Travelling in a country is a different experience than settling in for a longer period of time. Rather than daily new adventures, when the initial excitement and superficial encounters wear off, most of us seek some stability and meaningful, lasting interactions. Whether you live as a volunteer with other foreigners, or as an intern completely alone or as a student arriving at an established community, I have written down some notes I have noticed from my experiences and wanted to share some advice and tips.
You might brush off any potential language difficulties because most of the time, your English will suffice, especially if you travel in Europe. However, when you live or interact with many locals, maybe you will encounter many situations where everyone speaks the local language on the table or in a meeting and you feel completely left out. It is a complex situation: Should they switch language just because there is only one foreigner? Aren’t you supposed to ‘integrate’ and make an effort to learning their language? In most cases, they don’t do mean it in a bad way – you could say, they are in the flow of conversation and they just forgot about you. Or perhaps one of them doesn’t feel confident in talking in English. It is always hard to gauge from a neutral point of view. But from my experiences, there are times I don’t mind that I don’t understand anything, at other times I feel terribly excluded and it is not a nice feeling. From that experience, I always switch to English when I realise that there is a person who would not understand otherwise. Even if that person might not engage or participate in the conversation, I know the feeling she/he might experience and I am aware of this. For other people who don’t switch or translate, they might have not often been in that situation and therefore cannot emphasise as much. I have had encounters where people immediately switched or just continued and ignored me. As long as there is a balance, I am fine with both (more or less). I think it is okay to say ‘What are you talking about?’ and many people automatically switch to English as they know that you are interested in the conversation. Sometimes it is also a conversation between friends and you are not really part of their 'circle'. You could also turn to a person next to you who is good at translating and ask them what the subject is about and then decide if you want to join the conversation or not. But of course, in the long term it is good to learn the language and try to understand what they say as much as you can.
First encounter – first impressions
Meeting many new people at the same time, at school, at work or volunteering place can often be overwhelming. Sometimes there are a lot of new people around so everyone gets to know each other and there are a lot of conversations and small talk. We either try to give our best image and engage in polite social talk, or we don’t try at all and later sort the people who we get along with and want to hang out with. But I have realised that this ‘natural selection process’, basically for survival and ease, can also have other effects that I have not anticipated. For example, maybe you speak less with one person because of some rude comment or because he/she does not share similar interests or because you just did not connect from the first time. But first impressions are just temporary and can change. A lot of the times, the image you get from that person is distorted because that person was either shy, overwhelmed, under pressure, trying hard to fit in etc. For example, in my voluntary year I had this terrible impression from my flatmate, who was also a volunteer and we did not get on at all. I worried about this a lot and thought of her as a ‘bad person’ – but later we realised we were both having difficulties in social set-ups and often give a different impression than we intended to. After a difficult start, we started to get closer as we got to know each other more. I am still in contact with her and I consider her as one of my close friends, maybe even because we overcame that initial interpersonal struggle.
It might sound common-sense but it’s good not to judge people from the first encounter. Everyone is different at different times, everyone has a bad or uncommunicative day but it should not mark or define them in their entirety.
Social interaction can be tiring
Are you social? Do you need time for yourself? There are people who cannot be alone for long and get bored easily. There are some who are really interested in everyone and curious to listen, to talk and to engage. There are some who like to listen and talk little. There is always at least someone who comes in and out like a ghost. When there is a community, I think it is important that there is a balance of give and take, of understanding and of being open. Being open does not mean that you have to talk incessantly. Being open means to be available, whether to listen, whether it is just a smile or showing some consideration. I know that some people who had a hard time at the start immediately shut off and that made the situation for them even worse. In well-cared hands, the community might notice and take considerations (as it was for him), but in not so lucky situations, the people around you might not care about you at all in return. Take as much rest as you need for yourself but I think it is easier to navigate through social settings when you are open and available. If you care for people, people will also care for you.
How to get to know people closer
There is this image of student gatherings (or gatherings of any young people) that always seem to involve alcohol, parties and drugs. But there are other ways of getting to know someone better. If you have a passion, be it reading, knitting, sports, cooking, music, I am sure you will easily find someone who wants to share some time doing these things with you. Sharing skills is great because it just shows that we can all learn from each other. If you feel you are not confident in a skill, does it matter if you have someone who just shares the same passion with you? You can initiate or propose something, for example start a cooking night at someone’s place where everyone brings some ingredients or contributes in some other way. Explore the city or town together: There are many free events, meet-ups and gatherings where you can meet other like-minded people.