Tag Archives: life

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture.

(Often Ignored) Expat Essentials – Writing a Will.

Yes, I know. You don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it, which is why I have been getting shifty looks from most of my expat network this week when I asked them the seemingly simple question: “Do you have a will?” Want to know how many people said “Yes”?

Two. Out of about thirty people, all of whom have high net worth, children from at least one relationship, and often dual citizenship / resident status. A little worrying, no? 

I can’t claim the moral high ground – we recently unearthed our Will, dusty from 10 years in an unmarked cardboard box in a storage container in Walthamstow. Not exactly accessible in the event of our demise, and even worse, was so out of date that the paperclip holding it together was rusty and the Feisty One was not even mentioned. So on her behalf, I am doing something about it… Here goes.

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture. I have a new dirty word: intestate. For those of you who have been living a carefree life of blissful indifference, it’s what happens when you don’t have a will. For non-expats, the implications are unpleasant: it gives the state responsibility and control over the division of your estate, decisions about who will take care of your dependents, the timeframe it all happens and (of course) access to a large chunk of your assets via taxes.

It’s a simple fix – a Will. It’s the document that tells those left behind what you want to happen to your dependents and estate.  Most of us overthink it, imagining a torturous process requiring three weeks of desperate hunting for title deeds and old bank statements. Nothing could be further from the truth – the best wills are simple statements of intent, which give executors something to work with and a few clues about where you have hidden your treasure. Combine that with a good estate planning lawyer and you will create a plan that saves everyone time, money and heartache at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Introducing first part of the Defining Moves “Ducks in a Row” program. Our aims are simple:

  • To inspire you to act. Right now. Because this is important.
  • To get you to the lawyer on time. We want to prompt to you think, discuss, list and plan, so that any legal advice you get is based on reality, not just the bits you could remember in the car on the way to the lawyer’s office. And make sure that when whoever prepares your will asks a question, you know the answer and are not paying $300 per hour for them to watch you think about it / argue with your spouse / try to remember whether or not you mailed the last life insurance premium.

So grab your pencil and paper, and let’s get started…

 

Step one: The People.

There are three groups of people you need to consider when drafting a Will;

  1. your dependents
  2. your beneficiaries
  3. your executors

 

Dependents.

These are the people who rely on you for some sort of care, support and/or protection. Traditionally, these were children still living at home, but modern families are often complicated with blended families, shared custody arrangements, adoptive children, elder relatives and even pets added to the mix. Thankfully, lawyers have seen it all before, and, even better if you have a family as nutty as mine, are sworn to secrecy…

Make of the list of those who you are responsible for, whether physically, socially, financially or legally, and the type of care you provide. Keep it simple – the rest can be figured out later – at this stage, your task is to create a comprehensive list.

Now list any special circumstances that will have to be addressed.  For many families, this may involve shared custody, child support or special needs but for expats there may also be issues of differing nationalities, citizenship and resident status that may have tax and legal implications.

For those of you with your own business, bear in mind that you may also have professional responsibility for continuity of care of clients – check your licensing organization or professional code of conduct if you are unsure.

 

Beneficiaries.

Your beneficiaries are the recipients of your estate – usually immediate descendants, siblings, friends and charities. Typically, assets are divided equally between your children, so if you want to use a different split, make this clear to your lawyer so that they can prevent your will being subject to legal contest. Note also that laws differ about division of assets when you die intestate – half siblings, step and adoptive children are often treated differently, and the portion of the estate automatically assigned to the spouse varies widely internationally.

If you have any other people or organizations who you want to leave money to, add them to your list now.

 

Executors, Financial Guardians and Legal Guardians.

It’s your group of guardian angels, so pick wisely. These are people who you trust to administer your estate and make sure your wishes are carried out, to care for your dependents and to manage the finances of the beneficiaries if they are unable to do so. The roles carry huge responsibility, so discuss whether or not your intended choices are both willing and able. They can be family members, friends or lawyers; typically, lawyers are paid (and aren’t given custody of the children…) whereas family and friends are less likely to be.

Note that guardianship differs from child custody: while custody refers to the physical care provided by a parent (who may have no legal powers), legal guardianship may involve physical and/or legal custody, and continues until the child reaches adulthood or the guardian’s death. By contrast, especially in the modern family, custody is far more flexible and changes according to the situations of the parents.

