UL Alumni Abroad - Expats in Paradise
13 March 2017
Posted by: Lisa McCarthy
Expat life is different. It’s not home. Its not normal. It’s a bubble. Where friends become family. Where you learn so much about yourself and your ability to put yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s eye opening. It’s education. It’s hard. Yet its wonderful.
Life in Ireland
Robert and I met in UL in 2005. He graduated in 2008 and started working in Abbott as part of a Personal Development Programme. When I graduated a year later lots of our friends were heading abroad. Ireland was in the height of a recession, job losses were daily news bulletins and there was an air of desperation about the place. I decided to take a place in a postgraduate programme as I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in event management and planning.
In 2010 I was offered a full time position with Special Olympics Ireland and moved to Cork to be their Regional Fundraising Coordinator. Rob moved to Clonmel to start a permanent job in Abbott. We were delighted to have permanent positions when the economic situation in Ireland was so bad.
Life moved on and we got married and worked hard. Rob was promoted a couple of times and we had a baby. In 2014 while on maternity leave I decided to change careers as I was ready for a new challenge and I was offered a position as Political Assistant to Minister Paul Kehoe. The very same week that I accepted this job, Rob came home and said that there was a possibility of a relocation to Puerto Rico for his work. We hadn’t really thought much about being expats but it sounded exciting. We didn’t know anything about Puerto Rico but the idea of Caribbean weather, sandy beaches and some island living didn’t sound half bad. Bear in mind it was January in Ireland!
We had talked a lot about travelling and it had never been the right time. We were busy working, planning a wedding, having our son. Expat life seemed like a way that we could explore the world. Have an adventure. Experience new cultures and meet new people while gaining valuable experience for Rob’s career. However, it would mean that I would have to give up my career for a while and become what they refer to in the expat world as ‘the trailing spouse’. This terminology really gets me going so I would need to write a whole other post on my opinions on it!
The 'Trailing Spouse'
Giving up my new job was a difficult decision. I miss work. I miss the sense of achievement that you get for successfully completed projects. As a stay at home mother, I miss hot tea, being able to use the bathroom alone and even being able to make a phone call without having to use negotiation skills that could be used in the UN peace process to get five minutes of peace. However, it has been a wonderful experience. Even if you’re “only,” the trailing spouse in an expat assignment, your role is important. You need to decide what that role is going to be and how you’re going to occupy your time and be productive. Otherwise if you’re like me and used to being busy, your sanity will suffer.
We have made great friends here, learned a lot about other cultures and the Puerto Rican lifestyle has taught us to slow down and not be in such a hurry all the time. Rob does work long hard hours but our weekends are spent in the sun, swimming in the pool at our house, having BBQ’s all year round, going to beaches and exploring. We are now immersed in life here and for the moment it has become our home.
Expat life isn’t easy. You’re away from family and you’re always afraid that one day you’ll get a call to say that you need to come home for a funeral or that someone close to you is sick. It’s hard when there are wedding and family occasions that you can’t attend. We miss our friends, many of whom we know from our time in UL. There’s a great bond with those people and some have even traveled here to visit us! With a child I don’t have the luxury of having family to rely on in case of emergencies or a night out. We have been very lucky to have a great part time nanny, amazing friends to rely on and each other.
We don’t know exactly how long we will be here in Puerto Rico or where to next after here, home or another assignment but we no longer rush to know all the answers. Sometimes the best thing is life is the unknown and there’s certainly plenty of that in expat life!
Since I have been here I have been doing some freelance work and I’m currently in the process of setting up my own PR & Marketing company. I hope to be able to take on mainly Irish clients and work from home to support them. Michael, our son, will start school here in Puerto Rico in August so it will be good to have a plan and be back in the workforce while still having time for all those lovely beaches and to enjoy the sunshine!
Lessons I've Learned
My top pieces of advise for those considering an expat position would be:
- Talk to those that have already made the move. Every location is different and everyone’s experience will be different but being able to bounce questions or concerns at someone who knows your new location and who has also relocated there will ease your transition. Forewarned is forearmed and it will make things less stressful in the long run.
- Go on a visit. Rob travelled over for a week before we moved but I didn’t. I was too busy and really wished that I had come. It would have allowed me to get my bearings and alleviated some of the anxiety I had about just moving to a country that I had never been to with an 8 month old. Instead I just got on a plane and then all of a sudden this was my new home
- Take some time when you get there.We arrived on a Saturday night, had Sunday together and Rob started work on Monday. Realistically you need a few days to get organised, hire or buy cars and find the supermarket etc.
- Book temporary accommodation rather than your long term let for the first few weeks. It’ll give you time to see exactly where you want to live and the house that is right for you.
- Say yes to everything. Every invite, every lunch, brunch and dinner. Having friends is so important. After a while you can take a step back and spend more time with some that you have more in common with than others but in the beginning its so critical to your experience to put yourself out there.
- Be prepared to work hard. Every expat I know here works longer hours and has more responsibility than they did in their jobs in Ireland. It’ll be worth it. It looks great for your career to have done an expat assignment and you’re gaining cultural experience and life skills.
- Be respectful of your new colleagues and their culture. Try to learn their customs and language. Everyone here shakes hands or kisses each time they meet. Even in a professional setting such as an office. Irish people tend to shy away from such customs but you need to integrate to their traditions.
- Get into a routine and make time for yourself. I run and go to the gym and Rob plays soccer. It’s a fantastic stress relief as well as allowing head space away from work and life in general. Routine keeps everyone sane!
- Relocation companies are not good at what they do. No matter where in the world you’re moving to. Our personal experience was terrible. Be prepared for that and do your own research. Have your own plan B and then you won’t be thrown when things go wrong with your relocation.
- Don’t go into any assignment with a set amount of time in your head. Often timelines change and be open to that and then you won’t be disappointed if its extended or you’re moved elsewhere or home.
Any most importantly…….
Enjoy every minute. Life moves quickly. You never know what’s around the corner. Travel. Take in everything that you see around you. Everything will be different to home and you wont be on assignment forever. Make the most of it and see everything that you can. Your experience will be as positive as you want it to be. So think positively and make every second of it count.
If you would like to read more about Siobhans life in Puerto Rico make sure to check out her blog HighsAndLowsofExpatLife