Welcome to the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide

“I wish I’d had this book when I first became an Expat Wife”

Brigid Keenan, author of Diplomatic Baggage and Packing Up

Welcome to the blog that accompanies my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. Here you will find many posts about expat life and, in particular, about life as an accompanying spouse. If you are not sure exactly what I mean by an accompanying spouse – also known as an expat partner or “trailing spouse” – then a good place to start would be this post I wrote for the Expat Focus website: Accompanying Spouse – What is It?

But if you pretty sure what this term means and you are looking for more information, then an even better place to start would be with my book.

From what to pack to how to cope in the event of an emergency, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide is a light-hearted yet supportive book which uses the experiences of more than 70 contributers to help guide you when you move abroad. Aimed initially just at accompanying spouses, since publication I have had a lot of very positive feedback from all sorts of expats – and hope it will be of use to anyone, anywhere moving abroad.

click here to buy the book

The Blog

As well as information about general expat life, you can also read posts about some of the issues that have come up again and again during my research for the book and for the blog. This includes more specific information just for expat partners,  the important topic of expat depression, and what life is like for male trailing spouses.

As well as writing about expat life, I also enjoy writing about travel and, in particular, about our adventures in South Africa.

I hope you enjoy both the blog and the book – do get in touch if you have any comments, feedback, ideas, topics you would like me to cover or if you would like to write a guest post.

Politics from afar

I have written a few times about politics and how it feels to be so far from home when so much is going on. I have never felt like this before – I have lived abroad during several general elections and although have followed with interest, I have never before felt so hopeless about not being able to do anything to aid the cause.

This time is different because I do feel like we, the people, have been abandoned by our politicians and it is being left up to grassroots campaigners to make a real difference. And yes when I say “the people” I do mean ALL the people – not just the 48%. Well, all but a tiny percentage of our population who will be the ones getting rich from all of this.

But here I sit a very long way from Brexit Britain and in all honesty I feel a bit useless. In just over a week’s time there will be what is planned as the biggest march possibly in the UK’s history against Brexit and my facebook timeline is full of it. I have been asked if I am going but I can’t – the round trip would cost me more than £1,000 and be very difficult for the rest of the family in terms of child (and dog) care. I do know some of my friends who travelled to the US (one from here, one from Sweden) for the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s election and i take off my (pink) hat to them. Sadly it just isn’t possible for me to emulate their lead.

So instead I have to think of other ways I – and others in a similar position – can get involved. And so I am doing two things – I have donated to the cause and I have pledged to share the information as much and as widely as possible. So here for those who live in the UK, are British, aren’t British but care about the future of Europe, think money should be spent on social care and education instead of our Brexit divorce bill, and consider themselves to be open, tolerant and basically an all-round good Egg  – for you all here is the info:

And once more here is a link to donate to the march – money that will be spent on advertising and marketing, health and safety on the day, marshalls with megaphones, helping people who can’t afford it to get there and more. We really need to make the UK government sit up and take notice – they’ve been pretty well ignoring us up until now.

The modern world is changing: will expat life adapt?

On this blog I have tried to cover as many different “types” of expat partners as possible – male trailing spouses, same-sex partners, partners who work, partners who don’t…but the other day, reading a post in an expat Facebook group, I came across a new one to me: someone with TWO partners.

Apparently called polyamory, this is a consensual relationship between more than two people (here’s is Wikipedia’s explanation if you want more detail). Not a casual threesome, I understand that polyamory is considered by those who practise it be an important part of their identity – similar to being heterosexual or homosexual. In other words, it isn’t something you chose, it is something you are.

The woman in the Facebook post was trying to work out where the best place she and her two partners could move to. The problem was going to be, of course, that they were going to need more than one partner visa. And I am sure that in many parts of the world this really would be a big problem.

