Monday, 27 February 2012

You're Not Alone: Help With Connecting Globally

Living abroad can be a lonely affair.

I've been fortunate to choose destinations where a distant family member or long-lost friend happen to live - and are close by when I first arrive. Others aren't so fortunate and, hurried overseas at the whim of their job and/or better half, are faced with the prospect of fitting in fast or looking forward to an uncertain future.

Back in 2010 (was it really that long ago?), I wrote about my own struggles with trying (and failing) to fit in. I've learned a lot about myself since then and the coping strategies and mechanisms at my disposal upon arriving somewhere new. One resource that often comes highly recommended is InterNations, an expatriates community for people living and working abroad.

I usually shudder at the thought of expat meet-ups, groups of lost souls reminiscing together about the motherland. However, InterNations is first and foremost an online community - you can join the regular meet-ups if you want, but you can also use it to connect with friends and business contacts online. Less pushy and more 'take us as you find us' - that'll always get my vote. And because you can only join by invitation, there's a higher level of personal trust where privacy is protected - again, all good with me.

Malte Zeeck, InterNations co-founder
Co-founder Malte Zeeck offered to talk about how his life story contributed to the creation of InterNations. Here he is on how it all began.

People often ask me how I came up with the idea for InterNations, the community for expatriates and global minds. The answer is simple: I love travelling, discovering new places and meeting people from other cultures. If you have the opportunity to see the world, to live and work in many different countries, this can be one of the most challenging but also the most rewarding experience in your life, and you should definitely make the most of it. And that’s exactly what InterNations is about: It helps the global citizens of today to connect, to exchange information, to stay in touch and organise meet-ups wherever they are in the world.

The idea for InterNations is directly linked to my own life story. Ever since spending a high school year in the United States, I’ve never looked back. I went on to study economy and film at universities in Switzerland, Italy and Brazil, and because my appetite for exploring the world still wasn’t satisfied, I worked as a flight attendant during my studies. After graduating, I ventured into the world of TV journalism, as it seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my love for travelling and my passion for meeting people from different cultures. I worked for various TV stations shooting documentaries in countries such as India, Brazil and Spain.

During all this time spent travelling and working in different countries, I soon realised that it’s the people that matter most. I love meeting new people and introducing them to other people I know, but I also want these personal relationships to last through time and space, if you know what I mean. The fact that I might be living in Australia next year shouldn’t mean that I will never see or hear from my friends in Germany again. On the contrary, maybe they could even help me find my feet “down under” by introducing me to some of their friends or business contacts over there. This is how I believe globalisation should work, and this is how InterNations works. It’s a global community with a local approach.

We currently have more than 430,000 members in nearly 300 Local Communities worldwide and are thus the biggest global network for expatriates and “global minds”. What is more, we handpicked each of our 430,000 members to ensure that the contacts you make through InterNations are trustworthy and valuable. Our members include diplomats, journalists, managers of multinational companies, entrepreneurs, members of NGOs, and of course their partners and families. Together, these people make up a network that spans the whole world and can take you under its wing wherever you go.

The other factor that played into the idea for InterNations was the tedious Internet search that preceded every move abroad. It’s not only that you used to have to build up a new network of friends and contacts every time you moved to a different place, you also had to spend hours sifting through reams of information from various, often slightly dodgy sources on the Internet. This is all in the past now. When I, together with my co-founders Philipp von Plato and Christian Leifeld, thought up InterNations, we not only wanted it to be a network for expats, but also a valuable source of information.

So we came up with the plan to produce the Expat Magazine and our Country and City Guides. The former is a collection of articles on general topics revolving around the expat lifestyle. Its various categories, ranging from culture shock to working abroad, cover many aspects of expat life and help people deal with the challenges arising from such a nomadic life style. The Country and City Guides, as their name suggests, provide location-specific information. So if you know that your next expat assignment will take you to Sydney, you can search for that destination in our Guide section and read up on everything related to living in Sydney, which can be extremely useful for your preparations.

The Sydney InterNations Community

Our Local Community for expats in Sydney currently has around 3,500 members. It is coordinated by two volunteers, our local InterNations Ambassadors Axel from Germany and Marina from Russia. They organise one official InterNations event per month in various locations across the city. Our members use the events to network and to socialise. The events are a great opportunity for newcomers to make some contacts in the expat community because everyone there is usually very friendly, open and happy to meet new people.

The motto of InterNations events is “Nobody stands alone” - after all, we’ve all been in a similar situation before!

Thanks, Malte. If you're interested in joining the InterNations community, please leave a comment below and I'll gladly send you an invitation so you can start to connect globally with other like-minded souls wherever you are in the world. Alternatively connect with me on Twitter at @russellvjward.

Have you experienced organisations like InterNations and were your experiences positive? Are you aware of other similar resources out there?

