Looking for advice on moving to Europe

My wife and I have seriously been contemplating the future.  With the figurative grad school light at the end of the tunnel being visible, if not quite in focus yet, we’ve been seriously considering an opportunity to move to northern Europe.  (Yes, I’m being as generic as possible.)  However, neither one of us have lived outside of North America –  and have only visited Europe a couple of times on vacation.  That makes it pretty hard for us to critically evaluate the opportunity.

Thus, crowd-sourcing!   I was wondering if anyone had any advice they might be able to share with us on what we can do to make that move successfully – both things we should or shouldn’t do.  Or, if people think it’s a great idea, or a bad idea.  Really, we’re trying to cast the net as wide as possible on whatever advice people can give us because it’s really hard to make a decision like that without talking with people who have done it.

Some of the outstanding questions we have:

  • How did you find the language learning curve when moving to a non-English country?
  • How much of your stuff did you take with you?  What did you do with the stuff you left behind?
  • How did you find solutions to the “2-body” problem?
  • How long does the culture shock last?
  • Was it a hassle bringing pets?
  • What are the big “gottchas” that you didn’t see coming?
  • How long did it take to organize your move?  How hard was it?
  • Would you suggest that other people do it?
  • How long did you stay? (yes, not leaving ever is also an acceptable answer.)

And, of course, are we even asking the right questions?

Any advice you can give would be helpful for us, and of course, for other people who are faced with this decision in the future.


13 thoughts on “Looking for advice on moving to Europe

  1. I did the move the other way around, from Europe to North America; I had also moved a few times within Europe before that. I suspect experiences either way may be similar :)
    I moved from France (my native country) to the UK (2 years), but already spoke English – well, the English I was taught at school and read in papers, so enough to get by and understand, but still a long way from being completely fluent. I was however working in a very international environment, so most of my colleague spoke English as their second language too. I then moved to Greece (1 year) with no knowledge of the language, and this was tough at first in everyday situation; how to do basic shopping, open a bank account… but very honestly you always manage somehow with a mix of gestures and words, sounds (at the risk at not always looking very dignified though ;)), and it makes up for interesting stories later on! Most people would speak English at work, so you should be ok there (even though you may have some trouble at first in coffee breaks, if there are not many expats with you). You will pick up basics of language fairly quickly: try to watch tv, read books in the foreign language and you’ll be managing quite decently in 6 months.
    I never really took stuff along with me: I started moving just after finishing my studies, so didn’t have much to take anyway, and moving costs were prohibitive. I sold/gave stuff I left behind (couch, table etc) either to friends, within my institute or on second-hand mailing-lists (craigslist would be your best bet here). I did however take my cat along, and except for the UK which has specific rules I never had any issue traveling with him. You’ll need vaccination certificates, maybe a chip and pet passport, and you may have to pay a small fee (IIRC, I paid 50$ to enter Canada at the “agricultural inspection” counter)
    Depending on where you move you may be a bit lost in administrative stuff; ideally your employer would help you sort things out, or you would ask for help there. Basics are getting health cover, bank account. May be a bit of a hassle, but shouldn’t be too bad.
    I have now been in Canada for 4 years, and seem to be settling down here as I started a family. I may be moving again after my PhD, main condition would be for my partner or I to have a job offer, and for the other one to have a decent chance of finding something.
    I would strongly recommend making the move; leaving France was the best decision I took. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country (yes, it still is “my country”), but I have learned so much that I would do it all over again without hesitation. You’ll miss some things (I am still trying to find a decent baguette…) but you will also gain a lot. Don’t forget that at the end of day, we are all similar: we work, eat, sleep. And if really you are unhappy, you can move back, you don’t have to spend your life there.
    The first move is the tougher, but after that you may be unable to stop :)

    • Wow, thanks for the amazing comment! That’s all very helpful and very encouraging – and echoes a lot of what I’m thinking, both about the challenges and the value of going abroad for a while.

