Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Just Stuff

I didn't need this stuff and I couldn't take it with me, I remember thinking, as I gathered my UK life into numerous black bin bags and poorly formed cardboard boxes.

This 'stuff' would shortly be sold at a local market in town. A hoarder by nature, I didn't exactly want to dispose of my early childhood possessions and used household goods but the upcoming journey overseas dictated that I travel with the bare minimum - and I was in no position to bring along any of this excess stuff. My stuff would therefore become someone else's stuff. 

On a grey and overcast morning, I farewelled what I believed was a large part of my English identity steadily accumulated through the years of life on this island of mine but which, in reality, was not far off being junk.

I detached myself from the process and proceeded to de-clutter my very self. The riddance of these familiar items was a blow to my parents and one in a series of events that crystallised the harsh reality of us leaving on a one-way voyage overseas. Inwardly, I'm sure my parents grieved for the loss of these 'things' that represented my established life in England. Outwardly, they put on a brave face and watched silently as my worldly goods sold for mere pounds and pence in a nondescript school playground in an indistinctive southern town.

I have no doubt that I left a part of me behind on that day in that playground.

I sold broken bookshelves, faulty cabinets and wonky chairs, as I moved forward with my life taking a brave step into the unknown. In my mind, I was not simply giving up physical belongings, but unnecessary baggage. The part of me left behind at that marketplace was the part that refused to let go, that wanted to remain in a safe place, that needed to sit tight in its comfort zone. I left the market emotionally fatigued but all the lighter for releasing myself of this stuff. Because that was all it was.

Just stuff.

In time, I grew better at purging myself of these seemingly unnecessary things. In fact, I became almost obsessed. In the lead-up to a big move, I would become maniacal in my efforts to clear every room of any effects that could hold up progress or add expense to the upcoming journey. I would discard these obstructive annoyances with relish and a lack of regard for their worth or significance, only to be reigned in by my wife when the cupboards lay bare and the packing boxes still empty.

There was one treasured possession that I could not face parting with, that I clung to with the stubbornness of a spoilt child. When the flat pack boxes arrived and we had armed ourselves with brown tape and bold marker pens, I would head straight for my beloved collection of 12-inch records. This army of battered vinyl warriors, this organised mass of plastic and paper and memories waited patiently for a touch or a dust down, as perfect in my eyes as the day they were made. 

My records were meticulously lined up in rows on the shelves of my spare bedroom. I would carefully take one by its spine, smell the damp and musty aroma as it came free, feel the well-worn edges and dog-eared corners, and flip the delicate ageing cover over in my hands as I remembered the beat, the tempo, the vocals, that baseline, the last time I'd soaked up its precious musical cargo.

This thing, mere stuff, had a bewitching power over me. 

Photo credit:

I could suddenly be transported from my Sydney bungalow to a time and place in the past when this record revolved on a dimly lit turntable, in a darkened booth, in the corner of a dingy club, in front of a die hard crowd. The record's sounds, this most beautiful of stuff, would be lapped up by the gathered crowd, whistling and clapping, moving as one pulsating, electrified mass to the rhythm of the tune, always hungry for more. The atmosphere heightened as the song reached its climax. People thumping on the floor, jumping up on benches, cheering and revelling in the heady atmosphere. The ever-present baseline reverberating around the club's walls, pulsing through the sofas and stools, shaking exit doors and jolting mammoth speakers. I soaked up the atmosphere, sky high on the energy, electrified by the reaction to this record, this thing, this stuff.

My collection of records is so dear to me. My records are my prize, my trophy.

They are more than just grooved discs, more than a family of sounds. They are a point in time when I studied hard by day and DJ-ed harder through the night. They were my escape from the monotony of reports and essays, of lectures and exams. They note a day, a week, a month when life was carefree, when responsibility was shirked.

Although I've tried to move on, I allow myself these brief moments to reminisce, a knowing smile stretching my face and a shoe tap tapping the floor. My battered and grimy records remind me of what was, but could never really continue to be. And this stuff has weighed heavily on the purse, being shipped from one city to the next at maddening expense. I have often caught my wife gazing out over the tightly packed boxes waiting expectantly to be carried away to our new home in some exotic locale. She will shake her head, let out a small sigh, and turn to other more pressing matters.

When moving to Sydney, I hauled more than fifteen over-sized boxes of my perfect records into the storage space beneath the house. It was a mistake of epic proportions. When a storm hit the city not long after, the accompanying downpour broke free of the overwhelmed drains to deposit soil and water in my records' new home. My beloved collection, my stuff, wallowed waist deep in muddy water until discovered several days later. I spent days and weeks in the garage peeling soggy covers from exposed vinyl backs, wiping slime off vulnerable torsos, carefully placing bruised bodies into clean paper cases.

