It’s nice… but I couldn’t live there

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere (on Vatersay, Outer Hebrides)

There’s something about staying in a house or an apartment in a faraway place that affects us, even if temporarily. If we’re in one of the world’s big cities we take delight in the surrounding noise and chaos and marvel at the traffic, the mass of people on the streets and the neon lights. And at the end of the trip, when people ask us how we enjoyed New York or Paris or Hong Kong, we say “it was great. But I couldn’t live there.”

A similar scenario plays out if we choose to take a break in the countryside. We enjoy the long walks in the fields, visiting the tiny shop for our provisions and working our way through the menu of the only pub in the village. And when we get home? “It was lovely. But I couldn’t live there”.

The city lights of Bangkok

The city lights of Bangkok

What is it about our temporary holiday state that changes our own priorities? What do we look for in an escape that we can’t create at home?

For those looking for adventure on their holidays,  experiencing the unfamiliar is part of the adventure. But even those seeking comfort and familiarity will search for these things in places that are far from their everyday surroundings.

But if we ask people about moving to live in another country, most will shake their heads. Seeking something new for a couple of weeks is one thing; to immerse yourself in that for the long term requires a very different adjustment. If we have lived in one place for a while, we have our communities; our friends, our shops, our local eating and drinking places, our favourite walks. These take years to develop, and they become a central part of our lives. Will we be able to find them again elsewhere?

We often have this discussion when staying in remote corners of Scotland. It’s a beautiful part of the world – one of the finest in my opinion – and the conversation at some point turns to the idea of living here. There is almost no crime, the sense of community is so strong and the welcome is without fail a warm one. But we have spent most of our lives as provincial city folk. We’re used to a choice of restaurants, shops that open late and offer a variety of products, a nearby airport that flies to faraway places and of course the proximity of our families.

Living in New York for a year by contrast had its own thrills, and having so many great places to eat and world famous landmarks on our doorstep was an experience I’m very glad we shared. But would I want to live in that city for a long time, with its relentless noise its fast pace? It would have me craving for green fields and emptiness (in fact it did).

I admire those folks who can move to Vietnam or Uganda for a year and settle into a comfortable routine there. It takes remarkable flexibility to leave your own world behind beyond a simple holiday or even an extended trip. In our case, having lived away for one year we’re both happy to keep on travelling and to come home to the UK. For better or worse, we’re happy that it is the best place in the world for us to live.

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8 Responses to “It’s nice… but I couldn’t live there”

  1. Yes very true – we’re creatures of habit. When I do move though I like to have at least a year to get to know a place/culture…and I find you can always find some elements of home wherever you go, no matter the culture/language.

    July 15, 2010 at 12:06 pm
  2. Great article Andy! That’s what my father said. He loves travel, nature and all but He couldn’t live somewhere no hospital near by. They live in this biggest city in their whole life so they ate used to have options like you said. It’s matter of weather you can leave something behind or not. Hospital, in my parents’ case. 
    Me? Um.. Frankly I don’t think I could live in Seoul for a long time.  Too crowded. Well I’m already consider move to different continent, we’ll see if I’m gonna make it :) As a traveler I think I will be fine anywhere in the world, but I will be back to you :)  

    July 15, 2010 at 12:07 pm
  3. My husband and I go through a similar discussion when we hunker down for a couple of weeks in a rural or small town setting. Really nice, but couldn’t live there full time. We also need the bustle and diversity of bigger cities to keep us stimulated and engaged.

    We did make the move from San Francisco to Prague in 2001. We thought we’d stay for two years and that turned into five. It was a great place to live and we made Prague our home. Now we’re visiting again for a bit and even though I don’t know if I want to live here again, it feels more familiar than the States (where we just visited for the last 6 weeks). Trying to figure out where we want to make our next home.

    July 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm
  4. I mentioned on Twitter…it is definitely not always easy. I moved to Taiwan (sight unseen) from California – before moving here, my only experience in Asia was a few days in Seoul! If someone told me 2 years ago I would be living in Taiwan, I would’ve thought they were absolutely nuts. I have been here a year already and speak relatively no Mandarin, but the hubby and I manage. We have at least another year or two and then hopefully off to The Netherlands (hubby already lived there for a couple years so he’s very familiar with the area).

    There are many things I miss about California besides my family (mostly wine country and Disneyland), but I have learned to get by here and I go home 3-4 times per year so that helps. I am not all that eager to move back yet – I am enjoying living abroad and while I do get frustrated with my inability to communicate or find things from home, I do miss Taiwan when I am back in the US. Although Cali was pretty prone to earthquakes, I will say I could really do without another one here in Taiwan (and hopefully no bad typhoons this year).

