InterNations Insider Tips: 5 Typical Things to Do in Madrid

Malte Zeeck, our founder and co-CEO and a former expat himself, shares his five favorite travel tips for the Spanish capital.

Madrid is a city I have close personal ties to. Lots of my friends still live here, and some years ago, I would spend almost every other weekend in the Spanish capital. Even after all this time, the following five activities remain those I most enjoy about the city and would recommend to everyone, no matter if you’re new in town or have been to Madrid a dozen times.

1) Enjoy Abuelo’s tapas. Come lunchtime, or whenever the inevitable craving for tapas arises, I recommend La Casa del Abuelo, or “El Abuelo”, as it is called locally. This quaint eatery in the Calle de Goya has been perfecting its menu for over a century. But don’t worry – the ingredients are all as fresh as they can be!InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Madrid_Tips_Pic 1

Rather than instinctively reaching for the sangria, remember that a nice rioja (red, white, or rosé) is a typically Spanish alternative to go with the tapas. Try the red rioja, which is a product of their private vineyard!

Here are my top picks from the menu: chistorra (a fatty, cured sausage); pimientos de padrón (fried peppers from the Padrón region); espárragos trigueros a la Plancha (green asparagus in olive oil); gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimps); and, a classic, jamón ibérico (cured ham).

2) Stroll through El Retiro. The Parque del Buen Retiro is a great place to walk around, bike, or take a boat-ride. During your stroll, you will see a flurry of activity, including rowing and theater productions.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Madrid_Tips_Pic 2 If the weather should thwart your plans, just seize the opportunity to visit the museums in the park. They are remnants of the palace that used to stand here when the gardens were part of the royal family’s private estate.

If you find yourself in need of a break, take a seat at one of the cafeterias in the park, this time not with a glass of rioja, but with a clara instead (a refreshing mixture parts lemonade and parts beer — it reminds me a bit of the Radler here in Munich, actually).

3) Take part in the nightlife at Plaza Santa Ana. Situated right in between La Casa del Abuelo and El Retiro, Plaza Santa Ana is the go-to place for plenty of fine dining and vibrant nightlife.Homemade Delicious Red Sangria

On this square you’ll find all sorts of bars and restaurants, ranging from traditional tabernas to chic rooftop bars, such as the terrace of the ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel. If you don’t find a good fit here, you can take a leisurely stroll further into the Huertas barrio, which is known for its nightlife as well.

4) Ride the cable car over Casa de Campo. For the full scenic experience, take the cable car (el teleférico) from the Paseo del Pintor Rosales station to the final destination: Casa de Campo. As is so often the case when you are traveling, the experience is all about the journey. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Madrid_Tips_Pic 5

In the cable car, you can look back to see the cityscape, look downwards over the Rio Manzanares, or look ahead at the approaching park. The Casa de Campo might not be as popular as El Retiro, but it still provides its visitors with a lake, a zoo, and an amusement park.

5) Feel like a champion at the RealCafé Bernabéu. With 18 official UEFA and FIFA trophies, Real Madrid is one of the most successful football teams worldwide.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Madrid_Tips_Pic 4However, you don’t have to be a Vikingo (as the Real fans are nicknamed) to enjoy a drink or dinner at the Bernabéu stadium – though this will certainly help you to truly appreciate the magnificent view of the legendary lawn. For hardcore supporters of the FC Barça, the restaurant might count as “enemy territory”, though.

(Image credit: 1) Malte Zeeck/InterNations 2)-4) iStockphoto)

Founder’s Diary: Madrid

Malte Zeeck, founder and co-CEO of global expat network InterNations, reports from a recent trip to Spain where he attended an event hosted by our Madrid Community.

After I enjoyed the opportunity of getting to know our InterNations communities in Athens and Rome, my next destination was yet another Southern European capital, a favorite city that’s even more familiar to me than Rome: it was time to pay a visit to our Madrid Community and attend one of the several vibrant events they offer every month. InterNations_Expat Blog_Madrid_Founder's Diary_Blog 3

Madrid has a special status among our InterNations Communities worldwide, as we have a local Community Manager on the ground: Christoph, a German expat, is responsible for supporting our Madrid Ambassador Team and Group Consuls, as well as organizing the official InterNations Events in town. Sometimes, this can be a bit of a challenging task — in the very best way possible.

