When it comes to Christmas, being born and raised in Europe means we grew up with the traditional imagery of Santa on a sleigh, flying through the winter clouds to bring presents to all kids around the globe. When we were spending our first Christmas as expats in Sydney, Australia showed us some completely different images.
There were Santas on surfboards, Santas on jet skis, Santas with snorkels and fins, Santas with koalas and kangaroos, and many other Santas. They were busy enjoying beach life rather than taming reindeers for their sleigh. These pictures always bring a smile to my face, odd and dear to me as they are – memories for life.
O Christmas Tree, O Plastic Tree
I clearly remember our first Christmas in Sydney: Our little family was a bit overwhelmed by the veritable explosion of all kinds of Christmas-related products. This commercial abundance, familiar from the United States, actually caused a counterbalance of defiant abstinence.
We refused to pay a hundred Australian dollars to become the proud owners of a fresh Christmas tree. Keeping in mind the 30 °C on Christmas in Sydney and the thought of the soon-to-die fresh tree, we ended up with a little plastic tree for DIY assembly.
Our 5-year-old son didn’t mind at all. To him it probably mattered more what was underneath the tree.
Christmas Market vs. Beach BBQ
There were only a few things we missed during Christmas in Australia – but to be honest, there aren´t many things one can miss in this blessed country. The local Christmas market was one of them, though.
There is something unique about the atmosphere at a German Christmas market, all illuminated with beautiful decorations. Visiting Munich´s biggest market on Marienplatz, sipping on a Glühwein (hot spiced wine), munching Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) and gebrannte Mandeln (sugar roasted almonds) – this is what Christmas used to feel like, a heart-warming experience for all senses.
Well, not this time! We had our first non-winter Christmas as expats in the southern hemisphere, where the seasons work the “other way round”. Instead of 0°C we got 30°C, a hot Sydney summer.
Traditionally, the 25th of December (Christmas Day) is famous for the so-called “morning swim”. All the Aussie families are well equipped for a picnic and BBQ (the no.1 sport in Australia, “footy” comes second).
With plenty of meat and beer in a fancy cooler, they populate the beach to jointly celebrate the festivities. Manly Beach, the place where we lived, turned into a buzzing crowd of local folks swimming, surfing, jumping, and singing: a big family celebrating fervently, many of them in Santa dress-up, Santa bikinis, or provided with Christmas trees. The self-assembly plastic ones, of course.
We walked by the beach, watching the crowds with some astonishment, a little bit of a culture shock experience. Not the painful kind, but the funny one – we felt a bit like in a movie, absorbing all these new ways of celebrating Christmas.
We realized that Australia’s deeply rooted surf and beach culture has left its imprint on Santa’s Aussie-style appearance. At the age of five or six, little kids in Australia, our son included, join the so-called “Nippers” run by the local Surf Life Saving club. There they acquire all the skills they need to navigate Australian beach culture.
So Santa is typically shown on the beach: on postcards, stamps, posters, and in TV ads. He might come on a surfboard, like in the first major ALDI Christmas campaign in Australia – a jolly race of fun-loving Surfin’ Santas who hit the waves with a yummy ham to celebrate the perfect Aussie Christmas.
Santa might also be walking barefoot on the beach or sitting on the sand, reading Christmas wish lists like in the Australia Post Santa Mail ad. Santas often arrive by jet ski, water ski, or boat: They do so at the Darling Harbour Santa Fest in Sydney, which my son loved. This event takes place every year, featuring a parade of hundreds of Santas, a water show, and breathtaking fireworks.
Our second Christmas in Sydney was much more Australian-like. We joined the crowds for the morning swim on the 25th, celebrated Christmas with friends, enjoyed the BBQ, and tried the honey-glazed ham.
We started finding comfort in the plentiful customs of Christmas in Oz. We even looked up the most sought after Christmas lights suburbs in Sydney and enjoyed strolling along entire streets full of Christmas lights that looked like something from a fairy tale.
I´ve made my peace with the do-it-yourself-assembly plastic Christmas tree, although it didn´t make it back to Europe when we left Australia after two amazing years.
This week we went for a fresh cut-it-yourself tree in the forest near Munich, Germany. Back home we savor the moments on the Christmas markets in and around town. We are grateful to have experienced both kinds of Christmas, European and Aussie-style.
There are many more thrilling questions to explore all around the globe: Does Santa in Egypt come on a camel? Is “Pere Noël” in France, “Sinter Klaas” in Denmark, and “Babbo Natale” in Italy really the same person? How come that “Ded Moroz” (Grandfather Frost) in Russia has a girl called “Snegurochka”(Snow Maiden), his granddaughter, with him?
Merry Christmas to everyone who’s celebrating!
Viara Richter is an independent consultant, intercultural trainer and coach supporting people and organisations to better manage and embrace cultural diversity.
(Image credit: iStockphoto.com)]]>
Moving without Shaking is based partly on the author’s own experience, as well as interviews with about a dozen women boasting an international résumé. Ms. Parker herself left her native Ukraine for a graduate MBA degree in California in the 1990s and has lived in the US, the UK, and Switzerland in the course of her career.
