Roadtesters update: early days and settling in.

If you have been following this blog you will recall that a few months ago I put a call out to expats who would volunteer to “roadtest” the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. I was lucky enough to get three volunteers, all in quite different circumstances – Erin, who had already arrived in Denmark on her first expat adventure so would look at the early chapters of the book retrospectively; Lynsay, who was about to move as a second time expat – from Dubai to South Korea; and Nichole, who was a first time expat moving with her family from Australia to the US. By clicking on the roadtesters tag at the end of this post you can follow some of their earlier exploits, but now we are at the point of discussing the early days in our new lives, the settling in period.

I may or may not get something specific from Erin, and if I do I will post a link to it. Lynsay wrote this post on Arrival and the Early Days, and I myself hope to do an update to cover the first few chapters in the coming days. But in the meantime, Nichole wrote to me from Manhattan, where she has been discovering the joys of driving in a new location, juggling looking after small children with all the practical elements of setting up a new home, and the art of “supermarket hopping”.

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Chapter Three – Arrival and Early Days

Chapter Four – Practicalities Part One – Accommodation, Furnishings, Transport

Chapter Five – Practicalities Part Two – Shopping, Making Yourself Understood (or not) and Keeping Safe

Chapter Six – Domestic Staff – Finding Them, Keeping Them and Treating Them Like Human Beings

Quite the punchy group of headings there. I particularly fancy Chapter 6 but am pleased to say that this doesn’t apply to our particular set up circumstances. I do remember discussing the difficulties of having to become used to having a cook, house keeper and nanny in your house with a friend that moved to Jordan with her young family a year or so ago. It might sound like a dream come true at face value but it would totally weird me out in reality.

We are now two months into living in the USA and, as I have been incredibly slack in my blogging, I am reflecting over this time in reference to these chapters.

Thankfully, my husband had the first couple of weeks off work when we arrived. During this time we stayed for a few nights in Manhattan and then moved out to some temporary accommodation in East Elmhurst (Queens). We imbibed in some touristy malarkey, got over our jet lag and then started looking for a permanent residence.

Clara rightly notes that,
Finding permanent accommodation is stressful, but it’s also worth getting right. And this can take time.
 

Our temporary accommodation was, on paper (and Airbnb), in a family friendly, secure area with lots of amenities close by. In reality, we did not feel comfortable here at all. Miss E couldn’t sleep because she didn’t feel safe. It’s amazing how sometimes kids have the ability to sum up a situation so easily. We didn’t feel safe here, whether it’s because we are used to our cosy, suburban Melbourne life and the culture shock of having someone sleeping in a clapped out limousine on the street 5 doors down was a little too confronting, or perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered where we were, we just needed to find our permanent place here so that we could start to feel normal again. For most of that period Miss E slept with me and my husband slept with Master P.

It was hot and humid, the cooling provided was useless, there was no TV and we had minimal things to keep the kids occupied. It was nice to be able to cook a meal but tough trying to find ‘normal’ food. It wasn’t really a place you could chill out in for the day. The need to find a house became instantly pressing as we just wanted to get the heck out of East Elmhurst as quickly as possible. 

We had hired a car for the gap before we picked up our own. Clara’s detail in Chapter 4 around driving in a different country, not only entailing the actual physical act of, but also including things like what kind of petrol you need, where to get it, what to do if you break down, where to park and getting some local landmarks down pat was brilliant. There are many things that you take for granted, especially as a seasoned driver, but doing so in a new country comes with its own challenges, not just including remembering to drive on the correct side of the road! Driving in snowy and icy conditions is going to be interesting.

At this point, we left the house in the morning and came home to sleep. And the kids had to be towed along on all of these outings as we don’t know anyone here. Kids don’t like looking at houses. Kids don’t like sitting in the social security office. Fair enough. I unashamedly upped the amount of GB on my phone and the kids pretty much had open slather when SK and I had to attend to administrative details. During this time, particularly if you have children, you really have to reassess some of the hard and fast rules that usually apply, just for a little bit of a calm.

