Monday, March 30, 2009

How to avoid sales calls as an expat!

There are a few times when being an expat and ‘dumb foreigner’ can be really useful.

Take telephone sales calls for example. When the phone rings at lunchtime these days, I can be fairly sure it’ll be a “do you want to save money on your fuel bills?” sort of call. It is just so nice to be able to say that I’m sorry but I don’t speak the language.

This also works well with door-to-door salesmen. I don’t know much about their schedules but quite often the moment they think they’re going to have to try and work in a foreign language then you wont see them for dust.

The approach can also be useful in city centres when that student approaches you with their clipboard and the “excuse me do you have a few minutes?” opening line that’s usually a prelude to trying to get your name for an insurance sales company.

The technique is great and even allows one to walk around some large exhibitions without being grabbed and delayed at every stand by the hovering sales folk.

The trouble is, sales folk are a bit like a virus. Once you think your antibodies are getting the upper hand, they just change their structure and start to become a nuisance again.

In quite a few countries English is fairly widely spoken as a second tongue and business language. Many telephone sales companies now employ staff with some knowledge of the language to ‘get you’ if you try and play the foreigner card.

Ingenuity and technology is also playing its part. One expat in France told me that a salesman knocked at the door. The expat played the “I don’t speak French” card – basically lying. No problem! The salesman immediately pulled out of his pocket a little tape machine and played a pre-recorded message in English!

Another case I heard of was equally odd. The expat concerned played their card and was amazed to see the salesman take out a mobile phone with various national flags stuck to keys. He only had to press a flag for the phone to connect immediately to someone the other end who spoke the prospect’s language and hey presto – the sale effort could continue via phone!

The students and other sales people collecting names and phone numbers in the street have also been tightened up. They have always operated in ‘hunting packs’ and now their masters tend to ensure that in the pack there is at least one that speaks some English and can be called over quickly to aid the discussion.

So, what’s the answer for the poor expat that’s seeing their trump card trumped?

I’ve a few suggestions that may help scare them off:

1. You could learn a few sentences in an incredibly obscure language and claim to speak nothing but it.
2. You could set up some form of interference grid around your front door that will disrupt any mobile signal or portable electronic device – though you may have to watch out for any poor salesperson that has a pacemaker installed.
3. Claim to be an alien visitor then start making beeping and clucking sounds.
4. Say at the outset that you’re a politician and would like to explain your policies.

Now I think about it, perhaps just hanging up or slamming the door is easier!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gambling in Gambia

A widely travelled expat told me recently of a couple of experiences he’d had in Gambia in West Africa – and they offer an insight into how one can make wild and inaccurate assumptions about local cultures.

The very first day he’d arrived with his wife, the doorman was carrying one of their cases for them into the apartment. Being completely new to Africa, they’d dutifully read up in advance everything they could on the destination and knew that English was fairly widely spoken but not outside of major centres. They’d spoken slowly and enunciated clearly to their temporary companion, who’d nodded in comprehension.

Upon entering the apartment, the doorman spoke for the first time when putting down the case

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but do you know how Spurs got on yesterday against Arsenal?”’

For those who know little about UK football (soccer), Spurs and Arsenal are both London based clubs and traditional rivals. Incredibly, both the expat and the local man were both life-long fans of Spurs and spent some time standing on the edge of the Gambian bush discussing the past 30-40 years of the football club. The expat found to his amazement that not only did the local man speak perfect English, but also knew at least as much and possibly more than he did about the football club’s history.

A week or so later, the couple decided the try and get out one night for a change of scenery. Nightlife was limited and they’d been advised by local people not to venture out alone but instead to hire a taxi and driver for the evening.

They’d seen billboards advertising a casino and although it wasn’t their normal ‘thing’, they’d decided to give it a go.

They hired a taxi for 3 hours that evening and set off on the journey of around 15kilometres to the casino, arriving safely. Having spent an enjoyable hour or two, their taxi returned for them. On the way back, and on a deserted and unlit road in total blackness, a car overtook their taxi with its driver leaning out of the window shouting at their driver in the local language.

To their horror, the other car steered their taxi off the road and onto a totally black tiny track into the bush. Their driver said, looking very worried, that the other car driver had said he was a policeman but that he wasn’t completely sure. The couple now were very scared – the other car had no markings and the man wore no uniform but the track was too narrow for the taxi to turn and the taxi driver said the other driver had told him to drive down it for 200 metres or so.

