Tag Archives: living abroad

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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Valentine’s Day Around the World

Call me an old grumpy boots, but I don’t like Valentine’s Day.  I don’t see the point of spending a lot of money on overpriced chocolates, flowers and cards, when the best way to show your love is to be thoughtful and helpful the remaining 364 days of the year!

Yet last night I managed not to laugh as my little sons painstakingly wrote and illustrated their very first Valentine’s cards.  I suppose my ‘bah-humbug’ attitude has something to do with the fact that I grew up in countries where this day was never celebrated.  It was a shock to the system to arrive in the UK at the age of 25 and have to comfort grown women crying on my shoulder because they hadn’t received any secret Valentines…

Of course international florists and confectionery companies have tried to expand the tradition worldwide, but some countries are still bravely holding out.  In China, for instance, the day of love falls on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, and it’s more geared towards the celebration of daughters and hoping they will find a suitable marriage partner.  In Romania and Bulgaria the 1st of March is celebrated, both as a way of thanking women for their contribution to the family and society, and also to celebrate the arrival of Spring.  In Japan, traditionally it used to be the women who were pampered with gifts on the 14th of March, but in recent years women have started giving gifts to their lovers as well.  When?  Well, conveniently enough, a month earlier, on the 14th of February – reciprocity being, of course, very important in Japanese culture.

Although even the above countries are succumbing somewhat to the commercial phenomenon of Valentine’s Day, Brazil is still steadfastly against it.  They have a ‘love day’ in June, but February is just too busy with carnival to worry about anything else.

Symbol of Sprin

Martisor - symbol of spring

So I’ll neither encourage nor discourage my children to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  After all, they have to fit in with their schoolmates.  But I will subtly let them know it’s not important if you don’t receive any Valentines, and that there are other days in the year too for expressing their feelings.  And they’d better learn to give me a Martisor on the 1st of March, or else…!

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Top 7 Cultural Generalisations and Beliefs

There are some pervasive beliefs about cultural similarities and differences that I hear bandied around not only by people I meet casually, but even (bless them!) by some family members who should know better after living with me as an aunt, cousin or daughter for so many years.  While none of them are downright racist or malicious, uninformed good intentions can be just as damaging. 

Multicoloured and multicultural

Variety is the spice of life

1. Live and let live, I always say…

Great in theory, but in practice it often covers the sin of not being at all interested in the Other, and wishing to banish them to some kind of ghetto.  Out of sight is out of mind, but that is not living together in good cultural integration.

2. Underneath it all, we are all human…

Again, beautifully idealistic statement, but how often is this used to deny difference?

3. Everyone travels nowadays, so we all know different cultures.

I’ve written a blog post about this before https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/being-made-redundant/ but I will just reiterate that, although travelling does broaden the mind, it depends on whether you travel with an open mind and try to get to know the different countries on a more in-depth level than just the beach, the Hilton, the Margarita…

4. Everyone speaks English, so why should I bother to learn anything else?

Estimates vary (and figures can change rapidly), but indications are that between two thirds and three quarters of the world’s population does not speak English.  Besides, the English that does get spoken in different parts of the world may be quite different from what native speakers might be used to.

5. English is THE language of the Internet.

It certainly used to be, but the percentage of Web content that is entirely in English has decreased dramatically in recent years, while Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and German are catching up.

6. I have nothing against these people in general, but why can’t they be more like us (when it comes to democracy or religion or crowd behaviour or business etiquette or…)?

This is the big one and a source of frustration to many when interacting with different cultures or setting up a business abroad.  All I can say is that my parents, husband or children are not very much like me either… although I have nothing against family in general!

7. I’ll be fine when I move abroad, I don’t need any preparation.

Some will be and some will not.  Those who are fine may be so purely by chance, or because they have a company or spouse or friend who makes life easy for them.  Some may be ‘in survivor mode’, rather than truly enjoying their life in another country.  Some may be counting the days until they move back.  Isn’t that sad?  Aren’t those years too part of your life?

While it is true that no one can prepare you for every single eventuality and emergency of your life abroad, having some idea of what to expect will ensure that you don’t rely entirely on luck to thrive in your new location.

What other generalisations have you heard which amused or frustrated you?  And how do you respond to them?

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And now for something completely different…

This is a more poetic take on living abroad, written a while back, but posted here today to commemorate the start of the National Write Your Novel in a Month initiative, which is a real kick-start for all those wannabe creative writers out there (we know who we are!).

I am running on the border between France and Switzerland.  This scraggly bit of grass could be French and that root I just jumped over might be Swiss.  I don’t have my passport tucked into my running tights, so I shouldn’t stray too much onto the Swiss side, but the French side is a bit shadier and therefore muddier… and who can tell where the exact border is anyway?  In my many runs through these woods, I have come across deer and wild boar, but only once did I see an old stone border marker from the 19th century.  And the borders have been subtly redefined since many times over.

