free me from my free time
November 26, 2008 9:48 AM   Subscribe

How should I use my copious amounts of free time while being poor in a country where nobody understands me?

Background: I am working in a foreign country. I get paid but only enough to get by. I am not legally allowed to get another job. The nature of my work means that I work two or three full days a week but have the other days free. I am here with my partner who has the same type of job.

I want to go out (or stay in) and do fun things but, with my almost non-existent budget, it is difficult to find activities in my price range. I feel that on my free days, I end up sitting and refreshing metafilter and other webpages instead of actually doing anything.

I have investigated the expat community but most of them are into the bar and club scene which I really can't afford. I don't know the language well enough to communicate effectively (ie: not sounding like a five-year-old) with citizens of the country (and, considering the short period of time that I'll be here, am unlikely to learn a sufficient amount). My partner and I go out to explore the city but my partner has different days off (and , of course, I don't want to rely on my partner for all of my entertainment).

So, I feel totally lame because I am in this foreign country where I should be running around and having a good time but, instead, am inside refreshing the internet and moping. I'm sure there's culture shock going on here but I feel like if I had things to do to keep myself busy I'd be happier and more at ease.

Things that I already do: exercise 45 minutes a day, cook, force myself to get out of bed and walk down random streets and look at things.

Anon because I feel like a jackass being in a cool foreign country and being incapable of enjoying myself.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Get a book tourists would use to find attractions, then go through the list. Oh, and biking is a wonderful way to explore a country. Of course, there are plenty of things to do not related to the country you are in, but since you say you are there a short period of time, you might want to experience the country as much as possible.
posted by Brennus at 9:55 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

You gotta make an attempt to learn the language better, it'll not only help you get by there much easier but it's the respectful thing to do. Who cares if you sound like a five year old, the people will appreciate the effort, sounding like a five year old is better than sounding like an adult who refuses to learn their language.
posted by BrnP84 at 9:57 AM on November 26, 2008 [6 favorites]

Find a regular pick-up soccer game somewhere?
posted by mikepop at 9:57 AM on November 26, 2008

Seconding learning the language. Even minimal fluency in a second language is never a waste of time, and further, it will give you something to do. Can you have the mod let us know what part of the world you are in?
posted by nax at 10:00 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you play an instrument?
Get a cheap ukulele on any other simple stringed instrument that you can find locally. There are lots of free online resources for tuning, lessons, fingering charts and chords to popular songs. You don't have to be an expert at it to enjoy yourself (type "ukulele" into youtube for evidence)
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:07 AM on November 26, 2008

It would help if we knew where you were, but one idea is to start a photo blog. You'll have something to do during your aimless wandering. Another idea: many museums have free days once a week or once a month. Surely there are used bookstores, or libraries, where one can find cheap reads, even in English, and if you read in a park/cafe/other public place, someone who also speaks English may strike up a conversation.
posted by desjardins at 10:09 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're into cooking, you might try exploring eGullet, a pretty large forum for food geeks. They have region-specific forums on there, and expat meetups tend to be focused more on dining rather than boozing it up in a bar. While some of the restaurant meets might be out of your price range, people will also host get-togethers in their homes. At such functions you're usually expected to bring a bottle of wine to share, or a dish of some sort, but even then it's still way more affordable than going out.

Also: have you considered posting a metafilter meet-up?
posted by shiu mai baby at 10:13 AM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Learn the language! Look for workbooks or CDs that can help- plus, they'll be cheap.
I had abundant free time when I was in Peace Corps, and in addition to working on my language skills, here's what I did:

read books
wrote letters
listened to music
read more books
smoked cigarettes (not recommended)
went for walks
went for runs
helped teach English at a local school
drank coffee
sewed things
rode my horse (probably not an option for you)

But what really helped was learning the language...I lived in a rural area, so there wasn't much entertainment besides being invited over people's houses. Once I learned enough to not be shy, I was a lot less bored.
posted by emd3737 at 10:14 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Make a map. From scratch, with pencil and paper. Walk everywhere, note down the cool things, etc etc. A personal map journal of a sort.
posted by dhruva at 10:15 AM on November 26, 2008 [7 favorites]

