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Cell Phones and SIM Cards for living abroad- updated

A lot of you out there probably got a nice new electronic device such as a smart phone or tablet for Christmas.  But, if you’re planning to move abroad anytime soon, you’ll probably wonder whether your shiny new toy will work overseas.  Having a cell phone is really a must even when living abroad–after living in four countries I’ve never had a landline phone and all my friends communicated via cell phone.  Having a data plan can also be a lifesaver especially in unfamiliar places…you can look up directions or public transport connections, currency exchanges, and translations.  I touch on this topic briefly in the book, but I’ve since discovered that people crave a simple, step-by-step Q&A on buying cell phones to bring abroad, or knowing whether your current device will work overseas.  I’ll attempt to answer all the most frequent questions I get here.

Before I start, a brief note.  I’m not going to go into details here on data speeds and frequencies, such as 2G, 3G, and 4G.  Whether you get these different speeds depends on a complex combination of your phone’s capabilities, the service provider you use, and where you’ll be accessing data most often.  If getting lighting-fast data speeds is important to you while abroad, you’ll have to do a little more research than the basic step-by-step I’m going to provide here.  You’ll need to research the leading mobile carriers in the country you’ll be living, and what frequencies they use to provide 4G data, and then you’ll need to make sure your phone is compatible with that frequency.

My recommendation: go prepaid.

The prepaid market is only now getting underway for smart phones in the US.  The prepaid market is much more developed abroad, and if you’re on a budget I highly recommend using a prepaid plan while abroad, whether you’ll be there long-term or short-term.  Unless you use a ton of minutes or rely on a lot of data, prepaid will almost always save money compared to a monthly plan.  It’s also good for college abroad students because you won’t be stuck paying for minutes you’re not using while you’re traveling out of country or when you go back to the US to visit.  This is also why I recommend staying contract-free while you’re abroad, unless you’re absolutely sure you’ll stay for the duration of the contract, you can truly afford the monthly payment, and you are very sure you won’t travel too frequently outside of the country.  Since many Americans aren’t familiar with prepaid plans, or associate them with people who have no credit history, it can be a bit of an adjustment to go prepaid, and tempting to simply sign a contract with a carrier overseas.  But trust me, after being on  prepaid plans, monthly plans, and even a long-term contract abroad, prepaid is generally the best way to go.

I’m only going abroad for a short time as an exchange student.  What should I do?

Even if you’re only going for a few weeks/months, do NOT use your contract phone abroad unless you enjoy getting a cell phone bill demanding hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  Unless you have an out of contract unlocked GSM-compatible phone (see below), I suggest you call your carrier and ask for a temporary hold on your contract.  I know that some carriers will allow customers to put their contract on hold for up to six months, during which time you don’t have to pay the monthly fee, but doing so also extends the life of the contract.  You may need to provide your carrier evidence of going abroad, which could be an acceptance letter to a study abroad program, a scholarship award letter or rental agreement for an apartment abroad.  If you’re lucky, your provider might unlock your phone even while in contract, in which case you CAN use your current phone while abroad temporarily as long as the phone is GSM-compatible.  If this isn’t the case, buy a cheap phone and a SIM card that will work wherever you’re studying (see Step 2 below), and leave your normal in-contract phone at home.  Another option is to allow a friend or family member to use your phone while you’re abroad, while they agree to pay your monthly fee.

Step 1: Can I use my current cell phone abroad?

In order to answer this question, you need to answer several additional questions…

Are you in contract and if so, can you get out of your contract?

The short answer is: probably not unless you’re willing to pay the cancellation fee.  However, if you have an inexpensive phone, or if your contract is nearly up, or if you have a particularly forgiving carrier, you might be able to get out of your contract.  I was able to cancel mine by faxing my carrier a copy of my university acceptance letter before I moved and a copy of my rental agreement in Germany after I moved.  They waived the cancellation fee.  But this was almost seven years ago and the phone was relatively cheap.  Although paying a cancellation fee isn’t ideal, it might make sense simply to get out of the obligation and it could save you money in the long-term.  However, before breaking down and just paying the fee, consider transferring your contract to a new customer.

How do I transfer my contract?

