Leigh Stevens is an expat that knows probably more about living abroad than he does about living in his hometown in Hertfordshire UK. That’s because he’s spent a great deal of his life seizing career opportunities most people wouldn’t dare to do.
His expat life began before he finished college. Leigh received an offer to intern as a coach in the United States for an East Coast women’s football club located in New York. He spent a year abroad traveling with the club coaching and developing the team before he returned to his studies in London. After finishing school, Leigh had the opportunity to participate in a teaching internship in Sydney Australia and gladly took it. “I wanted to have more of an international teaching experience.” He tells me. “That meant that, I needed to leave the UK and take every chance I could to work in other countries and living in warmer weather didn’t hurt either.”
After a few years he found himself returning to London for a second degree. After completing his degree he was again offered an opportunity to teach English at the University of Saudi Arabia. After a brief interview with expat Leigh Stevens here is what he had to say about living abroad.
What countries have you lived in?
“United States, Australia, Saudi Arabia and now the Netherlands.”
What did you like about living abroad?
“I like different people, different foods and cultures and the mix of everything. It gets kind of boring living in the same place with the same people all the time.”
What do you bring or pack when you move?
“Not a lot, mostly what fits in suit cases. I put the rest in storage and then I buy what I need when I get there.”
Has language ever been a barrier?
“In Saudi Arabia I felt completely blind because everything is in Arabic and you don’t know what to make of it. I’d just point at stuff not even knowing what I’m buying. Finally I learned what some of the things I liked were called or I could recognize it like camel. Camel meat was quite good and a favorite of mine. I learned how to to find that on the menu real quick.”
What’s the hardest part about living abroad?
“Missing your family. Sometimes I miss certain foods like sausage, you could not get that in Saudi Arabia at all. I also miss the cold weather.”
How was the cost of living compared to your home country?
“In Sydney everything was extremely expensive. It’s probably one of the most expensive places to live. In Saudi Arabia it was inexpensive and very cheap as long as you bought local foods and products. If you bought anything imported you had to pay a whole lot more for it than back home.”
Tell us about cultural differences you found difficult to adjust to. How did you handle it?
“In Saudi Arabia, the ‘call to prayer’ was five times a day and that was crazy. Everything and I mean everything closes at the moment call to prayer goes off. You had to wait 30 to 40 minutes before it re-opened again,” he says laughing. “They just throw you out the door they don’t care if you are done eating or shopping you have to drop what you’re doing and go. One time my food just arrived when call to prayer went off, and I had to pay my bill without eating. Oh and the worst is when it goes off at 6:00am in the morning on the weekend. The call is so loud it wakes everyone up which is what it is intended to do.” “I found this handy call to prayer app for my mobile phone so I knew exactly when it’s going to happen then I could plan my life around that.”
What are some of the difficult challenges you had to face living abroad?
“I was leaving a sporting event and a car bomb went off in the parking lot injuring a lot of people. It frightened everyone. It was some sort of religious disagreement between feuding religious groups. That kind of thing happened all the time.”
“I got shot at. I did not get hit or anything. But I don’t think the bullet was intended for me. I think it was intended for the guy down the street behind me. I was just in the wrong place at the moment. Shootings in Saudi Arabia are normal and people get killed all the time. It’s been like that for centuries. You don’t hear about it because the press is controlled by the King. Journalist are not allowed to print or broadcast what goes on in the streets every day.”
“I think the most eventful moment was witnessing a be-heading of a man who was said to have killed someone. Judgment and policing is mostly conducted by the Muttawa or the religious police. They are not official police but more like religious bullies that are allowed to carry out punishment or sentence people to death for breaking religious law. I got swept up into a crowd unintentionally and pushed to the front of the crowed where I felt like I was forced to witness this guy’s execution. Friday be-headings is quite normal for them and people feel satisfied by it.”
“Some colleagues tried to convert me to Islam. I told them I enjoy beer, women and pork and don’t want to change that. They got really offended and could not understand why I wouldn’t want to give that up.” We both laughed.
How do you feel about the Middle East now?
“Glad to have done it. It took a while before I could relax when I came back. I was still tense looking over my shoulder like something was going to happen. That kind of living really effects you. But I was glad I got the opportunity to travel all over the Middle East and go outside of all the major cites.”
“People are not all bad. In fact I met far more kind wonderful people than I did religious fanatics. There are good and bad people in every culture including my own. The people that I met that were moderate normal Muslims were truly some of the kindest, down to earth genuine people you could meet anywhere in the world.”
What tips do you have for people adjusting to a new location? What makes life easier?
“Meet locals get out and join clubs. Don’t meet too many foreigners meet locals and integrate and learn the local language.”
Any tips or advice for people moving abroad?
“Do your research before you go. Don’t follow a girl,” He shrugs. “Don’t move for love. Really, you don’t have anything to lose by moving some place and trying something new, if you don’t like it, move again.”