Leaving the comfort zone to work abroad: First considerations of an Italian researcher in Wales16 July 2018
Working abroad is a stimulating and invaluable experience in terms of the development of professional skills and the improvement of career prospects as a researcher. Beside the professional development, living in a foreign country is equally beneficial in terms of broadening your horizons and growing as a person. Nevertheless, like any life-changing event, making the decision of leaving the comforts of home behind might be scary and stressful and requires courage and determination.
Have you ever considered the opportunity of working abroad? Are you worried about saying goodbye to the comfort of being surrounded by family and friends? Just over 3 months ago, I moved from Padua (Italy) to Cardiff (Wales) and embraced the opportunity to work and live here for the next 2 years. In the hopes of helping you to find courage to live that adventure for yourself, I would like to share my personal experience of how I felt leaving my comfort zone.
My first steps outside my comfort zone
I am an Italian researcher and after a PhD and 4-years of postdoctoral studies at the University of Padua (Italy), I was feeling ready for another challenge: a professional experience abroad. In this regard, applying for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship was in my opinion the right move for achieving that. I had considered this opportunity mainly to enhance my technical skills as a scientist and to strengthen my career prospects. Honestly, I did not imagine how much this invaluable life experience would enrich me also personally – and I only arrived a couple of months ago.
Since the moment I received the notification that I was awarded the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship, my mind suddenly turned into a vortex of thoughts and emotions and something started to change within myself. I was, of course, deeply pleased to be the recipient of this prestigious fellowship and excited for this new adventure of my life, but at the same time I felt a sense of a fear and anxiety. I started to think of leaving my friends, my family and I realised that I am going to say goodbye to my well-established and comfortable life. And now what?
Just moved abroad: An Emotional Roller Coaster
Taking a leap outside the comfort zone into something new, uncertainty or unpredictability is not easy for anyone.
I tried to carefully plan and prepare every single step of my new adventure, but I soon realised that you cannot mentally prepare yourself enough for the emotions that follow a move abroad. Once I arrived in Wales, the intensity of those emotions rose unpredictably and I experienced many ups and downs. Some days my mood was great, others I came down and I felt confused and a bit melancholic.
As soon as you move to a different country, literally everything is new and sometimes overwhelming. There is no more space for routine or boredom. At the very beginning of this experience, you have to face and overcome many daily challenges of living and working abroad on your own, such as looking for and settling in a new accommodation, speaking another language, dealing with a huge amount of paperwork and local bureaucracy, etc. However, before to do that, you must firstly understand and adapt to the local rules, including the legal requirements you have to meet.
Once I arrived in Cardiff, I found it very challenging to try opening a bank account and renting a flat at the same time, since I had neither a previous UK credit history nor a proof of address in the UK. So, I needed to be patient waiting for my contract to be settled and I spent my first days visiting several offices and filling out much paperwork. In the meanwhile, I tried to understand how regulatory processes at work as well the documentation I needed had to be handled. Eventually, I was able to both open a bank account and find a nice accommodation. Surprisingly, another stressful challenge was setting up my new flat. Since I lived and changed many flats in my life, I had not expected any particular difficulties in this regard. However, I soon realised that processes like making a check-in inventory, setting up the bills, testing security systems, collecting rubbish, were new or very different from those I was used to in Italy. Even some parts of the house were completely unfamiliar to me, such as windows, UK sockets, alarm systems, door closing system, etc. As an example, my fire alarm kept on ringing and beeping whilst I was cooking for no apparent reason. It took me a while under the pressure of the penetrating noise to understand how to silence and reset it. I overall experienced a sort of shock at the beginning, but more I exposed myself to these challenges, more I gathered familiarity with this new environment.
Living in a different country forces you to deal with these challenges outside the comfort zone but without the usual support of family and friends. This experience pushes yourself to shape your character and develop or enhance some personal characteristics, such as patience, flexibility, resilience and most importantly problem-solving. It is an experience that also teaches you how to adapt quickly and effectively to different situations, in an unfamiliar environment. Maybe you won’t immediately realise it, but this experience will have a huge impact on your personality because it forces you to become stronger and independent very quickly. You cannot imagine how much you can learn and grow in a short amount of time. However, when you manage to set up your new life you will start to feel comfortable in this new environment as well as you will experience the sensation to be free, more self-confident and with that comes a rewarding sense of achievement.
