Relocating overseas: a how-to on living abroad in a foreign country

Since the age of 4, I have had an obsession with ballerinas, chocolate croissants and comic book characters with tufts of orange hair and little white dogs. I decided that the only plausible explanation is that I was meant to be French. This year I decided to do a trial run, relocating to Paris for a few months to see if one day I could call it home for good. If you’re considering a gap year or exchange, here are some of the lessons I have garnered about making a new home in a far away place.

Rebirth

Forging a new life in a foreign country must feel something the same as being a newborn baby. Suddenly you have no history, at least not with anyone in this new found land; you eat all the time, and it’s always too easy to justify gorging yourself on the local delights as a culturally immersive experience; you need to re-learn basic behaviours, from talking to eating to dressing yourself (I realised very quickly that the wardrobe staples of my Australian life by the beach are in Paris only good for attracting harassment by strange men on the Metro); you express yourself in gestures and broken sentences and you learn to follow locals around in public transport and busy streets like omniscient parents, half expecting them to hold your hand when you cross the road.     

Becoming a blank slate is one of the best and worst aspects of relocating. The chance to start fresh in a strange new world where no one imposes upon you any preconceptions from the past is liberating and empowering. It provides you with a healthy objective perspective, a vantage point from which discoveries are made both about human nature and your own nature. But it is naturally a little disheveling to realise that who you thought you were might just have been based on your old environment. Be prepared for some existential crisis.

Of course, when all the change becomes too much and you’d do anything for a dose of the Great South Land, chances are your hit is never too far away. Australians get around; you can find yourself at an intimate backyard Flamenco fiesta in a tiny village in the deep, bull-fighting south of Spain, and still discover that one of the ten people in attendance is another Aussie with a travel bug just like your own. True story. If you’ve settled in an English-speaking place, your Aussie-spotting chances go through the roof: there are currently more Australians living in the UK than there are in Tasmania. And while at first it might be completely infuriating to have your exclusive monopoly on friend-winning southern hemisphere exoticism snatched away, the more time that passes since your last bite of Vegemite toast, the more you will see the Aussie infestation as an absolute blessing.
 

Parlez-vous français?

The French are so suspicious of the destruction of their beautiful mother tongue that they have literally passed a law requiring at least 50% of songs played on the radio to be in French. Accordingly, I spent the first few weeks of my new Parisian life petrified to open my mouth lest I massacre their precious language and be condemned to the same bloody end as Joan of Arc.

But I soon discovered that the old cliché about learning through mistakes has never rung more true than when a foreign language is involved. That one about practice makes perfect is another to remember. Sure you will make some horrifying mistakes, but you will be so embarrassed by these mistakes that you will never ever make them again. So really the more horrifying, the better. Some of my own beauties include my confusion between a tradesman’s home visit and the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, the time my friend told me she had a huge pimple and I replied, ‘how wonderful!’, and the time I accidentally called a lovely family friend a slut. That wasn’t so great. But thanks to this first slip up, I never made the same mistake in an environment that could have been a lot more costly. And I learnt that after a few months, the more you let your tongue off its leash and the less you analyse before you speak, the better you are understood.
 

Nesting

Finding somewhere to live that is not a shared room with three axe-murderers well versed in sleazy pick-up lines is no easy feat from the other side of the world. You may need to be prepared to spend your first couple of weeks couch surfing (www.couchsurfing.org - incidentally, a great way to make local friends!) while you hunt for an apartment and make inspections in the flesh. The good news is that you will soon discover just how outrageous are Australian city property prices, and that even in some of the most popular cities in Europe it is possible to find a decent dwelling for a monthly rate that’s equivalent to the fortnightly price you’d pay in Oz.

Create and account on http://au.easyroommate.com/ and select the website that corresponds to your new home country for cheap rental options in homes already brimming with (usually) young locals.
 

Bringing home the bread

If you’re relocating to a non-English speaking country, all you need to do is smile and deliver a line in your native tongue and employers will flock to your from all directions. Obviously the job stream will flow more or less freely depending on the industry you’re chasing. But at least while you are looking to get yourself set-up, finding work in hospitality, language teaching or childcare will be an absolute snack.
 

Reality check

Despite what my Instagram roll may suggest, my principal activity in France did not involve lazing under Autumn leaves eating rose petal macaroons with handsome men with perfectly groomed moustaches and pretty shoes. In fact, some of my loneliest moments in Paris occurred when I decided to take advantage of a day-off and do the tourist thing, only to find myself standing before stunning ancient relics with no-one beside me to share my amazement. In the end, I found that I much preferred to peer at the Eiffel Tower from a bus window on the way to work, where friends and tea were waiting for me, than wander beneath its great arcs all alone. Even when you’re surrounded by Louvres and La Durées, you still need a routine and a washing machine and the occasional night eating 2-minute noodles in front of the TV.
 

Let’s be friends

Don’t believe the rumours: friendly locals with space in their lives for you do actually exist. It’s just a matter of being proactive. Join a dance class at your community centre, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, go along to the youth group of your local church, heck, just get chatting to your morning barista – that’s how I found myself surrounded by real-life French speakers in a Parisian reggae bar. And last but not least, never, ever underestimate the popularity boost that comes with a foreign accent.