      I think your point about with English being the “office language” but not the “social language” is also dead on, from what I’ve seen, but the fact that it doesn’t take too long to adapt is great to know. I’ve been somewhat concerned that it would be difficult to fit in to a country where people can (but don’t usually) communicate in a language I understand.

      As a way of repayment, if you happen to be in Vancouver, let me know. I can point you to a source for authentic French baguettes that even the French restaurants use. (-:

  2. Hi,

    To add a little bit of salt to Melanie’s great comments, I must point out that you will never face situations similar to what she describes in Greece if you happen to go in Northern Europe (if by that you mean: Scandinavia, Netherlands, maybe Germany and of course UK). I spent 18 months in Sweden and met about 2 persons who couldn’t speak English. I quickly gave up Swedish lessons and practiced and (hopefully) improve my English. So yes, Sweden (as well as Danemark and Norway, from my experience, and probably also NL and Finland) is a country where you’ll be able to communicate with no difficulties. That being said, I would recommend you to learn the local language, first because people will appreciate the efforts, and because that will let understand conversations and small talks, especially in the workplace. It can be frustrated to understand only conversations when other people decide to include you, and feel rejected (even if not on purpose) other times….

    More generally, I travelled as a student and then relocate to the US. I am not sure to have specific comments and advices. Once you decided to move, it’s gonna be a great experience, and all the troubles will just be part of that experience (and, up to a certain point, will appear more as part of the discovery process, as elements of the cultural differences than as real troubles).
    I guess everything depends on elements that you don’t give in your post: which country, which environment (academia / industry), which kind of position / package, and so on.
    Anyway, keep us posted!

    • Sorry Nicolas, I found your comment in my spam folder. I’ve pulled it out – and you should be able to post without further spam-filter issues from now on. (I have no idea why it got flagged in the first place.)

      As well, thanks for the excellent points. I absolutely agree with your point that everyone in northern europe does speak English – my wife and I saw the same thing when we were in Denmark for Copenhagenomics. EVERYONE there spoke english, but it would be a major improvement for interactions to speak some of the local language. (I clearly couldn’t learn enough to speak at all during the week we were there, but even the few written words I did learn made it much easier to read menus, find exits and navigate the local bus system!)

      Once my wife and I have made up our minds whether we will pursue the move, I’m sure I’ll start blogging more about it – and likely share more details as well.



  3. Oooh! Congrats! Of course I would have preferred you came in the southern Europe so we could have a chance to collaborate :-)
    Here’s my 2 cents about your doubts:

    About language: it much depends on which country you are flying to… Saxon rooted languages (German, Dutch, Swedish to name some) share many things with English, they should be a piece of cake. If you’re going to Finland, well, that has a different origin and is much like Russian. I guess you’re not going to Ireland nor UK.

    About the stuff: don’t know… If I had to “migrate” I surely had to think about the house I own, I don’t know about you.

    Aboout 2bodies: I guess you mean your wife, that depends on her capabilities. Northern Europe has a good tradition of female employment, so that should not be an issue.

    Pets are a problem if you are traveling to UK or Ireland, due to their delicate ecosystems. For the rest of us that is not a big issue. I guess a quarantine will be necessary, though.

    The culture shock… that shouldn’t last. Canada and Europe share many things from that point of view. I believe the major shock will be “environmental”. You may miss the wide (and wild) spaces between cities. And poutine, of course :-)

    About moving itself: I don’t have a direct experience, but I’ve seen people moving in few time (around one month). I’ve seen people who paid UPS or DHL to move the whole content of their apartments, but I also know a couple who moved with just two luggages/person.

    I can’t tell you how to move, but I assure Europe is worth it! And, who knows, maybe we will have a chance to collaborate one day.


    • Hey David,

      Thanks for the reply! Actually, no congrats necessary yet – we’re still trying to decide if we should make the move. Though, as you can tell, we’re seriously considering it.

      As far as collaborating goes, at least we’ll be closer time-zone wise!