Try these two companies: CellTradeUSA and CellSwapper.  You can also go to your carrier and directly negotiate to switch your contract to a friend or family member.  You have the option to transfer your phone along with the contract, or just the contract.  If you keep the phone and want to use it abroad,  it needs to be GSM-compatible (see below) and you’ll have to get it unlocked (see below).  If you don’t keep the phone, skip to Step 2.

Is your phone GSM compatible?

In order to be able to work abroad, your phone must be able to work on the networks outside the US.  Most of the rest of the world uses a network called GSM.  Up until recently however, almost all of the carriers in the US used CDMA, and most of the phones sold in the US were only able to work on a CDMA network, making it nearly impossible to use your phone abroad.  Fortunately, AT&T and T-mobile now use GSM.  In order to use your phone abroad, it must be capable of working on a GSM frequency.  Many newer smart phones sold in the US today are tri- or quad-band phones, which means they can work on a variety of frequencies, but if your phone was sold by one of the CDMA carriers such as Sprint, it may not be GSM-compatible even if the phone is technically tri- or quad-band.  Therefore, you might contact your carrier and consult the website of your phone’s manufacturer to be sure.  If your phone isn’t GSM-compatible, proceed to step 2.

Is your phone unlocked?

If you’re still on contract, your phone is probably locked.  However, even if you’re out of contract your phone is still probably locked, unless you never had a contract to begin with or you bought your phone unlocked originally.  Most cell phones are programmed with software that “locks” the phone to only one carrier.  In order to use your current cell phone abroad, you need to be able to use it on a different carrier.  You can know for sure if your phone is unlocked by taking out the current SIM card (see more about this below), and insert a SIM card from a friend’s phone.  If the phone works with the other SIM card, it is unlocked.  Rumor has it that Verizon iPhone 5 is shipped unlocked, so while Verizon is one of the CDMA carriers in the US, the iPhone 5 works on both frequencies and therefore a Verizon iPhone 5 should work with GSM carriers both here and abroad.

Can I get my phone unlocked?

If you’ve arrived at this step, you have a GSM phone, which not only means it can work on a network outside the US, but it also means that it uses a chip called a SIM card.  Only phones that use SIM cards can be used abroad, and only phones with SIM cards can be unlocked.

My phone has a removable SIM card and is GSM-compatible.  Now how do I unlock it?

Again, the answer in the form of a question:

Is your phone a dumb phone?

If your phone is dumb…or rather, NOT a smart phone, unlocking is a simple procedure if your carrier allows it.  Just call customer service, or check the carriers website for the unlock code.  Some carriers will charge a fee to unlock the phone, others will do it for free, and many are happy to do so on inexpensive dumb phones especially if it is out of contract or already paid for.

Is your phone a smartphone?

If you have a smartphone, the process of getting your phone unlocked is more complicated because the software on the phone is more complex.  However, your carrier can do it relatively easily if they want to.  First, call your carrier and ask about unlocking.  Explain that you’re going abroad and you’re already out of contract.  It used to be the case that you could get an unlock code from a third party provider if your carrier wouldn’t do it for you, but since March 2013 that has become more difficult due to a small change in the law governing cell phone technology.  You can read about it here.  Such third party providers still exist but since the law change you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law by unlocking your phone without the carrier’s permission (although the White House opposes this law, and the House has introduced a bill to reverse this situation).  I hear these services do indeed work but I’ve never used them myself, and besides being potentially illegal, you might lose your warranty and they charge a fee.

Sooo…to recap: in order to use your phone abroad it must…

1.  Be out of contract.

2.  Be GSM-compatible.

3.  Be unlocked.

I’m in luck!  My phone fits these criteria.  Now what?

Congratulations!  Now all you need is a SIM card that will work wherever you’re going.  You have two options: buy a SIM before you leave or once you get there.  I think it is better to have a SIM before you leave so that you can use your phone as soon as you land (see below).  You can always buy a new SIM with better rates later.

Step 2: My phone can’t be taken abroad.  Now what?

You have two options:  buy a phone while still in the US or buy a phone when you get to your host country.  I’ll take each option in turn.

Bring a cheap temporary phone with you.

I recommend bringing a phone with you along with a SIM card that will work in your host country so you can call as soon as you land (for a taxi, for a hotel, for the person who is supposed to pick you up, etc).  This can be a cheap dumb phone you can get rid of if or when you find a more suitable phone or plan in the host country.

Where do I buy a local SIM card if I’m not “local” yet?

