In this article, Meltem Naz shares with our readers her personal experience and her tips on how to make your new country feel like home.
Now, you’re somewhere new. The weather is weird, people around you seem peculiar, maybe just because the language they speak sounds unfamiliar or maybe because they express their thoughts and feelings much differently than the way you’re used to. It could also be that the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, your height or the pronunciation of your name marks you as someone from a different background right away. Yet, for work, for your partner, or for some other reason that is dear to you, you will be staying in a new country for the foreseeable future. How to feel at home in this new country could become an increasingly difficult question and I’m here to share with you what I have in my pockets after having lived in eight countries in the last decade and visited over 40.
Make yourself feel at home in any country you currently live
Building your home
After a honeymoon phase, the very things that you initially liked in your new city (or country overall) could become annoying or even overwhelming. For example, in the case of Barcelona, you might have liked the beach or the vibrant atmosphere of the center. But with time, you might realize that you are annoyed that there are not very many green spaces, and especially in the summer, the city center smells like hot urine mixed with garbage. There is no shame in finding yourself feeling this way. Barcelona is what Barcelona has always been, but you are not the same anymore. You wish to go back home. Not even home was perfect, but at least there are things about it in your memory that make it better than what you encounter in your current surroundings.
When you find yourself in the situation I’m describing, it can help to start building your home. You can do this by being persistent about certain activities that calm you and help you to be at peace with yourself. For me personally, these activities happen to be swimming laps regularly and reading fiction. In Cairo, Egypt, when I strongly felt that public spaces were not comfortable for women because the streets were crowded and my body needed to be covered, I found peace in my body’s movements in water. Yes, it wasn’t a thing for locals to see a young woman, alone in a pool, and covered with nothing but a tight black bathing suit. And I have to admit that I had my own share of insistent viewers. Nevertheless, I found the joy in me to be able to ignore them. I was home.
Is there an organism of any shape or form, anywhere on the planet, that would not benefit from living a healthy life? While my opinion on this matter might seem quite obvious, I still would like to take a step further and admit that living healthily – or rather healthy living as a lifestyle – becomes especially important when you are calling a new place your home. Most likely, you don’t have your entire family and friends with you as your support system and you are challenged by a new set of problems. Alcohol, binge eating, and drugs can provide you with a quick escape that seems convenient. While eating and drinking together as a bonding experience is quite universal, it would not hurt to be mindful of how much and what we consume and their effects on our bodies and minds. Equally, I would be mindful about moments when you find yourself alone in your room and all you want to do is to stare at a screen with moving images and binge on food and drinks (99.9% of the time it is not broccoli or herbal tea that we are talking about).
No judgment. I have been there: alone, in a new country, and running away from my sadness and fear by stimulating my body with unhealthy products which then bring insatiable cravings after episodes of purging. I don’t wish this kind of suffering to my worst enemy. I wish I had someone, somewhere, a decade ago, pulling me aside and telling me how I deserved my own self-care as the basis of my well-being. But better late than never.
Asking healthy questions
My partner is so good at asking healthy questions that I am also adapting my mind into thinking this way, especially when I’m in a new country. I have so many questions and I have always been this way. When I am in a moment of confusion, disappointment or sadness, I am living my life as though it were a text and I’m questioning the basic assumptions of why, when and how of my story. However, only recently, have I learned to distinguish healthy questions from unhealthy ones.
Major changes occur when you move away from home and they tend to create discomforting uncertainties. Instinctively you could be asking yourself questions such as “What happens if I never find a job here that suits me?” But this is an unhealthy question. It sets your mind to think that you are not worthy of finding a job that suits you. “What are the steps that I can take today, this week, this month or this year to prepare myself for a profession that I would have the honor and pleasure to practice so that when the opportunity rises, I can be a strong candidate?” is, on the contrary, a healthy question.
Essentially, we live in the reality we create and we tend to formulate such reality mostly through repetition. Liberate yourself from a self-imposed pain that comes with unhealthy questions. Practice reframing negative questions into positive ones. In other words, show yourself self-compassion, understanding, and recognition for caring about your well-being and your future. Accept the negative questions. Mindfulness meditation says that thoughts are like clouds in the sky – they come and go. We don’t need to try to ignore them or hold them as the objective truth. Then, gently direct your attention into changing your negative questions into positive ones which go a long way towards preparing you for your new home.
I confess that when I hear someone say “just be yourself, don’t worry”, I get utterly annoyed because I understand that all versions of myself are not being welcomed, and I have to change my behavior to be “another” myself. Also, I anticipate that “yourself” cannot be interpreted narrowly and that we cannot always know right away what is “yourself” and what is not. Hence, when I say “just being” as a method to feel yourself at home in your new country, I do not say what I wrote above but instead, I wish to point to self-exploration with the nonjudgmental attitude. The goal is not to be a certain way but to increase your awareness and acceptance of yourself and your present moment, however unpleasant or disappointing we might feel about the present.
