Stories


Top 10 tips on how to survive your first month abroad
Kristi Fuoco
2012-05-15

 

Elbstrand.jpgA perfect day at the Elbstrand, one of Hamburg's beaches.
Moments like this make the tough parts of living abroad worthwhile.

 

I just survived my first month living in Germany. One terrible cold, many great beers, and a lot of German chocolate later…here’s what I’ve learned. I hope this will help you settle into your new home abroad…wherever that may be. Los geht’s (Let’s go)!

 

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1. Have map. Have good shoes. Will travel.

Whether you have a nifty smart phone and manage to set this up magically immediately upon arrival in your new country, or you are forced to use the old fashion fold out maps like me (five weeks in and I still have no internet aka google maps on my phone) you will need a map of your new town/city/remote rural area. Get this on the first day and then walk. Walk everywhere. Walk to the store, walk to the beach. Walk until you get completely lost and are forced to use your new language to ask where you are (yes I admit in the last two weeks I’ve been lost for over three hours at a time twice.) Walking your new surroundings will give you many things – you will learn quickly how to get around, you will have time to think and process what you are experiencing, you will get in shape/stay in shape and you will discover all sorts of things that you never would if you were in any kind of vehicle (and especially on a subway.)

 

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Good thing I knew that “Bio” meant organic
when I got to Germany. But funny signs like
this never cease to amuse. I think I’d rather
not buy the GutBio. (FYI – “Gut” = “good”) 

2. Learn the language

I’d recommend starting to learn your new language as far in advance as you can before you go (I was only able to study German for a couple months before I came) and then once you arrive, have some kind of translating device or phrase book with you at all times. No matter how many years you’ve studied the language of your future country it will never fully prepare you for actually using it in day to day life….BUT…and this is a big but..it will help A LOT. Never assume people speak English. Ever. In Germany (well I have to say Hamburg since I don’t have much experience outside of Hamburg yet) most people speak at least some English and many people speak it quite well, but I have a rule of thumb with strangers – I always start in German unless they approach me or we’ve communicated in English first. Can you imagine arriving in Canada as a German and speaking to a Canadian in German? Funny thought. How is it different here? Europeans are forced to know more languages and English truly is the most common language in many circumstances, but people will show you a lot of respect if you at least try to communicate in their language. Well, except maybe in France. C’est la vie, eh?

 

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Lonely day self portrait. 

3. Know that it’s going to be hard.

So you’ve been saving money for a year (or maybe just a few months), you’ve quit your job, you’ve said goodbye to all your family and friends and everything that is safe and comfortable. You’ve given away or stored all your belongings. You even sold your beloved espresso machine for some extra cash. You have one suitcase and a bag full of excitement for your new adventure. You arrive in your new country and everyone back home is dripping with envy. Then day three you get hit with a nasty cold, you manage to find a pharmacy and then realize you can’t even explain to the pharmacist what is wrong in your new language, you get lost and take the wrong bus on the way home, you are stuck for three days in bed with a fever, your internet isn’t working, you haven’t figured out how to get a phone yet and suddenly you feel very much alone. It’s going to happen or something like that, but guess what? It’ll be okay. It’ll be more than okay. The first month is going to have some really lonely moments. Some “get me on a plane and back home to the people who love, understand and know everything about me” moments, but the key is….patience. Patience with your new country, patience with the language skills you’re trying to develop, patience with wanting everything to be great right off the bat. This is an adventure and part of adventure is facing challenges each and every day and overcoming them. This experience will make you even more awesome. Trust me. I say all this because I’ve felt every moment of it. It gets better. And then, it gets great. Not every moment, but then you have some “I never want to go home this is so ridiculously awesome” days and it makes it all worthwhile.

 

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A very happy day – discovering the
idyllic area
of Blankenese in Hamburg. 

4. Whenever you feel down, explore.

This has been a fool proof way for me to get out of any slumps this past month. If I feel myself getting lonely or sad or unmotivated I just get out the door, pick a new part of the city and explore. The great thing about being in a new country and city is that you are guaranteed to discover something you have never seen before. If you are a travel lover like me you will get an almost electric charge from exploration. Not only will it give you confidence from the mere fact that you were able to find your way to a new place, but it will remind you of one of the reasons you decided to venture far from home – to see new things, new places, new people. And it will be all yours. Your very own discovery, or your very own new secret, favourite place. The more great places you discover on your own, the more touchstones it will give you for rough days throughout your time in this new place.

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Yep, that’s ‘What Women Want’.
Seeing famous movie stars speaking
in German = priceless.

 

5. Go to the movies.

This one has a couple of sides. Firstly, go to a movie in your country’s language. I don’t care if you only understand 20% of a movie, but do it anyway. This is one of the best ways to start to improve comprehension in a new language. Even better if you can watch movies and TV shows on your laptop with English subtitles. But, for me anyway, there is something so familiar and homey about going to a movie theatre, buying some popcorn and sitting back and being swept away. If you live in a big city chances are there are English movie theatres somewhere, so if you need some home cooking, so to speak, pay a visit there too. I remember going to Florence with a friend once and going to the English movie theatre two nights in a row to see “You’ve Got Mail” just because it was just so familiar. Well that and who doesn’t want to see Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks discovering instant messaging in the 90s really? That’s rhetorical.

