We just moved this week and as far as the logistics of a move goes it was probably one of the easier ones I have ever made. We moved locally and there was no pressure to empty our old house all at once. Also, we had the benefit of prior moving experience and that counts for quite a lot when it comes to planning and executing a move – whether you are moving a couple of blocks away or across the world.

This whole move got me thinking back to my first international move many years ago, when at the tender age of 24, my husband and I set out from Europe to the US. Because I was young and basically clueless, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I hadn’t moved anything bigger than a couple of boxes and suitcases out of dorm rooms before. I was aware that I had to request an address change and cancel my phone service, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of moving logistics. I had little understanding of paperwork and no clue about concepts such as culture shock or social adaptation.

The first time we moved internationally we had nothing to ship, so that part was easy. My husband left a couple of weeks before I did and he found us a place to rent. While he got busy settling into his new job, it was up to me to get us up and running “house-wise” and “life-wise”, with all that that entails: phone service, utilities, insurance, etc.

Since I didn’t know how anything worked, I had a pretty steep learning curve and there was confusion and frustration while spending many hours on the phone with institutions or standing in line at various offices. While my English was good, it was during these kinds of calls and meetings that I would get lost and not understand an expression, or be unsure of the meaning of a technical term. The language barrier, even when not that big, can make you feel insecure pretty quickly.

While taking care of all of these practical arrangements I also had to tend to “getting myself settled”. I had to obtain a social security number and a work visa along with an American driver’s license, all while figuring out what health insurance to get (now that is a challenge as great as any other, especially if you have grown up in a country with universal healthcare).

I remember during my US driver’s test I had one of those language barrier moments when the instructor asked me to make a three-point turn and I had no idea what he was talking about. I felt really stupid and he got increasingly frustrated trying to explain to me what he meant. Turns out I knew perfectly well how to make the turn; it’s just that I had never heard the English expression before. I failed my first driving test, not because of the turn but because I drove too much like a European, it was something about how I switched lanes … Oh, well, I could still drive out of the driving school parking lot all by myself as I had a valid European license in my pocket.

Moving is hard no matter what, but moving to a new country with a different culture, customs and language adds a level of stress that can be daunting. Here are a few things that I have learned to do when planning for a move:

  • Write separate lists for what you need to do, bring and arrange. You can use your favorite online organizing tool, app or just pen and paper – whatever works for you.
  • Prioritize items on your lists and add details such as contact information.
  • Research your destination as much as you can.
  • Learn phrases, expressions and technical terms (such as bank terms, utilities terms, driving terms, etc.)  that you are likely to encounter when first setting up your home and life abroad.
  • Divide and conquer – accept help if it is offered, ask for help if it is needed.
  • Make a plan for the first night in the new location and make sure you have basic necessities handy.

Last but not least, enjoy!

By: Felicia Shermis

Expat life - challenging and empowering
Continuing education as an adult