Living Abroad: The Problem With “Best and Worst Expat Locations” Lists

“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson

I read a post recently that was making the rounds on Facebook about how awful life is in Switzerland for foreigners. This wasn’t, sadly, a shocking post for me to read as I have come across too many of these to count over the last 5 years relating to Switzerland and internationals living/working here. Depending on your life, you may or may not be aware that international/expat-focused websites, as well as reputable news agencies, love to publish annual lists entitled something akin to ‘Best and Worst Places for Expats To Live’. These lists often accompany anecdotal ‘evidence’ positioned as truthful information to support whatever their survey monkey results found. There are some disturbingly common themes in these types of articles and I’d like to confront them head on.  I am a FIRM believer that your experiences living abroad are highly influenced by your own actions and when I come across something along these lines that continues to perpetuate the idea that one person’s take on a short-term assignment abroad will speak true for 100% of the people that move there, I get frustrated, sad and angry.

Switzerland is the fifth country I have lived in. It is not perfect but it has been my favourite place to call home.  It trumps Canada, where I was born, England where, you know, fish and chips are available ALL THE TIME, France where the Eiffel Tower makes every picture look better and the USA where I learned about deep fried cheese curds. It is better than all of that (to me) but it wasn’t Switzerland that made that so, I also had a hand in making this the best place for me.

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This is not the worst country in the world to live…

So, if everything is so great for me in Switzerland, why does it pale in comparison to somewhere like Singapore that often tops the Best lists, or at least rounds out the top 3? Well, it’s easy. Comparing a country like Switzerland where someone will relocate and live in a local community, immersed in a culture and language they don’t know, is unfair vis-a-vis countries like Singapore where people are relocated to a prefabricated community compound. You cannot, and should not, compare the two. Relocating to a compound gives you ready-made friends, already international in nature and most likely aware your arrival is imminent. These pre-fab friends come with insider knowledge that helps you to avoid the pitfalls of international relocation that befall many of us. I have seen Facebook status updates from friends that received welcome gifts from their new Irish neighbours in Malaysia and a welcome basket waiting at the home for friends relocating to Dubai. Whilst we didn’t experience any of that, we did get an offer to use pots and pans from our Swiss German neighbour in case we hadn’t unpacked them yet…same-same but different?!

Now, I’m not about to fall into the trap of saying one is harder than the other and that ALL people that relocate to Asia move to prefabs and that ALL people that relocate to Europe do it solo because it just isn’t true. Local-base relocations are not harder, they are just different and that difference is never accounted for in the Best and Worst lists. Local moves do require more effort to break into a community because you are unlikely to spend your time living on the outside of local life. At some point you must integrate and there in lies the problem with comparisons. When you move somewhere where you know you will never blend in, you give up the hopes of that and settle fully into international/expat life. Expat parties. Expat friends. Expat schools. Expat life. When you move somewhere and WANT to fit in, you are swiftly and painfully confronted with the realisation of how hard it is to make friends as an adult. I have discussed my own failings on this topic here.

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I was definitely lonely at times in Paris…having a dog helped that 🙂

So before you move abroad and before you trash another country online, take a moment to get to know yourself because you will make or break your stay in many many ways. Yes, the culture may not be ‘you’ in the end but there are always silver linings and ways to make things work. Knowing what you are willing do beforehand will help you out. I repeat: You MUST know yourself before you accept a local life assignment abroad. Are you a go-getter? Are you willing to put in hours of effort to make a social life? Are you willing to do EVERYTHING to make your new life work? Or, will you arrive and complain then send an angry article off to be published about how crappy life is abroad? Will you blame the locals for not falling at your feet to become friends with you? Will you expect them to wake up one day and think ‘omg  is that a new American neighbour I see?! We must become best friends!’ (this won’t happen). If you aren’t a go-getter, perhaps think twice before accepting a local-based assignment. Try somewhere that will put you on a compound or near one so your lifestyle won’t change much, just the scenery.

International/expat life is not easy, even though it looks quite glamorous. It has changed me in every single way and I’m forever grateful. However, that change comes from the hard times that challenge you. Expat lists mean nothing about how you will respond to a place, trust me.

