Chile was my third time spending an extended period living abroad, and I’ve noticed a pattern in terms of how things tend to go, at least for me personally:
- Month 1: throw yourself into everything. Feel homesick realising that you’ve not known anyone for longer than a month.
- Month 2: find some routines. Feel more comfortable and begin to develop some normality.
Apart from being crazy excited for my trip and farflung adventures, I’m almost just as excited for the return to Conce, a fact which in itself is exciting… it’s an indicator that I’ve begun to create a home from home here. Concepción and all it brings has been overwhelmingly good to me, and has enabled me to create a fulfilling and busy lifestyle full of teaching, learning, movement, play, dance, love, climbing, laughter, sharing and discovery. The first couple of months were a rollercoaster of emotions, the way that they always are, but I’ve begun to feel settled and comfortable here.
It clearly takes longer than three months to get settled somewhere, but by really throwing yourself into the local community and connecting with locals, you can certainly make a good start at bedding in. It’s perhaps worthwhile to make a note here about language — as a languages graduate, learning to speak as much like a native as possible is one of my primary goals. I relish the challenge of disguising my English accent and savour new words and phrases like exotic sweets, letting them dance around my mind, poised for an opportunity to insert them into my own speech. Given that fitting into local customs and social circles is one of the most important factors contributing to a feeling of belonging, I find it hard to imagine how one might develop this without learning the local language. As a linguist, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to. Furthermore, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the situation of foreigners living in the UK and how important it is for them to learn the lingo. I would strongly advise anyone considering moving abroad to take lessons in a foreign language and be prepared to work at it, it will definitely be worth it for the doors that it opens to you and the freedom that it affords.
On a number of occasions, it has taken a visit from an old friend or family member for me to really understand the level to which I had become integrated. Seeing their bemusement at things that I have come to take for granted; the observations that I once made provoking a mixture of surprise and recognition when echoed back to me over six months later. Perhaps the best description of how it feels to realise this can be found in my blog post from 2014, found here.
Friday felt like a dream. Standing out under the clear sky looking up at the Llaima volcano across the valley in Conguillio National Park, illuminated by the light of the moon and stars, on my right; the soft snoring of a dog, to my left; the sounds of laughter emanating from the country house, I suddenly became very aware of literally living the dream — discovering, travelling, sharing, exploring. Living. It’s a happy place to be.
The month of November passed by in a whirlwind of hiking, climbing, hitching and camping. I had my packing technique down to a 10-minute whip round and everything had its designated pocket. My free Mondays were a godsend for sorting out life admin; shopping, laundry, planning for the week’s lessons. It almost felt like I was living a double life – upstanding ambassador for the English language during the week, feral adventurer as soon as I left the city.
In 2012 I had spent five months living in Argentina, during my degree, but I had quickly been absorbed by city life and the commitments that I had made to volunteering and working, leaving me very little time to explore the country outside of Buenos Aires. I left South America regretting not really having made the most of my time there to see beyond the urban jungle I had landed in, so this time I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to escape to the wilderness. During term-time I was limited to 2 or 3 day jaunts, but working at a university meant that I also had the grace of a long summer holiday (remembering that seasons are inverted in the Southern Hemisphere), so I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to really get to know the country I had come to call home.
Having travelled over land from Concepcion to Punta Arenas, a couple of thousand kilometres, I now feel somewhat worthy to talk about Chile. For me one of the most striking characteristics is just how empty it is — living in the UK it’s hard to appreciate just how vast and wild a country can be. The Carretera Austral, particularly further south, took us to some spectacularly isolated places and has left me itching to go back and experience that peacefulness again.
Part of my trip down south involved a two-day hike to cross the Chile-Argentina border. Nothing quite matches up to the feeling of diving into a crystalline glacial lake after a long day’s hike, nor the absolute peace of knowing that only you and your travelling companions are less than a day’s walk away. It’s not a trip for the fainthearted, but certainly one you’ll never forget.
During my year as a Chilean resident, I hitched up and down the Pan-American more times than I could count, discovered the beauty of Chile from glaciers and ice fields to the driest desert in the world, and met hundreds of people — locals, immigrants and travellers – doing my utmost to blend into their way of live. All of this has fed into my understanding of the country and ultimately what it means to be Chilean.
I returned to Concepcion after three months of exploring and went back to work, moved into a new house with two Chileans in one of the most controversial neighbourhoods in the city and launched back into what was probably my most authentic experience of life abroad. I knew my neighbours and would stop to chat at the corner shop, I was invited in for coffee down the road, friends would pop by unannounced and stay for several days at a time, and if I did really well, I might not get asked where I was from until a few hours into the conversation.
To all intents and purposes, it felt like home, with all the drama that life brings, the trials and tribulations that one faces, and the deep conversations into the night at the kitchen table putting the world to rights. I no longer felt so temporary. Yet authentic Chilean life isn’t always comfortable; we had no heating, no hot water and no internet. We were up on the hill, away from the creature comforts of the city and none of us earnt a lot, so we just got by. This is by no means representative of the majority of Chilean households, but certainly for those in the lower socio-economic groups. But despite this, I was happy.
One of the things that I had noticed was the importance of family, people were close to each other and relied more on each other. In the absence of a welfare state, it is crucial to maintain good networks — just in case. Some of my friends had young children, my housemate was due to become a father. All of this reminded me of my own family, halfway round the world, that I was neglecting. So, I booked my flights home to ensure that I would be around for a family reunion.
It’s interesting how having a time limit on your experience can so radically alter your feelings about a place. Instantly I felt myself less motivated — what was the point in putting in so much effort to something that I was due to abandon in just a few months? The lesson here to be learnt is to really live in the moment, appreciate what you have and take every opportunity you have. Concentrate on the relationships you have and let the people around you know that they are valued. It’s easy enough to do when travelling from place to place, the novelty of each day keeps you engaged and present. Once a routine is in place and commitments have been made it’s harder to keep this up. Noticing this, I was determined to maintain a level of spontaneity and adventure once I had returned to the UK. Keep an open mind and bring the lessons learned in life as a foreigner back to local living.
Becoming a local abroad takes practice and dedication. You’ll need to be prepared to make mistakes, and face a hell of a lot of setbacks, but the most important thing is to get back up again and keep trying. Creating a life abroad isn’t easy, but with a sprinkle of optimism, a good dose of determination and just a dash of luck, anywhere can become home.