A Broad Abroad: -- Advice for those Moving Overseas
An article by Naphtalia Leba
Jan 16 '02

The Bottom Line -- This world is a place where anything can happen, and it usually does. You gotta love that!

As a grad student and now an English as a Foreign Language teacher, I have been living hither, thither and yon for the past several years. For those of you moving to another country, I would like to make some suggestions. Some of these are practical matters; most deal with attitude.

It may be trite to point out, but there is not here. The new place you're going to be living is not the same as the place you have been living. In some places, you can find wine at McDonalds. In other places, you will have to pay extra for a ketchup for your french fries. In some places, you may get a funny look if you put ketchup on your fries. And that's just the easy stuff.

Wherever you are is a place that has developed its own way of doing things and you are the one who has to adjust - not them! Where do you go to pay your bills? In the US I had a choice of 1) automatic payments taken from my accounts, 2) mailing in payments, or 3) going to the phone/electric/cable company office and paying my bills. In Israel, I paid bills at the post office. However, since I wasn't planning to emigrate permanently, I couldn't get my own land-line phone and only had a mobile. This meant that I had no phone bill, but had to buy cards to "recharge" it. In Poland, I have a choice of paying at the post office or paying at any bank. However, there is an additional charge for paying at the bank of about 2 zloty (50 cents) per bill. Some of the bills in Poland are mailed and some are left on the front door. It's up to you to figure out what everything is.

Shopping is another way in which places differ. Go to an American grocery store and you will find the milk, yogurt and cheese all in the same general area. In a Polish grocery store, however, most milk is sold UHT (ultra high temperature) which means it's in a box with a long shelf life. Milk is usually next to the breakfast cereal or the coffee (the two things you are most likely to use it with.) The breakfast cereal, on the other hand, will not be near the oatmeal. Oatmeal is a "plain grain" like wheat flour or rice. You will find the oatmeal with these things. The yogurt and cheese are still together, but the eggs are likely to be near the fruits and vegetables as they often are not refrigerated. Also, here eggs come ten to a pack.

In the US, I often called for a taxi cab. Taxis are more plentiful in the places I have lived abroad. In Israel, one walks up to the window and tells the driver where he or she is going. Then the driver tells you if he or she is willing to take you there. In Poland, you just tell the driver and walk in. By the way, make sure you point down at the ground to signal a cab to stop in Israel, as waving your thumb can be impolite.

You're not where you came from and the people who are living in your new home will not change for you. It is up to you to change. And remember to take pleasure in these differences. Enjoy them. You have to be willing to go with the flow.

Now, the practical stuff. Before you get somewhere - or as soon as you land - find out:
how to say a few basic things in the native language. These should include:

  • Please
  • (make sure you find out how to use this. At a restaurant is it more normal to say "Coffee, please" or "Please, coffee"?)

  • Thank you
  • You're welcome.
  • (This is not used in all countries and doesn't always have an equivalent. Indeed, in my time in England I found it used quite sparingly compared to in the US.)

  • Hello
  • Good bye
  • Okay
  • The numbers 0 -10 and multiples of 10 (10, 20, 30....)
  • Good
  • Yes
  • No
  • Bathroom
  • Would you write that down?
  • (really helpful when you can't understand a number)

  • I don't speak
  • (insert name of language here).
  • Do you speak
  • (insert name of language you speak here in the native language of the place. May be repeated til you find a match or run out of languages.)

  • I'm sorry.
  • Excuse me (for getting past someone who's blocking your way.)
  • Excuse me (for belches or other bodily functions that may be less than polite.)

  • This is enough language to get you started. For other items, keep a notebook with you. In the front, write down new words as they're given to you. Better, have the native speaker write the word and repeat it. Then you repeat it back until you say it to their satisfaction. Then, write it down phonetically next to the correct spelling and write down what it means. In the back of the notebook, draw pictures. If you don't know the word for apple, you can get people to point to them if you draw one. As a side note, most of the on-line bookstores carry a variety of "Teach Yourself (insert language) or Berlitz or Travlang tapes. Any of these can be helpful to get you started while you're in the car, or doing other things that allow you to listen while you're working.