A Comprehensive Guide to a Successful Relocation?
The premise of the book is highly appealing: After all, plenty of intelligent and resourceful woman are dreaming of starting over in another country, of exploring different cultures, or boosting their CV.
But, to paraphrase the guide, they aren’t necessarily CEOs, entrepreneurs turned millionaires, renowned authors and artists, or celebrities of any sort – in short: the kind of lucky person who can take a global lifestyle for granted. This doesn’t mean that realizing their dream is impossible.
The fundamental structure promises to explore a successful relocation in depth. The respective chapters cover all the factors, both practical and psychological ones, which will impact your personal plans for a future abroad: education, fear of settling, languages, cultural adaptation, career changes, relationships, networking, and attitude.
Unfortunately, the content doesn’t always live up to a promising start. Sometimes, the chapters do provide insightful discussions and helpful advice.
For instance, the section on cultural adaptation offers all expatriates-to-be some food for thought. It distinguishes between four kinds of mindset that most people have while living in a foreign country (tourist, student, expat, transplant), and then goes on to explain which one will help you the most in adjusting to your move.
Other chapters contain some excellent checklists that you might want to go through before starting a new job: For example, there’s an in-depth discussion of the benefits involved in expat compensation packages, as well as an extremely useful list of questions to ask regarding appropriate office behavior in various business cultures.
Practical Tips or Personal Stories?
I would have liked to see more sections like those mentioned above, or simply a more systematic approach to the topic in general.
At one point, the author says outright that she doesn’t believe in spoon-feeding people information. However, if you set out to write a guide for a particular group of people, spoon-feeding them some essential information is an intrinsic part of your task. Otherwise, your potential audience could just start googling without reading your book.
So, a few checklists more and some fewer personal anecdotes would probably benefit the book. Some of the stories about successful expat women vividly illustrate a point or showcase inspiring role models. At other times, though, they just obfuscate the main point of the chapter.
What Kind of Expat Women?
Lastly, I couldn’t help the impression that this isn’t a guide for expat women as such, but a guide for a clearly defined sub-group of expat women: those who move abroad for a degree course or for their first job in a corporate environment with competitive salaries.
But what happens if you’re 35, 40, 50, and are suddenly looking out for a life abroad? How do the conditions differ in academia or in the non-profit sector? What if you are in a long-term relationship or have children?
However, I appreciate that the author acknowledges the issue of having aging parents back home, as this is a question that even the footloose and fancy-free expat woman might have to grapple with.
All in all, Moving without Shaking makes some interesting points about the process of planning your move abroad. If it’s the book for you, though, depends rather heavily on your individual situation, as well as your personal preferences with regard to advice: If you’re the kind of person who loves crossing off items on to-do lists, rather than mulling over your problems in a chat with good friends, it might not be your cup of tea – or the other way round.
Thank you to Yelena Parker for the free review copy!
(Image credit: iStockphoto)]]>
A few weeks ago, I wrote Preparing for Your Move (Part I) about the mental preparedness required for moving abroad. Once you’ve thought about the psychological aspect of your move, it’s time to consider the practical aspect because this is just as important.
Here are some of the questions that came up during the conversation with my friend:
1) How long do you plan on staying?
Have in mind a time frame and game plan for what you will do. Are you going to just travel, enjoy yourself, and contemplate the meaning of life for a while?
Or do you plan to stay for a longer period of time, which will require a larger financial commitment and probably some kind of income?
2) Do you know the travel visa rules and working visa regulations?
Getting in trouble with the authorities in a foreign country is the last thing you want. If you plan to travel and hang out, do you need any special paperwork, and how long can you stay? If you need to extend your visa, how can you go about it?
What if you need to work ─ what is the country’s legal framework for working as a foreigner? And what if you do get in trouble with the law ─ what are your rights and what kind of protection does your home country offer you?
3) How well do you know the country?
Knowing the country’s history and culture is incredibly important. This will give you some insight into how the people behave.
What gives them pride as a nation or people? How are their relationships with their neighbors? What are some potential lightening rod or taboo topics? What is the current political and/or economic situation like?
By demonstrating some knowledge about the country, you also show a certain level of respect, and it’s a great way to make friends. So do your homework before you go.
4) Will you be able to communicate in a language you know, and do you know enough of the local language to survive?
Going to a foreign country where you don’t know the language is daunting at first. While English does seem to be the universal travel language, it doesn’t always work.
What percentage of people can communicate in English or another language that you know? Do you know enough of the local language to get by at first?
5) What is the most likely worst-case scenario that could happen?
While I don’t believe in worrying needlessly and scaring yourself to death, I do believe in being realistic.
This is another area where your research will come in handy. Look at the recent history and current situation in the country.
What are the issues, moods, and problems affecting the people? Based on this, what’s the worst thing that might happen to you, and what would you do in that scenario?
