When visiting a foreign country, you realize how many elements of everyday life we take for granted, how many social situations we navigate without thinking, and how easy it can be to become lost— in speech and in the streets.
I decided to dedicate this post to the things that I believe are most important to know (or attempt to learn) before entering a foreign country:
Visa information— I suppose this should be obvious to some degree, but there are more rules and conditions involved (depending on your country of origin) than I realized. As an American citizen, you can travel in what is referred to as the Schengen Zone, which is made up of 26 European countries, for three months on a tourist visa (for which you only need a valid U.S passport with more than six months left before the expiration date).
Basic Vocabulary— This is written by someone who only speaks one language— English— so hear me out. I think it is important to know some basic key words for the sake of politeness and saving yourself the hassle of navigating even the simplest of interactions. My go-to words to learn are:
— Thank You
— I’m sorry (or Pardon Me)
— I don’t speak _____ (insert language of country here)
— Do you speak _____ (insert your language here, in my case, “English” of course)
Communication Cues— You quickly realize when communicating with someone who doesn’t speak your language that body language goes a long way. Gestures are a large part of human communication, but can be misread depending on where you find yourself in the world. You don’t want to find yourself having accidentally offended someone by making a gesture, and you don’t want to take anything too seriously without knowing the context. The same actually applies to people who may know your language as a second language. Sometimes words do not hold the same meaning when coming from an individual who hasn’t grown into the social constructs around the language.
Restaurant Etiquette and Vocabulary— This is a very specific subset of knowledge that I wish I had put more time into learning before traveling. You really never realize how little you know about a language in a foreign country until you are hungry and sit down at a restaurant, only to realize that you cannot read a single thing on the menu. (So bonus points go out there to restaurants that have pictures of their food on their menus, you’ve provided me a lot of delicious meals and some peace of mind.) Also, tipping is not a matter to be overlooked. In countries like America, a 15% tip is expected, but while staying in Northern Italy, I was repeatedly told that a tip makes up no specific percentage of the bill, it is more like “whatever pocket change you have”. So it’s worth looking in to, to save yourself some money and not come off looking like a dumb, unthankful tourist.
A General Itinerary— I am a person who likes to know where I am going, about 90% of the time. The other 10% wants spontaneous adventures in unknown places. So I compromise by making a list of places I want to see, and also preparing myself not to see all of them. Also, an app for maps— like maps.me— will always be a life saver, especially for those of us who can’t afford a crazy expensive international data plan.
There are some of my top suggestions for things to know before going abroad. I am sure that there are many, many more that will come to me, which will probably make their way to this blog eventually, but for now, there it is!