Category Archives: expat life

Why the Police Came After Me in Tasmania: Customs Food Restrictions When Entering Australia

Tasmania police badge on uniform

© 2014 abc.net.au

I’ve never been in trouble with the police, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Within a couple of days of being in the Australian state of Tasmania I’d had two run-ins with the authorities, both of which could easily have been avoided with some smarts.

I had been back in Northern New South Wales for over half a year, working and settling down into some sort of normal life routine – if beaches and sunshine can ever be classed as normal life – and finally I was off to see a part of Australia that I’d heard again and again was the most beautiful place to enjoy the outdoors.

With a head full of trail and trek ideas, my mind wandered a million miles away from anything official, into a land of fresh air and unspoilt landscapes.

As I walked through the arrivals gates at Hobart Airport, then, I didn’t expect to be greeted by three police officers and a sniffer dog.

The dog was evidently interested in my bag. I saw D-man glancing at me, wondering what I might have that was of interest to the dog. I smiled and kept on walking, my heart beating faster as I realised the dog was sticking by my side. This wasn’t going away. I took a breath.

The officer stopped me. Was I carrying any fruit, she asked. Ah, fruit! Easy answer: no, of course not, but the dog persisted, sniffing at the bursting leather bag that I’d slung across my body. ‘Can I take a look through your bag?’ asked the police officer.

Full of wide-eyed innocence, I opened it for her, pulling out notepads, a t-shirt and toiletries. There, underneath everything, lay a little red apple. I cringed. Handing it over, I waited for the reprimand, but instead she rewarded the dog for a job well done and sent me on my way. No $130 on-the-spot fine, this time. Thanks Tasmania. I’ll be good next time.

A couple of days later I made my way from my friends’ house to a part of Hobart that reminded me pretty much of the industrial and rundown part of any given city. I’d booked a van, the last van in the whole of Tasmania, if online booking sites were anything to go by, and had come to pick it up.

Cleaning of all vehicles was in full swing when we arrived so D-man and I sat inside reception and waited, and waited and waited. With the usual cleaner off sick, the stand in was doing his best to get through the Monday morning returns. In holiday mode, we were forgiving, happy to not get wound up, but when half an hour turned into two hours we started to sense our day hike at Mt Field was slipping away.

We finally set off in a van equipped with pretty much everything including dried tea dribbles on the cabinets and an indoor light cover that refused to stay put, and we were on our way. Out of the city. Bring on the countryside!

It wasn’t long before we saw the lights flashing behind us, the sirens only just kicked in. I looked at D-man. What now? A police officer walked to the driver’s window.

‘The vehicle you’re driving is unregistered’. He stood stern. My jaw dropped. A costly offence, this wasn’t something we were prepared to accept. Handing over everything we could from the hire company we waited and watched vehicles driving by, faces looking at us wondering what the silly tourists had done wrong this time.

He finally returned from his vehicle. ‘You’re not in any trouble,’ he said, ‘but you need to give this to the company and return the van immediately.’ We placed the slip of paper, worth $200, on the dash and headed back to the hire car place.

The vehicle’s retracted registration was a surprise to the owners, apparently. A retracted registration, we researched, is almost always to do with the vehicle being deemed unsafe, unroadworthy, so why would they send us off into the Tasmanian wilderness in a ticking timebomb? Is the gamble worth the money? Their squirms, wine offering and half day refund wouldn’t make up for the fact we had one week to explore Tasmania and over half a day had been wasted waiting, returning and waiting some more for substandard vehicles.

Our day plans ruined, we gladly left Hobart behind in a new-to-us-yet-equally-unclean-van, but not before calling the company again due to an engine fault warning light displaying. ‘It happens on those older vans,’ they told us, ‘you’ll be fine.’ We hoped so.

So the lessons learnt? Don’t carry fruit into Australia, even between states, it would seem. I can imagine other police officers would be a whole lot less friendly. And the car hire situation? Better time management and holiday planning, maybe? Giving myself more time to book through a reputable company might have saved me half a day and a dollop of grief.

