Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Expat Focus guide to kissing!

Yes, I thought this title would catch your attention - hopefully just in time for the mistletoe.

It's incredible how sometimes when expats are talking about things that worry them, instead of hearing stories of money troubles, children's education or mortgages, one sees furtive glances around followed by the apologetic whisper "I don't know when to kiss the locals!"

For many Anglophones, kissing as a greeting is still comparatively rare. Certainly it's OK between partners, children and parents, and perhaps between close family members, but pecking casual acquaintances on both cheeks remains something that's seen as a slightly suspect continental habit.

That's a little inaccurate though because not all non-English speaking countries accept hugging and kissing as part of polite social greeting. Even in continental Europe it tends to be less common in northern European countries where trying to kiss someone you hardly know by way of a casual 'hello' on the street is likely to get you a rapid elbow in the ribs!

This is of course a well-trodden path of discussion and many others have pointed out that even in reserved countries such as the UK, fashions are changing and kissing of casual acquaintances is becoming more acceptable. That maybe so, but social etiquette here remains a mystery to many Brits, Aussies and Yanks arriving in continental Europe. Clearly the message isn't getting through.

Here are a few tips which I hope will come in handy but I should also say - I'm no expert! Do also remember that customs vary country by country so check with a friendly local first!

1. In the vast majority of countries, a first meeting or two between people is always moderately formal and it is unusual for people to kiss each other the first time they meet. It is usually on subsequent meetings when people start to become acquaintances or casual friends that greetings make the move to kissing.

2. If you're a man and it's a new-ish female acquaintance, transitioning from a handshake greeting to a kiss normally means leaving the decision to the woman. If she offers a cheek and inclines towards you then offer a peck. Just walking up to women you hardly know and 'puckering up' can be seen as lecherous in some societies. Women tend to have more freedom in that respect!

3. In some countries kissing in public between men as a greeting is also acceptable though it tends to be reserved for family members or very good friends. As an expat it is advisable here to be guided by local practice and to avoid taking the initiative.

4. Don't try and plant big wet smackers on the person's lips! Kissing, as a greeting, is in most countries only a light touch on the cheek. Lip-to-lip contact is reserved for romantic encounters, partners or sometimes between very close family members - just as it is in the Anglophone world. Trying to 'plant one' on say your second ever meeting with a neighbour is likely to cause confusion and offence at best and at worst could get you a black eye.

5. In general, the cheeks only lightly touch or perhaps there is the lightest glance of lip-on-cheek. Try to avoid fixing limpet-like onto the side of someone's face!

6. The number of kisses exchanged is impossible to generalise on - just follow the local person's lead and don't chase them for "just one more" as they move away!

7. NEVER try to kiss someone in a formal business or a social situation. Your bank manager won't thank you for trying to grab him across his desk as you walk in. Equally people such as teachers tend to have a certain 'social role' in local societies that means they don't expect parents to kiss them at the school gates each evening etc.

8. Finally, body contact. Remember that personal space is personal space. As a general rule kissing when greeting or parting from people is restricted to cheeks-lips without any other body contact. You will fairly often see this accompanied by a hug, a hand on shoulder or more rarely a full embrace but this is almost always restricted to very close friends or family members. Don't slip you arm around a casual friend's waist when giving them a greeting kiss as it'll be misconstrued - unless that's your intention of course!

9. Finally, be careful with that mistletoe at the Christmas party. Not everyone is familiar with that particular custom and whipping out a bunch of twigs before chasing your colleagues around the room may come back to haunt you!


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter's coming

I saw some snow in the air the other day and started thinking about the approaching ‘season to be jolly’.

It’s funny how many expats comment about how ‘seasonal’ things are outside of the Anglophone world.

To an extent I know what they mean.

In the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, we became used to 365 days per year availability of just about everything. Want a peach in December? No problem – your local supermarket has just had a consignment in from Venezuela. Fancy some green beans in March? No problem – help yourself to some over there fresh in from Mexico.

This may sound great and it certainly is convenient, but against that it is part of the same syndrome that means Christmas now is starting in October if you believe the TV and shops, Easter bunnies appear in February, and Halloween costumes appear on the shelves in early September.

Many continental Europeans though find this distinctly odd. They are much more calendar aware than their Anglophone cousins and this affects shopping and lifestyles here. To them there are seasons and life is to some extent built around those seasons.

Now of course if you go into a big supermarket anywhere the chances are you’ll be able to find some out-of-season foodstuffs, particularly in the frozen sections, but you’re likely to see much more seasonal local produce than you will in, say, the UK or USA.

What this means is that in winter you’ll see mainly winter vegetables plus a few exotics perhaps, and in the summer the reverse is true. The natural result of that is you’ll also find some stuff hard to find at certain times of the year if it is out-of-season.

At this stage you may be thinking that the vegetable stocking policies of the major supermarkets don’t exactly make for exciting reading and you’re probably right, but there’s a point to this.

This ‘seasonal mentality’ can be a surprise to expats in a much wider sense also. Take clothing for an example.

In Milan the winter traditionally begins on a certain day. That’s the day that the furs (real or synthetic) and winter clothes come out by convention for public display. It’s not unknown for unseasonably warm weather to mean that people out for their evening promenade will sweat away profusely as they wear their new winter togs but that’s not important. What is important is that winter is here and this demands the public display of winter clothing. So take your choice – sweat and be ‘in tune’ or dress sensibly and get sniggered at!

This seasonality doesn’t only affect clothes and foodstuffs but even household products.

Now, living in town and with no garden, I’m not too bothered about garden materials but I know someone who is and he said he’s pulled his hair out several times over this ‘seasonal madness’ as he calls it.

Being slightly ‘green’ he dutifully went out in April to buy a leaf and branch grinder used in gardens to make compost and mulch. In all his local garden centres he received looks of surprise.

“Why do you want one of those at this time of year?”

Apparently someone somewhere has decided that this sort of task is a winter one so nobody could understand why he wanted one at any other time of the year. Predictably none were in stock and he had to wait until November to get one when magically overnight they appeared in all the shops simultaneously.

When he was called to say one was in stock, he popped down to buy it. He told me that his attempts to convince the shop after loading it into his car that it wasn’t the season for paying bills weren’t too well received.

The moral of this tale for new expats is that if you need something and see it, then assuming you can afford it you should probably buy it then and there. It may well vanish next week and you won’t see one again for another 12 months!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Motoring abroad can drive you mad!

I'm not talking about road signs or even which side of the road one drives on, and I'm certainly avoiding the big subject of motoring politics as passions can run high once people start to debate government spending, pollution, the environment, the wider economy and our 21st century mobile society.

What I'm talking about is just the basic insanity of the way things are done on the roads in every country.

Take Spain for example. There is a new road section that was designated as a motorway. This was hyped as a way of speeding HGVs between two major cities. Predictably enough, the new motorway was immediately turned into a 'payable section' presumably to recover the cost and generate some profit. At face value this makes sense and seems fair - why shouldn't HGV's and other drivers pay a small amount in Euros to save them a lot of time?

The trouble is of course that many HGV drivers, or their companies, now don't use the motorway just to save those few Euros. What has happened is that all the HGVs now use a relatively small rural road that runs parallel to the new motorway and that goes through several villages and small towns. While the motorway sits largely empty, apart from some tourist traffic in season, the local road by contrast is a veritable death trap with 55 tonne, 15-metre long HGVs bumper-to-bumper in convoys that can sometimes stretch half a kilometre or more.

No prizes for guessing that this doesn't stop many drivers from attempting to overtake these vast long chains of HGVs with the all-too-often result that their cars end up reduced to a pile of dust. That's saying nothing about the near impossibility for pedestrians to cross some town centre roads now, as they've become a veritable continuous moving wall of HGVs.

It's hard to see a continuation of this situation as anything other than madness.

Such crazy situations are not the exclusive property of any single country. Take France as another example.

France has some of the best roads in Europe and some of the strictest driving rules including some of the lowest alcohol limits in the EU. Yet it also has one of the highest accident and fatality rates. The number killed on French roads each year is roughly double that of the UK.

Why is this? Well, for many decades people have claimed that driving standards in France, Spain and Italy were much lower than those in Northern Europe. Highly controversial stuff and I make no judgement, but it is interesting to see that the French government is now openly questioning the 'macho' and low-driving skill culture that accompanies much road use in France. They have even decided for the first time to introduce eyesight tests as part of the driving test following a case where someone almost totally blind was found to have passed.

