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 . . .

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Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 1

IMG_0411As always the Families in Global Transition conference sparked a lot of ideas in me, including ideas for future blog posts, but to start with, here is some straight reporting on the conference itself.

One thing everyone comments on about FIGT is the friendly atmosphere.  Those of us who arrived the night before met up in the hotel lounge and it was impossible to tell who was a newcomer and who was an old-timer as the small group quickly fell into animated conversations over drinks and snacks.

You will never be short of something to do at an FIGT conference.  Even discussions over breakfast are organized by topics of interest to the community.  I hosted one such “Early Bird” on HootSuite, one of my favourite social media tools, which morphed into a short workshop when I found most people at the table had never used it and wanted to learn.  Other topics were Parenting from Afar, Close Neighbours (moving to a neighbouring country), Uplanned Repatriations, The Multicultural Self, Setting up an FIGT Affiliate and Adult TCKs/CCKs.

As soon as breakfast was over the conference was officially opened and we were entranced by Pico Iyer, the keynote speaker for well over an hour.  He is one of that rare breed of successful authors who are also eloquent speakers.  Modest, humorous and very perceptive he rolled from one engaging anecdote to another, all pointing to his central theme that even in our increasingly connected world the distances between us remain and in some instances seem to be increasing.

During the break prior to the first session, I headed straight to the bookstore.  Is it just me, or are more and more good expat books being published every year?  The photo above is of the authors who attended this year’s conference and books by many more were available for sale.

For my first session I chose “We Are a Family Case” presented by researchers Debra Miller, Dr Rebecca Powell and Becky’s cousin, Abigail Thornton.  The write-up sounded a little dry, but the topic of adult Third Culture Kids was of interest and the session itself didn’t disappoint.  Research on Becky Powell’s extended family was the topic, comparing those who had been mobile with those who hadn’t and how they formed and maintained relationships.  Fascinating stuff as I really enjoy content that is based on solid research.

After a buffet lunch (excellent food this year!), we gathered in the main ballroom for a new feature in 2013, 7 Ignite sessions.  Similar in style to short TED talks, these presenters were strictly timed to 6 ½ minutes and I’m hoping their presentations will soon be up on YouTube, so stay tuned for the link.

For my second session I chose Building Cultural Intelligence with Trisha Carter, an Intercultural Psychologist who had travelled all the way from Sydney, Australia.  Having followed her for quite a while via Twitter and her newsletter, it was a thrill to meet her in person.

By now my knees were seriously knocking as I was presenting a third session on expat blogging.  Not only was this my first time as an FIGT presenter but the conference microphone I’d requested for my Skyped-in panelist, Maria Foley, had failed to materialize.  Fortunately the rest of my panel of expat bloggers, Linda Janssen, Norman Viss and Rachel Yates didn’t so much as blink at the prospect of huddling around a spindly desktop microphone so that Maria could hear their contributions.  Expat resiliency won the day!  A post dedicated to this presentation will follow soon.

Sorely in need of a stiff drink, I headed off to the last event of the day, an evening reception and was delighted to find that both the drink and canapés were complimentary.  I have to admit that I’m no good at mingling in large groups, but again the organizers had planned an image-matching activity to help us break the ice and meet new people without feeling intimidated or foolish.

Buoyed by the warmth of my favourite expat tribe and not having fainted with fear during my session, I headed off for dinner with friends.  More about Day 2 in a future post.

Home at last

My friend Maria over at iwasanexpatwife.com has inspired me to write my own retrospective of 2011.  It may have been a train wreck for her, but for me the train finally arrived in the station in terms of my repatriation.  What made it happen?

Finding a purpose.  For me that meant finding a job I truly enjoy, but it could easily have been a hobby, a sport or a volunteer activity.  Having a reason to get up in the morning, doing something that’s fun and being valued for it are things we all need and yet they often get blown out of the water when we relocate.  This is my third job in 2 years, so it has been a bumpy road.

Making friends.  This past year I’ve acquired a few more new friends and acquaintances.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that they too had (or still have) international lives.  I’ve also reconnected more deeply with old friends and I suspect that’s partly due to the fact that I, and they, no longer feel I’m about to pack my bags and head out again any time soon.

My family’s settled.  I guess this is very much an expat wife thing, because we’re notorious for getting our families settled before looking after ourselves.  Although we all repatriated at different times, I now feel both my husband and son are happy and settled, or at least as much as TKCs are likely to be.

This is the same list you’d make for adjusting to any new location, but there’s no doubt that repatriation adds a huge extra layer of complexity.  For us, a period of unemployment during a particularly difficult economic period created additional stress, but the emotional baggage of who we are now vs who we were before expatriation was the killer and affected every aspect of our lives.  Having said that, like many of life’s major challenges, it has been a time of learning and growth.  Perhaps every dark cloud does have a silver lining.