6) How long will your finances last if things don’t go according to plan?
Your finances are a critical factor. While most people calculate how much they need, most don’t budget a “cushion” for emergencies.
As I was advising my friend, I recommend having enough funds for six months to live the way you want, assuming you will have no other income. I also suggest buying a good travel/health insurance policy.
7) What is your exit strategy if you decide you want to return home?
Developing an exit plan is always a good idea for any endeavor, and moving abroad is no different. If you need or want to leave, how will do you it? What will you do about your finances and with all your stuff?
Of course, it’s impossible to know all the answers or predict the future, and your questions (and answers) will change as your experience takes hold, but these are a good start.
I believe that most people are in the best position to make important decisions about their own lives because they know themselves best. However, sometimes you have to ask some difficult questions before you even get started.
But once you have found some satisfactory answers, all that’s left is to pack your bags and hold on because it’s going to be a crazy ride!
If you want to know more about the psychological side of preparing for an international move, have a look at Ben’s first article on that topic.
(Image credit: iStockphoto.com)]]>
I have two travel adapters. Well one, the other is broken and when I want to charge my phone and
laptop at the same time, I have to risk electrocution and twist a fork into the back of it. So, as much
as I appreciate the lava lamp and electrically bejeweled Eiffel Tower model, they’re staying in the
Actually, now that I think of it, I got an Irish extension cord when I was living in Germany. Literally
could not be less help. Wore it as a belt the following Halloween.
I like glass. Love it. If I could wear glass, I would but it’s cold and I’d look naked. But don’t send
me glass. When I move, I do so with one bag, and the last thing I need is to forget there’s glass in
my bag, sling it on my back and feel like I’ve been prison-style shanked.
A cardinal rule of shopping for an expat, never buy them clothing. A scarf is the perfect idea, until
you find out they are going to South East Africa. So do us all a favor and steer clear of the coats,
scarves, gloves, shorts and flip-flops. Unless we’re talking about Jimmy Choo’s – I’ll wear Jimmy
Choo’s in Antarctica and look good doing it.
4. Fanny pack/Bum bag
I’m not Batman. I don’t need a utility belt, or a reason for people not to talk to me. So rather than
have me excitedly opening a box at Christmas, only to silently mouth words I can’t exactly repeat
here, let’s leave this unique fashion accessory to the chain-smoking Grandmothers at the Vegas
5. A picture of your family in period costume
Why? I mean what do you do with that? Frame it? I’m not framing it.
6. A book based in your home country
‘Yes I liked the book… No, I’m not coming home…Yes the characters really popped… Because
I’m happy here…Yes she reminded me of Aunt Mary. I’m still not coming home’.
7. Christmas ornaments
You’re right, I can’t get any in Jeddah and it’s a great gift. But only if you give it a few weeks early.
If not, then I’m sitting with a nativity scene the size of a small freezer with nothing to do with it.
You’ve pretty much just given me a box. A box I can’t use. You know, because there’s something
8. A book of German pickup lines
Yep, that’s what I want for Christmas, a reminder I’m still single. Thanks Mom.
9. A giant glass mirror
It does make my apartment look twice as big, thanks! And then you woke up from what was
clearly a dream, because that is an awful gift.
10. A guide on how to become a positive person
Ok, reading the list I just wrote, I might need this one.
Our guest writer Sam Malone is an Irishman living in Munich, Germany. As a masters graduate in continental American literature, he is qualified in two things: being a nerd and reading books.]]>
Shop Till You Drop?
German retailers have enthusiastically adopted the traditions of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”: In the US, the Friday following Thanksgiving, as well as the Monday after the long weekend, is the official start of the Christmas shopping season, both in brick-and-mortar stores and online.
Every online shop ever has been bombarding me with newsletters and special offers, exhorting me to buy buy buy for the festive season. It’s a good thing that my email program comes with a big fat “delete” button. It’s rampant consumerism at its most annoying – and I don’t even live in the US!
Obviously, I’m not the only person who is irritated by making the spirit of the holiday season all about money and materialism. In 2012, the New York City community center 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation started Giving Tuesday in response.
Their aim? To make the Tuesday after Thanksgiving all about generosity and giving instead. Though it began as a US-based movement, the idea has been adopted by several other countries to encourage Giving Tuesday initiatives around the world.
It’s not a thing here in Germany yet, but maybe we can take to it with the same enthusiasm as our retailers have taken up the sales offers. But no matter if you live in Germany, the US, or elsewhere, there’s always time for giving back to your community – and not only today.
The Spirit of the Season
Right now, InterNations members around the world are heavily involved in bringing some seasonal joy to those who need it most. Various volunteer groups have embraced the idea of “Christmas in a Shoe Box”:
They collect a selection of small Christmas gifts in a box, creatively decorate the packaging, and pass on the presents to children in need – particularly to those supported by the local non-profit organizations we are already cooperating with on a regular basis.
A heartfelt “thank you” to everyone who has already participated in this campaign or will in the future! You’d like to make a difference with InterNations too? Then just check if your InterNations Community has a Volunteer Group and have a look at their upcoming activities in December.
Your local Activity Group hasn’t joined this campaign? Or you just prefer something different? No worries! As a glance at the past and planned activities for volunteers shows, we have plenty of other things in store.
For example, the local group in Singapore will be celebrating International Volunteer Day on Friday, December 5th, together with the Singapore Red Cross Society. And our Dubai Volunteer Group is contributing actively to organizing the Manzil Carnival – an annual fundraising fun event with and for local children with special needs.
If you have your own idea for an activity, feel free to address your Volunteer Group Consuls or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find out more about the InterNations Volunteer Program on our site.
So far, we have scheduled 40 Volunteer Activities for the month of December, and over 400 people have already signed up to offer their support. Thank you to our Group Consuls and, of course, to all the individual volunteers who make this possible!
After all, the best gifts don’t come from the store, but from the heart.
(Image credit: 1) iStockphoto 2) InterNations)]]>
Hong Kong has recently been all over the international media, because of the so-called “Umbrella Revolution”: Students and Hong Kong citizens have been protesting peacefully for free elections in Hong Kong, as promised in 1999.
So it was really exciting for me to go to Hong Kong – after I’d just visited Beijing and Shanghai – and see what was going on there.
I stayed at Lan Kwai Fong Hotel, in the Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood, an area that’s highly popular among expatriates and partygoers alike. It’s full of bars, pubs, and restaurants, and the venue for the upcoming InterNations Event, the Magnum Club, wasn’t very far.
An Interview with the Epoch Times
Right after checking in and changing out of my travel clothes, I needed to leave for the club already: A reporter from the Epoch Times was waiting for an interview before the event started.
The Epoch Times is an international media organization that is publishing newspapers in 15 languages and over 60 local editions around the world. It started out as a Chinese language daily in NYC, and the Chinese edition remains its flagship.
This interview was therefore a great opportunity to introduce InterNations to a worldwide audience. We talked a bit about the idea for our network and the platform in general, the booming Hong Kong Community with its 22,000 local members, and the results of the Expat Insider Survey.
In our overall country ranking, expat hub Hong Kong “only” made it to #13 (out of 61 countries altogether). However, when it comes to the overall quality of life, Hong Kong did rank among the global top 5.
Our survey respondents had a fairly positive impression of the local infrastructure and the many leisure activities. But expat residents seem to struggle with the high cost of living – families in particular rated the costs of childcare and education rather negatively.
The InterNations Hong Kong Event
After the interview, our Hong Kong Ambassadors Will (a true global mind from Hong Kong), Amai (a Chinese-Vietnamese business development manager who grew up in Spain), and Devi (a communications expert from Indonesia) gave me a very warm welcome to the InterNations Event. Unfortunately, Cyril, a French expat and the fourth member of the Ambassadors team, couldn’t make it to the get-together.
I was really impressed by everything they’d done for this InterNations Event: At the location, huge LED walls displayed a welcome sign and the InterNations logo.
Will had also organized tapas-style canapés (sponsored by Just-a-Restaurant), and another sponsor called Ice Pop offered ice-cream samples made with liquid nitrogen. There was also to be a prize draw, where guests could win gift vouchers, bottles of champagnes, and other surprise treats.
I hope the big “thank you” to our Ambassadors in my brief welcome speech did them justice. The same goes for my thanks to our Group Consuls in Hong Kong, as well as our local volunteers. I also used the opportunity to talk a bit about the history of InterNations. After all, we celebrated our seventh birthday a couple of months ago.
By now, we have more than 22,000 members in Hong Kong and 40 Activity Groups (for hikers, squash players, jazz enthusiasts, etc.), including our InterNations Volunteer Program. The volunteer group is run by Kylie and Mavis, and they support several local NPOs for the elderly, children from low-income families, and refugees.
When the “official” part of the evening was over, I seized the chance to talk to the individual members – well, some of them: Over 250 people from 50 different countries were on the guest list.
Obviously, I could ask only a few to share their experience with InterNations, both in Hong Kong and other Local Communities around the world. I always appreciate getting personal feedback to find out how we can improve our website or our events and activities.
The event went on quite long – which was a very good sign, as it showed that all the guests were really enjoying themselves. But I tried (and succeeded) to make it out on time, so I could still have one last drink in one of the many busy bars around Lan Kwai Fong.
My Last Day in East Asia
The following day was to be my last in Asia: In the evening, a long-distance flight would take me home to Munich. So I was determined to make the most of it.
I boarded the tram up to Victoria Peak, the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island. Leaving behind a huge construction site for another shopping mall, I took the popular walking path on Lugard Road.
From Lugard Road, you have amazing views of the Hong Kong skyline and Victoria Harbour. As the Peak is a major tourist attraction, there’s also a restaurant in one of the quaint heritage houses, where I stopped for a cup of coffee.