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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Nasal Manoeuvres

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

Moving abroad sends our senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell into overdrive, and in this month’s NSEW offering, we explore an element of expat life through one or more of the five senses.

In Bottling the Essence of Beach Life, I (South) walk us through the multitude of sensory experiences found at the beach (more than you might think!). In Sound Check, Linda (North) finds that it is distinctive sounds that remind her where she is. In Tastes that Tell Our Stories, Erica (East) admits that she does, in fact, cry at Cheerios and roasted chicken. And here in Nasal Manoeuvres, Maria (West) knows that no-one knows France like her nose knows France.

Nasal Manoeuvres
By Maria Foley

Our theme for February — the five senses — offers a cornucopia of choice for the NSEW blogger. Should I write about what I see? I could easily manage a few hundred words on the wondrous sight of the sun rising over ripening vines in Bordeaux or glinting off the sails of the magnificent Sydney Opera House. Should I write about what I hear, and describe the crash of the surf at Manly Beach or the cacophony of Mandarin and English at a Singaporean wet market? Perhaps I should write about what I taste, and wax poetic about mee goreng or crème brulée (and somewhat less poetic about Vegemite.) I could always write about what I feel — the soft sand beneath my feet, the hot sun (or torrential rain) against my skin, that pesky rivulet of sweat coursing between my shoulder blades as I attempt my maiden drive on the left side of the road.

Tempting, all of it. But I’d rather write about cigarettes. French cigarettes, to be precise.

I moved to France at the tender age of 19: alone, excited, and scared out of my wits. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, thrust into a world I didn’t understand and lurching from one bizarre encounter to another. Eventually, the exaggerated peaks and valleys of culture shock abated, and in time I barely noticed the differences that had been so alarmingly apparent only months before.

The cycle continued when I moved back home. Things I had always taken for granted were thrown into sharp relief, and once again I felt disoriented and confused. A few days after I returned, still feeling the effects of jet lag, I opened my front door and was hit by an almost out-of-body experience: I could have sworn, just for a second, that I was back on the streets of Caen. It was such a visceral sensation that it came as a shock to realize I was not in the market on the rue de Bayeux, but in the front hall of the home I shared with my parents. The familiar sounds of the Saturday night hockey game coming from the TV in the living room were at odds with — what? I couldn’t put my finger on it until I sniffed the air, and then I knew. My house in suburban Toronto reeked of French cigarettes.

All became clear once I entered the living room and saw the duty-free pack of Gauloises on the table. At that time, courtesy of my parents, cigarette smoke was part of the fabric of our lives. (Literally: When I was little I once told my mom I liked our new white curtains better than the old yellow ones. Only there hadn’t been any recent home decor purchases, just a very thorough spring cleaning. If that’s what cigarette smoke does to polyester blends, I shudder to think what their lungs looked like.) The odour of my parents’ ciggies, however, was a pale imitation of the instantly-recognizable and much more exotic perfume emitted by French tobacco.

Gauloises and Gitanes had been the dominant brands in France since the Great War. Made from darker “brune” tobacco, they were strong, with a distinctive, powerful aroma. And in 1984, when I arrived in Normandy, they were everywhere: restaurants (a non-smoking section? Mais quelle idée!), bars, shops, offices — wherever people and their lungs gathered, I was enveloped in second-hand smoke.

These cigarette brands were national icons, firmly embedded in the French cultural consciousness. Back when nicotine was sexy and everyone inhaled, chain-smoking celebrities such as Serge Gainsbourg epitomized fumeur chic with Gauloises as their weapons of choice. Everyone from artists and intellectuals to fonctionnaires and street-cleaners had a little blue packet in their attaché case, pocket, or handbag.

More than two decades after my first stay in France, my family and I moved from Singapore to Bordeaux. Much had changed in the intervening years. I had long forgotten about Gauloises, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something — some integral part of the France I remembered — was missing. When it finally dawned on me that the ubiquitous plumes of smoke no longer gave off that distinctly French bouquet, I asked one of my friends why.

“Nobody smokes those anymore,” she told me. “They’re old-fashioned: too raw, too heavy.”

Tastes had changed. The brune cigarettes had a global market share of 80% in 1978. That figure had slipped to less than 20% by 2005, the last year Gitanes and Gauloises were produced in France. The smoke I smelled in Bordeaux came from lighter, low-tar brands of the American invasion.

I’m an inveterate non-smoker. I hate everything about smoking — hate it, in fact, with every single one of my five senses — but I can’t help feeling the tiniest twinge of regret that the winds of change have swept away those noxious clouds of a bygone era. The people of France are better off, but my nose will always know that a small part of my past has disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Is there an element of your own (expat) life that you can most relate to through a sight, smell, sound, taste or touch? Or maybe, like Maria, you also have fond memories of a particular sense and pine for a return to it? 