SK going to work and us moving into a house both happened and both of these things increased the amount of boring shopping trips that I needed to drag the kids to. Finding furniture, getting utilities connected, registering for school etc, it seems never ending for a while.

Supermarket-hopping” . I’m not sure if Clara penned this phrase originally or if it’s a recognised expat phenomena but YES, I have been doing this. We have been living in our permanent house on Long Island, New York for approximately 6 weeks now and in that time I think I have visited around 8 different supermarkets and have only now developed a preference, (which my husband disagrees with). Going forward, I believe we will be working on a two-supermarket-preferred basis and throwing in a farmers market when we can. The agent that we rented our house through provided us with a list of her local personal favourites and this has been quite invaluable, although we disagree on supermarkets. Take advice where you can get it, you have to start somewhere after all!

I find that even though we have moved from one English speaking country to another, there are still many times where I am not understood or there are completely different words for the same thing. Many of Clara’s anecdotes deal with the more obvious language issues when your first language is generally not used in your new environment which I am so glad that I did not have to go through. My issues are generally quite amusing. For example, I asked a store worker where the ‘rakes’ were. After saying it three times he asked me ‘what do you want to do with it?’. When he realised what I meant he repeated ‘rake’ back to me and I swear it sounded exactly the same as the way that I had pronounced it! And my old favourite, don’t ask for lemonade in the US unless you want something that resembles lemon cordial. You have to ask for Sprite or 7Up.

Until next time

Nichole x

Thanks Nichole – it’s great to hear the book has been coming in useful. If anyone else has read the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide and found my advice to be helpful please come and tell me – and spread the word with others in the same situation!

Photo courtesy of Rachel at https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelpasch/

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Why do we have so much STUFF?

So yesterday our shipment came, aka heavy baggage. For the non-expats among you, this is always a major moment in the life of the newly-moved abroad: your stuff is here at last.

But oh my! Why oh why do we have so much of it?

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Where does it all come from? And where is it all going to go???

As box after box was unloaded and distributed around the house by a small army of Pickfords men, I kept wondering what on earth was in them all. We have been living fairly happily for the last two months out of a few suitcases plus a couple of boxes of “float” (eg crockery and cutlery, linen, a tv etc) from the office. Ok, the house looked a little bare and yes the children did complain from time to time that they didn’t have any toys – but still, we survived just fine.

So why do we have so much STUFF?

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Man with a van…this was only half of our boxes – there was a larger lorry outside the gates of the compound…

Do I really need this many clothes, many of which I haven’t worn in years? And shoes that have sat in my cupboard forlornly since we left St Lucia more than four years ago? Do we really need all those books (ok, maybe yes to the books!), the toys that haven’t been played with in a while, the thirty-eight different shopping bags?

The thing that really got me though was the kitchen goods. HOW many glasses? And mugs….four cafetieres, although only two with glass still intact; cups and bowls and cocktail twirlers; old crockery, new crockery, chopsticks still in their original wrapping from when I bought them in Cambodia; fish-shaped placemats from St Lucia, a beautiful tablecloth with a less-beautiful stain from Pakistan….We thought we had got rid of most of this back home – we seemed to do trip after trip to the second hand shops and the tip. But look at all of this!

I think the reason we have so much STUFF is because much of it is memories that we fear throwing away. We seem to have thousands of glasses – but so many of them are engraved with a particular event that brings back thoughts of a particular night. A disproportionate amount of which seem to be either Oktoberfests or Marine Balls….

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A few of our glasses…

But I know we have to do something about this mountain of STUFF. I found it particularly difficult watching all our goods be unpacked from their boxes yesterday knowing that the people doing the unpacking (the Pickfords Army, plus our helper Sana) probably own less than about a fiftieth of what they were unpacking. Forefront of my mind, just like many in the world at the moment, is the Syrian refugees, arriving in their new homes with not much more than what they can carry to their names. And living here in South Africa, you see terrible poverty all around you on a daily basis. All of this just rubs in how rife consumerism has become in the “west” – and I know I buy a lot less than many people (for one, I hate buying shoes!).