Here’s where expats need to be especially careful, because the local laws may be very different to those of your home nation and custody / guardianship arrangements and next of kin may not follow familiar rules. In the UAE, for instance, if no will is in place, Sharia law prevails, meaning that assets and custody of children potentially follow the male line – your husband / partner’s parents, brothers and sisters. How is your relationship with your mother-in-law, by the way?

 

Step Two: The Money

Your estate is the sum total of your assets, and while many of you will be rolling your eyes that I am pointing out the obvious, I can guarantee that there will be plenty of things that you will have forgotten. The temptation is to run to the filing cabinet / junk drawer and fish out the most recent bank statement, and start noting down numbers, but don’t. Your assets are constantly changing, so you only need to include categories – current and savings accounts, property, jewelry stocks, shares, businesses, investment accounts, life insurance, digital assets (websites, videos etc) – and where those assets are held. For a starter list, click here for pdf cheat sheet.

While you are making your list, make note of who your beneficiaries are, and how they are reported. Typically, life insurance goes to the spouse, but in a world where divorce rates run at about 45%, there are a huge number of exes who are still listed as primary beneficiary. Take note, and make any necessary changes…

 

Step Three: The Decisions

Now that you have the information, you can start making decisions about how to pass on your legacy, human or otherwise. Your key priorities are the welfare of your dependents, so start with those and work from there.

Guardianship of dependents.

Who do you want to care for your dependents if you are no longer around to do so? Depending on the complexity of your family and the types of dependents, there may be more than one answer to this question, so set it all out clearly, naming each dependent individually. Talk to all the parties concerned before you head to the lawyer’s office – you may be surprised to hear who your children would hate to live with, or which relative is intending to move to Outer Mongolia next month – to prevent return visits. Factors that may affect your decision are not just emotional – also consider location (how will your children feel about leaving the country, for instance), age and health of potential guardians, relationship with other friends and family, support network and financial ability to provide care.

Include financial provision for your dependents and decide who you want to manage your estate for them if they are still minors. In many cases, life insurance helps to cover the cost of raising children, but once you include the cost of college education it may not go as far as you think.

Financial, legal and professional dependent provision will require discussion with your lawyer and with those who you nominate to take over; the good news is that if planned in advance, the process is straightforward (and certainly infinitely preferable to leaving your legal advisor / executor to try to unravel the mess in your absence).

 

Step Four: The Division

This is the fun bit, providing you have money to leave. But before you start divvying up between your offspring and the local cat protection league, here are a few pointers:

  1. Remember that your debts and liabilities (taxes, funeral expenses, etc) will be deducted from your estate before the remainder is distributed. You can offset many of these by establishing a Trust, which will will talk about in the next chapter, but for the moment, just remember to include your loans, debts and other obligations when you are cataloging your estate.
  2. Ensure that you own your assets outright before you will them away. Anything jointly owned needs careful consideration to avoid passing on a headache rather than a well-intentioned gift. If you hadn’t already discussed future plans with the co-owner(s), now is the time to do so.
  3. Now is not the time to make a point. Sure, you may have favorites, but remember that in many cases you are not just leaving behind a bequest, but a lifetime of family discord and ill-feeling – not to mention legal challenges. It may seem a lovely idea to leave the bulk of your estate to your newest grandchild/ favorite nephew or next door neighbor, but the resulting fallout can often sour the best of intentions. The same rules apply for property – find out which mementos, furniture or jewelry are most loved by your friends and family, and divide accordingly, informing all of them who has been given what. That way, any discussions, disagreements or disappointments can be directed at you, rather than unwitting recipients.
  4. While we are on the subject of leaving objects to people, think carefully about whether they want them, and the responsibility you are handing over. It’s difficult to part with things, no matter how ugly, unwanted or expensive to maintain without feeling disloyal to the person who gifted it.

Now you have done the difficult bit, it’s time to put pen to paper and make a rough outline to take to the lawyer’s office. If you are an expat, you may be advised to get legal input from both your home and host nation perspective – while the laws of your home nation usually take precedence, extended residence overseas may change the rules, so be sure to explain the situation rather than making assumptions.

