Tag Archives: friends

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.

 

 

Expat etiquette - how to be the perfect guest | Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation, with information, inspiration and resources for the expat trailing spouse and accompanying partner.

Expat Etiquette: How to be the Perfect Guest (2012 edition)

Expat etiquette - how to be the perfect guest | Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation, with information, inspiration and resources for the expat trailing spouse and accompanying partner.
Expat etiquette #2: If you are going to use something from home, bring it with you, and bring spares to share.

Unless you have the misfortune to live in Britain (where the rain has been pouring down for so long it is now being rebranded as ‘severe precipitation’ and sales of Wellington boots have reached record proportions), you know that the summer holidays are imminent (if not already in full swing), and with them the impending arrival of visitors to your door. For expats who live in the more desirable locations, it’s the time you pay your dues, in rooms, meals and transportation services.. We have been doing this long enough to have beaten our guests’ expectations to the bare minimum (it’s the inflatable mattresses and midnight visits by the pets that do it), but many are not so fortunate. So no matter where you are in the world, for the 2012 summer season, we’ve updated our very own “Perfect Guest” etiquette list, to ensure an open door, a warm welcome and a repeat invitation worldwide. Feel free to print, post on doors or forward to your impending arrivals…

1. Be clear about your holiday dates and expectations before you even book the flights. Your host needs to know when you will arrive and leave, how long you intend to stay, and what you need from your host before they agree to take you on. And just to be clear, if you are expecting anything other than a place to sleep, eat and shower – book a hotel.

2. Bring supplies. There is nothing more annoying than someone arriving from home and immediately using the teabags that you yourself transported 4000 miles from their point of embarkation. It’s an expat etiquette deal breaker, so don’t do it. If you are going to use something from home, bring it with you, and bring spares to share.

3. Ask if there’s anything we need.  There is – Cadbury’s chocolate. We’ll allow you to use pretty much any appliance we own (so don’t bring hairdryers or heavy clothing – they are a huge waste of precious baggage allowance) if you bring the stuff we have spent the year pining after. If you are in any doubt, we can order it and have it shipped to your home.. Yes, the right brand it is THAT important. If you are coming to see me, bring chocolate and tea bags. And Bisto. Or if you are my mother, a 4ft artificial Christmas tree.*

4. Entertain yourselves. Successful guests are those that join in with a good attitude when there are things happening, but do not expect the host to find them transport, entertainment or conversation at every turn. As much as driving my kids to soccer / football / may not seem like much of a life, it is one that can’t just stop when you need a lift to Costco. I’ll be happy to forward you all emails from school / soccer club / drama club so that you get an idea of what I’m trying to juggle here. And if you’ve hired a car, feel free to pitch in with the carpooling..

5. Don’t be fooled into thinking that we live like this all the time. You will usually arrive to a clean house, a tidy guest room, and a slightly less chaotic schedule. We have done this because we love you and want you to feel welcome, but please don’t be fooled into thinking that it didn’t take a month of advance preparation, calendar shuffling and ruthless hard work to acheive it. And for goodness sake, don’t say “It’s alright for some, going out to lunch all the time”. We don’t, and you may find that your evening meals suddenly become a lot less appetizing..

6. Do feel free to help with the cleaning / cooking / washing. I may utter the words ” You don’t need to do that, you’re on holiday”, but I am lying through my teeth. Someone has to do it, and it shouldn’t always be your host. Seeing someone else cleaning, ironing or generally tidying up around the house sends me into blissful raptures, and guarantees you a return invitation. Take note though, if you have children, you should be solely responsible for cleaning up after them – forcing your host to try and navigate a minefield of sharp plastic objects when they get up for work will inspire dire retribution..

7. Give your host some time off. Any good host** will feel an obligation to entertain you and make you feel comfortable whenever you are in their home. Spending more than three days with anyone without giving them some time alone in their own house is akin to pulling the wings off flies. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin; “Guests, like fish, go off after three days”. It’s good advice – after three days, go off. Anywhere, even for a few hours. And bring dinner back with you..

