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)

7 Long-Distance Valentine’s Day Ideas

The expatriate’s life is one tied to a bungee line, courting highs and lows quite unlike any other. One can conquer life in an alien environment, and blossom like a flower reaching toward the sun. But like a flower, one wilts seasonally. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and even Halloween for some, can be hard, separated from loved ones and the landmarks of a happy youth.

However, the hardest time for expats is often Valentine’s Day. Separated from your love by what the Irish poet John Montague identified as “all legendary obstacles”, an expat Valentine’s Day can be a heart-wrenching experience. While the distance between you is consciously real on any regular day, it stretches much further in the mind when in the company of heart-shaped chocolates and velvet teddy bears decorated with myriad expressions of ‘I love you’.

And yet, a long-distance Valentine’s Day holds the capacity for a greater romance than any other. Although apart, you follow in the tradition of star-crossed lovers like Abelard and Heloise. For romance is heightened by the trials of difficulty and pain. Let’s be honest, would Romeo and Juliet be an epic tale if their parents were best mates and paid for the wedding reception? Well, it’s by Shakespeare, so he’d probably figure it out, but you get my point. Below, you’ll find some ideas on how to spend your Valentine’s Day with or without your partner.

A Local Street Sign

streetsign A stolen piece of geography, a street sign is a promise. A vow that every time you walk down this street, and every time they see this sign, you will think of each other. And that one day, be it soon or in a distant future, you will walk it together and remember in happiness the lonely Valentine’s Day you shared apart.

Disclaimer: InterNations does not excuse or promote any form of theft for any reason, even for those of an epic romance.

A Love Letter

letter There is nothing more perfect than a handwritten letter. I remember, and still have, the first one I ever received. At fifteen I memorized the neat lines scrawled on the back of a No Doubt concert leaflet, and read it over and over again, knowing the words but following the small curves and large gashes of letters written in the hand of a careful, but passionate, teenager.

One piece of advice would be to keep it short and to the point. We aren’t in the American Civil War, so formalities like “Dear Mabel, I hope all is well. It is cold on the front, and though I would write that we are in the heart of winter, as any man on the lines can attest, it is clear that winter has no heart” aren’t exactly required. It was romantic then, but I’d say you’re better of leaving out the whole “How are you? I am good!” thing.

A Skype Meal

meal
A romantic dinner stands at the very center of Valentine’s Day tradition. I must admit that I stole this idea from the life of a fellow expat I briefly knew. A Brazilian living in Germany, he celebrated his first birthday away from home. So his mother cooked all his favourite foods, and while it was night time in Munich, and as they spoke on the phone, he could live vicariously through his sisters while they ate the meals of his childhood. For him, it was a moment of surreal togetherness which he swore he would never forget.

A Bottle of your Perfume or Aftershave

perfume
As anyone in the fragrance industry can tell you, we all have different body chemistries that react in subtly different ways to cologne. Scent holds memory, and there are very few things more individual than the way in which a person smells. A garment with your signature scent, is in a sense, a piece of you, and is a gift that can help your partner weather the lonely nights apart.

And rather importantly, it’s a tad more romantic than the piece of himself that Van Gogh decided to cut off and give to his lover (his ear).

A poem in the language of your country of residence

book Love, in all its confusion, is a foreign language. An alloy of emotion, thoughts, ideas, and physical reactions, it evades articulation. One can never really put into words the exact feelings for the love of one’s life. Great artists have tried, but there is a reason poets publish books of love poems rather than a simple and singular piece.

Thus, I think a love poem written in a foreign tongue is more apt. In the inescapable romance of another language, with its delicate trills and soft lulls, a basic meaning can be understood but to grasp its true essence is ultimately impossible. woman

The Kelly Kapowski

Fans of the hit teen television show Saved by the Bell will remember Zack Morris’s life-size cardboard cut-out of his love interest Kelly Kapowski. Although verging on the creepy in the hit sitcom, sending a lifesize cut-out of yourself to your partner will definitely draw a smile. Well, until they begin to realize that there is literally nowhere to put it … the prospect of going to sleep with a gigantic cardboard person looking over your bed is not-so-oddly terrifying.

