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.”

Not where I should be

I should be at the Families in Global Transition Conference which is starting today, but I’m not.  The reason I’m not there is because I picked up the phone to speak to my medical insurance company after reading about recent incidents with Canadians who’d traveled to the US and ended up with huge medical bills as a result of not understanding their policies.

Now I’m the first to admit that insurance policies are right at the bottom of my reading list. But the helpful woman at the other end of the phone explained that because I’m currently undergoing tests, my coverage won’t extend to some potentially very expensive medical emergencies.  So even though my doctor assures me I’m well enough to travel and in all likelihood I’m healthy as a horse, I could be putting my family’s financial future on the line.  So very reluctantly I cancelled at the last minute.  My apologies to my many friends and colleagues who are shouldering my responsibilities in my absence.

To say I’m frustrated and disappointed is the world’s biggest understatement, but I’m not writing this for your sympathy.  I want to alert you to this ‘loophole,’ which I’m told is a common, even on policies like mine which advertise that they cover you for pre-existing conditions.  I shiver to think about past incidences where I may have traveled unwittingly without coverage.

Rachel Yates at Defining Moves just posted a few days ago with a useful checklist about healthcare for expats, and I’d like to add my tip about checking with your insurer if you have seen a doctor anytime in a 3 month window before you travel.

I’m well aware that this is a privileged expat whinge.  Millions of people don’t have healthcare insurance even in North America, and millions more all over the world don’t have access to healthcare treatment at all.  Despondent though I am at missing this annual get-together with bright international minds, I am thanking my lucky stars for who I am and where I am right now.

Water, water everywhere . . .

“The only reason there isn’t more bacteria in the tap water is because you can’t fit any more in it” said the doctor in the only western medical practice in Baku when we first arrived.  Water, the lack of it and the cleanliness of it, dominated our lives when we first arrived in Azerbaijan.  At that time (1996) bottled water wasn’t available so my husband’s company provided us with a small distiller, which produced about 3 or 4 gallons a day if we ran it 24/7.  It was just enough for drinking, coffee, tea and mixing up the powdered milk we used.

Bath water was a whole other issue.  We faced daily water cuts, often in the evenings, so we’d scramble to get dinner cooked, eaten, dishes washed and everyone clean and into their pjs as quickly as we could.  We didn’t always make it and sharing one tub of bathwater between three of us became a common occurrence. We lived with buckets of water (just in case) standing around the apartment and if a friend called to cancel a trip out because “the water just came back on” we quite understood.

When we moved to Cairo 4 years later bottled water was easily available but we struggled with the water pressure in the taps because we lived on the 8th floor.  A shout of  “mafeesh may-ya” (no water) down the intercom to the bahwab (doorman) would usually result in him kicking the pump into action, but still the shower oscillated between freezing cold and scalding hot every few seconds, invigorating but not very enjoyable.

We arrived in Dubai at the height of summer, with temperatures in the high 40s.  “There’s something very wrong with the plumbing,” I announced to my husband, as I emerged from the shower looking like a boiled lobster, eyeing the steam rising from the toilet bowl with suspicion, “I think they’ve got it all hooked up backwards.”  Later I discovered that most buildings had water storage tanks on the roof and in the summer the temperature of the “cold” water supply was hot enough to boil an egg.  Expats already in the know explained I needed to turn off the hot water tank inside my apartment, let the water cool to the air conditioned indoor temperature and then simply reverse the taps I used; use the hot tap for cold water and vice versa.

Today is World Blog Action Day and the topic is Water.  One thing I learned from living overseas is that water is a precious resource and one we take too much for granted in the developed world.  Not only should we conserve it but we should work towards providing everyone with a clean and easy accessible supply of it.  We’re not there yet.  If you check out the Blog Action Day page there are various ways you can support the UN’s efforts to bring clean, safe water to millions globally.

