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 cafĂ© 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?