As I sit under lockdown in Paris, I was supposed to be contemplating a potential international move. After all, with Fernweh (wanderlust) and Itchy Feet yapping at my heals, staying too long in one place – however lovely – is just not an option. But with the entire world on hold for who-knows-how-long, I instead think back to previous countries I lived and worked in with my family as a serial expat.
Seven countries, three continents and two hemispheres: Not enough for my liking yet, but not a bad record either.
Each had its own merits and downfalls, so I thought I’d share my personal musings about each place, just in case you are sitting under lockdown somewhere, getting itchy feet.
Born in Germany, university and marriage in the United Kingdom, currently living in France, I feel utterly European, even if one of my previous countries doesn’t want to play ball anymore. I love pretty much everything about Europe: the open borders, the changes that regardless of open borders and often the same currency, are pretty much always immediately obvious.
Be it languages, architecture, landscapes or food, every country in Europe, and nearly every region within each country, has a strong identity and tends to proudly hold onto it. Travel is easy, healthcare is good, so good indeed that I took full advantage of the National Health Service to have a baby when I lived in the UK.
Might as well get something in return for your hard-earned tax payments, right?
For non-Europeans there is the draw of easy travel and so much culture and history. Yes, each country has at times very hard-to-learn languages – my English husband tried his best to learn German. But stumbling over words such as Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän – reportedly the longest word in German and denoting the captain of a boat sailing the Danube, more or less – doesn’t make it easy. That said, at least you do pronounce every single letter in that word, unlike the French who would ignore at least half of them, without ever telling you which ones.
But English is widely spoken, and people tend to be welcoming, even if there is not a distinct expat community like those you find in other countries.
Not that easy to get a job and live in Europe if you are from outside, but once there, the lifestyle and the travel opportunities makes this a perfect assignment.
When the cost of living versus our meagre income became too askew, we decided to up and leave for an adventure in Qatar, lived there for five years, moved onto Oman for a while, before settling for the longest haul yet, six years, in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
The daughter was four years old when we arrived in Doha, and I don’t honestly think we could have given her a better place to spend her
childhood than there. Expats tend to live in compounds, furnished with swimming pools and safe play areas, there are plenty of families from around the world, and new friends just waiting to meet you. Our front door basically turned into a revolving door, often left open to accommodate the steady flow of small children coming in, asking to play. a couple of weeks, the daughter learned to swim and that she did not develop gills is nothing short of a miracle.
International schools abound in Qatar and the UAE, but only two choices at the time in Oman – one of the reasons we left – made schooling easy, and the expat community, especially in the much smaller Qatar as compared to the more touristy UAE, was superb, with people going out of their way to help newcomers settle in.
The heat, the sand, the often-unwanted attention given to female expats were small prices to pay for the community, the safety, the fun young families could afford to have. Young, being the operative word, because once your young children grow into teenagers, life becomes more difficult.
The usual teenager trials and tribulations of trying out new things and pushing boundaries can very quickly lead to problems with the law, and that is to be avoided at all costs. Still, if you have small children, it’s pretty much perfect. Add to that the truly spectacular countries within a three-hour- flight radius waiting to be explored and living in the Middle East turned out to be the best choice we could have made for our family at that point in time.
Perfect for younger families because of a huge support network, good schooling and activities. Plus, it’s the only place in the world, where you can actually still earn and save a good amount of money.
I must admit that the country down under was never actually on my expat radar, I had never visited, didn’t know much about it, except for that Australians seemed to be enthusiastic travellers. But I did some research to hit the ground running. So, when I arrived in Melbourne, and the taxi driver’s first question was which Footy team I supported, I had an answer ready: St Kilda, which was the area we were going to live in.
Luckily, we had made several friends in the Middle East that had since returned and/or moved to Australia, so we did not feel alone, as sadly, there was no expat safety net what-so- ever available. Indeed, whenever I mentioned that unfortunately we were on a short-term contract rather than on the quest of becoming Aussies ourselves, we were always greeted with utter disbelief.
However much I loved living in Melbourne, visiting Sydney and exploring a amazingly diverse country, I always felt that it was simply too far away to live there forever. When it takes you 24-hours to get to family in Europe, that is a huge commitment to make. Although never say never; after all, they have koalas down there. How can anybody resist?
Despite the country not necessarily being set up for short-term expat living, the art of living has been pretty much perfected in Australia: Work is important, but only in the sense that it allows you to live. Weekends and time off are hugely important, as are fun and travel.
Ignoring the fact that pretty much every creature, apart from the koala is out to get you, you can live well in Oz. Despite the cherry trees blossoming in September and Christmas celebrations in summer involve a BBQ on the beach, it’s all good.
Not easy to get in, due to the point system and restricted visas, but if you don’t have family far away, this assignment can be huge fun for the whole family. Expensive though.
For more expat information, read my book “Living Abroad in Australia.”
So, my personal favourite? Each place happened to be perfect for that chapter in our lives, but honestly?
How can you ever beat living in Paris?
About the author:
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer, guidebook author and serial expat. Having lived in seven countries on three continents and two hemispheres, she is currently based in Paris, France.
See more of Ulrike’s work on her website here.
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See more of Ulrike’s dispatches from Paris here.