Wednesday, May 9, 2012

10 Myths about working in Europe

An excellent article from the Vienna Expat Center.  Just to put in my two cents.  We have been very lucky in that Rachel has friendly, supportive Austrian colleagues.  In addition, our landlady has kindly opened her doors by inviting us to eat with her family on several holidays and has been generally very helpful.  Furthermore, my colleagues and especially my principal at Astrid Lindgren school are always offering suggestions on things to do and see in Austria... and being very patient with me.
So we have had it easier than most.  I have met expats here who have said they lived here for two years before ever getting an invitation to an Austrian's abode.

So there are two sides to every coin.  With regards to the below myths, I would like to add:

  • Expect the first 8 months, not 6, to be confusing, lonely at times, and generally disorienting.  
  • If you are planning to make this move alone, especially to a country where you don't speak the local language, think twice!  Having a spouse with me on this adventure has provided much needed moral support.
  • If you are planning to live in a country where you don't speak the language, think twice!  It is even more difficult to find a job without a functional knowledge of the language.  
  • If you are planning to move without first having a job, think twice!  We count our lucky stars I was able to find something.  
  • The article recommends 10 books to read, I would estimate more like 30-50.  In the past 8 months, I easily averaged a book a week.
  • As far as moving overseas for material wealth, unless you are being moved by a multinational company and getting paid in a stronger currency than the local Euros, most moves abroad will not be more lucrative.  However, I do agree with the statement that living abroad is culturally enriching.
  • Do your homework before moving abroad!  For example, we were surprised upon arriving in Vienna to learn of the laws re: real estate agents and renting apartments.  Specifically, if you must rent an apartment through an agent, there will be some exorbitant fees.  Just as in the United States, you will need to pay the first month's rent.  In addition, there is a deposit which might be equivalent to 2-3 months' rent.  Moreover, the real estate agent will charge a commission ranging from 1-2 months' rent.  In the worse case scenario, the day after you sign your rental contract, you will be expected to pay the equivalent of 6 months' rent.  I am still shocked by this system and find it ridiculous that this city has upfront rent requirements similar to New York City, arguably one of the most expensive places to live in the world.  Anyway, this would have been an important fact to know before venturing abroad. 

In the end, I used to wonder in this world of shrinking borders why more people don't live abroad?  I think this experience has highlighted the fact that living abroad is not a decision to be made lightly.  Unless you have an incredibly lucrative offer with your current employer or you meet the love of your life who happens to be from the country you're moving to, you should really thoroughly research before moving abroad!

For example, a good alternative to living abroad would be to enroll in a language course in your target country for a month or two.

Ten Myths about Working in Europe

It’s 11:30 PM somewhere in the United States. You’re sitting at your desk with a big deadline looming. You haven’t taken any of your allotted two-week vacation this year, and you dream of having champagne in a Parisian café with your lover. (Or you’ve recently been mugged and wonder whether there’s a safer place to live.) You ask yourself, “Is this where I really want to be? You take a break and check Facebook, LinkedIn, and job postings on the Internet to see what’s new. You notice a job ad for a European assignment. Just the change you want.

STOP! Don’t make any decisions without reading the ten myths of living abroad.
These reality-checks will help you take a hard look at your reasons for wanting to move.

Myth 1: If I don’t like the job, I can always find another.
This is true…as long as you’re ready to move back to the United States. The fact is, if you’re in a job overseas for a few months and discover that you don’t like your boss, your values aren’t in sync with the company culture, or the job isn’t what you thought it would be, it isn’t so easy to job hop in Europe as it is in the United States. You’ll be more dependent on the company that moved you, so you may have to figure out how to get your own visa, negotiate for a move back earlier than agreed, or stick it out and make it work.

Myth 2: Everything will work out well.
Even if you are the world’s biggest optimist, the changes you’ll experience living and working in Europe could be greater than you’ve ever imagined. There will be some sad days, especially in the first six months. Bring lots of stationery, ten books you’ve been wanting to read (remember, there won’t be a lot of TV in English), and a new journal. (Plan a trip to Italy in your first month to purchase a leather-bound journal!)

Myth 3: I’ll be much happier when I get away from __________ (fill in the blank: spouse, friends, family).
The folks you think you need a break from may prove to be your biggest asset. They’re your current support system, and they can make or break a successful transition to living in another country. These are the people who’ll answer the phone when you forget about the time difference and call at 4 AM. These are the people who will send you a birthday card because they know it will cheer you up. These are the friends who will let you stay with them when you visit the United States. And, perhaps most important, these are the people who will come to visit you to admire your glamorous new European lifestyle.

