Category Archives: Personal Identity and Sense of Self.

Relocation & Expat Resources – Information, Inspiration, How-To Guides and Tools for Trailing Spouses, Accompanying Partners, and Families in Transition.

Expat Success - Make your mistakes quickly. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, international assignment, expat family, expatriate

The Secret to Expat Success… And Why.

Expat Success - Make your mistakes quickly. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, international assignment, expat family, expatriate

 

 

I knew it. Finally, the insanity that is my expat life – and most of the website – has been vindicated, and it’s all thanks to Ellen Mahoney over at Sea Change Mentoring. She introduced me to the groundbreaking advice given by a tech start-up entrepreneur, as a recipe for global success and world domination…

 

Make your mistakes quickly

 

As a person whose family motto is “Disaster soon follows”, I have long been a proponent of this approach, with no idea that I was such thought leader. I had just assumed I was incompetent and (in a rare moment of self-acceptance) decided not to fight it. It’s a phrase that could be part of every expat mission statement, and should probably replace a lot of the well intentioned advice given in the all-too-brief briefing sessions; “learn the language”, “ get out and make friends” and my personal favorite “ join a gym”… Hmmm. Instead, the secret to expat success is familiar and effortlessly achievable – the global gaffe. And here’s why.

 

1. It reminds us that we will make mistakes.

In the assignment planning stage, it’s important to focus on the positive, but in doing so we often forget that expat life is still life. Mistakes happen, and when you are in an environment with unfamiliar language, culture, rules and expectations, they happen a lot. Making your mistakes quickly reminds us to expect – and even plan – for those mistakes. Whether that means working with a destination service provider or an expat coach, doing your own exhaustive research or simply being patient with yourself while you transition (or all of the above), it’s vital to acknowledge that perfection is impossible, and good enough is, well, good enough.

 

2. We focus on ‘right’ as a victory, rather than ‘wrong’ as a failure.

I once did a stint as a sales consultant and one of the job requirements was calling customers to set appointments. It was (and no doubt, still is) a miserable task –  you knew that your cheerful introduction could be greeted with anything from interest, to polite refusal, to a torrent of abuse and a dial tone. Thankfully, I was armed with a secret weapon; the company set targets for calls made, and let the actual results take care of themselves. So every call made was a relief – one less to do, one step closer to reaching the goal. Acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable (and in the early days, we are more likely to get it wrong than get it right) is incredibly freeing. It gives us permission to focus on the actions and let the outcomes take care of themselves. It prepares us for failure, and when things do go right, we get to stop, acknowledge it for the triumph that it is, and celebrate.

 

 3. It gets you out there.

Having taken away the fear of failure, there’s nothing like the element of competition to spur us on. Experienced expats (i.e. those who have been comprehensive in their cock-ups) can entertain for hours with hilarious stories of endless mishaps, miscommunications or general disasters; just visit the bar at any FIGT conference and listen for the raucous laughter if you don’t believe me. It’s the expat version of the Olympic Decathlon, with extra points for speed, style and variety. All that’s missing is the opening ceremony, the national uniforms and the lycra. But don’t let us stop you…

 

4. It helps you to bond.

If there’s one thing that unites the expat world, it’s our inability to watch people struggle without feeling some serious empathy. It’s one of the unwritten laws of expat life; we’re all in this together, and in my mind, there is a special place in Hell for expats who don’t help each other. Putting yourself out there and making mistakes publicly transports us all back to our early days and disasters, and gives us something in common that transcends language, culture or belief. It reminds us that we are human, and we love you for it.

 

5. It makes you brave.

Fear of failure is crippling, and stops us doing so many things that would take ordinary life and make it extraordinary. By contrast, being forced into situations where mistakes are inevitable and accepting them as a mere part of life’s journey gives us the motivation to be creative, to take risks and to try new things constantly. We dream big, and even if it doesn’t work out perfectly, we don’t go home. We learn that it hasn’t killed us, and we are really are stronger.

 

So there you have it – official permission to create chaos and have fun doing it. Providing of course, you follow our lead and share all your finer moments. Now we just need merit badges and an awards ceremony…

Expat Parenting – The International Peace Treaty..

expat parenting - how it takes more than one village to raise a CCK / TCK. Defining Moves, information, inspiration and resources for the global trailing spouse, accompanying partner, international assignment transferee..  When I originally wrote this post, I had yet to hit the expat parenting minefield that is the adolescent CCK (Cross Culture Kid). I now know firsthand the dubious pleasure of putting a career on hold to focus on transplanting children, only to be calmly told that I have “ruined” their lives.. 

Thus comes the realization that parenting is a truly thankless task, and it’s only the support of fellow sufferers that keep one from running screaming to the nearest liquor store. It’s why expat parents become experts at nurturing a large group of people who will provide support, comfort, alcohol and surveillance services through our child’s teenage years, people who, regardless of location, language, culture or religion, follow the same, previously unwritten code. For those of you who we rely on for our daily dose of sanity, here it is..

  1. Thou shalt not post pictures of home-made birthday cake excellence on Facebook, so that my children spot them and spend the next ten years bringing up my own birthday cake inadequacies.
  2. Thou shalt not point out that your child is walking and talking while mine has spent the last three hours with his hands down his trousers.
  3. When spying my child indulging in antisocial activities in public, thou shalt utter the words “her mother will be very cross when she finds out about that”; implicitly underlining that a) I am the all seeing, attentive parent, and b) I have high behavioral standards. It is irrelevant whether you believe this or not, and extra credit is given for saying it when other parents are present.
  4. When spying my child inappropriately dressed, thou shalt sing out in a helpful tone “Would you like me to call your mother to drop off your sweater / trousers / anything that doesn’t look like a Britney Spears outfit?”, thus communicating to the child that a) she’s busted; b) you are willing to go there; and c) there are eyes everywhere. Extra credit is given for not telling me about inappropriate attire unless there is a repeat occurrence.
  5. When my teenage child makes an inappropriate remark, thou shalt enter into a lengthy and awkward story about your own teenage angst, preferably with reference to kissing. The mental picture of adults ever indulging in such behavior is enough to silence any outburst, and serves as a cruel and unusual punishment which rarely has to be repeated.
  6. When my child comes looking for sympathy about my latest parenting gaffe, thou shalt listen kindly and then retell the story about how aforementioned child once had diarrhea next to the deli counter in a crowded supermarket, and until life roles are reversed, I still have the moral high ground.
  7. When my child comes looking for support in opposition to the latest parenting policy, thou shalt listen sympathetically, nod furiously, make noises of agreement, and then reiterate policy without the benefit of parent type shrieking. Extra credit is given if child thanks you for being so reasonable and fails to notice that it is the same policy.
  8. When my child leaves home, thou shalt not mention how many times I uttered the words “I can’t wait for them to leave home” and instead hand over tissues and gin to drown my sorrows.
  9. Should my child get married, thou shalt attend the wedding without publicly mentioning the pant fumbling, the diarrhea, the inappropriate clothing or the teenage years. Extra credit is given for having photographic evidence for use in ensuring timely Christmas visits etc.
  10. When my child has children, thou shalt join me in watching them recreate all my worst mistakes, smile and enjoy the show..

Photo courtesy of Clare Kruse, who inspired this post by breaking Rule 1..

FIGT Conference March 22-23 2013

Why You (and every expat) Should Be Going to FIGT 2013

FIGT Conference March 22-23 2013It seems incredible that a year has passed since the last Families in Global Transition conference; forever infamous as the one where I had a complete (and very public ) online meltdown at the eminence and credentials of my fellow presenters, only to have my cover blown by one Judy Rickatson, (aka @wifeinasuitcase) who is the expat online version of Wikipedia. If it’s out there, she knows about it, Tweets, Likes and Pins about it, and, I strongly suspect, has superhuman powers. If she was in charge of the search for the Holy Grail, it would have been found years ago, and it has become my life’s work to try and find an expat blog that she hasn’t yet discovered. She is the Simon Cowell of the expat social media world, discovering talent from the four corners of the globe; only much, much nicer.

Hence my blubbering gaining the attention of various members and supporters of FIGT, who all headed across to the Defining Moves website to offer kind words, support and offers of hospitality. It was the single most generous spirited gesture, and it embodies all that is special about the FIGT organization. People with years of experience, a hugely diverse range of backgrounds and an incredible depth of knowledge, all passionate about making expat life better.

It’s why I can’t wait to go back this year, and why you should all be joining me too. It’s a two day whirlwind of people, presentations and discussions from every perspective; starting with a keynote presentation from the brilliant Pico Iyer. Whether you are an accompanying partner, a expat service provider or from corporate HR, you will leave with a wealth of information and a host of new friends and real, live expat human resources. The only dilemma is how to fit it all into two days.

As for me, I have very personal reasons to want to go there too. It will be the first time I will actually meet many online friends in person, both those who regularly pop up here in the comments sections, on the Facebook page and on my Twitter feed.

