Your foreign affair

Part 3

Returning travelers often joke that next time they’ll bring half as many clothes and twice as much money. It’s sage advice. The overseas experience may feed your brain and soul, but it is almost certain to deplete your bank account. Life in many other countries can seem dramatically more expensive than home, cheap home.

Just ask Nancy Horsman, who works in Toronto for Bank of Nova Scotia. Recently a vacancy in the bank’s Caribbean office resulted in her being temporarily transferred to Nassau, Bahamas — home of icing-sugar beaches, fantastic seafood and non-stop parties.

Unfortunately it’s also home to some eye-popping prices. After watching a hamburger and a soft drink go for $20, Horsman at first pinched her pennies. “Then I realized that you don’t go abroad to save money,” she says. “So I went snorkeling and I visited other islands and did all those other things I may never get another chance to do.”

Many sabbatical veterans advise you to set aside a nest egg of six months salary so you can take advantage of all the exotic experiences in your new homeland. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to arrange this year away; don’t spend it living like a monk. That said, you will want to make every dollar go as far as possible. Consider taking the cheapest way to your new destination and don’t pay for extra baggage — you won’t need it. Be prepared to settle for a smaller house and less luxurious surroundings so you can afford to explore your new country. Budget more carefully than you would back home. And make an effort to meet the locals. Making new friends is a fun and inexpensive way to get to know a country.

All of this is a lot easier if your spouse is totally on side. You should ensure that both of you share the same expectations about your year away. The dirty work — planning, organizing, packing — should be shared equally. “We often see clients who leave for abroad suffering from the Trailing Spouse Syndrome,” says Boleantu. “One partner takes off, leaving the other to sort everything out and bring the kids along. I can guarantee you that nothing will work out worse.”

To reduce the pangs of homesickness, Boleantu suggests you buy a cheap computer for any close relatives (such as parents) who do not have email access and make sure they know how to use it. Quick, cheap communication can be invaluable when you are on the other side of the globe. And it can help to reduce separation anxiety on those inevitable evenings when you wonder why, why you ever wanted to leave home.

I say inevitable because no matter how thoroughly you plan, you have to count on tripping over a couple of unforeseen problems. David Waldron, a director with Montreal-based consulting firm Groupe Secor, transferred to his firm’s Paris office so his family could experience a year in Europe. He thought he had nailed down every detail — until he encountered the French love of bureaucracy. Waldon had a French health-care card courtesy of an agreement between Quebec and France, but he did not have any proof that he deserved to have it. The result was endless wrangles with officials. “Only French bureaucrats could discern a difference between having a health-care card and having proof that you have a health-care card,’ he says wryly.

In our family’s case, the unexpected event was that our four-year-old decided to un-toilet train himself upon arrival in Melbourne. It was a messy event in more ways than one. And it blew a significant hole in our budget once we decided he needed several days a week in local daycare to make new friends.

But keep in mind that while there will always be unexpected problems and surprises living abroad, the mere act of stepping away from your routine existence will invigorate, refresh and reward you. Ordinary experiences can become extraordinary events in a new setting. Coaching my oldest son’s baseball team back home in Waterloo provided some fun moments. Coaching his cricket team in Australia, from the sunny perspective of complete ignorance, yielded a lifetime supply of party-stopping anecdotes and golden-hued memories.

Former expats tell us that the final part of our adventure will be the re-entry shock we will feel when we return to Canada this year. They say it’s only when you come home that you realize how much a sabbatical has changed you. Alisa Wheeler, for instance, began to question the commercialization of North America. “After making do with two t-shirts and a skirt for two years, I felt myself asking ‘Do we really need all this choice?’ Life just seemed so fast paced.” Others complain that their old life in Canada seems to lack the excitement they came to expect living abroad. Think of those feelings as proof that it was all worthwhile — and as a reason to start planning your next year abroad.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

From the June/July 2003 issue.

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