Pankowska was shocked, and not sure if she wanted to accept. She’d never considered moving abroad. “I thought that living in a foreign country was the worst thing in the world.” But the opportunity was too good to pass up. Pankowska decided to take the plunge and move to France.
Being an expat in Paris was hard at first. Pankowska admits that she didn’t do her homework. Struggling to navigate the city’s complex subway system, and too embarrassed to ask for help in English, she ended up being late to her first day of work.
Being alone in a new country was overwhelming, but Pankowska stayed positive, eventually getting to know her new city and connecting with fellow expats on Facebook. Now she says she’d recommend a move abroad to anybody. “If I can get through it as someone who is shy and has never taken any crazy risks, I think anybody can,” she says. Not only did she land a new job by moving overseas, Pankowska also credits the change of scenery with boosting her motivation and creativity.
Pankowska’s past projects include colorful business cards made out of melted crayons, as well as real-life Facebook “Like” buttons and gold Bitcoins. Her work tends to be playful, providing a light-hearted take on internet culture.
The art director told us more about how she made the expat lifestyle work for her, and her advice for other creatives looking to change countries for their career.
I thought that living in a foreign country was the worst thing in the world.
Format: How did you decide to become an expat?
Dorota Pankowska: I never really thought I was going to become an expat. For me, it was kind of crazy—why would you want to live somewhere where you don’t even speak the language? Your friends aren’t there, your family’s not there, everything is new, you don’t even know what it’s like to live there. I was actually very much against that.
I was in Toronto at this small ad agency last year, working at my first art director job, and I noticed a Facebook friend request from a creative director at Ogilvy Paris. He asked if I would ever think about working in Paris, and to me that was crazy. Right away I thought, ‘I’m just this poor girl who’s living paycheck to paycheck with a little bit of emergency funds.’
I was being such a downer about it. But he didn’t accept my initial awkward rejection because of my fear, he kept offering, and I did end up changing my mind.
One of the things that really pushed me to say yes was the fact that I don’t have anything holding me down. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have pets or anything keeping me in Canada. That was a big realization, that at any moment your life can change so much.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced as an expat?
There were a lot, especially for the first two weeks. I tell people those were the worst two weeks of my life. I didn’t do my research on Paris. When I moved there all I knew was that Paris had an Eiffel Tower and some Arc thing somewhere, that there were a lot of baguettes, and that it was an old city. I didn’t really know anything else. I didn’t even research how the subway worked, so I was late on my first day of work.
I went to the right metro station but I didn’t go in the right entrance. I was so confused because I didn’t have data on my phone and I had written down directions. I was holding my coins in my hand but there was no coin slot, and there was no ticket machine because I went in the wrong area. I felt too shy to even ask someone—I was really overwhelmed.
It felt weird to speak English to people in France, so instead I just left and I took a taxi to work, which was also pretty bad because there was so much traffic. The driver stopped a five or ten minute walk from my work so I asked him which way to walk, and he said to ‘just go straight and you will hit the Champs-Élysées.’ At that point I didn’t even know what that was. Was it a building? What’s this Champs-Élysées thing he’s talking about? I had no idea it was a street.
That was a big realization, that at any moment your life can change so much.
What have you enjoyed most about life as an expat so far?
My favorite thing was realizing that everywhere you go, there are so many English speakers. It’s so cool because everyone has so many different stories of how they ended up in Paris. It opened my eyes and made me realize that it’s not that crazy to move to a place like Paris—it’s not that crazy to move anywhere.
Especially in advertising, so many people have worked in different cities around the world, in China, or Germany, or L.A. It takes a lot of guts to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to move my entire life to a new foreign country.’ I think people who would do something like that probably take a lot of risks in other parts of their lives, and do a lot of interesting things.
Now I feel like I could live almost anywhere, it’s not scary at all anymore. I was always bitter towards people who would leave Toronto, friends who would leave you forever, but I don’t see it like that anymore. Now I see the world is actually so small. I feel braver—I really was a chicken back then.
I also feel it’s easier to learn a language. Even if you just know the basics, you already feel like there’s a smaller boundary between you and that world. When I first arrived in Paris, I felt like I was so separate from everything because it was a different culture and language, and I just felt so secluded and alone. But I don’t feel that language and culture are as big of a barrier as I used to. In the end we’re all just people.
What advice would you offer creatives considering a move abroad?
I would advise people to do a lot of research. I was not prepared for culture shock because I did not do enough research. Think ahead about what you’ll need, the metro system or apartments or hotels, things like that. Figure out how things work, what payments they take. Look into the details because that could change your entire week, and if something ruins your week that’s just going to be a butterfly effect towards chaos.
Join expat groups on Facebook, and connect with your friends, or friends of friends who have lived in the cities you want to move to. Read articles about expat life. I was researching expat life after a few months of living in Paris and everything was such a disaster for the first few months. Then I realized that a lot of people have it hard and I felt better just knowing I’m not some weird person who doesn’t know how to deal with life. I think it’s normal for it to be hard, and that’s why I think the best thing to do is plan ahead and research.
Distract yourself from feeling lonely. Stay connected on the Internet and the expat groups, and with your friends and family—you have to or else you’re going to go crazy. If I can get through it, as someone who is shy and has never taken any crazy risks, I think anybody can. It just takes willpower, and you have to not give up.
How has being an expat impacted your creativity?
Being in Paris has opened up my world. I feel so much more connected to the whole world and all the different cities. I’m in a full-time job now, but when it ends, I have a feeling I’m going to be more motivated than I was before.
If I can get through it, as someone who is shy and has never taken any crazy risks, I think anybody can.