Tag Archives: travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Airways should have listened to mother..

Expat Etiquette - How To Be the Perfect Host. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation- Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Expat Accompanying Partner / Trailing Spouse

Expat Etiquette – How to Be The Perfect Host

Expat Etiquette - How To Be the Perfect Host. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful Relocation- Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Expat Accompanying Partner / Trailing Spouse Let’s be clear about this – I am most definitely not the perfect host. My concessions to visiting guests limit themselves to clearing the accumulated debris from the guest bedroom, providing toiletries and ruthlessly utilizing their airline baggage allowance to my own ends. Guests to my home have to endure 5.30 am starts, midnight visits from a large fat cat who can open (noisily) every door in the house and potential involvement in whatever home improvement (a flexible and dubious concept) project we happen to have going. So far, Evan rewired half the house while Jo supervised the installation of a septic tank, Miles fixed the leaky toilet, Sarah grouted the bathroom while Ify painted baseboard, and Simon and Sarah are on a first name basis with the staff in hardware stores across the globe.

Sadly for all impending guests, our recent time as tenants will be coming to an end and it will be back to the joys of home ownership and associated maintenance projects. So if you are planning on coming to visit, brace yourself. And wear old clothes..

For those of you who, like me, are a little challenged in the diplomatic art of hosting visitors, I have conducted a survey of those who do it well. Here’s what they told me..

1. Be clear about expectations are before they commit time and money – both your expectations and theirs. Discuss what facilities you are able to offer, what house rules you might have, whether you can spend time with them and what their goals for the trip are. If it involves you donning a chauffeur / chef uniform, it’s best to break the bad news to them gently now. And while you are at it, now is a good time to encourage them to research what they might like to do in the local area while they are visiting, rather than waiting until they are parked on your couch..

2. Show your guests how everything works – even better, make post it notes or written instructions so that they are not overwhelmed and you are not forced to continually repeat yourself. LifeHacker has produced a brilliant guest information packet that you can download here, which covers everything from emergency contacts to wi-fi password.. Include household quirks, security and safety issues, and any pet requirements. Ooh, and stop off at the cleaning closet and the laundry on your way – you never know, you may get really, really lucky.

3. Encourage your guests to make themselves at home, unless you want to be responsible for every morsel that passes their lips. Make space in the refrigerator (it encourages them to shop for food – never a bad thing..), and provide food storage containers if you have them (they can take sandwiches on trips and so won’t need to keep popping home to refuel). Stock up with easy to prepare breakfast supplies; cereals, toast, bagels and fresh fruit, and force encourage them to help themselves. If you have guests who have hired a car and are spending days out, give them a cooler and ice packs, and encourage extended adventures.. Be warned, however – their idea of home may be the TV continually running, large amounts of debris scattered around and the consumption of all meals on the living room couch.

4. Provide the basic comforts – clean sheets and towels, and  a hairdryer, clothes hangers, toiletries, adapter plug and bottles of water of they have performed particularly well on the chocolate importation front. The more travel sizes of toiletries you provide (shaving foam, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, pain relievers, disposable razors, sanitary protection and toothpaste) – the less likely you are to have to do emergency supermarket visits. I also include maps (they will inevitably need one at some point), local transport schedules and a list of where all the main supermarkets, coffee shops and pharmacies are.

5. Enable electronic access. Emily Post may never have had to write about the etiquette of cell phone chargers, but I’m going to. Take it from me, guest cellphone / iPad / iPod battery life is inversely proportional to the level of agitation and insanity displayed, and is exponential in teenagers. Provide adapters, and if you value your peace and family harmony, keep a universal charger kit for the house and car. It will be the best $20 you’ll ever spend.

6. Set them free. Spending every waking minute with your guests is a recipe for disaster. They may be staying with you, but they will also need time alone to explore, catch up with other friends etc. Provide them with information on the local area (a local hotel will have ready-made packs you can beg, or check out your local tourist information center or library), along with a map and if you are really generous, loan of your GPS. We also borrow a guide book from the library, get brochures and prices for the places that we have liked and encourage use of our car. Check your insurance is comprehensive, up-to-date and covers out of town visitors, and practice not wincing as they attempt to back out of the drive.

7. Take directions. Don’t attempt to organize their holiday for them – feel free to offer suggestions or resources, but remind them that you are a local, not a tourist. If they are international visitors, it may be cheaper for you to book things for them and them to reimburse you; but make sure you look on deal sites like GrouponGoldstar or your local version to make their budget go further.


Lifehacker: Creating a Bulletproof Guest Account for Windows – (see Comments section for a How To for Mac)

From Clueless to Class Act – Manners for the Modern Man  (Jodi R. R. Smith

From Clueless to Class Act – Manners for the Modern Woman  ( Jodi R. R. Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

6 Reasons why successful relocation starts with a good haircut..

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

Moving somewhere new, not knowing the rules, and having a constant stream of seemingly ridiculous questions means making contact with the outside world, and hopefully, making friends.. They are your gateway to social support, security and sanity, and while Sinead O’Connor and Demi Moore may be able to rock the buzz cut, for the rest of us, our hair is an integral part of our self image and self-esteem. We all know how difficult it is to walk into a room full of strangers, but trust me, it’s even harder when you look like an extra from Fraggle Rock.

For the less observant amongst you, let me break it to you gently. Hair grows. Usually at a rate that requires a haircut every six to eight weeks. So if you last had a haircut a month before you left town, when you factor in 3 days for jetlag, 4 days for unpacking and finding where to buy toilet tissue, milk and wine, it’s back to self esteem freefall in .. about a week.

The bad news for those of you who haven’t already done this is the point you will be:

1. Trying to get your kids into school, and meeting people you would like to take you seriously. Like the Principal, your child’s teacher and the entire PTA committee. Which is intimidating enough to make your hair stand on end.. Oh wait – it already is..

