Feel Like a Movie Star with InterNations!

Here in Munich, seat of the InterNations head office, the dog days of summer have just arrived. While the hottest weeks of the year don’t seem quite like the right time to dedicate to films, of all things, summer in the city is always movie season, too. The more sweltering the days, the mellower the nights: the half a dozen outdoor cinemas and drive-ins in the Munich area will be all the gladder for it.

For the hardcore cineastes, who are a tad too serious to hang out on a picnic blanket and watch the latest blockbuster franchise, there’s still the Filmfest München (Munich Film Festival) in June/July, InterNations Expat Blog_Movie Star Events and Activities_Pic 1 with nine days full of international arthouse productions, retrospectives, and interviews with cast and crew. So far, the likes of George Clooney or Cate Blanchett haven’t graced its red carpet yet, but actors Viggo Mortensen, Mads Mikkelsen, and Rupert Everett were the 2015 VIPs.

If you, too, would like to feel like a movie star for just one night, here’s your chance! You don’t have to dwell in Munich, let alone in LA, to enjoy the opportunity. The motto of our events and activities in July and August is “InterNations Movie Stars 2015″, and we’ve asked our Ambassadors and Group Consuls around the world to get creative.

What’s on the program so far?

• For all the secret agents and super spies out there, we have not one but three 007-themed parties scheduled already. Red curtain In Antwerp, Bern, and Panama City, you can break out your best tuxedo or swankiest cocktail dress and order your martini “shaken, not stirred”. However, while you have the license to party, we do most emphatically not recommend staking ten million dollars in a lethal poker game or starting a car chase on your way home.

• If spy thrillers aren’t quite your thing, but you still need a pretext for that sparkly dress or fancy bow-tie, the Golden Twenties await you in Bulgaria. At the InterNations Sofia Great Gatsby Event, the truly passionate movie buffs can argue if Robert Redford or Leonardo Di Caprio made the better Jay Gatsby onscreen. Everyone else, just relax and enjoy the vintage outfits and your complimentary welcome drink.

StageHikers in Indonesia can follow the example set by Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild (2007) — or Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014) — and head for the great outdoors. But don’t worry! No one will have to cross a snow-hushed landscape in duct-taped sandals or fight for their lives in the Alaskan wilderness. Instead, you can join a scenic trek up the slopes of Mount Galunggang, an active volcano in West Java.

• The InterNations Singapore Dolce Vita Group has found their inspiration in the award-winning movie Lost in Translation (2003). The theme of their latest outing will be Japanese-French fusion cuisine – surely, the mixture of ingredients and influences will gain rather than lose in flavor!

Film slate • Last but by no means least, the Theatre & Cinema Group in Sydney has taken the movie motto pretty literally. Together, they’ll go and see a Danish comedy at the local Scandinavian film festival. God fornøjelse!

Want to check out more movie-themed events and activities? Have a look at the calendar for your InterNations Community and watch out for our movie star logo. Lights — camera — action!

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

The 10 Least Expensive Expat Cities: Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2015

Would you like to know in which cities around the globe expats could make it on a shoestring budget? Take a closer look at the destinations listed below.

Every year the international HR consultancy Mercer conducts its Cost of Living Survey, releasing a ranking of the most (and least) expensive cities for executive assignees.

The survey takes into account the costs of 200 goods and services, including housing, transportation, food, and entertainment. The ranking is determined by using New York as the base city and US dollars as the reference currency. Mercer Cost of Living 2015

The results are therefore closely linked to worldwide economic developments. The two main factors which determine shifts in the rankings are actual price changes and fluctuations of the local currency compared to the US dollar.

So, these are the places to go to for international employees looking to stretch their money. Unfortunately, most of them are found in countries known for income inequality, underperforming economies, or political instability.

1. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, is the cheapest city worldwide to live in as an expat. The Central Asian country is still on its way to becoming a stable democracy while the after-effects of the Soviet era remain noticeable. Central Mosque in Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan is definitely an unusual destination. There’s always a certain demand for English teachers, but expats also work in mining or international development. Bishkek has a surprisingly vibrant nightlife, and it makes a good starting point for exploring the ancient Silk Road or the Tien Shan mountains. You’d better be prepared for the occasional power outage, though.

2. Windhoek, Namibia

Windhoek is the capital of, as well as the largest city in Namibia, one of southern Africa’s most scenic nations, which sadly suffers from one of the highest rates of social inequality in the world. InterNations Expat Blog_Mercer Cost of Living 2015_Pic 1 Nevertheless, Namibia benefits from political stability, a skilled workforce, and a growing economy.

Most expats work in the tourism or mining sectors: resources like diamonds and uranium contribute strongly to export revenues. Moreover, the amazing biodiversity attracts visitors keen on ecotourism – the country is famous for orange sands and safari tours.

3. Karachi, Pakistan

While Islamabad serves as the country’s political capital, Karachi is Pakistan’s unrivalled industrial, commercial, and financial center, Welcome to KARACHI as well as among the fastest-growing cities in the world. Home to two seaports and a flourishing banking sector, Karachi prides itself on its booming economy and one of the largest film industries worldwide.

However, Pakistan’s economic development is hampered by political and religious tensions, and expatriates may be understandably reluctant to relocate to a destination where assaults or terrorist attacks pose a security risk.

4. Tunis, TunisiaInterNations Expat Blog_Mercer Cost of Living 2015_Pic 2

The risky security situation is unfortunately among Tunis’s disadvantages, too, as recent tragic events have drastically shown. Thanks to its unique blend of Arab, Oriental, and French influences and its magnificent coastline, Tunisia has become a popular tourist destination. However, bloody terrorist attacks on international visitors have claimed dozens of lives, and expats should definitely consult their foreign office’s travel warnings or check back with their embassy or consulate.

The 400,000 tourism-related jobs are of major importance to a country with an unemployment quota of 15%. In addition to the service sector, the economy is mostly driven by petroleum, mining, and manufacturing; many expats are employed as management professionals in these areas.

5. Skopje, Macedonia

Most expats moving to this small, land-locked nation congregate in Skopje: They are frequently employed by international corporations or the diplomatic service, or they work for NGOs or in language teaching.

InterNations Expat Blog_Mercer Cost of Living 2015_Pic 8The Macedonian capital, home to one-fourth of the population, is becoming more and more expat-friendly, with an increasing number of restaurants and shops emerging. You can also shop in the largest bazaar in the Balkans outside Istanbul. Additionally, you’re never very far from Macedonia’s three national parks or its many mountain lakes.

6. Banjul, Gambia

Gambia waving flag against blue sky The tiny state along the Gambia River is home to fewer than two million people and has a fairly small expat community. Most expatriates work for the United Nations or other NGOs and IGOs, though some set up their own business or try their hand at farming.

Gambia is politically stable and relatively safe, but very poor – important sectors are agriculture (mostly peanuts), fishing, and tourism. The pace of life is slow, but the beaches are stunning.

7. Minsk, Belarus

The political situation in Belarus is characterized by a presidential regime often described as authoritarian in nature: InterNations Expat Blog_Mercer Cost of Living 2015_Pic 4highly dependent on neighboring Russia, the country is rather isolated from the international community. As the economy is heavily state-controlled, employment opportunities are limited.

Most expatriates in Minsk are language teachers or diplomats, and there’s also a few students and volunteers. While Minsk isn’t exactly a common destination, on the plus side, its foreign community tends to be close-knit.

8. Cape Town, South Africa

The second-largest city in South Africa offers View of Cape Towna multicultural environment, a Mediterranean climate, beautiful scenery, and a variety of leisure activities.However, the divide between the haves and the have-nots looms large, and precautions against crime should be taken seriously.

Cape Town’s low position in the Mercer ranking also reflects the weak rand. The US dollar has been strengthened in comparison to the South African currency, which partly explains Cape Town’s appearance on this list.

9. Managua, Nicaragua

Managua, the capital and largest city of Nicaragua, features an expat community consisting mostly of embassy workers and small business owners.

Nicaragua’s tropical climate and cheap living expenses attract retirees and globetrotters from countries like the US and Canada, as well as those hoping for entrepreneurial opportunities in property development and real estate.

10. Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgia doesn’t have much of an expat community, although the country is increasingly attracting foreign investment: in addition to corporate executives and members of the diplomatic service, Georgian flag in TbilisiTbilisi is home to volunteer workers, adventure travelers, English teachers, and students specializing in Russian or Eastern European studies.

The eclectic architecture, with Middle Eastern, European, and Soviet influences, lends the crumbling cityscape with its narrow streets and local markets a certain bohemian charm. If you want to explore the Caucasus, though, Russian language skills are an invaluable asset!

Alissa Maier is a German-American student who recently returned back to her roots to Munich, Germany. When she isn’t biking or running outside, she enjoys reading a good book and planning her next adventure abroad.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Adventures in Junk Food

Our new guest blogger Kelly talks about her global adventures in comfort food, her favourite guilty pleasure.

If you’re the kind of person who loves the idea of travelling but loathes trying new food, you’re also probably someone who has the same thing for lunch every day and knows the numbers of their favourite Chinese dishes at the local takeaway by heart. So much as an unexpected cashew in your chow mein probably makes you run and hide.

We aren’t saying you are wrong. We are rather suggesting that the comfort of having a recognisable fast food restaurant in pretty much every city of the world must be a soothing prospect for you.

Comfort Eating

Recognising what you are eating and ordering with ease wherever you are is like taking a little bit of home with you. This is something any good business will tap into, and it is one of the reasons why global franchises such as McDonalds are so successful. That, and giving you a taste of “The American Dream” all over the world. If you like that sort of thing.

But do not be fooled. The brand and concept of fast food may be the same everywhere, leading to the term “McDonaldisation” when any international company dips its toe into the national market, but the actual menu may vastly differ. InterNations Expat Blog_Adventures in Junk Food_Pic 2 The other thing any canny business knows is that if they want to take their products abroad, they need to cater to their local market and local tastes. And if that means fried chicken and spaghetti in the Philippines, for example ─ then so be it.

Why would they do that to you? Why tease you with the prospect of a humble burger, chips and soft drink, and instead offer you, well… fried chicken and spaghetti? Perhaps this is a local delicacy, but it just feels wrong. Or perhaps we’re just not as adventurous as we like to think we are.

Shenzhen Fast Food Express

Take, for example, our quest for familiarity when we were visiting China. After a very long flight and through the haze of jetlag, feeling adventurous and trying a daunting new cuisine was not the first thing on our minds. On arriving in Shenzhen and glancing up at the tall buildings, with nary a billboard in sight that we could read, we needed sustenance. And by sustenance, we meant junk food.

The KFC menu in China looks beautifully exotic. True, it isn’t necessarily what you’d expect, but chicken is chicken is chicken, yes? Yes and no.

What you really need to be prepared for here is that the chicken used in chicken burgers is not like the regular kind of chicken back home. Yummy Generally, at least in our experience, in China people do not seem to enjoy chicken breast meat that much and instead opt for the gristlier, more sinewy parts.

So jetlagged, tired, feeling more like Alice in Wonderland than daring travellers in new lands, we sank our teeth into a burger that promised the reassurance of chicken but instead felt like an “I’m A Celebrity” challenge. Disappointing, to say the least.

New menus in familiar settings aren’t always a bad thing though. Looking at the variety of other choices out there, it’s easy to feel that back home, we might be missing out.

Perhaps not always. Everyone has seen the (in)famous black burger in Japan. If you haven’t seen it, the burger bun is black, and the black cheese oozes precariously down the sides of the burger along with a black sauce of unknown flavour. How is this a good thing?

Breakfast, Anyone?

Stumble into any McDonalds across the globe pre-coffee and in search of breakfast, and you’ll probably be able to find at least an egg McMuffin. But there are so many other options.

In Spain the most typical breakfast or desayuno is tostadas con tomate/aceite – toast and tomato or oil. InterNations Expat Blog_Adventures in Junk Food_Pic 1This was actually a delightful find, and as the coffee in McDonalds abroad is typically so much better than back home in the UK, breakfast in McDonalds can actually be an occasional treat rather than a dirty secret.

Other breakfast discoveries have been fresh pork bagels or “breakfast burgers” in Hungary and brioche or pancakes in Italy, although for these be prepared to chew. A lot.

Expect the Unexpected

If you’re a traveller, you already know that differences can be good. If we’re talking fast food menus, we’re told the poutine in Canada’s KFC is amazing. Burger King in Russia has a particularly appetising-looking fish burger called the “Fish King” that we’d like to give a try. And if you’re a fan of rye bread, look no further than McDonalds in Finland for their “Ruis Feast” (although we generally prefer the local Hesberger. Finland’s very own fast food chain, if we’re honest ─ sorry). Sandwich with salmon, avocado and eggs

When the urge for fast food strikes abroad, don’t be surprised if you find yourself caught out in the most unexpected of places. If you’re in Australia and looking for a Chicken Royale, whatever you do, don’t look for a Burger King. Following a very lengthy legal battle, Burger King as a name is already taken. What you’re after is, in fact, called Hungry Jacks. The Aussie burger looks pretty tasty to us.

A Little Hand-Holding…

In short, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet ─ but that could just be sweet chili sauce when you were expecting ketchup. Trying out new food abroad in a McDonalds is a bit like that first time you rode a bike with stabilisers as kid. Something new and potentially daring, but with a little familiarity to prop you up.

Be daring, be bold, and be safe in the knowledge that a French fry will always be a French fry. Or will it…?

Kelly is an English as a foreign language teacher from the UK, currently taking a pit stop in Valencia and working her way around Europe. When she isn’t teaching English she enjoys writing and sampling cake and beer.

My InterNations: Have Bike, Will Travel

Time to ‘fess up! You have probably had your share of daydreams about escaping your daily routine. Even after relocating successfully, you’ll sooner or later reach the point when a strange country starts feeling like home: a cozy feeling, but a little stifling, too. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations Have Bike_Will Travel_Pic 5

While most of us leave the big adventure to our daydreams, some are lucky enough to live it. InterNations member Mahsa, an expat from Iran, is among those happy few. Follow her on her trip of a lifetime as a solo female biker through Ethopia, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Finding a Peculiar Niche

Mahsa wasn’t born to be an adventurer: she lived in her native Tehran till the age of 17, when she moved to Germany for the following eight years. She did a lot of travelling and moving in her twenties, “hopping from one country to another”, as she describes it, until she came to Spain in 2003.

Despite her love of travel, organizing an international motorcycle trip wasn’t remotely on her agenda. After relocating within Spain, from Seville to Madrid, she became an early InterNations member in 2008. My InterNations_Have Bike Will Travel_Pic 3

She’d heard about InterNations via a German friend, who was also new to the Spanish capital. Both wanted to meet the international community and get their bearings. “You know how it is,” she says. “You don’t have any local friends, you don’t know your way around, you don’t know what’s cool. You have to find your niche.”

Today, it’s not networking in Madrid that’s on her mind. It’s learning how to say “Could you please help me lift my bike?” in Russian and sorting out a transit visa for Turkmenistan. How did finding that niche happen?

Striking Out on Her Own

Laughingly, Mahsa admits she didn’t know much about motorbikes until a few years ago. She was even a bit afraid of them – of the speed, the risk of traffic accidents. But a woman with a Vespa inspired her to start small. Then, during a trip with friends to Southeast Asia, she decided to give riding a motorbike a try – and she loved the new-found mobility and independence.

“It adds that sense of adventure,” she says. You are dependent on your environment; you need to rise to a challenge from one moment to the next; you have to be self-reliant and make your own decisions. She didn’t want to miss that for the world.

My InterNations_Have Bike Will Travel_Pic 4 Back in Spain, Mahsa got her Spanish driver’s license for motorcycles and ended up buying her first bike – a “really big one”, she remembers, though she soon traded it in for a smaller and lighter model.

A few months after passing her driving test, she was off on a road trip to West Africa – still in the company of friends. It was very exciting, but she recalls that her lack of experience also made it potentially dangerous.

