Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lies, damned lies, and forum statistics

Last week I mentioned that I'd updated our stats page to show how many people are visiting Expat Focus on a monthly basis. One of the interesting things I like to do with our stats is to take a look and see what patterns or anomalies emerge. Something which definitely falls into the former but not the latter group is the large drop off in visitor numbers during December (is there something going on I should know about?!).

We're also able to see how popular individual sections of the site are on a country by country basis and then compare those figures with activity in the forums to see how well they match. Mostly, things are pretty much what you would expect - for example, we don't have (relatively speaking) a large number of visitors to the Andorra guide and the Andorra forum is also very quiet.

However, the correlation isn't always so logical. A good case in point is France. The figures for the French sections of the site show that it's one of the busiest yet the popularity of the forum doesn't reflect this. This is one of the challenges we face this year, how do we encourage those people to form a community - one based on shared interests and concerns - and start helping each other? We're already planning a few things but would love to hear from you if you have any ideas.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The naked expat

There's nothing quite like taking all your clothes off to prove that you've fully integrated into a new culture. This recent article certainly does a good job of explaining what it means to be truly European! Here's a taste:

A few weeks ago, some friends invited me to go swimming at the Badeschiff - a barge turned indoor swimming pool and sauna in the middle Berlin's Spree River. The idea of jumping into a heated pool in the middle of the German winter was appealing to me, so I packed my beach bag and headed for the Badeschiff.

I showed up with my beach towel, Gap swimsuit, Richardson High School "Beach Team" T-shirt and flip flops ready to go for a dip.

But when we went into the locker room to change, I realized that nobody else had brought a swimsuit. No need - no swimsuits allowed on the Badeschiff.

It all reminds me far too much of my own experience when, having played squash with some work colleagues in the Netherlands, we adjourned to the sauna to relax.

A mixed sauna.

A nude mixed sauna.

Now, naturally, as a Brit I wasn't going to engage in any of this nonsense and kept the crown jewels firmly under lock and key under my towel. I soon discovered, however, that a further challenge lay ahead - straight ahead.

Let's just say that unaccustomed as I am to finding myself in a room surrounded by naked athletes of the opposite sex the temptation is, on occasion, to let the eye wander. Sadly, here my Britishness once again came to the fore. Whereas the true European is only too happy to appreciate the finer points of life and meet the gaze of their sauna companions with a winning smile, I instinctively felt this would be a gross breach of etiquette and instead fixed my gaze straight ahead. Half an hour later, my colleagues led me in a somewhat catatonic state to the cooling balm of the showers and thereafter the security of my Marks and Spencers underwear.

I've played very little squash since.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Foreign Currency - how to secure a favourable exchange rate

One of the most common financial services requested through Expat Focus is that of foreign currency exchange. Some time ago our foreign exchange partner, World First, created a very useful article for anyone looking to save money when exchanging currency and I'm going to reproduce it here in its entirety. I hope you find it useful!

When emigrating, coming home or simply moving money around the world, making sure you secure a favourable exchange rate is one of the most important things you can do. An extra few minutes or so spent researching your options could save you thousands of pounds.

There are three simple ways in which you can save money:

1) Use a Currency broker. Currency brokers will generally provide superior exchange rates to the high street banks. The currency brokers have access to the interbank rate and do not have the high costs that the banks have. This means that they can usually offer better exchange rates.

2) Use a free Market Watch/Order Service: This allows you to tell your currency broker your target or budget exchange rate and they will ring you if that exchange rate level is reached. As the rate moves every few seconds, currency brokers can act as your eyes and ears on the market.

For example, you might ask your currency broker to ring you if they could offer you a Sterling Dollar rate of 1.85 for the date in the future that you want to move the funds.

3) Consider fixing the exchange rate in advance using a Forward Contract. If you know you need to convert/move funds in the future but don't yet have the money you can reserve a rate in advance using a Forward Contract. During this period, you are exposed to exchange rate movements and therefore, a forward contract is ideal if, for example, you have agreed to buy a house and want to fix the rate now but will not be making payment for a couple of months.

A forward contract is when you fix an exchange rate for a pre-agreed date in the future. You can fix a forward exchange rate for any period from 1 week up to 1 year in advance. There's no cost for a forward contract and no payment is made until the settlement date, except for a small deposit of 2% to 10% depending on how far ahead you would like to fix the rate.

A "forward contract" is fixed at the "forward rate" which usually differs slightly from the "spot rate" (the rate for immediate transfer). The difference between the 2 rates are the "forward points". The Sterling Euro forward points, for example, are a straight arithmetic calculation of the difference in the interest rates between the UK and the Euro-zone. When UK interest rates are higher than Euro rates, the rate will go down slightly as you reserve further into the future. If UK rates were to fall below Euro rates, the rate would go up for a forward contract. This is most easily explained with 2 examples.

1) At the end of June 2005, UK interest rates were 4.75% and European rates were 2%. i.e. a difference of 2.75%. You could have fixed an immediate deal with one of the currency brokers, such as World First, at 1.50. If you wanted to book a 1-year forward contract, i.e. fix the exchange rate for 24th June 2006, we would have reduced the exchange rate by approximately 2.75% (i.e. around 1.4588). Although the exchange rate appears worse, you can keep your pounds on deposit in the UK at 4.75% for a year whereas if you had transferred them to Europe immediately you would only receive 2% interest (or less). If you factor back in the extra interest you would be receiving in the UK, you are still converting at an effective rate of 1.50.

