Imagine for a moment that you are offered a chance to live in Paris for six months. Could there be anything more wonderful than six delicious months enjoying those impossibly fresh baguettes, the wonderful wine, the outdoor cafes, the gorgeous architecture and the Louvre?
The heady delight of it all is almost too much… that is, until you really start to miss little things you thought you didn’t care remotely about, like the ease of one-stop shopping at Walmart (I’m ashamed to admit it, but I did really miss Walmart during my time in Paris) and being able to order your meal in English (yes, you speak French, but sometimes your brain is tired and all you want to do is speak a little English).
When the dust settles, you can become homesick and disenchanted with your new city. But you can recover quickly. Embarking on an adventure in a brand new country can be a heart-opening, magical experience if you take care of yourself first and create a framework for a connected and healthful lifestyle in your new home.
Having lived in five different countries as an adult, I’m sharing four key tips that have helped me get settled into my new homes. While this is written with life outside the United States in mind, it can also apply to a move to a new city within America.
1. Find your (local) sweet spot. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend your first few months exploring your new city, trying new restaurants and learning the lay of the land. Remember how I said that you’d start missing the bagels from your favorite breakfast place or hanging out at your favorite bookstore? This is the time to look for the things you like best about your new home. What specific things sweeten your days just a little bit? Is there a great coffee shop nearby? Are you really close to a metro station or bus stop? Does the local patisserie sell mouthwatering Napoleons?
Right now I am living in Ukraine, and one of my favorite things about my new living quarters is that my apartment has a sauna in it, as many Eastern Europeans like to sauna several times a week. I will really miss it when I leave! There are also amazing fresh fruit and vegetable markets with a dizzying array of colorful offerings. It’s not hard to eat healthfully when the pickings look like the produce aisle at Whole Foods – but with a smaller price tag!
Actively identifying those special elements that are specific to your new living situation will make them that much more enjoyable. I have a laundry list of special little things I love in every city I’ve lived in, from New York and DC to Cairo and Sao Paulo. If you embrace the positives, it will help you put things in perspective when you can’t find your favorite shampoo or find yourself missing your local Barnes and Noble.
2. Phone a friend. You’ll spend your first few exciting weeks trekking about in your new city, exploring everything from the nightlife to the museums and stores. It is easy to fall out of touch with your friends and family during this time, but try not to skimp on phone calls and emails with your loved ones back home. If you’ve moved abroad, there may be a significant time difference now, which may mean that you will have to carve out time to talk right in the middle of your day, early in the morning or later at night. Figuring out what works early is worth the trouble – I have neglected to do this in the past, and have ended up fielding phone calls from chatty relatives at 3:00 a.m.
Regular communication will make you feel connected, and establishing these channels and habits early will serve you well when the inevitable waves of homesickness hit. You may have a long email from you best friend waiting in your inbox or a Skype call scheduled with your brother later that day. For me, the hardest part of living abroad is missing the occasional birthdays, get-togethers and weddings. Scheduling one-on-one time and group calls with my friends also helps me feel connected when I can’t be there in person.
3. Get active. A new city really starts to feel like home to me when I have a regular outlet for exercise locked into place. Every country has its own quirks when it comes to the local gym culture; so you can’t expect to replicate your local Crunch experience everywhere. In Ukraine, for example, gyms are rarely just places to use cardio and weight machines. Many of the gyms here are sprawling complexes with various kinds of saunas, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, swimming pools, tennis courts, spas, restaurants and stores. All these extra amenities mean expensive membership fees compared to the US. But splurging for the country club experience makes Ukrainian gyms yet another special thing that I can enjoy only here!
If you’re interested in any particular exercise, like boxing, tennis, yoga or even Zumba, research your options. Yoga studios can be found in most major world cities. Friends living in Ukraine have been able to take classes from champion boxers and tennis players at far cheaper rates than they’d pay in the States. This is also a great time to consider taking on something new. Always wanted to try tennis? Why not start now and lock a weekly class or two into your schedule while it is still flexible?
4. Join up! In a lot of ways, moving abroad is like starting from scratch. You have a fresh new schedule to mold as you see fit, and you can prioritize things differently in this new environment. This not only means that you can make sure that you’re carving out time for taking yourself; it also means you can try new activities and cultivate new interests.
One great way to establish a social network and meet new people is to join a club. If you moved abroad for your employer, ask your coworkers what local organizations they belong to. Try out as many as you can before you decide what to commit to. Have you always wanted to learn to knit? Or are you more interested in joining a charitable organization? If you simply want to practice the local language and meet more locals, you can check out a language exchange or join a MeetUp group. International networking organizations like Internations also throw regular parties and happy hours where you can meet a mix of expatriates and locals.
Even if you are very shy, don’t be afraid to attend one of these events alone. The comforting truth about the expat experience is that everyone else is out of his or her element, too. Attend these events and tell yourself, “If I have one pleasant and interesting conversation with one person, than the event will have been a success for me.” If you lay even the slightest groundwork for a new friendship, you’ve already begun building a social network in your new home! Ask to exchange contact info with anyone you truly hit it off with because you never know when you’ll run into them again.
These are the basic steps I take when I move to a new city abroad, but always looking for more ideas and I’m dying to hear yours. What are your priorities when moving to a new city or country?