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.

The new expat reality

I’ve read quite a few articles over the past year about “alternative” expat assignments and other ways to do more with less when it comes to relocating international staff.  It’s not only about cutting costs but also a response to the increasing complications of expatriate life – dual career couples, children with special education needs, aging parents.  So I’m happy to see that several sessions at next month’s Families in Global Transition Conference will be addressing these new trends.

Diane Endo, who lives in both the US and Japan, will be talking about Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners.  Several of my friends have commuted while caring for elderly relatives in different countries, and I’ve also lived it, with my husband working away while I stayed home with my son who was finishing high school.  It’s not an easy, or cheap, option, but can be a solution for many families.

Expat Light Trend & Partner Support by Jacqueline Van Haaften will look at the trend toward less generous expat packages and how the need for partner support can still be met.  This will blend well with Doris Fuellgrabe’s talk on Choosing the right expat support services for every budget, which will be an opportunity to learn what kinds of support is available.  Participants will be encouraged to share their personal experiences.

Of course you can always start your own expat support service, just as Anne Copeland did with her International Writer’s Club and the Adjusting to Life in Brookline program run by Liliana Busconi, Andrew Miser and Mindy Paulo.  On a larger scale, Maaike Le Grand will explain how The World Bank Family Network provides support to over 500 families using volunteers to supplement minimal full-time staff.

In total there are over 70 (yes more than 70!) different sessions relevant to everyone from the senior corporate executive to the missionary kid, ranging from up-to-the minute academic research to the latest movie about Third Culture Kids.

It’s good to see that this year’s Conference will again be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the expat world, bringing together all the stakeholders to share what works best and pool their knowledge.  It’s a conference which is primarily educational and always inspirational to those who are, were or work with globally mobile families.  Why don’t you come and check it out?

The little school on the Caspian

Looking back, it seems incredibly rash, or perhaps just naive, but we accepted our first overseas assignment to Azerbaijan not knowing if there even was a school for our son, let alone what kind of school it would be.  The career opportunity for my husband and the adventure for our family were just too good to pass up.  “Heck, I can always home school,” I told myself; “he’s only 9.  How hard can it be?”

Fortunately a small international school had been operating in Baku for 18 months.  When we arrived we found there were a total of 12 students, ranging in age from 6 to 12, a mixture of expats and the children of wealthy locals.  It was located just outside the downtown area in a large walled compound used for training the national soccer team.  The school itself was housed in a couple of crumbling outbuildings and had access to a dilapidated gymnasium and a stagnant swimming pool.  But the jewel in the crown was a large grass playing field surrounded by trees which was the nicest outdoor space I ever saw while living in Baku for those 3 years.

What the school lacked in physical facilities was more than made up for by a dedicated staff of American expatriate teaching staff, supplemented by local staff who taught music, physical education and foreign languages.  Dr and Mr Davis were the school principal and head teacher and Ginger their dog accompanied them every day to school.  He’d lie patiently under the desks during class waiting for a mad half hour of running around excitedly when the children went out for recess.

Every September school arrived in a box, quite literally, in the form of a shipment of supplies from the States.  Not just brand new text books and multi media materials, but everything right down to binders, exercise books, pencils and erasers.  At that time Azerbaijan had only been independent from the Soviet Union for a couple of years, former trade had broken down and it was hard to find anything at all in the stores.

The toilets sometimes blocked and power failed frequently, often resulting in early dismissal in winter.  The science room (you really couldn’t have called it a lab) was nicknamed The Far Side Cafe as the older children had decorated the walls with Gary Larson cartoons.

Most of the children were dropped off and collected by drivers and every afternoon they would gather, chatting under the trees outside in good weather, but in winter they would wait inside in the reception area cum dining room, looking like big black crows perching uncomfortably on the small brightly coloured plastic chairs.

Looking back I realize how fortunate we were to find such a gem of a school.  The teachers and students quickly became our extended family and despite the grim surroundings my son blossomed in their care.  He arrived reading 2 years below his grade level, but within 6 months had completely overcome that and couldn’t wait to get to school on test days.  In the three years he spent there he learned how to learn and his self esteem soared.    I am forever grateful to that great little school.

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A Great Job for a Trailing Spouse

I took a hiatus from blogging due to several recent events, most of which are fodder for future blog posts.  The first one being that I’ve started a(nother) new job.

I’m working as a Relocation Specialist for a company which provides destination services.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term it relates to the receiving end of the relocation process.  My job is to help new arrivals in Toronto find a home, schools and daycare, acquire their government documents and generally show them around the city and their new neighbourhood.  It’s part-time, contract work which means I’m self-employed, work from home and get paid by the assignment.