Luckily, living as we do in a country like South Africa, there is always someone who will take some of your unwanted STUFF. Yesterday we passed a frying pan, a couple of chopping boards, some children’s lunch bags and a whole pile of coat hangers to Sana. I later put aside a bag of clothes for her granddaughter, unworn and unwanted by my fussy youngest – who, at the moment, will only wear playsuits (this is an ongoing minor crisis in this family at the moment – we are now down to three said playsuits….).

I am sure that over the next couple of years we will continue to find homes for our unwanted goods. At least here I  I can feel like we are not being wasteful, but rather starting a cycle of life for our stuff that shouldn’t finish when we (spoiled as we are) have had enough of them. But in the meantime, I am now embarrassed all over again as three plumbers have just turned up at the house and I have had to apologise for all the cr**p strewn all over my daughter’s floor. Ah, first-world problems!

Do you think you have too much STUFF? What do you do when you move – take it with you or have a good clear-out?

My Expat Family

Why moving abroad is just like having a baby….

My latest column for Expat Focus looks at the similarities between having a baby…and becoming an expat.

You generally find out you are pregnant nine months or so before the baby arrives (although for some of course this period is shorter). You may have been trying for a baby for some time before that, so have already started making at least mental preparations for when it eventually happens. Nine months is probably around the average amount of time an expat also knows about their move – some will be longer, some a lot shorter.

To read the full post please follow this link – and I would love to hear your feedback: what other ways do you think moving abroad and having a baby can be compared? Answers on a postcard in the comments section below please!

Feeling a bit bleurgh about blogging….

Does this happen to anyone else?

I have been blogging since January and up until recently I have loved it. I have never been short of ideas, posts have tripped off my fingers and I have always been able to say what I want to say without tying myself up in knots.

But not anymore. Right now I am feeling a bit bleurgh about blogging.

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What do I mean by feeling bleurgh? Well, I have lost inspiration. Not that I don’t have lots of ideas – I do, I have lists of them and keep adding to that list. But for some reason none of them grab me right now. And when I run through that list, I end up feeling even more bleurgh. Thoughts run through my head – why would anyone want to know about this? I think someone else has written about this already. Everyone else writes so much better than I do. No-one is interested.

And all I end up doing is either writing a particularly uninspired post (which either does or doesn’t see the light of day – depending on how bad it is) or writing nothing,

Now there could be a few reasons for this bleurghness. I have been fairly distracted this summer, moving from the UK to South Africa. I was lucky enough to have a whole league of brilliant guest bloggers who ensured my blog wasn’t just tumbleweed and crickets during the days when I was packing, moving, goodbying, flying, unpacking, settling….But brilliant and brilliantly helpful as this was, it did mean that I got out of the habit of frequent blogging.

And as all writers know, writing is like any sport – you need to use your muscles in order to keep up to speed. Let them get flabby and you need to get fit again before the words start to flow. I know I need to get back into the writing habit, which means I need to start having more of a routine.

I think this is probably the biggest problem. When we were at home in the UK, life had a rythm. I knew what happened when at each point of the day, I knew when I had my writing/blogging time and I knew when I didn’t. Here, I am still a bit all over the place (just things like shopping for food takes so much longer as I just don’t know where to find everything – so I can find myself going out to various supermarkets several times a week) and thus my spare “writing” time doesn’t always conincide with the time when I feel most able to write. At least, to write coherently.

I am also finding my concentration is shot, I get distracted by the smallest things (look a new bird! Oh, I need to look up that new German bakery someone recommended), and I am not using my spare time wisely.

But I know I need to get back on top of things. Next month is a new month and I am planning to start being a little more organised with my time. I want to get back into routine, start working on some of the ideas I have, go back to some of my old “occasional” series’ like Memorable Journey’s and Interesting Expats, and perhaps start some new ones. Somehow I need to get my blogging ooomph back, I need to get those words to flow again. I don’t know how to do it, hopefully it will happen naturally the more back into practise I get.

But if anyone has any tips or advice as to how I can stop feeling bleurgh about blogging, please do let me know 🙂

Starting expat life: feeling like a child again…..

