How to survive your first month living abroad
The start of May marked my seventh month living in Switzerland, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than to reflect on my first four weeks in the country and give some tips on how lonesome expats can survive their first month working abroad, because honestly it isn’t as easy as it looks.
Switzerland is my second move out of the UK and my first alone. Despite its similar culture to Britain, certainly compared to my first home abroad, Ukraine, it is probably the hardest place I’ve lived. Though the country undoubtedly offers amazing relocation opportunities, it was the travel element of my new role I was lured by and the experience of working on a global team. I’m not money motivated and to live in Geneva, one of the most expensive countries in the world, did not necessarily appeal to me.
My first day at my new job and my first Monday in this alien country was somewhat uncomfortable, as all new starts can be. I trundled to work past the suited and booted of Geneva in my faded old jeans, my battered superga pumps, a baggy top, with my oversized rucksack weighing heavy on my back.
As much as I love fashion, my wardrobe is more a collection of cheap boho travel finds than the chic high end buys of the classic Chanel clad folk of Geneva. What had I done? I looked more Eliza Thornberry than haute couture - even my naturally unruly curly hair stood out. I couldn’t have felt more out of place.
It wasn’t just stylishly I felt odd, I couldn't speak French and even the smallest things felt like a struggle. Moving to any new country can be a challenge and this got me thinking, what do I wish I had known before moving away solo?
WHOLEHEARTEDLY EMBRACE THE CULTURE
I would recommend embracing the place you have moved to and focusing on the elements of it that you love or can learn from.
Do I suit a corporate city? Probably not, I'm more suited to a life barefoot surrounded by beaches and mountains.
Do I see myself in Geneva longterm? Again no. Eventually I see myself somewhere exotic, challenging and breathtakingly wild, somewhere that might be able to tame my roving nature.
Does this mean I can't appreciate where I am now? No.
Though Switzerland isn’t my forever place (I don’t think I even understand where that is myself), I have learnt to embrace life here. My love for long hikes in summer months has been satisfied with the beautiful sweeping countryside surrounding Geneva. My tastebuds have been nourished by exceptional food, including fondue, Swiss chocolate, delicious French wine and local cheeses from a local farmer’s market. And as much as London will always be my second home, I have appreciated getting away from a hectic lifestyle and heading on scenic runs and walks on my lunch breaks - a far cry from my old party girl persona.
I have learnt to embrace the changes and the quirks, and to understand and accept that sometimes it is good to be placed somewhere so different from what you aspire to, as it allows you to truly understand what you do and don’t want, to accept the present and hopefully appreciate the things you want more when they come.
PREPARE FOR THE PAPER WORK … AND A ZILLION HIDDEN COSTS
Any move abroad can be stressful. As much as I like to live minimally - I originally moved to Switzerland with just just two medium sized suitcases - it just isn’t that easy. Every new country has it’s own way of doing things and this can be stressful! Take Switzerland, you will need to sign and pay to prove everything and anything. From a long procedure to apply for your permit, to having to head down to the Office de Population every time you change address, to the nightmare over health insurance - this isn’t just expensive but takes forever to come through too, you’ll need money put aside for a rainy day, to have lots of patience and if you’re lucky a friendly translator to help you fill in the forms.
Hint - The Swiss system will ask for back payments for you health insurance but they take their time. Make sure you have saved to cover this - I didn’t and it crippled my March pay check!
Don’t just fill the papers in for your new country, stay on top of correspondence in your home country. Again, foolishly I didn’t remind my student loans provider that I had moved abroad, and then came a £1500 fee in back payments - March really wasn’t fun.
TAKE UP A NEW HOBBY
Though most would describe me as a sociable person, I really do love to be on my own. I enjoy travelling alone, I like living solo and my dream relationship would probably be with someone I didn’t live with and maybe didn't live in the same country as - how very Helen Bonham Carter of me.
Nonetheless, once you’ve enjoyed the initial solo exploration of your new city, it really can get quite frustrating if you know no-one. If you’ve moved for work you don’t want to push yourselves on your new colleagues straight away and getting used to a new job can be exhausting - you might not feel as social as you usually are.
It’s time to get a new hobby. Whether you’re into art, reading, cooking or you fancy finally taking up that sport you’ve always talked about, now is the time. I opted for a few new books, more running training and getting back into photography. As it got closer to winter I also enjoyed heading to the mountains for a few ski lessons.
PICK UP A NEW LANGUAGE
I say the word “pick up” very loosely, as I certainly haven’t picked up French. But with hindsight, I would have pushed myself to start learning at an earlier stage. What better way to learn more about a culture than through its mother tongue? Six months into my move I have finally started to take lessons.
Moving abroad for a job is certainly different than moving away with friends or for university. First off, you are completely on your own and secondly, others aren’t necessarily in the same boat as you. At University you’re all connected, be it through a thirst for education, a thirst for alcohol - or both! You’re open to connecting and meeting new people as you’re all new and most probably friendless.
Moving for a job is not the same, everybody has their own lives going on. You will be working with people that have lived in the area for years, people that are married with children and people that maybe just don’t want to socialise with their colleagues.
Even if you have great colleagues it is still important to go out and meet some new faces too. Whether you meet people through your new hobby, you join a language exchange or you just get chatting out and about, it’s important to try and keep putting yourself out there.
BUT…. BE CAREFUL WHO YOU HAND YOUR NUMBER TO
Being new to a country, on your own, can not only be lonely but a little daunting. As much as you want to get social, don’t feel you have to connect with everyone. If you wouldn’t hang out with them back home, chances are you’re not similar here either.
Foolishly/naively on one of my first days in Switzerland I gave my number to a guy I met in a coffee shop. He seemed nice/normal and I thought he might have a cool group of friends - he had other thoughts. After helpfully advising me on a few local things he began to bombard with messages to meet on a daily basis. The messages soon turned to phone calls, all of which I ignored, with romanticised follow up messages asking to meet “where we first met”. A few other similar encounters have taught me to be social but a little more reserved. The world is big and you don’t have to be everybody's friend.
PLAN THOSE SKYPE CALLS
Instead of hanging out with just anyone, schedule calls with your family and friends back home. They’ll appreciate you missing them and it’ll stop you feeling too homesick. You’ll be kept in the loop of what everyone is up to, while slowly building up a new network abroad. If they are close by you should also try to get them to come out. I had two of my closest friends visit within my first few weeks in Geneva.
ENJOY THE ALONE TIME!
Above all, don’t be scared of the quiet during your first few months away and enjoy the lone time, as sooner or later you’ll have a bustling network and new friends to add to your global network. Immerse yourself in the good, learn from the bad and above all try to enjoy yourself. Whether you love the experience or not try to be lighthearted, after all, its all just another story to one day tell the grandkids!