People might say I’m running. I’m 28 years young and I’ve lived in five countries outside my homeland. My love story with travel began 18 years ago when my godmother took me on a weeklong holiday to Egypt and I haven’t stopped exploring the world ever since. I’m not running away from anything, I’m sprinting toward all the love the world has to offer; the different cultures, the people, the history, the perspectives and the languages. For every travel story comprised of beautiful experiences, there’s one that’s filled with feelings of sadness, disappointment, loneliness and disempowerment. Here are 5 tips for moving to a new country and feeling right at home in a place that is not yet yours.
Step 1: Settle
A lot of us, and I have done it too, don’t understand the importance of feeling good at home. You can think that because it’s temporary or cheap, it’s the best solution. But you need a place where you will want to come back at the end of your day. A place where you can feel at peace and that will soon become your home. This is your gift to you.
In Buenos Aires, I made the big mistake of choosing the absolute bottom of the barrel cheapest option I could find. It was a shared house close to my work; there were 7 other people living there too and no common area besides the poorly cleaned kitchen and the noisy open-air patio. It was punishing spending any time in my room at all owing to the distinct lack of air-conditioning (those days the mercury hovered at around45° Celsius).
The restaurant next door, however, did have air-con which ran for 20 hours out of 24 and I could hear every minute of it, it was located right on our patio after all. I soon started to despise the place which had absolutely no semblance to home. The noise drove me out and made it near impossible to have conversations with my roommates. Moving to a country with a different culture and language is hard enough; don’t make it harder on yourself and sell yourself short in the accommodation department. Spend some time in an Airbnb, hostel or hotel if you have to. Don’t just go with the first option. Your perfect home is waiting for you if you take the time to look for it.
San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Step 2: Create a routine
Yes, everyone says that routine kills, but I’m here to tell you that it can save your life. While you will most certainly enjoy a honeymoon period in your host country where everything seems picture-perfect, but moving to another country pushes you miles and miles outside of your comfort zone.
A time will come when you’ll need some habits that anchor you and bring you joy. It could be something you do once a week like a salsa class, a weekly hike, going to the gym, to the movies, or a certain type of food that you always get. This is very personal so you can look for the activities you used to do back home or try something totally brand new. I always start with both and then stick with at least one. When I lived in the States it was acting in plays, in Spain it was going to my friend’s houses for meals, in Argentina, it was tango (didn’t stick to it though), while in Panama running Panama Bar Crawl, it was salsa dancing and in Vietnam, it was going hiking.
Step 3: Make friends
The benefits of friendship go without saying but just in case, friends make things all the better when the going is good and they listen and support you during the harder times (and there will be harder times). Even if you have moved with a partner, friends or family, this is a crucial element in forming roots in a new place.
So, how do you create new bonds?
First of all, accept that it will take time. You won’t find your perfect bromance (or womance) on day one. You probably didn’t form your friendships back home overnight either. Also, accept that not everybody will be a good fit for you.
Trust that it will come eventually. In my experience, I have been able to form deeper relationships around the 6-month mark. Before that, it’s a whole lot of hellos and goodbyes.
And where do you meet these friends?
Go out and explore, talk to people you don’t know yet. Don’t worry about looking like a fool. Try new activities; take classes, live somewhere with roommates. Use apps and websites for meeting people. Here are some that I personally use:
Websites that organise events:
Couchsurfing.com, meetup.com, internations.org
Hash House Harriers:
Their slogan is “a drinking club with a running problem”. The Hash is a weekly meet up that lets you explore different parts of the city/ country you’re in. There is always a path for runners and another for walkers. The Hash has a division in dozens of countries and varies from place to place but they never take themselves too seriously.
Sign up for volunteering, go to charity events or reach out to any community you feel an affinity towards. Work is also a good place to start. Once you’ve met people, invite them to share experiences with you so you can get to know each other better.
Step 4: Accept that you’re going to miss your other home
You are going to feel blue sometimes, that’s a given. When moving to a new country you will long for your old home during those important milestones: the birthdays, weddings, funerals and end of year celebrations. You’ll wish you were at home when you get sick, disappointed or heartbroken. You might even start seeing everything around you as wrong or bad because it’s not the same as back home. Everybody will be different, the food might even taste less tantalising, and everything may seem more difficult. You might start comparing everything.
This phase isn’t much fun and creeps in when the honeymoon phase subsides. You will need to put things into perspective because there is no one place in the world that’s perfect, not even where you’re from. Things seem this way because your brain is playing tricks on you, and all the things you complained about and disliked about where you used to live are slipping to the back of your mind. The antidote for this is to look for the positives about where you currently are and decide to find at least one good thing about each day, whether it’s a smile from a colleague, a joke from a taxi driver or a beautiful vista. Write it down if it helps. The goal is to get your mind out of the vicious circle of negativity.
You can also create your one positive thing: call your loved ones, import your favourite chocolate, eat the foods that brought you comfort back then, start a new book, watch a good movie (even if it’s one you’ve seen before), get a massage. Nobody knows you better than you, so take care of yourself.
Step 5: Learn to communicate
Even if it is just a few words you learn, knowing some key phrases in the language of the land will help you get along better with locals and let people know you live there and aren’t just passing by. Useful ones are:
- I am going to…
- How much?
- Thank you
When I lived in Vietnam, the fact that I could say “I am going to” followed by the name of the street in Vietnamese prevented me from being charged tourist prices for taxis. Knowing basic food names also helps if you’d prefer not to be unpleasantly surprised when your meal is served.
Learning how to speak the language fluently can tell you so much about the culture of the place through the words they use. In Argentina for example, some pastries are called facturas which literally translates to receipt or invoice. This goes back to the era when the anarchist baker’s union wanted to emphasize the importance of their work. In Panama, you will often find English words that have been “spanishified” due to the extended American presence in the country while building the Panama Canal. Examples include fren for friend and priti for pretty. Communication doesn’t stop and start with the words you speak, however. The way you touch people, personal space and body language significance also vary from land to land. Observe and ask the locals, it could be a great conversation starter.
I hope these tips will be useful to you as you explore and fall in love with the world.