The prospect of finding your feet in an unfamiliar place can be one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of making the decision to become an expat. Bonnie shares some ideas on how to make it easier to settle into a new country.
Making friends, getting set up in a new house or apartment, getting to grips with a different health/public transport/phone system, and potentially communicating in another language can all seem like insurmountable tasks. But with some research, preparation and an open mind, settling into a new country can be quite smooth sailing.
1) Make your new place feel like home
It only requires a little extra effort to add some special touches to your new place and make it feel more like home. You could put up photos, paintings, trinkets or other items that remind you of home. You could invest in a few special things to make you feel more comfortable, such as a good blender to make smoothies or some plants to make an apartment garden. Of course, what works in this respect will be different for different people. The point is to make your space feel cosy and homely, whatever that means for you.
2) Give yourself time to do some touristy stuff
In the flurry of getting everything organised in a new house, a new city and potentially a new job, it can be difficult to get around to doing the touristy activities that the city is known for. But no matter how busy you are, it’s a great idea to reserve some time in your first few weeks to do a few of these things. Museums, historical sites and tours can give you a lot of insight into the history, politics, social issues and environment of the area. Many major cities now offer ‘free’ (there is no set fee but a tip is usually expected at the end) walking tours that can give you a fairly comprehensive and entertaining overview of the city’s history in just a few hours. Googling ‘free walking tour’ along with the city’s name should show if this is an option for you.
3) Find a new doctor, dentist, handyman, hairdresser etc
A key part of feeling at home when settling into a new country is knowing who to contact when you need something done, whether it’s getting a burst pipe fixed or booking in a haircut. As such, it’s a great idea to seek out and meet with different service providers that you may need on a regular basis or in case of emergency. It will also avoid you getting caught out having to find a doctor when you’re already really sick, for example. If you’re going to be living in a non-English speaking country, you may wish to seek out an English speaking dentist/plumber/hairdresser etc to help you feel more comfortable. Expat Facebook groups are a great resource to get recommendations in this area. Here are some ideas of different service providers (of course not all of them will be applicable to everyone) you might like to acquaint yourself with upon arrival to feel more at home:
- General Practitioner
- Medical specialist if you need ongoing treatment for specific medical issues
- Beauty salon
- General handyman
4) Create a routine
Having a solid daily routine is a great way to support yourself as you adjust to life in a new country. Waking up and going to bed around the same time each day can help you get into a rhythm and feel more productive. Setting aside time for some kind of exercise (especially something that gets you out of the house, like a dance or yoga class), getting a morning coffee at the same place, and spending time at some local markets to find fresh produce for healthy meals can be very helpful for building your routine too.
5) Figure out how things work
As a new expat settling into a new country, many parts of life to which you previously never spared a thought can suddenly become fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. Day to day stuff like getting some blood tests done at a pathology lab, buying a public transport pass, or sorting your garbage and recycling can function in wildly different ways in other countries. It’s good to get a general grounding in these kinds of things as soon as you can, rather than waiting to learn about each thing as it crops up, in order to avoid that uncomfortable sensation of having no idea what is going on. Neighbours can be an invaluable resource when it comes to these kinds of questions.
6) Become a regular somewhere
Another key part of feeling at home anywhere is knowing some local places and going to them often. Depending on your interests, it can be many different kinds of place: cafés, parks, the gym, the library etc. Try out a few different places close to you to figure out your favourites, and then start hanging out there a few times a week or so. This will also help you build a sense of community, as you will no doubt meet some new people in the process, for example the barista and other regulars in your local café.
7) Connect with other expats
Reaching out to other expats in the area both before and after your arrival can be a great way to help you get settled in. Other expats have likely come up against similar issues and obstacles to you and will have a wealth of knowledge to share. Expat Facebook groups are a great way to get started. If there is a significant contingent of expats in the city, you can bet they’ll have a Facebook community. For smaller countries, you might find groups for the whole country instead. Once you’re in the groups, you can start to join in the discussion, raise any questions you have and engage with people on a more individual level. Internations in an organisation with groups around the world that sets up networking events for expats.
8) Connect with local people, too!
While expats can be great friends and hugely helpful in the process of settling into your new home, it’s important not to surround yourself completely with other foreigners. If you do, why not just continue living in your home country? Local friends can help you understand the culture, customs and history of your chosen city in a way that other expats likely won’t be capable of. You could start making like-minded local friends by joining a Meetup group, or some other club, of your interest in the area.
9) Get comfortable in the local language
Obviously this one does not apply if you’re moving to an English-speaking country (although perhaps you’ll need to adjust to different accents and slang). But if you’re settling into a new country where the primary language is something else, knowing at least the basics of that language will be a very important step to feeling more comfortable in your chosen country. It is definitely wise to learn at least the basics before you arrive, and if you’re still not conversational you could try a language school crash course once you arrive.
The prospect of settling into a new country can be very daunting, but putting in a little extra effort to help yourself feel at home can make the process much easier, and even enjoyable. But do be patient with yourself – it can certainly be a challenging process and no matter what, time will be what helps you feel truly settled in.
This article is written by Bonnie Gillies. Bonnie is an Australian English teacher and freelance writer. She is currently based in Medellín, Colombia.
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