One of the things about expat life that appealed to Sara Nöjd when she first set out to live abroad as a 19-year old was that it offered an opportunity to start from scratch, to create a persona that no one had any preconceived notions about, to be who she wanted to be. For someone who grew up the youngest of four siblings in a small town in Finland, where everyone knew everyone, and with parents who were both local teachers, this was a welcome relief.

Now, about a decade later, Sara has gained a broader perspective on what it’s like to make a life for yourself abroad as a young person — what is easy and hard, what some of the trade-offs are, and what it is that matters in the long run. For one thing, the initial feeling of being free to be yourself has come with a realization that expat life also means having to work really hard to fit in.

“It’s eye-opening to live in another country. You learn so much about people, about the stereotypes we carry, and about yourself. Your perspectives on life change, but it’s also easy to lose yourself. It’s rewarding but hard, perhaps especially as a young single person, as there is no support system other than the one you manage to build for yourself,” says Sara.

Sara’s first expat experience was as an au pair in Switzerland, and it left her wanting more. After a short stint back at home studying French at the University of Åbo, she decided to do something about her situation. By then, she knew she wanted to go back to Switzerland — she just needed to figure out a way to get there. For Sara, the path included studies in Sweden, internships in Switzerland and Germany, and then finally, a job at a Scandinavian travel agency in Zug, Switzerland.  

While Sara liked her job at the travel agency, she also knew that it wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term. Her big interest has always been in health and well-being and how to find a balance in life when it comes to stress, exercise, food, and mental health. “The stresses and challenges of early expat life made me realize that it was all too easy to slip into unhealthy habits. I found that ‘a party lifestyle’ was the driving force in much of the socializing. In the long run, that’s a destructive cycle that really only leads to a lack of sleep and bad food. It definitely doesn’t promote deeper social connections,” she says.

She found that because some of her colleagues at the travel agency were also her friends, the balance between work life and private life could easily suffer. “Some of the things I learned was to make sure to nurture interests and to build friendships outside of work. And to figure out what’s needed in terms of basics to feel content.” For Sara, this meant living in close proximity to good public transportation, easy access to nature, and making sure whatever room she rented had good natural light and space for her yoga mat.

Sara’s interest in health eventually led her to seek out an online program in holistic health through a Swedish academy (the Holistic Health Academy), where she completed a six-month course to become certified as a holistic health therapist. For a while, she wasn’t exactly sure how to use her skills so she started offering packets of three free sessions to potential clients. She got positive feedback and learned that her techniques were making a difference in peoples’ lives — she started thinking that perhaps this was something she could do professionally.

Sara believes that the holistic health perspective can be particularly beneficial to expats, as one of the goals is to explore what works for you as an individual so that you can thrive as a person. One of the reasons Sara got into the health field in the first place was her own discoveries about life abroad, and connecting the dots about what made her feel good and the impact of that on her overall health and ability to thrive, she says: “Holistic health is not about drastic change, it’s about making deliberate choices surrounding food, exercise, and stress that can be incorporated into your everyday life. I believe that small steps will bring great results.” 

When Sara lost her job at the travel agency because of the coronavirus pandemic, she decided that this was the time to start her own business. She is the first to admit that the learning curve has been steep. She got help from the Swiss unemployment agency as well as a company that provides assistance to start-ups — after months of research, developing a website, and figuring out the legal aspects, Sara launched her company Lifestyle Holistica in February of this year. As of now, she runs her business part-time and works as a Swedish teacher part-time. She is hoping her business will become her main source of income over time.  

One of the benefits of having her own, online-based business is that it affords her the flexibility to work anywhere. At this point in time, this is a big plus as she is thinking about moving back to Finland. Not only did the pandemic help push Sara into starting her business, but it also made her reflect on life abroad, and it put into sharp focus what she wants, and doesn’t want going forward. “Not being able to travel home as easily made me realize how much my family matters to me, and how much I miss some of the everyday things you can do when living close to your near and dear.”

Sara says she appreciates many things about Switzerland — the fact that she has easy access to both city life and beautiful nature, that it’s so centrally located in Europe, the people she has met. But after five years in the country and ten years total abroad, she’s starting to crave something different. She says: “I feel done with living in shared apartments, which is what I can afford in Switzerland. I want to have something of my own. I want to put down roots and I want to be close to my family.”

Sara concludes by saying that in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are an expat or not — she firmly believes that what is important to all of us is to have a good work-life balance, good friends, goals, and a sense of who you are as a person. In her experience, if you don’t have that, you’ll feel a little lost regardless of where you live.

By: Felicia Shermis

Sustainability Across the World