The Elephant in the room…

The topic that all expats avoid.  The one taboo.  I’m about to break it and point to the rather large elephant sat in the corner.  This is a post I wasn’t going to write, then decided it would be cathartic to.  And so it has proven.  I’m feeling much perkier and have my spring back in my step.  I believe writing this and acknowledging it has helped.
Mum, if you are reading, you may want to look away now.  I know how upset you get reading about anything where I suggest I am anything but happy.  But I am happy, yet have fluctuating emotions.
Homesickness.  Why am I still having such bouts of homesickness after being here almost 7 months?  How can I be?  Surely I am living the dream.  In the promised land.  Sun, sea and endless throwing of shrimps onto never ending BBQs.  Great hats with corks to keep all the flies at bay.  Where men wear thongs with pride.  No snow.  No need to put my favourite North Face coat and boots on for a weekend walk.  Am I insane?  
And because I thought I was odd, having such thoughts curiosity drove me to the web site, www.pomsinoz.comto read of others experiences.
And what did I find?  It was like reading my mind.  My jumble of thoughts and emotions all laid out.  But written by other people.  Lots of other people, all feeling the same.  In fact, many feeling a lot worse than me.  I can’t recount how many posts I read where people were going home within the first 12 months.  Not that I am in a state of mind that I want to return home.  Just yet.  But reading about the experience of others just reaffirmed that I wasn’t in fact going mad. 
I am just going through what lots of expats before me have, and continue to go through.  Especially expats from the UK.  Reading a lot of posts from people who returned to the UK, saying how they finally felt at home.  How you realise what an amazing country we have, given the experience of living elsewhere for a period.
For a lot of people, home will always be home, no matter where you live in the world.  And home is a lot of different things to different people.  For some, it’s family life.  Others it’s the history and culture of the UK.  Some even claim to miss the weather (yes, I’m in that camp).  One of my happiest days last week was spent playing football in the pouring rain.  But for me, it is based on a lot of intangible feelings that lurk around in the pit of your stomach and start infiltrating your brain.  Things that wouldn’t make a lot of sense to people if you said them out loud.  Which I’ve tried.
Football.  There, my number 1 of “things I miss”.  And not just going to football, which I always knew would be like a large hole that I would never fill, but living in a culture where football is so ingrained.  Like a religion.  Countries in Europe, and through Central and South America are like this.  People live and breathe football.  With a passion.  Stadiums are their temples, places of worship.  Football here is little more than a 3rd rate sport, with genuine attempts to raise its profile such as the signing by Sydney FC of Allesandro del Piero.  But even del Piero can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.  
I did go and watch a game, and vowed never to return due to the laughable standard of football and the terribly plastic atmosphere.  We have yet to see whether the great man himself will renew his contract for a second year or whether the lure of home, and Italia, will draw him back.
Surely, you can watch the football from England people ask.  Not if I want to hold down a job.  As a result of the 11 hour time difference, most of the games are on at between 2am and 4am.  I’ve watched a couple of “early” kick offs, specifically the victories against Liverpool and City, but to function at work, I do need slightly longer sleep time.  I’m not getting any younger you know.
The homogeneity.  One that will surely raise the rankles of any Australian readers, but Australia all looks the same.  Within reason of course.  I could write a whole post about how different the Great Barrier Reef is to the Red Centre of Uluru.  Spill hundreds of words about the contrast between the Blue Mountains (when you can see them through the mist) and the glorious coastline around Sydney.
But, in general, transport me to a high street in Cairns, or a street in Perth, or drive through a suburb anywhere, and it all looks the same.  Which gets kinda dreary.  The beaches are glorious.  But aren’t 90% of all beaches, anywhere in the world?  Have you travelled around the beaches of Cornwall through a glorious English summer?  A beach is a beach, is a beach, is a beach.   
Not that I want to sound ungrateful, although I probably do, but when you have crappy beaches like we do in the UK (aforementioned Cornwall aside), going to a good beach, usually on holiday is a highlight that usually gives you months of subsequent smiles, just thinking about sitting there, listening to the waves, sipping your cocktails, listening to the strains of “bolinhas”, from the local Portuguese doughnut seller.
When you can go to the beach everyday, it loses a lot of its allure, its sparkle, it ability to invigorate.  How many of you would like to celebrate Christmas every week?  Aside from the fact that I would be about 383 years old.  Think it would feel as magical not having waited the whole year for it and endured the endless Christmas carols played in Next since September?
I started this post ruminating on homesickness.  I have slightly digressed but hopefully given you an insight into my feelings in the meantime.  I am not jumping on Expedia to book a flight.  I am not packing up the apartment.  I am not checking out the Lloyds Banking Group job site.  But I am sharing this with you so I can try to better understand how I feel.  And to let myself know that there is no right and wrong decisions per se, just decisions that are right for me at the time I make them.
I often read about the mythical “2 year rule”, in that you should give yourself 2 years before deciding what to do as an expat.  I don’t buy this.  
Firstly, who came up with such an arbitrary number?  What is this based on?  Maybe on the old immigration rules that you had to be here 2 years before applying for citizenship.  That’s now 4 years, so blows that out of the water.  
And secondly, for people who really do decide to go home, why should they sit out their time here being unhappy, counting down the days, ticking them off the calendar until all 730 have passed?  If their gut tells them it is time to go home, then home they should go.
Me, I still have 537 days to go.
Until the next time folks in the life of an expat.