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‘Hello, WISCONSIN!’ My old home where almost 20 years later, I still am in touch with most of the amazing friends I made there.

Alas, I leave you with some Forrest Gump mama-style wisdom. Life is like a box of chocolates, it is true. But are you going to be the kind of person that throws the whole box out just because the strawberry creams are hiding in there somewhere or are you going to give it another chance in the hopes that you come across a little slice of heaven? I know what I would do…

 

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

 

 

 

 

Photo Journal: First Ski Day of the 2016-2017 Season

When I first moved to Europe from Canada, it took me a while to come to terms with how late in the year snow fall arrived. I was used to Halloween being a snowy event so when ski trips booked to the Alps for Christmas deemed dicey, my brain couldn’t compute.

Yet, compute was what I was forced to do when TWO Christmas/NYE trips in a row were all but ruined from a complete lack of snow. Global warming is not up for debate in my world and I truly believe we are seeing the affects of it in the Alps. Perhaps a topic for another day…

So, imagine my surprise when we hit the slopes this past weekend at relatively lower altitude (1800m/6000ft) Here are some photos from the 20th of November 2016 at Les Diablerets/Isenau. For tips on skiing with children, click here.

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart

Where Are You From? Thunder Bay

One of the most repetitive questions you will be asked as an expat or foreigner living abroad is ‘where are you from?’  I often wonder what it is like for people, such as my husband, who comes from a very recognisable place (you may have heard of it, London UK?). The ease they must have explaining it. London. It comes out, people process the information, understand and move on to a story about London – either they have been there or they wish to go there.

My answer?  Thunder Bay. Not at all the same to my husband’s response. Not even to CANADIANS who should know better but often don’t.

In the past few years I have found myself saying, ‘do you know where Toronto is? Ok well drive 16 hours northwest and that’s where I’m from.’  This is often met with blank stares and questions like, ‘is that even in the same country?’ HA! Same country? Try the same province, even! I often field polar bear and igloo questions and have even been asked if I have ever seen a beach before I left my northern life.

So imagine my delight when last week a video of my hometown started splashing across Facebook.  The video, put together by cinematographer Damien Gilbert, demonstrates the vast beauty and complexities that Thunder Bay offers. People are often confused by me as I am a huge fan of both city life and Jimmy Choos as well as hiking and being in nature. Perhaps spending 2 minutes watching what my hometown looks like, you’ll understand me a bit more. Enjoy!

Thank you, Damien for putting Thunder Bay on display for the world to see. Maybe NOW people will stop asking if I mean North Bay 😉

Photo: Jennifer Hart

 

 

From the Vault: Confessions of Parisian ‘Expat Dating’

What can I say sometimes other than ‘this expat life is no joke’! I know from the outside people see the glitz, the glam, the travel, the benefits, etc., but from time to time, I think it is good if we all ignore that part for a bit and turn our attention to some of the more difficult moments. Yes, I know, this sounds boring but it needn’t be. In fact, most expats you will meet have a wicked sense of humour and humility. We might not have started out that way but cultural barriers, linguistic errors, removal from what we know and who we know, and multiple social blunders have stripped us of our sense of cool. We learn to laugh at ourselves. With this spirit in mind, I’ve decided that from time to time, I will dig a story out from ‘the vault’ and share with you my sometimes bumpy ride as an expatriate.

 

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Our first apartment in Paris – that’s us on the balcony. It was our home for 4.5 years (Paris, 1er Arrondissement.

 

Back in 2006, when I was a newcomer to this whole lifestyle in Paris, I was the queen of social blunders. I made mistakes. I mouth-kissed people who were attempting to do bisous (or cheek to cheek kiss greeting as is customary in many European countries). I drank coffee with my dessert (mon Dieu!) and I stumbled daily in navigating Parisian life. I had a certain flair for making a mess of things! I would call home and be told it can’t possibly be that bad. My impression was that it was hard to conjure up feelings of sympathy for people living la vie en rose!

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La vie en Rose

But Paris was, well, Paris. It is tough city to relocate to. I was 29, newly married to an Englishman and kids were not on the agenda yet. How do you make friends at 29 years old?  When you are a kid you can walk up to someone around your age in the park and ask if they want to play. As an adult, that takes a very creepy and inappropriate twist. So, I went on, what I call, expat dates. We weren’t looking for love, we were looking for company.  I met other expatriates living in Paris and we tested each other out. Could we? Would we? Should we be friends? Do we have enough in common beyond ‘we aren’t French’ to keep us together?