At the top of my list?

Judy, of course.

 

If you need more information about Families in Global Transition and the FIGT 2013 conference, here’s the link to their website, including information on registering, becoming a member (as well as all the other benefits, you qualify for a reduced registration fee), global affiliates, sponsorship,  the New Attendees information webinar and the New Attendees welcome evening. I hope to see you there!

Essential expat steps for speedier settling in - Defining Moves, Information, inspirations and resources for the global trailing spouse.

Essential Expat: Simple steps to speedier settling in.

Essential expat steps for speedier settling in - Defining Moves, Information, inspirations and resources for the global trailing spouse.I’m getting better at this moving thing. This comes as something of a relief, because this is the 8th house in 16 years. And despite the fact that we have bought yet another fixer-upper (there will be comprehensive mutterings on the dubious wisdom of buying this type of property as an expat, mainly because one consigns oneself to a life of finally getting somewhere habitable, only to leave within the next 3 months… it’s like clockwork…), on the whole I have remained emotionally intact, with only the odd descent into babbling incoherence – and then only when the drains back up for the fourth time in a month. Predictably, in the bathrooms that we just finished remodeling.

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that this calm and serenity comes at a price – namely the complete lack of any activity outside the house-hunting/mortgage application/signing on the dotted line/painting/tiling/grouting variety. Hence the echoing silence on the blog, causing those who know me well to be concerned by what for me is a very unusual silence.

Those of you who noticed and enquired about my life/health/sanity, thank you. I am now back, and your email inbox will once again be cluttered with occasional wisdom and eagerly awaited tales of the Other Half’s latest foray into home maintenance…

In the meantime, here are my essential steps to remaining sane, whether you are moving across town, across the country or across the world.

1. Know yourself.

It’s the defining moment of your first expat move – what to put in your household goods shipment. Especially if (like us) you have two small children and a container the size of the average office desk. What’s so important to you and your family, that you can’t leave it behind?

Eight years of expat life later, I know the answer, at least for myself. Our sense of family is strongest at mealtimes, so our dinner service – the plates, the silverware, the serving dishes – all get shipped. So do family pictures, treasured mementos, Christmas decorations and the numerous animals, but that’s about it. Furniture, clothes, books are all replaceable, so instead we use our allowance to take things that will make our future life easier. Things like industrial quantities of chocolate, laundry detergent and Bisto.

For you, it will be different. It may be bicycles, board games, films. The good news is that there is no right answer, there is only the answer that is right for you – and the only people who will ever know about your inability to part with your treasured collection of china cats will be you and the customs official…

2. Understand what lies ahead.

We all do it. Someone says they are being transferred to Hawaii, and we groan with envy; mention Angola and we wince – reactions purely based on second hand media reports and the odd travel brochure. Not exactly the most reliable source of expat advice, now we come to think of it. But there are plenty of excellent blogs, websites, forums, Facebook groups and networking sites, full of information and real, live people who have been there, done that. So do your own research from a wide range of sources, understand that the information you get will be from someone else’s perspective and use that to guide you.

3. Set up an expat and local support network before you go.

This is the era of the internet, of social media and of cheap VOIP calling, so you have no excuse for not staying in contact. Create your own expat preparedness kit; get an independent email address, set up social media profiles, sign up to cheap calling, get a comprehensive contact list, and start introducing yourself to your new network before you set foot on a plane.  If it all sounds too daunting to tackle by yourself, check out our guide and cheat sheets here and here.

4. Come prepared to make friends.

If you have done your research and made some social media contacts, you should know what other resident expats miss, what will be valued and what you can bring as ‘hostess gifts’. It’s an instant “in”, not because of the gift itself, but because you have shown you have what it takes to be a successful expat – the willingness to share, an interest in the welfare of others, and the understanding that not a single ounce/gram of luggage allowance should be wasted. Ever.

For those who are currently screaming the words, “I’m not moving to XXX just to mix with expats” at their screens, please don’t misunderstand me. I expect you all to get out there and meet whoever your heart desires, but take it from me, settling in and getting established is a whole heap easier with someone to point you in the right direction, who not only understands your language, but also where you are coming from. As a Brit in the US, I can assure you that there is plenty of scope for cultural misunderstandings, and I can only thank my lucky stars that the locals here are a forgiving bunch…

5. Know that you will have times when you want to go home.

That’s why you have set up your international communication strategy – so that when the rubber hits the road (or the other stuff hits the fan, and take it from me, it will, repeatedly), you have a voice at the other end of the line to help you get through it. In time, you will develop a local network, but for the first few months, use the “who wants to be a millionaire’ approach, and phone a friend. Preferably one who has the right answers.

