Lesson Learned: Three Things I Won’t Do Again

Apt wit in Amman, Jordan

The ideal traveller, as someone once said, is relentlessly curious and without fear.

Check for the former but not the latter.

I have far too many control issues to be one of those truly relaxed expats who takes everything in her stride.

 Ganesh mural, Mumbai, India

On your first expat posting, you forget more than you learn because there is so much going on. There are fish out of water moments at every turn. The second posting, you think you’ll be more in control, you’re a pro now, you’ll avoid the potholes and it will all be smooth sailing. By the third, you know better and have also learned to go [slightly more] with the flow.

Park keeper, Ritan Park, Beijing

This is what I know, now:

1. Do not believe that just because you’ve lived in India your stomach is invincible. A nasty bout of typhoid in Indonesia will cure you of that delusion fast. In fact, don’t try to “tough it out” or “acclimatise” with local water supplies or unpasteurised dairy. It will not work, no matter how long you give it. Eat street food but prepare for the consequences and understand that these may last for years. Poor Lauren has a post along these lines here.

2. Do not wait to get beyond the city where you are posted and explore as many parts of the country as possible while you can. Plan weekends away, day trips, explore interesting streets and paths whenever you can. You never know how long you are going to be in your post. There is so much of India in particular that we did not get to see because we were saving money to set up our new home together. This was important but it meant we wasted many of the opportunities we could have had.

3. Check every element of your expat contract carefully. In the buzz of the prospect of moving abroad this might seem tedious but it is naive to think that you and the employer (especially if it is not your employer but your spouse’s employer) have the same interests or needs. Some things to look out for include: previsions on weight restrictions for moving into and out of the country (more on the way out than in is ideal), a realistic rental allowance if you’re lucky enough to have this included, health insurance coverage (dental!!), provisions for what happens if the work contract is terminated (who pays for your move back to your country of origin? who deals with exit permits and processes?) and above all provisions relating to HR support both in the region you’re moving to and back at HQ.

Want to share your “I won’t do that again” travel moments? Link up with Emma, Kelly, Rebecca and Shikha!

Mechelen, Belgium

Things we learned on holiday

Apparently ‘obli-cations’, where you spend your leave doing administrative tasks or seeing people you feel you should see, are now ‘a thing’. Expats are pretty au fait with this sense of ‘how-much-can-I-cram-in’ when returning home.  This year, we did three things differently.

Just as well, considering we didn’t know then that we were about to be separated for a year.

First, to redress last year’s tilt in favour of time with Mr B’s family, we organised a week in Spain with my family. The first time we’ve all been away together since leaving home. And the first time with spouses and children in tow. Mr B is a patient man and it is important to balance time between our families. Life is too short.

And despite all the men in the family prophesying (since the planning started a year ago) that it was a terrible idea, bound to end in chaos and acrimony, we all had FUN. We drank a lot, we ate a lot, we were LOUD and silly, in the true tradition of the family. The children were spoiled and cuddled. We all loved beautiful Menorca, with its prehistoric monuments, gorgeous cities, fresh produce and some of the most stunning beaches in the Mediterranean. If you haven’t discovered this Balearic gem, go.

Secondly, on our trip [to his] home and, I admit, mostly as a result of my continuous complaints that we’re both missing out by letting obligations stand in the way of ‘our’ adventure time, we took a few days to be alone. With ageing parents, siblings and a wide circle of friends, we normally wear ourselves out trying to see too many people. This time, we focused on catching up with his best friend and those of his oldest friends who we haven’t seen in a while. It was awesome, an approach that really worked for us. It allowed us to spend real time focused on what matters: reconnecting. My favourite part? Learning new things about Mr B; the places he used to go, the times he sneaked out of the house.

And we got to spend time in the beautiful mountains of British Columbia. Always a bonus.

Thirdly, our Long Distance Relationship element that began at the end of the summer has meant a re-evaluation of our travel plans for the rest of the year. You never know when things are going to change. We’re unlikely to be able to return to Canada at Christmas which is bumming Mr B out.

Instead, we’re trying to snatch time together during his R&R breaks and thinking about new regions and new adventures over the course of the next year.

New start, new shoes

New start, new shoes

It is a tradition that started because of Mr B.

Buying a pair of fancy shoes to mark new beginnings. It’s literally me putting my best foot forward.

When I left my second job, it was to follow Mr B to India and get married. I used part of my last pay packet to inaugurate this tradition of buying shoes in order to prepare for the wedding. The other part I used for the dress itself.

When I left my, frankly hellish, posting in Jakarta, Mr B strongly encouraged me to blow the last pay packet on another fabulous pair of shoes during a visit to Hong Kong as a ‘pick me up’ therapy.

And a few weeks ago it was time for another new start.

And so I bought these.

Brussels Food Truck Festival 2014

Brussels Food Truck Festival 2014

Mr B and I took a gamble, weather-wise, and strolled along to the inaugural Brussels Food Truck Festival this weekend.

