Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Living in the Lucky Country Doesn't Come Cheap

I recently wrote for the UK Telegraph on the rising cost of expat life in the land down under. This is a contentious issue and one which is stirring up opinion on both sides of the fence - those who agree and those who emphatically do not.

I've posted the article below and encourage you to join in the discussion at the end and share your own views on this polarising subject.

Only a few days ago, I went to the local supermarket searching out some chilli peppers for the week ahead. At nearly 43 Australian dollars per kilo (£28), I chose to walk out empty-handed as, once again, prices in the food shops were spiralling out of control. A week before, banana prices had been rocketing.

Photo credit: martinhoward

This capped off a week in which it cost me more than $90 to fill my car (up from $60 several months ago), over $25 to buy a reasonable bottle of red wine (up from $15 not long ago), about $350 to pay an extraordinarily high electricity bill for the last quarter, and a little under $6,000 to pay an excessive monthly mortgage payment on a fairly regular size house.

All of the basic commodities – bread, fruit, milk – are more expensive than I can previously remember, the cost of petrol has risen, house prices continue to climb, and the only saving grace is that interest rates seem to be dropping whilst salaries remain high, even if I feel constantly penniless and barely scraping by.

Perhaps I’m just whinging, as all British expats here allegedly do, but expat life in Sydney has grown far less affordable over the past five years, which make it far more appealing to be some place else.

We’re often told that Europe is sinking in a quagmire of recession and economic turmoil, whilst Australians enjoy the benefits of a booming recession-free economy combined with a superior quality of life lived under a perpetual sun and in the great outdoors. Thousands of Brits continue to make their way to Australia and Sydney each year safe in this knowledge, and there is no shortage in the number of surveys and reports touting Sydney’s obvious desirability.

The Mercer 2011 Quality of Living Survey, for example, which compares 221 cities based on 39 criteria, ranked Sydney as the 11th most liveable city in the world, whilst the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Report rated Sydney as the sixth most liveable city in the world. This contrasts starkly with another recent survey in The Guardian which named the UK as having the worst quality of life in Europe.

It’s therefore no great surprise that Brits continue to flock to Sydney in large numbers, but what I’m curious to know is whether the true financial cost of living a new life in the land down under is understood by these new immigrants and whether economics, rather than emotional reasons, might eventually drive them back home.

A spate of media commentary in recent weeks has focused on those Brits leaving Australia and returning to the homeland. Even the Mayor of London, addressing a lunch gathering of Australian business executives, mentioned the ping-pong Poms who are turning their backs on Australia because, despite the endless sunshine and chance to live by the coast, life is generally dull, they miss friends and family, lack any real sense of belonging, would prefer a less macho culture, and want more of the history commonly found in Europe.

Photo credit: Robert van Dijk

What the commentary doesn’t focus on is the exorbitant cost of living in Australia, particularly in Sydney, compared to prices in Britain, which immigration analysts suggest is the likely factor fuelling the trend for expats to return home.

So what are the options for expats like myself, struggling with the high cost of life in the sun but reluctant to give up this improved way of living for purely financial reasons? Do I move to another Australian city where the prices might be cheaper but the quality of life might also be less? Perhaps return to the Old Dart where the cost of living might be reduced but where I might give up so much more in the process? Or remain in Sydney where I can live close to the beach but pay dearly for it in the long run?

After almost nine years away, I still experience a profound pull back to the UK, to be near my family and friends, to witness the distinct change in seasons, enjoy polite conversation, green fields, and of course the quality TV. I suppose I could always head back for a short while, keeping my Australian citizenship as a back-up, leaving me free to return one day if, and when, the sky-high living costs subside.

Yet, in a recent interview with the BBC News Magazine, the radio DJ and ping-pong Pom himself, Jono Coleman, summed it up best for me. He posed the question that when you’re broke, hard up and cash strapped, where would you rather be? Sitting in a park in the rain in London or in a park in a sunny Sydney looking out at the ocean?

Although financially tougher, the latter option still seems infinitely better to me.

This article originally appeared in the Telegraph's Finance section on 8 December 2011 - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/offshorefinance/8942489/The-true-cost-of-expat-living-in-Australia.php

Are you a Sydneysider experiencing the rising cost of living? Do you live elsewhere in the wider world and are encountering similar issues? Or are you in the UK and very glad to be there right now?

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Thursday, 15 December 2011

No Bubble Wrap, Thank You

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

It's fast approaching the end of the year which means we have time for just one more Expat Dispatches for 2011. As always, your faithful expat dispatchers from the four corners of the globe are:

North: Linda in The Netherlands (http://www.adventuresinexpatland.com/)
South: Russell in Australia (http://www.mylifelessordinary.com/)
East: Erica in Japan (http://www.expatriababy.com/)
West: Maria in Canada (http://www.iwasanexpatwife.com/)

The December edition of NorthSouthEastWest is something very dear to our hearts. It’s that thing or things that drive us crazy as expats. This month’s theme is therefore an open invitation to have a good ole fashioned rant and is called It’s driving me round the bend!

