Founder’s Diary: Athens

Before Easter, I was about to enjoy my first spring cocktails – not here in Munich, as it turned out, but at one of the March events hosted by the InterNations Community in Athens. I even got to stay in the city a little longer than planned: InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Athens_Pic 6 due to a strike, Lufthansa cancelled my flight on Friday, rebooking me to a machine on Thursday night.

I thus had to leave the InterNations office in a hurry on Thursday afternoon to go home and grab a few clothes before rushing off to the airport. Despite that slightly stressful start, the flight itself was a smooth two and a half hours to Athens – fortunately, well before an awful hurricane hit Germany, and with a sudden upgrade to business class in the bargain.

Greece and Germany: A Fraught Relationship

I arrived in Athens right in the middle of a politically sensitive situation, as far as relations between Greece and Germany are concerned: owing to Germany’s fiscal policies in the Eurozone crisis, the relationship is indeed rather strained right now.

This actually led to a vaguely surreal conversation with the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport. As he found out I was from Germany and I wanted to go to the Hotel Grande Bretagne (an upscale location next to the parliament building on Syntagma Square), I had to convince him I wasn’t working for the Troika and had nothing to do with the EU, IMF, or ECB. InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Athens_Pic 1

Obviously, I hadn’t chosen the hotel because of its proximity to the center of Greek politics, but because it was the designated event venue for Friday’s get-together.

However, I did get an upgrade to a very comfy room with a nice view of the Παλαιά Ανάκτορα (Old Royal Palace), which houses the parliamentary sessions nowadays. Another special thanks for the room upgrade to Tim Ananiadis, the general manager, who also attended our event on the following night together with his wife.

A fun fact for those interested in architectural trivia: The Old Royal Palace was designed by Friedrich von Gärtner, a 19th-century Bavarian architect, who also created several famous landmarks in Munich. So, in a way, my room even overlooked a little piece of “home”.

I didn’t actually have time to enjoy the splendid view, though.

Exploring Athens: Night and Day

After I’d dropped my baggage, Anastasios, our new InterNations Ambassador in Athens, came to meet me. We took a leisurely walk down to Plaka, where we had a drink at the rooftop bar of the “A for Athens” hotel.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Athens_Pic 2 The bar provided another stunning view – this time of the brightly illuminated Akropolis – and a great atmosphere. Anastasios, who is currently working as a business advisor / consultant in Athens, told me all about his motivation for becoming an InterNations Ambassador, as well as his experience of living abroad in various European countries – from Austria over Cyprus and Malta to Poland and Spain.

On Friday morning, I kept eyeing the Akropolis from my breakfast table on the rooftop terrace of the Grande Bretagne hotel. I simply had to go and explore it again.

The first (and last) time I’d been to Athens had been in March 2008, back when I hosted our very first InterNations Event in town. Seven years ago, we had only 30 members in the entire city, and a total of three people (myself included) showed up for our kick-off meeting.

However, the prospect for this upcoming event looked completely different – thankfully, but not unexpectedly, since our Athens Community has also undergone tremendous growth: about 300 members from 33 different countries were on our latest guest list, and nearly all of them were to show up later that night.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Athens_Pic 3After strolling through the ancient ruins till I was getting a bit overwhelmed by all those Caryatids, Ionic columns, Doric colonnades, and more architectural trivia than I could take in, I decided to rather focus on present-day Greece’s amenities: I went down to one of the many restaurants at the foot of the hill to try some freshly grilled souvlaki.

I couldn’t indulge too much, though. Before our event started, Anastasios had booked a table at Strofi – in his opinion the best restaurant in Athens. Only recently the German Federal Chancellor and the Greek Prime Minister had taken lunch there together. One can only hope that the delicious food made their talks a little more relaxed and mellow. The sfyrida – a seafood dish of grilled White Grouper – and the local wine certainly turned my own mood from good to excellent.

The InterNations Athens Event

At nine o’clock in the evening, the InterNations Event started in the historical ballroom of the Grande Bretagne (truly an amazing location), and the guests began to pour in. Anastasios and his volunteer “crew” of several InterNations members welcomed them all personally, and the spacious ballroom filled up surprisingly quickly.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Athens_Pic 4Not only did I have interviews with several local and international media outlets (e.g. Protothema and Athens Views), but I also enjoyed the opportunity to talk to various members: for example, Fivie, who is very active in the InterNations World Forum on our website, or Nikos, an enthusiastic Group Consul, who organizes several smaller get-togethers in Athens every month.

During the official part of the evening, I had the chance to thank Anastasios, Sylvia, our former Athens Ambassador (who’d had the position for an impressive six years), and Zdenka, who acted as a short-term Ambassador last summer, for their efforts. I also raffled off two vouchers for the Grande Bretagne spa to a couple of lucky winners.

InterNations Expat Blog_Founder's Diary_Athens_Pic 5During the unofficial small talk, politics was, of course, a huge topic. I can’t remember listening to so many political discussions at any other InterNations Event. People – expats and Greeks alike – were very interested in the general opinions about Greece in Germany. At the same time, it was fascinating for me to hear what our members thought about the present situation.

Opinions were fairly divided, too: I think I heard about everything, from people advocating for more radical reforms over stances favoring Greece’s withdrawal from the Euro to voices condemning all austerity politics. Fortunately, all those heated debates stayed pretty peaceful and constructive – if only it were that easy in international politics…

We ended our event in much a less serious fashion, though – with music and dancing till about half past one, when a group of guests decided to continue the party at the close-by Kitty Cat Club, one of Athens’ most eclectic nightlife venues. We even made it to another popular venue, Rock’n’Roll Athens, which used to host a few previous InterNations Events.

