Tuesday, 31 July 2012

What Are Your Top Tips For Living Abroad?

Earlier this year, the Telegraph published an article on the British rush for Australian visas in pursuit of a move Down Under.

This month, I've been away from the motherland for nine years and I thought it timely to share a few things I've learned from living overseas for those folk thinking of a life adventure either to Oz or elsewhere.

If you're reading this as a fellow expat, I'd also appreciate your own insights from a life lived abroad.

If you had your time again, what do you wish someone had told you to help ease the transition? If you were given five minutes to divulge your top three tips for a successful international life, what would they be?

Here are a few of mine.

Photo credit: Tiger Pixel (Flickr Creative Commons)

Leave your baggage behind

Do you have friends who regularly compare their life abroad to living in their homeland, who think that things aren't better in their new home than they were before, who make statements wishing things were more like back home?

I see it in the status updates on Facebook all the time.

The thing is nobody likes a whinger. The 'locals' don't want to hear a recent arrival complain. Things will be different and they will feel strange but, sooner or later, you'll have to open that can of 'toughen up'.

I remember arriving in Canada in the summer of 2003. I had no immediate contact with family back home, I'd quit my corporate job for a return to university, and I was living temporarily with relatives I hadn't seen in many years. At first, every day was unfamiliar, every experience unsettling, but I'd signed up to this way of life and I tried hard not to complain.

If I negatively compared life in my new home to the way things were in the UK, I saw a certain look pass across the face of my host. A mix of pity and annoyance. I soon learned to forget unnecessary comparisons, positively acknowledge the differences, and accept the choice I'd made. For if I didn't like that choice, it would be easy to pack up and return home.

Did you struggle in those early days of expat life? Have you seen the expat who likes to complain and compare all of the time?

Get up to speed fast

Did you arrive in your new home and only then begin to properly understand how the housing market works or what to do with your money or where to find the best schools for your kids? Or did you have it all planned out before moving?

I found that advance planning was only one part of a successful transition overseas. The other part was on-the-ground, local knowledge, which had to be gained quickly and in some detail.

In Australia, no amount of planning prepared me for the shock and awe of the Sydney housing market - how expensive the houses were, where the affordable suburbs were, and how to finalise a mortgage as a recent immigrant with no credit history. My wife, a true blue Aussie, had been away for seven years, yet even she struggled to get credit from the banks. We had to work fast to understand how to achieve financial security.

I knew about Medicare and thought it was similar to the UK's National Health Service. However, there were subtle differences that needed to be understood. For example, given our combined salaries, we needed private health insurance to ensure full healthcare coverage and to avoid paying additional taxes at the end of the financial year. Our research hadn't revealed this so we needed to quickly understand the available products.

And so the list went on:

From the absurd to the crucial, I've learned the importance of being on the ground and moving quickly to understand the local environment in terms of finances, housing, healthcare, schools, jobs, etc., etc. Planning is great but planning isn't perfect. I'd advise you to hit the road fast upon arrival and get up to speed as soon as you can.

What have been your own expat experiences? Did you encounter any pleasant/unpleasant surprises?

Ditch the guilt

Call it separation guilt, unease at leaving loved ones to move to the other side of the world or feeling bad at enjoying my environment, I've experienced it. I know I'm not alone because I've spoken to others who've shared their personal stories of guilt at the decision to move overseas.

Have you felt guilty at moving abroad? Have you ever doubted your decision to leave or considered returning as a result?

Living abroad can be a double-edged sword.

You explore wonderfully different places, meet fascinating people, try extraordinary things. Yet you do this away from the comfort of your original family home and you may feel guilty or uncomfortable in doing so.

You start to feel settled and established, then perhaps a sly comment or an unguarded word from a loved one made you reflect on your decision to leave. It's Christmas and you had to miss the annual family reunion. Maybe you chose a local holiday rather than fly back to where you're from. If your parents are ageing or someone is sick in the family, your decisions to abandon the family in pursuit of a better life can seem difficult to reconcile.

It's possible to replace feelings of guilt with a belief that the choice you made to move was the right one. In my experience, make the decision to leave, believe in it, and find peace with that decision - or face a future of uncertainty and unease.

These are just a few of my thoughts so over to you fellow expats, travellers or international movers-to-be.

What are your top expat tips for a life overseas? What have you learned from living abroad? If you're thinking of moving, what else would you like to know?

This post was sponsored by private health insurance comparison site Choosi. They provide a free comparison service to their customers and offer insurance products from a range of Australian brands, including health insurance for overseas visitors. Check them out if you plan on moving to Australia.

