Earlier, I wrote about my first days abroad and my journey to my new, foreign hometown. Lest you think life was a piece of cake for me after arriving in the city in which I would be working, I’m here to set you straight about my first few months working abroad.
- Housing. It took three weeks for me to find a place to live. During those weeks I stayed in the local youth hostel, which had an archaic daily lockout from about 10:30 am to 3:30 pm, even on the weekend. Most days I was at work during that time, but I caught a nasty cold for a while and really needed to spend a day or two resting. The hostel staff had no sympathy. Nor did the twenty drunk guys from Sarajevo in the room above me, who spent all night, every night singing drinking songs while banging on a giant wooden barrel. The hostel staff didn’t care. Well, at least not until the whole group left without paying. How do you say “karma” in Italian?
- Roommates. Once I moved out of the hostel I was sharing an apartment with a colleague and a foreign student. My colleague thought I was a slob. The other girl thought I was a neat freak. Do you not see the disconnect there? My colleague then moved out and a new coworker moved in. To say she was batshit crazy would be putting it lightly, and her mildly-severe psychosis, combined with what seemed to be kleptomania and an aversion to personal hygiene, really strained our working relationship (especially when our boss flat-out told me I had to start picking up her slack at work, not that she had any clue I was doing half her job). Now that we’re in the era of Craigslist and other widely-used internet classifieds I’m sure it would be much easier to find a decent shared apartment without resorting to living with your coworkers.
- Work – Part One. This is what had me crying on the phone to my parents every night. I was twenty-one. I’d never had a real job before. I’d flown halfway around the world and was working full-time while living in a youth hostel. Life was stressful enough without also being an exploited foreign labourer. During the phone interview for my job I’d been told that most of my work would be in the school, and I’d have few in-company classes. After two days of training the school sends me to my first teaching job. It’s an in-company job. An hour away. In each direction. I’d be there three days a week, taking the bus for two hours only to be paid for one hour of teaching. Then other jobs started appearing on my schedule. I might teach in the school from 8:00 to 10:00, then take the bus from 10:00 to 11:00, teach from 11:00 to noon, take the bus back and arrive at 1:00, teaching from 1:0o t0 2:00, have an hour break, teach from 3:00 to 4:00, and then have another thirty-minute bus ride before my 6:00 class, which would end at 7:00, and with the bus schedule I wouldn’t be back in the city center until 8:00, or even later. Between teaching and taking the bus to in-company classes I was consistently working twelve to thirteen hours each day, without time to eat a proper meal or rest my feet. My students were lovely and the work wasn’t hard, but being on the go all the time was absolutely exhausting. I had no time to meet new people or learn the local language. I spent a lot of time crying on the phone to my parents. And then I started to hear that the older people working at the school were getting paid for travel time. I approached my boss and said that I wanted to be paid for travel time as well. She agreed and proposed a rate. Doing quick mental math I realized that her proposed rate would increase my salary by 50%, and I agreed. The next day she realized that my salary would increase by 50% and withdrew her original offer. We settled on a lower rate, but I still felt victorious. Tired, but victorious. I didn’t have any time to spend my extra money so I put it away for summer holidays and kept working thirteen-hour days.
- Work – Part Two. After a few months, my parents came to visit. They stayed in a local hotel as I worked thirteen hour days and showed them around in the evening. After they’d been in town for three nights or so, I had a complete meltdown. Yes, I was making slightly more money. But I had no time. I spent my weekends recovering from the stress of spending thirteen hours a day working in a foreign country. I didn’t even have time to process my immigration paperwork- my employer wouldn’t give me the two hours off I needed, on any afternoon of their choice, so I could go to the immigration office. One night I showed up at their hotel, in tears, and crawled into bed with my mom and dad, crying. My mom told me that she wouldn’t be disappointed in me if I packed my bags and came home with them. I think my younger brother was traumatized- was this adulthood? The next morning the man at the hotel’s front desk scolded my parents and told them they’d have to pay for an extra guest. Something had to be done. I felt like I was an asset to my employer, but I didn’t know how far I could push the bargaining. I’d already cost them a lot of money by getting paid for travel time, a policy they had to extend to all of the young workers. But I was willing to risk it, as I could always pack up and leave with my parents. So that morning I walked into the school director’s office and said, “I appreciate your hiring me, I enjoy working here, and I believe that your clients are happy with my work. Unfortunately, I can’t keep working thirteen hour days. My family has asked me to return home with them, and I am considering it. However, I will stay if we can work out more reasonable hours of work.” And from that point forward I never had a day that was longer than ten hours, I got lunch breaks, and I clocked out no later than 3:00 pm every Friday. My parents returned home and I’m pretty sure I didn’t ever call them in tears again. I stayed in my new home city for almost two more years.
What is the moral of my story? Moving abroad can be really lonely. And hard. And tiring. And if you don’t advocate for yourself, and speak up, it’s not likely to get much better. So speak up. There is no shame in calling your parents in tears, and there is also no shame in packing up and calling it quits if things don’t work out. But, having been there, I can say with great confidence that most of the time things will work out.