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

 

 

 

 

Meet Millie at the Hilton: Milwaukee’s Concierge with a Bark!

It was almost 11pmCST/6amCET in Wisconsin when I arrived, jet-lagged and slightly worse for wear at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center for the WITS 2017 conference. I checked in, stumbled to my room and collapsed. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to head out for a walk to clear my head. On my way through the lobby I saw a flash of something tan or beige, maybe both, racing around in front of me. What on earth was that, I wondered. Then I saw her: cute, fluffy, energetic and ready for attention, and maybe a photo op or two, was Millie, the 4-legged canine concierge that has become a vital part of the Hilton family.

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Asleep on the job…!

She completely melted my heart as I bent down to give her some cuddles and puppy love. I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels and not once have I ever come across a Dog Concierge. Millie was a first for me and, I could tell by the expressions on the other hotel guests, she was a first for them, too. People were stopping their normal ‘hurried’ lives to spend a moment with her. They ceased texting and conversations, all in the hopes of spending a moment with her. Alongside her trusty companion and co-worker Rusty (the actual concierge at the Hilton), Millie brought a happy and welcoming spirit to the hotel.

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Millie’s business card!

Of course, a dog concierge made my heart swoon but it also presented with a lot of questions. I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with her colleague, dad and owner, Rusty. Keep reading to learn all about the happiest, and furriest, concierge in the world! If you find yourself lucky enough to wind up at the Hilton Milwaukee City Centre, be sure to stop by and say a big hello to Millie (and to Rusty, too!!)

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Chilling out at home on a day off!

Meet Millie (and Rusty!)

How did Millie come to be the dog concierge at the Hilton? Last fall the idea for a “hotel dog” began to circulate. When I became aware of it I was eager to become a part of the discussion. I’ve shared with others since that a great idea never happens easily. It takes a lot of determination and hard work. Although my manager was supportive there were others who were not so sure. I went forward with Millie “under the radar.” Many questions needed to be addressed including what type of dog, adult or puppy, rescue or breeder and who would take responsibility for training and general care. After much reading and speaking with breeders, I decided on a smaller breed (some are afraid of larger dogs), a dog that doesn’t shed (much better for a hotel environment) and one that would not be a challenge to those guests with particular allergies. The temperament was crucial so I spent time talking to breeders who could assist in finding a dog that would be a daily friend to our rather large, 729 room hotel. Millie was born on September 13, 2016 and we picked her up on November 12, 2016 at eight weeks of age. She began coming to the hotel at ten weeks for a few hours at a time and now spends 40 hours a week in our lobby and hotel.

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Millie and Rusty

How old is Millie?
Millie is presently 8 months old.

What breed is Millie?
Millie is a mini-golden doodle. Her mom was an AKC Golden Retriever and her dad an AKC Toy Poodle.

What has the general reaction been from hotel guests?
Millie has changed the environment in our lobby 100%. When people come to check-in to the hotel, the first thing they ask is that a real dog and then immediately head to the concierge desk to get their daily Millie fix. When she’s not here at the hotel, the bellman tire of the questions in regards to her whereabouts. Millie regularly receives emails and comments via our hotel website, great Trip Advisor reviews, as well as dog treats, sweaters, and toys from our guests. If you walk through the hotel, you’ll often have people ask, “Where’s Millie?” Our hotel operator mentioned that once a guest called to make a reservation and wasn’t sure if this was the correct Hilton property. “Is this the one with the dog?” she asked and with that knowledge booked her room immediately. She has brought smiles, laughter, and even tears to many within her short time here and we can’t wait for more of this to come as she grows older with the Hilton Milwaukee.

How has Millie changed the moral of the hotel?
I knew Millie would have an impact on the guests but I never guessed the impact she would have on the employees. As people leave and exit the building they now stop by the desk on the way to their jobs and pet and play with her and many have said it’s the best part of their day. Millie has more aunts, moms, grandmas, and uncles…but only one dad…me! When I come to work no one asks how I am anymore…it’s always “Where’s Millie?” Fellow employees that I rarely spoke with before now stop by and share phone pics of their dogs and love on Millie as if she were their own. Auntie Dawn regularly buys Millie sweaters and treats “and I wasn’t really a dog person…until Millie.”

Do you agree that Millie makes the Hilton feel like a “home away from home.”
Millie has been a learn by doing kind-of-thing. The ways in which she makes the hotel feel like home to our guests is a wonderful result of bringing her here. I’m sure that idea was a part of the plan but I was not prepared for just how well she would do her job. It’s not uncommon now to hear people step off the elevator or arriving through the parking garage hallway to hear them asking, “Where’s Millie,” even before they reach the front desk.

What is Millie’s role at the hotel?
It keeps growing as we grow along with her…of course she greets and plays with guests in our lobby, takes deliveries to the rooms, and attends group meetings that request her. I am in the process of training her to lead people to the restroom and elevators. It’s rather endless when one considers what Millie could be doing…and not to overwhelm her with too many things to do.

Have you experienced any unhappy or nervous guests?
On a few occasions we’ve been told that a guest is fearful of dogs but no one has contacted us directly. If they are we have a crate behind the desk where Millie can go for the time being. Overall the comments have been overwhelmingly positive.

