Archive for March, 2009

The Expat Life: Is “Dreaming Big” The Only Option?

Posted on 31. Mar, 2009 by in Blog

Do you feel pressured to dream big, live big, accomplish big things?

Last week, I spoke to a client who was feeling sort of guilty for not accomplishing anything “big”.
By anyone’s standards, including hers, she is a fairly successful woman: she has had an interesting career so far, her family life is very harmonious and she recently relocated to Southeast Asia. Yet she is beating herself up for… what exactly?

What is the assumption here? That life is only worth living if it is, well, larger-than-life? Do your accomplishments have to be of heroic or awe-inspiring proportions before you let yourself savour them?

Don’t get me wrong: I completely understand feeling restless. I understand feeling unfulfilled even though you have all the outward trappings of a “successful” life.
The distinction I am making here is that lack of fulfillment is often a case of a passion or yearning that has not been identified, tapped and channeled yet. Sometimes it does not have anything to do with “dreaming big”.

Which is why life coaches who systematically urge people to “Dream big! No, bigger than that!” make me cringe.
What if you don’t want to dream big, not because you are scared, but because big is not what you want or need?

Western culture, and North American culture in particular, places a lot of emphasis on accomplishing big things. I think it is just another “Should” (as in, “You Should dream big!!!”) and as you know I am not a fan of “Shoulds”. We already have more than enough crazy societal expectations to live up to, thank you very much.

I stumbled upon this wonderful post on the same subject, over at Tao of Prosperity- it is well worth a read: You Don’t Have To Be Epic.


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The Expat Life: The American Domestic Violence Crisis Line

Posted on 28. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life, Tools & Resources

Expat and bloggers, please help spread the word about the American Domestic Violence Crisis Line. Their mission is to serve Americans, including children, being abused in foreign countries.
Their toll-free international number can be reached from anywhere in the world by asking an AT&T operator to connect you to 866-USWOMEN (866-879-6636).

Statistics do not say if abuse is more prevalent among expat families. From anecdotal evidence, though, it is not hard to see that life abroad is rife with opportunities for abusers to perpetrate violence. Marital tensions, isolation from friends and family and, in some host countries, widespread tolerance towards domestic abuse are all contributing factors.

The always interesting Expat Women blog features an interview with the founder of the American Domestic Violence Crisis Line, Paula Lucas. Don’t miss Paula’s story. Her strength and determination in the face of abuse are an inspiration to all of us.

For non-American victims of abuse, Paula recommends the following international directory of domestic violence agencies:

Please pass on this information to your expat friends and relatives. It could save lives.


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The Expat Life: Are You Properly Insured?

Posted on 26. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life, Relocation

For the first 6 years after I moved to Vancouver, I had no insurance. No home insurance, no disability insurance, nothing apart from the provincial health coverage and employment insurance that are standard in Canada.

Now this is completely out of character for me. I tend to be fairly thorough with this kind of things, not to mention being a bit of a worrywart at times. So what happened?

I thought that I was an isolated case of expat carelessness and inertia. Alas, this article clearly states that lacking proper insurance is something of an epidemic among expats.

I guess it is easy to overlook insurance matters when you relocate. For one thing, you may simply feel overwhelmed- too many tasks competing for your attention, too many details to look into and who are you going to purchase insurance from anyway?
There may also be a sense that your situation is temporary and that you might as well wait before getting insured. Why bother insuring your rental apartment if you are looking for a house to move into? Why base disability coverage on your current earnings when you are striving to get a better-paid job?
Finally, as a newcomer your budget might be on the tight side, without much room left for monthly premiums.

The obvious counterargument is that accidents and disasters do not discriminate- expat or not, temporary situation or not, you never know when you may need coverage. In fact, if your budget is tight or your savings are dwindling, being properly insured becomes all the more critical, as you cannot afford unexpected expenses.

A note of caution: if you do not get insurance right after arriving, chances are you will keep procrastinating after you settle in. This could lead to further complications, especially if you have never been insured before in your host country.