8. If you go out for the day, don’t automatically expect a meal waiting for you on your return. We said it above, but it bears repeating. If you are lucky enough to come home to a ready prepared repast, thank your host profusely, and insist on handling dinner the following night, whether taking them out for a meal, buying takeout, or cooking. You normally pay through the nose for the luxury of having your food cooked for you, and this is someone’s home, not an all inclusive resort.

9. Don’t bring people home. You’d be surprised how many times hosts are ambushed with unexpected guests dragged home by visitors for a cup of tea, a cream cake or to meet you. They inevitably arrive when you are just stepping into / out of the shower, or are inappropriately dressed for company. Pick a date and a venue for everyone to meet, and pick up the check… See how much you want to spend time with them now?

10. There is no maid service. Your host should be able to spend the time enjoying your company, not doing your laundry or picking up after you. And just because you leave the washing up until later at home doesn’t mean that your host is okay with it. Your housekeeping standards should reflect (and respect) your host’s home.This also includes cleaning your room and bathroom before you leave – no host should have to clean your pubic hair out of the shower..

11. And talking of housekeeping standards, it works both ways. If your standards of cleanliness are higher than your host’s, feel free to offer to help out with the chores, do your own laundry, but never, ever give us helpful hints for improvement. And please refrain from writing your name in the dust.

12.Keep electronic device use to a minimum. You have come to see your hosts and their new home location, not to stare at a screen, suck up their bandwidth and generally make yourself unpleasantly antisocial. Yes, we understand that you want to check your email, let your Facebook friends know what fun you are having and keep up with the football scores, but please do so in your own time, in the comfort of your room. And certainly not at the meal table.. Grrr.

13. Leave gifts. I am a firm believer in the miraculous healing power of a gift on arrival and departure. The arrival gift is usually the supplies that you have lugged across the world; on departure, a Thank You card, a gift card or some flowers are not only appreciated, they will rocket you to the top of the guest list for the future.

 

*In my defense, they were virtually impossible to get hold of in Kenya

**Thankfully, I am not such a good host, and am happy to disappear when I need a little personal down time.

 

Why expats make terrible hosts. Defining Moves - the Art of Successful relocation

Never can say goodbye..Why expats make terrible hosts.

Why expats make terrible hosts. Defining Moves - the Art of Successful relocationIt’s vacation season, and airport lounges around the world are stuffed to overflowing with tired parents, overexcited children, and the burgeoning expectations of fun weeks to come. Meanwhile, in their temporary homes on the other side of the world, expat families are bracing themselves for the roller coaster ride of emotions triggered by the arriving guests. .

I love visitors. They remind you that you have roots somewhere, that despite no-one knowing your name in your new location, there are still people who would notice if you dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow. Having someone willing to travel halfway across the world to spend time with you is an incredible gift, and allows that wonderful moment of transition between your different worlds, introducing the old to the new.

It’s a bittersweet, double edged sword. On one hand, you can’t wait to see everyone, bringing memories of home and catching up with their lives and their families. But any period longer than a week and you are inevitably juggling the demands of hosting, family commitments and generally keeping daily life running. And feeling incredibly guilty about not being the Martha Stewart of hosts.

No matter how many visitors we have, we seem to go through the same phases:

Anticipation. The excitement of knowing that someone you love is traveling miles to see you – it’s the ultimate validation of your importance to others. It’s having someone from your former life cross over to your new life, and the joy of being able to share the best bits with them. You spend hours mentally planning the time you will spend together, and all of it involves laughter, sunshine and good food. Funnily enough, laundry, cooking and cleaning do not feature at all..