    Taipei surprisingly has a nice mix – you have the crazy, big Asian city, but a lot of tranquil areas when you move beyond downtown. We technically live in Taipei, but we are 20 minutes on the MRT into downtown and our apartment overlooks two small lakes, and huge mountains all around us.

    My husband is from the east coast and NYC is his place. The fascination is lost on me – I much prefer San Francisco. I don’t think I could live in Hong Kong either…it’s nice for us because we can do quick overnight trips from Taipei (about an hour flight). Supposedly where the Expats all live is quite different than downtown I hear. My dream place is Ambergris Caye in Belize – I want a nice, quiet place on the beach…my friends who live there have warned me though – it’s a hard life to adjust to down there. No big stores, no shopping, etc. Either you fly back to the mainland or back to the U.S. to find most of what you need because it’s just not available. I will compromise….hopefully I can save to buy a vacation home there instead. :-)

    July 15, 2010 at 12:33 pm
  5. Thanks to Erin, Audrey, Juno and Andrew for your comments. Interesting to hear how we all get comfortable with our own ways, however different they are.
    Andrew, “you can always find some elements of home wherever you go, no matter the culture/language” – very true and worth remembering when pondering a move overseas (although in some parts of Asia a European has to dig a little deeper than elsewhere perhaps?)
    Erin, your move has been particularly contrasting, and the fact that you miss Taiwan when you’re away is a sign of how much you’ve adapted. I have heard so many appealing things about Taiwan that I would love to visit sometime. And your tip for Belize is noted; we’ll be heading there later in the year so will check this out.
    Audrey your nomadic lifestyle sounds very exciting! Prague is a lovely city – it gets a bad press now because of the sheer mass of tourism but I’m guessing that in the time you had there you got well beneath the popular face of the city.
    Juno, will be watching your progress with interest :-)

    July 15, 2010 at 2:15 pm
  6. Nicole #

    I totally agree! I’m from the United States and I went to Europe with a friend and her family for three weeks a year ago and said the exact same thing. Our last stop was Amsterdam which was unfortunate because it happened to be my least favorite place at a time when my friend and I were both getting to be incredibly homesick. One of the few distinct memories I still have from Amsterdam came from this very feeling. The worst part about Amsterdam in my opinion (and my friend’s) was the food. I’m not an adventurous eater and “foreign” food for me means Italian food or the American versions of Chinese and Mexican food. I’m pretty sure I ate Italian food 2 of the 3 nights we were in Paris and no, I did not try the escargot. During our last full day in Amsterdam, we were riding the tram and my friend spotted a Subway (which just happens to be my favorite fast food restaurant) out the window. At the next stop she told her parents that we had to get off right now (even though that wasn’t our intended destination) and she persisted until they allowed us to get off. It had been 3 weeks since either of us had eaten any American food. I can still vividly remember that incredibly comforting smell that enveloped me the moment we walked into that Subway. Sure, Subway has a distinct smell but I never notice it just going to one for lunch in Virginia, where I’m from. Two years later, I can still imagine that exact smell because it was something comfortingly familiar in the middle of an entire continent of unknowns. I loved Europe. I even really liked Amsterdam and only thought it was the worst place we went because the other places were so amazing (Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium). I loved riding a bike through a national park and going on a boat ride through the canals. But I was only 15 and had never been on a long trip before. After three weeks, the sought after novelties of strange places began to gradually grow less and less appealing. I think we all seek familiarity in varying degrees and when it’s gone for too long, you truly start loving your home. I’d love to take trips back to Europe. I even hope to study abroad in Spain or Italy during college. But like you said, I wouldn’t want to live there.

    July 17, 2010 at 8:10 am
  7. We travel for long term, but agree, we haven’t found a place that we could live. We love our city in Canada and that will probably always be our home base. While we love seeing and experiencing the world, we like to keep moving and while we love most places that we visit…we wouldn’t want to live there:)

    July 18, 2010 at 3:08 pm
  8. That’s exactly how I see New York – I love the city, but I can’t live here. At least, not beyond the 6-7 months that I plan to be here for. Moving from Asia to Australia when I started university was a big transition, but after 7 years in Sydney it’s Australia that I think of as home now, and although I grew up in Malaysia, speak the language, went to school there, have family there and miss the food like mad, I couldn’t live there.

    It’s hard to decide or find a place you want to settle down in, but it’s easier to decide after you’ve lived in a few different places. My partner also lived in Rome for a year, and although he loved it and picked up conversational Italian, it’s not a place he would want to settle down in long term. So, not London, though I absolutely adored my life there, not New York and not Rome…

    Maybe Sydney, Australia, where the beaches are clean, the skies are big and blue and there’s not quite so much noise and pollution. It’s nice, and I could definitely live there. :)

    July 21, 2010 at 5:27 pm