“I learned a great deal,” she says. Enough to strike out on her own.

Hitting the Road

For the last two and a half years, Mahsa has been setting out for motorcycle trips on different continents whenever possible. Her latest journey started in Spain last November. She had her bike shipped to Ethopia, where she wanted to visit a friend and take several months to explore an unfamiliar country.

She was entranced by Ethiopian history and culture, customs and traditions, and the overwhelming scenery. Her lack of language proficiency almost proved a serious drawback, though.

When she took a fall in a remote area, she couldn’t lift the bike anymore. After walking for a while, she stumbled upon a family farm – only to realize she couldn’t explain herself in Amharic.

My InterNations_Have Bike Will Travel_Pic 2“I felt a bit like an alien,” she sums up the situation self-deprecatingly, “and also very stupid.” Now she makes sure to know some essential phrases and “lots of motorcycle words” in the local language, or a suitable lingua franca.

After Ethopia, the next part of her route proved more difficult: Yemen was closed to her, as the country is being torn apart by a civil war, and her detour through the Saudi Arabian desert was barred due to visa restrictions for solo female travelers.

Eventually, she had the bike shipped again (“I could write a Ph.D. thesis on shipping regulations”, she jokes), this time to Oman. The rest – through Oman via the UAE through Iran – was easy, Mahsa says blithely.

She’s taking a break to shop for spare parts and study some Russian for the last stops on her itinerary. By September, she wants to have crossed Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Making Your Own Way

When reaching the Kyrgyz-Chinese border, Mahsa will have to decide anew. Bringing your motorcycle into China seems to be rather complicated, so she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

She doesn’t have a strict itinerary anyway. You can’t schedule this kind of trip. “I know where I want to go. I might or might not get there on a particular day.” She laughs. “I’m not very well-organized, but I do have a map.”

Mahsa’s a slow traveler, too, preferring to live in the moment. “It’s not possible to have everything under control – actually, you shouldn’t.” It’s those unexpected moments that make the experience worthwhile. My InterNations_Have Bike Will Travel_Pic 1

“People always ask, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’” she says. “I just reply, ‘no, it is amazing.’” She’s met plenty of friendly folks along the way, and she loves couchsurfing to get an impression of local life beyond the touristy clichés of her various destinations.

Her own sense of a fixed home has long been lost through travelling. “Any place could be home now,” she says. The borders of her personal existence have expanded much and more, to become virtually meaningless.

Mahsa’s story reminds me of nothing less than a famous poem from her current “home/base” Spain, Antonio Machado’s “Caminante No Hay Camino.” “Wanderer,” it reads, “the only way / is in your footprints, and no other. / Wayfarer, there is no way. / Make your way by going further.”

I’m sure this applies to wayfaring motorcyclists just as well.

If you would like to follow Mahsa’s journey, you can see pictures and read more stories from the road on her blog.

Image credit: 1) InterNations 2)-5) Mahsa H.

Book Review: So You’re Moving to Australia?

You are dreaming of diving in the Great Barrier Reef, driving along the Great Ocean Road, or petting a wombat? Imagining a lengthy vacation Down Under no longer does the trick? Occasionally, you’ll start contemplating a move to Australia. — Don’t worry: you’re in good company! InterNations Blog_Moving to Australia_Book Review_Pic 3

According to recent statistics from the Australian Department of Immigration, the population had grown by over 230,000 net overseas immigrants over the course of a twelve-month period ending in March 2013. Most new arrivals came from neighboring New Zealand, followed closely by expats from the UK, as well as people from India, China, and the Philippines.

Third-Culture Kid Turned “Aussie” Turned Author

What’s more, we might just have the perfect book recommendation for everyone planning to up and leave for the Antipodes: So You’re Moving to Australia? The Six Essential Steps to Moving Down Under by Sharon Swift. InterNations Blog_Moving to Australia_Book Review_Pic 1

The author of this relocation guide is speaking from both personal and professional experience. A TCK (“third-culture kid”) from a British-Singaporean family, Sharon Swift spent her childhood in Singapore before moving with her family to the UK in her teens.

Later on, she lived and worked in about a dozen countries, for example the United States, but decided to start a new life in Australia in 2005. She is now running a relocation service for British executives and their families.

The SETTLE Principle

The clearly structured guide for prospective expatriates and immigrants follows what the author calls the SETTLE principle. This abbreviation is short for “size up – embark – take up residence – tackle the necessities – learn the ropes – explore and discover.” In simpler terms, the book is organized according to a rough timeline for your moving process, from preliminary research to actually settling in Down Under.

All stages of this process are explained in more or less detail, and the easy-to-follow content includes plenty of references to in-depth online resources. No matter if you are wondering which expenses to put on your list of potential moving costs or if you’d like to sign up your kids for the “Nippers”, that quintessentially Australian surf lifesaving club for children – the guide lays it all out quite neatly.

Obviously, So You’re Moving to Australia? isn’t exactly a riveting page-turner, but a practical handbook that contains useful rec-caps for every chapter and numerous checklists for important stages of your transition. Did you know, for example, that you need to collect 100 so-called points of identification by providing various documents before you can open an Australian bank account?

Some Room for Improvement

All in all, the book only has two major drawbacks. As it was written with a UK audience in mind, some information is just not applicable to expats from other countries.