As Christoph and I discussed during an in-depth conversation about community development, Madrid has now firmly established itself as one of our top ten InterNations Communities around the globe. With more than 24,000 members, five monthly events, and over 90 InterNations Groups for shared activities, from photography to gourmet dining to yoga, it boasts a busy and varied community life.

The special event I was invited to was a colorful party at Kerala Fusión, a lavishly decorated nightclub with an Indian-Arab theme, where our guests were welcomed with sweets upon arrival. Before I got to meet and greet our members, though, InterNations Expat Blog_Madrid_Founder's Diary_Pic 2 I had the chance to present InterNations to a wider audience in an interview with two journalists from the Local, the Spanish version of the English-language news website for several European capitals.

As the event started off with plenty of time for chatting and socializing for our 400 guests, I seized the opportunity to get acquainted with our three Madrid Ambassadors and a couple of local Group Consuls.

Roberto, a self-described “global nomad”, is actually both — Ambassador and Consul. An Italian expat with a multicultural background that includes Egypt, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, he has not only joined the Madrid Ambassadors Team, but he also runs the Global Nomads Group for culture and entertainment with an international focus.

His fellow Ambassador Abdul, an expatriate from Afghanistan, has supported our Madrid Community team since 2014 while that night was unfortunately one of the last local events for the third member of the Madrid team, Joy, who has moved to the UK since I met her and has hopefully settled in in London by now. I’m sure, though, that the latest addition to the Ambassador Team, Ivette from Guatemala, will be a worthy successor. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Madrid_Pic 4

Networking is also of great importance to Alena, a Czech marketing and communications strategist, who runs the Entrepreneurs Club in the InterNations Madrid Groups section, a mutual support group for all self-employed professionals, small business owners, and purpose-driven business people with an entrepreneurial spirit.

However, not even the most purposeful and business-minded person could have resisted the chance to hit the dancefloor later on: the following morning was a bank holiday in Spain, so everyone would have the luxury of sleeping late on a Friday morning, with a relaxing three-day weekend ahead of them.

After midnight, when the dancefloor was filling up pretty quickly and the atmosphere got more and more exuberant, it was obvious to see why the Madrid Community is flourishing.

(Image credit: 1) & 3) Malte Zeeck / InterNations 2) Manuel Torres)

My InterNations: Ramadan Kareem from Togo to Uzbekistan

For many of our members (just like for 1.6 billion people around the globe), the month of Ramadan is now in full swing. Adherents of the world’s second-largest faith are observing the traditional 29 days of fasting in the Islamic calendar.

My InterNations_Ramadan_Pic 4bWe would like to highlight this occasion by sharing some of the various stories, regional differences and ways to celebrate Ramadan in our communities worldwide. Since the global InterNations Community now unites 1.7 million people in 390 destinations, we’ve decided to get a few impressions as to what Ramadan means to our members worldwide.

Practicing Muslims living far from home may not always be able to celebrate in the way they are used to, as members in Uzbekistan told us. At the same time, for non-Muslim expats living in countries with a predominantly Muslim population, Ramadan often means getting used to changes in the pace of daily life abroad, but also gaining insights into the culture of their host country.

Stocking Up on Food…

When hearing about Islam, many people immediately think of the Middle East, where indeed more than 90% of the population belongs to the Muslim faith. To find out more about this region, we have talked to Fazlul, an event manager from Dhaka and the InterNations Ambassador in our Muscat Community, about celebrating Ramadan as a Bangladeshi in Oman.

InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Ramadan_Pic 1Many local Omanis and plenty of Muslim expats in the Gulf state start off their fasting period in the very same way: paradoxically, by going shopping, as Fazlul has experienced. “When Ramadan is about to start, the first thing we do is to stock food for the entire month. I am not sure why this tradition still exists as shopping malls are just around the corner nowadays,” Fazlul wonders. “Maybe this has also become a lot more commercialized.”

General commercialization or no, the local kids definitely appreciate a particular Omani custom: al-Quarankasho, the 15th day of the month, which is “usually celebrated by children singing songs and going from door to door to get candy or sweets,” as he describes.