There are a few companies that sell local SIMs and cheap, unlocked cell phones to people in the US who are planning to travel abroad.  I can recommend Telestial, but there are plenty of other options.  These are usually pre-paid SIMs, meaning they come with a certain dollar amount loaded, and you pay per minute, per SMS, and if data is included, per megabyte.  Once the dollar amount has been depleted, you have to recharge the card.  This can usually be done online, or by buying recharge codes at kiosks abroad.  You can get a SIM that is specific to a given country, which is usually the cheapest plan, or a regional SIM that works throughout several countries in the immediate area, or even an international SIM that works all over the world.

Buy a better quality phone in the US to use as your main phone abroad.

If you care about the phone you use and want a better quality phone with you while living abroad, you can buy one in the US and take it with you.  Any phone that is purchased in the US, however, must fulfill all the criteria discussed above: out of contract, GSM-compatible, and unlocked.  Fortunately, you can now find lots of unlocked phones that are sold directly from the manufacturer so the customer can choose whatever carrier s/he wants.  Unfortunately, unlocked smartphones are extremely expensive.  An unlocked iPhone 5 costs $549. Most new unlocked smartphones will cost anywhere between $250-800.  While this is a heavy price, equivalent smartphones abroad will probably be unavailable or much more expensive (this may not be the case in places like China or Korea, where some of these phones are manufactured).  In Germany for example, the iPhone 5 costs 549 EUROS, which is $745.

Can I buy a used phone to bring with me?

It may be better to have an older phone because having a new shiny one could make you the target of theft.  Be on the lookout for friends and family who are looking to upgrade their phones and looking to dump their older phones. Or settle for a lower quality, cheaper model (which are pretty easy to find these days)

1.  If you really want an American cell phone to bring with you abroad, think about buying used on Amazon or ebay or Craigslist.  You can get a used version of the latest model for half the price of buying new.  BUT if you’re thinking of buying used from Amazon, Ebay, or Craigslist, be a little careful.  Take the following into consideration:Ask the seller about all the features mentioned above, such as being GSM and unlocked.  If it is used and out of contract but still locked, it may be relatively easy, depending upon the carrier, to get the phone unlocked.  The seller may not be familiar with these issues and may not know the answer or give you the wrong answer.  Therefore, be as sure as possible that you’re getting what you want.  Amazon and Ebay have good buyer protection procedures, but Craigslist does not.  If you buy from Craigslist, meet the seller in person and bring a SIM card from a GSM network (like AT&T) with you to make sure it is truly unlocked and GSM-compatible.  DO NOT buy a Sprint phone, as Sprint is a CMDA carrier and its phones don’t use SIM cards.

2.  The battery life on smart phones are pretty weak to begin with, but a used phone may not keep a charge for long at all.  Ask the seller.

3. Make sure the IMEI is “clean.”  The IMEI is a unique number assigned to every single GSM device.  If a phone is lost or stolen, the owner can report this to their carrier and the IMEI number is put on a blacklist.  This means that if someone else tries to use the phone, the carrier will see that the phone is blacklisted and won’t work.  You can use a site like Swappa to check the IMEI status.

Anything else I should consider?

Some features to consider if you’re buying a new(er) phone to use abroad: it might be a good idea to get a phone with a decent camera to capture those random moments when you don’t have your actual camera with you.  You might also consider a phone with a dual SIM capability.  This way you can have a local SIM in one slot and a US SIM in the other, for example.

Finally, you’ll still need a SIM card.  You can purchase one from any of the many online retailers I mention above, or you can wait until you get there and buy one.  From experience, it can actually be somewhat difficult to find a retailer locally that sells SIM cards, especially when you’re not familiar with the country yet and how to get around.  I’ve used this site every time I’ve moved to a different country to help me decide which SIM to buy and where to buy it.  Again, I would rather have the ability to call right away in case anything goes wrong when I land in a foreign country for the first time.  Others might be more relaxed about this.

Buy a cell phone locally with a local plan.