After a busy day and a long night in Athens, I finally got bed at 5:30 in the morning to snatch a few hours of sleep before leaving early for Munich and home. Γεια σου, Αθήνα!

(Image credit: Malte Zeeck/InterNations)

Important Tax Deadlines for US Expats

Every April is a reminder of the looming filing deadlines for getting your United States tax affairs in order. Whether you are looking to file a return early or thinking about filing an extension, there are some important dates that you want to keep handy so that you do not let an essential deadline slip by.

15 April – This is the regular deadline for filing tax returns and the date on which any tax liabilities are due. Expats, however, are automatically granted an extension from the standard filing deadline.

15 June – This is the typical filing deadline for expatriates. You are allowed an automatic extension to 15 June if, on the regular filing deadline (15 April), you are living outside of the US.InterNations Expat Blog_Important Tax Deadlines for US Expats

30 June – If you own foreign accounts, you are by now very familiar with the possible need to report those accounts on the ominous FBAR report.

30 June is the date when this form must be filed, and to top it off, there are absolutely no extensions available. For that reason, make sure you prioritize getting your bank account details in order early so you don’t have to scramble around in mid-June to get the information you need.

15 October – So you aren’t ready to file your tax return by 15 June? Not to worry, you are able to formally request an extension to 15 October to get your tax information in order. To file for this extension you simply need to complete and send in Form 4868 by the original due date of your return.

You can avoid additional penalties and interest by filing and paying tax on time. If you are an expat, just remember that interest on unpaid tax liabilities starts to accrue starting 16 April and penalties start on 16 June.

If looking to file an extension, you will want to make sure to include payment of any estimated tax amounts in order to minimize the accumulation of penalties and interest.

This article was provided by H&R Block Expat Tax Services, a company specializing in US tax returns for Americans abroad.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Color Your Life with InterNations

“Now daisies pied and violets blue do paint the meadows with delight…” Okay, I stole that one from Shakespeare, but the change of seasons rather lends itself to lyrical outbursts.

After Germany weathered an actual hurricane last week, spring is here to stay at last: blue skies, golden sunlight, budding leaves in translucent green, and plenty of flowers in bloom, including the odd violet. InterNations Expat Blog_Color Your Life_Pic 1

Unless you’re among those poor folks prone to hay fever, you may be feeling the strange temptation to start skipping through the daisies and warble along with the chirping birds.

Here, it’s the bright-colored coming of spring that inspires us, whereas nature in the southern hemisphere is slowly taking on the earthy hues of autumn. Either way, April seems to urge us to “color our life”. And that’s the motto of the latest themed month for our InterNations Communities all over the world.

Our themed events in January invited you to welcome 2015 together with InterNations. They might even have helped you to stick to your New Year’s resolutions. Now we invite you to color your life with your friends from InterNations: it’s all about bold and bright and colorful get-togethers this month!

• In Barcelona, you can literally paint the town red tomorrow night. Our Ambassadors Paul and Elina are throwing a fiery Red Party for you, featuring a special dress code and rocking live music. InterNations Expat Blog_Color Your Life_Pic 3

• There’s also a particular dress code for the next Language Exchange Activity in Lausanne. Don’t just come to find someone interested in learning your mother tongue – show off the national colors of your country’s flag as well!

• While Barcelona sees red, Cape Town goes orange. Our Taste of the World Group in Cape Town is going to join the local Oranjefeest, inspired by the traditional Dutch festivities for King’s Day. This year, the festival coincides with the South African Freedom Day celebrations, so be there and toast the “rainbow nation”.

• You can also get a taste of the big wide world in Uzbekistan and Ecuador. Our Tashkent Foodies Group will try a selection of colorful dishes from a variety of cuisines, where East meets West. And our Quito Cooking Class is going to prepare a three-course meal with seasonal specialties – yum!

• The Dortmund Sightseeing Group has opted to explore one of the most colorful artists of the 20th century instead. The Osthaus Museum Hagen has dedicated a comprehensive retrospective to painter and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a lifelong partisan of ecological values and intercultural exchange, of organic forms and vibrant colors.InterNations Expat Blog_Color Your Life_Pic 2

• The bold colors of art are a definite theme at the upcoming InterNations Event in Milan, too. Our Ambassador Michela has organized a live body painting performance by a local calligraphic artist – a splash of color and an unusual touch.

• Last but not least, next week’s InterNations Event in Malaga is all about the colors of the mind, so to speak. Ambassadors Tanya and Laura have scheduled a special guest speaker who’s going to deliver a motivational talk on awakened consciousness.

Looking for “Color Your Life” events and activities in your InterNations Community? Check our Event Calendar and keep your eyes open for this month’s logo. Be bold and bright and have lots of fun!

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2) & 3) iStockphoto)

My InterNations: Cook, Eat, Love in Vienna

Last week, when we blogged about the International Day of Happiness, we asked two essential questions: what makes you happy? And what are you doing to make others happy?

We came to the conclusion that these two things are inextricably intertwined: feeling good makes you more inclined to do good, but doing good also helps you to feel good. You can’t separate the one from the other.InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Vienna Pic 4

This week, we would like to highlight this with our latest interview for the “My InterNations” series. Alba from Sicily is a Group Consul for our Volunteer Program in Vienna and helps to support several non-profit organizations in town.

Alba’s commitment to our Volunteer Program in Vienna, as well as her enthusiasm for the projects she supports, demonstrates perfectly what we can achieve by bringing international people together for a good cause. And what’s more, she always goes about her volunteer activities with a big smile on her face.