…and Purifying the Soul

And what does Ramadan mean for Fazlul personally? “It’s not only about fasting, but also to purify the soul,” he says. This can have more overtly religious aspects, such as focusing more on his faith, but general ones as well: “I try to get in touch with friends whom I didn’t talk to for a long time, or have an Iftar dinner with as many friends as I can.”

Such an Iftar can also involve sharing with people who hold different beliefs. Fazlul has organized Iftar events for the Muscat Community before. And he remembers them fondly because they proved to be special. All InterNations Events provide the chance to meet and get to know people from different backgrounds, and this gives the Ramadan-related dinners an extra touch. Traditional arabic lamps background.

“At these occasions, we all talk about religion,” he says, though they usually avoid the topic as it’s rather personal and potentially sensitive. “But not only about Islam — about other religions, too. Most of the members who come to these events aren’t Muslims and don’t fast, but they get to experience a new religion and culture. It is really nice to see people from all kinds of faith sit down and eat together at the same table.”

Gift Baskets in Togo…

There’s also quite a substantial presence of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in West African countries. Afoussat, a Beninese expat running our DinnerNations Group in Lomé, Togo, can offer a unique perspective on Ramadan in this region.

“Togo is a pretty secular country, and Ramadan doesn’t have the same importance here as in Senegal, where I lived for the last three years, or as in my home country, Benin. In Senegal, for instance, some restaurants would change their opening times for Ramadan. Dried dates with walnutOn Friday, the day of prayer, it was nearly impossible to find any places open at noon,” she recalls.

“In Togo, nothing really changes. The fast itself is private, but Muslims often receive gift baskets with dates and milk and sweets from their co-workers and friends.”

… and Ndogou Meals in Senegal

Afoussat herself comes from a “mixed family,” as she calls it. Her father is a Muslim and her mother a Christian. Though she personally identifies as a Catholic, she is proud of keeping the fast during Ramadan nonetheless.

“I am convinced that we celebrate one God in different ways,” she says, “and for me, fasting is a period during which we make an effort to become better people. I am lucky enough to do this twice a year: during Lent, the 40 days before Easter, and during Ramadan.”

She, too, has fond memories of a Ramadan-related InterNations Event, where she experienced different ways to celebrate this holiday. “I was also part of the dinner group in Dakar,” Afoussat says, “and some members invited me to a Ndogou meal” – that’s Wolof for the ceremony of breaking the fast. “It’s really a big deal in Senegal. Restaurants even offer special menus for the occasion.”

This year, we have once more had (and in some locations, will still have) a variety of official events and activities during Ramadan. Be it an Iftar Buffet in Manama or a poetry reading in Muscat, a Suhoor dinner in Doha or even a Ramadan celebration at a cultural center in Bogotá – we hope that all our guests had a wonderful time.

Enjoy yourself, and a happy and peaceful Ramadan to all those who observe it!

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2)-4) iStockphoto)

Feel Like a Movie Star with InterNations!

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

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

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

What’s on the program so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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

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

2. Windhoek, Namibia

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

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

3. Karachi, Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

5. Skopje, Macedonia

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

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

6. Banjul, Gambia

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

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

7. Minsk, Belarus

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

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

8. Cape Town, South Africa

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

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

9. Managua, Nicaragua

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

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

10. Tbilisi, Georgia

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

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

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

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Adventures in Junk Food

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

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

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

Comfort Eating

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

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

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

Shenzhen Fast Food Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast, Anyone?

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

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

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

Expect the Unexpected

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

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

A Little Hand-Holding…

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

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

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

My InterNations: Have Bike, Will Travel

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

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

Finding a Peculiar Niche

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

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

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

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

Striking Out on Her Own

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

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

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

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

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

Hitting the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Your Own Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: So You’re Moving to Australia?

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

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

Third-Culture Kid Turned “Aussie” Turned Author

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

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

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

The SETTLE Principle

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

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

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

Some Room for Improvement

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

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

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

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

Good luck, mate!

(Image credit: 1), 3), 4) iStockphoto 2)

InterNations Insider Tips: 5 Offbeat Things to Do in Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Founder’s Diary: Rome

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

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

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

An Apero on the Esquiline

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

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

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

An Active Community Life

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

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

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

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

An Ambassador with Hidden Talents

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

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

(Image credit: Malte Zeeck / InterNations)