Eventually the taxi arrived at a tiny clearing surrounded by bush. In the pitch darkness with no lighting whatsoever apart from the taxi’s headlights, the couple were able to see around 20-30 silhouettes of people appear from the bush, who then proceeded to surround the taxi in a circle.

The other car pulled up directly behind the taxi, blocking the exit. The driver got out, walked up to their driver’s window and stared shouting. The taxi driver got out looking very nervous indeed and disappeared into the 2am darkness leaving the expat couple alone surrounded by the silhouettes and the bush.

The expat told me that he assumed at that point that they’d never be heard of again.

Suddenly a large figure appeared by the side of their car window. A voice boomed out in perfect Oxford English;

“Good evening. Sorry to delay you like this but we’re doing some random checks on taxis to make sure their insurance documents are all in order. We won’t keep you long”

True to his word, a few minutes later the taxi driver re-appeared looking shaken but relieved and they drove off arriving safely back and without incident. The taxi driver told them that it was a police check though as no uniforms had ever been seen the expats were never entirely sure.

Two interesting little stories that indicate that some aspects of life are universal and one shouldn’t jump to conclusions about ‘the way things are’ when overseas!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Expats and the Internet - don't be (too) afraid!

It never ceases to amaze me that even in the 21st century there are still large numbers of people around that claim to have never heard of the Internet.

There are even larger numbers who know of it, but avoid it like the plague because of all those nasty things they’ve read about viruses, id-theft or spy-ware and of course it is a known fact that just about everyone trying to do business on the net is a crook looking to rip people off!

I blame the TV myself. The amount of negative publicity put out by some sections of the media, notably some consumer affairs programmes, is truly disproportionate to the problems involved. Much of this negative publicity is very poorly informed, inappropriately researched and many of the cases covered show a total absence of investigative journalism in the sense that the claims are simply never put to critical evaluation.

Nobody denies that there can be problems when dealing over the Internet, just as one can have if dealing by post or via telephone, yet the Internet gets the bulk of negative attention. In reality, with some modest spending on security software and the adoption of some good common-sense practices, the Internet can be a safe place to find information and trade.

It’s hard not to wonder sometimes if the fact that the Internet poses a threat to TV advertising revenues is not a possible contributory factor in the coverage it gets, but perhaps that’s just too cynical!

Now, at face value this may not be anything directly related to expats, but it can be.

Expats overseas are in constant need of information and advice, particularly in the early months or years after their arrival. If they are unfamiliar with the language or live in a rural area, they may also need to purchase items from far afield. As a group they also frequently need to identify some unconventional (by local standards) ways of generating income through business.

In all these areas the Internet is at face value the obvious answer.

Yet sadly, some of even the younger expats are put off by all the negative coverage. In a recent expat forum meeting one woman, who was probably under 40, said she would not use the Internet to find information;

“…because of all the Trojan’s on it”

No, she had nothing against the ancient inhabitants of modern Western Turkey, and she did not know what a ‘Trojan’ was in technology terms, but she had been scared-off using the Internet by TV coverage throwing around frightening terminology.

This widespread fear is a pity. For example, it is always regrettable to see people paying far more for items than they need to simply because they have been frightened off the Internet by often exaggerated and unrepresentative stories.

In terms of finding information, the Internet is a must for expats. Just one example from today alone when trying to advise someone on a legal aspect of living in France (a subject I know little about) I found a site called

This is a mine of information relating to all aspects of the French legal system and they can also put you in touch with an English-speaking French lawyer immediately.

There are literally dozens upon dozens of similar sites available to help expats in almost any country of the world. There is no need for any expat to feel cut off and alone.

Of course if you’re reading this then you presumably don’t need to be told how useful the Internet can be! Do though spread the word locally – let’s get all expats on-line and sharing their experiences if nothing else!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Expat influences

A little while ago I was sending an email in English. When reading it back I suddenly realised that I’d used local spellings for several place names without thinking about it. I quickly changed and sent it off but it made me think.

We expats are influenced by our surroundings perhaps more than we realise. I know someone who has lived in France for some years and although his French is still not that good, when speaking English now he finds it difficult to avoid using the French pronunciation of place names rather than their names in English. So without even thinking he’ll say ‘Paris’ as ‘Par-ee’ which he finds very embarrassing with his English speaking friends as it makes him sound pretentious.

I know another person that has lived in Spain for many years and similarly pronounces many ‘C’s as ‘th’ in place names when he’s speaking English. He also finds it embarrassing as his friends accuse him of being affected.