Arrival. Anyone who has ever seem Love Actually will know that there is nothing quite like waiting at the airport arrivals lounge and seeing a familiar face walk through. Sadly, you have been in transit for 24 hours, and can barely string two coherent words together, let alone answer a barrage of questions. We have planned a fun family dinner to welcome you, and you still have the residual nausea that scrambled egg croissants at 30,000 ft inevitably cause. And it’s 3 in the morning your time, and all you desperately want to do is go to bed.

The One-Sided Honeymoon. We’re excited to see you. We’ve waited at the airport, we’ve removed two years of accumulated debris from the spare room, (or ousted children from theirs) and we have helpfully taken then first four days of your visit off to spend time with you and show you a most excellent time. What we didn’t allow for, however, was jet lag, which means that even the most robust of visitors will fall asleep just as you arrive at the rim of the Grand Canyon / the Golden Gate Bridge emerges from the fog / the lion prowls regally across the road in from of your Jeep.

We have a million and one fabulous places to eat and explore, while you struggle with a body clock still working on Greenwich Mean Time and an overwhelming urge to eat, sleep or use the bathroom at the most inopportune moments. Usually at 2am, or at the top of the Eiffel Tower..

It’s Your Turn Now. By about day five, you’ve resolved the biological issues, got your bearings, and are ready for some serious fun. Predictably, we are now back at work / confronting the mountain of housework and bills that we have ignored for a week / at the mercy of the kids’ punishing school – sport – academic registration schedule. Our hosting talents have been reduced to throwing you out of a moving vehicle at the local bus/train/subway station with a map of the local area, a prepaid cell phone and a bottle of sunscreen. On your triumphant return from whichever attraction you visited, instead of a nourishing home cooked meal, we will ferry you down to Panda Express to eat (neon) Orange Chicken under fake chinese lanterns..

The Impending Departure. Having vainly attempted to juggle the conflicting needs of hosting visitors, running a household and maintaining sanity, we run smack into the realization that you will be leaving in two days. TWO DAYS!! For a while there, we had forgotten that we no longer live two miles apart and get to see each other all the time. The reality presses the Panic Stations button, and suddenly, we are desperate to spend every waking minute with you, knowing that the instant you get on the flight we will remember all the other fabulous things we wanted to share with you.

It’s also the time when you are desperate to be left alone to figure out how to get 50lbs of luggage into a hard sided carry-on case, and to find the keys to the car that’s been parked in the airport parking for two weeks.

The Aftermath. For you, it’s arriving home to a mountain of junk mail, the moldy contents of the refrigerator and a thousand and one tasks that have now become overdue. For expats, it’s silence. The journey home is softened by the sudden seating space in the car, but the minute we open the front door, we remember a funny story that we wanted to tell you, a special place that we wanted to share, a meal that we wanted to cook for you. The decision to move away was ours, but don’t for a minute think that we don’t miss you.

We do, in little ways, every day.

 

Friends Beyond Borders

It is hard to move from one city to another, even harder to move to a different country. One of the positive things about this though, is that you tend to make friends wherever you go. Of course, it’s painfully hard to leave them behind when you move again. However, it’s easier these days to keep in touch thanks to the internet.

A good place to make new friends, if you are a trailing spouse with kids, is at your children’s school(s). One of the things I love most about my kids’ School is that it is international; the students hail from all around the globe and back! There are 70+ nationalities (and increasing) represented in my children’s current school. Just walking around in this cosmopolitan environment is like getting a lesson in history, geography and culture.

When I was new in town and trying to get to know people, I made a point of introducing myself to other parents waiting around at pick-up time at school and at various school events. Now, many of my friends are moms and dads at my kids’ school. Of course, like their children, they too come from all over the world.

Today, I decided to sit down and list which countries my friends hail from. Here’s what I came up with (in alphabetical order, and not necessarily in the order of closeness, especially as Wales is at the bottom ;))

Where do your friends come from? How many ‘countries’ have you befriended? And, yes, play fair. I said friends, not acquaintances 🙂

Australia                                   Bangladesh                                    Belgium

Brazil                                        Bulgaria                                        Canada

China                                        Denmark                                       England

Ethiopia                                     Finland                                         Gambia

Germany                                    Greece                                         India

Italy                                          Japan                                           Kenya

Kyrgyzstan                                 Lebanon                                        Lithuania

Nepal                                        Netherlands                                    Pakistan

Philippines                                  Singapore                                      Somalia

South Africa                               Spain                                            Swaziland

Sweden                                      Switzerland                                   Thailand

USA                                           Wales

And as promised, here’s the link to some maps to print off and color in – feel free to take a photo of your to post to our Facebook page!

Printable World Map

Top 10 Concerns of Expats #4 – Defining Moves Version


8. Standard of Living

“Few people willingly move abroad to accept a lower standard of living – there are exceptions of course such as those who volunteer to help in nations affected by wars or dire economic circumstances.  The majority of us move abroad expecting to find or achieve a better or equal standard of living to what we previously enjoyed – but everything from the cost of living to the availability and quality of infrastructure can impact this.”  (Shelter Offshore)

Concerns of Relocating Expats - Standard Of Living

What most of the studies don’t show is that we have a mental idea of what our new life will be life that doesn’t just revolve around granite kitchen countertops and a pool. I for one had a mental image of expat life in Kenya as a cross between Out of Africa and Gone with the Wind, with martinis, perfectly pressed linen clothing and a serene demeanor featuring heavily. I would finally have the time to write a book, master yoga and cook gourmet meals. Hours spent on the phone trying to get my electricity / phone / internet reconnected (an oft repeated task that had no relationship to whether I had paid the bill in person, by mail or at a bank) and days spent sobbing with loneliness did not ever appear in my fantasy life. So when we talk about standard of living, the corporate assumption is that all we are expecting is physical comforts like modern housing, air-conditioning and household help, and while we need to be aware of the cost and availability of the ‘home comforts’ that we consider essential, they are not the route to expat happiness. What we also should know is that more time can be spent managing staff than the work itself would take, that the cost of air-conditioning is not just in electricity, but also in time spent locating a repairman and then waiting at home when he doesn’t appear for the fifth time, and your elegant clothing makes you stick out like a sore thumb in the local markets..

Try to articulate your anticipated life before you go, and then compare it to the average lifestyle of the local and expat population to see whether you are really being realistic. Most physical comforts can be achieved with a little planning and effort, but you may find that once you are there, they no longer have the same appeal. Thinking of your standard of living in a holistic way allows you to sort the needs from the wants, and will give you a far better chance of contentment long term.

9. Bureaucracy / Corruption

“No matter where in the world you live you will always face bureaucracy – and by its very nature bureaucracy is usually mind numbingly ridiculous – but as an expat it’s so much worse because it is foreign bureaucracy so it is even more unintelligible, nonsensical, impossible to understand and yet imperative.”  (Shelter Offshore)

I like to think of bureaucracy as a hoop that has to be jumped through. The difficulty is in defining where exactly the hoop is, and how high we have to jump to get through it. And while I think of corruption as someone with the power to move the hoop to make getting through easier or harder, I also happen to know that there are plenty of ‘jobsworth’ civil servants and who may not be corrupt, but are just as unhelpful.

Getting frustrated with it is universal and understandable, but doesn’t change the fact that it exits, and you still need to get though it. If you have a corporate relocation package, your company may have already hired a professional to guide you though and expedite the process. As an individual, your local and expat network will prove invaluable, because everyone will have already have jumped through those hoops and can give you advice. And as a final note – try not to get angry. I have yet to hear of a situation where it helped, but by contrast, I have many, many personal experiences where staying calm, smiling and asking very, very nicely for help has smoothed the way for everything from getting school places to US visa appointments.