Arrival and the first few days in a new country is almost always exciting. And disorientating. And frustrating. And tiring. And eye-opening…

In other words, it’s a whole lot of things, all rolled up into one big fat ball of emotions. Out of which you tumble at some point – maybe a week after you arrive, maybe a month. Hopefully relatively unscathed – although, from previous experience, you are unlikely to be totally unchanged.

As someone with many years of expat experience behind me, you would think I would be ready for this. But every time is different – there is always something that throws that unexpected curve ball at you. And even when events are expected, even when you know with that growing sense of anticipation what is about to happen, there are still things that are just always going to be difficult. However well prepared you are.

One of these things is not having transport when you very first arrive. This always happens to me – not necessarily because we haven’t thought about it or tried to organise things in advance, but just because it is one of those things that usually does have to wait until at least a few days after you touch down. In our case, my husband has a work car and he has taken a few days away from the office to look after us – so we didn’t want the expense of a hire car until we absolutely needed it. In the meantime, we are busily looking for a permanent family car – although I appreciate this will take a bit longer.

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So not a bad situation but still I don’t have a car, I would feel very nervous driving his HUGE work car and I am having to rely on him driving me and the children everywhere. We can’t really walk to many places here so we are very restricted to what and where we can go under our own steam. And even if I did get out on my own (which I will very soon – hopefully this week, possibly even tomorrow…), I don’t have a local bank card, I am still getting used to the coins, I am terrified of getting lost in the wrong part of town….

In other words, I am as helpless as a child.

As well as the lack of car and the lack of bank card, I am also still trying to muddle my way through all the various locks, doors, bolts, keys and alarms on our house. People keep telling me how to alarm or de-alarm the house; which key fits into which lock; when I should open which door and how to work out who is at the gate. It’s so confusing and I just want to shut down and ignore it all, but I know that sooner or later I will have to start taking responsibility again and work all of this out for myself. I can’t rely on my husband  forever – even if he does seem to understand things like locks and gates better than me..

But the one advantage of having done this before is that I know things will get easier – and hopefully pretty quickly. I know that once I start to drive, I will start to get used to it. I will soon begin to understand the rules of the road, which honking horn is serious and which can be ignored, what those signals at roundabouts actually mean. I will be on my own in the house so will need to know how to unlock the doors and I will also be the one off to do the weekly shopping so will have to get to grips with paying for things in this country (after all, how different can it be from paying for things back home?).

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I think we are all allowed a little “cocooning” time at the start of our new lives abroad. But I know that this time will be over soon. I will have to take a deep breath and start living here. Ignore my fears about not knowing what to do when I hit someones wing mirror and they start to threaten me, or I accidentally set off the alarm in our house trying to open one of the doors. Sometimes the anticipation of these things is actually a lot worse than the reality – and you find that once you have gotten over the first hurdle (get in that car! visit that supermarket!), you start to wonder what you were so worried about.

For now, though, just for a couple more days, I’m going to enjoy being the child, getting driven around, acting dumb about the house locks and letting someone else do the shopping. It’s actually quite nice not having adult responsibilities! Perhaps I should keep up the scardy cat act for a little while longer…..

Shopping photo courtesy of colorblindPICASO

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My Expat Family

Welcome to Africa!

So we have landed at long last! And now a year exactly to the date since we found out we were coming to South Africa, here we are.

I am currently sitting in a very bare and frankly quite chilly house, the children are rattling around somewhere while – although it is my birthday (!) – my husband is at work 😦 . He has promised to be home in time to take us out to lunch though.

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Last night we tried to go out for a meal but were thwarted by load shedding – a particular South African problem whereby there isn’t enough electricity to go round so each district has to do without power for a few hours, a couple of times each week. Unbeknownst to us (as many, many things are at this stage), last night was the turn of the area where we live. Just as we were arriving at the place we had chosen to eat all the lights went out. We entered the mall just as everyone else was streaming out. Shops were shut, the restaurants were packing up. Luckily the supermarket must have a generator (as, luckily, do we) and was still open so we bought a ready-cooked chicken and some salad and ate at home. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

As well as load-shedding, I have also been introduced to one of the other problems in this country – crime and security – by having to fight our way through three layers and about five locks to get on to our patio this morning. And that isn’t counting the “keep” door at the top of our stairs. And not forgetting the electric wire around our house and the guard at the gate to our compound. You definitely feel like you are living in a well-protected fortress.

