This was originally published in the now defunct MakeItBlissful.com
I am not going to lie. I never dreamt of traveling and living in different cities all over the world. I was happily surfing weekends as a true blue island girl before my then-boyfriend decided to take the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) entrance exam. Life is funny that way. And just like that I went from surfer girl to diplowife!
I find the concept of uprooting and restarting our lives in a new country, with a foreign language and strange customs, quite daunting. Packing, making new friends, reorganizing (and consequently losing) stuff, finding new doctors are also equally terrifying. This is normal and I am not alone. Moving is considered to be the third most stressful situation we can be faced with and I do this every 2-3 years as an expat.
After two posts abroad – Jakarta and Berlin – I still get anxiety attacks and insomnia with upcoming milestones, like birthdays or Christmases, because it only reminds me of how far I am from family and lifelong friends. I don’t think the anxiety will every go away, but I’ve been following some tips to help me thrive despite the stresses of expat life. Here are some of them in no particular order:
1. Say “yes” to everything in the first 3-6 months
If it’s something that interests you, then you will meet new friends that share those interests. If you don’t find the invitation particularly attractive, at least try it; You might be surprised. Make sure to bring your spouse or a friend to stay safe.
No interest in horse racing? Say yes and you might find it a hoot to take photos in floral dresses and lovely hats. Find opera boring? Say yes and perhaps discover an avant-garde opera style that appeals to you. Hate stinky cheese? Go to a cheese tasting with wine pairings, You might actually enjoy it. Going with an open mind and without pressure on yourself to like it, leads to growth as a person by widening our scope of experience, developing our tastes, and socializing with others.
I like to say that I’ll try almost anything once and it has led to some memorable experiences, great laughs and friends that I will keep forever. After this period of saying yes, I am in a better position to say what I enjoy in my new city, and consequently the activities I would like to do for the rest of my stay.
2. Learn the local language as soon as possible.
The biggest mistake I made in our first posting was not to take Bahasa Indonesia language lessons immediately when I arrived. Our Foreign Ministry does not invest in language training for diplomats and their families to better adjust in the country they are expected to work and live in.
I don’t mind paying for language lessons because I know that it betters me as a person. Knowing the local language highly reduces stress in the new environment, endears you to the locals, and helps you understand the new culture you are immersing yourself in.
Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.‒Rita Mae Brown
3. Get a smartphone with a data plan. I am a firm believer using available tools and technology to my advantage. As expats we need all the help we can get to communicate, navigate and get information to settle us in our temporary home. Knowing I have my apps, also makes me brave enough to venture farther and explore more. My most used apps are:
- Google Translate – Use the mic function and speak the words to be translated into the phone. Play the translation to hear the pronunciation.
- World Lens – Hover your camera over words and signs and let it magically translate without internet connection. So helpful when ordering from foreign menus.
- Google Maps and Journey planners – Avoid getting lost, and arrive for appointments on time. This is the easiest and most accurate app in Germany for me.
- Weather app – Be prepared for the day ahead and save yourself from discomfort and sickness. Dressed properly for the weather and you can do anything… rain, shine or snow!
- XE Currency Converter – Be a wise shopper, don’t be intimidated by the new currency, and get a feel for the cost of living.
- Social apps like FB, Twitter, Instagram, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc. keep me connected to home and nurture my new connections at post.
4. Join clubs and activity groups. Though you might want to stay home in your comfort zone, be brave and get yourself out of the house. One great way to do this is search for clubs, gyms or other activity groups in your neighborhood. You can also take classes that interest you. This way you make genuine connections with people you share interests with. Having a good mix of locals and expat friends is recommended. I was happy to find a club for diplomats’ spouses in Berlin and it has made all the difference in this posting. I credit most of the the incredible experiences that you see on my Instagram to this club.
5. Get to know the cultural do’s and don’ts. It’s important to learn how to behave in accordance to their rules, laws and customs. Think of it as being a guest in their country; It’s important to respect the “house rules” and be polite to your host. Here in Germany the first thing I learned was their complex system of segregating and recycling trash. I am always sad to hear from expats who don’t take the time to do this. Being responsible for ones rubbish is one of the great lessons the world can take from Germany. I love the values they place on personal space, keeping noise pollution down and following rules strictly to keep peace and order. I can understand when tourists fail to do this, but as an expat I think it’s important to assimilate during our stay.
6. Find a good home and make the space your own. My favorite quote below is something I live by. Expats are either assigned housing or given an allowance for their living quarters. Though I do not relish the thought only having 7 days to find housing by ourselves, I grateful that we get to choose our home. If you have the same good fortune, look for a home with lots of natural light, enough space, good bones and easy access in a neighborhood that fits your personality. Visit at different times of the day and test the water pressure, cellphone signal and traffic during rush hour, before signing the contract. Don’t be tempted to settle and/or not make the space your own to save money. If you don’t love your living space, you will end up spending more on eating and going out. Read practical tips on renting and decorating rentals here.
Finding the right place to live is key to being happy in a posting abroad. Find the right bunker and you can face any assault.– Cherry Denman, Diplomatic Incidents
7. Balance smart budgeting with small splurges, to spice things up. Contrary to what most people think, diplomats do not earn a lot of money. Here’s my secret: I try to find the best deals/prices possible without sacrificing value, so I have money left over for splurging on the finer things. I prioritize quality, functionality and beauty over brands or trends any time. For example, we go to more affordable supermarkets like Lidl, but I’ll drop by TK Maxx for a great deal on truffle oil and salt. Then I can turn classics into gourmet fare like truffle popcorn and truffled eggs. Little touches like this make the everyday mundane into blissful treats.
8. Live and eat in the now, by cooking and eating local. Though I miss our local cuisine, we don’t prepare it everyday. I make an effort to learn to cook local produce and appreciate the special cuisines in the region. It is better for our wallet, and I don’t put unnecessary pressure on myself to find specially imported goods from home. This way we focus on new taste experiences and learning new things, instead of pining for ingredients and tastes from home. Isn’t educating our palates as important as educating our minds? What do you think?
Expat life for an obsessive compulsive perfectionist like me will always be a challenge. However, with a positive attitude and good sense of humor it is possible, not only to cope, but even to thrive in it. I cannot count the ways expat life has helped me expand myself and grow. I feel like I’ve learned and lived a lifetime’s worth in each post, whether we liked it or not. I am grateful for how it has changed me indelibly and allowed me to to bloom in so many unexpected ways.