Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Very Foreign Christmas

by Expat Focus columnist Toni Hargis

Whether you relocated two years ago or twenty, Christmas can always be counted on to remind you of “home”.
Holiday attire in the States does that for me.. Oh yes, it’s not just the people standing in for Santa who dress up around here. For the subtle look we have ear-rings that look like they belong on a Christmas tree, some take it a little further with red scarves, perhaps a little sparkle here and there, and then there are others who feel the need to remind everyone about Christmas – on their chests.

American author Mike Harling, now resident in England, just can’t get used to fireworks at Christmas time. “I have willingly absorbed most of the Christmas traditions of my adopted country, and the holiday season is richer because of it. But the one thing I continue to find jarring is all the fireworks. The towns set them off when they light the Christmas lights (or they used to before the money ran out) and they are a feature of many holiday parties. Watching fireworks in the damp and cold, however, without a barbecued hotdog in one hand and a plastic cup half-filled with warm beer in the other just isn't the same. Fireworks mean...

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Expats bring Christmas cheer to orphaned children in Bulgaria

by Charlie

To all you fabulous, wonderful, kind and generous people out there who donated to Kalofer orphanage, you have made this Christmas for the children the best one ever!

Ok, from the beginning;

Sam, Richard and Roger, our friends here in Bulgaria, came along to help me and Chech load up all the donations. There was a fair bit!! We took our convoy to Kalofer and for the first time ever I think, no one was there to greet us!! Well it was a little on the cold side!!!!

Normally, when we go, the kids are clambering over each other to help unload the car, sneaking a look in the boxes, typical excited children! But this time had to be different, the Director enlisted the help of the older children,(although the older girls wanted to keep posing for photographs, ha ha) and all the others were asked to wait in the classroom, well, not a classroom as such, but it has desks and chairs so somewhere for all the children to have their own spot. I was then introduced to a French lad who was there volunteering, then a girl, then another lad, then another 3 girls ….. I had to find out more. They all spoke excellent English. They work for an engineering and technology company in Lyon and the company has projects that they can take part in. One of the projects is a week in Bulgaria volunteering at an orphanage. They are spending Christmas at the home and leave on 26th December. I asked them what they thought, they said it was good but very cold. The corridors have no heating at all, I think it was definitely an eye opening trip for them. They said they communicate with the children and staff via charades and say the children are great.

So, between us, we took everything upstairs, ready for the big hand out!...

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Feeling Alien in France at Christmas

by Expat Focus Columnist, Sharon Revol

The end of the year is a time for family and tradition for most people, but when you’re an Expat things are never quite the same. For one, not all Expats get to be around their family at this time of year and the feeling of loneliness can dampen the seasonal cheer, not to forget that sometimes the host countries traditions or religions are totally different to those that an Expat is used to, making you feel quite alien.

I have been living in France since I was 16 so have had plenty of time to get used to the French way of doing things at Christmas time, but still each year I spend Christmas here, I find myself longing for a Christmas with my family like it used to be back in England.

It isn’t so much that the French are very different in how they celebrate Christmas, of course they have Santa Claus and nativity plays, traditional meals and Christmas parties, but it is the little traditions from my childhood that are missing for me; no carol singers, not sending Christmas cards (the French send out cards to wish a Happy New Year in January), no mince pies, Christmas crackers or Christmas pudding.

But it’s of little surprise these traditions are uncommon here: A Christmas card is sold individually most of the time at a cost of 2 or 3 Euros as opposed to twenty for the same price back in the UK. Mince pies and Christmas pudding whilst delicious to me as a Brit, fall into the category of disgusting English food for most French people who try them and are never finish them, so hardly surprising that the shops don’t stock them.

However, Christmas in France is in no way lacking in tradition and is much less commercial than in the UK. You would never expect to start finding Christmas goodies in the shops at the end of September and Christmas lights do not get turned on until December ...

