I sit on the bed, gripping a mug tightly between my knuckles, my jaw partially open in shock as I stare at a hijab-ed lady, who gives me a quick hug and leaves my bedroom. She is (or was) my landlady; and she had given me three days notice to find a place and conned me out of 186 British pounds.
In an attempt to follow my dream of become an established travel journalist, I had applied for an internship with the award-winning travel publication Wanderlust (www.wanderlust.co.uk), and was actually accepted. So, less than a month after finishing my final university exams - and less than two weeks after handing in my final assignment - I set off to the UK to work in the office in Windsor. A whole lot of dragging my luggage about, two con artists, and a lot of money later - here I am in my third week of the internship, staying with some (absolutely lovely) people from work and looking for a place (again). Not the most pleasant experience ever, but I did learn some street-smarts - and I'm sharing with you what I've learned so far (so hopefully you'll avoid the mess that I went though).
1.) Trust people. But don't trust people.
When it sounds to good too be true, maybe it isn't. When I found a great place close to work for such a cheap price, I jumped head first for it - and straight into their trap. There are loads of kind, generous people out there, but then there's that occasional person that's just looking to take advantage of your situation. So always watch your luggage, keep your passport/cards in a safe place that's a bit unsual (so not your back pocket), and always ALWAYS ask for a receipt or some kind of proof when handing over money to someone. If an agreement was made on something, get it in black and white on paper - watch your own back.
2.) When looking for a place to rent, examine it with utmost scrutiny.
Wipe your finger along the top of shelves, remove part of the duvet on the bed to take a look at (and even try lying on) the mattress, ask about whether the shower does different temperatures and drains properly, if there are any current problems with the toilet/washing machine, etc. It might seem strange - but you'd rather not have any unexpected surprises after you've already paid a month's rent and deposit. Also, when looking at major renting websites (like www.spareroom.co.uk) triple check the rooms (as con artists always use the most well-known sites) as well as remain alert about your possible landlord-to-be - does he look unkept? Does he smell of cigarettes/alcohol? Did he come late? These little things can give you a good idea of what you get along with your rental contract.
3.) If all else fails - try the Couchsurfing website.
For those who don't know what Couchsurfing is, Google it. It's a great concept (though the site itself is terrible) and I've been an avid CS-er (as CouchSurfers are known) since 2012 (my profile's here: https://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=10NF0D7F). If you're close to a well-known place like London, Berlin, New York etc - there are usually groups or forums especially for last-minute couchsurfing requests. When I had nowhere to stay for the night, I posted in the West London group and had two offers to host me within the hour.
4.) If all goes well - still use the Couchsurfing website.
Moving to a new country alone can be quite daunting. So even if things go well - I'd always recommend the site to see what the CS-ers nearby are up to. In my second week in the UK I went for a drink with the West London CS group, as well as two a blues festival. CSers tend to be open-minded, friendly and from all walks of life - a really great way to make friends and meet new people who have the same interests as you. Love hiking? See if any CSers are organising one nearby. If not, you can always organise one yourself - you're sure to have at least 2 people if you plan it in advance. Other interests include wine bars, photography, and language exchange. Or start a new hobby - starting a salsa class means that I go out and meet people at least once a week, as moving to a country can be kind of lonely if you don't know anyone. Plus, it gives you the chance to try something you always wanted to learn.
5.) Be extra-nice to your workmates.
Offer to make them a cup of tea. Buy biscuits to share. Inquire about their children or give them a compliment. If you are perceived as a friendly person, someone whose company other people enjoy - you're much more likely to be invited out for drinks after work, or to go watch a film. Or even to go watch a horse race - which is what people do in Windsor, apparently. You also never know when you might need something - people are much more likely to help someone they like - so give it a go and smile at someone (ideally not in a creepy way).
6.) Dress sensibly. Fit in.
Ladies, this one's especially for you. If everyone at the office wears jeans, don't where a blazer and pencil skirt (or vice-versa) - you might be perceived as either a slob or a snob, respectively. If you're in a Muslim neighbourhood during evening especially, wear a scarf around your head and pretend its a hijab. If you're alone mostly - you don't want to attract unwanted attention. As a foreigner, you already stick out like a sore thumb, most likely. Don't hit it with a hammer and make it doubly swell up and glow red. Really. Trust me on this one.
7.) I promise you that it will not be easy. But it WILL be worth it.
Dealing with the hassle of finding a place to stay. commuting, finances, loneliness, homesickness, wondering if you did the right thing - moving abroad is never easy. There's so much to adapt to - you're completely taken out of your comfort zone, most times. Challenges will arise - but experience is the best teacher. The day will come when you'll buy your bread by speaking German, haggle and succeed on getting a good price for jewellery at an Indian stall, remember exactly where the cereal is in a supermarket nearly as big as your entire country - and you'll smile as you realise you're doing so easily what you struggled with months before. Street-smarts are earned, as are all the lessons of life. You will grow, learn more about yourself and the world than you ever did before, and you will be proud of what a strong, adaptable person who are - the kind to rise to the challenge and not be defeated by it - a great feeling, I can tell you!
8.) Keep smiling. You can do it.
This is perhaps the most important tip of all. It's a crucial survival attitude, the part of you which - as difficult as it may be - keeps you trusting others when you have been cheated, keeps loving when you have been severely hurt, that fills you with the strength to, no matter how tired, frustrated, and angry you are - you WILL keep going. As Nietzsche once said, if a man has a 'why' he can deal with almost any 'how' - I am doing this because I believe in following my dreams - so how I am going to do it is a lesser problem, because I WILL find a way. So don't get bogged down by feeling miserable,or self-pitying yourself. Cry, punch something, scream - get it out of you - then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and continue down the road whistling. Have faith - not only in yourself - but in the fact that the world works in odd ways that we don't understand, many times, and later on in life it hits you that sometimes the most gracious of blessings come amazingly well-disguised.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post y'all :) Just to close with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi/Dalai Lama:
Till next month's post... happy travels!