A Life-Long Interest in Social Causes

During Alba´s university days, she already did various internships in the social sector. She used to work with both adults and children in rehab clinics, with migrants and refugees, for Amnesty International, and more. But she discovered her interest in social projects even earlier when she decided upon a degree course in education.

Originally born in Germany, she moved back to Sicily with her family at the age of 12. She has divided much of her life between Italy and Germany. After getting her degree, she did her doctoral research in Germany and completed her Ph.D. in Sicily. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Vienna_Pic 1

Against all odds, however, her career eventually took her neither to Germany nor to a job in social work, though she’s very committed to her volunteer causes (e.g. as a cook in a homeless shelter). Professionally, Alba is now a project manager and professional coach for an international IT company based in the Austrian capital.

“I’m currently working with colleagues from all over the world,” she says. “This doesn’t only bring me closer to a variety of different cultures. It also helps me to consider viewpoints I wouldn’t have thought of before.”

It was her work that got her in touch with InterNations. Alba used to travel frequently for business reasons, and she was originally looking for international communities in Sweden during a short-term stay in Stockholm.

The Rewards of Volunteering

It was Alba’s co-workers who referred her to our expat network, but the motivation to become a Volunteer Group Consul in Vienna was all her own.

“I love to help people,” she states simply. “It’s so rewarding to see that just by donating a little time and by having a group of strongly supportive volunteers, we can make a regular contribution for those people who really need it.”

The InterNations Volunteer Group in Vienna, with about 850 members and five Groups Consuls altogether, supports three local non-profits. Alba is especially involved with helping out two of these NPOs. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Vienna_Pic 2

She has organized successful fundraisers for the Caritas refugee accommodation, such as a Yoga Charity Event, or a “happy socks” collection that yielded more than 200 pairs of socks for refugees living in Vienna.

She’s very satisfied with some other one-off fundraisers as well. The “Christmas in a Box” initiative (gathering Christmas presents for orphanages throughout Austria and Eastern Europe) had some “amazing results”, she says. “Even after three different rounds, volunteers still approached me and wanted to contribute again!”

This Christmas-themed activity was an amazing success: Alba even didn’t mind repeating it three times to give everyone the opportunity to participate, thinking of all the kids they’d make happy for the holiday season.

Cook, Eat, Love

The volunteers’ connection with the Vinzibett charity is special, though. The house offers an emergency shelter for about 45-50 homeless people, both men and women.

The shelter is mostly run by a team of 30 volunteers, who provide a safe place to sleep, breakfast and dinner, and shared facilities (e.g. bathrooms and a washing machine). They want their residents to feel part of a community, and yet to have some measure of autonomy and independence in their lives.

The InterNations Volunteer Group joins the Vinzibett team for regular cooking sessions: once a week, four members prepare dinner for all residents. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Vienna Pic 3

As Alba points out, they have received some very positive feedback from VinziBett for their commitment. The organization feels that they can truly rely on the help.

“We need to schedule each date exactly one month in advance,” Alba explains. “And one Group Consul has to be there to lead the cooking session, so the VinziBett staff doesn’t have to explain and coordinate everything.”

“I have been confident from the very beginning that with all that positive energy, our group could make a difference,” Alba says.

“But I also learned a lot about myself – how passionate I am about supporting this cause. I also strongly believe that in human relationships, everyone gives, receives, and learns at the same time.”

The inhabitants already know about the volunteer chefs, too, and appreciate the home-made meals, such as Italian-style pasta made with plenty of tomato sauce and lots of love.

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2) Alba and several other InterNations volunteers at a cooking session at the Vienna Vinzibett shelter (Alba La Mattina) 3) Alba and a collection of presents for the “Chistmas in a Box” initiative in December 2014 4) iStockphoto)

The Moment of Happiness

How are you feeling this fine day? Here’s to hoping that you’re happy! After all, today is the official International Day of Happiness.

This occasion was introduced by the United Nations three years ago. It might sound a bit fluffy or New Age-y, but happiness is indeed a rather serious topic.

The International Day of Happiness should remind us that “social, economic, and environmental well-being are indivisible”. All of them contribute to personal happiness, but happiness, on a societal basis, is also an integral part of human development.

Measuring Happiness

There’s even a fairly recent field of research dedicated to studying happiness, combining the insights of economics, sociology, and psychology. As strange as it might seem to quantify contentment and joy, happiness economics does try to measure exactly that.Emoticons on note paper attched to rope with clothes pins

How does this even work? The World Happiness Report, for instance, intends to compare various countries with regard to their respective level of happiness. People from all over the world were asked to describe if they recently experienced happiness, as a temporary, fleeting emotion, and how satisfied they are with their life as a whole.

The perfect formula for describing happiness also takes more objective criteria into account. For example, the researchers gathered statistics on healthy life expectancy in various countries, on people’s access to social support in times of trouble, on general generosity and charitable donations, as well as on GDP (gross domestic product per capita).

Spoiler: according to the World Happiness Report, the luckiest folks alive are found in Denmark. At least, I’ve chosen my next travel destination wisely.

Can’t Buy Me Love

My mum would’ve been glad to see that only one of the factors listed above – namely GDP – directly relates to wealth. “Money doesn’t buy you happiness,” she’d often tell me. But sometimes, she added jokingly: “But it’s pretty damn soothing for your nerves.”

InterNations Expat Blog_International Day of Happiness_Pic 4 Actually, that sentiment is underlined by happiness economics. Overall life satisfaction is, to some extent, dependent on income. However, while poor people worry more about long-term prospects, affluence improves emotional well-being only to a certain degree.