You have a choice…

Too much choice!

“We are our choices”, said Jean-Paul Sartre.

Which would be OK, if we were actually able to choose.  But that is where the problem starts.

You want to go out for dinner.  A restaurant would be the logical place to start.  But what type of food do you want to eat?  This used to be a simple decision, a process of eliminating a couple of choices and off you go.  Now things are much more complex.  Not only do you have the age-old dilemma of nationalities, curry over chinese, or maybe the English stalwart, fish and chips.  Now you have the problem of nationalities joining forces and creating “fusions” of each.  The word fusion and it’s morphing into a genre of food probably originated in Australia.  A cultural melting pot in which many foods converge, and then merge, giving fusion cuisine.

A great concept.  To begin with.  But has it gone too far?  

Quite possibly when we have Japanese/French, or Australian/Mexican fusion restaurants amongst others.  I don’t want sushi on my pancakes.  If I order a few bbq’d shrimps or a bit of tender kangaroo, I don’t want it in a taco.  Stop!

Technology is as bad.  Not many years ago, going into a shop and asking for tablets would usually result in the question, how strong sir, is it for a migraine.  Now you are more likely to be asked, what screen size?  Retina display?  Do you want jellybean, ios or a google based one?  Help, shoot me now. The market seems awash with tablets and not many a month goes by without either a new launch, or a “refresh” as they are euphemistically called.

And mobile phones?  Don’t start me on mobile phones.  Seriously.  Don’t. 

I recently was looking at ways of organizing the paper based notes I’m making in my Spanish classes.  This proved to be a minefield.  Evernote?  OneNote?  Useless note? (OK, I made that one up).  And where to store them?  The mythical cloud seems to be the place these days.  In Skydrive?  Apple’s cloud?  Dropbox?  The irony of DropBox is the tagline, “Simplify your life”.  Argh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is it too late to want to go back to when the world was a simpler place? We all had the same Nokia phone? People weren’t messing with my food.  My capacity to save documents was determined by the memory available on whatever device I was using.

Am I kidding myself?  I fear the answer is yes.  Have we gone too far in western society?  Have we gone too far full stop?  There are books written on minimalism.  In fact, there are dozens of books on minimalism.  Appreciate the irony in this?

And coffee shops.  Further irony.  The more independent coffee shops we have, offering more choice, they all suddenly look the same.  What was once the homogeneity of the big chain coffee shops, has now morphed into homogenous streets of endless independent coffee shops, all offering the same arty flat whites, or lattes with a pretty little flower made in the milk on the top.  The only way they can differentiate themselves now is by going to such extremes as offering overpriced vacuum made coffee (also called siphon), as seen so long ago as 1945 in the film “Brief Encounter”.  And people are paying for this.  It’s complete nonsense.  Give me an Italian espresso house any day.  Without menus and silly offerings such as skinny decaf soy lattes.  You want coffee, you pay your euro and you get a shot of pure gold.  You want a ridiculous concoction that involves messing with the heart and essence of coffee making?  There is the door.

Well, that’s my rant over.  I just suppose I am going to have to deal with the abundance of choice, despite how it makes me feel.

In the meantime, fish and chip pizza anyone?
And if you want proof that too much choice paralyses our decision making abilities, Google “the jam experiment” which details a study by an expert in the field, Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar.  In 1995 she conducted an interesting experiment that highlighted just how difficult we find it to make a purchase when given too much choice.

You are so cool

There is a great advert on the TV in the UK for a broadband service based in Yorkshire.  In the advert, lots of fanciful things are just about to begin before the protagonist shouts the inimitable catchphrase.  Recently I’ve had many an occasion, way too many to be totally truthful, to recant that phrase, if not out loud, but then most definitely sotto voce.

And what causes this mild form of tourettes?  Sydney has been taken over by the “hipsters”.  Starting with the Bondi Hipsters, Bondi Hipsters – YouTube

, the phenomenon has made it’s way either by stealth, or good transport links, over to the North Shore.  No longer can I leave the apartment and walk a few yards before encountering a hipster clothed in Mosman mulberry.  And not mulberry of the very expensive handbag variety, but mulberry the colour.  I thought it was plum.  But no, I was corrected.  Definitely mulberry.  And it has to be the right tone of mulberry.  I was told this by a English friend who turned up in what looked suspiciously like a pair of washed out mulberry shorts.  Hmm, I have my eye on him.
To complete the look you have to also wear a pair of achingly cool old style, black rimmed glasses, sport a haircut that looks like something from the 80s with a laughable quaff, have one of the ubiquitous “fixie” bikes without gears, and you have your look.
And it’s everywhere.  As though the locals are bred in some kind of test tube and released into the world when they grow into their mulberry chinos.  I feel like I am in some kind of Hipster version of the Stepford Wives. 
Which leads me back to the advert, and the catchphrase, “You can stop that nonsense”.  You see, that’s not how we are made in Yorkshire.  We are simple, down to earth folk really.  Not feeling the need to look like everybody else to fit in.  We realise that by looking like everybody else, you become that exact opposite of cool.  And that bike, the fixie with no gears, yeah, maybe it does carry an air of cool about it, but I’d like to see you ride it and not just push it to the café, casually resting it against the wall whilst you order your soy skinny decaff mocha latte chino.
And don’t get me started on the lycra brigade.  Maybe next time…

My favourite day of the week?

What is your favourite day of the week?  Is it Friday, like a couple of good friends of mine, who get their last working day of the week underway by bopping with their morning brew to McFly?  Is it Saturday, with long afternoons in the pub putting the world to rights?  Or Sunday, starting with a late, leisurely breakfast?
Can anybody guess the favourite day of the week for a traveller?  Here’s a clue, it’s not one to be found on a conventional Gregorian calendar.  When you are travelling long term, why would a Thursday be any different to a Tuesday, or a Sunday any better than a Wednesday.  The significance of days disappears and you just live.  Live for whatever moment you are in.  I guess this is where the quote, “forever is composed of lots of little now’s” comes from.
So, what marks a day out as being different?  Laundry day.  There.  As simple as that.  Not pay day.  Not the weekend.  But laundry day.  The day that you get to smell fresh clothes again.  The t-shirt you have basically lived in.  For the briefest of times, it’s like new all over.  You don’t own many clothes as a traveller.  Where would you carry them all?  So each item gets recycled a lot more that you would at home.  A lot more.  It does make you realize how little you need.  There is a sense of liberation.  Being set free from the shackles of consumerism.  So, on laundry day, it’s like the first day you set out from home.  New bag, packed with clean, fresh smelling clothes. 
This is the other perspective that travel gives you.  Not just immersing yourself and learning about new cultures.  Not solely making new friends in foreign climes.  But how to take the pleasure and see the beauty in the little things life gives us.  Like clothes smelling of lavender.
How many of you have laundry day as your favourite day?