Many expatriates don’t have a home to come back to, either because they’ve been global nomads all their lives or have permanently cut the ties to what was home.  But for us knowing we had not only a country, but a house to call home, was an important touchstone during those inevitable down days of life overseas, so I don’t regret it.  However, during the early days of culture shock when you repatriate and find home doesn’t feel comfortable, safe or even pleasant anymore, it’s like having the rug pulled completely out from under you.  No wonder it takes so long to re-establish a sense of security and comfort.

So what now, going forward?  I’m really not sure and, given past experience, I’m not sure I want to know, LOL!  But one thing I do know is that I am a forever-expat.  I continue to rejoice in my expat friendships, my volunteer work with Families in Global Transition and the Toronto Newcomers Club, so please continue to watch this space.

Career choice and the Accompanying Partner

I try not to indulge too frequently in the game of “I wonder what would have happened if …” as I prefer to look forward rather than backward, but if someone seriously asked me what I wish I’d known then (before I became an expatriate) that I do know now, it would be about the existence of expat coaches.  Was there such a thing back in 1996?  I don’t know and even if there were, I don’t know how I would have found one back then, but now having met many both in person and through social networks, I can see it would have been helpful to brainstorm with a professional as I dealt with the transitions from country to country and through various stages of my life.

Two who I feel I know well through their blogs and tweets are Louise Wiles (Success Abroad Coaching) and Evelyn Simpson (The Smart Expat).  They have just launched a survey on the attitudes of accompanying partners of expats towards work and career.  Louise tells me:

The survey will explore the choices accompanying partners of expats make regarding whether or not they work as well as delving deeper into the reasoning behind each individual’s choice. Finally it will consider whether or not there is a connection between career choice and overall satisfaction with life.

We believe that understanding more about those choices will help accompanying partners with their decision-making in relation to international assignments and will also help organisations to more effectively direct the resources that they assign to supporting accompanying partners.

The survey is totally anonymous and participants are offered the opportunity of entering a Prize Draw as a way of saying thank you. Prizes include two coaching packages and two books.

To access the survey, click on the link 

All participants will be able to receive a copy of the summary report which will be available early spring 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

A Year in Destination Services

Working as a destination services consultant was an interesting year for me.  Although I knew my home city of Toronto well before I began, I learned a great deal more, particularly about the practicalities of renting a home and obtaining a variety of government documents (social insurance number, health card, driver’s licence, etc).  Never having received destination services during any of our international moves, it was an insight into the kinds of services on offer and how they work.

Most companies offer a menu of services, but they essentially break down into:

  • General Orientation
  • Finding a home
  • Finding a school
  • Government paperwork
  • A few offer spousal support

Before I started the job, I assumed most of my clients would be senior executives, married and with children.  But looking back now over a year’s worth of clients almost 70% of them were in the 25-35 year old bracket, 50% were single and only 25% had children.  Bear in mind, this is a small sample, from one city and one destination services company, so can’t be construed as indicative of the industry as a whole.

By far the most popular service asked for was help in finding a home; rental searches were 80% of my business.   Orientation (usually helping people to narrow down neighbourhoods prior to a rental search) and obtaining government documents were the next most common, comprising about a third of assignments.  One other point to note is that 25% of my clients were domestic relocations and of the remaining international relocations, more than half were moving from the US.

All the clients assigned to me worked for large corporations or organizations and for the most part my relocation company worked in partnership with a relocation company at the departure point.  My assignments came to me via my office, so I had almost no direct contact with either my client’s company or their primary relocation provider.  My point of contact was the transferee themselves and although I could suggest or recommend additional services, for the most part I was told which services to provide and the billable time available.

Some other personal observations:-

  • Most destination services consultants work from home, sometimes (as I did) 100% of the time.
  • Workload fluctuates; for me it was either feast or famine and quite unpredictable.
  • Weekend work is involved, particularly for rental searches, as most clients weren’t able or didn’t want to take time off from their new jobs.
  • Phone calls and emails arrive 24/7 and need to be monitored and answered promptly.
  • Pre and post client contact can be considerable, depending on the client and their circumstances, typically I would put in an additional ½ -1 day of work for each day I spent out with them face-to-face.
  • All the clients I dealt with were polite and pleasant.  Although sometimes things didn’t go to plan I never had a client be rude or angry with me.

If you’re going to succeed and enjoy the work you need to be:-

  • Friendly, communicative and a have genuine desire to help.
  • Very organized as you’ll have to keep track of multiple ongoing files.
  • Detail oriented, particularly when helping clients with government paperwork.
  • Able to think on your feet and deal with last-minute changes of plan.

It was interesting and fun because I like working with people and I had a lot of empathy for my clients’ situations.  I found it challenging and I was always learning, both plus factors for me.  What made me decide to quit and pursue something different was a combination of issues.  Although I knew going in that the workload would vary and involve weekend work, in practice I found that more inconvenient than I expected.  Probably if I had young children, I’d have appreciated the flexibility more and that would have balanced it out.  But what surprised me was how isolated I felt working remotely all the time.  Although I’ve worked part-time from home in the past I’ve always spent some of my week the office.  So another thing this job taught me is how much I value in-person interaction with colleagues.

