10 TIPS for MAKING IT as an EXPAT
Whether you’re still toying with the idea of leaving the roost, just getting on your feet, or already well versed in the ways of life overseas, this is for you. Although my time living overseas has been less than a year, Dan and I have come to understand what’s been key to making our lives in Heidelberg more than a foreign vacation destination but our home. There have been lessons – lots and lots of them – but let me save YOU the trouble so you can learn from our hardships without having to deal with your own.
Here are 10 tips for MAKING it as an expat:
1 | Nest
We were fortunate to be able to ship all of our possessions across the Atlantic, which might not be the case for some. Undoubtedly, having these items from home made the transition from a cold barren space to a warm cozy apartment. If you’re limited in your packing, I recommend you bring along your own bedding, favorite mugs, and of course, pictures of your nearest and dearest. Take a tour of our apartment here!
2 | Slingbox
I’ll say it – we aren’t TV people. I’ve always been one to instead a small handful of go-to shows (ahem, Nashville, Mod Fam, New Girl, Shark Tank..). I can say though, Slingbox has been one of the most important tools for not feeling a world away. After spending the day eating schnitzel and navigating the autobahn, it’s great to flip on House Hunters International and chill out. Ask Dan how much he LOVED watching March Madness last month, I dare you.
How it works: Dan’s friend has an extra cable/DVR box at his house in Arlington with Fios service. Before leaving we purchased a Slingbox (approx. $200, and looks like cable box) and connected it to the spare cable/DVR box at John’s house. The Slingbox is also is connected to our friend’s internet router. In Germany we log into the Slingbox website and use the Slingbox as a bridge to connect to the cable/DVR box, therefore accessing the same television programming we would in Arlington.
- Why it’s awesome: I haven’t missed one episode of Nashville (I love you Connie Britton!). Dan’s Sunday Football ritual has remained untouched with the perk of the games starting of 7PM instead of 1PM.
3 | Skype and FaceTime
The concept of talking face-to-face with someone on the other side of the planet for free 5 years ago would have been out of the Jetson’s. Skype and FaceTime allow for just that and I thank my luckiest stars for it.
How it works: Skype – download the software off of skype.com and create a Skype user account. Advise your favorites to do the same, simply log-in, select your contact and click ‘Video Call’. FaceTime – for Apple product owners FaceTime is an alternative method of calling someone who also has an Apple product and can be designated under the Contact information. Both users need to be connected to wifi.
Why it’s awesome: By talking face-to-face, seeing expressions, outfits, or even a tour of my parent’s new kitchen makes a world of a difference from a boring old voice call. I schedule Skype sessions with my sister and parents ever Sunday and spend hours chatting away with them as though we’re sitting in my parents living room.
4 | Meetup and InterNations
The former sorority girl in me, I dread doldrums in my social calendar. When I first arrived in June 2013, I lived in a hotel for nearly a month. I knew that if I didn’t get out and start making friends I would be lonely and eventually second-guess my decision. Meetup and InterNations are geared towards everyone – expats and locals alike – and are basically social networking sites that encourage members to create and attend activities and events.
How it works:
Meetup – with chapters in nearly every major city worldwide, there are numerous activity groups that are linked with each chapter. For example, in Heidelberg I’m a Meetup member of ‘Heidelberg Hiking’ and ‘Heidelberg Dining Expats’ among others. Each week there are multiple events planned by fellow members and in which I can choose to attend. Free to join, meetup.com just requires you to create a user profile. Once the profile is created you can then join the various activity groups that strike your fancy.
InterNations – similar to Meetup, the InterNations website is a bit more organized. InterNations also relies on members to create events but InternNations representatives also host members-only events. For example, in Heidelberg I attended two InterNations functions on a floating bar on the Neckar river. Both nights were awesome – live music, good drinks and fun people. Upon arrival everyone was given a preprinted nametag featuring a small picture of their home country flag, this obviously aided with learning names but also promoted conversation. InterNations does have various membership levels but from my experience, the free basic account meets the purpose.
Why it’s awesome: Since moving to Heidelberg in August, Dan and I have made a handful of great friends- ALL of them via Meetup or InterNations.
5 | Snapchat
Comparable to texting, Snapchat allows users to send pictures and videos via data instead of using Voice/Text plan from your service provider.
