Evernote for Expats

evernote_twitter_profile2I’m a scheduler and an organizer.  I’m one of those people who has to have not just a Plan B, but Plans C through Z.  They’re my security blanket.  Once I know I have all my bases covered I’m willing to take all kinds of leaps of faith, including moving halfway across the world to place I can’t even find on the map.

I’m also a bit of a geek, and looking back I’m amazed at how I managed so many moves without the aid of the tools I take for granted today.  One which I’ve fallen in love with over the past few months is Evernote.  It’s cloud based (although you can download it to your computer if you have the paid, upgraded version) and is a way to store information so you can access it on any type of computer, tablet or smartphone.

I registered about a year ago, took a quick look, but couldn’t see an immediate use for it, so left it alone.  Perhaps you did too.  But recently I started using it at work and quickly realized that this could be a powerful tool for expats.

Evernote’s tagline is “Remember everthing” and that truly is what it’s about.  It’s strengths are the many types of information you can store in it (text, emails, pdfs, photos, web pages, bits of web pages, photos, sound files, videos…) coupled with the ease of putting that information into Evernote and finding it again when you need it.  Let me give you some examples.

I’m going to the Families in Global Transition Conference next month and no doubt will be meeting lots of new people and picking up a lot of business cards.  As soon as I get home I throw them in a desk drawer, along with all the other cards I’ve been meaning to enter into my contact list.  Three months later I’d like to contact someone.  But what was her name?  She worked for a relocation company in New York didn’t she?  Where are those cards?  Frantic rummaging ensues.

Using Evernote I just whip out my smartphone, open the Evernote app, take a quick photo of her card and hand it back to her.  Three months later I open Evernote search for “New York” or “relocation” and Evernote searches for those key words – including the text on her card as well as anything I may have hand written on the card and I’ve found it.  Instantly.

Another example.  Imagine I’m apartment hunting in Dubai.  I have 2 days of appointments set up with several different real estate agents.  I set off in 450 heat, armed with a notebook and camera (I’m organized, remember).  At the end of the second day I sit down with my damp and crumpled notebook, filled with notes like “#1505 blue, no “unreadable scribble”, laundry, Bella, 130K”.  The photos would be helpful if only I knew which apartment was which.  Did that great view go with the one with the hideous bathroom or the one with the dark kitchen?  And who the hell was Bella?  What did I do with her card?

Using Evernote I could leave the notebook and camera at home.  All I need is my tablet or smartphone.  My only preparation is to create a “notebook” (file folder) in Evernote for each property I plan to see.  For each one I

  • snap a photo of the agent’s card
  • snap a photo of the building from the outside and the number on the apartment door
  • take photos inside the unit and of the view
  • make a short voice recording of my impressions of each property and the answers to any questions I ask the agent

At the end of the 2 days I’ve got all my information automatically organized into individual notebooks and am ready to make a decision.  Better yet, I can instantly share those notebooks with my spouse who (of course) is out of the country on a business trip.

Imagine how great this would be for school visits.  In addition to photos and audio notes,  I could prepare by clipping bits of the school website and putting them straight into Evernote from my browser.  The email they sent confirming my appointment I could forward straight into the relevant Evernote notebook.  The pdf attachment?  That’s there too.  All in one spot, easy to access anywhere I’ve got internet access.

Copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, academic certificates?  Scanned and stored in Evernote, ready to print out or email whenever and wherever I need them.

Starting a shopping list for the next home visit?  Photos, clipped web pages, or even just hand written notes, all stored in one “Home Visit” notebook and tagged (yes you can tag notes, just like blog posts) with, say “drug store” or “grocery store” for example.  Everything will be there on your phone, just when you need it.

Now are you starting to see why I’m a fan? And no, I don’t work for Evernote or benefit from promoting it.  I just think it’s really useful, particularly for expats.

Online Support Groups: Facebook

546230_60701028In my last post about the Online Coffee group, I mentioned that they also had a Facebook group. It was set up to a) promote the online chats and b) continue the conversation in-between.

Facebook groups are a excellent way to provide free online support for expats.  Why?

  • A large number of expats are on Facebook. 
  • Groups can be ‘open’ (totally public, anyone can join and all posts are visible) ‘closed’ (an admin person grants access and only members can see posts, but someone searching FB can find the group and read its official description) or ‘private’ (similar to ‘closed’ except it cannot be found in search)
  • No matter what the settings, groups “feel” more secure and friendly than FB pages, so conversation flows more freely
  • Posts in groups are more likely to appear on your Home Feed than pages you’ve liked, so they are more visible to members, thus increasing participation
  • Apart from the Expat Partners Online Coffee group, I also belong to the Toronto Newcomers Club FB group, which is restricted to club members only. They have a lot of real world activities, and the FB group represent less than half the members but it offers useful location-specific support such as, “where can I buy…” “have you seen this exhibition… “here are the photos from yesterday’s event …” Some relocation providers and companies set up groups for transferring employees, which sounds like a good idea, allowing families to ‘meet’ prior to departure and exchange information with those already on location.