      Languages: I know what you’re saying, and I suspect you’re right (well, except about Finnish, which is more closely related to Hungarian), but I was still wondering if people had experiences in immersion in a foreign culture. I’ve found blogs where people tell of how they’ve learned (or are learning) northern european languages, and it seems all over the board. Some people have any easy time, others… not so much.

      House: Yep – we have to figure out what to do with our Vancouver house. We’d probably end up keeping it and renting it out. We’d have a hard time getting out of the mortgage on it, and the house probably appreciates faster than anything else we own anyhow, as it’s in Vancouver.

      2 body: You raised a good point – although we were more worried that my wife would have a harder time because of linguistic issues than gender. Neither of us speak the language… yet.

      Pets: It seems UK requires the quarantine, but the rest of europe doesn’t for house pets… we would just have to fly in through very specific airports. Inconvenient, but doable.

      Culture shock: Interesting – I had assumed that the biggest changes would be the little things…. the big wild wasn’t even on my list, although it will be hard to leave Vancouver’s green spaces. At least Europe generally appears bike friendly!

      If we do end up in Europe, though, we should definitely meet up – and who knows, maybe collaboration isn’t out of the picture. (-:

  4. And another thing: there’s much less interest in Hockey here, you’ll need to watch Canucks in the middle of the night!

    • Hah! Good point – although perhaps I can cheer for Modo in Sweeden, as many of my favorite players started out there.

      Oh, and I now have two NHL teams to cheer for (in the middle of the night), as my hometown got their NHL team back this summer… Go Jets!

  5. IKEA is everywhere, and what we did (moving from Sweden to the US) was leaving/giving away/storing everything back home, our apartments (yeah, we have two separate studios in Stockholm, a bit stupid..) are rented out, and we went to IKEA our second day in Boston. Most northern Europeans are good in english, and in sweden the problem is usually that you don’t get to practice Swedish that much, people will just address you in English. But there are courses!

    Culture shock… First 6 months you notice all the things that differ in how society works, and it will bug you. But then you just accept it, all cultures have their pros and cons. If moving to Sweden you will notice that people are very nice and helpful, but not easy to get close to. It takes a while.

    With the administrative stuff it all depends on the country. In Sweden it is crucial to get your personal security number fast, because you can not do a thing without it. And to get that you need to have “proof” that you are staying more than a year. So get in contact with people that have made the move before you to ask for advice.

    Moving together is nice, you have your family with you.

    Good luck!

  6. Hey Anthony,

    In my experience, how long culture shock lasts depends largely on the person. I knew many French people who had moved to Mexico, my wife included. She fortunately adapted pretty well (… and then we left for Vancouver); but others, after 5 years or more, still complained about how things are not like what they are used to, how cheese is not the same, how wine is too expensive, how people drive like crazy, how the food is not as good, how police are corrupt, etc, etc…

    In my opinion, and what has worked for me, is to adopt the costumes of the place you are going to. Be prepared to accept and embrace how things are in the country you pick. If you expect everything to be “like back home”, you will be very frustrated. Focus on the good and try to ignore the bad, or at least find a positive side to things. I mean, there are no real tacos in Vancouver, but there is great sushi… beer is more expensive, but there is a huge variety… public transport is 10 times more expensive, but streets are way more bike friendly… it rains a lot, but the air is cleaner!

    Jump-starting your social life can prove difficult in some places. In Finland we were warned by the University not to feel offended if Finnish students weren’t quick to socialize with us (international students). Paraphrasing them: in their culture friendship is something that takes a long time, they already had their friends and in their eyes we were there for a limited period of time, maybe not enough to build a friendship, so why bother.

    Although I did make a few Finnish acquaintances, by large my friends were other international students. This could be more difficult for your wife, if she is unable to find a job fast, she may quickly feel isolated.

    I’ve lived in Europe twice, 12 months in Ireland and 6 months in Finland. Not much moving advice though, I was 12 and 20 years old respectively, so I did not have much to bring. Language-wise, Ireland was indeed easier as I understood English, and in Finland, although the language is indeed difficult, everyone under 35 spoke English.