If your visa status/local labor law enforcement allow it, try to find a part-time job. Even if it's just menial labor of some sort, you'll be interacting with local people, learning the language, and making a little extra spending money on top of it.
posted by contraption at 10:24 AM on November 26, 2008

(The expat community you mentioned might be able to help with the job hunt.)
posted by contraption at 10:28 AM on November 26, 2008

About the "sounding like a 5-year old" – it's something that unfortunately, you just need to work through. I've found that hanging out with other foreigners, where you don't have a common language forces you to use your new language. And because everyone is learning it, there is less stress about feeling stupid. So, a language class - particularly a free or low-cost one offered/subsidized by the government is great for meeting other foreigners. Once you build up enough skills talking to the foreigners, you'll find it easier to chat with the natives.
posted by kamelhoecker at 10:31 AM on November 26, 2008

Learn the language.
posted by fire&wings at 10:42 AM on November 26, 2008

Is volunteering a possibility? I can see that the language barrier might be a challenge, but if you could find an international (read: has some English speaking folks) organization, or an opportunity that wouldn't require much communication, that could be ideal.

I just moved to a new city and don't know many people other than my coworkers and roommates, and volunteering has always worked out well because it's free and it gets me out of the house and doing something productive, and helps structure the day.
posted by puffin at 10:45 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Find noticeboards in places frequented by older students and put up a notice advertising "English conversation", with a contact email address so you can puzzle out written responses. Where I live I see quite a few fliers like that offering sessions in other languages, and I think the people putting them up are often in your situation. You don't even have to do it for money if that would imperil your immigration status - just swap for a session in the local language.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:47 AM on November 26, 2008

Oh and about the language. My policy is that the responsibility for understanding you falls on the people you are talking to. Even if you speak, say, broken spanish, a fluent spanish speaker will understand what you are trying to say and mentally fill the gaps.
posted by dhruva at 10:47 AM on November 26, 2008

Read Eat, Pray, Love.
posted by watercarrier at 10:51 AM on November 26, 2008

Is volunteering a possibility?

This is what I going to suggest. What about helping out with English classes at a local school? Helping teach classes or build a new porch at an orphanage? Help a local NGO write a grant proposal for their work with young mothers?

At least one person in the local expat community will know of a place locally that could use the help, if you are willing to ask around and make some visits before committing.

And you can double- or triple-dip this way: in addition to the work of volunteering, you will improve your language skills, and you might be able to make friends and connections of the people already working there.
posted by Forktine at 10:53 AM on November 26, 2008

Is there an embassy for your country? I bet you could find something really cool to do there and earn some extra money.
posted by parmanparman at 11:02 AM on November 26, 2008

If you are there on a business visa, you can actually get as many jobs as you want, for it's duration, if you are there on a work visa it is tied to your job. However, if you can find another job who would be willing to sponsor a new visa then you can remedy this situation.
posted by BobbyDigital at 11:25 AM on November 26, 2008

take up sketching. Get some paper, a pencil, plunk yourself down in the town square and draw what you see. Even if you've never drawn before, you can look up techniques and stuff on the internet, and you will probably meet people who are interested in art.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:27 AM on November 26, 2008

Sell things on eBay.
Write a blog (maybe about that country). Put ads on the blog.
Take online free courses.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:29 AM on November 26, 2008

I think this question can't be answered without at least telling us what country/city you're in.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:38 AM on November 26, 2008

You mention you cook. Learning local dishes/recipes is a great way of engaging the country's culture. Starting from going to the market to get the groceries, learning new words for food ingredients, maybe even inviting local acquaintances to some sort of potluck....
posted by theKik at 11:48 AM on November 26, 2008

I've lived and worked in a number of foreign countries, some of them very not safe, so I definitely felt what you're feeling right now, sometimes it almost felt as if I was feeling it by force - sure I was at my nice apartment or next to the pool on a sunny day, but all I was doing was refreshing Metafilter some days.

