You don’t always have to be on the same path to enjoy the journey together. Many roads lead to the same breathtaking views atop Mt. Rigi, Switzerland.
Having friends and family from home come to visit you in your host country can be an awesome chance to reconnect with loved ones and play tourist in your own backyard. But if you’re used to being a solo act it can also come with some challenges.
Here are some of my top tips for welcoming old friends into your life abroad, whether you’re on the road or playing hostess in your home away from home:
1) Create an opportunity for both you and your guests to frame your expectations for the visit ahead of time.
Usually this is best done in the initial reach-out email, before anybody has booked any tickets. Are there times of year that are better or worse for friends to visit? Make sure you are clear about that. Are you in the mood to play tour guide, or will your personal and professional life dictate that your friends be more self sufficient? Would you rather stab your eyes out than pay admission to your city’s top cultural attraction again for the umpteen time? Suggest that you guide them there and then hang out in a coffee shop while they enjoy it.
2) Don’t forget to get down to brass tacks about money right away.
One of the first things I tell people about Switzerland is that going out here is even more expensive than London, Paris or New York City. There are ways around that, of course, but I don’t want anybody to end up disappointed that they flew all the way to see me and then ended up eating most of their meals in my flat because going out was cost prohibitive.
And make sure you are clear about what cost prohibitive means to you. “I don’t want to spend too much money on a hotel room.” can mean vastly different things to different people. One of the best group travel suggestions a friend ever made to me was creating a google spreadsheet where we could track our expenses before during and after our trip. There was never any confusion because it was all very clearly laid out who had spent how much and on what.
Don’t feel like you and your travel buddies need to spend money on the same things either. Once the basics like accommodation, food and transport are taken care of, there’s no reason why you have to do everything together. If you can’t fathom spending 25 bucks on admission to that wax museum your travel buddy has been dying to go to but wouldn’t batt an eye dropping the same amount of cash on some weird experimental theater, then suggest that you split up for the evening! One thing is for sure, being upfront about what you do and don’t want to spend money on will save you frustration and hurt feelings later.
3) Recognize that you aren’t soulley responsible for your guest’s impression of or experience in your adopted country.
For some reason I put a lot of pressure on myself to show my friends just how great Switzerland is. Not only that, but since I’ve been living in Europe, I’ve developed a fear of looking ignorant about any aspect of life on the continent that friends might have a question about. (You’ve lived here how long and you can’t explain that weird local tradition to me??) Don’t forget, there’s no way you could possibly know everything, and your friends are here to travel with you, not a professional tour guide.
4) Try Not to Micromanage.
Don’t feel like you need to plan your friends’ entire visit for them. Point them toward a few good travel websites and suggest they download a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide e-book. Don’t feel bad about suggesting that they hit the books. Chances are that you used a guidebook when you first landed in your new home base too.
Recognize that everyone doesn’t have the same travel objectives as you do and what may seem too basic or touristy to you after living someplace for a year may be just the ticket for somebody who only has a week to explore. In the end there is NO way that you can help somebody who is visiting as a tourist achieve the level of comfort and immersion in the local culture that you have. Trying will only cause frustration for both you and your guests.
5) Keep in mind that their culture shock may not look like your culture shock.
A wise woman once told me that everybody experiences culture shock differently. My typical M.O in a new culture is to dive in with both feet and go full steam ahead… until I hit what should have been a minor bump and have a total emo meltdown over it. (What do you MEAN this traditional German beer hall doesn’t serve anything vegetarian!? I’m going to go back to my dorm bed and cry about this and then take a long nap!)
For others, culture shock might manifest itself in fear and anxiety over activities they normally have no problem with, fatigue, even boredom. Try to resist the urge to “fix” your friend, and for goodness sake’s don’t lecture! Instead, allow yourself to be a sounding board for your friend, be flexible and don’t worry too much about veering off your established “plan”. Remember the ultimate objective is to have a good time with your friend. That’s not going to happen if you’re too busy trying to push them through something they’re not ready for yet.
6) Enjoy a familiar activity from home together if you can.
When I first moved to Switzerland I was really feeling a lack of an outlet for my passion for theater. Not only did I not have any friends to go to shows with, I didn’t even know where to look to find decent English speaking theater. When a visiting friend suggested we see some performances together I was dubious as to whether I’d be able to find anything good. We both did some research and I booked us tickets to my first big glamorous Swiss burlesque show and she found us some cool performance art at a hip venue I’d never heard even heard of.
It felt great to discover a new part of my city with an old friend, and I may not have pushed myself to go out and do it if I hadn’t had visitors!
7) Schedule some alone time for yourselves.
It’s just a fact, even when you travel with your best friend or the love of your life, there are going to be moments that you want to kill each other. Instead of being crushed when things aren’t a nonstop party, try and anticipate when you’ll both need space. Put it out there that you don’t mind splitting up for an afternoon if your friend wants to see or do something that just doesn’t float your boat. Chances are that your visitor will be relieved to hear that you don’t expect to be joined at the butt 24/7. Time apart whether it’s for an afternoon nap or a visit to the taxidermy museum whilst your buddy gets herself a pedicure can be more welcome than you think and make time together even more fun.
So, did I miss anything? What are your to tips for making the most of it when friends visit?