It is inevitable that we compare our new home with the previous one, and we spend time thinking about who we were back there and who we are to become in our new country. For example, in Spain, despite my struggles to learn Castilian to the best of my abilities, I nevertheless speak with an accent and I commit certain grammatical errors that reduce my power to communicate as clearly and coherently as I would have wished. This notion becomes apparent when I am engaging with locals, especially with ones who have not experienced firsthand what it is like to learn a new language from scratch in one’s late twenties. I inevitably pose as a rather uneducated immigrant, who doesn’t always know where to put the vocal emphasis in words or pick the right preposition. Whereas in my native Turkey, I easily fall into the demographics of upper middle class with my command of three foreign languages, my cultural preferences, and the way I look. I have to face it: there are privileges that I have already had in my home country, that I had taken for granted and now in Spain I no longer have and probably I’ll never have.
Yet, there are certain advantages that I have gained through making Spain, and Barcelona specifically, my new home, that I would not have gained had I never moved here. In this city, I feel completely comfortable, not stared at, for being alone, wearing what I want, doing what I do and being myself. Of course, my new home still has a way to go to establish gender equality. Yet, I admit that it adds to my quality of life to know that I live in a gay-friendly city, where homosexual partners are treated fairly. I feel that locals here have an affinity for food and wine, and social gatherings, and intimate conversations (Mediterranean style) that I so enjoy. For all these reasons and much more that I am not discussing here, I feel that while I have lost certain aspects of myself, including my quality of life, I have also gained others. I neither resist losing what I had nor do I insist on gaining what is new. I just be, and I allow myself to appreciate what my new home has to offer. Next time you’re waiting for the metro, or you’re in line to pay for your groceries or waiting for your coffee date to turn up, I suggest you experiment with sinking into the state of just being.
Finding joy in the small things
My first point was about building your home anywhere with practices that bring you peace and continuity. But there is more to building your home than only being true to your favorite activities. Finding joy in the small things can bring about moments of uplifting positive emotions. If you are passing by a bakery, slow down your steps and take in the air of fresh bread. Watch kids play and pay attention to their laughter. If your colleague is wearing a nice dress, appreciate her choice and her good taste, and if you feel like it, compliment her. Most little things you can appreciate in your daily life would not cost you any money. Take advantage of them now that you are in a new place and a variety of new things are appealing to your senses. Here is a short list of things that I regularly enjoy in my daily life:
– Having a small talk with an 88-year-old local artist in the mornings at the gym after my workout.
– Drinking my coffee with a strong aroma when I read the news of the day (good or bad—just to find out what is happening).
– Learning a new word, seeing how it is written, and hearing myself pronounce it.
– Listening to my favorite songs and adding new ones that I just discovered.
Seeking to understand – Language, history, and culture
I don’t expect everyone to have an innate appreciation of anthropology. But I am still convinced that being sincerely interested (at a level and intensity that your life and personality allows) in the language, history and culture of your new city would make you happier by easing your transition. In the case of Barcelona: I moved here on the last day of August 2017, literally at the starting point of what was developing into the “Catalan Crisis” with a rising political dispute between independentists and constitutionalists. The extreme polarity that the nation (I use this word in the sense of Catalan nation as well as Spanish nation since both narratives are deeply constructed and followed by millions) brought tension and even aggression to the streets. I know what I’m describing is not exactly like the Rio de Janeiro Carnival where one can just leave home, grab a drink, and enjoy themselves with the rest of the city-dwellers. But then, such moments of crisis –where newcomers like us are unlikely to be pressured into taking a side like locals do—provide us with opportunities to understand the intersections of language, history, and culture. I appreciate the power of crisis on forming what we call our home. To me, witnessing the ongoing formation of a new history and culture is exciting and I consider myself lucky to get to explore a conflicted home. I find myself asking questions like:
– What is the legacy of Franco in Spain, and especially in Catalonia? How are the locals dealing with it: ignoring it, facing it or fighting against it?
– What is the story of people who identify as Catalans and what is Catalonia for them? Is Catalan identity and Spanish identity are mutually exclusive or interdependent?
– Spain is at the intersection of North Africa and Europe, and yet willingly identifying itself as solely the latter (despite hundreds of years of domination of the former). What does the future hold for Spain?
My advice is this: don’t be bothered by such questions. Take them seriously if you will, but with a genuine curiosity only.
I felt the need to add this point to balance out “Just Being” with more action. At the moment, I am neither a certified mindfulness coach nor have I dedicated decades to meditation. However, analyzing the discourse made on mindfulness, and seeing how it applies to the subject of making yourself feel at home in your new country, I found value in underlying the positive aspects of risk-taking instead of risk avoidance. Just being, calming yourself down, and observing your thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally, however pleasant or unpleasant they may be, are unequivocally important. But so is giving your best shot to overcome your challenges through rational and analytical thought processes.
