Over the last few years, I have started spending longer and longer in certain places. This winter, I spent six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. Last winter I was in Chiang Rai, Thailand for almost a month. And the year before that I lived in Cuenca, Ecuador for six weeks.
There are many reasons for my long stays. Travelling at a slower place is more restful. Staying in a place longer allows you to learn more about it and its people. Settling down somewhere is cheaper than continuously moving. And lastly, I have been doing research to find the ideal place where I could become a “snow bird” in my older years!
When you first arrive in a new city, everything is new and strange. The sounds startle you. The sights make you do a double-take. You don’t know what’s around the next corner. After a few days you start knowing the streets, recognizing the landmarks, and feeling more at ease with the locals’ quirks, but you still feel like a visitor.
So how do you stop feeling like a visiting tourist and start feeling like you’re actually living in a foreign city? I’ve asked myself this question, and I think it boils down to three main factors.
A place to stay
Having a comfortable place to stay, with the ability to cook for yourself, goes a long way towards making you feel at home. You don’t have to go hunting for breakfast first thing in the morning, and then eat out for every meal.
You go out shopping for food just like you do at home and become familiar with the different foods and drinks that people consume in your new city.
You have enough space to spread out and work, or just veg out in front of the television all evening if you want.
In both Cuenca and Oaxaca I rented out a furnished apartment for a month. Even though it was not perfect, I was right in the centre of the historical town, and it sure was more comfortable and flexible than a budget hotel (and cheaper).
But having a good place to stay is not even the most important factor for feeling at home.
What is one of the first things you want to do when you get back home after a long trip? See your family and friends, right?
A big part of what makes somewhere home is all the connections we’ve made there. Family, friends, acquaintances, the barista at your favourite coffee shop who greets you by name and knows how you like your coffee, all the staff in the numerous places where you shop, who may not know your name but nonetheless recognize you when you come by.
When you first arrive in a new place, especially if you are travelling alone, you feel completely isolated. You don’t know anybody. You may feel like establishing a new social circle is a herculean task, but it doesn’t need to be. Even as an introvert, I had a busier social calendar in Oaxaca after six weeks than in my home town of Toronto after 26 years.
OK, maybe I “cheated” a bit. After all, most of my friends were other travellers and expats who were also trying to make new friends. But how did I meet all those strangers in the first place? Here are a few tips.
Become a regular somewhere
Preferably, choose a small intimate restaurant or coffee shop. Besides getting to know the staff, it’s also easier to strike a conversation with other patrons.
In Oaxaca, I started going at least twice a week to a tiny coffee shop called Café El Volador. Nancy, the barista, was almost always there and, unless she was very busy, was quite happy to have a chat with her customers. This is also where I met Martha, an American expat who made it her personal mission to help me find an apartment. Martha and I became friends and went to lunch and movies together.
Pick friendly accommodation
When looking for accommodation in a new city, pick a hostel or an AirBnB room in a house with other rental rooms. Make sure there are also common areas for the guests to meet. This way you are almost certain to connect with other people, either staff, hosts, or other visitors, in a casual manner. This is a lot more difficult to do in a standard hotel where most people tend to “mind their own business”.
I stayed for two weeks in an AirBnB room in Oaxaca before moving into my apartment. During this time I met, besides the owner of the place, an old American, a fun couple of older Austrians, a French Canadian novelist around my age, an old guy from Calgary, and a young New Yorker. Many interesting conversations followed around a bowl of guacamole, beers, and shots of mezcal on the rooftop terrace. Josée (the French Canadian woman) and I became friends and went out several times during the two weeks she was around.
Participate in some organized day trips or activities
On my first hiking trip with Hoofing It In Oaxaca I talked to several nice women. Most of them were leaving soon, but I stayed in touch with Ilse, an older woman from Toronto with whom I had coffee and later lunch.
I also met Brennan, a very interesting Californian backpacker, on my second hiking trip. Part of it was pure serendipity as our bus broke down on the way up the mountain (first time in four years apparently) which gave us a chance to chat as we waited for the replacement bus. After the hike we went for drinks, and later that week we met for two very nice dinners. We’re still e-mailing and reading each other’s blogs to this day!
Even two days before my departure, as I was starting to say my goodbyes to places and people, I met a young French woman in a restaurant. We were the only two people in the room. She heard me speak Spanish to the waiter with my French accent and asked me if I spoke French. On my very last night in Oaxaca we went for drinks on the rooftop of a café.
If you make friends with locals or expats, you eventually get to meet their friends and so on. I met Lynda, one of Martha’s friends, and Laurie, one of Lynda’s friends this way. Before you know it you have a nice little network. And that’s without even trying very hard!
Having a project or worthwhile activities to occupy your time is the last piece of the puzzle.
Drinking cappuccino and going to lunch and movies with new friends is nice, but sooner or later, you feel like you should actually be “doing” something.
If you don’t speak the language of your adopted town, taking language lessons is a natural project that makes a lot of practical sense and will help you feel more at home and make even more friends.
Participating in workshops or various classes (from cooking, to painting, to yoga) according to your interests also works.
Or you could volunteer your time for a good cause.
Good places to find out what is available are the tourist office, bulletins boards in coffee shops, hostels, or the library, expat/English language newspapers, or just word of mouth.
Towns with a substantial expat population like Oaxaca and Cuenca will have one or more websites that list events, restaurants, and other practical information. In Oaxaca a good resource was OaxacaCalendar.com.
Expats who live full-time in a place sometimes end up running businesses like tour companies, shops, restaurants, cafés and so on.
Of course, depending on your age, your tastes, and your personality, you may feel at home more readily in certain places than others. (For example, I decided that I wouldn’t retire in Cuenca after spending time there.) But you won’t know until you try living like a local somewhere. Hopefully this article will make this endeavour feel less daunting.