a-few-things-ive-learned-living-abroad

A Few Things I’ve Learned Living Abroad

Charissa Steyn honestly

At 22 years old I embarked into the unknown, traveling to Europe on a whispered promise from God.  In the beginning, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Should take the next flight back to my family? After all, this wasn’t a two-week trip, but a two-year commitment to get comfortable in another culture.

I could have never guessed that two years would turn into 12 years of living in three different countries (Austria, South Africa, the Netherlands). Through those years, I came alive to a real adventure with God. Sure, it included stamped passports, discovering new places, and moving out of my comfort zone, but adventure became a lifestyle of exploring the grandeur of God’s heart, standing in wonder of his wild love, and finding my home in him.

Since coming back to America 10 months ago, now with my husband and three little ones in tow, I’ve stored away some simple lessons I learned while living abroad:

Embrace Wind-Blown Hair 

The first thing we did when we arrived in the Netherlands was purchase a few used bikes. Biking was the easiest way to get around town. In fact, we didn’t own a car until the last six months we were there. I also never did my hair because it got whipped around behind me as I pedaled my way to the grocery store, the park or a café to meet a friend. What started as an annoyance, became my little secret to stay a mentally sane and joyful mama to three little ones. The fresh air and wind-blown hair became a gift I received every day. Freedom welled up within me as I let go of control in small ways and let the Holy Spirit do his work in my heart. I was reminded that my obsession with perfection deters me from really living, and letting the wind mess up my hair is an easy first step toward adventure.

Try this: Be intentional about getting into the wild outdoors with your kids, feel the wind in your hair, and learn to strip off the façade of flawless when you’re around other people; your freedom is contagious.

Learn Their Language

Although I never learned to speak German, Dutch or Afrikaans fluently, I did learn the language of friendship. If you’ve ever been in a foreign country, you know that a willingness to learn basic greetings, words and phrases always impresses the locals. Walls are broken down when we take the time, effort, and courage required to speak another person’s language. A basic “Hoe gaan dit?” (Afrikaans for “How are you”) or “vielen Dank” (German for “Thank you very much”) can go a long way in building community with someone of another culture. Through the years, I’ve realized we all speak a different heart language. Deep connections are made with our kids, husband or friends when we risk taking the first step in getting to know them, discovering what brings them joy, and choosing to speak their language more than our own.

Try this: Become a student of your friends, family and neighbors, ask good questions when you are with them, and challenge yourself to see how long you can keep the conversation focused on them (it’s harder than you think!).  

Keep Exploring & Being a Tourist

In my nearly 12 years of living abroad, I never stopped taking pictures. I was continually aware and captivated by my surroundings, the different people and the unique scenery. I cultivated wonder, kept exploring the cities and countries I lived in, and remained an enthusiastic, picture-taking tourist. Choosing to have the attitude of a curious adventurer in awe of life helped me to adjust to change more smoothly. We can become permanent tourists even in our own town, snapping shots of the same places and enjoying the streets we travel every day. I don’t ever want to forget how magical the mundane can become when we take the time to see the places we live and the seasons of our lives through the lens of childlike wonder.

Try this: Pretend you are a tourist in your city today. Look on a map to find a new place or go to the same destination with your camera and curiosity in hand. Follow your kids, learn from them, let your wonder open the door to worship and thankfulness.  

Cultivate Traditions

We’ve always had little traditions. In Vienna, it was an after-church Subway, McDonald’s or Danube River visit with friends. In Muizenberg, it was a beach walk to Kalk Bay for cake and coffee. In Maastricht, it was biking along the canal, across the border, to Cannes for pancakes and omelettes at a quaint café. Traditions are powerful. They remind us that although life is always changing and challenging, God is still the same and desires us to rest deeply in him. Traditions provide a touch of comfort and sameness during those times when life outside our comfort zone feels overwhelming. I’ve been amazed at how God uses even the simplest traditions to keep me hungry for more adventures with him.

Try this: Find a unique tradition you can keep this summer with your family. It could be Friday night walk and ice cream, a Saturday morning hike or movie and pizza with friends. Try out a few and see what works best!


Charissa Steyn never imagined a life this wild, but has grown to love the adventure of following Jesus. She and her South African hubby have three wide-eyed explorers, endless dreams and an obsession with seeking Jesus in every detail. Through her blog + shop, charissasteyn.com, Charissa inspires women to travel into the unknown with an expectant heart.