You need to include:

  • Your name, and identifying details (usually your address, but if you are an expat, you will need to clarify your domicile (primary place of residence) with an experienced lawyer – it has significant tax and legal implications.
  • Names of beneficiaries; the people and organizations you want to leave your assets (whether money, housing, land, stock options, digital assets etc ).
  • The name of your executor (the person responsible for making sure your wishes are met).
  • Guardians of your dependents – Legal and physical.
  • Who gets what.
  • Your legal advisor should also include a “residual clause” that states the recipient for any assets you forgot to mention, or have been accrued since you wrote your will. “I bequeath any residue to” should take care of it.
  • Signature and date, with initials and date on every page.

Congratulations if you made it to this point- you are well on your way. In the next post, we’ll be introducing the fun stuff.. Planning your funeral, Living Wills and frustrating the tax man.

Bet you can hardly wait.

 

Further Resources:

Nolo.com – Legal encylopedia – Wills

USA.gov – advice on writing both social media and regular wills.

UK Citizens Advice Bureau information on writing a will.

Australia. gov – Resources on wills and power of attorney

expat finance - money for nothing. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the expat trailing spouse, accompanying partner and relocating family.

Expat Finance – Money for Nothing.

Expat life plays havoc with your finances. Often you are paid in one currency but live day-to-day with another, creating a budget is impossible when you have no idea what you will need or what anything costs, and trying to keep track of your spending when you have to establish a whole new life, home and family is virtually impossible.

expat finance - money for nothing. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the expat trailing spouse, accompanying partner and relocating family.Every time you relocate, your expenses peak sharply – flights, hotels, car hire, home furnishings, increased fuel consumption while looking for houses.. The list is endless, and those of you who keep financial records will bear me out. And while many of these fees are paid directly by the relocating company, there are plenty that you will pay and claim back or generally be stuck with. So if you are going to have to pay out, you might at least get some benefits.

Here’s the harsh reality about expat finance. When you move to a new country, your credit history will (almost certainly) revert to zero, you will need vast amounts of documentation to open any sort of financial account, and if you are an accompanying partner you may not be eligible for an independent account. However, bear with me, because I have goods news. Used wisely, credit cards can not only make your financial life easier, but they will reward you for your excellent management..

It’s an approach that I have been using for the last two years, and I have a very nice dining table and sideboard to prove it – bought with the cash back earned simply by routing our household spending through our credit rather than debit cards, and enjoying the additional benefits of fraud and faulty goods protection while I’m at it. So if you too would like revenge on the credit card issuers who gouged you mercilessly when you were young(er) and naive, read on..

There are a number of rules in my devious master plan;

1. Get a no-fee credit card.

The earlier you have some form of local credit on record, the longer your credit history will be and, providing you manage it well, the better the rates for any future loans that you apply for will be. However, note that every application for credit causes a temporary dip in your credit score, so if you are applying for any other loans (car loan, mortgage etc., you might want to hold off until after those loans have been approved. The higher interest rate on your credit card won’t matter, because you won’t be carrying a balance from month to month, and so won’t incur charges. As for cards that charge a monthly fee, I can only ask why, when there are so many no-fee cards out there?

2. Don’t be tempted to take out store cards.

They may be easier to get, but the low credit limit and the additional pull on your credit score will hurt your credit history in the short term, and the benefits are less transferable. Keep to one card, at least in the early days. There is plenty of time to shop around later, once you have perfected your technique.

3. Sign up for online access.

For those of us who know the color of the carpet in half the airports of the world, the ability to check accounts at any time of the day or night is vital. More importantly, it allows you to keep a very close eye on your balance, your transactions and your spending patterns, which makes keeping financial accounts far easier.

4. Have Good fraud protection.

This is also essential, especially when you live in countries with high levels of internet and card fraud. Go for one that allows you to dispute a transaction online, immediately and 24 hours a day, without having to wait in a call centre queueing system. Also, check the small print for liability – in the US, Federal Law guarantees zero liability for incidences where there card details have been stolen, and $50 when the card has been lost or stolen. Note, however, that this is reliant on you notifying them within a specified time after the transaction takes place. Hence the need for online account access…

5.Get on the Cash Back Rewards Program.

Okay, so it doesn’t have to be cash back, but I have toyed with various other options (air miles, ) and became so fed up with the seemingly impossible task of redeeming them that now I just demand cash and buy budget flights from whomever I choose. A decent cash back program will offer between 1 and 2% of spend, and while that doesn’t sound like very much, when you add up the costs of relocating and regular daily expenses, you will be astonished at just how much you can gain.