Myth 4: My life will be simpler in Europe. Some things won’t change in Europe, such as cleaning your own apartment, buying milk, and getting to work on time. What simplifying changes can you expect? (1) If you’re used to two incomes, and your spouse accompanies you abroad, plan to live on one salary. It will be very hard for your spouse to find a job. (2) You won’t have to clean a big house. You may be used to living in a big house with a deck, but expect to rent an apartment in the city. (3) You’ll have your evenings free to do other things besides shopping. Shops are not open 24 hours a day and most shops close between 6 PM and 7 PM. (4) You’ll most likely have to get used to living without a car—the cost of gasoline alone will make owning one prohibitive. (5) If you can’t live without your cell phone, don’t worry. Europe is far ahead of the U.S. in this regard! So be prepared to upgrade.

Myth 5: I’ll see all of Europe, inexpensively. It is true that (depending on where you live) it will be easy to take the overnight train to Venice or the two-hour flight to Rome. But will you always have the time and the money to travel? Don’t forget that you’ll most likely have a demanding job. The bright side is that you’ll probably have around five weeks of vacation time each year. Travelling within Europe can be very reasonable if you use inexpensive airlines (there are now a few) and last-minute open flights. However, in some respects, it can be just as expensive to travel in Europe as in the U.S.

Myth 6: I’ll get that “European experience,” return to the United States, and triple my income.If getting rich fast is your first priority, forget about living and working in Europe. Moving to Europe is about getting rich culturally. Be prepared to make some financial compromises. First, expect to be paid in the local currency, but don’t expect to earn the equivalent of your U.S. salary. Second, be careful if you have debt. Fluctuations between the U.S. dollar, the euro, and other European currencies mean you may either gain or lose U.S.-dollar buying power. If you have a lot of debt and have to make monthly payments, relocating could be a huge gamble. Every time the dollar grows stronger, you’ll feel like you’re taking a pay cut.

Myth 7: Living in Europe will be a great experience for my spouse and kids. Be sure to talk first with your sweetheart. Your spouse or partner will most likely go from being employed to becoming unemployed. (Of course, one could be tempted to travel if the time spent abroad were described as a sabbatical.) Couple this with the fact that your emotional reactions will be significantly amplified. This could produce some interesting arguments following questions such as “Whose bright idea was it to move?” Don’t assume a move will be easy for your kids, either. Children under the age of five should be able to learn the local language quickly. But if they’re older, the adjustment could be tough. Also, navigating the school system and hospital emergency room procedures will be difficult for you and your spouse without the local language skills. It usually takes about six months to get acclimated in Europe. Expect to double the time if you’re going with your family. (This projection includes dogs and cats.)

Myth 8: I’ll learn a new language or just brush up my French. Be prepared to feel illiterate and dysfunctional for a while in your new environment. Take language classes during your first six months no matter your level of fluency. This schedule will cut into your free evenings and weekends. However, if you make the effort, knowing and using the local language will significantly influence the quality of your life and make your stay richer. Imagine being able to read Goethe in his native language or to understand inside jokes about the local culture.

Myth 9: I’ll make lots of new and interesting friends. Do you make friends easily now? If not, making friends in a different country will undoubtedly be harder, because you won’t know the language and the local customs. (Try telling one of your favorite jokes in a language you don’t speak fluently and watch how people respond.) However, friends will be more important than ever before. You’ll need them to water your plants or take care of your pet while you’re gallivanting all over Europe. (See myth 5.) In all seriousness, however, life in a different country can be pretty lonely in the beginning. You’ll need extra savings to pay for high transatlantic telephone bills–don’t assume all your friend use Skype–until you make friends locally. And that fact leads to myth number 10.

Myth 10: I’ll meet the person of my dreams. Do you have visions of meeting a count or countess and living the rest of your life in a castle? European men and women have their idiosyncrasies, too, and they may not have read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Europeans may have a tendency to give flowers more frequently, and they can charm you with their accents. But building a romantic relationship will not be any easier.

How many of these myths do you believe? If your score is five to ten, visit Europe only on vacation. If it’s three to five, you may want to consider spending a few months in Europe before making the leap. If it’s one or two, then answer that job ad right now, and good luck! Get ready to pack up and start a new life. And e-mail me when you arrive.

Victoria (Vici) Koster-Lenhardt is a communications consultant and thought leader based in Vienna, Austria. She has worked for The Coca-Cola Company, the New York Times, and the Hearst Corporation. An active volunteer, Vici formed a non-profit organization for Central and Eastern Europe for The Society for Technical Communication and was also a board member. A native U.S. citizen, she has been living and working in Austria for 25 years. You can reach her at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Andrew, for publishing my story on your blog. Great adds. I moved to Vienna because of love. You'll find there are many people who move for this reason. It's a good one and changes your perspective on how you choose to manage the challenges of being an expat.