This piece originally appeared in Taking Up Residence, March 2010.
Visiting a country and relocating to a new country are two very different experiences, even if they may happen to be the same country. There are a number of reasons to visit a place: Maybe you’re going on holiday, maybe you’ve got family or friends to see, maybe it’s a place you’ve read about and always wanted to check out.
Deciding to relocate somewhere for the long term also comes with its unique set of reasons: Maybe you visited once and want an extended stay, maybe you’ve been transferred by your job, maybe you’ve always dreamed of being an expat living in that particular place. What experienced travellers and permanent expats learn very quickly, and sometimes painfully, is that our experience visiting a location may not be an appropriate yardstick on how actually living in a place can be.
I had visited Istanbul for the first time when I was 17. Ten years later, I moved there with my husband, only to find that my great visit a decade earlier would not determine how I felt living there. Time, circumstances and life had changed, and the Istanbul I found myself living in was far from the place it appeared to be at first glance. My initial experience of the beauty and history of the city was overshadowed by the difficulties of being an independent American woman living in a predominantly conservative Muslim part of town. The modern, European Istanbul that I saw during my visit was very different from the industrial suburb I called home for a year.
However, I had the absolute opposite experience concerning India. I had visited India with my grandparents when my family was living in Pakistan during the early 1990s. We spent 10 days doing the cliché must-do India things, like visiting the Taj Mahal and going on nature safaris. It was not until a few years later that my mother, working for UNICEF, was then transferred to New Delhi. While I remember loving our trip to India, living there was a significantly more magnificent experience. The culture and land is so diverse, one needs a great deal of time to be able to explore and understand the varied nature of Indian history, culture and people. The five and a half years I lived in New Delhi were among the most amazing in my life. All of the opportunity it gave me to explore not just New Delhi and its environs, but travel throughout the nation and its subcontinent, changed my view of the world as a whole.
I currently live in Prague, Czech Republic. I had never visited here before relocating four years ago, and if I had visited, I probably never would have agreed to relocate. The weather is horrible, ethnically it is not a very diverse place, and…did I mention the weather is horrible? Nevertheless, negative traits of Prague aside, I have found my creative center here and I am constantly amazed at the never-ending supply of artistic energy available to me. If I had only visited Prague, all I would have seen would have been the tourist sites and nightlife. I would not have been able to know how beautifully alien this place can be, and how each day brings with it a new sense of inspiration and momentum.
What it comes down to is that we as expats may never know where we will end up next, and what will bring us there. It may be somewhere we simply dreamed of or actually visited. Regardless, it is always a very personal decision. The important thing is to keep an open mind and ease up on the expectations that the place will or won’t be for us. After seeing the film In Bruges, the city itself has moved up on my list of places to visit, although I have never really had any desire to live in Belgium. Then again, one never knows when the next place will grab the spirit and hold fast.
©2010 Sezin Koehler, Image via Babble Voices.