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Other “issues” I have so far encountered though are as much a part of moving somewhere new as moving to South Africa: being woken early in the morning by unusual sounds (in this case the screechy hadada birds  – a type of ibis whose noise isn’t that dissimilar to our seagulls back home); not being able to find anything in the kitchen cupboards (and there not being much to find anyway – we had to wait for the dishwasher to finish this morning before we could have more than one knife between us for our toast); knowing where to buy decent peanut butter that hasn’t got a ton of sugar added; leaky taps and showers, curtains that don’t quite fit in the middle…..

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But teething problems, lack of electricity and security issues aside, there are certainly plenty of compensations. The pound is very strong against the rand at the moment, which means that a decent bottle of red wine costs about a third of the price you would pay in the UK. It’s cold at night, but the days are full of bright sunshine and the winter temperatures warmer than back home in England (where rain seems to be the order of the day). We might be living behind bars and barbed wire but every day I am grateful for how well protected we are by seeing how the majority of people have to live in this “beautiful but troubled” (as everyone seems to label it) country.

Yes, overall I think we are going to like it here. It’s been a long journey from the day we first told the girls we were moving to South Africa , I realise we are still in the very early, “honeymoon” stage and there will be many mountains to climb ahead of us. But I am sure in the end it will all be worth it.

Anyone else out there just moved? How are you enjoying your first few days? 

Limboland

I’m sitting in a motorway service station on the M4. Reading to be precise, on my way to Gatwick to deliver our car to the place where the people who are buying it will pick it up from. I’ll then pick up a hire car and return back to my temporary home. At least, it’s my temporary home for the next two nights, before we move to another temporary home. Welcome to limboland.

This is the place where you stay but you don’t live. Your bed is not your bed, your car is not your car. Everything feels slightly off kilter, and it’s hard to really relax.

In exactly one week’s time we will be stepping off the plane into our new lives. We’ve been waiting a year for this moment and yet, at the moment, it still feels as far away as Mars. Life feels suspended as we stutter through these last days, neither here nor there. The children, better at living in the present than us adults, seem to be coping well. My youngest did, however, feel the need to question granny yesterday about where she lived. At the moment, that’s a very good question!

And so I’ve finished my coffee and on to the next part of my journey. Hopefully next time I stop I’ll be at Gatwick, and another step closer to my final destination. Just one more week to go!

How to turn your adopted city into a home – a guest post on Expat life.

Today’s guest post in the Summer of Guesting series comes from a blogging pair – Olesya and Jasper from the Hmsies blog. The two met as students in Germany but, Olesya now lives in Paris (while Jasper has remained in Germany). However, they still cleverly manage to blog together and have contributed this post on how to make yourself feel more at home in your adopted city. I particularly like this as it is aimed at single people moving somewhere new – which I think can be one of the hardest things to do.  

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Being an expat is a very exciting adventure. After all, you’re in a new place, sometimes new culture and there are endless things to discover, both about the place and yourself. However, because you may be far away from home and from your loved ones, it can also be quite a shock and you may find that loneliness starts creeping up on you. This happens to each and every one of us and it is only really temporary as long as you take some steps towards creating your new life. Because we’ve moved around quite a lot, we have come face to face with loneliness a lot too but there does come a time when you learn to embrace it rather than fight against it. We have tried and tested many methods out there and here are some of the best tips for when you are feeling lost and lonely in your new place.

Learn the language
In Munich, we’ve met so many other internationals who bemoan the fact that the locals are rude, cold, unfriendly and never prepared to approach them to make friends. Yet at the same time, they often can’t speak the local language and wonder why they struggle to make friends. Sure, lots of people speak English, but there’s also a lot of people who don’t, and those who can speak English usually prefer to speak their own language if given the opportunity. Not only will knowing the language help you get better acquaintances but also, you will notice many of your daily life struggles will improve when you feel more confident in your language abilities.