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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Let The Games Begin So Go Find Your Greatness

In a little over 24 hours, London, Londinium, Lundene, one of the greatest cities on earth, if not the greatest city, will open the 2012 Olympics.

The XXX Olympiad.

The city that is already host to every culture and creed on the planet will become the only city to ever host the modern Games of three Olympiads.

England will invite you into its gentle arms and embrace you with lashings of British culture and heritage, English values and traditions, London cockiness and old-world charm.

Ten and a half thousand athletes from around the world will come together to ignite London and the world for 17 days of unrivalled strength and skill, courage and determination. They will join as one for the greatest show on earth. The finest display of sporting art and theatre.

London will provide a feast of sport and sportsmanship fit for any King.

Photo credit: Peter J Dean (Flick Creative Commons)

London will put on a show

It will rain. Traffic will grind to a halt. The transport won't run on time.

This might not be a perfect Games - it won't have the fantastic weather that Sydney had, it can't have the iconic facilities that became the hallmark of Beijing, it will never have the ancient connection to the Games that we saw with Athens.

London will march to its own beat, sing to its own tune. It will do things its own way and it will put on a brash, modern show. This is the way that London has been for time immemorial.

Londoners may be slow to accept these Games, but accept they will. The complaints will eventually end once the performances have commenced. When Day One gets underway, London will thrive and we'll quickly forget any problems there were.

It will be hard

I hope this is a tremendous Olympics, that the sun shines, possible threats recede, and the naysayers turn a leaf and enjoy a sporting spectacle the likes of which we only see once every four years.

But I won't lie to you.

I will grow homesick. I will pine for the place of my birth. I will reflect on a possible future return.

Watching this Olympics from the land down under will be hard. It will tug at my heartstrings and pull me from afar. I will fill with patriotic pride and I'll mourn absent family and friends.

Yet, rather than wallow in self-pity, I'll try to draw strength from these historic Games.

Finding greatness

You don't have to be a star athlete to be great. You don't have to win gold medals to show how capable you are.

You just need to be great in your own unique way because everybody is good at something.

Whether it's completing a 10k run, meeting those lofty targets at work, or writing that killer blog post, great things can be achieved in less high-profile ways.

I will use these Games to find my own tiny piece of greatness. I will write, I will train, I will be the best daddy-to-be I can be. I'll tell myself I can be great in my own small way and I'll be as proud as punch when someone else agrees.

During this Olympic Games, go out and find your own small piece of greatness. Tell yourself you're good at something and go be the best you can be.

For these will be a massive Games. They might even be the best Games yet.

Here comes London 2012.

So let the Games begin.

Will you be watching the Games? Who will you be cheering on?

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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Ghost

The first time I saw an Australian tree, I thought it mighty odd. Spindly, scraggly and misshapen sprang to mind.

The trees were unfamiliar. Some were exotic and tropical, others seemed better suited to a desert or arid plain.

The trees in my neighbourhood didn't look like the oaks of England or the birch, ash, elm and maple; the yew, whitebeam and hazel. Picture a drawing of a typical tree: mushroom-like, bright green, thick with leaves, and supported by a solid brown trunk. These were the trees I remember from home, vastly different to the gnarly eucalypts of this new environment.

The ghost gum in the backyard was a prime example.

It sprawled above our lawn, its patchy foliage offering no shade from the sun. The late afternoon light shone  through the tree as if it were translucent. I knew trees with dark bark, but the trunk on this tree was milky white. I liked the way the ghost gum sighed as the wind moved through its leaves, but I'd spend hours raking up the leaves which constantly fell to the ground.

The bark on the gum's trunk would peel once every year.  Like a snake shedding its skin, the tree would give up its bark, leaving behind a shiny, smooth surface. During a storm, the ghost would regularly lose a limb. In the morning, I'd find one of its long, twisted arms lying on the grass, an end buried in the ground.

During a conversation with my father-in-law about why the tree was so brittle, he told me it was called the widow maker because its heavy branches often fell on to innocent victims beneath. I shuddered at the thought of my wife standing under the ghost on a windy day. This was not a proper tree.

Photo credit: Mark Wassell (Flickr Creative Commons)

Some months later, I watched a documentary on the Australian outback.

One image stayed in my mind. A picture of a lone ghost gum in the middle of the outback landscape. The ghost stood in contrast with the blue skies and red rock like a pale white sentinel guarding the land.

It looked majestic, this denizen of the outback, stark in its pristine whiteness. It was graceful yet hardy, obviously enduring a range of difficult climates. Australia's landscape is harsh and unforgiving, weather-worn and storm-beaten, yet this tree looked as connected to the land as the kangaroo or wallaby.