Hard to believe this area was fiercely contested in the past between the Savoyards (on the French side) and the Swiss.  It is now so peaceful, just a few runners, cyclists and elderly people walking their dogs.  I rejoice in the warm autumn sun, crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the Jura mountains to the left, then automatically turn to the right to see if Mont Blanc is visible today.  Shame, too hazy.  But it will still be there tomorrow and the day after.

As I jog through the vineyards pregnant with fat grapes, I give myself a mental hug and congratulate myself for living in such a beautiful place.  I feel grateful, not smug, even as I boast on Facebook about our perfect mountain view from the balcony.  It has taken me more than a year to adapt to my surroundings, but now I wish I could live here forever.

 I arrived here with visions of instant gratification and integration.  After all, Geneva has a thriving international community, I have lived in many different countries and speak French, English, German, all useful languages in this part of the world.  More importantly, I wanted to ‘fit in’ with the local population, meet the ‘real’ Swiss and French people.  With my background in social anthropology and two small children going to the local school and crèche, I thought I had it cracked.

 However, Geneva is not quite a city of ‘real’ people.  It is a city of migrants, attracted by its wealth and opportunities.  It is a-buzz with languages and nationalities, so it is possible to never leave the confines of the international organizations and its magic circle of employees.   OK, CERN is arguably in the second rank of international organizations, because scientists are just never as important as financiers and policy-makers, but this is still the exclusive club for scientists and engineers, a pinnacle of achievement or an opportunity to launch your career.  Geneva is a city of the super-rich and super-leisured, and somehow all this wealth is more visible than in London.   If you are happy to exist in an expat bubble, you can certainly do so with impunity in Geneva.

View of Geneva's 60s blocks

The ‘common’ people exist here as anywhere else, those depressing grey tower blocks in Meyrin are a reminder of that – but it’s not Council estates as we know them in the UK.  It’s a ghetto of self-discipline, rules and regulations, where you cannot have parties or even use your washing machine after 9 p.m., where neighbourhood watch means you get reported for hosting friends for longer than a weekend, where communal areas are spick and span, and there is a neat place for everything: bikes, laundry, pushchairs…

Fortunately, we live just across the border in France, where rules and regulations can be waived if you do it charmingly enough.  I cross the border several times a day in my battle-scarred Honda Jazz with the steering wheel on the wrong side.  My youngest son goes 2 mornings a week to Swiss nursery, 2 mornings to French nursery, while my older one goes to the French maternelle.  French government is supportive of working mothers, but I am not French nor in full-time employment, so it’s been a struggle to find a regular crèche place for my youngest.  However, the state garderie (nursery) in France is a new, purpose-built, lovely building, and so cheap I cannot believe it, even without government subsidies for low wages.  The Swiss do not encourage women with young children to work (although the French-speaking part of the country is not quite as evangelical about this as the German-speaking part), so nurseries and schools have extremely complicated pick-up and drop-off times (no two the same, as far as anyone can tell), to discourage anyone even contemplating part-time employment.  Besides, both nations agree that families should have lunch together at home, so I spend most of my time driving from one place to another.  That’s why I relish every minute I get to stop somewhere on the border and go for a run.

But why do I say ‘fortunately’ we live across the border…?  This might once have been the case, as rents and house prices used to be cheaper on the French side.  But now Swiss regulations about owning a house abroad have relaxed and house prices and rents have shot up.  This is the second most expensive area in France after Paris, as everybody keeps reminding us.  It is nearly as expensive as the South-East of England, where we used to live before.  And St. Genis is anything but a pretty, traditional Haute Savoie village.  It is probably the place with the highest density of physicists per inhabitants in Europe, but it lacks a cosy campus atmosphere.  Instead, ugly concrete apartment blocks were hastily erected in the 1970s to deal with the sudden influx in population.  More recently, developers have cottoned on that expats prefer to live in houses which at least create the illusion of a better life, so they have built endless rows of soul-less little houses with postage-stamp gardens.  The kindest thing anyone can say about the village is that it is ‘convenient’ for commuting to CERN and Geneva.  Most of the families who are staying here for more than 2 years choose to live in more remote, but prettier villages, like Thoiry, Sergy, Crozet, St Jean de Gonville.

Yet I feel sorry for the much maligned St. Genis (current population 8,600, up from 900 in the early 1960s), which has so heroically been putting up with the hordes of barbarians invading it for four decades. It has so many facilities for a place of its size: two primary schools, a theatre, a cultural centre, a library, a sports centre, an athletic track and stadium, as well as shops, restaurants, post offices and no less than three boulangeries/patisseries. As I wait for my children at the school gates, I discover that there are a few authentic local parents after all.  Many of them are in far less prestigious jobs than the incoming strangers, and the good proportion of Dads at the gates (so unlike the primary school in the Home Counties that I am used to) indicates that perhaps quite a large number of them are unemployed.  How do they feel about ‘these foreign people’ coming and taking their jobs, their school places, using their medical services and so on?  They smoke and scowl, but I am determined.

I smile and join in the conversation.  The men are mildly flirtatious, the women polite and pleasant, even as they correct my French.  Quick aside:  French people will always prefer someone who makes an effort to speak French, but their way of encouraging someone struggling with the language is to pounce upon them with the correct grammar or pronunciation, even to the point of making you repeat the correct forms in public until you get it right.  But I am not invited to their home, nor are my casual invitations for coffee ever taken up.  I join the PTA, I bake cakes and help out at the school fairs and carnival parades.

