Want to learn how to feel at home in a foreign country, whether you’re there for a weekend, a year, or a lifetime? Then this guide is for you.
After moving to Seville, Spain, in 2004, I realised that spending time in a foreign country is an opportunity to reinvent yourself that rarely exists outside of the witness protection program. It’s a fresh chance to build a new life that’s authentically yours in a country that isn’t. Here’s a few tips to consider before you make the big decision to move abroad.
Before you move abroad
1. Visit any place you’re considering before you move there – several times, if possible. Spend time exploring the area and getting to know the town. Just because you had a single, glorious weekend somewhere doesn’t mean it’s your ideal future home.
2. If you have a partner, agree in advance that either of you can veto a suggested destination. Dragging along a reluctant partner is no way to start out a new life overseas.
3. Consider your reasons for going. Is this the grand adventure you’ve always dreamed about? Are you moving for practical reasons, such as a job, lower cost of living, or a healthier climate? What are your expectations? What resources are you willing to commit to making the move a success?
4. Have a complete physical; you don’t want any health surprises when you’ve just arrived in a new country.
5. Bring a good supply of your medications, and find out if it’s possible to get refills sent to you by mail, at least initially. Give yourself time to get settled, then check whether your meds are available over the counter; if not, you’ll want to schedule a visit to a local physician for a new prescription.
6. Arrange for someone to receive your mail, scan your bills and letters, and email the scans to you; in some cases, you may want to have the originals mailed to you as well. Some companies (such as www.earthclassmail.com) provide this service, or you may want to ask a trusted friend or family member.
7. Here’s the most valuable packing tip of all time: before you go, lay out all your clothes and all your money, then take half the clothes and twice the money.
8. If you don’t see a veterinarian service that looks promising in your new neighbourhood, ask others who are walking their dogs in the park. If language is a barrier, go online to find an expat club and post the question on their website.
9. Assume everything will be different. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you discover things that are like home.
Learning the language
10. Take private classes if you can afford them. Your learning rate will skyrocket. And a private teacher can work with subjects that interest you (local culture, hobbies, food) or that you’ll need, such as vocabulary related to your job, the kids’ school, or that persistent plumbing issue in the downstairs bath.
11. Give it time; if you’re over 30, you’ll likely need months for the basics, years to become fluent, a lifetime to work on your accent. Keep at it; the more you know of the language, the more enjoyable and comfortable your life will become.
Dealing with culture shock
12. Try to see differences as just differences, and not as a commentary on you, your decision to move, the country in which you find yourself, or your ability to adapt.
13. You will always stand out as a foreigner, especially in societies where most people spend their entire life socialising with neighbours they’ve known since baptism. You can never join that inner circle, but you can make a place for yourself in the community that’s uniquely your own and richly rewarding. You may encounter locals who are too uncomfortable with anything unfamiliar to befriend anyone new, but you’ll meet others who will go out of their way to help you because you’re different and interesting.
14. Don’t ignore feeling blue, alienated, or homesick. Accept it as natural and apply home remedies; mine include a hot water bottle, dark-chocolate-covered almonds, a glass of wine, and a lighthearted movie. If symptoms persist, I declare a few ‘attitude adjustment days’, during which I take a lot of walks in the park, watch more lighthearted movies, order cheerful books on my Kindle, and call friends to meet me at a tapas bar in the evening. A few days of this usually goes a long way toward restoring my emotional equilibrium. If you can’t shake the blues, consider therapy or determine whether it’s time to make some changes in your life.
15. Read the anthropology classic Return to Laughter by Eleanor Smith Bowen, a novel based on her field experience. Immersing herself in a remote West African village, she starts out romanticising her neighbours as living more natural and strife-free lives. When she discovers their all-too-human faults (such as witch trials) she becomes harshly critical of them. In the end, she accepts the ethical and moral ambiguity inherent in all human communities and achieves enough perspective to return to laughter. I read this book in college and think of it often as I adjust to new expat experiences.
16. When you’re new in town, be open to all opportunities that may lead to social interactions. If someone suggests getting together to attend an art exhibit, sporting event, or even a bullfight, give it careful consideration, even if you aren’t wild about impressionist paintings, soccer, or watching animals be killed. You need to get out there and meet people; just say “yes” whenever you can. (Obviously invitations to participate in crimes, skulduggery, and undesirable sexual liaisons should be politely declined.)
17. Bear in mind that the locals don’t want to hear constant comparisons between your county and theirs, especially unfavourable ones.
18. Your new friends and neighbours will probably have limited interest in your travels and will become jealous and/or bored if you go on and on about all the cool places you’ve visited that they will never see. Instead, try talking about local places of interest, such as nearby archaeological sites or beaches; ask them for recommendations about monuments and restaurants you should visit.
19. Accept local attitudes towards punctuality and other social niceties. In some countries, being an hour late for a lunch date is considered normal and nothing to get upset about. Find out what the local customs are and plan your social life accordingly. For example, include a few punctual Americans among your lunch guests so you’ll have someone to talk to while you’re waiting for the others.
20. Be open to new friends of all ages, especially among people who speak your language. When you live in a community with a small expat population, you can’t afford to limit your social life along strict generational lines. If someone shares your language, interests, and sense of humour, cultivate the friendship.
21. Consider joining a social club or engaging in communal activities such as a choir, painting class, or bicycling group. Even if you’re not normally much of a joiner, you’ll find this can be a great way to expand your circle of local friends. Hundreds of cities around the world have branches of the expat social club InterNations, which is free and regularly organises informal expat gatherings in friendly bars and cafés. For more options, Google social clubs in your area or consult your country’s consulate or embassy.
22. Don’t isolate yourself. Sometimes living abroad feels overwhelming, and we all have days when we want to stay home and pull the covers over our heads. But the more you get out and interact with your new world, the sooner it will start feeling like home.