An even more amusing example is a distant relative who after living in Australia for only 12 months returned home on a visit with a broad Aussie accent and describing things as ‘Beut’ and ‘Bonzer’.

Not only is our language affected, but also our outlooks. Many English speaking expats when visiting back home find some things now look a little ‘foreign’ and perhaps a little less desirable than they remember them. I remember having some local cakes on a visit back and finding them massively less appealing than my memories indicated.

Yet it’s not only one-way. My same expat friend above living in France told me that at the local school (apparently 10% of its students are now of English speaking origin) several teachers have commented that the local French children are pronouncing some French words now with an English accent – presumably to their parents’ puzzlement and very probable irritation! The school’s English teacher admits to being inhibited by having native English speaking children in the class, and a history teacher has said some British children have questioned the way certain aspects of European history have been presented.

Even cuisine is affected. In many supermarkets and shops in those countries favoured by expats, one can find British or American foodstuffs that would have been unknown even a decade or so ago in the same areas – this as the local enterprises have woken up to the fact they have a new market to cater for. Some of this even rubs off on local tastes. In many European countries it’s now commonplace to see things such as brownies or crumbles in bakers shops and see them sold under their English names.

So does this mean that we’re all going to end up in a world that has somehow converged into oneness at the expense of diversity?

No, I don’t think so. The world’s too diverse for that. Anyone who thinks otherwise should try, for example, to get the tradesmen in many countries to issue a quotation as opposed to a broad and often meaningless ‘estimate’.

All in all the expat’s influence on the society around them, and vice-versa, can only be a good thing and most understand and welcome that.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Politics and the expat

Last year's US elections were understandably a subject of global media interest.

While watching the news coverage though, it struck me how some expats, perhaps even ‘many’, become rapidly de-politicised once they’re out of their home environment.

I know several US citizen expats that arrived initially with a still burning interest in their national politics, yet over time they’ve become increasingly indifferent to what’s happening back in the USA politically. Even in the recent election, for some their interest has been more academic than passionate.

This isn’t just a US phenomenon either. It seems to me as if many expats find that once they’re ‘out’ then their interest in politics back in the old country declines and declines – and that’s assuming they had any to begin with!

This is perhaps unsurprising. All the epic speeches and rhetoric suddenly don’t affect one much when outside of the country, so interest can wane.

What is more surprising though is how this gap isn’t replaced by an interest in the new ‘local politics’. Yes, in many countries there are expat associations and some have links into the local political life but for the most part these seem to be more social and practical groupings that take little direct interest in the politics of their new country.

Yes, I realise this is a massive generalisation and that some expats are highly politically motivated by events in their old country or politically engaged in their new one. I also know that, as most expats do not change citizenship, they are frequently barred from local or national elections in their new country and this does not help encourage them to take much of an interest.

Yet it seems to me as if, irrespective of nationality, expats as a group appear to be generally disinterested in politics. When expats are together, politics is rarely a subject at the forefront of discussion. We all seem much more inclined to get on with the business of living in the real world than engaging in debates about who is representing whom in the central government.

This begs the question as to whether expats are apolitical before they leave, or become so by virtue of living overseas.

I can’t prove it of course but I have a hunch it is the latter. I suspect a combination of factors mean that expats become detached from the political world to some extent. If one is trying to concentrate on a new language, getting children settled, earning a living, making new friends and all the other things expats have to deal with, then suddenly news about squabbles in Parliament or The Senate just doesn’t seem relevant any more.

Of course the counter argument runs along the lines that all life is politics and perhaps that’s right, but even so, there is an intriguing possibility.

Possibly we should try and get everyone in the world to spend a few years overseas as an expat. If my hunch is correct then the result would be a global population that is largely, or perhaps even totally, apolitical.

We may have found the way to make politicians obsolete!

Friday, March 13, 2009

One foot in the past

When an expat initially takes the plunge and moves, for some time afterwards there is a natural tendency to have ‘one foot in the old country’.

This is partly emotional with family or friend ties and that’s fine. Few expats want to shake that off.

For the most part though, it is practical because however well organised one was prior to departure, there will ALWAYS be loose ends left. Whether it’s that final sale deed of your old house, queries about the final meter readings or confusion with your old bank over new addresses, in the first few months after departure there will be things that keep popping up to drag your attention away from your new expat life back to the way things were.

The good news is that slowly over a few months these distractions diminish and eventually disappear. Suddenly you’re an expat ‘living the life’ and apart from family/friends back home, your old life starts to seem a long way away.

That though can change.