Medical matters would be a case in point: since Australia and the UK have entered into a reciprocal healthcare agreement, all UK citizens are automatically eligible for Medicare, the public healthcare system, which only applies to a select few other nationalities. For everyone else, the sign-up process for such an essential item as health insurance could get a little more complicated, depending on their individual situation.InterNations Blog_Moving to Australia_Book Review_Pic 2

Moreover, there are a couple of important sections on legal and administrative issues, especially visa options, setting up your own business, and taxation, that are rather a tad too short. In contrast, the author seems to devote somewhat too much space to topics that are also covered in many a travel guide to Australia, such as popular destinations for daytrips.

Nevertheless, So You’re Moving to Australia? should serve as a handy overview for everyone interested in organizing their move to Oz on their own. While this book certainly won’t spare you from having to do additional research, it will at least make said research a lot easier.

Good luck, mate!

(Image credit: 1), 3), 4) iStockphoto 2) sharonswift.com)

InterNations Insider Tips: 5 Offbeat Things to Do in Rome

Rome is my favorite city in the whole wide world. As I’ve mentioned in the blog post on my recent visit to the local InterNations Community, I used to live there myself: After finishing my military service with the German air force on Sardinia and before enrolling at university, I worked as an intern at the Rome Cavalieri, one of the city’s luxury hotels, for several months.

In the morning, I would attend language classes at the Istituto Dante Alighieri, near the Pantheon, in order to brush up my Italian. In the afternoon and in the evening, I’d work in the various departments of the hotel: front office, call center, marketing and sales, at the lobby bar and even in their renowned restaurant “La Pergola”, headed by Bavarian chef Heinz Beck – and among the few select restaurants in Italy to be awarded three stars in the Guide Michelin. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome B_Pic 1

Most of all, I was busy falling in love with the Eternal City, where every step, every narrow alley may lead us to hidden corners that remind us of a far-flung empire and three thousand years of history.

There are countless travel guides to Rome, and everyone has seen (or at least heard of) the obvious attractions: the queue before the Vatican Museums is endless, the kiosks next to St John in the Lateran sell bottled water at horrendous prices to unsuspecting tourists, and the much-suffering Trevi Fountain has been repeatedly vandalized.

If you want five more unusual tips for your next stint in Rome, here’s what I enjoy most about exploring the Italian capital:

1) Rent a scooter. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché, but it is absolutely worth it. Get that bright-red Vespa and cheerfully throw yourself into the traffic chaos. On a good day, you might feel like Hollywood leading man Gregory Peck chauffeuring doe-eyed princess Audrey Hepburn in the movie classic Roman Holiday. On a bad day, the – let’s call it eccentric – driving style of many a Roman motorist will give you more of a post-apocalyptic road movie vibe. Mad Max: Via del Corso, so to speak.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome B_Pic 22) Have lunch at “Lo Zodiaco”. With your neat little Vespa, it’s no effort whatsoever to climb Monte Mario, the highest hill in Rome. Science geeks should take a detour to the Museo Astronomico Copernicano, a historical collection of astronomical instruments that’s part of the Observatory of Rome. Everyone else can just enjoy the lush greenery of the neighboring park, as well as the Italian specialties served at the aptly named panorama restaurant.

3) Peep through Rome’s most famous keyhole. Since the 19th century, the Order of the Knights of Malta is no longer headquartered on Malta. Its Grand Priory now resides in a sumptuous villa on the Aventine Hill.

Through the keyhole in the main portal, also nicknamed “the keyhole of God”, you’ll spy the greenish dome of St Peter’s Cathedral framed by a picturesque row of cypress trees. If you don’t want to come all this way just for the view, take the time for a tour of the villa’s magnificent gardens: due to the order’s extraterritorial status, you’ve actually left Italy as long as you’re in there!

4) Immerse yourself in architectural history. And no, I’m not talking about Renaissance palazzi or the baroque beauty of Bernini. The residential and commercial district of EUR is a monumental testament to Rome’s darkest hours. Planned for the World Exhibition of 1942 (Esposizione Universale Roma), which never was to be, the neighborhood was originally conceived as a landmark of Italian fascist architecture. The half-finished district was repurposed and completed after World War II.

Today, there are often guided walking tours to introduce foreign visitors to the buildings’ historical and political significance under the Mussolini regime. After such a lengthy walk, it’s easy to see why the neighborhood has often served as a backdrop to movies like the experimental Shakespeare adaptation Titus or the dystopian action movie Equilibrium.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome B_Pic 55) Party in Monti. On the one hand, this neighborhood is full of such famous sights as parts of the Forum Romanum or the Colosseum. On the other hand, some of the streets have kept a certain small-town feel, that of a more traditional and authentic Rome.

But what used to be the rundown haunt of criminals and prostitutes has nowadays become a hip and trendy district, where gentrification threatens to displace the proud Monticiani, as the locals call themselves. It’s also one of the places where the Roman youth likes to party hard. If you like your nightlife loud, boisterous, and occasionally disrupted by carabinieri, Monti might just be your thing.

(Image credit: 1) Malte Zeeck / InterNations 2) Osservatorio astronomico a Monte Mario by Wikimedia Commons user Fabian_RRRR 3) Villa del priorato di Malta by Wikimedia Commons user Milhoud 4) Via de’Ciancaleoni, Rione I (Monti) by Wikimedia Commons user Mattes

Founder’s Diary: Rome

After my last visit to an InterNations Community led me to Athens, I continued my tour of Southern Europe with a trip to Rome – one of my favorite cities in the world, with its Mediterranean ambience, full of warm sunshine and easy-going people. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome A_Pic 4

Though I used to live in Rome myself, I had never visited its InterNations Community before. Next to Milan, the financial and commercial center of Italy, Rome as the political and cultural capital is our biggest community in bella Italia, with about 15,000 members.

