Filling even basic food needs in the first few weeks abroad can be tricky, especially if you don’t speak the local language. International hotels normally offer international cuisine, and many American chain restaurants have made their way abroad. If your destination is more rural, familiarize yourself with the most common food vocabulary ahead of time. Know how your favorite ingredients are spelled in the local alphabet, so you can recognize the labels in the shops, or print out pictures to show what you need.
Not every country is as abundant as the USA when it comes to special dietary requirements. If you have a gluten intolerance, for instance, do some research to see which products are easily available in your host country. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, find local practitioners in food forums who can help you set up and tell you where the best farmers markets are.
Word of caution: not every country has the same hygiene standards. Consider shops that display their wares in open containers: I have seen plenty of children who take those as an invitation to touch or sneeze on.
Let climate and cultural norms determine what you wear. Your first faux-pas may be forgiven because you are a foreigner, but I advise against knowingly breaking the unwritten rules. As an expat, you are no longer only representing yourself, you are an ambassador for your country. For example, if Italian church-goers expect your knees and shoulders to be covered, cover them. If your colleagues are uncomfortable with “casual Friday”, don’t try to force it.
Having said that, if you have old embarrassing but comfortable work-out clothes or college sweaters you love, pack them. Even if you’re moving to a hot country, because a) it’s always sweater-weather once in a while, and b) the temperature change from outside sticky-hotness to inside frigid air-conditioning is hard on the immune system. Layers are your friend!
Ladies, don’t be dismayed if European dress sizes sound way bigger, or if finding shoes above an American size 8 is tricky in Singapore. It’s not personal, it’s cultural.
You’re probably most worried about the big-ticket item: the actual house. What neighborhood is it in, how about the school district, are there enough bed and bathrooms. What to do with the house you’re in now? Working with a knowledgeable real estate agent helps alleviate many of those concerns.
The challenge is turning a house into your home. What always helped me was putting up my pictures, using my bed linen, and decorating with choice knick-knacks and pillowcases that went with me everywhere.
If you have a favorite holiday decoration, bring it. Even if the country you’re moving to doesn’t celebrate that holiday. You may want to keep the tradition alive for your kids, and yourself. In other words, consider carefully what you need, and carry anything that is vital for your first month abroad instead of shipping it.
Your living space at your destination may be significantly smaller than what you’re used to. This is a wonderful opportunity to go zen and de-clutter! New technologies allow you to store countless mementos in tiny spaces to make them portable: If your important family photos aren’t digital yet, scan them. If your music is trapped on CDs, get an iPod to upload them. If you love books, now is a good time to embrace electronic readers. As much as I love printed books, being able to carry 3,000 of them on an iPad in my purse without breaking a sweat or having to pay extra at the airline is worth it.
On a bodily-functions-adjacent note: toilets are different around the world. Prepare to squat, hover, and talk to WCs in China, India, and high-tech Japan. For a while, many German companies favored recycled toilet paper that was extremely rough, but thankfully advances have been made into greater softness to the