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Looking out at the world below. Paris circa 2006.

Sometimes this worked and sometimes it was a big fail. I remember one that went so horribly wrong that when I ran into the woman a few months later in the street, I hid behind a smelly Parisian garbage can. Yes, I was a wildly mature adult living the glam Paris life! She had been the angriest person I had ever met and I felt, at the end of our lunch, that I should have charged her for a counselling session. She hated Paris. HATED it. Lots of people have anger towards Paris but this was something else!

Shortly after we ordered wine and lunch, it started.

“Why would you move here? It’s awful.” Uh oh!
“It smells.” OK so this can be true sometimes.
“Parisians are the worst people ever.” No, they are grumpy and angry and VERY self-important sometimes but they are not the worst people ever.
“Don’t even try to get decent tea here.” I didn’t try this and wasn’t bothered about it, either.
“The restaurants are awful.” OK this was NOT true. There were some dodgy places but that happens everywhere.
“You will never fit in here.” Hmmm…partial truth?
“You will need to diet to live here. You’re a bit big-boned.” Thanks.
“French men are pigs.” I have never dated one, I can’t speak to this claim!
“France will suck all the life out of you.” There’s plenty still kicking around in me.
“You smile too much for Paris. They’ll hate you.” Yeesh!

You get the picture, right? This went on and on and on. She spent 90+ minutes trying to convince me to get out while I could. Like it was an easy option to do so! If I tried to counter with ‘but aren’t the pastries to die for?’ she would shoot that down or remind me I’m a bit fat for Paris (this was PRE-kids, remember!!). Negative Nancy was in the house. I decided that even if I was having some real homesickness for maple-flavoured anything, strangers that greet each other on the street and an easier time getting my point across, I was going to ditch our attempt to become friends and make my way in the city on my own.

Ditch this attempt is exactly what I did. I tried to wrap up our lunch early and I thought she understood my need to leave when I said something like, I must visit the toilet and when I get back I will need to pay and head out. Clear, non?  When I returned to the table, I saw that she had ignored this and ordered another round of drinks. I panicked! How could she possibly have more to say about hating Paris? So, I did what all mature adults do. I threw 40Euros on the table and ran out of the restaurant without saying a word. I know she called my name but I was done. I didn’t want to live in Paris with her words in my head and heart and I wasn’t adult enough to say that.

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Do bad days happen in Paris? Yes. Yes they do. However, in my 10 years living in Paris, I fully admit that this never stopped being an amazing sight to behold!

I avoided a phone call and text from her over the next couple of days. I felt awful and I had done something unforgivable. I know that and learned from it. To her, I’m sorry for my own behaviour. In truth, she was my sole expat dating fail on an otherwise pretty perfect record. However, I was too embarrassed and freaked out by our lunch date gone wrong to try again for a while, so I got a dog. Not just any old French froufrou, teacup sized dog. I got a black labrador retriever. We named him Leni and he went everywhere with me. He became my best Parisian friend for a while and together, we ventured throughout the city. He dined in Michelin starred restaurants, went into Gucci, Louis Vuitton (he was about 20kg too big for that early 2000s dog bag everyone had) and had his photo taken with countless tourists. He made me get over my shyness to explore the city and for that, Leni, I thank you as you were invaluable to our lives in the French capital. I eventually made amazing friends, had kids and life in Paris became a lot more settled but Leni never left our sides. Except for the time he jumped in a prostitute’s van in the Bois de Boulogne. Perhaps that will be my next confession From the Vault…

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Leni and I walking in the Marais

Photos: Jennifer Hart

Living Abroad: Thoughts On Visiting “Home”

At some point or another in the life of every expat, there comes a moment when you must book a trip home. Maybe you have 3 weeks holiday and are dying to go back for some familiarity. Perhaps you have a family event to return for. Or you might be fully aware you have been away too long and should go “home.”