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I’m not sure what the outcome for this woman and her partners was but it struck me that with ever-changing attitudes towards things like relationships, careers, sexuality, gender and more, there was going to be a continual need for flexibility towards many types of  expats as they try and negotiate their way around the world. Sadly of course, attitudes to many of these newly recognised identities are not flexible at all in much of the world – making it very stressful for some expats who may be limited in their choices.

It’s not just about gender and sexuality though. Families are changing too – and the way families live. It is becoming more and more common for partners and their children not to accompany the worker when they are sent abroad, sometimes for reasons of security, sometimes schooling, sometimes career or sometimes just because it’s easier all round this way.

But are our posting organisations doing enough to keep up with these changes? Some decisions are of course are out of their hands – it’s not up to them whether they issue two partner visas or allow same-sex marriages to be recognised. But there is much they can be doing: welcoming everyone whatever their gender, identity or family situation; helping with things like supporting partners who stay at home; making sure people have the right information for their situation; setting up buddy systems; listening to what people’s needs actually are.

I have limited knowledge of the corporate world when it comes to expat life as have amost exclusively been overseas as part of a government organisation. From my point of view I think they could do a lot more in certain areas but realise they are constrained by lack of funds. However I would be really interested to hear what others think – what future challenges will expats be facing that perhaps we haven’t really acknowledged yet? Are current challenges being addressed? What more could be done?

Picture credit: Keoni Cabral

How modern technology has transformed expat life: travel

This is the third in my series on how modern technology has transformed life as we know it living overseas. In my first post I wrote about how our work life has been affected, and in the second I discussed communication.

Now in my third and (probably) final post on this topic I want to talk about travel.

Of course, it isn’t just expats who travel. But it is undeniably a huge part of our lives – not just travel to and from our countries but travel around them and to other countries in the region. After all, isn’t the ability to explore one of the best things about living abroad?

When I was young and lived in the Philippines, we were restricted to phone calls and travel agents when we wanted to book our holidays. No internet, no mobile phones, no apps – how on earth did we manage? It’s funny to look back now and think about being completely incommunicado for weeks on end; and can you imagine those long road trips without being able to plug the kids into their electronic devices?

Anyway of course things have improved quite a bit since then and if I am honest I can’t keep up with many of the latest innovations. So to help others out who, like me, are a little behind the curve in these matters, here are some of the better technical innovations to help us get around:

Getting there

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In order to travel somewhere you first have to get there and unless it’s within a reasonable distance this usually means flying. Here are a few suggestions to help ease this burden:

Kayak is a site which basically promises to scan all the available flights for your dates and come back with the cheapest suggestion. However, don’t forget to use filters otherwise you may be booking to go from A to B via about eight different places with a three day stopover on the way….

Skyscanner is similar to Kayak. Note: they now also do car hire, hotels etc

Flight Aware this brilliant little site keeps track of all the flights in the air at any one time – great for checking if your flight is likely to be delayed. Also helpful if you’re picking people up from the airport. Careful though, it can be addictive (am currently watching the Emirates flight that’s just left Jo’burg and the SAA from Durban that’s about to land….just for the heck of it).

Getting around

If anyone hasn’t downloaded the Uber app to their phones, I suggest you do so straight away. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of freedom it gives me to know that if I am stuck anywhere in Pretoria (or other South Africa cities) all I need is my phone to get me somewhere. The fact that it is cash free is genius.

The post that initially started my hunt for technology to help the modern expat was actually based on an idea about how useful I found my GPS. As above, I love the freedom it has given me not to worry about getting lost. I love it so much I even wrote this post about it.

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Google Streetview and Google Earth have been revolutionary in how we can now view the world. We used Streetview to explore our neighbourhood before we even visited Pretoria, and who hasn’t checked out their hotel on Earth in advance of booking that holiday? But Google maps is the one that I now use the most often – either as a GPS when the one in my car is having a bad day or as a way to find out how long it will take me to get from A to B. If you haven’t watched the film Lion yet I thoroughly recommend it as a way to see the real power of Google maps!

