Expat gone soft

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

How soon we forget!  A couple of days prior to Christmas, Toronto was hit by a major ice storm.  The weight of the ice broke many power lines, as well as trees overhanging the power lines, resulting in a major power outage affecting 300,000 customers for several days.  As we awoke to a cold, dark house, my heart sank as I realized how poorly prepared we were. 

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

When we lived overseas I’d always had a back-up plan for water cuts, power cuts and even, heaven forbid, an evacuation plan, but settling back into a comfortable life in Canada, I’d oh-so-quickly let myself backslide.

All I had at my disposal was a bag of tea lights and flashlight with a fading battery.  No alternate heat source, no means to cook or heat water, no “magic socket.”  My heart sank.

After a joyless breakfast of peanut butter on crackers and a glass of water (no COFFEE!!!!!) we set about assessing our situation.  What was quickly apparent was our increasing dependence on electrical appliances.

I picked up the phone – cordless – not working.  Thank goodness we still had an old-fashioned corded phone in the bedroom.  No wifi, but at least I had cellular data on my phone, as long as the battery lasted.

We had a fridge full of food, but no means to cook it.  On the bright side, with sub-zero temperatures we were able to stash the contents of the freezer in plastic storage bins in the garden shed.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

By 4pm in the afternoon the indoor temperature was 13C and falling as fast as my spirits.  Sitting in our overcoats as dusk approached we contemplated a dinner of cold canned food and sleeping fully dressed under our duvets.  But help was close at hand.  An angel, disguised as my friend, Shila, phoned to check on us.  On learning our plight, all she said was “Come.”  A delicious dinner, warm bed and hot shower never felt more luxurious.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

Late the following day our power was back and life quickly returned to normal.  But a month later I’m left with a nagging concern that repatriation has turned me “soft.”  Where has that pioneering expat independence gone?  I need to toughen up and, quite literally, get my house in order.  Storms lanterns and a primus stove are on my shopping list.  And of course maintaining my friendship with my Christmas angel 😉

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Happy Day Off!

Canada Day 2013

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Today is Canada Day and so we have a long weekend here in Canada.  It’s another thing I enjoy about repatriating, knowing exactly when the holidays will be and that we will get time off from work (actually that’s 2 things).

We spent 8 years in the Middle East where many of the public holidays are religious ones.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year the holidays move forward about 11 or 12 days.  Many Muslim countries rely on their scientists to tell them when the holidays will fall and the dates are fixed well in advance, but the UAE still relies on a “Moon Sighting Committee” to go out into the desert (to get away from the bright city lights) and literally look for the new moon before these important events are proclaimed.  It’s a charming tradition, but not only does it mean the dates are often different in the UAE than elsewhere, it also means they’re unknown until the night before the holiday starts.

For expats this creates a bit of a problem if you’re planning a short getaway.  When you’re booking time off work you have to play Russian roulette with your vacation days, as they may or may not get used depending on when exactly the holiday falls.

To make things even more complicated there is no requirement for companies to give you a day off in lieu if the holiday falls on a weekend, and many choose not to do so, even western ones.  With Eid holidays lasting 2 or 3 days twice a year, it seemed you’d always ‘lose’ at least a day or two.

And on the topic of weekends, that too can cause problems.  When we first moved to Dubai the local weekend was Thursday and Friday.  All government offices were closed, and because the Ministry of Education was closed, all schools, even international ones, had to close too.  Many companies that did business outside of the Middle East chose to take a Friday-Saturday weekend, to avoid being out of touch for 4 days of the week.

As a result expat families with children ended up with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend-ish, which was really neither one thing nor the other.  It worked well for those who liked a day exclusively with the children and a day exclusively with their spouse (with Friday as the true family day sandwiched in between), but I found it a difficult adjustment to make.

Fortunately by the time we returned to Dubai for our second stint, they had switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, but it still took me many years to get my head around Sunday being a workday.

Here in Canada our holidays are either firm dates on the calendar (like July 1) or tied to a long weekend (like Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October).  In the years we were away they even added a new holiday – Family Day  – on the 3rd Monday in February.  In a country with a long cold winter it’s a welcome respite during the long slog between Christmas and Easter.  But enough words, it’s sunny and warm outside and the barbeque is calling . . .

Out of my comfort zone

Scan 11When I tell my friends that I’ve battled shyness most of my life, many of them laugh in disbelief.

I was the toddler who cried when the bus driver said hello to her and I earned the nickname of “Noddy” when I went the entire first semester of school not speaking to the teacher (I would just nod my head).  My mother often recounted the day I finally rushed home “Mummy, mummy, I SPOKE to Miss Dixon!”  “That’s nice, what did you say?”  “Yes, Miss Dixon” I said with pride.

Making friends for me was always a slow and painful exercise but was made much easier once I married a sociable extrovert.  However when we moved overseas, I suddenly found myself alone and friendless while he was at work.  My shy inner-child re-emerged.  Fortunately in most of the places we lived I found friendly fellow expats who reached out and drew me into tight and friendly expat communities.  In time, I felt comfortable enough to extend my own hand of friendship to newcomers and locals alike.

In Dubai I started hosting a weekly coffee morning for expatriate women.  For the first one there were 5 of us (all friends I had coerced to attend) but soon the group grew to 20 or more.  From time to time I had announcements to make, gulp, I was public speaking!

