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.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

My best friend A is lucky enough to have a family apartment at Oostduinkerke on the Belgian coast. It is from A that I first heard about the dying tradition of paardenvissers, an ever-shrinking group of shrimp fishermen who still use horses to trawl for their catch. It is a tradition that can be traced back half a millennium and was once common not only in Belgium but also in the UK and France.

By 1968, there were only seven horseback shrimp fishermen left in Oostduinkerke, this number had risen to around twelve when they were recognised as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2013.

Being a bit of a sucker for quirky Belgian events, seeing the fishermen in action has been high on my ‘must see’ list for some time (the Ypres cat-throwing festival is also waaaay up there, roll on May 2015). Mr B and I had checked the timetable for this summer, only to be thwarted by his departure for a year-long project abroad.

Readers, the stars aligned and Mr B returned for a few days of R&R that coincided with the last outing of the season. The morning was gorgeous, one last shot at summer for this year. There is always something magical about having a day off when the rest of the world is working, isn’t there?

We decided to start at Koksijde, the amusingly named village just down the coast from Oostduinkerke, and strolled along the broad, golden sands hand in hand, feeling quite giddy with being reunited, albeit briefly, and the sense of pending adventures.

The UNESCO recognised shrimp fisherman of Oostduinkere, Belgium

The UNESCO recognised shrimp fisherman of Oostduinkere, Belgium

Clam diggers and horse lovers alike at the Belgian coast

Clam diggers and horse lovers alike at the Belgian coast

High tide markers, Koksijde, Belgium

At the Oostduinkerke end of the beach you’ll be able to see a small group of the shrimp fishermen working together (Alison at CheeseWeb has a beautiful account of her visit last year here). We, however, were lucky enough to stumble across a lone fisherman, well away from the crowds, surrounded only by his wife, a couple of clam diggers and shrimp fisherman working by hand…and a practically every seagull in Belgium.

Paardenvisser, a rarer and rarer sight in Belgium.

Paardenvisser, a rarer and rarer sight in Belgium.

We caught the paardenvisser as he emerged from the sea after his first run of the morning, unloaded his catch for his wife to sort and went back in for a second trawl, his feet hitched up high by the horse’s neck in the traditional way.

Fisher horse

Fisher horse

Hitched up & heading for the sea

Shrimp fisherman gears up

Horses scare me but this little fisher horse was a peach. So patient, and perfectly accustomed to wading along the water up to his neck, fearless in the face of the waves breaking around him.

Heading out to for the 2nd shrimp sweep of the day

It is an incredible sight and, I can’t help feeling, a much more sustainable way to gather the tiny, grey shrimp that Belgians love so much.

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.

On being a Remedial Wife (part deux) or No Housework for Expats

On being a Remedial Wife (part deux) or No Housework for Expats

It turns out that there is such a thing as ‘no housework day’ (thanks Non-Domestic Mama). I am all over it. I’ve cleaned for a living and it is hard, hard work. Drudgery.

Our expat life means that we’ve been able to pay people to clean for us while we were in Asia and now also here in Belgium, thanks to the ‘titres services‘ system (basically it ensures a minimum wage and healthcare for many low paid workers who were working ‘in the black’, outside the official tax system).

I know that makes me very fortunate. I work hard to ensure my whole life is ‘no housework day’, particularly ‘no ironing day’ which I loathe above all else. Now that we’re both working demanding jobs and travelling frequently, having someone whom we trust to come in and straighten things up, scrub the shower and iron is a necessity.

For the record, I don’t think expats should feel guilty about having some help around the house, even if they’re not working. If you’re setting up life in a new location, there is plenty to do and if you’re navigating unfamiliar territory in an unfamiliar language, it takes much, much longer than it should. Or you’re building a social life, a support network. Or you’re just enjoying yourself which must also be part of the expat experience.

I’m often asked where ‘Remedial Wife’ came from, what makes me a ‘Remedial Wife’. It is this: I like pretty things and I like my house to be clean and neat. I can often go the other way and get slightly obsessive about things that need to be done around the house (right now, how to clean a set of windows that are filthy but too high to reach even with a ladder).

I get zero pleasure from cooking (unless it is dessert and only then when I am in the mood) which I leave to Mr B. It is well known that I am pretty inept at laundry. Mr B had 3 shirts ruined one day in India when ‘stain remover’ turned out to be neat bleach. And to make matters worse I combined this with a wash that was too hot and shrunk said ruined shirts beyond all repair.

I am not one of those expat wives whose house looks like a magazine shoot, who is always incredibly dressed and groomed, who mixes cocktails and arranges flowers, never forgets a birthday and is never short on small talk.

Instead I’ve learned to become Mr B’s sous-chef and to clean up around him as he works his culinary magic. It’s a work in progress.

Life is too short. Happy no housework day!

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.