It’s not easy to create your comfort zone in a new country but there are some steps you can take (and stuff you can bring) that will help ease the transition until your “new” becomes known and comfortable.
As an escapee from the hustle and grind culture of the US, where we are urged daily to “get out of your comfort zone!” I’m here to say, “HEY! I like my comfort zone. It’s comfortable. And comforting!” We work hard to create a comfortable life. Then we’re told we need to step out of it.
Feck that shite.
I mean, seriously. I’m all about learning and growing and all that good stuff, but I’ve worked hard to attain a certain level of comfort. Why would I voluntarily turn my back on that, especially when I don’t have to?
However, moving to a new country is a big step out of my comfort zone. I didn’t move here for that reason. I moved here because I wanted to see as much as possible, to live in a different culture, to explore new things. I also want to do that as comfortably as possible. You don’t have to suffer. “No pain, no gain” is not a great way to measure progress. (And what kind of sicko came up with that?)
So, what can you do to create a comfort zone in a new country? For starters, you can bring some comfort with you.
I don’t know about other countries, but I was happy to see some of my favorite brands on the grocery store shelves. (Oreos and Ruffles are plentiful here. You can easily find Heinz ketchup and Hellmann’s mayo.) There are some things I just can’t find, including my favorite brand of coffee. Fortunately, I had brought a small supply with me, figuring I would find an alternative that was just as good, if not better. My first purchase here was a coffee maker, if that tells you anything. (Finding cream was a quest, but one that ended in success. The cream here is awesome.)
I have yet to find a better substitute for my Peets Major Dickason’s Blend, but I have found some coffees that will do the job. And, I have friends that bring or send me a bag or two so I never go too long without my Peets. It’s ridiculously expensive to ship a package from the States to Portugal and there’s no guarantee that the package will get through. It’s basically a crapshoot. But I digress. If you have a favorite food and it will travel, bring a little supply with you. It’s called comfort food for a reason.
Fair warning: You may find yourself learning to make the comfort foods you can’t find in your new country. I already had a recipe for brownies from scratch and I knew how to make buttercream frosting. I have found myself making sour cream, confectioner’s sugar (both hard but not impossible to find), cupcakes, etc. It’s amazing the things you can make if you really miss them. Stuff from scratch always tastes better (unless you screw up) but if you’re like me and not handy in the kitchen, check Amazon; the prices are sometimes outrageous, sometimes not bad.
You will also find that some foods you kept on hand as staples or “must-haves” become less important to you the longer you go without them. The Portuguese use less sugar in their baked goods and I find I have fewer cravings for sugar the longer I go without jamming bars of sugar into my cakehole. (I will always make an exception for decent buttercream frosting, of course.) I have learned to substitute Piri-Piri for Louisiana Hot Sauce. I am using new and different spices. You adapt. Your old comfort foods will be replaced by new. Promise.
I didn’t bring a lot of stuff with me and I have missed very little. However, my sister had given me the softest pair of pyjamas that I just loved. They were warm for Florida. They would have been perfect for Portugal. Unfortunately… they’re in storage back in Florida. I bought some warm (and soft) PJs at Costco in Seville and now they are my go-to snugglewear. If you didn’t bring something and you really miss it, see if you can find something close enough. (And yes, I’m totally snagging those PJs out of storage next time I visit.)
Do think about what you’re actually going to be wearing on a daily basis. Because I work from home, and the insides of houses are usually cooler than the temps outside, I am in sweats most days. That’s a big change from Florida when I was constantly in shorts and t-shirts. Both are comfy.
While it seems like some people bring their entire wardrobe with them, you don’t have to. But if you have a favorite sweater, jacket, t-shirt from that concert in ’98, bring it. You can literally wrap yourself in the familiar for those days when you get homesick. Make sure you have the kids’ favorite stuffed animals or toys packed near the top of the suitcase. They’re going to need them the first night.
If you get to take a scouting trip to your new country, take note of what people are wearing. And then measure it against what you like to wear. I seldom wear a dress or skirt, but in the summer, it seems that most of the women wear cute sundresses. They look breezy and cool and I see at least one, maybe two in my future wardrobe. I feel more comfortable wearing clothes that I have bought locally. It makes me feel like I blend in a little better. That being said, most of the t-shirts I see here have slogans written in English. I brought five or six pairs of shoes with me. I have been in running shoes about 99% of the time. I have worn “hard shoes” maybe twice in a year. I don’t go to parties or clubs. If I did, I’m sure I would have been wearing real shoes. But daily wear, especially when you are hiking on cobblestones, calls for running shoes or flats.