Wouldn’t it be better if we were living in a world where racism and other forms of social injustice weren’t an issue and everybody hugged and kissed each other, shared their wine, and concerned themselves with others’ wellbeing? But quite the contrary, Europe and the States are becoming increasingly welcoming for populist discourses for right-wing parties who attempt to win votes by saying no to immigration.
Most locals in Barcelona seem to think that if you’re from a country which is classed as being ‘western’ then you could be considered a rather cool expat. If you are not, then you’re an immigrant. Since I am from Turkey, I have funny interactions at times with the locals in Spain.
– Once I told someone I was from Turkey (because I was asked), and the response was no pasa nada (don’t worry about it) – like my country of origin was an illness or a handicap.
– When I say my name, I frequently get reactions like Jesu Cristo, Santa Maria… With time and experience, I find that the one and the only way that Spaniards will get my name right is when I spell it as: M como Maria, E como Enrique, L como Laura, T como Teo, E como Enrique y M como Maria.
– I sometimes have people questioning my position towards the faith through daily rituals and small acts. If for some reason I wouldn’t eat pork on a certain occasion, I will be told “Oh because you are Muslim, you don’t understand”
But anyway, here I am, exposing myself to the people I meet in my new country, observing their reactions to who or what they think I am. I am someone who had the courage to take the road not taken, and I am assuming that never leaving my neighborhood in the city I was born would be easier in many ways. I see that for all this, because I am new, because I am “the other”, and because I have to rebuild myself in my new home, I am more in a position to risk mindfully, and also to be rewarded in return. I have less to lose in my new country compared to an established local. My career choices, my personal life, and everything in between are being constructed step by step by my taking on difficult thinking activities. Some periods are more stressful than others (eczema that appears time to time on my ankles tells the truth), but the journey is worth the pain.
Finding the balance in staying connected with your home country
Just because I left Turkey doesn’t mean I am Turkish no more. Quite the contrary, I tend to think that we can only get to know our home country through leaving it and looking at it from the outside as a complete picture. But if you are like me, and you don’t remember when was the last time your nation was in a peaceful harmony, then you need to learn to find the balance between ignoring your home country’s current struggles and being emotionally attached to them. In 2017, I was living in the Netherlands, the most stable country I had lived in for a long while, when there came a point Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities were being bombed by terrorists, mostly from the ISIS. I grew up reading daily newspapers’ reports on Kurdish rebellions on the southeastern border of the country. But this time, the attacks were taking place at the nightclub I used to celebrate new years’ eve or where my mom still has her office. In the city of Utrecht or Amsterdam, my peers continued to bike to their schools because the Netherlands was as green and effortlessly safe as always. People around me didn’t know or didn’t care much about what was happening in Turkey. Back then, I was angry at their nonchalance. But now, I can only see that of course, the Dutch won’t be in tears each time Turkey is in crisis for one reason or another. It will continue to be hard on me to see my countrymen suffer whether for economic crisis or for other elements of political instability. Still, it serves me to be mindful about how much time and energy I spend on suffering for the struggles of my home country instead of being in the moment mindfully and letting myself be in my current surroundings with all my body and mind.
Building your network
I admit that this is a tricky point, since the word network is increasingly abused, and we might not immediately know if someone in our network would necessarily mind if one day we were to disappear. It gets difficult to find out who really cares, and also in reverse—how much we ourselves do care about the number of people we’re connected with on our social media accounts and the people we meet through the events we attend. Yet, as overwhelming as the word network is, I find value in understanding it as a word that does not mean friends or trust, but simply refers to ideas and people who gather around those concepts.
What are the ideas that you care about? What do you want to do? What skills do you want to cultivate? What causes do you want to contribute to? In a new city which you call your new home, it would help you wake up without an alarm clock, get out of your bed, and start your day if you knew that you were one of the people in your city – not the only one – who cared about that certain thing. To me, it has always been rewarding to meet other travelers, people who traveled not only through localities but also through history and time with their passion for arts, technology and other forms of learning. I get inspired to be in the presence of the kind of people that the Spanish call valiente, the brave ones and I am always happy if I provide them with the kind of enthusiasm that they seek for their projects.
About the author
Meltem Naz Kaso Corral Sánchez has experience in casting for documentaries in Turkey, conducting research for an LGBT organization in Armenia, writing investigative journalism pieces near the Syrian border, facilitating intercultural seminars in Chicago, and studying Islamic culture in Cairo. In academia, her work is described as “a rare coupling of imagination and analytical sophistication” (Gul Ozyegin, The College of William and Mary).
Meltem is enthusiastic about mindfulness, literature (she drafts her own stories), swimming, traveling, gourmet food, and wine.
You can reach out to her at email@example.com if you are interested in collaborating.