My wife watched me one day and gave another almost imperceptible shake of the head.

I sometimes wonder if she realises that this stuff is so much more than just stuff. 

What stuff have you brought with you or left behind?  Was it worth the effort or do you miss it?

Sign up for regular email updates. It's easy and free.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Blame It On The Cat

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

The expat life is one of adventure, discovery, glamour, and...  bumbling social ineptitude. So, for the September edition of NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches, our ongoing guest-post project, we four expat bloggers are divulging their most embarrassing expat moments.

Linda of Adventures in Expatland (North) demonstrates that a small vowel can cause big problems. Yours truly, of In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), discovers that wherever you are in the world, people enjoy a good laugh at the newbie’s expense. Erica of Expatria, Baby (East) writes on this blog of disastrous first impressions that last and last and last. And finally, Maria, who blogs at I Was an Expat Wife, reveals how her expat mantra of “try new things” led her astray.

I hope that you enjoy this month’s post by Erica called Blame it on the cat, and do check out all of the other posts (I'm over at Linda's site in the Netherlands, There are many, many laughs to be had...

The rules of social engagement in Japan are complex, and my understanding of our civic obligations here are nebulous at best. Consequently, I fear that I am in a continual state of awkward social delinquency, doomed to forever achieve new heights of social shame. Polite but distant greetings from my neighbours have me worried about my latest transgression; how might I have unintentionally caused offense this time? Was it the accidental door slam as I took out the garbage? Or, perhaps the fact that I went to check the mail with a baby clad only in her diaper? Is it that I didn’t join in the Chonai Ka, or neighbourhood association?

Or, maybe the source of my neighbourly shame is our cats. Or, more specifically, Oliver Katz, or special little neurotic feline snowflake, who is perhaps responsible for my (imagined?) position of social pariah.

Oliver Katz, not so innocent

Oliver is a lovely, gentle little sweetheart of a rescue cat. He was found as a tiny kitten, eyes barely open, in a Shanghai garbage bin. His rough start in life has left him understandably terrified, hysterically petrified, of strangers. If some unknown person should happen to cross the threshold of our apartment, he will inevitably spend the next three hours cowering under the blankets on my bed. And should, heaven forbid, the stranger try to actually touch him, then he disintegrates into a quivering pile of neurotic anxiety, from which it takes days to recover. I am not kidding at all. 

So. That’s our Oliver.

Cut to me, 39 weeks pregnant, about to experience one of my most embarrassing moments ever, all at the paws of my sweet boy Oliver. The cats are outside sunning themselves, taking advantage of our first-floor cat-safe balcony (chosen specifically for it’s first floor-idness after an other unfortunate incident wherein our elder feline fur-child, Mr. Finnegan, leapt out of our 20th floor window. He survived. But that’s another story for another day.) So, anyway, I’m washing the dishes, when suddenly I hear an ungodly howl.

I go outside to investigate; I hear Oliver screaming, but I can’t see him. He’s not on the balcony, he’s not in the courtyard. I follow the sound of his level nine red-alert banshee cries, and there he is. On the upstairs neighbour’s balcony. Somehow, in what still remains a mystery to me, he scaled a brick wall,  jumped over a railing, Spider-Man style, and got himself stuck on a strange balcony. Of a strange apartment. That belonged to strangers. Oh Gawd. Horror show.

So, off I went, ready to offer my apologies to my neighbors, and rescue poor Oliver. But alas, the neighbours in question were not home. Of course they weren't. And I had no way of reaching my frantically screaming cat, who’s yowls were now echoing all over the building. I parked my very pregnant self in front of their door, and waited, while a the cat scream symphony continued for a good hour and a half.

When the neighbours finally returned home, I did my best to explain, using mostly sign language, and a handful of Japanese expressions, that my cat was on their balcony, would they mind, I’m so sorry for the intrusion, I’m really embarrassed, very very sorry, if I just ran inside and got him? It will only take a moment. Sorry. Sorry.

(Another thing you need to know about Japan, that I should probably mention here, is that one never ever ever invites people into one’s house. The home is at the heart of the personal sphere, and even very good friends rarely, if ever, get an invitation into the domestic sanctum. Let alone an enormously pregnant, frantic and inarticulate foreign lady.)

