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?

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.

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.

Out of my comfort zone

Scan 11When I tell my friends that I’ve battled shyness most of my life, many of them laugh in disbelief.

I was the toddler who cried when the bus driver said hello to her and I earned the nickname of “Noddy” when I went the entire first semester of school not speaking to the teacher (I would just nod my head).  My mother often recounted the day I finally rushed home “Mummy, mummy, I SPOKE to Miss Dixon!”  “That’s nice, what did you say?”  “Yes, Miss Dixon” I said with pride.

Making friends for me was always a slow and painful exercise but was made much easier once I married a sociable extrovert.  However when we moved overseas, I suddenly found myself alone and friendless while he was at work.  My shy inner-child re-emerged.  Fortunately in most of the places we lived I found friendly fellow expats who reached out and drew me into tight and friendly expat communities.  In time, I felt comfortable enough to extend my own hand of friendship to newcomers and locals alike.

In Dubai I started hosting a weekly coffee morning for expatriate women.  For the first one there were 5 of us (all friends I had coerced to attend) but soon the group grew to 20 or more.  From time to time I had announcements to make, gulp, I was public speaking!

Looking for a portable career, I enrolled in the CELTA course to learn how to teach English as second language.  It was very intense, very hands-on, involving a lot of teaching practice.  To say I was petrified to stand in front of class of 20 Emirati college students is an understatement.  But I did it and I survived.

As a volunteer I got involved organizing the Terry Fox Run for cancer research. When I  took over as Committee Chair one of my responsibilities was to take the microphone at the starting line to thank all the volunteers.  As I looked out over a crowd of 12,000 people, my relief that we had a record turnout helped overcome my wobbly knees.

Each of these experiences was a valuable step along the road to overcoming my shyness and none would have happened if we hadn’t moved overseas.

This year I’ve been strong-armed asked to moderate a panel discussion on expat blogging at the Families in Global Transition Conference in March. Fortunately the panelists are well known to me, as (I hope) will many of the audience. Inside that little girl is quaking at the prospect, I just hope I can shut her up with cookies. :)

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.

Career choice and the Accompanying Partner

I try not to indulge too frequently in the game of “I wonder what would have happened if …” as I prefer to look forward rather than backward, but if someone seriously asked me what I wish I’d known then (before I became an expatriate) that I do know now, it would be about the existence of expat coaches.  Was there such a thing back in 1996?  I don’t know and even if there were, I don’t know how I would have found one back then, but now having met many both in person and through social networks, I can see it would have been helpful to brainstorm with a professional as I dealt with the transitions from country to country and through various stages of my life.

Two who I feel I know well through their blogs and tweets are Louise Wiles (Success Abroad Coaching) and Evelyn Simpson (The Smart Expat).  They have just launched a survey on the attitudes of accompanying partners of expats towards work and career.  Louise tells me:

The survey will explore the choices accompanying partners of expats make regarding whether or not they work as well as delving deeper into the reasoning behind each individual’s choice. Finally it will consider whether or not there is a connection between career choice and overall satisfaction with life.

We believe that understanding more about those choices will help accompanying partners with their decision-making in relation to international assignments and will also help organisations to more effectively direct the resources that they assign to supporting accompanying partners.

The survey is totally anonymous and participants are offered the opportunity of entering a Prize Draw as a way of saying thank you. Prizes include two coaching packages and two books.

To access the survey, click on the link 

All participants will be able to receive a copy of the summary report which will be available early spring 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

Expat Kitchens – the good, the bad and the ugly

Miss Footloose’s post on her bizarre new kitchen (and bathroom) in Moldova, got me thinking about the sheer number and variety of kitchens I’ve lived with while we were overseas.

The first one in Azerbaijan had a magnificent floor, and the cupboards weren’t bad, but the oven didn’t work and the fridge wouldn’t get colder than 13C in summer.  And let’s not talk about the cockroaches and those ghastly pink wall tiles which were covered with layers of grease when we arrived.

Kitchen number 2 in Azerbaijan was a huge improvement.  It was literally the apartment above the old one, so essentially the same layout, but soooo much nicer and with brand new appliances that actually worked!

Kitchen number 1 in Dubai was in villa and certainly was large enough.  But which bright spark decided on the white floor tiles?  With a constant trickle of sand blowing in under the ill-fitting door, all it took was a few drops of water to turn it into mud.  That floor was never clean for longer than 5 minutes (during which this photo was taken).

Our kitchen in Cairo was as lovely as it looks . . . apart from the complete lack of air conditioning.  The landlord told us we were supposed to have a maid to cook for us, hence no need for air conditioning in this room.  Unfortunately it was me who was literally sweating over a hot stove.

Dubai kitchen number 2 was the largest kitchen I’ve ever had.  It was so big that I never did fill all the cupboards and so some were given over to spare bedding and hobby supplies.  It had a great view facing west with some fabulous sunsets.

