Tag Archives: moving abroad

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

The Secret to Expat Success… And Why.

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

 

 

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

 

Make your mistakes quickly

 

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

 

1. It reminds us that we will make mistakes.

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

 

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

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

 

 3. It gets you out there.

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

 

4. It helps you to bond.

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

 

5. It makes you brave.

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

 

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

Expat 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 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.

 

Essential Expat Information - The Hidden Costs of Relocation - Defining Moves, the Art of Successful Relocation

The Hidden Costs of Relocation (and how to reduce them)

Essential Expat Information - The Hidden Costs of Relocation - Defining Moves, the Art of Successful RelocationWe never manage to move cheaply. We’re on our seventh home in 11 years and currently looking for our eighth, so you would think we would be experts by now. But relocation is an expensive business – the packing, shipping, storage, tax filing, document preparation and transportation are just the tip of the iceberg.

We get wooed by the mouthwatering figures presented in the relocation package, and at that point, grown adults start confusing their employer with Santa Claus. They’re not – those figures have been created by a calculator loving accountant somewhere, and have not been put together with the sole purpose of making you happy. Quite the opposite, in fact – they reflect the minimum sum that the company feels is appropriate to get you established wherever it is you are going. And by established, they are not referring to the new Laura Ashley room set that you have been drooling over.

So, after reviewing three years of detailed accounts from the Defining Moves household, here are our top ‘hidden’ costs of relocation, and what you can do to reduce them.

 

Paying off past credit.

It’s money that you have already spent, but it’s still a cost to consider as part of your relocation package, because I’m pretty sure that if you read the small print, you will discover that credit companies take a dim view of you leaving the country.. When you took out that kitchen / bathroom / Laura Ashley credit agreement, the three years interest free credit seemed like a good idea. Now you are stuck with a hefty bill and maple cabinetry 3000 miles away..

What you can do. If you are even thinking of relocating, don’t take out loans without having the money to pay them off immediately. Your loan contract will almost certainly include a residence clause, you will need money to relocate to your own new home, and if you are planning on renting out your house, you are going to need an emergency fund if your home is empty, damaged by tenants or requires emergency repairs.

If you think you need to spend money on your home before selling or renting it, consult a property professional before you actually get out your wallet, and consider carefully the return on any financial investment.

Interim cost of living.

Most assignments allow for 4-6 weeks of interim living allowances, but it’s easy to go over budget once you are there. Typically, you are spending time looking for more permanent accommodation, finding your way around and getting established and you don’t have the time, the facilities and the storage space to cook for yourself. Your entertainment tends to be outside the home (i.e. cinemas, restaurants, shopping malls) and costly, and you are potentially paying for storage of your household possessions.

What you can do. Try and find interim accommodation with a kitchen and enough food storage to avoid daily trips to the grocery stores. Consider taking packed meals with you on days out (yes, I know I sound like my mother, but has anyone else ever noticed that when hunger strikes, the nearest cheap and healthy eatery is 25 miles away / back at the previous freeway exit?). If you are going to be eating out for at least one meal, make it lunch – typically you pay between 25 – 35% less for a similar meal at lunchtime, and portions are often smaller. Your wallet and your waistline will thank you.

Find your local library and parks, so when you are desperate to escape the confines of the generic wall color and furniture, you don’t need to pay for it. Consider joining a class, club or volunteer group so that you are meeting people – anything that gets you out without a price tag attached.

The Cost of No Credit.

You would think that in the world of the internet, email and instant access, business and financial services would be able to establish your creditworthiness over a wider geographical range. But no, while hackers in China can access your accounts and make merry with your credit cards, the financial establishment can only judge you on your local credit history. Which, bearing in mind you have just walked off the plane, is precisely zero.

This has a huge impact on your local expenditure. In the short term, you will be putting down hefty deposits for everything from cell phones to utility services, will struggle to get any sort of credit card, and will be paying international fees for any transactions using your home country bank account or credit card.

In the longer term, any loans that you try to take out will be at a higher interest rate, and will usually require a large deposit to qualify.