Australia isn't rich in the sort of cultural heritage and history you might find in the grand cities of Europe. It's too young and has been too far removed from mankind over the centuries. Instead of ancient towns and cities built by human hand, Australia has old objects of a different kind. The rugged landscape is its castles and stone keeps, the eucalypts are its royal kings and queens.

It dawned on me that I had my own beautiful piece of the Australian landscape growing in our backyard. The ghost gum. The tree that I believed served no purpose.

A few weeks ago, a storm hit hard and the tree came down. In the blink of an eye, the ghost was no more.

The brightly coloured lorikeets no longer sit in its lower branches, the sulphur-crested cockatoos are gone from its top. I no longer have to clean up the gum's scattered debris, but I miss doing so. I miss its messy touch.

Most of all, I miss the connection it gave me to this wild and untamed country. I regret the passing of my own piece of Australiana. I feel guilty at having thought so little of such an important tree.

What exists in your local neighbourhood that is unique to that 'place'? What cultural thing is entirely connected or related to where you live? A building, a temple, a road, a mountain, an idea, a word, an image?

This post was written as part of the 38Write | Structure writing workshop led by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe looking at the obvious and obscure relationship of the structure of stuff to place. For more details, have a look here.

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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Three Lessons in Writing

You’re a writer, right?

You either blog frequently, write articles regularly, contribute to books, submit guest posts, or might even be drafting that future memoir or novel.

So that makes you a great writer, right?


Being a writer just means that you write, not that you’re any good.

And here’s the rub. You may never be any good. Because not everyone can be a great writer.

You might write prolifically, from the heart, and with absolute passion. You might seek and receive positive affirmations from family, friends and peers. You might think you've achieved your ultimate goal. You’re writing and you’re obviously great at what you do.

But how can you ever be sure? Because a fellow blogger tells you?

You can try to do something about it. To hone and perfect your craft. To make yourself as good a writer as you could ever wish to be.

You can start by slowing down, learning from others, and appreciating the actual writing process itself.

Photo credit: Dave Morrison (Flickr Creative Commons)

Lesson 1: Slow down and enjoy the ride

Why are we always in such a rush to achieve? To be the best. To gain sudden gratification. To reach the destination without appreciating the road by which we got there.

In a world of instant messaging and simultaneous downloads, we've become hardwired to want everything right here, right now. We’ve forgotten what it means to experience the long process towards becoming a good, or even great, writer.

You and I need to slow down, take our time, and savour what it is we’ve declared ourselves to be.

The path to good writing cannot be hurried. It’s a process of learning. It’s a process of intimately understanding our craft. It’s a process of practice, practice, and more practice.

Impatience is a killer. Good writing takes longer than you think.

Take the slow boat to better writing and great things will eventually come.

Lesson 2: Listen and learn from others

You can’t claim to be a great writer without learning from other great writers. Unless you’re lucky and one of the chosen few, you weren’t born with the full suite of writing skills (although I’m sure you’re not far off).

You therefore need to learn - and keep on learning. People who write well don’t ever stop listening and they never stop learning. They purposefully digest information but, most importantly, they learn from others. 

I follow a number of writing-related sites that I find are crucial to better learning the craft, whether it be for blogging, article writing, or thinking about that possible first fiction novel. Some of my favourite writing gurus include Kristin Bair O'Keeffe, Joanna Penn, Jody Hedlund and Jeff Goins. Other sites such as Copyblogger and ProBlogger are just as good.

These guys are excellent at their craft (as authors, self-publishers, novel writers, bloggers) but they didn’t get there overnight. They work hard at it - and it shows. And they aren't giving you a secret recipe to achieving immediate success.

They're showing you how to get there.

I follow these writing sites and I learn from what they share. Some advice I ignore, some I follow. I pick and choose, taste and appreciate. But I don’t assume these folks will give me the magic number because they can’t and they won’t.

All the same, they will set me on my way.

Lesson 3: See good writing as a journey not a destination

Good writing takes time to master, great writing takes even longer.

This is a long haul, a journey of writerly discovery and enlightenment. Once you realise this, you’re already well on your way.

You may never reach the end. The goalposts will change. The advice doesn't stop coming. No true writer worth his or her salt ever believes their craft is truly mastered and this is the way it is. Stick at it and you’ll see the results – and feel more confident in sharing your work because your homework is being done.

My own writing journey started the day I realised good writing was a process not an end result.