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Walking to Work

When choosing a place to live in a new country, we always made “walkability” a priority.  In all our expat home-from-homes I was able to do most of my day-to-day activities and shopping on foot.  It was a huge advantage and it’s now something I recommend to any newly-arrived transferee as I help them transition to life in Toronto.  It helped me to:

  • Keep fit
  • Stay safe in cities with some pretty wild driving!
  • Reduce stress
  • Save money

And also

  • Instantly feel independent
  • Get my bearings quickly and easily
  • Meet neighbours and local business owners
  • Feel “at home” much more quickly

The first list may be the most obvious, but it was the second list that had the most impact on me. There’s something about seeing a new place as a pedestrian (rather than insulated inside a car) that makes you feel more connected, less intimidated and generally empowered.  Now when I arrive in a new place, even as a tourist, the first thing I want to do is get out and pound the pavement.

I recently realized that since repatriating I’m not walking as much as I used to, even though I still live in a very walkable neighbourhood here in Toronto.  It’s not just because I have my own car but also because I now do a weekly grocery shop at the local mall and no longer need to step out every day to buy something for dinner.

The weather has suddenly turned from humid to crisp and sunny, vacations are over and everyone is back at work, so September seems a great time to be making a new resolution.  Mine is to walk to work.

As I work from home the idea of walking to work may sound a little strange, but I figure the easiest way to incorporate a daily walk into my routine is to walk around the block every day before I get down to business.  I’m also hoping it will serve as a valuable transition and stop me from spending half the morning doing household chores before I sit down to work. (Hmmm, it remains to be seen how effective THAT will be!)

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Expats and Elderly Parents

One of the other things which took me away from blogging for a while was a sudden and unexpected trip to the UK to visit my father-in-law.  He’s 86 and has been unwell for a while.  My husband’s brother was so concerned a few weeks ago that he called us to suggest we make our annual visit as soon as possible.  Needless to say we dropped what we were doing and hopped on a plane a couple of days later.

I guess it comes with our age, but many of our expat friends are now dealing with elderly parents who are ill, frail and generally needing assistance but are located oceans away.  One good friend spent 6 months of each year back home in order to spend more time with her elderly mother.  Eventually she moved back to the States full time to nurse her through her dying days.  Another friend visits the UK every 6 weeks from the Middle East to support her mother and father through a terminal illness.  The best situation I came across was a woman in Dubai who had brought her mother to live with her and her husband.  Despite being much older than most other expats her mother loved it and had quite an active social life.

Recently Apple Gidley, who was a keynote speaker at the last FIGT Conference, wrote a touching article in The Telegraph about her inability to return home for her father’s funeral.  She makes the point that these days it is much easier to travel home but that can be a curse as well as a blessing.  It’s wonderful to know we can just jump on a plane when a loved one needs us, but that also creates a huge obligation, which generally falls on the shoulders of the trailing spouse.

In a recent discussion on LinkedIn, Melissa Hahn had some great suggestions on how to cope, based on her own experience:-

As someone who is currently repatriated due to a family illness and an aging father-in-law, I suggest that everyone have a well-thought-out action plan before a critical illness strikes. Share this plan with your family abroad and back home, and consider having concrete answers to the following types of questions: At what point will a family member switch gears to care-taking back home? Who will be responsible for what tasks, like coordinating with doctors and Stateside family?

Additionally, building a notebook with the the frail family member’s medical history, all doctors and medicines, etc. is very helpful. Make sure that your family fills out HIPA forms so that you can speak with their doctors personally while you are still abroad, especially if your family back home are less than diligent about sharing the details. Consider using googledocs to share medical records so that you don’t feel disorganized and can maintain a sense of control.

Ultimately, there are no easy ways to deal with this, but practical steps can mitigate the stress and help you better focus your energy.

I would emphasize her advice to have a plan of action if either you or your spouse has elderly parents.  Look at your siblings and be realistic about not just who ought to help care for them, but who has the means to and who is likely to be willing to.  And as an accompanying spouse recognize that you may be called on to do your part. Bear this in mind when planning your life overseas, particularly if you have young children or plan to work.

Oh and just to end on a brighter note,  we found my father-in-law in good spirits and so far he’s holding his own.

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The Importance of Expat Girlfriends

“Men come and go. But after age 50, a woman should have five good girlfriends,” says Maxine Harris from Texas.

The support women feel from girlfriends “steadies me and keeps me going,” says Susan Dougherty of Anaheim, Calif.

I can remember being in my apartment in Baku, looking at some garbage stuck  in the leafless trees outside my window, and feeling very alone – husband off to work, son at school and me left behind, wondering if this was how it would always be.  And then the contrast when I made contact with a group of expat women who met once a week for a “stitch ‘n bitch” sewing group and suddenly I was surrounded by camaraderie, close friends and a feeling of “belonging.” 

I’ve often heard newly arrived women say they’ve had to fill out a form asking for an emergency contact, and suddenly had a gut wrenching moment when they realized they knew no one.  In Dubai I started running a weekly coffee morning for an organization called ExpatWoman, which quickly grew from just half a dozen of us to a group of 40 or more, completely taking over a local coffee shop once a week.  A multinational mixture of newcomers and long term expats, it always gave me a thrill to see a woman arrive, visibly nervous and shy, and by the end of the morning she’d be exchanging phone numbers and arranging to meet up with the women she’d been sitting next to.

No matter where I’ve lived as an expatriate, once I’ve found a good friend, the friendship has deepened quickly.  It is as if we knew we didn’t have the luxury of time because we might only be there for a year or two.  Having someone to share the frustrations of settling in and homesickness has been the best cure for culture shock. 

The two quotes at the beginning of this post come from an article about people finding love after 50, but they reminded me of how important my expat girlfriends have been to me while living overseas.  I think they hold true no matter what your age and are doubly true if you’re an expat.  The girlfriends I have made have been one of the best things about being an expat.

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Expats and Climate Change

Blog Action Day 2009Today is Blog Action Day.   This is an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking discussion around an issue of global importance.  This year’s topic is Climate Change.

I must admit that a lot of the time I don’t think my life as an expat has been very climate friendly.  Over the last 13 years I’ve spent far more time on an airplane than I ever did before and most of the time I’ve lived in places where there was no organized recycling.  However we have at least always managed to be one car household, mainly because the standard of driving in the places we’ve lived is bad enough to keep anyone sane off the roads!  I’ve achieved this by always opting for accomodation within walking distance of most of the places I need to visit on a regular basis. 

Watching how others lead their lives has sometimes been instructive.  When we first arrived in Azerbaijan I shopped for my fruit and vegetables at the local bazaar.  No plastic bags were on offer, so like everyone else I purchased a sturdy, reusable straw bag from the lady who sold them near the entrance and learned to shop in the correct order.  Potatoes and onions first, at the bottom of the bag, green vegetables and then soft fruit on top, so it didn’t get crushed. 

In Egypt I remember witnessing two donkey cart men outside our apartment building having a fist fight over someone’s cardboard packing boxes.  Recycling was obviously taking place, but not in public view and presumably they fetched good money somewhere.

The UAE has just started a recyling program and stores are trying to curb the use of plastic bags.  Not before time, as local camels have started to die in alarming numbers due to ingesting plastic which blows around their grazing areas just outside the cities.

Now back in Canada I see that traffic and air pollution have increased while I’ve been away.  Despite a very good public transit network, people still love their cars.  Recycling has reached an artform here, with huge bins for everything from styrofoam trays to compost issued to every household.  I’m sure it makes some feel virtuous, but for me the huge fridge-sized bin I fill every two weeks with recyclable materials just emphasizes how much stuff I buy only to throw away.  On the postive side though, we’re still a one car family, for now at any rate.

There’s a growing concern around the world about pollution, environmental issues, climate change, call it what you will.  Those in the developing world are just starting to adopt the bad habits we in the west are now trying to give up.  On this, Blog Action Day, I urge you to tread lightly on the earth and set a good example to your neighbours.

