Live the Dream – but Keep Your Feet on the Ground

Yippee – you’re airborne! You’ve packed up your flat, left the dog with your mother (“I’ll send for him soon!”), waved goodbye to friends and family, and left that job you so despised. You don’t have a new job lined up yet, but what does it matter? Everyone is insanely jealous and you are off to ‘live the dream’!

Some of us have done it, most of us have dreamt about it – but did you ever stop to think, what happens if I do 'make it’?

In my early twenties, tired of working as a temp in London, I set my sights on the bright lights and grandeur of sun-drenched Italy. With a few lire in my pocket (okay, it wasn’t yesterday) and my freshly minted English teaching certificate in hand, I was ready for adventure.

Now, whether you’re like me and head off early with youthful exuberance on your side – or wait those extra ten years, hoping that office culture will evolve ‘into something a bit more civilised’, and take experience with you – there is a sad truth.

Despite our best intentions – our best efforts – and our oath to “stay away forever!” most of us eventually head home. Deciding when to return is like ‘picking the stock market’ – they don’t ring a bell to tell you when is the optimal (or indeed the worst) time to leave.

I have friends who have lived in Rome, teaching English, for most of their working lives. It is always hard, often low-paid work – and, although the lifestyle does provide real compensation – the reality is that it can really grind you down. Eventually disillusionment can set in and it’s time say goodbye to your ‘new life’.  

My friends would make fantastic employees.

These expats are bilingual (at least), adaptable, resourceful. Surely they’ll be snapped up when they head home? But the problem is, they have no home. They belong neither in the country they left 15 years ago, nor in their new place of residence.

And if they do return to their ‘port of origin’ (and are able to find work) they will be financially and socially far behind in their lives – because the life of an English teacher (or indeed anyone who chooses to accept work in an area other than their chosen profession in order to ‘live the dream’) is not a well-paid one.

It is reasonable to anticipate that these friends would have been ‘high achievers’ – career professionals who at their current point in life (often the mid 40s) would be expected to have paid off half the house, drive an SUV, and be well on their way to saving for retirement. Not only that, but the Joneses don’t even know they exist – they have no social peers except in their chosen country. They are the new ‘lost generation’.

Okay then... what’s YOUR solution?

Five years ago I left Rome and returned to New Zealand. Although an alarm doesn’t sound when it’s time to go, there are often warning signs you really shouldn’t ignore:

  • If you’re struggling financially, even after years in your new home, it could be a sign that it’s time to leave – and if you are starting to feel as if you’re drifting, with no sense of real integration, no job satisfaction and the sensation that life is passing you by, it’s definitely time to make a few changes.
  • Be open with yourself about your reasons for going abroad. A gnawing resentment towards your old life can be a great incentive to stay away, but maybe it is time to take a good hard look at yourself, and make sure that you made the change for the right reasons.
  • Be realistic about what is important to you. Building a career, owning your own home, starting a family – can you make these happen in your new home? Keep in mind that your goals will change as you ‘mature’.
  • Set realistic milestones – and assess yourself against them when the time comes.

Of course, just because you leave after nearly a decade, as I did, doesn’t mean that you can never go back. I returned to New Zealand, became qualified and experienced as a freelance web writer and then returned to Rome on my own terms. This time around, life is different. Yet, I wouldn’t be living this life now, if I hadn’t made some tough decisions in my early thirties. Yes, I lived the dream – but keeping your feet on the ground will ensure it doesn’t go sour.