Yet in all countries by focusing on the absurd the authorities continue to alienate the vast majority of road users of all types; including expats, who welcome sensible laws and restrictions. I know of one police random vehicle roadside check recently that fined a British expat because the screws that secured his number plate were plastic. Apparently they should have been metal. In another case an expat was fined because his wing mirror had a small crack in it and another got off with a stern warning because his licence plate on a towed trailer was not displayed at the correct minimum height.

In the case of the plastic screws the driver was told "if you live in our country you need to respect our laws". Nobody I hope would question that statement but in view of the totality of the challenge faced by global societies in the domain of transport policy and road safety, does this sort of action help anyone?

All over Europe these major road transport issues are of concern to people. I don't have the answers any more than anyone else but I am sure that cracking down hard on things such as plastic screws on number plates will play no part in the solution. What do you think? Do you have any experiences to share?

Monday, December 08, 2008

We’re Not Expats – We’re American!

I’ve heard that said. In a shop once somebody asked an American couple if they were expats and they replied, “No, we’re American.”

I’ve also had a similar experience with a British couple who, when I asked if they were expats also replied “No, we’re British just living here”.

This is thought-provoking stuff in its way. Ok, in both cases they may just not have been familiar with the term ‘expat’ but it also begs some questions such as - where is this country called Expatria? Who is in charge? What flag does it have? Is it in NATO? I think we should be told!

Joking apart, does any tangible ‘thing’ called an expat exist? Does a foreigner living in Spain have much in common with one living in Australia or Belgium? Are the issues and interests of a US expat living in the Middle East on a lucrative 2-year corporate relocation deal even remotely connected with those of the British family that has just purchased a tiny sardine fishing business on one of the wilder parts of the Portuguese coast?

It would be easy to say ‘no’. Clearly walking into a social services department in Norway to seek help and then demonstrating to them your encyclopaedic knowledge of how the system works in Greece is, well, not likely to get you much other than a warm handshake as they show you quickly to the door marked ‘exit’. Trying to get a will made out in Sydney isn’t going to be made easier by the fact a fellow expat has just briefed you extensively by phone on how things work in Croatia.

There’s no substitute for local expertise and local help. Your special Expatrian salute (a blank, wide-eyed and terrified expression with hands held aloft in the universal gesture of “I haven’t a clue what’s going on”) won’t in itself achieve much locally – other than laughter.

Yet expats do have many themes in common, and there is real value in sharing experiences even across national boundaries. Few expats have made the transition entirely without the odd trauma or two and recognising that the odd problem is not the same thing as ‘game over’ can be useful. Some lessons are also universal, such as the need to integrate with the local society you’ve joined and the perils of becoming subsumed into, and dependent upon, a local expat micro-society and culture.

Not only that, but we can all be inspired by the stories of expats elsewhere who have made a success of their new lives in foreign lands, sometimes overcoming huge obstacles en-route. OK perhaps we’re not planning to start that cricket farm in the middle of Amazonia, but reading that someone has and has been successful can be inspirational. It’s easy to forget that the majority of expats have success stories as to how they have transformed their lives for the better. If they can be persuaded to share these stories, then new or potential expats would do well to listen.

So, maybe Expatria does exist after all and is the world’s first cyber-country. I’m off now to draft up a constitution and whistle up a quick national anthem. By teatime we should be ready for our first revolution followed by civil war.

Long live Expatria!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Expat kids - could we do more?

The other day a group of children came walking down the street with their teacher. They were about 12 years of age or so, and as they passed I couldn't help hearing that the 2 boys at the back of the group were speaking to each other in English.

Nothing unusual in that you may say - they were probably children of expats.

Yes, perhaps, but it started me wondering whether that description was something of a cop-out. Were youngsters like this "children of expats", "young expats" with their own issues or just fully integrated local kids who can speak more than one language?

I was interested and started thinking about what I knew and had seen on various expat web sites etc. I also did a quick and no doubt not very thorough piece of web based research and I was fairly surprised at what I found.

There is a vast amount of information available, and much shared experience, about children's issues for expats. These look very useful and touch on all the expected subjects of education issues, integration and language etc.

The thing is, for the most part these articles and tips understandably major on giving the adult's perspective and even less surprisingly they were targeted at adults. They tend to be of the genre "10 things you need to know about getting your children into a local school".

There is though seemingly very little available from the children's perspective. What does it mean to be uprooted from your friends, wider family, familiar culture and family and be dropped into a foreign school and children's society where you may well not be able to speak a word of the local language? It's probably a safe bet that children and teenagers everywhere have the same sorts of issues associated with growing up, but are these different for expat youngsters?

There's nothing new in this of course. People have moved around the globe for centuries and their children have had to cope. Youngsters are far more flexible in terms of adapting to a new language and culture than their parents probably are.

Even so, a fairly big percentage of the expat community are probably under 18 and not much seems to be happening to provide them with a forum for sharing their experiences, views and tips about growing up in their societies as "a foreign kid".

Now I'm the last to think the web should fill up with web sites dedicated to articles with titles such as 'Acne In Amsterdam', 'Graffiti In Greek', 'Chatting-up in Chattanooga' or 'Terrible Teenage Traumas in Tenerife' but even the fact that those slightly tongue-in-cheek titles occurred to me suggests that like most adults I stereotype kids.

I may be barking up the wrong tree but I think there's need for a channel here. To some extent expats' success in settling down in their new country is affected significantly by the experiences of their families. Miserable children equates to miserable expat families and vice-versa. Isn't it about time we did more to support them?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Expat News – “Read All About It!”

Just about every country I know of has an English language newspaper or two.

Some of these are English versions of the local heavyweight nationals. Sometimes the translations are not quite what they should be, but generally they’re fairly traditional and readable.

They do give a fascinating triangulation when compared to your ‘regular’ normal English language paper. So if you’re a life-long reader of the “Daily Broadside” and still get it once overseas, it’s worth also getting an English language version of your local papers to see how different the coverage is.

The “Broadside” may not talk much about your local issues such as the council elections in Rotterdam or the Feta cheese industry, but comparing the two papers on international stories can sometimes offer an incredible insight into how countries see things so differently. It’s not unusual to read coverage of the same international incident and struggle to actually recognise it as the same event based on the views expressed in the two different papers! You can sometimes find your perspectives and views are challenged in terms of what you think you knew.

Still, I digress because here I’m more interested in highlighting the other type of English language newspapers – those aimed at the expat.

There’s not much nicer than sitting down at a café and browsing through these. At first glance they can appear trivial or even soporific due to some less than eye-catching headlines such as the exciting front-page ‘New Form J454-LF-27 now available’ I saw recently (OK, I forget the exact number of the form but I’m sure you get the drift). Hardly the sort of lead guaranteed to get queues forming in the newsagents.

They can equally sometimes be unintentionally hilarious such as one I saw a while back with the headline “Cows Lead Parade” which, yes you’re ahead of me I suspect on this one, was accompanied by a photo of four matronly women carrying a banner – the cows referred to of course were some prize beasts that had led a local agricultural parade.

The point is though not to mock these publications because for the most part they are very well written and put together. They are often worth their weight in gold and can be a mine of useful local information. Why is this?

Many local language ‘local papers’ can be VERY parochial and not massively informative. They are inevitably full of photos of the local handball team, in-depth sentence-by-sentence coverage of the local council debate as to whether the town hall gates should be painted green or black and long lists of diary events such as the dates for the chess club meetings over the following 6 months.

All those things interest local people, but what these papers often lack are usually the ‘key tips’, explanations and information that expat residents desperately need. The locals may not need to find a local plumber in the paper because they know, as their parents knew, that it is Mr XYZ a couple of kilometres away and he covers all plumbing in this area. Why does he need to advertise given we already know who and where he is?

This is where English language ‘local’ expat papers come into their own – and many are also linked to expat websites.

As they’re often run by expats and targeted at expats, they don’t make the mistake of assuming that the reader already knows how things work. They have numerous useful articles and advertisements about where to find people or services and how things work locally.

It’s not unusual to find very important information in them relating to business and life in general – information you may well have otherwise missed because it happened to only be displayed in the 3rd office on the first floor of your local town hall instead of the normal 4th office on the second floor.

The range of associations and commercial items in them can also be staggering and it is not just the local expat community who use it. Many local enterprises are also waking up to the fact that there are a lot of foreigners living locally who may not know their company exists and they are quickly learning that the slightly more dynamic nature of these local English language papers can yield them results – so they’re advertising away and making offers also.

So, the next time you see one of these papers, try spending a few coins and buy it. Don’t be put off by the sometimes bizarre headlines – give it a read. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The joy of friends

by guest blogger Mac

January sees an annual event in my life, which has grown significantly over the last three years. What started as a pair of friends visiting me for a couple of weeks has now turned into a group staying for almost two months. Although it’s always good to see people from home, one of the reasons I enjoy being an ex-pat is that it allows me to live a little more low profile and keep to myself more, which is how I prefer things.

Having these friends visiting is a harrowing event sometimes, as they disrupt my life so much. They do not seem to realise that I live on a budget just like they do, and I cannot afford to take two months away from my work and play host. They also seem to expect me to become some sort of tour guide, whisking them here there and everywhere and giving them a great holiday experience.

I think next year I need to make it clear that I am an ex-pat, not a holiday maker, and that they are welcome to visit, but not to expect me to interrupt my life for them.


Expat Networks

Not too many people who make the big decision to move overseas, do so with the intention of becoming part of an expat community. To me it’s always seemed a little bit odd to make such a huge life-changing move, then upon arrival, immediately go to seek out one’s countrymen en-masse.

Yet in a sense it’s natural and in can also be a good idea. It’s a pity if each new expat arrival has to make the same mistakes as those that have gone before or re-invent the wheel. So all those expat guides plus some local ‘in the ear’ advice and tips certainly play their part in helping settle in.

There are also some differences here between destination countries, and yes, I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations here to get debate going.

For reasons I’ve never really understood, expat ‘communities’ seem much more commonplace in Spain and Portugal than say France, Italy or Australia. Yet oddly they do exist in some parts of the USA, notably California, where some areas of certain cities have little population clusters of British or other European nationalities (I refer here to modern expats and I’m excluding the great city ghetto areas settled in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries by various peoples).

Is this something to do with weather? Do more sociable people go to Spain and Portugal whereas the individualists with hermit tendencies are for some reason more attracted by France or Italy? Do expats in Spain and Portugal feel less secure and therefore in need of drawing the wagons into a circle?

I was talking to someone who once told me that his family had purchased a modest villa in a larger village near the coast in Spain.

They’d obviously examined it thoroughly several times, and had a good drive around the village that looked fine with a few shops and restaurants. Apparently they didn’t discover until after the purchase when they arrived for their first holiday that hardly a single Spanish person lived in the village. All the houses were owned by expats of various nationalities, and every single bar, shop and restaurant was in fact British owned and staffed.

By contrast, I know of one family who moved to France to start-up a traditional British butcher’s shop – it may sound unlikely but it’s true! Once they opened and started advertising, local British residents started coming out of the woodwork attracted by thoughts of pork pies, pasties and so on.

The point is that the local expat community didn’t even know that their ‘enclave’ existed until they started meeting each other by chance in the local butcher’s. They were staggered at just how many of them lived in the locality. They hadn’t gravitated towards each other upon arrival at all.

It’s a mystery to me. Any thoughts or explanations gratefully received!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

No Grape Left Unpicked (part 3)

by guest blogger Sami

One hour and thirty minutes later and a dyed in the wool farmer pulled over to give me a hand, his empathy perhaps arising from the wellington boots I was wearing. To my pleasant surprise the car started and I was back on the road, down hill all the way.

Got to the vineyard, late, and asked 'monsieur patron' where everyone was and whether he would allow me to start late. "No problem", and the day at work went off without a hitch. I was upset to find that there were no virgin maidens in the sunshine, but rather cackling alcoholics under a grey sky.

However, the work did me good and I returned to my less than trustworthy steed at five thirty that evening feeling like an accomplished semi-Frenchman.
The battery was still unresponsive. Oh well, jump leads please, and back off down the road on my merry way back to the campsite. Three kilometres later, another slow halt, this time with the motor smoking like a dry ice machine. I popped the hood to assess the damage, I couldn't see a thing for all the smoke and so decided to wait.

It was at this point that luck decided to play a little game with me. Within five minutes of waiting I had three cars parked next to me with three French countrysiders falling over themselves to help me and my useless engine. The engine wouldn't start, and the countrysiders began a little debate which escalated in volume within a matter of minutes. Needless to say, I had no idea what was being said but suggested timidly that a mechanic might be a good idea. Immediately, I was whisked off, by the more sturdy of the three, to the local Citroen garage, with barely enough time to lock the car and secure my belongings.

The garagist then drove me back to the car and popped the hood again.

"Well I have never seen anything like this, I'll have to take it to the garage" he said.

My confidence in finding a solution to this growing transportation problem was rapidly fading.

"Do you think you could give me a lift back to my tent?"

Another night spent in the tent, dreaming of a car suspended on meat hooks in some back country garage. To pour salt on the wound, the next morning my mobile and charger both malfunctioned due to extremely cold night time temperatures and refused to work again for the remainder of the trip. Then it occurred to me...

"How the hell am I going to get home?" 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Don't break down abroad!

A friend told me of a great welcome he received recently when on holiday in Spain.

Due to the excellent road networks in most of Europe, it’s not unusual to find people that drive down to the sun each year rather than catch a plane. Given our dismal summer, my friend decided to do just that.

After a long and uneventful drive, as they crossed from France into Spain the rainy weather immediately cleared and out came the sun.

Feeling immediately that life was getting better as the temperatures rose, they drove south to near Valencia. As they approached their exit junction of the motorway, only 5 kilometres from their rented apartment, suddenly the clouds rolled in and a terrific storm erupted – all within less than 5 minutes. The rain was so heavy they had to pull off the road, as visibility was just about zero.

After 15 minutes the rain was still falling heavily but at least they could now see some distance so he pulled away. As he did so his exhaust fell off.

Driving through still torrential rain, they limped to their apartment only a short distance away arriving in a cloud of smoke and sparks all much to the amusement of other holidaymakers on their balconies.

The following morning they called their Europe-wide breakdown company and for reasons that were entirely unclear, found themselves routed to a call centre in Paris who spoke perfect if slightly accented English. After several to-and-fro calls, the call centre called back to say that the local breakdown driver couldn’t find the apartments.

Giving more details of where they were located, my friend asked the call centre where the driver was. Their response was “we’re not sure, we’re speaking to our agency in Madrid”. Trying again, he was told that the agency in Madrid was speaking to their local office in the nearest town to the apartments, and it was they who were speaking to the driver.

Feeling he must have misunderstood something, somewhere, but just desperate to get the vehicle fixed, he awaited the arrival of the breakdown truck.

Eventually after further confusion, numerous telephone calls and a 45 minute delay, the driver arrived. He was clearly exasperated and said in excellent English that he just could not understand why he had not been allowed to call my friend directly. He’d asked for his phone number but was told it was now not policy to give that directly to drivers.

After moaning for some time, and examining the car, the driver said he could not take it to the local town as it was closed for Fiesta, but one around 40 kilometres away would be a better bet. To do that he’d need special permission – so he called his boss and waited.

Several minutes later my friend’s mobile rang. It was the call centre from Paris again telling him the car needed be towed away and asking him for permission to shift it.

Over the next couple of minutes or so, he and the driver stood side-by-side in the street and conducted their conversation through third parties across a telephone link that went from their street, to the local garage, to Madrid, from Madrid to Paris, and from Paris back to the same street.

As the driver hung up his phone, he shook his head sadly and said simply, “Lunatics!”

My friend couldn’t help but agree and before hanging up asked his contact in Paris what the logic was behind this system where everyone ends up phoning everybody else.

“It’s a Europe-wide system that uses the latest technology to improve customer service” came the obviously scripted reply.

My friend advised me to go out and buy shares in mobile phone companies. He may well be right!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A healthy health service

Two elderly people were telling me recently of an experience they’d had last year when visiting their family here.

The 83-year-old husband had not been feeling too well for a few days so he went to the doctor waving his E111/EHIC form and saying “I’m an EU citizen - please treat me!”

As the doctor spoke perfect English language was not a problem. After an examination he said that he thought her husband had possibly, but only possibly, had some form of minor stroke and that it would be advisable to see a consultant neurologist for a brain scan just to be sure.

Obviously this was not good news and they asked the doctor if he could give them a letter so they could arrange for the scan and specialist examination when they got home.

After some seconds of confusion, the doctor said he meant here and now and he called the local hospital. When finished, he apologised profusely stating that it would not be possible to get the scan and examination today and that they’d have to wait until tomorrow.

