Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writing for Travelers Who'd Rather Stay at Home

Guest Post by Celia Luterbacher

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression "As pretty as an airport." Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort.  -  Douglas Adams

As an American expat living in Switzerland, where my husband was recently hired as a professor, I rely a lot on travel literature. I am still new to living abroad, and Switzerland is close to so many other countries that the Swiss consider a weekend not spent visiting Italy, France or Spain to be wasted. But reading travel blogs and books makes me feel guilty, because I know I am an imposter. While on paper I appear to be a travel-loving, adventure-craving explorer of foreign lands and cultures, I am actually a quiet, anxious introvert who adheres to routine the way some adhere to religion or veganism. I am a traveler who finds it difficult to travel, a homebody seldom at home, an adventuring hobbit. I am an "anti-expat," and I know I am not alone. My goal in writing this post and my blog, the Scrappy Traveler, is to train a spotlight on the anti-expat audience and provide examples of helpful anti-expat information and resources.

Living abroad out of happenstance--as a trailing spouse or as a professional relocated for a job, for example--raises a number of issues. For anti-expats, travel and life abroad are skills that must be strengthened through conscious effort, because we have not been blessed with wanderlust or an innate desire to leave home. This can be embarrassing to admit, because who doesn't love travel (or at least list it as an interest on Facebook)? Travel is the cornerstone of every bucket list, vacation and free giveaway. Saying you find travel difficult is like saying you don't care for puppies or happiness. For me, anti-expat life has meant packing up my things and moving permanently outside my comfort zone. But it has also brought daily learning, discovery and profound growth beyond my expectations.

Anti-expats must learn how to strike a balance between adapting to new cultural norms, and hanging onto old ways. I've found that keeping some familiar habits, at least temporarily, can help ease stress: for example, ordering takeout or buying only familiar foodstuffs for awhile before attempting to cook the local cuisine. I am proud to finally be at the stage where I only need to resort to Switzerland's American Food Market for peanut butter - a product that Europeans simply don't understand, despite their mastery of hazelnut spread (seriously, you can buy Nutella by the kilo here). But it's important for anti-expats to recognize where diving into the local way of doing things right away will make life abroad much easier. If living in Europe, chances are it will be less stressful to ditch the commute-by-car habit as soon as possible and learn the local train, bus, or metro schedule. 

Making new friends may be the most challenging aspect of anti-expat life. Natural travelers often have a knack for feeling comfortable enough in a second language, whether they have mastered the basics or not, to strike up a conversation with a stranger and go with the flow. They don't mind using a bit of sign language or making a few grammatical errors as long as they get their point across, and they enjoy the excitement of meeting new people. Before long, they’ve developed a network of friends who know the area and can provide advice and support. For anti-expats, learning the language as soon as possible is key, because the sooner one can say "please" and "thank you" and "how do I sign up for health insurance?" in the native tongue, the more connections it will be possible to make. Unfortunately, shyness can be an impediment to travel even within one's own country, but when foreign languages get thrown into the mix, social interaction can become nothing short of terrifying. If moving abroad for professional reasons, many companies will finance formal language classes, but for others this option may be too expensive or time-consuming. A fantastic way for anti-expats to become more comfortable speaking outside the classroom is to find someone who speaks the desired language as his or her mother tongue, who also wants to learn English as a second language (in my area, this program is called Tandem). This person could be a friend or co-worker, or a connection made through an online ad. But anti-expats should not discount the importance of traditional learning to supplement conversation practice: for this purpose, I can't recommend the app Duolingo highly enough.

Expat communities can also be wonderful resources for making friends, and finding groups of people with similar interests and backgrounds online is very easy. However, it is important for anti-expats to make sure they supplement time spent in expat activities with efforts to meet local people. Identifying inexpensive, low-key, flexibly scheduled classes or workshops focused on a favorite hobby can be a great way to for anti-expats to accomplish this, as can engaging in volunteer work.

Travel Writers Abroad, take note: there is an audience out there eager for information about travel, but not necessarily for the same reasons as traditional consumers of travel literature. These people may not find living abroad easy or natural, but they still find it worth doing, and targeted resources are essential. Rather than the Top 10 Places to Eat in Tallinn or the Most Scenic Bike Routes through Scotland, anti-expats are more likely to want to read about the Top 10 Tips for Budgeting in Two Currencies or Least Stressful Weekend Activities in Geneva. Perhaps these topics seem boring when there are so many places to see and things to do, but for an anti-expat, they can make all the difference in helping a reluctant traveler find their way in the world.


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  3. Very honest and illuminating post. Thanks for sharing, and I wish I had caught it when you first posted it. Sorry to be a bit behind. I'm of two minds when it comes to travel. I so look forward to it, and do try my best to be upbeat when I'm traveling abroad--which, face it, is a real privilege to be able to do when you live 3000 or more miles away, on the other side of an ocean--but I'm also one of those people whose purest pleasure comes when I arrive home. I guess I'm schizophrenic that way.

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