Lorenzo, our InterNations Ambassador, has been developing this important community for almost two years. An Irish national with Italian roots, he is the perfect kind of person to organize InterNations Events in la città eterna: enthusiastic and motivated, cheerful and funny, he is an expert at finding top venues for our get-togethers, which have attracted an increasing number of international guests.

An Apero on the Esquiline

The InterNations Spring Event was hosted on the rooftop terrace of the Radisson Blue Hotel. The venue is situated on Esquiline Hill, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, once the fashionable residential district of ancient Rome’s “upper crust” and now conveniently close to Stazione Termini.

Before the guests arrived on the stylish terrace, complete with pool, bar, and breathtaking views of the Roman cityscape, Lorenzo and I took the opportunity to discuss the chances and challenges for our InterNations Community. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome A_Pic 1 Unfortunately, Laura, an attorney from Argentina and Lorenzo’s fellow Ambassador, couldn’t make it to our apero. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to meet her in person during my next visit to this beautiful city.

Gradually, the attendees – over 300 of them, from at least two dozen different countries – began to arrive. I was very impressed with the smart and stylish dress code (Rome was really living up to its fashionable reputation), with plenty of people wearing something blue in honor of the location.

An Active Community Life

After food and drinks had been served and everyone was well fed, mellow and relaxed, it was time for my speech. As always, I wanted to thank our Ambassador team and our Group Consuls that keep the local InterNations Community going, the helpers at the event and our designated photographer (спаси́бо to Maria from Russia), and to tell our members more about InterNations in general.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome A_Pic 2Rome has a very active community life, with over 50 Activity Groups dedicated to a wide range of hobbies and interests, from wine tasting to art galleries and exhibitions. I actually met some of our busiest Group Consuls at the event.

Giuseppe doesn’t only run the art galleries group, but he also facilitates professional networking and introduces our members to the best pizza in town. Gianluca is in charge of another arts and culture group with a twist, the Art in Motion – Hike, Monuments and Bike, and Gerardo is part of a Groups Consuls team that both welcomes our new arrivals and invites our members to music events all across Rome.

In addition, we have a Volunteer Group in Rome that supports several local partner organizations. More than 350 InterNations members have already joined in order to help children, disadvantaged people, and the elderly. Mille grazie to everyone who has given some of their time or money to a good cause!

An Ambassador with Hidden Talents

When the casual networking part of the evening was over, the right moment had come to get the party started. But we didn’t just have a DJ to keep everyone on the dancefloor happy.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary Rome A_Pic 3A little later, around midnight, we even got a live music interlude from our Ambassador himself: Lorenzo turned out to be a skilled piano-player who delighted the crowd with a couple of songs – the perfect note to end a perfect event on.

(Image credit: Malte Zeeck / InterNations)

My InterNations: A Dubai Champion

Dubai is not only among the world’s largest expat hubs, with over 80% of all UAE residents being non-Emiratis. The most populous city in the Emirates is also a city of superlatives when it comes to InterNations.

Waleed - Dubai - Blog image Dubai is one of our biggest and busiest communities, with 55,000 members from across the globe. The Middle Eastern boom town ranks among our top three InterNations Communities worldwide.

Last but certainly not least, Dubai is home to one of our most active Group Consuls. Waleed, a well-connected Iraqi expatriate, is responsible for an impressive ten InterNations Groups for sports and leisure, making an invaluable contribution to local life in the bustling expat community.

Discover his motivation, his passions, and the secret of his success!

A Passion for Sports

Born and raised in Baghdad, Waleed arrived in Dubai in 2001. Though the Emirates had been his new home for over a decade, he joined InterNations in 2012 to keep in touch with the international community. As a true sports enthusiast, he decided to set up a volleyball group right away – and was a little disappointed at first.

Though Dubai had become very familiar to him, the online group landscape on InterNations was “a whole new environment”, he recalls. His first activity, a volleyball game on the beach, was attended by exactly four people – Waleed himself and three friends of his. The latter expressed their doubts about his new commitment, but as he says, he had “put his mind to it and wanted it to be a success”.

InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations Dubai_Pic 2Three years and ten groups later, he has definitely proven his naysayers wrong. Together with various fellow Consuls, Waleed now helps our Dubai members to get their weekly exercise: to volleyball, he’s added bowling, badminton, tennis, ping pong, billiards, and more. There’s no excuse for couch potatoes anymore!

Juggling his responsibilities as an activity organizer requires a bit of planning ahead, including a monthly schedule, keeping in touch with several venues, and some number-crunching as to what kind of activities work best when. Listening to him talk about his tasks as a Group Consul almost makes it sound like a full-time position to match his actual occupation, as a warehousing and logistics manager in the manufacturing sector.

But no. Firstly, Waleed stresses the great teamwork with his ten fellow Group Consuls and the Dubai Ambassadors: “Success comes from working in a team, so I’d like to give a very special ‘thank you’ to all of them.”

And he doesn’t see his groups as an effort at all. “Do an activity that you really like,” that’s his advice to anyone running an InterNations Group. “It should be your passion. What I’m doing is my hobby – I’m doing it for myself first.”

