When we have clarity around who we are, what we need and want from life, making decisions at key points in our lives becomes a whole lot easier. Even if that means choosing to start a new life abroad alone.
I loved getting to know more about Nicole, a first-time American expat in Germany, whose story is a great example of how self-reflection and being in touch with our ever-changing needs can take away the constant wondering of “should I stay or should I go?”
In this post, Nicole takes us along on her thought-process of continuing to choose to stay in Germany, despite it seemingly going against all rational thought, and shares her tips on how to stay true to one’s inner voice.
Nicole also hosts the popular podcast The Expat Cast where you can soon listen to an episode we recorded together and where we’ll go deeper into “bad days abroad”. You can also follow Nicole on Instagram.
Please introduce yourself – who are you and where has your journey taken you so far?
I’m Nicole. I grew up in a very geographically rooted family – of my 50-some person extended family, me and my brother are basically the only ones who live outside of a 2-hour radius. After 18 years of a stereotypical US suburban life outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I left for college in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was for 5 years total.
Following that, I was in Chicago, Illinois for 2 years, and now I’ve been living abroad in Freiburg, Germany for 3.5 years.
I don’t see myself moving back anytime soon, but I’m not committed enough to give up my US citizenship and immigrate to Germany. For this reason, I self-identify as an expat or someone who moved abroad.
I’m a librarian by day and a podcaster by night. I found my first year abroad to be really wonderful and really horrible all at the same time, which was just one of many confusing things to unpack.
I got through it with the help of a lot of people I was fortunate enough to cross paths with, but I know so many people aren’t located somewhere where there’s much support for foreigners, so I wanted to create something to help them – that’s why I started my podcast, The Expat Cast.
If you met me at a party, I might word-vomit all of these things in our first conversation. But I’d also tell you about my love for reading, writing, and spending time outdoors. I like hiking, running, bouldering or rock climbing, or even just sitting outside with a snack or a drink and chatting with a friend.
I listen to a ton of podcasts and am horrendously knowledgeable about the Bachelor franchise. I like cows and am afraid of marshmallows and I prefer to travel alone.
When has the question “Should I stay or go?” come up for you?
I remember my first “should I stay or should I go?” moment happening about 6 months into my life abroad. I’d moved to close the distance on a relationship with a German guy, and we had our first big conflict.
When this conflict arose, and I for the first time considered what would happen if the relationship ended, I knew my answer but felt weird about it. My answer was: I would want to stay.
Which was ridiculous, because I had no money, barely functional German, maybe 2 friends, and not many prospects for the future. I didn’t feel like I had much to lose in leaving, but still, I knew I wanted to stay.
Although my move was because of a relationship, I always felt I didn’t do it FOR him/us; I did it for me. I felt a bit indignant in that moment, almost like I wanted to prove that point (to whom? Myself, I suppose), and I remember feeling like:
“I’m on the cusp of really getting fluent in German, and of creating a real life for myself here, and I’m not done with that. Although I didn’t have much to show for myself yet, I felt like I might soon, and I wanted the chance to get there.”
That relationship conflict was resolved and I went on to battle my way through another difficult year or so, in which I met a lot of great people who became good friends.
I tried and failed and tried and eventually succeeded in getting a real job in my field, became truly fluent in German, and had some fun adventures. Life felt settled and full and good.
Then came a new conflict in my relationship, and this time, the relationship ended. The experience of the relationship ending was complex and stressful and pretty earth-shattering.
It wasn’t until after I’d moved out into a beautiful studio apartment with a mountain view, after I’d had a housewarming party where I brought together about 15 girlfriends and filled my free time with new hobbies and experiences, that I realized, oh wait, I guess I could have moved away.
I couldn’t even imagine where else I would move. I had a great, steady job, a fulfilling side-hustle, numerous fun hobbies to explore, and probably the best social life I’d ever had as an adult. Freiburg was simply home.
With my centerpiece gone, things felt somewhat hollow, but everything else was still there, and all of those things were good – great, even. So I focused on them.
“Plus, having just pushed very hard for years to set up a good life for myself, no part of me was eager to have to start from scratch somewhere new.”
Shortly after that, pandemic reached Germany and the US. People were told to get wherever they want to be for a long time, because travel wasn’t going to be possible for a while.
People on long travel trips or even people stationed abroad were called back to their home country. I suppose I also would have had that opportunity, but yet again, it was only after the fact where I realized, oh, I guess this would have been an opportune moment to move back home.
At this point, having gone through personal and global big, life-changing events in this place, I’m more clear than ever that I am here for me and that I don’t want to leave.
I’ve been here 3.5 years now, and I’m starting to see some flaws and shortcomings of Freiburg more clearly than ever before, and yet, I still just really, really like it, and it still feels like home.
Although my career and dating life might have more opportunities somewhere else, the idea of moving anywhere else feels like a strange and perplexing suggestion.