Finally the neighbours let me in. And wouldn’t you know it, but the balcony in question is right off their master bedroom (double shame!) They’re in a panic, trying to make the bed before this pregnant barbarian lady barges in and attempts to grab her cat, who is, at this point, totally and utterly insane with agitation.

I grab him. His claws are out. He takes one look at the terrifyingly strange strangers and does a somersault in my arms, scratches me everywhere, and then bolts. Oliver tears through their apartment, jumps up a shelf, knocks down a million knick-knacks, and (I am 100 percent not kidding) runs up a wall. UP A WALL. A vertical gyprock wall. Like almost to the ceiling. For the second time that day.

So let’s recap: I’m hugely pregnant, sweating, in imminent danger of stress-induced labour, and now I’m bleeding profusely from about ten cat scratches all over my arms, neck and belly. Oliver Katz is hurtling around a stranger’s apartment, an apartment that, even under the most congenial of circumstances, I had no right to be in. Sweat, blood and disregard of social conventions: the the perfect trifecta of social humiliation.

Somehow I manage to grab Oliver and chuck him out the neighbours front door and into the hallway before returning to apologize some more, bowing awkwardly while trying not to bleed too much all over the place. After a million sorrys, I hastily make my departure. Then I don some oven mitts and grab my still-screaming cat who was too distraught to figure out that he has been saved from the torment of being in the sightline of strangers, and actually he could walk back into our apartment on his own.

The next day, in a shoddy attempt to save some face, I returned to the scene of my shame bearing a beautifully wrapped home-baked lemon cake. Because nothing says, “I’m sorry that my cat broke into your apartment, ran up to your ceiling and caused me to bleed all over your floor” like lemon cake.

So, yeah. I do think that I’m persona non grata in my building. And Mr Katz may or may not have something to do with that fact.

Have you suffered a particularly embarrassing expat experience? If so, feel free to share it here.

Sign up for regular email updates. It's easy and free.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Reading 'Expat Women: Confessions' and making some of my own

I have a confession to make. In fact, I have several. 

I didn't realise that large numbers of expat women struggle when assigned overseas. I didn't realise expat women made confessions about these struggles. And I didn't realise they made them at Expat Women, an online resource for helping expatriate women living overseas.
When Andrea Martins, the director and one of the founders of Expat Women, asked me to review her co-authored book, Expat Women: Confessions - 50 Answers to your Real-life Questions about Living Abroad, I wasn't entirely sure what I was letting myself in for.

You see I'm an expat, but not in the traditional sense of the word.  I've moved myself around the world independent of any company or organisation. I therefore don't quite fit the typical 'expat professional' mould and my wife doesn't fit the definition of a 'trailing spouse'. Would I be able to relate to this book through my own personal expat experience?

I'm also an expat man. And this book was written for exclusively expat women. So I was keen to see whether the confessions of a struggling expat woman would be relevant to me?

Released in May 2011, Expat Women: Confessions builds on a successful and long-running series on the Expat Women website in which female expatriates (and repatriates), including those who are trailing spouses, confess their struggles to the online experts in a Q&A-type format. The book groups the issues encountered by these women under six principal categories, which makes for logical and straightforward reading.

As I made my way through the book, I felt a sense of deja vu learning about the daily struggles suffered by everyday women in adjusting to a home away from home. From concerns about transitioning into a foreign environment to struggles with unhealthy work-life balances, from suffering regular bouts of homesickness and wanting to go home to experiencing visa difficulties, Expat Women: Confessions covers it all. The range and depth of issues raised, and advice given in return, is staggering yet always approached in a sensitive and honest way.

The "so what?" question that had initially formed on my lips had disappeared. The confessions made and questions asked in the book, often secretly suffered by these expatriate women, were just as applicable to a man like myself. There were untold trepidations and everyday tensions I'd felt on many occasions, and the issues in this book easily crossed gender lines. I found myself relating with ease and familiarity to the anxiety and uncertainty suffered by these fellow expat souls.

The issues were also not unique to international assignees or professional transplants, and could as easily be experienced by a young family choosing to live a life less ordinary on the other side of the world as by a career expat relocating to a neighbouring country on a six-month assignment.

The strength of Expat Women: Confessions is not just the provision of sensible answers and practical advice for any international mover, past or present, but for bringing to light the many issues, frustrations and questions that arise when embarking on a life lived abroad. More importantly for men like myself who will read and learn about the largely unknown struggles facing expat women, the book will raise awareness and inform, which is both necessary and important.

I leave you with one final confession. If you're an expat-to-be or a current expat, you really should be reading this book. It is a significant source of guidance and support for your journey ahead.