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Victoria Twead: From Spain to Bahrain - Christmas cancelled for the Two Old Fools

Christmas in our little Spanish mountain village of El Hoyo is a low-key affair, but charming. A banner pronouncing ‘Feliz Navidad’ is hung across the entrance to the village and the trees in the square are decked with white fairy lights. Although people don’t send each other Christmas cards, they do decorate their houses with a BelĂ©n, or intricate, miniature nativity scene. Our neighbours always proudly show us theirs, displayed in their living rooms in pride of place. Unlike the UK, where Christmas is a massive commercial event, Christmas in Spain is much quainter and focuses far more on the religious significance.

Joe and I love Christmas in El Hoyo, so it’s quite a wrench to be here, in the Muslim Kingdom of Bahrain for Christmas. However, we’ve been quite surprised. Funny little Christmas trees have sprung up in odd places, like our hotel lobby, and some of the bigger stores are actually selling Christmas merchandise. Bahrain is home to thousands of expats, so I guess that’s to be expected.

Checking exactly when public holidays fall in Bahrain is not a simple matter of looking at the calendar. Islamic months start when a crescent moon is actually sighted by the appropriate religious authorities. Some festivals and holy days might fall a day before (or after) the predicted dates because if the moon is obscured by cloud, the holiday cannot be declared until the moon is actually visible to the naked eye. So you can imagine our confusion.

Some holidays are only officially announced 12 hours before the start of the day, frequently leading to great uncertainty on the part of schools...

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Australian Christmas on the Gold Coast

by Tracie Hocart

Christmas on the Gold Coast is really something special. People ask me “Are you heading away over the Christmas break?” and I always say I would rather be here than anywhere else this time of year. Why would I head away when there is such a great atmosphere in the air? It’s that special time year when everyone is friendly & smiling (except for the usual grumpy people who have lost the smile reflex somewhere along the way.)

For us, living on the Gold Coast at Christmas time has always been a pleasure. Even when we lived in Brisbane we still managed to find ourselves down here at Christmas time. So many of our friends and family head to the coast and we find people landing on our doorsteps trying to organise get togethers everyday of the two weeks before and after Christmas. Thankfully most of our friends either have their own accommodation arranged or have holiday homes here. We generally have family staying here and there, but do not find that a problem. Happy to have them!

It’s really starting to get hotter that’s for sure. We have noticed the humidity during the past week after the rain. Like most people, who end up living on the Gold Coast, we have great insulation (keeping the house cool in summer & warm in winter), a pool, a covered outdoor entertaining area (patio) and air conditioning. So for us the heat isn’t too much of an issue – in fact I love it when the temperature hits the high 20s (28+°C) and early 30’s.

In the summer months around Christmas our social activities consist of lots of BBQ’s, sitting outside for meals, enjoying a ...

Read more about Christmas on the Gold Coast

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Expat Experiences: Ecuador - Gary Kesinger, Cotacachi

Who are you?

My name is Gary Kesinger. I worked as a middle school teacher for nearly 20 years, traveling internationally nearly every summer. After tiring of the stress of modern life, my wife and I decided to start a new life in South America.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I had been interested in the idea of breaking away from the rat race and retiring early for several years. After much research and discussion, we made an exploratory trip to Cotacachi, Ecuador during a week long break from school in 2008. We immediately fell in love with the idea of spending our days in this beautiful mountain town. Within a few days, we had purchased an apartment and made plans to move at the end of the school year.

What challenges did you face during the move?

Some of our family and friends thought we were crazy to quit our jobs at the age of 43 and move overseas. However, we knew that we did not want to look back someday and wonder what our life could have been like if we had followed our dreams. Sink or swim, this was something that we felt that we had to do, and we have never looked back.

How did you find somewhere to live?

On our first trip to Cotacachi, we looked at several properties through a local realtor. We settled on a new development that was under construction in town. The prices were so low that we felt confident that it would be a good investment. We closed on the property just before we had to leave and...

