Tag Archives: expats

Househunting Abroad: Art, Science or Pain?

What a difference a couple of weeks can make!  When I first planned this blog series on moving abroad, I was secure in the knowledge that we had found a place to rent.  The days of hunting and indecision were over, I believed, and now it was time for the mill of administrative boredom to grind down its excruciating detail.

Sometimes it feels like all the doors are locked...

But alas, not so!


In the meantime, we have had not one but two properties that we had set out hearts on slipping out of our grasp.  And, however ambivalent we felt about them before, their elusiveness suddenly made them all the more desirable in our eyes.  Two weeks ago, I would have said: ‘Involve the children in your househunt, especially if they are reluctant to move abroad.  It will help them visualise themselves in their new environment.’  But that has backfired, as the children are now crying over the swings in the garden and the playroom in which they had already mentally unpacked their toys.

So we are still very much in hunting mode, which is further complicated by the fact that: (a) Geneva is expensive and we don’t want to spend our entire earnings and savings just on rent; (b) we need to be living within 30 minutes of my husband’s experiment (and this side of the lake is much more expensive than the other side); (c) we have high-spirited boys used to chasing each other up and down stairs, so a flat is really only a last-resort option; (d) we need to be within a reasonable distance of a local primary school that has spaces and is used to dealing with multilingual children; (e) I am not based there to do all the legwork and viewing, while my husband (who does live there) does not speak French, so is reliant on the kindness of colleagues to make appointments or ask for documentation.  This last point, incidentally, may well be why we lost the previous two properties, but there is no immediate solution, short of a crash course in estate-agent French.


Living the dream?

Then there are all the normal problems and limitations that any family will encounter, such as conflicting priorities.  In my experience,  husbands tend to look for living rooms where they can strategically place TVs and other gadgets, or gardens where they don’t have to do much mowing.  Wives tend to look for views, well-equipped kitchens and the right kind of environment/atmosphere.  Children want a garden (preferable with swings and climbing frames, or swimming pools) and a playroom.  It can be really hard work balancing all the family’s demands and someone’s expectations will nearly always be disappointed.

That was the hardest thing of all: accepting that we would have to make far more compromises than we had expected or understood conceptually before we had started the actual househunting. 

Letting go of idealised images

There was that magnificent chalet up on Col de la Faucille, with breathtaking views over the Alps.  Only 500 metres away from school – 500 m in altitude, that is!  There was a promising house in a nice village, but with a garden so steep you could lose even the squarest ball in it.  There was a large house with plenty of garden located just a street away from the place we had lived in during our previous stay in Geneva, so comfortingly familiar, but with beams knocking us out throughout the first floor.  Finally, a house I craved with all my soul, except it was in the wrong village, probably the only village where I really did not like the school.

At least there were some possibilities back then.  But the more I look now, the fewer I see.  And the shorter the timeframes become. Oh, and can anyone help me solve the mystery of why men seem to take no pictures of storage space and the outside of the houses they are viewing?



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To Move or Not to Move – the Relocation Decision

Relocation Decision

Decisions, decisions...

It took us around two months to make the final decision about relocating to Geneva.  At the time, of course, it felt like much longer. 

Every week, in fact, nearly every day, I was:

  • – weighing the pros and cons;

– list-making laced with gut feeling;

– asking for advice and ignoring it;

– searching online expat chat forums for clues. 

With all of the discussions, alternative views and justifications, with all of the gentle nudging to find out what the children thought of it, I felt I had aged ten years by the time we came to the conclusion that we were indeed going to move. But I realise that we were the fortunate ones.  We could take our time to make a decision we can all be happy with.  Many other families do not have that luxury.  They are forced into a decision in a matter of days.  Sometimes it’s a stark decision:  a matter of ‘go abroad or lose your job’.  It’s becoming less common now, as companies begin to realise that not involving the spouse in the decision-making process can lead to the failure of the overseas assignment and premature return.  But it still happens.

