18 April 2014

Reverse Bucket List

Expat life has the potential to be very exciting, to give us all opportunities we never dreamed of.  My husband and I still pinch ourselves, regularly, that we live freely and happily in the middle of the ex USSR and can talk with local friends about their experiences of the time.

We are in limbo at the moment, however, with just a few months to go until we say goodbye to Kazakhstan and start the next phase of our expat adventure.  Such times inevitably lead to future planning - thinking of the experiences to come.  Today I was reading Amanda Van Mulligan's Life with a Double Buggy blog and she has prepared a reverse bucket list - a list of all her experiences to date.  I thought it was a fascinating post as were many of the others on the blog link up so I thought I would add mine to her blog link up.  This is my list to date:
  • ·         Lived in 7 (soon to be 8) countries and moved internationally 9 (soon to be 10) times.
  • ·         Lived in over 25 different homes (not including university and school).
  • ·         Adopted pets in 5 different countries.
  • ·         Maintained close relationships with family stretched over a minimum of three different countries.
  • ·         Went to boarding school on my own age 11 and watched my family fly off to start a new life in Nigeria.
  • ·         Flew to Nigeria for the first time alone four months later having had no post delivered desperately hoping my mother would be able to meet my plane and that I would recognise her (I was worried she would be so tanned I would not know her).
  • ·         Survived a shoot-out/armed robbery in Lagos airport.
  • ·         Lived through an attempted coup.
  • ·         Speeding through the Niger Delta.
  • ·         Visiting orphanages in Nigeria and seeing, first hand, how very very lucky my childhood was. 
  • ·         Been on safari in Jos (Nigeria), not to be recommended as a top tourist destination!
  • ·         Visiting Benin (the country) and Benin (the city).
  • ·         Spending weekends in paradise (some holiday villas 2 hours from our home in Warri), walking through the gardens and swimming in the river.
  • ·         Cycling on a raised path through the swamp.
  • ·         Learning how to kill giant cockroaches, avoid scorpions and teaching the cat to kill snakes. 
  • ·         Watching local witch doctors perform ceremonies.
  • ·         Visiting Moscow and Leningrad (as it was) and travelling between them by train.
  • ·         Going to the Circus and Ballet in Moscow and seeing the Hermitage and Aurora in Leningrad.
  • ·         Learning to integrate almost seamlessly in the UK and to understand British humour.
  • ·         Persuading my parents that, if I could fly around the world on my own I would be safe on solo trips to London.
  • ·         Volunteering with my local lifeboat and old people’s home in the UK for community service experience.
  • ·         Moving to eastern Turkey in the 1990’s when the situation was extremely volatile and daily life was very dangerous.
  • ·         Convincing Turkish Airlines that they absolutely could let two young girls fly into our local airport and that we were not tourists.
  • ·         Making my classmates in the UK laugh when a car backfired and I threw myself under my desk thinking it was the start of an attack. 
  • ·         Driving to Nemrut Dag and Eski Kale and seeing the Ataturk Dam close up.
  • ·         Enjoying a picnic on the shores of Lake Hazar and exploring Catholic Churches and Syriac monasteries on the Syrian border.
  • ·         Exploring Istanbul – the most beautiful city in the world - for the very first time.
  • ·         Shopping for carpets in Diyarbakir’s old town.  Crossing the Berlin/Bagdad railway every day and eating meals while looking out over the purported Garden of Eden. 
  • ·         Touring remote villages helping to spread the word about the importance of education for girls.
  • ·         Learning (and forgetting) Turkish.
  • ·         Going to university in the UK and meeting my husband there.
  • ·         Spending my first summer from university visiting friends before taking our dog from the Netherlands to our new home in Venezuela.
  • ·         Exploring the Venezuelan Andes, Coro peninsula and Lake Maracaibo.
  • ·         Being volunteered to work as a translator from Spanish for English, Dutch and German kids at a holiday camp despite not speaking a word of Spanish (I learned quickly).
  • ·         Learning (and forgetting) Spanish.
  • ·         Visiting the Venezuelan Supreme Court.
  • ·         Qualifying as a solicitor and working in London.
  • ·         Getting married in Durham Castle.
  • ·         Getting our very first dog for our new family.
  • ·         Learning to scuba dive, getting my Nitrox, Deep Diver and Divemaster certificates.
  • ·         Taking a case to the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) in the UK.
  • ·         Buying our dream first home.
  • ·         Having our beautiful children.
  • ·         Driving around Europe for weeks at a time with no plan– just to see where we would end up.
  • ·         Being elected as a local councillor.
  • ·         Standing for election to the UK parliament.
  • ·         Gaining accreditation as a social and commercial mediator. 
  • ·         Moving to Astana, Kazakhstan.
  • ·         Learning Russian.
  • ·         Visiting Lake Borovoye and exploring the Kazakh Steppe.
  • ·         Buying a car in Kazakhstan.
  • ·         Being sent from Kazakhstan to Germany for an emergency operation (and back again in the space of two days).
  • ·         Dealing with pregnancy in two (soon to be three) foreign countries.
  • ·         Getting beaten up in Kiev airport.
  • ·         Meeting NASA astronauts and Space Station personnel in Karaganda.
  • ·         Exploring Almaty in the snow.
  • ·         Coping and enjoying life in the second coldest capital in the world.
  • ·         Visiting museums commemorating the Gulag.
  • ·         Exploring the silk road cities of Kyrgyzstan. 
  • ·         Spending Christmas in various places around the world including Lebanon and Angkor Wat.
  • ·         Getting recognition as a public speaker and local government expert. 
  • ·         Looking forward to all the experiences to come and thinking about all the things I have left off this list to prevent it becoming longer and more self indulgent than necessary. 