An Onion

Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem called Valentine, a marvellous piece of work that transforms an onion, an everyday vegetable, into the perfect metaphor for the beauty and pain of love. onion
For copyright reasons we probably can’t reprint the text here, but we would urge you to buy a collection of Carol Ann Duffy’s work and read this magnificent poem alone or with your significant other.

Sam Malone is an Irishman and Masters graduate in continental American literature. He is qualified in two things: being a nerd and reading books.

(Image credit: pixabay.com)

InterNations Relaunch: Explore your new profile – and more!

New year, new website features! The relaunch of the InterNations platform continues in 2015. The next big step along the way is the release of a brand-new InterNations profile for all members.

What’s up with the map?

We already provided a sneak preview of the updated profile last year. Now you can log in and take a look at the finished version. The fresh design focuses on what makes our InterNations members special – their international experience and global lifestyle.

Therefore, the new profile features a detailed timeline where you can share all the past, present, and future destinations on your journey as an expatriate and global mind. These places will be highlighted on an interactive world map right at the top of your profile page.

What else has changed about your InterNations profile?

But the timeline and map aren’t the only changes we’d like to introduce: Your profile will also help you to network and socialize in your local InterNations Community.

• Firstly, make sure that you have joined the right community. If you need to switch to another InterNations Community – for example, if you’re moving again – you can do so directly in your profile.

• When you scroll down the profile page, you’ll get easy access to all your InterNations Groups and to the events you have attended.

• Also use this opportunity to add more interests to your profile page! That way, you’ll receive relevant recommendations for upcoming InterNations Activities in town – from A like arts exhibitions to Z like Zumba lessons.

• Lastly, you can filter your contacts faster by using new search options.

Has anything else changed on the InterNations website?

While the new profile is certainly the central part of this release, we have included enhancements to other features of the InterNations website, too:

• Check out our redesigned Members section: You can easily find new people to connect with via the “Members who match your profile” tool. It will show you a list of potential contacts based on mutual interests and other things you have in common. However, we’re still fine tuning this feature – don’t forget to check back while we are working on making the recommendations even smarter.

• Have a look at your new account settings as well, and discover their up-to-date design and improved usability.

• The InterNations Event Calendar is currently being released in a step-by-step process. We will be working on its features and functionalities over the next few weeks.

As always, a heartfelt thank you to our beta testers, who have given us valuable feedback on the “remodeling” process. Thanks to their support, you can just go ahead, sign in and share your expat journey. Enjoy!

Please click on the picture to see a full-size version!

profile-final

(Image credit: InterNations)

Book Review: Culture Smart! Ecuador

Do you remember our list of Top Expat Destinations 2014 from last year’s Expat Insider survey? The breakout winner was Ecuador, the number 1 in our worldwide country ranking. It owed its first place to its affordable cost of living, its friendly and easy-going population, and the personal happiness of our survey respondents. InterNations Expat Blog_Culture Smart Ecuador_Pic 4

Still, to be frank, the results rather surprised us. We hadn’t considered the potential advantages of Ecuador as a destination for expats, and we realized how much we didn’t know about this small, but proud Andean nation. So, where to learn more about the “Republic of the Equator”?

Ecuador in a Nutshell?

Culture Smart! Ecuador: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture, a recent book by Russell Maddicks, would probably be a great place to start. The stated aim of the Culture Smart! series is to ensure that “you arrive at your destination aware of basic manners, common courtesies, and sensitive issues.”

Can this slim volume, a paperback with about 165 pages, live up to this promise?

The Author

The publishers seem to have found an author who is an excellent fit for this task. Russell Maddicks has extensive experience with traveling, working and everyday life in Latin America.

He has already written several travel guides about Venezuela and the Caribbean. A fluent Spanish speaker, the British journalist brings both the perspective of a European expat and a certain familiarity with local languages and cultures to the table.