Here at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Erica shares her love (or absolute lack of) for packaging in Japan.

At Adventures in Expat Land, I’m wondering why it’s always so flamin’ hard to get any sleep round here;

At I Was an Expat Wife, Linda examines the discomfort of discomfort;

And at Expatria, Baby, Maria is breathing a sigh of relief to be free of the Expat Hierarchy.

So sit back, enjoy these four no-holds-barred posts, and have a wonderful festive season wherever in the world you and yours may be!

Photo credit: Naypong / FreeDigitialPhotos.net
I'm slightly nervous about this month's theme. You see, the list of things that drive me ‘round the bend' is long. Very long. I could write a tome entitled, "All Of The Things About Japan That Make Me Totally Bonkers And Also A Bit Stabby." It would meander from the trivial (tiny, sockless baby feet, naked to the winter elements) to the inane (dogs dressed up as elves, or bumble bees, or ballerinas or tiny Von Trap singers being pushed around the park in canine sized strollers) to the annoying (an impenetrable address system that renders me hopelessly and utterly lost about 75 percent of the time), to the serious (a cultural tradition of sexism so entrenched that married women with children have almost no hope of any sort of meaningful career).

But to write such an opus would certainly not be prudent. It would not win me any friends, nor the respect of my blogging comrades and would only serve to kindle my righteous indignation. And I’m really trying to be less righteous . And less indignant. After all, not everything is so doomy.

And so, in the spirit of this season of wrapping paper, presents, and parcels, I give you..da da da da!...PACKAGING!!!! And why it drives me batty.

You see, I was raised with a healthy fear of overflowing landfills and human provoked environmental ruin. As a child, my mother sent me off to school with sandwiches packed in repurposed milk bags and leftovers scooped into old yoghurt containers. Reuse. Reduce. Recycle. As I've moved across the globe, I’ve carried this mantra with me. I may occasionally leave the lights on in the hallway, and take a shower that's a little too hot and a little too long, but I'll always bring my reusable shopping bag to the grocery store.

And so I did, the first time I went grocery shopping in Japan. I passed my shopping bags over to the cashier while I nervously fumbled with my wallet full of unfamiliar currency (so many zeros!!) When I returned home with my provisions, I was vexed to discover that my jars of jam, containers of soy sauce, and bottles of beer were carefully swaddled up in bubble wrap. The French cheese, for which I had combed the city (and paid a small fortune), was bundled first in a layer of saran wrap and them vacuum packed in thick plastic so that it sweated and slimed all it's delicious Frenchness away. My steaks were wrapped in polystyrene trays, then sealed with plastic wrap. A duo of ice packs was added before the whole package was encased in a final layer of plastic. Apples were wrapped individually in Styrofoam mesh lest that they suffer the indecency of a slight bruise. I unpacked my groceries and huffed around, cursing the pointless waste.

Later, as I explored the city on a rainy day, I saw shoppers carefully slide their umbrellas into plastic bags provided at store entrances. And paper bags filled with newly acquired treasures were shrouded in plastic. A disposable raincoat kept the shopping bag, the outer packaging announcing status and luxury, pristinely drip-free. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

It's not just inanimate objects that are packaged just so. People, too, sport a uniform of perfection. Men in perfect dark suits and perfect blue ties. Hipsters clad in perfectly mis-matched patterns and perfectly oversized glasses. Ladies perfectly quaffed with high heals and fake lashes, perfectly attired for a quick trip to the grocery store. And then there’s me, always slightly disheveled and marked with the invariable smear of baby goo. My hair willfully escapes the constricts of it's hair tie, and my eye makeup is slightly smudged. I carry a hit of hint of vagabondery. And in Japan, I am a sore thumb.

And so, it is like this that I show up at the grocery store. Standing in line behind a perfectly manicured woman who pulls out a designer wallet from her designer bag and completes her transaction elegantly and without incident. I follow, rooting through my purse (with its requisite splotch of unknown provenance on the front) to extract my reusable bags. I stretch to hold onto my daughter with one hand at the same time as I try to mime "no bubble wrap" and "hold the ice packs". I decline the prestigious shopping bags emblazoned with fancy grocery store branding and hand over my rumpled eco-bags while I shrink from side-eyes from the my fellow shoppers, real or imagined.

You see, this is just who I am: a slightly disheveled, semi-tree hugging, rebellious, and perpetually disorganized eschewer of convention. And in this way, I'll always be annoyed by the excessive packaging in Japan, just as the Japanese will always be annoyed at my inability to package myself appropriately. Still, with a Christmas gift exchange to shop for this week, you can bet that I’ll be asking for a gift box. And wrapping. And throw on a little plastic shopping bag raincoat to keep everything looking good, arigato gozaimasu.

Tis the season for sharing so why not tell us some of your own gripes, irritations and downright annoyances from life lived abroad. Don't be shy. Let it all out.

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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

No Place for Ugly Attitudes In Australia

I read something shortly after returning from my trip along the New South Wales coast that got me thinking about the first time I visited a dentist in Sydney.

