When I was younger, I was unable attend anything that included an overnight stay without major bouts of tears and anxiety. In comparison to the familiarity of home, I never found summer camp exciting, wasn’t particularly interested in sleeping over at friends’ homes, and for the most part abstained from dabbling in anything unfamiliar, well into college. Even now, most trips I take away from home are considerably draining. I’m excellent at planning new visits and then finding myself extremely annoyed by them in the moment when I realize that I’ve put myself, yet again, in the place where I am most uncomfortable — somewhere new.
I just completed a month at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I lived in a dorm and studied French culture and gastronomy with 17 other students from across the country. When I arrived to Dartmouth in mid-June and said my first hello to the stranger across the hallway, I was surprised to realize that it’s been eight years since my study abroad experience in Avignon, France, during which I first spent four terrified and enriching months away from my comfort zone.
When our Dartmouth group parted tearfully on Tuesday, I was equally surprised to note that, since Avignon, I’ve learned a thing or two about finding home in a new space.
1) Explore your surroundings. When I arrived in France in 2007 for eight months of teaching, the first thing that I forced myself to do was to go for a long walk around my new town. During the process, I located the grocery store, the train station, and a bakery — and discovered that the quickest way to get comfortable in a new area is to understand where you are. Go for walks. Deliberately get lost. Usually, your first days in a new place grace you with more free time than you’re used to, and use this to your advantage.
2) Be deliberate in conversations. Familiarity and a sense of home do not grow only out of objects and areas; most authentically it blossoms from people. Invest in everyone around you, including the neighbors, the garbage man, the daily dog walker. Ask people questions about themselves (polite ones, of course) — about their job, their life, and your surroundings. For me, this meant that in Talange, the chocolatier was the first person to welcome me back from a Christmas trip to the US; in Pittsburgh, the first stranger who knew my name in town was my barista. These people may not become friends whose shoulder you cry on, but these people can become the framework of your new home.
3) Volunteer. For anything. I find that the most tiring part of travel is the constant need to make small talk, so when words fail, I offer actions. Give rides to the grocery store to people who need them. Hold the door open for those behind you. Swing a hammer. Be sincere. People remember. After all, actions speak louder than words.
4) Find the small things that make you comfortable. Over the years, I’ve developed a list of tried-and-true new-place items: a water bottle, granola bars, my journal, earplugs (for nap-taking near unexpected noises), Jolly Ranchers (for flights), flip flops (for communal showers), and instantly finding a good café in which I can unwind. Knowing these details about yourself allows you to better present yourself to the people who will eventually become your friends — the people who will eventually transform newness into warm familiarity.