How to settle into a new place: bring old routines with you
The secret to making a foreign place feel like home is to pretend it’s not foreign. This may sound like a no-brainer, but at the same time it comes into conflict with the mentality that, as exchange students, we should constantly be in “go, go, go” mode. For me, there was this subliminal expectation to banish old routines in order to fully immerse myself in a new culture. Explore different sights; take photographs every waking second; eat new foods; drink exotic drinks.
I had always thought that living in another country would introduce flexibility and spontaneity into my life. Everyday in Melbourne I would go to the gym and then indulge in an overpriced cup of coffee at my local café. So, when I moved to Montreal in August I tried shaking myself out of my old routine. I opted to do my exercise outdoors and jogged around Park Lafontaine. When it got to Autumn I signed up for yoga classes. When my membership expired three months later I gave pole dancing a shot. Admittedly, I returned to the gym in October (which I balanced with my other “alternative” modes of fitness). By November I had established which local café was my favourite and went there almost every day. Routine prevailed.
Without this sense of “Melbourne” in my life, however, I wouldn’t have grounded myself so comfortably in Montreal. For five seemingly endless months of -1o to -40 degree weather I spent my time indoors being a couch potato. I caught the bus and metro everywhere (to avoid the snow and the painfully icy wind). The gym became my refuge; I was able to move. Routine allowed me to survive my first “real” winter and it was my remedy to homesickness.
It’s not easy balancing full-time study with full-time tourist responsibilities. An entire winter passed and I never went skiing. I’ve lived in North America since August yet I haven’t visited Toronto, Vancouver or New York. Friends back home often ask me how my French is going, to which I always answer, “not fluently”.
You could call me a failed tourist, but I prefer to be considered a new native.
Having said all of this, my exchange student experience hasn’t been a cookie-cut example. Most exchange programs last only one semester. My Danish friend Laerke, whom I met at Concordia, planned her four-month stay wisely, juggling study with weekend trips to ski lodges, Vancouver, Ottawa and New York. Being able to stay in Montreal for ten months is definitely a luxury.
Adventure is important, but comfort is equally as necessary when travelling. Whether it’s watching an episode of your favourite television program, skateboarding in the local park, cooking your mum’s specialty dish or knitting a scarf, find something that reminds you of home and layer it into your life as an exchange student.
Here’s my advice: if you go on exchange, don’t give in to the pressures of expectations. Montreal is a big city; the world is a big place. There’s plenty of years ahead to return!