Team Diary: Antwerp

Amelie, manager of the InterNations Ambassadors & Events team, recently seized the opportunity to meet up with some of our Ambassadors and visit one of the most beautiful towns in northwestern Europe.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friends? If that quote from a classic Marilyn Monroe movie should contain a grain of truth, I definitely came to the right place last weekend: On Saturday, in the early hours of the morning, I set out for Antwerp – Belgium’s second largest city, famous for its role in the international diamond trade. Sadly, however, my trip didn’t involve even the slightest bit of jewelry shopping.

InterNations Expat Blog Antwerp February 2014 Pic 5 In fact, I was looking forward to meeting the InterNations Ambassadors from our Local Communities in the Belgian cities of Antwerp, Brussels, and Gent, as well as Eindhoven just across the Dutch border. We had agreed to have dinner together in Antwerp on Saturday night, and that’s why I found myself on a flight to Brussels and then on a train bound to Antwerp.

At Brussels Airport, I felt rather proud of myself when I could make good use of my slightly rusty French skills from my high school days. However, since Antwerp belongs to Belgium’s Flemish community, I was a bit lost with the language there. I grew up in the west of Germany, fairly close to the Dutch border. But the kind of Dutch I used to know as a kid turned out to be quite different from Flemish, especially regarding pronunciation. Fortunately, as a tourist, you can safely stick to English!

I checked in at my hotel, which was not far from Antwerp’s impressive central station. InterNations Expat Blog Antwerp February 2014 Pic 1I’ve never given much thought to railway architecture, or thought that a train station, of all places, could be particularly pretty, but that was one of the most beautiful station buildings I’d ever seen. Antwerp’s historical center in general is highly picturesque, and I appreciated that it was within walking distance of the hotel. So was the famous Antwerp Zoo, but I couldn’t squeeze a visit into my busy schedule.

Instead, I took a stroll through the historical part of town, past the Rubens House, to Grote Markt, the main square, with its monumental Renaissance city hall, a stunning Gothic cathedral, and the many guildhouses testifying to the wealth of Antwerp’s merchants and burghers. Of course, there are also plenty of cafés and bakeries selling delicious Belgian-style waffles. No visit would be complete without having a bite.

After my mid-morning snack, I briefly refreshed back at the hotel, and then I met Rachele and Caterina, the InterNations Antwerp Ambassadors, for coffee and Flemish appeltaart at a nearby shopping mall. Both of these friendly ladies gave up their native Italy for Belgium a while ago, and they are now taking good care of our expat community in Antwerp. We chatted about local life, sharing tips and tricks for developing the rapidly growing InterNations Community even further.

After our pleasant “coffee klatch”, I headed straight for the dinner venue in the southern part of town. The restaurant, Bizie Lizie, was a trendy brasserie in the best Belgian tradition, and I waited to welcome Praxedes and Joaquim from Gent for a little pre-dinner aperitif. InterNations Expat Blog Antwerp February 2014 Pic 2

Praxedes, a Filipino-American lady, and Joaquim, a Spanish consultant from Catalonia’s capital, both settled in Gent around the same time, back in February 2013. They are very much interested in supporting other new arrivals and new members of our Local Community. Gent is one of the “rising stars” among our smaller communities, and we therefore discussed the next steps for community development.

While we were still talking, we were joined by InterNations Ambassadors Eric and Maria from our bustling, 22,000-member (!) community in Brussels. Later on, our little group was complete when Caterina and Rachele returned, and Anthonius arrived from Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Our party of eight even had a room of our own for a private dinner at Bizie Lizie.

The brasserie’s menu introduced me to such typical Flemish/Dutch starters as vleeskroket and kaaskroket, croquettes filled with meat ragout or cheese. Over local specialties – lots of savory dishes with meat, fish, and, of course, French fries – we exchanged feedback on InterNations and general thoughts on community life. InterNations Expat Blog Antwerp February 2014 Pic 3

It was great to finally meet so many Ambassadors in person and to participate in such a lively exchange of ideas! I’ve already assembled a “to do” list for my own work, my team, and others at the InterNations office. My head was nearly buzzing with so much input and so many impressions when I got back to my hotel for the night.

On the following morning, I was up bright and (relatively) early to have breakfast with Anthonius, part of our Ambassador team in the dynamic city of Eindhoven. Just like Gent, Eindhoven belongs to our “rising stars” in Europe, and we talked a lot about best practice tips for moving forward with a changing community. After breakfast, Anthonius kindly offered me a ride to the station, so I could catch my train back to Brussels and my plane to Munich.

InterNations Expat Blog Antwerp February 2014 Pic 4All in all, I really enjoyed the opportunity to touch base with so many Ambassadors at once. For your energy and effort, as well as for your warm welcome to Belgium, a heart-felt “thank you”, “danke schön”, “merci” and “dank u wel”!

I also had a lovely first impression of Antwerp, a city I really recommend for a weekend trip or mini-break. I’d have loved to stay longer and would like to be back some day. The diamonds will just have to wait until next time!

(Image credit: 1) Public Domain 2)-5) Amelie Dinges/InterNations)

Founder’s Diary: Chisinau & Vilnius

The first InterNations Community visits in 2014 took me to Eastern Europe last month – or, to be more precise, to Chisinau (Moldova) and Vilnius (Lithuania), where we’ve got two of our smaller Local Communities. The one in Vilnius has already grown to 1,600 members by now while there are only 600 InterNations members in Moldova’s capital so far.

