It took a while – I’d say probably two years – before I finally felt “normal” at my foreign address. The first year was spent being a sponge: soaking up every drop of cultural practices, the language, street names, people’s names, food and drink.
The second year was one of employment. I worked at a pub for just under five months (I walked out the door one night after they’d broken my last straw) and then was lucky enough to have a company approach me to contact clients in English speaking countries. I’m still working there.
I’m almost to the three year mark (only ten more days!) and can finally say that I’ve been able to create my new identity here. I feel happy, have my own friends (not just people that my husband already knew) and continue to work on ways to connect with more people.
In order to achieve this goal, I’d like to share some tips that have helped me along the way:
1. Teach Your Native Language
For that matter, teach any language that you know well! I was approached by a friend to teach an English course at his bar (yes, his bar) and actually had a lot of fun with it. I met people who I had only seen around town before but never been introduced to. I taught them very basic things – how to order drinks, simple slang and did listening activities – and I made some new friends along the way. They were able to see the real me instead of just the American wife of the local.
2. Get A Pet
I have always loved animals but never had the luxury of owning my own pet (should I count the goldfish I had when I was ten?). After more than two years here, I started thinking more about getting a dog. I knew that getting a pet was a big responsibility, and I didn’t want to get one until I knew that I could dedicate the proper time to he or she. Feeling a little empty spot in my soul due to homesickness, and working only part-time, my hankering for a dog grew to daily searches. Prices, tests to see which breed was right for me, who to buy from and what to look for…I was serious about this! I finally chose my lovely little Wire Haired Dachshund at the end of August 2013 and couldn’t be happier! Walking down the street now has new meaning. Strangers and other dog owners want to stop and chat, I’ve found forums and social networking pages to follow. My dog had brought me much happiness and connected me even further to my location.
3. Join Anything Local
Whether it’s the gym, a yoga class, a biking club or a sewing circle, try to continue your hobbies from home at your overseas location. You will meet people with the same interests and create new circles of friends. I had the problem of only knowing my husband’s friends at the beginning: people who had grown up together and shared many experiences. I was the newbie, interesting at first and good to speak English with, but then when I learned the language that intrigue vanished. I found myself in many social situations not knowing what to say. Still learning things about the country and culture, I found that my American opinions didn’t fit in and weren’t seen in the same way. Currently I’m looking into a gym membership and would like to find a photography group to join.
4. Learn The Local Language
This is so important. I wouldn’t have a tenth of the friendships that I have now if I hadn’t learned the language. I love to learn languages and feel that it’s so important to be able to properly communicate with others. My husband and I started off with a mixture of English and a few Italian words thrown in. I still remember the day that – I was a tourist at the time and could only stay in three months increments – I woke up and told myself, “You NEED to use Italian today, even if it’s wrong.” This led me to communicate better with my husband, his family and friends who didn’t speak much English. I took a free class at a local middle school while I was still waiting for a work permit, and learned the basics of Italian grammar.
5. Connect With Other Foreigners
“Rachel! I met another one of ‘us’!” My friend said this to me one day, referring to the fact that she had met another American woman who was not military, living in Italy and married to an Italian. We share Italian experiences and understand one another’s feelings. It has really helped knowing other people who really get what I’m going through. I’ve also met Brazilians, Ukrainians and Russians who are all just like me: a foreigner! Look for Meet-up Groups or see if the locals (who usually know all of the latest gossip of the area) can introduce you to anyone. Try to connect yourself in any way possible to those who have this in common with you.
Always remember the reasons why you chose to move abroad and don’t give up! Keep trying to find ways to fit in, because results will be truly rewarding.