These are the good old days

St Johns churchyard, York Mills, Toronto, Ontario

When we lived in Baku, on days when life proved particularly challenging, such as the water or power being off for longer than usual, when loneliness and culture shock overwhelmed us or we pined for foods from home (broccoli, lettuce, Kraft Dinner), we would end our moaning with a wry smile and say “One day, these will be the good old days.” We laughed then, but over time memory is kind, and sooner than expected we looked back fondly at our life there, even the things we struggled with the most.

By the time we got to Egypt I was getting wise to this, particularly as I had realized that these assignments were very unpredictable in duration. I knew I had to make the best of every day there. So like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter I started consciously storing up memories, both good and bad. While bemoaning the dusty, broken and often totally absent sidewalks in what must be one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities, I took time to notice the beauty of the jacaranda trees and take pleasure in exchanging a “sabah el nour” with the taxi drivers at the end of my street.

Later in Dubai, life was much more comfortable, but I still took care to pause and consciously note a special memory. Sometimes it would be something beautiful, like Tai Chi practice on the breakwater, under a new moon with the waves gently lapping below us, and sometimes it would be something mundane, like my daily trip to the grocery store in the late afternoon just as the heat was abating. Either way, I knew that at some point in the future I would look back on that moment and say, those were the good old days.

I’m aware that what I’m extolling is called seizing the day (carpe diem), living in the moment, and is something that we all should be doing, no matter where we are. But for expats it’s important, particularly for those who are highly mobile and know their days in that particularly place are limited. Many of us try to pack our time full of exotic trips and special experiences, but it’s also important to soak up the everyday events, the little things that piece by piece make up the jigsaw of our lives.

Right now I go out to work 4 days a week. Each morning I walk to the subway through a pleasant, leafy residential area and pass this very English looking churchyard pictured above. It’s a beautiful walk, made all the better by the changing seasons, something I missed very much while living in the Middle East. I’m very happy in my job and have no plans to leave, but I also know that nothing lasts forever and neither will this daily ritual. So each morning as I walk, think and listen to the birds sing, I remind myself that these too are the good old days. Some things don’t change, even for repatriates.

4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well

Peeling back the layers on expat repatriation

Courtesy Stock Xchng

Maybe Steve Jobs was right and we can only connect the dots looking backwards.  At one point I would have said that I had no advice for anyone repatriating other than to simply hang on and get through it.  But now, looking back, I can see that there were at least 4 things that I probably did right, even though it didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time.



Leave well

We had more notice of this last repatriation than we’d ever had before, several months in fact.  This meant there was time both to say our farewells to people and places and start thinking about life back home.  Two essential elements of the RAFT model for transition.

Although I’ve never heard it recommended, I also found it helpful that we stopped off on the way back to visit with family in the UK.  That mini-break created a bit of a buffer between the two realities and landing in Canada didn’t seem like such a jolt.

Choose your destination wisely

We were fortunate that we were repatriating to a very multicultural and diverse city, our home in Toronto.  I’ve often said that I don’t need to travel anymore, because the world now comes to me.  Rubbing shoulders (quite literally on my subway ride to work each day) with people from all around the world makes me still feel connected to a much wider world. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances who have repatriated to small-town anywhere suggests that the cultural adjustment is much more difficult.  Something to think about if you’re planning to retire to a rural utopia.

Look inward

Bizarre though it sounds, signing up for Twitter and LinkedIn, when I first returned was a really valuable exercise.  At the time, my intention was simply to learn about this new social media phenomenon and find myself a job, but in hindsight coming up with the required summary/brief description of myself, compelled me to think long and hard about who I had become while living overseas and what I wanted for my life going forward.

Don’t sever the expat cord

I believe that one of the reasons there is so little written about repatriation is that many repats feel they must close the book on being an expatriate.  Even though I claim that I’m a ‘forever expat’ I admit to feeling occasionally that maybe I’m just a sad ex-expat to still be writing about my experiences.  But I know that it’s been helpful to my adjustment to acknowledge and celebrate my expat life rather than pretend it never happened.   A life lived in many countries is part of who I am and that’s never going to go away.

Even though I’ve talked about how little my international experience was valued when I was interviewing for jobs, it was someone in my international network who referred me to my previous position and on several occasions I’ve been able to connect people across the globe.  Staying connected on social media with those you met overseas can have valuable practical benefits as well as social ones (subject to the usual caveats).

It seems we only become wise after an event.  Four years have passed since we returned to Canada and every year I’ve blogged an annual “state of the nation” about my adjustment, each one peeling back yet another layer of the onion.  I wonder when, or even if, the adjustment will be complete?

One more thing I would do differently …

Portable CareersI need to add one more thing to my list of things I would have done differently and that is to read (and re-read regularly) A Career in Your Suitcase which has just been republished by it’s original author, Jo Parfitt, and her new collaborator, Colleen Reichrath-Smith.

If you read an earlier version of Jo’s book, as I did, then don’t think you can skip this new edition.  It has been completely reworked and updated, and Colleen’s contribution as a professional career consultant is considerable..

This book should be mandatory reading for any accompanying partner and I hope HR departments and relocation companies are stocking up on copies, to hand out to the families they work with.  Most first-time expats don’t realize the long-term impact that relocation can have on careers and identities, but this book provides the tools you need to assess, plan and monitor your future life path.

I particularly like the holistic definition of career which is used (adopted from the Canadian Career Development Foundation):

  • Our life path
  • The many roles we play along our life path
  • The process by which we become the authors of our own futures and the creators of our own life stories

I also like the pragmatic “this is how you do it” exercises to help you identify not just your skills and interests, but also those which you can realistically hope to use in your present location, given language, work permit and logistical hurdles so often encountered by expat partners.

While many assume that a perfect portable career is self-employed, working from home, I’m pleased the book now gives equal weight and advice for those seeking regular employment and/or freelance assignments, with plenty of up-to-date advice about networking both in the real world and online.

Jo’s earlier editions were aimed primarily at the partners of those who are relocated internationally, but with Colleen’s input, I would now recommend this book to anyone seeking a career change.  In fact it struck me while reading it that there are now many similarities between the careers of expat partners and Generation Y.  Take this quote, for example from a recent article in Forbes Magazine:

“What do you do?” used to be a simple question. Individuals defined themselves by profession: teacher, engineer, pilot. Or by company: Con Edison, NASA, Kodak. But it was always one job, one identity.

Today’s young professionals, however, aren’t as easily categorized. I still can’t figure out what to prioritize on my LinkedIn profile. I am a journalist, marketing consultant, and co-partner for an Internet company. All are equally important to my identity. And my Millennial-aged peers find themselves in similar situations. I don’t know any Millennial who self-identifies using only one “job.” 

Asking an expat partner what she does is pretty much like asking a TCK “where is home?”  The response is usually at least a sentence, if not a paragraph.

A Career in Your Suitcase is very much a workbook, with the emphasis on ‘work.’ It’s filled with detailed exercises and links to online resources as well as detailed bibliographies for each chapter.  Although I downloaded it first as an ebook, I have now gone back and purchased a print edition and would recommend you do the same.

Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 2

IMG_0423Day 2 of the conference I decided on a slower start which unfortunately meant missing out on that day’s Early Bird discussions over breakfast.  I arrived just in time to grab a coffee and something to eat during the announcements before heading off to my first session.

As I chose Eva Lazslo-Herbert’s presentation entitled “Living Whilst Surviving.”  I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but I’d heard rave reviews of her keynote speech at the 2012 conference.  Born in Transylvania she has lived and worked her way across Europe acquiring languages, in the way most of us gather stamps in our passport.  Using her own family history, she spoke to us about their resilience (both emotional and moral) in living through wars, forced relocations and even prison camps.  It was very personal and very moving.  Just some of her wise words:

  • The only thing that defines you, is who you think you are
  • Live in the moment
  • Don’t forget, but do forgive
  • Be independent, think what can *I* do?
  • Give back
  • Love the child you have, not the child you want
  • Stop the glorification of busy

From there I moved on to a very hands-on session with Rachel Yates, entitled “Family Focused Assessment in Relocation Planning.”  I’m not a visual or artistic person and was at first a bit skeptical of her approach to needs assessment,  using posters, images, glue and scissors.  Divided into groups at large round tables, we quickly got over our inhibitions as we imagined ourselves as a family moving to Kenya.  As we put together our poster vision of what our lives would be like, we quickly realized we were having meaningful discussions over not just housing (would we live in a glamorous villa or a cramped high rise?) schooling but also what would day-to-day life look like and how much time would we really spend on safaris and lying on tropical beaches?  It was a useful and instructive exercise and a great tool for getting the whole family involved.

My last session of the day was with Elizabeth Liang, a TCK actress and actor on the creative process for writing memoirs.  She took us through a series of writing exercises, which I know worked for many in the room, but if I finding writing hard here on my own at home, doing it in a room full of strangers is totally impossible.  But she did provide is with a detailed hand out and one of these days (yes, really) I will try it all again.

All too soon we reassembled in the main hall for the closing of the Conference.  Ruth Van Reken introduced the closing keynote speaker Leila Buck, who was to speak on the topic of goodbyes.  She gave us an amazing performance, combining suspense, tragedy and humour, describing her hasty departure from Lebanon in 2006 when fighting broke out with Israel.

Having made my own goodbyes I reluctantly headed by metro to the airport.  Unlike many who attend, I don’t make my living working with expat families, but this organization feeds my soul, and I know I will keep returning.

Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 1

IMG_0411As always the Families in Global Transition conference sparked a lot of ideas in me, including ideas for future blog posts, but to start with, here is some straight reporting on the conference itself.

One thing everyone comments on about FIGT is the friendly atmosphere.  Those of us who arrived the night before met up in the hotel lounge and it was impossible to tell who was a newcomer and who was an old-timer as the small group quickly fell into animated conversations over drinks and snacks.

You will never be short of something to do at an FIGT conference.  Even discussions over breakfast are organized by topics of interest to the community.  I hosted one such “Early Bird” on HootSuite, one of my favourite social media tools, which morphed into a short workshop when I found most people at the table had never used it and wanted to learn.  Other topics were Parenting from Afar, Close Neighbours (moving to a neighbouring country), Uplanned Repatriations, The Multicultural Self, Setting up an FIGT Affiliate and Adult TCKs/CCKs.

As soon as breakfast was over the conference was officially opened and we were entranced by Pico Iyer, the keynote speaker for well over an hour.  He is one of that rare breed of successful authors who are also eloquent speakers.  Modest, humorous and very perceptive he rolled from one engaging anecdote to another, all pointing to his central theme that even in our increasingly connected world the distances between us remain and in some instances seem to be increasing.

During the break prior to the first session, I headed straight to the bookstore.  Is it just me, or are more and more good expat books being published every year?  The photo above is of the authors who attended this year’s conference and books by many more were available for sale.

For my first session I chose “We Are a Family Case” presented by researchers Debra Miller, Dr Rebecca Powell and Becky’s cousin, Abigail Thornton.  The write-up sounded a little dry, but the topic of adult Third Culture Kids was of interest and the session itself didn’t disappoint.  Research on Becky Powell’s extended family was the topic, comparing those who had been mobile with those who hadn’t and how they formed and maintained relationships.  Fascinating stuff as I really enjoy content that is based on solid research.

After a buffet lunch (excellent food this year!), we gathered in the main ballroom for a new feature in 2013, 7 Ignite sessions.  Similar in style to short TED talks, these presenters were strictly timed to 6 ½ minutes and I’m hoping their presentations will soon be up on YouTube, so stay tuned for the link.

For my second session I chose Building Cultural Intelligence with Trisha Carter, an Intercultural Psychologist who had travelled all the way from Sydney, Australia.  Having followed her for quite a while via Twitter and her newsletter, it was a thrill to meet her in person.

By now my knees were seriously knocking as I was presenting a third session on expat blogging.  Not only was this my first time as an FIGT presenter but the conference microphone I’d requested for my Skyped-in panelist, Maria Foley, had failed to materialize.  Fortunately the rest of my panel of expat bloggers, Linda Janssen, Norman Viss and Rachel Yates didn’t so much as blink at the prospect of huddling around a spindly desktop microphone so that Maria could hear their contributions.  Expat resiliency won the day!  A post dedicated to this presentation will follow soon.

Sorely in need of a stiff drink, I headed off to the last event of the day, an evening reception and was delighted to find that both the drink and canapés were complimentary.  I have to admit that I’m no good at mingling in large groups, but again the organizers had planned an image-matching activity to help us break the ice and meet new people without feeling intimidated or foolish.

Buoyed by the warmth of my favourite expat tribe and not having fainted with fear during my session, I headed off for dinner with friends.  More about Day 2 in a future post.

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.

Do you have an expat escape plan?

Baku fire“Get out, the building’s on fire!”  What would you do?  What would you grab?  How many of us have given that serious thought, much less planned for it?

When we moved to Baku we were advised to always have a wad of cash on hand (in an easily convertible currency) in case we had to leave in a hurry.  This was 1996 and incoming BA flights diverted to avoid flying over Grozny, just the other side of the Caucus mountains and Azerbaijan itself had only relatively recently signed a truce with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

We called it our “running way money,” and we kept it under the ice cream in our chest freezer, the only place in the apartment with a lock and key.  One thousand dollars of cold hard cash (quite literally) in new bills.

Fortunately we never had to evacuate for security reasons.  In fact Baku turned out to be a very safe place to live, but there was a morning when we did have to get out in a hurry.

At 6am one Tuesday morning we woke to a loud pounding on our door.  A quick glance through the peep hole revealed my American neighbour, clad in her nightgown.  “The building’s on fire, we need to get out.  Now!”  I could already see tendrils of smoke drifting up the stairwell and the alarm in her eyes told me this was serious.  I shook my son awake (he’d sleep through WW3).  My husband grabbed the passports and the running away money.  I grabbed my jewelry roll in the bedside drawer together with our coats and we headed out the door.

The source of the smoke was an electrical fire in a single storey garage attached to the back of the building.  Hardly surprising given the poor state of the wiring (click on the photo to enlarge it and you’ll what I mean).  In fact it’s amazing we didn’t have fires every day.  You’ll be glad to hear it was extinguished before it did any damage to the main building and soon we were able to return to our apartment and get on with our day.

But this episode highlighted for me the importance of always knowing a) how to exit my home quickly and b) exactly what to grab and take with me.  We started keeping everything in one place (passports, money, important documents), together with a bag we could quickly scoop it all into.

While this is good policy for anyone, it’s particularly important for expats.  Passports usually contain your residence visas and important documents issued in your home country may be impossible to replace without showing up in person.

Present day technology, including cloud storage and mobile devices has given us many more options for keeping things safe.  Documents can be scanned, photos, music, videos and even books can be digital and stored online.  My mission in 2012 was to make my life as paperless as possible and I’ll be sharing some of my favourite tools and experiences in upcoming posts.