2) If you were buying in France, had signed the Compromis at the end of June 2005 and were due to pay the notaire a month later, you could have fixed a rate with World First for the end of July at 1.4950. Although the rate could have gone up from here and you would still have converted at 1.4950, you would have been protected from the rate falling. In fact by the end of July 2005, the rate had fallen to 1.4350. On a EUR295,000 property the forward contract would have meant you paid GBP197,324.41. If you had waited and converted at the end of July, you would have paid GBP206,293.71 - almost GBP9,000 more!

Friday, April 18, 2008

The expat and the copycat

In a story which sounds as though it could have been a forgotten script for an episode of "One Foot in the Grave", an expat returning to Cyprus was shocked to find that the cat he had brought with him from London had undergone something of a transformation during the flight. The Cyprus Mail reports:

The man had gone to London on holiday and took his (live) cat with him. There, however, the cat fell ill and died, and the man wanted to bring it back to Cyprus to bury it in his garden.

As it later emerged, when the cage with the dead cat reached the Paphos airport, an employee saw the dead cat and immediately alerted his colleagues, wondering what they should do in case they were blamed for the incident.

They decided to take a stray cat from outside the airport that resembled the dead cat in colour and face. After a feline chase in the grounds of the airport and after some intense washing and grooming, they put the collar of the dead cat on the copy cat, put it in the cage and sent the cage out for the owner to receive it.

Always nice to finish the week with a Friday funny!

Take care everyone - have a great weekend.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Forums, moderators and a growing community

Anyone browsing through the country specific forums over the past few days may have noticed the following post:

Expat Focus is looking for more volunteers to act as moderators and help build our online community. If you have some experience of expat life (you don't need to be an expert) and would like to help others then we'd love to hear from you.

The main role of a moderator at Expat Focus is to make new members feel welcome, encourage discussion and ensure our acceptable use policy is adhered to.

All our moderators have different reasons for volunteering their valuable time but the one thing they have in common is a desire to build a friendly, welcoming community where members are able support each other through the often difficult process of moving to and living in a foreign country.

I'm very happy to say there has already been a great response to the above with new moderators coming on board for a number of forums. However, there are still forums which are fairly quiet at the moment and which could benefit from the knowledge and experience of some kind-hearted souls!

If you think helping to build our forum community is something you might like to get involved in please get in touch for more details.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to all our existing moderators who volunteer so much of their time and energy and have helped innumerable expats over the years. Moving abroad can be a very difficult time for many people - you make it a whole lot easier...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Site stats

One of the things I forget to do for long periods (the last time I did it was about six months ago!) is to update the stats page to show how many people are visiting Expat Focus. The figures for last month break down like this:

Unique visitors 124813
Number of visits 181080
Pages 573353

The full list of stats for each month since January 2004 can be viewed here. Although we do a little bit in the way of advertising and many pages have been picked up by Google, I'm convinced that a lot of the site's continued growth is due to word of mouth. Many of those who sign up for new accounts tell me that Expat Focus was recommended by a friend or colleague.

So, a big thank you is due to all those who have helped the site grow and I hope it continues to be a source worthy of recommendation. Like the old saying goes, if you're happy with it - tell someone else. If you're not - tell us!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Are you a lurker?

Don't worry - it's not illegal :-)

Lurkers are people who regularly visit a forum but for some reason don't post. Every forum has them (apart from the odd ones which actually require you to post as a condition of membership) and, of course, there's nothing wrong with lurking!

However, as this is the year where we're focusing on the community aspects of Expat Focus we'd like to know what we can do to encourage those who want to post but for some reason decide not to. Do you think it's not worth posting because you won't get a reply? Are you worried about asking a question which seems too "obvious"? Perhaps you're concerned about registering an account because you think your details will be passed to a third party? Are you unhappy with the way the forums are moderated? Are people in the forums welcoming enough to new members? Are they knowledgeable?

Whatever the case please let us know what you think - all comments will be read and all are very welcome. Thank you!

Monday, April 07, 2008

Integrity - the first casualty of a move abroad?

Over the past few weeks I've received a couple of email from friends on one particular issue, and in today's Telegraph there's an excellent article which touches on the same subject - integrity (or more accurately, the lack of it in some "foreign" countries). Basically, the suggestion is that in many places thoughout the world the sense of fair play, the sense of doing what is right regardless of the personal consequences, is almost unheard of. Instead, locals are more likely to act solely in their own interests, even breaking the law on occasion, and any sense of wider responsibility is ignored. Even worse, this particular type of selfishness is admired and aspired to - often being labeled as "cunning", something which only the smartest minds possess.

I wonder how much truth there is in all this. Are some societies really so different from our own? Is it a matter of perception - do we immediately assume that places which initially seem so alien are also corrupt in some way? Do we tend to forget the problems back home and only remember how secure we felt within a familiar system? Or, is integrity and a sense of community indeed something which differs from one country to the next?

I suspect there are no easy answers, but comments are very welcome!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Share your knowledge and expat experience!

Expat Focus is a website for expats, by expats. If you're someone who has already made the move abroad you will almost certainly have information of use to others - why not share it? You don't need to be a great writer (we can tidy things up), all you need is the willingness to help others by sharing your experiences.

If the above sounds good, how do you get started? Simple - think about what you've learnt from your own experiences. It might be something applicable to all expats or maybe just something of use to those heading to your own country, city, town etc. It really doesn't matter, if it's something you think might help someone else and you're able to write at least 500 words about it then we're interested in publishing it at Expat Focus.

If you'd like to contribute an article, or even start writing regularly for Expat Focus, please contact Jo James on