Finding a place to stay

I rarely book anywhere these days without first checking reviews on Tripadvisor. I try and read as many reviews as possible because I realise how easy it is to post fakeness but generally I do think that as long as there are enough of them you can get a fair idea of what you are getting yourself into.

There are several ways to book private accommodation these days. Probably the best known is Airbnb, a brilliant way to find well-priced accommodation in exactly the location you are interested in (their use of maps for searching makes it so easier to pinpoint where the homes are). VRBO (which stands for Vacation Rental by Owners) is another one.

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If you are up for it, trying out a home exchange can be a great way to score cheap accommodation. It’s not something I have tried yet but with the way Sterling is dropping I suspect this is going to become more and more popular in years to come. This site claims to have 65,000 homes in 15 countries.

When you are there

Ok so you have arrived and checked in – what’s for dinner? Trip Advisor (see above) can be helpful here too but there are other ways to find local restaurants, bars, cafes etc as well as local attractions, shops and even services. Yelp is one such site. Zomato is another. But please, distract me quick before I spend the rest of the day browsing restaurant menus…..

Converters

Finally, life can get complicated when you are on the move. Here are two ways to help you keep track – firstly, to make sure you know how much things cost are currency converters like this one (although to be honest these days if you just put the currency you need converting into Google it will tell you – sigh, is there anything google can’t do?). Secondly, do you ever wonder what time of the day it is back home (easy when you live somewhere, not so much when you are travelling)? Or in that other country where you want to book a flight but are not too sure what time you are going to arrive? Then you need a time zone converter.

So that’s just a quick run down of some of the sorts of sites and apps that are out there now to help us when we travel. I am quite sure there are many, many more (as a quick example, in London we used this app to tell us how long we had to wait for the next bus). In fact, this post really is just a “for starters” and I would love to hear if you have any more great travel apps that you would like to share. If so please post in the comments section below.

Otherwise, bon voyage!

Photo credits: BA plane – Nick Fewings, Crooked House by Don McCullough

Spinning in Circles & Getting Your Bearings

It’s always a pleasure to “bump” into other expats who get what you are writing about and today’s guest post comes from one such person. Janese Carstons is a transition coach whose speciality is helping expats in their first year. Here she writes about what helped her when she first moved to China.

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“When facing north, the ocean is on the right so it’s East!” I exclaimed as I was pointing out the direction we needed to go to get back to our new apartments. My teammate and I lived in a coastal city in China and we were finishing our first trip out to the market and back by bike. She was spinning in circles, literally, trying to see which way we needed to go and I was pointing in the opposite direction because it was the way home. I can’t help it but I always know which direction I’m headed – at least using cardinal points.

There we were in the middle of a market’s parking lot, when it struck me – the first weeks after transitioning overseas IS spinning in circles while trying to get your bearings.

Moving is always a flurry of activities, emotions, and lists – so many lists. However, in the midst of the moving chaos, I imagined my life in the new culture. I’ll admit it, I’m an idealist when it comes to the future and the amazing potential there is in it.

But that future I envisioned had become reality and it wasn’t as idyllic as I had imagined. I’m sure that is ‘shocking’ to all of you but here are two main reasons it wasn’t ideal.

First, I brought myself with me…not the ‘perfect’ version I wanted to be in my head. I brought my emotions, my quirks, and all my imperfections. I was still excited for the adventure but for some reason, I thought I would morph into this amazing new person on the 14-hour plane ride. Instead, I was jetlagged, emotionally fatigued, and couldn’t understand enough Mandarin to get me to a toilet if I really needed it. The idea of “perfect” crash landed the moment I stepped foot in China.

Second, I did not step into the China I envisioned in my head. You can be told by multiple people the good, the bad, and the amazing about the new country/culture you’re moving to but you’re going to experience it for yourself; and your journey in this new land will not be the same as anyone else’s experience. It’s unique to you – how you see it, how you interact with it, and how you accept it. I’d like to say I moved without expectations, which I did for the most part, but I didn’t move without biases…even ones I didn’t know I had.