2. Having your picture taken for EVERYTHING. Driver’s license, employment authorization card, gym, warehouse membership card. Which is exactly where the media will go for a photograph if you develop amnesia and they need to find you. It’s a sad fact that the amnesia doesn’t worry me half as much as having my driving license photo displayed on national television.

3. For the first few weeks, you are overwhelmed with stuff. Unpacking boxes, learning traffic routes, figuring out the school / traffic / bureaucratic system, locating grocery /uniform / hardware stores.. If you find time to run a comb through your hair, you are a better person than I. Finding the time for a hair appointment, in the unlikely event you even know where to go for one? I don’t think so.

4. It takes an incredibly long time to find a new hairdresser if you are staying indoors to avoid being seen with a desperate home cut / color / permanent that went really badly wrong. It may have seemed like a good idea to do it yourself at the time, but the photographs on all your documents are reminding you why you stopped doing home highlights when you were 15.

5. Your hairdresser needs to see how you like to look. And that description shouldn’t include the word Neanderthal. Or Einstein.

6. Your hair will be reacting to the new climate, water, food, hair products and stress. Did we mention the word unmanageable?

I can guarantee that getting your hair done will not be on any relocation checklist and guide out there. But for those of you in any doubt, feel free to test out my theory. Next time you have a strep throat/stomach flu/give birth and don’t sleep /shower for three days, see how much you a) want to meet the school principal, b) go to a corporate function and c) have an official photographic record made. Have I convinced you yet?


How to find the best airfare in 37 easy steps

It’s a guest post today, courtesy of Laurie Mucha over at Séjour Travels, who obviously employs exactly the same strategy as my mother when buying tickets.. except in my mothers case, she then decides that it’s far too risky to buy online, and heads to the local travel agent to get them to follow steps 4 – 37 on her behalf.. 

Step 1. Use Itasoftware to determine best dates to fly.

Even though you can’t buy tickets on this site, I like it for two reasons:  1) if your travel dates are a little flexible, Ita helps you quickly determine the cheapest days to fly and 2) you can eliminate tight/risky connections and search via airline (both very important to me).

Step 2. Use Kayak to find the best deals.

As you begin to search for the best prices, you will somehow end up with 18 windows open on your computer, with different prices and itineraries on each one.

Step 3. Decide which ticket you want to buy. Then click through to realize those prices aren’t available anymore “due to the dynamic nature of the travel industry.”

Steps 4 thru 36. Spend the next 4 hours searching through various websites and itineraries and then cross referencing those with your frequent flyer plan to see if any of your favorite flights are available for purchase with miles (they aren’t).

Step 37. Finally decide that you are in the weeds, choose a date, choose a time and buy the damn tickets.

See it’s that simple! I don’t know what I was so worked up about.

Laurie is a passionate traveler, expert planner and happy mother. She is currently planning her family’s next séjour (2-3 month stay abroad) – this time to the South of France.  Laurie started Séjour Travels because she’s on a mission to make it easier for people to temporarily live abroad. Sometimes you need more than a vacation – you need a séjour! 

Deer tick

Expat Adventures..Tick Bite Fever

Know Your Ticks

I like to think of myself as calm in the face of a crisis, so my own hysteria took me a little by surprise. Through 10 years of expat relocating, I have faced rogue elephants, stampeding rhino, a head-on with a hippo, floods, train derailment and a police inquiry, all of which have been endured with relative calm and a cup of tea / stiff gin and tonic depending on the time of day. But here in the bucolic calm of Lafayette, my previous calm has been shattered forever.

It started with an itch, which I attributed to a label inside my T shirt. It continued to gently irritate through the day, until by 7pm, it had upgraded to ‘sore’ status. I lifted my shirt and peered at my rib cage, only to discover a set of legs gently waving back at me. The rest of the head and body of a huge tick were firmly rooted in my flesh, and judging by the size of it’s abdomen, it had hit the mother lode.

There then ensued a frantic phone to Safety Staci, who can be relied upon to have the latest health updates on these matters. The token glance that I could manage without fainting to the floor confirmed that the creature was too far embedded for standard removal, so I was duly delivered to the Urgent Care Clinic for professional attention. By now the legs were no longer visible, I could hear a funny buzzing noise on the inside of my skull, and the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming from my overall demeanor that I was inches from death.

My reception at the medical facility was a little disappointing, starting with the somewhat dismissive attitude of the receptionist at the Emergency desk, who seemed to underestimate the life-threatening nature of a tick installation. Instead of being strapped to a gurney and raced at speed to the Operating Room, I was despatched outside the doors to await a courtesy shuttle to Urgent Care. And that title too was a misnomer, unless you are paying in cash. Filling in umpteen forms in triplicate while you are being eaten alive by a flesh eating parasite is no easy task, but luckily I have a stoic disposition and blatant disregard for legibility, so I did at least make it to the examination room alive. There I was greeted by a cheery doctor some years younger than myself, who proceeded to douse the offending tick in mineral oil and remove it with nothing more than a pair of tweezers.

With hindsight, I may have over-reacted. On spying a black breadcrumb-sized object rolling around in the specimen jar, my immediate reaction was ” Are you sure that that one wasn’t piggybacking on a bigger one?”, at which he emitted a very unprofessional snigger, and wrote me a prescription for a brand of antibiotics more commonly associated with teenage acne. It was all such an anticlimax that I am thinking of substituting a currant in the specimen jar so at least I have some shred of dignity left. The only saving grace in the whole debacle is that I didn’t take Staci up on her offer to be with me during my ordeal, to bear witness that I am truly a complete and utter twit.

So today, I’m staying in bed. My body needs to heal, and the memories need to fade. Along with my blushes.