So far, he’s got to know even more people in Dubai through his groups: His InterNations profile sports an amazing 3,300 contacts from over 120 nations.

Removing the Walls between Strangers

As a long-term resident of Dubai with lots of contacts in the UAE, Waleed is also the perfect person to act as a Newcomers Ambassador for our community.

The Newcomers Ambassadors program began as a test run in 2013. We wanted to offer a special kind of event for all members who were new to InterNations as an expat community, new in town, or both. Therefore we were looking for outgoing and experienced people to welcome the new arrivals.

Dubai was one of the first five InterNations Communities where we gave the Newcomers Events a try, and Waleed has been among the hosts from the very beginning. After the successful launch in cities like Dubai, we now have Newcomers Ambassadors in 30 InterNations Communities around the globe, from São Paulo to Singapore. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations Dubai_Pic 1

Waleed sketches a vivid picture of Dubai as an incredibly diverse community, where every nationality, culture, or religion is represented. No one ever has to feel lonely as it’s not hard to find some compatriots somewhere in the Emirates.

It’s a very safe city, too, where you can leave your car parked outside overnight, with the windows wide open, and nothing will happen. At least, Waleed’s own vehicle escaped his forgetfulness unscathed.

He exhorts other expats to make the most out of their situation: “Be happy to come here, and enjoy life – Dubai is a very stylish place to be.”

But despite all the diversions that glittering Dubai has to offer, settling in isn’t always easy. Thanks to his role with InterNations, Waleed firmly believes he can shelter others from some of the culture shock and help them adapt to their new life faster.

“Let’s simply remove this wall between strangers,” he says.InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations Dubai_Pic 3

He surely provides plenty of opportunities to do so: Among his favorite moments from three years as a Group Consul, he singles out a “sports carnival” with up to 60 participants. Half a dozen teams competed against each other in a miniature Olympic Games for several activities, such as badminton or billiards. They started at two o’clock in the afternoon and only finished after nightfall.

“I won’t forget this day,” he says. “It was really, really amazing. Our people here in Dubai are just lovely.”

And: “I believe that’s the key to the success of everything – how to get along with people.”

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2)-4) Waleed al-T.)

Unexpected Expat Essentials

Our latest guest blogger Kelly talks about the unexpected essentials of everyday life and how finding them abroad can sometimes turn into an adventure of its own.

There are many things to think about when you first move abroad: taxes, healthcare, all the other sensible adult things that we are supposed to deal with and that are over-analysed in various ways on numerous websites.

But what about the more everyday stuff that we take for granted? The essential things like shopping? When the mundane becomes a mission, remember: there’s no place like home.

Not the Way Our Mother Makes It

A couple of years ago, when food nostalgia kicked in ─ you know, when you start longing for food from home that you could normally take or leave when it’s available on tap ─ the urge for cheesecake struck me. Happily, this coincided well with an upcoming birthday, and so the decision was made to make a cheesecake from scratch.

Budapest, you are beautiful, but your cheesecake is not like my mother’s cheesecake. Not even a poor imitation of it.

The first task was to find out what the ingredients were in Hungarian. The recipe is basic enough and has been well practiced over the years, but knowing the name of everything mentioned in the recipe meant a good start, and would hopefully help to avoid culinary disaster. Thank you, trusty Google Translate.

The second task felt as though it should be relatively simple. Shopping list in hand, off we went to the local supermarket. In Budapest, common supermarket chains are shops like Spar and CBA, but there are also Lidl, Aldi, and Tesco, as well as other brands.

A Noble Quest

Most of the ingredients for cheesecake are straightforward ─ digestives or their local equivalent, sugar, butter, soft cheese. But the search for double cream ─ tejszín ─ made Frodo’s journey to Mordor look like a picnic along the Danube. (Perhaps I might be exaggerating a little.)

Three supermarkets later and many an utca walked, we were tired, but victorious. The cheesecake was delicious, by the way.

Not a Home Away from Home

Now, please don’t take this as a grumble targeted at Budapest, because we love Budapest very much. Our point is that you cannot expect the same things abroad as you have them at home, even the simple things like supermarkets.

In the UK, you could walk into any of the major supermarkets completely naked and starving, and come out of it fully dressed, fully fed, and with a range of electrical items and soft furnishings to boot. We are a little spoilt like that. InterNations Blog_Unexpected Expat Essentials_Pic 3 (And I don’t for a minute recommend actually giving this a try.)

But it was with a somewhat naive spring in our step that we set out on our cheesecake adventure (we’d like to point out we were fully clothed throughout the experience). Because things simply aren’t like that the world over.

Following Smoke Signals

Continuing with our supermarket awakening: if you need a nicotine fix, you should probably think in advance about where you’re going to get your cigarettes or tobacco from before you leave home.

In the UK there are special counters separate from the main store, as well as newsagents. In Budapest you can purchase all kinds of tobacco products at the supermarket checkout and from the local dohánybolt.

In Valencia, Spain, you should become acquainted with tabacos because these are the only places, aside from vending machines, that you can buy cigarettes from. The supermarkets do not sell so much as a Rizla.

Working through the Pain

Another example of things that aren’t necessarily where you expect them to be is over-the-counter medicine. In England you can buy cough medicine, flu capsules, and painkillers in supermarkets, and often there are also in-store pharmacies. Not so everywhere abroad.

Here follows the tale of another journey, this time in search of the humble paracetamol.