An ode to Brighouse

They say you can take the man out of Brighouse, but not Brighouse out of the man.
I say this is true.  Having been a very proud resident of this great little Northern market town for most of my life, I am now residing in Sydney, Australia.  And what I would do for a portion of fish and chips from the Dolphin (whoops, must remember it’s now Blakeley’s).  A cup of tea and a slice or two of well buttered bread on the side.  Or maybe one of Brayshaw’s famous pork pies.  Taken home and served us with a portion of real mushy peas.  Or perhaps even a slice of warm apple pie from the Merry England, making use of their newly acquired wi-fi to write my latest blog.  Finish off the day with a couple of economically priced pints in the Richard Oastler Wetherspoons pub.  I think even Brook’s restaurant is economically priced compared to Sydney.

You see, it is only when you become an expat that you realize just how much you miss these little creature comforts from home.  Distance makes the heart grow fonder?  It certainly does something, if I am coming over all misty eyed for “Briggus”.  Yes, Sydney has a world class dining scene.  One to rival the gastronomic capitals of London and Paris.  But you try and find a good pork pie.  Or a portion of chips that even slightly resemble the best that either Blakeley’s, or the Golden Hind serve up in yesterday’s Brighouse Echo without fanfare.  Good luck is all I say.  
Having left Brighouse only as recently as July this year, I know that these things will take some adjusting to.  The delights of Brighouse may fade and become just a memory.  Those balmy (really?) evenings meandering along the canal, feeding the ducks.  That said, it seems I’m not alone with a fondness for Brighouse.  It even has it’s own love song.  Thanks to a good friend for recently pointing me in the direction of Roger Davies singing “Brighouse on a Saturday night”
In the meantime, if anybody wants to send me a few pork pies…

My travel DNA

As I plan to embark on perhaps one of my biggest adventures, my thoughts turn to how I actually got here. I’m not sure when it happened. Or whether it was something that occurred suddenly. But, I definitely have a gene in me that is wired for travel. You could say that it is in my DNA. And has been for a very long time. Am I a “traveller” by definition? Is there even such a thing?

It wasn’t always like this. Up to the age of 23, I had only ever left the country twice on overseas holidays. And both for scarcely homesick inducing periods of 1 week each. Holidaying at Butlins through my childhood, I first ventured on a plane at 17 years of age for a week in Tunisia, followed by a week in Ibiza the year after.

So what happened to me? How did I develop into this itinerant nomad? Where did my peripatetic lifestyle come from? It could probably be traced back to a chance conversation in 1993 with my old mucker, Steve. “Fancy doing a bit of travelling?”, I asked. “Where to?” was Steve’s first response” After ruling out Europe, too close, we decided on Australia, on the basis that we had heard it was “warm there isn’t it?”.

And there we were, in the departure lounge of Manchester airport, Steve’s dad carrying his rucksack, and my mum worryingly checking out my fellow passengers. Astutely noticing that many of them were of a foreign appearance, I had to remind her that was because I was flying to Bangkok, the first step on a 12 month working holiday to Australia.