6. Say yes.

You may have absolutely no interest in a tour of the local sewerage management facility / scrapbooking /fellwalking club, but if someone has invited you, say yes. It a) gets you out of the house, b) introduces you to a whole new set of people, c) shows that you are interested in trying new things (an essential trait in the successful expat) and d) if nothing else, gives you an excellent (and preferably hilarious) horror story to tell later (another accomplished expat characteristic).

7. Remember, it’s a numbers game.

The more people you meet, the greater your odds of meeting your expat soul mate, so the quicker you get out there, the better. No, you don’t have to commit to a lifetime study of yoga or the collected works of Agatha Christie – you just have to show up with a positive attitude, a desire to meet people, a willingness to go with the flow, and preferably, one of the aforementioned hostess gifts.

8. Give yourself space.

It’s the lesson that has taken me the longest to learn, because we all have such great expectations (some good, some bad) about our new life, but underestimate the amount of time, effort and sheer emotional energy that building it takes. For me, it meant taking an unplanned 3 month sabbatical from writing simply to move 5 miles across town. But I know from experience that my personal and family wellbeing are closely linked to a sense of home and a network of friends – and that takes work and commitment, so treat it like you would any other job and give yourself realistic goals, appropriate resources, and most importantly, time off. You need downtime, a moment or three where you are not on best behavior and where you get to please yourself and refill your cup.

 

As for me, things are gradually starting to get a little calmer; most of the walls are now painted, we have withstood the obligatory new home dramas and I am finally able to devote time to something other than project/crisis management. We are indeed, finally, settling down.

 

 

 

 

 

Embracing expat life - relocation and repatriation. Defining Moves - Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse, accompanying partner

Restore Default Settings. The Expat Relocation and Repatriation Dilemma.

This post was written 10 days ago, when after nearly a year of negotiating, selling and house hunting and 45 days in escrow, the expat dream of actually owning our own home was still hanging in the balance. At the time, it seemed a little too much like tempting fate to publish it, but now that I have a) keys and a signed contract and b) the Other Half 4000 miles away and blissfully oblivious to the havoc that I am wreaking on our new abode,  I am  now brave enough to share..

Embracing expat life - relocation and repatriation. Defining Moves - Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse, accompanying partnerAnyone who happened to be using the site last Wednesday would have left with a growing sense of confusion and a really good headache, thanks to a small, insignificant button at the bottom of my dashboard page.

It said “restore to default settings“.

Ironically, all I was trying to do was change the color of the page links from a difficult-to-spot-but-definitely-elegant gray, to a glaringly obvious red (I finally settled on a rather fetching lavender blue, but that’s another story). Try as I might, the tool for changing the color wouldn’t co-operate, and so remembering that the theme came with a red link text default, I resorted to pressing the aforementioned button.

Chaos ensued. My painstakingly crafted header logo (the creeping cat) disappeared, to be replaced by an advert for a website developer. So did the tiny logo that you see in the web address bar. The text reverted back to Times New Roman, strange boxes containing Latin gibberish appeared, and a whole drop down menu’s worth of content vanished.

I think the angels made it happen, in response to an impending “I’ve had enough, I want to go home’ tantrum that was brewing.

You see, we are currently trying to buy a house, something that (in theory) should be a happy and joyful event in expat life. It means we’re putting down some roots, taking some time to breathe, and in Wiggy’s words “finally getting to paint my bedroom a color that I like”.

Instead, it is turning into a harrowing catalogue of frustrations, starting with a real estate market that is so quiet it has crickets chirping in the corners, then finally finding a house – in the wrong school district, negotiating school transfers, discovering dry rot, navigating the ever changing rules of the mortgage lenders and finally, four weeks on, being thousands of dollars poorer with no sign of a completed house purchase on the horizon, and no printer ink left.

Yesterday’s debacle was a timely reminder that no matter how complicated it gets, you can’t go back. You can relocate or repatriate physically, but while the basic content may not change, the details have – the colors, the shading, the nuances that you have added along the way that makes you different from the person you were, and makes you view the world around you differently. And what surprised me was how important those details are once they are gone.

We forget that change is an integral part of life – not just for us, but for those around us. Friends from home have been traveling a similar path, and they view us differently too. Instead of the “I’ll just pop round for a cup of coffee/ borrow the lawnmower/drop off the kids for a playdate/” type friendship, it’s a relationship that has to be nurtured over distance, telephone lines and internet connections, and the supporting roles that we used to play in each other’s lives adapt and change. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad, it just is.