Search for “expat” on Facebook and then select “Groups” from the left hand sidebar to narrow it down and you’ll find literally hundreds of groups, some with a handful of members and some with thousands.  But if there’s still nothing to meet your needs, why not start your own?  Technically it’s very easy, but there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Choose which kind of group will serve your needs (open, closed, private)
  • Decide who will be eligible to join
  • Create some guidelines for posting and publish them in the group as a document, it may be obvious to you that it’s not appropriate to promote your cousin’s business, but someone’s gonna do it! 
  • More than than one admin is highly recommended. Quite apart from sharing the responsibility, I once deleted myself accidentally and needed someone to let me back in!
  • Someone needs to monitor the group at least once a day, every day
  • At the beginning you need to “seed” the group with posts, images and articles to generate discussion. 
  • Similarly, like and comment on posts to encourage participation

Facebook groups can be a useful tool for offering friendship and mutual support. They work well for people with a shared interest who are separated by distance and also for those who meet face-to-face regularly but still want to connect in between meetings. Just remember to step away from that screen every now and again :)

Expat Partners Online Coffee

After a blogging hiatus that lasted longer than I intended (work, vacation and the ups and downs of life got in the way) I’ve got my mojo back and want to tell you about a very recent online expat support group called the Expat Partners Online Coffee.

It began as a result of a chance remark at the end of an online chat with Global Niche founders Anastasia Ashman and Tara Agacayak and a group of online trailing spouses/accompanying partners/call-us-what-you-will.  We’d had a good conversation about the challenges of expat life and wanted to continue the conversation. Why not a virtual coffee morning? I asked.

Evelyn Simpson, Louise Wiles and I decided to run with the idea and hosted our first online chat in March.  Needing an online space to gather, we started a Facebook group, and since then have held monthly online coffee mornings (or tea, or wine, depending on your time zone).

Each month we set a topic for the conversation, and sometimes we’ve had to continue the topic the following month, as there’s been so much to say.  Although some in the group are professional trainers and coaches, many of us are not.  We are just expat partners, coming together as equals, to share experiences.

The platform we’re using is GoToMeeting, which you may be familiar with. You can access it via the Internet or by phone, using one of many toll-free numbers.  We tried using a service that included video, and it was great to be able to see people as they spoke, but too many of us had problems with the video causing Internet connectivity problems.

Many of the people on the calls have been people I follow online, either through their blogs, their Twitter accounts or on Facebook.  To finally talk with them in real time has been fascinating; it’s amazing how much more information you get through the spoken word.

We’re not going to save the world, or substitute for professional coaching or real world friendships, but so far they’ve been fun, informative and stimulating.

If you’re free next Friday at 8am EST, 1pm in the UK, then do join us for this month’s topic which is ‘Mindset. How does it affect you and your assignment? Can you change it? How does it affect those around you?’  The details are here and the Facebook group, if you’d care to join, is here.

There’s a special place in hell for expats …

… who don’t help other expats.*

When I first moved to Azerbaijan in 1996, the online world was in its infancy, and although the company provided us with practical help (housing, school, shipping, etc) there was no orientation or cultural training. I was on my own. The first expat women I met were wives of my husband’s colleagues working for his company. Another mother of two of the western children at my son’s school was working at her embassy. I frequented the handful of stores catering to westerners and never saw another western woman. In the end I assumed there probably weren’t many non-working expat women like me. Many afternoons were spent staring out of my apartment window, happy my husband had a good job, happy my son was settling in school, happy to be having the adventure of a lifetime, but desperately lonely.

When I learned that an expat neighbour (also working) belonged to an international women’s club I asked her how to join. She said she’d enquire but came back and told me they weren’t accepting new members at that time. I was devastated. Later I learned that the club had a byelaw about maintaining a balance between local vs expatriate members  and that for a while they suspended taking new members. To this day I don’t know which is worse, that a club for expats should ever close its doors to new members, or that my neighbour didn’t at least offer to introduce me to some of the women outside of club meetings.

Five years and two countries later, I found myself in Egypt. By then, I was a much more experienced and self-confident expat wife.  I thought I knew the ropes.  I joined a thriving expat community centre, took language classes, joined craft and bridge groups, volunteered at my son’s school, did everything to put myself out there and meet people. And while I certainly met lots of people and had a busy life, in the year I was there I never found a group I really wanted to hang out with, or someone I could truthfully call a friend.

Four months after arriving in Azerbaijan a new child arrived at the tiny international school. His mom, a veteran expat wife, quickly sussed out where the other women were getting together and soon I had a circle of not just expat but also local friends, some of whom remain friends to this day.

After a year in Egypt we were transferred to the UAE and a kind company wife immediately phoned and invited me to join a craft group, which became a springboard to all kinds of friendships and opportunities. I never looked back.

These experiences, good and bad have left me forever aware of the importance of support for expat spouses. It needn’t be complex or expensive and sometimes it’s best left to the spouses themselves.  Back home now in Canada and working, I have less time to devote to real-world expat groups and yet I’m finding new ways to connect online. Next example of successful online support groups, coming up ….

*Adapted from Madeleine K. Albright’s quote “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Expat support groups: Forums

(Sorry if you’re receiving this by email for a second time.  I goofed and hit the Publish button before I was ready and then for some reason the post disappeared altogether on the blog.  That’ll teach me to talk to my husband and blog at the same time *sigh*)

If a measure of success is longevity, then the ExpatWoman forum has to high on the list of online support groups for expats. When I moved to the Dubai for the second time, Jane Drury had just launched her website http://www.expatwoman.com (not to be confused with Andrea Martin’s successful website http://www.expatwomen.com).

Jane was a trailing spouse who following her arrival in Dubai had collated a huge amount of information, for fellow corporate spouses and then realized this information was too valuable not to share with the wider world. She launched the website in 2001 and soon found herself overwhelmed with emailed questions about life in the rapidly growing Gulf state. A forum was added to the website and I was one of the early participants, soon answering as many questions as I asked.

In time the website and forum covered the whole Gulf region and these days there are almost 10,000 active members usually with 150-200 people online at any one time and posting every few seconds. Topics vary from the mundane – where to buy grocery items – to the poignant – how to deal with a failing marriage – and everything in between. Although the language of the forum is English, many nationalities are represented and it’s THE source for information for those planning a move to the region as well as those already living there.

Unlike many expat support groups, ExpatWoman is a commercial business. However it has the feel of a volunteer organization and definitely takes its service role seriously. It makes its money from advertising on the website and limited sponsorship of its real world events. As the business has grown so has its staff, predominantly women, and many of them working part-time. I started working for EW just 2 hours a week in 2005 and gradually worked my way up to a full-time position as Events Manager, but as with all small businesses I turned my hand to many tasks, including moderation of the forum.

So what has made this online forum so successful?

1. It’s complemented by a comprehensive website. Anyone looking to learn about life in Dubai (as opposed to tourism) will find their way to this website. Over time it has become an authoritative source of practical information.
2. It’s also complemented by real world events, although it’s important to note that many forum participants never attend events and many who attend the events don’t participate on the forum.
3. The real key to its success, in my opinion, has been a moderation policy which ensures a friendly and helpful tone. As someone who has worked behind the scenes I am well aware of the time this involves. For EW it’s a team effort as the online world runs 24/7. Posters on the west coast of the USA are just starting to post their questions as would-be expat Aussies are hitting the sack.
Maintaining the right tone involves much more than deleting rude comments and spam. It involves creating a safe place where there are no “stupid” questions. Many forum users are not just first time expats, they are also new to the online world, and tart responses, text-speak and “in” jokes can easily intimidate.

What particular benefits does a forum offer over other online communication?

1. Anonymity. The number and regularity of sensitive topics discussed shows that anonymity has its advantages. Posting questions about marital abuse, troubled teens, job loss or even just the embarrassment of loneliness are all good reasons not to want to use your real name.
2. A large volume of posting doesn’t present a problem.
3. Forums usually have a search facility and separate boards can be set up for popular topics to further clarify and define discussions.
4. Moderation can be done easily and precisely. Conversation threads can be precisely edited rather than entire discussions removed and all information lost.
5. A lot of website platforms have a forum option or if you’re willing to tolerate advertising there are many free stand-alone forums out there which require no hosting at all.

In the online world ten years is a lifetime and these days forums are generally considered “old hat.” However the fact that this one continues not just to prosper but to grow demonstrates that they still have much to offer.

Can you recommend any other expat forums?  I’m very slowly working on a project to upgrade the Resources section of the Families in Global Transition website and would love to add your links.

A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

“Great, let’s do it!” was my reaction when my husband phoned to tell me about a job he’d been offered in Azerbaijan. As soon as I’d hung up, I reached for the atlas to see where on earth I’d committed to go. I knew Azerbaijan was a former Soviet republic and had a vague idea about its location but that was all. My next step was a trip to the local library, where I found 2 books about Azerbaijan, both looking something like this. I didn’t expect they’d tell me much about my future life there as the spouse of a western expat, and I was right.

Please note, I’m talking about atlases, books and libraries. This was 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy. These days a Google search on Azerbaijan returns 298 MILLION results; Amazon over 2,300 results in books alone. I would have loved to have that information if it had been available at the time, all those blogs, websites and forums.

I’m planning to write a series of posts about successful online self-help communities for expats.  On my own admission I’m a computer/internet/social media junkie but before I begin, I want to issue a warning.

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the availability of online information has been a boon to the average expat family but it can be a double-edged sword. Too much information is a very real problem these days, as is over-thinking your decisions. At some point you must take a leap of faith combined with a positive attitude.

Secondly, spending too much time in the virtual world rather than the physical one can hinder your integration. I know, I’ve been there, having spent far too much time holed up at home with my laptop when I first repatriated.  Connecting online can help you make new friendships and foster old ones, but while it may facilitate, it can’t replace face-to-face, real world relationships.

I’ll leave you for now with this TED Talk by psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, who expresses far better than I the positive and negative impact the internet has had upon our lives.

An Insider’s Guide to the FIGT Conference

A recent blog post by Rachel Yates about her fear of attending an Families in Global Transition Conference got me thinking about the first one I went to in 2010.  Like Rachel I was daunted by my fellow FIGTers.  They all seemed so well qualified and successful and there was I, recently repatriated, unemployed and feeling pretty useless.  I’d never attended a professional conference before and had no idea what to expect.  So I have every sympathy for Rachel’s nerves and would like to share what I’ve learned since then.

It’s far friendlier than you’d expect.  At the last conference, Anne Copeland conducted an informal poll to determine our expatriate and intercultural experiences.  Everyone in the room stood up for something and one thing was clear, we all knew what it means to feel you don’t belong.  David Pollock described FIGT as the “biggest reunion of strangers”  and no matter who I sat next to, striking up a conversation was easy.   One tip, if you arrive the night before the conference begins, the early arrivals get together for dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Join us, it’s fun and by the time the conference starts you’ll already know a few people.

What the hell are Kitchen Table Conversations?  They’re a nod to the genesis of FIGT around the kitchen table of Ruth Van Reken.  For two one-hour periods a couple of rooms are set up with large round tables seating 8-12 people.  Each one is labelled with a topic and led by a presenter.  You pick one, and for 15 minutes listen to a short presentation and discuss the topic.  It’s then time to move to another table (and another topic) for the next 15 minutes.  Allowing time for all the moving around, you attend 3 Kitchen Table conversations in an hour.  They are fast, noisy and not everyone likes them for these reasons, but they’re a great way to get a quick overview of a topic, meet and hear a lot of presenters.  For those who’d rather not, there are Kitchen Table Alternatives – 2 one hour sessions – usually something creative and/or hands-on.

Dine-Around happens on the Friday night.  This is a free evening, not included in the conference program, but if you don’t know anyone well and don’t want to eat alone, sign up early in the day at the registration area.  There will be a selection of restaurants to choose from and at the appointed time each group with gather at the hotel and leave together, often on foot.  If the restaurant is willing, we ask for separate checks.

Early Bird Sessions are informal conversations over breakfast.  As you come downstairs in search of coffee you’ll see that the breakfast tables are labelled by topic.  The food is buffet style, so grab a plate, take a seat and join the discussion.  There is no formal presentation, but each table is moderated by a volunteer to ensure everyone stays on topic and gets a chance to speak.  There’s no need to stay at one table, so feel free to dip your toes into several conversations if you wish.

By now you’ve probably realized the schedule is VERY intense.  I’m usually flagging by the afternoon of the second day and by the end of the conference I’m exhausted.  It’s my own fault because I can’t bear to miss anything, but if you’re someone who needs quiet time to reflect, take some time out to be on your own and don’t feel you have to attend everything.  Browse the bookstore, take a walk or collapse in your room.

This year, I’m presenting for the first time – just a Kitchen Table conversation – so nothing too scary but already I’ve got butterflies.  It’s amazing to realize how far I’ve come in just two years, thanks in large part to support and knowledge I’ve gained by attending this unique conference.  And all because I replied to a tweet …