Moving to a new city can be a really daunting experience especially if you are from an entirely different country and cultural background. It’s not so bad if you are familiar with the city’s culture and have a good knowledge of the local language, but even then it can be a little scary. Speaking from experience I can honestly say that for me the thrill of packing up my bags and moving to a different city alone outweighed the feeling of fear and uncertainty. I was ready for adventure and ready to explore the unknown (although I had visited the city once before, so maybe that’s cheating).
The city I chose to study in was Barcelona, in the North of Spain. A city which I fell in love with as soon as I started wandering through the city’s enchanting streets and witnessed the stunning architecture that surrounded me. Studying TEFL in Barcelona was a fantastic experience, it allowed me to make new friends from all over the world whilst also gaining my official TEFL qualification. Although I made some great friends and mixed with people from other countries, I found that I wasn’t always fully immersing myself into the local culture. This is a typical problem when studying abroad as you’ll find that your common language with fellow students is generally English. You then find yourself in this little expat bubble where you all stick together and speak mostly in English with a few random words from the target language thrown in. But why would you step out of your super duper comfortable expat bubble to mix with the locals? Well after reflecting on my experiences, that’s actually exactly what you should do. Here are some of my top tips for making the most of your time in a new city and immersing yourself fully:
- Do your research - When choosing a city to live, study or work in, it’s important to know a little bit about the place before you arrive. Look at what the city has to offer and what you can do there. You may want to discover more about the neighbourhood you’ll be living in and what type of amenities there are near your new home before you get there. Planning your commute to your new school, university or workplace in advance may also be worthwhile. It is important to consider the cost of living in the new city too, so that you can plan ahead and think about your budget, especially if there are certain things you plan on doing whilst there which may be costly.
- Explore and get outdoors - The best way to get to know more about the place you’re living in is to explore what’s outside your door. Get outside and get lost in the streets of your new city. It’s the best way to get to know your way around and you may find some fun people, things and places along the way whilst also picking up some local slang. When living in Barcelona I made exploring a priority and I’m so glad I did. It was so exciting when I came across new cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, monuments and buildings. Getting outdoors is also a great way of meeting new people, particularly local people. You never know who you’re going to bump into and that’s what makes the whole experience even more interesting.
- Be brave and put yourself out there - Having no friends in a new city can be pretty terrifying but being pro-active and doing a little bit of googling can help. Join a gym, a choir or sign up to cooking or art classes, whatever your interest may be. Look up local clubs and societies that you may be interested in joining or take up something completely new and throw yourself into it. There may also be some social groups you can join on Facebook. This was particularly popular where I was situated with lots of social groups and even some specifically for TEFL teachers and expats. That being said, if you really want to branch out into the local community and live like a local, stay away from expat groups. Meetup is a great app for boosting your social life, where you can combine your hobbies with making friends. On this app you can find groups of people with similar interests and you can sign up to attend events related to things like music, art, business, sports, dance, crafts etc. Alternatively, you can create your own group on the app and start your own meet up event if you’re feeling really brave.
- Keep an eye out for local activities and events - There is always something going on in the city, so make sure you look out for events you may be interested in which could be advertised on TV, posters in the streets, on the radio or online. Here are a few useful websites which not only give you advice on what’s happening in different cities across the world but also share advice on the cheapest places to eat and drink, top museums to visit, best restaurants and bars, what to do when it’s raining and many more useful topics:
When living in Barcelona it was quite overwhelming at times walking through the city’s streets with such a high number of tourists in the city everyday visiting the famous buildings, streets and monuments. So it was great to learn about local festivals, monuments, parks, buildings, bars and restaurants which might not appear in everyone’s tourist guide. These websites were a fantastic way of finding out more local information about the city and to know what was happening each month.
- Be an active language learner - It’s so important to practice the target language outside of your studies. Extra studying at home and watching TV series and films in the target language is key to improving your level but getting out there and applying it in a natural environment is a must. Although I had my little expat bubble of friends who spoke predominantly in English, I made a conscious effort to attend a weekly language exchange at a local bar in the city. It was the best way to meet local people and we were all there for the same reason - to practice our target language, so there wasn’t too much pressure or feelings of embarrassment if you made a mistake. Another idea is to keep a notepad with you when you’re wandering through the city, listen to people speaking around you and make notes of new words or phrases that you hear and actively use the vocabulary that you learn.
- Embrace the differences, don’t compare them to the homeland - One thing I found myself doing at times was comparing certain aspects of the new city and culture to my own instead of being open-minded and embracing it fully. Meal times were a big one. At first I didn’t couldn’t comprehend why Spanish people ate and went out so late and I was so against adapting to their meal times. However, as I got into my work routine, it didn’t seem to really bother me and became part of my new lifestyle. Now that I’m back in the UK, 7pm feels way too early to eat dinner. Lesson learnt: it’s important to adapt to the new environment around you and embrace the differences you find along the way.