As they left, his parting shot was to ask them if they needed free transport to the hospital.

The following day, having arrived and registered, within 10 minutes the husband was on the table having his scan. After it was finished, they were told results would be coming and they put on their coats and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” asked the puzzled nurse.

When they said ‘home’ she replied “..but don’t you want to wait for your results – they’ll only be about 20 minutes”

Culture shock by this stage started to set in and they sat down. Service wasn’t perfect though because they in fact had to wait about 30 minutes before the consultant entered. Not only did he have hardcopies of the scans, but also a typed formal letter outlining his findings and recommendations. He talked them through everything and handed them copies of all the scans and of course his letter, asking them to pass onto the referring doctor.

In fact the news was good as there was no obvious indication of any problem at all.

It’s worth mentioning perhaps at this stage that this was a public not private health doctor and hospital. This sort of superb service is perhaps not the norm in all continental countries, but it isn’t that unusual either.

What is your experience of healthcare overseas?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lost in translation

Visiting an old building recently, I saw that one room was occupied by an exhibition of works by a local artist.

These free exhibitions of art are, in my opinion at least, much more commonplace in continental Europe. It's a big subject for discussion and not everyone agrees, but many would argue that there is a greater appreciation of such things in the continental as opposed to English-speaking worlds.

Here art is not usually considered the domain of the intellectual or the pretentious and outside of popular culture as it often is in, say, the UK. In Europe it is far more appreciated by a wider range of people who will go to see such exhibitions enthusiastically and enjoy themselves while at the same time admitting to knowing little of art itself in the formal sense.

It's not unusual to see these exhibitions well attended by younger children and teenagers - a rare sight in many Anglophone countries!

Popping in, I was very impressed by the works that consisted of painted sculptures in various materials. All were explained in detail via text on information panels alongside made of heavy duty plastic that must have been created at some expense. As per the norm overseas, the explanations were multi-lingual and in this case comprised four languages including, of course, English.

I happened to start with the largest, most prestigious piece in the very centre of the large room. Admiring it for a few seconds, I glanced at the explanatory panel alongside, the opening sentence of which read;

"I created this work to capture the scum of this room"

I stepped hastily back looking for trapdoors and springs. To my relief I saw nothing and I read the sentence again. No, I was not dreaming. Did this mean my long-held views about continental artists and their relationships with the public were all wrong?

Looking at the other languages on the board, I saw that they in the same place had the word "sounds" not "scum".

I decided to point this out to one of the staff. His first reaction was essentially that I must be mistaken and although he spoke English, he did not know the meaning of the word "scum". Once he grasped the issue, he also realised that these boards could not now be changed as the cost would be too high and it couldn't be done before the exhibition was due to shut down anyway.

As we left I said goodbye and joked that "the scum are now leaving". Sadly he didn't contradict me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No Grape Left Unpicked (part 2)

by guest blogger Sami

It all started off so well: an easy drive through the French countryside, snowy peaks a background to the vined hills of the Jurancon region of the Pyrenees, just me and my stylish and somewhat temperamental Citroen BX, a tent, some clothes and canned goods. I daydreamed of picking grapes in the fields, sun on my back, a fresh mountain breeze cooling the air and French country maidens singing while we all worked at a leisurely pace.

Unfortunately, for all of these delicious things to occur, I first had to find the bloody vineyard.

This was proving more difficult than I had thought, and to make matters worse, it had begun to pour with heavy rain. I stopped every once in a while to ask a stony faced local where in God's name I was? However, my distinct lack of perfect French meant they often thought I was actually asking what God's name was and, needless to say, many of them beat a hasty retreat.

Some half an hour later I found the campsite and vineyard. I stepped out of my igloo the next morning to behold the cold mountain dawn with a grimace. The car wouldn't start very easily. I thought nothing of it, putting the problem down to the coldness of the day. Finally it kicked in and I set off at a sturdy pace. At the top of the first steep hill, surrounded by nothing but fields, the car came to a spluttering halt.

Pause. Try again. No response.

I tried to stay positive - it had stopped raining during the night and I drank in the blue sky like a tonic to soothe my growing problems. Then I got out of the car in order to hail a passer-by...


Monday, November 10, 2008

The joy of shopping

I hate shopping. Well, that's not strictly true.

Like many people I enjoy shopping for specifics or special items, looking in specialist shops in chic city centres etc. What I enjoy far less, though perhaps 'hate' is going too far, are those expeditions to supermarkets to 'stock up' on the basics.

Yes, it is a necessary evil and I know I shouldn't moan.

Even so, some things infuriate me. One of those is the bland 'muzak' played over the PA systems.

I'm sure some psychologist somewhere has proven at vast expense that this encourages shoppers to spend more via 'creating the mood' though I have never quite understood how playing 'Espana Por Favor' over the PA system in a northern European supermarket in late October is meant to achieve anything other than to make shoppers feel miserable. Maybe they had a special on Spanish wine that day.

This though is a big difference between the English-speaking world and continental Europe. In the UK for example, it is very rare to hear foreign-language songs played over the system. In Europe though, particularly in recent years, supermarkets have tried to ditch the traditional bland background 'piano lounge music' for something a little more modern and, I presume, inspirational. They're trying to appeal to those younger family shoppers.

That's where they've hit a snag because English language pop songs have, for better or worse, dominated the global music scene now for decades.

So, it's now fairly commonplace to hear large numbers of English language songs played over these systems abroad and they're no longer restricted either to things such as "Mull of Kintyre" as the supermarkets have finally grasped that the 1970s have passed.

All so far so good perhaps, but this 'modernisation' of background music coupled with the fact that many of the people selecting them perhaps speak rather less English than they thought, can lead to some bizarre events.

Recently in a local supermarket they started playing some rap-music tracks. As they started playing I remember thinking that the lyrics of one track seemed to be about gang warfare and slaughter. I presume the supermarket had some 2-for1 deals on Uzis going.

That though was as nothing compared to track 2. The lyrics as far as I could tell consisted only of two sentences endlessly repeated and both consisting of expletives broadly relating in some details to what the singer planned to do to his woman next time he met her. I suppose it was some sort of love song of its type.

Now the funny thing was that I passed a mature local woman pushing her trolly along the aisle and I am sure she was humming the song and presumably trying to master the words.

Ah well, it made the shopping trip more entertaining than usual. I only wish I could be present when the woman above demonstrates some of her new vocabulary to her English-speaking friends!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Bad Day

I'd arrived at an impressive office block for a long-standing meeting arrangement.

As per good professional standards, I was exactly 5 minutes early when I reported to the young woman on reception and asked for my contact. She picked up her telephone to 'phone upstairs'.

Some experiences are universal. Even if an expat can't speak the local language and can only hear one side of the telephone conversation, one can ALWAYS tell when the 'party upstairs' isn't expecting you. I started to see the telltale sympathetic glances from the receptionist as she listened to what she was being told.

Still, to her credit she kept a straight face as she put the telephone down and told me in faultless almost unaccented English that they'd be with me in a few minutes. Directing me to the waiting area of corporate chairs, she also courteously pointed out where the toilets were in case I needed them.

15 minutes later there was no sign of action. So I walked back to the desk to check progress and it was immediately clear that she had entirely forgotten who I was in that vast epoch of a quarter of an hour since we'd last spoken. After reminding her, she dutifully phoned upstairs again.

"Sorry, they're running a bit late but they'll be with you soon. Please take a seat and over on the right there are the toilets if you need them".

Politely declining for a second time the use of their toilet facilities, I went back to the seats a little self-consciously. Perhaps it was something in my walk that made her so keen to ensure I knew where the toilets were? More annoyingly, her references to the toilets were now making me wonder if I did need them.

After another 10 minutes, and starting to become a little irritated, I walked past the reception desk and said that I'd be standing outside on the pavement to enjoy the beautiful sunny day. She nodded and said she'd fetch me when "you're needed".

Feeling peeved and a little like the schoolboy waiting for the call into the headmaster's office, I stepped outside onto the pavement.

The building was in the city centre. It was a truly beautiful day and as is normal on the continent, people were taking advantage of it. A row of small restaurants and pavement cafs across the road were busy even though it was mid-morning. I wondered where all these people were coming from and just who was left manning the offices and shops around me given everyone seemed to be out drinking coffee in the cafs.

It may have been uncharitable, but I started to wonder if the person I was waiting for was sitting right now at one of the tables.