What you can do. Many banks now offer global accounts, so if you are going to be paid in your home country currency, consider applying  – especially if you will be transferring money regularly. If not, there are many reputable online Foreign Exchange providers who offer far better rates and easy to use systems. Test them out with small amounts first so that if something goes wrong, you haven’t lost an entire month’s salary.

If you are planning on using your existing account for international transfers, negotiate rates and ask about rate thresholds – often there are better rates for larger amounts.

 

Home Furnishings.

Anyone who has relocated before will tell you that for the first 3-6 months, their living expenses skyrocket. Setting up a home is expensive – which is why we have bridal showers, baby showers and wedding gift registries for newly weds. If you are lucky, you have the slightly less exciting interim allowance, which covers the basic cost of reestablishing residence, but doesn’t allow for the cost of making it into a home. It also does’t allow for the considerable time pressure, which is why when we move we tend to head for the nearest department store and get furnishings that ‘will do for now’, with the intention of replacing them later. Not only do we end up paying full price, we end up paying out twice.

What you can do. Research home stores before you go, and if you can see that items are expensive or difficult to find, consider adding them to your household goods shipment. Avoid shipping things that require specialized parts / care / refills unless you have regular visitors from home who are willing to act as couriers.  Find out where locals buy home furnishings and when the sales are on. Consider outlet malls, consignment stores and borrowing items for the short term. Look on local noticeboards for “Moving Sales”.

Brand Awareness.

When you live somewhere, you develop a store / cost hierarchy, which assigns quality and cost to items sold in a store. If we want something cheap that may not last, we head to Walmart. If we are willing to pay more for something more permanent, it might be Pottery Barn, Marks & Spencer’s or a local department store. If alcohol is involved, we may find ourselves in Restoration Hardware.. Whatever your home location, you have preferred stores that carry the brands and products you want at a price that you are willing to pay, and you can set your budget accordingly. When you move, all this goes out of the window and you find yourself spending a fortune in fuel driving around trying to locate bed linen, laundry detergent and a pair of pink tights for the school play – all of which you end up paying full price for, because you have yet to discover where the deals are.

Waste.

Not only do you not know where to buy things, you don’t know what to buy. You would think a move between countries speaking the same language would make this easier, but the marketing departments have ruined it by changing the names on even the most familiar products. For the first year in the US, every contact I had with a British expat included discussion about laundry detergent, and the choice thereof.

The same applies to foods, clothing, furnishings, electronic appliances and even services – you don’t know where to go and what an acceptable price range is, and you end up paying for brand names that you know – the ones, inevitably are more highly priced. You buy a car from a large dealership rather than from a small used car lot, you get it serviced there because you don’t know any reliable local mechanics. You buy your furnishings at full price because you didn’t know about half price Wednesdays, and you have no idea what you should be paying for   bread.. So you waste money on a higher quality than you might need, and you waste foods

What you can do. Ask for recommendations, samples and referrals. When you meet people with children of similar ages, ask about anything relocated to children. Receptionists everywhere from schools to doctors offices are a mine of useful information, and once you have found one good provider, ask them for the names and numbers of their favorites. If you have managed to find yourself a mentor, download our mentor checklist and ask them for their help. I am notorious for stopping people in stores and asking them everything form where they get their hair done, to how they get their child’s karate kit to stay so white. Most people are delighted with the compliment, and are very happy to share the information.

Check out the manufacturers. The names and packaging are all designed to appeal to a local audience, but many big manufacturers have a global presence. To help you narrow your choices, start with products by the same company and work from there.

If you have a realtor, consider asking them for a list of their preferred providers – they will not only have a list of reliable and reasonable tradespeople, but if they are involved in staging homes for sale, will also know where to buy attractive, inexpensive home furnishings (they will also now the more expensive places too!), and can give you an overview of the different price ranges of the various stores and businesses in the local area.

 

If there is one thing I have learned over the past 11 years, it’s that it is impossible to predict your true costs up front – but they will happen, no matter how frugal you are. Our solution is to start a moving fund before we go, keep a close eye on our spending and to travel as lightly as possible. Now it’s your turn – what are yours?