Dubai kitchen number 3 was a lot smaller, but open plan to the living and dining room, which I liked.  I hate being shut away in another room when I’m cooking as I like to be able to chat and socialize while I chop and stir.

Last one – kitchen number 4 in Dubai (yes, we moved a lot).  This was the smallest of all.  So small in fact that there were more appliances than cupboards.  It’s a good job the supermarket was only a 5 minute walk away as I really couldn’t store more than a day or two’s food at a time.

Interestingly, whether well or poorly equipped, large or small, I still managed to turn out pretty much the same meals without too much difficulty.  A valuable lesson learned, now that we’re contemplating renovating our kitchen in Canada because now I know that spending thousands on fancy layouts and equipment will do nothing to improve my cooking skills!

Frederick Moments

Expat life gives us lots of magical memories that you cherish always.  In our family we call them Frederick moments.  “Frederick” is the title of a classic children’s book by Leo Lionni, one of those books that children think is funny, but make parents reach for the Kleenex.  I can’t explain the story better than the summary on Amazon.ca:

While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the dreamer and poet, whose endless store of supplies warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Frederick moments are times like these:-

A picnic on the beach in Azerbaijan with my ESL student friends.  Typical western woman, I’d spent hours making salads and sandwiches which they looked at in amazement. For them a picnic meant everyone piling in a ramshackle car, a quick stop at the bazaar to pick up fresh fruit, cheese, bread and some soft drinks, and then a day spent alternately swimming, playing and chatting.  So relaxed and easy.


Telegraph Island, Oman.  On a weekend trip from Dubai, we took a Dhow (traditional wooden boat) trip off the coast of the Mussandam Peninsula, where the Arabian Gulf narrows down to the Straits of Hormuz.  It’s the site of an old telegraph station (hence the name) and supposedly sparking the phrase “going round the bend” for the poor souls posted to this desolate spot in 1865.

My friend, Helga (pictured here), seems to attract Frederick moments with her inquisitive nature and disarmingly simple charm.  Here we were exploring the summer Majilis of the old ruler of Dubai.  Cool and calm, it was an oasis in the hustle and bustle of that modern metropolis.

I now make a mental note of Frederick moments, bookmark and file them in a special place in my mental hard drive.  There are many which I don’t have photos for, and yet they are just as clear, if not clearer in my mind than those shown here. Everyone has these “stop and smell the roses” moments, but some of my expatriate ones are the sweetest.

Expatriate Time Travel

I didn’t expect to travel through time as well as space when we first moved overseas.  Yet that’s exactly what happened when I gave up my job moved overseas to Azerbaijan with my husband and 9-year-old son.  Not only did I move almost 6,000 miles I also travelled back 30-odd years to a time when mothers stayed home, cooked from scratch and met their friends for coffee mornings and afternoon tea.

According to the oft-quoted Permits Foundation survey, of the women who follow their men overseas 90% work before they leave, but only 35% work while they’re on assignment.  I willingly gave up working because at the time I was close to burn-out.  My husband travelled internationally frequently and often for weeks at a time, I had a child who was usually the last to be picked up from daycare yet had reached an age when he needed a parent to support him with homework, I had a house and a large garden to care for and no extended family for support.  So the chance for some time out was just as good an opportunity for me as the career move was for my husband.

I found myself in a place where convenience food didn’t exist, where people still shopped at the markets on a daily basis and no-one had heard of 24/7.  In other words, I became my mother, circa 1960.  It was a huge culture shock, quite apart from the fact that I was in another country.  Thank goodness I had the sense to bring my mother’s edition of “Cookery Illustrated and Household Management “ 1936 edition.  Although I’d often laughed at those instructions that began  “Draw, singe and truss a medium-sized turkey . . . “ I now welcomed the detailed instructions for home-made soups, stews and baked goods.

So what did I learn other than sage & onion stuffing and macaroni and cheese don’t have to come from a box?  Well I instantly noticed an improved quality of life for all 3 of us.  My son went from reading at a grade 2 level to a grade 4 level in less than 6 months.  My husband could enjoy 2 full days of relaxation at the weekends instead of running around with me doing chores.  And I caught up on 9 years of sleep deprivation, worked out on a regular basis, had time to explore my new surroundings and developed a wide circle of  friends.

Looking back, I can see that the volunteer work I threw myself into was an attempt to satisfy the professional working woman in me and I always cringed whenever I faced a form with the box every expatriate spouse dreads:  “Occupation.”  Yet it took a surprisingly long time for coffee mornings to wear thin and a genuine desire to return to the working world to surface.

I’ve just started a new job (my 3rd since repatriating 2 years ago).   Since returning home I’ve travelled forward in time to a place where many of my contemporaries hold high level, professional positions and my struggle to find a niche in the working world has not been easy.  My new position is part-time and not particularly well-paid or high status and yet I’m happy with it, for me, for now because it gives me the best of both worlds I’ve lived in.  I’m very fortunate that living overseas and “time travel” gave me the opportunity  to try out another way of living and the wherewithal to continue to do so now that I’m back.