Tips to Make the Most of Your Time Abroad

I often get asked for useful travel advice concerning moving abroad and making a transition into a new country. Mostly my advice is, ‘Go out there, do it, and everything else will work out along the way.’ And read The Avant-Garde Life. While this is fine for people who have already made the jump to live in a new country, many people who have not lived abroad are looking for more specific advice. I’ll keep saying that everything will be OK and writing my whimsical nonsense, and instead, hand you over to the very competent Stephanie Echeveste who has written this well thought out and extensive guest post detailing how to make the most of your time abroad. Thank-you Stephanie.

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Your dreams have come true. You’ve finally landed that job, grant, volunteer gig, or some other opportunity that is propelling you to a new place and the next phase of your life. You are ready to move abroad to an unknown city, in a foreign country, for some set amount of time and do something you love doing. Or, something you might hate doing, but you don’t care because you are going on an adventure.

Whether you are going for a few weeks or a year, it is a transition full of anticipation, hope, and fear. Many people get so caught up in the idea of the move, the fantasy of their time abroad, that when if finally happens, they revert to old habits and closed minds, turning the adventure of a lifetime into a pain in the ass event that drags on until, one day, it is over. Don’t let this happen to you.

Here are 10 tips on how to dive in, wherever you are going, whatever you are doing. Note – this is specifically aimed at people going abroad for a set amount of time. If you are just up and moving to a new country, then yes, taking your best friend or significant other is awesome, just very, very rare.

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View from my apartment in Sopelana

1. Don’t go with your best friend or significant other.

Everyone I know that has done this, regrets it. If your relationship cannot withstand the time apart—then it is probably not mean to be. There is nothing more stressful than planning around someone else when you are trying to be open and explore the evolution of yourself. You will meet new people in your new place. I promise.

2. Make a plan to stay in contact with the people you love—before you go.

Meeting new people does not mean sever all contact with your current people. In fact, you should make it a priority to stay in contact with the people closest to you. They have been your companions for a reason and you will need their support now more than ever. Living in a new place is amazing, exciting, and totally invigorating, but it can also be incredibly lonely. Especially, when you are first getting settled, on holidays, and just random moments when everything hits you at once and you just want to talk to your mum.

Time differences are usually the hardest part of staying in touch. When your best friend calls, you’ll be getting ready to go out with a new group of friends. When you finally get your grandparents on Facetime, they’ll have to leave for some reason and this will baffle you. So make a plan before you go—maybe one Sunday a month that you block out or one night every three weeks when you’ll stay in to be on call and check your emails. Be realistic, because you’ll want to stick with it and be reliable to everyone with whom you want to stay in contact. Then share your scheduled time and make sure your closest friends and family know the deal—these are your personal office hours. These connections will keep you grounded, with out holding back.

3. Do use instagram, twitter and snapchat, but keep Facebook to a minimum. Figure out what people are using where you are.

Use social networks as a tool to assimilate. Use them often to connect with your new home and use them sparingly to connect with your old life. Don’t get stuck in the vortex of Facebook statuses and online stalking. Nothing will change or be that noteworthy, and the people that matter are already in direct contact with you via your personal office hours. Besides, do you really want to find out your best friend is pregnant from her status? While you won’t be a part of everyday life back home, spending hours on Facebook trying to stay up-to-date won’t make you feel that much more connected. If you need more contact—amp up your office hours. Use that time to troll Facebook with your friend on the phone, but don’t do it solo. Facebook is the easiest place to get sucked into your former life, and you will get nostalgic, or curious, or confused at things that really aren’t going to help you dive into your new environment.

Do be active on social media. Sometimes this means getting on Facebook just to check on new things you are finding, but ignoring everything else. Follow people on instagram and twitter that you want to meet in your new home. You’d be surprised by the amount of people active online, just sometimes you have to figure out which social networks they are using. Instagram and twitter are great because they provide real-time, giving you an easy way to jump into a new place virtually. Check out the scene, find out what people are talking about and if you want to join in, it’s easy to send a casual tweet or comment and set up face-to-face meeting. You’ll probably find out about events using these tools and maybe even stumble upon things as they are happening.

And Snapchat? Well, what better way to share the ephemeral nature of travel than sharing a day-in-the-life shot that will quickly disappear?

4. Don’t be too ambitious about documenting your life (on the internet).

If you already have a blog or otherwise document your life online, keep it going if it is not too overwhelming. If you don’t already blog or document your life online, but want to, start building the habit before you go.