Almost 20 years later, my travel cravings remain hard to satiate. Long backpacking trips around South America and much of the rest of the world just leave me returning with an always-increasing travel bucket list. I meet people who have been to corners (metaphorically speaking) of the globe that just invite exploration. Lists of must see sights and cultures.

As I plan to make the move to start a new life down under, I muse whether this will be the start of the end of my constant global wanderings, or whether it will just be another start.

Maybe Alanis was right…

From a distance, the fields look very green. Lush. As you slowly approach, the verdant green starts to fade, and when you are at the fence, it looks as though the grass isn’t green on either side. Typical.

Life has a way of changing on you when your back is turned. Your thoughts and attitudes change with the passing of the years, without you realising what profound effect they are having on your psyche. What looked a good idea a few years ago, looks less so now. The things you enjoyed become less appealing. When did this happen? It’s as though we slept through the changing of the guard. As we silently passed the dark hours, somebody came into the living room of our heads and rearranged the furniture. And when you wake up, it takes a while to notice. What is different?

That is how it happens. Silently. Stealthily. Before you know where you are, all the angst of youth seems a distant memory and you are happy with yourself. Happy in yourself. Just happy. Since reaching 40 I have never felt more comfortable with being me. Just like that. Without consciously thinking about it. Without making any changes. Without suffering a midlife crisis. I still don’t have a red Porsche, a Harley Davidson, a Rolex (yet) or a Playboy bunny girl as a live in lover, and yet, I’m happy.

I would even go as far as saying that I feel quite settled. Yeah, you heard that right. Settled. My friendships have reached a level of maturity whereby the friends I have are the friends I want to have. And they are great friendships. The times we have together leave me with lasting memories and a smile when I reminisce about them.

And yet, shortly, I’m leaving all this behind. Packing up the great home I have. Leaving the work I’m doing, after finally, after all these years, starting to work for myself as a freelance project manager. And leaving family and friends behind to lift and shift it all 11000 miles away, to the land down under.

Why? It’s not just for the Vegemite sandwiches and pints of Fosters. It’s because I’ve harboured this dream for a very, very long time. To live in Australia. The eight visits there haven’t diminished, or diluted this dream. I’m very excited to go and start a new challenge. I thrive on change and challenging the status quo. But, it has to be said, when I set out on this journey, over 2 years ago, I wasn’t in the same place, mentally. The metaphorical furniture was upturned, I wasn’t settled and did indeed suffer the odd pangs of angst. So, back then, the grass did in fact look so much greener.

Like I said, maybe Alanis was right, it is a little bit ironic, don’t you think?

Life, it’s a game of two halves

Yeah, I know. It’s a cliché. But then, life is full of them isn’t it? It’s only when something really happens in your life, and I mean REALLY happen, that you suddenly sit up, take notice and start paying attention.

Life really IS too short. A fact brought suddenly into focus when you lose loved ones. This is when the truisms captured within clichés really start biting you in the ass!

So, as I approach my 40th birthday I was suddenly hit, despite almost 40 years warning to prepare for it, with the realisation that I am most probably half way through my life. And that is hoping that I’m one of the lucky ones who get a good innings, to coin a(nother) cliché.

I’ve had a solid first half, done some amazing things, travelled the world, met many wonderful people of all cultures. But as I begin to mentally think through my half time team talk, I wonder whether I need to make any tactical changes, or substitutions to affect the full time score.

If I come out in the second half, play the same game as I’ve been playing, will I be happy with the final score? I will have put in a solid performance. A game I maybe should be happy with. But could I have done more? Did I really stretch myself? Did I live my dreams, or just my life?

What about that second language I always promised myself? Living in a foreign country, rather than travelling through? Didn’t I dream of owning and running my own coffee shop? Only I can make these pipe dreams a reality. And I can. If I decide that I don’t want to settle for a draw in the biggest game of my life. I can.

As the whistle is about to be blown for the end of the first half, I need to decide how I am going to play the second half.

It certainly is going to be some half time team talk.