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Two-Up Gambling with the Aussies on ANZAC Day

The crowd get ready for the result at a two-up game in AustraliaI lost it all. All the money in my wallet went in the time that it might take to make and drink a cup of tea. All I’d been trying to do was join in, to be part of a rowdy Aussie crowd, to feel and immerse myself in this annual event.

So I didn’t lose it, as such, I just gambled it away in a game where skill, poker face and celebration style are unimportant. Thankfully.

Known as two-up, this game sees people bet against each other on a heads or tails majority of a two or three-coin throw. Using a wooden coin cradle AKA a kip, the spinner stands in the middle of a 3-metre circle and flips the coins out of their paddle onto the ground. The ringkeeper announces the result and the crowd goes wild, swears, shouts.

Someone always wins. The tails better – the person who has held the money throughout the action – either hands over the cash or pockets it, depending on the game outcome.

Then it all repeats. Again and again. Hours of it, apparently.

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Originally played by the soldiers in the trenches of Gallapoli during the First World War, two-up is now legally only allowed to be played on the 25th of April every year – ANZAC day  – which ‘marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War‘.

But why only play two-up one day a year?

It does make some sense. With patrons of the places where the games take place betting each other and not the house, there is little to no commercial profit, other than the income from extra drinks. But this doesn’t address the legal issue.

More likely, though, is that Australia wants to be responsible in keeping problems associated with alcohol and gambling to a minimum. Two-up certainly offers the opportunity to win and then lose a lot of money, very quickly.

Back to the game. Every now and then the ringer would hand out freebies and call for a charity shower, and the ring would get pummeled by silvers. I imagined that later in the day the donations would be more generous as drinks flowed and spirits were charged in an ebb and flow of energy and excitement.

A flawlessly made up woman dressed in a silver summer dress hung with one arm to the metal barriers surrounding the game circle and waved banknotes around with the other, tipping them to her forehead. Her eyes struggled to focus yet each time they opened the game up to the next round of betting, she was in, waving those notes. First she collected a few wins but then I saw her starting to hand it back. Finally she slunk away, all spent up, I assumed, or otherwise in need of a friend or a glass of water.

After observing others place bets with neighbours and people across the room I felt ready to test-drive a bet. I played D-man $5, and I lost. ‘I’ll give you it as a test run,’ he teased and gave me back my note. I tried it against another guy close to me. The coins were flung in the air and fell to the ground. I lost. Only $5 again, but I lost and someone else was up $5. It all adds up.

‘One more go,’ I told D-man and I found myself another opponent and upped the bet. $10 this time. Third time lucky, right?

Wrong. The coins fell and I walked away a loser. A very un-Australian loser, at that.

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What Changes While You’re Away? The Inevitability of Missing Out When Travelling or Living Abroad

‘Never heard of Fomo?’ asked a Guardian newspaper headline of its readers, ‘You’re so missing out.’ So common is this Gen-Y social condition that the acronym FOMO – fear of missing out – was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. Their definition states:

Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website

The latter part bothers me less. I accept that social media can help travellers and expats to stay connected with friends and family back home. But the first bit? Yes. I admit, I have occasionally felt guilt, sadness, frustration and longing for events that I have been unable to witness or attend due to travelling and living overseas.

Logo stating FOMO in red and definition below, which is fear of missing out

©thesilverpen.com

And yet it’s not to do with me not having a fun/special/interesting/englightening time, or even worrying that others are doing funner, cooler, more ambitious things than me. Nope. It’s more along the lines of I am not there to share those special moments with them. I am away.

Having first left the UK in 2011 to travel through South America and the Pacific, I had just left it all behind, again. As I flew back to Australia, I digested all the many meet-ups of a six-week whirlwind catch up tour.

Some things really had changed beyond recognition. Some things I had truly missed out on. But all those things, I realised, had common threads weaving through them.

  • The first thing apparent was changes in relationships. Weddings, break-ups and new loves. A lot can happen in a two-year cycle, apparently. Friends who were separated when I left were now married, singletons were engaged, and those who were solid and steady were ramping up for parenthood, life’s next adventure. Having already missed the wedding of one of my dearest friends in Devon, I planned my UK trip to coincide with a university friend’s marriage to a woman who neither my swot crew nor I had previously met. She was fortunately quite the kind bride, and I saw that her husband – my friend – had grown and adapted his outlook from me to us. As we sat around a music themed table, I looked at my group and realised that we were all moving on, in our relationships and life.
  • The next thing that struck me was the talk of birth and the arrival of babies. Lots of them. Everywhere. My trip back to the UK had been planned to coincide with my nephew’s first smiles, but once back on British soil I realised it was not just my sister who had flung herself into the all things motherhood. Some friends had become fluent in baby talk, others waddled around with uncomfortable lumps protruding, and others questioned my future baby plans. Not many seemed keen for all night partying. It was a strange yet somewhat expected shift.
  • Ageing, in all of its facets, was another area where changes were apparent. Sure, the relationship and baby changes are to be expected within friendship groups once you hit your 30s, but there were moments when I looked around and saw the sensibilities and concerns of adulthood creeping up on my friends, where I noticed the shrinking of my elders, where I chatted as an equal with those whom I had babysat when I was barely a teenager. And yet, despite some changes being glaringly obvious, when it came to my mum’s newly embraced grey, I only saw my mum. Some changes are just surface.
  • Other changes, however, were more shocking, as with ageing comes illness and stress. Stress was trying its hardest to become my father’s new best friend as everything he’d worked for – volunteered his life for – had become a battleground between human sensibilities and institutional red tape, and he was a frontline warrior, searching for ways to make the truth prevail. Same family, different generation and my grandmother – oma –suffered a heart attack that she and I assumed would mean we’d never meet again. With the oomph that I’ve come to expect of my oma, she did pull through those moments, a little shook up but recogniseable underneath the change.
  • Unfortunately, though, the same cannot be said for my other grandmother who died ten days before my flight home to the UK. The prospect of a death amongst our nearest and dearest is one of those events that has the potential to paralyse us from travelling or living abroad. I was unable to make it to the funeral. I would have wished to have been there to say goodbye to my grandmother, or at least to listen to relatives telling stories of her happier days. Instead I visited her grave and planted forget-me-nots a few feet above where her head lay. I grieved for the sadness in her life, and for my mother who had now lost her mother.

Some things were still the same, some familiarity, some recognition. I care massively about my friends and their lives, and I drew comfort from knowing that our connections are still intact, despite separate life paths.

Now, leaving again, I wonder what will change between now and the next time I’m again in the UK. Life happens, whether you’re there to see it or not. I get that.

My FOMO suffering is far less influenced by Facebook than by knowing I’m missing key moments in the lives of those who have helped to shape my life, but maybe it’s time to let go of the missing out stuff and appreciate the bits I do get to be part of instead?

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Leaving, Again

Kings Cross train station at rush hour. A business man walks across the frame pulling a suitcase.Does saying goodbye ever get any easier? It’s all a bit strange, this leaving thing, when you think about it. Traveller or expat, I’m sure we all feel it to varying degrees, this need to get on and do what we need to do and be where we need to be jostling alongside the emotional pull of the other life, the familiar life and of folk ‘back home’.

So here I am, on the first of many long haul flights. I’m leaving England, again, and although I’m excited to be returning to friends in Australia, the sadness of saying goodbye to my family just a few hours ago took me by surprise. In the end I could barely talk.

And I wonder why I get this lurch of sadness, more pronounced the older I get. When I lived in England I saw my family maybe four times a year, if I was lucky. Life just happened. We were all busy. Now I see them every year and a half, if I’m lucky, and when I see them I do feel lucky, because we all make an effort to make the most of this limited time together.