But what is “home” to someone with a nomadic lifestyle? I have previously discussed my thoughts on expatriation and the stress and conflicted ties to our homelands that arise from taking on this lifestyle. Yet, I don’t think I fully fleshed out a dirty part of the expat experience: the anxiety specific to visiting home.

I recently took part in an extensive discussion group that included expats from around the world. Common themes came up ranging from: how often expats return home versus others coming to see them, feeling guilty if we can’t see everyone yet being protective of the time we have, having lists of things we need to accomplish or buy during our brief period back in the homeland and how exhausting it is to to keep everyone happy while dealing with jet-lag, the cost of travel, etc.  Throughout all of this, there was one common word that came up over and over. So much so I started to put a tick next to it every time someone used the word: Pressure.

What kind of pressure? To name a few (in no specific order from my discussion group):
-not make anyone feel left out when you visit
-spend equal time with family and friends
-to come back more
-to visit 698 people in one weekend because “if you have a spare moment, it would be nice…”
-to not complain that we spent a fortune on this trip to sit in your living room because you “don’t feel like going out”
-to book a week’s holiday and have no one take a single day off to hang out with you
-keep the peace
-go to church so everyone can say “hello”
-act more local and less foreign
-go back to living a life you don’t live anymore
-drive 2 hours to see people that expect you to come to them after you took a plane or 4 to get 99% of the way there
-to discuss your eventual and apparently evident return home
-to make your foreign-born child(ren) instantly settle into a culture they’ve never known because X parent is from there
-to satisfy everyone else’s “missing you” emotions and not take care of your own homesick emotions

Selfish? Maybe. Privileged? Yes. Real? VERY!

So what is it about expats that makes this pressure feel so real? We know we were the ones that chose to ‘galavant’ around the globe and no one else removed us from the lives of those back home. We are aware that meant being far away from birthdays, weddings, funerals, baby’s first steps, girl’s nights out, boys weekends away, etc. We know this. We painfully grieved it in our first year. Trust me. But somewhere along the line we start to internalise and feel a disconnect from our old lives and protective of our new life. It’s as if every time someone says “when are you coming home?” we add 6 more mental months to how long we will live away. Do we see this question as people assuming we must be dreadfully unhappy away from what makes THEM happy? I think so. We feel questioned. Cornered, if you will, by the life we chose to leave within the framework of the life we are currently living.

I know some expats that go home every single year, twice a year, and love it. I stepped away from the return for a few years and took a break from feeling pressure. Family visits are amazing and should feel that way. They should not feel expected and evident. Yes we chose to leave but we don’t have to choose to come back, either. There wasn’t a malicious reason why I took a break, in fact the reasoning was quite positive. My little family was growing and we wanted to spend more time together – just us. My husband travels a lot with his work and we started to feel very protective of his holiday days from work. Holidays and vacations are important for families – be it a staycation or exotic travel. You bond, reconnect, experience life together away from technology, homework, housework and other additives to the daily grind.

We made that a priority. It was the right choice.

But here I am. I am heading home on Saturday to take part in my cousin’s wedding.  I have been excited about this since I got the save the date!! This means lots and lots of family time with those I miss dearly. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, nieces, nephew, brothers, SIL, parents, you name it! The packing pile on the dining room table has been growing daily and with it, my anxiety. I realise I don’t have time to catch-up with many people outside the family during this trip. For that, I am sorry but family comes first.

I don’t have a lot of answers for other expats trying to navigate the WHY DO I FEEL SO MUCH PRESSURE? questions they have in regards to visiting home. It should feel amazing to get on a plane and make a long journey back to our old selves. I have no doubt much of this pressure is internalised guilt that we can’t be in 900 places at one time. We are very good multitaskers and problem-solvers, us expats, and feeling like we are doing poorly at that can wind us up big time! Maybe we need to be kinder to ourselves.

I am a firm believer in being protective of your family, your health and alone-time but maybe, just maybe, those extra 2 hours it takes to visit an old friend aren’t a bad idea. The “back home people” are important. We have to take care of those relationships, even if that means being more open and saying “I’m not going to see you this time around but you are on my list for my next visit” and hope they get it. If not, your expat family is always there and willing to say “uh huh…totally understand!”  🙂

Photo credit: Fotolia