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Posts Tagged ‘ex-pat’

A year ago yesterday, I landed in Perth from the UK to start my new life. I’d only visited Perth once before, and only very briefly as part of a two-month trip through New Zealand and Australia. A surf life saving competition meant every hotel in the city was booked up so my husband and I stayed in a guest house in Quinns Rocks for two nights and just passed through to the centre en route to Fremantle. The city made no real impression on me and if you’d told me then that within six months I’d be packing up my perfectly nice life in Bristol to move here, well, frankly I would have laughed.

While we had often talked about retiring overseas (New Zealand and for some unknown reason Costa Rica being the destinations of choice) my husband and I hadn’t ever really considered Australia, at least while we were still working.

So the speed and the ease with which our emigration from the UK happened was a bit of a surprise. Someone mentioned that an ex-colleague of my husband had moved to Oz. We googled him, his name came up as the contact on a job advert, my husband said: ‘I could do that’, he applied, and got it. Within a few weeks our house was sold, we were getting quotes for shipping containers and flights, and were too busy to really think about what emigrating would actually mean.

It was certainly very different to the experience of many immigrants here. For a lot of people, moving to Australia is a lifelong dream. And while you’ll be hard pushed to hear anything other than a British accent in large swathes of the northern suburbs, not that many Brits actually manage to make the move. For those over 30 who want to live here permanently, Australian visas are a bit like passes to an exclusive nightclub. If your name – or at least your profession – isn’t on the list, you’re not coming in. We were lucky.

For me, the timing was good. I’d recently instigated a review of my section at work that I knew would lead to my own job disappearing, probably to be replaced with a more senior post that I wouldn’t get. I’d become disillusioned with a job that I enjoyed, but that was so stressful at times that it damaged my physical and mental health. The dance group that had been so crucial in helping me settle in Bristol, and which had provided me with a great set of friends, had disbanded and my social life had taken a blow.

I needed a change – and had I stopped to really think about what I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to make it.

But the decision was made, however rashly, and now I have survived the first year. I’ve even enjoyed it most of the time. Every day brings a new challenge, whether it’s meeting new people or working out what shoe size I am. I rant a lot (I always did), but in reality the list of issues I’ve faced is pretty pathetic. I had a job I didn’t like for a while and I once went to a party where everybody ignored me. Oh, and I’ve found it really hard to find decent baking potatoes. True, I’ve not made any close friendships yet, but I seem to know an alarming number of people in this big country town already so I am sure that will come in time.

Of course I still get homesick, or more accurately, people-sick and shop-sick. I’d kill for a curry at the Sheesh Mahal with Katie and Marc, and I find myself fantasising about walking through Debenhams in Broadmead: in through the cosmetics section, up the escalator to ladieswear, Red Herring straight ahead, Dorothy Perkins through to the right, Top Shop and Oasis to the left…

But I’ve survived this far, and discovered I’m much braver and much more resilient than I realised. So this weekend I will be raising a glass of Margaret River’s finest SSB to a spur of the moment decision that has (mostly) worked out. Cheers!

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I’ve written here before about the difficulties of making friends in a new town, so an article in The Guardian caught my eye this week.

Apparently, in the US you can now rent friends by the hour. Of course in Japan, where you can buy almost anything, rentable friends are nothing new. According to this story, there are 10 rent-a-friend agencies there (although you are yet to be able to get them from vending machines). And elsewhere in the world, even ‘relatives’ are available by the hour.

I suspect most of us would say we were horrified by the idea of renting a pal for the day. But the truth is, a new city can be a very, very lonely place. Even if you have a partner, or friendly work colleagues, the desire to talk to someone else can be quite overwhelming. And when everyone else in the office is chatting about their exciting plans for the weekend, and you know you’re going home to a bottle of sauvignon blanc and yet another re-run of Back to the Future on the TV, it can make you rather depressed – even when a bottle of Marlborough’s finest and Michael J Fox on a skateboard is your idea of the perfect evening’s entertainment.

So this is a plea to anyone who meets a newcomer to their town/city/country: invite them out for a drink/coffee/lunch. Yes, I know you’re busy and that frankly, you’ve got enough friends already, and that you don’t need some homesick billy no-mates hanging on your coat-tails.