The Content

All writers for this series have to work within a fairly strict framework, though. I am familiar with older Culture Smart! guides for other destinations, and the basic structure remains the same for every volume. Sunrise at Cotopaxi

Each book normally includes the following topics, in this order:

• Land and People
• Values and Attitudes
• Customs and Traditions
• Making Friends
• At Home
• Time Out
• Travel, Health and Safety
• Doing Business
• Communicating

The Weakest Link

In my opinion, the sections about “Land and People” and “Travel, Health and Safety” tend to be the weakest and least interesting chapters, and the Ecuador guide is unfortunately no exception to this rule. The explanation is simple: encyclopedias and run-of-the-mill travel guides cover more or less the same ground, but at greater length.

For example, if you condense Ecuador’s history from the splendors of the pre-Incan La Tolita culture to the current presidency of Rafael Correa, you end up with 15 pages for three millennia. A fairly superficial summary will be the obvious consequence. InterNations Expat Blog_Culture Smart Ecuador_Pic 2

And the chapter on travel provides, for instance, an overview of city buses and the intercity coach network in Ecuador, but this doesn’t really help you to actually get from Quito to Guayaquil. For this purpose, the latest Lonely Planet might be the smarter choice.

The Highlights

The strength of Culture Smart! Ecuador lies in its approach to “soft topics”, such as details about family life, morals and manners, or business etiquette – more difficult to look up than practical information.

You’ll find out who Ecuador’s national heroes are (e.g. Inca general Rumiñahui or Olympic gold medal winner Jefferson Pérez), what a pilapo is (a particular sort of pick-up line), and what kinds of sports your new Ecuadorian friends are into (football is always a safe bet, but try to get into ecuavoley, too).

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend Culture Smart! Ecuador as your only source of information for backpacking, business trips, or planning your future life in the Andes. However, it’s an excellent starting point for a pretty reasonable price.

Short and succinct, the quick-and-easy read engages with a breezy style and entertaining trivia. Okay, everyone has heard of Darwin’s famous finches in the Galapagos Islands, but did you know, for examples, that the erroneously named Panama hat is actually an Ecuadorian invention?

Some Further Suggestions

The book leaves you with a decent first impression of what to expect in Ecuador, and you’ll also know which topics you want or need to explore in more depth. Culture Smart! Ecuador lists a few suggestions for further reading at the very end, Ecuadorian ethnic woman with indigenous clothes selling fruits in a rural Saturday market in Zumbahua village, Ecuador. but the series could overall improve upon this concept.

I’d find it more helpful to include some books, as well as online resources, at the end of each chapter instead: readers will know immediately where to find more about, say, environmental issues or office etiquette. This would probably bolster each volume by a few more pages, but it could be worth it.

(Image credit: 1) Kuperard Publishing 2)-4) iStockphoto)

My InterNations: Home is where the expats are

We have a special new year’s surprise for you: In 2015, we’d like to introduce you to various members around the world.

We want to explore how InterNations has changed their lives and how they are changing the lives of others in turn: by bringing people together, sharing knowledge, and offering support. They are creating their own InterNations, online and offline.

My InterNations “My InterNations” highlights inspiring stories from expat life to showcase the connections between our global minds and their fellow wanderers. We’re kicking off this series with an interview with Jennifer, originally from Woodbridge (Virginia), and currently living in Austin (Texas).

She’s been an InterNations Ambassador since 2008 and a Consul in several Activity Groups. Maybe you’ve already met her: Jennifer is a “serial expatriate” who has lived in four countries over the last seven years, as well as a recent “repatriate” who just returned to the country of her birth.

“I never feel at ‘home’ unless the room is full of expats”, she says. After all, she thrived overseas by getting involved in local community life. She’s even franchised her own Activity Group in three countries!

A Vagabond at Heart

Jennifer’s personal journey took her to the Czech Republic, to Mexico and Spain, and back to the US. It transformed her from a person “enjoying the comforts of her own borders” into a self-described “eternal traveler and vagabond at heart”.

Her key moment was the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. Suddenly, “the world completely changed”, she says, and there was no turning back. As soon as possible, she seized the chance to move overseas again. InterNations Expat Blog_Welcome Abroad_Post 1_Pic 3_Jennifer in Prague

After three and a half years in Prague, she then switched jobs to join AirBnB. “Work with a travel company,” she finds, “helps to fuel the search for the new and borderless”. This nomadic lifestyle has led her to Europe and Latin America, to Portland, Chicago, Miami – and finally to Texas.