I was laid out horizontally waiting for the man himself to get to work on my pearly whites. I don't mind going to the dentist's - as a rule of thumb, he/she is usually the chatty sort, makes me feel comfortable, and I'm not particularly averse to the fact they'll shortly be rummaging around in my mouth looking for any signs of badly behaving teeth.

As the dentist leaned over to begin his business, he asked me if I was house hunting yet and, if so, how it was going.

"Pretty good," I replied. "We're looking at a few options but we're thinking the North Shore might be a good place to call home."

"You should look at houses in the west of Sydney," he said. "Lots of big, grand houses out near Penrith way. Built for wogs. Depends if you like your woggy houses. Lots of concrete and ornate metal railings. Not my thing but some people love those woggy places."

I was floored. Did I hear him right? Did he just say what I thought he said? If so, should I have said anything back? Reprimanded him for blatantly saying something so racist and unprofessional?

In the end, I smiled awkwardly and said nothing, unsure of the territory I was in and concerned that I might be in danger of over-reacting (or under-reacting). With the conversation grinding to a halt, he got on with my check-up.

Photo credit: Jiaren Lau

The visit to this dentist took place not long after I arrived in Australia, more than five years ago. I soon found out that a 'wog' in fact was a person of Greek or Italian descent, not quite the definition it was given back in the UK. That said, it wasn't used in a positive way so I remained slightly troubled by what I'd heard.

It wasn't the only such occurrence over the years but, more often than not, I put these incidents down to the Aussie sense of humour or credited it to the way things were done and said here.

'Wogs' and 'Lebbos' (those of Lebanese descent) were the obvious terms I would regularly hear. I witnessed various jokes about the 'Abos' (Aborigines) and increasingly came across negative comments about people from other cities and countries (us Brits top of the list of course, closely followed by the Yanks, the Kiwis,and so on). This was heard from a relatively small percentage of the people I came across so, in those early weeks and months, I realised I should probably 'put up' and 'shut up' if I wanted to fit in.

It was therefore no real surprise when I read Lauren Fritsky's article in the UK Telegraph a few days ago, Seeing in black and white in Australia, highlighting her unease and often embarrassment at hearing what she perceived as racial 'icebreakers' in public. She notes her struggles with the apparent lack of political correctness in Australia and the ease with which some of these terms are used by the local population.

What I realised, when I read Lauren's article, is that I've got far too used to these casual, throw-away remarks when they do occur. In fact, I often brush them off as unintentional slurs or said without bad feeling. I mean, what's wrong with giving the Kiwis and Yanks a bit of stick? And the Poms have been ridiculed for years much as the Lebos and Westies have been.

The problem is that, although most of these words are as much a part of the light-hearted Aussie vernacular as the 'barbie' or the 'ute', they sometimes come very close to crossing the line and often, as Lauren reminds us with reference to the use of 'Chocko' or Abo', they do. 

Photo credit: maHidoodi

It's important to understand the psyche here, the fact that the culture is based on the premise that "anything goes" and "anyone is fair game". From the camaraderie at the bar to the casual BBQ setting, the light-hearted work environment to the jovial yet die hard sports rivalries, all combine to create a “no worries, mate” attitude, inspired by a society that goes with the flow without giving a damn what you might think of them.

Yet sometimes, just sometimes, I get tiny flashbacks to my former university days spent in the heart of the multicultural British Midlands where racist taunts and cultural insensitivities were often the norm rather than the exception.

I previously posted on my experiences in Canada and Australia, and how the two countries are separated by more than just water. My view was that Australia preaches tolerance, where as Canada believes in accepting a person, wherever they're from or whoever and whatever they are. The question is whether this basic attitude of tolerance in Australia is good enough to carry forward in the modern many-cultured world.

There's quite simply no place in this beautiful land for ugly attitudes and ignorant opinions. I only hope that the odd experience or encounter I've had along the way isn't held by the many but by the few.

What are your views? What have been your experiences here, either as an Australian or as a visitor to the land down under?

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Friday, 2 December 2011

Fingal Bay Fun

We're currently holidaying along the beautiful eastern coastline of Australia, not three hours north of Sydney in an area called Port Stephens so I wanted to share some photos of the neighbourhood with you.

The peninsula is home to a number of pristine bays that circle around Port Stephens from Nelson Bay through to Anna Bay. We're vacationing with Milo in the Shoal Bay and Fingal Bay areas, which are two stunning examples of the Australian coastline with long deserted beaches backed by high rising sand dunes and turquoise blue waters lapping at the shore.

We plan to snorkel around the reefs, swim with Milo at his own 'dog beach', watch the dolphins play in the ocean, and get stuck into some of the local cuisine.

Back in a week's time...

Fingal Bay, Port Stephens

Fingal Bay, Port Stephens

More Fingal Bay, New South Wales

A stormy looking Shoal Bay, Port Stephens

Pristine bays, turquoise blue waters

Milo surveying the scene


Some local Fingal Bay fun!

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