The festival coincided with celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Brussels region and signals yet another step in the slow transformation of the city becoming a modern metropolis.

The diabolical weather had not deterred a good crowd of mostly young residents, visitors and families from coming out to sample the various wares on offer. Mr B and I agree that it is cheating somewhat to have ‘frites’ on offer here in Belgium. That aside, the Mexican cantina attracted a steady crowd of North Americans and the Patatas Bravas truck (shaped like a potato) delighted everyone. There were bagels, thai food, soup, coffee, duck, an absolutely charming Piadina stand also offering good Italian wine and above all plenty of burgers.

For a first time festival, it was a good turnout, both in terms of the number of trucks and also in terms of the level of excitement generated amongst the foodies in the city. We really hope the Food Truck Festival becomes a regular fixture in Brussels’ ever growing number of city-wide celebrations. Only next year, it would be great if the organisers could find a spot with wider pavements or arrange for traffic to be halted completely. Oh, and some dry, sunny weather would be awesome too.

5 Things I Love About My Expat Life

Like all expat bloggers, I frequently return to variations on the navel-gazing question of ‘what have I learned from this posting’ and ‘what is the meaning of (expat) life? It’s almost an occupational hazard but no less interesting for it…if you’re an expat.

If you’re not, it’s very boring perhaps even vainglorious. Look away now.

Those of us who are expat bloggers strive to report and reflect on what we encounter in the realm outside our comfort zone.

To document and vent and seek advice when things are bad. To rejoice when things are fun and going well and the possibilities seem boundless.

It goes without saying that experiencing different cultural norms, learning languages, trying new foods and making new friends are cited as the best things about expat life. And with good reason. They are the very bedrock of expat existence: The Broadening Of The Mind.

Reading a travel briefing for those preparing to visit our offices in the US brought it back very clearly this week. I understood why my company explained it was not necessary to call those above you in the hierarchy ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ (India) or to use the first name of colleagues without honorifics (Indonesia), why some colleagues would need to be warned that upon receiving a gift Westerners would open it immediately (China) precisely because I’ve experienced these things from the other side…and all without getting the memo.

So, here are 5 things I love about my expat life:

1. The sense of starting over: I’m not yet at the point when I am tired of picking up and starting again. Since I was tiny I’ve been simultaneously drawn to the ‘new’ while being equally terrified of it. New beginnings are still fresh for Mr B & I. I don’t believe complete reinvention is possible (although there are plenty of expats that try). Each posting seems to bring a different element of your personality to the fore and to reveal something new. I believe that what you find is a reflection of something in the character of your host-country and above all the people you encounter. So, in India, it was self-confidence. In Indonesia, tenacity. In China, sociability. In Belgium, I’m experiencing a healthy sense of laissez-faire.

2. Distance from family: I’m going to call it. I enjoy this. Mr B cites this as his top reason to be an expat. I can’t imagine being one of those people who lives two streets away from their parents all their lives. As time passes and when things go wrong, this reverses to being the worst aspect of expat life but for the moment…

3. Gaining perspective: When the internet goes down I am frustrated with the length of time it takes Belgacom to rectify the situation and the lousy customer service that is the norm here in Belgium. After living in developing countries I’m accustomed to dealing with incompetent administrations but then I think back to those still living behind the Great Firewall of China or those in India who are not even literate…and I get over myself.

4. Travel: hands-down the best bit, especially once you’ve got beyond the ‘must sees’. Getting to explore cities and regions in-depth using tips from the expat community and local colleagues alike is wonderful.

5. Feeling special: Knowing that you are part of some mythical global elite….or is that just me?

Amanda at Life with a Double Buggy writes extremely well about the challenge of raising sensitive kids as an expat mum in the Netherlands and has set this link-up. If you haven’t had a chance, pop on over and add your own top 5 loves.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Dear Eurostar, part deux

Dear Eurostar, part deux

Dear Eurostar,

Well, it has been fun hasn’t it, the almost weekly to-ing and fro-ing we’ve had over the last three years? Alas, I won’t be needing you anymore. It’s time to move on. Oh, it’s not you, it’s me! A new job means my focus will be elsewhere. You’ll be fine, trust me. Something else is sure to come along. We both know you deserve better.

They say the mark of a good relationship is the ability to appreciate the time you’ve spent together and take away the lessons learned. So here goes.

