making the most of your time abroad

It's hard to believe that come mid-September, it will have been two years since we first moved  abroad.  During that time we've been primarily in Spain, but we've also spent a good chunk of time in Scotland, and we'll be wrapping up our summer in Turkey in the next few weeks.  I'm still learning about living abroad (make that living in general), that's for certain, but I like to think that I have picked up a few tips for making the most of time spent outside of one's country of origin.  It's not always easy to live in a foreign country, but for a lot of reasons, I think it's a really worthwhile endeavor, full of experiences and lessons that are hard to replicate in any other way.

If you're considering moving abroad, or are just beginning your time living overseas, here's a few things to keep in mind...

  • Don't limit your time and place.  Maybe you're moving with the idea that it's only for six months, a school year, or two years, and you know where you're going to live, what you're going to do, and upon arriving you tell everyone you meet all of this.  Okay, that's fine.  However, I'd suggest staying open to a change of job, a change of apartment, a change in your length of time spent overseas, maybe even a change in country and remaining this way for the entirety of your stay.  The reason being that living in an expat community can be tough with all of the come and go and having someone come in and say, for example, "Oh, we're just here for six months!" makes it hard to want to invest in you, especially if you seem firm and staunch in your plans.  Even if you're sure on timing and placements and whatnot, adding a "but we'll see!" to the end and remaining open to how plans really could change is never a bad idea.  Speaking from personal experience, I know we've seen things change a lot for us just within the past few years, so I try not to speak in absolutes to anyone about our future plans.
  • Get out of the house.  Take day trips to the area surrounding your new city, weekend trips to new regions, states, or countries, or even just try a morning or afternoon out to a different local park, festival, or tourist attraction every weekend.  After that, maybe take a longer, week long trip once or twice a year if you can.  All of these are ways of exploring your new home, getting out of your comfort zone, trying the local food, getting to know your neighboring cities/countries...after all, aren't these part of the reason you relocated in the first place?!  Have a late night with friends once in a while, or an early morning to catch a cheap flight if that's what it takes (these are all suggestions I have to preach to myself!) but resist the urge to create a complete replica of the life you left behind and stay inside every evening and weekend - believe me, it can happen very easily!
  • Make friends.  This is not really my strong suit, but it WILL enhance your experience.  The more people that you have in your new place that know you, that care about you, that will help you, the better, trust me.  I'm betting that one of the things you'll miss the most about your country of origin will be the people (both family and friends), but it's totally possible to make new friends in your new country, and really good ones at that.  I know, because it's happened to us.  We didn't find them overnight, and we don't have hundreds, that's for sure, but we've found some and they're worth their weight in gold.
  • Learn the language and engage in the culture.  This is Danny's contribution but I agree with him even though we aren't the best models for this particular one.  I don't think most people moving to a new country would suggest that you actively try not to learn its language, although they may (ahem) be a bit passive in their acquisition of it (me).  I am certain that if I was fluent or at least proficient in Spanish, my experience living and traveling in Spain would be different, and probably in a really positive way.  Probably because of our lack of Spanish skills we haven't been the most engaged in Spanish culture, but the times where we have attended holiday celebrations or tried authentic foods or waited in hospital waiting rooms with the masses (jk, jk), I was pretty much always glad we did.    
  • Remember it.  Maybe you journal, take photos or video, blog, or do all of the above, whatever you do, do something to remember this time in your life...but don't spend so much time on it that you can't enjoy your life.  This is sort of a life suggestion as all life is worth remembering, and all life, no matter where you live or what you're doing is important and worth being able to look back on in some way and appreciate your daily life and your adventures and your highs and your lows, so do what you feel is appropriate.

I think living abroad can bring out the best and the worst in people as challenges to your habits and ideas can be almost constant.  It can be humbling as you make mistakes and embarrass yourself and get lost over and over, but it can also be hugely assuring as you get one thing right (finally!) and realize you have more courage than you thought and then you find something without a map.  I think everyone should live abroad at least once in their lives - you'll grow exponentially as a person, you'll see things you never thought you would, and you'll question almost everything you once thought you knew.  The short of it is, it's absolutely worth it.