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Monday, 13 February 2012

Writing for Love and Money

There was a fairly seismic shift in my world a week ago. 

It only dawned on me in its full entirety once the dust had settled, but my personal landscape had changed - and arguably for the better.

I was paid to write - and paid well enough to do that writing. I was paid to do what I love - and paid to do it from a place of my choosing. I was paid as a professional by professionals - and it felt good.

"So what?" you say. "You were paid to write. Big deal." Well you see, it was a big deal - and for several reasons.

First of all, it was a pronounced tilt towards doing something I've long wanted to do in a less amateur way.

Writing has been a dominant force in my life since childhood. From coursework to career, time spent in the private sector and in government, scribbles jotted down as a precocious kid to lengthier pieces written in later life, writing has been my constant.

Photo credit: Ohmega1982 /

Over the past year, followers of this blog will have noted a steadily increasing stream of articles and guest posts away from my regular home here on In Search of a Life Less Ordinary. Last week's achievement was, in some small part, the culmination of this effort, combined with a repackaging of my business and government experience.

I now feel half-way there. I'm writing professionally in a part-time capacity - and getting paid for it. It may eventually become full-time, be it for business, writing fiction, or in any other realm of the written word. For now, I'm happy to keep doing what I'm doing and hopefully keep doing it right. I set up this website late last year which outlines a little bit of what I've done and will continue to do -

Last week's outcome was also significant for another reason.

Not only did I write professionally for a client but I was fairly paid to do it. The lack of any meaningful financial reward for fledgling and often established writers out there has been my personal bone of contention since I dived into the online blogging world in late 2010.

A friend and former BBC journalist recently remarked that if she had a dollar for every time someone asked her to write for free, she'd be very rich indeed. "Pay people their worth" was her view and it's a view I wholeheartedly share. Last week proved to me that it can, and should, happen.

I've lost count of the times I've been contacted by organisations seeking content for magazine articles, websites, expat columns, exciting new initiatives and so on and so forth, only to be told that "Unfortunately, we can't pay you; however, we can link to your blog!"

Such a wondrous offer that at first seems both appealing and laden with potential can all too suddenly seem less attractive and peppered with doubt. Will writing a monthly column lead to more prominent visibility in that particular community? Will I then become inundated with further writing opportunities that will pay handsomely and regularly? Will this be the start of that successful freelance writing career I'm so close to realising?

Of course not. The reality, harsh as it may be, is that this won't be the case.

There are vast numbers of organisations out there looking for varied, insightful content to build their sites and grow their communities. Unfortunately, most of them will want it for free (but not all!). Offers of 'profile building' in return for a guaranteed flow of your hard worked and time-constrained monthly content probably won't deliver the outcome you're looking for. I dare you to analyse just how many extra website page views and Twitter 'follows' you get as a result of churning out more than 1,000 words of content every month multiplied by however many requests - and all for free. I'm guessing it won't be many.
This may sound like an extremely pessimistic and simplistic lens through which I'm looking. Of course writers need to establish themselves, gain credibility, and prove their worth before seeking financial reward. On the flip side, there are hordes of bloggers-come-wannabe freelance writers putting pen to electronic paper and demanding something in return when these requests are neither justified nor deserved.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons matryosha

My point is that established, credible writers should always be paid for their efforts. The mindset in certain quarters of the online world that such folks should write for free must change. At some point, you have to say "Enough is enough. I'm worth more than this" and start asking - no, demanding - your real worth and true value. You may lose people along the way but, hey, life's too short.

There are professional organisations that will pay for interesting and intelligently crafted words. Not the kind of words you might scribble down when dreaming about a possible short story or personal memoir but the kind of words that are born of concise, well-constructed, error-free writing that always hits the mark leaving the reader wanting to know more.

If you're a capable, skilled writer - and you know deep down if you are and if you can prove it - you need to be rewarded for the hard slog and commitment put into creating high quality copy. Profile building is never a fair exchange for the delivery of outstanding writing.

Last week marked a decisive step for me in the direction of independent, professional, paid writing. It proved that you can be fairly remunerated for the written word and, whilst I'm cognisant that the decision was based as much on my prior and current experience as my writing skill set, I still hold firm to the view that good writing should always be paid for.

Don't settle for less because, according to the people at L'Oreal, you're worth it.

Tell me what you've experienced and whether I'm being fair in my criticisms or far too naive? Are there good writers out there working for free? Are you happy to write for free for now?

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Friday, 3 February 2012

The Land of the Three-Week Visit

There's the Land of the Rising Sun, the Land of the Long White Cloud, the Land of the Giants, even the Land of the Free. But what about the Land of the Three-Week Visit?

I have a theory. Anyone who visits us here in Australia generally stays for three weeks, which got me wondering why that is.

