Expat Essentials

Mary Porcella: My top tips for making the most of your expat experience in Europe

(Editor’s note: Due to editor error, the first version of this post on making the most of your expat experience misidentified the author as English. Mary Porcella is American.)

After living as an American expat in three different countries in Europe – Norway, Italy, and Germany – here are my top tips for improving your expat experience and feeling more at home.

Put together a dual support system

If you have ever wondered why immigrants tend to group together, being an expat may help explain why. When you are faced with a different culture from the one you are used to or are forced to speak another language when you are out and about, you may see why people tend to stick together with those that speak their same language or operate with the same cultural norms.

However, you still need to function in your new country; therefore, I suggest having a dual support system – one with your family or other expats who are in the same boat as you and another with people from your new country.

The author, center, with her brother and sister and a stuffed polar bear in Norway

When I was a kid in Norway where my father had a Fulbright Scholarship, my family and other students and their families were one half of our support system — we all spoke English and were from the U.S.

The other half was from our Norwegian neighbors, our teacher, and my father’s colleagues — they were all Norwegian – and could fill us in on their culture and language. They highlighted the importance of not drinking and driving, introduced us to whale meat and delicious Lingonberry cream and taught us folksongs and how to cross-country ski.

Learn about cultural differences

Here are two examples of cultural differences related to shopping and meals:

Shopping and Bargaining: Germans don’t like to bargain; whereas Italians, Indians, and Chinese, for example, don’t mind or actually enjoy it. In Germany, the price is the price. Therefore, don’t try to bargain for four knickknacks for the price of three in a souvenir shop. An acquaintance of mine tried that and found herself unable to buy anything (!) from the much-offended German clerk. I had warned her, but she didn’t listen (and so I was outside writing postcards).

In Italy, if you go to a small shop, such as a jewelry store, or a street market where they sell everything from clothes to food, they won’t mind if you bargain. Conversely, they might offer you a discount to get you to buy their wares. (This obviously doesn’t apply to department stores or supermarkets.)

Mealtimes and Traditions: If you have been invited over for a meal, you might want to find out what that means. If you are hosting one, be clear about what’s on the menu because different nationalities have different expectations about meals.

In Germany or Austria, they tend to eat big breakfasts — you feel you can go for a long hike afterwards — hearty bread, cheese, sliced meats, yogurt, tomatoes, and cucumbers. They may just have a medium sized lunch and a small dinner. In Italy, they traditionally have a very small breakfast, such as a cappuccino and a couple of biscuits, a large lunch with pasta and other courses (and if it is hot a nap), and then a medium-sized dinner.

I learned in the Netherlands a potluck is called an American Party because only Americans would invite you to dinner and expect you to supply (some of) your own food!

Pay attention to store hours

Pay attention to store hours and plan your shopping ahead of time. You don’t want to run out of food or bottled water if there is a Sunday or holiday closure or unique store hours you don’t know about.
However, if you are ever in a bind, the train station, or a gas station, is a terrific place to go because they are typically open seven days a week and usually have something to eat or drink for sale.

Sometimes they have a late-night café where you can get a slice of pizza or a croissant.

Join a meetup group or other expat organisations

As noted in a previous post, I joined an English-speaking expat meetup group two months after arriving in Germany. That is where I met both locals and transplants, who were just as excited as I was to meet other people. We would get together once a week either in a wine bar or a restaurant. It was an easy way of getting to know a lot of people in a short period of time.

From there we started organizing our own word-of-mouth activities at farmers markets and festivals, pubs to watch football (aka soccer), and gatherings at each other’s houses. It was a very social group and ended up being a wonderful support system.

Later, I joined InterNations, a community for expatriates and internationals. Then, I signed up for the Frankfurt Fun Hiking Group for weekend hikes.

Take a language class

Another fun way to meet people and learn more about the language and culture of your new country – if they speak a different language – is to take a language class. Offerings are in person as well as online. It is also a chance to connect with people who are interested in foreign cultures or languages themselves.

For instance, my German teacher was fluent in English, dating an Arabic speaker, and obsessed with Ireland.

My most recent Italian teacher was bi-lingual in English and Italian and had been married to a Canadian; and our Norwegian teacher was also fluent in Swedish and English.

Find the local news

To find out what events are going on in your town, look for free newspapers at your neighborhood cafe or pub. They are usually stacked somewhere or lying about on tables. Alternatively, check out digital options such as “The Local,” which has news and practical information about life in Europe, including both country specific sites, which I found quite helpful, and a Europe-wide version.

Get to know your pharmacist

Finding your neighborhood pharmacy is important not only for buying aspirin, allergy medicine, and other items, but additionally a pharmacist can be helpful for giving advice on minor health issues or providing
recommendations for doctors. I found two doctors that way.

Also, in most cities, pharmacies take turns staying open late, which can be very useful if you are in severe pain or have other issues. Just look for the schedule on the door or the illuminated Green Cross to know which one is open.

Take a tour

If you have nothing to do one day or one weekend, take a bus or a walking tour of your new city. It is an enjoyable and relaxing way to learn more about where you are living. Then when you have visitors,
you can show them around for free or send them off to do the same tour. And you might make some new friends, too. If you don’t have a car, going on a bus tour is a great opportunity to cover long distances.

Be patient and persistant

Living in any new place as an expat, especially if you are dealing with a different language or culture, will be a challenge. Therefore, be patient. Give yourself some time to settle in. It might take six months to a year to feel more at ease, but in the meantime have some fun.

And if things don’t always go well, you will probably have some good stories to share. So take it easy and take care.


Read Mary’s post here about renting in Frankfurt.

Read her travel post about Mainz here.

Website | + posts

Mary Porcella is a Europhile who has lived in Germany, Norway, Italy, and the U.S.  She is a writer, editor, and photographer. She loves seeing new places, returning to old haunts, and meeting up with family and friends.  As of today, her travels have taken her to 20 European countries, and she hopes to visit the rest.

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