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 

 

Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog. Defining Moves, Relocation Resources for the Trailing Spouse

Unconventional but Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog

Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog. Defining Moves, Relocation Resources for the Trailing Spouse

I’m writing this in the relative comfort of my bedroom, with the morning sun streaming through the windows, surrounded by the sight and sound of rampaging dogs. It’s chaos in here, a sea of wagging tails, mock growls and flying fur. And every so often, the smiling face of the Feisty One pops up from the middle, pausing in her efforts to teach three mentally challenged canines ever more elaborate tricks.

It’s madness and sanity all at once.

We discovered by accident that dogs are part of our essential expat coping equipment. Our first ‘expat therapy’ dog was Murphy, a stray from the wilds of Ireland, who was abandoned on the ferry to Wales where we adopted him. God knows how he got on the ferry, but it was only the first journey in a life spent globe trotting.

 

When the OH was transferred to London, Murphy spent hours peering out af the car window at the passing landscape alongside the M4, the main motorway that runs between London to Wales where the children and I still lived. Over the course of his travels, he brought a gentlemanly raffishness to the elegant paths of Holland Park, was joined by Hedgehog (another stray mutt) in Kenya and spent 3 years lounging in the sun in LA.

By the time we moved to San Francisco, his teeth looked like he had spent his life chewing tobacco, and his breath was so incredibly rancid that we did the 6 hour LA – SF drive with the windows wound down.
He died earlier this year and my heart broke a little, but he taught us a powerful lesson about the value of dogs in expat family transitions. Here are Murphy’s Laws.

 

You have a friend from day one.

Transitions are hard on everyone, especially the kids, and we all need someone impartial to talk to. Dogs make incredible listeners, stroking and scratching make excellent use of anxious hand movements, and dogs understand pitch and tone of voice far more than we do, so they know when you are upset. Should you need to throw something, make it a ball. Do it over and over until you’ve worked out whatever frustrations are driving you, safe in the knowledge that it’s making both of you happier…

 

They get you out of the house.

One of the hardest parts of any change is facing the new world on the first day. If every journey begins with a single step, it’s much easier when someone is physically pulling you out there, desperate to find out about the sights, sounds and smells of your new environment. Just remember the other rule of kindergarten: Clear up your mess.

 

You find unexpected friends.

Dogs get you to places that you wouldn’t ordinarily go and to meet people that you you wouldn’t normally meet. Take the cargo section of Jomo Kenyatta airport for instance – not the most obvious place to find a new best friend, but when you see another linen clad, jet lagged, disheveled dog-owning Brit already in heated negotiations with the customs official, you have a feeling you may have been sent a soulmate. You know nothing more about them than that they own a dog, but that is enough.

 

You don’t need words.

We get tied up in the need to speak clearly, but time spent with a dog teaches you how irrelevant words are in forming relationships. Dogs remind us that the best way to understand one another is to learn a language together, that friendship, fun and laughter don’t always require words, and that what you do is far more important than what you say.

 

Dogs bring a sense of permanence.

Our family motto is “no one left behind’, and the pets are part of that. The Marines (who we stole that particular phrase from) talk about how there is a comfort and security in knowing that whatever happens, everyone stays together, and the same is true for our family life. It is an acknowledgement of the magnitude of what we leave behind, that the move must be important enough to go to the effort and expense of transferring the WHOLE family.

 

Or to paraphrase George Orwell;

With four legs we’re good. Just two legs? Bad.

9 Questions every expat partner should ask - Defining Moves | The Art of Successful Relocation

9 Questions Every Expat Partner Should Ask (Part 2)

9 Questions every expat partner should ask - Defining Moves | The Art of Successful Relocation

In the first of the three part series, we set the scene for some of the tougher questions – the ones that we are looking at today. No-one likes to think about what happens if things go wrong, but as the expat partner, you will have interrupted your independent income stream, be dependent on your partner for right of residency and be judged according to a set of laws that may be at odds with what you believe. In essence, you are putting yourself in a far more vulnerable position, so you need to take steps to protect yourself and your rights should something happen to your partner or your partnership. And then, hopefully, never have to think about it again..

