Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Living abroad versus traveling abroad

Now that we have been living in Vienna, Austria for a little over four months, some friends have expressed to me their own desire to break out of their routine and venture abroad.  Here, I offer a little advice about one might consider if you are making such a decision:

First realize there is a difference between living abroad and traveling abroad.

Travel is mostly perceived through the adrenaline-pumped thrill of taking a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, or during the ecstasy of a much-deserved holiday away from work and everyday responsibilities.  When we travel, we hop on an airplane anticipating minor inconveniences, but we know that our comfortable, well-worn home and loved ones are waiting for us to return in a week or two.  We arrive at our destination, usually with a jam-packed itinerary.  Let's take Vienna:  if you're a visitor to Vienna, you'd probably stay in a center city hotel (right in the heart of all the action and old-world ambiance), you'd go out to eat several times a day, and you'd do all kinds of touristy things.  For instance, I'd expect someone just visiting to go to the Prater (famous Ferris wheel from "The Third Man" movie), visit St. Stephens Cathedral in the heart of the city, go to the palaces, and patronize the museums.  As a short term traveler, there is a seemingly never-ending list of things to do and only a short time span within which to do them.  I have rarely finished a vacation feeling like I saw and did everything I wanted to.  This relationship between too many sights and not enough time often translates into a hectic schedule as some try to "see it all."  Although this might mean, as a traveler, we are in need of a vacation after our vacation, the exhaustion is exhilarating.

Travel is seen through rose-colored lenses because it is for pleasure.  We spend our hard-earned savings to go see and experience a place previously only imagined in our dreams. 

Travel is a worthy and worthwhile experience. I always counsel one should expand their borders.  However, the main point of this blog entry is that travel is not the same as living abroad. 

When we travel, it doesn't matter if we know the locals’ mother tongue or not.  Basically, as itinerant visitors, we revel in our ignorance.  We take our little Phrasebook along.  Maybe if we're very diligent (or overachievers), we take a language course before visiting a country.  I cannot deny that learning to communicate with the locals can make travel a much richer experience.  However, living abroad is a completely different beast.  No longer can we revel in our ignorance of the local language because we need that language in order to navigate the bureaucracy. 

Four months into this living abroad experience, here is what it took to achieve a minimal degree of settlement.

The first necessary interaction with bureaucracy started before we even left the US.  We had to complete our residence permit application in the States (not an insignificant task, requiring us not only to collect long-ago filed originals but to obtain in addition, new state-certified certificates of authenticity along with translations for each), and visit Washington, DC on a few occasions to file the paperwork with the Austrian embassy there.  In reality, as the embassy admitted to us, they were only acting as a glorified post office, securely mailing our documentation in their diplomatic satchels to their counterparts in Vienna.  Once in Austria, the actual processing of our residence permit required us visiting a building referred to as MA35.  On at least three separate occasions, we had to venture into the Austrian bureaucracy.  A visit meant repeatedly standing in line with other immigrants to receive a number (sort of like the number you take at the deli in your local supermarket, but with less satisfying returns) and stumbling through broken Germ-glish to communicate with ornery bureaucrats at various counters. Then, after heading upstairs and searching over various office doors inscribed in a foreign language, you find your place, ending up in a holding room for hours awaiting your number to appear on an electronic board on the wall (think: DMV in the U.S.).  Much of our time there was spent trying to figure out the algorithms involved in determining which number came next as, unlike the DMV, the numbers seemed to jump around in random "dis"order, #211 being followed by #16, being followed by #723. 

Once our number was displayed, we went into a room in which sat our caseworker, who according to her, did not speak English.  At this point, we had been in the country only several weeks and did not have the necessary German vocabulary (note that we had actually taken 4 months of bi-weekly private lessons back in the U.S., but even this was sadly inadequate).  However, after our caseworker spoke machine gun rapid fire instructions in German, Rachel looked over at me asking, "What did she say?" response was I have no idea.  At that point, our caseworker tersely told us in very intelligible English to please wait outside again. 