Yes, these two reasons popped my idealistic bubble, and yes, it needed to be popped so once it did I was able to stop spinning in circles and start focusing on getting my bearings.

Here are the top 3 ways to stop spinning and start focusing:

1) Be humble and forgiving – to yourself first and to everyone else second

You have just leapt into an incredible opportunity. Your world has been rearranged so of course you feel discombobulated from the world you just left. You’re normal so stop expecting yourself to be more than you can be at this moment in time. It will pass and you’ll continue to grow in ways you’ve never imagined you were capable of doing in your life.

2) Know yourself – be aware of what makes you, You

Moving to another culture is a great opportunity to assess how your values and behaviors are congruent, or not, with each other. Remind yourself of what you like to do, don’t like to do, and why; so that you can move into this new culture with integrity of who you are because you won’t fit the mold of whatever new culture you’re going in to. Just remember that moving overseas usually heightens your challenges rather than removing those challenges.

3) Determine where your areas of influence are in relation to your current consciousness and competence

There are six areas of influence on a person that engages their energy at all times: Emotional, Physical, Social, Environmental, Mental, and Spiritual

There are two additional areas of influence on a person who has moved to a new culture:
Culture and Language

Each of these eight areas of influence are directly related to how conscious and competent you are in each one. There are four stages of consciousness and competence and keep in mind that you’ll be in different stages for all of the eight areas of influence. They are independent of one another.

  1. A) Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. B) Conscious Incompetence – You realized that you’re not as expert as perhaps you thought you were or could be.
  3. C) Conscious Competence – You steadily learn about the new area through experience or more formal learning.
  4. D) Unconscious Competence – You no longer have to think about what you’re doing and are competent without a significant amount of effort.

Based on this information, you can become more aware of how you’re perceiving yourself within the new culture as well as make any changes you believe are needed with who you are in this new culture.

Overall, the greatest thing you can do for yourself within the first few weeks of your move is to focus inward for your bearings. Outside of yourself will continue to spin until you can move with intention in the direction you desire because that direction will be congruent with your values, behaviors, and energy in each area of influence.

To get a copy of the free EICC Audit or the free copy of “Making the Move Manageable” go to www.janesecarstens.com or email Janese at janesecarstenscoaching@gmail.com.

 

Biography

Janese Carstens is an international transition coach who is dedicated to supporting sojourners during their move overseas and setting them up to thrive during their first year in their new country. Her clients would say that her REAL specialty is understanding them through the chaos and confusion as they stretch into their ‘new normal.’

For more information on Janese and her weekly blog go to www.janesecarstens.com or follow her page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jccoachinginternational/.

 

Learning to live with the New Normal.

Phew! What a week. I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson over these past few days, with news coming at me from every direction. There was the travel ban in America, the huge protests against Trump being invited on a state visit in the UK, and then there was the Brexit debates and vote in London. It just seems like every time I check the news something else has happened….

But somehow, with all this going on, we have to learn to carry on.

In all honesty, I am finding it inceasingly difficult to focus on anything. I have plenty of work and am in the middle of an essay-writing course with a view to increasing the amount of freelance work I do. I also have this blog to keep up! Never mind all the normal, daily routine work like shopping and dog-walking that you can’t just forget about. But on the other hand there is Facebook and Twitter and another check of the latest news and before I know it half the day has gone. I also find my mood swings all over the place with the increasingly worrying information we are getting on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

But I know it’s just going to keep on coming so somehow we have to find a way to live with this new normal. And one of the ways I have been doing it is talking to people who have been surviving for years, decades even, in the sort of uncertain political environment that we in the UK and the US (and other stable democracies) perhaps haven’t ever had to contemplate. In particular, I spent last weekend in Harare visiting with relatives.

For those that don’t know (which hopefully is few of you!), Zimbabwe has been living under Robert Mugabe for more than 35 years. I am not about to go into a plotted history of the country and its politics – especially as, to my shame, I am actually pretty ignorant as to exactly what is happening in that country despite living righ next door and having relatives there. But if you are interested to learn more, here is a link.