According to some studies, US residents with a cushy income of 75,000 USD per year have all the financial prerequisites for happiness. You do require enough to meet basic needs first, achieve monetary stability second, then squirrel away an emergency fund for hard times, and still have enough money left for the occasional indulgence – such as a vacation or fancy dinners.

Once you’ve reached that point, you probably wouldn’t be any happier if you had cartoon character Scrooge McDuck’s fortune of several “fantasticatrillion” dollars.

Do Good and Feel Good

Measuring factors such as generosity and social support reveals something else about the true nature of happiness. Aerial View of Multiethnic People Forming Circle of Hands People aren’t just happy because they can rely on their family and friends when things get tough, or because they might profit from charitable institutions in times of need.

They are also happy because they can share with those looking for emotional, practical, or financial support.

“Happiness makes people less self-focused and more altruistic”, happiness researcher David G. Myers once stated. He also emphasized it works the other way round, too: doing good makes you feel good.

The First InterNations Social Impact Night

This tenet of feeling good, plus doing good, was the focus at the first ever InterNations Social Impact Night worldwide. Dedicated to the “moment of happiness”, the Munich event featured a motivational speech on the topic, as well as several exercises for personal reflection.

“What makes you happy?” our members were asked, and they came up with plenty of answers pertaining to life’s little pleasures: InterNations Expat Blog_International Day of Happiness_Pic 1 “dancing salsa”, “traveling in my VW van”, “spending quality time with my family”, or simply “enjoying the sunshine”.

But our 90 guests were also asked to join in various ways of sharing their happiness with others. The entrance fee for the event was donated to a local refugee home in Munich, and members brought along donations in kind for the residents at the shelter.

In addition to cuddly toys for the kids and footballs or card games for the teens, some generous attendants gave away musical instruments and even a bike. Thank you so much for these wonderful gifts!

And how did our members answer the question what they’d do today to make others happy? “Bring cake for my colleagues at work”, “smile at someone and mean it”, “give my new teacher a warm welcome”, “call my mum and tell her I love her” … awww.

So, what are you doing to increase happiness in the world?

(Image credit: 1)-3) iStockphoto 4) InterNations)

Five Expat Destinations of the Future

Same procedure as last year – same procedure as every year?

Each spring, Mercer Consulting publishes the results of their latest Quality of Living study for foreign assignees in over 200 cities around the world. The ranking investigates various factors from ten areas that impact everyday life in an expat destination (e.g. medical and health considerations or housing).

The Mercer Quality of Life Survey 2015

Unfortunately, this year’s top 10 out of 230 destinations worldwide don’t offer any surprises. Again, you’ll find the best quality of life in several German-speaking countries (Austria, Switzerland, and Germany) and Oceania (New Zealand, Australia), with a sprinkling of Canada and Scandinavia in-between.InterNations Expat Blog_Five Expat Destinations of the Future_Pic 6

In comparison to the 2014 results, the global top 5 have even stayed exactly the same: Vienna (1), Zurich (2), Auckland (3), Munich (4), and Vancouver (5) have all successfully defended last year’s rank. Thus, instead of rehashing what makes these cities a comfortable (though sometimes costly) place to live, we’ll look at five very different destinations instead.

For the last few years, Mercer has also singled out ten so-called “emerging centers” across the globe. They aren’t necessarily first-tier destinations for expatriates, but their importance for the regional and world economy is increasing.

In short, these are global cities to watch out for – and we’ll briefly introduce those with the best quality of life among them.

Durban (South Africa, #85)

Overshadowed by Cape Town and Johannesburg, Durban is indeed the second most important manufacturing center in the country. Even more importantly, it features the busiest container port on the African continent: shipping and logistics are key sectors of the urban economy.

Beachfront sceneVisitors might rather appreciate the costal location for its popular and pretty beaches. Durban has a lively local surfer scene and an expanding tourism industry. The local government is currently working on a marketing strategy to position Durban as a global brand for foreign visitors to South Africa.

Cheonan (South Korea, #98)

Situated fewer than 90 km south of the Korean capital, Cheonan is one of the country’s main transportation hubs. But much of its local and regional industry is primarily based on education and technology. InterNations Expat Blog_Five Expat Destinations of the Future_Pic 5

Students form a sizable part of Cheonan’s population (with its 600,000 residents in total), and institutions such as the Korea University of Technology and Education, with its focus on engineering, have an excellent reputation in their field. Chungcheongnam Province has an international student population of more than 6,000 people, most of whom live in Cheonan.

The universities also serve as an applicant pool for the numerous technology businesses in the area. Of course, the “designated high-tech capital of South Korea” attracts its share of foreign assignees and expat employees as well.

Taichung (Taiwan, #99)

Following right on Cheonan’s heels in the Mercer ranking, there’s another East Asian city with a high-tech bent coming up. Taichung is Taiwan’s third-largest city, with roughly 2.7 million inhabitants. The city’s most famous export in recent years might be zhēnzhū nǎichá – to non-Chinese speakers better known as “bubble tea”. InterNations Expat Blog_Five Expat Destinations of the Future_Pic 3

However, the city has much more in store than a milky beverage so sweet it’ll rot your teeth. Formerly known for its shoe manufacturing industry, Taichung has now lost most of that sector to mainland China. Today, the municipality focuses on activities like precision manufacturing, silicon wafer production, and its various technology incubators and science parks.

Wroclaw (Poland, #100)

This is the only European city featured on the Mercer list of emerging destinations. Coincidentally, Wroclaw is also the designated European Capital of Culture for 2016. Once dominated by heavy industry, it remains a significant manufacturing center for vehicles, electronics, and home appliances.

But the historical capital of Silesia also has a venerable intellectual tradition: its first university opened its doors in the early 18th century. Solny square, Wroclaw, Poland Today, Wroclaw is home to about ten public colleges and universities and circa 140,000 students. No wonder that the city has such a busy nightlife!

Wroclaw is also the seat of many well-known Polish and international businesses, with strong cross-border ties to neighboring Germany and the Czech Republic. Expatriates will appreciate the picturesque stare miasto (historical town center) and the cultural festivals all year round. There’s even a festival dedicated to beer – na zdrowie!

Manaus (Brazil, #127)

Cineastes may recognize one of Manaus’s most famous landmarks from a 1982 Werner Herzog masterpiece: The Teatro Amazonas serves as the inspiration for the obsessive and increasingly unstable protagonist of Fitzcarraldo. The opera house itself does have a slightly surrealist air: a result of the rubber boom in late 19th-century Brazil, it’s a Belle Époque building located, more or less, in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest.InterNations Expat Blog_Five Expat Destinations of the Future_Pic 4

Today, Manaus’s relative affluence is no longer built on rubber. Its river port is the key to the entire Amazonas basin, and its large Free Economic Zone has attracted mobile phone manufacturers, the petrochemical sector, and the electronics industry.

On the one hand, economic development in this geographically isolated boomtown has led to environmental problems like devastating deforestation. On the other hand, the importance of fishing, trading in wild fruits, and eco-tourism might also help to shape awareness of the region’s amazing bio-diversity.

(Image credit: 1, 3-6: iStockphoto 2: Cheonan Station by Wikimedia Commons user NHRHS2010)

Around the World in Seven Films

On Sunday, March 8, International Women’s Day celebrates the economic, political, and social achievements of women around the globe – but it also reminds us how much there’s still left to achieve.

In honor of the occasion, we’d like to invite you on a special journey around the world that focuses on the creative achievements of female film-makers.

The “Celluloid Ceiling”

There’s not only a “glass ceiling” for women in corporate culture: there’s also a “celluloid ceiling” for women behind the camera.

movie slate and film reel on woodIn the US, only 5% of major studio releases were directed by women. If we look at independent productions from the UK, the number rises to 11%. In Germany, a (comparatively) amazing 22% of all feature films from 2009-2013 were made by women. However, if you single out only high-budget mainstream movies, that share drops to 4% again.

Don’t worry – we won’t bore you with numbers any longer. You get the picture. There are quite a few successful women in the movie-making business, though, and they’re by no means limited to the three countries mentioned above.

If you’re looking for recommendations for your next expat-themed movie night, here’s a short list of seven acclaimed films by women that deal with themes like travel, exile, expatriation, immigration, and culture clash. Enjoy!

1) Mississippi Masala (1991): Mira Nair (India – Uganda/USA)

Idi Amin, the expulsion of Uganda’s South Asian minority, and an interracial romance in small-town Mississippi – the ingredients of Mississippi Masala make it sound like pretty heavy-going fare.

But Mira Nair’s low-key drama about an exile family of third-generation Ugandan Indians is poignant rather than preachy, and its cast with a young Sarita Choudhury and the ever impressive Denzel Washington is superb.

2) The Piano (1993): Jane Campion (New Zealand)

New Zealand director Jane Campion had been making movies – both short films and full-length features – for about a dozen years when The Piano sealed her international claim to fame.InterNations Expat Blog_Around the World in Seven Films_Pic 3

The peculiar story of a mute Scottish woman sold in marriage to a frontiersman in 19th-century New Zealand is a cinematic tour de force. In turn melancholy, sensual, haunting, and poetic, it still holds up over 20 years after its premiere.

3) Italian for Beginners (2000): Lone Scherfig (Denmark – Italy)

Okay, I’m now fudging this list a little bit. For the most part, this sweet low-budget dramedy is set among Danish language students in a dreary suburb of Copenhagen. Only in the very end do they exchange their Nordic hometown for the sunny climes of Venice.

But like all the best travel stories, this, too, is actually a tale of self-discovery and broadening one’s horizons – new friendships and blossoming love provide emotional warmth long before the protagonists escape to Italy.

4) Nowhere in Africa (2001): Caroline Link (Germany – Kenya)

The second German movie ever to snatch the coveted Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Nowhere in Africa was a success with the critics abroad and a box-office hit at home.

Based on an autobiographical novel by German-Jewish writer Stephanie Zweig, the sensitive coming-of-age story depicts the odd situation of a Jewish family fleeing from Nazi Germany to British Kenya. As far as traditional melodramas go, this is a well-acted and lushly photographed genre piece.

5) Lost in Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola (USA – Japan)

This existentialist portrait of two US expats in Tokyo made Sofia Coppola the first American woman to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Director. For this very reason, there’s no way around mentioning this film. InterNations Expat Blog_Around the World in Seven Films_Pic 5

But opinions are somewhat divided. Lots of movie critics received Lost in Translation with veritable accolades about its artistic aesthetics and its social commentary on modern alienation.

Personally, I much prefer Sofia Coppola’s directorial début (The Virgin Suicides) to this superficial and slightly contemptuous take on its Japanese setting. But Bill Murray’s performance as a pathetic aging actor is indeed stellar.

6) Persepolis (2007): Marjane Satrapi (Iran – France/Austria)

With co-writer and co-director Vincent Paronnard, Iranian-born writer and comics artist Marjane Satrapi adapted her own graphic novel Persepolis for the big screen. It’s both an animated movie and a story about childhood in Iran, but it’s definitely not an animation film for kids.

Visually stunning, at-times heart-breaking, and unexpectedly funny, it brings together the personal (Marjane’s adolescence in Iran, Austria, and France) and the political (the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath). But for all its serious topics, it’s never dull or simplistic – it’s only the stylized visuals that are black and white.

7) Belle (2013): Amma Asante (UK)

I’ll admit it: I do love me some costume drama, be it with hoop frocks, Empire dresses, or crinolines, as long as they have their fair share of melodrama, wit, and smoldering romance constrained by courtship rules and genteel manners.

InterNations Expat Blog_Around the World in Seven Films_Pic 4The second film by Ghanaian-British director Amma Asante, however, produces a period drama with a bit of a twist. Its 18th-century heroine, Dido Elizabeth Belle, is the illegitimate mixed-race ward of Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, born to an English gentleman and a West Indian slave.

While the romance with a conscience does take considerable liberties with the dry facts of biography, it’s still an intriguing interweaving of a love-overcomes-social-barriers tale and the history of slavery and abolitionism. At any rate, it’s off the well-trodden paths of British period pieces based on Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

Which movies do you think are missing from this list?

(Image credit: 1) + 2) iStockphoto 3) Tokyo Tower Afterglow by Wikimedia Commons user Kakidai 4) Dido Elizabeth Belle (detail), public domain)

My InterNations: A Tale of Two Cities

What do expats in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, two vastly different cities, have in common? They might have already joined an InterNations Event organized by Daniel Santantoniou, our Swiss-Greek Ambassador. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Daniel_Cambodia_Pic 6

Read his story and find out how the challenges involved in organizing InterNations Events changed when he left the megalopolis Bangkok for the smaller and more relaxed capital of Cambodia. Something remained the same, though: InterNations is a stable and important factor in his life as an expat, and there is one thing he can always count on – find out more for yourself below.

From Helvetia to Cambodia

The decision to move to Southeast Asia came about during a six-month sabbatical from Daniel´s work in finance and banking. It was his first opportunity to travel extensively outside of Europe, through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia.

His fresh impressions of new cultures and pleasant climates “triggered the desire to settle in this region and embark on a new adventure there”. Like many a future expat, Daniel has a multinational background by birth: Born in Italy to a Greek father and a Swiss mother, he grew up in cosmopolitan Geneva, where he also graduated from university with an MBA. InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Daniel_Cambodia_Pic 1

He successfully managed to uproot his life in Switzerland and relocate to Thailand, where he lived for about three years, and then onwards to Cambodia, the “Kingdom of Wonder”. He knows expat life in these two countries well, and he was an InterNations Ambassador in both. Today, he organizes InterNations Events and helps grow our community in Phnom Penh.

Krong Chaktomok vs. Krung Thep

Bangkok (aka Krung Thep) and Phnom Penh (or Krong Chaktomok) – two capitals of neighboring Southeast Asian countries, separated by 540 kilometers (or 333 miles) and just one hour by plane. The cities couldn’t be more different, though, Daniel emphasizes.

Bangkok is a megalopolis with more than 10 million inhabitants, with roughly 15 million people in the metropolitan region. All of Cambodia, on the other hand, has a population of circa 14 million.InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Daniel in Cambodia_Pic 4

It’s hardly a surprise that Daniel appreciates the “more human size” of Phnom Penh so much. Compared to Bangkok, it almost feels like a “small village”, he says, and everything is within walking distance. He can get to his office in five minutes and go around the city in half an hour. In Bangkok’s traffic chaos, it wasn’t unusual to be trapped in a taxi for two hours for a two-kilometer ride.

Due to Phnom Penh’s location, where the Tonle Sap River flows into the majestic Mekong, the Cambodian capital is also a greener city than Bangkok. All those advantages notwithstanding, Daniel sometimes misses the abundance of delicious Thai street food – something he hasn’t yet found a replacement for in his new home.

International Aid and Foreign Investment

The local expat communities in Bangkok and Phnom Penh are just as different as the cities themselves. The tragic history of Cambodia, after it finally gained its independence from French Indochina, is widely known: modern Cambodia only saw an end to decades of strife, suffering, and instability in the 1990s.

Today, Cambodia is an LDC, a “Least Developed Country”, among the poorest nations worldwide. For this reason, Phnom Penh is home to many expats working for NGOs and NPOs, who support the country’s road to rebuilding and recovery. Angkor Wat, Siem reap, Cambodia.

“Everything has to be restructured and redeveloped,” Daniel says, which obviously impacts Cambodia’s steadily-growing economy. The country has started attracting more and more foreign direct investment, especially from the Asia-Pacific region, as well as many young entrepreneurs from all over the world.

In addition to the lingering presence of French and US American expatriates, who used to dominate the expat circles in Phnom Penh, “the ASEAN community is also well represented nowadays, with people from South Korea, China, Malaysia, and Singapore”.

From Member to Ambassador

Daniel spends a lot of time with the local expat community, investing plenty of energy and enthusiasm in his role as the InterNations Ambassador in Phnom Penh. He originally joined InterNations a few weeks after arriving Bangkok.

Suddenly, he found himself in an unfamiliar megacity and had to rebuild his personal network of friends and professional contacts from scratch. “InterNations was just what I needed,” he says. Food Stall At A Market In Phnom Penh, Cambodia

He attended several events, got to know the InterNations Ambassador, and eventually supported her in organizing a few gatherings. From there, it was only a tiny step to officially joining the Ambassadors team in Bangkok himself.

Now he is in charge of community life in Phnom Penh, a smaller and less busy InterNations Community with fewer than 3,000 members, than Bangkok’s bustling 17,000 expats and global minds. “The community here is just starting out, and I think my previous experience in Bangkok is a good asset,” Daniel explains.

