Tag Archives: family

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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Transitions: Developing Emotional Resilience

Julia Simens - this week's guest blogger

This is a guest blog by Julia Simens, educational psychologist and author of the book ‘Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child’, contributing author to The Gratitude Project: Celebrating Moms and Motherhood.  For more information about Julia and to read her blog and related articles, go to www.jsimens.com .

The rapidly-approaching summer months will be bringing transitions to many of you: We get transferred, friends change or move; a love one dies, leaves or gets in trouble; a child changes year levels or activities. The list, unfortunately, is endless. 

I have been lucky enough to thrive on change and in fact seek it out. Two children, four continents, seven new offices, seven international moves and ten more places on my ‘to do list’ has given me a unique perspective on what all these transitions do to the family. When unexpected events turn life upside down, it’s the degree to which our resiliency comes into play that makes these ‘make-or-break’ situations an opportunity for growth. The good news: each of us has the capacity to reorganize our life after a change and to achieve new levels of strength and meaningfulness. Though it’s easy to feel vulnerable in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, life disruptions are not necessary a bad thing because they help us grow and meet future challenges in our lives.

So how can you become more resilient?  Here is a look at four key characteristics of people who demonstrate resilience during life’s transitions.

1.    Positive trust

Resilient people rely on their belief in the basic goodness of the world and trust things will turn out all right in the end.

2.    Interpreting experience in an ‘open’ way

The ability to look at a situation in a new way (a skill called reframing) can minimize the impact of a new situation. Resilient people don’t always use an old definition for a new challenge they are creative.

3.    A meaningful system of support

One of the best ways to endure a transition is to have the support of another person who can listen and validate our feelings. It is important to choose people you trust. Don’t be surprised if it takes several friends, each of whom provides different kinds of support.

4.    Have a voice

Resilient people know that ultimately their survival and the integrity of their lives depend on their ability to take action rather than remain passive. Giving voice to your thoughts and feelings leads to insight and helps transform the meaning of a stressful situation into something useful.

Whether you are staying or leaving, these next few weeks you will be saying goodbye – to someone. The first step in this process is to celebrate with the ones that have been a part of your life and start the closure process. Major transitions are a ‘gotcha’ we all experience at one time or another in our lives.  Some transitions are easy to see and know but there are many hidden ones also. Be sure to let your friends know if you are dealing with a  ‘gotcha’ transition.

Preparing your child for the transition

*Julia, being American, often uses ‘gotcha’. This is a very informal way to say “I’ve got you” and it usually refers to an unexpected capture or discovery. It is a common term expressing satisfaction at having captured or defeated someone or uncovered their faults.
 
 

 

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Relocation: Convincing the Family

Photo by Arving Balaraman
Photo credit: Arvind Balaraman

After two weeks of secretive discussions and hidden asides to friends, I finally decided to broach the subject with my 8 year old.

‘Darling, how would you feel about going back to live in Geneva?’  Silence.  And then a determined, ‘No way!’
 
Over the following days, I gently approached the subject from many angles, not wishing to cause panic, not wishing to insist too much (especially before we had definitely made up our minds).  And each time the reaction got more and more dramatic, the tearful conclusion being: ‘You can go there with Daddy and my brother if you like, I’ll stay here all by myself!’
 
And it wasn’t just the children.  Grandparents, other relatives and friends, all had opinions and advice, and many of them were very sceptical of the move.  All of this can be  hard to bear when you are yourself in two minds about it.
 
Convincing others when you are not sure yourself whether you are doing the right thing…  what a challenge!  And yet, especially with children, you need to be strong and keep your doubts to yourself.  Not in the sense of painting an unrealistic picture or emphasising only the positives.  Here is what Oana, now 13, had to say about her parents’ claims when they first moved abroad when she was 9. 
 
‘They told me I would make friends really quickly, expected me to pick up the language immediately, said I would love the new house and new places.  But it took me months till I dared to say my first words in German.  I felt everyone was laughing at me.  The teacher was not as patient with me as the one back home.  I was really, really unhappy and I felt lonely in the big new house.  Even now, I can’t say I have as many friends, or best friends, as I did back home.’
 
Here are some things that you need to consider when you are trying to persuade your children that relocating abroad is a good idea:
 
1. Timing.  At what point do you involve the rest of the family (beyond the spouse, I am assuming you are involving them right away) in the debate?  Experience suggests it is better to give them time to get used to the idea, but not too early, just in case you decide not to go.  Brian says he told his children they were moving to Bermuda and generated huge enthusiasm for the idea.  A month later, they discovered Child No. 3 was on the way and changed their minds.  The two older children never quite forgave No. 3 for his untimely appearance.
 