This time, I traveled together with some team members from our IT department in Munich: We are very much interested in adding to our IT capacity and finding more software engineers to work on our site, especially since the InterNations member base keeps growing and growing. The ICT sector in several Eastern European cities has a very good reputation, and Vilnius and Chisinau are among the prime examples.

Chisinau 2 However, in other respects, the two capital cities proved to be rather different. The two-hour flight from Munich to Chisinau did not only take us to a different time zone, but also to one of the poorest countries in Europe. Since its independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, Moldova has been through some politically uncertain times.

Roughly speaking, the country’s political scene seems to be torn between the champions of Communism and a strong pro-European faction. Although EU membership is now officially one of Moldova’s priorities, parts of Chisinau appeared to be almost stuck in its Soviet past.

Unfortunately, the city hasn’t yet had the time and resources to refurbish some run-down neighborhoods or to focus more on tourist attractions. When we asked a few residents about local sights we shouldn’t miss out on, the first disheartening reply was: “Nothing to see.”

Chisinau 3 However, there are plenty of parks throughout Chisinau, and our guides also recommended the verdant countryside, as well as a tour through Moldova’s many wine-growing regions. It’s a pity we didn’t have time for a detour – and that we were there in January, rather than spring or summer.

Our hotel in the city center (the Art Rustic) was definitely a great play to stay, though – a boutique hotel with very individualist décor and a personal touch. We then had lunch at a Gagauzian restaurant, where we got to meet a few prospective IT candidates. (The Gagauz minority are a Turkish-Bulgarian group spread over the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.)

In the evening, we tried out the Taifas restaurant, which had been recommended to us as a Moldovan-style place: folkloric decorations, traditional music, heavy food (mainly meat dishes with rich sauces), and a selection of local wines. That tour of Moldovan vineyards would really have been worth it!

On the following day, I met up with our Chisinau Ambassador Al from Iceland at the London Steakhouse in town (they sure do love their meat here!). He is a veritable globe-trotter with a colorful resume.

Al graduated from university in the UK, travelled through Africa, used to work in international finance and has lived in Egypt, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine before. He moved to Moldova about a year ago, and we had an animated conversation about his expat experience so far. Al seemed really ambitious to organize events and bring the international community in Chisinau together. Chisinau 5

Our InterNations Event started later on the same day, at around 6:30 pm at Jack Daniels Bar. About 50 people were in attendance, including the IT guys we’d met earlier and invited to join us – not bad for such a comparatively small community!

We sat down for a nice dinner of grilled dishes (Chisinau must be a rather inconvenient place for vegetarians…), followed by mingling and chatting. Within a few hours, I got to know various interesting members, for example expats from the Netherlands, Turkey, and the US, as well as a few fellow Germans. Later on, the tunes of a live band lured most guests to the dance floor.

The die-hard partygoers then invited us to explore one of Chisinau’s top nightclubs: Drive turned out to be a very vibrant and dynamic venue, with a gleaming and stylish interior, and a lively crowd. For night owls travelling through Eastern Europe, this would be a “must see” recommendation.

Slightly fatigued, we had to return to Munich the following morning. We were leaving Moldova with the distinct impression that there may not be that many sights in Chisinau, but that the country is rich in resources nonetheless – its friendly people not least among them. Chisinau 1

Barely one week later, I was on the road again, on my way to Lithuania. Again, I was accompanied by several other team members, since we were still on the lookout for talented software engineers and had scheduled a number of interviews in Vilnius. I’d actually been there before, to attend one of our early InterNations Events back in 2011, and I was excited to see the city once more.

However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the Baltic weather during a cold front in the middle of January: When we arrived, outdoor temperatures were nearly minus 20°C! Fortunately, the sun was shining, providing us with at least a little warmth – though our software developer from Brazil begged to disagree, poor guy.

However, the city was very pretty to look at under the winter sun, the roofs covered with a light dusting of snow. The historic center of Vilnius is a UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason – it unites an impressive array of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and neoclassical architecture.

Our interviews with the IT company, however, took place in an ultra-modern building, a tall glass structure full of offices, which dominates the city’s skyline and gave us a splendid view of the Lithuanian capital. Again, we had some interesting talks with several software developers, who were eager to work on such an exciting project as InterNations.

Vilnius 1 We were staying at the Comfort Hotel in Vilnius, and it did live up to its name: it was really comfy indeed. Moreover, it was only a short walk from the city center, so, with the freezing temperatures, we didn’t have to go far in search of a nice restaurant.

We had dinner close to the cathedral on Plines Street – a majestic building, which also happens to be the oldest church in Lithuania. At the restaurant, we were rather thankful for the hot and rich food. A steaming dish like zeppelini – Lithuanian dumplings with pork, bacon, and sour cream – is a good choice when it’s chilly outside!

On the following day, we invited the IT developers to our InterNations Event at the Holiday Inn. The hotel manager, Geerd from Belgium, is also an InterNations member and had kindly agreed to hosting our get-together there.

Vilnius 4 Of course, it was our Ambassador Team in Vilnius that organized the event: Anthony from France has spent plenty of time abroad, on various trips to Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Norway, and Thailand. He moved to Lithuania over six years ago, for personal reasons, and is working in the local garment industry. Shaan was born in India, raised in the US, and now divides his time between Vilnius and London.