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

14 April 2014

Getting ready to move on from Astana

We are due to be leaving Astana in just a few short months.  I always find the time between finding out your next posting and actually moving to be somewhat surreal.  We found out about our prospective move to Miri, Sarawak in Malaysia in December last year - six months is a very long lead in but usual in my husband's profession. 

It means that life continues as normal but you know that the stress of the move and packing is going to hit you soon.  Our moves are complicated by the fact that employers expect us to sort out all our own shipping so I have been canvassing moving companies to make the necessary arrangements.  We also have the two dogs to transport and, to make life even more complicated I am expecting our third child and our move will come just around the time of my last week of flying without a certificate. 

All these complications aside, however, Astana has been one of the happiest, easiest postings of my life and I have been reminiscing on our three years in Astana and what I will miss when we go.

  • The Weather:  This may sound counter-intuitive - afterall who would miss the 80 degree temperature range, scorching summers and freezing winters.  I will, the seasonal variation is refreshing, the cold is not too bad to deal with (I am amazed at how we have learned to cope with -35) and I love the warmth.  I will miss the winters with their cold, crisp skies and beautiful pure white snowscapes.
  • The Shopping:  Again this sounds crazy - Astana is not known as a shopper's paradise and indeed it is anything but.  Clothes can be hard to buy and expensive when you find them - ditto everything else.  BUT, the last three years have seen such an increase in the produce available in the shops.  I know where to find what I need for the best value and how to cook with what is available.  I will have to learn this all over again at the next place.  Not that I am expecting Malaysia to be a challenge - by all accounts it is very very easy but I will have to get used to a different range of offerings.
  • Russian:  After three years here I have progressed from nothing to being able to make myself understood.  I can read and write with the help of a dictionary and have no problems getting what I want.  I can even manage my medical appointments without a translator if I need to (although it is easier and quicker when he is there).  Although I know people speak English in Malaysia I will be starting from scratch with the local languages.  What saddens me is that I know what happens with Expat languages, at least to me.  I reached the same level in my Turkish and Spanish.  I know that when I visit a country that spoke either of those languages I pick them up more quickly than before but, for the present, I have a very limited facility in either.  My vocab has completely contracted.  My brain seems to have room for English and Dutch  and my school German but only for one other language at a time.  As soon as I learned Spanish my Turkish disappeared.  Learning Russian destroyed my Spanish and so it goes on.  My wonderful mother was fluent in four languages (her rather lovely but linguistically intimidating family would play scrabble in all four simultaneously to improve their odds of getting a good word) and conversant in another three.  I just can't seem to keep a fourth language in mind unless I am exposed to it every day. 
  • The Architecture:  Astana is crazy - no two ways about it.  I will miss shopping in a giant tent or driving past a pyramid and huge dog's bowl on a daily basis.  I will also miss seeing what the next bonkers project to emerge from the foundations will be.
  • The Safety:  Astana is a wonderfully safe city - I can walk home from a friend's house, alone, in the middle of the night and be confident that I will be safe.  I can send the kids to the loo in the restaurant or shopping center on their own knowing that they will be ok on their own.  I would never do this in the UK or Europe. 
  •  Friends:  As with all postings we have made some very good friends both through work and socially.  Hopefully we will keep in touch and even manage to see each-other again sometime soon.
  •  Our Kid's School: our children will miss their teachers and their friends who have played such a formative part in their first years at school.  They are looking forward to the new adventure but are a little bit nervous - will the next school be as good as this one?  Of course it will be (Daddy will be the Headmaster after all) but I will miss the sense of security this first school has given them. 
  • Gypsy Cabs:  If I am without the car I just need to stick my hand out and someone will come along within two minutes to take me where I need to go.  Last summer in the UK, waiting for a bus I was tempted to try to flag down a car before remembering that it is just not the done (or safe) thing.  Some of the drivers who pick you up are taciturn but most are pleasingly garrulous - wanting to know all about where you come from and what you think of Astana.  The conversations I have had in cabs range from  the prosaic (talk of family life) to the predictable (Manchester United, Chelsea) to the interesting (life under the Soviets) to the down right unexpected (the Carolingian Empire).
  • Cherry Juice:  This is the only juice our little girl likes to drink, she has problems adjusting to orange and apple juice when visiting Europe and when she heard that it would probably not be available in Malaysia she cried for two hours.  I am trying to convince her of the merits of Mango or Watermelon juice. 