If you know for sure you’ll be staying in a certain country for a long time, it *might* be worth it to get a local phone and maybe even a local contract (but see my notes on this option above).  If your Bachelor’s program abroad is three years long, you can easily sign a two-year contract as long as the monthly fee is affordable.  However, it isn’t wise to assume that a cell phone contract carries similar terms as it would in the US.  For example, I learned the hard way that contracts in Germany automatically renew after the initial period, and getting out of a German cell phone contract requires giving them at least three months notice.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to having a contract abroad.  In Europe, for example, the cell phone industry is much more consumer friendly than it is the US.  Contracts are generally easier to get out of, you have the right to take your number to a new carrier, and unlocking is also easier.  Carriers in Europe are more flexible because Europeans move to other countries all the time, so getting out of a contract is pretty easy if you can prove you’re moving away.  Still though, if you plan to travel a lot, or go back to the US and stay for a while, being in a contract can be a waste of money.

Can I get data on a local phone and/or local plan?

Yes!  Just be sure to buy a SIM card with a company that offers data, which most do nowadays.  Some countries may not have extremely fast data networks such as 4G of LTE, but many countries actually have faster data networks than we do.  If you’re using a local SIM with a phone you brought from another country or carrier, you might find that your phone will show that it is connected to the data network (such as showing the 3G icon at the top), but when you try loading a website or using data, things simply won’t load.  This is most likely due to your phone’s APN settings.  Depending upon your phone model and the software version your phone is running, you may be able to change the APN settings manually.  However, there may not be an option in your phone’s settings menu to change it.  But never fear!  While connected via WiFi, go to  From there, choose your country and the carrier, and the service will automatically download a profile on your phone that changes the APN settings.  For some reason, this works wonderfully for everything except MMS (sending pictures via text message).

What about tablets?

Tablets are actually much simpler to use abroad than cell phones, because most of them are shipped unlocked and many are sold without a contract.  Therefore, all you need is a SIM card that includes data and your tablet should work (you might have to change the APN settings, however…see above).

Can I bring my phone I bought abroad with me to the US?  Will it work?

Remember that if you buy a phone abroad, it won’t necessarily work in the US when you go home for visits or when your program ends.  Again, it needs to be unlocked and ideally out of contract.  You’ll need to get a US-based SIM card, which fortunately are easier to come by today than it was even two years ago.  You can get prepaid US-SIMs through online retailers such as H2O wireless.  T-mobile sells flat-rate SIMs without a phone, and a company called Straight Talk also has a Bring-Your-Own-Phone program where you pay a flat fee of $45 month, contract-free.

I hope this covers most of the aspects of buying and using your smartphone abroad.  It is based on my experience both bringing a cell phone from the US abroad but also buying a cell phone abroad and trying to use it in the US and other countries while traveling.  I have no affiliation with any of the companies or brands mentioned this post and I wasn’t paid or given any perks to mention these products.  I hope this is the all-inclusive guide you’ve been looking for.  If you have other questions, or other information to add, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments!


Strange and even Creepy Christmas Traditions from around the World Part I: Krampus

I’ve spent the holiday season in several countries–Germany, Israel and now Spain.  Christmas is a strange time to be abroad.  On the one hand, spending the holiday season abroad is one of the best time to really learn about a culture and its traditions.  On the other hand, it can be profoundly lonely knowing that back home your closest friends and family are participating in traditions and customs you hold dear and you’re missing it.  Christmas in Germany is full of wonderful traditions, and in fact, many American Christmas traditions come from Germany like the Weihnachtsbaum and Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas trees and Christmas markets).  I like spending the holidays in Germany because it lacks the crazy shopping frenzy and is much more focused on spending cozy time with friends and family, and of course Glühwein (warm mulled wine).  But today I want to discuss a much stranger and decidedly un-cozy tradition you would have witnessed had you been in Bavaria on December 5th–the Krampuslauf.

Photo by Johannes Simon, Getty Images.

Photo by Johannes Simon, Getty Images.

For American standards, Krampus is better suited for October 31st than December 5th.  He is a devil-looking creature with large horns and a grotesque curling tongue.  He is St. Nick’s alter-ego, the one that punishes naughty children, while the jolly old fellow leaves good children gifts (in Germany, children get small gifts in their shoes on December 6th!).  But if you thought the threat of coal in the stocking was powerful enough to keep children good throughout the year, try the threat of kidnap and torture by the evil and devious Krampus.  Yes, Krampus accompanies St. Nick on the eve of December 5th and while your sister is getting candy and coins, you’re being put into a sack and whisked away never to be heard from again.  Sometimes Krampus brings help to carry out his dastardly deeds–a female but equally ghoulish character called Perchten.  To keep the legend of Krampus alive, people dress up in all manner of frightening garb and roam Christmas markets throughout Bavaria and other Alpine communities in Italy, France, and Austria.  These parades of sorts are what the Germans call Krampuslauf.