6. Monitor your account activity.

We use our credit card like a debit card, and keep a close eye on our budget. For those of you who don’t have any idea what you spend from month to month, logging all your spending on one card means that someone else is keeping tabs on the money going out, and financial clarity is only a mouse click away.

It’s not just about catching fraudulent activity – you need to think of your credit card statement as a bank statement or cash flow report, and know when you have reached your limit. The detail on the statements allow you immediate, accurate access to your day-to day spending – vital information for creating an accurate financial plan and proactive financial management.

7. Pay the balance in full, every month.

No ifs, no buts. Carrying a balance from one month to the next will wipe out any benefits of the cash back immediately – it’s what the banks are counting on when they make the offer. If you can’t pay it off immediately, don’t buy it, because credit card interest rates are the most expensive ways of borrowing next to payday loans and loan sharks. If you are worried about how disciplined you can be, start small and get in the habit of monitoring your money at least weekly.

8. Keep to the credit card payment schedule.

Watch the due dates closely, because any payment before the monthly statement is issued won’t register against that statement. It sounds complicated, but the credit card company requires you make a payment between certain dates, so while you can make additional payments to keep the balance down throughout the month, make sure you make a payment according to the bank’s schedule. So, if your statement is issued on the 20th of the month, for payment by the 30th, payments made on the 19th may not count, and you may incur late payment or even missing payment fees and delinquent notices. Sounds crazy, but it’s true, so watch out for it.

9. Keep records.

Credit card companies don’t make money from good money managers, so read the fine print carefully, and remember that the minute you close your account, you will lose access to your financial records. So while the online access is vital to keeping track of your money, you may need paper records for tax and reimbursement purposes. Many unwary expats have been caught out when they close an account in preparation for leaving a country, only to discover that the instant their agreement ends, they no longer can access their past financial history with that credit company. If you will need records in the future, print off paper statements at regular intervals, up to the point when you terminate your agreement.

As someone who spent her 20’s and 30’s juggling due dates on credit and store cards and constantly dropping the financial ball, there is something intensely satisfying about turning the tables and not only using their resources to keep control of the money, but also make them pay for the privilege. Finally, a reason to smile when you open your credit card card statement..

Smug, moi?

 Photo courtesy of George Eastman House

Want More?

Learn How to Limit Your Credit Card Fraud Liability

Preventing Credit Card Fraud Guide

How to Get the Most From Cash Back Credit Cards

Avoid these 7 Cash Back Credit Card Traps

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stuff that makes you feel at home.

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

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

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

 

Photos.

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

 

Books.

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

 

Board games and cards.

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

 

Personal Mementos.

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

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

 

Photo Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum 

 

Everything you need to know about relocation, you learned in your first week of school

Everything you need to know about relocation, you learned in your first week of school..

Everything you need to know about relocation, you learned in your first week of schoolA conversation over coffee last week centered around how we all adapt to any new environment, and I offered up the Feisty One as an example of someone who had it figured out from birth. Watching her walk into every new school leaves me sitting in the school car park in tears, while she sets her shoulders, pastes a smile onto her face, and proceeds to network like a New York socialite.

Somehow, she has decoded the unspoken rules that guide social acceptance, and while her group of friends may change over time, within 15 minutes of setting foot somewhere new she’s worked out the social groups, the codes of behavior, and just who her new friends are going to be.

For the rest of us, here are the relocation lessons that we have learned, lived and long since forgotten..

 

Everyone is scared, but we all have different ways of showing it. Some get louder, some get quieter, some giggle, some snarl. Don’t let your fear define you, or how you judge others. A little patience goes a very long way.

The sooner you make a friend, the better it will be. Because two heads are better than one when it comes to figuring it all out, facing the world, and sharing the fun.

You’ll miss home and family, but you’ll learn to enjoy the time away and cherish the holidays spent together.

Some days are better than others. Some days, you just have to wait it out.

Some lessons you will love, some you will like, and some you will hate. Having favorites is good, but time and perspective will teach you that the ones you liked the least taught you the most.

People can be mean, but the earlier you learn how to deal with them, the easier your life will be.

Look after your lunch money. Mom won’t always be there to bail you out.

Your behavior affects the whole school, so choose your actions wisely.

Don’t believe all that you are told. Consider the source of your information carefully, and then decide the real story for yourself.

Being prepared feels a great deal better than arriving knowing that you didn’t do your homework.

Not doing your homework is the fastest way into trouble.

Being rude is the second fastest.