Later that day, I was strolling through Central Hong Kong, where students had been protesting in thousands. But on that afternoon, nobody was actually to be seen. So I just proceeded unhindered to the Prince’s building, a fancy shopping center in Statue Square.
The square – a pedestrian area in the CBD – is dominated by numerous skyscrapers that house administrative offices and corporate HQs. For example, I imediately noticed the glass-fronted Hong Kong headquarters of HSBC, our Global Partner.
There I met up with friends currently living in Hong Kong: We wanted to have a snack together at Sevva, a bar and restaurant in one of the coolest locations in the city. The rooftop terrace was ideal in that kind of weather – a balmy 29°C, as compared to the 7°C that awaited me back home in Munich.
Joigin, Hong Kong! This is definitely a city where I could live for a few years, and I left with a slight tinge of envy for all the expats I’d met the night before.
(Image credit: 1) & 5) Malte Zeeck/InterNations 2) & 3) Tony Chen 5) iStockphoto)]]>
We are gradually updating the entire website to provide you with the best possible experience across our online platform. Design, navigation, and usability are all going to receive a complete “makeover”.
We have just released the latest instalment of the InterNations relaunch. Socializing online is just as important as our regular offline events and activities around the world. So, we’re making networking and communication easier for you than ever.
After a successful beta testing phase (a big “thank you” to everyone who participated!), we can now share the new and improved messaging and search features with all of you.
What’s this part of the relaunch all about?
In line with our enhanced networking experience, the latest updates make finding other members and getting in touch with them as easy as possible.
As we believe that these are essential features of our platform and help to ensure an active and rich community life for everyone, all InterNations members now enjoy unrestricted access to our messaging and search functions.
What has changed?
• MESSAGING: We have introduced a new way of organizing your inbox. Your messages are now grouped into ongoing conversations with other members. This will help you keep track of back-and-forth communication at a glance.
• You can also write group messages to your contacts and have a conversation with multiple members at once. Every message that’s part of a multi-way conversation is visible to all recipients.
• It is now simpler, too, to find past conversations in your inbox. You can simply search your messages by name (i.e. of the person you were talking to).
• Last but not least, your whole inbox now sports our sleek, brand-new design.
• SEARCH: Our advanced member search is also available in our updated design! The tool now offers all members lots of powerful search criteria, such as nationality, city of residence, interests, and more. Find like-minded members and expand your network!
Just log in and try it out for yourself: Look for other members with the same interests and get connected. Get in touch with your InterNations friends, wherever they are in the world. Write as many messages as you want (within reason ).
Get active in your InterNations Community and have fun! More than 1.4 million InterNations members across the globe are waiting for you to join them online or at one of our 3000 monthly events & activities worldwide.
(And watch this space for more news on our site relaunch.)]]>
The next stop on my grand tour of China was Shanghai, our largest community in mainland China, with over 21,000 members in the area. After just a two-hour flight from Beijing, I arrived at Hongqiao Airport, which serves as an extremely busy traffic hub for domestic flights.
With innumerable other passengers arriving and departing around me, I was really impressed by the efficient organization of the sheer endless taxi line at the airport terminal. The line of cabs moved rapidly along a platform of about 10 taxi stations, where cars pour in without an end in sight. Everybody got their taxi quickly, and I barely had to wait.
However, writing down the hotel’s address in pinyin (i.e. the Western alphabet) was a typical beginner’s mistake, so to speak. My poor taxi driver was a bit confused as he, like most cabbies, needed the Chinese characters to understand where I was going.
But we did work it out eventually: Slowly making our way through the heavy traffic, we finally arrived at the Hotel Les Suites Shanghai at the Bund, the city’s famous waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River.
Fortunately, I still had enough time to take a walk along the embankment, enjoying the area’s eclectic architecture and the great view of the Pudong skyline across the river. I could easily spot the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai’s contemporary landmark, as well as the looming Shanghai Tower – still under construction and already the tallest building in town!
This time, I wasn’t so lucky with the weather, though. It was a grey and misty day, and the view of the cityscape wasn’t quite comparable to the panoramic views from the Great Wall. But the buildings were really fascinating. Allegedly, my travel guide told me, Shanghai has one of the richest collections of art deco-style architecture worldwide.
Most of these houses – now the headquarters of banks and corporations or high-end shopping centers and luxury hotels – date from Shanghai’s colonial era. The Bund was part of the Shanghai International Settlement, a foreign concession within the city, whose extraterritorial privileges lasted for 100 years.
But as the event was to start at 7 pm, I had to hurry up a bit. The venue, Face Bar Pudong, was located in a secluded landscaped compound on the other side of the river – a lovely green oasis in the middle of a 24-million mega-city. Due to the rain, the event had to take place indoors, and not on the terrace by the little lake, which is a favorite for many of our members.
Though the taxi ride took me longer than expected, I made it in time to meet and greet two of our three Shanghai Ambassadors before the event. Jared and Bryonie were recently appointed InterNations Ambassadors for our Shanghai Community, but both of them have been living in China for several years.