I’m amazed I didn’t think of this job before but put it down to the fact that a) we’ve never been provided destination services by any of the companies who relocated us, so I only vaguely knew such a thing existed and b) my stupidity on not viewing my hometown as an “expat destination.”  I found this job through a referral at the FIGT conference (thank you, you know who you are!) so again would like to plug the importance of networking when job hunting.  In fact the woman who hired me says she ONLY hires via referral which I thought was rather interesting.

While I’m probably a perfect candidate for the job – my former life in real estate in Toronto means I know the city well and having been relocated myself so many times I have a good understanding of my clients’ situation – in reality I’ve found it quite a learning curve.  So at the moment I’m investing a huge amount of time researching everything from how to get a government health card for an infant who’s not a Canadian citizen, to night clubs and restaurants for young, single professionals.  Not only have many things changed in Toronto since I last lived here, but some things I never needed or experienced.  So far it’s fun, interesting but also a bit scary as I’m expected to be a seasoned Toronto expert and yet I still feel far from it.

A destination service specialist/consultant is a great job for any trailing spouse as they’re needed pretty much anyplace you find expats.

Pros

  • Flexible hours
  • Not stuck in an office
  • I’m learning lots about my city

Cons

  • Workload varies and therefore income varies
  • Dependent on someone else finding work for me
  • Tiring if driving around for a full day
  • Some weekend work (although I can decline it)
  • Business calls can be at any time
  • Working alone

Requirements

  • Knowledge of the city you live in
  • Willingness to learn and research
  • Strong people skills
  • A 4-door car
  • Computer, printer, cell phone

In my former, pre-expat life, I was self-employed as a real estate appraiser, so in many respects the job and lifestyle are similar.  However for anyone used to working regular hours in an office it could be quite an adjustment.  My biggest problem so far is missing the interaction with colleagues because I’m working from home.  I probably need to find some kind of local networking group, but if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

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Thank Goodness It’s Thursday

It’s Thursday but it feels like a Friday, or rather what I mean to say is, it feels like the start of the weekend.  That’s because in Dubai, Thursday IS the start of their Friday/Saturday weekend.  It took a long time, many years, to adjust to Sunday being the start of the working week and I never did figure out whether mid-week was Tuesday or Wednesday.

To make matters worse, when we first moved to Dubai in 2000, the official, government weekend was Thursday/ Friday, which meant the schools were closed on those days.  However many companies, including the one where my husband worked, took a Friday/Saturday weekend so as not to be out of touch with the rest of the world for too long.  Confused yet?  I sure was.  It was tough for families because it meant the weekend really lasted three days, but yet we only had one day all together.

Fortunately the government eventually changed their weekend so everyone was on the same schedule, but it still took me a long time to adjust.  Even now in the Middle East there are many people who work a 6 day week, or even a 6 ½ day week, taking only Friday morning as time off for religious obligations.  The idea of a weekend is still a relatively new concept.    

I did finally felt comfortable with the Islamic week but now I’m back in Canada it’s taking me a long time to adjust back.  So, for now, TGIT !  :)

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Families in Global Transition Conference 2010

I’m way overdue a blog post or two on the Families in Global Transition Conference which I attended for the first time earlier this month.  I’ll write in more detail on some of the topics which particularly interested me, but to start with here is a quick overview of the three day event.

  • I was very impressed with the quality of both the speakers and the participants.  Many had seriously professional qualifications and significant expat credentials in terms of the countries they had lived in.  In other words, they knew both the theory and the practice.
  • The various sectors were well represented – corporate, military, missionary, diplomatic, education, academia, relocation, coaching and a good number of accompanying partners/trailing spouses like me.
  • All the sessions were professionally put together and presented.  Participation was encouraged and many of the conference delegates also contributed valuable information and experience.
  • Everyone was just as friendly as I had been led to believe.  All the speakers were very approachable and willing to share the content of their sessions.  Many had detailed handouts.
  • I got to meet two of my expat heroes for the first time – Ruth Van Reken and Robin Pascoe – both autographed their books for me.
  • A surprising number of people were, like me, attending for the first time.  This tells me that this is an organization which is growing – always a good sign. 
  • The conference itself was very well organized.  There was a wide range of topics and things moved quickly; definitely no time to get bored!  Group sizes varied – some sessions had all 200+ of us together in the main ballroom, some were in groups of about 20 or 30 in smaller rooms and some were in intimate circles of 10, sitting at a round table.  This encouraged a variety of participation levels, which was refreshing.
  • There were several social opportunities which encouraged people to get to know each other on a personal as well as a professional level.

In summary, I enjoyed it immensely, felt I learned a lot and will definitely return next year, when it will be held in Washington, DC.  Maybe they can persuade Obama to speak about life as a TCK? ;-)

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Good News for Expats

Three things I’ve seen on the internet today suggest that expatriate numbers are on the increase.

