24 February 2014

How to find a good babysitter for your Expat Kids

One of the most difficult things, when you arrive anywhere new, is finding a babysitter.  This is difficult enough in your home country.  I used to struggle to find suitable babysitters in the UK until I found a web based company that vetted potential sitters.  I could book them online for the times I needed and 5 minutes before a sitter would arrive at my door. They were all criminal record checked, all childcare professionals and all took better care of my children than I did.

I am sure that many countries have a similar system – Astana, however, does not.  So how do you go about finding someone to look after your children?  It can be daunting enough to leave them for the first time in a foreign country without having to worry about who you are leaving them with.

We are very lucky here to have an active international club.  Members of the club will often share details of good sitters and housekeepers and these can prove a good starting point.  I found my Nanny on a recommendation through that site and if she is not able to work late she can often provide recommended sitters – usually members of her extended family whom I know I can trust implicitly.  Work contacts are also useful and I will often rely on the cleaners/housekeepers of friends.  I have a rota of about five people to cover.  There have also been occasions when my husband and I have had to be out of the country at the same time, without the children.  When this happens we arrange for the Nanny to move into the house full time.  She has always been very reliable – indeed the last time we left we returned to find that there had been a terrible water leak from our flat – she had called the plumber and arranged for it to be fixed on her own initiative.  She always has the contact details for an English/Russian speaking colleague of ours and the full details of our children’s health insurance so we know they will be treated by our own doctors rather than at a local clinic.  

Our children are fairly easy going – they have never minded being left with a sitter but I was a little concerned, when we first arrived in Astana, that they would be worried about being left with someone who spoke no English.  I need not have worried at all – the children never batted an eye lid and it has been very good for their language skills.

One of the biggest hurdles we have found, however, have been the cultural expectations.  One time we returned home to find that our babysitter had removed her top when the children went to bed and was sitting in our lounge in her underwear - she was not invited back.  We have also had to discourage many of our sitters from bringing obscene amounts of sweets and chocolate to ‘entertain’ the children with and convince them that the children really must eat the food we leave for them and not complain and inveigle something different from an unsuspecting sitter.

Many of the babysitters think we are very strange – if not downright cruel because we insist on the children going to bed at 7 on a weekday and 8.30 on the weekend.  Most Kazakh children nap extensively in the day but stay up very late with their parents.  It took us some time to convince our regular sitters that the children would, indeed, go to bed when told and sleep.  Our babysitters are also very reluctant to give children anything cold – it is not unusual to come home to find milk, juice and yogurts left out on the counter to warm up (so as not to shock the child’s stomach) and one babysitter actually put yogurt in the microwave and wondered why the children would not eat it.  I have lost count of the amount of dairy product I have had to throw out because it has been left unrefrigerated for too long.

Almost all of them put the children to bed with their doors open but, worried they might disturb them, sit in the living room with the lights dimmed and the TV on silent.  I have tried explaining that they do not need to do this but to no avail.  

But problems like this are generally minor in nature; the children are always well looked after and safe. When I was an older child I used to make a reasonable amount of pocket money in the school holidays by babysitting for friends of my parents – this was easy enough when we lived in the Hague or in a company ‘camp’ (secure gated community) in Turkey as I could walk home very safely.  When we lived in Venezuela it was not so simple – we all lived in flats or houses dotted around town but rules meant that we could not get a taxi from place to place.  I would either have to ask my parents to loan me their driver or ask the clients to drive me back home and walk me to the door.  Much more of a hassle and I stopped babysitting in the end. 
I am sure that the poor children I sat for and their parents had many of the same cultural issues with me as I have with my babysitters today.  The vicissitudes of expat life being what they are, however, meant that I was able to return the favour and babysit the child, in the Hague, of a friend of my parents who had looked after me once or twice in Norway.  I came across the girl once again many years later when, shortly after our marriage, she ended up as a pupil in my Husband’s boarding house in the UK.  

So having been an expat babysitter and a user of babysitting services my top ‘watch for’ list is:

