Seven years ago, I embarked on my first long journey: I attended a university semester in a charming small town called Fredericksburg in Virginia (USA). Since then, I have become restless and went on to live, study and teach languages in seven other foreign countries (Russia, Australia, Germany, Macedonia, England, Slovakia, Spain). The largest amount of time I have spent in the same place (apart from my native Italy) has been sixteen months and the least amount of time just three months.
As the years have passed by, I have found it easier to move away and start everything (job, accommodation, routines, etc.) all over again rather than settling in one place. I know I am not alone. One of the reasons why people decide to become ESL teachers is to be able to travel and explore a new country much more in depth than they would if they just visited for a holiday.
No matter how far or exotic the place, building a new life somewhere else comes almost naturally once you have done it a few times. Below are some tips I would give myself if I were to start my adventures all over again, in the hope that you will find them useful as well.
1) Take advantage of opportunities to meet teachers and students
It is easy to get lonely when you first move to a new country, even when it is the second, third or tenth time that you do it. Luckily, by working in the TEFL industry, you are always provided with potential new friends in the form of your colleagues. Teachers can usually understand the challenges you face as they often have the same issues to deal with. If they happen to come from another country, just like you, they will most likely have the same eagerness to explore. Moreover, they might have a similar timetable to yours, which adds to their potentiality as mates of adventures.
If your school or department arranges meetups aimed at helping new teachers get to know each other, set shyness and doubts aside and join in. Otherwise, why not ask to be added to the teachers’ chat group or, if one doesn’t exist yet, set up your own? Some language academies organise events for adult students which staff are more than welcome to attend. Happy hour in English, film societies, and excursions are all chances to get out of the house, start to get familiar with your surroundings and socialise with your students and coworkers outside of school.
2) Check out websites to meet up with other travellers
The internet can also come in handy when searching for new friends. The platform Couchsurfing does not only work as an intermediary between travellers looking for free accommodation and locals who are willing to host them. It also helps its members connect with each other through regular events which are organised worldwide and dedicated forums which permit likeminded people to meet up to exchange opinions, languages and travel tips. The organisation InterNations is also a helpful resource to socialise with fellow expats and so is the website Meetup, which permits people to set up or join online groups and events which are catered to their interests and needs.
3) Visit your local library
If you end up living in a small town or somewhere remote, it might be more difficult for you to meet people through online organisations. An alternative is to get involved in your local community. Start by visiting the library, reading the flyers you are given, and consulting any notice boards or posters which catch your attention. You may be able to find a course, workshop or festival you are keen on attending. Otherwise, locate a gym, a swimming pool or a language school and give it a go. Even if you don’t immediately manage to befriend the locals, spending time within your community will give you a better sense of what life in the village and, more broadly, the country entails.
4) Try new things
As you get used to your new life abroad, you might feel yourself growing braver and more adventurous. Being somewhere where nobody knows you nor has any expectations of you can be liberating. In a foreign country, you can become anyone you want to be. In some cases, you can discover within yourself the person you have been all along, but haven’t been given the opportunity to be before moving away. When living abroad, you should surprise yourself by diving into all the new experiences you can. From kayaking in a canyon to giving Asian karaoke a go, take any chance you are offered to find out firsthand what you like and don’t like.
5) Learn the language
If one day you leave your hosting country even with just a smattering of the local language, you should be satisfied of yourself. There is a strong bond between the language of a place and its culture; chewing the words of another idiom might help you unlock its secret meanings. Plus, apart from helping you get by and endearing the locals who will appreciate your efforts, learning a foreign language can be a fun and rewarding experience in itself. Among all the languages I have tried to learn, even just at a beginner level, Russian and Macedonian have been the most interesting. Being able to chit chat with taxi drivers, order food (even the wrong dishes!) and picking up a few words in the conversations happening around me made me feel like I belonged. Now I think of what still endures of my Russian and Macedonian as my ace up the sleeve and I regret not attempting to learn Basque when I was living in the Basque country in North East Spain. You never know when a language will turn out to be helpful, even just to give you an advantage in learning a new one.
6) Budget for trips away
Keeping track of how much you spend pays off in the long run. Especially at the beginning of your stay in a new place, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of excursions you would like to take, typical restaurants you want to dine at, and activities you long to try. Learning to choose between different options and planning ahead can prove to be essential if you want to save up for going back home for Christmas or for exploring that unmissable city, desert or park you have always wanted to visit.
7) Learn to say no and preserve your energy
Life abroad can be more tiring than the one you leave behind, because it is dense with first times, discoveries and unforgettable moments. Challenges, problems and new opportunities seem to be always waiting for you around the corner. Therefore, it is crucial to find balance and make sure to have enough time to rest and process what you are going through. You shouldn’t feel guilty to say no now and then. As far as it is true that this special time of your life will never come back, you need to fit in all the downtime your body and mind need to fully savour and appreciate the experience. Stick to what makes you feel at home even when you are not there. If that means snuggling up in the afternoon with your favourite series on Netflix or having endless conversations via Skype with your family and friends back home, then make time for it as you would for your next trip.
Francesca has been teaching English as a Second Language and Italian to foreigners for seven years. After getting her CELTA at IH Milan in 2016, her wanderlust has become even more unstoppable.