I started this blog. I wanted to recount my journey from there to here. I believed that my search was entirely about travel and a burning desire to carve out a new life abroad.

That was only part of it. My real journey was one of writing. I had an itch and it needed a damn good scratch.

I constantly learn from teachers like Jody, Jeff, Joanna and Kristin. I incorporate changes, tweak this, alter that. I ask questions and I practice non-stop. This is no quick win and I’m in it for the long haul.

Two month's ago, I was a finalist in the Sydney Writer’s Centre Best Australian Blogs 2012 and I have no doubt these three lessons were key to my minor success.

As a writer, it’s your responsibility to be the very best you can be. You’re accountable for the words you place on a page. So if you take one thing away from this post, take this.

The art of good writing isn’t a destination but a lifelong state of mind. You may never get there, but you’ll be a much better writer for the journey you take.

Now let’s get to it. We've got work to do.

What have you learned on your own writing journey? What writing-related sites would you recommend to others?

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Monday, 2 July 2012

Announcing the No More Bad Photos Competition Winner!

For the past two weeks, I've been running a competition on In Search of a Life Less Ordinary.

The No More Bad Photos contest required readers to pick a 'bad' travel or expat-related photo and write a post or email about that photo - and why they wished they could recapture it.

Entries were judged on the basis of great writing and creativity. The prize: a brand new Sony Cyber-shot HX20 camera.

Photo credit: No More Bad Photos Competition (Sony Australia)

Contest entries

The response was fantastic.

Bloggers from across the globe - in France, Ireland, Australia, the UK, US and India - entered posts on their individual sites, and I got emails with entries about hippy surfers and medieval costumes, happy times and cherished moments.

I've discovered new travel, expat and lifestyle blogs, and learned more about old friends and acquaintances. I've taken a brief journey around this connected world of ours and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Thanks to all for taking the time to enter.

Honourable mentions

It was hard to pick just one winner out of so many interesting and often quite different stories.

My wife and I sat at our dining table last night running through the entries and a couple caught our attention. Unfortunately, there are no runners-up prizes but the following two entries deserve an honourable mention.

The first is A bad photo of a great friendship by Phoebe Holmes of Herding Cats. This post instantly made us both smile.

Phoebe shares a picture of herself and a good friend. She writes about her move from the US to Ireland and how it inevitably put pressure on their friendship. When her good friend comes to Ireland to visit her, they re-connect. Together, they are the same pair of friends they've always been - laughing, goofing around, and taking 'bad' photos as a result. And, for this reason, it's a moment she wishes she could recapture. Thanks for making us smile, Phoebe.

In The Chance to Do It All Over Again, ExpatMomma from HJ Underway writes about her international move from the US to Paris. In the upheaval that accompanies the move and during those final few days in her homeland, she regrets not taking any decent pictures of the farewell - of packing up, saying goodbye to family and friends, embarking on the life-changing voyage.

Given our own international moves, we could intimately relate to the process and ExpatMomma's writing ability and style was stand-out. Make sure you head over to her blog and check out the post.

And the winner is...

There could only be one winner in this competition and, although it was a hard decision for us both to make, our favourite was undoubtedly...

... Latvian-American expat Liene's No More Bad Photos post on Femme au foyer!

Liene writes a raw and honest account of her life's transition from a young university girl to an expat mother in Central France.

Liene's 'bad' photo
She starts by setting the scene for her current life. Her husband has been away for days and she's surrounded by the chaos created by two very young children. She barely has time to wash her hair as the life of a mother consumes all.

She produces a picture from her younger years and reflects on the direction her life has taken since that memorable speed-chop competition as a student at the University of Illinois - and how the photo shows characteristics that would hold her in good stead as an expat mum later on in life.

We loved this well-written and heartfelt post.

Liene obviously adores her current life, but can't help reflecting on her life's journey. She shares a poor quality photo that represents an important part of her adult life where she developed the core qualities that make her who she is as a person today.

Liene wants to retake the picture to draw strength from it in her current, challenging environment as the mother of two tiny human beings in a foreign country far from home - and the reader immediately empathises with her story. How could you not?

It is for this reason we felt that this 'bad' photo post was a deserving winner.

Well done, Liene. We hope you enjoy the camera. Send over your details to here when you get a chance.

Why not congratulate Liene in the comments below and head over to her blog to see the winning entry and, of course, admire her proficient wood-chopping skills.

And thanks again to everyone who entered. We both had a lot of fun reading the entries and I hope you enjoyed reflecting on those 'bad' photos!

Let me know what you think of the winning entry? And what 'bad' photo would you have shared?

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