‘She came to the welcome lunch 2 days after landing and contributed home bakes to the potluck even though she’s still living in a hotel room? Oooh, she really hit the ground running!’
Ok, that’s an exaggerated example. Only just. But there are some of us who’ve been through so many moves (6, for me, over 9 years) that we’re starting at least look like we’re hitting the ground running when we arrive somewhere new.
I’m not quite in the league of the kind of veteran who provides home bakes for the coffee days after arriving in temporary accommodation. But that’s more to do with my aversion to on-demand baking and potlucks in general!
Still, with the occasional glitch, I’ve been making some fairly smooth moves over recent years. While it’s still September, I thought I’d share some insights and hacks, that might help someone get their own transition moving along.
Part one, today, offers some hacks – quick tips that you can quickly think about incorporating, even ahead of moving. Look out for part two, which is all about adopting a ‘hit-the-ground-running’ mindset.
Hack 1: Tech is Your Friend
I know people used to do all this before the age of Facebook and Google, but even though I’m of the generation who chatted to each other as teenagers using rotary dial phones,* it’s hard to imagine now getting by without our digital companions.
Facebook is your first port of call, long before you move. Search for expat/ anglophone/ francophone/ international groups in your destination – try the town, the region and the country. Join any that seem relevant. Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to get fully immersed in making plans before you move, it can give you some insight into how to go about things later on. When you get closer to arriving, you can keep an eye out for leavers posting their items for sale, and once you’ve arrived, you’ll be well and truly ready to plunge in and ask for where the playgroup meets, or how to use the pharmacy, or which is the most reliable hairdresser… hopefully feeling a bit less like an awkward newbie.
As for Google, the tools they provide are in constant daily use on my phone just now. Did you realise that you don’t even have to be online to use Google maps? One thing to do before you actually move, and while you still have wifi: if you tap the menu in the Google maps app, you’ll see ‘Offline maps’ and from there you can download a city or regional map to use on your phone when you’re offline. The GPS blue dot showing your location also works offline – so getting lost in a new place is a thing of the past! (You decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing…)
And since this is actually my first time in a place where I speak not one word of the language (well, I do have one word, after watching many many hours of Danish TV over the years: tak), the Google translate app has also been in constant demand. You can actually open a camera in there, which you can hover over packaging in the supermarket for instant translation, and know whether you’re actually buying cheese, or vegan non-cheese. #truestory
Hack 2: Go Friend Dating
There will likely be opportunities to join in get-togethers with the expat community – say yes to those opportunities (more on that in part two). When you’re in those groups, and you’ve made a connection with someone you’re sure is a future cool, awesome friend, don’t be afraid of doing a little work to cultivate it. Take their number, invite them for coffee. It might feel weird and even a bit stalkerish to ask out a new friend – if you’re used to socialising with people you’ve already known for years, or if you’re British – but in the expat context it works. If it does feel too weird, think of a premise: ‘I’d love to pick your brain about..xyz.’ Or find an event that you’re interested in, and ask them for their company.
And don’t forget that ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed – only a cliché because it’s true. When someone says they need your help, doesn’t it endear them to you? Ask someone for their help (a tour of the market) or advice (the bar that serves the best mojito), break down your defenses, and make a friend indeed.
Hack 3: Keep a List
This advice seems far too obvious, but it’s the kind of common sense measure that can get forgotten in an overwhelming situation. Whether you use a project management app on your phone, or note down everything in your journal, you will need a list. Because when you have work, school, the town hall, the immigration authorities, the bank, the utilities company, the estate agent, the shipping company, the relocation company, all throwing deadlines and paperwork requests at you, alongside the normal activities and routines you’re trying to establish, it’s easy to lose track and let something slip in a way that can stall plans for weeks. Keep a list, and keep on top of it. If you don’t want it to get on top of you, set aside an hour or so a day when you’ll tackle it, leaving time for other things too.
Hack 5: Pack Well
Even if you’re moving to a place within stone’s throw of an Ikea, and even if you have an 80ft container following you, you still need to pack for your transition with a lot of contingencies in mind. The process of preparing for a shipment and at the same time packing personal items that might need to see you through 4 months (and counting) of being on the move and waiting to be settled is still the part I hate most. It is not the same as packing for a holiday. While it’s liberating in some ways to be living just with the contents of a few suitcases, daily life as it restarts can be more demanding. And while there are lots of bits and pieces that are easy to buy in most places, that list of ‘I’ll pick that up at the other end’ can be easily neglected in the first few days. Here are some of the things we packed this time around (and some that I wished I’d packed!) that have helped keep us a little better organised in the first few weeks.
- Bottle opener. The last two places I’ve moved into have been equipped with lovely wine glasses, but no bottle opener. Srsly.
- Plastic cups. My own little connection of reusable cups from various festivals and events has already served us well for Friday apéros and picnics. Right now, as well as being useful for the kids to grab for a drink of water, I have two pressed into service in the bathroom for toothbrush holders, and another one holding clothes pegs. Get some cheap ones and throw ’em in a case – they won’t break.
- Ziplock pouches. Endless uses for packing and organising.
- Flock-covered hangers. There was recently a whole thread in an expat facebook group about whether to pack hangers in a shipment. Since we only ever have an air shipment, space is at too much of a premium for me to pack all the hangers from our wardrobe. However, this time I slipped a few of the flock-covered thin hangers that have become my favourite into a suitcase. They slot into gaps easily and don’t tangle up together like wire hangers can.
- Essential documents. When I’m starting to prepare the move, I set aside a sturdy A4 ziplock pouch for all our essential documents that are difficult to replace: birth certificates etc, as well as all the paperwork associated with the move, like the shippers’ packing list. I keep it to the essentials, since it has to fit in the hand luggage. Moving is the only time I tend to max out our hand luggage allowance, as it also has to include the valuable tech, hard drives, and valuable jewellery that you don’t want to risk putting in the shipment or hold luggage.
- Aeropress. If #butfirstcoffee is one of your favourite hashtags, I recommend this bit of kit for an expat move. Like the plastic cups, it goes easily in your luggage with little risk of breaking, and is the low-tech, low-waste route to great fresh coffee wherever you can boil water. I can attest it served me well camping in the Namib desert!
- Hooks. Suction hooks and handbag hooks (those gadgets that you can balance on a restaurant table to hang your handbag from) are useful little organisers that don’t take up much luggage space, and can make the difference to streamlining your daily life in a hotel room or ill-equipped apartment.
- School labels. If you’re anything like me, you jump at the chance to organise your kids’ school stuff with cute labels, such as the ones from Mine4Sure. You keep the stash in a handy place always ready to grab and label the new lunch box or indoor shoes. So don’t forget to put them in your luggage, because your shipment most likely won’t arrive before school starts and, if you’re anything like me, you will be gutted at having to scribble names on things with a permanent marker instead of using the cute labels.
- A Swiss Army knife or Leatherman tool. Not in your hand luggage, obvs. But there have been several times since we’ve arrived when I wished had packed one of these instead of leaving it in the toolbox with the rest of the shipment. We’ve had to wrench over-packaged toys out of their plastic shell, when a little screwdriver was all we needed. And I’m always frustrated at the idea of having to call maintenance when I could just make an adjustment myself if I had the right tool. Next time, I’ll have it!
What hacks or packing tips would you add for a smooth transition? I’d love to know. And look out for part two, where I go deeper into some mindset adjustments that might help your arrival go smoothly.
Don’t forget, if you know someone who’d benefit from reading this, go ahead and share!