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Are guests allowed to walk or give treats or toys?
Many come down offering to take Millie up to their rooms for a snuggle or for a walk around the block. As I get to know more people on a regular basis it may become an option. She is still only 8-months old so still learning how to walk of a leash…but in time I’m sure it will happen. At the moment it just a little bit weird giving your dog to someone who I’m not familiar with but as regular guests return I’m confident it will get easier!

What does Millie do when she’s not working?
I felt it important from the beginning that the dog we selected must have a home outside the hotel. Having raised Golden Retrievers all my life and having lost my last one (Abby) about 5 years ago, I eagerly accepted the job. Millie works 5 days a week and all the other time she spends with me, two-roommates, and two cats. She gets along with all of them very well as well as all the other dogs in the neighborhood dog park. Millie rides the bus to work each day, jumps on the couch with Oliver and Rose (the cats) and goes on long walks, and dog school and sleeps in my bed (with the cats) just like so many other loved and cared for canines.

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Late for work…!

Is there anything important you think guests should know about Millie/her role?
Two things come to mind…

Often I hear from guests and employees that Millie is the most spoiled dog ever because of all the attention she receives of which is very true. On the other hand she is petted hundreds of times a day, often awaken from a nap because an eager guest really wanted to see her. After a day in the hotel she unwinds for a few minutes but within the hour she is out for the rest of the night. She gives a lot to her work…and sometimes I think others fail to see that.

Also on more than one occasion guests mention how great it would be to bring your dog to work each day. Before this I would have said the same and often wished to find a job where I could work with dogs regularly and now I find myself in a position that permits me to do just that. But there are days when I realize just how much work it is to ‘hotel train’ a puppy in such a large hotel or to teach her to not jump or bite or to come when she’s called. It’s been so rewarding to see her progress and for guests to mention how well behaved she is for just eight months. Some have even thought her to be a service dog…which in the grand scheme of things is my goal.

 

To follow more adventures of Millie and Rusty, be sure to check out their Instagram page here
Photo credit: Rusty Dahler

Friday Featurette: An American Journey into the French “Tough Love” Mentality

A couple Fridays a month I will be featuring another blogger or up-and-coming writer on my site. Stories range from expat life to travel/adventure. If you are interested in possibly being featured, please read the info hereand get in touch!  You may notice differences in terminology, vocabulary and spellings here but I think keeping it authentic to the author’s voice and background makes for a richer reading. 

An American Journey into the French “Tough Love” Mentality
By: Heather Javault

After finishing university in 1998, I arrived in France young and eager to travel. While my friends were off getting their first “real” jobs, I was riding the Metro to meet up with new friends from all over the world. I was keen to learn and to see new things and I didn’t worry much about my ability to fit in or start a career a bit later. My goal was just to see the world and be happy.

Happy is such a simple goal, though. During my first year, I didn’t realize that little things were eating away at the person I was. I found it difficult working for the French school system as an English teacher but thought it was normal as it was not my culture. I reminded myself of this, asking ‘why should they adapt to me?’ but it began to affect my confidence. Maybe I just wasn’t good at being a teacher. The other teachers were always correcting everything that I did just as other people constantly corrected my French. When asked about it, they all said that they are trying to help me; that’s how they do things here. All these good intentions weren’t helping me though. They were not pushing me to do better. I felt stupid. I kept wondering ‘why I am still here?’ It didn’t matter that I eventually learned to speak near-native French. The success I achieved was never good enough. When I got a job as an office assistant later, I constantly had someone behind me correcting me or asking if I was sure of myself. My confidence was gone. The bubbly person I once was was gone. I saw my friends overseas move forward with their careers while I just stood still, doubting myself in another culture.

Shortly thereafter I convinced my new husband to move back to the United States. He was eager to try out the “American Dream” and I was just as eager to get back to family and friends. I found a job pretty quickly through a friend and it didn’t matter that I had absolutely no prior experience in Payroll and Human Resources because they said would train me! I was not stuck in an office assistant job just because I had to pay the bills, I could change and be whomever I wanted. My confidence slowly started creeping back and I felt like a whole new person. I was able to go out with friends and even attend their weddings without spending money on plane tickets. I had everything to be happy, but there was still something missing. There was no denying that I had two homes now and more importantly, two cultures. I realized quickly that my having two cultures had changed me and my friends did not want to hear me say things such as “Back in France, they do things this way…” I could almost feel their eyes rolling. I was going out and doing things as I had before I moved to France, but I always felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. I had new opinions and I didn’t agree with everyone as I might have done easily before. Some friendships stayed the same and embraced my new quirkiness, but other relationships grew more superficial. A large part of that friendship shift was a direct result of that fact that I had changed while others stayed the same. I didn’t share anything other than a past with those old friends. My outsider experience saw me increasingly annoyed with U.S. political elections. (Don’t even get me started on that topic!)