Everyone says they want to blog or post something online everyday, but very few people actually do. Instead of setting yourself up for failure, or tying yourself down to a computer, just start practicing before you go. It’ll give you some time to figure out your own style of recording before you have information overload.

Do find ways to record the way you want to record, but don’t feel pressured to immediately broadcast it to the world. And don’t feel guilty if you aren’t writing everything down. Enjoy the moments as they happen, and maybe plan time to reflect and record however you found works best for you.

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Art studio in Bilbao where I made art

5. Do your research.

Would you pack up and move across the country without researching the new city? Would you move into a new apartment without asking questions? Would you take a job without looking up the company? No. Find out everything and anything from this place you are going – and do not rely on travel guides or books or blogs.

Go to the library. Watch movies. Find local newspapers, local radio stations (tunein.com is great for this), and local blogs before you go. Build up some cultural capital and you will feel at home much quicker than if you had arrived with no prior knowledge.

Ask the people that live there about the place you are going! Use sites like CouchSurfing to find locals and ask them questions. How do they find apartments? Where do they go for a coffee or a drink? What’s their favorite thing to do on the weekends? Where do they buy groceries? What kind of internet service do they have? Ok, maybe you don’t have to go overboard with questions, but let them know you are interested in where they live and would love some insight. You’d be surprised how much people want to share what they know. What may be trivial to them will be invaluable to you. And of course, offer any information about wherever you are from as they might be interested in your old home, too! If you feel a connection, ask to meet up once you get there!

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Easter festival, Prague

6. Don’t make travel plans – make a list of desired places to travel.

You don’t want to arrive with every weekend panned out, but you do want to have an idea of where you would like to go. I guarantee you will find a million more sites of interest (and opportunity) once you arrive and make friends. Focus your first month on diving in and getting to know people and before you know it, you’ll be vacationing in small villages and sailing around unknown islands. Besides, wouldn’t it suck to have to turn down a last minute weekend get away to your new best friend (or lover’s) family home because you already booked a trip to an over-crowded tourist-ridden destination that you could easily visit later on, or on the way?

7. Get used to being alone.

Making new friends in a new place takes time and is a lot easier to do when you are by yourself. When hanging out alone you don’t have to convince anyone that you aren’t crazy when a stranger asks you to go check out some impromptu social gathering. And it’s much easier to explore a new city on a whim when you are the only one calling the shots.

Practice by going to the movies by yourself, reading alone in cafes and frequenting galleries or cultural happenings. Whatever you are interested in, do it even if you feel silly going by yourself. Someone else will also be there by her/himself, and maybe you’ll bump into each other and become friends.

8. Learn the language.

I don’t even want to elaborate on this because it is so obviously necessary and if you aren’t already doing this, then you probably want a very different kind of living abroad experience anyhow and would not have even read this far. You will not forget English (or your native language, unless it is rare in which case don’t forget it), so make a rule to speak the local language as often as possible, no matter how it makes you feel or how much your head may hurt at the end of the day. No pain, no gain. Make sure you’re also reading and listening to the language—something you can do before you even get there.

9. Be open and fearless.

Do that thing you’re always wanted to do. Talk to strangers. Take chances and don’t let fear cloud your vision. Whatever you are doing, wherever you are going, someone more scared, more shy, less language-skilled and more sheltered has gone before. Use common sense and be safe, but leave fear behind. The worst thing that could happen is that you were too worried about the worst thing that could happen and wake up staring at your return ticket, wondering what happened.

10. Don’t look back.

Yes, life goes on and all those acquaintances in the home you are temporarily or permanently leaving will forget about you. Headhunters may stop pursuing you, distant relatives may forget you ever left, and your former homer will keep evolving. But, all in all not much will change. And if it does—the fact that you didn’t look back and instead were open, fearless, maintained strong, meaningful bonds with your loved ones while simultaneously developing new friendships, will make you strong enough to deal with whatever changes you will face, back home or anywhere else.

¡Que te vayas bien!

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StephanieEchevestePhotoAbout the Author

Stephanie Echeveste is originally from Phoenix, Arizona and has spent a year living and working in Bilbao, Spain. She’s lived in Los Angeles, CA, San Francisco, CA, and has recently moved to Washington, DC. She recently wrote about blogs about education at USC Rossier Online and about everything else with her sister at etxe.co. Stephanie knows that moving abroad is hard, but so totally worth it. She tweets and instagrams @stephanieetxe.

2 Comments

  • Even though I usually dump posts with a title containing a number or indicating a list or selection, but I found this one pretty interesting! Quite a comprehensive write-up which seems to be a decent first-timer resource indeed…

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