  1. Check that the sitter comes recommended by someone you know or trust.
  2. Check that they are clean and trustworthy.  Dirty clothes or someone who turns up with a friend or boyfriend is an immediate no-no.
  3. Have them arrive 15 minutes early the first time you use them – see how they relate to your children – do your children feel comfortable?  Do you? 
  4. Don't use a new sitter for the first time on the night of an important event.  If it goes wrong you are in trouble!
  5. Agree a scale of payment before you leave – will you pay extra for late hours?
  6. Agree how the sitter will get home – will you give a lift or pay for a taxi?  What is normal in one country (giving a lift) may not be culturally acceptable in another (unchaperoned young girl with male driver). 
  7.  Make sure that you provide plenty of food and refreshments.  Not all sitters in all countries expect this and may bring their own but some do.
  8. Explain any family requirements to them – if you are vegetarian spell out what this means – some people do not regard certain foods (ie ham, chicken) as meat. 
  9.  Make sure that your children understand that the babysitter is in charge.  This may sound obvious but many babysitters I know have told me that expats from certain countries are difficult to sit for because the children treat the sitter as a ‘servant’ with no authority and this is backed up by the parents.  
  10.  Don’t worry too much about language difficulties – children are rarely bothered by such things and care more about whether they are comfortable with someone than if they can talk to them. 
  11. Train your children to get used to sitters.  Expat life often means (depending on why you are expat) a lot of evening events, dinners, work parties etc.  Life will be easier and less stressful if your children accept that you will have to be out from time to time. 
Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

14 February 2014

How to Find a Vet For Your Expat Pet

Having written recently about the challenges Expat Pets face when they move with their families I thought it would be appropriate to write a little bit about the challenges pet owners face.  

One of the first things we have to do, whenever we move to a new country, is find a suitable vet.  Usually a colleague, whether expat or local, will have a pet and therefore be able to recommend a vet to use but sometimes you have to canvass people you meet walking in the park or do a search on-line.  Of course facility with the language always makes this easier and the whole experience is often very different depending on which country you are living in.  I would not find it as challenging to find a vet in the US or Europe as I would in Nigeria or Mali.

Veterinary standards vary a great deal as well.  We are lucky to have some very good, talented and dedicated vets here in Astana but their surgeries look like something from a James Herriott novel.  When we first arrived here in Astana our dog, Bessie, was suffering from a growth on her eyelid.  This very big growth made her eye red and sore and there was no doubt that it needed to come off.  As this pre-dated the purchase of our car I had to ask a friend for the address of her vets and then find a street cab to take us there (many people will not allow dogs in their cars).  The vets do not offer an appointment system so I had to wait my turn – all animal life was there from gerbils to Rottweilers and some long term resident animals – rescued from the street by the kind-heartedness of the vet kept on wandering in to greet the waiting patients.  With no Russian to speak of all I could do was point to the dog’s eye.  The vet very proudly told me she spoke French – excellent news except for the fact that I don’t speak a word so we communicated in sign language.  

Was my dog aggressive?  No, very gentle.  Was I happy to hold her?  Yes of course.  She needs an operation is that ok?  Yes when?......

Before I knew what was happening my dog was then given a mild sedative, and with her body being held down by an orderly I was asked to hold her head.  The vet then took a pair of sterilized scissors and cut the growth off.  The whole operation took 5 minutes, cost about $7 and I was free to take my, rather shaky, dog home.  In the UK the vet would have charged a much greater fee and probably not allowed me to be present during the operation.   

I know I should take a translator but most of my friends are just too busy during the day.  The vets are very patient with us – regularly spending longer than they would with a local family just to make sure that we understand exactly what they are saying.  The dogs don’t get the treats and sweets they would get at a UK or European vets but they are treated efficiently and with kindness.

We are very lucky – I recall a terrible trip to the vets in Venezuela.  Our new rescue dog was due to be spayed and my mother took her in for the operation.  That afternoon we were able to collect her, complete with cone of shame to prevent her worrying the stitches.  We kept her quiet for the rest of the day but when I went to check on her before going to bed I noticed almost all her stitches had burst and her insides were coming out.  The family took turns holding the wound together through the night and the next day we went to another vet to have her stitched. Thank goodness she did not get an infection.  The vet responsible for the problem had an wonderful surgery, it looked professional and had all the latest gadgets in his office but I would take my dog to the Astana vets in preference every time.    

So my top tips for finding a good, reliable vet even when you don’t speak the language:
  • 1.       Ask local and expat friends with pets.
  • 2.       Check local internet forums and ‘Yellow Pages’ directories if available.
  • 3.       On arrival check the animals that are waiting and being discharged – do they look cared for.
  • 4.       Check the vet’s demeanor with the animals – do they trust the vet?  Does the vet appear nervous or callous? 
  • 5.       Be aware that cultural differences may mean animals are not treated in the same way that they would be in your home country.
  • 6.       Don’t expect an upmarket, designer waiting room that you might see in the US or Europe but check instruments and treating surfaces before allowing your dog to be treated.
  • 7.       Make sure that there is a refrigerator/lock up for medicines and if worried ask to see the expiry date.
  • 8.       Needles at vets may not be single use but they should be sterile for each injection.
  • 9.       Trust your instinct.
Click on the picture for more posts on expat pets.

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets