When it comes to the little things in life I am the world’s worst procrastinator. Pret salad or Itsu rice pot? Curly hair or straight? Toast or porridge? Middle class problems reach a whole new level. As for the more important decisions, I’m like Trump on quickfire.
Move to Angola? Sure. India next week? Already packed. Quit job to volunteer in Lebanon? Yalla yalla!
While I have no regrets and my advice to anyone embarking on an expat journey is to just do it, here are a few things I wish I’d done beforehand.
- Identify the priorities. As a twenty something professional what I really wanted was great nightlife, a fulfilling career and good shops. In that order. As a new mum my priorities shifted to a low crime rate and decent healthcare for my kids, followed by a decent social life. Ask yourself what really matters and if that destination will offer it. Suburban Switzerland was perfect as a new mum but would have driven me to suicidal boredom if I’d been ten years younger.
- Make a time plan. Have a rough idea how long you will be staying but be prepared to adapt. How long does the company typically expect you to stay? How long did colleagues in similar roles stay? How long are you willing to live there? Three months may seem like an interesting break from the norm, three years more like the holiday from hell.
- Figure out the finances. Weigh up the cost of living and the hidden costs. Eating out, domestic help, groceries, going out…I baulked at the prices in Switzerland but weighing up the average salary there I realised that it was cheap as chips in comparison to London. Soon I got to know my way and changed my grocery shopping from the corner store (20 euros for a pack of Alpen muesli), to a local organic market (bizarrely very cheap). On the other hand, while I knew our accommodation costs would be covered in Luanda, Angola, I hadn’t realised that even a $10,000 USD / month apartment wouldn’t come near to the ‘luxury’ of my former student digs. Cockroaches, chipped paint and cracked tiles came as standard, electricity and water did not.
- Prepare for the worst (financially). Sounds negative but prepare for costs which may take some time to be paid back from the company (once over a year in our case). While some companies will refund everything, including home cleaning, schools, nursery, language classes and travel others make Scrooge seem like the philanthropist of the century. And be sure to leave enough for the flight home, just in case.
- Plastic is fantastic. Be sure to unlock your credit card for use abroad. Sometimes it’s worth requesting an additional card or even opening another account depending on the charges. In my experience Visa Debit is accepted pretty much everywhere while Maestro is a bit trickier and Amex is only for the big chains. And finally, if you’re going somewhere a little off beat take dollars. 20 dollar bills are my defacto get out of jail card.Photo by 401(K) 2013
- Visas. As I have found out time and time again it just isn’t worth travelling without a valid one. If you want or need to work then check you can definitely obtain a working visa. Don’t overextend your visa. Being married to a local, speaking the lingo and being qualified up to the eyeballs will do you no more good than a nervous smile. You’ll find yourself out of a job, out of the country, with a hefty fine, or in jail.
- Reach out. Join expat groups (read my post on them here) before you go – nine times out of ten the subscription fees are worth it, even if it means connecting with one person who can provide that all important advice. Ask questions on forums, get tips from the relocation company, do as much as you can beforehand so you can hit the ground running when you arrive.
- Suss out the society. Every destination has its dark shadows as well as its hidden charms. Check with friends living there if you have connections as well on updated forums online. A friend once asked me my advice on moving to a certain part of Switzerland as a gay couple. My guess was that they’d have no trouble as such but he himself might find it difficult in other ways. Contrary to popular belief I found the Swiss to be immensely open minded and forward thinking in terms of homosexuality. On the other hand with an undercurrent of racism in many parts (and blatant fascism in others), his swarthy looks and inability to speak the lingo might make it difficult for him to find an apartment and get on with the neighbours.
- Pack gifts. Thank you presents for the admin assistant at work, the relocation manager, the helpful neighbour and the locals who invite you for dinner come in very handy. Tea, candles, beauty products and good quality branded liquor seem to go down particularly well. If you’re off to a developing country contact charities who can usually advise on useful souvenirs or toys for locals. Football related memorabilia, crafts and jewellry seem popular in my experience.
- Sensual sentimentals. No matter how wonderful the destination, it pays to pack a few sentimentals for yourself. In my case – Jo Malone candles, my favourite silk shawl, a photo album of family and friends, Yorkshire Tea and a playlist of happy tunes.
- Dress appropriately, always. Sounds straight forward enough. But you see other girls wearing more fashionable get up and as time goes by you relax and crack open the bodycon. People smile and tell you it’s OK. It’s not. In Syria I was invited to a local family dinner and turned up still wearing the floor length hooded abaya as prescribed by the mosque where I was learning arabic at that time. ‘Oh, so beautiful! Ahh so lovely’ the mother squealed. A few weeks later I got another last minute invitation and popped over in linen trousers and a short sleeved cotton Tshirt. The mother’s face sank and later on I asked her her opinion. My outfit was OK but I would undoubtedly find the black, sweaty polyester abaya more comfortable. Nuff said.
- If in doubt, talk. You’ve signed the contract, liaised with the relocation company, packed your bags, your family is excited and your best buddy has booked their ticket to visit. Nevertheless you can’t help feeling a bit sick when you think about the move. Sometimes it’s all too easy to go with the flow but in truth you’re not happy. Be honest to yourself and those you care for. Better to talk now openly than arrive full of regret, and leave prematurely in tears.