When I finally started shopping around for home insurance, one company flat out refused to insure me and another was quite suspicious of my motives for wanting to buy a policy after 6 years in the country without coverage. [The fact that I could not remember the street number for my previous address probably did not help either, but that is beside the point.]

So don’t delay! Write a list of the types of insurance you need (home, health, disability, critical illness, life, travel, car, business) and start making arrangements. If you are already insured, take a few minutes to review your policies- your situation may have changed and you may wish to adjust coverage levels and exclusions accordingly.


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Book Review: The Grown-Up’s Guide To Running Away From Home

Posted on 24. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Relocation, Reviews

Aimed at midlife people, empty nesters and retirees, “The Grown-Up’s Guide To Running Away From Home” by Rosanne Knorr is a practical guide to relocation for adults who long to live abroad.

A big strength of this book is its accessible, engaging tone. Rosanne Knorr keeps things simple and straightforward. Her “You can do it!” approach is resolutely optimistic. Her message in a nutshell? Better to go see for yourself if overseas life is for you than to be stuck with regrets and unlived dreams for the rest of your life.

This Grown-Up’s Guide is not meant for single, broke thirtysomethings. The assumption is that you have family ties to deal with, life experience to guide you and at least some savings to make your adventure possible. You do not have to be independently wealthy or receive a sizeable pension to live overseas, obviously, and Knorr discusses a number of ways to finance your expatriation.

Other chapters deal with seldom-raised subjects such as family planning and handling finances from a distance. Health care, medical coverage and safety concerns are also discussed extensively.

This book’s primary concern is relocation. All aspects of pre-departure planning, packing, travelling and getting started in your host country are discussed at length. By contrast, settling in and returning to your home country only get a scant 10 pages between themselves. Culture shock gets half a page.

Even though it only pays lip service to the emotional component of expatriation, this guide is a good, easy read for mature, first-time expats looking for reassurance and sound practical advice on how to handle the nuts and bolts of international relocation.

Make sure that you get the 2008 edition- the first edition dates back to 1998 and is quite dated by today’s standards.


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The Expat Life: Missing Friends And Family

Posted on 21. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life

I conducted a (very) informal poll of the expats around me to find out what they find most challenging about living abroad. The almost unanimous answer? Being away from friends and family.

It certainly rings true for me. While I am used to being far from my family- I have been living on my own since I was 17- my friends are what I miss most about France.

What is it exactly that we miss about not having our friends and family nearby?

– There is the deep connection, of course. The shared memories, the trust, the freedom to be ourselves without fear of being judged or misunderstood. All of this takes time to build. So much time, in fact, that many expat assignments are simply too short to build memories and complete trust, let alone deep friendships.

– There is the support, too. The comfort and safety that comes from knowing that whatever happens, your friends and family are there to help. Knowing that they are there for you, even when you make mistakes. Knowing that you can freely share your concerns, big and small, with them.

– Then there are all those roles that friends and family play in your everyday life: shoulders to cry on, trusted advisors, sounding boards, mentors, cheerleaders, dispensers of tough love, support buddies, confidantes, playfellows, people who “get you”.

That’s a lot. No wonder we miss them so much!

There is no quick fix, no magic formula to turn new acquaintances into close friends overnight. So in the meantime, how can you make the absence of those who are dear and near to your heart a little less challenging?

Can you identify what it is that you miss the most about not having friends and family around?

For example’s sake, let’s say that you were used to running your ideas by your friends. You really miss having someone to brainstorm with and get feedback from. As a result, you feel a bit lost, indecisive and increasingly frustrated with the way your host country works. It would be so much easier to figure it out if you could talk it over with your best friend or your sister!

You cannot teleport your friend to your new country, nor can you phone your sister in the middle of the night every time you must make a decision. What you can do, however, is assemble a new group of people who can serve the same purpose: a mentor at work, a coach or a local mastermind group would all be good places to look for feedback and input.

It will not be the same as bouncing ideas off your friends, of course. Yet it definitely beats staying isolated and not getting the feedback you need! As a bonus, you may also get more professional and objective advice than your friends would have been able to give you.

Ask yourself what is most painful about missing your friends and family. Sometimes just naming the pain helps take some of the edge off. When you identify the pain clearly, you make it more manageable, a little less overwhelming and scary.