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Say “Yes” to Everything

FriendsOne of the most daunting things facing an expat is arriving in a new country and not knowing a soul. At first you’re busy settling in, finding a place to live, opening bank accounts, buying a car – but at some point you’ll find yourself sitting on the couch and wondering “now what?” Or maybe your child’s school asks you for an emergency contact and you suddenly realize your sister or your best friend is no longer around the corner.

The best advice given to me by a fellow expat was “say yes to everything.” Coffee with the mums at the school gate? Tennis after work? A neighbourhood party? You may cringe at coffee mornings, hate exercise or freeze at the thought of a room full of strangers, but push yourself to go anyway. The activity isn’t important, but the opportunity to meet people is essential and, most importantly, you may not get invited a second time.

As a non-working trailing spouse I’ve been to countless coffee mornings, bridge parties, and craft groups, despite the fact that caffeine gives me hot flashes, I’m a lousy bridge player and I’m barely capable of sewing on a button. But I quickly discovered that the real purpose behind all these events is to get people together and that like me, other expats, were friendly and keen to make friends as well.

It’s unlikely that anyone will come knocking on your door, so it’s up to you to make the first move. Do your research, check out local websites, magazines and notice boards. Maybe you need to join a club or sign up for a class. Take up a new sport or volunteer for a good cause. One of the joys of moving to a new country, in fact one of the things you owe yourself, is the chance to try something you’ve never done before. So take your courage in both hands and get out there!

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Health Insurance

Sick in bedI’m following the current debate on US health care reform with interest.  Having grown up in the UK with it’s NHS system and then emigrated to Canada where there is something similar, I only encountered paying for visits to the doctor when I first became an expat.  I’ve been fortunate to have had excellent health insurance, but it’s still been a shock to see how it all adds up.  The year I had a back problem the cost of specialist visits, scans, physiotherapy, etc was truly alarming even though my injury wasn’t anything major.

Medical expenses can literally take you out financially.  Even though she was insured, a good friend found that the 20% co-pay for a life threatening illness she suffered while overseas was more than the value of her house back home.  She and her husband had to delay retirement as a result.

It’s therefore surprising how many expats don’t seem to take health insurance all that seriously, shopping for it primarily on the basis of cost, rather than coverage or relying on holiday travel insurance policies from home when they’re resident abroad.  Even if you’re from a country like the UK where health care is “free” in the event of an accident or serious illness you may not be fit to fly home for days or even weeks, and when you do, you may not be immediately eligible for coverage. 

So what’ s important when shopping for health insurance?

  1. What’s covered, what’s not.   Hospital care usually is, but what about normal visits to the doctor, tests the doctor may order and prescription drugs?  What about physiotherapy, eye care, dental and annual checkups, mammograms, vaccinations, etc?
  2. Medi-vac (medical evacuation).  This is important if you’re living in a country where medical facilities are not that great.  I once knew someone who had to be flown out to have a broken leg set, as local x-ray facilities were not considered safe.
  3. Pre-existing conditions and other exemptions.  This can be a real killer.  Most policies for individuals will not cover pre-existing conditions although some may do after a year or two, providing they haven’t re-occurred.  If you suffer from a chronic condition like diabetes it can have major implications.  I just read a story about American expats who are stranded overseas because of they can’t get coverage back home for conditions they’ve developed as expats.  Usually the only way around it is a company or group policy, as they generally do cover pre-existing conditions immediately.
  4. Is the coverage 100%?  Many plans require a co-pay, in other words covering less than 100% of the cost.  This may or may not have an annual limit, after which everything is 100% covered.  Accepting a co-pay may be a good way to reduce the premium if you’re paying for the plan yourself, but it may turn round and bite you on the bum as it did to the friend I mentioned earlier.

Finally remember that although some plans will pay the health care facility directly, generally you will have to pay and claim it back later.  This can often take a few weeks, so remember to keep some funds or a credit line available to cover such unforeseen expenses.

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