That was when I saw it. Walking along the other side of the road, just in the gutter area, came a man. As he walked alongside the pavement seating areas of the cafes, every few steps he would pause, then hurl several sentences of non-specific obscenities at the tables nearest to him. He'd then walk a few more steps, then stop and repeat the process.

Now you may be thinking that this was no big deal - perhaps you can see that any day of the week in your local high street. Two things made this very different though.

Firstly, the man concerned was not a street person and he was stone cold sober as far as I could tell. He was very well dressed in an expensive looking business suit and he could have just stepped out of a boardroom meeting. Secondly, and even more extraordinary, he was an Englishman and venting in his best Anglo-Saxon to the locals.

This surreal scene was captivating. What on earth was the cause of his rant? Could it be a love tryst gone wrong? Corporate betrayal or a failed business deal perhaps? My mind dreamt up numerous unlikely possibilities as the man walked down the road into the distance, haranguing as he went.

"He's having a bad day".

I jumped in shock - it was the receptionist from the building who had appeared at my shoulder.

"Just to say they're still not ready for you. They say they won't keep you much longer. In the meantime there's a drinks dispenser upstairs and don't forget the toilets"

I glanced back down the road to where the ranting businessman was rapidly disappearing into the distance. I couldn't help but wonder if he'd appreciate some company...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

No Grape Left Unpicked

by guest blogger Sami

When picking grapes it's surprising to remember that wine and the agricultural work that goes with it has been around since before the ancient Roman civilisation. The methods used to pick, or rather cut, grapes from the vine are startling in this modern day and age.

To make matters worse it seems that nobody but me is of the same opinion! At least not amoungst the vendangeurs and vendangesses who rely on the grape picking season for the bulk of their income.

I should explain.

During the months of September until November the people of France gather in large numbers to perform the vendange. Roughly translated as: the cutting of bunches of grapes from the vines that line large tracts of French countryside, as part of a team up to fifty people strong. The team members come from all over France, often from regions which have no vinyards at all. In fact, it would appear that the only link many of them have to the vines in their real lives is the consumption of the grapes by-product: wine.

I joined these sometimes alcoholic and often extremely friendly folk as part of their countrywide migration, to find out who, what, where and mostly...WHY?


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Le credit crunch

I was chatting to a French man the other day. Sipping the as usual superb local coffee in a pavement café, we’d struck up a casual conversation while sharing a table. I’d initially slightly resented the intrusion, as I’d been busy doing nothing watching the trams clattering by.

He was a nice guy though and the conversation flowed easily.

Inevitably the discussion got around to the current economic crises or ‘problems’ - the view can vary depending upon one’s political views and bank balance.

After some vague exchanges of views, he said in a slightly apologetic tone “Monsieur, you are English and I would like to ask you a question about these banking and housing problems in England…”

Now at this stage it’s worth pointing out that many French people are not very fussy or correct about their use of ‘England’ or ‘English’. By this I assumed he meant the UK and very possibly the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In other words that great block of the world’s population with social and economic values that are often incomprehensible to most French people.

So, I hastily started to try and remember everything I knew about mortgages rates, government interest rate policies, the banking system and so on. I nodded and picked up my coffee hoping I could use it to play for time if his question was REALLY tricky. Even so, I couldn’t have predicted how much his question, or in fact several questions, would stop me dead.

“Monsieur, why do English people want to sell their homes so often? I don’t understand, because surely it is painful to keep selling the home of one’s family with all those memories? Why are people eager to make big profits by selling their family home every few years?”

The discussion we had following on doesn’t really matter much. I talked about all the usual suspects of the UK having a mobile society, the housing market being a major part of the UK and USA economies, and so on and so forth.

After a few minutes pleasant chatting, we shook hands amicably and he walked off having picked up the tab for my coffee as well as his. As I watched him walk off into the distance between the trams, I couldn’t help but be grateful for our chance meeting.

Yes, one could dismiss his questions and views as ‘yesterday’, ‘obsolete’ and perhaps naïve, but as I finished my coffee I suddenly realised something.

No European country is perfect or an idyll of social values. People in any country, his France included, are just as keen to get the highest price they can when selling a house.

Yet, as I stood up ready to go, I couldn’t help wondering if such questions would even be asked in many English speaking countries of the world today. Even his use of ‘home’ as opposed to ‘house’ or ‘property’ seemed somehow warming...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Expatriates and the Internet

Less than a decade ago the Internet was a tool used by techies and the technologically aware - difficult to access, often expensive and certainly not the feature rich environment we are used to in modern times. Most people know what the World Wide Web is these days, and a particular phrase was coined twenty years ago to describe it - the phrase "Global Village" was used to describe a communication form which literally shrunk the world.

Expats have benefited more than many as the Internet has grown. The idea of the Global Village has been adopted by many expats, as the internet has enabled them to communicate with their homeland, do business and arrange their finances in the most remote of locations. If the Internet gave birth to the Global Village, then expatriates are surely its first generation of citizens. In a future post I will examine some of the key technologies that have evolved within the space defined by the Internet, and how they can benefit expats; many of these technologies enable the average expat to live life in a completely new way whilst maintaining their current location in the host nation of their choice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What do you miss most from home?

by guest blogger Mac

Sometimes I like to draw up a list in my head of the things I miss from back home that I cannot obtain as an expat. My list includes certain foods such as roast lamb and cheddar cheese, it also includes tea - real English tea with fresh milk. I don’t miss TV in the slightest, and I don’t miss working a nine to five, all in all there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot that I do miss!

I wonder how other expats fare? I know of a few that seem to miss a lot of things, although I am sure they are exaggerating quite a bit over some of the items on their lists. Actually, I just thought of something I definitely miss, I miss not ever having to worry about not being able to find my passport! Funny how a passport becomes such a life defining thing when you are living away from your country of birth. Please take a moment to leave a comment; I would love to know some of the things that other ex-pats miss!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Health Insurance for Expatriates

There was a time when expats had very few choices when it came to health cover whilst living in a foreign country. There has always been the option of long stay travel insurance, although this is somewhat expensive. In many host nations it is also possible to purchase localised insurance, however these are often inferior products and fail to meet the costs of repatriation to the home nation should serious illness require it.

In recent years, however, several insurance companies have seen the light and have begun to offer specialised expat insurance. These companies offer a variable policy which is based upon the country the expat is living within. Other optional extras are also offered such as evacuation cover which will cover the costs of needing to be transported to another country (if required) for complicated surgery or specialist treatment. Further upgrades include terminal illness care and disability payouts.

Finally, expats are being seen as a specialised market which needs specialist products - this can only be a good thing!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why did you leave your home country?

by guest blogger Mac

I was asked this question last week. I had been talking with the guy who maintains the air conditioning in my apartment block, and had told him that I had hardly been back to the UK in the last 20 years. I was shocked to realise that I couldn’t really answer, I am sure there was a very good reason I left the UK originally but I can’t remember what it was!

These days I think I just stay away out of habit, and the question left me kind of worried that it was possibly time to consider going home. I sat back and reviewed the situation and realised that my lifestyle here is far better than it would be in the UK, and that I would have to give up everything that I enjoy most if I returned.

I found this a good exercise, confirming my reasons for being away, and reassuring myself that I was still doing the right thing. I think everyone who lives as an expat should follow this thought process from time to time, just to make sure they really are where they want to be...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

10 Top Things to Consider Before Emigrating and Expatriating

The website Shelter Offshore has just posted their "10 Top Things to Consider Before Emigrating and Expatriating", including items such as Affording to Stay Healthy, Getting a Job Abroad, and Property and Accommodation at Home and Abroad. Although aimed primarily at British expats most of the advice could be applied to anyone moving abroad.

Check out the full list here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Considering Repatriation

As mentioned in a previous post, global expat statistics seem to indicate that a growing number of expats are now beginning to consider repatriation. This has to be an effect of the global economy beginning to falter, as there would seem to be no other indicator that has changed in recent years to cause this swing, or has there?

Let us dismiss the global economy for a moment, and consider the changes that have taken place in western culture over the last decade. Many expats left their home countries to take advantage of a lifestyle that was simply not obtainable at a reasonable price at home - this situation has changed somewhat, and it is now possible to have the kind of lifestyle expats have enjoyed by staying at home. Certainly it will not be as cheap, but for those working expats, they will earn significantly more when they repatriate.

So is the overall picture of expatriation changing? It would seem that less people are leaving their home nation for a lifestyle change, and younger people are joining the expat community as they seek better work prospects. Is this the start of a new generation of upwardly mobile expatriates?

