Top 5 tips for when you move to another country

Unlike some travel bloggers, most of my travels have been as a result of overseas work assignments.  My explorer-instinct pre-disposed me to find and take advantage of these work assignments, but so far I haven’t just packed a bag gone travelling for six months.  The objective has usually been that after the long-haul-flight I set up a new home, even if a temporary one.  A friend of mine recently mentioned that she would like to work overseas and another is about to embark on a new job in a new country.  This is prompting me to share my top five tips if you are about to set up a new home in another country .  Some lessons I learned and did better next time but I confess during my current move I’m not taking tip 2, and kind of wish I was.  I’ve got half packed boxes everywhere right now…

1. Make contact with your intended social life before you get there or very soon after you arrive.

I’m sure you will have investigated what opportunities your new home may provide in terms of meeting people.  Yoga studios, quilting clubs, gyms, churches or climbing walls.  It will have been part of what made you decide to chose the place you are going to.  When I moved to Germany, I kept saying ‘I’ll go skydiving next weekend’ and putting it off for no real reason.  Which meant that when I finally got around to going, my intro line of ‘I’ve just moved into the area and am new here’ didn’t work so well.  I’d been living ‘in the area’ for around 9 months.  I felt awkward and sheepish for having left it so long before making contact with the local club.  The next time I moved, which was to South Africa, I made contact through the internet with a local instructor and on my first weekend drove to one the local dropzones although the weather was terrible.  I ended up having lunch with a bunch of new friends, who were helpful in the invaluable ‘showing-me-how-things-are-done-here’ way, which helped a lot for tip 5.

2. Pay someone else to pack your stuff

I know I talked about sorting things in this post, but when it comes down to putting things into boxes – pay the removal company.  They are practiced at wrapping mugs and plates so they won’t get broken and most importantly, you have all your stuff available to you right until the day you actually move.  And if the removal men are English, they will know not to pack the kettle until the end of the day because they will want cups of tea during the packing too!

3. Household items not to ship but pack in your suitcase

Shipping things always takes time.  If like me you don’t have a container’s worth of stuff to ship you have to wait until enough stuff is going to the same port as yours to fill a container, and then the ship needs to sail to wherever it is going which takes time too.  I accidentally found some things after the removal men had finished once which ended up my suitcase and now some of them always will be because they make the creation of a new home so much faster:

  • screwdrivers (one Phillips, one flat-head) and a pair of pliers – it’s a waste to keep buying new ones every time you assemble new furniture in another country
  • my favourite kitchen knife (it has an eight inch blade, so not hand-luggage material!) – chopping boards come and go, but a good knife will make you feel comfortable with cooking in a new kitchen
  • a family photo (or another familiar wall hanging) – then you have one thing in the new house to look at that you have seen before. 
  • my hammer (and some nails) – to be able to hang the family photo on the new wall
  • a thermos travel mug with lid – it can be used for water or wine on the first night and a familiar looking coffee cup the next day too.  I’m not alone in this, Clare Balding wanted to take hers as her luxury on Desert Island Discs.

When I was at boarding school I learned that the fastest way to make a new dorm or room feel like it was yours was to put your own duvet cover on the bed, so I have taken a set of bed linen in my suitcase before, although whether I do depends on the expected living accommodation at the other end.

4. Plan what you want to do in the vicinity and try to schedule it

When I first arrived in Texas, I nearly went to Corpus Christi within days, and then something came up and then I forgot about it and then I travelled around the US and then Austin beckoned and then finally, when I had 6 weeks left in the state I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to go and see the USS Lexington and the Texas Surf Museum (and see the Selena memorial, I admit it).  And then I dinged my car and was without transport.  I don’t know whether I will make it to Corpus Christi or not.  I probably also won’t make it to San Antonio either (not outside the station anyway) so won’t see the Alamo.  And for having lived in Texas for a year, you really would have thought I would have gotten around to seeing the Alamo.

I kind of did the same thing when I lived in India.  I had ideas of places I would go and see, but didn’t quite get around to it during my stay.  Fortunately I’ve made further trips to India with work and managed to fit a few of the places I missed.

My intention for the next time I move to a country is to write a list of where I want to explore and set myself 6 week reminders to check whether I’ve done any of the things on the list, so I don’t end up with a long list and a short amount of time to do the exploring!

5. Be prepared for culture shock

Odd as it seems, my culture shock when moving to India was the least unsettling culture shock of any I have experienced.  I think in part it was because I was expecting everything to be so different (I was even afraid of crossing roads when I first got there) that it was not a surprise and there was no sub-conscious feeling of unfamiliarity – it was very very conscious.  The worst culture shock I had was moving to Germany as an adult.  I grew up in Germany and went to school there.  Germans can tell I which part of the country I grew up in from the way I pronounce words. The problem was two-fold – the locals couldn’t tell I wasn’t a local (after all, I sounded like one) and running your own household is quite different from living with your parents.  I was completely unprepared for the differences in navigating every day life, from shop opening hours to knowing whether to say ‘Sie’ or ‘Du’ to a waitress.  My inclination was to say ‘Sie’ and to my surprise I found myself being addressed with ‘Du’.

Moving to the US I also experienced some culture shock – I found sifting through 7 pages of doctors to choose the one make an appointment with quite harrowing.  How does one decide which OB/GYN is better than another for a regular check-up? The smallest carton of milk with my preferred fat content that I can buy in Texas is massive – without looking, I don’t know what size it is is, except that I can see it is a lot bigger than the pint I used to buy from Dairy Crest twice a week.  I have just looked and it is half a gallon.  That measurement actually means nothing to me either.  Fortunately it also says 1.98l on the carton which I do understand; for those of us who consider milk it pints, it is close to four pints.  The sizing of milk cartons made me ponder whether it was worth buying milk at all or would I end up having to throw the bulk of the carton away because I just don’t consume enough between buying and it going off?

You get used to it, how long it takes varies from person to person.  Even if you have travelled to a country many many times, living there will bring along details of every day life which are different to what you are used to.  And the more subtle ones are harder to deal with, because you think that it really shouldn’t matter what size the milk carton is.  But it’s unfamiliar and prevents a place from feeling like home.

6. This sort of goes without saying, so tip 6 of 5 – have a good internet connection

While I was in India I realised that a fast and reliable internet connection was very important to me.  It allowed me to log onto skydiving forums, e-mail and chat on MSN Messenger with people back home and upload photos to a website to accompany the e-mails I sent.  When moving to South Africa, this was the primary requirement I had for finding a flat – it had to have an ADSL connection.  I didn’t really think about it too much when moving to the centre of Houston, but as I don’t have a social security number, I have found getting cable prohibitively expensive and have been relying on a 4G homehub connection.  It is ok, but has a high contention rate between 8:30 and 9:30 pm and streaming videos does not work well, reminding me that this really ought to make it back into the top 5.  Specially for a blogger…

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