Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Europe has taught me about writing

I've learned so much since moving abroad, sometimes it's hard to quantify. New languages, new ways of shopping, new ways of getting around. But living abroad has also taught me some things about writing. Here's a few.


Take things slow. As a trained copywriter (and as an American), I am used to working fast and furious. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in writing long-term projects, like my memoir, I have learned that taking it one step at a time, with plenty of moments for reflection and feedback, can be a great thing.


Breaks are good. A four-day weekend for Easter? A closed office (yes, they do that!) between Christmas and New Years? All of this time off isn’t luxury; it has become necessity. I find that I am more productive and creative after a little R&R. And there wasn’t much R&R in my former American lifestyle.


Clarity. When you live in a new place, you not only learn about another culture, you learn about yourself. I never realized I smiled so much until I noticed others here don’t. I never knew that I kept busy so I felt worthy until I put myself into a culture that knew how to relax. This clarity of self helps my writing—especially in the personal essay and memoir form.


The importance of the right word. While learning German, I have come to realize how subtle language can be. For example, a non-native English speaker once said, “Chantal cannot yet translate this. Her German is yet too young.” The meaning was correct. The word choice was not. It makes me really consider each and every word when writing.


I can do it. I can live in Switzerland. I can speak German. I can take public transport all over Europe and not get lost. I can be a writer abroad. It’s all about learning self-reliance and knowing that the impossible is nothing.

What has living or traveling abroad taught you?


  1. Traveling abroad brings out the "child" in me, eager to see, learn, and experience everything.

    Expanding one's knowledge--first hand--of that great world beyond one's cozy little corner, is a great benefit...especially to writers.

  2. I lived in Germany for two years, several years ago now, but my husband I go back almost every year and have traveled to many European countries, including Switzerland. Living (as a Canadian) in Europe was mind opening and very stretching--as a writer and a person. Having to view life through another world view and culture changes and shapes you in a way staying put just can not. It has helped me as a writer immensely. My time in Germany was love/hate. I had a hard time with the language and never did master it. I had to take an English/German dictionary to go grocery shopping because I couldn't read the labels and the food items weren't like anything I was use to cooking. (read: no Campbells soup or Kraft Dinner/mac and cheese). The people there went about life in a different way and looked at things differently, too. I didn't always (usually) agree. I went through the stages of admire, despise and respect for this culture. Now I love it.

  3. This blog is a fascinating concept.

    I'm reading it, even though I don't live outside the USA.

  4. Marisa--I think you've answered why I love travel. It makes me feel like a kid too.

    Elle, I can understand the love/hate thing. I think every expat both loves and hates their adopted country for different reasons. And German is a tough language to learn in Germany alone. In Switzerland it is even more challenging because of the local dialects. It's a constant struggle to ask people to please speak High German so I can understand them! The food too--yes, nothing is packaged, I make everything from scratch now--even lemonade! It was hard to get used to but now I love it and find it much healthier. Admire, despise and respect is the perfect way to describe the expat cycle.

    Hi Cassandra, thanks for reading. Vicarious traveling is great too!

  5. You forgot to mention having a good sense of humor! Obvious, yes. But vital. On Tuesday I went to IKEA, which for me means a trip over the border to Belgium. My kids are fluent in French, but I am only middling. I had to get them to translate for me a BUNCH o' times. Then I had to stop and crack up while I tried to drag the Big Boxes onto my cart.

    A BUNCH o' times.

    P.S. I always hope all these new experiences will stave off Alzheimer's.

  6. Hi Expatresse,

    Agree. A sense of humor is vital to survive when you have to imagine conversations and figure things out by osmosis! It's great you have a pair of translators to help out :)

  7. Great reflections, Chantal! Was surprised to hear that people don't smile much over there. They don't smile much here either. What's up with that?


  8. Smiling is not a Swiss thing. I don't know why. They've got plenty of cheese and chocolate to smile about!

  9. Its so wonderful to read this list..Europe has infact made me a writer, and helped me enjoy the journey!

  10. Glad to hear that Europe has helped you become a writer too. It's an inspiring place to be!

  11. Hi Chantal,

    This is such an inspiring post - thanks! I actually felt that Paris was squashing my writing at first. Something about all of the literary history was intimidating. Plus the no smiling thing (my gosh, could the Swiss possibly be worse than the French? I don't think so) really got to me at first. I felt like my joy was slowly being zapped. And being joyless...well, for me it's hard to be creative without joy. I need energy!

    But I'm really on an upswing now and I think it's because, like you, I realize that I can do it. Damn, I moved to a new country/culture and learned a language, got a job, made friends, dealt with French bureaucracy, etc.

    Now I see the beauty here and count my blessings. I totally agree about the R&R - I don't know how I could ever go back to 2 weeks vacation! (Really, I think writers are *always* writing in some way, even if they don't have pen in hand. But giving yourself time and space to relax has become vital).

    Thanks, as always, for a great post :)

  12. Hi Sion,

    Glad you could relate! I understand about the smiling thing, it got to me too (and still does!).

    The two weeks of vacation thing is really sad. I don't think I could ever handle that again either! Once a European, always a European--at least when it comes to time off!

  13. As well as feeling like a child, I definitely learned so much about patience! When it can take all day to get to the post office and arrange to send birthday gifts you learn to prioritise that and arrange your work to fit in with delays!

  14. Niamh, patience is a great point. Everything moves slower in Europe.

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