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

While you were gone: October

Like Alice’s white rabbit, I’m running late.  Before 2015 gets too old, I’m posting in catch-up mode; a little photo diary to show Mr B what has been happening. And perhaps prove to myself that I’m doing OK back here too.

One of the ‘benefits’ of being in a Long Distance Relationship is the time and freedom it gives me to travel. I do a lot for work but now that you’re away, my weekends have become empty stretches that I fill by exploring Brussels itself and catching up with friends.

In October:

  • I took a spontaneous trip to Cologne one evening for dinner;
  • Went up the BT Tower and was treated to gorgeous views across the city and a freaky sensation when the Tower began to rotate;
  • Had a weekend in beautiful Paris – a chance to revisit well-loved monuments, wander Montmartre, discover suburban life and experience a Halloween cabaret featuring dead French and international singers (a lot of fun);
  • Saw autumn produce emerge; Brussels always seems to go mushroom mad at this time of year!

I missed you.

Wanderlust 2015: Travel Dreams a Plenty

A year never turns out how you’d expect, does it?

2014 was not at all what we thought it would be and the uncertainty looks like it will continue into this year, with Mr B  working abroad while I stay put in Belgium.

It’s not all bad news, I was lucky enough to visit three new countries last year. We also got to dip a toe into the Middle East where Mr B is posted, a completely new region for us both. It goes without saying it’s a part of the world with a huge amount of history with which we’ve been trying to get to grips. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can get back there again.

Mr B’s posting disrupted almost all of our travel plans (and our lives!) last year so this year we have two goals: try to see as much of each other as possible while maximising our leave and to get serious about savings. The savings goal is going to be challenging as we tend to prioritise travel over pretty much everything else – we figure we work hard and we love to explore new places but this year we will try to be more disciplined…

Asia/Australasia: Burma/Myanmar is still top of the list but in reality it is just going to have to wait as life pulls us in a different direction in 2015. Mr B has added Vietnam to his wish list, somewhere I’ve already been but a country that has changed dramatically since I visited.

India, I have been pining for you so much recently. You are still in my heart and I hear you calling. Perhaps 2016?

North America: We definitely want to get to Mr B’s home next year for Christmas. His poor mother is heartbroken we had to cancel our plans last year. I can’t wait for another taste of her amazing Christmas cookies and to chop down the family tree at the Christmas tree lot [for Brits it is just too cool that you can do this, with actual snow for added wow factor]. It’s highly unlikely we’ll get to do our planned mini road trip in California (boo) but we have a great deal in New York from all Mr B’s travel points that we REALLY hope we can take advantage of before the summer.

Africa: Ethiopia, never fear, you are still there, tempting me at the top of my list. Sadly my pending *ahem, large* birthday trip to Sierra Leone has been abandoned with the ongoing health crisis in that part of the world. Mr B is still dreaming of seeing the migration across the Mara.

Middle East: *new addition!* We loved Jordan last autumn and would like to go back. Jerusalem is now also vying for our attention, as is Oman. If my visa comes through next week, Saudi will be a destination, albeit one I never thought I’d see.

South America: Oh Belize and Chile, you are still there, don’t worry. My friend A is also doing a hard sell on Cartagena having returned from Christmas there. It is, she assures me, where all the cool kids are going, “on the upswing to trendy” she reports. You heard it here first.

Closer to Home/Europe: With all the crazy unpredictability of 2014, A and I did not get our weekend away to Italy. This year we WILL. If the finding of a date that works and planning KILLS us, I don’t care. We’re going. Florence remains in our sights. Jess on Thames, with her spontaneous trip to Seville has opened up another avenue of travel lust for a city I have wanted to see for a long, long time.

I want to get back to explore more of Mechelen and Antwerp. And crazy Belgian festivals are always fun, there are a couple I have my eye on during the months ahead. And it is the 200th anniversary of Waterloo this year. And Mons is the European Capital of Culture. It’s all going off in Belgium in 2015….

Happy 2015, may the road rise up to meet you!

Thanks to Emma, Kelly and Rebecca for the Linkup!

//Grand’Place Brussels, Christmas Lights 2014// Sacré Coeur, Paris// Poppies, Tower of London

//Petra, Jordan// Strasbourg// Cologne Cathedral// Brown Lake, B.C // Mahon gin // Amman, Jordan

// Cuitadella, Menorca// Koksijde fisherman, Belgium // Mechelen, Belgium

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.

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.

Are Expats Born or Made? My thoughts

If you haven’t already done so, you should read the interesting piece by Aisha Ashraf who argues that expats are born, not made. [Incidentally, if you haven’t read her blog before, you should. Her conversion to Islam makes her world view particularly interesting.]

I tend to agree with her. I think there are people who are born curious. Who get itchy feet on a regular basis. Who are innately bored by the boundaries of the world they are born into, both literal and in terms of other people’s expectations about what you should do with your life.

I also agree with her that even the most introverted, self-conscious and delicate amongst us can feel this way and still summon the courage to move out of their comfort zones, such is the pull of ‘the Other’ for us.

I still find myself surprised when I speak to friends who remain contentedly in my home town. They may have gone abroad once or twice after saving up. Some see it as a treat they’d love to do more often but know it is unlikely. Others have no desire to go again.

Likewise, I met a colleague last week who has been given a job in Africa I would give my right arm for but he is desperate to find an alternative that would mean he can stay local instead.

It does take a lot to leave family and friends behind. It takes a huge amount of adaptability. It takes a lot to trust; to feel that any relationship will be able to stand the challenges and stress and adjustment, especially in the period when you first arrive. It takes a lot to give up a career to move around and to redefine yourself.

But.

I fully believe expat life is addictive. We’re certainly hooked. Always searching for the next fix. The thrill of the new. The caché of being ‘different’ to those around you and yes, I admit it, of feeling ‘special’. The priviledge of learning for yourself about other cultures to an extent that goes beyond the normal glimpse you get on a holiday. If you’re lucky, the lifestyle that you wouldn’t be able to afford if you’d stayed put. The chance to reinvent yourself if that’s what you want and you still believe it’s possible.

So yes, expats are born but each adventure, each experience we have, each good that cancels out the bad is a reinforcement of the calling we feel deep down inside.