My sister’s voice at the other end of the world sounds a bit disconsolate. Week 1 after her move to Rome and I don’t sense terrible excitement. She sends out resumes, cleans the house and complains that the city is hard to get around.
Having moved three times to three large cities where I knew a sum total of two people in each place, I started to think about what worked for me and how long it took before a new place felt like home.
Here are my top 10 suggestions to overcome the outsider’s blues:
- Most European cities are hard to get around, for the sheer complexity of their geography and lack of urban planning. It helps to look at a large map to get a sense of how a city is organized: main arteries, neighbourhoods, points of reference – when I first moved to LA (much easier to navigate than any European city) I knew the mountains pointed east so I took it from there whenever I was lost. Which was often.
- Be a tourist. Whenever you have free time, pick a must do thing, however cheesy or touristy it might be and go do it. Museums, parks, rivers, amusement parks, whatever…and take public transportation if the city allows it. You will start to get a sense of where everything is and will have fun in the process.
- Immediately scout your neighbourhood for markets, hardware stores and coffee shops to meet your immediate necessities. Go back to the same coffee shop – you might not make any friends but talking to the same barista over and over will make you feel less lonely. Trust me, it can come to that, especially when you move on your own.
- Make friends with the neighbours. Ask to borrow their sugar or knock on their door with a little something, invite them for coffee – whatever it takes so that if a meteorite hits your bedroom in the middle of the night it won’t be so strange to call on them and ask for help.
- Enroll into something. In no particular order, I took acting/cooking/ice-skating/psychology classes, joined gyms and yoga studios. Not all of them led to anything in particular or to interesting people (ice-skating is best remembered through a set of humiliating photos a visiting friend took) but some yielded long-term friendships.
- Forget where you come from for a long while. Your culture will always be there. Embracing a new one takes a bit more effort and necessitates leaving preconceptions at the door. Be open to new habits, new foods, new customs, especially the most annoying ones and those who don’t make sense. And don’t criticize. Your new acquaintances might find your provenance exotic and ask you about it but they probably don’t want to know how everything is soooo much better/tastier/more organized/civilized where you come from. In England, I gave the pub scene a try. I never grew accustomed to the habit of going out on Friday nights, get shit faced and puke on the pavement but, on the other end, I came to cherish Winter Sunday afternoons spent at a pub, in front of a roaring fire, with a Pimm’s No 1 and the Observer. Some of this embracing can be translated when on holiday too. My red-haired friend and I were the only foreigners vacationing on a hilltop village in Cyprus where we had rented the local “blind man”s property. We were such an oddity that random people would invite us in their homes to offer us coffee to the point of permanent insomnia. On the upside, fresh grapes and figs appeared on our doorstep most mornings to recompense our friendliness.
- Explore the food, even the weird and unfamiliar one. It takes three tries for our palates to get used to a new taste. I was lucky in growing up being fed wonderful Italian food but I am now an avid fan of Indian and Chinese, thanks to London and LA.
- Ask for advice, tips, suggestions everywhere you go. I once stopped somebody with a nice haircut to ask her where she got it. People are mostly eager to share such information and you will come across some treasures in the form of doctors, manicurists, dry-cleaners and the like.
- Invite out people who seem interesting – a lot will turn out not to be for you but friends are like potential romantic companions. There is a lot of frog kissing to be done before finding the right one.
- No place is truly uninteresting. I believe it’s our attitude and our circumstances that shape the view of our surroundings. Come to think of it, I did move to a 4th large city where I only knew 3 people – I tend to forget it because the two years I spent there were marred by such difficulties that I have a hard time going back to visit now without digging up painful memories. But, by and large, staying open to the new and unexpected will fill us with all those precious details that eventually make a “foreign” place home.