Life is messy sometimes. It’s what makes us grow, tests our strengths and reminds us that we are indeed alive. It’s why we travel, why we learn, why we uproot our lives and relocate to the other side of the world. It’s what helps us to embrace new ideas, new places, new faces, new challenges. It’s why we survive and thrive as expats, as parents, as partners.

And despite what you may have thought while watching the Defining Moves website disappear in front of your eyes, we’re not crazy. We’re just pressing all the buttons offered to us.

Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections

expat life

Resilience and the Trailing Spouse. Especially for Gill and Sarah..

It has been echoingly quiet on this blog for the last month, with only the infrequent post and the odd lonely tweet. I’d like to blame this on the increased workload of the impending move (the eternal blight of the trailing spouse), my current role as co-chair of the Teacher Appreciation Committee (those of you who are familiar with my previous comments on volunteering will now be choking on your morning coffee) or my incredible behind-the-scenes productivity on the series of checklists that I am creating. Alas, none would be true.

expat life
Photo courtesy of ana-white.com

The truth is far less glorious. I have lost my perk.

For the last month, I have looked like a wet hen, moping around with a downcast air, a surly temper and absolutely no interest in doing anything but watching reality TV and Downton Abbey reruns. It is the pre-move gloom, biting hard, and it’s crushing my creativity.

Thankfully, this morning, my pecker is back up, all thanks to a couple of wonderful websites that I discovered – none of which have anything to do with relocation, but everything to do with creating a home. Yourself. With tools.

It turned my thoughts to previous partners in DIY crime, Gill and Sarah. Gill, who at 6 months pregnant was heaving up floorboards in our old Vicarage (don’t feel sorry for her – she returned the favor by bestowing on me the dubious honor of spreading 10 tonnes of horse poop on her very large and prickly raspberry patch) and Sarah, who flew 4000 miles to grout my tiles. (Both of these activities sound like euphemisms for something far more fun and frisky, but neither are. They are grotty horrible jobs made only bearable by having good-natured, willing and long-suffering helpers, and copious amounts of alcohol at the end.)

Hence the title of this post. Sadly, Gill has the policy of generally ignoring any blog post with the word relocation in it, because she is happily settled in rural Wales (or, as we refer to it, God’s own country. Not particularly modest, the Welsh..), with a large vegetable garden and a now glaringly absent (and therefore completely useless) gardening assistant, currently writing these words from the comfort of a warm bed, 4000 miles away from the rampant raspberry bushes and piles of manure.Having witnessed so many of my epic disasters, she is only hungry for tales of chaos, knowing that they go hand in hand with a thriving, curious and spontaneous person who relishes making mistake because frankly, they make the best stories.

Which, as you can tell from the crickets chirping in the background, has been the person who got lost for a while there.

But thanks to a morning of excellent internet connection and the wonder of Pinterest, I’m back now, and this is very good news on two fronts.

The first is that in honor of Gill and Sarah, I am including the links for the two of the best DIY websites that I have ever discovered, full of projects that you would actually want to display in your home and very, very detailed instructions.

The second? We have spent the last 2 years in San Francisco in a rented home, so not one of my geographically convenient close friends is familiar with this DIY obsession, nor my complete disregard for life, health, personal commitments and designer clothing in my pursuit of a spare pair of hands.

These unsuspecting dears are coming over to the new place for dinner on Sunday. It’ll be like lambs to the slaughter. I sense some really good inspiration coming on..

 

 The Friendly Home  (Great name, huh?)

Ana White (and here’s a direct link to her chicken coop plans)

 

Today We Celebrate! The Trailing Spouse Keeping the Family Together

Today we celebrate! All of us trailing spouse moms and dads, who have chosen to follow their spouse’s/partner’s careers over their own, who have sacrificed to keep their family living at one place.

Today is not about what we’ve missed out on but what we have tried to create. A home, a family, a sense of security for the ones we love and a sense of knowing that we will always be there for one another.

We don’t know what direction our families’ lives will take in the future but we all try to do our best to shape our tomorrows. We may or may not succeed but we have to give it the best we’ve got. We all make our choices and some of us choose to put family first because we believe that is the best thing for us. That it’s better for our kids if our family stays together, providing more time to spend together.