Read more about Gary's life in Ecuador at

Monday, December 13, 2010

The French Medical Experience - Culture, Language and Posteriors

By Expat Focus Columnist Sharon Revol

If you were looking to experience new cultural experiences would you really expect to find them at the Doctors surgery?
Nearly everyone in the Western world is bound to hear about France’s extraordinary reputation for exemplary healthcare at some point in their lifetime. High standards come at a price though. It’s one of the causes of the country’s large deficit and the reason behind some of the additional taxes that the French have to pay, but very few people would expect going to the Doctors to be a cultural experience as well as a medical one.

Most new expatriates arriving in France are likely to be surprised by certain things in the French healthcare system and I can clearly remember my first experiences even though they were a long time ago now. Experiencing medical care in France is a lesson in language, being discreet and becoming comfortable with one’s body.

The majority of French doctors work independently as opposed to being part of large medical centre, meaning most of the Doctors and specialists work from apartments or houses often where, or nearby to where they live. Not quite what you would expect if you are used to clean, clinical looking medical centres with neutral decorations and plenty of mod cons. My current Doctor’s premises look like a throwback to the 1970’s complete with original wallpaper, furniture and plastic plants.

As a first experience this can be quite nerve wracking as there usually aren’t any receptionists. You just ring the doorbell and ...

Read more about the "French Medical Experience"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Expat Experiences: Peru - Tony Dunnell, Tarapoto

Who are you?

My name is Tony Dunnell, I’m an Englishman and full-time freelance writer living in Peru. I live in Tarapoto, a mid-sized town in the Peruvian jungle. This is my base of operations, from where I write primarily about travel and history while continuing to explore Peru.

I freelance for various websites and publications, and also have two blogs of my own. The first, TarapotoLife, is about this particular region of Peru and all the fun and frustrations of living here. The second,, is a site for backpackers in Peru, an honest travel advice blog written from experience.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

Well, the “why?” involved a girl, as is often the case. Before living here I had backpacked solo all over South America for about a year. During that trip, I met a girl in Tingo Maria, another Peruvian jungle town. We made our way up through Ecuador and Colombia together, before heading back to Peru. By this point I was out of cash, so I went back to the UK for seven months, scraped some money together and came back out (in May 2009).

We chose Tarapoto because it’s a very relaxed place, it’s not too far from her family (and not too close!) and it has decent connections with the rest of Peru (by air, land and river).

What challenges did you face during the move?

I came back out to Peru with my backpack, not much money and no real plans. It was all a bit sketchy, really. We travelled up the north coast from Lima, cut inland, and headed towards the jungle towns. We didn’t know where we were going to live at that point, but after a few days in Tarapoto we decided to stay put. We were travelling so light that any normal problems associated with relocating were not really an issue.

How did you find somewhere to live?

We stayed in a hostel for about a week, all the while looking for a place to rent. We wanted a cheap mini-apartment or something similar, but people here generally rent out small, single rooms, while the modern apartments were beyond our budget. Luckily, I stumbled across two rooms for rent on the top floor of a building. The stunning views...

You can read more about Tony's life in Peru at

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How to extend your Employment Pass in Singapore

by Bryan Norman

Previously, up until about a year ago, extending your EP used to entail various trying trips to the Ministry of Manpower building on Havelock. The one overwhelming memory I have of this exercise is the busy cacophony of the place and the mind-numbingly long waiting times. From the queue at reception and the queue number dispensers to the seemingly endless waiting before your number is flashed to submit your documents.

All paperwork submitted, the card was then produced, which in most cases would take about a few hours. This was the good news, i.e. generally, you were able to drop by the MOM building again that same day in order to pick up and pay for your new EP card. The bad news was that this would mean queuing up all over again.

Then the MOM went high-tech.

Nowadays, extending your EP is a much less painful process. Of course you still need to await your extension application letter that MOM sends you. This, amongst other things, determines which medical test - if any - you need to undergo. Once the medical procedures are done, you log onto the MOM website on and register for an...

