Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007-2013. Please give credit where credit is due.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Nine rules for living in a foreign country

Cold, clear and dry with blue skies.

I've been a permanent resident in Carmine Superiore for a number of years now. Long enough to not remember exactly when I signed on at the Ufficio Anagrafe and first held in my hand my very own Italian ID card. Long enough to consider myself an expat, even though I don't have the hoopla salary or the palatial living quarters that most proper expats have. I'm not on contract, I haven't been seconded, I don't want to keep the peace and I'm not on a mission. I just live here.

And now I think I've lived here long enough to have earned the right to offer some advice to those fresh off the boat. To list, without futher ado, some of what I see to be the do's and don'ts of expat life:

1. Don't think you can get away with English and a winning smile. Make an effort to learn the language, and even if you become fluent, always apologise for speaking so badly. If you think you might not be up to the language-learning bit, squeeze out several children and throw them into the local state school. That way you'll always have an interpreter to hand.

2. The first words you should learn in the language of your adoptive country are : "Please speak slowly. I don't speak very good French/Italian/Gujarati..." As your linguistic ability increases, this can be upgraded to : "You can tell I'm foreign because I'm wearing M&S easy-wear jeans and I just used the wrong tense. You could easily answer 'yes' or 'no' to my question, so why the hell do you insist on talking nineteen to the dozen with a lump of Turkish Delight in your mouth? Cavolo!" (If you're in Italy, one mention of cabbages, and you'll have them where you want them...)

3. Don't imagine you're making friends among the local population until you've been invited into their homes. Children's parties don't count. But key parties do.

4. Be nice, very nice, about the country you are living in. Sshhht! Not a word, not even a single criticism. Clamp that mouth shut! Gaffer tape works...But if you absolutely must, write a blog - an anonymous blog.

5. He's from your home country, but it's okay if you don't become bosom buddies. You may share a nationality, but it doesn't mean he'll necessarily share your love of collecting decorative handcuffs or carving eggshells.

6. When making appointments with bureaucrats, always ask what particular documents you need. Then take everything you can think of - resident's permits, birth certificates, passports, ID cards, 'O'-level certificates, receipts for shoe repairs, your granddad's 100th-birthday letter from HM. In triplicate. Short (and sharp) courses on 'How to Deal with Bureaucracy' are available at any Indian railway station, and in the holding cells attached to Nigerian customs.

7. Buy local. In particular, don't import white goods from your home country. It'll annoy the local supplier you ask to fix them when they go wrong. Either he 'can't get the parts' or he genuinely can't get the parts. Either way you'll be doing the washing up by hand.

8. Don't allow yourself to get nostalgic about the Motherland. It stank when you left. And it still stinks. Probably more.

9. And finally, don't believe what you read in expat handbooks. They're written by people like me.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an ex-expat the "motherland" doesn't stink as badly as I remembered, in fact it feels nice to be back surrounded by theatre, museums, jazz , opera and of course the ballet, but you do have to put up with a few drawbacks but then every place we live we have to compromise a little.

LindyLouMac said...

Your excellent post made me laugh this morning when I needed cheering up,thankyou.

V. said...

I'll let you know when it stops stinking and you're safe to come home.

Caution Flag said...

Please tell me this is the genesis of an article I will someday read in a magazine. You have such a talent for cobbling humor, insight, and beautiful phrasing together!

Lady Fi said...

Oh goodness - this was brilliant and hysterically funny! And true.

PiNG aka Patti said...

Excellent advice - particularly the bit about the home country!

Eva Gallant said...

Hi there! Great advice.
You commented on my wife-carrying championship post. I'd never heard of Cow Bingo! That, too, is hysterical! lol

xoxoKrysten said...

Awesome, love this!

Carol said...

Having been an expat myself I couldn't agree more!! I would perhaps also add (but this might have been a Thai thing) don't mess with the process...if there is a way of doing things go with it...the minute you do something out of order then you are buggered!!

eg. If a Thai waiter asks you what you want to drink/eat..just order something...if you ask them to come back you will never see them again!!

C x

Brenda said...