There are also, of course,  things I will not miss....
  • Draughty Windows:  There is no getting away from the fact that Astana is both cold and windy for much of the year.  Our flat is double aspect north/south facing and has gigantic rooms that are difficult to heat even with the famously efficient Kazakh central heating.  Most of our friends have to open their windows in the winter to cool down - we don't.  We had the windows re-sealed before the last winter but it made no difference - our Northern windows face towards Siberia with no other buildings to shield us.  By about December we can see the curtains moving in the breeze and have to duct tape the windows for the remainder of the winter. 
  • The Wind: The Buran can make both summer and winter miserable.  In the summer the wind will bring dust storms that coat everything in a fine dust and scratches at your eyes.  In the winter the wind cuts like a knife and can easily add a wind chill of 10-15 degrees.  If it carries snow visibility drops to nearly nothing.  Astana's beautiful broad boulevards offer little respite - they seem only to channel the wind to greater force. 
  • Our Car: Cars do not seem to depreciate in the same way here in Kazakhstan as they do elsewhere with the result that a second hand car is very expensive.  Most of our friends get grace and favour cars from employers or simply rely on gypsy cabs.  With two children still in car seats the mostly seatbeltless cabs are not a viable option except in extremis.  To make matters even more complex most cars for sale here are automatics and we prefer to drive a manual.  For the price of a nearly new Toyota in the UK we settled for a 1998 Nissan Pathfinder with broken transmission and bald tyres.  A little bit of care and attention later and we have a car that will  get us from A-B quite comfortably if not in the style of our friends with their Land Cruisers and Lexus.  On the up side we get to drive ourselves and are not a the mercy of a driver (I dislike being driven and prefer to be in control).  I understand that I can get a long term rental in Malaysia relatively easily and my Husband will have a grace and favour car.  The first time we have ever had a car each. 
  • Bureaucracy:  Kazakhstan's post Soviet bureaucracy is complex and confusing.  The requirements for any one thing can change from time to time and you can find yourself queuing for a piece of paper that one department wants you to have while another will swear blind it is not necessary.  Mind you the Netherlands is no picnic and, when I started work in the UK it took me 6 months to get a 'National Insurance' number to enable my employers to attribute my tax so Kazakhstan is not alone. 
  • Isolation:  Astana is a vibrant city that grows by the month so there are always people around.  It is, however, in the middle of nowhere.  Our nearest large towns are 3 hours drive away and the roads are often shut due to high winds causing drifting snow in the winter.  Trains usually run but are slow and crowded and expensive.  If trains are expensive flights are ruinous - it can cost $100 one way to Almaty and there are very few direct international flights from Astana.  Our family of four can be looking at $2000 minimum spend just to get away for a holiday, fine as a once off but not every holiday.  This breeds a very strong sense of isolation and cabin fever particularly in the winter. 
  • High Cost of Living:  Because we are so isolated transport costs are high.  Add import costs and everything becomes very very expensive.  When we arrived we went to the local Ikea to order bookshelves.  A set of shelves that would have cost GBP20 in the UK worked out at almost GBP80 here.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are not expensive in the summer but become pricey in the winter. 
  • Medical Care: Most of our local friends prefer to travel to Almaty for medical treatment.  Astana's hospitals do not have the best reputation.  The National Mother and Child hospital is decent enough and diagnostic services seem fine but our GP clinic/Insurers have us travel abroad for anything more serious.  I had to be medevaced out last year for a relatively simple 10 minute operation.
  • Pork: Although Kazakhstan is a secular state the majority of the population are Muslim.  Pork is available but hard to find and expensive when you get it.  I love Pork and miss it terribly, that said I understand it is even less available in Malaysia.
When all is said and done, however much we will miss Astana we are looking forward to the next stage of the adventure. 

