Right after I graduated from college, I won a research fellowship and moved to Argentina. I’d been there before—I actually studied abroad there my entire junior year of college—so I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew the subway and bus system, I knew the language and dialect, I knew people. I’d already made a home for myself there once, and I was excited to do it again. One thing was going to be different this time around, though. On my meager fellowship stipend, I couldn’t afford to go home for the holidays, which meant that I’d be away for 15 consecutive months with no visit home.
I wasn’t complaining, of course, but I did have to do some planning. Would I have reliable internet in my new apartment? How much would it cost per minute to call home? Would I have to disconnect my U.S. cell phone service? Was the phone itself jailbroken, and could I use it abroad? How would I send updates to my extended family to let them know that I was, you know, alive and happy?
When you take a fellowship year or study abroad or move far away for college, staying in touch becomes harder than it seems. Sure, everyone promises to call once a week or Skype in to family night, but it’s easier said than done once you get wrapped up in your new adventure and adapt to the time change. And while you can keep checking your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat (unless it’s banned in your host country), these mediums don’t delve into your experiences. Mom wants more than a filtered photo, 140 characters, and a video that vanishes tomorrow. So, what do you do? How do you stay in touch?
- Pause your U.S. cell phone service; it will only help you if you want to pay a fortune. I was still on the family phone plan when I left for my fellowship year. Inconveniently, I was leaving in the middle of the contract, so to cancel my phone service would have been wildly expensive. We’re talking some $350.00. Instead, we put a hold on my number. It cost $10.00 a month to keep my phone number inactive, which was a deal compared to the early termination fee.
- Take an old jailbroken cell phone. When I studied abroad, I bought a little burner phone so that I could communicate with anyone else in the city. When I moved back, however, I wanted something a little more powerful: a clunky iPhone 1 my friend had in her junk drawer. I bought a SIM card for it once I arrived in Argentina so that I could have a local number, and whenever I connected to WiFi, I could use iMessage and Whatsapp to chat with the people back home. Plus, the phone was so old that if it were stolen, I wouldn’t have to shell out a fortune to replace it. Which brings us to the next tip…
- Leave your computer or tablet in your apartment or dorm room. If your host city is known for petty crime (looking at you, Barcelona, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Prague, and Rome), look after your expensive electronics. I’d had some cash stolen on my study abroad trip, and I was lucky. Other kids in my program lost fancy phones and computers to muggers and pickpockets. Because the markup on electronics is so high abroad, they had to make due writing their essays and taking their Skype calls from internet cafés for the rest of the semester. If you do take your computer out and about with you, carry it in a discreet bag, only use it at school or another safe place, and never leave it unattended.
- Blog. If you’ve never had a blog before, you finally have enough material to start one. Write about what the currency looks like, the corner café, or that play you went to. Your readers instantly get a snapshot into your life, and you can stay connected with those who have their own blogs. An added plus of starting a blog is that you’ll have all of your thoughts organized for when you want to reminisce about your study abroad trip later down the line.
- Skype. You know what it is, but your parents might not. Help them download it onto their computers before you leave, and set up regular “Skype dates” to video chat with them and your cats.
- Start an e-newsletter. Channel your Lena Dunham, Blake Lively, Reese Witherspoon, and Gwyneth Paltrow and detail your experiences through a newsletter service. TinyLetter and Wix ShoutOut offer free services, and you can ask your friends and relatives to subscribe. You’ll know that only those who are interested in your tales will be subscribed, so you won’t be annoying that one person who feels stuck on your mass email list.
- Be wary of snail mail. When I lived in Argentina, I had no trouble sending and receiving letters and postcards, but packages were always a hassle. My parents sent me two boxes that never arrived and one that got stuck in customs. I had to take a 45-minute cab ride to a busy airport hangar, escort my package through customs, pay a surcharge, and show a staff member the contents of my box: a book and a stick of my favorite brand of deodorant. Embarrassing and not worth it. Check into your country’s postal service before you use it to ship your prescriptions, precious baby blanket, or other valuables. If packages routinely get lost, don’t trust it for anything except innocuous postcards. FedEx or a private service might be better.
- Invite visitors. Your best friends would love to crash on your floor for a week if it means they get to hang out with you and take advantage of your insider tourist knowledge. For me, living abroad for 15 consecutive months would have been a lot harder if I hadn’t been looking forward to having three friends visit throughout the year. Not only could I catch up with them in person, but I could show them what my life was like abroad. And watching them try exotic foods (read: gag on blood sausage) and use broken Spanish was amusing, too.
- Recruit your visitors to be your pack mules. If friends or family members are coming to visit, ask them to reserve some space in their suitcases for any items you forgot to bring. My parents couldn’t visit me while I was abroad, but I still got lucky. My mother, a dental hygienist, heard that one of her patients was vacationing in Buenos Aires. And her patient was more than happy to bring me a surprise Christmas gift from my parents. If I were a better daughter, I would have figured out a way to do the same for them.
- Go home for the big stuff. I should be clear: Don’t buy a ticket when you’re feeling homesick, but if your brother is getting married or your sister has a baby, you just might want to be there. I was finishing up my fellowship year when a family member’s health took a sharp decline. So, I figured it was time to pack up, but I didn’t sense the urgency. I bought a ticket home for a month out, leisurely saying my goodbyes to Buenos Aires. The thing is, I didn’t make it home for a more important goodbye, and I still regret that.
Don’t overthink it. Check in often, of course, to let your family know you’re safe, but stay present in the opportunity you’ve been given. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so take advantage. Spend more time talking with new friends than you spend talking to old ones on the phone. After all, when you’re open to new adventures, you’ll have something to call home about.