  1. International Tuition Services is reporting increased enrollment at international schools in Hong Kong
  2. ISC Research is also reporting increased enrollment at international schools in China, India, Indonesia and The Netherlands
  3. ExpatWoman is tweeting about record numbers at their newcomer coffee mornings in Dubai

Is the economy rebounding or are companies that reduced their expatriate staff now finding they cut too deep?  Either way it’s good news for expats.

Social networking for expatriates

GlobeThere’s an interesting thread that has really taken off this month on a new site for expatriates called Inter Nations.  It’s a social networking site, a bit more formal than Facebook, but not as business focussed as LinkedIn. 

I’ve no doubt that when Global Coach Margarita Gokun Silver started the thread, asking about the most common issues faced by expats, she expected maybe half a dozen replies at best.  To date the thread has over 60 responses and almost 1,000 views!  It’s a fascinating window into the expat experience with contributions from people all over the world.  Some are career expats, some are immigrants, some are TCK’s.  If you read through the comments there’s bound to be something that will resonate with you.  Here’s a taste . . .

There are some really interesting comments here, particularly about TC-kids. I’m British, met my Greek husband in Germany and we are now bringing up our children in Greece. They were born in Germany, but are clearly foreigners there. They have never lived in the UK, but feel a definite affinity to the language and culture. They love living in Greece – but do not expect to work here as the culture is still foreign to them – after 3 years. I always thought they were quite privileged having such a background – but sometimes I wonder whether they will ever have a real “home”.

How about expats being expected to answer for the decisions of their home governments?

Well I am not moving from one country to another on the regular basis but have moved once from Russia to Canada and must say that I overestimated my abilities to adapt when I was making the decision to move. It has been over half a year and I still feel the tense being involved in those little conversations you have to keep with cashiers at stores.. LoL

In order to access the site you need an invitation to join, so if you’ re interested, please contact me through Twitter or my About me page.  I’ll need your full name and email address in order to issue you an invitation through the website.

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Life as an expat kid

KidsThe 2009 Expat Youth Scholarship Recipients have just been published.  It’s a creative writing and media contest inviting TCKs between the ages of 12 and 18 to share their experiences living in a foreign country.  Six $10,000 scholarships were awarded and you can see them here

Not only is the standard of the submissions extremely high, but they are also deeply personal.  Here are a couple of clips . . . 

I saw the world through different eyes. When there were bombs in Lebanon I saw the pain in my friend Stephanie’s face. When children in Chechnya were held hostage, I worried about my friend Tamila. I cared about the politics in Portugal, the fighting in Serbia and the riots in Greece because I had friends who lived there. Bethany Turley, 17, Home Country: United States, Expatriated to: Belgium 

I could not understand my teachers or my classmates. Their words flowed past me, and I would try to listen, but I could never quite hear anything. For half of fourth grade, unable to talk or to comprehend, I was locked away in my own, lonely little world.  Yichen Zhang, 18, Home Country: China, Expatriated to: United States 

One thing stands out and that is all the authors feel that living in another culture has enriched them.  For me, the level of their maturity is striking.  I’m married to a former expat kid and am mother to another, so I know their lives aren’t always easy but I have yet to meet one who regretted the experience.

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Living abroad is good for kids

Paper dollsDo children benefit from living overseas?  Most British expats seem to think so.  A new survey just out from the British bank NatWest and the Centre for Future Studies says 67% of British expats believed their children had received better education abroad and a resounding 93% thought expat life had benefitted their children. 

Our family’s personal experience would echo this.  My son had just turned 9 when we first went overseas and he was educated in 5 different schools, in 4 different countries (including our home, Canada).  To be fair, the overseas schools he attended were all private, very expensive and full of middle class children, so I have no doubt those factors had the most impact on the quality of his education, rather than the fact that they were overseas.  However the experience of living overseas, that is the education he got outside of school, was priceless and will no doubt affect him for the rest of his life.

For example, while living in Azerbaijan his daily chore was to take out the garbage to the huge rusty bins located in our apartment complex’s inner courtyard.  He came back one day and told me a boy of about his age was picking through the garbage looking for something to eat.  From then onwards we carefully separated any edible leftovers, worn clothing or broken toys.  Yes, he had seen poverty on the news and Discovery Channel, but this kind of up-close-and-personal encounter left a deep impression on him.

Even though we came from Canada’s most culturally diverse city, the kids he met overseas were different.  Immigrants to Canada all want to “become Canadian” and while they may retain some of their heritage, they do change.   Living in a country where you are the foreigner and must adapt, is a very different experience.  I think it has given him (and us) a much bigger world picture.  

Anyone who’s interested in reading more about the impact of expat life on children should research the term TCK (Third Culture Kid) and check out some of the links on my resources page.

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