We recently met up with friends of the family from 'way back'. They were here to spend Christmas in Sydney and Melbourne, and arrived for a three-week stay. This week we've been 'hanging out' with my wife's English relatives who are here for a little over three weeks and who we helped find some Sydney Vacation Rentals. My own parents have visited Australia twice now. And, each time, for approximately three weeks.

In the land of perpetual sunshine and skimmed milk lattes to die for, it seems that three weeks is a timeframe of choice for holidaymakers and family members on a trip to the land down under.

Photo credit: Tim Beach /

Distance is obviously a determining factor for the Three-Week Visit.

After travelling to the other side of the world, you'd be a fool to only allow a week or two to vacation here (the infamous jet lag alone will take a week to recover from, then there's the necessary heat acclimatisation, followed by the required time for traversing some of this vast landmass).

The same applies in reverse. I wouldn't dream of jet setting 17,000km to the UK unless I'd planned a lengthy stay there. In other words, no less than three weeks.

Ensuring a decent amount of time with loved ones is therefore the other reason for the Three-Week Visit.

For those of us who live in Australia and for family and/or friends arriving in Australia, three weeks is a satisfying chunk of time to spend together. It's long enough, but not overly lengthy. It is ample time to re-connect and repulse (if needs must). It allows for places of interest to be visited, sightseeing boxes to be ticked, and lashings of sun to be soaked up. Three weeks also happens to be a good marker for experiencing every known emotion to man.

Week One goes something like this.

The overwhelming anticipation of seeing familiar faces after more than twelve months of separation reaches its emotional climax at the airport's arrival lounge. Sheer joy is accompanied by dire uncertainty and worry. Did they make the arduous journey in one piece? Will they be permanently scarred by the effects of 24 hours in transit? Is the house going to be clean enough? Did I mow the lawn to those high English standards? And please don't let a cockroach crawl across their cotton bedsheets in the night.

The first week passes smoothly enough, although opposing sides are on tenderhooks - some unwilling to verbalise what's really on their minds; others tiptoeing around each other minding their P's and Q's; each person trying to take it all in. Politeness is the order of the day.

Positive words abound, from the quality of cooking skills, to the choice of bathroom towels, and of course how wonderful the local environment is. All parties try to bond in record speed. Although it's really not unlike a room full of strangers, each carrying a bag full of secrets, with the carry handles about to break and spew forth the bag's contents.
Week Two takes a slight turn for the worse.

Familiarity takes hold as life confined under one small roof gets cozier. Old jokes are remembered and childhood memories are shared. Life seems to be getting back to the way it was before you had to go and upset the apple cart and leave the Motherland. But the emotional bubble that's been swelling since your guests' arrival is about to burst open with catastrophic results. Tensions simmer dangerously high and those pent-up frustrations, unresolved arguments, and off-hand remarks from the past year lived apart soon boil over in a series of stormy outbursts.

"This isn't your true home." "Your friends and family miss you." "When are you planning to return?" "And who's going to look after us in our old age?"

The accusations fly and the anger burns yet, as suddenly as it started, the drama is over. Opponents retreat to their respective corners. After all, the show must go on. 

Week Three is less eventful but tinged with sadness.

Regret and remorse are rife as the reality of the situation sets in. This is the last week of the visit and we'll soon be back to living separate lives on separate continents. Thoughts turn to leaving and every moment in each other's company is a precious commodity to be jealously guarded.

The visitors consume themselves with thoughts of the mind-bogglingly boring journey home that awaits them. The thoughts of the 'visited' turn to cleaning the house, fumigating, burning off, de-cluttering, and getting back to the gym again.

Before long, tear-laden farewells will be said at the airport's departure lounge, a flurry of text messages will be exchanged before the plane leaves the gate, and acceptance will kick in that you won't see each other again for what could be a very long time. A quick cry on the drive home, wondering why and how you ever got yourself into this situation. Then the steely resolve returns. This is an adventure of course and the last things adventurers have are doubts. Emotions are buried deep and life goes on.

All this in a brief Three-Week Visit.

I sometimes wonder if it's all really worth it. Whether it wouldn't be easier to just do away with the Three-Week Visit, avoid the roller coaster ride of emotions, and save myself a lot of heartache in the process. But you and I know that's not going to happen.

Photo credit: dan /

The thing about living in Australia, in this sandy outpost in the middle of the Pacific, is that you can't help but feel the isolation set in as bags are packed and visitors say their goodbyes. There's always that nagging feeling of being left behind that comes with living so far away from the 'rest of the world'. 

Fortunately, that same feeling of isolation has it's upside. A feeling that isolation in the current global climate has its pros, as well as its cons.

Have you experienced the Three-Week Visit? Did you watch the emotional bubble burst?

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