Monday, July 27, 2009

International Measures - What a Muddle!

As the metric system has become the global standard, in theory this shouldn’t cause most expats any trouble.

OK, many US folk moving overseas of course find metric measures a problem. It’s also true that any Briton much over about 45 or 50 years of age probably grew up in the imperial measurement system and still has to mentally convert in their head from time to time. Yet for most younger UK expats and holidaymakers this shouldn’t be a problem – should it?

Well, it’s an odd world. I happened to see a few weeks ago a UK school exam (informal) set for 14 year olds. One question was a gem involving calculations of an arrow’s flight and distance over time etc. The question was set in metres and kilometres per hour but the helpful information printed above asked children to keep in mind that an arrow can fly “several hundred yards” when released. That must have got the youngsters thinking!

Although hilarious, it’s maybe understandable given Britain’s way of going about things in fits and starts. Britain is probably the only country in the world that’s ‘partly metric’ and this will cause confusion at times. If you think I’m joking, just think about carpets in the UK. Quite often their width is quoted in imperial units but they’re sold by the linear metre. It’s still possible to find carpet shops selling some carpets by the square metre but others by the square yard. This frequently confuses not only customers but also their staff.

Yet these oddities with measures affect not only the USA and UK but in some respects, just about everywhere. I recently was looking at the prices of Forest Bark type products (I don’t have a garden – don’t ask why I was looking!) It’s quite incredible because most people want to buy something that will cover an area to a cubic capacity – i.e. an area so long by so wide by so deep.

Yet locally I found this product is sold by the tonne apart from small bags that are sold by the litre. “What is the cubic capacity of one tonne of this stuff?” I asked. “No idea” came the reply. Nowhere could I find any information that related a weight in kilos to a litre of cubic metre of the stuff – apart from on a US site that helpfully happened to mention an approximate weight by volume of Forest Bark. Unfortunately this was quoted in quarts and pounds/ounces so I had to convert both to metric to get back to a figure in kilos that I needed.

”How did you work that out?” said the local company. “Don’t ask,” was about the best I could muster.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Monthly Photo Competition - "Sunset"

If you love taking pictures, why not set yourself a challenge by taking part in our online photographic competition. Every month we set you a theme, and all you have to do is use your creative genius to produce your photographic interpretation of that theme. Simple!

August's theme is "Sunset". Closing date is August 25th.

The winning member will receive a 20GBP Amazon book voucher (or equivalent if Amazon doesn't deliver to your country) together with a mention in the monthly newsletter. The winning entry will also be placed in the winner's gallery!

Further details about how to post your photo to this forum and enter the competition can be found HERE. Please remember to include details about when and where the photo was taken and what type of camera you used.

Click HERE to go to the photo competition forum and view this month's entries!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Interesting food abroad

Expats have to deal with the fact that they’re likely to have some ‘interesting’ gastronomic experiences.

This may all sound a bit obvious. Yes, different people in different countries eat different things and not all will be to each other’s taste. As an expat you will sometimes see some odd things served to you on a plate. You’re either going to see this as part of the rich experience of living an expat life or run screaming for the hills and the nearest tin of baked beans.

This also isn’t just a question of exotic locations and exotic foods – though it depends a bit on what you call exotic. I know one US citizen living in London that was appalled and terrified by some of the things the local people ate. Top of his list was of course Jellied Eels, cockles, mussels and whelks (though how many Londoners eat those these days?) but the power of speech left him entirely at the sight of a soup dish full of pie & mash.

Nor are all Americans amused by Fish ‘n’ Chips as many seem unable to recognise the battery object as fish. I’ve seen Americans (and some Englishmen for that matter) in Edinburgh and Glasgow with their jaws on the floor as their haggis was served on a plate. Some thought they were safe with the Scottish breakfast until it arrived and was seen to include Clootie Dumpling – a sort of fried fruitcake with the bacon and eggs.

My favourite was an American friend who once asked in Birmingham where the nearest Macrobiotic restaurant was. “Yaow wot?” To be fair to Brum, this was a long time ago.

Of course many people moving from one European country to another find even bigger differences. Many English speaking expats have trouble getting to grips with the horse steaks that can be served in France, the sometimes almost raw meat in Italy (and several other continental European countries) or in Spain several varieties of fish that look like they have been imported from Venus.

I personally think all this diversity is great and all about broadening one’s experiences. Not everyone agrees though. As I’ve commented on before, increasingly in supermarkets and even some local markets one can see the foreign food sections springing up to cope with the demand for fish fingers, beans and tinned soups. That, I think, is a less healthy sign.

Still, it’s always gone on. I have a Chinese friend that has spent a lot of time in Europe and he tells me that he can’t recognise a lot of the food served in Chinese restaurants here as Chinese. In some Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown areas of some big cities such as London, he will ask for the Chinese menu and select dishes from that. He likes ‘our’ Chinese food but just struggles to recognise it. He thinks that it is Chinese food that was first ‘Americanised’ for originally US tastes, then re-exported from the USA into Europe where an essentially American set of dishes was then ‘Briticised’ or ‘Francocised’ etc. Odd theory but he may be right.