Monday, October 20, 2008

The changing face of Spain

by guest blogger Mac

In the 1980s, Spain became the major ex-pat destination in Europe, as thousands of people flocked to its Southern Coast to exploit the mild climate and low cost of living. I was one of these people, and I remember quite clearly being shocked by the fact that life in the part of Spain where I was living was actually more like England than England was. Fast forward 25 years, and things are very different now, many of the local businesses have been bought back by the Spanish, and things are much more Spanish in flavour.

So where have all these expats gone I wonder? A quick phone call to an old friend of mine who still lives in Spain revealed the answer. It seems many have now moved in-land. As prices began to rise on the coast, they moved inward and took up residence in some of the small towns and villages, or in old farm houses. My friend tells me that in some villages there are more foreigners than Spanish, and the entire scene which was once in evidence on the Costa del Sol is now being re-created on a micro level in certain Spanish villages. I think next year I will go and take a look, this sounds fascinating!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The expat survivor’s guide to Finnish winter

I noticed yesterday that the leaves have already started to fall from the trees in Amsterdam and it got me thinking about the autumn and winter ahead. Then this article caught my eye:

As you probably know, the Finnish winters can be dark, cold and seemingly endless. Do not let the previous winter’s mild weather catch you out – it is sure to get worse. Essential information on skiing, socks, reindeer and cars is provided below to give you the edge in getting through this difficult time of the year.

Skiing – Skiing is an essential part of life for your average Finn, with skis being attached to Finns as soon as practical after birth. Think very carefully, therefore, before following Finns down what they describe as nursery slopes. Either that, or proceed with caution following a discussion with your life insurer and a good swig of whiskey for courage. Extra care is needed if the Finns say that the slope meanders gently down a forest track on the side of the fell; for fell, read fall.

Socks – Socks are your best friends during the Finnish winter, and not just because they keep your toes warm. They can also provide good business opportunities. For example, have a little laugh to yourself when your British relatives fresh off the plane say that one pair of socks is plenty when snowmobiling in Lapland. The trick here is to take extra socks with you to use to extort money from your loving family when their feet turn to ice blocks about 12 seconds into the journey.

The rest of the article can be read here!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The USA as an Expat Destination

Many expatriates do not consider the USA as a destination due to the fact they perceive it to be both expensive and often with similar features to their home nation. What these people fail to realise is that the United States of America is huge, with some states as large as or larger than many countries.

Life in the USA also varies extremely depending upon where you live. Similarly, so does the cost of living. If you are seeking good quality housing, a great lifestyle and easy assimilation into a developed western culture the USA deserves a second look.

Certainly for people who are considering leaving Europe, a move to the USA can make a lot of sense. Buying power for people with European based incomes will double on average when moving to the USA and you will not have some of the problems associated with moving to a more exotic location.

Many parts of the USA have a character all of their own, the Southern States are very different (compare New Orleans to Washington DC for example!) so instead of considering the USA overall as an area to live, do a little homework into specific areas - you may well find something to your taste.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Positives and Negatives of Moving Internationally

by guest blogger Steven64

Read on to find out what I believe are the positives and negatives on moving around the world.

From a person that moves globally I believe the following are positive reasons to keep in mind:

1. You are able to live in a country with a different culture and if you embrace the culture and enjoy every aspect of it, you will enjoy your stay;

2. It is very interesting to see how different countries work, from government departments through to shops and even the traffic rules;

3. You get to explore a completely new environment and travel without it costing you a fortune;

4. You make new friends from all over the world, as an expat
you will become part of an expat community and this community will tell you where to go, travel and visit;

5. Then there is the local community and if you are working with locals, they will do the same thing, tell you where to go to experience the local community;

6. Usually you get to earn a better salary than in your country of origin, so save save save;

7. It is also not unusual, when accepting a job through an overseas company that many of the normal day to day expenses are paid for, such as accommodation, transport, medical and schooling; and many others that are taken care of;

8. If you have children they will have the opportunity of getting an international schooling and become global citizens of the world;

9. Many people are never given the opportunity to move around the world, this is such a wonderful opportunity to teach your children how to cope in different situations, travel and cope in airports, embrace other cultures and generally survive a different lifestyle;

10. You learn to take baby steps, accept how things work or don’t, not to sweat the small stuff and become accepting of situations, people and places iow to chill. All of the above can teach you a lot about yourself.

What about the negatives then? It is so normal for us humans to always potentially look at the negative side before we look at the positives and we tend to always find so many more negatives. So here is my list but with positives to go with them:

1. Packing your entire life to move or store, probably the worst part of moving, you need to decide what to keep or sell or give away or throw away; positively it’s a great opportunity to get rid of junk!

2. Unpacking, ditto to the above….

3. Leaving your family and friends behind which under any situation is difficult; positively the world is such a small place now that between email, blogs and skype they are always only a pc away. Plus with air travel it is easy to get home very very quickly;

4. The language differences can result in misunderstandings and things not getting done in the way you would have done them in your own country, positively this teaches us patience and English is a fairly universal language;

5. You will have to go through all the processes of getting Visas, Residence Permits, sometimes even going through medicals, driving tests, finger printing, etc (depending on the country you are going to) which can be incredibly frustrating, but this is the way that the country you are moving to can keep tabs on who is coming and going from their country. Positively, it should make you feel safer knowing that they are checking on who is entering, that these people are responsible citizens of the world and have no criminal records, etc.

6. It will be hard for the family to settle, everything is different and unusual if you have gone to a culture very different from your own, even if it is similar it is still different; talk to the family, let everyone express how they are feeling, be understanding of each others’ moods and positively it gets the family talking;

7. New routines, a new school, a new office, new friends; and all of these take time; but all the above have the word new in so that is positive.

8. Moving countries is one of the top 3 most stressful situations a person can be in, but how you handle it will result in how well your health copes with the move; remember to always think about (perhaps even list) the reasons you made the decision to move (make sure it is a decision that has been made by the family) and hang on to all those positives, you are going to hit rough patches and you are going to need all your positive lists to get through certain stages and times of the move.

So not too bad, I love being a citizen of the world, I love knowing that I have gone through this process, that I can do it, that I can be positive, that I can meet some fantastic people that are different to me, that life is bigger than just my small little world.

If you are thinking about moving, think of the positives and negatives that it will create in your life and if you can cope especially with the negatives, go for it! Have an adventure!

Steven Coleman runs the most comprehensive global relocation calculator available, an internet service that is used primarily to calculate expatriate salary levels for global assignments, which can be found at http://www.xpatulator.com

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Expat Escape Tips

Global politics has always been fluid, and for those of us who have decided to live our lives in a foreign country this can bring a whole set of problems. Looking back to the situation in South Africa not so long ago, it is clear to see that as an expat, you need to make sure you are covered for every eventuality. Below are three tips to staying safe and one jump ahead of the crowd:

- Have a parachute ready, keep some reserve funds in a bank account that is not within the nation you are currently residing, this emergency fund will be your back door should the political situation turn bad in the country you are living.

- Know your embassy, make sure that you have the telephone number and address of your national embassy on you at all times, if you find yourself in trouble, do not hesitate to call them, they are there to help.

- Keep abreast of the news, not the global news, the local news. If you don't understand the language ask a local to discuss it with you. Forewarned is forearmed as they say - don't live in potentially dangerous ignorance.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Working and keeping in touch when on the move

by guest blogger Mac

Last week I met a guy who works in a similar field to me, and also travels the same way. We spent an evening drinking local beer and exchanging ideas. Both of us work via the internet, both of us move around a lot, but this guy had things much better organised than me. He had managed to put together a portable office that he could carry with him all day. Personally my laptop is left in my hotel room and I am always a little concerned that it might disappear. Not so my new friend! His laptop was unobtrusively nestled in his small backpack.

He was carrying an ASUS EEE PC 1000, which is a tiny sub-notebook, with a 7 hour battery life and a solid state drive (meaning if he drops it, no problem) and no moving parts. For internet access he uses his mobile phone as a Bluetooth modem, and he has a tiny travel mouse in his pocket. His entire rig weighs less than 2 kilos. For an expat who likes to move around, yet still work, this is a great little set up, and one that I fully intend to copy as soon as I can.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Interesting Expatriate Statistics

According to a recent survey carried out by GMAC Global, the expatriate workforce is changing shape drastically and with increasing speed - certain key demographics which have not changed much for decades have suddenly begun to slide.