When I started, I described destination services as “A great job for a trailing spouse” and I stick by that claim.  It just wasn’t the right job for THIS trailing spouse but I’m still really glad I had a chance to try it out.

Expatriate Time Travel

I didn’t expect to travel through time as well as space when we first moved overseas.  Yet that’s exactly what happened when I gave up my job moved overseas to Azerbaijan with my husband and 9-year-old son.  Not only did I move almost 6,000 miles I also travelled back 30-odd years to a time when mothers stayed home, cooked from scratch and met their friends for coffee mornings and afternoon tea.

According to the oft-quoted Permits Foundation survey, of the women who follow their men overseas 90% work before they leave, but only 35% work while they’re on assignment.  I willingly gave up working because at the time I was close to burn-out.  My husband travelled internationally frequently and often for weeks at a time, I had a child who was usually the last to be picked up from daycare yet had reached an age when he needed a parent to support him with homework, I had a house and a large garden to care for and no extended family for support.  So the chance for some time out was just as good an opportunity for me as the career move was for my husband.

I found myself in a place where convenience food didn’t exist, where people still shopped at the markets on a daily basis and no-one had heard of 24/7.  In other words, I became my mother, circa 1960.  It was a huge culture shock, quite apart from the fact that I was in another country.  Thank goodness I had the sense to bring my mother’s edition of “Cookery Illustrated and Household Management “ 1936 edition.  Although I’d often laughed at those instructions that began  “Draw, singe and truss a medium-sized turkey . . . “ I now welcomed the detailed instructions for home-made soups, stews and baked goods.

So what did I learn other than sage & onion stuffing and macaroni and cheese don’t have to come from a box?  Well I instantly noticed an improved quality of life for all 3 of us.  My son went from reading at a grade 2 level to a grade 4 level in less than 6 months.  My husband could enjoy 2 full days of relaxation at the weekends instead of running around with me doing chores.  And I caught up on 9 years of sleep deprivation, worked out on a regular basis, had time to explore my new surroundings and developed a wide circle of  friends.

Looking back, I can see that the volunteer work I threw myself into was an attempt to satisfy the professional working woman in me and I always cringed whenever I faced a form with the box every expatriate spouse dreads:  “Occupation.”  Yet it took a surprisingly long time for coffee mornings to wear thin and a genuine desire to return to the working world to surface.

I’ve just started a new job (my 3rd since repatriating 2 years ago).   Since returning home I’ve travelled forward in time to a place where many of my contemporaries hold high level, professional positions and my struggle to find a niche in the working world has not been easy.  My new position is part-time and not particularly well-paid or high status and yet I’m happy with it, for me, for now because it gives me the best of both worlds I’ve lived in.  I’m very fortunate that living overseas and “time travel” gave me the opportunity  to try out another way of living and the wherewithal to continue to do so now that I’m back.

Research, Resiliency and Writing

Looking back on the Families in Global Transition Conference which I attended just over a week ago, 3 things struck me in particular:

Research

I heard several attendees say that hard facts are what they need; both in their own work and in order to convince others of its value.  So it was good to see that there was a strong focus on research this year.  The opening keynote speech was given by Anne Copeland, a leader in the field of intercultural transitions (many of her research findings are freely available on her website).  There was a special workshop for members of the FIGT Research Network to discuss best practices and their current projects.  And on Friday the afternoon’s sessions were clustered around 5 different research presentations on various aspects of support for globally mobile families.

Resiliency

Resiliency is definitely the new buzz word.  I heard it over and over again.  The cynical side of me might say that this is code for “you’re on your own, buddy” when it comes to organizations supporting expats at a time when most are looking for ways to cut costs.  But in truth expats do need to be resilient, no matter how much assistance is provided.  Duncan Westwood described it as “the ability to bounce back” and that’s a life skill we could all use, expat or not.

Writing

We expats do seem to be compelled to write about our experiences whether it’s blogs, books or bylines, as Jo Parfitt’s presentation was entitled.  The bookstore did a brisk trade and many of the authors were there in person.  Over dinner, Tina Quick and I traded repatriation stories and when she mentioned that many tips in her book “The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition” applied to adult repatriates too, I decided to buy it.  Having read excerpts of Alan Paul’s story of his life as an accompanying spouse, “Big in China,” I took advantage of having him sign a copy for me.  And I was so inspired by Joanne Huskey’s closing keynote that I also purchased her book “The Unofficial Diplomat.”  An exclusive pre-release copy of Expatwomen.com’s new book “Expat Women: Confessions” was a tucked inside our registration packs when we arrived.  And as if that wasn’t enough, I WON a Kindle from one of the sponsors, Clements International and am now anxiously waiting for it to arrive.

FIGT is something of a unique group in that most people who attend (including the service providers and representatives of sending organizations) are expats or former expats themselves.  As a result there is a common bond and instant sense of understanding between them.  As a first time attendee said to me “It is nice to feel there is a sector of the population that “gets it”, isn’t it?”

Photos of the 2011 FIGT Conference are available here and you’ll find video interviews with some of the attendees here.