“How do you do it?” people ask. Sometimes they are referring to my seeming ability to pack my life into two suitcases and move back home after months overseas (answer: I don’t possess this ability. The last day before any such move is mostly spent yelling the title of my blog in a very loud and menacing voice which is supposed to make said suitcase magically materialize from my closet and pack and drive itself to the airport without further ado. If you REALLY want a description of the madness preceding my moves which results from my inborn conviction that there are so many things more worth doing on my last day in a country than meditating on which shirt deserves to cross the Atlantic with me, click here.)
Most of the time they ask me about how I can do the months overseas, battling foreign languages, homesickness, intricate European tax laws and worst of all, the metric system.
I’ve compiled a list of suggestions which isn’t comprehensive; I haven’t (yet!) travelled and lived all over the world, mostly just in different countries in Europe, and most of them French-speaking, which is a category of its own. But I do think I’ve developed a skill for adapting to new environments and learning how to grow roots wherever I am planted, or rather, wherever I plant myself. These “Expat Survival Rules” can be applied pretty much to anyone who moves to a completely different city or country and tries to figure out what he/she is doing there, and why.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some thoughts on how to make an easier transition to a new country.
Rule No. 1: If you don’t know the language, learn it. This seems to be a no-brainer, but not for Americans traveling overseas who have a tendency to expect people in other countries to speak English. After all, haven’t we been exporting ourselves over the years with desperate intensity, from the Simpsons to Jersey Shore to Dan Brown to Starbucks? Shouldn’t they have learned our language already? Well, surprisingly enough, you will find it much easier to communicate and make friends if you actually make an effort to speak the local language. I know this is not feasible for short-term assignments but I really do not understand a person going to a country for 6 months or more and not even trying to learn the local language. You miss out on so much when you don’t understand most of what is going on around you!
How to do this:
Learning a new language does not have to be as costly as shelling out hundreds of dollars for the newest, improved version of Rosetta Stone. There are free websites with materials available for every language from Arabic to Swahili, never mind the millions of French websites where you can learn more than just je t’aime or fromage. My personal favorite is LiveMocha which is like a virtual café; you can get input from other members on your writing and speaking skills and follow basic courses without ever getting up from your computer. LiveMocha is a community effort where you can not only take, but give of your language knowledge by rating other people’s submissions in your native tongue.
Once you have arrived onsite, I do suggest scouting out local cafes for language exchange evenings, where you can meet people willing to speak their native language if you will speak yours. The Internet also provides a wonderful resource in the shape of many conversation exchange websites like Totalingua or My Language Exchange; you find someone willing to practice French, and in exchange you speak English with them. This can be as formal and regulated as you wish, with lesson plans and vocabulary preparation, or as informal as chatting about your hobbies over a cup of tea. The advantage of such sites is that you meet ‘real’ locals who can help you burst the expat bubble by introducing you to their favorite places in their native town; if you hit if off really well, you will soon be exchanging music CDs or youtubing your favorite artists and you might even get invited to elite aperitifs where you will discover yourself to be the only foreigner, or visiting your exchange partner in his house on the Cote d’Azur years after you part ways. Needless to say, this kind of cultural and linguistic immersion is something you would never find in a classroom setting; the friendships that sprout are incredible.
It may be because I am a self-avowed language enthusiast that I simply don’t believe it is possible to explore and uncover gems about a country and its people if there is a tangible barrier between you in the shape of words you don’t understand. Marcel Proust said that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes”, but I think what he really meant was “hearing with new ears” and with the wealth of free resources the Internet provides, there is no excuse for not learning at least the basics of the language when you move to a foreign country.