Krampus may be the most frightening example of a larger European Christmas custom where a shady, dark character accompanies the generous and jolly Saint Nicholas, the former carrying out the requisite punishments from the naughty list and the latter checking off the children on the nice list.  In northern Germany, Knecht Ruprecht is a much more sanitized version of Krampus; he is human-like and doesn’t engage in kidnap or torture, just the giving of coal or sticks.  Dark Peter or Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands may be the most controversial of these traditions, due to its rather racist portrayal of the character in what Americans would call “blackface.”  It seems that these two personalities were merged when Saint Nicholas immigrated to the United States in the early 20th Century and changed his name to Santa Claus, and today there is little evidence of Santa’s dark side in America.  However, if Stephen Colbert has anything to say about it, Krampus will be immigrating to the US as soon as possible:—hallmark—krampus?xrs=share_copy

If you like Krampus, you can join this facebook group: Americans who Love Krampus.  Although something tells me that American culture will not be very welcoming to bringing the devil incarnate into its celebrations full of nativity scenes and getting 40% off at Macy’s.

Photo by Reuters

Photo by Reuters

Next time on creepy Christmas traditions: the Catalan Christmas log!  Merry Christmas from around the world!

On cooking and eating abroad

This will be part of an on-going series on cooking and eating abroad.  It is inspired by a story I wrote a long time ago about the surprising lessons you learn from living abroad, and for me, perhaps the most surprising thing is that I’ve found a love of cooking.  It is also inspired by the my current cooking situation, which is certainly the most challenging of all the places I’ve lived abroad so far.  But more on that in a moment.

Unless you have the money to eat out everyday, if you decide to go to college abroad you will more than likely have to cook.  As I describe in some detail in the book, many universities abroad are not residential the way American universities tend to be.  This means that students generally do not live on campus and rather live in private off-campus apartments.  This also means that you will not have access to breakfast, lunch and dinner at university cafeterias–usually this means only lunch will be available.  Therefore, cooking becomes an essential skill that you will probably have to develop at least a little bit that is easily avoided if you live on-campus at an American school.  On the one hand, this might be a challenge for some.  On the other hand, it is one of the best ways to save money while living and studying abroad.

It is somewhat paradoxical that I developed a love of cooking while living in apartments with decidedly more simplistic kitchens that what I would have had had I stayed in the US. But when you move abroad, and you continue to move from country to country, kitchen equipment is one of those things that definitely stays at home or is sold.  I’ve been moving from one partially furnished sublet to another, and therefore I’m always at the mercy of whatever kitchen equipment the main tenant has on hand.  Even in relatively rich and developed Western Europe, kitchens in budget-friendly apartments are usually lacking some of the things I would take for granted in an American kitchen.  I have only had microwaves on and off, usually only a few pots and pans, small mini-fridges, freezers have been hard to come by, forget about a dishwasher, and certainly things like blenders have been essentially non-existent.

This is perhaps the most minimalist kitchen I've had yet abroad.

This is perhaps the most minimalist kitchen I’ve had yet abroad.

Here in Spain, I have no oven, no wooden spoon, and no strainer!  It is a challenge just to make spaghetti!  Hell, I don’t even have a coffee pot.  Now, I’m not so poor that I probably won’t break down and go get a cheap plastic strainer or a large wooden spoon.  But for now, I’m stuck with what I have.  After living with kitchens with various amounts of equipment, I’ve come to learn a few tips and tricks for cooking in a minimalist kitchen.

First, budget European apartments will probably not have a microwave, and if they do, they may not have an oven.  I think the lack of microwaves stems from the fact that microwavable foods never really caught on in Europe.  Convenience grew out of post-war America, when our economy was booming while Europe’s was struggling in the aftermath of the war. So if you’re used to popping in a frozen burrito for dinner or lunch, forget it.  Even if you have a microwave, you probably won’t find a lot of ready-made meals (I mention this because my boyfriend said yesterday he had never seen a ready-made burrito when I pulled one of the freezer at a Walgreens-type store, myself amazed).  Everything else you use a microwave for can be done on the stove top.  The only real reason one really needs a microwave is for reheating leftovers in my opinion, which is also an usual practice in Europe, at least in my experience.  Europeans tend not to make too much food with the purpose of saving the rest for later.  I think this also stems from a long history of appreciating fresh food, which has only recently come back into style in the US.  Furthermore, many Europeans eat a “cold” meal in the evening, which typically amounts to veggies, cold cuts, bread, spreads, and cheese.  This sort of meal doesn’t require reheating.  But if you’re like me, there are certain American habits that will always stick with you, and I’m still a very big fan of making huge meals in the evening and reheating it later.