Thanks to the visitors from Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) and, later, reiterated by the Director of our school, I now know that research has shown that one of the strongest factors “in protecting young people from getting into trouble with alcohol or other drugs are positive relationships with parents.” Again, according to research, if parents are uninvolved in their child’s life, it increases the likelihood of children becoming problem drinkers (http://www.fcd.org/content/resources/newsletters.asp).

There are varied norms in different countries and many different types of families all around the world. By and large, they are all very happy and successful. I am simply stating that involvement with kids is paramount to any society where people organize themselves in families, whatever the shape, size and nature of family it may be! Yes, parenting can be accomplished from a distance but many of us trailing spouses have chosen to keep our families close.

So when you are asked for the umpteenth time as to where do you work, what do you do all day, give a broad smile and answer “I work very hard at home!”

FCD Educational Services is a nonprofit substance abuse prevention organization http://www.fcd.org/content/index.asp

Coping with expat homelessness - My Family in Global Transition. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partner.

Coping with Expat Homelessness – My Family in Global Transition.

Coping with expat homelessness - My Family in Global Transition. Defining Moves - the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partner.It’s the latest expat dilemma in the Defining Moves household, and in answer to our newly homeless state, I’m moving in with my sister. She may be currently unaware of her impending fate, but I’m guessing that she will be the recipient of quite a few panicked phone calls to inform her within minutes of this post being published.

It’s been a tricky few weeks in our family life; a combination of relief/grief that our home (albeit not one we have lived in for the last 7 years) has finally sold. It’s the first home that the OH and I bought together, the one we spent 8 years of blood, sweat and tears (and near financial ruin) renovating, and is the place where Feisty entered the world, prophetically at high speed and interrupting a particularly good Royal Variety Performance.

It’s hosted Millennium parties, expat students, copious numbers of chickens and too many renovation weekend projects to count. Friends and family have been coerced into everything from installing septic tanks, tiling bathrooms and ripping up floorboards, regardless of ability, stage of pregnancy or copious quantities of small children. Ask most of my Facebook friends for their memories of the house and they will cite brambles, dust, chaos, dodgy alcohol, and hopefully, laughter.  But for the last eight years, it’s been rented by a number of tenants ranging from the delightful to the dire, and is beginning to show the strain.

Throughout our expat travels, it’s what we have always called home, so ten days to pack up a household and fifteen years of memories, friendships and roots were all too short. We saw so many friends that we have missed, and missed seeing too many more. All the while, we worried that we would lose our roots, our stability, and our sense of home.

But a funny thing happened as we drove away, en route to my sister’s house. As the house disappeared from the rear view mirror, we didn’t feel sad anymore. We had had a brilliant ten days, surrounded by people who we only get to see every few years, and yet we picked up the threads as if it were only yesterday. We blended back into life without so much as a ripple, and when answering questions about when we would be returning, it was clear that not only would we be coming back, but that we knew how, when and what adventures we are going to have. This particular chapter may be over, but the story is far from finished.

I had imagined that the kids would be sad, saying goodbye to the only home that they had ever known, but I had missed the obvious point. It has not been their only home, and everywhere they have lived, they have been surrounded by people who care for them, whether blood relations or friends. The people at ‘home’ have taught them about friendship, strength of character and what is really important, and those values are what the rest of our gathered global family have in common.

We have gained so much more than we have lost, and it took selling the house to realize it. We were so focused on the safety net below, we had forgotten to look at the view. Somehow, having no house to call our own meant absolutely.. nothing. We still had the laughs, the stories, the catching up and the paintball bruises. We still have friends who find time to spend with us, who tolerate the months of silence followed by hours of chaos and who understand that if we didn’t catch them this time, we will definitely see them next visit. The memories of good times didn’t disappear once the pictures were packed, and we don’t need to be in the same room to share a common ground.

As the miles began to build up between ourselves and our former home, the Wiggy One made a observation, in rather less sombre tones than you might expect.

“Auntie Sarah’s is our home now”. He was smiling when he said it.

I had been thinking the same thing only that morning, when I woke up in her house, on a makeshift Ikea bed, amid the accumulated debris of my (temporarily displaced) nephew’s bedroom. In under two weeks, my physical residence in my home nation has gone from 6000 to 3 square feet. The only things I owned were in the suitcase on the floor and in a top drawer of the dresser – my drawer.

It represented permanence, the expectation that you are returning, and when you do, you will always have a place here. It’s all the things that we treasure about ‘home’, acceptance, love, laughter and a profound sense of stability. What we didn’t realize before was that it was held in bonds not bricks, hearts and not houses and people, rather than simply places.

