It is a special feeling: The first time you turn the keys and open the door to your new apartment. The first time you wake up and look out of the window, seeing an unfamiliar view that will soon feel like home. The first time you drink coffee in this small café around the corner and are sure you will come here every other morning to read and answer your emails and write a bit. The first time you are invited to a girls‘ night out – knowing it will be one of many more to come this summer.
But what happens when the firsts turn into usuals?
A new country.
A new everyday routine.
Having lived in South Africa, the Czech Republic several cities in Germany and now in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I learned: A new place is fascinating, but living in a place is an entirely different thing than just visiting a place.
Visiting a place, you invest all your energy in exploring, taking it all in, having as many experiences as possible. Living in a place like this will wear you out – your bank account, energy, health, and social life will suffer.
It’s essential to create new routines for the process of settling as an expat and feel like you finally arrived in a place. It can be something simple, it can be something you always used to do in your old home, it can be an opportunity to ditch bad habits and replace them with new ones you always wanted to pick up but were too lazy to.
I, for example, love good coffee so I always venture out to find a coffee shop I like, where I can grab a coffee on the go, just sit and chill or meet with friends. In Cape Town, that was Deluxe Coffee Works in Buitenkant Street, in Prague it was Můj šálek kávy around the corner from our house and in Munich is was a little Swedish coffee shop called Fika right next to my office.
I don’t force new routines on myself, I just try to ease into what feels natural. I do know that this can sometimes be difficult, though. Whenever we move to a new place, my husband needs a couple of weeks to dive into a new routine and try to get back into mine as soon as possible. Everybody is different, and there is no right or wrong, as long as it makes you feel good and gives you a feeling of being settled.
Get to know the city and find your favorite spots....
For me, knowing my way around a place is directly connected to a feeling of belonging. If I don’t know my way around, I will not feel at home in a city.
I don’t have an extraordinary sense of orientation, but I can remember landmarks, tram stops, and the likes. I try to be able to master my usual routes (to work, to a friend’s house, etc.) without the help of Google maps as soon as possible.
I already told you about my love for coffee and how important it is to me to find a new favorite coffee spot. Do you love coffee as well? Great, then find a café where you feel comfortable. You love art? Find a gallery that offers regular exhibitions so you can go visit every other week. Rooftop bars are your thing? Venture out to find the one where you wanna have your after work G&T every Friday. Finding a place I love and revisiting it regularly also gives me a feeling of home.
When I walk past a cute place in a new town, I save it on Google Maps. That way, I can always come back to it, even when I don’t remember exactly where it was. I have discovered new favorite spots in multiple cities and neighborhoods that way!
Get out of the house, have a chit-chat, meet people…
When meeting new people, Facebook really works a charm! Whenever we moved to a place, I entered several expat Facebook groups beforehand. I tried to connect with a few people already. Now, in 2020, Instagram does the trick!
I also love using Facebook Events to see what’s happening in a city. I discovered many cool events like stand-up comedy in hidden bars, art exhibitions, food markets, or expat meet-ups that way. Yes, often, those expat meet-ups can be a bit awkward, and it is not said that you will meet someone you click with. But you might – I made really close friends going to those events.
Friends of friends (of friends)…
Social Media has made the world a smaller place in general. And even though you might not know anyone in your new home, friends or friends of friends might. So don’t be afraid to put your new home on social media and ask around if people know anyone living there.
It is weird to be set up with a stranger and meet for a blind date, but if you don’t click, you at least get out of the house, talked to people, and found a new bar or restaurant. And in Prague as well as in Munich we made friends that way.
Some days, living in a new place can feel surreal, I am overwhelmed, and I don’t know what to do. The opportunities are endless, and I feel anxious and can’t decide –the last thing I want to do is meet new people.
On those days, I at least get out of the house to go for a run or long walk. Just seeing other people already helps. And when I hear the new language, see the beautiful architecture, or discover a quaint little shop in my neighborhood, I am reminded again why I decided to move.
And if it’s not happening that day, if I still feel bad after, I just go back home and pour myself a glass of wine. And that’s also fine. Expat life is not all sunshine and discoveries. You might be frustrated and sad at more than one point, and homesickness is something that will hunt you down every once in a while. But I promise you, it is all worth it in the end!
Make your new home a home
In Prague, we moved into a furnished apartment. As we had moved from Cape Town, we didn’t bring anything more than our clothes and sentimental personal items. The place, location, the amenities – everything was great. Still, I never liked the style of furniture (Kermit green couch and glass cabinets full of antique dishes, anyone?), so the place never really felt like home.
It is a bit costly, but now we take our art, our own bedding and some little trinkets we really love with us. I can only recommend you to move to a place you really like and decorate and furnish it the way you want. Having a home you love is essential when you are far away from your home country and family.
The same goes for not only the apartment but also for the neighborhood you choose! In Cape Town, for a while, we lived in a vibrant area. Still, the way up to our apartment was dark and shady, and I felt really uncomfortable every time I went home alone at night. So I tell you this: Never, under no circumstances, should you ever feel unsafe in your own neighborhood!
Put down your phone…
I know it’s tempting to call home and update your loved ones about your every step. I know you are afraid to lose your best friends. I know you are terrified of not being part of their lives anymore.
During my years abroad, I learned something: You’re not losing friends, you’re winning new friends. And the old ones will not just disappear when you invest in your friendships.
So get out of the house, don’t be too afraid to lose what you had to make new connections. How will you ever make a home out of your new city when your heart is still in the old place?
And in case you just miss talking in your own language a bit too much, connect with expats from your countries, find a Facebook group, and go to a meet-up. Sometimes it feels good to hear your mother tongue. Plus, it’s sometimes more comfortable to ask a countryman for advice on certain things.
…and don't expect too much too soon
I am a very impatient person, so I know what I am talking about: Give yourself time!
Don’t expect to embrace your new home every minute of every day. Accept that you can’t say „yes „to everything and every event, even though you will try in the beginning – it will just wear you out. Know that you won’t connect with the first person on the first Facebook event you go to, that bureaucracy will confuse you and make you feel homesick.
Don’t beat yourself up with it. As they say: This too shall pass. And while you are still in the process of accepting that settling takes time – you will settle. And one day, you will realize that you have fully arrived.