In spite of living abroad for many years, a friend recently received an official letter from the ‘old country’. This was a request to complete a tax declaration for 2005/6. As he had left in 2002, and has been integrated into his new country’s tax system since 2002/3, he assumed this was an error and understandably ignored it.

A few months later he duly received a reminder.

Now he is a fairly conscientious sort and decided to telephone his ‘old’ tax authorities to explain the position. After many transfers, and no doubt high telephone costs, he eventually received an apology for their “inexplicable error” and was told to ignore the demand.

Needless to say, this didn’t end it. A few weeks later he received a curt reminder and notification that he was being fined the equivalent of roughly 120 euros for non-completion of the form. There was also a nasty threat that the 120 euros could be collected through the tax authorities in his new country!

Cue more phone calls and faxed irate letters. As his tax affairs were in exemplary order he was understandably furious at this insane situation. More apologies were received.

Finally a few weeks later he received a nice letter of apology confirming

a) No tax return was required
b) He owed absolutely no tax at all

There was also included an equally nice statement showing he now owed 120 euros (the fine) and confirming that they were seeking to recover this via his new tax authorities.

The saga continues but to avoid boring you, I won’t go on!

My friend told me that in the past few months he’s spent more time talking with, and writing to, his old tax office than he ever did in the many years he lived and worked in his country of origin. He’s thinking of re-emigrating to another destination, in his words “to get away from it all!”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Expat Country Life

A large number of expats go overseas and look to escape the hectic world of city life by moving to somewhere in the countryside.

Although I know many will praise at great length the virtues of simple country life, in reality price is also often a big factor in their decision. That’s because in some English-speaking countries many rural villages have become more or less extended dormitories for the nearby cities they serve, so suburban or rural properties can often be almost as expensive as those in the towns. Overseas this is less frequently the case.

Quite often the town or city almost stops dead at a line and suddenly in the space of 5 minutes one is really ‘in the country’ and prices fall accordingly.

Once established in the country it’s easy to forget that although you live in a rural environment, in fact you know little about that way of life. It’s amazing how quickly, and with such little warning, the self-sufficiency thing ‘kicks-in’ and you can start seeing yourself as a part time farmer.

Suddenly you’re gripped by the overpowering urge to fill up those old sheds or barns in the garden with a few chickens, ducks, sheep and perhaps a pony or pig.

If you think you’re vulnerable to such tendencies, let some of the experiences I know of be a warning!

One woman took a small donkey given ‘free-of-charge to a good home’. Over several weeks in spite of her family’s best efforts, they could not stop the donkey escaping from its field. What did it do once free? It ALWAYS stood in the middle of the fairly busy local road blocking traffic and refusing to move for anyone. Even the local police paid them a visit to complain.

Another family decided a large goat was just the thing they needed – until one day it ate virtually every item of laundry on their washing line. For dessert it entered the kitchen and ate a 50euro note that had been sitting on the table.

One family I know of purchased 12 x 1 day old chicks hoping in time for healthy eggs. To their surprise, as the chicks grew it became apparent that they’d been statistically unlucky and managed to get 10 cockerels out of the 12 chicks. Following much fighting and carnage as they grew, eventually most of them needed to be disposed of (with much heartache) and eggs were few and far between.

My favourite though is the British woman who was horrified to learn that local semi-feral cats that were encouraged in the area to help keep pests down, were also periodically shot by farmers if their numbers got out of control. She started leaving food out for them in the garden to encourage their increasing domestication – until such time as she came into her kitchen to find one munching happily away on her completely untouched freshly cooked turkey that was just ‘resting’ before carving!

Monday, March 09, 2009

The (expatriate) outdoor life

Recently I was ‘doing the expat thing’ and comparing cultures.

While strolling around Paris during a brief trip, I was struck by the numbers of people sitting outside the café’s taking their coffees in the open air.

It was mid-morning and there was a fairly stiff and chilly wind. It wasn’t actually raining but there was a grey dampness in the air and overall my first thought was a hot chocolate by a fire was more in order rather than watching the world go by on a pavement café.

Still, in my experience many continental cities take the ‘outdoors’ rather more seriously than many in the English speaking world.

Now this is normally attributed to weather and there’s some truth in that. Clearly a tearoom in, say, Aberdeen is going to have rather fewer opportunities to get out the tables and parasols than one in Marseille or Rome.

Yet this isn’t really the only explanation. The weather in Calais, Dieppe or Zeebrugge isn’t really any different to that just across a short distance of water in England in places such as Dover, Newhaven or Felixstowe, yet even on a nice day you’ll have trouble finding an outside café in those English towns, whereas they’re common in their partner ports on the continent.