It’s funny what having your own drawer can do. And a wonderful, kind and incredibly generous global family, who welcome us home; wherever, whenever.

 

 

The Expat Packing List- Household Goods. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocation

Unconventional but Essential Items for your Household Goods Shipment… Your Expat Packing List

The Expat Packing List- Household Goods. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocationMy Facebook page is bubbling with excitement this week, as three members of my friends and family are due to receive their household goods shipment. Somehow, the arrival of your previously treasured possessions brings home the reality that you have arrived somewhere for the long haul, and for the kids especially, it comes as a combination of Christmas and birthdays rolled in to one.

The flip side of course, is that the sea of boxes in front of you is a brutal reminder that you are not, after all on vacation, and there are three days of unpacking to be done. Which, when you get to it, inevitably leads to the question, “What on earth was I thinking when I packed that?!”

There are very few rules about what to take to a new location, and most will center around advice from other expats – all of which will be from their own personal perspective, not yours. So for those of you inveterate overpackers, here’s my list – the result of three continents-worth of accumulation, dejunking and general dislike for the unpacking process…

 

Stuff that makes you feel at home.

For me, this is white porcelain china, good silverware, bed linens and vases. My way of nurturing people is to feed them, so anything involving food preparation and service is first on my list. I do, however, only own 5 cooking pans –  Le Creuset saucepans, frying pan, and a wok and  huge stainless steel stockpot – and I have yet to need anything else.

I am ridiculed locally for my rather rigid approach to decorating; everything is either white, sand, silver or slate grey, but these are the colors that I find soothing, and after the chaos and confusion of packing, air travel, temporary accommodation and the endless form-filling, any serenity that comes from a packing box rather than a wine bottle is very welcome.

N.B. No matter where you are in the world, if your children go to school and you have any sort of non-local accent, you will be required to exhibit at the school International fair. Virtually every school (especially the International variety) hold one annually, during which you will be expected to represent your home nation with flags, costumes and other assorted paraphernalia. Using valuable luggage allowances to ship Welsh hats, dragons and love spoons was painful, so take it from the formerly unprepared; pack a box of anything that is traditional to your country now. Think 6ft x 3ft table with backdrop and go wild…

 

Photos.

An anonymous apartment quickly becomes home when you have photos of your family and friends in it. The good news with photos is that they are easy to pack; remove them from their frames, just in case and make scanned copies. I no longer bother taking many picture frames with me, instead buying local ones for each house.

 

Books.

I’d love to pretend that these were the collected sonnets of Shakespeare and a few Greek tragedies, but in reality, my literary tastes center around historical whodunits and the complete works of Janet Evanovitch. Hardly highbrow, but they provide escapism, humor and just enough mental activity to keep me engaged without keeping me up all night. And somehow, the sight of the familiar titles on a bookshelf anywhere reassure me that I will always have something enjoyable to read, even if I already know who killed whom, and how and where.

 

Board games and cards.

No family room is complete without a set of rarely-played board games, and they are the ultimate antidote to childhood boredom. The words “if you’re bored, we can always play a game” instantly empties a room of any moaning offspring, who disappear off in search of more understanding and less demanding company. Promises of a Friday Family Game night can be used to improve involvement in local community programs, after school activities, and extra credit homework. Unless you discover the “Settlers of Catan’ series, in which case you end up with a house full of wool-trading teenagers… I kid you not.

 

Personal Mementos.

Every expat parent will be familiar with the lament “you never kept my … ,” which arises every time a teacher sets some sort of personal history project. There is a teacher training torture center somewhere that collates all previous child memento projects, and in attempt to keep the children interested and the parents completely bald, changes the requirement every darn year. Last year it was their first shoes, this term it’s ‘first pictures’. Next year it’ll be the family tree, interview your grandma, or yet another task that we have no way of fulfilling without a private jet or a clairvoyant. So, before you put all your worldly goods in storage, put together a comprehensive memory box to thwart even the most tyrannical of kindergarten teachers. It should contain: first shoes, early artwork (scans or photos will do, providing you are willing to recreate them surreptitiously), any school certificates and trophies, no matter how precarious the pretext), photographs of the ENTIRE family (both sides) and any other items of specific religious or cultural significance, and dates of first steps, first words and first day of school, etc, etc.

In the event you are reading this 3,000 miles away from the storage unit that contains the above, there is still hope. It can all be found in the form of Google, a printer, the local thrift shop and the ability to lie convincingly. For more detailed instructions see “Relocation Dilemmas – Faking Your Family Tree”… You have my blessing.