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Shopping Experience in Turkey

By Margie
Forum Leader for Turkey

I think shopping is fun anywhere in the world. Shopping in a country like Turkiye is amazing and varied. The country is so vast and full of contrasts. There is literally something for everyone!

From the chic, luxury shopping centres in Istanbul to the tiny open all hours grocer’s shops sprinkled in every hamlet, village, town and city. From the little old man who sells vegetables door to door to the garish sights and sounds of the local weekly street market. From the mysterious alleys of Kemeralti in Izmir to the smart boutiques of Alacati. From the Society Bazaars that sell genuine fake Louis Vuitten handbags to the newly popular Outlet Centres.

Bakkals are great, really handy grocery stores. You can buy anything from a packet of needles to a jar of pickles. There are thousands of them all over the country. Usually run by men and sometimes by women. Open all hours; in the winter from about 7 am until 10 pm; in the summer from 6 30 am or so until midnight or even later!
One may pop there to get a fresh loaf and a newspaper before breakfast.
At lunch time if one needs a pot of yoghurt and a lemon, just nip out and pick them up!

Picture the scene, it’s Sunday evening, 7 30, your little girl suddenly tells you she needs a new exercise book for school the next morning! Typical! What to do? Dash a couple of yards to the Bakkal and pick one up. While you’re at it get her a bar of chocolate to go in her lunch box and a couple of beers for you and your spouse to enjoy later! No need to get the car out and drive all over to the nearest supermarket. Mehmet Efendi, your friendly Bakkal Amca is at your service!

The photo is of a Bakkal in Golcuk. That’s a small village near Odemis, about 100 km from Izmir. It’s by a lake and up a mountain, so it’s a popular picnic area. Notice the bottles of drinking water and bags of charcoal on the pavement. In the summer ice cream firms supply freezers and umbrellas. Other firms provide stands for packets of crisps and snacks. That’s the owner’s moped parked outside. There’s a barber’s shop next door, with the clothes dryer arrayed with towels.

In spite of all the shopping malls and mini express markets opening everywhere nothing can replace Bakkals. They provide a vital service and are the hub of the community. They deliver to people’s homes. People even lower a basket on a rope from a higher storey with cash and a list in. The grocer fills the basket with the required items and Ayse Teyze pulls up her shopping!

Sometimes customers are given credit and the shopping and amounts listed in a book for monthly payment. Generally no interest is charged. This is a life saving system for students at university far from home or blue collar workers on a tight budget.
Years ago Bakkals always had a phone that members of the public could use. Nowadays they sell mobile phone cards as well! Even though they sound as if they belong in the past, they are actually very up-to-date!

Long Live Bakkals!

Would you like to know more about everyday life in Turkey? Introduce yourself on our Turkey forum where you will receive a warm welcome.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Repas de Noel

By Harry P
Forum Leader for France

Our invitation arrived in the post, inviting us to attend the "REPAS DE NOEL"

"REPAS DE NOEL" is a Christmas dinner offered to all citizens of the village who are 70 years of age and older. We were looking forward to it as we had been invited to last years occasion and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The snow was still on the ground, making it quite dangerous underfoot, so we weren't sure if it might have been cancelled. However, when we arrived there were quite few cars so we knew it was still "on".

We were the only "English" couple to attend, which didn't worry us as we were the only English people there last year and the reception we had, from the local French people, was fantastic.

We walked into the hall, there were about 50 people milling around. Not quite sure what to do, we hesitated, looked around for a familiar face, then decided to hang our coats up. I helped my wife take her coat off and was just about to hang it up, when came a tap on the shoulder, I turned to see the ruddy face of George and his wife.

"Hello my friend, we thought you might not come because of the bad weather" he said, smiling his head off and offering his hand to be shaken. All this was said in French, and my French isn't that good. His wife came up and offered her cheeks to be kissed, THREE times, that meant - you have been accepted. My wifes turn next, and the ice was broken, nearly everyone in the hall shook our hand and welcomed us. We really did feel "at home" with our French neighbours. We sat down at 12.30 after being pulled this way and that way by friends wanting us to sit with them.