Many people have pontificated on this and never reached a satisfactory conclusion, so I’m not going to try! What I will say is that it seems obvious that getting that ‘fresh air’ when eating or drinking is somehow a more central part of many cultures that it is in the English-speaking world. In many overseas cities it doesn’t even have to be sunny – just the absence of rain will be enough to get the tables and chairs springing up on the pavements.

I re-convinced myself of this basic truth by admiring the determination of the local Parisians to experience the open air and happened to mention this later in the day to someone I was talking to.

“What do you mean?” they responded.

So I ran through my observations and wise conclusions about the differences between Parisians and Londoners in this respect.

“You’d never get Londoners sitting outside in this weather” I sagely commented.

My companion sighed.

“It is nothing to do with determination to get outside. The weather is too miserable for that. It is just that the law now forbids smoking inside public premises like cafés so people have to sit outside to smoke. No French person would be stupid enough to sit outside in this weather unless they had to.”

Embarrassed at my dismal failure to think laterally for reasons people could all be sitting outside, I changed the subject quickly.

It just goes to show – don’t be too quick to attribute explanations to things because they happen to fit your own prejudices and opinions!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Expat eavesdropping

I promise – the above isn’t something I make a habit of.

It’s an odd thing. Many English-speakers when addressing people locally will assume that the locals must speak English, but when conversing amongst themselves as a tourist or expat group at a table, their assumption will change totally. Suddenly they think nobody can understand a word they’re saying.

In fact, apart from when one is well off the beaten track, this is a dangerous assumption to make. In many European countries such as most of those in Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, and the Dutch speaking parts of Belgium, a large number of professional or commercial people have a good grasp of English. Though perhaps to a lesser extent, the same also applies in much of Eastern Europe, many parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, The Balkans and Greece.

Even in that great bastion of resistance France, many people under the age of around 30 or 35 now have an understanding of some basic English and are fairly keen to try it out – much to the disgust of the older generations who of course contemptuously blame this on all on McDonald’s and the “Parlez Anglais” infection their youngsters have picked up from them.

The point in this, whether in Europe or further afield, walking into a public place and starting to have confidential discussion based on the assumption your conversation is private is, well, very possibly risky!

I’ve had many experiences of being assumed to be local and therefore completely ignored, as English-speaking expats or tourists have started to sound off. In one case a group of six English-speaking people were unfavourably comparing a local beer to their good British Carlsberg – something I found hilarious as I struggled desperately to keep an impassive face.

In another case a group of Americans were fairly robustly and loudly rubbishing the local shops compared to those back home in a place I had never heard of, and I have a moderately good knowledge of USA geography.

Sometimes though it has been more poignant such as the elderly couple on a table next to me chatting away about the memories of their last visit many, many years ago, and their speculation as to whether they’d ever get the chance to come back again given their age.

Once a young couple on the next table also decided to start to share some fairly explicit intimacies with each on the risky assumption that nobody around could understand them. Feeling very uncomfortable with my entirely unintentional ‘eavesdropping’, I quickly finished and moved off.

Though at times amusing, on the whole I really don’t like this phenomenon associated with being mistaken for a local. I respect people’s privacy and I am never comfortable being forced against my will to eavesdrop. I just wish people would not assume that everyone around them is either deaf or entirely ignorant of the English language!

Yet as I said at the outset, sometimes these assumptions can work the other way.

I happened to be walking along in the street one day when an estate car pulled up. A woman got out and said in rapid native English

“Hello, I wonder if you can help? I have a wheelbarrow in the back with a punctured tyre, do you know where I can get it repaired?”

To say I was surprised would be an understatement but even so, I told her of a local garage I knew that may be able to help. She replied “Oh thanks very much” then got into her car and drove off.

It was only as she drove off that I wondered just how she’d picked me out as someone who would understand her. Did I have a sign on my back saying “ENGLISH SPEAKER - FEEL FREE TO ASK”? Had she just assumed that any Tom Dick or Harry she’d ask would be able to speak English and understand words such as ‘wheelbarrow’ and ‘puncture’?

I don’t know, but I wish now I’d had the presence of mind to ask her and to enquire what on earth she was doing in the town centre with a wheelbarrow in her car.

I suspect I’ll never know, unless one day in a local café I overhear a woman explaining to all and sundry how a ‘local’ she’d stopped at random spoke excellent English and was able to help with her wheelbarrow crisis!