Fave books or movies
Books are heavy. I brought five (FIVE!) books with me. I have cartons of books in storage. That was after donating half my books. Everyone has their comfort item. Books are mine. They are my identity and without them, well, as I put it in another post, I feel book naked. I am slowly building my library back up. The five books I brought with me were ones I needed more than loved (with one exception).
If you have a favorite thing, if you collect something, bring one or two, depending on size and weight. I brought a couple of DVDs that I didn’t think I could easily replace and bought a DVD player once I was here. (Just a heads up: Not all European DVD players will play US DVDs.) I have since purchased a few of my favorite movies to watch when I need something familiar to distract me. Yes, of course I have Princess Bride. It was my first purchase.
Bring one or two of whatever favorite thing you have. You can find more in your new country. You may find those things you couldn’t “live without” were just cluttering up your life. Experienced expats tell people to get rid of as much stuff as possible and to not bring certain other stuff. They are absolutely correct. Before I moved, I donated or discarded as much as I could. Now that I’ve been here for a year, I know I can go through my storage space and get rid of so much more. I have replaced items. I have found new things. I have realized I don’t actually NEED many things.
Find new favorites
The best way to create a comfort zone in a new country is to not cling to the past. You will start replacing your US favorites with new favorites. I missed going out for a big American breakfast. I found a place near me that does a “Full English” which is actually way too much food. But I can get bacon and eggs and toast made with a slammingly delicious Portuguese bread and be happy. I also found another spot that does a great job on breakfast and has bagels with cream cheese. Is it a little different? Yeah. Does it do the trick? Absolutely.
You will find a new favorite spot for coffee or a place that makes a great burger and fries. You will also order something like a pizza that tastes nothing like an American pizza. You will then avoid ordering pizza. (That’s on my list to learn how to make at home.) Different ingredients, different sources, different culture.
But you’ll also find a new place that makes something you’ve never had before that is absolutely marvelous. It’s okay to have new favorites.
Stake out your territory
One of the best ways to learn your new home area is to walk. I was fortunate that I moved to a town that has basically a promenade that extends for well over a mile. In my last stateside town, I had to drive to a walking path. Here, I just launch myself out the door. I walk just about every day and see many of the same people (and dogs). It’s amazing how quickly I learned to recognize who was a visitor as opposed to residents.
If you like to work out, find your new gym. If you like to walk with people, there are organized walks available—check the local expat and Meetup groups.
Explore parks and shopping malls and museums and local libraries and dark pubs. Go into dusty shops with merchandise displayed with no discernible organization. Hit the weekend municipal market and the flea markets. You will find places that speak to you.
Don’t be like me. I find a new favorite place and then don’t go looking for any others. New beach? Check. New coffee spot? Check. New restaurant? Check. Found one, I’m all set.
Here’s the trick. Find a place and go back there. At least three times. By the third time, the place will be familiar, you will feel comfortable and, if you make those visits in a short period of time, the staff may recognize you. (They may not. Keep going.) There’s nothing like walking in somewhere and being greeted as a regular. Become a regular at more than one place. That’s how you create your comfort zone in a new country.
It’s all about people
So far, this has been all about places and things. But meeting people in your new country is the key to helping you feel truly comfortable. The first time you can text someone and say, “Hey, let’s meet for a quick coffee” feels great. The first time someone honked their horn and waved at me in my new home town was a milestone. I am greeted by both staff and customers at the bakery each morning. I’m now one of the “regulars.”
Find a place where you can become a regular. Learn people’s names. Create a social circle, even if it’s small.
You don’t create a comfort zone in a new country with things. They merely help you make the transition. Humans, even introverts, are social animals. A comfort zone comes out of a sense of security, of knowing people will miss you if you don’t show your face for a few days or that there is someone to call if you have an emergency.
When I first arrived in Portugal, we were in COVID lockdown after lockdown. I lived in three different places before I found my permanent apartment. I’m very introverted and probably too happy to be alone. All of these things slowed my progress in creating a comfort zone. But even I have found a sweet spot. As a newcomer to a country, you need a comfort zone to retreat to because there are so many uncomfortable things you will have to navigate. The sooner you create it, the sooner you can feel like you belong.