Children's Carnival in St. Genis Pouilly

I go to toddler gym, skiing and music lessons, share snacks and recipes with the other waiting Mums.  It’s an uphill struggle, but after about a year, people are starting to open up.  I chat with the librarians about my sons’ preferred BD (comic books). I discuss Sarkozy with my physiotherapist.  We meet at the sandpit in the park and follow it up with crepes. I have shown commitment, I have shown my desire and effort to belong.  I am beginning to gain their trust and acceptance.

 So now I can rejoice and relax in this cross-border run of mine, past a hidden chalet straight out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.  I try to breathe regularly, yet also take in all that wonderful fresh air.  To last me forever, even after I am gone, in just a few short months.  Through no fault of my own, my time in Geneva is strictly limited.  So I too will betray my ‘natives’.  I too will leave them.   Now I can understand their reservations, their unwillingness to make friends.  Every time they let one of these passing strangers in, they open themselves up to hurt.  These strangers leave, and they leave nothing behind them but memories.

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Marrying abroad

While chatting to a Russian friend the other day, we remarked on the number of international marriages we have seen failing lately.  (I had written a blog post about the challenges of international divorces and it struck quite a chord with many of my acquaintances.)  We were wondering why that might be the case.

The easy explanation would be that – in our East European countries, at least, and possibly even more so in certain Asian countries – marriage with a foreigner was perceived as something aspirational, glamorous, a great opportunity to get out of the country and make a life and career for yourself.  For both men and women. Although the  image that most readily springs to mind is that of good-looking young women hanging off the arms of weedy expats with no obvious qualities other than their thick wallets.

Fast forward a few years and now that the more basic needs of Maslow’s pyramid have been satisfied (security, warmth, food, the chance to be treated with respect or at least civility), perhaps the appetite has increased for those higher-level needs.  We no longer want a secure provider, but a soulmate.  We no longer crave the narrow two-bed flat in London but a detached house overlooking the sea.  Which, by the way, some of our former classmates back home have by now obtained!

Life abroad, marriage abroad, has disappointed us.  But we cannot go back – we have been away for too long, we no longer fit in, people back there treat us with suspicion or greed.  We now want the lifestyle, the wealth and the ideal partner. 

But there could be another explanation:  Could it be that our partner has tired of us and our foreign ways?  Or that we have over-adapted to our host country and they can no longer see the quirkiness and uniqueness in us that they originally fell in love with?  Did both partners enter the marriage thinking more in terms of national stereotypes rather than the actual indvidual?

I know I came to the UK expecting to find the perfect English gentleman.  Or a tall, dark  Norwegian (my favourite ‘type’ combined with my favourite country but, sadly, almost an oxymoron).  Luckily, I found my husband, who confounded all those false ideals and expectations.  Nor did he find me to be the typical Romanian lass (whatever that might be).  So we had to make it up as we went along.

I’m sure we both occasionally revert to national stereotyping when we get cross with each other (especially with each other’s families) but most of the time we rejoice that we are neither fish nor fowl and enjoy living between worlds.  Which is probably the secret of success – we live in a neutral ‘third’ country.

What is your experience of marrying abroad?  Would you agree that it’s a taboo to admit the ‘selfish’ reasons for doing so? Do you think there are always some false expectations and stereotypes going on there? 

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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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Why do Britons kill abroad?

OK, this is going to be controversial.  Let me clarify:  I do not mean that Brits are the only ones to kill abroad.  Nor do I mean that Brits have to go abroad to kill and crime doesn’t happen in the UK. Nor am I trying to find excuses for people to commit crimes abroad.  No, I was simply musing on those tragic stories recently in the news:  the mother who smothered her children in Spain and the man who killed his girlfriend in Greece.

Of course we can’t possibly know what was going on in those minds as they embarked upon those horrific deeds.  And I do not want to find a neat, trite little model of an explanation for what must have been (at least in one case) a very complicated and particular set of circumstances.  But I couldn’t help wondering if the fact that these individuals were abroad did contribute in some small way to the tragic outcome.

Life abroad, especially in a sunny clime, still seems very alluring to the British.  And who can blame them?  In this economic climate, a move abroad is not just a lifestyle change, but may also herald better career prospects, better housing, more money, a fresh start away from your mistakes.

Only it seldom lives up to expectations.

Expats nearly always tend to underestimate the hardship and loneliness of living abroad.  The difficulty of dealing with unfamiliar bureaucracy in a foreign language.  The length of time it takes to be accepted and start making friends.  Floundering around until you find your bearings.  It’s like a rollercoaster ride – one minute exhilarating, one minute the lowest of the low.  No one, however well adjusted, will be able to entirely avoid culture shock.

If you are a vulnerable type already, prone to anxiety, jealousy, personality disorders, living abroad can exacerbate these traits and lead you to take extreme action.  Just a thought….

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