So maybe the squeamish expat has a way out. Just open that local restaurant specialising in British or American dishes tweaked for local taste. What about in France battered fish in a BĂ©arnaise sauce? In Italy egg ‘n’ chips carbonara? In Spain perhaps cheeseburger-aella? In Australia roo ‘n’ clootie pie?

Never say I don’t give you ideas!

Sending something abroad? Good luck!

Many expats need to send and receive parcels – and fairly regularly. As many are self-employed, a lot of this is commercial and livelihoods can depend on it.

So, in the 21st century one would expect many companies and national postal services to be able to offer expats a good range of services to choose from and exemplary service to follow.

Yet in fact one of the most common moans and groans from expats virtually everywhere is how unreliable the various parcel services are. I know this to be at least partly true from personal experience.

A friend told me that they had ordered some special Easter treats for their children well in advance and paid for 48hour express delivery services from the UK. They eventually turned up many days after Easter and had been in transit for about 10 days. They tell me that the UK based parcel company had no idea where the parcel had been and they didn’t seem to care very much either.

Nobody seems to be immune. I know of one person that shipped an expensive gift via one of the household name US couriers. Upon arrival the recipient signed for it and opened the box only to find it was empty inside. The box had been opened with a knife, the contents stolen and the box then expertly re-sealed. As this was invisible from the outside the recipient had perfectly understandably signed for it on receipt as ‘OK’ because the problem was not visible externally. The shipping company have refused to pay up on insurance because they hold a signature that says “OK” from the point of destination.

I know of another appalling example of the dishonesty and incompetence that can arise. A large parcel was shipped to an expat business in Egypt via a prestigious carrier at a cost of almost 100 pounds sterling, and through a trackable service. The box then disappeared for nearly three months, during which time the tracking showed constantly that it was still at the airport of departure!

An insurance claim was launched. At the end of three months the doorbell rang at the shipper’s residence and the man said that the parcel had been found. He demanded another 100 pounds “return freight fee” before he would release it to the shipper. He said his documentation showed that the consignee in Egypt had refused to accept the box so it had been returned.

Upon examination, the box showed absolutely no sign of ever having gone anywhere. There were no entry stamps for Egypt, no flight stickers, no return slip documents and the consignee in Egypt confirmed they had never seen it and certainly never refused to accept it. It was clear that the parcel had never left the local airport in 3 months and the courier were unable to produce any evidence that it had ever been anywhere. Apart from losing a very valued client over the fiasco, the shipper is still 200 pounds out of pocket and is fighting to recover it – so far unsuccessfully.

So the message to the courier companies is clear – come on guys, get your act together! The cowboy days of the 1970s should be long dead. Expats (and many others) need services they can rely on and honesty/integrity from you. Make it happen!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Growing old overseas

Yes, I accept this isn’t the most attractive looking title I’ve ever come up with and it doesn’t suggest there are barrels of belly laughs to follow. Even so, it is though a real issue and one that many expats may need to face at some time in their lives.

Quite a few expats have moved overseas and burned their boats in the process. That’s brave, admirable and probably not cause for concern if one’s 20, 30, 40, 50 or even in one’s 60s. The trouble is, time passes and we all age. As we get older we may need more help and attention.

There are of course two real aspects to this.

The first is to ensure that you have appropriate health cover and retirement benefits in place. It’s worth remembering that having health insurance isn’t necessarily the same thing as having ‘care cover’ for old age related situations. Check to see what benefits and cover may be available from the local social security and health services, if you are part of them. If you’re not, you should check to see what services may be available to you locally if you are on an ‘E’ form type of reciprocal cover.

The second is that of familiarity, culture and language. If an elderly person is living in an English speaking culture and needs to go into hospital for treatment or needs care and help, then that may not be a major issue. It could though be far more problematic if the person concerned is living in a non-English speaking country and could be surrounded by health or care professionals they cannot understand and who cannot understand them.

I know of one case where an elderly member of an expat family had to go for a week’s observation and specialist convalescence after minor surgery. Although the care was superb and the staff stunningly friendly, in fact few of them spoke any English at all. Although his family did all they could, they clearly could not stay with him 24x7 and during that week of being surrounded by people he couldn’t understand, the elderly gentleman became mentally very confused though he was normally quite sharp.

Fortunately at the end of the week he returned home and rapidly recovered his awareness and mental sharpness but it did illustrate the potential problems of becoming old in a foreign land.

I have no easy answer to this one but it’s worth keeping in mind – particularly if you’re thinking of bringing elderly relatives to come and live with you overseas.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Running A Business In France - A Tax Nightmare?

