12 things I’ve learned in 12 months living abroad

I cannot believe I have been living abroad for almost a year. Seriously, where did the time go? And I cannot believe I haven’t posted anything during this year. I started this blog a couple of months before moving to Toronto and my goal was to share my adventures here. But, as I learned, living on your own, going to school full-time while working, and trying to take good care of yourself don’t leave you with a lot of free time on your hands. I just started to feel like I can comfortably manage everything, so I decided to give this blog another try.

lessons learned living abroad

During the past twelve months, I’ve learned a lot of life lessons. I’ve been living on my own, far away from home for the first time in my life. Living abroad had taught me so much about myself and life in general.

1. It is not possible to know everything

I am a (very lazy) perfectionist. Before moving abroad, I had done quite a bit of research and I had a very thorough plan of all the things I had to take care of. Canada and Italy are not even that different, I did not suffer any major cultural shock. So I thought it was going to be very easy to do everything, as I was very prepared.

I was very wrong. At first, I had no idea where to go to get the most basic stuff. And, because I didn’t know anyone here, I didn’t have anyone I could ask for help or directions. I learned that it is okay not to know where to find things or how to do things. At the beginning, everything is a trial-and-error process. So don’t take yourself too seriously and learn to laugh when you mispronounce a word or when you get confused.

Related: what to expect + what to do in your first month abroad

2. I can call the doctor and make an appointment for myself

The first time I successfully called the doctor (without even feeling anxious), I felt like I finally was a real adult.

Not only I now make doctor appointments for myself. But I was able to take care of my finances, find an apartment, cook healthy meals, find different jobs, and getting good grades without anyone reminding me I should study instead of binge-watch tv shows.

I think this was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this year: I am able to do things, I am independent, and I can take care of myself.

3. It takes time to get adjusted to everything

People say that it takes from 2 to 6 months to create a new routine in a new place and I agree. I was both excited for my new adventure and frustrated for not getting things right away at the beginning.

At first, even regular errands felt like something extraordinary. The first time you walk into a grocery store abroad you feel disoriented. You will find a lot of new and different products and brands. It will take time (and a little bit of money) to figure out the one that you like the most.

4. Living abroad doesn’t mean I get to travel all the time

In fact, I didn’t travel anywhere besides Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and Guelph. Although I am trying to change this in the new year, since I moved abroad I am actually travelling less than what I was used to.

It is not just about money. Of course, being used to fly around Europe for like 40€, I get very discouraged when even domestic flights are at least 200$. It is also about time. Since moving here, I never had a whole week completely off. Considering that distances in North America are longer than Europe, it takes more time to reach your destination, therefore you’ll need more days off.

During this year, I had people telling me “Sarah, you’re always going somewhere”. Sure, my Instagram is filled with pictures of cool places. What they do not realize is that I live here now, I go to school in the morning, and then to work in the afternoon, just like everyone else. What I do is just making an effort to get out and experience as much as possible of this beautiful city and its surrounding.

5. I actually enjoy winter and cold weather

Before moving here, I dreaded winter. Winter in Milan is cold, and humid, and foggy, and dark. Winter in Toronto is pretty much the same, just windier and way longer.

So what changed? I stopped refusing to go out just because it was below 0°C and I discovered you can actually survive with the proper clothes. I might still complain from time to time, but the truth is I don’t mind wearing 5 layers of clothes anymore. I now find myself longing for snowy days and 4pm sunsets. Especially around the holidays, winter is such a magical time and there is so much to see and enjoy.

On a side note, after queueing for a concert in perceived -15°C, I think I can do anything now.

6. Bureaucracy doesn’t have to be a nightmare

I come from a country where bureaucracy is a form of torture. Instead, taking care of things in Canada is so much easier and I laugh every time locals complain about it. Customer services actually work and people will explain to you exactly what you have to do and how to do it.

Of course, I’ve encountered my fair share of rude clerks and receptionists, but I can’t complain because, in the end, I was always able to do whatever I needed to do and on time.

7. Breakfast is an actual meal

Sure, everyone knows breakfast is the most important meal of the day and blah blah blah. In Italy, breakfast is fast and it’s all about coffee or cappuccino with either a croissant, cookies, or cereals. Here a lot of people have an actual complete meal for breakfast. I mean, a typical Canadian breakfast includes eggs, potatoes, and bacon.

For breakfast, I used to eat the same thing every single day: coffee and cereals. Now, it is more varied. I still can’t eat eggs and bacon first thing in the morning, but I can do oatmeal, fruits, potatoes, bagels with cream cheese, pancakes, and waffles.

8. It is okay to miss familiar people and food

It is true what they say, you never know what you have until it’s gone.

My family is a normal family, not too attached, not dysfunctional. I was craving some more independence and I thought moving an ocean away would be good. It was. This way, I’ve learned so much and in such little time. I also learned that I really love my family and I do miss my parents and my sister every single day.