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

4 April 2014

How to maintain family bonds across borders.

I wrote some time ago about the difficulties of staying in touch with loved ones when you expatriate and how this has become easier over the years.

Recently, talking to my Mother in Law, I realised that I had, as a serial expat from birth, not really understood the concerns of people who grew up with all of their family in a single location.  She has lived in the same city her entire life, her parents and grandparents and great grandparents all come from there and her daughter and three grandchildren live down the road from her.  Although two of her children moved away it was only to another part of the UK and it was always relatively easy for her to call or visit family.
It is important to help kids maintain relationships with family abroad
When we told her we were moving to Kazakhstan, a country formerly almost unknown to her, and that we would be taking her two youngest grandchildren away it hit her very badly.  My family are so used to being abroad that when we told them we were going they just said 'when can we visit?'.  My mother in law worried that she would hardly see or hear from us again and that the children would forget her.  It just never crossed my mind that someone would worry like this and I now feel bad for not taking more time to reassure her.  Luckily the passage of time has done that.

I remember growing up in a different country to my grandparents, aunts and uncles but I love them no less for that, indeed their homes were the unchanging constant in my vagrant life.  My parents took great care to ensure that we had many photos of the family around the house and spoke about them almost every day.  I do the same - Granny is as much part of our lives in Kazakhstan as she is in the UK.  While the time difference (and the fact she does not have internet for skype) can make calls difficult we do try to call her regularly, particularly if the children want to tell her all about an achievement at school or just for a chat.  It is also easy to forget uncles, aunts and cousins and we make sure that we talk about them almost as much as we talk about grandparents. 

We also have a rule that family are welcome to visit at any time and we do everything we can to facilitate a visit (on one occasion my husband flew to the UK and back on a very tiring instant turnaround to escort a nervous relative out here).  We always try to rent a flat with a spare bedroom to make sure that there is a place for them to stay and the children love the opportunity to show off 'their city'.  My father came to visit a few months ago and the children took great delight in showing him the sites and lecturing him on the clothes he should wear (on no account leave the house without a hat, scarf and mittens) even teaching him what to say when ordering in restaurants.  My mother in law braved a Kazakh winter a few years ago and spent Christmas and New Year with us - the children were over the moon. 

Strong bonds mean visits become very special.
 It is tempting to spend all our holidays exploring the interesting places close to our host country, knowing that it is the best ever opportunity  to see and experience them.  We do try, however, to get back to the UK for at least one week in the year to let the children spend some time with their relatives.  Some families I know return to their home country almost every chance they get and their children must see their families more often than we did when we lived in England!  When our children are a little older we will probably let them fly to visit relatives as unaccompanied minors for a half term break when we can't get time off work.

I know of many families where the husband and wife split responsibility for contact - each maintaining contact only with their own families but this does not work for us.  Even if there are tensions with in laws children deserve a relationship with those who love them and my husband and I take equal responsibility for all contact from skype calls to drawing birthday and thank you cards and emailing school reports on.  We work on the basis that in-laws are family too. 

Kids should be able to share their life with their wider family
I have every expectation that, when they grow older, our children will live in a different part of the world to us.  I hope that they will remember that distance makes no different to real bonds of love and affection and work to make sure that we have a strong relationship with their children.

Top tips for keeping family bonds strong:

  1. Talk about distant family members often - every day if possible.  Granny loves potatoes, Oma used to cook this for me when I was a child etc etc.
  2. Have a lot of photographs around the house - particularly of children with absent relatives.  
  3. Try and speak regularly.  Not just in a pre-arranged time slot but let children know that they can call a family member to tell them important news.  Let them send examples of award winning school work to family at home.
  4. Send lots of photographs back to the family in the home country (my family are on facebook and we make my mother in law an album every year).  Things like school reports are also a good way to help people feel involved in a child's life.
  5. Don't limit the initiation of contact to 'my family my job, your family your job'.  The children belong to both families.
  6. Make sure that family know they are welcome to visit and try to go home and visit them as often as you can. 
  7. Don't force children, particularly older ones, to talk to people every call but do expect them to say hello.
  8. Allow older children uncensored and private contact with grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.  If they are having a hard time at home they will value having this access in the same way they would if they lived in your home country. 
  9. Consider allowing older children to travel to family alone for shorter, half term, holidays when you may not be able to get away.

Added to the Expat Life Linky - click the link to read awesome expat experiences from around the world.  
Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat