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Expat Adventures - Supermom. Defining Moves - the Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partner

Expat Family Adventures. Just call me Supermum. Or better yet, don’t.

Expat Adventures - Supermom. Defining Moves - the Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partnerMy children seem to think I have superpowers. On the surface, this seems flattering – all shiny lycra, comic-book stories and a movie where my character is played by Angelina Jolie.

The practice is somewhat different. It involves the assumption that any challenge can be presented at the very last minute, and a solution can magically be presented from the kitchen, the filing cabinet or presumably, a body orifice.

It’s my own fault. During their formative years, I took to carrying one of those enormous mail-sack versions of a handbag that every mother seems to get stuck with. (How men manage to ‘do’ childcare with just two pockets is a long conversation for another day.) No matter what the challenge, I had the emergency response kit tucked in the bottom somewhere. Hungry? Have a packet of (slightly furry) raisins. Thirsty? Sippy cup. Bored? Book, toy cars, Polly Pockets. Bacteria for science project? Remains of a mouldy sandwich wedged in the mobile phone pocket. Frankly, that bag had everything but a silky cape, and I have the spinal issues to prove it.

Time and location have not altered the reality. I have ranted at length about the challenges that expat life adds to the table – creating a family tree (with copious photographs) on a timescale that even DHL’s international service and a second mortgage can’t fix. Failure was not an option, so with some cavalier use of Google images, my children now both have illustrated family timelines with a little creative license. If using extras to fill the places of the stars when they are indisposed is good enough for the Oscar ceremony, it’s good enough for me.

2012 has seen the blossoming of the Wiggy One, with a sudden interest in socializing, traveling the world and even going to college conferences (gasp). For many of you, this may seem like a normal stage of teenage growth and not cause for disturbance, but as Wiggy’s time-honored strategy for adapting to a new environment involves adamantly refusing to speak to people for the first three months, it is quite the sea change. Predictably, as with anything new, he fails to understand the timescales necessary for certain tasks to be completed, and relies on the superpowers yet again.

This time, it was bureaucracy. So startled were we in his interest in going to Turkey and Greece with his history group that we failed to realize that his passport and visa were tied up in the Green Card application process. Not only were we not in actual possession of his passport (with accompanying visa), but the aforementioned passport was only valid for another 4 months. Entry into Turkey required 6 months validity. Re-entry into the US would the require a new visa. We had 8 weeks to achieve all of the above, 4000 miles away from the nearest passport office.

Thus ensued a frenzy of activity; tracking down non US passport photos (Costco, for those of you in a similar predicament, are helpful, quick and cheap. And are really happy to do retakes..), filling in forms, finding UK citizens to countersign  (no easy task when they are required to have known you for two years, and we move every three..) and spending days at in line at the Post Office spending a fortune on tracked, insured, countersigned, personally delivered, gold-plated, fingerprints and inside leg measurements required for delivery type postage.

We managed it, with a mere two weeks to spare, thanks to the efficiency of the US Immigration Service and the British Embassy in Washington DC, and the Wiggy One trooped off to pastures new with a newly minted Green card and passport and instructions to never, ever let them out of contact with his skin. I would have staple-gunned them to his torso if I could.

I must give credit where it is due. He had a very jolly time experiencing rather more of what Greece and Turkey had to offer than was advertised on the tour brochure (how does one inadvertently manage to book a 15 year old on a wine tasting tour??), and arrived back tanned, relaxed and carefree. Oh, and luggage free too.

Expat Adventures - Supermom. Defining Moves - the Art of Successful Relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat trailing spouse / accompanying partnerI should probably pay British Airways for the lesson to teenage global nomads. If it’s not in your hand, don’t count on it being there when you get to the other end of the journey, no matter what the airline might tell you. Sure enough, he arrived back on US soil, safe and sound, still clutching his wallet, passport, Green card and a book. And absolutely nothing else.

British Airways should have listened to mother..

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.


The Dora’s are Exploring, and it’s Hell on Wheels

Most of you are probably enjoying the resounding silence echoing through the blog this week, and here’s the reason. The Doras are off exploring, and this time it’s New York that’s the victim of choice.

The Doras are a highly inept, haphazard bunch currently consisting of my sister (Dinner Ladies, and Parenting fame) and Ify (who has yet to feature anywhere by the comments section, mainly because she’s bigger than me and has a death stare that could stop a charging rhino at 40 paces). The sole qualification for inclusion into this elite group is the ability to create chaos wherever you go, eat unhealthy food from street vendors without a food hygiene certificate and be able to sustain at least a modicum of good humor on one of my sister’s inevitable bicycle endurance tests.

And you need stamina, because jet lag is ruthlessly ignored. I inadvertently started this tradition when Sarah stumbled off an 11 hour transatlantic flight to be whisked off to Panda Express for takeaway. She may have been in transit for 18 hours, dragged 50 kilos of chocolate across London’s formidable public transport system and then endured close questioning from a surly immigration officer, but it was dinnertime in LA and she was getting Chinese takeaway.

She had her revenge. Six hours on a red eye to New York, an hour and a half on the subway system and no sleep for thirty six hours meant nothing. It was 8 am New York time and a new day was beginning. A tour of Washington Heights, a quick look at the river, deli lunch from Frankies supermarket and then off to walk Brooklyn Bridge. It was only the knowledge of twenty packets of Cadbury’s Giant Chocolate Buttons back at the apartment that kept me from throwing myself off.

Cycling around Golden Gate park was always going to be Ify’s favorite. Not. Last time we were on a bicycle, it was the torturous 30 mile trip from San Francisco to Tiburon, through some of the hilliest terrain that San Francisco has to offer. We learned some new words that day, and it was only Sarah’s superior turn of speed on two wheels that kept her from being throttled, especially  given her habit of shouting loud and cheery encouragement at Ify’s mutinous form.

Yesterday’s bicycle outing was stunning in it’s lack of planning. Alighting from the subway on 5th Ave, we found ourselves swept into the middle of the massive Puerto Rico day parade, complete with thumping salsa music, hoards of scantily dressed women and general chaos that followed us for the entire day. Instead of the leisurely leafy freewheeling seen in all the movies, we spent the entire time pushing our bicycles around throngs of celebrating parties, all of whom seemed intent on poking our eyes out with the national flag.

But we had a great New York day, despite the crowds. The architecture of the buildings overlooking the park was beautiful, the lakes were glistening in the sun, and the mounted police waved cheerily from atop their horses as we labored by. But the cherry on top of the cake came at the very end, as we halted our bicycles ready to push them back up 6th Ave to the hire shop.

Apparently, racing cyclists feel they don’t need to obey red lights, regardless of whether or not there are stroller pushing pedestrians waiting to cross. We amateurs, however, are a far more courteous breed, and so braked gently to a halt, three abreast. It was too much for the speed racer behind us, who failed to slow in time to avoid us. He screeched painfully into the back wheel of Ify’s bicycle, only to find his feet still firmly attached to the pedals. I watched bemused as he toppled gently in slow motion into me, before reaching a fully horizontal position, still in racing crouch.

I don’t think we are intimidating, but the poor man looked terrified by the three women peering down at him. As he struggled to free his feet and extricate himself, he stuttered endless apologies and inquiries as to our welfare – ironic when when were the ones still standing. He wobbled off into the throng of people, disheveled and dusty, and only the little the worse for wear.

It’s incredible to see the full destructive force of the Doras in action. Still, it’s good to see Ify enjoying herself.

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?

Expat Life and Long Drops

Today’s post is from the wonderful Apple Gidley, author of the hilarious, poignant and very, very well observed memoir Expat Life, Slice by Slice. For more of her writing, you can find her blogging at the UK Telegraph. But today, she’s writing for us – hooray!


“You didn’t warn me about the long drops,” my sister admonished on her return from trekking up Machu Picchu all in the name of charity – Great Ormond Street Hospital being the chosen one.

“Would it have helped to know?” I asked.  Never having attempted the climb myself I thought her accusation a tad unfair – how was I to know about the lavatorial facilities on a Peruvian mountain?

“It might have,” she sniffed, “And you know about these things!”

Long drops, dunnies, bogs, loos, privies, ploppen, names that vividly describe those receptacles we all use regardless of race, colour or creed.

Val’s assertion got me thinking about how much we really need to know about a place before we travel to new lands, whether for a few weeks or a few years. Yes we need information about healthcare and schools.  A broad overview of the political climate is helpful and an idea of basic customs and acceptable behaviours is essential, but do we really need to know the intricacies of day-to-day life in a new country before arriving?  Doesn’t that lessen the excitement of discovery; take away from the foreign flavours if we’ve read all about it in Rick Steves’ travel guide?

Maybe it lessens the pitying glances as you ask a seemingly obvious question, like the first time I went to Australia.  I was only seven at the time and my Australian mother had neglected to explain certain differences in Antipodean and English English.  “What’s a dunny?” I remember asking my cousin of the same age as we headed to school on the bus, me just for the day so as to experience a rural bush school.  I got over the shame of ignorance and the smirk that accompanied the explanation, and I never looked back.

Like most people I am sure, I prefer a little privacy when attending to my daily ablutions but it is quite amazing how many places there are in the world where that doesn’t happen.  I’ve squatted in the New Guinea highlands surrounded by soaring eucalypts and ficus, or on in the scrub of seemingly secluded African beaches only to become aware of eyes belonging to the two-legged species watching me through the dripping mist or the sea grapes.

“Hong nam ti nai kha?” was an oft-heard request as my daughter and I raced from an idling car clogged in the Bangkok traffic to burst through the door of many a coffee house during the potty training stage of her life.  She learnt to squat over a hole in the ground with equanimity. “Sawadekha,” she would trill to the occasional head poked through the flimsy curtain providing the barest of privacy, curious at the mad farang using their facilities; she far more at ease than her mother at the same intrusion.

Despite a dislike at these intrusions I used to think us Westerners were probably far too sensitive about discussing our bodily functions but a recent conversation changed my mind.

“I looked everywhere for ploppen loos,” Jo, an English friend renovating a house in Den Haag, mentioned to us over wine at this year’s FIGT conference.

“Why?” asked a Dutch friend.  “Non-ploppen toilets allow you to discern the health of your movements.”

A charming way, I thought as I spluttered inelegantly into my glass, of entreating us to check our crap.

“I don’t want to check it, I want to flush it,” Jo said.

“Oh you English are so puritanical,” Jantje commented.

“Did you find any ploppens?” I asked.

“Eventually!” Jo said.

The wonderfully euphemistic phrase used in the United States for the lavatory, whether ploppen or non-ploppen, is ‘restroom’.  Strange as the experience might produce relief but rarely rest.  Certainly not in America where the whole ordeal is heightened by the need to avoid exposing one’s nether regions, or the acrobatic reengaging of tight tights over round rumps, by staying firmly out of sight.

“Don’t they have doors?” I hear you ask.  Well of course they do, but a great many restrooms also have an inch gap around the stall walls.  I know we have all been confronted at some time by an inquisitive face peering up under the door to be quickly followed by a mother’s voice shrieking, “George, don’t do that!”  That is an accepted part of children in public loos, rather like a face through the curtain was in the less sophisticated eating establishments in Thailand.  But really, having to dodge between the gaps is a bit much.

So no, I didn’t warn my sister about long drops but she didn’t warn me about American restrooms, and really does it matter?  When you’ve got to go, well, you’ve just got to go regardless of where you are and who’s watching, and don’t these little discoveries add to the excitement, and laughter, of life on the global trail?


Apple Gidley has relocated 26 times through 12 countries and has found the amusing side of life in most places.  She is the author of Expat Life Slice by Slice, Summertime Publishing. 



Expat Parenting Dilemmas: Ridiculosis Pediculosis

A letter came home from school today that strikes fear into my heart. It’s the pediculosis letter.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the medical terminology, it’s more commonly known as Head Lice, Nits, or the Scourge of Parents the World Over.

I have a love / hate relationship with the little critters that dates back to when I was a child. In those days, the Nit Nurse came to the local school to forage through the follicles of the entire under 11 population, and report loudly back to the class teacher should any of the blighters be located. Those children were then duly dispatched home with a strongly worded note, some noxious shampoo and the instruction not to return until the all clear had been sounded.

When it was my children’s turn to attend primary school, the Nit Nurse had been phased out as cruel and barbaric. In its place was a more holistic, cyclical process of repeated infestation and endless torturous combing sessions. Teachers no longer bothered to send notes home, choosing instead to accept the inevitable presence and adopt the lice as classroom pets.

By now, Health Authorities were attempting to rebrand nits, sending out cheerily colored information leaflets informing parents and children alike that head lice (the creepy crawly adult version) preferred clean hair in which to lay their eggs. Sadly for me, this came at precisely the wrong time; for once I was proud of my superior parenting powers in Wiggy’s lice free status. Apparently, it now told people that I didn’t bathe him enough.

And then came Martha to redeem my status. As with everything Feisty, she came out fighting. She hadn’t even made it to school age before managing to infest the entire family (myself included) with a particularly virulent strain. You have to hand it to her – when she does something, she does it with gusto. She is the family version of Typhoid Mary, skipping merrily through whatever ailment she manages to catch, and leaving a trail of incapacitated bodies in her wake.

So it was with this particular pediculosis; her fine wispy hair was quickly deemed inadequate for purpose by its local population who promptly decamped to me. (Those of you who have already read Tick Bite Fever will know that I do not take parasitic invasion well.) At the age of 34, I was struck down with my first ever case of head lice and spent Christmas fruitlessly applying every homeopathic, non-toxic nit remedy to my scalp.  I was finally forced to skulk into the local Boots drugstore to locate the head lice version of napalm, interrogating the hapless assistant in an attempt to establish which was the most lethal remedy.

She looked concerned when I loaded three bottles into my basket, and tried to intervene on behalf of whatever child I was in danger of poisoning. If you ever want to end an unwanted conversation swiftly, I can vouch for the phrase “you might not want to get too close, I have head lice” as being a winner.

But the thing I love about head lice is that they are a shining example of non-discriminatory practice. They are global – we have managed to play welcome host in every country we have ever lived, and sometimes, twice. They have no interest in race, color, culture, income or social standing and ironically, the more ambitious the parenting, the more prevalent they seem to be. I can only think they are standing waiting at a little head lice base camp somewhere, waiting for you to even think the words “Well, of course, MY children…”

Head lice. Parenting Karma



Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis - Part of the Trailing Spouse Bog | Defining Moves

Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis

Cultural Orientation and Driving with Elvis - Part of the Trailing Spouse Bog | Defining Moves

I miss the day to day contact with friends who were part of our lives on previous assignments, which is why, when my son and a friend from LA were happily comparing iPod playlists in the car yesterday, I was listening in and enjoying fond memories of time spent with people we love and luckily, have not lost touch with.

This warm and fuzzy moment came to a screeching halt about ten minutes in, however, when an Elvis song started filtering through the absurdly loud teenage headphones.

The last time I listened to Elvis in a moving vehicle was during the most bizarre driving lesson I have ever endured, and bearing in mind I took five attempts to pass my UK driving test and had an 80 yr old instructor who thought nothing of rapping your knuckles with the wooden ruler she carried with her for exactly that purpose, it’s saying something.

To put the experience in context, we had just arrived in LA after a 26 hour journey from Nairobi, complete with 8 hour layover in Heathrow airport.

The journey was made significantly more stressful by a series of unfortunate events, the first being the loss of my passport (complete with newly minted US visa) in Nairobi airport. It had fallen into the flaps of the English leather saddle that I was inexplicably transporting with us to LA. After 20 minutes of frantic searching and some passionate use of Anglo Saxon epithets, it was found on the floor of the airport by a passing security staff member, who was promptly kissed and hugged by every member of the family bar the Wiggy One. He simply stood by, mortified at the public family drama, and looked like he had swallowed a frog.

Our arrival into LAX was hampered by flooding in the International Terminal, and the rerouting of all 2000 incoming passengers to Tom Bradley terminal, where we were then in a fight to the death to retrieve any luggage that may have made it to the carousel.

Predictably, the saddle was to be our nemesis, and 2 hours later we were informed that it definitely was somewhere, they just didn’t know where. Our flight had landed at 6.30pm, but at 10.30pm we finally exited the airport and checked into our temporary accommodation, only to be informed that the restaurant was now closed, our room only had one double bed, and that our driving lesson and assessment was booked for 9am the following morning. It was not an auspicious start.

Walking into the foyer to meet my driving instructor the next morning, I assumed the vision before me was some sort of jet-lag fueled hallucination. It had never occurred to me that Elvis impersonators might have a day job, but apparently teaching newly arrived corporate immigrants to navigate the hazards of the Los Angeles traffic system is a good use of their skills.

I don’t have a great deal of experience with this particular anthropological group, so the next hour proved challenging. Apparently, they don’t take their vocation lightly, and despite the white rhinestone studded outfit, carpeted car dashboard with nodding hula girl and propensity to accompany every directional instruction with a swirly arm movement, you are expected to remain straight faced and focused on the matter in hand.

LA traffic is difficult at the best of times, but having the Hound Dog personified in the passenger seat for your first battle is not exactly conducive to concentration. It didn’t help that my sun visor was adorned with a photo of his 40-something girlfriend with bottle blond 80’s hair, clad in a bizarre Playboy sailor outfit complete with hat. As a first introduction to US culture, it was a doozy.

Four years of nurse training in one of London’s biggest hospitals has rendered me immune to the more extreme varieties of self expression, and frankly, after you’ve seen some of the rectal X Rays that I have, it takes more than a Bryl-Creemed quiff and a whiff of old Spice to rattle me.

Despite him announcing within the first 10 minutes that “You are a very good driver”, we continued our bizarre promenade around the streets of El Segundo, with me numbed by a combination of lack of sleep, jet lag and hunger, and him becoming increasingly more frustrated with my lack of awe at his repeated catchphrases, masculine authority and choice of profession.

Eventually, he became bored with my continued focus on the highway code and directed me to a local shopping mall where he promptly announced that he would be back in 5 minutes, exited the car, and locked it behind him, with me trapped inside.

Twenty minutes later he finally returned slurping on a milkshake, by which time I was snoring gently behind the wheel.

We finally arrived back at the hotel to find the OH pacing outside the main door, anxious to see how I had fared, and pick up any pearls of wisdom that might help in his own quest for driving excellence. I had only one:


“We’re going to need some serious cultural orientation training.”



Call center hell lines - part of the Trailing Spouse blog | Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation

Call Center Hell Lines

Call Centre Hell Lines - Part of the Trailing Spouse Blog | Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation


I like things in life portable, mainly because carrying and unpacking boxes gets really old after the first hour, let alone the days it usually takes. I don’t have a desktop computer, I have a laptop. Our TV is tiny, we have a projector for family viewing, I have a single drawer for paperwork and I only own 4 cooking pans. I like to keep things simple.

Recently, I bought a Roku. It is a cunning gizmo the size of a pack of cards which plugs into your TV  (or in our case, projector) and uses a wireless internet connection to stream TV and movies to your living room, avoiding the use of a laptop.

This is excellent news for me, because I run my entire life from my laptop. It serves as my landline telephone, photo storage, office, website hub, bank and general second brain. Which is why I get a very nervous eye twitch every time it leaves my field of vision, especially in the grubby hands of a small child off to watch SpongeBob Squarepants.

Hence the Roku. And an evening of Call Centre Hell.

Initially, it looked promising. Our Costco version was supplied with a cable that made installation so simple a hamster could have done it, we remembered our modem password without having to climb into the attic with a torch, and so we laughed in the face of adversity.

Until the little “Unable to connect to your Local Network” prompt appeared.

At this point, we were forced to enter the festering pit my son calls his bedroom, boot up his desktop and call up the router settings. Nothing.

A note to the unwary – teenagers think they know everything, and have finely honed fast twitch muscles in their fingers from years of video game use. Faced with an unknown password, instinct kicked in, and one keystroke later the only person in the house able to get on the internet was Wiggy. 

The last time we couldn’t access the internet, I called ‘Mike’ in Bangalore, who was unfailingly polite but somewhat limited by the script provided for him. After 6 futile hours cycling through the same procedure without any change in outcome, he broke,  shouted “I cannot help you any more” followed by a dial tone. The technician that arrived the following day was able to spot the problem immediately, not through any greater skill, but simply because he could physically see that we didn’t actually have a modem.. Poor Mike didn’t stand a chance.

This time, I took a different approach. Hooking my neighbor’s (conveniently unsecured) wireless network to the Roku support page produced “No Results Found” in foot high letters on the living room wall, leading me to believe that either their customer service page needs a little more work, or I am the only idiot that can’t set up a Roku.

Despite immense patience and an hour and a half in an online queue, I was similarly unsuccessful with the Roku LiveChat, at which point a red mist clouded my vision. I vaguely remember leaning heavily on Wiggy’s shoulder and mutter dire threats in his ear, and I faintly recall a hissing noise coming from either my mouth or my ears.

Wherever it came from, it was effective, because five minutes later connection was restored and I was considering authoring a guide to the Idi Amin approach to parenting.

When we finally got a picture, it was heaven. There was laughter, there was cheering, there was celebration.

And when all that died down, there was silence.

Using the projector with a laptop sends sound via the wireless speakers.

Use the Roku and a projector, and you are faced with a silent evening doing voice overs to Monty Python sketches…

Charades, anyone?


The Care and Management of Teenage Boys - Defining Moves - the Art of Successful Relocation

The Care and Management of Teenage Sons

The Care and Management of Teenage Boys - Defining Moves - the Art of Successful Relocation

It’s the weekend, and I thought you deserved a little break from all the intense debate that the 9 questions every expat spouse should ask series. The final part will be out tomorrow, but in the mean time, enjoy my the latest family foray into parenting advice. I don’t think Supernanny has anything to fear just yet..

My sister and I have recently been pondering the challenges of raising teenage sons. To be fair, I have the advantage here – not because I boast any special parenting skills, but because her son is eighteen months older than mine, and so I benefit greatly from advance warning of the inevitable crises. It helps.

She, however, has the upper hand in terms of professional training, for while I spent ten years as a college tutor developing the steely eyed gaze necessary to make 17 year old males give written account of their transgressions and the steps required to resolve them, she used to teach Kindergarten and so assumes a low level of understanding and even less compliance. She is also more familiar with chaos, incontinence and uncontrollable tantrums..

So here are our top three tools for managing the behavioral challenges of teenage sons; namely poor attention span, endless hours in the bathroom and the obsession with all things electronic. For the benefit of mothers everywhere, there is the comments section at the bottom for you all to add your own..


Dry wipe markers.

Ignore your local office supply store when they try to sell you and expensive board or piece of glass to accompany your dry erasable marker – teenagers  spend endless hours gazing in the mirror, so capitalize on this by writing any messages directly on the glass. Not only does it take more than a single push of a button to delete your instructions, you get the added benefit of introducing them to the world of household cleaning products at the same time. If at any time their attention begins to wander or their response rate drops, simply employ time-honored passive aggressive tactics by writing “I love you, by precious little boy” or “Don’t forget to kiss Teddy goodnight” just before his friends arrive.. Perfect

Pair of scissors.

When birthdays come around and gaming systems are requested, we feel a warm glow at the excitement lighting up their little faces. This warm glow quickly turns to a smoldering rage when we realize that we are now completely superfluous to needs, apart from routine cupboard and fridge filling, and the occasional bout of laundry. Thankfully for parents across the globe, Tesla’s wireless electricity system was never taken seriously, so every electronic recreation device requires some sort of periodic or consistent charge. Careful hiding of batteries can help, but for a more permanent solution, there are scissors. Let me tell you from experience, nothing gets a teenager’s attention quicker than a severed power cable. Just remember to unplug it first, okay?

Shower pebble.

When I was growing up, there was no such thing as constant hot water. We had an immersion hot water heating system that took at least 30 minutes to heat, and a very large metal bathtub. This meant that washing in the morning was done on a swift and conservative basis (which as the bathroom maintained a sub zero temperature, was no sacrifice) and baths were only ever taken in the evening, on a strict rotation.
It seems strange that at some pivotal moment during their development, boys switch from a hysterical loathing of personal bathing, to permanent residence in the bathroom. And while I am great advocate of personal hygiene in the adolescent male, the endless billowing clouds of steam from unattended showers and the massive utility bills begin to grate on my nerves. Hence the water pebble. This cunning device has an inbuilt timer which is preset by any adult who happens to read the instruction leaflet. It then sits innocently in the bottom of the shower, only triggered into action when the water starts running. It’s insignificant green pulse switches to a more insistent amber flash when you have two minutes left, until at that ‘time’s up’ moment, all Hell breaks loose in the shape of a pulsating red strobe more commonly seen on the roof of police vehicles..