If you don’t have a microwave, you can still reheat last night’s dish with some creativity.  If you have an oven, you can set the heat to medium, put the food in a baking dish, and slowly heat it, checking on the food often.  You can also put a pan in the oven as long as you cover the handle with aluminum foil.  However, I prefer to reheat dishes directly on the stove.  A rice dish or a stir fry goes back into the pan it was cooked in originally, usually with a little olive oil to make sure it doesn’t stick or burn, and I stir the dish over heat until it seems like it is heated through.  This takes more time than a microwave, but it works as long as you pay attention.  This also works well with pasta and soups.

The recipe for this soup called for an immersion blender, which I certainly did not have.  So I just used a wooden mallet to smash up the beans as much as possible.

Black bean soup with Orange Jalapeño Salsa, made in Jerusalem. The recipe for this soup called for an immersion blender, which I certainly did not have. So I just used a wooden mallet to smash up the beans as much as possible.

If you’re lacking in pots and pans, you should become very good at one-pot meals.  One of my favorite one-pot meals, which is also extremely cheap and healthy, is Broccoli Pasta.  I’ve made this a bunch of times now and every time I do something a little different…add onions, or different Italian spices, add cauliflower.  Soup or chili is another fantastic one-pot meal that essentially only requires a knife, a pot, and a cutting board.  Also, chili for me reminds me of home and it is virtually impossible to screw it up, even if you’ve never cooked before.  If you can’t find a certain ingredient in almost any chili recipe, you can leave it out  and it won’t completely compromise the dish.  You can also easily add other ingredients as you see fit.  I’ll talk more about dealing with European versus American recipes with their different measuring schemes in a later post, but if your kitchen doesn’t have a set of measuring spoons, it is not that difficult, with some practice, to learn to eyeball-it.

Other recipes to keep your arsenal besides simple pasta dishes and soups are sandwiches and stir-fries.  Both require only a few ingredients and only one or no pans.  I’ll leave the issue of finding familiar ingredients to another post, but I’ll just briefly mention here that some ingredients you take for granted as easy to find and cheap may be neither in a foreign country.  Americans consistently complain about the lack of peanut butter abroad.  My general complaint is usually the lack of tortillas, or the prohibitive cost of such a simple ingredient.  Suffice it to say that with any recipe you use, you may have to get creative about substituting ingredients.  You’ll find cheddar cheese in Europe, but it is usually more expensive here than in America, so you could substitute any of the other absolutely amazing European cheeses in the grilled cheese recipe I linked to above.

Finally, another strategy for cooking in a minimalist kitchen is to consider recipes and meals that require no cooking whatsoever.  I’m thinking here of salad primarily but you could also try some of the thousands of raw recipes that have been exploding all over the internet as of late.  This may be a bit too experimental for some, and I have to admit that I’m not exactly a raw-foodie, but there are quite a few really tasty and cheap raw recipes.  This is my favorite raw recipe, and my favorite salad that I make fairly consistently.  You’ll notice that the salad recipe calls for a food processor, which I’ve only had while living in Jerusalem, where my roommate was a serious cook so she happened to have all kinds of fun equipment to play with.  I’d love to have a food processor one day, but I’ve learned through experimentation that generally you can get by without one by simply chopping the ingredients as finely as possible, except when the point is to make a very smooth paste.

I hope some of these recipes and tips will help you deal with an unusually minimal or small kitchen when you first move abroad.  My advice to find a few good recipes online that include a relatively short list of ingredients, contain common ingredients you can find easily abroad, and can be made easily without any fancy equipment.  As you ease into your life abroad, especially if you find an apartment you’ll be living in for the duration of your

international program, you can probably invest in some select kitchen equipment to make your life a little easier, and of course you will want to learn about the local cuisine.  You may even want to learn how to make some of the local staples.  But learning to get a long in the kitchen, especially a minimalist one, even if you don’t fall in love with cooking, is a life-long skill.  It is just one of the many unusual skills you develop when spending a considerable time abroad.