But here’s the thing. It’s only an hour. Half an hour, even. And in that short time, the newbie will have been introduced to a new bar/cafe/restaurant where they can go when they eventually make some ‘proper’ friends, and it’s long enough for them to learn a bit about their new home that only an insider like you could tell them. They’ll feel warmer towards their new town, knowing there are people who are making an effort to make them feel welcome.

They’re unlikely to start stalking you (particularly if they’re British; it’s hard enough for us to chat to someone at the bus stop, never mind plot a campaign to get into someone’s life). In fact, they might not even LIKE you, and will spend the rest of their time in your city hoping they don’t bump into you in the supermarket.

Truly, the worst thing that could happen is that you go out, decide you’ve not got much in common and leave it at that. And unless you’ve signed up to one of the aforementioned agencies, you won’t get paid. But you’ll have done the right thing, by your hometown (which I bet prides itself on its friendliness – most places do) and by society. You might even enjoy yourself.

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Thanks to http://socialhoneycomb.com/So I’m in Australia. I have a permanent visa. I have a job I like. I am about to move into a rather nice apartment, where I hope to stay for several years. So it’s probably about time I made some friends.

Perth is a friendly city – it’s one of the reasons I wanted to move here. I’ve had more conversations with random strangers on buses here than in my whole life in the UK. But I’m a married woman in her late(ish) 30s, with no children and a tendency to pretend I’m 10 years younger – which apparently means I am not a mate-magnet.

Child-free – so no chance of me meeting other mums in the playground. Too irresponsible (and neurotic about hygiene) to have a dog – so no chats with other pet owners in the park. A husband – so people tend to assume your evenings and weekends are already booked up. And while Perthites are friendly, at the end of the day most people drive home to their detached houses and do their own thing. Distances between suburbs are huge and there isn’t a focus on the city centre like there is in most places, so people socialise in a variety of suburbs.

I do actually have a semblance of a social life that occasionally involves people other than my husband. I made one good friend within weeks of arriving, and although she’s now gone overseas, she’s left behind a few nice people who I’m now getting to know. But I am conscious of the need to widen my circle of friends. Oddly enough, those few nice people are all immigrants to Perth, or have lived overseas at some point, and who knows? They could decide to try another city or country at any time. Besides, I want to meet some locals, who can show me parts of Perth I might not discover on my own.

In the chaos of moving, finding friends was not a particular priority. As new arrivals, my husband and I did get a few, very welcome, invitations. Nearly eight months in, we are expected to be finding our own way.

I know the best way to meet people is to join a group doing something you’re interested in. It worked for me in Bristol. Practically all my friends there I met through dance. It’s not been so successful here. I’ve tried a couple of dance classes. Hip hop was full of REALLY young people wondering who the old bird was; tap, while providing the requisite number of kooky, verging-on-middle-aged women (hair in bunches – CHECK; wacky socks – CHECK), didn’t offer enough opportunities for interaction with the rest of the group…and frankly I didn’t enjoy the class much, which didn’t help.

Here I am doing a lot of cycling – but most cycling groups take it a lot more seriously than I do. It’s a similar story with kayaking, or to more accurately describe what I do, drifting around on the river trying to remember which way to paddle to turn round. Pilates is doing wonders for my flexibility, but so far zero for friendships. Websites directed at new immigrants organise meet-ups, but they don’t appeal – I’m desperate to integrate and while it can be comforting to speak to others in a similar situation, I don’t think it’s necessarily the best thing in the long run.

So I’m now looking for something else that will bring me into contact with like-minded people. A cause for which I can volunteer, or a course I can do. What really appeals is something that is focussed on making Perth the groovy state capital it deserves to be, but a trawl of t’interweb hasn’t thrown anything up just yet. I found out about PERTHour too late for this time, although I hope to make it to the next.

And I’ve just got to be careful not to appear too desperate – as one of my (old, UK-based) friends pointed out, there’s always the risk you’ll ring someone in another office to get a piece of information and before you’ve hung up you’ve invited them round to dinner and to stay for the weekend.

So if anyone has any ideas, I’d be glad to hear them.