Jared is a German-American expat who specializes in Spanish wines and runs a tapas bar on Dagu Lu. Bryonie, an expat woman from Jamaica, owns the first hair saloon in Shanghai that caters specifically to clients of color. She’s also an active member of our InterNations Shanghai Volunteer Group.
Together, they’d organized a big barbecue with tons of food, and I was delighted to thank the two officially for such a great evening.
The Shanghai Community
In general, it was a pleasure for me to thank not only the Shanghai Ambassadors in my welcome speech, but also our Group Consuls in Shanghai. They organize such fun activities as cooking classes for Chinese food, meet-ups for expat women, or city walks.
Our Shanghai Volunteer Group also deserves special thanks: They support “Head Start Heart Go”, an NPO committed to supporting disadvantaged children in Western China.
After the official introductions were over, I enjoyed the opportunity to talk personally to our members. We had guests from several dozen countries attending the event, and I chatted with Christian and Elisabeth from Austria, Ross from the US, Nicole from Germany, and plenty of other friendly people.
Some of our local members have lived in China for years while others arrived only recently. I really enjoyed seeing the “old hands” support the “newbies” with information and helpful tips.
Eventually Elisabeth from Austria, a seasoned expat who lived in various other Asian cities before she came to Shanghai, kindly offered me a ride back to the city center. She dropped me off at the Bar Rouge right by the Bund – one of Shanghai’s most popular nightlife spots and the ideal place for one last drink on the rooftop terrace, with the glittering skyline for a backdrop.
(Image credit: Malte Zeeck/InterNations)]]>
Tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Copenhagen, there are many curious traces of the past. Few of them receive as much attention as more well-known attractions do.
Secret Copenhagen tells the stories and anecdotes behind the city’s many curiosities in order to help you explore its every corner. The book is one of Jonglez Publishing’s newest additions to their series of “Secret” city guides.
Like the other volumes, Secret Copenhagen zeroes in on a city that hosts droves of tourists year round. Rather than describe the most popular of sights, however, the books explore what is there to be discovered by those who, in the words of the authors, “thought they knew the city well.”
Save for the most adventurous among us, our exploration of a new place is generally guided by what we have been told. And most guidebooks tell us roughly the same things.
This is by no means a bad thing: Of course we want to see what other travelers recommend seeing. But if you’ve already laid eyes upon the Little Mermaid and the royal mansions of Amalienborg, you may be hungry for other adventures.
Secret Copenhagen features many little oddities throughout the city, a number of which would, quite frankly, be of little interest if it were not for the charming anecdotes the book attaches to them. From an iron chain in a wall, or an old window, to a row of decrepit sheds, many of these artifacts can indeed seem fairly unremarkable at face value.
However, for those interested in history, culture, and their manifestations in our day and age, Secret Copenhagen can be considered a small, portable goldmine. With this book in hand, you will be able to walk the streets of Copenhagen and spot otherwise unseen signs of past times. You will learn that one of the old window’s eight glass panes opens from the outside, a pivotal feature of what is actually an early 1900s pickup point for hot topic news leads.
You will learn the seemingly purposeless rusty iron rings in the Royal Library Garden are remnants of warship moorings, part of King Christian IV’s once busy harbor. Or that the name “Iordano” on a tombstone in the Sculptor’s Garden in fact refers to a loyal dog, who swam and ran tirelessly to catch up with the boat of its master, Nicolai Abildgaard, an 18th-century painter and architect.
As a guidebook, Secret Copenhagen indeed adds some depth and hidden meanings to little things around the city that would otherwise, in all likelihood, go unnoticed. Of course, a few museums and galleries are listed as well, such as the Copenhagen Prison Museum and the Storm P. Frieze.
I’m a big fan of the book’s layout. Lots of guidebooks try to do everything at once, and it’s easy to get lost in all their different chapters, sections, and subsections. In Secret Copenhagen, each flip of the page reveals a single new landmark, easy-peasy.
The content of the pages itself is very intuitive to navigate as well, as the structure is very consistent. The left page (nearly) always shows a full-page picture, while the right holds the textual information.
On the text page, below the name of the landmark at the top, you see the address, the closest public transport station, as well as any other relevant details such as contact info, opening hours, tours, and so on. The few times they do deviate from this layout, they do it for good reason.
In general, I feel it’s important that guidebooks can function as a useful tool for the reader, or visitor. All in all, the information in this travel guide is structured and arranged very conveniently, proving an easy reference on the go – a major plus for Secret Copenhagen in my book.
While I have very few issues with this book, I do feel obligated to briefly comment on the writing. For reasons related to the use of colloquial language, I (as a non-native speaker of English) more than once found myself rereading sentences to understand exactly what was meant.
The book’s idiomatic inconsistencies are not so glaring, however, that Secret Copenhagen fails to convey its stories. In fact, it does so quite capably. My only concern is that some anecdotes lose a little bit of their magic to the at times uneven flow. Regardless, while the book perhaps wouldn’t make for an exciting bedtime read, it gets across the information to the busy tourist, who will probably read just a few sections in a row.