Looking for a portable career, I enrolled in the CELTA course to learn how to teach English as second language.  It was very intense, very hands-on, involving a lot of teaching practice.  To say I was petrified to stand in front of class of 20 Emirati college students is an understatement.  But I did it and I survived.

As a volunteer I got involved organizing the Terry Fox Run for cancer research. When I  took over as Committee Chair one of my responsibilities was to take the microphone at the starting line to thank all the volunteers.  As I looked out over a crowd of 12,000 people, my relief that we had a record turnout helped overcome my wobbly knees.

Each of these experiences was a valuable step along the road to overcoming my shyness and none would have happened if we hadn’t moved overseas.

This year I’ve been strong-armed asked to moderate a panel discussion on expat blogging at the Families in Global Transition Conference in March. Fortunately the panelists are well known to me, as (I hope) will many of the audience. Inside that little girl is quaking at the prospect, I just hope I can shut her up with cookies. 🙂

Online Support Groups: Facebook

546230_60701028In my last post about the Online Coffee group, I mentioned that they also had a Facebook group. It was set up to a) promote the online chats and b) continue the conversation in-between.

Facebook groups are a excellent way to provide free online support for expats.  Why?

  • A large number of expats are on Facebook. 
  • Groups can be ‘open’ (totally public, anyone can join and all posts are visible) ‘closed’ (an admin person grants access and only members can see posts, but someone searching FB can find the group and read its official description) or ‘private’ (similar to ‘closed’ except it cannot be found in search)
  • No matter what the settings, groups “feel” more secure and friendly than FB pages, so conversation flows more freely
  • Posts in groups are more likely to appear on your Home Feed than pages you’ve liked, so they are more visible to members, thus increasing participation
  • Apart from the Expat Partners Online Coffee group, I also belong to the Toronto Newcomers Club FB group, which is restricted to club members only. They have a lot of real world activities, and the FB group represent less than half the members but it offers useful location-specific support such as, “where can I buy…” “have you seen this exhibition… “here are the photos from yesterday’s event …” Some relocation providers and companies set up groups for transferring employees, which sounds like a good idea, allowing families to ‘meet’ prior to departure and exchange information with those already on location.

Search for “expat” on Facebook and then select “Groups” from the left hand sidebar to narrow it down and you’ll find literally hundreds of groups, some with a handful of members and some with thousands.  But if there’s still nothing to meet your needs, why not start your own?  Technically it’s very easy, but there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Choose which kind of group will serve your needs (open, closed, private)
  • Decide who will be eligible to join
  • Create some guidelines for posting and publish them in the group as a document, it may be obvious to you that it’s not appropriate to promote your cousin’s business, but someone’s gonna do it! 
  • More than than one admin is highly recommended. Quite apart from sharing the responsibility, I once deleted myself accidentally and needed someone to let me back in!
  • Someone needs to monitor the group at least once a day, every day
  • At the beginning you need to “seed” the group with posts, images and articles to generate discussion. 
  • Similarly, like and comment on posts to encourage participation

Facebook groups can be a useful tool for offering friendship and mutual support. They work well for people with a shared interest who are separated by distance and also for those who meet face-to-face regularly but still want to connect in between meetings. Just remember to step away from that screen every now and again 🙂

First impressions

When we first arrived in Azerbaijan, all I could see was the ugliness.  My 9 year old son summed it up in an essay he wrote at school, “When we arrived in Baku it was dark and my mom said it would all look better in the morning, but it didn’t.”  For the first few weeks, all I saw from my apartment window was the dirty rag stuck in the tree outside.  When I walked downtown, all I saw were the broken roads and sidewalks, the peeling paint on the buildings and the dilapidated cars and buses.

I distinctly remember the day that changed.  I was walking back from the bazaar, with the straw shopping bag I’d bought from the old lady at the entrance a few weeks back.  As I crossed the road to my building, dodging the hooting cars, I noticed the marigolds just coming into bloom in the long neglected flower beds in the park and looked appreciatively at the elegant lines of the green bell tower on top of my building.  I suddenly had a flash of realization that this was now home, and I felt good about it.

From then on I started to appreciate the beauty of the architecture, the narrow alleyways of the old walled city, the blueness of the sky and the breeze which blew the traffic fumes away.  I didn’t know then that what I’d experienced is part of what’s called “culture shock” so I called it “getting my Baku eyes,” the ability to see beyond the first impression and notice what really matters.

It happened again in Cairo, and even in Dubai and upon my repatriation to Toronto.  Getting my local “eyes” is a distinct and important part of the adjustment process for me when I move to a new place.

A couple of weeks ago, in my job as a relocation specialist, I took out a client who’d just arrived from Singapore.  I’ve never been there myself, but a friend who just visited described it to me; “It is a BEAUTIFUL place:  the Switzerland of Asia.  So organized, so clean, so green and no scooters and no honking.  Surely, people that work and live there cannot ever be happy anywhere else.  IT IS PARADISE!”  As we drove around the rolling tundra of Toronto’s northern suburbs it was a cold, grey day in March.  The snow had been melting but there were still dirty black piles of it at the side of the wide bleak highways.  As we passed strip mall after strip mall it started to sleet.  I wondered what was he thinking?  Surely he was horrified at what he’d come to?  He was far too polite and inscrutable to say, so all I could do was assure him that in a month or two it would all look much better.  I’m sure he thought I was referring to the weather, but I hope he stays long enough to get his “Toronto eyes.”