101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad: 20 tips for expats
Learn how to feel at home in a foreign country, whether you're there for a weekend, a year, or a lifetime.
After the excitement of moving abroad subsides, the hardest part of being an expat begins: settling in. Ingegrating into a new culture has its quirks and challenges, but it doesn't have to be a struggle if you know how to handle the cultural adventure. There are many new things to learn and adopt, from business customs to local foods to dealing with being a hotel for all your friends and family that suddenly want to visit. In addition to 22 tips for moving abroad, here are 20 tips to help you settle into your life abroad like a professional expat.
Business culture is not universal
1. Learn local business customs. Don’t assume that everyone has the same attitude toward, for instance, payment schedules. For example, in Spain, I know savvy local businesspeople who have waited years for contracts to be honoured and payments rendered. Spend time talking to others in your company and your field to find out what to expect.
2. Be prepared for resentment. Any foreigner who is hired, especially for a desirable management position, is likely to inspire jealousy and hostility. Try not to take it personally.
3. Instead of seeking a job with an existing company, you may want to create a business of your own that you can run over the internet. I have friends who find sales and marketing work using the international listings on www.craigslist.org and conduct all their business online.
Eat and drink like a local
4. Eat the local food. Ok, you don’t have to order the fried flies in Bangkok or the snake stew in Hanoi, but give the mainstream offerings a chance. You may be delightfully surprised. Try to let go of old habits that can’t be indulged. If you can no longer get, say, your favourite white mocha frappuccino dusted with cinnamon, don’t despise your local café for not providing it, find out what they do offer and start sampling until you discover something you enjoy.
5. If you’ll be out on the town, find out what the locals drink and you might just discover something new. In southern Spain’s hot climate, many people often order tinto de verano (summer red wine), an iced drink made with red wine and a 7UP-style soft drink. Bartenders are usually happy to describe their offerings and identify what other people around you are ordering. (This will also give you a chance to practice your linguistic skills and pick up useful vocabulary. Besides, many people find talking in a foreign language becomes much easier after a few drinks.)
6. Adapt to local eating schedules. If you show up at a Spanish restaurant for lunch before 12pm or for dinner before 9pm, you’ll be eating alone and wondering why everyone told you this place was so jolly. On the other hand, if you show up to a German or Dutch restaurant too late, you'll also find yourself eating alone.
7. Vegetarians have a difficult time abroad. I know, because I used to be one. On a work assignment in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, I was served meat dishes at every meal, and for a while I subsisted on bread and cheese – a far cry from the balanced, healthy diet I was trying to achieve. To survive the trip, I became a flexitarian, that is, I included some meat in a mostly vegetarian diet. Spain, where they adore ham and put it in everything, soon turned me into an outright carnivore.
8. Throw a party. Even if you’re still struggling to understand all the nuances of entertaining in the local style, when you get people together in a room with food, a little wine or beer, music, and a festive attitude, good things tend to happen. The locals – or even just your neighbours – will appreciate the effort, even if you don’t do everything exactly the way they would.
9. You don't need a car to survive. Walking is the most practical form of transportation in many places, especially small cities and towns. It’s a great way to get around, enjoy some exercise, and become acquainted with your new community – to say nothing of the cost savings over other forms of transportation.
10. Bicycling is a good alternative depending on your stamina and the town’s geography. Many cities, such as Paris, Madrid, and Copenhagen, have city-owned bikes you can rent for a modest fee and leave in public lots, so you never have to worry about their security. It doesn’t mean they don’t get damaged or stolen; it just means that it’s not your problem.
Communication is key
11. Phones are a must, and many expats don’t bother with landlines, they just use cell phones. If you have a factory-unlocked smart phone, you can keep the same phone wherever you are and simply change chips when you move from one country to another. A lot of expats start with a 'go phone', an inexpensive local mobile that lets you pay for calls without monthly or other fees. Once you have a feel for your calling pattern, an annual contract may prove more economical.
Keeping yourself entertained
12. Is it possible to live without TV? Yes, and if your new country doesn’t offer the kind of programming you’re looking for (say, movies in English), you may want to skip it in favour of the other options shown below. Or you can look into getting satellite TV with channels in your language.
13. Renting or purchasing DVDs in your new country is great for expats because you can select the soundtrack language; check the box to be sure English is one of them. If you don’t have a TV with DVD player, watch them on your computer. Be aware that DVDs have regional coding, which means that DVDs that work on, say, an American computer or DVD player can’t be used on most European systems; however you can purchase or adapt some DVD players for dual use. For details, and a list of country codes, see wikipedia.org.
14. If you’re used to streaming favourite TV shows on the Internet, you’ll be disappointed to discover that it’s illegal or technically impossible to stream certain shows from other countries. Some expats won’t be able to use Netflix or stream Person of Interest, but there are exceptions, such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, so check your favourite sites. Downloading movies and TV programmes is illegal in most countries, although the degree of enforcement varies considerably.
15. If you love reading, a Kindle or other e-reader is a must, as the supply of English language books is likely to be slim and costly in a non-English-speaking country. Yes, it doesn’t have the comfy feel of a traditional book, but you get used to that very quickly. And there are huge advantages. You can download a sample chapter for free, to see if you like it. And you can buy an e-book in under a minute for half the price (or less) of the paperback, without having to hunt for it at a local store or wait a week or two for it to arrive by mail order.
16. If you miss English-language radio, check out podcasts on the Internet. You just click and play, or download them for later. Some are free, such as many of the NPR and BBC shows, while other sources, such as the Apple iTunes store, charge a fee.
Guests: making their stay more enjoyable (for you)
17. There are two types of guests: the independent ones and those who need a lot of handholding. You may not be able to identify them in advance; little old ladies who have never been out of the village of St Mary Mead can prove far more fearless than strapping young ex-Marines.
18. Be clear up-front about the duration of their stay. Twice I’ve had people arrive for a weekend and stay nearly two weeks. If they are planning a visit of more than a few days, you are allowed to suggest they will be more comfortable in a nearby hotel.
19. Do a little pre-trip planning with your guests-to-be via email or Skype. If they will be staying with you, describe the accommodations; for example, let them know if there’s no TV or if they will be sleeping on a couch or inflatable mattress. Tell them about local conditions, for instance that almost no one speaks English and everything will be closed for siesta in the middle of the day. Suggest that they do online research and come up with things they’d like to do on their own. Explain that while they are on vacation, you are not, and although naturally you’ll want to spend time with them, you will have other obligations to fulfill during their stay. Of course, some guests will ignore all of this; see Tip #20.
20. House guests who overstay their welcome are often impervious to hints that they should move on. One friend of mine, unable to budge such a guest, announced he was leaving town, packed a bag, and escorted the guest out the door. When the guest was well on his way, my friend returned to his apartment and resumed his life.
Karen McCann / Expatica
Karen McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her book 101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad: Essential Tips for Easing the Transition to Expat Life. One reader wrote, 'This is a wonderful 'checklist' in the event you're moving... Even if you have no such plans, get this book because it's fun and it just might inspire you to make such a plan'. Wanderlust has taken her to more than 30 countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing books, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and travelling the world.
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