For more information and other expat resources, ensure you visit and support the valuable work of people like Andrea at Expat Women.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Coffee's Up in Sydney!

When WhyGo Australia, part of the BootsnAll Travel Network, asked me to guest post for them on an aspect of life in the land down under, I immediately thought of the increasingly sophisticated and quite delightful coffee culture in Sydney - and my surprise in finding such a deeply ingrained culture in this beautiful harbour city.

You see, I'm a bit of a coffee fanatic. I simply can't get enough of the black stuff.  I'm no coffee connoisseur - I'd still quite happily accept a large cup of weakest drip coffee from Starbucks - but my eyes have been opened to the seriously high quality and range of coffee found across Sydney...  and I like what I see.

Photo credit: Stuart Miles /

In my guest post for WhyGo Australia, I write about some of the coffee habits, types and prices, drinking establishments, and a few of the more unusual coffee variations and practices that I've noticed through working in Sydney and exploring the wider metropolitan area.

If you're a coffee lover like me, or just curious to see what all the fuss is about, please do head over to WhyGo Australia's website to read more about Sydney's fascination with, and adoration for, the liquid black velvet in my post, titled Coffee's Up In Sydney!

And if you also find yourself tragically addicted to a good cappuccino or mocha, latte or flat white, why not say 'hello' on this blog and start up a conversation on the merits of a good coffee!

That's assuming you were even aware of Sydney's coffee culture and, if so, agree that it's one of the coffee centres of the world?

Coffee's Up in Sydney! at WhyGo Australia -

Sign up for regular email updates. It's easy and free.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Witnessing tragedy on the Northern Beaches

Yesterday didn't turn out quite as expected.

What started out as a regular Friday morning drive to take Milo for his walk along the sand dunes at Curl Curl beach rapidly turned into a morning of local tragedy.
Police helicopter flying overhead.  Image: Highway Patrol
As I drove to the beach, the radio presenter announced that a light aircraft had crashed into the ocean not far from Curl Curl beach with two possible survivors at the scene. Already en route to that particular, I was aware of a number of news helicopters buzzing immediately overhead.

Pulling in to the beach car park, it became apparent that this was more than a mere aviation mishap. Local people crowded the dunes above North Curl Curl to watch a search and rescue chopper winch an obviously injured man from the base of the rocks to the left of the beach. Television crews and paramedics gathered by the adjacent surf club and surf lifesavers powered a number of jet skis close to the scene.

Search and rescue helicopter at the scene
Talking to the people gathered around me, it seemed that the injured man had been rescued by surfers and rock fishermen shortly after the plane ditched into the ocean. Somehow he had managed to escape the rapidly sinking plane and floated in the rough water with serious spinal injuries as his rescuers paddled out to save him.

More remarkably, one of the rescuers had been working on a building site not far from the beach when the plane flew low overhead with its engine malfunctioning. As the plane lost altitude, the builder jumped into his car, drove to the beach car park and, without thinking, dived into the ocean to help rescue the man.

It quickly became apparent to those of us gathered on the dunes that the pilot had not been as fortunate as his passenger and had remained trapped in the plane as it sank into the choppy water. Watching the events unfold below us, we realised this was not just a story of heroics and good fortune but a tragic ending for the poor guy trapped less than six metres below the water's surface and not twenty metres from the shoreline.

Police looking on.  Image: Highway Patrol Images
Police divers arrived on the scene care of two police boats and, within minutes, were dropping to the ocean floor to retrieve the pilot's body at the same time that his companion was being rushed to hospital injured but thankfully still alive.

I'd decided to tweet about what was happening before me. Out of the blue, a journalist from Australia's ABC identified me on Twitter as a person to interview to gauge the reaction and mood from the local community.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself interviewed by mobile phone detailing my experiences of the morning's very sad events. This interview capped off an extraordinary day.

Police boats above the plane
Tragedy had struck the Northern Beaches in the most unexpected of circumstances. An innocent life had been lost as a pilot struggled to control an engineless plane which fell into the ocean's depths. In parallel, a life had been saved when local men threw caution to the wind and cast themselves into the water to rescue a young man.

For the remainder of the day I couldn't help but dwell on the unnecessary life lost on that cold ocean floor whilst we watched helplessly from the edge of the beach.

A day that had started with sunny blue skies and positive thoughts of the approaching weekend had developed the most tragic of proportions as our little bit of paradise in this far corner of the world gave witness to a tragic and untimely end for one poor soul.

My mobile phone footage of the rescue attempt

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More
To contact me about writing or advertising opportunities, email