Breaking something once and you might be forgiven, break it twice and you’ve lost their trust forever.

You can do anything you set your mind to with practice, patience and help from others.

 

Fair Play - Rules of Behavior with New Arrivals and Expats. Part of the Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation Series

Fair Play – Rules of Behavior with New Arrivals and Expats.

 

Fair Play - Rules of Behavior with New Arrivals and Expats. Part of the Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation Series

My sister was recently invited to attend a local badminton club, and to cut a long story short, she wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Thankfully, she is made of pretty stern stuff and like a phoenix from the ashes, rose above adversity to bring us the 8 Noble Truths of playing nice with local newcomers and expats alike..

1. Behave like an adult.

What is it about someone new in the group that makes everyone regress to high school? Seriously, we have all seen new people before, and we promise not to steal your boyfriend, copy your homework or start rumors about you. We may have different clothes, hair, skin or accents, but we are here because we believe that individuality should be celebrated, not castigated. So if you could just treat us like an intelligent, normal human being rather than an alien with three heads, that would be marvelous.

2. Don’t make us look foolish, just because you can.

We are your guests, and are on our best behavior. This makes us easy targets for ridicule, but aggressively smashing feathered objects back across the net to try and intimidate us says far more about you than us.

3. Tell us the rules before you start.

We are new to this, so if you have particular codes of conduct that you would like us to adhere to, we are happy to be told. If your way of deciding who is going to serve first is to tap the shuttlecock in the air and see who it points to when it lands, we can accept that. But if you don’t tell us, and we leap athletically into action to return your ‘serve’, don’t tut, roll your eyes and stomp off. We’re not mind readers, and we’re just trying to play the game, for pity’s sake.

4. Forgive us our trespasses.

The trouble with unspoken rules is that they are, well, unspoken.We are going to make mistakes and step on your toes. So if you have strong feelings about which part of the court is yours, let us know. And use words, please, rather than swiping at us with your racquet.

5. If you invite us to join, include us.

When you put up posters advertising for new club members, implicit in that notice is a certain inclusivity. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with that word, it means that the odd kind word is not only appreciated, it’s pretty much expected. If that’s too much effort for you, don’t put up the damn posters and waste both of our time..

6. Play fair.

We’ve been around the block, and so we know when you are just inventing new rules to make us look bad. We are trying to please, we are turning ourselves inside out to conform, but the fact that we are new doesn’t give you the right to take advantage. So please don’t leave us to pack up the equipment alone while you all head off to the pub.

7. We’re here because we want to meet you.

We may seem standoffish or awkward or unimpressed, but it’s because we feel uncomfortable. However it may seem, we really do want you to talk to us, and any overtures of friendship are greatly appreciated. So please don’t all huddle together in the corner like you’re being invaded – if you think you feel uncomfortable with someone new, imagine how we feel when everyone is new.

8. A smile is all it takes.

We don’t need intellectual dialogue, detailed resumes or witty repartee to make us feel included – simply acknowledging our existence with a smile or a hello is enough. So next time you see someone new walk in the room, make eye contact and smile. It costs you nothing, but to us, it’s priceless.

 

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Tools for the Expat Mother - A Harley Davidson and a tattoo. From the Defining Moves Trailing Spouse blog

What every Mother needs for Mother’s Day.. A Harley and a Tattoo.

Tools for the Expat Mother - A Harley Davidson and a tattoo. From the Defining Moves Trailing Spouse blogI turned 40 last year, and in an effort to do something noteworthy, I contemplated getting a Harley and a tattoo to mark my birthday. Sadly, I am rather fickle, and despite months of research into tattoo designs, I failed to find anything that I would want to look at for the next 30+ years, especially when you take sagging into account.

However, this week, what formerly had seemed wild and reckless finally morphed into a practical solution for the chaos that is my life.

Picture the scene. It was 7.30 am, and I was sitting in an aging Volvo with two kids and three dogs in nose to tail traffic. The Volvo has seen this sort of use for the last 5 years, and is starting to develop it’s own particular bouquet. It was also noisy – the kids were bickering, the dogs were whining with excitement about the impending walk, and the worn shock absorbers emitted a high-pitched squeal every time anyone so much as blinked.

It’s the sort of daily ordeal that keeps the manufacturers of migraine medication very, very rich.

