I was reminded of them in Copenhagen, and it was a timely reminder.
I’ve often considered that life abroad consists of various phases. From post-arrival disorientation, to the honeymoon period when everything seems perfect, to integration and establishing a balanced perspective on your new home’s strengths and weaknesses.
But then there are those who never settle, who are always in search of something better. I call them ‘the lost souls’, and it’s important to guard against becoming one of them.
The idea of the lost souls came up during dinner a few weeks ago. I was talking with a friend of mine – English, but a Copenhagener for close to 40 years – about an experience we’d shared at a music festival. We were chatting, laughing and enjoying a band, when another Brit came up to us and opened with: “You’re English? I’m English too!” and opened his arms wide for a brotherly hug.
My friend told me how this was fairly common in the more obscure parts of the world, that being from the same place seemed to serve as an automatic route to friendship, whether you had anything in common or not. And then he said: “Even if you like them, most of them aren’t here for long anyway. They usually last a year or two and then move on, worn down by the cold winters, the difficulty of the Danish language, or the break-up of their relationship with a Dane. So you end up in an endless cycle of befriending expats, hearing them wax lyrical about the place and then buggering off because it’s not what they thought.”
My friend also travels regularly to Thailand, buying t-shirts in bulk for his festival merchandising business. He said that you find a similar type of expat in many of the backpacker resorts of the world. “They hang around bars, pick up occasional work, and will gladly hold court on how they are living the dream life. But the look in their eyes says something different.”
In Australia, there seems to be a certain kind of Brit who arrives expecting the red carpet treatment, moves around a few cities and then settles down, but in the process also develops that slightly hollow look as if to say: “This was supposed to be my dream, but it’s just ordinary life in a different place.”
They tell tales of: “I did Canberra for two years but didn’t like it, moved to Cairns but it was a bit hot, tried Adelaide but there wasn’t much work, so we came back to Canberra – at least the salaries are alright.”
Our dinner conversation profoundly concluded that searching for something in far off places can often reveal that the thing you most wanted to escape was your own attitude to life and all that it has to offer. As Samuel Johnson once quipped: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Compounding that life-view with loneliness, disappointment, isolation and trying to live up to the mythology of the life you have described to everyone you left behind can be a heavy burden.
We’re under no illusions about our move to Canberra. It’s going to be fun and hard work in equal measure, but at the back of our minds are the lost souls, who move around so often that they belong nowhere, who have forgotten what they were looking for in the first place, and for whom another move is always an easier option than battling through the challenges of properly establishing themselves in a new place. We’re determined not to become like them; determined to turn our big adventure into a lasting future and a place to call home.
It’s the next stage of our challenge, and knowing the potential pitfalls is essential to guarding against them.