I have since been told by Austrians that it is common for these government agency workers to speak German with immigrants because, you know, it IS our job to learn the language.  Of course, everyone starts his or her language learning experience in ADVANCED GERMAN FOR UNINTELLIGABLE BUREAUCRACTIC BUSINESS 101.

Therefore, my first point to travel abroad versus living abroad is:  although it's cute to revel in one's linguistic ignorance during travel, I don't recommend moving to a country for which you don't at least have a rudimentary understanding of the language.  Furthermore, when you travel, you spend most of your time interacting in the tourist world... a world inhabited by English-speaking natives who learned your language because it is their job to make you feel as comfortable as possible to encourage you to spend your money, thus enriching them and the local tourist board.  However, this fairy tale tourist world of eager English-speaking natives quickly disappears as a resident.  Now, it is your job to maneuver the intricate bureaucracies in a foreign language to accomplish things requisite to a life abroad. 

Luckily, as Rachel already had a job offer, we had the support of her employer in giving the workers at MA35 a little push.  Thus, about 80 days after starting the process, and after only a few visits to that Bureaucratic purgatory, we were able to get our residence permits giving us the right to live and work here. 

So, if I were to boil my advice into a set of commandments, we have our first two:

Commandment 1:  in living abroad, you need to learn the language.
Commandment 2:  have a job before you move abroad, as your employer will provide invaluable support with procuring the necessary paperwork to keep you in the country.  An addendum would be, "or enroll in school"; meaning as a student enrolled in a program abroad, oftentimes the university will help you maintain the appropriate status to prevent deportation.

At this point in the story, we have our residence permits but do not yet have an apartment (we were living in a temporary apartment for our first month here, a very costly predicament – see earlier blog entry). 

Again let's evaluate residence through the perspective of travel versus living. 

When we travel, we go online, book the best hotel deal, arrive in our country, and take whatever form of transportation to get us to our hotel.  At the hotel, we arrive to a king's welcome.  Food in the form of scheduled meals is no problem.  In addition, our hotel staff wants to make our stay as comfortable and easy as possible.  Maps are in the offing, scheduled activities await us.  This is in stark contrast to an immigrant's life. 

Had we done a better job researching apartments in Vienna before we left the States, we would have realized the following:
A. The majority of listed apartments in Vienna are offered through local real estate agents (“Maklers” in German).
B.  For arranging a visit and basically getting together the paperwork (often less than an hour's work), these Maklers and their agencies charge a fee of from 2 to 3 times the monthly rent.  This fee is called Provision.
C.  In addition to this fee, most owners require deposits called “Kaution” (to be later refunded- but often after a year’s delay) of 2 to 3 times the monthly rent. 

After including the first month's rent in advance, this totaled, in some circumstances, into the need to have 6 months’ worth of rent available to move into a one-bedroom apartment.  Believe me, I'm not talking some luxury apartment.  To move into an unfurnished, modest-sized, not-centrally-located apartment meant having the ability to present the Makler with 4800 Euros (in *cash*, mind you, even if we’d had a bank account at this point) within two days of signing the apartment contract.  (This figure assumes a monthly rent of 800 Euros.)

What lesson did we learn? 

Merely traveling abroad means having the funds necessary to pay for the fixed costs of hotels, dinners, excursions, etc.  Living abroad is usually much more costly (especially higher start-up costs) when one realizes the real estate market for Vienna is more similar to New York City than, e.g., Baltimore. 

In living abroad, finding an apartment is the first step.  Actually, the first step is getting your residence permits squared (since signing a rental agreement means promising to pay at least 13 months’ rent and obviously, you first want some assurance that you may indeed remain in the country for that long); the second step is finding an "affordable" apartment.  The third step requires more bureaucracy and documentation.  Once we had an apartment, in order to get bank accounts we had to get a document from our local magistrate (think county or local governments in the U.S.).  This document is called a Meldezettel or Meldebestatigung.  This document, signed by your landlord and filed at the local magistrate office, basically states that you are living where you claim to be living. It also provides a way for the State to track you down, God forbid. 

