Living abroad

This post is also available in: Português (Portuguese (Brazil))

I just spoke to someone who asked me what it’s like to live outside Brazil.

‘It must be great to live in Europe!’she said. ‘Look, it depends,’I said.

That’s a hard question to answer.

There is a complexity that inhabits the body and soul of being an immigrant, and you can’t generalize an experience that’s so unique.

‘I can tell you how it was for me,’ I replied.

Almost a decade ago (time goes by quickly!) I left Brazil and came to live in Holland, to pursue a doctorate. The plan was to spend the first year here, perhaps a year and a half, and then go back home, finish there. In the transition between airports, I realized once again that I was leaving everything I knew about life, to cross the ocean, and land on a continent where I had never been before. The only familiar things that accompanied me, besides my body and thoughts, were the contents of my 2 suitcases, with 30kg each. The bags brought my clothes, my protection – many that had no use in the cold climate of the new land. They also brought some personal belongings that seemed fundamental to me – pictures of my loved ones, my own pillow, a bowl of chimarrão, and a small stock of yerba mate. I brought symbols of my support, my safe haven, and my roots.

In the new land, in the temporary house, the suitcases were under the bed for just over a week, while I walked the surroundings and began to meet the people around and the University where I would be working. A very different world, very interesting, which yielded many ‘wows!’ and so many other strangenesses. Already in the first week, I met people from about 20 different countries, some that I didn’t even know existed. I ate meals from Bangladesh, India, Ecuador. I drove on a different transport system, started studying in a different education system. I began to see, in wonder, what it’s like to live in a country with low social inequality. So much novelty that lacked time to absorb and words to tell.

In the midst of this excitement, I remember as if it were today that I could not understand very well the tears that rolled when I unpacked to organize the new student room where I was. After a while, I got it. As exciting as the new adventure was, and as much as it was to be temporary, I missed the known hugs and the known world. I wanted to hug family and friends, not just see them over Skype. I wanted to speak my mother language, feel the heat of the sun, eat Brazilian food, go around knowing how to get to the places. I wanted to walk down the street and find familiar faces, not the ones I had met yesterday, but the ones I’d known for 10 years, and that didn’t require introductions. Incessant novelty wears off.

In difficult times, I wondered ‘Why did I even come here?’, ‘Why don’t I leave?’. And sometimes, without answers, only stubbornness held me back. ‘Did you want to come? Now hang on!’, she’d say, ‘Without giving up.’

Photo by Daniel Apodaca on Unsplash

And I stayed. I studied, learned, broadened my professional horizons. And life walked and threw me in a different direction than I had planned. Instead of a year, I stayed 2, 3, 5… I rode miles, visited amazing places, met people from so many cultures and so many countries that I had no choice but to become immensely more flexible and richer. A kind of inner wealth that doesn’t perish. Time passed, and gradually I built bonds, spaces, and familiarity. After a few years, a few good years, I started calling Holland home. A different home from the Brazilian home, because it does not bring the culture in which I was born and grew up. A home that makes me have to reinvent myself and (un)learn rules of the world of work, social and family. I took a lot of scared faces until I understood, for example, that you can not go out hugging everyone like that at first (No!!). A modest handshake is more than enough for a first date. There is also a rule for when it is possible to go out giving three kisses in people’s cheeks. And some rules take time to learn, because they are not written, and no one explains (except perhaps another immigrant from the same cultural background as yours). You need to try and put yourself out there.

And then it was even strange when there came a time when new rules became familiar. And when I recognized that some of my features, which I brought with me, have more space and are better welcomed here. Others don’t. Sometimes it’s like having a button that, when you turn to one side, goes into the ‘Brazil mode’, when you turn to the other, you enter the ‘Netherlands mode’. And it’s all right, like a flex car that adapts to the fuel available in the vicinity. Other times the button doesn’t spin, the system jams, and the car doesn’t move anywhere, it doesn’t recognize itself.

To be an immigrant, for me, is to be in this eternal “between”.

It is broadening the horizons, meeting new people, ideas, places, but it is also giving up the comfort and security of being close to family, longtime friends, root culture. It is often to feel alone, and then remember everyone who has passed and left a little more beauty, diversity, and love in my life, and then feel surrounded by friends on all sides of the planet! It’s making room to reinvent myself, recognize and learn. It is to bridge the worlds and to find the meaning of the words “home” and “belonging” within myself.

Phew! Living abroad is intense.

It is hard and sweet at the same time. You can choose which of these two characteristics we want to focus on, but you can’t deny that the two are there, side by side.

Everyone has their own experience.

Gratitude for all who have crossed my path, and for the learning that disaccommodates.

Kisses! (for those who dare to try different cultural rules ?)

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