One of the most common complaints I hear from expats in France (and there are an estimated half a million British expats alone living there) is that although France is a wonderful place to live, it is one of the worst places on earth to try and run a business. Many foreigners in France call the country ‘business hostile’ due partly to the vast and largely pointless bureaucracy that many businesses find themselves bogged down in, and partly due to taxes.

I don’t personally own a business in France so I’m not sure I fully understand all the ins-and-outs but essentially it seems to boil down to the fact that French taxes are some of the highest on the planet. Apparently the French tax system is divided into two – taxes proper such as VAT/TVA, income tax, property taxes and so on, then come the much dreaded ‘social charges’.

The social charges are mandatory payments made to the state to cover things such as health contributions, retirement benefits, invalidity cover etc. They are the rough equivalent of DSS contributions in the UK but about 5 times higher as a minimum. These are of course all taxes but are called ‘social contributions’ in France as the semantics of this sound warmer and cosier than ‘tax’.

Historically it has been the social charges that have crippled and destroyed many expat (and French) businesses. There are many different issues and legal ways of setting up a company and paying them, but it doesn’t seem to matter how you do it, you can be sure that around 40% of your turnover or profit (depending upon how you set up your business) will be taken by the state in social charges. Income and other taxes could be payable in addition to this huge percentage.

I know of many expats in France who have given up their small businesses claiming that the state was just bleeding them dry – several telling me that it was a complete waste of time trying to make a living there.

There may be some good news. Finally the French government have created a system to simplify the process of starting a company (in the past even that could be a nightmare I’m told) and much of it can be done online. More importantly, the payment of taxes and social charges for small businesses has been simplified at a lower flat rate. If I understand it, the new rate is 12-13% of your turnover and provides all income tax and social charges cover.

This may be a lifeline for those thinking of starting a business.

I believe the French state site at has all the details and also it has an outline of the new system in English. It may be worth having a look though be aware that the site has been unavailable a lot recently due to traffic ‘overloading’.

Keep an eye on Expat Focus for a more in-depth article about running a French business – it’ll be available shortly.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Nasty Nudies

More controversy in the forums surrounding Portuguese beaches:

"Whats do you folks think about horrid naked adults on local beaches? Mainly Clerigo - as this is the beach I most often visit.

Personally I hate seeing rotten old wrinklies in their birthday suits, when I am taking a stroll along the beach taking in the wonderful sights and smells of nature - suddenly, there they are, jiggling willies and flabby bums ugh! I just wish these people would go to remote beaches where they cant offend anyone - or perhaps they are exhibitionists. In that case, they should be arrested. Its gainst the law to walk around the streets naked, so why are the beaches any different?"

More here

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Expat economics - is opportunity knocking?

It’s interesting how economics can change people’s behaviour very quickly and how those that are ‘fleet of foot’ can benefit.

For a long time the euro was very weak against the US dollar and Sterling. The halcyon days for many were when the pound Sterling was at 1.45 euros and many things in Europe, notably property, seemed very cheap.

Now that’s all changed of course. At some levels the euro and pound touched parity and as I write it’s sitting at about 1 pound to 1.16 euros. That’s been bad news for many British expats who get their income such as pensions in Sterling but are now living in Europe in the Eurozone. Suddenly prices in continental Europe don’t look so cheap and I know many are struggling to survive on their old income.

Even so, some dynamics are already swinging into action. Suddenly Brits in Europe are starting to buy more and more over the Internet from the UK as a lot of stuff ‘back home’ suddenly looks much better priced than the same items being sold in the local town. The ferries are suddenly full of vans going over to the UK to ‘stock up’ on various items - notably DIY, Electrical Goods, Clothes and, wait for it, alcohol! The clinks of mass bottles can now be heard on ferries docking at the channel ports coming FROM the UK!

How times have changed!

Perhaps one of the biggest growth areas in this respect are the new and second hand car markets. There are now a number of specialist UK based car suppliers of left-hand drive vehicles based in the UK and they are selling their vehicles in Sterling not Euros. I know someone that recently purchased a LHD car from the UK in Sterling and saved approximately 4500 euros on the same car if purchased locally.

It’s also noticeable how small businesses, predominantly Internet based, are now springing up in many Euro countries and they are all targeting locally resident British expats that want to stretch their pounds further. Many of these include delivery services to a range of specified European countries.

As they say, “It’s an ill wind that blows no man any good”.

Of course this isn’t quite so good for those British expats living outside of Europe. The idea of running a white transit van from Calais to Sydney filled up with light bulbs and DIY kits isn’t perhaps a terribly sensible one, though then again Sterling’s decline has been less marked against many other currencies that it has been against the Euro.

So, for those expats in continental Europe, it may be worth looking on the Internet for the prices of at least some of the things you need if purchased in Britain and in Sterling. You never know, you could save yourself a lot of money!