Little by little, I learned how to do everything I needed to do. The sadness disappeared, and excitement and satisfaction took over. I suddenly felt proud of myself and I appreciated what I had managed on my own.
Time to embrace a different culture and learn something new every day
I was finally ready to fully immerse myself into the local culture and to make new connections with people of different cultures and experiences from mine. Being Italian and living in the UK, I did not imagine noticing so many differences in cultural behaviours and social habits we have. Just for example, I noticed that in the UK, unlike in Italy, the eye and physical contact between people as well as the hand movements when a person talks and also the people flexibility are minimal. Whilst in Italy the punctuality is usually optional, and the bureaucracy and formality are often stifling. Basically, I discovered that we have different ways of doing things, responding to incentives, thinking, living the life and so on as well as this could be perceived differently from country to country. Anyway, it does not matter how funny, bizarre or exciting some aspects of the local environment could be, understanding of how other cultures live will surely allow you to broaden your horizons and greatly increase your cultural awareness.
The bittersweet ambiguity of nostalgia
Nostalgia for the country that I have left keeps on sticking with me and even just a particular food, a picture, or a song makes me remember home. It is quite common to feel nostalgic sometimes, but as an expat, I usually miss the little things that I never thought I would even notice at home. For example, I miss to read the daily newspaper standing at a bar and order a croissant with an Italian Espresso coffee; relaxing on the house balcony; the “Aperitivo time”, which is a typical Italian custom for enjoying a pre-dinner drink accompanied by a wide variety of snacks or food with friends in a lounge bar; as well as making grocery shopping in a small local store of traditional and regional food.
Anyway, the presence of a vast community of Italians in Cardiff, along with the possibility of finding traditional Italian food/restaurants makes me feel less far from home. I have many Italian colleagues in my workplaces and they have helped me to familiarise with the work environment and also with the city. There are some days that I speak more Italian than English.
A good internet connection has helped me a lot to keep in touch with family, friends and everything that is happening in Italy, so far. Fortunately, there are a lot of effective and cheap ways of communication for staying connected with the beloved ones. In my opinion, Skype is the best way to communicate as you can chat face-to-face with a person, but it is a bit time-consuming and often I have very limited free time. In those cases, a quick simple call or even some ordinary chats on WhatsApp can make me laugh or fell cheerful like if I were with them. Sometimes also commenting some friends’ pictures on Facebook or sharing some of my experience on social networks might be enough to maintain a friendship. Before moving abroad, I felt worried about losing all my friends. Now I can say that distance won’t make me lose my friends, as long as I will make a bit of effort daily to keep my friendships going. On the contrary, I think distance can really help me to value my friendships and I am sure I will appreciate much more the time together when we will meet up in person. Anyway, keep in mind to not overuse social media, otherwise, it could negatively affect your experience, as you might indulge in the past and miss the exciting things that happen around you.
Moreover, I enjoyed a lot when family and friends came here to visit me. It was also really fun to show them a bit of the UK and it was also an opportunity for me to explore the surrounding and to visit a lot of great places, such as Bristol, Bath, and Caerphilly.
Take the plunge: There is a whole world to discover outside
Just over three months have passed since I moved to Cardiff, but I already feel that this experience has changed me. Who knows what can happen in the next years, but to date, I am very happy having taken this amazing opportunity and I do not have any regrets. I would like to write a follow-up post throughout the fellowship and share more about my Welsh experience soon.
Moving abroad might be nerve-wracking at first, but once you settle in you realise how this life-changing experience has enriched yourself under several points of view. If you feel that living abroad could be a great move I would suggest to anyone, not to be intimidated and scared of getting out of your comfort zone. Don’t take life too seriously, be courageous, plan your next move and book that plane ticket!