Moving can be tough. Moving every four months is almost unthinkable. Visas, flights, new faces, strange places – for some, the thought of such a lifestyle seems exhausting. For others, like me, it’s a constant exploration and challenge. It’s a journey I started when I joined Minerva, a San Francisco-based university that turns traditional college education on its head with online classes, global travel, and experiential learning.
During my four years of undergraduate study, I will live in 7 cities around the world. I’m a year and a half in, and, coupled with some travel of my own, I’ve learned a few things about what makes a new place memorable. Indeed, there is a way to make immersing yourself in a new city during a gap year easier. Here are some tips to get started:
- Take it slow.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to stay sane is to focus on what it is you’re actually doing in a new place. It’s very tempting to get stuck in the head of a tourist, spending your first few weeks visiting every landmark and getting lost in the maze of an unfamiliar place. But when you’re staying for an extended period, you need to give yourself time to get into the flow of the city. I have often found that I enjoy a meander through the neighborhood far more than spending an entire day zipping between some travel blog’s recommendation of points of interest. People vary on this one, but personally, I find organic immersion both more authentic and less strenuous.
- Connect with the community.
Meetups are a great way to engage with the city through its people. In every major city in the world, you will find meetup groups whose interests span everything from goat yoga to blockchain coding to a keen appreciation of English bulldogs. When I lived in San Francisco, these meetups exposed me to a wide network of people who were extremely passionate about what they did. One event led to another. Within different circles of the same topic, I started to see familiar faces. After a few months, I had formed some amazing friendships that have now outlived my stay.
This kind of grounding is important because it gives you a sense of truly knowing a place – not just flitting through at the pace of a tourist. You keep in contact with those same people and leave having a base in that city – a community of friends who make the experience more than just foreign faces and landmark pictures. True city immersion is about the people.
- Give back to the places you visit.
Connecting is one thing, but it’s so much more rewarding and valuable when you combine it with giving. As travelers, we often forget that when we go to a new city, we are stepping into the world of other people. We pass through eventually, but they stay on and live with all the challenges and quirks that make that place what it is.
Volunteering is one of the best ways to use your time in a new place. I have had some of the most profound experiences with people who you wouldn’t find at the meetups and conferences. Our paths wouldn’t cross otherwise, but looking back, I often wish I had spent more time doing the simple things with people who would have appreciated it most. City immersion isn’t about taking, it’s also about giving.
- Set a goal to learn something new.
One thing I really enjoy doing is challenging myself to learn a new skill with each new place that I visit. Besides the people you get to know, forming that mental association between new ideas and the new, rich experiences of a foreign place can be a powerful way to aid the progression of your learning.
As you explore new concepts and forms of expression – whether through language, art, technical skill, or physical activity – your experience of this process is coupled with every other new thing you’re subconsciously learning in the everyday things. When I think back to my time spent living in Germany, I vividly remember how my newfound interest in economics podcasts synced perfectly with my schedule at a hotel I was working at part-time. While preparing breakfasts for guests at 6 am in the morning, I was immersing myself in a world of new knowledge. This led to a deep interest in fintech and so when I arrived in San Francisco, I naturally started immersing myself in related meetup groups. Today I am interning at a leading fintech company in Tokyo, but if I had to be honest about what lead me here, it all began with slicing strawberries and oranges in the small kitchen of a black forest hotel.
Some people find the idea of upending one’s life on a frequent basis absolutely daunting. Honestly, though, it can be extremely liberating to become open to this way of living. New spaces, new people, new ideas – it’s the cross-pollination of creativity and thought that sparks inspiration and novel ways of seeing the world. Globalization, in this very literal sense, is something more and more of us will do over the course of our lives. Learning how to do it well can do wonders for how we experience it, and how others experience it with us.