4. What financial provisions will need to be made?

Choosing to go on international assignment in a supporting role means that you interrupt your career, even in the short term. This has potential impact on your pension (both state and company),  home country benefits entitlement (depending on the length of time you are out of your host country), earning potential, credit rating and your professional credentials and resume, so you need to be clear about your financial plans for the future, and how you will safeguard yourself.

As a dependent partner, it may be more difficult to open an individual bank account in your host country, but it is an essential part of your financial security. If something happens to your partner or your relationship, depending on the laws of the country you may lose access to any assets held jointly, and thus the ability to not only pay any bills and live in the family home but also to hire legal services. While we hate to think about a loved one being either missing, incapacitated or dead, the reality in these situations is that your legal rights are determined by the law of the land you live in. The same applies in the case of marital breakdown, and the last thing you need in a time of personal or family crisis is a financial one.

5. What if something happens to the primary visa holder in terms of country law?

Bear in mind that the transferring partner is the primary visa applicant, and in most cases, their residence in the country is dependent on their continued employment with the sponsoring company. So if your partner loses his/her job, breaks the terms of the contract, commits a crime or dies, you no longer have the right of residence, regardless of how long you have lived in the country.

For most expats on short term assignments the immediate response is to return to their home nation. However, the longer the assignment, the greater the family investment in the host location, both in terms of financial assets, education and employment history. So if you are considering seeking employment, re-entering education, have college age children or are going to invest larger sums of money, consult a legal or visa specialist to fully understand your rights.

6. Have we made legal arrangements for all dependents in the event of our death, injury or incarceration?

I am continually astonished at how few people have a Will, let alone an Advance Directive of Health Care (Living Will), a Trust or chosen guardians for their children in the event of their death. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes”, and we should be giving both the same annual attention. You should have valid copies of all of the above held by a lawyer in your home location, and additional host location ones completed as soon as you arrive. If you haven’t already heard it enough, I’ll say it again.. Laws vary, and your Embassy/Consulate can only do a certain amount to help. Most Embassies retain a list of local lawyers who speak your language, and other expats will often have recommendations or referrals. As with finding a good doctor, it’s always worth finding a good one before an emergency arises.

Photo courtesy of Musée McCord Museum. Interesting what comes up when you Google ‘Supporting Partner’..

Redefining Relocation 4 - Creating a Family Timeline Expat Health

Redefining Relocation 4 – Creating a Family Timeline: Expat Healthcare

 

This bit should probably be entitled “Expat Healthcare Future Proofing ” because that is what we are trying to do here. The healthier you stay, the better your relocation experience will be.

Timeline Cheat Sheet

  • Any routine tests or treatment that would otherwise be due in the first 3-6 months of your assignment.
  • Order supplies of prescription medication for existing conditions.
  • Request prescriptions for medications necessary for leisure travel from your new home.
  • Stock up on preferred brands of personal care items that are not available in your host location.
  • Schedule any appointments, repeat prescriptions or restocking visits that require a visit home to coincide with vacation, school holidays etc.

 

Redefining Relocation 4 - Creating a Family Timeline Expat Health

Your most important task is to schedule recommended immunizations, treatments and screenings for both preventive healthcare and preexisting conditions.  As part of Your Current Health, you should have a list of recommended / required  immunizations for your new location, and you may have been organized and already scheduled them.

You will also find that many require boosters during your time away, so check to see whether those are readily available there, or if you need to take supplies with you. While many medications are available globally, some are not, and counterfeit drugs are a problem in some countries. If a medication is essential for your ongoing health, order enough supplies to last until you find a reputable source locally.

Please believe me when I say that once you arrive in your new location, you will have a huge list of things to get done, the pressure of a new work/life role, and not a great deal of help.  So make it easier on yourself; identify which check-ups, tests etc. will be due within the first three to six months of your assignment, and get as many as possible done before you go. 

If you plan to do any traveling from your new location, investigate what medical precautions are required and get any immunizations, healthcare, drugs and supplies from your doctors while you are getting all the essential stuff done.