I was pretty impressed by their international credentials, and I could also thank our Ambassadors in person for their success at growing the InterNations Community and creating such a relaxed, familial atmosphere at their events. That night, circa 70 members from 20 different countries attended, which made for a bit of a contrast with our huge and kind of busy parties in Munich.

Quite a few of the guests are on the NATO staff or work for various EU organizations, as I found out while circulating and chatting. Meanwhile, our IT team seized the chance to gather some feedback on our online platform directly from our members, which resulted in a fruitful exchange of comments and ideas. Vilnius 3

But we weren’t only “all work and no play”! When the official part of the event was winding down, some friendly Vilnius members took us to Pabo Latino, a Latin bar, where we danced the night away to some hot rhythms that defied the icy weather.

All in all, we liked the city a lot. And who knows? Perhaps we’ll soon have a reason to come to Vilnius more often…

(Image credit: 1, 4, 5: Malte Zeeck/InterNations 2: Chisinau Stefan cel Mare Park by Wikimedia Commons user Myrabella 3: Alina Lip 6: Anthony Poullain 7: Vilnius Cathedral at Night by Wikimedia Commons user Juliux)

A Place to Switch On All Your Senses

Our guest author Ben uses his new home Hong Kong as a springboard to delve into the beauties of another Asian country…

You get to a new place, and you are so focused on your new job and settling in that you sometimes forget one of the best things about being an expat: the ability to explore a new region of the world. So it’s good to remind yourself every now and then that your new home is a great springboard to jump off to small excursions. One of Hong Kong’s many advantages is being a transit hub and an ideal base for discovering East and Southeast Asia. InterNations Expat Blog Switch on your senses Pic 3InterNations Expat Blog Switch on your senses Pic 2

How did journalist Pico Iyer once describe traveling? “Traveling is a little bit like falling in love, because suddenly all your senses are switched on.” Recently, I took a couple of days off to visit Malaysia — and wow, what a way to switch on my senses.

As soon as I stepped off the plane, the heat and humidity were like a punch in the face. As I was walking down the steps into the terminal, I could feel the sun’s rays roasting my skin. Hong Kong is hot and humid, too, but Malaysia takes it to a whole new level.

Despite the heat, Kuala Lumpur is a great place to start exploring Southeast Asia because there are cheap flights to about, well, everywhere. KL is also a modern cosmopolitan city, which is well-organized, easy to get around, and has loads of fun things to do. You can find yourself in the middle of sparkling glass skyscrapers in the morning; wandering through a tropical rain forest in the afternoon; dining on a pristine beach while listening to the sea’s enchanting symphony in the evening.

InterNations Expat Blog Switch on your senses Pic 4 Malaysia is where Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures have intersected for hundreds of years, but also where the Portuguese, Dutch, and English each tried to exert their influence at various times. The mixture is evident in Malaysia’s languages, religions, and architecture. Just walk down a street in any Malaysian city, and you will find colorful Hindu temples, grand Muslim mosques, and smoke-filled Buddhist temples, as well as classic European churches.

But where the diversity really shines is in the food. With such a rich history and mix of cultures, you can find authentic cuisine from all over Asia or discover some of their fusion cousins. I suggest roaming Malaysia’s numerous night markets because that’s where the locals go to eat and you’ll be able to try the best dishes.

I remember strolling through a dark quiet alley, and all of a sudden, the street opened up into a lively market that seemed to materialize out of thin air. It was full of bright lights, people scrambling everywhere, mouth-watering food sizzling on the grill, InterNations Expat Blog Switch on your senses Pic 1 vibrant flashes of color, and hawker stalls offering various goods as far as the eye could see.

One of the first carts I encountered served freshly made Roti Canai, and it was by far the best I ever ate. It was warm and soft and had the perfect combination of stickiness and flakiness. It was so tasty I had to order another one. I tried a sticky rice dumpling flavored with a blue flower that can only be found in Malaysia. I ate fresh seafood prepared in a Malay-Portuguese style with a subtle Chinese influence. I also sampled some interesting Baba-Nyonya dishes, which is a fusion of Malay and Chinese cooking.

Malaysia’s fascinating history, incredible vistas and, of course, the delicious food made this trip wonderful. But what truly made this journey unforgettable were the friendly and hospitable Malaysian people. They are so happy to help you find your way, recommend some scrumptious local delicacies, or simply strike up a conversation with you on the bus or at a food stall. I still remember each conversation I had with the people I’ve met, their kind demeanor, and warm smiles.

For me, Malaysia was the perfect place to awaken my vagabond spirit. I am already planning my next trip there, which is a good indicator of how much I loved it. I hope that in 2014, you will also have a chance to travel and switch on all your senses.

(Photo credit: Benjamin W.)

InterNations Makes a Difference in December

Last month, InterNations went completely MADD – and we are very happy about this. Don’t worry! You needn’t be concerned for our general sanity. MADD is short for our new “Make a Difference in December!” campaign. Just in time for the holiday season 2013, we initiated community involvement in 16 cities worldwide, from Bangalore to San Salvador.

MADD_Beijing_9 At various InterNations Events around the globe, we raised funds and donations in kind on behalf of more than 15 non-profit organizations, often cooperating with our established Volunteer Program in the respective communities. All in all, we are proud to announce the following:

• According to our latest numbers, nearly 3,000 members got involved.
• Over €14,500 were donated to charity.
• We received about 300 items, especially toys and books, as Christmas gifts for children in need.