How is the feeling of home you get in Freiburg different from the home you may feel with your “geographically rooted family”?
My typical American suburban “home” back in Philly is still a place I call home, though in a different way than how I call Freiburg home. I maintain that one can have two or more homes.
For instance, I refer to Chicago as my heart home, because something about that place and my time there was just so… correct. Everything regarding my relationship to the place that is Chicago was wonderful.
Yet, when I chose to leave it after only 2 years, that felt fine. I miss it, but not in a way that I’m yearning to move back there; visiting is also fine.
In comparison, I never, ever pictured myself moving to Philly or its suburbs as an adult. I knew that from a young age, and it hasn’t changed much since. Yet it is my home, my Heimat, to use a German word.
Heimat refers to the place that you’re from, and it can’t be changed, really, no matter how long you live somewhere else.
Especially because most of my family and friends are still there – and often in the same houses, going to the same stores as they always have been – I have a warm, happy relationship with this home. It’s always there for me. But, still, I never find myself fantasizing about living there.
My home in Freiburg feels very “mine.” I built my life here with metaphorical (and sometimes physical) blood, sweat, and tears, and I’ve loved it all, even the struggle, and I’ve loved it even more in the easy moments because I knew how I struggled to get to them.
“My consistent choice to stay and expand my life in Freiburg tells me a lot about myself. The fact that I have no real reason to be here, and yet I will continue to stay, even if that makes some things harder for me, speaks to the fact that this place is my home.”
Did you ever have moments where you weren’t entirely sure about staying?
I didn’t really ever doubt my choice to stay. But I’ve felt weak moments where I wish I wanted to leave, because a bigger German city would make dating and career easier, or because going back to the US would open up my options a lot.
I’ve also felt more guilty about my choice to stay, because part of me always wishes that I could be happy living in a suburb near my friends and family.
If my relationship had been my only reason to move, then the loss of it would free me up to go back, and that version of events sounds simpler.
“Life back in my Heimat, my original home, would come with a lot of benefits, and rejecting that just because I dig living near the Black Forest and having easy access to good French cheese sometimes feels like a bummer.”
Of course, it isn’t just about the forest and cheese, but then again, maybe it is, because when I’m asked why I’m here, my honest first answers are, I like that there’s never ice in my drink and I like the price of produce and I like that everyone takes their shoes off at the door and I like Biergartens and a million other little things.
I don’t have a big, simple answer, so I feel weird about it in conversation sometimes, but internally, I’ve been very clear-minded about wanting to stay.
I’m certain that the kind of clear-mindedness you have is something many struggling with the question “to stay or go” would pay good money for 🙂 What do you think could help people find clarity within themselves?
Oof, this is such a good point. It does feel like my clear-mindedness is inherent to me, so I never really had to learn it. I’ve just had it, and honestly sometimes I’ve had a hard time understanding others who don’t have that, because for me, it’s second-nature and I don’t know how to explain it or recognize it in other people for whom it manifests itself differently.
It honestly can be something that is isolating, in terms of finding deep connection with others.
Because of this, I guess I can’t speak to how one digs deep and finds that inner voice. People should try out different methods and identify what works for them.
What I can say is, once you’ve found that inner voice, you have to listen to it.
“Often, what we honestly want is scary, so we ignore it or suppress it or lie to ourselves about it. I’ve done that, too. But it’s never worked, because I can’t force myself to feel something I don’t.”
So first off, be honest with yourself and actually, truly listen to that voice. That doesn’t mean you have to act on what it’s saying quite yet.
You can know something internally and wait to share it or act on it until you’re ready. But you need to know what you think, at least internally.
Then, another situation can be that you know what that voice says, but you don’t understand why it says that or how it could possibly work out to pursue that information.
That happened for me in that moment when I wasn’t finding any good jobs in Freiburg after my first year, I didn’t have money, and I didn’t have much hope that my life here would ever really work out — but I knew I wanted to stay.
“It was really confusing for me because I couldn’t find any good reason to back up the fact that I wanted to stay. In that case, it was helpful to just follow that voice and figure out the “why” later.”
Finally, I’ve experienced it where my inner voice tells me I want something that is exactly opposite to what rational thinking tells me I should want, or that is exactly opposite of what I want to be wanting.
That’s when it can be tempting to ignore that voice and lie to yourself and pursue that rational thing that you want to want.
But for me, that’s also not a sustainable solution, because I don’t actually want that thing, so at some point, my ability to trick myself into pretending I do runs dry.
In this situation, I recommend you try your best to be where you are.
“Maybe that means expat life isn’t for you right now, although you really, really want it to. That’s fine. It isn’t a failure, and it isn’t a permanent state of being. Maybe now is just not the right time, this isn’t the right place, this isn’t the right way.“
Forcing yourself to stay when you know it isn’t right is going to ruin the whole experience, whereas if you, for example, move back, regroup, and wait until a time when it feels right to try again, you might have more success and be happier along the way.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.