So first off, make sure you're safe. My methods for this were to A) carry only a copy of my passport when I left the house, B) carry as little cash as possible at any given time, C) try not to stand out or make a showy scene (with cameras, ipods, whatever), and D) get to know the locals and make friends with them (with discretion - I've been in a situation where I thought I was being befriended and the next minute I was being mugged).

Do you work with any locals who might be willing to spend a few hours of their day off showing you their favorite parts of the area you are in? Having someone who you already know who can do that is clutch, plus its a fast forward to learning the language better. I found that what helps me is carrying a notebook. The first phrases I try to learn in any language are "How do you say?" and "What is this?" then I can just start pointing at things and writing down what they're teaching me. After that its just repetition repetition repetition. I entertained my guide and 3 porters on Kilimanjaro for a week straight trying to learn Swahili better - it turned into a game for them, they'd start gambling with each other over what they thought I could or couldn't remember.

Get some good books that you'd enjoy reading, and a couple that you know you should read even if you're not sure you'll enjoy them. Perhaps solicit them as part of a care package from back home? I know books were expensive in a lot of the places I traveled to.

Also, if you don't have a digital camera, get one. Once you have one, go nuts. Big up-front investment there, but its free from then on out, you can take endless photos of everything. Get a flickr account, share with friends. Blog about the photos you're taking, things your seeing, people you're meeting, food you're eating, work you're doing, insects you're avoiding, etc. etc. etc.. I wrote about everything write down to the hallucinations my malaria meds would give me.

Double your excercise routine to 2x a day (just do it safely). Think of what great shape you'll be in when you return.

Is local travel to surrounding countries at all an option? This is something I did a lot of and it was extremely rewarding. At least where I traveled, this could be done very cheap as well.

Most of all, don't feel like a jackass. Its completely normal, almost anyone in your shoes would feel this way (I know I did on multiple occasions). Having simply EVERYTHING be new and different and weird is an experience that isn't easy, but with a little gumption to push through that phase, you can get to a place where its really neat to just enjoy living there while you can.

Believe me, very soon you'll be back home wondering how it went so fast. So hurry up!
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:52 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you go out social dancing? It doesn't require a lot of talking, even at the lessons (you can probably pick up most of it from watching). It would be a good way to get a taste of the local culture, do something you might not normally do, and hopefully meet some new people to hang out with and who will show you the town.

I don't know where you are, but maybe there are some dances that are common to your city/country? Here in Boston (USA), there's opportunities for swing dancing, contra dancing, salsa, tango, other latin dances, ballroom... There are probably many I'm missing. Some of these are cheap or free (and aren't always linked to a bar or other place where you'd need to buy a drink). Even if there is a charge, you can often get in free in exchange for volunteering to help run the dance for an hour or two, if you ask ahead of time and they have a need.

And the idea is that you change partners every song or two, so you don't have to go with a partner. (even if you did, you wouldn't dance with them too much over the course of the night!)
posted by inatizzy at 12:01 PM on November 26, 2008

Ever wanted to be good at drawing or watercoloring? I know a few people who learned by just spending an hour or so a day sketching local buildings or landscapes. The hard part is accepting how bad you are in the beginning, but most of it is really just practice. And besides paying for the paper and pen or paints, it's basically free. Plus, it might be a non-language-dependent way to meet people and make friends.
posted by salvia at 12:36 PM on November 26, 2008

Become a street performer - I busked my way across Europe with my guitar and it was a pretty fun, non-typical way to see that part of the world.
posted by davey_darling at 12:54 PM on November 26, 2008

Learn online poker and beat the high stakes. This could take a few or even several years before actually earning you some money, but it will 100 % guaranteed eat up all of your free time.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:01 PM on November 26, 2008

Do research for a book. Start interviewing people (anyone and everyone you meet) right away, even with poor language skills. It will give you a goal for learning the language.