Over 20% of the entire expat workforce is now made up of women, this is a jump of over 9% from the previous year's figures.

The average age of expats has also dropped significantly; last year’s figures showed that 41% of the entire expat workforce was between the ages of 20 and 39, this year the figure has jumped an incredible 13% with 54% of the global expat workforce being in the 20 to 39 years age bracket.

Interestingly enough, it would seem that the attrition rate is also raising, meaning that more expatriates are deciding to repatriate. One can only assume that this is due to the growing problems with the world economy - it would seem the younger people are seeking work abroad, whilst the older expats are deciding that it may well be time to return home.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

US Immigration - same questions over and over

by guest blogger Kirstie, USA forum moderator

Hey there! I'm Kirstie, and I'm currently sat in Tampa Bay, FL on a wet windy day as Tropical Storm Fay finally makes her way across the state (for the second time).

I'm a "newbie" to Expat Focus, and to blogging. I have spent a very interesting afternoon going through the Forums (fora?) and am amazed to see that the same questions about US immigration get asked - over and over again.

It's been over 6 years since I moved to the US from the UK, and I'm amazed that information and fact gathering is apparently still so difficult. The internet was in its infancy when I was doing it - and I was doing it on dial-up from good old BT, with a free ISP account from "Bun"! (Do they even still exist?)

There are a few comments in the forums about information being "for sale". Hmmm. I think I'll come back to that one on another day.

The problem with all this is that information about immigration is valuable. There is a lot out there, and forums like on Expat Focus are a great resource. There are a lot of very knowledgeable people who use them. There are a lot of people with a wealth of experience to share.

BUT - and this is a big but - not everyone is right. Not everyone has up-to-date information. Not everyone had a typical story.

Be aware of this, and do your research. Find reliable resources. Ask around.

Kirstie Wilson
British Business Connection

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Curious expat behaviour

by guest blogger Mac

Have you ever noticed how many expats always seem to want to spend time with their own countrymen even though they are far from home? I really have never been able to understand why somebody would travel half way around the world and then spend every night in an English theme bar watching football on cable TV.

What I find even more amazing are the people that go to great lengths to track down food from back home, often paying incredibly high prices for things they probably never even ate in their home country. Is this how some people deal with home sickness? And if so, why are they not at home if they miss the place so much? I admit that now and then I crave some kind of food from back in the UK, most notably roast lamb; I haven’t had roast lamb in years.

I also do not understand the kind of expat I meet who has nothing good to say about the country we are in, constantly complaining - why don’t they just go home? If they dislike where they live so much why don’t they leave? Very strange indeed.

Are expats damaging their home nations?

In a previous post I commented on the fact that the average age of expats has dropped dramatically in the last two decades. This means that more people are cashing out early and moving into full or semi-retirement in a foreign country, but what of the effects on their home nation? First, let us make the logical assumption that a person who has managed to accrue sufficient independent wealth, enough to allow them to end their working life up to 30 years early in some cases, can be deemed to be fairly successful. By ending their working life prematurely they are quite possibly giving up the opportunity to become affluent business owners, supplying employment and revenue to their local economy.

The simple fact is that it takes a certain type of person to consider becoming an expat - most are intelligent, skilled and highly capable, in many ways the bright sparks of the economy, the go getters, the movers and shakers. It stands to reason that the increasing number of these successful people who decide to move to foreign shores, instead of staying at home and continuing to build their sphere of affluence, is nothing short of a loss to their home nation both economically and culturally. What do you think?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Have you considered offshore banking?

Offshore banking may have been associated with crime, money laundering and tax evasion in the past but modern offshore banking is a respectable and useful financial tool. Expatriates can benefit very nicely by shifting to an offshore bank, some of the advantages to consider being:

Low or No Tax – The typical offshore tax haven, especially useful if you are working abroad as an expat and are unwilling to have your income taxed by your home nation when you pay your salary or earnings into your bank account back home.

Protection – If you are an expat living in an unstable economy or culture, you may well wish to know that your funds are secure, and any local problems will not see you lose your nest egg.

Privacy – Although offshore banks are no longer entirely private, it is still substantially more difficult to obtain information from them than it is from a conventional bank, meaning your financial situation is kept private.

Offshore banking is no longer expensive, and the application process is extremely straightforward. Anyone who currently uses multiple bank accounts that cross national boundaries should take a long hard look at what offshore banking has to offer but always remember to consult a qualified financial advisor before making any decision about your money!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Laos – Asia's emerging expat haven

by guest blogger Mac

I have spent quite a bit of time in Asia during the last 10 years; I have lived in Thailand and Vietnam and have visited almost every South East Asian country. One place I find myself returning to time and time again at the moment is Laos; it really is becoming an excellent option as an expat haven. The reasons for this are many, the main one being that the infrastructure is fast becoming as good as we are used to in the west. Transport is good, communications are good, and public services are good. The people are friendly and our western money goes a long way.

I think my favourite thing about Laos though, is the fact it is still relatively un-spoiled by foreigners, it still has that back of beyond feel that Thailand used to have a couple of decades ago. Anyone who is looking for an exotic place to spend some time, with enough creature comforts to make like easier, would do well to check out Laos, it really does have an incredible amount of potential, certainly refreshing after spending time in some of the surrounding nations which have been heavily influenced by western capitalism.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Learn the language!

I often get asked for advice by people who are considering moving away from their home nation and living life as an expat. The first of my gems of wisdom is always regarding language and communication.

The single most beneficial thing you can do when living abroad is to make an effort to learn at least some of the local language. Some countries are easier than others for sure, but wherever you are, you will be received so much more openly if you are seen to be attempting to learn how to speak the language.

I cringe sometimes when I see other expats waving their arms around and shouting because they think this will enable the person they are trying to converse with to suddenly and miraculously be able to speak English!

Trying to learn the local language not only makes your life easier, but shows the local population that you respect their culture - give it a go!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tierschutz Mission Burgas – A Dog Rescue Centre in Bulgaria

by guest blogger Rachel Gawith (Bulgaria forum co-moderator)

I initially heard of the Tierschutz (Animal Rescue) Mission through a friend of a friend back in November 2007, when I was desperately trying to find new homes for two puppies from a litter of four, born to a street dog I had adopted. Already having a number of other dogs and cats I decided I could really only keep two of the puppies and so made the hard decision to take the other two to the rescue centre.

With only brief directions to finding the centre and speaking very little Bulgarian, the journey there was a nightmare. I got lost in central Burgas and the puppies were getting very stressed. But eventually Margarita, who runs the office for the Tierschutz Mission found me and drove with me to the centre, which is situated just off the main road from Burgas to Sozopol.

First impressions of the centre are that it is very basic. There is one long, low building made into pens and also housing a small operating room for simple procedures and an area for new Mums and pups. There are then various sheds and kennels around housing many more dogs. But the few staff that volunteer to run the place were all friendly and very dedicated and it was kept very clean. My two pups were found accommodation in a large outdoor pen and I said my goodbyes and made a donation to the cause.

A few months later I received a telephone call from Margarita to say my pups had been re-homed together to a Bulgarian family living in the countryside with plenty of space. She also mentioned that the Mission was very short on funds for food and medical care. I promised to try and raise some money from the expat society in Bulgaria. However, despite appeals on various forums only one person came forward and gave some money.

So on 5th September this year, myself and two other expats met up in Burgas to visit the Mission’s office and discuss raising funds through organised events and donations. We met with Christa Schechtl, a German journalist who has dedicated much of her life and much of her money to helping street dogs in places such as Turkey, Ukraine and Bulgaria. It is Christa’s dream to build a large, new, modern dog rescue centre on land she has purchased close to Chernomorets and to date all funds for the office, dog food, housing and medical expenses has been covered by Christa and from donations she has managed to get from people in Germany. The sanctuary has received no funding from Bulgarian sources.

Christa organised and paid for 30 dogs to be taken back to Germany and re-homed there in a trip taking 3 full days of driving and an awful lot of money. In September 2008 she is flying two more dogs back to Germany. She has published 3 magazines (in German only) available at http://www.der-schrei.de.

The Mayor of Burgas has recently informed Christa and Margarita of his intention to use the land where the current sanctuary is to build a fun park for holiday makers. It is hoped that funds can be raised from the Municipality wanting to reclaim this land and used to start building the new centre.

However, there are still over 100 dogs housed at the current sanctuary. These all need good new homes and in the meantime, money is required for medical treatment, food, blankets for winter and toys etc.