Successfully filing this paperwork required no less than 3 separate visits to the magistrate's office.  In reality, anytime the government required paperwork, a minimum of three trips was necessary to successfully complete the documentation.  Even with the support of our employers (at this point in the process, I had also acquired a job), details arise during the first visit pointing to some additional paperwork, or something that wasn’t correctly completed, or something needs to be notarized or translations need to be procured.  The second visit fools you because there is nothing else you can imagine needing to be done, yet somehow the bureaucrat always finds some little flaw needing correction or claims that a signature finalizing the process is required.  The third trip, when we would pick up the completed official documentation, was usually the shortest. 

Without fail, paperwork would never be completed in one visit, therefore Commandment 3 is: 

Commandment 3:  when living abroad, expect multiple trips (usually 3) to accomplish any required bureaucratic task. 

Contrast this process with the simple life of a traveler whose every need is met (usually before your realization of that need) by the hotel staff, sightseeing groups, and tourist agencies committed to ensuring that your visit is pleasant and enjoyable. 

Once we had our employment contracts, Residence Permits, and our apartment registration document, we were able to relatively easily open a bank account.  However, it took no less than two months to acquire that documentation and establish basic norms of living. 

Commandment 4:  expect greater commitments in terms of time and money early on in the relocation to a new country. 

Here are the commandments we have thus far; to wit:
  • Commandment 1:  in living abroad, you need to learn the language.
  • Commandment 2:  have a job before you move abroad, as your employer will provide invaluable support with procuring the necessary paperwork to keep you in the country.  An addendum would be, "or enroll in school"; meaning as a student enrolled in a program abroad, oftentimes the university will help you maintain the appropriate status to prevent deportation.
  • Commandment 3:  when living abroad, expect multiple trips (usually 3) to accomplish any required bureaucratic documentation. 
  • Commandment 4:  expect greater commitments in terms of time and money early on in the relocation to a new country. 

In addition to these, I would advise that you DO YOUR HOMEWORK.  This means do as much research and legwork in your own country before even thinking about moving abroad. 
...and finally, Be Realistic!

If you traveled to some country and were ensnared by it's romantic embrace, that's probably not reason enough to move there.  Recognize you were the victim of an excellent tourism campaign.  It is the job of the tourist industry to market the magic of travel.  Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying travel is not a magic and worthy experience in and of itself.  But I AM saying that travelers and immigrants live in parallel versions of a destination, one in a blissful ether, the latter in a cold, flat reality. 

There are many different Viennas (or Londons, or New Yorks, or anywheres for that matter).  There is the traveler Vienna complete with five-star luxury accommodations in the city center, closely situated to all the main tourist attractions, chic restaurants, and upscale shopping.  This Vienna has been marketed to illustrate the glamorous, romantic, easy side of the city.  Travelers have the time to sip their Grösser Brauner in the middle of the day while others toil at work. 

Then there's the residents' Vienna.  You already know this world well.  Wherever you are right now, look around and see what others are doing.  This is the daily routine of Metro-Boulot-Dodo (as the French call it).  In American English, this translates as "Subway- Work- Sleep."  The residents' Vienna is for people going about their daily lives in order to provide for themselves and their families.  To be honest, the residents' Vienna could further be differentiated into:  an expatriates' Vienna versus the natives' Vienna.  However, this will be better suited for a later blog post. 

To conclude, both traveling and living abroad are worthwhile experiences; not only to immerse oneself in another culture and language but also for a truer, stronger sense of self-awareness.  Living abroad teaches us how different basic societal services (health care, subsidized housing) can be provided in alternate, sometimes more efficient ways.  In addition, anytime one removes themselves from their daily routines, one learns about how much change and what kinds of unfamiliarity and discomfort they are willing to accept. 

The point of this entry is not to discourage future expatriates from taking this bold and brave leap.  Rather, I hope to encourage the pragmatic, "feet on the ground" mental state necessary to research and prepare oneself for navigating a place that may quickly seem very different from the romantic honeymoon destination once visited, briefly.

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking of going on Vienna city breaks for a while but I'm not sure if i would live in Europe. Especially with the current economic climate.