcard country, that two-dimensional country carries us through for a few idyllic months.

Culture Shock – When the high point bottoms out and shit gets real – THIS is expat life stripped bare. Read subreddits on the topic of hating Italy or Spain or [insert country here] to discover the verbiage of culture shock. The joys of pasta in Italy convert into a hatred of “over-processed flour in 100 shapes”. Spain’s siesta gives way to the inconvenience of closed shop fronts from 1400-1700. Lost in antiquated bureaucratic systems, language barriers, and cultural faux pas, expat isolation sediments. Your new country, your new life has abrasive and caustic dimensions you hadn’t fathomed before. 

                    Source: homeofbob.com

Your unsinkable Titanic filled with dreams strikes the depths of a cultural iceberg and starts to descend with the weight of deeper, unspoken, unfamiliar and irritating cultural values that violate those you’ve long embraced. Time is regarded differently. Women are treated differently. Honesty is culturally relative. Customer service may be foreign here. Social etiquette is a complex set of secret rules. Everything feels different. There’s hardly a ledge of familiarity or comfort to cling to. You’ve stopped living the dream and encountered the reality in all three of its harrowing dimensions. 

Cultural Adjustment – “Piano piano” in Italian, “poco a poco” in Spanish, “pas a pas” in French, “step by step” in English. It takes time, patience, a slowly burgeoning flexibility, the replacement of cliche with curiosity, and dreams with difference. This is when the breadth of the reality of your new life, a new culture, starts to feel more bearable, more understandable. You start to find a tribe and the language flows a little more easily. 

Cultural Adaptation – This is the place where you are “happy most of the time.” Adaptation is a hard earned understanding of culture and place, embodied by the greater ease that comes from developing cultural competence. You come to find harmony in appreciating that there is no right or wrong, just different ways of being and doing. You take what you need or want and leave what you don’t in peace.

The radical acceptance of things as they are also applies to the illusion of how life could have been had we not left our passport country. Perhaps the emotional support network we regret leaving would not have been given that your people there are time poor. Perhaps the village that might have raised your children in your passport country is just the bare bones of sparse help too.  Cultural values we held unquestioned become the subjects of deeper reflection. The amazing customer service belies a sinister cultural value that prioritises work over life and conflates being with doing. Perhaps punctuality is actually a time pressured love of productivity for profit. 

We release illusions that protect our regrets and comparisons. We lean in to what is and forget what should be or could have been. There is no conflict, only an integration of the values, traditions and behaviours of your passport country with those of your new place, found in the layers of the iceberg. You build a new, blended life of rituals, values and language from the wreck of the collision of cultures. You’ve finally come to understand. Now you tell jokes about your two-dimensional dream in another language.

If you think you might need some support in the challenging process of cultural adjustment, get in touch with us at Therapy in Barcelona.

By Leigh Matthews

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