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Many relationship experts claim that it’s the little things that cause marriage break-ups – the toilet seat being left up, or the dirty clothes abandoned on the floor…

The same applies to the immigrant’s relationship with their new country. Even when everything seems similar on the surface – language and culture – you quickly discover that your new home is determined to leave the milk out of the fridge every couple of days just to annoy the hell out of you.

Society is oiled by a whole raft of unwritten rules. When you’re growing up, you pick up these rules as you go along. You don’t even know you’re following them. It’s only when you move somewhere else that you realise that the rules you weren’t even aware of aren’t the same everywhere. What’s worse, because no-one in your new country is aware that they’re playing by their rules, no-one will ever explain them to you. Somehow you are just expected to know.

Take, for example, healthcare. Between private health insurance and Medicare, the scope for befuddlement is huge. In the UK, you go to your doctor, get a prescription, take it to the pharmacy, pay your £7.20 and that’s it. Here, you have to pay for your appointment with the doctor, then claim most of it back by visiting a Medicare office, then shop around because pharmacies can charge more or less what they like, then remember to ask for the cheaper generic version, because it would be WAY too helpful for the doctor to have prescribed that in the first place…oh, and don’t forget to present your Medicare card at every stage of the transaction.

Then there’s shopping, which seems just like shopping at home, but which actually has a whole language of its own, which no-one taught you at school. At the checkout in Target, you’re always asked if you have any lay-bys or Fly-buys. I finally plucked up the courage to ask a local, and discovered lay-bys are a throwback to Britain of the 1950s, where you can have an item kept aside for you, to be paid off at a rate of 5 shillings, sorry, dollars a week. Fly-buys is some kind of loyalty scheme, but it’s so ingrained in society that there are never any leaflets or posters explaining what it is. Bra sizes and shoe sizes are different, and I’ve already mentioned the difficulties caused by cheese descriptions.

None of these litle irritants want to make me divorce Australia, but sometimes I do feel like yelling at it for leaving the lid off the toothpaste again.

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Remember 1979-97? No? Excellent.I’ve long been interested in politics. Growing up in Scotland in the Thatcher years tends to do that to you.

While my work in local government (and chronic indecisiveness) meant I couldn’t affiliate publicly with any political party, I’ve always hoped people saw me as a Guardian reader with a social conscience.

But now I find myself living abroad, with an election just round the corner. I have until 12 April to decide if I should register for a vote. Am I letting democracy down if I don’t?

The first consideration is practical. I am no longer on the UK electoral register. Before we left Bristol, I investigated how we could retain our votes. There was a form to be filled in – simple, except that it needed to also be signed by another British citizen, not related to you by blood or marriage, living in Australia. I didn’t know any, so filed it away as something to be sorted out when we arrived.

But of course any move to a new country is full of stuff to be sorted out, and the electoral registration form got forgotten about, even although I now know several British citizens living here. Now the election has been called I can’t put the decision off any longer.

The Conservatives are campaigning hard for the ex-pat vote. They’ve helpfully set up a website where you can register as an overseas voter and they will even help you find a proxy to vote on your behalf. Tempting as it is to use the site just so I can vote anything but Conservative, I suspect I won’t bother.

I’ve only been away from the UK for seven months, and I still read the Guardian (online) every day. But I know I’m out of touch with British politics, and why shouldn’t I be? I might have a British passport, but in reality decisions made in the UK have very little bearing on my life here. I don’t pay tax in the UK. I don’t own property there. I don’t even know who won the last series of X Factor. While I have a legal right to a vote, I’m not sure I have a moral right.

There will be many ex-pats (and they always call themselves ex-pats, never immigrants) who will vote. No doubt many will vote for the wax-faced toff; the international edition of the Daily Mail is more readily available here than the Guardian Weekly.

But why would you vote in an election in a country you have chosen to leave? And why, if you left the UK when you were too young to vote, would you take advantage of the rule that says you can still have your UK vote as long as your parents were registered there at some point?

Of course my argument would be stronger were I allowed to vote in the Australian elections, but as only a permanent resident, not yet a citizen, they’ll take my tax but not my opinions. But at least by the time I gain citizenship I will hopefully have worked out who stands for what in the Australian system; at the moment it appears we have a prime minister widely regarded as a buffoon, and an opposition leader best known for wearing budgie-smugglers.

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