If you’re planning an extended stay—90 days or more—you are very fortunate and have a great adventure ahead of you. But you will also confront some problems that the typical vacationer does not encounter.
I spent almost a year in France and Italy, having just returned to the United States last month. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. But I learned some things I would do differently.
First, if you are going to spend most of your time in one or two countries, learn the language before you go. I’m assuming that if you will be there for an extended period, you won’t spend all of your time in tourist destinations, where most people you encounter speak English. When you are in a city that is not on the tourist radar, or a part of a big city that is not frequented by tourists, you probably will find that most people do not speak English. I certainly found that to be the case where I lived in the 14th Arrondissment in Paris.
I say learn before you go, because you are not going to want to spend hours of your time going to classes and studying after you arrive. And I can assure you that you will feel pressured to learn quickly once you are in the country, because you will want to get out and experience what you went for.
If you don’t learn the language, you will have at least two problems. Little things like grocery shopping, renting an apartment, banking, conducting business at the post office, getting a cell phone, applying for internet service, getting utilities turned on, understanding how to do your laundry and a myriad of other things that you have to do when living in a place, will become huge traumas; and you will have moments when you will wish you were back home.
Second, if you don’t learn the language, you simply will be lonely, because you cannot talk to anyone. You also won’t understand what is said about paintings and displays in museums, the news or anything else on TV, plays, movies, etc. So learn the language.
Also, read up on the customs and culture before you go so that you are not surprised, and you will not appear as the ugly American. For example, it is nice to know that if you will be in Spain, France or Italy, many restaurants and commercial establishments close during the afternoon, and the prime dinner hour is much later than it is in the United States. I encountered restaurants in Spain that didn’t even open for dinner until 9:00 pm.
Do as much as you can before you leave the United States in preparation for your stay. If you plan to rent an apartment, do it before you leave, even if you only see photos of your abode. This is especially important if where you’re going is Paris. It is difficult to find an apartment in Paris, especially for a foreigner. It took me two months and many hours of searching.
Unless you will be living in a big city with good public transportation, rent a car before you go. You can get better rates if you rent by the month, and reserve one before you leave. But when you can, do take the train. They are wonderful in Europe, and they usually run on time.
Don’t rush once you’re there. Relax and enjoy every day living in a different culture. You will have plenty of time to see the sights. And be sure that you spend as much time as you can with the locals. Make a real effort to befriend as many locals as you can, so that you can experience the culture you are living in. In Paris or Rome hang out in cafes and talk to people.
Most important of all, realize that you will confront unpleasant experiences. It is inevitable, and if you don’t “roll with the punches,” you will let it get you down. My experience was that nothing in Europe is as efficient as it is in the United States. Expect to wait in long lines for everything, and be patient. In France and Italy, people take a lot more time to chat than they do in most parts of the United States (the south excepted), and they will do it even if you are in a hurry at, to cite just one example, the checkout stand at the grocery store. The American way is not the only way (in some cases not the best way either), and understand that there will be differences that will get on your nerves if you let them.
Be patient, be flexible, don’t worry and you will have a wonderful time.