There is always a buzz that comes with moving to a new country. So many new challenges lie ahead. New possibilities. New prospects.
It usually starts in a hotel. A period of a small number of days or weeks – where, like a goldfish in a new bowl, in water of a different temperature, you make the slow transition to your new surroundings. You might be exhausted – the journey you have just made might have taken a few hours, or maybe the best part of a full day. Let’s not forget that you’ve been carrying bags and suitcases across a continent!
You’ll remember the first walk – the very first time when you drop your bags off and step outside on a street you’ve never walked up before – listen to the voices in a language you inevitably know nothing about. But that will come. Feel the weather – it’s different from home. Bit colder. Much hotter. Wow, it’s humid here! Smell the food – I must try that soon…
For me, this experience has always been a variation of a theme. I am now possibly even used to arriving in a strange land – to date, I have set off to live in Germany, Portugal, Spain, Russia, Bulgaria, Vietnam and Italy – a not insignificant number of countries. By now, the fundamental difficulties and challenges that come with moving abroad are a strange kind of routine. They can even be fun…
After a while, the hotel loses its novelty. You want your *own* bed. To cook a meal. To make a place your own. And, above all, to *finally* get all your stuff unpacked and cease living out of suitcases!
The process of finding a place to rent can be fraught with difficulties. If you are lucky, you will have support from your new employer, a friend who you already know, or perhaps a helpful local who eagerly dispenses advice. If you are left in the hands of an agent, or perhaps left to fend for yourself, you may be in for a fun ride.
1. Flats in other countries do not necessarily contain things that you cannot imagine living without at home. Bulgarian flats very rarely have a bathtub. A shower cubicle can even be a luxury. Expect a wet-room – and expect wet feet if you intend to use your toilet in the hours following a shower.
2. Prices can range from the surprisingly steep to the downright strange. A good few hundred Euros a month in a quiet area might guarantee a certain level of quality in your mind, but in reality you should always expect anything when viewing a place. Expect the strangest configurations, attic conversions seemingly designed for people who intend never to fully stand up, kitchens so small that you cannot fully open cupboard doors, and sofa beds. Oh God, the sofa beds…
3. The ‘norm’ for deposits when renting a place varies from country to country – sometimes you’ll pay a full month up front, while other places claim two months’ worth is normal. Be prepared to fork out. Either take plenty of cash with you, or ask your new bosses really nicely!
4. Agents can be creative in interpreting what you want from a place. This is not always a linguistic issue.
5. But when you finally find a place you can see yourself being comfortable in for the duration, it’s a great feeling. And you can really start living your new life.
The first supermarket shop is always fun. Top Tip: Always learn the word for ‘carrier bag’ in your new language, or at least be prepared to mime if you need one. Borsa, Tüte, Saco, Пакет… you’ll need it! In fact, miming and ‘acting’ in whichever way you can to get your message across becomes surprisingly natural when stumbling through a new vocabulary.
If you live in a small town or neighbourhood, the staff at your local shops, cafes, supermarkets will get to know you very quickly. I often find that they are the people with whom I ‘test out’ a new word or phrase at the start of a stay in a new country. Just learned how to say ‘I would like’ instead of ‘I want’? Now’s your chance! Just picked up a new way to say goodbye to people? Go for it! And if you are really lucky, they will see your linguistic dexterity flourish as you pick up new words and grammar week after week!
Of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to try out your new language as soon as possible. I’ll go into my preferred ways of learning new words in another post in the future, but it is always a good idea to go out with a few basic phrases already in mind. Never assume people speak English and presume to use it as your first line of communication – personally, I dislike this mentality in any country where your own language is not their mother tongue. Although I do often find that a large number of people speak English, and they are often extremely modest about their level of English, it should be a last resort. I often spend a few weeks repeating the same ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand’ or, better, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t speak (language) very well yet, but I’m learning!’, but that rarely lasts long.
Supermarkets are also a great place to pick up a language’s numbers quite quickly, as cashiers will inevitably read out the price of your shopping once they have scanned everything through. You also get to know which words are really worth learning and which ones are not. I have been asked in a great number of languages whether I have a loyalty card to a particular supermarket, and yet I cannot remember for the life of me the word!
I have a thing for exploring every street of a new town. It may happen slowly over time, or it may occur in a 20km burst one day when you discover an array of new cafes, shops and sights to return to at some time. Either way, there’s nothing quite like exploring a new home for the first time and seeing what’s in store.
There are also a couple of stages to getting to know a new place. One is the transition from how you imagined it would be to how it really is. I always Google a place before I move, and therefore have a pretty good idea of what a town will look like before I arrive. It always looks different to how you imagined it when you actually get there, however.
Another stage is going out and getting lost, before continuing to walk until you reconnect with a place you have already explored. “Where the hell am I? – OH! There’s that shop I saw the other day! I know where I am now!” Toledo, Spain, was a great place for this. I lived in the old town (the Casco) and it was so easy to get lost down some small maze of streets before connecting with one you have already explored and seeing it from a brand new perspective.
Why You’re Really There
With any luck though, you’ll have quickly found a cosy place to live, have a grasp of the bare bones of the language (survival phrases, literally), and be becoming familiar with your surroundings. Then the real fun starts.
After a while, you’ll have visited your new school for the first time, met your new coworkers, met a few more locals and even started communicating fairly fluently in the local language. You surprise yourself, and get taught a few of the ‘local’ dialect words that you’ll probably only use to get a laugh from people.
You’ll have been out for a few drinks, sampled the local food, seen what places people prefer to go to and probably got bloody ill at some point (be it the food or new, foreign germs that your body has never encountered before). But after a while, you find your routine, the dust settles, and you get into the unique rhythm that your new location and circumstances offer.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that the first two weeks hold some kind of strange mysticism; an atmosphere or something that cannot be replicated in the months or years that follow. You reflect on the initial days and weeks and they somehow seem different. Your memories of those streets that you explored for the first time seem somehow different to how you regard them now, even though they may not have physically changed. The many things you do on a daily basis you did for the first time in quick succession, and often with great difficulty. But the memory of it all never leaves you, and however wonderful or weird your life turns out to be in your new adventure, you will always once have been that guy who once accidentally used the word ‘is’ instead of ‘and’ for a week because they’re so bloody similar in Portuguese, or lifted both arms in the air and shuffled them about to indicate that you wished to purchase a carrier bag.
And you’ll always remember that there are millions of people who will not have experienced what you did. Because this isn’t a holiday, and the littlest experiences will form the basis of a bank of anecdotes that you, and only you, will keep for the rest of your life.