 

Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum 

 

Cultural Orientation - How to Make Friends and Introduce People. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation

Really Useful Cultural Orientation – How to Make Friends and Introduce People..

Cultural Orientation - How to Make Friends and Introduce People. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful RelocationYou’ve spent the first half of your life learning acceptable social behaviour, the last ten years telling your kids not to care what people think, and then wham! Relocation. Suddenly you’re stuck right back where you were on the first day of high school, having to walk into places you really would rather run screaming from, and make nice with a sea of people who have no idea who you are. Welcome to our world.

If your cultural orientation training was anything like mine, it revolves around the country currency, demographics and religious practices. What it might not tell you is how to find the people with whom you can laugh, cry, and everything in between with. So here’s my best advice, based on years of social gaffes, awkward situations and offending people.

 It does get easier. Just as the first day of school was the worst for most of us (apart from the boy who had diarrhea in assembly in 9th grade – that’s a tricky one to beat), the first few weeks of any move are the hardest. The quicker you get out there and start circulating, the quicker you will find your first friend.

It’s a numbers game. You didn’t expect to like everyone in high school, and nor will you like everyone you meet, but you have to go through the numbers to get to one who will become lifelong friends. Go to as many gatherings as possible, safe in the knowledge that somewhere out there is someone who is doing the same thing and hating it every bit as much as you do..

Talk to a cherished friend beforehand, so that you are

  1.  more confident about yourself and will present yourself in a more relaxed way
  2. have vented all your relocation angst so that your new acquaintances don’t think you are a moany old whingebag and hereafter avoid you and,
  3. so you have someone impartial waiting to hear all the gory details. Knowing that you have someone far, far away who relish all the post party gossip and can never tell makes putting up with the fifteenth “what does your husband do?” far more palatable.

Go to where people gather to be social. This issue cropped up the other day – in Europe there are higher numbers of dual income families, so there are fewer opportunities to meet socially through school, and so a friend with school age children is struggling to meet new people.  Instead, take a class, or do something that people go to alone. And no, I don’t mean bars.

Be prepared to watch, learn and smile. There will be new social rules (cute does not have the same implicit meaning in the UK and the US), a new dress codes, language differences. You may be an avid taxidermist, but that’s probably not going to be your best icebreaker at the school social. And if you are anything like me, try to avoid sarcastic, flippant or hilarious remarks, such as “Will there be alcohol served?” at the new parent breakfast. My strategy is to seek out the person that sparks the most antipathy, and watch for who else in the crowd is wincing. Instant friend, right there.

Don’t undervalue yourself. Most relocation advice suggests voluntary work as a great way to develop a social network, and while this may be true, I have seen more people than I care to count take on the first volunteer opportunity that comes their way, only to end up in glorious isolation doing the photocopying for the PTA. (Actually, I met one of my favorite people doing exactly that, but I just got very lucky..). Find something that both gives you a sense of fulfillment and attracts like-minded people, and feel free to test drive opportunities before you commit. Tell them I said so.

Talk to anyone. My mother does this, and it drives me nuts, but she can find a friend faster than anyone I know. Her favorite targets are anyone with a British accent, anyone in a book store, anyone wearing Marks and Spencer clothing, and anyone with grey hair. And if you happen to have a baby, your chances of escaping uninterrupted are nil.

At all costs, avoid asking “What does your husband do?”. A little piece of my soul dies every time that question is asked in social circles, as if the person being spoken to is unworthy of interest. Add in the fact that you are assuming that they are a) married, and b) they don’t instead have a wife. My personal answer when asked is “Put a gun to my head and I still couldn’t tell you”; it conveys accurately both my knowledge of what he does, and my interest in finding out. As yet, no-one has taken me up on it, but feel free to find your own, less dramatic response.

In the interest of fulfilling the entire title, when you do finally get out and meet people to talk to, the basic etiquette rules of introduction are as follows:
Self Introduction:
“Hi /Hello / Nice to meet you”, “I am XXX”;  and then a single descriptor (e.g. “friend of the host”, “so and so’s colleague”, etc.)
Introducing Others: Generally, men are introduced to women, younger people to older people, and lower-ranking individuals to more senior – think of it as presenting a subject to the queen. So it would go: “Your majesty, this is my husband, the Other Half.” In a social setting, it is considered good form to give the newly introduced couple something to talk about. And no, that does not include politics, religion or embarrassing facts about each other..
I would like to pretend that I know these facts from early presentation to the Queen and life in elevated circles. Alas not.

Now it’s your turn – any suggestions?