Love this post, its so true, every single one of them. You could also mention how wonderful the local food is (even if its not), and that the longer you live in a place the fewer cultural mistakes you are allowed to make (or at least forgiven for).

♥ Braja said...

"I'm not on contract, I haven't been seconded, I don't want to keep the peace and I'm not on a mission. I just live here."

Touche :) Love it :)

Mademoiselle Poirot said...

Oh how funny, this really made me laugh, thanks. I do (being French and living in London) struggle with point 4 though myself, I tend to verbalise my frustrations (about everything) far too often, but I guess I can always claim to try to fit in by moaning about the weather ;-) Fantastic writing by the way. Carole x

Queenie Jeannie said...

I had to laugh at this post, but nodded my head along the way too! I'm an American, but we will be moving to Italy in August (Vicenza). We are beyond excited, but a bit nervous too. Sort of like when you finally get what you've spent three years working on and then all of a sudden, suddenly get it, lol!

Will S said...

Cabbages! I wonder if it works in the Italian restaurants in Manhattan!

injaynesworld said...

Wonderful advice! Alas, I am not a traveler, but how I do enjoy living vicariously through those who do. Your home and life there sound lovely. I look forward to hearing much more.

Jayne

Katja said...

Oh god, I'm buggered. No time to learn the language properly, and neither the will nor (after working with the little horrors all day) the inclination to produce children. I'm a trained teacher, reduced to the status of a bum!

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Great post, and pretty funny. I've never been an expat, but my travel experiences would seem to confirm what you say.

bettyl said...

You'd think another English-speaking country would be a piece of cake.....but not NZ! It's another story all together!

Sandy said...

Sounds like good advice. I have always said if I lived in a country where the language wasn't English that I would do all I could to learn the language.

I hope someday to be able to put some of your advice to use.

Powell River Books said...

My husband and I just had our second anniversary of landing in Canada. You advice applies even for us moving not so far from our former home in the States. We feel very fortunate to have been invited into many homes and feel we are becoming accepted into the community. Thanks for the reminders about how to be gracious in a new land. - Margy

Monday, 8 February 2010

Nine rules for living in a foreign country

Cold, clear and dry with blue skies.

I've been a permanent resident in Carmine Superiore for a number of years now. Long enough to not remember exactly when I signed on at the Ufficio Anagrafe and first held in my hand my very own Italian ID card. Long enough to consider myself an expat, even though I don't have the hoopla salary or the palatial living quarters that most proper expats have. I'm not on contract, I haven't been seconded, I don't want to keep the peace and I'm not on a mission. I just live here.

And now I think I've lived here long enough to have earned the right to offer some advice to those fresh off the boat. To list, without futher ado, some of what I see to be the do's and don'ts of expat life:

1. Don't think you can get away with English and a winning smile. Make an effort to learn the language, and even if you become fluent, always apologise for speaking so badly. If you think you might not be up to the language-learning bit, squeeze out several children and throw them into the local state school. That way you'll always have an interpreter to hand.

2. The first words you should learn in the language of your adoptive country are : "Please speak slowly. I don't speak very good French/Italian/Gujarati..." As your linguistic ability increases, this can be upgraded to : "You can tell I'm foreign because I'm wearing M&S easy-wear jeans and I just used the wrong tense. You could easily answer 'yes' or 'no' to my question, so why the hell do you insist on talking nineteen to the dozen with a lump of Turkish Delight in your mouth? Cavolo!" (If you're in Italy, one mention of cabbages, and you'll have them where you want them...)

3. Don't imagine you're making friends among the local population until you've been invited into their homes. Children's parties don't count. But key parties do.

4. Be nice, very nice, about the country you are living in. Sshhht! Not a word, not even a single criticism. Clamp that mouth shut! Gaffer tape works...But if you absolutely must, write a blog - an anonymous blog.

5. He's from your home country, but it's okay if you don't become bosom buddies. You may share a nationality, but it doesn't mean he'll necessarily share your love of collecting decorative handcuffs or carving eggshells.

6. When making appointments with bureaucrats, always ask what particular documents you need. Then take everything you can think of - resident's permits, birth certificates, passports, ID cards, 'O'-level certificates, receipts for shoe repairs, your granddad's 100th-birthday letter from HM. In triplicate. Short (and sharp) courses on 'How to Deal with Bureaucracy' are available at any Indian railway station, and in the holding cells attached to Nigerian customs.

7. Buy local. In particular, don't import white goods from your home country. It'll annoy the local supplier you ask to fix them when they go wrong. Either he 'can't get the parts' or he genuinely can't get the parts. Either way you'll be doing the washing up by hand.

8. Don't allow yourself to get nostalgic about the Motherland. It stank when you left. And it still stinks. Probably more.

9. And finally, don't believe what you read in expat handbooks. They're written by people like me.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an ex-expat the "motherland" doesn't stink as badly as I remembered, in fact it feels nice to be back surrounded by theatre, museums, jazz , opera and of course the ballet, but you do have to put up with a few drawbacks but then every place we live we have to compromise a little.

LindyLouMac said...

Your excellent post made me laugh this morning when I needed cheering up,thankyou.

V. said...

I'll let you know when it stops stinking and you're safe to come home.

Caution Flag said...

Please tell me this is the genesis of an article I will someday read in a magazine. You have such a talent for cobbling humor, insight, and beautiful phrasing together!

Lady Fi said...

Oh goodness - this was brilliant and hysterically funny! And true.

PiNG aka Patti said...

Excellent advice - particularly the bit about the home country!

Eva Gallant said...

Hi there! Great advice.
You commented on my wife-carrying championship post. I'd never heard of Cow Bingo! That, too, is hysterical! lol

xoxoKrysten said...

Awesome, love this!

Carol said...

Having been an expat myself I couldn't agree more!! I would perhaps also add (but this might have been a Thai thing) don't mess with the process...if there is a way of doing things go with it...the minute you do something out of order then you are buggered!!

eg. If a Thai waiter asks you what you want to drink/eat..just order something...if you ask them to come back you will never see them again!!

C x

Brenda said...

Love this post, its so true, every single one of them. You could also mention how wonderful the local food is (even if its not), and that the longer you live in a place the fewer cultural mistakes you are allowed to make (or at least forgiven for).

♥ Braja said...

"I'm not on contract, I haven't been seconded, I don't want to keep the peace and I'm not on a mission. I just live here."

Touche :) Love it :)

Mademoiselle Poirot said...

Oh how funny, this really made me laugh, thanks. I do (being French and living in London) struggle with point 4 though myself, I tend to verbalise my frustrations (about everything) far too often, but I guess I can always claim to try to fit in by moaning about the weather ;-) Fantastic writing by the way. Carole x

Queenie Jeannie said...

I had to laugh at this post, but nodded my head along the way too! I'm an American, but we will be moving to Italy in August (Vicenza). We are beyond excited, but a bit nervous too. Sort of like when you finally get what you've spent three years working on and then all of a sudden, suddenly get it, lol!

Will S said...

Cabbages! I wonder if it works in the Italian restaurants in Manhattan!

injaynesworld said...

Wonderful advice! Alas, I am not a traveler, but how I do enjoy living vicariously through those who do. Your home and life there sound lovely. I look forward to hearing much more.

Jayne

Katja said...

Oh god, I'm buggered. No time to learn the language properly, and neither the will nor (after working with the little horrors all day) the inclination to produce children. I'm a trained teacher, reduced to the status of a bum!

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Great post, and pretty funny. I've never been an expat, but my travel experiences would seem to confirm what you say.

bettyl said...

You'd think another English-speaking country would be a piece of cake.....but not NZ! It's another story all together!

Sandy said...

Sounds like good advice. I have always said if I lived in a country where the language wasn't English that I would do all I could to learn the language.

I hope someday to be able to put some of your advice to use.

Powell River Books said...

My husband and I just had our second anniversary of landing in Canada. You advice applies even for us moving not so far from our former home in the States. We feel very fortunate to have been invited into many homes and feel we are becoming accepted into the community. Thanks for the reminders about how to be gracious in a new land. - Margy