When I first moved abroad, there were loads of people telling me about the “Dos and Don’ts” of living in another country. From all the advice I received, none of it was anything concrete that would actually help me flourish in my new environment. I mean, “stay away from strangers” isn’t exactly the key to success when living somewhere new. So, I decided to write my version of a comprehensive list of things that will hopefully help you triumph in your abroad adventures! And take note, my friends! These have all been tested by yours truly while figuring out how to live abroad:
1. Make Endless Copies Of Your Passport & Visa
I know what you’re thinking, now. “Bebe, really? Endless?? Can you stop being dramatic just for once?” The answer to that is “no,” because I will forever be dramatic, but also I’m quite serious! As a foreigner or immigrant, you always have to provide your documentation when doing anything legal — signing a lease, getting an ID card, registering yourself for the census, etc. Most of these processes require you to show up, present your documentation, and provide a copy. I always make tons of copies and somehow go through all of them?! It makes no sense, but trust me on this one.
2. To An Extent, Blend In With The Natives
I am not telling you by any means to lose your sense of identity when figuring out how to live abroad. What I am saying here is to be willing to adapt. I am pro self-expression, but there is a difference between keeping your own style and sticking out like a lost traveler who isn’t a local and is a potential walking target. That sounded a bit scary, but you should be aware of these things. There are ways that will make you stick out to pickpocketers, thieves, or anyone else who is looking to hassle someone.
It could be as something as simple as your body language. If locals are always holding their bags safely while walking through crowds and yours is just flapping by your side, you may stick out. If you are walking with your head swiveling around and staring at every street name (an indication you’re lost), you may stick out. Be smart about the way you are perceived in public. The last thing you want is someone targeting you because you’re not “from around here.”
As someone from the United States, apparently, the big colorful thermos of coffee sticks out (read more about THAT adventure HERE).
3. Practice The Language — Slang & All
When you learn the language, you inherently learn the culture (especially when slang is involved). It’s a critical part of learning how to live abroad. The two are so closely tied that it’s almost impossible to learn one without learning the other. So, practice the language! Most international cities have language exchanges, classes available, or just people willing to talk to you over some coffee to help you get it down. Learn those phrases to help you order at restaurants, ask for things at the store, and make new friends! And if you ask me, slang is one of your keys to success when speaking. It opens the door to culture in an interesting way. And, people get a kick out of it when a foreigner can use the new, “hip” phrases! Even learning those “bad words” can help you… It is definitely an accomplishment when you can get mad at someone in multiple languages, lol.
4. Perfect An Awesome Joke
Humor is a GREAT icebreaker! Learn some jokes and proudly tell them! It can be one of the most fun things you do in your spare time! Every place interprets comedy in its own unique way, so why not be a part of it?! I mean, how many times do you still hear “knock, knock” or “the chicken crossed the road” references? Comedy is very closely related to the culture of where you’re living. Also, humor is arguably one of the most difficult things to master when learning another language, again, because it goes hand in hand with the culture of said country. If you can get down the comedic relief in another language, you’re that much closer to being a part of the culture and becoming a fluently speaking machine!
5. Be Able To Cook A Local Dish
Not only is this my most delicious idea yet, but it also is quite useful for you, your stomach, and your wallet. Local dishes are usually created from the ingredients most accessible to the area. If there is an item that is easily accessible and plentiful, it is typically one of your cheaper items at the store. Local dishes are and have been created in this way; the cheapest ingredients used in the most scrumptious way. This is why you should learn the local cuisine! You won’t break the bank while shopping for the ingredients, and generations before you have already perfected how to combine them in the yummiest way! For me, it was learning tortilla de patata here in Spain and I will tell you: I can make sooooo much for paying quite close to nothing!
6. Learn The Unspoken Rules Of Where You’re Living
There are rules. Drive on the right side of the road. No smoking on the metro. Don’t drink in public. Then, there are “unspoken rules.” For example, a lot of countries take escalators very seriously. I AM NOT KIDDING HERE. When you use an escalator, there is one side where you stand and one side where you allow people to walk up the escalators. If you are standing on the wrong side, there is a very high chance a grandmother will smack you with her purse and ask you to move over so she can continue walking up the escalators. This may or may not be a true story brought to you by Bebe learning how to live abroad.
How do you learn these unspoken rules of society living abroad? My friends, you must observe. If you see general groups of people do something differently, it may be a cultural difference worth learning about. People tend to sit directly next to you, rather than an extra seat over on the bus? It may be a sign of how they view respect (allowing open seats to be easily accessible for oncoming passengers) or how they view personal space (which is a construct that does not happen in all countries of the world). So, keep an eye out and learn through your powers of observation.
7. Get Uncomfortable
Comfort zones do nothing for your personal growth living abroad. Whatever your reason for moving abroad is, you should continue to get out of your comfort zone. Join some dance classes. Do yoga in the park sessions with strangers. Talk to people at the dog park. Whatever it is, keep stepping out of the “familiar.” When you challenge yourself to step out of that comfort zone you love so much, you will see a lot of personal development while living abroad. For me, that was one of the reasons I wanted to live in another country. I wanted to grow, experience, learn, and mature into a better version of myself. If I had constantly surrounded myself with English speakers here in Madrid and stuck to the things I know, then I would have never grown into the incredibly wise person I am today (I’m kidding, but not really, haha!).
*Bonus for my USA friends: Learn Celsius. For goodness sake, it will help you when learning how to live abroad. It took me forever to learn that “30 degrees” does not mean I need a winter coat.