10. Raising Children

I’m pretty sure that concerns about raising children are not exclusive to expats – quite the opposite, in fact.  For where we are wondering if exposing our children to multiple vaccines, repeated school moves and language barriers will warp them for life, our less transient counterparts are worrying about their child’s gluten allergy, lack of global awareness, and Spanish grades. It comes with the parenting territory, and unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how we are doing until they hit teenage years and are only too willing to list our shortcomings..  There are a number of strategies for relocating expat children and Third Culture Kids but my Four Basic Rules are:

1. Keep them informed, but not overwhelmed. Tell them early, include them in discussions about family life, and give them a say in matters that affect them.

2. Move at the end of a vacation, not at the start. It gives them time to say goodbye, and less time spent without friends to play with.

3. Fill the void. Assume that for the first month or so, you will need to keep them occupied with family activities, and keep them in contact with friends from their old location via text, email or Skype.

4. Expect issues. Everyone is under stress during a transition, so try to be patient, allow for a some acting out, and get help if you need to.

 

Cultural Orientation – What Puppies Teach Us About Basic Manners and Universal Understanding..

We have a new puppy, and watching her integrate into her new environment has got me thinking about the importance of manners and communication in successful relocation. It has also shown that it doesn’t matter how cute you look, how nice your temperament or how big you’re going to be one day, if you ignore the basic rules, you are still really, really annoying..

It’s also made me realise how universal the rules are; greet in a way that’s acceptable to your new acquaintances, defer to the more experienced or senior, listen to what their body language is telling you, say sorry quickly, don’t take offense and share the water bowl nicely. Good behavior gets rewarded, and being unpleasant means less friends to play with. And don’t bite.

For those without the dubious benefits of a houseful of dogs, here’s the human version.

1. Correct forms of address. They may be difficult to pronounce, you may struggle with the correct titles or differentiating between personal and family name, so be prepared before you go. A simple phrase book will give you basic guidelines for the accepted forms of address and how to pronounce them, so practice them at home before you try them out on your unsuspecting new acquaintances. Use phonetic spellings on Post-it notes or flash cards to keep as a reminder of people you meet, and don’t be afraid to ask for a reminder from a friend or colleague. If you have access to cultural orientation training, this is a great time to practice and be corrected.

2. Mirror body language. Studies show that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and where human behavior is concerned, we tend to replicate the body language of people that we like which in turn makes us perceived as friendly and pleasant. It also shows sensitivity towards other cultural and religious behaviors, so practice observing and emulating. Draw a line at copying the accent though…

3. Acknowledge your mistakes and take ownership of them. When you enter a new environment, whether a work, social or living one,  you are under stress, however small. Its a primitive fight/flight awareness, and it changes the way we react to situations. With relocation however, this stress is more constant and at a higher level than normal, ue to the wide range of unfamiliar situations that we find ourselves in. Few of us give the best impression of ourselves when we have just spent three hours trying to get electricity / internet connected using phrase book Mandarin / Swahili / Urdu, so mistakes are inevitable and understandable. When you realize that you have made a mistake, take ownership of it immediately and apologise. And then move on; endlessly revisiting it is just awkward.

4. Least said, soonest mended. I once had delightful students from China staying with us, but at every mealtime, when asked if they liked the dish that I had painstakingly prepared, the reply was “It’s ok”. In Britain, when someone uses it in that way, it means  mediocre. I bit my tongue for about six months, until one day the question of use of ‘ok’ came up in dinner table conversation. It transpired that they thought it meant wonderful, and their faces when they realized how unsuspectingly rude they had been was a picture of mortification.

You too will be a victim of the of the communication breakdown trap, but don’t assume offence is deliberate and if it happens, ignore it and move on. People rarely are intentionally rude, but global differences in use of body language, personal space, tone, hand gestures and volume are endless, so there is plenty of  room for error. So be slow to take offense, and err on the side of caution in responding to perceived insults. And hope for the same levels of tolerance in all those you inadvertently call a horse’s behind..

