Monday, 24 October 2011

Where to Wear the Thong

I have an ugly big toe. In fact, it's not just ugly, it's downright scary. It's bruised, it's broken and it's in a bad way.

A tyre landed on this ugly big toe a few month's back. It was a very big black tyre, not unlike most big black tyres, and it meant business as it crushed my ugly big toe.

Some young buck at the weekly training session (remember the Warrior?) flipped this big black tyre onto my ugly big toe. It wasn't intentional but the result was something I'd rather keep hidden for the summer. Unfortunately that's not going to happen because summer has just arrived which heralds the annual arrival of the thong. And the arrival of the thong signals a very public display of my ugly big toe.

Here in Australia, the thong is not a small item of lady's lingerie (although it can be). Other nationalities prefer to call it a sandal or the flip flop or even a beach shoe. Here it is simply called a thong or thongs. Like water and air, Australians can't - and won't - live without them. In the land down under, the thong could very well be more prevalent and invasive than the cane toad or brown snake.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons CeresB

The familiar thwack-thwack of the thong as it meets the floor, the squeak of rubber on tile, is as unforgettable as a dose of the clap. Thongs are worn in the supermarket, at the mall, down the pub and when walking the dog. There are man-thongs with bottle-openers on the base. There are she-thongs that are stylish and petite. There are mini-thongs that the tiny toddler might adorn or his or her tiny feet. I'm yet to see a pair of thongs for my pup but I'm sure there's some curious shop out there that sells such a variety.

Yet forget talk of why thongs are worn and for what purpose as there is a more important conversation taking place on Sydney's radio airwaves at the moment. Debate is raging as to where the thong should and shouldn't be worn.

Australian culture may be casual and relaxed, but some pundits believe there is a time and a place for the thong - thongs worn at a wedding by the blushing bride are an abomination and bare toes on display in the city's workplaces are a huge office "don't". That said, these occurences regularly take place and are not as uncommon as you might think.

Many a time a young lady is spied walking to work, Gucci handbag under one arm and a pair of cut-price Havaianas worn beneath painstakingly manicured feet. Is this a case of high fashion or just a terrible faux-pas?

So where should you wear those thongs of yours? Here's my view, for what it's worth:
  • Thongs are always okay in the summer months (October to March) but please keep them packed away in the middle of winter. Nothing looks as bad as a pair of shrivelled toes prematurely coming out of what should be a long, drawn-out winter's hibernation.
  • If in doubt, remember that thongs are always good for vacations. Also wear them on the beach and around the house, but try to keep the little fellers away from weddings and other formal occasions, particularly funerals and wakes.
  • If you're a diehard thong fanatic, fill your boots so to speak. Wear whatever brand of thongs you like but try to stay away from those things they call Crocs. A pair of over sized plastic green clogs on those dainty feet is not a great look.
  • Finally, try to refrain from wearing those thongs in the office. I'm a tad particular about the proximity of my co-workers in general and I'd prefer not to spend my day smelling the heady aromas of those same co-workers' feet.

Whatever your penchance, Australia is a country where the thong rules supreme and where the thong is as much a part of the landscape as a game of cricket or a stubby on the beach. 

So where do you wear yours?

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

Friday, 14 October 2011

The More I Learn

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

We’re back - four intrepid souls who swap guests posts each month from the far corners of the globe. We are:

North: Linda in the Netherlands (
South: Russell in Australia (
East: Erica in Japan (
West: Maria in Canada (

The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let the examinations begin! Our theme this month is self-knowledge - or what expat life has taught us about ourselves.

At Expatria, Baby, I learned to trust my gut and remain true to my values in my search for a fulfilling expat life.

At I Was An Expat Wife, Erica learned that tolerance is much harder in practice than it is in theory.

Here, at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Linda learned that the more she actually learns about expat life, the less she knows.

At Adventures in Expatland, Maria learned that within her timid exterior - deep, deep within - beats the brave heart of a gambler.

Please do read our stories and share some of your own in our comments sections. We’d love to hear what expat life has taught you about yourself. And remember I'm over at Erica's site in Japan - Here's Linda's post, titled The More I Learn...

Self-knowledge is a beautiful thing.

It takes time and effort and patience to learn this simple truth. Some of us never quite do. But for most of us, as the clock ticks and the days pass, we find ourselves thinking more and more about where we've been and where we're going.

Photo credit: alvimann,

Some of us are blessed with an innate need to sift through and ponder and analyse and decipher. Then there are those of us who soldier on in life, rarely taking a moment to consider our path or our fate (or our role in either) until blindsided by a life lesson too big to be ignored. Humbled by Mother Nature, Father Time or both.