We were even luckier in that we already knew the positives and negatives, the lifestyle and the bureaucracy of the place we are moving to.  We had already spent 18 months there in the past.  Unexpectedly, that made our decision harder: there were no rose-tinted spectacles to entice us with an idyllic image of our new life abroad.  We knew just how hard it would be to find suitable accommodation, a place in a school, have the children adapt to a new language, change the car licence plates… There was no honeymoon period for us, with its gentle ignorance.  There wasn’t even much nostalgia for our life there 4-5 years ago, as in the Pays de Gex a few years can bring in phenomenal changes and doubling of the population.

So what do families contemplating relocation abroad find most useful when making up their minds?

1. Talk to others who have made the move.  Not just the ones who are still living there, but also others who have moved on.  Ask lots of questions, both online and off.

2. Focus not just on the practical aspects of the move (important though these undoubtedly are).  In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, take stock of your resilience as a family.  Be honest about any weak points in your relationship with your spouse, with your children, because they are likely to be exacerbated during your time abroad.  Can you change as a family and would you want to? 

3. If you do ask friends and family for advice, be prepared to ignore it.  There may be hidden agendas and partial views at work there.

4. If at all possible, visit the country and town you are planning to live in.  Of course a weekend trip in glorious sunshine in June is different from seven months of winter, cold and darkness, but if you still hate the place when it’s at its best, then you know you are in trouble!   Yes, it would be madness to marry someone based on the first impression, but you cannot ignore that instinctive reaction either.

5. Rely on both your reason and your intuition to make sure you come to the right decision.  I’ve seen many cases where families make long lists of pros and cons, decide that the pros outweigh the cons and rationally they really ought to go… but even as they start making the preparations for their departure, their hearts just get heavier and more distressed.  A certain amount of grieving as you say goodbye to your current life is absolutely normal, but if there is no excitement whatsoever, no lightness of heart and quickening of pulse, then maybe your decision was the wrong one.  Be sensible, by all means, but be happy too.

It’s always going to be a leap of faith, just as much as a marriage.  Because, even if a marriage is (intended to be) permanent and your move abroad may not be, you will be changed by it.  You and your family will never be quite the same again.  And that is my only nod towards a certain Royal Wedding.

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12 Things I Learnt at the Washington Conference

Just back from the wonderful FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC http://www.figt.org/2011_conference and I am sitting in groggy but rapt contemplation of all that I have seen, heard, encountered and learnt.   I feel somewhat like a boa constrictor who has just swallowed a very large animal and now needs a bit of time to digest.

Conference logo

Washington DC. March 17-19

Here are just a few of the small and big revelations of the past five days, in no particular order:

1) American conferences are slick, well-organised and colour-coordinated, even when run by volunteers.  But yes, the air conditioning is fierce…

2) With concurrent sessions, there will always be clashes between two or even three or four sessions that you really, really want to attend.  Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot possibly see them all.  Or, even better, go with a friend, divide up the sessions and ensure both take copious notes.

3) Interculturalists love to talk and meet people!  It was the friendliest atmosphere I have ever experienced at a conference.  The emphasis seemed to be upon collaboration rather than competition (which, having been to some academic conferences, is not always the case).

4) Despite your good intentions, you will come home loaded with books.  Yes, I could have bought them afterwards on Amazon and had them delivered to my house, but what would I have read on the plane?  And how else would I have got the authors to sign them?  Expect some book reviews shortly.

5) You’ll get a lifetime’s worth of memorable quotes.

6) Everyone hates the term ‘trailing spouse’.  Thanks to Jo Parfitt, writer,  publisher and global nomad http://www.joparfitt.com/ ,who suggested that maybe we should refer to this category as STARs (spouses travelling and relocating) and STUDs (spouses transitioning under duress).

Now, excuse me while I settle back to digest some more….

Ah, I hear you say, but where are the remaining 6 things you have learnt?  There will be another blog post later this week about this, I promise!