Have any tips or recipes for making cheap, healthy, and simple meals that require little skill or few pieces of kitchen equipment?  I’d love to hear about them!  Or have you spent time abroad and have any cooking tips to share that helped you get along?  Share those too.

I made these when I was living Berlin.  Cupcakes are difficult to make without measuring cups, but these were my best batch.

I made these when I was living Berlin. Cupcakes are difficult to make without measuring cups, but these were my best batch.

All Things that Go Around, Come Around

The first time I came to Europe, I was on tour with my college’s choir to Spain.  It is tradition for the Knox College choir to go to Spain once every four years and put on performances all over the Catalonia region.  At that time, I truly thought I may never come back to Barcelona, to Spain or maybe I would never see the European continent again.  I feel very lucky that almost exactly 10 years later, I now call Barcelona home (temporarily).
My attitude back then reflects a more general American attitude towards travel:  it is difficult, it is expensive, it takes too much time, and once you do it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  But travel and expat life are only these things because we say they are, not because they MUST be that way.  If I could tell my 2003-self in Barcelona that by 2013, I will have studied and lived in Germany, Israel and Hungary and traveled all over Europe, I probably would have either laughed or asked my future self how I came into so much money.  Travel doesn’t have to be nearly as expensive as most Americans assume, especially if you’re willing to give up on some luxuries.  (This post on traveling for 12 consecutive years puts this into perspective).  And living abroad is probably less expensive than living in the US, especially if you’re not paying taxes and if you don’t have a car.  Truth be told, all it takes is the will.  I found the will in 2007 to go abroad and I haven’t looked back.

At the same time, however, I’ve become a bit spoiled.  When I first moved abroad, after doing lots of research, I was prepared to live cheaply and to sacrifice some of the things I had taken for granted in the US.  I was armed with my backpacker’s pack and came with the attitude that I really need is a roof over my head and an internet connection.  Over time, I moved to Berlin and my choice of apartments got more and more expensive and with more and more perks.  I got spoiled with the low Berlin rent and the luxuries I could afford with my rather generous PhD fellowship and the low cost of living.

Moving to Spain has reminded me what it is like to be that “fresh off the boat” international student with little to no money, and having to sacrifice a bit on the creature comforts.  My apartment in Barcelona is a mere 25 square meters (270 square feet).  It has no stove, which I’ve come to realize is rather common in Spain.  There is one pot and one pan provided in the kitchen.  The hot water runs out after 10 minutes in the shower.  It is located in a popular party district which means I can hear just about every motorcycle and passerby that travels down the narrow street.  There is an internet connection but it has only really worked one day out of the two weeks I’ve been here, and my Spanish is not good enough to ask the maintenance man of the building if he can fix the WiFi repeater.  These are all somewhat reminiscent of my first days in Germany, trying to find a hotel where I was supposed to meet with fellow students with my backpack and heavy suitcase and doing my best to piece together a sentence in German from my college courses several years previously.  Waiting for weeks for someone to install internet and not understanding the bureaucracy involved.  Coming home to a very minimalist apartment and bribing one of the few locals with a car to take me to Ikea.  Constantly feeling a little silly and stupid and even infantile because of the inability to communicate and not understanding basic daily routines.  Yesterday I wondered around a very open public square for an embarrassing amount of time, my hands full of bags of trash and recycling, first trying to locate the public trash bins and second to try and distinguish based on my poor Spanish and non-existent Catalan what bin was for what.

This is what it is like the first few days and even weeks of studying abroad.  The learning curve for the most basic routines is steep.  The waiting time for things you normally take for granted is long.  The creature comforts at first are few and far between.  Doubt creeps in and you ask yourself, “why the heck am I here again?”

ImageThe answer to that question is not always immediately clear.  All I know is that I remember standing on the main platform of Park Guell in 2003 looking out over the amazing and completely strange architecture of Gaudi as it faded into the waters of the Mediterranean and thinking I may never see this sight again.  Returning to that spot again after so many years and with such a different perspective on myself and my life has been certainly worth the small apartments, the lack of kitchen stoves, and the strange looks from locals as I try to figure out how to recycle plastic bottles.