It’s a lot easier to drop in ‘and I’m planning on traveling to/will need/will not be able to get” when you are sitting in your hometown doctors office (or going through your company medical) than on a Friday afternoon when you are staring at a tropical diseases poster in an airport on your way to a weekend in Dubai..

Stock up on essential home country healthcare. It may seem strange to include on a timeline, but if you know that you are going to need specific treatments, check-ups or prescriptions that require seeing a specialist outside of your host location, you need to include these in your timeline so that your home visits / vacation / school holidays coincide with the dates .

The more mundane include first aid items, antibiotics and medications that you may need but may have difficulty getting overseas (including birth control – not all are distributed worldwide).

Over the counter drugs such as Tylenol, Nurofen and Beechams (along with many, many others) etc are not universally available, so if you have any particular preferences or sensitivities, take extra with your household goods, and if you have allergies, you might want to take brands that you know are not problematic.

My daughter, for instance, has an extreme sensitivity to some sun products, so we take large amounts of a sunscreen that we know doesn’t cause irritation;  the same might apply to you for soaps, shampoos, detergents, skin care or even cosmetics.

Especially in Asia and Africa, brands cater to local needs, and so if you have Scandinavian or Scottish ancestry, you’re going to have to hunt harder (and pay a great deal more) for products for your skin type. And the same applies for those traveling in the opposite direction – while big cities cater to a cosmopolitan mix of health and beauty needs, as you get more rural, you will have difficulty finding the brands or products that you favor.

So start making your list. And checking it twice, as the song goes.

Photo of AZMU nurses and physicians on camels in Egypt en route to Palestine in July 1918 courtesy of cjh.org 

Packin’ Up? Some tips for surviving the chaos

How I wish I had put my camera in my handbag and not in some box during our last move. When we rode behind the truck with our belongings, our view was of one of the back doors of the truck open, showing one of the packers sitting on our table (at the very edge of the truck, with his leg swinging out of the truck!), cradling our microwave in his arms! We (and he) rode the 10 minute distance like that!

I have had the not-so-great pleasure of moving four times (so far) within Nairobi in the 6.5 years we have been living here. Believe it or not, this is not what I usually do; we spent our almost five years in NYC in the same apartment. But, when your landlord decides to sell the house you are in, and the new owners want to buy the house only, without the paraphernalia that is you, you really don’t have much choice.

Moving is always a HUGE hassle and an immense stress generating event. Moving countries, of course, involves SEVERAL additional stresses but moving within a city is also cause for tremendous anguish and sleepless nights!

Here are a few hints to help a little, but nothing can make it smooth sailing! As a child, I used to hope and pray that, during my lifetime, science would advance to the level where we could use the ‘beam me up, Scotty’ means of transportation from Star Trek. Even now, my heart skips a beat when I think of it! But, alas, we are nowhere near that happening (I think?!)! So, we have to rely on bubble-wrap and cartons and movers.

In an ideal world, the packers should unpack for you when your container arrives at your new premises (provided you have found a home before your container arrives!) or the truck reaches your new abode, and the number of rooms, cupboards, shelves, etc in your current and future dwelling correspond! But, just in case, you, like myself, don’t live in a perfect world, the following might be helpful.

Packers will at times number the cartons or sometimes they write vague labels like ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Living Room’. Now you may end up with 20 cartons with the same label. So, how do you start looking for that red and blue mug that your 3 year old still remembers having even three months later (which you thought you would carry with you but forgot to remove it from the shelf before the packers got to it) and cries for every morning? How do you know which carton contains the crockery for everyday use?

If the packers are friendly, smiling and relaxed people, you could go around with a permanent marker and ‘excuse me, excuse me’ your way through them and write on the carton itself the details of what they are putting inside. If, somehow, they don’t want you all over the place (I can’t imagine why though!) while they do their job, keep a paper and pen handy and write down the details of what is going in the carton and have the numbers/titles in your list correspond to what they write on the box. The packers might write only ‘Kitchen’ or ‘China’ or ‘Glasses’, but you could write ‘everyday china’ or ‘blue dinner-set’, etc.