Whoever is exploring Copenhagen in depth will be happy to have this mini-encyclopedia in hand. The stories of Secret Copenhagen do have a lot of charm, and anyone who considers themselves a true history buff would be remiss to leave this book behind.
Special thanks to Jonglez Publishing for the free review copy of their book!
(Image credit: 1) Editions Jonglez 2) & 3) pixabay.com)]]>
My latest trip brought me to China, which is well known for its large expat population.
Actually, InterNations has nine Local Communities with over 70,000 members scattered all over China, from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta, as well as Hong Kong off the southern coast.
In just one week’s time, I’d get to visit three of China’s booming mega-cities and their respective InterNations Communities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
A Hutong in Beijing
First stop: Beijing. I’d barely got off the plane after a long nine hours’ flight when it struck me how much the city had changed in the course of a decade. I’d last been to Beijing about ten years ago, and there were many things I didn’t recognize.
My taxi ride from the airport showed me that most of the bicycles and rickshaws had vanished in favor of cars. Dense smog was hanging over the streets, and I understood at once why expats in Beijing frequently complain about air pollution.
This time, my destination in the city wasn’t a hotel, though. Luckily, I could combine my trip to China with a visit to my sister and her family. They live in a typical Chinese neighborhood – a hutong, a narrow alley lined by courtyard buildings.
In these small apartment complexes, families live very close together, often sharing a bathroom with their neighbors. Local life basically happens in the little backstreets, and it’s quite different from living in an expat compound.
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of these courtyard dwellings left. Lots of Beijing’s old-fashioned neighborhoods were torn down to make room for high-rise buildings and apartment towers with glass façades.
Bavaria in China
The family reunion, however, had to wait a little. I could just hop into and out of the shower before I needed to set out for our InterNations Event.
Our Beijing Ambassadors team had organized an Oktoberfest-style party at the Kempinski Hotel’s Paulaner beer tent, and the event started at noon. So I put on my Lederhosen and Janker (Bavarian leather pants and woolen jacket) and called a taxi to take me to my first Oktoberfest in China.
I still remembered the Kempinski Hotel from my time at Lufthansa, and they’d done a great job with the Paulaner beer tent. Some people wore Tracht (Bavarian-style clothing), there was German beer, and even a brass band “imported” from Bavaria, so to speak.
A dancing troupe performed several folkloristic dances and demonstrated how to make music with a collection of cowbells. However, when the lead singer reappeared on stage dressed as Elvis Presley, it all started to feel just a little surreal.
Jaime and Catalina, our Beijing Ambassadors, gave me a warm welcome and presented all guests with an InterNations Lebkuchenherz (gingerbread heart), which served as a nice souvenir. Both of them have been InterNations Ambassadors for quite a while.
Jaime’s an architect from Colombia, and Catalina is a fashion designer from Craiova in Romania. But the two of them share more than their expat background, their Ambassador position, and their passion for design. They found love abroad – and eventually got married in Greece.
The InterNations Oktoberfest Event went on until 5 pm, and right after I needed to dash to the next taxi. I’d promised to meet up with my sister’s family at Dadong, a local restaurant famous for the best roast duck in Beijing.
Walking into the restaurant in my Oktoberfest leather pants felt a bit weird, and quite a few of the Chinese guests couldn’t help having a look at this odd laowei (foreigner).
But the duck was definitely worth it! Beijing duck is a delicious meal, where little pieces of meat are rolled into mini-pancakes, together with plenty of vegetables and Hoisin sauce or sweet bean paste.
On Top of Town
Luckily, I still had time to get changed after dinner for the day’s second InterNations Event. It took place on top of Beijing’s highest building, at China World Summit Wing, a luxury hotel in the China World Trade Center complex.
The Lounge on the 80th floor is perched over 300 m above the city. From here you are supposed to have a marvelous view of Beijing, but all we could see was a soup-like mixture of smoggy clouds.
The venue made up for this disappointment. The manager, Imbi from Estonia, made the InterNations Community feel welcome immediately. In contrast to the Oktoberfest Event, the members were dressed up very elegantly, and just like before, everyone seemed to have a great time.
In my brief welcome speech, I got to thank Jaime and Catalina and all of our InterNations Group Consuls, who organize fun activities like tennis matches, live music gigs, and professional networking. By now, there are over 35 Activity Groups in Beijing!
I was also happy to promote the Beijing Volunteer Group, organized by Semih, a Turkish expat working for a French hotel chain in the Asia-Pacific region. He and his fellow Group Consuls support the “Stars and Rain Institute”, a local NPO for autistic children and their families.
In addition to finally meeting all these committed InterNations members in person and getting to chat with friendly folks from around the globe, talking to Rurik from Sweden was one of the highlights of the evening for me.
Rurik wanted to thank me because he’d met his wife, an expatriate from Taiwan, at one of our InterNations Events. It’s occasions like this that show me how our idea of an expat network truly touches people’s lives.