A Truly Global Spirit

At the InterNations Events in Bangkok, he’d meet lots of regulars and see quite a few familiar faces, whereas the get-togethers in Cambodia seem to attract more newcomers. They need someone to help them get their bearings in Phnom Penh, a community of people who “help each other to feel at home abroad”, as Daniel puts it.

Most importantly, he enjoys what he is doing: “There’s nothing more rewarding,” he says, “than receiving compliments after a successful event that you spent so much of your time organizing!”

InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Daniel_Cambodia_Pic 2So far, Daniel can look back at an amazing variety of get-togethers and event highlights in two countries. In addition to cocktail events and dinners, he fondly remembers some memorable moments during cruises on the Andaman See, the Chao Phraya River, and the Tonle Sap, as well as a live concert by soul, gospel, and jazz singer Keith Tynes.

The key, however, is the omnipresent sense of connection: “The InterNations spirit remains the same, no matter where you are on earth.” Daniel emphasizes that this definitely applies to all the enthusiastic volunteers: they help to make InterNations Events what they are and he can always count on them.

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2) Daniel at a rooftop bar and InterNations event venue in Bangkok: Daniel Santantoniou 3) Street scene in Phnom Penh: iStockphoto 4) Angkor Wat after sunrise: iStockphoto 5) Food stall at a Cambodian street market: iStockphoto 5) Daniel, his Bangkok Co-Ambassador Pamela, special guest Keith Tynes, and two InterNations members: Daniel Santantoniou)

Fair Outcomes for All: The World Day of Social Justice

Everyone knows that February 14 is Valentine’s Day, an occasion dominated by pink hearts, red roses, and sentimental movies about soulmates.

But did you know that February 20 also marks a special occasion? It is the annual World Day of Social Justice, as introduced by the United Nations in 2009.InterNations Expat Blg World Social Justice Day 4

According to the UN, the World Day of Social Justice is supposed to “highlight the power of global solidarity to advance opportunity for all”, to ensure equality and fair outcomes for all people across the globe.

We’d like to use this opportunity to put some of our Volunteer Groups around the world into the spotlight.

The InterNations Volunteer Program cooperates with various local non-profit organizations and non-government initiatives: it’s well worth seeing how they address issues related to social justice in their respective countries and communities.

Help for the Homeless: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia has undergone an impressive economic transformation since it became an independent state in the 1960s. It has turned from a largely agricultural country and an exporter of raw materials into a multi-sector economy and one of Southeast Asia’s most important emerging markets. Its GDP growth in 2013 was at least an estimated 4.7%.

On the one hand, Malaysia has successfully eradicated extreme poverty and starvation, and the living standards for most of the population have risen steadily over the last few decades.

But still, its newly acquired wealth is distributed rather unequally. Debates would often contrast urban affluence with rural deprivation – but the issue’s actually more complex. Homeless begger begging

The rapid population growth and the rising cost of living in cities like “KL” have also led to an increase in urban poverty: some of those affected are among the so-called “working poor”, struggling to make ends meet, while others have neither work not shelter. In late 2014, the mayor’s office started a government initiative to provide more resources for Kuala Lumpur’s homeless population.

Our InterNations Volunteer Group in “KL” supports Kechara Soup Kitchen. As the name suggests, the NGO distributes food to those in need – over 100 packets a day, and frequently more on the weekend.

But they have also managed to find shelter for homeless people and help them with their job search, to get addicts into rehab programs and offer medical services to those who can’t afford healthcare.

Encouraging Inclusive Education: Lusaka, Zambia

Zambia is home to more than 14.5 million people – and its population skews fairly young. Over 46% of Zambian residents are younger than 15, and about four million children are old enough to attend primary education (aged 7 to 14).

But not all Zambian kids manage a smooth transition from gap-toothed abecedarian to literate teen. Almost half of all students will drop out of primary school sooner or later, and as many as 250,000 children will never go to school at all.

The lack of basic education affects some children disproportionately: kids from rural regions, children from poorer families, and girls in general are all more likely to leave school early.InterNations Expat Blg World Social Justice Day 2

Another disadvantaged group includes children with disabilities. Schools may not have the resources to address students with special needs, or kids might still suffer from social stigma associated with disability.

Zambia hasn’t just been working to provide better education to disabled children. The government also started an inclusive schooling program in 2011.

Our InterNations Volunteer Group in Lusaka supports Malaikha, a private NPO dedicated to establishing and running a school for blind and visually impaired students.

Support for Street Children: Quito, Ecuador

There’s a banana on my desk right now. I bought it this morning at the smoothie/fruit bar round the corner, and I was planning to make it my healthy afternoon snack. However, researching this blog post has somewhat spoiled my first-world appetite.

Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporter of bananas, and it’s all too possible that “my” banana was picked by some ten-year-old kid, working for a pittance in unsafe conditions. The cut flower industry is another vital part of the country’s agricultural sector, and it is suffering from similar issues.

That dreamy bouquet for Valentine’s Day? Another likely candidate for child labor, sadly enough.

Child labor is still common in Ecuador, though the current government is making a serious effort to tackle the problem. For instance, they have introduced more labor inspections to plantations, factories, and other workplaces, and more families in need will receive financial benefits.

InterNations Expat Blog World Social Justice Day 1 However, about 3% of all Ecuadorian kids under the age of 14 might still be working without getting any education at all. Many others combine school and work, since their families often depend on the additional income.

In addition to agriculture and domestic service, street work is rather widespread. This includes children shining shoes, selling newspapers, hawking food, or simply begging in Ecuador’s cities.

“It is hard to fully eradicate child labor,” Jonathan, our Group Consul from Quito, says. “Parents don’t always understand because they grew up in the same way, working in the countryside or helping their mothers on the market. And they didn’t go to school, either.” It will take some time to change all that.

