This interview touches on the longing for home and human connection. It’s a reality check for anyone who thinks that working abroad is easy.
Sheila has been in Bogotá, Columbia, for about seven months, working for the U.S. government. Before Bogotá, she worked in Nairobi, Frankfurt, and was briefly in Tokyo. Her work takes her to different countries, so she travels a lot within the region.
Where is home for you?
I grew up near Chicago and spent summers in Wisconsin. I spent nearly 20 years in the Pacific Northwest. Home for me is the Pacific Northwest or northern Wisconsin or even Washington, DC.
Before applying for this job, I’d never even considered moving abroad. I don’t think I fully understood what I was getting into. But I went ahead and signed up, when I was 40.
I do feel like, a lot of the time I’m living abroad, I’m biding my time until I go home. I’m a nester. I love creating a home. Not everybody likes to be tied down by a house. I’m so envious of people who don’t have that need, but I need to be anchored. I like having something to go back to, so I do have property back in the States.
What’s your daily life like?
I travel a lot for work, but when I’m in town, my lifestyle is very routine. I normally work 9 to 10 hours a day plus commute. I enjoy my job, and especially the local staff I work with, but I don’t really socialize with people from work.
I really enjoy the low-key downtime in my house. I’m not going out salsa dancing every night; I’m more likely making salad, hanging out with my dog, and going to sleep early.
How’s your Spanish?
I can get by in Spanish. My employer gave me some “diplomatic Spanish” lessons. I try to watch Spanish TV or English TV with Spanish subtitles.
When you’re younger and traveling, you have a lot of the same conversations over and over. Like where are you from, where have you traveled, what do you like to do for fun, that kind of thing. But as an adult, you have responsibilities, like managing a house. Here, I’m talking to the plumber or the dog sitter in Spanish, or explaining to the electrician that I want him to replace the electrical boxes. You don’t get that kind of language training and vocabulary in school.
What are some other challenges you’re facing now?
When I’m in the States, I have a lot of social connections and social anchors. What’s missing for me now is the soul connection. Here, I don’t have that go-to person to call up and say, “Hey let’s go out dancing!”
My trifecta for happiness is community, personal, and professional. It seems like I’ve been able to get two out of three, but not all. In Nairobi I had two: a great job and community. In Columbia, I have just one: a great job, but no community. Plus, my love life has taken a big hit!
I was delusional in thinking that living overseas would be how it was when I was younger. When you’re in your 50s and traveling for work, you’re wearing business clothes, you’re carrying your laptop. There are few instances of randomly meeting people like there were when I was traveling in my 20s with a backpack and staying in hostels.
I try not to look at my old life with rose-colored glasses. But my stay in Columbia has been very hard. Every day I think, “Why am I doing this?” I’m going to decide by December if I’m going to extend my stay. If I don’t get a better feel for the community, then I won’t extend my stay here. It’s not worth it; human connection is too important.
My feeling is, if it’s not working for you, it’s not a failure if you leave. If your needs are not being met, you should move on.
Here in Bogotá, it’s been an exceptionally hard time building a community. In Nairobi, I stepped off the plane and it happened for me socially. Finding some sort of informal network or getting involved in the community gets very difficult when you’re working all the time.
When I lived in DC, there was a bar not far from my home where I’d go have a drink; I’d usually meet someone to have a chat with. Here in Columbia, just going into a bar and starting a conversation with someone random, you don’t do that. (My 25-year-old colleagues might have a different perception.)
How have you tried to make connections with other people?
I do a lot of sports. I cycle, so I’ve met people through biking. I go on weekend bike rides when I’m out of the city. I’ve played ultimate frisbee in 25 counties, but for some reason getting into it here has been really difficult. Maybe because the communication is online and I haven’t figure out the digital communities yet.
My dog is a fat, brown Kenyan dog. Having a dog helps with meeting people. People come up to me all the time; I’m constantly having conversations with people thanks to my dog.
I can’t say that all of my reaching out here has reaped rewards. In the expat community there are events, I find those to be challenging. When I tried to reach out to expats here, I got no responses. What helps is that there’s a new crop of people coming in at my work.
Here it’s easier to hang with locals, Columbian warm and friendly and awesome but still, people around our age have their families. They tend to do things in groups; Americans are more used to being alone.
Introverts are comfortable being alone, so if you’re introverted, you might be fine without a strong community around you. But if you’re an extrovert, you might miss people more. As you’re thinking of moving abroad make sure you find a way to connect with people back home regularly. I spend a lot more time online here, connecting with people digitally.
It sounds tough. What are some things you like best about your life in Bogotá?
I’m grateful for the material benefits. I have financial security. I live in a beautiful apartment with 50 feet of windows facing the mountains.
I enjoy the warm Colombian people, and the weather that’s never too cold, never too hot.
The service industry is huge here. You can pretty much get anything delivered, which is key with the traffic here. I have household help. Having a housekeeper enables me to go to Pilates a few times as week without feeling guilty about leaving my dog.
What advice do you have for women who are thinking about moving abroad?
Don’t move abroad to escape.
Also, figure out what gives you the most happiest and make sure you have that in your life. Every time I go biking I’m really happy.
If you’re moving to a large city, make sure you live in a neighborhood where the things you like to do are available and easy to get to. When you’re younger, you have more energy to go out and be social on the off-chance that you meet someone you want to be friends with. Now you don’t always have the energy anymore to cross town after work. So make sure you’re living in the right area of town for your interests.
You have to get over any ageism. You might be hanging out with people in their 20s or people in their 60s. If it doesn’t already exist, the cooking club or the book club, be prepared to be the one who creates it.
While Sheila’s current post is challenging, there are at least two mitigating factors: Because she works with other people, she’s in daily contact with others face-to-face. Also, her job gives her the option of transferring somewhere where she might have better luck building a social life.
This leads me to wonder how expats who work alone as freelancers and consultants manage to build thriving social lives. Watch this space….
So, dear reader:
Do you worry about being lonely abroad?
What are doing now to build your village?