And once you put your finger on it, how about letting your friends and family back home know how much they truly mean to you? So, yes, go ahead and call your mom! Speaking of which, I should take my own advice and phone mine before it gets too late at night in France… oh the joys of time difference!


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The Expat Life: How Much Do You Follow Politics?

Posted on 19. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life

This recent article from the Expat Focus blog made me realize that I have become, for the most part, uninterested in politics. I would like to think of myself as well informed and engaged with the world around me… but visibly, I have some catching up to do!

I have largely lost touch with what is going on in French politics. For one thing, I am mostly unfamiliar with the current government. Nicolas Sarkozy, who is himself unusually young for a French President, has surrounded himself with up-and-coming politicians about whom I know very little. Another thing is that politics in France seem rather predictable, no matter who happens to be in power. Government tries to change status quo. Opposition disapproves. Protests, strikes. Back to status quo. Yawn. How exciting.

Here in Canada, I do vote in every election. But do I make an educated choice? Hardly.
I do not know nearly enough about Canadian politics to make an informed decision. I have lost most of my political bearings since I have moved here. I know whom I do not want to give my vote to, but that is pretty much it. I know that I should educate myself on the history and platform of each party. Sadly, the task seems daunting so I just don’t.

Do you still follow politics back home? Are you interested in the local politics of your host country? Or have you, like many expats, become gradually de-politicised since you have left your home country?


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The Expat Life: Cooking At Home

Posted on 17. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life, Home

As we all know, the topic of food is central to many an expat conversation. These days, it seems like cooking at home is very much on people’s minds. It is no secret that I love cooking, so maybe that is why I have been getting so many questions recently about how to cook at home when a) your food budget might be shrinking and b) you cannot find the brands and convenience foods you are used to buying in your home country.

Here is what I suggest:

Buy local and in season
Yes, this may mean you have to go without tomatoes or peaches during the colder months. Let’s face it: out-of-season produce is likely to be expensive and often does not taste that great anyway. The local selection will be slimmer in more extreme climates but you might find some inspiration online thanks to produce calendars such as this one.

Buy “real food”
I was tempted to insert Michael Pollan’s famous quote “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” here, but the fact is that if you live far, far away from home, she may not recognize most of what is on offer at your local market! So, more to the point: cut down on processed and packaged foods and cook from scratch as much as possible. Your pocketbook and your health will thank you.

Add local or regional recipes to your repertoire
What better way to showcase local ingredients and vary your menus? To put a different twist on the same ingredients, you can also experiment with the cuisines of neighbouring countries, or countries with similar climates. If you live in Italy, do not limit yourself to Italian food – try some Greek, Moroccan or Lebanese recipes. Just moved to Russia? You may want to look up a few Swedish recipes.

Here are three cookbooks that I find wonderfully inspiring. They bridge the gap between cookbook and travelogue, combining fascinating cultural insight with beautiful pictures- and of course, delicious food.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.
I have been cooking from this book for several weeks and I still cannot get enough of Thai salads and Vietnamese noodle dishes. A lovely break from the heavier winter fare I had been cooking up to now.

Saha: A Chef’s Journey Through Lebanon and Syria by Greg and Lucy Malouf.
I love Lebanese cuisine, so flavourful and versatile! Saha also explores lesser-known Syrian and Armenian recipes. If you enjoy Mediterranean flavours, this cookbook is a must-have.

Olive Trees And Honey: A Treasury Of Vegetarian Recipes From Jewish Communities Around The World by Gil Marks.
Note that there is no need to be either Jewish or vegetarian to enjoy the recipes in this cookbook, which cover an amazing range of culinary traditions from Yemen to Georgia to Spain. This book was recommended by Havi Brooks over at The Fluent Self and I have been cooking from it for months. Love it!

Bon appetit !


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In Memoriam

Posted on 14. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Musings & Inspiration

One of my dearest friends passed away last week. Born in Estonia during WWII, he and his family fled to Sweden before emigrating to Canada: first Toronto, then Vancouver. As we listened to the story of his life during his memorial service, one thing struck me: he was the kind of person who could feel at home anywhere.

