An expat’s dictionnary of useful terms


I am an expat. I have been an expat most of my life. My partner is also an expat. He is even more of an expat than I am, as he was born in another country than the country of his nationality. We both come from expat families. My parents and his parents have been expats most of their lives, travelling and living abroad for work. Most of our friends (not all surprisingly) are expats. Our daughter has two passports, neither of which is from the country that she was born in. We will most likely go work “abroad” (meaning in another country than the one we are living in now) sometime during her childhood and our careers. We speak two languages at home and work, read, watch movies or have conversations with friends in a third one. There is a fourth language both of us have studied but that we only use on occasion (when travelling). I am currently learning a fifth language and our daughter is exposed to a few others when we are out with friends and their families. My step daughter has studied in a school where most kids spoke two or three languages at home and studied more. 

When you live this kind of life, there are words that pose a problem in a conversation with “normal” people (words like “home”, “abroad” or even “first language”). 

Well, let me give you a few expat definitions:

“Home” – (for single expats) the place where I currently have most of my stuff, but as some species of expats actually have their stuff stored in several places around the planet it can also be “the place where I had my breakfast this morning, where I take my shower and where I will sleep tonight”, for the family expat and for me ever since my daughter was born – wherever she is. But to make things more confusing I can use home for the place where I currently live long-term, the place we have lived in the last few months and my parents place in my home country (or wherever they live now).

“Abroad” – anywhere else then the country I live in now, or my country of origin, or my partner’s country of origin, or Europe generally  – actually, I realise that “abroad” has been getting smaller in my head…

“First language” – this is a funny one. When I was in North America, people would constantly ask me what my first language was and  would say French until I understood they meant my mother tongue (which is Czech). I sometimes had trouble also with this in official forms… For an expat, like me, first language automatically meant first “foreign” language…

“Exotic” – this category is also getting a bit smaller in my head after living abroad. This is also reflected in the fact that a “family recipe” in our house is anything from a coriander and lime taboule salad, home-made stock Pho or flambeed bananas and not knedlo-zelo-vepřo (dumplings with cabbage and pork – a typical Czech dish) or blanquette de veau (veal in a white cream sauce a typical French dish). On occasion, I even get “homesick” and crave Kenyan tea, maple syrup sweets and Ethiopian injera (a sort of crêpes to eat with meat and vegetables).

“Not understanding a word” when abroad – yes, it still happens, on occasion, especially in Asia, but also sometimes in Europe – like in Estonia or Hungary… but it usually does not last very long… there are some words you just pick up when you are used to listening for them… Hello, thank you, toilet, counting to three or five, the name of the food with the great taste you can’t get enough of (hmmm, Sri Lankan Dhal…).

“Far” – it becomes very relative. For me, living in Belgium, with my parents in Prague, Czech republic (only 1,5 hours away by plane) is living quite close as most of my childhood we were living thousands of kilometers away from my grandparents and some of my friends with family in Czech republic live as far as Canada or even New Zealand. For my cousins, or some of my friends in Czech Republic, just Germany (about 1-2 hours away by car) is “far”. (Note: they also rarely come to Belgium.) But then again, for my expat husband, going shopping to Aachen in Germany is “far”… but that may be just because he is a bit lazy on weekends.

“Late/on time” – time appreciation is a very relative issue depending on your culture. In central Europe, we are quite strict. On time is on time – when something starts at 08:00, you are there at 08:00 or even at 07:55. For years, I have set my watch ten minutes ahead to be everywhere on time. My husband is French, for him and many other French I know, when a class or a meeting starts at 08:00, it is acceptable to come anywhere between 7:55 and 08:10 or even 08:15. For some of my Spanish colleagues ( but I dare not generalise), time seems to be even more indicative… So be careful with dinner invitations for expats – if the dinner is supposed to start at 20:00, some will probably show up even before that, some half an hour later and then, some could be like my friend from Brazil, who would only start to get ready at 20:30 for a dinner starting at 20:00.

“Good living environment” – apart from the usual things like good quality of life including health services, material comfort and mild climate – this includes a multilingual and multicultural environment. I have tried to live and work in an environment where one language was dominant, and I had little access to reading or conversation in another language. After about a month, I was depressed and had the impression that part of me was constantly “hungry”. I was so desperate that I actually started speaking to tourists on the street, just to have an opportunity to use the other languages…

The problem with having different definitions for some words makes communication with people who have never moved or lived abroad a bit tricky. It makes for a divide that is not always evident at first sight, but that can set you apart and make you look weird or even arrogant to some. And from time to time, translation is needed… to avoid misunderstanding.

Like when my mom suggest she would cook a “rizoto” and my husband happily starts taking out Arborio rice and chicken stock, and parmesan before realising that the rizoto (or the cheap Czech version of risotto I was treated to regularly in the school canteen) is just plain non-sticky rice with some veggies and pieces of leftover meat… Good as well but tasting nowhere close to the real thing.



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