You may not be able to get every detail down, but it will help you locate things faster when you are in your new dwelling.

Advice from a friend (thank you, Teresa) has helped me a lot. Before the packers arrive, make sure to label your rooms as well! Write down the name of the room on a paper and tape it to the door of the room. The dining room, kitchen etc. might be obvious but the “Child A’s” room, “Child Z’s room” may not be so apparent. The packers will then know what to write on the carton and which box belongs to which room. Doing the same in the new place you are moving to will save the hassle and time of repeatedly telling the movers what goes where, especially if your language/accent doesn’t correspond to theirs!

How I wish I was one of those people who clean out their cupboards on a regular basis! That really would be very helpful, especially for those who never know when they may have to move. Some of us get a months notice, or less, to pack up and leave! With other matters that need to be dealt with, having fewer belongings to go through will require less sorting out.

So, I had better go clean out my cupboard now and, before my next move, I would love to get your tips and pointers about packing up and moving.

Children in a mango tree

Expat Family Mishaps: Mother’s visit

Children in a mango treeMy mother has just emailed to tell me that she has booked her flight out to San Francisco, and I’m already panicking slightly. Not that she isn’t excellent company and always game for an adventure, but we seem to have a history of inadvertent senior abuse.

Her first clue about the downside of expat visiting came when she was forced to transport a 6′ artificial Christmas tree to Kenya. To be fair, she did ask if there was anything that she could bring for us, so there was no need for the level of hysteria that greeted us at the international arrivals gate at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Yes, it was starting to escape from it’s box, and admittedly she’d had to ditch most of her spare clothing to keep under the airline weight limit, but on a positive note, she wasn’t forced to unpack it at customs. And I still maintain they were laughing WITH her, not AT her.

However, she did have a luxurious trip to the idyllic Diani Coast to recuperate, complete with the excellent companionship of Suzanne, G & E (of It started with a Kick fame), myself and the Feisty and Wiggy Ones. The more cynical might have considered the many and varied scrapes that the six of us had already got into and been a little more prepared, but my mother is a trusting sort, and boarded the 1950’s era Nairobi – Mombasa express in complete innocence.

The train journey failed to reach expectations or even the advertised destination. “Express” proved rather a misnomer, unless you count the way we were ‘expressed’ into the African desert at 5am the next morning with promises of replacement buses. Thankfully Suzanne was experienced in the slippery ways of the African transport system, and with a surprising turn of speed for a linen skirted Yorkshire woman, had secured the only taxi within a 50 mile radius, fighting off usurpers with well aimed suitcases and a steely blue gaze.

One of the most admirable qualities about Kenyans is their boundless optimism in the face of adversity – in this case, fitting nine occupants and luggage in a Toyota Corolla. We achieved this miracle of volumetric magic only by the use of a three layer passenger system and G being stuffed atop the luggage in the trunk. Initially, this seemed like the least desirable seat in the house, but the first few miles of traveling at speed over potholes proved that the greater the distance between the crown of your head and the roof, the greater the velocity at which the two made contact. George was the only member of the party who didn’t reach Tiwi beach with a minor concussion.

To say that the journey was fraught with difficulty would be an understatement. Over the course of the next 100 miles, the Luck of the Lomases held firm, and despite challenges faced en route – failing to stop at an armed police checkpoint, a flat tyre, a non-existent road that had to be built while we waited in the 90 degree heat and a precariously overloaded ferry – we did finally make it to our destination 16 hours later.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the stress of the journey, or the discovery of a large pack of monkeys in residence in the cottage that finally sent my mother to her bed. It was gluttony that got her.

The local fishermen brought freshly caught seafood to the cottage every morning, and giant shrimp for breakfast, lunch and dinner on day one proved too much for mother’s previously ironclad constitution. She spent the rest of the week in her nightgown, in a bizarre parody of Miss Havisham, with enormous hives covering her entire body.

Mum finished her email reminiscing nostalgically about ‘those wonderful days when I visited you in Kenya”.

That’s the lovely thing about getting older. Your memory goes.