Our 2nd post from Kathryn S., a recent Fulbright Scholar and ExpatYourself’s contributing author now living in Hamburg, Germany:
I spent two months backpacking in Europe in 2011 — January and February, which I can safely say is not for the faint of heart. Moving overseas is an entirely different experience, but here is a list that I think would serve you well, no matter how long your trip lasts.
To Take: A watch. I bought mine back in 2011 for about $50. It has the time, day of the month, an alarm and glows in the dark. I don’t usually wear a watch, but travel is unpredictable and your phone may be dead or inconceivably still telling time from another continent. (Mine was doing this for two days.) Plus, if you’re running down cobblestones with a thirty-pound pack to try to catch a train, it’s not usually convenient to pull something from your pocket.
To Leave: Sixty pairs of wool socks. It’s cold in winter. I really really don’t like the cold. So between my own fear of freezing and gifts from family, I’ve acquired an entire plastic tote’s worth of socks. Seriously, an entire tote. Thing is, most shoes don’t have enough room for thick socks. Do you know what else doesn’t? The two suitcases you’re allowed on an international flight. Just because you’ve acquired loads of a useful item doesn’t mean you will really need all of it.
To Take: Crochet hooks. It may not be crochet hooks for you, but don’t leave all your hobbies and interests behind. I didn’t bring any yarn or half-finished projects, but the hooks themselves take up very little space, allow me to continue with a hobby and make me feel better about leaving all those socks behind, because if I get really cold, I’ll be able to make a pair, right? (No, I won’t. My skills are limited to slightly lumpy rectangles.)
To Leave: The electronic translator. A well-meaning friend or relative probably gifted this to you. Let me verify your initial impression — you won’t use it. Ever. They’re too slow to use for conversation and too limited for writing. Chuck it in the Goodwill pile and good riddance.
To Take: A nice water bottle. Mine cost $9 at Walmart, is insulated and has a screw-on tea diffuser, as I’m a big tea drinker. It’s easy to forget to stay hydrated when you’re sitting in an airport, and dehydration will make the jet lag that much worse. A fancy new water bottle feels like a treat every time you fill it up and will also prove a valuable asset while walking around foreign cities.
To Leave: The old tablet. This applies to any electronics you haven’t used in the last month. They may have sentimental value, but if there’s a layer of dust on it already, let it gather dust in storage or a tech-inclined friend’s closet. Don’t waste your valuable space and weight restrictions on a doorstop.
To Take: A neck pillow. I didn’t know if I’d use it, but I did know that I’d spend fifteen hours on an airplane and that I’m not taking a full-sized pillow. I ended up strapping it to the top of my carry-on, anyway, so it didn’t really take up any room.
To Leave: Your ego. The first time I came to Europe, I was offended anytime someone could tell I was a foreigner. Now I get a lot of compliments, not only because my language is much better, but because my attitude has improved. You are a guest in a new country. Ask for advice. Ask for directions. Ask for language help. You’ll learn how much the locals have to offer (a lot!) and you’ll lose a lot of the stress.
To Take: A gift (of food). No matter where you’re staying your first few days, you probably won’t be totally alone. I brought my hostess apple butter and red pepper jelly and I feel that made a really good first impression. If you’re in a hostel, you can share with your roommates and make new friends. If you really do end up alone, you can drown your sorrow in food from home. No matter your situation, you win! (Unless the item breaks in your luggage. Wrap it well and seal it in plastic.)
I started this list while I was packing and have updated it since my arrival. Feel free to comment if there’s anything you’d like to add to it. If you’re currently suffering the stress of packing for an international trip, just know that when you arrive, no matter what you’ve forgotten (like tea and athletic shorts, for me), you will be so unbelievably happy to have arrived that these little won’t matter.