It has never been easier to brush up on your language skills, even if you dreaded the thought of French class at school. There are so many (free!) resources out there that can help you out so don’t put it off.

Tip: For beginners, build up your vocab. The grammar is also important but it will click into place once you’ve been more exposed to the language. For now, just learn useful phrases and words and practice them whenever you get the chance.
For intermediate/advanced: find a Tandem language partner with whom not only you can practice the language with but also find out more about the city/culture etc.

Get to know the locals and don’t limit friendship circles to just other internationals
Although many of you will want to find people from your home country or who speak your language to be able to share your expat experiences with, try and hold this off for a bit and focus on getting to know the locals.

If anything, it’s probably better to do this than look just for other international friends. After all, expats come and expats go, and you’re constantly trying to make new friends. Locals on the other hand tend to stick around, and by meeting them, you get to meet their friends and their friends and so on. And not only that, but you get to discover and experience some of the things that really make that place special – things that you most likely won’t find if you just stick with other internationals. You get to make your adopted city a home rather than just some place where you happen to be living.

Tip: Speak to your neighbours. Speak to the shop assistants. Invite your colleagues out for a drink. There are many opportunities just right at your door so make the most of this.

Use online platforms
Whilst we have recommended making friends more with locals, we are members of quite a few international groups online and have made other friends this way too. These groups can actually be quite good when you’re first moving into the area and want to make sure you’re aware of everything you need to do when you arrive. From forums to local events, it gives you a chance to discover all this with a few clicks and of course meet many like-minded people.

However we also have witnessed the bizarre in these kinds of group – there was once the unfortunate, yet pretty funny, story of a girl who gave away hundreds of euros to a Kenyan who portrayed himself as a CIA operative and wondered why she couldn’t get any money back from him, as well as a load of guys who are constantly looking for girlfriends and sending inappropriate messages via the private message service.

Tip: Join Meetup.com, Internations.org and local expat groups on Facebook.

Stay in touch
Whilst you are far from home and trying to settle in to your new life, you may, or should we say, will feel rather lonely at times. This is exactly why you should not lose touch with close ones from back home because they can always lift your spirits and you can de-stress rather well by sharing some funny stories that have happened or just general catching up. Me and Jasper have stayed in constant contact as well as chatting regularly with our family and friends and when you feel you can no longer do any superficial interactions and constantly meeting new people, this is the perfect way to unwind and to help you realise that wherever you may be, you are never more than a phone call away from someone who really knows you.

Tip: Use your smartphone. There are some fantastic apps out there that help you stay in touch for free. Also, plan those Skype dates! A glass of wine and a good internet connection is all you need.

Projects
Last but not least, when you are alone and you feel you have more free time than you know what to do with, it’s the perfect chance for you to get to know yourself and do something you have always wanted to do. Sure, going out and having lots of friends and acquaintances is fun but it’s definitely not the be all and end all. From taking up an online course in the evenings, to maybe even starting a blog or just trying out new recipes, there are many things you can learn and discover. After all, when you are happy and settled somewhere, you tend not to focus so much on other activities but loneliness can actually be a useful thing here and help you discover something new and interesting about yourself and the world.

Tip: Don’t just focus on your day job. Spend 2-3 nights a week doing something totally different. For example, Jasper has been learning Russian at home, Olesya does Freelance work. This time when you are lonely can be ever so productive.

And remember, one of our favourite quotes is “If you do not like where you are, change it. You are not a tree.”

Remember, only you are in charge of your life and your happiness, no-one else can do this for you (unfortunately!).If you feel something is really not working out, then try a different approach. Sometimes, people can’t change where they live, but they can most certainly change their perception of things. Yes, it requires effort and motivation but it is absolutely worth it in the end!

Thanks Olesya and Jasper for some great tips. Have you been an expat alone in a city? What have you done to meet people, and make yourself feel more at home?

Moving day sucks!

Just keep swimming….just keep swimming…

Those of you who know the excellent film Finding Nemo will recognise this quote, but I was reminded of it by fellow expat Eline from the blog Pasta and Patchwork who is also mid-move at the moment. Exchanging tweets about what stage we were at and how stressful it all becomes, this was her excellent advice. Indeed, when you feel like you will drown if you don’t keep kicking forwards, this really does sum up how I am feeling at the moment.

