This week my sister Kate – The Single Expat – shares her advice for settling in and making a house/apartment/room a home as quickly as possible. Her advice is valid for anyone moving to a new place, not just for single expats. What she doesn’t mention is that in addition to unpacking her suitcases and hanging her photos she also invests heavily in stocking up her kitchen. I’ve never seen anyone with such a variety of spices that haven’t expired!
Enjoy this helpful contribution and be sure to read all the way to the end where she shares her couscous salad recipe. Easy to prepare with minimal cooking and it will last a few days. Perfect settling in food.
Why You Should Establish Location-Independent Routines
I start every day with a cup of coffee in the same coffee cup and a picture of myself sent to my best friend with a simple “good morning, love <3” and I know that when she wakes up I will get the same picture from her. We haven’t lived in the same place in nearly twenty years but this morning ritual is vital to both of us and has seen us through good times and bad. No matter what is happening in the world, in our lives, this simple morning check-in which provides not only sweetness but also stability and a sense of normalcy.
You see, I am a creature of habit. I take the same route to work every day. I frequent the same places where I know where things are and how they work. I often order the same thing off the menu once I find a dish I really like. You get it… Routines are the things that make us feel somehow normal, they give us a sense of control.
But as a TCK and a lifelong expat, I also happen to move to new places fairly regularly and that does not always jive with my routines! Not having those regular routines can feel really unsettling and exhausting, which in turn makes it difficult to feel comfortable and ‘at home’ wherever my new home may be.
For many years, I moved to a new place every couple of years and I got into the habit of never really settling in. I didn’t take the time to put up any artwork or make the space my own and I never really felt like I truly lived there. I never felt settled. That ultimately also made me live in a perpetual state of transition, regardless of the simple daily routines I inevitably developed.
It’s important to have a place where you can put down all the stuff and the burdens and the stresses of your day and feel safe and comfortable to completely be yourself. That’s really hard to do if your space feels transitory or temporary. It also makes it difficult to start developing those solid routines that help you with daily life. Even when you do, they somehow don’t help to make you feel less exhausted and unsettled. For a long time my life just felt kind of chaotic, like I didn’t have much control over anything and I was just blowing in the wind, unable to enjoy all of the new places and people I was experiencing.
Create Your Own Routines for Arriving
I’m not entirely sure what caused me to change this behaviour. Maybe it was that yearning for “home” that TCK’s always have even when we simultaneously long for the next adventure, maybe it was a desire to somehow feel “adult” in my early thirties, maybe a combination of a whole bunch of things. But whatever it was, I did change my behaviour. And it made a giant difference in my life.
I decided to create a routine of unpacking, decorating, of arriving in my new home before doing anything else. It seems like such a silly thing to focus on but it makes a huge difference in how you feel about where you live. There are three things I do when I move into a new space:
Three Steps to Making any Space Feel Like "Home"
- Unpack: if it’s late in the day, I do the minimum. Unpack my bathroom necessities and my favourite coffee cup for the morning routine. If at all possible, I also unpack all of my suitcases and put clothes away. This ensures waking up in a space that already feels like home. I find that if I don’t do this unpacking and putting away step, it’s too easy to end up living out of a suitcase for far too long. Living out of a suitcase doesn’t feel like home. It feels like you’re still traveling, like you haven’t arrived. That, in turn, makes it so much harder to sink into the comfort of a new home. Like I said earlier, having a space where you can put down all of the things that make your shoulders just that much tighter and higher is vital to your own wellbeing. So unpack those suitcases. Put the clothes away. Take a deep breath and relax those shoulders. You are home now.
- Arrange: on arrival – or day 2 at the latest, I arrange the furniture how I want it (and rearrange it later if I decide it works better differently!). Even if I only have the bare minimum and am either waiting for furniture to arrive or need to purchase furniture, I arrange what I have in a way that feels comfortable. This further creates that home feeling. It also helps me think about how I ultimately want to arrange my space. BUT: Moving furniture around can be challenging when you’re on your own so I like to think about what I want before I do the actual moving. I try to visualize how I want a room to look but it’s hard to know exactly what will fit where… So here’s what I do: I take the time to measure the room and all of the larger pieces of furniture (every single person should have a few basic tools, which includes a measuring tape). Then I draw a diagram of the room and cut out pieces of paper that represent the furniture – to scale – so I can play around with arrangements before tackling the actual furniture.
- Decorate: put up my artwork. I have a set of three beautiful framed vintage prints that my best friend gave me for my birthday years ago and they travel the world with me, even if/when nothing else can. The simple act of finding a place for them (“the Hildas”) and putting them up makes any place feel familiar. Every time I come home, into this new space that I am still learning, I see the Hildas and I am reminded that “hey, I live here!” Putting artwork on your walls – especially artwork that is important to you and reflects who you are, where you have been, what you have experienced – does a few things. It turns a space that feels unfamiliar, blank or characterless into a home, a space that feels lived-in and familiar. It also serves as a walk down memory lane. We so often forget to take the time to look at those photos or posters or pieces of art (or whatever it may be) and appreciate it. You chose to acquire it and put that on your wall for a reason. Take a moment, spend a little time with it. Most of my life is spent in forward motion but I wouldn’t be who – or where – I am without my past. Putting my chosen pieces on my new home’s walls grounds me in my story and takes away any temporariness and is the final act of arriving and settling into my new home.
This home-making routine, this act of arriving, of making a space my own makes everything else easier. It makes the hard stuff like finding the best route to work, meeting new people, figuring out where to get food, learning a new city, culture, language… so much easier when you know you can arrive home and feel like it is your space. Inside the chaos and the stress of the outside world, your home – temporary as it may be – is your home. It is your safe space where you feel comfortable and settled and cocooned. Where you can recharge your emotional and physical battery and take on whatever your world throws at you.
I do this even when I will only live in a given place for a short amount of time. Taking the extra couple of days at the beginning to set it up and at the end to pack it back up for the next move is well worth even a few months of feeling settled and comfortable. And from there I can build the rest of my routines and continue my forward momentum.