 

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Last weekend my friend Barb, a fellow
Vancouverite, stopped in from Berlin
(where she’s living) for a visit. Great to
see someone from home! Here we are
on a boat tour of Hamburg. 

 

6. Find people from your own country and other expats if you can.

I was a bit resistant to this idea at first. I felt like, “You know, I’ve come to Germany to learn German, experience German culture and meet Germans.” But….it’s actually pretty awesome. Last week, for instance, I met a Canadian woman at an event with the Hamburg International Women's Group and it was total mayhem. I hadn’t met another Canadian living here in my five weeks in Germany, but she hadn’t met another Canadian in three years! The moment she found out I was Canadian, pure unadulterated excitement spouted from her in the form of a swift, unintentional knock to my hand, causing my wine glass to smash to the floor. Oh yes. It was classic. At this event I also met a whole ton of other amazing people from other countries. It’s hard at first to make friends with the locals if you don’t have any connections and so meeting your countrymen/women and other expats is the fastest way to make friends at first. And when you’re homesick, they will totally get it.

 

 

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People were staring. Oh yeah. Did I care?
Nope. It was worth the movie reference
photo….(Photo by Greg McClung)  

7. Don’t be afraid to look or sound dumb.

This is a biggie. Let’s face it, in my first month in Germany there weren’t many days that went by where I didn’t feel like a complete idiot at some point. Whether it was due to language mistakes, lack of language skills, getting lost for four hours in the woods…..twice, not following the right cultural protocol in any given situation…the list goes on. I definitely still feel like an idiot at some point most days, but I’d like to think that it gradually gets better overtime. But the point is…just embrace it. Make the mistake first, apologize later. It’s the only sure way to learn. Having said that, don’t purposefully be an idiot. We’ve got enough people like that in the world. By the end of your year abroad you will either be an expert in your culture or just really not afraid of anything…hopefully both.

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Tennis racket juggling –
it could be your
new passion.

 

8. Do something completely new.

Buy a pair of tap shoes, join the local barber shop quartet, become a hippy beach drummer, start taking a calligraphy class. Anything. Just do something you have never done before. It will give you a serious thrill because A) You threw yourself out of your comfort zone B) You will have a serious confidence boost and C) You might just completely love it and make amazing new friends. Last night I tried dragon boating for the first time. My friend Yvonne took me and I could only understand about half of what the leader of the boat said (for all I know he could have been telling us that the worst paddler gets thrown into the water at the end), but it was amazing. Not only did I get to see Hamburg from the view of the canals and the Alster (the main lake in the downtown waterfront) but I had a seriously good work out and met some cool people.

 

 

9. Stay healthy.

It’s so tempting in a new country to let all old healthy habits die. Especially a country like Germany that has amazing bread, amazing chocolate and amazing beer. I mean come on….how do any Germans stay in shape? Well, they exercise a whole lot for starters. You will find all sorts of excuses to eat whenever, wherever and whatever. You’re in a new country, you don’t want to be rude and well…it’s sooo good. Hey, I’m all for indulging (I cannot say no to a Milka chocolate-yogurt bar…please take it away from me), but when your clothes start to feel tight and you notice your face bloating in photos it might make you a bit more weepy. So, have fun, indulge, try new delights, but remember this is real life and you want to set those healthy patterns from the start of your trip. The other side – be as active as possible. This will give you a serious endorphine kick when you are feeling down, you might even meet new people (if you join a sports club or gym) and you will feel great. Combine this with the exploration tip and you’re good to go. Also, know that your body takes time to adjust to a new place. It may go a little crazy for a while (weight gain, weight loss, illness, stomach issues) but it will stabilize. But if you’re prone to illness at all, maybe don’t move to a third world country.

 

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Shot snapped. Word written. 

10. Write it down and snap a shot.

You may not be a writer. You may have never opened a journal in your life let alone written in one, but here’s your chance. Whether you write on your computer, an iPad or a nifty little old fashioned paper notebook you won’t regret this. When you want to vent about a stupid cultural difference or your utter homesickness, you can and you won’t be offending a soul. The great thing is that you will look back throughout the year and realize how far you’ve come and what you have learned. If you like to blog, do that! Your family and friends (and maybe even other travelers) will thank you. Then make sure to take a camera with you and maybe take a photo or two. This might seem obvious but you’d be amazed at the amount of people I meet who don’t record their experiences through writing or photography. This is a once in a life time chance. I don’t care if you never write a word or take a photo again afterwards, but now’s your chance. And if you’re someplace cool, lots of people (as in more than just your mom) might even read your blog.

 

 

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Kristi Fuoco

 KRISTI FUOCO – Social media enthusiast, English teacher, writer, marketer, traveler, music lover. West Coast Canadian gal living and working in Germany and traveling around Europe. Current city – Hamburg.

Twitter: @kristifuoco
Email: kristi.fuoco@gmail.com


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My experience in Germany has been invaluable. In addition to learning German and taking part in another culture, I have learned so much about myself. I am confident that I can thrive away from the comforts of home and that I am dynamic and flexible. This is exactly what today’s employers are looking for – giving me a competitive advantage in the working world.
Kate from British Columbia – working for an international not-for-profit organisation.