On Becoming an Expat

La Vire in Autumn

Welcome to your beautiful new home! You know no one. Enjoy.

A new girl started at my office last week. She’s from Germany, and she’s wonderfully enthusiastic about everything. However, she just told me a story of how after going on a $300 Trader Joe’s shopping spree, she got to the register and her bank card wouldn’t work. She had no food, no phone, and now no money, and she just broke down at the register and started crying.

She’s fine now, of course. Her story got me thinking about my own first few weeks as an expat, and how incredibly difficult they were. So if you’re thinking of moving to a new country (especially if you’re doing it alone, as I did) here are some tips I hope will help.

Before you go:

1. Get your shit together This part is boring and annoying but so necessary. Save your money. Learn about the place you’re going. Pack what you need. Get all your paperwork in order. Ensure you have the necessary documents to get the things you need in your new country. (Moving to France? They need every document ever created about you since birth just to rent you an apartment. Have fun with that.) But be thorough, and get it done. Your future self will thank you when you’re not wandering the streets with your giant suitcases with nowhere to stay because you didn’t know you needed your birth certificate.

2. Research Ask people you know if they know anyone in the area, or at least within visiting distance to the area. Moving to the middle of nowhere, Normandy? Maybe someone knows someone in Paris. No one knows anyone? Look up organizations that are relevant to you–book clubs, running clubs, expat-in-France get-togethers. Correspond with people before you leave via social media. It’s scary to be alone in a country where you don’t know a soul. Acquaintances are better than no one–and the thing about these acquaintances, they can turn into friends.

3. Bring books Or something you can escape into during your stressful move, and upon arrival when life in your new country is inevitably lonely and overwhelming and scary.

When you arrive:

4. Find the grocery store (and wine store) Nothing is worse than being lost, exhausted, and also hungry. Buy food before you unpack. There was a point when I first arrived in Saint-Lô that I would have sworn a Nutella crepe and glass of kir literally saved my life, or at least my resolve not to run straight back to America. Food to fill you, wine to help you calm down.

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My first friends in France.

5. Walk Just walk around. Look at things, and not just the museums or landmarks that make wherever it is you moved to special. Wander into coffee shops, bars, down a country lane. I know all you want to do at this point is sit in your new apartment alone, emailing everyone you’ve left behind, but this doesn’t help. Trust me.

Les Vaches

My second friends in France. Par for the course in Normandy.

6. Talk to strangers So hard for introverts like me, but so necessary. Talk to your waitress. Your bartender. The person behind you at the grocery store. The overall friendliness of people depends on the location, but you will often find that there are at least a few people who won’t look at you like you’re insane (even in NYC!) If you’ve made contact with people before leaving, make plans to get together with them ASAP. Other people help immensely.

And the most important thing of all:

7. Don’t Leave You’ll want to so badly at the beginning. You’ll miss your old life. But like everything in life, acclimating oneself to a new environment takes time. Moving to a new country alone, leaving behind every single person and place and thing I’ve ever loved, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But also one of the most rewarding.

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I miss these guys.

10 thoughts on “On Becoming an Expat

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