How to make the most of your expat life.
In all our wanders, we still feel like strangers in a strange land every time we go some place new. Expat life can be challenging. That outsider feeling is daunting, particularly if you’ve relocated for a job or plan to stay long-term.
Everyday things you took for granted now involve a lot more time and effort. A simple trip to the grocery store can become an all-day excursion. Instead of sight seeing, you may find yourself in basic survival mode. Trying to communicate. Using different money. Figuring out public transportation. These street skills are a necessity not only if you plan on getting around independently, but if you want to fully immerse yourself in the local culture.
We find the most rewarding way to acclimate to a new country is to connect with people and develop a sense of community. After all, this new country is now your new home – whether for 2 weeks or 2 years.
Having just returned from three months in Rome, here are 6 tips for feeling at home abroad:
1. Learn the language
Even a 24-hour trip warrants learning a few basics in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s true, many people speak English around the world, but a simple “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” can go a long way in opening up doors to new experiences. We knew we’d be eating out a lot in Rome so we learned how to say, Sono sazio/a (“I’m full”). At the end of every meal, we said it with such gusto that we always managed to get a laugh out of our unsuspecting server. More often than not, they’d start a conversation with us in English and maybe even provide some insider tips. This simple, shared interaction better connected us to locals and made for a much more rewarding experience.
2. Become a regular somewhere
If you have a go-to spot back home where everybody knows your name, find the equivalent abroad. Whether it’s a bar, coffee shop, bookstore or market, there’s something nice about seeing familiar faces on a regular basis. In Rome, we got our American football fix by frequenting Scholars Irish Pub known for its Sunday game nights. What made the scene even more interesting is that they also aired international soccer games. So while hanging out with crazy American football fans, we were also exposed to crazy soccer fans from all over Europe. Additionally, we befriended a Turkish server (attending grad school in Rome) who waited on us every week and knew exactly which beers we liked.
3. Seek out other expats
In practically every city in the world, you can find some type of expat community. Getting together with other expats doesn’t take away from the local experience, but instead, enhances it. Chances are this is where you’ll learn where to go for the most authentic meal in town, the best deal on groceries, and a fun daytrip that you’d otherwise not know about. Expats tend to bond quickly because everyone’s in the same boat, trying to navigate a world that’s totally unfamiliar to them. In Rome, we joined Expats Living in Rome, which offered weekly aperitivos among other events, and practical information like house rentals and employment.
4. Join a local gym
Many gyms, fitness centers and yoga studios offer new student specials and temporary memberships. Getting into a regular exercise routine is a great way to be a part of a community and also stay fit abroad. We tried out a couple of places in Rome, before landing at Zem Yoga Studio. Classes here are offered in both Italian and English to a mix of locals and visiting tourists by instructors from all over the world. Owner Amity Neumeister teaches a community class at a reduced rate every Friday to encourage more new people to come out. She even sets time aside at the beginning of class to allow people to introduce themselves and get to know one another.
5. Find others with similar interests
The beauty of online social networking sites like Meetup.com and Facebook Groups is that they allow people from all over the world to find one another through common interests. Whether you’re into arts, sports or bar-hopping, there’s a group for practically every interest. We knew we’d be abroad during Women’s March 2019, so it was important that we find a way to get involved in some way. After contacting the Rome chapter, we were able to contribute our branding and marketing skills to the event, learn about current politics in Rome, and meet a wonderful, diverse group of people all fighting the good fight.
6. Attend community events
Community events are a wonderful way to gain insight into the local culture. Any museum, library, or church will likely have offerings, but also check if any global organizations might have local affiliates. Back home, we’re part of CreativeMornings, a breakfast lecture series with over 200 chapters worldwide. Every chapter offers a free monthly event where a local speaker talks on a pre-selected theme. We had the opportunity to attend a couple of the Rome chapter events. In doing so, we enjoyed an educational tour by Invisible Guides through Trastavere, learning about the neighborhood from the perspective of immigrants; and also got to visit the incredible Roma Tattoo Museum.
Bottom line: what you put into your efforts abroad is what you’ll get out of them. So dust off your introvert pants and put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to try different things and get out of your comfort zone. Each situation is an opportunity to learn, connect with people and feel like an integrated part of your new home. Eventually, you’ll get into a rhythm and what was once a land of strangers will become a place where friends have not yet met.