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Trying not to get crushed in Zimbabwe

However, what is true is that life in Zimbabwe has become increasingly difficult for many of its nationals and change still seems elusive. It is that lack of WHEN things will improve that I think is the hardest to deal with – many people can cope with difficulties if they know it is for a limited time. If nothing else, contigency planning is easier when you have an idea how many months, years or even decades you are planning for.

It obviously isn’t easy and there aren’t any simple rules but it certainly seems that trying to get involved, in one way or another, in any opposition to the ruling government can make you feel a lot more positive. Just to feel like you are DOING something can certainly lift your spirits. How much you are actually able to do will of course depend on where you are and your particular situation – but in the UK and the US we are still in a position to be able to petition, march, write, donate and share information pretty widely. Hopefully all of those things will continue.

Otherwise, distraction is a great way to deal wth whatever is going on around you – epecially when you feel so helpless to change it. Change does and will come – we only have to look at history to know that we won’t stagnate in this situation forever. But it may be slow, a lot slower than we would want – so in the meantime we need to find ways to cope with the wait. Whether that be writing or crafting or sewing or baking or even burying yourself in work, it is always going to be healthy to take your minds off things for periods of times.

Getting together with like-minded friends is another thing that can really help when you are feeling despondent. As an expat I do sometimes feel quite isolated from everything going on in my home country, especially as I am surrounded by American expats so the news of Trump does tend to dominate. But every so often I get together with another sympathetic British friend who reassures me that no, I am not alone in feeling like this (I know the internet and Facebook in particular is another way to bring people together but there is nothing like a proper, face-to-face get together).

Finally the other thing that really helps me is what this blog is really all about – which is that many people, in many countries have been living with these uncertainties for years and whatever happens we will still almost certainly remain some of the most privileged people in the world just by dint of our passports. Although I speak about Zimbabwe, South Africa also has been going through interesting political times with a difficult and unpopular government, student riots, allegations of corruption right to the top of government…..

But I look around me and people are getting on with their lives. They are shopping and cooking and drinking wine and selling mobile phone cases at traffic lights and sweeping leaves and walking dogs and going to business meetings….in other words, life goes on. It is frustrating, incredibly frustrating, when you feel that you can’t do anything to bring about the immediate change that you crave but actually what you do need to be doing is living.

Now I am going to take my own advice and go and make a cup of tea. Please let me know your thoughts – these are interesting times.

How modern technology has transformed expat life : part 2 – communication

Before Christmas I wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of three or four posts looking at how modern technology has changed expat life (hopefully for the better – although I think there is a sting in that tail and refer you to this post I wrote about facebook envy).

In my first post I looked at how the world of work has been affected and how much easier it is now for us all to work remotely. This is potentially a huge game changer for the expat partners who may otherwise have to give up their jobs or even career to follow their spouses overseas.

But technology is there to help us in many ways other than for work and in this post I am going to have a look at communication.

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Way back when we lived overseas when I was a child, 99% of communication was done by letter (snailmail as it became known). Once a week we could send back and recieve letters through the diplomatic bag. Every post had a day when the bag came in; in every household eager wives (for it mainly was wives in those days) and children awaited news from home. Birthday presents, Christmas cards, even my O level results arrived this way, along with those long letters from parents and grandparents full of the news of Aunt Edna’s hip replacement and how the tomatoes were doing. It all seems so trivial but those everyday stories of home were what we craved. Every so often, we got a phone call – I remember this being the case when my grandmother died. But usually the only news we got from home was at least 5-7 days out of date.

