This is a story about Camilla Quintana and her search how to be happy as an Expat and finding it where she least expected. Camilla is Austrian but has lived in the UK and now Bilbao, Spain with her Spanish husband. Camilla runs an International coaching business for Expats and you can find her on Instagram and Facebook.
I was born 35 years ago as the eldest of 4 in Vienna, Austria. My ancestry is made up of Austrians, Italians, Spaniards, diplomats and international merchants, and so travelling, open-mindedness and a passion for different cultures and languages are kind of in my DNA. As a teen, I spent summers in the UK, the US and in Mexico and dreamt of one day living abroad – which I felt was where I truly belonged.
My teenage dream was to move to New York and become a famous singer. I just needed to perfect my English in order to blend right in, I thought. How? By watching FRIENDS on replay! Pausing at any word or phrase I didn’t understand, looking it up in the dictionary, writing it down and repeating it out loud.
At 16, I and my notebook full of FRIENDS phrases and expressions went to study a semester abroad in the UK. Whenever a teacher mistook me for an American, I gave myself a big pat on the back and delighted in their surprised look when I told them I was actually Austrian. Mission accomplished!
At 18 I returned to the UK to study International Relations and European Studies. My Oxford years were full of great experiences and memories and moulded my sense of international identity even further. And yet… there were many times I felt lonely and alone, even when I was surrounded by people. I was not sure hoe to be happy as an Expat.
Living abroad is exciting and invigorating, but the side effect is often feeling like we don’t truly belong anywhere. So when I had the opportunity to move to Madrid and stay with my relatives, I packed my bags and gladly took on the next challenge. On my quest for true belonging, I soon made meaningful connections with relatives and other locals began to write Spanish poetry and lyrics and even recorded a Salsa album!
2 years, an MBA and a post-university “What will I do with my life?” crisis later, I was back home in Vienna… only that after 5 years of absorbing everything my international life and friends had given me, I didn’t quite feel at home there at all… people had moved on… I had moved on… I didn’t seem to belong here or there. I experienced what’s called “Reverse Culture Shock” and it took some time until I reconnected, grew roots again and felt at home. It was in Vienna that I met my Spanish husband. After a short stop in Munich, his job brought us
back to Madrid.
This time, the experience was very different for me though: there’s a difference between choosing to move abroad and tagging along. The first is your adventure, the latter is a decision seemingly imposed on you. I also gave birth to my oldest son there and that triggered a desire for stability and roots in me. There it was again… my search for true belonging and how to be happy as an Expat.
When we were presented with the opportunity to return to Vienna after a couple of years, we didn’t hesitate. I had the best time: living down the street from my parents’ in a cosy home, raising my kids, intensifying old friendships, creating new ones and training intensively to become a life coach. I had never felt like I belonged anywhere as much as right there, right then. And it felt great. In this peaceful setting, I was able to develop certain habits like gratitude, mindfulness, meditation and surrendering. What I didn’t realize then was how much of a long-lasting impact these practices would make on my life and my understanding of how to be happy as an Expat.
Fast forward two years: my husband was transferred to Bilbao/Spain and the moving bells were ringing again for me. I remained in Vienna with the kids for another year before joining him. Of course, throughout that year, I had a lot of time to think and stew, and many people pitifully asked me if I was sad about having to move away and start from scratch in a new city. You might be thinking I was devastated, and I easily could have been. But as a newly graduated coach with a hunger to grow and practise everything I’d learned, I made a decision: I would not let my circumstances define my sense of belonging anymore. I was already at home, with myself. My inner happy place was within me, not outside of me.
It’s this realization that has since shaped everything I do and the way I live life. It’s also at the core of my signature, transformational coaching program that I offer to international women around the world. If you, like me, are trying to find how to be happy as an Expat, I’ve determined 4 main pillars:
Pillar 1: Truly getting to know and love yourself. This is the pre-requisite for living according to your highest values and purpose, for being able to feel connected and “at home” and for leading fulfilling relationships with others. Once we understand what our needs are, how we meet those needs (and how else we could meet them), what triggers us and what uplifts us, it becomes so much easier to start consciously co-creating our lives and to deal with the challenges along the way.
Pillar 2: Strengthening the bond to your spouse and creating a home away from home in which each family member may flourish. When abroad, the relationships to our companions
become magnified, so it is vital to nurture them with particular care.
Pillar 3: Increasing your resourcefulness and consciousness: It’s only when we take full responsibility (which can be difficult when you’re trying to master life in a strange land!) that we
can start creating a life we truly love. Resourcefulness is like a muscle that can be trained and when you do, you’ll quickly reap the benefits. Furthermore, when we let go of the need for things to be a certain way and embrace what life has to offer us – that’s when the magic can really start happening! That’s when new opportunities can present themselves and open new doors for us, and when we’re in a position to really flourish abroad.
Pillar 4: Pursuing meaningful activities. Whether it’s a job or entrepreneurial endeavour, a hobby, charity work, creating something artistic or raising your children to become strong, empowered and happy global citizens… Any activity that you look forward to, that can get you in a state of “flow” and provides meaning to you will not only increase your own happiness but will also allow you to leave your mark in this world.
My coaching work is dedicated to building and strengthening these four pillars in you. Throughout my international journey, I was able to develop these pillars within myself. I’ve learnt that I needed both, roots to be grounded in and wings to fly away. I searched for true belonging in different places, until I realized that I already intrinsically belonged: to myself. Our sense of belonging should not be attached to a certain identity, like our nationality. Identity is a fluid concept and in our essence, we are so much more than the holder of a certain passport, for instance.
So if it’s not the borders, boundaries and our image to the outside that define us, what does? I believe that we get to define and to re-define our identity along our journey – without ever having to sacrifice our authentic inner selves.
As long as we truly belong to ourselves, we will always have roots and home, our inner happy place, as I like to call it. And once you’ve found it, it will go with you no matter where you’re off to, no matter what your surroundings and circumstances are. My wish for you is that you may find yours – I know you can! And if you’d like, I’ll gladly accompany you on that exciting journey as you live abroad and understand how to be happy as an Expat.