5. Host well.  If you invite people to an event, the time taken to make the feel welcome is essential, and speaks volumes about your level of respect for  them. This includes planning a refreshments that are appropriate for them, taking into account dietary preferences, religious observances and anything else required to avoid making them feel awkward. It doesn’t have to be lavish, but it does have to be thoughtful.  The phrase that sums up what you are aiming for? Honored guest.

6. Be gracious as a guest. Be gracious for what you receive, from whomever you receive it. People are often judged by the way they treat those around them, but all too often those actually providing the service are ignored. “Please”, “Thank you” and good eye contact should be the very minimum we offer.

And as a final note, if you make a mess on the carpet, please at least attempt to clean it up..

The Top 10 Concerns of Expats #1 – The Defining Moves Version

 

The HSBC’s Expat Explorer survey describing the top 10 barriers to relocating was recently discussed over at ShelterOffshore.com, who very kindly put together professional, well thought out advice for the 4100 respondents to the survey. Here’s the first part of my quick and dirty version, for the lost souls who stumble upon this site..

Another happy day out in Wales.. Seriously.

1) Re-establishing a Social Life

41% of all those surveyed advised that this was a key concern for them prior to and initially following their relocation abroad…highlighting just how important it is for us all to have friends and social contact.

Get out there. Bottom line, the only things you will make friends with in your own home are the TV and the refrigerator. The best piece of advice that I received on my somewhat less than comprehensive pre-assignment briefing was that “It’s a numbers game”. You have to filter through the masses to find the ones you want to spend time with. Put another way, if you want to find the diamonds, you have to go down the mine and get dirty. So, trite cliches aside, join the PTA /PTO, call the international school and embassy to see if they have lists of expat groups, take a class, join a sports club or gym (last resort for me due to ingrained laziness) and if all else fails, go and hang around the international food market and start up conversation with anyone who buys the Branston Pickle / Vegemite / Reeses Peanut Butter Cups / whatever your preferred food item might be. Many a lasting friendship begins over a a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, as Suzanne (Kenya), Liz & Kate (Los Angeles)and Emma & Staci (San Francisco) will attest.

2) Feeling Lonely / Missing Family & Friends

This of course ties in with the above point, and 34% of expats surveyed by HSBC highlighted this as a genuine worry.  Recent statistical evidence from the Centre of Future Studies also reveals that the expats who adjust most successfully and quickly are those who relocate with families..

One word. Skype. Your job before you leave town (or on your first trip home) is to insist firmly that all family members and close friends download Skype. (Boy, do I wish I was on commission right now..). This magical form of communication means that with the simple addition of a webcam, you can not only talk to loved ones, you can see what their hair is doing today. And nothing says togetherness more than commiserating over your “I’m new in town and can’t find a hairdresser” motif. Should you have a social group that is stuck in the pre-technology age, Skype does offer a monthly subscription that allows unlimited calls to landlines in 34 countries for ‘free’ (obviously you’ve paid a subscription, so it’s not really free, for the accountants amongst you) and cheap calls to cellphones. The bad news is that you will require internet access, so if that’s not possible, use Rebtel, which only requires a cellphone, and handles the internet bit for you.

3) Career Concerns

Oh blimey. Where to start. Probably with Jennifer Bradley’s Free Career Mentorship Classes.. Just to make it even easier, they’re online.

 4) Language Barriers

30% of those surveyed stated that they were worried about language being a barrier to their successful integration abroad – with many Brits relocating to Europe particularly concerned.

Learn the language as you will use it, and get used to feeling ridiculous. There are some excellent resources out there, the more formal being Berlitz and Rosetta Stone, but there are also endless apps, podcasts and online resources, so you have absolutely no excuses. One of my favorites is Fluent in 3 Months, which requires you to spend a lot of time feeling foolish and inept, but long as you have a sense of humor and a willingness to make mistakes, you will develop reasonable fluency in a very short amount of time.