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The dramas of ‘expat light’

So now I have a name for what we are as a family – ‘expat light’.  Thanks to Expatica, Passport Career and other such websites, I know now that our current situation is right on trend: one of the spouses (in this case, my husband) is on a short-term assignment without the family, rather than the full-blown 3-4 year stint with everyone but the kitchen sink moving over. 

Still on track?

OK, we have the added twist that I am also an expat in this country (although by now I don’t feel like one).  That implies that I do not have family or even very old and close friends here.  My parents have been blowing hot then cold about coming to stay and help out for  couple of months (and at their age, I am not sure who is helping whom anymore). I do not have an au pair and cannot afford a nanny or babysitter more than one evening a week when I have those all-important talks or networking or committee meetings.  So how does it work?

In theory, and on some sunny days with a view of Mont Blanc, it’s lovely.  My husband tries to come over every 2 weeks for the weekend, while the kids and I get to spend all the holidays in gorgeous Geneva.  We have already hired skis for the season and our skiing trip bill for the whole of 2011 will be decidedly lower than our one week of skiing from England during the February half-term 2010.  We get to bring back cheese, wine and chocolate home with us.  I am supposed to be taking it a bit more easy with my business this year and only get involved in those projects that I truly love. 

In practice, it looks like this:

Friday night:  Finish off project for Apex Corp. only one hour past deadline, after the children are in bed.  Acute neck and shoulder pain from being hunched up over laptop all day.

Saturday: Husband cannot come this weekend because flights are too expensive.  Search desperately for a cheaper Christmas flight for us three to Geneva, end up spending a fortune, including airport parking.  Spend ages cooking a nice meal and children cry for half an hour that they do not like beef.  Calm down an anxious child who is having nightmares because of this term’s topic on World War Two.

Sunday: Have to take children to 2 different parties at 2 different times, plus do 2 lots of homework with tears and pleas and lots of rubbing out.  Look at instructions for building a rocket out of a fizzy drink bottle and decide I really can’t handle it.  Tap decides to come off and spray water all over bathroom floor.  Neck and shoulder still hurting, so I try to massage it with an electric machine and manage to move the pain further down my back.  Try to phone husband to ask about location of spare tap but he is not at home.  Discover next day he had gone out for coffee and then for drinks and supper, so actually has a social life in Geneva!  Can’t remember last time I had a social life.  First really cold night, have to go up in the loft at night to find the winter duvet.

Monday: Children’s lack of sleep is making them irritable and lazy in the morning.  In the thick fog and damp, the car won’t start and none of the neighbours are around to jump start me.  Discover our insurance does not cover home start.  Fork out a small fortune to be professionally jumpstarted and drive around for an hour instead of working.  Garage tells me battery needs to be replaced, have to wait around for that.  About to send invoice for the project I completed on Friday, when I get an urgent request for some additional work they want me to do (which also involves other people, so I need to go back to them to check their schedules).  While I am on one phone, my mobile rings and I am told I need to come and pick up my youngest from school, as he is being violently sick.  Recovers enough on the way home to really annoy his brother. Spend rest of day trying to think what I can feed a dodgy tummy and how to keep two sons separated so that they don’t contaminate each other.

Tuesday: Car starts beautifully but now has a flat tyre. Alloy wheel corrosion means tyre is not well sealed, I discover.  People at the garage are beginning to call me by my first name.  At home, heating timer and thermostat decide to go on holiday.  Outside is the coldest day of the year so far.  Painful to be sitting at desk, but I manage to work for an hour on my project, before I am called to urgently replace the speaker I had organised for a charity event.  Can’t find any other speaker at short notice, so I go and present myself.  First call two different babysitters and three mums from school to see if they can look after children for me.   Pick up children from two different locations and discover they have left their shoes, gloves and water bottles at school.  Only a few tears over homework and a minor tussle over supper.  Younger son can’t sleep because his knee hurts.  Older one can’t sleep because younger one is crying.  I cannot do one of my projects because the files haven’t come through yet and my neck aches too much when I sit in front of the computer.

Today is Wednesday, what more can the week throw at me?