The moving company turned up on Friday morning quarter of an hour earlier than the earliest time they said they would arrive. Our youngest was still at home, waiting for me to take her up to school. I was at least dressed – my husband was still running around in his pj’s doing all those last minute things that you always do leave until the very very last minute because there always seems something more important to do.

So we were all a-fluster from the start and anyone who has been through the nightmare of packing up a home and moving to the other side of the world will know how the rest of the day went.

There was

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and then there was

moving day 1

and finally there was

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And along the way we found out that we couldn’t take ANY food with us at all so goodbye all our herbs and spices, as well as my baking beans which aren’t beans at all but ceramic balls – yet still didn’t make the cut because they are called beans. And that enormous box of Yourkshire tea bags I bought to keep me going? Not allowed. And the pillows that we were going to throw away got packed but the bedside cabinet that we wanted to take didn’t. We found strange bits and pieces all over the house that somehow got left out like two coasters and the dustpan and brush. And in the end there just wasn’t room for our Dyson cleaner (probably thanks to the pillows) so that’s another thing we’ll have to buy when we arrive at the other end.

Still. Basically we are there now and we’ve left our house and started saying goodbye to friends. We’ve moved into a holiday rental just around the corner from our house for a week, while our place is decorated. Gradually we are all letting go and by the end of the week, when we move on to my parents’ house, I think we will feel ready to leave.

It’s a relief to be past the worst of it. The last few weeks, and last week in particular, has been stressful. But by doing it in small chunks, dividing tasks up and not becoming overwhelmed, and, of course, by just keeping swimming, we’re nearly there.

To all you others out there going through the same thing – good luck!

Interesting expat interview: Helping sportspeople settle into life abroad

Welcome to another post in my occasional series Interesting Expat. In this interview, I talk to a woman who has taken her own experiences of living and working abroad and turned them into a business to help others going through the same thing. She has even cornered one little niche part of the market – assisting athletes and other sportspeople taking up contracts overseas. It’s certainly an interesting angle on the expat experience, and one that has led to her writing a book as well. Please meet Suzanne Salzbrenner

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Hi and thanks for answering my questions about your life as an expat. First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your family, where you are from originally, and where you live now?

Sure! We are a truly multicultural family, currently based close to Paris, France. I am originally German and met my Brazilian husband in Copenhagen, Denmark while we were both working there. We have two trilingual children, although they claim to know many more languages.

And can you tell me about where you have lived as an expat in the past– and what took you there?

I actually started my experience of cultural transitions early on without moving. Growing up in the East of Germany, I was raised partially during the communist times and then had to re-adjust to a new way of thinking. I think it added an extra pinch of curiosity for different perspectives to my approach on life.

Since then I have lived in the United States as a teenager, in Australia as a researcher, in Denmark as a consultant. After my husband searched for opportunities in his company for an international assignment, we have ventured out to China and France with our kids, and I started my journey as an entrepreneur.

 Of all the various countries you have lived in, which has been the one that you have enjoyed the most?

I enjoyed different countries for different reasons, also due to the different life stages I was in. I loved living in Australia, simply because of the life style, laid back work atmosphere and diversity of culture and natural wonders. China fascinated me culturally. But overall, I would say that I wouldn’t want to miss any of the six stations in my life, since they represented different stages in my development.

And which surprised you the most – either for positive or for negative reasons?

France was probably the most surprising. Because it is a neighbouring country to my home country, I didn’t expect as many cultural differences. We also came here with a lot of stereotypes about the country that we had gathered from short vacation trips. Many of them turned out to get in our way of integrating when they turned out to not be quite so true. We live in a rural area without a lot of foreigners. The integration process of finding friends, being forced to speak the language and jumping through many bureaucratic hoops took us a bit longer than expected.

Your experiences have led to you setting up your own company, as well as write a book – can you tell me a bit about that? Why do you think there is a need for this sort of support? Who is it aimed at, and how do you think your experience can help others?

