Review Wednesday: Tales from a Small Planet

If you’re an expat, or you’re planning an overseas move, and you haven’t already discovered this website then you’re missing a trick. Originally created by a group of US Foreign Service spouses, Tales from a Small Planet is a website containing city/post reports from pretty well every part of the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, as well as more recently added ‘real’ school reports. The wesbite also includes tales from contributors, but it’s the reports that really makes this site stand out.

Each report follows the same list of questions, with each anonymous contributor answering the questions in as much or as little detail as they wish. The key here is that the contributions ARE anonymous so they can be as candid as the contributors wish. This means you can get some pretty negative answers, but generally there are more than one entry for each city so it’s always worth reading further back to get as varied a view as possible. Take the latest post on Doha in Qatar as an example:

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?

Absolutely none. It’s an expensive (US$15/beer), isolated, hot (130F), barren piece of land with polluted air.

Great, you think, not somewhere I would like to live. Especially when you read the next question and response:

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?

Every flight out.

However, luckily you can quickly and easily click on to other responses to the same question and find that advantages to living in Doha include:

Good school, unique culture and people; right now it’s a really interesting time to be here since it is developing so quickly. It almost feels like a country caught in two different centuries.

and

My children love it here! Safe, great weather eight months of the year, kid-friendly activities, excellent schools, good housing, and easy living.

I have wasted many an hour on this site, clicking through question after question about potential postings. I really like that it’s honest, and that you get so many different opinions. Given that it is a site set up by American State Department spouses, there is a heavy emphasis on Americans (eg most talk about flying times back to the US) and also on Embassy life/morale – but much of the rest of what is covered is relevant to all expats.

As well as the usual information about things like what there is to do in the city or surrounding areas and what you can/can’t buy locally, there are a whole list of some of the most burning questions you might have before a posting, many of which can be quite difficult to find an answer to. For example:

  • What is the climate like?
  • Are there any special security concerns?
  • Housing types, locations etc?
  • Is it a good city for families/single people etc?
  • Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulty living in this city?
  • What is the availabilty and cost of domestic help?
  • How much of the local language do you need for daily living?

There are also some more slightly obscure questions, such as

  • What kind of insect problems are there
  • What is the air quality like
  • What English-language religious services are there
  • What is the dress code

All in all, you can find the answers to so many of your questions here – although I’m a huge advocate of contacting people living there when you are preparing for your move to get the most up-to-date information possible.

The school reports also look really interesting, with a wide range of questions and a section where the contributors grade the school from A-F on various attributes. Questions cover the whole range of issues parents might have, from teacher:student ratio, maintenance of appropriately high standards and home work assigned to after-school activities, library provision and teacher-parent communication. I was very disappointed that there were no entries at all for South Africa, let alone the school we have chosen in Pretoria, but I get the feeling this section of the website is still relatively new so hopefully it will build up as time goes on.

Recommended for: anyone planning an overseas move; parents looking for schools; anyone just curious about what life is like as an expat in another country.