Of course, if you were to ask me and my husband who’s got the harder life, we would both think it was ourselves.  OK, OK, I admit, he has to work long hours and he is frequently on call, and he is abroad.  But he is not in a place of hardship (Swiss houserules aside), he is doing what he loves, he is getting paid even when things go wrong and he has to take a few hours or days off, he does not have to juggle and be grateful for every 15 minutes he can eke from here and there.

I’ve been an expat, I’ve been an expat spouse and I am now an expat light.  Which is best?  The first, by far!

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Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!


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International divorce is on my mind

And no, it’s not me thinking about divorcing my poor husband (luckily, he doesn’t read my blogs).  Rather, it is a growing concern amongst my international friends, and is also a hotly debated topic on expat chat forums online.  What happens to couples from two different countries who are living in a third country (and who may have bilingual children with dual citizenship) when they decide to get a divorce?  I mean, getting divorced in a single country is complicated enough, but it becomes a logistical jungle when multiple legal systems, taxation systems, child custody arrangements and of course international sets of grandparents all get thrown into the mix!

I’ve got one set of friends who have divorced amicably and share custody of their child, but both of them are stuck in a foreign country that has nothing to do with them, because neither of them wants to relocate to the country of the other partner.  And, of course, neither wants to be at a distance from their child.

I have another friend who cannot find work in the UK at the moment, and struggles to support herself and her kids.  However, she cannot return to her country of origin (and her supportive family and far better career prospects) because her husband threatens to charge her with child abduction.

I know of another case where the couple had relocated to Australia before their divorce.  The husband has agreed to let the wife move back to the UK with the kids, but his own parents (in Germany) are very cross that they will have less opportunity to see their grandchildren, that they will forget to speak German and so they are considering legal action for joint custody.   Meanwhile, the mother is concerned that, because of the huge distance, the bond with their father will be severely damaged.

International law is a very tricky subject, and so is international financial advice, but I am thinking above all of the emotional costs to all involved.  And how quickly a delightful adventure abroad can turn into a nightmare.  I’m thinking of putting together a support group and advisory session for people going through such situations – or do you think people will avoid this like the plague because ‘it might be tempting fate’?


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Avatar and Anthropology

I must be one of the last people to see Avatar (in full 3D, which made me quite dizzy), so I have missed out on some interesting discussions about its portrayal of indigenous people and military politics.  The most interesting of these is David Price questioning the ethics of ’embedded’ anthropology.   http://www.counterpunch.org/price12232009.html

However, I have some other bones to pick about the film’s portrayal of ‘the others’  and – spoiler alert – I may have some issues with the ending!

1) Why are tribal societies always portrayed as ‘primitive’?  And why are we fascinated with precisely those aspects of their culture that make them seem more childish and irrational?

2)  Why is primitive perceived as being closer to nature and therefore inherently better?  Hunters/gatherers can be quite ruthless plunderers of the forests as well.

3) Why are the Na’vi studied and examined like exotic butterflies to be pinned down, even by the scientists who are supposedly so empathetic?

4) Why are the Na’vi not invited to the negotiation table and treated as equals?  Because they do not have a programme for building nuclear weapons?

5) Can you think of one happy ending when a tribal culture has been discovered by us Westerners?  As such, I agree with the film’s expert consultant, Dr. Nancy Lutkehaus, that it is an elegy to a lost world… http://uscnews.usc.edu/arts/a_world_all_their_own.html

but the operative words here are ‘lost’ and ‘irrecoverable’.

One issue the film does address and which deserves to be discussed more is the ambiguous fascination and danger of ‘going native’  (although they do reduce it to sexual attraction). It’s not just anthropologists, but also many expats who, once they become familiar with a different interpretation of the world, feel so changed by it that they can never go back to being their old selves.  I happen to think that this is a very valuable quality in a human (or even alien) being, that this ‘switching between worldviews’ leads to really in-depth communication, understanding and connection.  But in a world where the majority value clear-cut answers and black-and-white solutions, this is clearly tricky terrain.

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