I’ve been working in the cross-cultural consulting business as an organizational psychologist and intercultural trainer since 2008. By that time I had already moved internationally 4 times before becoming an expat spouse. Following my husband was actually quite difficult in the sense that I wasn’t in control anymore. But I figured that I had the unique opportunity to see the experience of global mobility from all sides.

While I was able to continue my training and consulting work throughout the assignments as a freelancer, I have also ventured into creating my own start-up “Fit across Cultures” that focuses on providing resources and coaching to professional athletes in their international transition and integration process, enabling them to maximize their success abroad. The book I wrote focuses on this exact group of people and is called “Play Abroad 101”. I played basketball in many of the places I lived in and always noticed a shortcoming of preparations and integration support for the foreign players that arrived. The plan for this resource existed in my head for a while, but living in France gave me the time I needed to work on it.

My experience of living and working abroad has definitely influenced my way of coaching and training others that are venturing out and often taking the leap into an unknown world. We often find things to be quite different from the guidebooks, don’t we? Whether it is an athlete, a business executive or a spouse, stepping out of that comfort zone is more of a feeling and a sensation you have than a cognitive process. Many levels of learning and development abroad happen unconsciously. Without my own experiences, I wouldn’t be able to relate and describe the process in the same way that I can now.

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Can you give any examples of how the support you are able to offer has helped someone, and how?

I’ve just recently had an example of a young family moving to France with quite typical concerns about the adjustment of their child. I offered them insights into the French day care system. When I looked up, their faces were white, mouths wide open. They were appalled, surprised, and speechless. Quite a normal reaction! Wanting “the best” for your children often stands for following what you consider “normal” in your home country. Every cultural clash, especially when it comes to child care, often creates a big emotional conflict and a gigantic step out of one’s comfort zone. For me as a trainer however, it opens up a great discussion about our values and how they influence our judgements (often without realizing it). We discussed the educational values that are behind the French system, dove into the reasons why French regard education and parenthood differently than the couple.

Talking about different ways of reaching the same goal, the couple realized that there were certain advantages of the system they could use while holding on to their own beliefs of how to raise their child. My job was to facilitate that deeper interaction with the French culture beyond what is visible and enabling them in shifting their perspective, a vital skill to success abroad.

How do you find clients – do they approach you, or you them? How do people find out about what you are doing?

I wear multiple hats throughout the day, so how I find clients changes depending on the role I have. As a freelance trainer, I work with consulting companies that hire me to provide certain services like expat training. I am also part of virtual teams, for example this initiative for an online training platform for German-speaking spouses (“How to create my life abroad”).

For my own business, I utilize the power of social media to connect and find collaboration partners, as well as potential clients. I am especially active on LinkedIn and Twitter (@fitaxcultures). I also run a podcast for athletes abroad that helps to drive visibility. Additionally, I am a freelancer writer and my work has been featured in a variety of magazines related to expat life, international business or sports, which helps me staying visible and credible in the field.

Do you think your help can translate across into other areas of expat life, or is it very specific?

My work translates into all areas of expat life. Learning about the impact of our values and cultural preferences on our behaviour, how to be more competent when working and living with different cultures, and how to treat people inclusively transcends into every aspect of our life.

If you could give your pre-expat self an advice what would it be?

What are you waiting for? Don’t just stand on the edge and observe, take the full leap and soak up this new culture to the fullest.

Make a bucket list and start working on it from day 1.

What would be your “dream” expat destination – and why?

Tough one….but probably a melting pot with a bit of Asian flavour, like Hong Kong or Singapore. These cities offer the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

And is there anywhere you would even have said a definite NO to?

Never say never! Although at this point, my husband and I have reached the point of wanting to choose a place to live by ourselves and not directed by a company’s expansion strategy 

Finally, would you prefer your children to end up living in another country to you – or would you like them to stay close?

I would like them to choose where they are happiest. As third culture kids, they will have to find a place that fits their identities.

Thank you so much Susan. What an interesting background, and it’s great that you’ve taken what you know and turned it into a business to help others.

If you think you are an “interesting expat” and would like to be interviewed for this series, please let me know!