After 3 years of being back home but not entirely feeling ‘home’, my husband’s career choice brought us back to France. I had an 18-month-old son and I knew that I didn’t want to move back into our tiny apartment in the city of Paris, so we decided to settle down in the suburbs. I didn’t have a car right away and as I didn’t know anyone in my area so loneliness quickly settled in. My husband worked extremely hard at his job, which left us feeling like he didn’t even notice us most of the time. I had a hard time finding a job. The Payroll experience that I had in the US did not apply to French regulations and I was starting over. Again. I tried teaching English, but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at it. When I tried getting jobs, I never had enough experience in the field or I was too young or too old. There was always something that I didn’t have enough of. I went back to feeling like a big fat loser and in this time I gained lots of weight and I drank lots of wine.

I eventually had two more babies. It is true; the French health care system is great. Yet for me, I didn’t feel like a client to the hospital or to the doctor. Once again, I felt like everything I did was wrong. I gained too much weight according to the doctor. My veins were too small for the lab technician. I didn’t get up and walk around enough after childbirth. My baby was too big, too yellow, and too ‘baby’.

Going back to work after children was awful. The job I had was unnecessarily stressful due to a difficult manager and further aggravated by a very long commute. I spent nearly 4 hours a day on the train. Although I did my job well, it was never good enough.

At this point, I tried to get myself into shape. Years of abusing my own body were showing and it was clear I wasn’t taking care of myself. I always saw people running and I wished I had the running power as well. So, one day I got myself out and started. I ran a little bit more every day. I signed up for races. I earned finisher medals. I had one thing in my life that made me proud and that gave me back some of the confidence that I had lost after years of negative thoughts. A friend challenged me to sign up for the Paris half marathon. I thought she was crazy, but I said yes. She totally flaked on me, but I kept training. I ran a 10k in December in 1 hour. That is not fast but record time for me. I could totally pull off 21k! And I did! I walked some of it, prayed to every god I could think of for it to be over, but I did it. It took me three hours. My feet were burning, I had chafing in spots that I don’t want to mention, but I did it. My kids greeted me at the end and cheered for me. They were proud of me and I was too. But, when I got to the medal stand, I got a medal that looked like it came out of a cereal box. Other runners had these glorious, gorgeous medals. Mine was practically plastic and half the size. They explained that they had “run out” of the other medals and because I was too slow, there weren’t any left. The email that I received from organizer after questioning what happened confirmed this. He said that I should be happy that they “let” me finish at all. Once again, I wasn’t good enough. Over the year that I trained for those races, I met incredible people that told me that it didn’t matter how slow I run. I was still a runner. This guy’s email brought me down a whole lot of pegs. I felt sick. I wasn’t a runner; I was just some fatty that wanted some shiny bling. During the race, I had people pass me and give me “high fives” and “thumbs up” I thought they were cheering me on, but maybe they were just laughing at me. That sounds extreme and dark, but that is what I started to feel. In the year since the race, I might have started to run about 5 times. I just can’t seem to get back out there. The running shoes only recently came out again when my 11 year old tried to steal them from me.

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Why do I let so much get to me? Everything I have just written makes France sound like an awful place. The thing is that while all of these experiences were happening, I never realized that it wasn’t because of me. I have spent most of my adult life doubting myself.

I am recently (and happily) unemployed. I have an idea for a new project and it is going to be really hard to pull off in France. A career coach at the unemployment office even suggested that I move back to the U.S. to fulfill my dream. It is actually this same career coach that brought on this whole enlightenment. She said that the French from a very young age are taught negativity. In school they are not taught that they could do better but that they are not doing good enough. I didn’t understand before she said this why my kids hated school so much. I loved primary school but my kids say they feel stupid. They don’t think they will do good enough. They are always anxious about how the day will go. With my North American upbringing of positive encouragement, I can see why the opposite would have such heavy effects on me.

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The French mean well. They see correcting as way to help. They think that negative remarks will push people to try harder. They are the Jillian Michaels of the education system. Tough love encourages good results. I mean, it worked for them, right? They are immune to feeling bad about themselves because they have built themselves armor against it. When I think about the administrator that emailed me from the half marathon, maybe he was just trying to push me to train harder for next year. My kids’ teachers are just trying to push them to strive to do better. Not everyone can come in first place. The North American way of giving everyone an award just for participating isn’t building fighters.

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Look at me. I cried over a medal.

 

Heather Javault came to Paris from Massachusetts nearly 19 years ago with a dream to travel. She fell for a cheesy pickup line for a “real French kiss” and never really left. She now putters around the suburbs of Paris with her husband and 3 children and constantly plans new projects and vacations. You can follow her latest project on her blog So Full of Crêpe or catch up with her on her facebook page.

Good Morning, America…

I’m not going to berate you, America. You had a tough night. Whether you feel your party won or lost, everyone is in a state of shock. You don’t need more advice, you don’t need a pity party and you do NOT need to be told to flee your homeland. Just take care of yourself, remember that the future isn’t written yet and anything can happen. I understand your fears. Truly, I do. I woke up at 4am to watch and text with my American father and immigrant mother living in Florida. It was not the result we had hoped for but things happen. Now is the time to heal and try to come back together as a nation.

 

Be kind to yourself, America. You deserve it.

 

Photo: Fotolia