An aperitif arrived, a duo had set up their gear and were playing music as we sipped and chatted. Then came the "entree" with a glass of wine to complement it. The duo were getting into their stride now and playing those songs that everyone sings along with. Another course arrived, with wine to complement it. More music, more courses and more wine to complement each one!

EIGHT courses and five hours later, the coffee arrived, all now had the blush of either satisfaction, or alcohol on their faces. The food was excellent, prepared by local people in their homes.

Looking back on it, I was amazed at the number of people that came up to where we were sitting and chatted with us. Some we knew by sight, others we had never seen before, and those that could speak a few words of English just had to try it out on us, smiling with pleasure as they did. But nobody, apart from my wife and I, could speak, conversationally, so it was up to us to speak THEIR language. By the time we came home my head was buzzing with the exhaustion of translating English to French in my head, but it was a very satisfying and worthwhile exercise.

The day was memorable, and await with eager anticipation, for an invitation to come in the post for next years gathering.

If you have any questions regarding life in France please visit our French Forum where you will also receive a warm welcome!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Expat Experiences: India - Dave and Jenny, Delhi

Who are you?

We're Dave and Jenny, two ex-New Yorkers who felt that the Big Apple just wasn't big enough. And so it was off to India...!

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

We left in November, 2007, for Dave's job: he worked for an advertising agency, and they needed some help in the Delhi office.

What challenges did you face during the move?

All of them, I think. :)

How did you find somewhere to live?

We got lucky: at the time, there was one and only one real estate broker who had discovered Delhi's Craigslist. He found a terrific place in Hauz Khas Market at a ridiculous price, but then he negotiated the rent down on our behalf. It took us a few months before we realized that the landlord and the broker had clearly established the target price ahead of time. But we were quite happy, so we chalked it up to our naivete.

Are there many other expats in your area?

No, hardly any. We intentionally chose to live outside of the main expat haunts. What's the point of moving to India to live in Tucson?

What is your relationship like with the locals?

Indians are the...

Read more about Dave and Jenny's life in Delhi

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Australian Life Readiness Test

by Sarah Husselmann

It’s fair to say I was unprepared for my new life in Australia. Not that I wasn’t organised on some level – belongings were shipped, finances were in place, and my old life in London wrapped up – but when it came to familiarity with my new country, my knowledge was lacking.

Five things I knew about Australia

To give you an idea here’s a quick list of what I knew about Australia before moving here;

1. From a 2 week stint in Sydney, I knew that Sydney is physically stunning. I climbed the Harbour Bridge on a sunny winter’s day. That experience alone that made me want to live here.

2. In Sydney, I stayed in a Backpacker’s in China Town and concluded that there are loads of Chinese in Australia. Not wrong, but not based on the most thorough research.

3. I spent a week in Melbourne and concluded that the Southbank is like London, and the city beaches aren’t as good as Sydney. I plan to spend more time in Melbourne very soon.

4. I spent four days in Perth on a visa validation run and felt unnerved by this peaceful city. I wondered where all the people were and decided, until they’d been found, Perth wasn’t the place for me.

5. Finally, a key source of my insight into Australia came from the Aussies I knew in London. They taught that Australians like beer, watching sport, and like to drink beer whilst watching sport. Sure, this is a stereotype but it’s not wrong.

None of this exposure to the Aussie way of life is particularly practical, and I’m sure my summaries of Melbourne and Perth are far from accurate.

Australian Life Readiness Test

Once I arrived in Australia, my lack of practical knowledge caused me concern so I decided to get up to speed. Here are some of the first things I looked up upon arrival.

1.When do Australian seasons start\finish?

Summer: December to February, Autumn: March to May, Winter: June to August, Spring: September to November.

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