The better you understand yourself, the more you recognise patterns in your own behaviour, the deeper you delve into the reasons why you think and feel and act as you do...

then the greater the chances that you can silence negative thoughts when they rear their ugly heads.

Or bite your tongue when irritated or frustrated.

Or speak out on behalf of someone not able to do so.

Or choose tolerance over taking offense and forgiveness over holding a grudge.

Or channel your energies into making improvements to the world within your four walls, as well as the world outside your door.

Beetje bij beetje.

In Nederlands that means 'little bit by little bit'.

I use the phrase all the time, usually in conjunction with explaining that despite my Dutch language skills being average, I keep trying anyway. Lately I've been employing it as my mantra to maintain calm and restore equilibrium.

I wrote an article for publication the other day in which I shared some insights about what I've learned living in a different country and culture. I was making the point that 'culture shock' is a very real phenomenon and isn't necessarily linear.

[Due to different experiences, backgrounds and situations, no two people are affected by culture shock in the same manner, but essentially the phases most of us tend to go through while learning to adapt to a new culture work out something like this: the honeymoon (seeing things for the first time, excitement about what's new and different); frustration and disillusionment (our cultural adjustment starts to unconsciously overwhelm us, or we realise we're still carrying the same old issues with us despite a change in locale); bottoming out in a period of loneliness, alienation, feeling out of sync (and for some, sadness and even depression); and finally coming to terms with where we are, accepting it and getting on with our lives.]

I mentioned that despite truly enjoying the life I live here in The Netherlands, one of the nuggets of self-knowledge I've come to appreciate is that on any given day it may only take two or three frustrating or unsettling encounters and wham! I'm reeling, suddenly feeling like an outsider.

Recently I hit one of those difficult patches. Taken individually, none of the examples was particularly off-putting:

  • learning under varying circumstances from no less than three people, all from different countries, how unattractive they find American accented English;

  • arriving at a veterinary appointment at the proper time only to be told that it was an hour earlier, complete with knowing glances between the two administrative assistants that of course I was mistaken because clearly my Dutch isn't that good (despite my having made the appointment at the later time because of a prior engagement earlier in the day, my repeating the time twice in Dutch and once in English to confirm, and yes, I do know the difference between twee and drie, thank you very much);

  • being interrogated for the umpteenth time on American domestic and foreign policy by people less interested in trying to understand and more interested in informing me how ignorant/unintelligent/immature these policies are. And no, I'm not going to waste my breath defending popular culture coming out of the US either except to say that, as is usually the case elsewhere, it's neither as popular or representative as one might be led to believe (heavy sigh);

  • being yelled at by a Dutch woman who lives down the street for supposedly taking her garbage can after the garbage collectors left it sitting in front of my house. She's lived here far too long to not have noticed the weekly traipsing of neighbours up and down the street trying to figure out where their garbage cans have ended up this time;

  • being corrected on my Dutch yet again, in a highly dismissive tone, by someone I consider to be a friend, when she overheard me speaking to someone else. [Seriously, she might consider the patient and encouraging approach of so many others I interact with on a daily basis.]

Bundle them up in a three-day period and they can irritate the heck out of you, rattle your self-confidence, and remind you that this isn't what you're used to.

And the cold truth hits you: sometimes you just want to go back (in time and place) to where you don't have to think twice when conversing, you intuitively understand the cultural nuances, and your behaviour is generally in line with that of everyone else.

Where you aren't 'other'. Where you belong.

Then the second wave of reality crashes in: there is no such place.

You can't go back. Nor would you really want to, given the chance. People change, places change, situations change. You change.

The only way is forward.

When it all gets to be een beetje too much, I do what I need to do. I retreat and withdraw from the outside world for a little while. I soothe my ruffled feathers and bruised ego, regroup and let it go.

Then I move on.

So what to make of all of this? What great insights do I take away?

In learning about others, we tend to learn far more about ourselves: our boundaries, our limits, our 'tipping points'.

As I seek to learn more about the world we live in, I'm prepared for people thinking and feeling in ways I might not expect. No surprise there, since we all come to the table with different historical, political, cultural, social, economic, religious, psychological and emotional backgrounds and experiences.

In coming face to face with how others view you and your own culture, sometimes what we learn isn't particularly pleasant. Yet in experiencing and acknowledging that, it stretches us. We learn to let go.

I can't change someone else's behaviour or mindset; only they can do so. I can only control my own behaviour and actions, reflect on my own perceptions, consider the views of others and adjust my own attitudes if need be.

Self-knowledge is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes it seems that the more I learn, the less I know.

And that's okay. I'm learning to live with that.

What has expatriation taught you about yourself? Can you relate to Linda's situation?