The lion’s share of the donations came from a very impressive campaign organized by the Beijing Activity Group in our Volunteer Program. They invited the members of our Local Community in the Chinese capital to donate goods for a charitable Christmas Bazaar, for example, at our InterNations Christmas Party at the Hotel Kempinski Beijing.

The gifted items were then sold over a period of more than six weeks, from mid-November till early January – thus earning literally thousands of euros for Beijing Stars and Rain, China’s first NGO dedicated to children with autism and their families. On behalf of these kids and their parents, we’d like to send a heart-felt xièxie (‘thank you’) to everyone who contributed to this effort!

MADD_Munich_19Moreover, we also want to thank all the people in plenty of other communities who shared their time, money, or effort to make the holiday season a little brighter for others, particularly for impoverished and disadvantaged children, people with disabilities, and refugee families.

More “Make a Difference in December!” Events and Activities took place, for instance, in Bangalore, Beirut, Budapest, Cologne, Dallas, Heidelberg, Lusaka, Miami, Minneapolis, Panama City, Quito, and San Salvador.

In Munich, seat of the InterNations Office, our Activity Group came up with a prize raffle to benefit the residents of a local accommodation for refugees from warzones like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The support for Santropol Roulant Montréal, a meals-on-wheels organization assisting the elderly, met with great approval from the NPO, and the Lima Community’s donation drive for the Peruvian Westfalia Orphanage even made the headlines in the English-language expat press.

Not only are we proudly looking back on our achievements; we are also planning ahead for 2014. There will probably be a bigger and even more successful repeat performance of “Make a Difference in December!” at the end of this year. MADD_Montreal_7However, let’s not forget that there are always other people in urgent need of aid and assistance – not only during the festive season, but each and every day.

If you’d like to offer your help and have a positive impact on society, here’s your chance to “give back” to your community. Read more about the InterNations Volunteer Program and see if there is a group in your city, where you can collect donations, come up with ideas for fundraising drives, go for a “hands-on” approach, or become a mentor for someone.

As British statesman Winston Churchill once famously said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

(Image credit: 1) Grace Yane 2) Vicky Bokengo 3) Penelope Wan)

Money, Money, Money: The Ten Priciest Places Worldwide

One of the most popular small talk topics among new arrivals in Munich is – no, not their alpine exploits in the nearby mountains, or even the quantity of beer they may have imbibed at the last Oktoberfest. Instead, it’s the size and location of their flat, as well as the cost of their monthly rent. I’ve noticed this at private parties; observed in the InterNations Local Forum, and even overheard it at our company office.

InterNations Expat Blog Money Money Money Pic 3Among Germany’s major cities, Munich is rather infamous for its upscale property market and the local cost of living, which drives up expenses especially for housing and leisure. However, we denizens of Munich should perhaps consider ourselves lucky still.

Currently, a list of the most expensive cities in the world is going viral, hitting popular sites from the online newsroom Business Insider to the opinion leader Huffington Post. Munich doesn’t quite make it among the Top 30 yet.

The ranking is based on crowd-sourced data from the cost of living calculator provided by Expatistan, a site describing itself as the “Wikipedia for prices” round the world. Unlike the well-known cost of living surveys published by HR consultants such as Mercer, their list offers few surprises: it doesn’t take “outliers”, for example, Luanda (Angola) or N’Djamena (Chad), into account, where costs to ensure the safety and living standards of foreign assignees are traditionally high.

This ranking is rather dominated by the usual suspects: global metropolises renowned for their urban vitality and hip creativity, their architectural or scenic beauty, their booming economy and international outlook. The world’s most expensive cities are situated in France, Scandinavia, Southeast Asia, Switzerland, the UK, and on the US East or West Coast. The Top 10 are as follows:

• London
• Oslo InterNations Expat Blog Money Money Money Pic 1a
• Geneva
• Zurich
• New York City
• Lausanne
• Singapore
• Paris
• San Francisco
• Copenhagen

Some of these places have a widespread reputation for generally above-average salaries and an accordingly high standard of living. This applies particularly to destinations in Norway and Switzerland. In others of the abovementioned cities, the steadily rising living expenses have long since become a hotbed for debate in local controversies. Rental costs and housing prices in particular are often singled out as targets.

For instance, critical voices from London point out that large swathes of the metropolitan area should be marked as “barely affordable” for average income earners and “unaffordable” for low-income households. Purchase prices for London housing have allegedly jumped by an annual 14% over the last few years; there are also sporadic reports about rents for similar flats in the same neighborhood that suddenly increase by £50 or from £100 one month to the next.

In San Francisco, local tenant organizations lament the fate of long-established neighborhoods and communities. The bitterest critics claim that the city is slowly but surely turning into a “dormitory town” for top-earning young professionals who commute to work in Silicon Valley.

Obviously, a housing and pricing bubble will affect plenty of residents: families with several children will struggle to find spacious, yet reasonably priced accommodation; people working on the lower echelon of the service sector may be driven from their old home when the next raise in rent is due. InterNations Expat Blog Money Money Money Pic 2

But a sizeable number of expats, or potential expatriates, might not be immune to the financial sacrifices required by these international hotspots, either. Today, global mobility is within the reach of more well-qualified and dynamic people than ever, fueled by both practical interest in getting work experience abroad and the more abstract lure of a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Relocation across borders, oceans, and continents is no longer the domain of the diplomat and the executive.

