It took us six months to settle into Costa Rica, four (-ish) weeks to settle into Ecuador and only two weeks to get going in France. We have learned much the hard way over the last three years. You may be saying, “How hard can it be to get started in a new country?” It’s a question one often asks before stepping foot in a foreign land, not realizing that even ordering a meal is impossible without speaking the local language. It can be difficult. So, perhaps I can save you a few tears by sharing with you what has worked for us.
In no particular order, here are our secrets for success.
1. Don’t cook. Yes, I put this in writing. DO NOT COOK. Don’t even attempt to cook. Find the restaurants that deliver—the establishments that offer take-out late at night—grab some nonessentials to put in the refrigerator, and call it a day. Don’t try to set up a kitchen, figure out the oven and make recipes with ingredients you have never seen before. There will be plenty of time for experimenting and learning about the local foods.
2. Skip routine. If the kids are staying up late, eating junk, bingeing on movies and skipping hygiene, remind yourself that this is only temporary: once you find your groove, all will fall back into place. Sometimes I think this is one of the hardest obstacles, especially for us mamas who want the transition to be smooth as pie for our kiddos. It is important to remember that struggle and learning to cope outside of our regular routine yields tremendous growth and adaptability for us and our children.
3. Unpack immediately. Yes, get your “stuff” out of those bags. Put it in the drawers, find your underwear and get your space organized. We are becoming masters at this, because I cannot seem to function professionally or personally without certain things—one of those things being deodorant. I cannot tell you how many moves it took me to learn this one. I am big time focused when it comes to unpacking. We hit a record with this most recent move: we unpacked nine bags and eight carry-ons in under 48 hours.
4. Get Wifi. The only requirement we have when we sign a lease for a new apartment is good internet, as good as the area can handle. We need it to make money. If you end up at your location (this has happened to us every time), and the internet is not what you were initially told, you need to act on it immediately. Many countries do not have systems in place that are quick and efficient. It could take days—or weeks—to get an internet connection that is suitable for work. Lack of internet or a good connection can prove to be very stressful when you are using technology to make money and educate your children.
5. Personal care. Work hard to settle in quickly, but don’t neglect your well-being. Be sure to drink lots of water, get sleep and eat as healthy as possible until you can cook. Breathe, meditate, take long walks and remember to exercise a bit, even if it seems like your time should be spent elsewhere. I am going to be honest here. I fail miserably in this area, every single time. I wish I did not, but I am a work in progress, as well. I usually don’t sleep much, opt for caffeine over water and never exercise. As a result, I know the harm in neglecting my own care. Once things settle into place, I have to do a caffeine detox, and a big regroup back into exercise and healthy eating.
6. No guests. If anyone wants to come visit during those first couple of days, absolutely advise against it. Actually, I prefer to abstain from guests for at least the first six weeks, primarily because I don’t feel it is fair to our guests. We are usually barely settled. We have had to back burner a lot of our paying work (which means we are overloaded with work), and we are tired. As a result, we have had barely any time to explore the area, find the great restaurants, learn the culture, investigate the history and much more.
7. Take a vacation. Did I just say that? Move to a new land and take a vacation? Really? Yes! Now I am not talking about margaritas on the beach and endless sunsets. I am talking about a vacation from work in order to settle into your new country without the stress of deadlines or others’ demands. I (we) are speaking from personal experience when we say that things go wrong. For example, the internet is not always what you were promised, and then you have deadlines to meet without the adequate tools on top of it all. Give yourself at least a three-day vacation from work to adjust to time changes (if one exists), work out internet kinks, observe the culture, unpack and be present for your kids. In the end, it will reduce your stress level considerably.
8. Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask locals you know for help, to hire help or to bring the kids in for extra reinforcement. One person should not be expected to get the family moved in. If you have to hire a local to cook some meals, clean your apartment or do other tasks, don’t be shy. If you have children old enough to take responsibility, then by all means, give them tasks to help with. If you know some locals, ask them the pertinent questions that you would otherwise spend hours researching and translating online. Don’t be shy, folks. We all need a little help here and there. When you’re a little more settled, pay it forward to another person who needs help.
9. Don’t stress. Stress will only complicate the settling in process, plus it is not good for you. Don’t stress because you haven’t found a piano teacher on day one. Don’t stress because your daughter needs to find the used book store today. Don’t stress because you missed your online language class due to an insufficient internet connection. It will all get done. You will be unpacked and settled before you know it. Remember to breathe. Take a moment if you need it. Go for a coffee all alone. Read a little before bed. Maybe even sneak in a date with your partner for 30 minutes on the patio. You are strong and resourceful, you will survive this; but, if you stress about it, the process will not go as smoothly as it could.
10. Be thankful. Sometimes it’s really hard to see the good when you’re knee-deep in trying to find internet providers, filling out forms and adjusting to the time change. Try to remember that this madness is only temporary, and, in the midst of it, it’s important to take the time to be thankful. For us, this usually means taking a small token of appreciation to anyone who has helped us before we arrived—for example, school officials, landlords and neighbors. Also, we take time at dinner as a family to talk about what we are thankful for. Even in our most trying times, we need to remain thankful.
Here’s one last tip: If all else fails, eat loads of bread and cheese.
The first weeks in a new country bring up so many emotions in a family. On one hand, it is exciting to be in a new place—the sounds, the smells, the yummy foods, the weather, the rich culture; but, it can also be exhausting. That’s okay. Try to go outside your head and look at your situation from a new perspective. I would have to say that these are some of the tougher parts of travel—right behind applying for visas—but, luckily, it passes very quickly. Plus, the longer you are at this, the better your systems will soon work. You will learn for yourself and your own family what will make the process go smoother and faster.
Do you have any suggestions for how to make the first weeks in a new country run smoothly? Share your experiences. #WTfirstweek