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

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Facing My Fears

Ever done a deal with the devil?

Seeking out a new life isn't really that different from shaking hands with the bad man himself. I mean, sure, you're set for some pretty good times ahead, but at what expense? You're letting yourself in for a generous dose of heartbreak, hurt and regret that you've created through your own selfish pursuit. You'll anger family, upset friends, annoy employers, even confuse the poor cat and dog. And you, yourself, are about to face a world of fears that could have been avoided if you'd just stayed home and towed the line.

So, in the single-bloody-minded pursuit of this dream of yours, you'll take Beelzebub's hand, shake it firmly, and head off into the unknown to face a whole host of other unknowns. You'll face the fear of an unknown culture, fear of a new job, fear of learning alien customs and traditions, and perhaps the greatest fear of all: not even succeeding in this exciting adventure of yours.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons dryhead

For me, my greatest fear was none of the above. It wasn't even a good ole Englishman's fear of the Australian snake, the terrifying white pointer or those fat, tender spiders that call the underneath of my antipodean house 'home'. My greatest fear when I decided to set out upon this adventure of ours was the perceived distance I'd place myself from my parents and sibling, friends and long-time acquaintances, both physically and emotionally.

I knew that packing up my life and moving to a new country would be rife with unknowns. Yet, however unfounded, the thought of leaving my immediate family behind left me tossing and turning in the night. It was my worst nightmare of sorts. It was the lone thing I'd dreaded from the point I put in my visa application. What would I do if my parents or sister got sick? How would I cope with the bad news? Who would I turn to in a strange new country? How could I ever hope to get home quickly enough?

It wasn't just the distance in kilometres that provided my increasing anxiety but also the effect of distance on the quality of my relationships with friends and family left behind. As the years passed, would I become a stranger to my own family? Would I struggle to connect with friends as the visits home grew less frequent and the space and awkwardness between us grew ever more?

I imagined all sorts of outcomes. I predicted the worst possible happenings. My fears manifested themselves via situations running through my head where my parents were left alone and unable to care for themselves while I gallivanted around the world. My sibling would grow angry and disappointed at my exciting new lifestyle, now full of abandon and little regret, while she dutifully looked after my mother and father as a son or daughter always should.

Guilt regularly knocked at my door to become an ever-present force in my daily life. I often held back in those early expat years, preferring to spend any free time on the telephone or email to people back home always justifying my reasons for being in a new country and forever apologising for my continuing absence. Initially I became withdrawn, outwardly pretending to enjoy the experiences around me, but silently suffering from this fear of being so far from my home. I daydreamed often, thinking of my past life and contemplating at what point I should return.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons durera_toujours

Call it separation guilt or just plain nonsense, I found the immense distance from loved ones unsettling and unnatural. In Canada, we were located far from the UK but it wasn't an impossible, insurmountable distance, just a single non-stop flight back. However, Australia was an altogether different proposition. Australia was the other side of the world. Timezone differences were vast. The distance from the UK was absurd. We were that far away that the seasons were in reverse. How would I cope with facing my long held fear of the distance from family and friends?

It's been five years in Australia now. Five years of life on the other side of the planet. Five years of life lived a 24-hour plane ride from my family home. Five years of distance between my new life here and my old life there. Have I faced my fear and dealt with it? Is there a happy ending to my issues with distance and accompanying feelings of guilt?

Of course I still fear the day when I might receive bad news from afar and I'm not best pleased with a one or two-day journey to see loved ones, but I've learned to deal as best I can with the vast physical distance. There's not much more I can do and it is what it is. I focus on the positives and remind myself that, wherever I live my expat life, I will always be at least a plane ride away so I cross my fingers and touch my toes and hope that I'll never need to put that fast and frantic plane ride home to the test.

The emotional distance from families and friendships is more difficult to gauge but has grown over the years as 'out of sight, out of mind' rings ever truer. I fear the disconnect to my homeland and feel old relationships slipping from my grasp. I am that guy who left a long time ago and didn't come back. The emails have since dried up, even though true friends revealed themselves whilst poor friendships failed the test early on. Yet distance is a part of who I am and where I am, even though it might not always be this way.

Distance is a funny thing. I craved the chance to travel far afield but, when faced with its unnerving implications, my first instinct was to run right back. I've overcome this obstacle but I will always need to face my fear, reaffirming deep down the reasons for our remarkable journey. Because, through this amazing adventure, we have embraced a new life, an unexpected life, a wonderful life, and our life alone...  and we must never forget this achievement, no matter how far and wide the distance may be.

Have you had to face any fears in pursuit of a new life? If so, how did you overcome them - or didn't you?

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

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