– He was a joiner. Whether he was singing in a choir or playing American football, he was always part of a group and he was usually the life of the party.
– He was a connector, constantly introducing people and making sure that everyone felt included. Blessed with seemingly boundless energy, he loved organizing events and celebrations, be it a day hike, a fly-fishing trip or dinner at a new restaurant.
– He knew what really mattered to him and designed his life accordingly. His anchors were family, friends, travel and his lifelong passion, contemporary design.
– He was optimistic and persistent. He had a wonderful sense of humour and did not take himself, or life for that matter, too seriously.

In other words, he had intuitively mastered the art of belonging, creating community and feeling fulfilled no matter where he happened to be.

He often travelled to Italy for business and I was lucky enough to accompany him on his last trip to Milan in 2006. His local contacts welcomed him with open arms, even though he did not speak a drop of Italian. He did not need to. His big smile and goofy sense of humour were his passport, his dictionary and his letters of introduction.

Rest in peace, dear Uno. The cancer may have taken your body but your spirit will remain an inspiration to me forever.


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The Expat Life: In Praise Of Routines

Posted on 12. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life, Musings & Inspiration

Earlier today, I was reflecting on the importance of routines and how they help me stay grounded, no matter where I may happen to be. I stumbled upon this great post over at the Trailing Spouse in Kathmandu blog. Laurel articulates what I had in mind better than I could, so why don’t you go read her post, and then come back and tell me what you think?

Laurel writes from the point of view of a mother and wife, yet many of her points apply whether you have a family of not:

– Have constants in your life: routines, rituals and traditions comfort you and keep you grounded even when everything else is changing around you
– Stay connected
– Know your values and priorities; honour them and celebrate them

As you know, values are very important to me, and I have written about traditions before. I really like the point Laurel makes about routines, too.

Have you designed some routines for yourself? How do they contribute to your day?

I use two separate routines as bookends to my day:

The morning one is designed to wake my brain and body up, and build up the energy reserve that will see me through the day. It starts around 6:00AM with some kind of personal practice (meditation, yoga or currently Shiva Nata), followed by a substantial breakfast and a chunk of time dedicated to writing.

In the evening, my rituals bring the day to a close. They send a signal to the brain that it is time to shift gears and wind down. I journal about my day, take a long bath and read about something non-work related. Lights go off at around 11:00PM.

For some, this may feel too structured, too constraining. Keep in mind, though, that you can design your routines exactly the way you want them to be- they do not need to be anything like mine.
I think that what matters is consciously choosing your routines, with an awareness of what they bring you, instead of going through the motions of your life on autopilot. You know, being present in the moment. Washing the dishes by hand as a meditation and all that.

Why don’t you experiment with a new routine today- who knows, it may be a keeper!


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HSBC Expat Experience Report

Posted on 10. Mar, 2009 by in Blog, Expat Life

The third and last report on the 2008 Expat Explorer Survey is Expat Experience. This report “examines the challenges faced by individuals relocating to a new country. The survey looked at cultural and social differences and how they make a difference to ease of integration.”

As always, I am more interested in the qualitative aspect, i.e. the criteria used and the questions asked, than in the final ranking of host countries. If you would like to read the detailed report, you can find it here.
Short version of the findings: if you want to get married to a local, move to Germany; if you want to make local friends, come to Canada, we are waiting for you!

I thought that the themes covered in this report were particularly interesting, as they directly relate to expat happiness. The criteria used were:

– Making local friends
– Joining a community group
– Learning the local language
– Buying property in the host country

In other words, successful integration in a new environment depends on four factors:
Personal interactions/relationships (making friends)
Contributing or feeling like we belong (joining a group)
Ability to communicate and interact with the culture (learning the language)
Commitment and a vision for the future (buying property)

What do you think? Are these the four pillars of expat happiness, or are there other factors that you find more significant?
Looking at your own life, how would you rate your personal satisfaction in each area? If things are not ideal in one area or more, what could you do to improve them?


Related post: The Expat Life: HSBC Expat Explorer Survey

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