    A few suggestions on what to bring:

    First check out the electrical situation in the place where you are going. Do they have the same shape plugs? Do they have the same "flavor" of electricity? 220w? 110w? 50 cycles? 60 cycles? If they do not, the appliances you have where you are will not work as they are.
    For computers, the flavor of electricity can be less of a problem as many are designed to handle whatever flavor is out there...but check! Adapters and transformers (to make your plugs match the outlets/powerpoints and the electricity match your machine's need) are much cheaper than a new machine. On the other hand, it's probably not worth buying a transformer/adapter for a $10 K-mart hair dryer. You will have to make a choice on an item by item basis. If you're shipping and can afford to send larger appliances, check out some advertisements in the place you're going to. If you hate to hang clothes on a clothes line and can't live without your dryer...well, you may need to bring one. In advertisements in the United States, washing machines often come as part of a deal with clothes dryers. In Venezuela and in Poland, washing machines often come with a free drying rack or clothes pins. This should tell you something.

    You should also bring a basic medicine chest of stuff for yourself. This should include your favorite medications for headache, cough, sore throat, sniffles, tired eyes, and cleaning of cuts or abrasions. For me this means both aspirin and tylenol, cough syrup and drops, sucrets, Sudafed, Natural Tears and neosporin. There is nothing worse in the world than being sick and having to go to talk to a pharmacist who may or may not speak English and explain your symptoms. That's right! In most places, there is no over-the-counter medications. You must get it from a pharmacist. In Israel, all pharmacists speak English (though the quality of their English may vary.) In Poland and Venezuela, there is no guarantee. You might also want to bring your own thermometer. It is hard to remember as an American what is normal body temperature in Celsius.

    I would suggest again looking at advertisements for local stores on-line before you go if at all possible. In Israel, feminine hygiene products and condoms are more expensive than in the U.S. In Poland, most items are less expensive, but the brands you know and trust may not be available.

    If you have any special comfort foods, bring some with you. I can't get chocolate chips (not the kind I like) anywhere but in the US. Kraft caramels for candied apples at Halloween? Nope. Brown sugar? Yes in Israel and Venezuela. No in Poland. Folks from Britain say the "English tea" here isn't. You can't bring everything, but a few comfort foods can help to ease transitions. For students who are going abroad to study, have the cook of the family make up spice packets with instructions for the favorite foods. My mother makes packets for her burgundy beef stew and her curried chicken whenever I go off somewhere. (I'm a vegetarian, so make mine with soy or just veggies). For one packet of beef stew, I toss in half a bottle of dry red wine and a pack of soy with the spices and whatever fresh veggies I want. It tastes like home.

    Bring some books in English and some magazines. If you want to subscribe, remember it takes time for international subscriptions to kick in. Subscribe at least a month in advance if possible. You'll be amazed how much you love reading even if you hardly ever do it at home. If you are going with a group, make sure you don't duplicate reading material. How many copies of Harry Potter 1 do you really need?

    If you want to be able to drive abroad, you should have a driver's license from your current place of residence and then get an international driver's license. The international driver's license requires a local driver's license, too. Wherever you're going, check the road signs to learn what they mean before you hit the road. Bring additional passport size/style photos with you. You may, however, have to get new ones for additional identification materials. My US passport requires me to look straight into the camera. In Poland, however, the pictures are 3/4 shots and must show the right ear. For my visa here, I had to get a different picture.

    Check with the state department about any travel advisories where you are going. Recognize that they tend to be over-cautious. That's their job. Still, they can offer good advice for travellers and people moving to a new place. If you are going to be anywhere for a lengthy stay, check in with your national embassy. If there is an emergency, they can be a first line of defense.

    Don't forget that if you move to many countries, you may have to register once you have an apartment.

    This is hardly an all inclusive list, but I hope it helps you if you plan to move abroad. I'm coming back to the US next year...but the year after that....who knows? It's fun to live abroad.

    New! Comments

    Please ask questions or leave feedback in the box below.