Tips on Dealing with Problems Abroad

Street in Ronda, SpainIf there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 5+ years living abroad, it is that problems encountered away from home somehow feel doubly difficult to manage. Maybe it’s the language barrier, or some unknown local laws, or maybe someone just having a crappy day that turns what seemed like a simple 10-minute task into your own personal version of the Amazing Race spiced with a couple Survivor-style puzzles. In the place where you grew up, somehow you just know how to handle most problems. You know where the appropriate offices are located, whom to call, which stores offer the right services, you have money in the correct currency and, if you’re lucky, a relative or two around who can help.

But when you’re abroad, problems have the potential to escalate into a different dimension. The worst of the worst occur when something exists (or is supposed to exist) in the abroad culture that doesn’t exist at home. Could you produce an official and notarized document that confirms you have, up until now, been single your entire life? If your university has no central office that maintains transcripts and credit hours completed, how would you show that you successfully completed all of your coursework? Would you comply with a local law requiring your hotel to hold onto your passport overnight? Could you prove that the official who signed your marriage license actually had the authority to do so?

All of these situations have either happened to me or someone I know. Conquering them requires patience, emotional stability, imagination and a little bit of luck. Even if you happen to have all of these qualities at your disposal, the possibility that “I’m doomed” will haunt you throughout the entire problem-solving process. I’m not a fan of lists and top tens. I’d rather write prose. So the following list, written in prose, gives you a short timeline of things to do, remember and think about when trying to solve a problem abroad:

1) Remain patient and don’t burn any bridges: whatever happens, let it wash over you and give yourself a chance to come back. It might make you feel better to erupt and storm out of whatever office you currently find yourself in. I’ve done this once or twice. Just ask my wife. But never once has it helped me. Chances are that you will have to return to this place that has just dropped the hammer on you. Erupting at some official or employee only leads to a heavier and longer-lasting hammer.

2)  Accept defeat for a day: I think it was Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption who said, “You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish by phone,” to which I have to add “…in America.” In America, a voice—automated or otherwise—will answer the phone. In America, office doors will be open for much, if not all, of the workday. That isn’t necessarily true elsewhere in the world, which is why you will eventually have to learn to accept defeat on any given day.

3) Knock on every door: During my year abroad at the University of Freiburg, I made the mistake of waiting for someone to give me the keys to my office. I wound up waiting for two months. It was only after my new colleagues started asking where I was and what I was doing that my lack of keys came to light. Of course, after the department head found out, I got the keys straight away. The entire ordeal wasn’t my fault, but then again, I wasn’t completely innocent either. The department head’s message to me was clear: “If I had been in your position, I would have knocked on every door until someone opened one.” Knock on every door you can find. Make enough noise to be heard.

4) Get creative: the internet age has made many things about living abroad easier. Phone numbers, emails and general information—sometimes also translated into English—are more readily available. But the real advantage comes through social media. Personal networks exist that you didn’t even know you had. After a failed visit to the German driver’s license station, we accepted defeat and then vented a little on Facebook. Come to find out, someone back home knew someone else who could help solve our dilemma.

Problems abroad take on different dimensions of time and space. The worst ones come out of nowhere, consume massive amounts of energy and follow you for months. I suppose it’s part of the adventure, of trying to solve a puzzle in a language that you don’t know, of living according to different laws, customs and timelines. Still, it’s interesting that the word problem, which has its roots in Greek as “anything put forward” and Latin as “a question posed for solution”, is virtually the same across many different languages. Maybe problems are the same in any language or culture. It’s the experience of them that makes the difference.

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