Budapest has many a patika (the full name for pharmacy in Hungarian is gyógyszertár, by the way ─ go on, give the pronunciation a go!), and thanks to a tried and tested system of gesticulating and body language, you can probably get what you came for.

Bottle of pillsThere are also the various branded shops of drogéria, where a mission awaits. Painkillers are kept in locked glass-doored cabinets, and shop assistants will look you up and down as if you are attempting to buy something illicit.

You will be escorted you to the checkout with the painkillers and receive a card with which you wait in line. Even the checkout operator will give you the once over. All for eight 600mg paracetamol pills that cost the earth.

A similar outing awaits you in Valencia, too: even though the word paracetamol is very close in Spanish to the English equivalent, it will take several attempts at pronunciation to get your point across.

Whilst most pharmacists in Valencia’s city center speak English and embrace the non-local patient, you may expect suspicious looks and attempts at overcharging further outside town. (You’d better learn the phrase más barato – cheapest. And quickly.)

The Greasy Spoon Test

Cheesecake, cigarettes, and painkillers are not the only things that you will find different abroad, but then you probably already know that from your own experiences. Navigating a new culture with a hangover is usually a sure test of if this is the place for you: no suitable greasy spoon replacement? Get packing!

To the Google Machine!

If you’d rather not pickle your liver in your quest of discovery, may we recommend thinking ahead? Before you leave, open up your cupboards and decide what items really are your essentials and what you should probably throw away. Assume nothing and do expect the unexpected, such as pet food at the chemist’s (Budapest) or disposable sauna sheets in the tissue aisle (Finland).

Turn to Google like a long lost, well-travelled friend: type in ‘where can I buy xxx in xxx’, and you will be led to many a forum that will probably point you in the right direction and also make you think of other things you hadn’t already considered.

Most of all, enjoy the experience. Difference is good, if not a little scary. Happy travelling!

Kelly is an English as a foreign language teacher from the UK, currently taking a pit stop in Valencia and working her way around Europe. When she isn’t teaching English she enjoys writing and sampling cake and beer.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

The Happiest Countries – The World Happiness Report 2015

How´s life? This question, usually part of our small talk repertoire when we meet friends and acquaintances, can also be used to probe our collective feelings of happiness.

People around the world were asked to rate their overall satisfaction in life on a scale of 0 to 10, with zero representing the worst possible life for them and ten the best.

This data, collected by Gallup International, has now been published in the World Happiness Report 2015 by the UN-backed Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The report, first issued in 2012, is aimed at influencing national policies toward the well-being and quality of life among citizens, instead of purely economic agendas. It also offers insights into happiness worldwide, as the average life satisfaction is used to rank countries from happiest to unhappiest.

Additional statistics chart the reasons why countries differ in happiness, with six key variables accounting for most of the variation between nations. These variables include GDP per capita, social support networks and trust, expected lifespan in good health, the individual freedom to make relevant choices in life, personal generosity, and freedom from corruption in government and business.

The Top 10 Happiest Countries

The top 10 countries are almost the same as in 2012: only the order has changed somewhat. The happiest countries are developed western nations, with good social support networks and high societal trust.

1. Switzerland
2. Iceland
3. Denmark
4. Norway
5. Canada
6. Finland
7. The Netherlands
8. Sweden
9. New Zealand
10. Australia

It probably doesn´t come as a surprise that all five Nordic countries are in the top 10, as their social-democratic model is focused on taking care of the weakest members of society, and relatively low corruption levels inspire trust in official institutions and society as a whole.

The opposite is true in the unhappiest cohort; the bottom 10, including Syria, Afghanistan, and eight Sub-Saharan African countries, are all connected by a tragic history of dictatorships, corruption, and internal conflicts.

What Doesn’t Destroy Us Makes Us Happier?

Looking at the countries that made the biggest gains in happiness, Latin America seems to be on the upswing, as there are five Latin American countries in the top 10. Happiness went up by nearly an entire point in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Chile. This is a huge increase since the gap between the happiest and unhappiest countries is only about four points.

Latin America is also the only region where the evaluations went up across all age cohorts, a stark contrast to the Middle East and North Africa, where they all decreased. The drop in the Middle East can be attributed mostly to regional unrest, but changes in the survey procedures are also partly responsible. Since 2013 Gallup has included the whole resident populations in their samples, lowering averages in Arab countries with large concentrations of guest workers.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest decreases in overall life satisfaction occurred in countries affected by economic, political or social crises, or a combination of these. The single largest drop, almost 1.5 points, happened in Greece, indicating the unraveling of social fabric following the Eurozone crisis.

The report also highlights a few countries that survived recent economic crises with very small losses in average happiness, such as Ireland and Iceland. In the case of Iceland, the recovery has indeed been so significant to earn the country second place in the worldwide top 10.

The report suggests that if the societal structure is sufficiently strong, especially in the way of support networks, overcoming a crisis can actually make a society happier. This also applies to non-economic crises, as trust and happiness actually increased in Japan´s Fukushima region after the 2011 disaster.

Besides the country rankings, the biggest takeaway from the report is the fact that trust and social support networks are a big part of overall life satisfaction, and help us to cope with crises. It’s not the threats and hardship that make societies stronger – it’s the realization that there’s always someone to lean on.

Henri Hoffren is a global adventurer and winter refugee from Finland, who’s escaped to Munich, Germany. When not rock climbing or trying out a new recipe, he enjoys reading a good book.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)