Expat Life Lists

Ten Ways To Feel At Home When You Move To A New Country

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A beautiful swan glides on the blue waters of Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake

Moving to a new country can be both daunting and exciting. I know! I have done it twice.

On one hand you are bound to leave behind your habitual home comforts, a support network of family and friends, as well as most preconceptions you may already have as to how things should be done. On the other hand a whole new world is about to be revealed right in front of your eyes: from new landscapes, food and architecture to potentially different points of view to the ones you hold.

You may love it, you may hate it or you may get caught in an exhausting act of balancing the pros and cons of your new life, not quite ready to let go of the high expectations you have arrived with, neither willing to fully embrace local attitudes.

I moved to England from Bulgaria in 2000 and then from England to Italy in 2014. I must have been through all the stages of culture shock and adaptation, sometimes struggling to force my national identity on to the foreign environment, sometimes fully letting go of deeply entrenched views and happily adopting the foreign way of dealing with things.

If you have just moved to a new country either to study, work or accompany a spouse, here are the ten ways I have identified to help me adapt quickly and less painfully to a brand new environment, so as to start feeling secure and as much as possible at home.

1. Get To Know Your Surroundings

Start your new life by acquainting yourself with your new surroundings. Set time aside to explore the place you have moved to and pinpoint the available public transport options, supermarkets and markets, pharmacies and GP surgeries, emergency service number, coffee shops and restaurants, playgrounds and baby changing facilities, gyms, dry-cleaners, parks, take-aways and any other amenities you and your family will need regular access to. Back home you have had all your life to accumulate this information and sift the good from the bad. In your new country you will need to condense your research and prepare yourself for some trials and errors. The quicker you orientate yourself in your new environment, the quicker you will be able to act accordingly when the need strikes.

Real Life Example: I was still in the first months of my life in London, when the underground (or the ‘tube’ as it is locally known) went on strike. I found myself on Oxford Street at 9 pm with thousands of other people desperately trying to squeeze into a bus to get back home. The tube is essential to life in London and the local bus network although vast is rather complicated and very time-consuming to navigate. Thankfully, I had researched the public transport options available to me and two hours later gratefully reached my rented accommodation in Zone 4.

2. Fully Unpack Your Belongings

It doesn’t matter if you have arrived with a single suitcase or two vans stuffed to the brim with furniture and books. Unpack everything as quickly as possible and organise your living space. Don’t let boxes lying around unopened for months. This will only increase the feeling that you are there temporarily and will stop you from feeling relaxed and at peace in your new home. If, for whatever reason, some boxes need to stay packed for now as you don’t need their contents out immediately, store them out of sight, rather than simply piling them in the corner of your bedroom. Put pictures up on the walls and arrange your personal mementos around the rooms. The house will feel much cosier straight away.

Real Life Example: We don’t have as many bookshelves in our rented flat in Italy as in our flat back in the UK. Plus, I have boxes and boxes stuffed with craft supplies for hobbies I have gotten really enthusiastic about only to abandon a few months down the line. All those are neatly tucked in a section of one of the huge wardrobes which are typical in Italian homes. So, I know where they are, if I suddenly need them, but in the meantime they are out of sight.

3. Establish A Routine

A brand new environment can easily overwhelm you to the point where you would rather stay in than venture outside. If you still don’t know a soul and your partner is at work all day, the impetus to close the curtains and simply veg all day on the sofa watching TV or browsing the internet can be too strong to resist. For your own good, you need to nip such attitudes in the bud. Come up with a simple daily and weekly routine which will make you get out of the house. Pinpoint a day for food shopping, a day to visit a local museum or other place of interest, a day to be physical either with house chores or at the gym, a day to go for a walk in the park, a day to do something for yourself that you have always wanted to do, but never found the time and the courage for. Although simple, treat such appointments seriously and don’t cancel on yourself. A basic initial routine will help you feel settled in your new place and you can start to slowly expand on it by adding more activities.

Real Life Example: When we moved to Italy and after unpacking our stuff, I was faced with rather long days with not much to do but look after our little daughter, cook and, when she was asleep, read a book. I was bored out of my mind pretty quickly and had it not been for our child, I might have been tempted to simply stay in on most days and just read the news online. Slowly I established a simple routine and filled in my schedule with exploratory walks around town to run errands and practice my photography skills. Then I started my blog to jot down some Italian memories and things grew from there to the point that I now keep myself fairly busy. Firstly (and most importantly) with my daughter, and then by researching, photographing and writing plus doing several other things.

4. Introduce Yourself To The Neighbours

Good neighbours are worth their weight in gold and you can double this when you have just arrived in a new country where you know no-one. Try to introduce yourself to your neighbours or at least make sure you know who they are. Having people near you who are friendly or at least civil can be very reassuring and creates a sense of community. Even if your neighbours do not become your best friends or turn out to be not very pleasant as people, try to maintain a polite relationship as you don’t need extra worries when you are just settling into a new environment.

Real Life Example: In all my years in England I never had really nice neighbours. You know, the type that invite you round for a coffee or look after your plants and your mail when you go away. At best, we would pass on the street quietly ignoring each other. I think this is typical for people in larger cities. Our neighbours in Vicenza are very warm-hearted. They always greet us on the street, pop open their windows for a little chat when they see us passing outside and once, when we managed to lock ourselves out of the house right before leaving for Treviso for the day, they were happy to safeguard the spare keys which our landlord dropped off during the day.

5. Start Building A Support Network

Hopefully your neighbours will be the first pillar of your new support network, but you mustn’t stop there. It’s difficult to make friends in a brand new country, especially if you don’t know its language very well or at all. Still, you need to make an effort to meet new people and create a social circle which will be there for you in times of need. Start by joining different groups of interests both online and offline. If you have children, chat to the other parents at playgrounds and/or the school gate. If you are a stay at home parent and your partner works, then ask him/her to enquire if any of his/her colleagues’ spouses would like to join you for a coffee, a craft class or other event. Join locally organised language, art or other classes. Read local blogs and email the blogger politely asking for pointers on local groups and places where people meet. Be proactive. In some cultures it’s very difficult to approach strangers and strike a conversation with them, whereas in others things are much more sociable. Make sure that you are aware of local cultural norms and proceed from there. The more people you meet, the more chances you will get to find some new best friends. Don’t be put off if some people are not receptive to you. Others will be pleased to become your friend.

Real Life Example: When we moved to Vicenza, I really wanted to make friends. I joined several local groups on Facebook, focused on travel, photography and stay at home mums and tried to be as friendly and nice as possible, hoping that soon I would have a close gaggle of girlfriends to socialise with. Unfortunately, in one of these cases, the friendlier and the more polite I was with the members of the respective group, the more detached they became. I even organised a party for them and their kids at home, only for a few of them to turn up and completely ignore me during the whole event. They spoke between themselves, but I was excluded, and, yes, this was happening in my own home. I felt really upset about it, but I also realised that sometimes we can’t please everyone. A few days later I got to know a really great girl who has become a good friend. So, you will lose some and you will win some. The important thing is to be yourself and keep the good tone.

6. Establish Boundaries With Regards To Local Culture

In other words – get to know the local cultural traditions and norms, show respect for them and see how you can adapt yourself to them without going against your values and the law. I have met a number of people who have moved to a new country and have felt like fish out of water. They have staunchly refused to familiarise with the local way of things, all the while grumpily stating that things back home are so much better. They fall into the seductive trap of always complaining of and ridiculing their new surroundings. Well, if you have made the effort of moving abroad (irrespective of your reasons), it would be nice not to waste time idealising your own culture and diminishing the local one. At the same time, I wouldn’t applaud the opposite attitude either, where you completely adopt the new culture to the point of losing your national identity. A balance needs to be struck, so as to enjoy your stay abroad, learn about a different way of life and at the same time, preserve who you are and, if possible, develop as a person.

Real Life Example: I adopted several British traits during my time living there. For example, I started thinking of distances in terms of the time it would take to get from point A to point B, rather than the actual number of kilometers between the two. I also started talking obsessively about the weather, apologise first if someone bumped into me on the street and generally being much less boisterous. On the other hand, there are several Bulgarian traits I would always stick to. For example, I hate people coming into my house wearing shoes. In Bulgaria we take our shoes off at the door! I have never had any qualms about asking people to take their shoes off or provide them with plastic shoe covers. I think the only time I had to forcibly stop myself from doing it was when two policemen rang the bell wanting to ask questions about a big fight that had happened on the busy London street where I  lived at the time. I invited them in and had to bite my tongue about them coming in still wearing their shoes. As my boyfriend (now husband) explained it to me: ‘They are policemen. Imagine if they get called by the dispatcher and need to leave straight away. You don’t want them to waste time tying their shoelaces up.’

7. Learn the Local Language

If you don’t speak the local language and haven’t made an effort to learn at least a few phrases before moving abroad, now is the time to try to develop your linguistic competence. You may be a native speaker of a really popular language and the locals may always stop you when you are out and about so as to practice their knowledge of your language with you. You may not feel the need to speak the local language, as you only socialise with your own compatriots even though you have chosen to live abroad. Whatever excuses you may be coming with in your mind, it is time to simply throw them aside. Speaking the local language even on a basic level will make your life so much easier in the new place you call home. Imagine being able to explain what you are looking for in a shop, ask the baker for the right type of bread and react accordingly when people approach you on the street (they may be politely telling you that you have dropped something rather than trying to scam you, as your first thought they may be). Join a language learning class, get an app, listen to local radio, chat with locals at every opportunity, memorise new words, try to learn some grammar. It will all be of great help to you just when you need it.

Real Life Example: I am a linguist by education and profession and I speak Bulgarian (native tongue), English, Spanish and Portuguese. On the other hand my Italian is shamelessly basic. I have always thought that you need to speak a language perfectly to be able to communicate in it. I have been proved wrong. With my broken Italian I have been able to order the right coffee, chat to people at trade exhibitions whilst researching blog posts and even, when my husband was urgently admitted to hospital a few weeks ago, to speak to the doctor and ask him to help my husband. I am trying to improve my Italian, but at the same time, the little I know has been so useful!

8. Delve into Local Life

Go to the local tourist information centre and collect all the leaflets and brochures you can get hold of. Organise days out, weekend trips or simply endless visits to local museums and festivals. Eat local food. Go to the theatre – yes, even if you don’t understand a word of the performance. Book a ticket for a concert. Explore relentlessly. Get to know your new country better than the locals. They have had all their life to accumulate layers and layers of cultural and historical knowledge. You need to condense it into weeks or months. Learn as much as you can about the country. This will help you understand better its customs and its people. It will also give you great opportunities to expand your horizons and evolve as a person.

Real Life Example: We took our little daughter to see a production of the ‘Three Piglets’ in a theatre in Vicenza. It was all in Italian! We didn’t understand every single word, nor every single nuance of the performance. We loved it! We could observe the audience and their reactions. It was like a second show running alongside the main one. It was a great cultural immersion.

9. Put Your Paperwork In Order

Make sure that all paperwork is dealt with on time. If you need to apply for a visa, a permit or any other local document, keep all the relevant papers and files in order. Whilst at this, organise your medical, car and insurance documents, too. If anything needs translating, don’t put it off. Sooner or later you will need all this, so better have it ready now. If you can’t face dealing with it, delegate the task to someone else.

Real Life Example: I am truly bad at dealing with papers and keeping them in order and up to date. Hence, I have made the wise decision to delegate it all to my husband. His organisational skills are superb!

10. Give Yourself Time

Go easy on yourself. Moving abroad is a big upheaval. Starting your life from scratch requires a lot of mental and physical strength. Problems can easily arise on so many levels. So, take it one day at the time and if you need a day or even an hour off, indulge in it and even add it to the schedule I talked about earlier. You have deserved it! Don’t despair if things don’t go according to plan for quite some time. Neither feel like a failure if a new potential friend rejects you, the local language turns out to be really difficult to learn or it takes you months to finish unpacking all the stuff that you lugged abroad. Things will eventually start happening for you. Life will feel much more settled and the feeling of ‘being at home’ will manifest itself when you least expect it.
Real Life Example: I never truly felt ‘at home’ in England. I desperately missed the sun and I worked very hard for many years, so my social life lagged a bit. So far I love it here in Italy and, even though I don’t speak the language well and can’t communicate freely with the locals, I get a lovely homely feeling every time the owner of the local fruit and veg shop or the local bakery says ‘Ciao!‘ to me, when I explore Vicenza  and its many delights, when we are off on a day trip in our little red car and above all when we get back home in the evenings to our Italian flat.

Seychelles Mama

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