However, not every person who dreams of “making it” in New York City or the Bay Area is lucky enough to be a Wall Street banker or an IT whiz about to found the next Google.

Will such people have to defer this dream and think less big (and less international) in the future? Will thriftiness become another small talk topic of choice, or will we continue to make do in order to fulfill the vision of global city life? We will see.

What about you? Have you ever changed your relocation plans, or become disenchanted with your destination due to the high cost of living? Or do you think that the benefits of an expensive metropolis outweigh the costs?

(Source for the Top 10 city ranking: Expatistan.com)

(Image credit: 1) Munich Panorama by Wikimedia Commons user Bbb 2) Oslo Opera House by Wikimedia Commons user Helge Høifødt 3) Residential Street in Kensington, London by Mike Quinn for the Geograph Project)

Founder’s Diary: Ankara

My very last visit to an InterNations Community in 2013 took me to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. When I set out on my three-hour flight from Munich, I was a bit worried about the current political situation.

After all, since the original protests against the new development plan for Taksim Gezi Park (Istanbul) that began last May, Turkey has experienced a variety of demonstrations concerning a wide range of government policies and social issues. However, despite the travel warnings I’d read about unrest in the seat of the Turkish government, I fortunately had a very peaceful trip ahead of me. InterNations Founder's Diary Expat Event Ankara December 2013 Pic 4

When touching down at Esenboğa International Airport, I noticed immediately how different central Turkey is from the coastal areas I’d visited lately. Instead of Mediterranean shores, I saw from above the dry, brownish and reddish plateau surrounding the metropolis. It almost looked like a desert, but then I was surprised to find that it’s actually rather cool in winter – no wonder, as the “Heart of Turkey” is located almost 1,000 m above sea level.

From the airport, I headed right away to the hotel where the InterNations Event was to take place. Tugce and Basel, our Ankara Ambassadors, had planned the perfect way of ending the old year with a bang, so to speak. They’d organized an elegant gala ball with classical live music and black tie dress code, i.e. evening gowns for the ladies and tuxedos for the gents.

InterNations Founder's Diary Expat Event Ankara December 2013 Pic 1The Mona Hotel – the grand event venue – had opened fairly recently, so the location wasn’t only sleek and chic, but brand-new to boot. Cem, the Mona’s general manager, gave me a warm welcome to Ankara before I was off again in order to explore the city for a bit.

The hotel is situated in Kavalkıdere neighborhood, with its tree-lined streets, public parks, bars, and cafés, as well as Ankara’s busiest shopping avenue, including an upscale luxury mall. In the wider area of Çankaya district, you’ll also find most foreign embassies and more of the city’s five-star hotels. Although I didn’t have much time before the ball started, I got at least a good first impression of downtown Ankara during my stroll.

Before the main event, though, I seized the opportunity to have dinner with our InterNations Ambassador team in Ankara at the Mona Hotel. Tugce and Basel have very eventful and interesting personal histories, and it was a delight to meet them in person at last.

Tugce is a self-described “free spirit” with a professional background in the tourism sector. However, her rather unusual CV includes, for instance, a job as a sommelière on a luxury ocean liner, a stint in PR, a degree from a film academy in New York, and a career change to now work in IT and digital movie-making.

Basel is a Palestinian Greek born in Gaza, who has lived in Palestine, Jordan, Greece, and Austria, before he moved to Ankara several years ago. (Actually, he claims that his skills in Turkish, Arabic, and Hebrew are now much more fluent than his Greek). He works as a medical doctor and is training to specialize in surgery at one of Ankara’s hospitals. InterNations Founder's Diary Expat Event Ankara December 2013 Pic 3

Both Basel and Tugce are clearly very social people, who love networking, getting to meet new people, and bringing others together. They were very enthusiastic about their position as InterNations Ambassadors, and we talked for a while about the development of the Ankara Community.

The local chapter of InterNations has now over 3,800 members, and Tugce and Basel put in a lot of time and effort to organize fun events in the citiy’s nicest venues. They shared their pride in watching the community grow, but also the challenges they face from time to time.

Around eight o’clock, we moved to the hotel’s ballroom to start our New Year’s Gala. The attendees certainly added to the glamour with their dashing suits and sparkly dresses. While canapés and champagne were being served, a string duo provided a classical soundtrack for mixing and mingling over drinks and toasting to 2014.

Among the 120 members in attendance, I had the chance to talk to people of various nationalities and backgrounds: to expats from Germany, Iran, Iraq, Moldova, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, and the US, as well as local members from Turkey; to diplomats, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, NATO staff, and even an opera singer. As always, it was fascinating to see what different kinds of people show up for our events. InterNations Founder's Diary Expat Event Ankara December 2013 Pic 5

In a short speech, I could officially thank Tugce and Basel for their dedication to their role as InterNations Ambassadors. I’m truly grateful for all the great events they host. Again, teşekkür ederim for bringing the Ankara Community to life! Also, I couldn’t resist encouraging the guests to “branch out” whenever they travel: In plenty of other cities around the globe, more InterNations Events and Activities are waiting for them.

When the formal part of the evening drew to a close at midnight, a group of members was keen on continuing the celebrations, so I decided to join them. We stayed out for most of the night – first at Hayal Kahvesi, a popular concert hall with live music, and later on at If, another great place for live gigs, where a band was playing Turkish and international hits.