Our InterNations Volunteer Group in Quito supports CENIT, an organization addressing working children and their families. They provide free education, as well as medical assistance, and they have an outreach program to reach street children and to cooperate closely with the parents of kids in need.

If you’d like to find out more about the InterNations Volunteer Program worldwide, please have a look at our website!

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2) & 3) iStockphoto 4) CENIT Ecuador)

My InterNations: Apfelstrudel and Activities in Amman

This week, we are putting one of our Middle Eastern communities in the spotlight. Meet Gabriela, our energetic and humorous Austrian Ambassador in Amman – an expat and global mind who doesn’t know the feeling of being homesick.

Gabriela - blog imageFind out below why she feels at home about anywhere in the world, or why she sometimes messes up the kitchen of fellow InterNations members.

We have interviewed Gabriela and discovered that the InterNations Events in Amman usually end only after all the cameras are turned off…

Tell us a little bit about yourself…

Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, I’m from a family with a German mother and an Austrian father. My sister travelled the world with them from an early age, and she lived in several countries as a child.

It was when I was born that my family decided to settle in Austria and run a business there. I helped out in our family business and saw what it means to be self-employed. As I followed my passion for the hospitality industry, I ran several hotels in Austria and Germany.

After a visit to Amman, Jordan, I made the decision to start my own business, too – and promptly opened a traditional Austrian bakery in the Middle East. Now we provide expats and Jordanians with typical European-style bread, like German Krustenbrot, wheat rolls, sourdough loaves, French baguette, and of course, famous pastries like Apfelstrudel and Stollen. InterNations_Expat Blog_My InterNations_Amman_Pic 3

Being a global mind? Well, I don’t think I know the feeling of being homesick. Actually, I feel at home about anywhere in the world, as long as I can find a decent “café”, as this is my favorite kind of place to spend my leisure time.

I meet so many different nationalities on a daily basis. My friends come from all over the world and are scattered across the globe. My family still lives in Austria and Germany, a good friend lives in Sri Lanka, and others are based in Singapore, Russia, Egypt, South Africa, the UAE, and so on. So my list of countries for travelling and seeing my friends is really long!

How did you come up with your idea for running a business abroad?

As I visited Jordan, I heard about the difficulties in finding dark, “German-style” bread. And what I saw on the market was just not what I was used to get.

Pita bread is great, especially with Hummus, or Mezze, all those delicious kinds of starters that you eat with flat bread. But a hearty sourdough or rye bread wasn’t available.

After testing the waters, I opened my Boutique Bakery. By now we don’t only cater to private customers but also to hotels, restaurants and the Royal Court of Jordan!

InterNations Expat Blog_My InterNations_Amman_1Our customers are a mix of expats and Jordanians, who lived abroad and acquired a taste for the kind of bread we offer. I was surprised to see how many people know and love Austria.

Unfortunately, opening a business in Amman is a bit of a hassle, especially if you are an ajnabi, a foreigner. For example, it took us about six months just to get three-phase electricity. Without a Jordanian business partner, this endeavor would not have been possible.

The language barrier and the intercultural differences make it a challenge. You need a lot of patience and stamina, something I learned a lot about in this country. But we keep doing well and even have plans for expanding the business.

What makes me really happy, though, is the look that our customers get once they enter the bakery and notice the wonderful smell of our freshly baked goodies. I think these specialties are really something new and original in Jordan.

How did you join InterNations and become active in your community?

During one of my trips to Jordan, a friend took me along and introduced me to the local community. Back then it was a small group of about 20 members attending the gathering. I really liked the idea: In some Middle Eastern countries, it’s hard to just go out and get to know new people, and this network helped me to socialize more easily.

As everybody loves food, I came up with the idea of a “cooking party”, which I started around three years ago. InterNations_Expat Blog_My InterNations_Amman_Pic 4 The participants were invited either to prepare a dish or to serve the drinks, and the meals were prepared at somebody’s place, who wasn’t bothered that we’d probably mess up their kitchen.

It was an immediate success, and we’ve organized a lot of fun cooking sessions, introducing diverse cuisines from all over the world. So far, we haven’t had any really unusual dishes yet, though – like grilled snake or fermented shark.

What makes your InterNations Community special?

Amman is a very small, intimate community, and there aren’t that many places for going out. That’s why I work with any potential idea for an event or activity,

So far we’ve had: visiting a farm, having a BBQ in the rare green and leafy area (don’t forget that we live in a desert country!), horseback riding, tango lessons, visiting an animal shelter, a Bingo night, as well as two monthly InterNations Events, happy hour drinks, walking groups, brunches, and dinners, but also trips to several places in Jordan, like the Dead Sea, Ajloun with its famous medieval fortress, or the Roman ruins of Jerash.

What have you learned from your role as InterNations Ambassador?

I just love to see the community growing and providing expats with a haven to meet other people who understand that it’s mostly exciting, but not always easy to settle in a new country. You have to sort out plenty of issues in the beginning. There’s often a language barrier, and it requires a lot of organizational effort to find housing and get settled. The Cardo in Jerash

Seeing happy faces when a newcomer meets someone who’s been through the same struggles and can help, is really special to me. The gatherings start as networking events, and we sometimes end up turning the venue into a club.

Some parties last until the wee small hours – by 2am the whole crowd is dancing, and by then the camera is usually turned off! The next morning we have brunch and some kind soul will share a painkiller for the hangover.

(Image credit: 1) InterNations 2)-4) Gabriela Roschinsky 5) iStockphoto: Roman ruins at Jerash)