How it works: Download the SnapChat app, create a user account and allow SnapChat to access your contact list. The app will then identify any contacts with SnapChat accounts and add them to your SnapChat contact list. Extremely basic, it’s just the case of taking an image/video (or importing one from your phone’s library), add a doodle or text then click the contact name to send. One catch though, upon receipt you’ll only be able to view pictures or video once for a specific amount of time, typically 10 seconds.
Why it’s awesome: Sometimes staying in touch isn’t about being in the loop on every last one of life’s ups and downs, instead getting a 10 second video clip of a friend singing Beyonce while stuck in traffic makes me feel right at home.
6 | Plan a trip home (very obvious)
When we first arrived in August, I quickly found flights for our trip back home over the holidays, 50% because of the cost savings for booking in advance and 50% because I just had to.
How it works: Consider trips home when you calculate out your available Paid Time Off. Setup a daily kayak.com notification and once the price is right, go for it – even if that means it’s a year down the road.
Why it’s awesome: During our low days (i.e. driving an hour to Ikea only to find out it’s closed on Sundays) our trip home has been the light at the end of our schnitzel-filled tunnel.
7 | Learn the basics of the native language
For us, it’s German, known for it’s longggg words and confusing conjugations. We’re very fortunate to reside in a university town so the majority of the population knows English. Sure, we can navigate the roads, ask for an English menu, and get by – but we’d be missing out on a heck of a lot of culture. Perhaps more frustrating though, the place we visit nearly everyday doesn’t have a thing written in English – the grocery store. We literally used lard for two months thinking it was margarine. We had eaten a tub of lard.
My recommendations for learning German (or any language):
Duolingo – A FREE app that consists of multiple levels of word recognition, pronunciation, and audio GAMES. Dan plays nearly every day because he actually just enjoys it (I think). Even if you’re just toying with the idea of learning another language, give Duolingo a try.
Rosetta Stone – Software package with up to 5 levels (beginner to advanced) of language instruction. The logic behind Rosetta Stone is that you’re learning just as you would as a child – it’s not like high school Spanish class when you associated your English word with the equivalent in another language (“Carro” is “Car”…oh I get it). From the first minute, the only words you see and hear (aside from directions) are in the chosen language. To boot, it’s not cheap but definitely considered to be the leading language software.
8 | Whatsapp
There’s a great chance you’ve already heard of this app, if not, download it now. It’s the messaging service for foreigners and locals alike, especially in Europe.
How it works: Using data instead of cell service, Whatsapp allows you to send text, picture, video and audio messages to anyone else with Whatsapp anywhere. It’s as simple as downloading the app, creating an account and using your contact list to find buddies that also have the app.
- One tip – once we switched over to German phone numbers I couldn’t find a lot of friends that I knew had downloaded the app. I later realized that their numbers were stored in my phone in the format that I had used in the States 123-123-1234, which isn’t compatible with German numbers. Once I modified their numbers to +1 123-123-1234 (adding the US country code ‘1’ at the beginning) the contacts displayed properly in Whatsapp.
Why it’s awesome: Because sometimes you just need to see if that bridesmaid dress matches the groomsmen’s tie or need to taunt your sister with pictures of a Heidelberg sunset… (just me?)
9 | Travel
The world is your oyster – whether it’s just down the road or another country, go, go, go. If you’re in Europe, check RyanAir, local bus and train routes or extra-cheap car share programs and do everything in your power to explore the new land around you. This is one of the reasons you moved right? I promise, your homesick blues will be quickly cured if you’re on a gourmet food tasting tour in Paris.
10 | Embrace your new home
This new place, wherever it may be, is your residence and hopefully a place you’ll be happy to call home. Save yourself the heartache and vow to these three simple rules:
Don’t fight it. You’re not going to change a culture. The social norms are different and YOU need to adjust accordingly. As an expat, the goal is to blend, fighting the system isn’t a battle you will win. For me, though it might sound trivial, I’ve struggled with the independence of the German community. A gal from what most would define as the South, I really like greeting passersby and chatting with neighbors. That’s just not how things operate here though, people keep to themselves, and it’s something I’ve just had to deal with. My innocent inquisitive nature was actually making people uncomfortable.
Don’t compare it. There will be a point when you realize that the majority of conversations revolve around comparing your new home with the one you left. Try your best to avoid this. Although it seems harmless, you’ll realize over and over again, that it’s not beneficial. Are you trying to prove that one place is better than another? Why?
Don’t judge it. It’s different, for more reasons than you’ll EVER know or understand, but that’s okay. No community is perfect – the one you left nor the new one.
Did I miss anything?! Do you have any extra advice for new and current expats?