What It Takes to Do It on Your Own
What does it take to successfully move abroad? From our experience, four things: desire, determination, language, and luck.
Desire: How deep is your desire? Ours began with our European ancestral roots and early introduction to other languages. A subscription to Transitions Abroad over several years increased that
desire, beckoning us to experience first-hand other countries, cultures, and languages.
All four of my grandparents were born in Western Europe in the 1800s. They were no longer alive by the time I reached adulthood, so moving to Europe satisfied a desire of mine to reconnect with them. Though my wife's
European ancestry comes from another generation back, she also wanted to experience ancestral lands.
Growing up in San Francisco planted the seed of wanting to learn languages. My first school was a French school near Chinatown. Kate's first second language in school in Atlanta, Georgia was French. ("Southern" was
her first language, she likes to say.)
Determination: It must be strong. Despite our desire to experience the wider world described in Transitions Abroad, our careers came first. Our determination did not take hold until we made the decision
to leave our corporate management and consulting careers early despite the loss of greater pension benefits, became certified teachers of English as a second language to adults (with the inspiration of Susan
Griffith's books), tested living abroad by teaching in Dublin during the summer of 2000 (receiving an offer to teach at a total immersion language school in Belgium). We then returned to our home in the States to draw up a 6-month
The hardest part was letting go of that "stuff" that all of us tend to accumulate over the years. As one tall Canadian man bellowed to his wife and friends at the Central Station in Luxemburg City after I had told
him what we had done, "That fellow was able to cut the umbilical cord and now he and his wife are enjoying living in Europe!"
We moved abroad by ourselves, without any help from an employer or any other supporting organization. Our 6-month plan evolved and covered everything we had to do and when. Our moving company, United Van Lines (www.unitedvanlines.com)
provided valuable information, as did Judy Priven of Hello America Inc. (www.hellousa.com). The hardest part perhaps was deciding what we were going to take with us,
what we were going to put in "temporary" storage, what we were going to sell, and what we were going to give away (to family, friends, and Davis Memorial Goodwill in Arlington, VA). We put little yellow stickers on everything: Take, Store,
or Leave (give away). Kate thoughtfully put a little yellow sticker on my forehead that read, "Take."
Learning the language of the destination country: Essential! We treated ourselves to a language-learning holiday at a total immersion language school in eastern Belgium to improve our French, and we
fell in love with the area. We didn't become fluent, but it did give us enough French to get through all the little administrative details we eventually had to deal with when we arrived where we live now: Verviers, Belgium. Nothing improves
your ability in a language like having to use it daily in a in a country where it is spoken. "Dare to speak" is how you learn a language.
When is the best time to learn a language? The answer given by experienced language teachers of adults is now! While our physical ability to speak without an accent diminishes with age, our mental ability to pick up
vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and grammatical structures increases with our life experience. One is never "too old" to begin learning and enjoying another language. Learning other languages is one of the best exercises for the mind—if
not the best—as one ages, and anyone can do it. Motivation to learn outweighs "language-learning ability" any day.
Luck: If you are determined to succeed and remain open to suggestion without rushing into decisions—the other side to the all-important "letting go"—then fortunate, serendipitous things
will happen. For us, this included having the patience to do the research and pull together enough documents to convince the government of the Republic of Ireland that I indeed had a grandparent born in Ireland and therefore was eligible
for Irish citizenship, and so could work in the European Union; taking the time to find a reputable real estate agent who showed us a beautiful apartment at a reasonable cost in Verviers; and meeting through an old friend a local official
who cut through the bureaucratic red tape after the government office had lost our residency card applications.
The bottom line is that we will always have the States, but today we have the more interesting life that Transitions Abroad always told us was out there waiting for us.