On moving countries. Again

November 19, 2016

This was my move number 4 (Ukraine – Germany – Ukraine – Malaysia – Netherlands) and I do have a few things to say about moving countries.

This has been the smoothest move by far, not only because we were better prepared than all the previous times, but also because we have finally figured out our own life formula. Let me explain.

Concepts to be aware of when relocating

When you know your routines, rituals, activities and other things you like doing, you have figured out, what I call, a life formula. It’s something the authors of the Mobile Life book call maps:

  • a physical map is your routines and your basic comfort – the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  • an activity map is your work, daily routines, sports you do, social outings, anything that fills your day
  • an identity map – how you perceive yourself in a new environment is how you project yourself to the others too. It’s a very important map, but focusing on it is only productive once you’ve settled the first two layers (that would be the Esteem and Self-actualisation on Maslow’s hierarchy).

It’s important to mention that there are different ways of thinking about moving countries/cities that can determine your approach and, consequently, the success of your experience (here and below I’ll be quoting the Mobile Life book):

To relocate = to move from one place to another
To resettle = to re-establish a good life in a new place

“Resettling is one of the most stressful ‘life events’ because it affects every aspect of our lives, including our social networks, our personal and professional identities, our economic circumstances and every one of our daily routines.”

In this post I’ll be mostly talking about our experience with resettling (I call it ‘move’, but what I really mean is “let’s go explore life at this new country and see where it brings us”) with the emphasis that it is all done to have a better life than you had in your previous country.

Questions to ask yourself before moving countries

This time we were conscious enough to talk about all these things before deciding to move. If you are considering relocating, you might want to think about the following too:

  • What is our definition of a comfortable living?
    Is it a city apartment or a house further away from the busy life; how many rooms do we need; how much stuff are we moving with us; what would the climate be there; what’s important to be aware of in terms of the living standards in that country; how are we going to get around – Malaysia was a very car-focused country, whereas here, in Amsterdam, we cycle and walk, sometimes take trams.
  • What are the routines we want to keep doing?
    Things like sports or workout groups – are the similar activities available in the new country; if we miss something that isn’t available to us now (like easy access to snow in Malaysia), would it be accessible there; and the other way round – we like diving, what are the diving opportunities in Europe.
  • Does life in a new country make our eating habits easier or harder?
    Example: Amsterdam has clean tap water to drink, something we didn’t have in Kuala Lumpur; there are now plenty or markets and shops within the walking distance from where we live so shopping for food is no longer a planned drive to the mall etc.
  • What about social life?
    Of course, we won’t be able to move all our friends and family with us, so a good question to ask would be whether you are planning to make new friends and what are you going to do to keep in touch with your old ones?
  • Other things that might be important.
    In my case it was live music – I would go to a few concerts a month, it was really important to me and here in Amsterdam I have an amazing culture scene with top world musicians and performers – just choose and book in advance.

And many more. So if you are aware of these and have set realistic expectations, you’re already 50% successful in your move. Now, what happens after you’ve arrived? You’re back to square one.

Upon arrival

“Our new life is nothing like the old: at home, we occasionally drive to work and wonder how we got there because the journey is so routine that we can allow our minds to wander. Out there, in that new environment, nothing is routine; everything – including how to get to work and where to buy a loaf of bread – is an undertaking that requires concentration. Once we arrive at our destination, only our flexibility, self-motivation and problem-solving skills will help us solve the daily challenges we face in trying to re-establish a life in a new place.”

This Mobile Life book is great, I strongly recommend it to anyone moving countries. One of the authors, Anne Parker, gave employees a one day workshop on the topic – that’s how I came across the book and the concepts I’m quoting here (I hope they don’t mind ;-)

Important: when you’ve just arrived to your new destination, take it slow and start settling in one layer of Maslow’s pyramid at a time. And please don’t rush – it’s so much better this way and gives your body the much needed time to adjust – something we don’t really think about when moving – see what happened when I didn’t take it slow after we moved to KL:

“Your body will have to adjust to these new conditions: you may need to get over jetlag, or become accustomed to sleeping with or without air-conditioning or in a new bed; you may need to adjust to a new climate and to the different taste and quality of the food and water. This is the process of acclimatising.
It is easy to overlook the importance of this adjustment; much of it occurs subconsciously. However, your physiological adjustment process will have an impact on your well-being: adjusting costs energy.

During this early period, you may be pushing yourself to accomplish as much as you can as quickly as possible. You need to expend more energy on everyday activities than you are accustomed to: activities which were effortless at home, for example going out to buy bread, can feel like an expedition in this new environment. How your body reacts to the change in your environment depends both on your physical make-up (for example, the resilience of your immune system) and the extent of the difference between your old and new environments. Whatever the factors, the strain of physiological adjustment increases your vulnerability to falling ill.”

A few months in

Fast-forward to a few months into your relocation – you found a place to stay, you are settled in your new routine, you have somewhat reestablished your formula (or maps).


“After several months at your destination, life starts to take shape. The busy chaos of setting up your home, getting to know people and understanding your surroundings subsides as your daily life takes on routine and structure; you can finally start to relax.

At this point, some people experience a strange feeling of emptiness. This generally occurs when you have, for the most part, settled in your new environment – your physical, activity and identity maps, though not complete, are detailed enough to allow you to function ‘normally’ on a daily basis. The adrenaline of the initial stress has worn off; time is no longer full of urgent things to do; the emotional highs and lows flatten out leaving you with time and emotional space to reflect on your current life. This may be the moment when you fully realise the finality of your situation: this is not a short-term holiday – this is it. This is the location you have chosen, the place where you will live for the foreseeable future.”

And here, I think, the most important thing is to keep going and settling into your new comfortable life. Have an open heart, explore, do things, book a holiday, don’t stay back in your nostalgic memories of how life used to be (unless it really is not what you were expecting, then consider your options of addressing it. Sometimes the best answer IS to move back, relocating isn’t for everyone. But do give it a chance, at least you’ll know you did all you could).

Strategies to help you focus on your long-term commitment to achieving your ideal life

(also taken from the book)

  1. Keep perspective.
  2. Choose the positive. Your destination cannot make you happy – only you can choose to take the necessary steps to become happy.
  3. Be realistic
  4. Manage change consciously. Self-awareness regarding your approach to change gives you control over how you experience adjustment – the ‘problem’ isn’t your environment: the problem is how it makes you feel.
  5. Be aware of the adaptation process over time

This is gold and I will end with it. Moving countries is not easy. It’s also not an experience for everyone – you can’t expect that a move will solve all your problems, but you can have a different environment to complement your lifestyle and add opportunities thus creating a better living for you and your family.

If you have moved countries and you have tips or strategies that worked, please share them. If you have thoughts about the subject, please share them too :-)

Forever curious explorer

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