Part 2  of the Top 10 Concerns of Expats (Defining Moves version) continues on Thursday. Don’t want to miss it? Subscribe on the right!

5 Simple Steps to Staying in (Social) Shape

Everyone loves to receive a card in the mail, and never more so than when you are 4000 miles away from home. And while most of us send out holiday cards once a year, birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations are often left to a last minute message on Facebook. So here’s a step by step guide to successfully mastering the original social media; going back to basics, putting it in writing, and getting it there on time.

1. Update your contact list. Right now, you will probably be displaying holiday cards from most of the people who are important to you. Before you file the cards away or send them for recycling, use them to update your contact list and add any new children, friends or addresses. If you don’t keep addresses on computer, now is a great time to start – either on a desktop program such Outlook or Address book, or online on Yahoo, Gmail or a card company like Moonpig.com. I like Plaxo.com for basic online storage and automatic syncing to smartphones – it takes a little getting used to, but it makes merging duplicate contact details simple, and will let you print off a complete list or individual labels.

2. Make group lists. While you are sitting down with all your contacts in one place, make lists of those who you want to send greeting cards to. Group them under headings like ‘birthday’, ‘anniversary’, ‘religious holiday’ (remember to group under the specific holiday) ‘thank you’ or ‘keep in touch’.

3. Set reminders. If you are using Outlook (PC) or Address book (Mac) or Plaxo.com, there is not an attached reminder function, so you will need to enter them into a calendar. It doesn’t matter whether you use a printed calendar, a desktop one or an online reminder system, you just need one that you pay attention to and gives you enough time to buy, write and mail a card. Two weeks is usually a good rule of thumb – it doesn’t matter if the card arrives a few days early, and it allows for the idiosyncrasies of weekends, holidays and international mail. Good online options for travelers include Cozi.com which will send a reminder via text or email, or Moonpig.com, which emails you a reminder and will also allow you to send customized cards direct from its site, wherever you happen to be in the world. Cozi has a million and one other fabulous functions, but no address book, whereas Moonpig.com does store addresses that you have used, making it a cinch for future years.

4. Buy back-up cards. You’ll be heading to the stores to restock on groceries at some point over the next few days, so grab a few one-size-fits-all cards while you are there. Make sure you buy standard size rectangular ones, with no extra weight or decoration, so that you can be sure of postage costs. In the US, square cards are charged at an additional rate, and the padding needed for many popular decoupage cards takes them over the weight limit for a standard postage stamp. They also often get caught in sorting machines, and are more of a target for tampering / customs inspection in places where hand sorting is still used. If you are determined to include cash, use a standard office type envelope rather than the colored birthday card one for the same reason.

5. Send out a fill-in-the-blanks email. If you are missing information, send out a New Year greetings email with a request for the relevant bits, and update your lists before their reply gets lost in email swamp. If email doesn’t work, try Facebook, Twitter or other social media, but make sure you use the private message function rather than plastering their private details across the internet..

6. Sit back and enjoy!

Teen Social Networking Infographic

It’s no longer just putting pen to paper – like many expat and TCK kids, mine rely on social networking sites to keep in contact with friends around the world. But while we keep track of them in the real world, Zonealarm’s infographic outlines just why we should be doing the same in the online one.
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When Birthday Presents go Badly Wrong


I love birthdays. I love the idea of celebrating someone’s life by marking the anniversary of the day that they entered the world. Of reminding each other that you care, that they are special, and that you’re glad they are part of your life.

But they are fraught with disaster. Growing up in our house, you had one chance at a present, and if you didn’t get it right, that was it until next year.  The key to success was getting our mother to pay attention, which bearing in mind she had three children and worked full time, wasn’t always the easiest task. With hindsight, she must have listened to too much of the Rolling Stones, because the birthday philosophy seemed to follow along the lines of ” You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” This certainly proved true for my brother, who when he didn’t employ the Drag, Point and Supervise Closely rule of birthday shopping, ended up with a snorkel duffel coat two sizes too small, which was then returned and swapped for school shirts. It was a defining moment in his development – his attention to detail and project management skills are now legendary.