Though Jennifer is no longer an expat, she describes herself as a global mind. Living abroad has taught her “the flexibility to handle new challenges, countries, and cultures”. She’ll be glad to start “building some roots in Austin” with her husband José, an expatriate from Portugal – and yet:

She still enjoys indulging other people’s “eternal curiosity for the world”.

Taking the Reins as Ambassador

Back in 2008, Jennifer had been living in Prague for eight months when a former co-worker recommended InterNations. She joined – and soon “took the reins” as the InterNations Ambassador for the fledgling expat community. She “found solace and community in organizing events and connecting with others in the same position”.

Unsurprisingly, she isn’t just a serial expat, but also a “serial Ambassador”. She didn’t only develop the InterNations Community in Prague, but was part of the Ambassador team in several other cities: four very different destinations and expat communities. Her InterNations experience spans the Atlantic Ocean – from Eastern Europe to Mexico and the US.

At the “crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe”, Prague is “a great ‘starter’ city for expats”, she thinks, with a good mixture of international long-term residents and a huge turnover among temporary expats. InterNations Expat Blog_Welcome Abroad_Post 1_Pic 1_Jennifer in Mexico City Coincidentally, it’s also here that InterNations changed her life: Jennifer met her husband via the Prague Community, first online and then at an event six years ago.

In Jennifer’s opinion, Mexico City, with its buzzing nightlife and active local residents, was the “largest and most diverse InterNations community” out of the four, whereas Cancún still had room for growth.

A smaller community often has very tight-knit expat circles, though, offering more chances to get to know people individually. That was a big part of what Jennifer enjoyed about Cancún, with its interesting “mix of older retirees and younger adventurers”.

A Growing, Youthful, and Eclectic City

Last but not least, Jennifer joined an established Ambassador team in her new home, Austin. Not quite among the ten most populous US cities, Austin isn’t the first place to come to mind when you think of expats in the States. But that impression easily changes once you take a closer look. InterNations Expat Blog_Welcome Abroad_Post 1_Pic 2_Jennifer in Prague

Jennifer is full of praise for Austin, “a growing, youthful, and eclectic city”. Within InterNations, it’s actually one of the smaller communities, with about 1,900 members. Still, it’s “one of the most diverse I have worked with”, she says, pointing out the “great representation of nationalities”. Her fellow Ambassadors, Lara and Rachita, for example, are from Italy and India, respectively.

Together, they’ll keep bringing our members in Austin together at monthly InterNations Events: They’re helping them to discover what Texas’ most dynamic and eccentric city has to offer, and they are giving InterNations their personal touch.

Seeing Strangers Become Friends

In addition to her role as one of the Austin Ambassadors, Jennifer greatly enjoys running a couple of Activity Groups. Ladies’ Night Out, a group for expat women, will hopefully support them to “forge meaningful female friendships” – something that was very important to her when she was living far away from home.

InterNations Expat Blog_Welcome Abroad_Post 1_Pic 4_Jennifer in Austin Together with her husband, she also organizes Austin Kitchen Crashers, a group for dinner events they’ve “franchised” to their third community. They used to run similar groups in Prague and Mexico City and adapted the concept whenever they moved. In a way, they carried “their” InterNations with them: Wherever they are, they have the chance to meet many other “foodies” at selected restaurants or even in their own kitchen.

Events and activities like the Thanksgiving dinner for orphans without any plans for the major US holiday are born out of Jennifer’s “love for seeing strangers become good friends”. Or sometimes more: she’s been a matchmaker for at least six international couples, she reckons.

If you ever come to Austin, look up our InterNations Community and be our guest. Or be inspired by Jennifer’s story and the stories yet to come:

Create your own InterNations.

If you would like to share something you love about your InterNations Community, send us (@InterNationsorg) a tweet using #MyInterNations! We will be happy to retweet.

(Image credit: Jennifer Fry; 1) Jennifer (ri.) at an event in Prague 2) Jennifer (ri.) and other members of the InterNations Community in Mexico City 3) Jennifer (ri.) at an event in Prague 4) Jennifer (second from left) and the Ladies’ Night Out Group in Austin)