Unfortunately, I had to leave rather early for Munich the following day. On the one hand, I was looking forward to celebrating New Year’s Eve proper in Germany, but I regretted that I had caught just a glimpse of Ankara. Oh well, since my trip was really short this time, I have all the more reason to come back to this lively city!

(Photo credit: 1) Kocatepe Mosque Ankara by Wikimedia Commons user Bjørn Christian Tørrissen 2) Mona Boutique Hotel Ankara by monahotel.com.tr 3) InterNations Ankara New Year’s Gala by Galina Haydenova-Mittermann 4) Ankara Castle by flickr user Ömer Ünlü)

The Best Thing about Christmas Markets

As there’s less than a week left until Christmas, I’ll seize this perfect opportunity to talk about one of Germany’s most famous holiday traditions: the Christmas market.

If you have ever been in Germany in early December, you cannot but notice the brightly decorated stalls and tightly packed crowds of people in many a city center. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Christmas markets throughout the country. Nearly every town has a market of its own, no matter how small, and major metropolises may have dozens. For instance, there are up to 50 different ones spread across the various neighborhoods in Berlin.InterNations Expat Blog_Christmas Markets in Germany_Pic 1

Though they are an essential part of the holiday season, Christmas markets are – unsurprisingly enough – a fairly secular affair. They go back all the way to the Late Middle Ages, when the burghers of medieval towns bought fresh meat and seasonal food for the winter months. Even in historical documents, you sometimes come across references to trinkets for children, or such popular snacks as roasted chestnuts (still sold as heiße Maroni nowadays).

Today, the ubiquitous Christmas markets have become tourist attractions (which expats living in Germany shouldn’t miss out on), as well as important sources of income for the local economy. About five million visitors flock to Cologne during the advent season, for example, and the Rostock market on the Baltic Sea coast is a favorite destination for tourists from Scandinavia. The concept is actually so popular that it has turned into a hot export commodity. There are now “original German Christmas markets” in international cities from New York to Osaka.

It’s no wonder that lots of German towns and cities vie with one another for holiday superlatives. Several markets lay claim to being the oldest, with Bautzen in eastern Saxony and Munich being the top candidates for that position. (Both markets date back to the 14th century.) Others offer fun-fair rides, huge ice-skating rinks, cultural performances, gay and lesbian or alternative and eco-friendly markets, as well as plenty of records from the tallest Christmas tree to the world’s biggest musical box. By the way, you’ll find the latter in Osnabrück, just in case you’re interested. InterNations Expat Blog_Christmas Markets in Germany_Pic 2

All that hullaballoo isn’t the reason why I’m personally fond of Christmas markets. It’s not even the mulled wine that makes me a little misty-eyed and as sentimental as the average character in one of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories. My attachment is largely based on nostalgia. Last year, I visited the Christmas market in my former hometown, which I hadn’t attended in quite a while, what with being too busy with holiday preparations.

At first, I was strangely disappointed – everything was so different from what I remembered! The merry-go-round for the young ‘uns seemed a tad too noisy and a little too kitschy. The stalls selling holiday decorations, like tree ornaments or folk art from the Ore Mountains, offered nothing more intricate or original than any other vendor. The market still featured the “living nativity scene” that had impressed me so much as a kid, but it was nothing but a couple of bored-looking sheep and a decidedly grumpy camel.

InterNations Expat Blog_Christmas Markets in Germany_Pic 3I wanted to dismiss that feeling of disenchantment as the inevitable result of having visited much more beautiful locations, but it did keep bothering me, and I finally realized why. What I was missing wasn’t anything I would find elsewhere, not even on the biggest and brightest Christmas market of all. As a child, the holiday season had been a time of marvels and magic for me. For my adult self, it was a time full of stress and frenzied attempts to squeeze in some jolly conviviality.

Once I’d caught on to that, I told myself, “oh, sod it!” Although I still had presents to buy and errands to run, I decided I needed a break. A live performance of traditional carols presented by an amateur choir was going to start soon, and I stayed and listened. The singers had some trouble to be heard over the noise of the crowd and the din from the merry-go-round; I’m pretty much tone-deaf, but I did suspect that one soloist was somewhat off-key (probably due to stage fright). And you know what? It was still beautiful and – dare I say it? – magical.

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it, and a Happy New Year to everyone! See you again in 2014.

(Image credit: 1) Holiday Decorations at the Straßburg Christmas Market by flickr user dierk schaefer via Wikimedia Commons 2) Christmas Market in Berlin (1897) by Franz Skarbina, public domain 3) Christmas Market in front of Augsburg Town Hall by Wiki Travel user Silvionus123 via Wikimedia Commons)

Founder’s Diary: Izmir

Last Friday, on December 6th, I set out for one of my last InterNations-related trips in 2013. In many parts of Germany, as in plenty of other countries, this date has a special significance for kids.

As the 6th of December is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, they receive little gifts, like fruit or chocolate, as reward for their good behavior. Of course, most youngsters probably don’t know (or particularly care) that the historical Nicholas was an early Christian abbot in what is today southwestern Turkey. So, what better day was there for me to set out on a visit to our Local Community in Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast?