Things I have learned in our time together and some words of encouragement, if I may:

  • Carriage 11 is closest to the escalator when boarding at Midi – this is good for those days when you forget your passport and have to go home again. And we both know there have been a few of those. You were very patient;
  • Those black buttons on the ceilings above the door to each carriage? They hold the door open for about a minute; handy when everyone is struggling through with cases to start a weekend away and it means no one panics when the door starts to squash them (but oh how we laughed!);
  • If it is not blocked off, you’re right, it is quicker to go right to the end of the platform when arriving at St Pancras and take the second escalator down to passport control;
  • The ‘quiet carriages’ in Standard Premier are a great idea but the raucous laughter of groups of Flemish colleagues often shatters the peace. I think you secretly encourage this;
  • Speaking of the Flemish, I’ve noticed they often make fun of your Franco- and Anglophone train managers struggling with announcements in their non-native languages. We’ve always agreed this is rude. You won’t find the Brits doing this. We’re in awe of anyone tri-lingual. And besides, we’re more likely to be tutting quietly at the length of time it takes to get through the announcement, “that Calais is a short stop” in three languages. Sometimes, my darling, you do go on a bit;
  • Your sense of service has improved dramatically. Thank you. We can now gloss over that particular winter period in 2010 can’t we? I will miss your attempts to please and delight. I should have told you more often how much they were appreciated;
  • However, the furnishing of pain au chocolats at the breakfast service is still hit and miss. You really did disappoint me sometimes. There are mornings when an apple just doesn’t cut it;
  • You have, hands down, the best frequent traveller programme and I’m a member of quite a few. No block out dates for reward points? Genius. You deserve far more praise and recognition for this;
  • The sense of cameraderie in the London lounge on Friday nights is palpable, especially before holiday periods. Likewise the Brussels lounge ahead of the first train out in the mornings is blissfully quiet to allow us all to wake up. Thank you for that too. It would be handy if you kept the ‘take away’ paper cups out permanently by the coffee machine in the Brussels lounge, not just at breakfast. You see, we all need a little extra pep now and again and it does feel like a treat to carry a cup from the lounge and continue to enjoy it once in our seats;
  • Your newspaper and magazine collection in the lounge is unrivalled and one of the things I love most about you. You’re really very generous. I’ll miss being able to delve deeper into Belgian news and culture whilst simultaneously catching up on the latest gossip about Victoria Beckham and uncovering new eating spots in Brussels via your in-house magazine Metropolitan. You’ll be pleased to know that your sedate air has rubbed off on me. I no longer tear out pages from your magazines (shocking, I know) but capture them on my iPhone instead. And you said I’d never change.

This is it then.

Look after yourself.

Namibia, with the in-laws {Travel Tuesday}

Namibia, with the in-laws {Travel Tuesday}

Just over a year ago Mr B asked me if I’d give up our plans to take our honeymoon this year and take his parents on holiday instead.

In the lottery of life I’ve been incredibly lucky to end up with the in-laws that I have. They are kind, thoughtful, never interfere and have been supportive ever since Mr B decided to take a chance and move abroad despite missing him like crazy. Like most expats we tend to get home every two years or so and when you do, you’re acutely aware of the passage of time and parents slowing down. Since he was in college, Mr B has harboured a dream to take his dad on safari and his mum to the desert.*

This year, to celebrate the inspiring 50 years of happy marriage of his parents, we made it happen.

Namibia is vast, about 80% desert and a population of only 1.8 million, making it the second least-populated country in the world. It gained independence from South Africa in 1990, making it a young adult in global terms and with 1 in 3 unemployed it still has serious challenges ahead.

From Windhoek, we drove south for almost seven hours to the Namib Desert through the stark landscape to see the huge, glorious, red dunes for ourselves. Driving in Africa is not for the faint-hearted. Unless you have training in 4-wheel drives and experience, it is best to hire a local guide. We’d been lucky enough to get accommodation inside the national park itself and I’d recommend this. It means you can start morning drives very early and get into good positions with great light to see the sun rise. If you’re aspiring photographers like we are, this is unbeatable. If you want to take photos of the incredible night-sky in the national park, be aware that you will need to gain permission from the government in Windhoek (all national parks are under satellite surveillance!) This is easiest to arrange via a guide.

As well as the dunes and incredible salt pans, there’s an astounding variety of wildlife in the Namib: from meerkats, to ostriches, jackals and bat-eared foxes, orxys, fog-basking beetles, sociable weaver birds with their enormous nests and desert giraffes. Again, a well-trained guide is brilliant at helping you spot things that would normally pass you by.

Another must-do for the anniversary trip was a hot air balloon trip. Sailing above the desert with views for miles is unforgettable, well worth the expense and the ridiculously early start.

The bottom line is that my in-laws had a blast, despite the long flights, early starts and long drives. They’ve been married for ten times longer than we have, which is humbling given I often feel like a Remedial Wife. It’s truly inspiring to see how they still work as a team and still love to experience new places together. Being an expat means you miss out on so many events and aspects in the lives of your loved ones. Being able to share our love of travel over a couple of weeks was priceless, as was getting to know my in-laws even better. I’m so lucky my mother-in-law loves the planning stage of travel as much as I do! Namibia is truly beautiful and our trip to the desert only scratched the surface. We’ll definitely be back.

*Incidentally, his treatment of his mum and his friends is one of the things I love most about Mr B. His working seriously hard to turn a dream for his parents into a reality is just one of the things that makes him awesome. And for the record my mother-in-law believes that eldest + youngest kids are the best marriage combination. Result!

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