To expats today this must all seem very strange. Can you imagine putting your child into boarding school and then having to wait a week to hear how they were getting on? Nowadays of course we have so many – maybe even TOO many – ways to communicate when we move away from our friends and family. Here are just a few of them:

Skype and FaceTime

There are of course now many more face-to-face ways to talk to people but these are prehaps the best known. Skype was the one that really broke down the barriers – for the first time we could not only speak to but see our loved ones without having to pay astronomical international call prices. FaceTime is useful because it is on phones and Ipds so more portable (ok I know, I am a bit backward here – you can get Skype on phones too now, right?). But both are excellent ways not just to talk but to share – how many grandparents have watched their grandkids growing up through the wonder of this kind of technology? Personally we have been able to build a great relationship with my broter-in-law in Florida thanks to Skype and FaceTime and there is nothing I like more than sitting down for a cup of coffee with friends in England, all over the internet.

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Messenger, WhatsApp, Snap Chat etc

More immediate and probably now the most used type of communication is instant messaging. I love that you can connect so quickly and easily with anyone, anywhere in the world. Whilst Facebook is still perhaps the number one way people keep in touch with each others lives (see below for more on Facebook) I think we have started to move off the public pages and into more private spaces.

Of course we don’t just use these services to keep in touch with people back home or to communicate with friends new and old in other parts of the world; group messaging has become a real boon to expats making contacts and friends in a new country. What easier a way to organise a meet up than one Whats App group message? So much better than the old days of having to send separate emails or individual messages and then send them again when one person can’t make that particular time….

Expat Facebook groups

Another thing that I have noticed happening more and more commonly now is the use of groups for particular needs and interests and the ones aimed at expats have to be one of the greatest innovations to have hit the expat scene in a long while. As soon as you know where you are heading, you know you will probably be able to find a group to help you with your questions. I admin one here in Pretoria, where people come to ask questions about anything from where to get passport photos done to whether you need a pool heater (as an aside, there is good writing material in some of these groups – I always laugh when I see the posts asking whether anyone has a golf buggy for sale…). In the meantime, we have a separate “buy and sell” page which is a great place to get rid of all that stuff before you move on or conversely buy it when you first arrive; and (perhaps this is more pertinent to South Africa than many places) a travel page for sharing information about places to go and things to see.

Video and photo sharing sites

Another way we can keep in touch is by sharing our photos and videos. Some do prefer just to do this via facebook but equally many prefer to keep these things private. You can set up a You Tube video channel and set the settings to ensure only people you invite can view, and there are also lots of cloud-sharing photo sites (I am told Flickr is good for this, as well as Google Photos). So when you store your photos you can alert your parents back home and they can view at leisure. No more labouriously sending photos back as email attachments, two or three at a time (particularly painful for those of us without a speedy internet connection).

Blogs

Finally, I had to include this one as of course one of my main methods of communication is via my blog! In my case, it is not really aimed at friends and family but many people do initially set up a blog in order to keep the folks back home abreast of their new, shiny overseas life. In a way it is just a public diary for many people (although how public is up to you – again, like a YouTube channel, you can set it up so that only chosen viewers can see it). But even if this is not the intention of a blog site it is still a way to communicate. I, for one, have met several people in real life thanks to my blog – and have many more friends who I have never actually met but who I have close and important relationships with because they found me this way. After all, it is just a way of bringing people together with a commonality so why not use it as a basis to make friendships?

 

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So those are our main communication channels – let me know if you think I have left anything out. Next time I want to look at ways that we use modern technology for travel. After all, for so many of us travel is one of the more important aspects of our lives – so we may as well use the best tools available to help us enjoy it.

Photo credit: Yining Zhang

 

Happy New Year and a Monkey in a Toilet

I realise things have been a bit quiet around here….but what with Christmas, travelling and now trying to catch up on all the work that has been sadly neglected for the past few weeks I have been pretty busy. I hope to get back to the blog asap and have some nice interviews and ideas brewing but in the meantime I wanted to do two things. First wish you a

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And secondly just share a little taster of our travels over the holiday period – one of those unexpected moments that will hopefully make you smile as much as it did me:

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Yes – that is a monkey with his head stuck in a toilet!

I hope you all enjoyed your breaks (if you got one….) and see you soon x