A 2.5-hour flight from Munich transported me from 0°C and a flurry of snow right into Mediterranean sunshine and a balmy climate of 15°C. No wonder that Izmir – spreading round the waterfront of a picturesque bay – is often nicknamed the Turkish Saint Tropez! InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Izmir_Pic 4

I checked in at the Swissotel Grand Izmir, where the InterNations Event was to take place, but I still had the time to take a walk and enjoy the spring-like temperatures. Strolling down the promenade, I got to see Izmir’s famous landmark, the late 19th-century Saat Kulesi (clock tower) on Konak Square, as well as the bustling bazaar.

While exploring the market, I noticed that lots of vendors didn’t only speak fluent English and German, but also Italian, Spanish, or French, to name just a few more languages. Every year, the city with its roughly 4 million inhabitants houses 500,000 international visitors from the huge cruise ships travelling the wine-dark sea. Fortunately, December is part of the off-season, so the city wasn’t nearly as busy, and I could leisurely sip a mug of Çay, Turkey’s famous black tea, in a little coffeehouse.

The InterNations Event then started at 8:30 pm, at the Swissotel’s Sky Bar, a sleek and stylish lounge which granted us a dazzling view of Izmir Bay and the Aegean Coast. There I met up with InterNations Ambassador Nadejda, a Bulgarian-Moldovan expat from Chișinău, who has been living in Turkey for the past three years. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Izmir_Pic 1

Nadejda gave a warm welcome to her 80 guests, and the crowd started mixing and mingling soon. When I joined the networking and general introductions over finger food, I encountered quite a few lucky InterNations members whose career had led them to a place as beautiful as Izmir: they work at the NATO headquarters, in the regional mining industry, or as professors in higher education.

While chatting with our expat and local members at official events, it’s always important for me to gather as much open and honest feedback as possible, so we can improve InterNations for them. What were their expectations on joining our community? What would they like to see at future events? How could we make our website more user-friendly for our members? These are some of the questions for which I’m looking for answers.

Well, I was glad to hear that the replies I got in Izmir were overwhelmingly positive. Newcomers liked the nametags since they serve as an “ice-breaker” for starting a conversation and also demonstrate how international the events have become: that night, guests from about two dozen different countries attended the gathering.InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Izmir_Pic 2

Though the Izmir Community is still rather small, it is fairly active. Some members were interested in introducing InterNations Activity Groups for hiking or salsa dancing, for example. But what I heard from most people I talked to was a request for a better mobile usability of the InterNations site. Fortunately, a mobile-friendly experience is already high up on our IT agenda for 2014.

But enough with the “shop talk” already. It was high time to focus on the fun part of the evening and see how much our members were enjoying themselves. The live band at the Sky Bar seemed to have put them into the right mood: As the get-together was drawing to a close, quite a few folks wanted to move on to another location. After all, the night was still young! Thus, I joined them at Tren, a pretty lively local bar, where international and Turkish pop music drew the party-goers onto the dance floor. I can safely say that the residents of Izmir do know how to celebrate.

As I was here to stay for the weekend, I seized the opportunity to invite Nadejda, our Ambassador, to lunch on Saturday. She suggested leaving town in search of a quiet marina with a cozy restaurant. Over a delicious meal, she told me all about the challenges of running the Izmir InterNations Community. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Izmir_Pic 3

I truly admire and appreciate the effort it must have taken her to grow our events from a tight-knit circle of about 10 attendees to all of 80 or 90 guests. Nadejda, if you read this (as I hope you will), thank you again for your great commitment! Since the Local Community in Izmir counts over 1,400 members by now, I agreed that Nadejda needs someone to help her organize and host the monthly events. She is currently looking for a Co-Ambassador in Izmir, and hopefully, we’ll have a complete InterNations Ambassador team soon.

In spite of my extended lunch, I yielded to the temptation of having dinner at one of Izmir’s great seafood restaurants. If you are in town, you should try the red snapper, along with a glass of local white wine, at Yengec. It’s really worth it! Later on, I met some other InterNations members at En Velo, one of Izmir’s classic clubs, which has been a fixture in the town’s local nightlife for the last twenty years.

When I left Izmir on Sunday, there was so much I would have liked to see or do. The beach parties along the coast are apparently legendary, and I didn’t really have the time to explore the region’s fascinating cultural heritage. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Izmir_Pic 5 The Agora Open Air Museum preserves some vestiges of ancient Smyrna, and the city is also a popular starting point for tours to Pergamon and especially Ephesus – one of the biggest and most beautiful archeological sites in former Asia Minor.

Maybe next time I will even make it down the coast, all the way to Demre. This sleepy town was once known as Myra, the home of Saint Nicholas and his final resting place – at least until some sailors from Bari (Italy) stole his relics in 1087.

(Photo credit: 1) Izmir Clock Tower by Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons user Klingsor 2) – 4) Malte Zeeck 5) Nymphaeum of Trajan at Ephesus by Wikimedia Commons user Radomil)

The International Wedding Planner

Our guest blogger Jessica, a former US expat who recently returned from a prolonged stay in Europe to Washington, DC, describes the difficulties of planning a wedding when the romance in question involves a transatlantic relationship. You can read more about Jessica’s life in DC on her private blog, Adventures of the Repatriate.

This past February, I shared with the InterNations blog my international romance with the “Dutchman”. While many long-distance relationships tend to dissolve rather quickly, this one has stood the test of time.