The Great Wall
The following morning, I woke up early as we wanted to go on a family trip to the Great Wall of China. In stark contrast to the previous day, a glance out of the window of the courtyard house revealed a blue and sunny sky.
It took about 1.5 hours to get to Mutianyu, and we were lucky that we did not end up in a traffic jam. Along the way, we passed the newly built conference center and hotels designated to house the APEC summit in November.
Factories were to shut down for an entire week to avoid major air pollution, and most cars would be forbidden from driving in order to keep the streets free for the visiting heads of state. Even the facades along the convoy’s route had received a fresh coat of paint!
In Mutianyu, there’s now an entire tourist village for visitors coming to see the Great Wall – complete with Chinese restaurants next to a Starbuck’s and a Burger King. A bus took us from the village to the foot of the wall. From there, a chair lift brought us all the way to the top.
It was exactly as spectacular as every tourist guide claims: originally 21,000 km long (or “only” about 6,500 km, if you count just the fortifications erected during the Ming dynasty), more than 2,000 years old in some parts, and the only building so far to be photographed from the International Space Station. You can’t actually see it from the moon, though.
Nonetheless, it always served its purpose well – to defend China from countless armies and invasions. The Chinese soldiers patrolling the Great Wall must have been really strong walkers: It was rather steep in some places, and we did a fair bit of climbing.
But the view from the wall was the best reward for our exertions: Under the blue sky, the surrounding forests had begun to turn red and yellow, and it was a glorious autumn day. For the way down, we opted for a toboggan ride, which was great fun for my nephews and niece.
Before heading back home, we also got to try Chinese dumplings with various fillings. As a perfect ending to this day, we enjoyed a traditional Chinese reflexology treatment – a special massage for your feet, which was a nice relief after a day of walking up and down the Great Wall. (And I bet the imperial soldiers didn’t have that luxury!)
The Temple of Heaven and Sanlitun
On Sunday morning, I was up bright and early once again, as there was such a lot to discover in Beijing. Taking the Beijing Subway, which is a very convenient, though crowded way to get around the city, I arrived at the Temple of Heaven.
In the park surrounding the temple grounds, lots of local residents were enjoying their leisure time. I spotted people dancing the tango, doing tai chi exercises, or playing badminton.
Others had assembled a whole choir and a small orchestra to sing, make instrumental music, and practice opera arias. Along the main pathway, groups of card-players and mahjong enthusiasts were sitting down for a game, and women relaxed on a park bench while knitting or crocheting at record speed.
The Temple of Heaven itself is one of the most beautiful sacred buildings that I have ever visited. It was erected for the Emperors of China to sacrifice to tian, the deity of heaven, and pray for good harvests.
In the southern part of the temple complex, you’ll find the so-called Heavenly Center Stone. Legend has it that this is the center of China and thus, naturally, the center of the universe. In imperial China, only the Emperor was allowed to stand here. Today, everybody can do it and make a secret wish, so of course I did.
After a quick stroll through the neighboring pearl market, I met up with Jaime and Catalina, our Beijing Ambassadors. We had lunch together at the Park Hyatt Hotel and enjoyed some wonderful Chinese seafood while talking about the development of the InterNations Beijing Community.
I got to spend the afternoon in Sanlitun to do some souvenir shopping before heading off to try Beijing’s finest hot pot, a really spicy fondue-style food from southern China.
At the restaurant, a traditional noodle-maker impressed the guests, especially the children, with his artistic way of food preparation. In other parts of the room, waiting guests could while away the time by getting a manicure right there at designated tables. But I decided to limit myself to tasting the hot pot, which really lived up to its reputation.
The Forbidden City and Houhai Lake
On the following day, I took the metro to Tiannamen Square. It is the site of several important events in Chinese history.
Plenty of people come here to see the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Great Hall of the People. Foreign visitors are often on their way to the Forbidden City, located just north of Tiananmen Square. I, too, joined a private tour given by a Chinese student, who showed us round the former home of China’s emperor and his court.
After the tour, I climb Prospect Hill, a public park situated on an artificial hill behind the palace complex. From there, you get a wonderful view of the sprawling Forbidden City with its 9,999 rooms.
A rickshaw then took me to nearby Houhai Lake in Xicheng District. The neighborhood is famous for its scenic areas, former royal mansions, and hutong streets. Today it’s full of bars, restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and hotels attracted by the popularity of its picturesque ambience.
In the evening, we got to have a good-bye dinner at Dali Courtyard Restaurant, which specializes in regional cuisine from Yunnan. Once again, I noticed how much the fabulous Chinese food differed from the dishes you usually get in Chinese restaurants back in Europe.
The dinner party was a lovely end to my trip to an amazing, ever-changing city. I couldn’t wait to see how Shanghai, the country’s business capital, had developed.
(Image credit: 1: Beijing Cityscape by flickr user Kentaro Iemoto; 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11: Malte Zeeck/InterNations; 5: The Lounge @ China World Summit Wing; 10: Temple of Heaven by flickr user Fioshoot)]]>