When I bought my new apartment in 2012, I was ecstatic that it didn’t have wall-to-wall carpeting. Instead, the floors were covered in beautiful, sleek, 24-inch-square, cream-colored, porcelain tiles.
Having lived in the New England area of the U.S. my whole life, this was going to be a welcomed change. I realized that this is how homes are furnished in Medellín. So, to adapt to my new country, I would clean the way they do in Colombia; sweep with a broom and then wash with a mop. Simple, easy and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting red wine stains out of rug fibers. No need to buy a vacuum cleaner.
This was just one of the many adaptations I made to my life. Of course, there was the obvious one of needing to learn to speak Spanish, but also getting used to the way things are done, various culture differences, and the inability to find the simple things that I took for granted would be in the stores. What do you mean they don’t have Pillsbury ready-made pie crust? How will I make an apple pie?
Your level of feeling at home in your new country will change the longer you live there. Many new expats, myself included, want to “live like the locals.” I thought, “why move overseas if you want everything to be the same as it was back home?”
I buy fresh vegetables every couple of days and make soup from scratch. To be honest, the fact that there are only five cans of soup in the grocery stores helped make that decision for me. Colombians would rather cook from scratch than buy prepared food. It is a much healthier way to eat and costs only pennies. I spend about $10 at the local farmer’s market and come home with enough produce to make meals for an entire week. My overall food budget is 60% less than when I lived in the U.S.
I moved to Medellín with just two suitcases of clothes and my laptop. Other than a few mementos and photographs, I didn’t bring any of my furniture or personal belongings with me. Buying furniture hand-made by Colombians somehow made me feel more connected to my new country. For the first time in my life I owned a glass-top dining room table, which is the norm in Colombia.
Other expats feel more comfortable having as many recognizable items from U.S. life around them as possible. They have their household goods shipped over in 20-foot cargo containers, eat at chain restaurants like Subway, Dominos Pizza, and KFC, drink coffee from Starbucks, and only socialize with other expats. They do their grocery shopping in PriceSmart (a division of Costco) so they can have access to many of the brand-name foods they are used to in the U.S.
There is no “right way” to choose to live overseas. Diving full force into the local environment or surrounding yourself entirely with things from home are extremes. Most expats live an overseas life somewhere along the spectrum that blends their new country and culture with the one they grew up with.
Last week I bought a vacuum cleaner with attachments. I decided it would be easier to clean behind the refrigerator, suck up crumbs from the bottom of my kitchen drawers, and clean the tracks of my sliding windows. I suppose I have moved a little bit along the continuum of expat life, but I still sweep and mop my gorgeous tile floors.