One of the axioms of travel, particularly extended travel, is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But if you’re a book lover living abroad, reading what the locals do might be impossible due to a language barrier.
Sure, you probably brought a few books with you, airline weight limits notwithstanding, but those will only last so long. At some point you’ll need to get more books. And while reading is the best way to learn a language, you might not have the language skills to read entire books in your temporary or adopted home’s native tongue yet. Even if you do, isn’t it more relaxing (i.e., easier) to read in your first language? Of course it is. So here are some guidelines on how to live in a foreign country and be able to tell your friends, “Veni, vidi, legi.” I came, I saw, I read.
Problem One: Getting Your Hands On Some Books
Libraries are often overlooked as resources, especially when you’re in a foreign country. But they’re frequently your best bet for finding foreign-language books. Most library catalogs will even let you search for and filter books by language. And don’t forget about using ILL to gain access to even more foreign-language books!
Don’t have or can’t get a library card? Unless the library is private, chances are excellent you can still walk in and read the books on-site for free without checking them out. Going to the library for a few hours and reading is a great way to fill up a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Another obvious resource for books are bookstores, although success at finding foreign language books in bookstores can be hit or miss. In large, metropolitan cities, you can likely find whole bookstores dedicated to your language. But if you’re not lucky enough to live in such areas, finding books in your preferred language can be more of a challenge. Some rules of thumb:
- Keep an eye out for familiar chain stores: Tower Records is known stock tons of English books in their overseas locations (or at least they used to).
- Google it! Try “[Your language] bookstores [your city],” or hit up Reddit. Sometimes even small cities have a large and organized community of foreign language speakers with their own foreign language bookstores, although they may be tucked away in hard-to-find locations.
- Also try other places people hang out and buy things: my German grandparents bought German novels, magazines, and movies at the deli they frequented.
If you strike out on bookstores dedicated to your language, you can still try regular bookstores, the bigger the better. The foreign language books will likely all be grouped together on their own shelf, in the most out-of-the-way place possible. Search in the basement, the back corners of the top floor, near the bathrooms, or stuck between retail items in the café. And if you strike out, hey–you still got to go to a bookstore, right?
What types of books are you going to see in the foreign language sections of brick-and-mortar bookstores? It varies, of course, but generally there are classics (I have a theory that you can find a book by Agatha Christie for sale in every country on the planet), best sellers of the Danielle Steel and Stephen King variety, and of course nonfiction books about the country and/or city you’re in.
Could you get all of these books in your home country, probably for less money? Yes. That’s not the point. The point is, mama needs some new words to lay her eyes on before she dies of boredom. And there’s another plus point to visiting bookstores, too: they’re great places to meet other foreign nationals living in your area, ones who love books just as much as you do! Many bookstores with large or dedicated foreign language sections offer language clubs (great if you moved to the country to learn its language), foreign bookclubs, and serve as a general social hub for literary-minded expats. Shakespeare & Co. is a classic example of this.
Finally, don’t forget about websites like Book Depository or Amazon.whatevercountryyourelivingin, although you may be prevented from using these sites if they don’t ship to your location, you don’t have a local credit card, or if you don’t have an address where you can pick up mail.
This was probably your first thought when you considered ways to buy foreign-language books, and if you have an ereader–or even a phone–ebooks will make your life easier. You can load a ton of books on it before you leave, your friends and family back home can send or loan books without paying for pesky shipping, and you can buy books newly published in your home country.
…Or can you? Not if the book isn’t licensed in your current location, you can’t, no. There are VPN–virtual private network–apps like Surfeasy that claim to hide your location and make it look like your device is somewhere else. In theory this will allow you to buy books licensed in that location. But personally this didn’t work for me. Maybe I was doing something wrong, but somehow they still knew where I was, even though the VPN showed my location as the US. VERY FRUSTRATING. YMMV, of course.
Problem Two: Getting Your Book Loot Home
You managed to get your hands on some books, thank heaven, but now it’s time to head back home and it’s clear all your books will not fit in your luggage. What’s a bibliophile to do?
First, consider giving all but your favorites away. I know this is painful, because you probably spent a lot of money on those books, and whether or not they were the best books you ever read, they were tiny islands representing home in a vast sea of the strange and unfamiliar. But really, your best option is to give them away. If by some miracle you know of a used bookstore that buys foreign language books, awesome. If not, why not donate them to the library or hand them off to your fellow expats? Leave them in a hotel lobby or drop them in various locations throughout the city. Book Easter egg hunt!
Obviously, you’re not going to want to throw every book away–I think we all know that–so you’ll have mail the rest home. Yes, mail, not stuff them in your luggage. Do you want to be lugging a 60 pound carry-on on an international flight? Dragging it through the subway? Up stairs and escalators? Trying to squeeze it between people on the train? No, you don’t. Trust me on this. Shipping books home may be expensive–that’s why you’re giving most of them away–but it’s the most practical solution.
You should also spare a thought for the ebooks you purchased while abroad. Will you be able to read them in a different country? If you purchased them from a website based in your home, yes. If you purchased them from a local website, probably not. Be prepared to re-purchase your favorite ebooks when you return.
With these simple tips, you can enjoy the comfort of your favorite activity, even when you’re way outside your comfort zone in a foreign country. Now remember to put the books down once in a while, go outside, and post all the Instagram shots!