As I sat there contemplating whether I had the strength left to wrestle with the child proof cap on the Migraleve, a glorious apparition sailed by in the opposite direction, untouched by human cares. It was a Harley Fat Boy, and despite the hour, the traffic and the high density of teenage drivers, the rider had a huge grin on his face.

It was a message from above for every harassed mother, and it’s my duty to share it. We all need a Harley and a tattoo. Just imagine…

The Simplicity. Cluttering up a Harley is impossible. There’s nowhere to stuff, drop or hang anything, and anything carelessly left behind is swiftly tackled by a twist of the throttle and the wind speed factor. No tennis balls, sweet wrappers, biscuit crumbs and PTA letters bulging from every orifice. If you really need to carry it, it’d better be bolted on. So you definitely can’t take the dogs..

The Quiet.  It’s all about the helmet. They’re fully lined with inch thick foam, which drowns out everything but the sound of the engine and the blood rushing to your head. No squabbling, no “I forgot my homework”, no ” I need a cow costume by tomorrow”. Just glorious peace. I’ve already bought one for general day-to-day use.

The Privacy. There are five of them in total, and if they’re not squabbling, they’re watching or listening. Put on mascara and they want to know where I’m going; leave Nordstrom bags in the car and they’re rummaging through my purchases, and if my phone chirps out a reminder, they demand to know where I’m going for lunch. It’s a nightmare. The Harley, however, has one comfortable seat, and one very high perch for the passenger, meaning that their entire attention is focused on maintaining a death grip and staying on board. So they are unable to to squabble (only one space), change the radio station  or even open their eyes long enough to critique your driving.

The tattoo is more a form of expat survival. I have now had so many different numbers applied to my identity that I am incapable of retaining so much as the four digit PIN number for my debit cards, and people are beginning to refer to me as ‘Your Majesty’ for my constant failure to carry cash. It’s getting a little awkward, but my interfering Other Half has refused to let me continue the practice of writing the PIN number on my card in Sharpie.

Mother’s Day is coming up, and I think I might treat myself. I’m going to get it tattooed on my person.

The only dilemma that remains is the location of the tattoo. Banking guidelines are boringly insistent on the need to keep your pin number hidden from general view, which rules out most potential sites. The only other option involves peering strangely down the front of my trousers, which is all very well, but they have video cameras in ATMs these days.

Perhaps I should keep my new helmet on, just in case..

 

Redefining Relocation 1: Getting it right from the start – what’s motivating your move?

When we consider relocating, the common theme is the idea of an easier life. But expat life is not easy; it can be incredibly rewarding, but it is also frustrating, challenging and can be very isolating if you are not both motivated and committed to making it a success.

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that to your potential overseas employer or relocating corporation, ‘you’ are the sum total of your resume. Actually, ‘you’ are your resume, your (carefully selected) references and your interview technique. You are not the person your therapist sees every Thursday, your overdraft, nor the parent whom your children alternately love and loathe.

This is also the bad news, because these are the characteristics that might give more insight for the HR department, your future boss and your relocation / destination service providers. They are the traits that affect not how you will behave in a new role, but in your new life.

People choose to relocate for a vast array of reasons, and many of them are not great. In fact most of the time, we don’t even stop to consider what’s driving us, and by the time we realize that it might not be such a good idea, the contract is signed, the flights are booked, and the household contents are halfway across the Indian Ocean.

No-one might ever ask you what it motivating you to move, but someone should.

That’s exactly what the first stage of any relocation process should be; asking yourself why you are considering such a major life change, and what do you really hope to get out of it? It’s the time to be honest, put pen to paper, and see if the things we want in our future life require a geographical move, or simply a little attention closer to home.

To get you started, here’s a snapshot of what prompted our first relocation, and the disadvantages we tried to predict. The categories are intended as a guide – feel free to add your own. Take as long as you need to brainstorm all the beliefs, expectations and plans for the assignment, and put it somewhere where you can add to it as moments of inspiration / enlightenment / terror appear. And don’t get caught up in specifics – this is to provide you with an overview, rather than a detailed list of pro and cons.

Once you have clarified your motivations for moving, list them in order of importance, including the positive and negative points. If your top three positives all involve a change of location, it’s time to move on to the next step – defining your expectations.

For those of you who are experienced veterans of the relocation world, we’d love to know what motivated you to start relocating, and what’s changed. Is there something that we’ve missed?

Photo courtesy of the Geoff Charles Collection at the National Library of Wales