We visited the sanctuary and spent a couple of hours playing with the numerous puppies, talking to staff, walking round the pens. A German family arrived while we were there and brought with them a brand new puppy pen and puppy bed as well as food and drink for the staff. We heard the tales of how many of the dogs had come to be in the sanctuary; like Morjo who was born there 2 years ago, or Merri, a three year old beautiful Setter type dog found starving in Sofia and then there is Tony, a little terrier dog who was a house dog for 7 years until his owner decided he no longer wanted him, hit him over the head and threw him out. He required various operations to sort out a head wound and broken teeth but is now looking for a new home.

With the help of a colleague in Burgas we are hoping to set up a few collection points where food can be dropped off, as well as blankets, cushions, toys etc and also get some collection boxes on display at various locations.

I also intend to organise regular fund raising events such as car boot sales, book sales, dinner parties, sponsored events and theme nights. These will mainly be held in the Burgas, Yambol, Sliven, Stara Zagora and Chirpan areas. Anyone willing to help or interested to get involved can contact me using the details below.

If you can give a dog a new home where he can run freely in a garden, experience long walks in the country side and be part of a family, then please visit the sanctuary as there are many beautiful, loving dogs waiting there.

It is hoped that a website can soon be set up for the Mission but at the moment donations can be made at the following site: http://www.thetravelbug.org/tierschutzmission.htm

Rachel Gawith

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Expat "longevity" - how long will you stay?

Taking data from a recent HBSC survey, which presents a whole host of interesting information regarding the top expat locations, we find some surprising facts.

First let us consider longevity, or how long an average expat lives in a particular country or area of the world. We find that Europe overall sees the most long term expats, with up to 80% of them living in Europe for more than three years. This is hardly surprising in itself, it only becomes interesting when correlated with the next fact.

Almost every European country scored very low in the overall scores, most displayed a relatively high cost of living and low standards of lifestyle based upon income, almost all of them were criticised for their social and economic environment.

So the real question is why are so many people so keen to stay in these countries, even though the survey results would seem to suggest that they are the least attractive expat options to be found? Could it be that the survey neglected to factor location into the equation? European expats who relocated to another European country have the huge advantage of easy access to their home nation, something the survey seems to overlook...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why do people move abroad?

Recent statistics show that in some countries, the expat community can make up a noticeable percentage of the population. Of course we are not talking a huge percentage, but the very fact it has now become possible to express the expat head count in percentage of population form in these countries is indicative of the fact that people no longer see moving abroad as a particularly large hurdle to overcome and more and more people are willing to leave their country of birth to seek a new life elsewhere. One recent survey of the expat community in Spain found that there were three main reasons that people had chosen to move there:

1. Lower cost of living means a better lifestyle, even if income was reduced.
2. Ability to relocate to a more desirable area, both socially and environmentally.
3. Better climate and healthier environment.

The interesting thing about these three reasons is that they were originally the prime driver for many retired people relocating to the warmer parts of Spain; however, the average expat age has dropped significantly over the past two decades. It would seem to suggest that younger people are seeking early retirement or semi-retirement - in effect we have a whole batch of young, financially well off people leaving the shores of their home country to live in Spain. One can only presume that this has a negative economic impact upon the country they are leaving, as the people literally cash in their chips and take them elsewhere. In a future post I will explore some of the possible effects this could have on a country over the long term.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Expats & the global economy

As the global economy continues to flounder and the cost of living increases rapidly due to the spiralling price of oil, it could be said the world expat community is getting the worst deal of all.

Most expats tend to include regular trips to their home nation to visit friends and family into their annual budget. With the drastic increase in oil prices causing previously unseen levels of inflation in air fares, many expats are finding that their visits home are beginning to damage their pockets. This situation can only worsen as world oil stocks become lower - for many expats who take frequent trips home, this could well be cause enough for them to repatriate.

Additionally, for many expats chose to start a new life in a nation with a reduced cost of living, a high quantity of these expats are also living on a fixed monthly budget with no additional income. As food and housing prices begin to rise across the board, these kinds of expats will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their current lifestyles on their current funds.

With the world heading into recession, we could begin to see the amount of expats returning home start to increase as they struggle to maintain their life in their chosen host nation.

What about you? Are you having second thoughts about your new life abroad or are you unaffected by the ups and downs of the economy?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Why is Asia such a challenge for expats?

Asia is both one of the most often chosen locations for expats to choose as a now home, and one of the most likely locations to see an ex-pat giving up and returning to their home country. Just why is Asia such a tough nut to crack for expats?

The primary reason why Asia is such a challenge comes from the hidden costs of living, in most Asian nations it is not possible to own land or property, expats are required to place their property into the hands of a local and this has led to many problems with individuals losing their entire wealth through making some bad decisions about who to trust. Overall, as an expat in Asia, you must be prepared to lose any capital you inject into property as you cannot even own your own home.

Secondly, Asian culture can be quite daunting, although on the face of it it appears to have many similarities to western culture, it is in fact fundamentally different at a basic level. Religion is still a major driving force throughout daily life in Asia; many westerners find it increasingly difficult to come to terms with these differences the longer they stay.

Asia can be a rewarding place in which to live, although often not a simple place Any person considering Asia as an expat location needs to do a little homework before making any drastic moves.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Will Latin America be the next big expat destination?

For many people, one of the major reasons for choosing to live outside of their own country is that their income or savings will go a lot further and buy them a much higher quality of life. Several European countries including Spain, Portugal and Greece witnessed a huge expat boom in the early 1980s for just this reason. With the acceptance of the Euro as the standard currency throughout most of Europe, the cost of living has levelled out somewhat, making these destinations less desirable for those looking to spread their wealth as far as it will go.

If we take a look at the ten cheapest countries to live, we find that eight out of ten of these countries are to be found in Latin America, these ten being Uruguay, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Argentina, Ecuador, Belize and Chile. If we consider the fact that almost all of these countries now benefit from a very well developed set of social amenities and an ever improving infrastructure, it becomes clear that they may well become expat hot spots in the not so distant future. Keep an eye on Latin America!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Some financial advice for expats

A surprising number of expats fail to streamline their banking and financial practices once they have taken up residence in their country of choice. International banking makes it possible to hold an account in a country and access your funds from anywhere using either a debit card or ATM. Although this makes life very simple, it comes with a cost, often international transactions will carry an additional fee for handling and administration, and whilst these costs are relatively small at transaction level, they can mount up to a significant figure over time.

ATM charges are particularly hefty when using your card in an overseas ATM; some banks are keener than others in their price structure, whilst some may charge as much as $2.00 per transaction regardless of the quantity of cash that is withdrawn via the ATM.

Many banks will also charge an additional fee for forwarding mail to an overseas address, meaning your bank statements and other documents will cost more. Almost every bank offers internet banking these days, reduce your costs by switching to on-line statements only.

Possibly the best way of reducing your banking costs is to open a bank account in your country of residence, and transfer money from your home country directly into this account electronically, then use this account to fund your stay in whichever country you have chosen to reside in.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Language learning made easy

For an awful lot of expats, the idea of learning to speak the native tongue of their new home country can be an extremely daunting proposition. Many see learning a new language as a huge task which is best approached in an academic fashion. Whilst schooling is an excellent way of learning a language properly, if you only require the ability to converse fairly easily with the locals, you can stop worrying right now, it is not as tough as it seems.

Very few people realise that in order to be able to speak a language fairly proficiently, you only need to learn around 3,000 words. With 3,000 words under your belt you will understand 90% of the most commonly spoken words and phrases, meaning that during a conversation, you will understand nine out of every ten words, making it highly likely that you can guess at the general meaning of the word you do not understand. Learning 3,000 words does not seem such a daunting task, even at ten new words a day, it means you would be speaking fairly fluently within a year, certainly well enough to live your new life without resorting to hand signals!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Crowded Britain?

Here's an interesting article on the BBC's Mark Easton's blog discussing the idea that Britain has become too crowded due to immigration:

Is Britain too crowded? The MPs and peers who put their names to today's report calling for a cap on immigration must believe so.

This week's Map of the Week is intended to provide a bit of evidence to go with the debate. In fact, I am posting four maps which look at population density and a measure of what might be described as "crowdedness".

The Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration sounds moderate and consensual, but what it is arguing for is extremely radical. They want government to introduce policies which would limit Britain's population to around 65 million. Current government estimates suggest immigration will push numbers to around 79 million by 2050.

Read the rest of this article here