I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.
When you are living in the city you’ve grown up in, there is a lot that you take for granted. Without ever being aware of their presence and without ever knowing what they do, day in and day out you see faces you have seen all your life. It may me the helper in the local grocery shop or the man who brings his kids to your neighbourhood park. You may not know them, but they’re familiar faces in a familiar place.
When you are living in the city you’ve grown up in, you’ve got it all figured out— from your doctor to your favourite restaurant— everything is on your tips. You’ve got your friends and your family and your sense of security.
But now you’re moving abroad and in one magnificent swoop, everything is gone.
You have to start over. Find a new doctor. A new salon. A new coffee shop.
Find new friends and create your life from the scratch.
It’s a nice fantasy to think that you will always be ready to boldly sprint through the cobbled streets of Paris (or any other city). But it is not realistic. If you’re like most people, you will spend the first few days doing what you absolutely have to do, then come home to the apartment you don’t recognise and feel sorry for yourself.
Moving abroad has been romanticised so much in popular culture, that expats feel immense pressure to present a rosy picture from the moment they land on foreign soil. But, the expat life doesn’t come without challenges and it almost never goes as planned. Things that might seem simple at home transform into nerve-wracking challenges when you’re struggling with a new language. You’re going to have to change how you do basic things and you’re going to have to be okay with that.
Bottom line: there is nothing wrong with being anxious, confused or scared. Making another city your home is not easy, and for the most of us it doesn’t happen on day one. It’s a process and it takes its time.
So I figured I would try to put together a list of things I did to make myself at home.
(I’m still in the process, by the way)
#1 Take initiative
One of the best things about moving abroad is that it forces you to take initiative. To go out, to voluntarily present yourself to people. If you stay holed-up in your new home, don’t reach out to people and don’t make things happen, then the isolation will stick around. Accept that isolation might be a temporary phase but sooner or later you will have to shake it off. Otherwise you run the risk of plunging deeper and deeper into the loop of hopelessness. And you don’t want that.
#2 Bring back the familiar
Make an effort to explore your neighbourhood, know your town and join some groups. Learn to find your way without google maps. Find good coffee shops. You don’t have to make huge commitments, just take baby steps, and very quickly the place will feel more familiar and those feelings of isolation will fade.
#3 Ditch FaceTime
Do not waste your weekends on FaceTime or Facebook. Waiting earnestly by the computer for old friends to contact you is neither attractive nor healthy when creating a new life for yourself. You want to stay connected to your past, but it can totally stunt your social growth in the life you’re currently living if you spend every waking minute talking to people back home.
#4 Make friends from other nationalities
Do not ignore people from other nationalities. The idea is to find your kind of people, people you have things in common with, not people from your nationality. If you are only going to stick around with people from your own country what is the point of moving abroad anyway.
I moved to Paris without really thinking about the consequences. I left my friends, family and my personal possessions back in India and came to Paris with a dream. I thought my life would undergo profound changes as soon as stepped out of Charles de Gaulle. That didn’t happen and I was shattered. For a long time I was even disappointed with myself (I still am). Understand that the transformation of unknown into known is a process that takes its own course and time.
In the end, an expat can have two homes or none. and it’s up to you to decide which way to go.
How was your experience of moving abroad?