2. Do not oversell.  Acknowledge that there will be difficulties (for all!) when adapting to a new environment.  Of course, put as positive a spin as possible on things, but do not promise perfection or you are setting your kids up for huge disappointment (as in Oana’s case).
 
3. Drip feed.  This is how we won our sons over.  I drip fed bits of information, news, pictures etc. of life in Geneva.  I got them involved in choosing the village, the house, the school. I casually mentioned Skype and webcams and having their own email addresses so that they could stay in touch with their friends in the UK.  I may even have promised some trampolines in the garden or pets (negotiations are still in progress).
 
4. Build resilience.  In yourself and in your family.  Expect some difficult times ahead but do not let that fill you with fear.  Instead, find ways to overcome those obstacles and support each other as a family.  More details coming soon, as I hope to get the wonderful Julia Simens http://www.jsimens.com  to guest blog for me next time on improving emotional resilience.

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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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Relocation Blues

It's time to pack up again...

You may have noticed (I am flattering myself that someone is waiting for my blog posts with bated breath) that I haven’t been writing much lately.  That’s because we have been experiencing the highs and lows of relocation decisions, anxieties and excitement.  Ah, yes, I do not just coach others about moving abroad, I also happily take my own advice and medicine!

From summer onwards we will be moving as a family from the UK to Geneva, Switzerland, living on the French side of the border.  We expect to stay there three years, but life has a habit of surprising us, so we are prepared for anything.

I am calling this the ‘relocation blues’ (although perhaps it should be ‘blues and pinks’, because there is a lot to celebrate and enjoy, as well as much to mourn and worry about).  Over the next few weeks, I would like to write a mini-series charting our own personal relocation journey, as well as providing other examples and ideas or tips which might be useful to others about to embark on a similar experience.

I was thinking of the following topics:

1. To Be or to Be Elsewhere:  The Decision

2. Persuading Your Followers

3. The Househunt

4.  Education Systems

5. Portable Careers

6. Drowning in Admin

Are there any other topics that would be of interest to you?  What would be most useful or most fun to find out about?  It doesn’t have to be specific to Switzerland or France, since so many of the challenges of moving with a family are similar, regardless of continent.

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Why Going to Conferences Pays

Or ‘The Remaining 6 Things I learnt at the Washington conference of FIGT’. (For details of the Families in Global Transition organisation, see this website: http://www.figt.org/).  This is Part Two from yesterday’s blog and I couldn’t resist this beautiful image of the cherry blossoms, although they did not quite look like that last week, more like a hesitant pink mist. *

Spring in Washington DC

7.  No matter how many coffee breaks, working lunches and dinners there are, you will never get a chance to meet all the interesting people you want to meet (including all your Twitter friends).   I keep looking at the attendee list and saying: ‘Oh, no, he was there too?  Oh, no,  how could I have missed her?’

8. One group of expats that was under-represented are the academics.  So, Ph.D. students,post-docs and lecturers from different cultures who meet abroad, get married and then move on to the next position.  They do represent a different kettle of fish than diplomats or missionaries or army personnel, because in many cases the spouses want to continue their research careers as well, so the ‘trailing spouse’ scenario is even more unacceptable.  On the other hand, I wonder if there are differences in how these highly-educated parents are talking to their children during these global transitions. 

9. You go there for the big ideas, but you come back with lots of little practical tips.  I now have a clearer understanding of how to add the pesky Twitter button on my blog, where to find excellent stock photos and what refreshments to serve to your international writers’ group.

10. You might even find yourself a job.  Having exchanged business cards and kept in touch, a number of participants at previous conferences were top of mind when companies were looking to recruit specialists.

11. Don’t forget your camera !  I did and was cursing about it daily.  It would have been an excellent opportunity to capture images of all the friends I made, to conduct short interviews with the numerous experts there… and perhaps to have my own pictures of cherry blossoms.

12.  Take a little bit of time off.  No matter how passionate you are about your subject area, the long days in an enclosed space, overdosing on caffeine, will wear you out.  Do recharge your batteries and see something of the town you are in, especially if you are as fortunate with the weather as we were last week.  I used to work a few months a year in DC, so I didn’t feel the need to go to all the museums this time, but I did reconnect with some dear friends, go for walks in old favourite haunts and enjoy authentic Mexican food (which is a bit harder to find in the UK).  It felt like a mini-break and I am sure helped with the digestion of information!

What do you like best about international conferences?  And what annoys you most about them?  Perhaps next time I will talk about that.

*  For the original image and more details about the cherry blossom festival in DC, look at this website  http://chuvachienes.com/2010/03/28/the-national-cherry-blossom-festival-in-washington-dc/

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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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