Start at the beginning: how did their families settle in the area? What were the hardest times they personally remember, and how did they get through them? What were the best times?

Are there any stories in their family? How did they (or their parents) meet their loved one? Are there any mysteries or unresolved situations?

What is their one burning passion, something they really want to do with their life?

Since you're interested in seeing the country, see if you can find out if there's a connection between any of these stories and someplace you can visit. Find out the special significance of a location, either for them personally or as part of their country's history, that most foreigners would never find out about. See if you can get them to guide you there.

When you visit these places, take pictures, or better yet sketch them.

Your book has no topic when you begin. Let these stories suggest its shape.
posted by Araucaria at 3:00 PM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

As puffin and forktine have suggested, try and find some volunteering opportunities - gives you the opportunity of meeting people and getting to know the local culture.

Also nthing the "learn the language" thing. Even if you're only there for a short time, it is (a) respectful, and (b) you never know when it might come in useful (and learning any language makes it easier to learn another language in the future). It will make you more able to enjoy your free time, even if it's just engaging with a shop assistant, or sitting in a park talking to a stranger. It will make all your interactions with the locals richer, and give you a better travel experience. Sounding like a 5-year old is a good start - don't discount that - it's all about communication, not about using the right words or having correct grammar - making the effort goes a long way to establishing relationships. You'll be surprised at how quickly you pick things up.

Have you considered putting a note up in a local shop offering conversation in English in exchange for conversation? i.e. you meet for coffee for 2 hours, spend 1 hour speaking English and 1 hour speaking . Helps you learn the language in a safe setting, helps someone else to learn English, gets you out of the house, and enables you to meet local people in a social setting (in my experience, this can lead to party invitations and the like - developing a non-expat social life).

Go native. Good luck!

posted by finding.perdita at 5:10 PM on November 26, 2008

Redundant, yeah, but I'll say it anyway. Language partner. Wherever you are there's someone that wants to practice conversation with a natural English speaker. And they can help you with your local language as well. (Split the time half and half where you only speak one language for half the time.)

And it's a great way to meet people, who incidentally you shouldn't have a miserable time communicating with, since they'll speak some English.

Or if you are really set against learning the local lingo (but please do learn it. Really. Or rethink why you're there.) you can pick up some money being an English tutor to advanced English students. Get paid in cash and no one will care, you won't put your visa in danger.
posted by Ookseer at 5:45 PM on November 26, 2008

i second getting the blog!!
-you already spend time online, itll be a good extra hobby. even if you do all the other suggestions too this will still occupy usefully downtime
-itll motivate you to analyze and investigate the country you live in on a deeper level, which will feel beneficial now and later after you've moved back.
-connect with other expat bloggers. either in other countries to compare experiences, connect with new ones in your own, or perhaps see the other side of the the partier expats you've decided not to spend time with.
-you'll make time to do all these other activities because you'll seek out more interesting things to post about.
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:21 PM on November 26, 2008

If you like animals, you could find out if there's a shelter/rescue group that you could volunteer for (you might need a local friend along to just set it up with them initially), as perhaps a dog walker or something.

I had a problem finding affordable English language books where I am, and so I got a Kindle which has been a huge relief (I'm a reading addict). If you want to know anything about that, memail or email me, and I can give you a lot of info.

Of course, there are always the hobbies one wants to get to but never seems to manage to under ordinary circumstances... all kinds of crafts, origami, paper models, weaving... many cheap options if that sort of thing seems fun. An old fashioned crazy quilt could be cool, if that kind of handwork wouldn't make you crazy (this is something I'd love to do, but would never finish)... going out to find remainders of different fabric, plotting out your pattern...

Maybe you could combine some of the earlier suggestions and do a photo blog/language learning combo thing... go out and make photos of the nouns... even some of the verbs you want to learn. That could also be kind of like a treasure hunt for some words. hey! I ought to do this. dang.

Have fun, whatever you decide to do!
posted by taz at 3:46 AM on November 27, 2008

« Older I'm all doom and gloom   |   Safe emailing of confidential files? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.