The one we ditched..

Computer time limiter.

 I can’t compete with kittens on YouTube, bloopers on damnyouautocorrect.com, or the general insanity that is Facebook. What I can do, however, is set rules for the game. Enter, a genius program which allows you to limit the screen time they have access to. In an ideal world, I’d make them generate their own electricity using pedal power, but until that day comes, I’m comforting myself with pulling the virtual plug.

Update. I was wrong. Teenage boys are far more tech savvy than we can ever hope to be, and what starts out as a tool to manage them deteriorates quickly into a cyber battle for supremacy which parents inevitably lose. I have resorted to the a more effective, low tech solution (see “scissors”)..

Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress



Communication Gaffes: French kissing in the USA - part of the Defining Moves Trailing Spouse relocation series

Communication Gaffes: French Kissing in the USA

Communication Gaffes: French kissing in the USA - part of the Defining Moves Trailing Spouse relocation seriesI have a confession. When I previously wrote about my expat communication mishaps, it was just bait to hook the big fish. The French Kissing story.

In my world, I’m usually the master (mistress?) of the intercultural miscommunication, but someone somewhere has seen fit to bless me with the most wondrous of gifts. Someone who is just as impressively misguided as I, and who is not only willing to laugh (and be laughed at) about it, but also generous enough to let me share some of the more hilarious moments.

The potential for a kindred spirit became clear when, early on in our budding friendship, Daisy* substituted the Other Half’s phone number for mine. While I was sitting alone wondering just how I had offended her enough to not to return any of my messages, the Other Half was having senior management meetings routinely interrupted with offers of manicures, pedicures, coffee and even introductions to other women by a seemingly desperate female he had never heard of..

Fast forward 18 months and an endless stream of hilarious attempts to bridge the transatlantic language gap later, and it’s clear that the problem is far from solved. In a curious reflection of US history, it seems to be the presence of the British that causes consternation.

It took a single well meaning comment from Emily* (another British expat trailing spouse) to start the downhill slide to chaos. Predictably, it was at that most damning of public forums, where every comment is carefully monitored and revisited for hidden clues into the parenting psyche; the PTA committee meeting.

Emily: “Your sons have excellent social skills.”

Daisy: “Do you think so? I’m working on them. I’m teaching them to kiss the French way.”

At this point, Emily’s’s face went a deathly white, and a funny buzzing noise started in her ears. She is known for her forthright honesty, and was struggling valiantly with the urge to blurt out “FRENCH KISSING??? WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU THINKING???” at the top of her lungs. Only the strength of her friendship with Daisy and the presence of two steely faced PTA committee members limited her response to a choked:

“Really? Don’t you think that’s something they should learn for themselves?”

The purple tinge that had spread as far as Emily’s ears should have given Daisy a clue that something was amiss, but she was blissfully oblivious, and proceeded to stumble further into the minefield.

“No, I think it’s important that they learn to do it properly. Their Dad is hopeless at it, so I can’t leave it to him. Actually, I think you should give him some lessons.”


“Yes – you’d be great at it, and he’d listen to you”

Emily has been attending cardio boot camp classes recently, so her blood pressure is in pretty good shape. It’s didn’t stop her eyes bulging ominously as she stared at Daisy in disbelief.

Thankfully, the quiet voice of a forgotten PTA member spoke up from the depths of the couch.

“I don’t think she means “French kissing”, I think she means European kissing –  on the cheeks..”

I will leave it to your imagination to picture Daisy’s face as she mentally revisited the conversation and it’s previously unseen connotations, but should you need help, Googling the word ‘horrific’ will pretty much take care of it.

You’ve got to hand it to her; when she does it, she does it in style. And publicly. With minutes.

*Names have been changed to protect the inept innocent.

So, now that we’ve got the ball rolling, let’s hear yours!

I’m off to the Familes in Global Transition conference on March 29th, so I would love some giggles to take my mind off my stage fright.. There’s a Harriet Stanes print for the best one received by the end of March, and you are allowed to change any and all names!

 Photo courtesy of the US National Archives