As of today, the Dutchman and I have traveled a combined 64,000 miles this past year. We have met in Washington, DC and The Hague (our respective homes) and traveled as far as Australia, Spain, and France to be together. We’ve spent many hours in front of the iPad and many euros on plane tickets. On a warm Washington, DC night, at the head of the reflecting pool of the National Mall, he proposed to me as President Lincoln looked on. InterNations Expat Blog_Jessica_International Wedding Planning_Pic 3

Although the formal proposal was a lovely romantic surprise, the talk about marriage for an international couple can be less romantic. It’s filled with paperwork and coordination. After speaking to a friend who practices/teaches immigration law in the United States and another friend who works for the US Customs and Immigration office, we decided the fiancé visa was the best course of action for us.

The process of obtaining such a fiancé visa is time-consuming, costly, and tedious. We started with a lengthy application process which covers everything from nationality, employment, and income to proof of relationship.

For the proof of relationship, we made a PowerPoint printout of all of our pictures and enclosed receipts of all the trips we booked during our courtship. InterNations Expat Blog_Jessica_International Wedding Planning_Pic 1 Once the package was finished, we both reviewed it several times to ensure all the information was accurate and complete. An incomplete application means a new application must be filed, which means paying the $340 application fee all over again.

After the application was approved, the Dutchman received a notice from the US Consulate for an interview. He needed to bring his police/medical/birth certificates to the interview, another costly and time-consuming process.

Aside from the expenses and time, the procedure went quite quickly. He received his visa the day after the interview. The timing of the process varies dramatically from country to country. We were fortunate that the whole process (from filing the petition to the issuance of the visa) took “only” around four months.

Now we get to the fun part: the wedding. We decided to have two ceremonies: one for my family in upstate New York and another one for his family and our European friends in Barcelona, Spain. The ceremony in New York will take place in the wintertime in a snowy forest; our European festivities will be on the sands of Barceloneta in Spain.

We’re equally excited about both ceremonies, and we are very grateful that we have the time and resources for all of our loved ones to share this moment together. We plan to live stream the wedding in New York so his parents will be able to witness the festivities from Rotterdam. The perks of modern technology!

InterNations Expat Blog_Jessica_International Wedding Planning_Pic 2 The Dutchman chose the reflecting pool of the National Mall as the site of his proposal because one of his favorite speeches is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. I could not think of a more appropriate place or a more appropriate reason.

We both believed in one another, and both of us have made financial and personal sacrifices to be together. The fact that he is willing to move to the US and change his lifestyle (and give up his right to six weeks of annual vacation) completely shows his amazing commitment to me.

Now, here were are: a Puerto Rican woman and a Dutch man, who randomly met in Brussels, have endured the transatlantic distance, time changes, and cultural differences, and are now getting married.

Have you ever arranged an international wedding? What was your experience like?

(Photo credit: Jessica D.)

Our First InterNations Night in Vienna

Our guest blogger Julie, recently arrived in Europe, shares her impressions of the first InterNations Event that she and her husband attended.

Having moved from Charleston, South Carolina to Vienna, Austria only recently, my husband and I both joined a networking website for expatriates about four months ago. We were hoping it would help us meet new people and offer the chance to make some friends in an unfamiliar city.

We had no idea how active the group was, for when we went to RSVP for one of the events, the guest list was already full! Finally, after three months of living in Vienna, we were able to sign up before an event filled, and so you can imagine our excitement at being able to attend our first official InterNations event.

InterNations Expat Blog_One Million Members Event Vienna_Pic 1 On a night with a bit of drizzling rain and glittering city lights, we made our quiet way across the cobblestones of the local Stadtpark to the Intercontinental Hotel Vienna. As we were ushered into the lobby, we were warmed by the soft light of a crystal chandelier that filled the entire room, hanging over the elegant wooden bar.

We had arrived to the One Million Members Vienna Event rather early, so we were lucky enough to find two of the last remaining seats at the bar. My husband handed his blue and white checkered InterNations poker chip to the bartender and ordered a beer; I instead opted for the gin and tonic as my welcome drink.

We toasted ourselves for attending our first expat meeting, and starting scoping out some new contacts. Really we are looking for friends here, but also for professional contacts, especially for my husband, who is looking for a job here now that he has a residence permit.

In any case, we were not disappointed, as we quickly struck up an intriguing conversation with a couple of members behind us. She was a glamorous blonde woman with a chic haircut and red lipstick, and he was a young entrepreneur with a very unique job. We enjoyed chatting with them, about their work, InterNations, and of course, Vienna.

As our first round of drinks began to dwindle, we turned back to the bar to contemplate our next move. We ordered more drinks, and noticed how much the bar was now filling up with what seemed to be predominantly excited professionals.InterNations Expat Blog_One Million Members Event Vienna_Pic 2

Before we knew it, we had jumped into a discussion with a young woman from Hungary, who was not only an interesting conversationalist, but was also really friendly. We talked for the better part of the next hour, as it was her first InterNations event as well. The three of us concluded that it was a pretty busy night, with 600 attendees having signed up to come.

But the energy in the group was bright, and soon we had introduced ourselves to two more new faces. One of the most fun things about the group of people at the InterContinental was the variety: everyone had a different story, where they were from, what they did, what they were looking for as members of the expat club. Everyone seemed to have an air of the future, of great things to come thanks to their new-found (and established) connections.

Not only did we celebrate the ambience and company at the One Million Members Event, we look forward to finding great friends and promising opportunities through our new association with InterNations Vienna.

(Photo credit: Olga Stepanova)