I’ve never been to Rome, but I have been around the block in a few different countries. And I’m a mom, so doling out advice is in my job description. So 2 plus 2 equals 12, right? Often I will come across something which I tuck away in the over-stuffed, messy Filofax that is my brain to use later. An anecdote, an experience, a panic-stricken moment of not knowing where to go as the train is pulling into the station, a look of blank incomprehension as I try to pronounce something Danish. As we just passed our year-anniversary Copenhagen, I thought it would be timely to post my bits and pieces of advice for surviving your first year abroad.
Stop Doing Math
Remember sitting in trig class in high school and thinking, am I ever REALLY going to have to calculate the tangent of an angle?? (SohCahToa anyone?) I am about to make your dreams come true. You can stop doing math. And by math, I mean stop calculating Dollars to Euro to Sterling to Yen in your head. Chances are that where ever you’ve moved, things are about five times more expensive than you expect them to be. 7 USD for a cup of mediocre coffee? You’ll get used to it. Or you’ll be so desperate for it after trying to find whipping cream in the super-market that you won’t blink an eye.
This one is especially true for American ex-pats, where the highest denomination of coinage is a measly $0.25. I don’t even think it’s enough to make a phone call any more. But in lots of other places, those coins add up. In Denmark, you get coins up to 20 DKK. That’s almost $3.50. Practically half a cup of coffee! So don’t ignore the shrapnel. Save up enough of it, you may be able to buy your friends a cup of coffee too.
Don’t worry about finding a BFF, but find a few Fs
Remember those girls you hated in high school? The ones that hated you right back? They’re going to be your new best friends.
When you are thrown together into a new and confusing environment, everyone is starting off on equal footing. You’ll meet people who would not have given you the time of day way back when. Maybe you even looked down your punk rock nose at them as well. Doesn’t matter. A lot of times you won’t have anything in common with another ex-pat other than the fact that you are in the same place at the same time. But just like new moms love to tell stories of labor pains and stitches, ex-pats trade stories and information. And sometimes, there’s a real gem hidden in there. A good doctor referral, the number of a babysitter, how to navigate the quirks of the local electricity board. Where to find a cheap cup of coffee. Make friends with everyone and anyone. You may not meet your BFF in that first year, but you’ll be less lonely. And you never know, you may find out they liked you way back in high school anyway but were too scared of your mohawk to approach you.
Don’t get hung up on Please and Thank you
Cultural norms vary. It can be difficult getting used to the fact that you may have moved to a place where someone cheerfully lets the door slam in your face or elbows their way into a queue without a backward glance. Or looks at you with horror when you casually ask “How are you?” I know, I know–it doesn’t take much to give a nod of appreciation when you let someone out into traffic, a quick two finger raise off the wheel, a smile, a “fine, and you?”. But in a lot of places, it’s just not done. No harm is meant, but I can tell you first hand that it’s infuriating. As my mother used to ask, were they raised in a barn? I promise no one is intentionally setting out to make your life miserable, it’s just different. But barring a situation that would put you in contempt of courtesy, don’t let it stop you from minding your manners. Keep on with your pleases and your thank yous. You won’t be here/there forever, right? Pretend your mom is listening.
Wear nice socks
When in doubt, take em off. Shoes, that it. Use other people’s behavior as a guideline. If there’s a big ole’ pile of shoes by the door, don’t saunter into the classroom in your new Marc Jacob heels, no matter how fabulous they may be and what a great deal you got on them at DSW. Depending on where you are, it can range from slightly rude and messy to downright blasphemous to keep your shoes on. So make sure your socks match your outfit, your tights don’t have holes in them or pack a pair of bunny slippers. When in doubt, ask your host. It is better to be seen as slightly ignorant of a local custom than to mortally offend, not to mention mark up those lovely reclaimed wood floors with your heels.
If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all
We all have our complaints. The weather, cultural differences, having people up your ass all the time, the language complexity. But although we call this place home for a while, we are essentially, guests. And most of us on a ex-pat package, let’s face it, have a pretty easy time of it. Sure, the beef doesn’t taste the same as it does back home. You can’t import Marmite because it is fortified, a stamp costs $2.40 and a tank of gas sets you back about $100. But when you’re tempted to stop and complain, stop and think. You are living, and living well, in someone else’s country. Their home. Take your shoes off, accept the expensive coffee, and if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Remember the Grass is often Greener
Sure, we miss out on a lot by living away from home. But we get to experience some amazing things as well. When you are uploading the latest trip pictures to Facebook, remember that a lot of people aren’t going to remember that you don’t get to have Sunday family dinners or have Nana watch the kids for a weekend. Living away from family is always a trade-off, but when your snow shoveling friends back in Buffalo are seeing pictures of your family frolicking on the sandy beaches of Phuket, sometimes it’s hard to remember.
Keep in Touch
Social media sites are great for keeping in touch, but on a superficial level. Make the effort and take the time to keep in touch with those handful of people you really care about. Pick up the phone, send a letter or a card, even a nice e-mail as long as the rest of your contact list isn’t bcc’ed on it. Sure, it’s difficult and time-consuming to get set up in a new place, hard to make new friends and get the kids re-settled every few years, which is why it’s even more important to keep feeding those ties back home. They are the ones you will be relying on if/when you do move back home.
Enjoy it while it lasts
Some families have signed up for a lifetime of this nomadic life-style. But others do so for a limited time. A year sabbatical, a two-year contract. Whatever your frame, enjoy your time. You are getting the chance of a lifetime to immerse yourself in a new country, a new culture. To see new places, learn new things, re-invent yourself. Make the most of it and enjoy it while it lasts. Someday you may even look back and laugh at having had all those people up your ass the whole time.
You never know.