I found myself missing the food too. At the beginning, not so much: there were so many new cuisines to try! But then, about six months in, I starting craving a lot of typical Italian food. I can find a lot of ingredients here, but sometimes they can be very expensive (I am looking at you Parmigiano Reggiano). I learned that it is okay to splurge on things that will make you feel good every once in a while. Other times, I simply cannot find the right ingredient (does anyone know where I can find porcini mushrooms in Toronto?) and I just can’t make the dish with something else.

9. Life abroad is not perfect

Life abroad is just life and there’s no such thing as a perfect life. There will always be ups and downs. I believe the downs can hit you even harder when you are not surrounded by your support system.

There is this pressure that people abroad constantly feel. I mean, you get to live in a place that you picked, you are free to do whatever you want to do, how you dare not be always happy?

10. FOMO is getting worse and worse

Sure, when I see photos of my friends getting together without me, or when I know some major event is happening at home, I always feel a bit sad I can’t be there. But it is not just fear of missing out on things happening at home.

Now that I’ve lived in Canada for almost a year and I saw that I can actually make it on my own, I constantly think about all those other countries that I’d love to live in for a while. There are so many places and cultures I am curious about. Like, how is life in a place like Greenland or Iceland with very long summer days and very dark winter days? Or, would I be able to survive in a country like Norway, where they speak a language that I just started learning?

11. Bad English days are a real thing

Not only, after a whole year of speaking as much English as possible, I still have a very thick accent, but also there are days when my brain simply can’t function. I already made peace with the fact that I will never sound like a native, not just because of the accent but also because my active vocabulary is so much smaller compared to my passive one.

I’ve heard about bad language days from other people living abroad, but I could never understand how that could be possible. I mean, if you learned a language fairly well, how can you not be able to speak properly for like half a day? I still have no idea why it happens. For me, it is not really connected to how tired I am or to the topic of the conversation. There are just days when I wake up and I can feel my English sucks.

12. Always remember how lucky you are to have yourself

Of course, I have to finish this post with a The Maine reference. This has been my motto lately. It is pretty much self-explanatory.

Have you ever spent a long time away from home? What are some things you learned?

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  • Oui In France

    Sarah, just found your blog and loved this. I never studied abroad, but I moved from New York to France 6 years ago and can relate to so much of what you’ve said here. 😉

    • Wow, that was a big move! It is so interesting to me hearing from people that moved to Europe from North America. How are you enjoying France?

      • Oui In France

        Hi Sarah, I wrote a really long answer to that question reflecting on a bunch of aspects of my life here. Overall, it was a change for the best. Here’s the post if you have some time on your hands 😉
        https://www.ouiinfrance.com/reflecting-on-5-years-france-expat/

        • Thank you for sharing it. I just saved it into my favourites and will definitely read it on my way to work later!

  • Melissa

    I really enjoyed your post. I thought at first it would be about an American in Europe, so, it was very interesting reading the reverse. It sounds like you’re enjoying your time in Canada and learning a lot from it! Nice job!

    • Thank you, Melissa!

  • Savannah Myers

    Wow! This is amazing, maybe one day I will do this!

    • Thank you, Savannah! Where would you like to go?

  • Doreen H Musowoya

    Leaving in Belgium for almost 20 years, I can relate on so many of your points…from mispronouncing words (I am english native who came to Belgium with 0 French & Dutch) to not finding african food or ingredients in the supermarket, not able t o make a doctor’s appointment in French or Dutch…but after a while, yiu get a hang of it lol

    • Thank you, Doreen. It is so frustrating at the beginning when you can’t find the right things and you don’t know exactly where to go, but I agree, after a while you get a hang of everything.

  • Ana R.

    Great post! Looks like you’re doing great!!

  • Tiffany Stein Staples

    I think you are doing a great job! Anything that isn’t familiar to us takes a bit of getting used to – it sounds like you are adapting well. Keep it up!

    • Thank you, Tiffany!

  • Nikki Gwin

    I found this interesting for several reasons:
    1. To me, living abroad means living in Europe. haha I never thought much about people living over here as “living abroad.” haha
    2. I realized how old I really am. haha
    3. I have never heard of Bad language days. But then again, I don’t know a foreign language.
    4. I have always dreamed of living abroad for a short time.
    Enjoy your stay. How long will you be there?
    🙂 gwingal

    • I got a lot of people telling me the same and being a bit shocked when they found out I move to Canada from Italy!
      Is there a specific country you’ve dreamed of living in?

      • Nikki Gwin

        Not really! I just wanted to travel and experience somewhere different.

  • I lived abroad in Italy, so it has been nice reading about your perspective on living in Toronto. Yes, the breakfast thing is really different. I had to get used to having bread with Nutella on it every day and not having the big morning meals I was accustomed to, but the rest of the food in Italy made this sacrifice seem like nothing. 😉 Glad you’re feeling more confident as time goes on!

    • Oh, how I miss pane e Nutella. Did you also notice that Nutella in North America is different from European one?

  • You’re doing so well! I lived away from home for 3 years while I was at university and I really noticed the joy in little things – like booking a Drs appointment for myself etc! Hope you’re having a lovely holiday season so far x

    • Thank you, Megan.