The Bold and the Cautious: A Debate on Moving Abroad

The Prepared Traveler vs. the Impulsive Explorer
The Rachel and The Jess

The tortoise and the hare. The ant and the grasshopper. The town mouse and the country mouse. According to Aesop, a story about two creatures is the best way to show contrasting approaches to nearly anything. You may not have heard of his least popular fable, that of the Rachel and the Jess. It's certainly not his best work, but it does have some lessons.

Here's how the story goes: We both found ourselves moving abroad after college, Rachel to France and Jess to China. We took very different approaches to our travels -- and yet we both somehow ended up OK (our version of "OK" meant staying alive and fed -- much like the animals in Aesop's fables).

Jess went to Beijing without knowing a word of Mandarin, winging it all the way, while Rachel planned and plotted for months before hopping on her carefully-chosen Air France flight to Paris. We're both adamant that our own methods are the best way to approach life and moving abroad. Here's why:

In today's post, The Rachel says: Why should you prepare for your new life?

1. Because you're creating an entirely new life.

This may be your last chance ever to start afresh and create a whole new existence from scratch. Do you want a bohemian life? Have you always wanted your nickname to be Poppy? Do you want to suddenly start wearing leather pants? Seize this opportunity to make these tough transitions.

Research where the bohemians go and what they wear. Find out where to meet that novelist you've always admired drank. Practice walking around in your new clothes and saying, "Enchantée. My name is Poppy." Plan all of your outfits -- one for the Louvre (loafers and a swishy skirt), one for cycling down Champs Elysées (stretchy jeans and a long-sleeved shirt) and one for café lounging on a rainy afternoon (trench coat and sunglasses). After all, what if you meet the man of your dreams but you're wearing yoga pants and a shirt that's ripped (but not in a cute way?).

Watch movies set in your new city, like Amélie in Paris. Read blogs by expats living in your new city. Read memoirs set in your new land. Do all of this before you go: Once one person knows you as Alberta, the girl who wears Birkenstocks and harem pants, that dream of being Poppy in leather pants is dead forever.

2. Because you want to understand people -- and be understood

This is not just so that you can communicate well with the local waiters and/or hot men and/or hot waiters, although this is a bonus. Take enough courses or private tuition that you have at least one year of a college course in that language covered (you can do this in a few months with a good tutor or intensive courses). There's nothing more disheartening than feeling stuck in your own world, unable to understand anyone around you. It can also be embarrassing. For about a year after I arrived in Paris, I referred to my roommate as a "bedroom friend." Not only is this a strange expression, it is a strange expression that I apparently made up on my own, because no French person ever knew what it meant. Didn't stop me. (It should have stopped me.)

3. Because you do not want to be turned away at the border

If you're staying long-term, or you need a visa to enter the country (if you're American, you don't for France, but do for many other places), get your visa as early as possible. Make sure your passport won't need to be renewed for a couple of years (or as far in advance as possible --- if you're traveling on a fixed-term visa, you will want to be sure that the passport doesn't expire before the visa does). This should be obvious, but some of us forgot. This will result in last-minute fees and crazy trips to the French Embassy in the middle of a Chicago winter, and I promise you: Your hair will not look good in those pictures.

4. Because you don't want to be homeless

No, seriously. This is a problem in Paris. Apartment shopping online can be a total dream (until you have to actually start making appointments to see places and shelling out agent's fees). Huge caveat here: Don't wire money in advance. Also, don't use Craigslist in foreign countries -- in Paris, most of the apartments you see there are scams. You can't really get a two-bedroom apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement with views of the Eiffel Tower for 600 euros a month. That's a two-bedroom whorehouse with multiple people sleeping in the living room.

To prepare, the best thing to do is to check out legitimate expat forums, such as those run by major travel guides, and get the names of several good agencies before you leave. Get someone who speaks English; you don't want to accidentally agree to see an apartment with communal toilets (unless the "new you" is into that).

When I moved to Paris, I contacted a woman who ran the study abroad program I'd been on junior year. If your university has a study abroad program in your new city, connect with the people there. And -- most importantly -- book a hotel for at least a week after your arrival.

5. Because you want to have friends

It is not fun to wander around the Tuileries on your own, afraid to stop and sit down because some creepy guy will approach you, one hand on your thigh and the other on your purse. You need friends. The simplest way to make friends before you arrive in your city is to send out a mass email to all of your friends back home titled, "You can stay in my apartment in Paris/ Berlin/Shanghai if you set me up with friends here." I guarantee you'll hear back from people you haven't heard from in years. Don't make friends with the creepy guy from the park. Email your college's alumni group in that country or city. Look up people you want to meet and set up coffee dates with them. You may not click with them, but they will lead you to other friends and places. I met my group of French friends because one of my college friends used to live with a French guy, so he arranged for us to meet. Jacques led me to many more French friends.

You're off on a new adventure, and now you have everything you need for any given situation. A new neighborhood, an apartment that is not a whorehouse, a band of fun friends and an inexplicable pair of leather pants.

Bon voyage, Poppy! (You're going to be SO HAPPY you packed those loafers.)

COMING SOON: The Jess says: Why You Should Prepare Nothing When You Move Abroad

Graduates in Wonderland, an epistolary memoir between two friends living in Beijing and Paris is out on May 6.