My own birthday fails include a birthday party with dancing to a Fisher Price wind up record player (there were considerable lulls between renditions of “Camptown Races”, during which the frantic winding of a clockwork mechanism could be heard – excellent for musical statues, not so much for preserving a party atmosphere), and an 18th birthday spent in the garden with homemade paper hats and a birthday cake so sunken in the centre that it was turned into a cake ring and a large floral bow stuffed in it. My mother is nothing if not innovative.

This now causes me to overcompensate when birthdays roll around, but I am hampered by an overabundance of imagination and a warped sense of humor. This was never more evident than in the spoof present bought for my brother-in-law; a flying experience. A lifelong fan of anything aeronautical, he was overwhelmed. Sadly, even after unpacking the goggles, the CD, the hand fan and the instructions to “take a chair to the roof of a high building, sit as close to the edge as humanly possible, don the goggles, listen to the CD of engine noise and enjoy the sensation of unassisted flight”,  he still failed to appreciate the ‘spoof’ element, and was searching for a non-existent accompanying flight voucher. His face when realization dawned was worthy of YouTube, or the illustrated dictionary definition of ‘inconsolable disappointment”, not helped by the raucous laughter from the rest of the family.

Sadly, I have just done it again. We currently have Kelly and Andrew staying with us, who are a newly expectant couple from Wales. They have done the usual tourist route;  Alcatraz, the trolley buses, a bus tour of San Francisco, but they had yet to explore the Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square and the Palace of Fine Arts. Enter the GoCar.

GoCars are small, bright yellow Go Carts, straight out of a Peanuts cartoon. A GPS guidance system takes the driver on a circular two hour expedition around the sights of San Francisco and then gently back to home base. It seemed a fun and foolproof way to mark Andrew’s thirtieth birthday. That is, until the GPS failed to kick in for the first 20 minutes, leaving the two canary yellow helmet clad visitors driving in ever decreasing circles in search of Fisherman’s Wharf. Their self-guided idea ended abruptly when it became apparent that they were 50 feet from a freeway entrance, and while the GoCar is street legal, testing it on the 680 freeway seemed a little ambitious. Andrew was duly ejected from the vehicle to scout out the road ahead on foot (again, something not described in the glossy brochure), and returned to the car with a new  route and the words “I ‘ave to say, Kel, you look f**king ridiculous”, an unwise comment to the expectant mother of your child and the already near hysterical driver of the vehicle. Especially when you too are wearing the helmet.

The tour continued with the help of a grinning passerby, who directed them to Fisherman’s Wharf, whereupon the nice GPS lady in the control panel deigned to join in. She guided them up the Embarcadero, and across towards Golden Gate bridge, where a nice stiff breeze cooled further the already frozen duo, dressed for brisk autumn not subzero wind chill factors. At this point even Kelly, who is known for her steely determination, had had enough, and turned for home, only to be greeted by extensive road works. They then spent the next 40 minutes navigating the Union Square one way system the wrong way, and perfecting the art of the three point turn in a vehicle that isn’t equipped with a reverse gear, and required Andrew to leap out and push. Luckily, the jeering of waiting motorists was partly drowned out by the helmet padding, but as a word to any future husband, the words “this would be a lot easier if you got your fat arse out the car” does not improve marital harmony in stressful times.

They arrived back at home an hour an hour later, limping badly, with helmet hair and incipient hypothermia. You know things didn’t go according to plan when the response to the question “Did you only do two hours’ is a heartfelt ” It felt more like 3 days”;  presumably the inverse of ‘Time flies when you’re having fun”..

The family tradition of birthday excellence continues unbroken.