    Moving to Vancouver was a different story, as we came here for a longer term. We decided not to bring all our stuff here. We sold our furniture*, we packed as much as we could in 6 pieces of baggage and anything non-essential we wanted to keep but could not fit, we arranged with my parents to store for a while. Every time they come over or we go for holidays, we bring a few more things.

    If you have a lot of big stuff to bring. You can go the “get a company to move all your stuff from A to B”. Another option, which some friends have used and we also considered, is to rent a ship container, or part of it, put your stuff in a truck and drive it to the dock, load it in and then pick it up at the destination port.

    * As we came here with no furniture, hunting for second-hand things for our apartment proved to be useful for more than the furniture itself. We got to know our way around Vancouver as it gave us an excuse to go places we would not normally have gone to. Related to the 2-body problem: before my wife found a job it was a project she had that helped her remain sane while I was busy at school; granted it is only a palliative and won’t last long.

    Although not necessarily moving-to-Europe, we can definitely talk more about moving-France-to-Mexico or moving-Mexico-to-Vancouver!

    • Wow Rodrigo, thanks for the comment. That’s a lot of useful information.

      I also hadn’t realized how much your own personal attitude plays into it – but it’s a great insight. You’ve also hit the nail on the head with the comment on making friends in a foreign country, and our fears really do revolve around that. My wife finding a position would play a big part in our ability to settle in a new location, and obviously plays a big part in our decision. I’m not sure she’d be particularly happy taking on the project of keeping me sane – I suspect if she didn’t have a job, I’d be trying to keep her sane instead. (-:

      Anyhow, unfortunately, France isn’t on our list, at the moment – although both of us speak French. Speaking the language of the country would go a long way to helping us blend in, but alas, the opportunity that has come up is in a country where we don’t speak the language at all, making the decision that much more difficult!

      Thanks again, Rodrigo – I really appreciate the advice!

  7. To add my 2 cents:

    I’m a German still doing a PhD in Germany, so what I say is mostly derived from observing my foreign lab mates (of which I have many) and only applies to my country.

    1. Language:
    some other poster said to learn german should be a piece of cake. I strongly disagree. The usual chain of events for new Postdocs here is: they arrive, are very motivated and take a beginners course, then stop it after a few months and never learn more than a few phrases you need to order food at restaurants. Of >30 foreign scientists I know here, one or two are able to have a decent conversation in German.
    This isn’t as bad as it sounds though, as German scientists are usually very fluent in English and it’s perfectly possible to move among circles of friends, go to partys etc. without speaking anything else than English.
    Don’t worry about this too much, but don’t assume you’ll be fluent without putting a lot of time and energy in it, both of which you’ll probably not have.

    2. Location:
    Don’t know how well known that is in the US, but the difference in quality between institutions here is massive. Think of Ivy League schools vs. community colleges.
    If possible, go for a non-university research organisation like the Max Planck Society, the Frauenhofer or the Helmholtz Society which are top notch and very well funded.
    They also employ a decent percentage of foreigners, which means the labs, seminars, meetings etc. are run in English. Be careful of German universities, as you may end up being the only foreigner in a lab full of Germans where English is the lab language only on paper but not in the coffee-room reality.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Andreas,

      Thanks for the excellent comment – Germany isn’t far off from what we were considering, so that is helpful advice. I am already fluent in two languages (albeit, I don’t write much in French), and I know how much effort is involved in mastering another language – but it’s good to hear that one can live mostly in English in Europe. Part of the process is just getting used to not understanding the language being spoken around you – it seems that it could be very isolating to be living somewhere where everyone defaults to a language you don’t speak.

      As for location, I am fortunate that I already know where I would be going, and I think I’d be very happy there. However, that’s excellent advice for others thinking of relocating to Germany. Do you have any tips for how to weed out which labs are in the english-on-paper only category? It seems like it would be incredibly difficult to determine that until after you’ve joined the group.


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