Something happens when you’re flying high above the world, at least it does to me. Maybe it’s the physical disconnect with the ground that makes me reflective, or it’s possibly the forced situation of not being able to busy myself with duties and distractions. Either way, thoughts about life and location bubble up.

After over a month of catching up with family and friends, I’m now back acquainted with some me moments, and as I fly half way around the world I have time to ponder on what has changed and what might change again before I next revisit the Great British Isles.

And I wonder, will the next time I leave be any easier or will it be as much of a wrench? I’m curious to know how other long-term travellers and expats experience and deal with this.

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Wordless Wednesday #11: Depart One Place, Arrive Another

Finola Wennekes and Dane standing in front of a departures sign at Brisbane Airport

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5 Benefits of Family Holidays

Family group hug

Family are the people in your life who want you in theirs, the ones who accept you for who you            are, the ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what…

I consider myself extremely lucky. I love spending time with my family, particularly when I can steal them away for at least a few days so that it’s just us, where work and day-to-day distractions are wholly removed. As a grown up family, it’s as precious.

But sure, having all gotten used to living our own adult lives, we have our moments when our plans don’t align, when our ideas clash, when my way of making coffee just doesn’t fit with your way. Something strange also happens, at times, a return to childhood identities, with bossiness and awkwardness and moods from twenty years ago emerging unexpectedly.

Ultimately, though, there are benefits to holidaying together, something I realised again in 2013 when I spent a  week in a beautiful cottage in Linton, Herefordshire, with my parents, my sister and her husband, my ten week old nephew and my D-man.

Now based in Australia, about 17,000km from my childhood home, this was the first time in nearly two years that I’d caught up with my family, and I cherished moments of chatting late into the night with my mother, catching up on our lives, picking up on snippets of wisdom and life learning, of observing my dad scout the garden of our holiday house, searching for edible goodness to bring to the table, of walking and talking in the countryside with my sister and sleeping, swaddled nephew, of getting to really meet her husband and hear a little of his story, of introducing D-man to my clan.

In trying to understand what makes a family holiday so special and important, I’ve come to the conclusion that these are some of the key benefits:

  1. You are able to relax. Totally. Unlike within certain professional and friendship groups, there’s no need to put up appearances, there’s no pretense. You all know each other pretty well, the life journey that you’ve been on, the struggles that you’ve met and overcome, the joys you’ve experienced. There is something incredibly comforting about not needing to explain yourself, to just be fully understood and accepted. It helps you to deeply relax.
  2. You can really spend quality time together. Away from our usual environment, we are less likely to be distracted and more able to be present, in the moment, with our family. Things that are deemed time wasting and unimportant in the rush of normal life can again surface, like ice creams and lazy wanders around quaint English villages, like board games, puzzles and creativity, whatever your craft.
  3. You make space to nurture family relationships. Skype and phone conversations have their place, but nothing beats sitting around the dinner table sharing stories and recalling family moments that leave you laughing so hard that tears roll down your cheeks, of warming around a fire after a drizzly hillside walk, of collectively observing the next generation of your family wriggle their toes, grab their feet and gurgle in their cot.
  4. You create moments and memories that bring you closer. When it’s time to leave your holiday house and say goodbye to the family reunion, it’s often back to a world where technology is the tool that keeps us connected. While phone chats maintain connections and photos can remind us of certain times during the holiday, memories in their broader sense of sight, smell, touch and sound can help transport us back to that time of feeling relaxed and surrounded by those closest to us.
  5. You learn more about each other and the wider family. Catching up on the events of the last year or two, noticing new laughter lines and grey hairs, discovering things about your grandparents, finding out which aunt is going through difficulties, which cousin is doing incredibly well at college, all these create a feeling of understanding, connection and ultimately, belonging. And isn’t that essentially what we all want?

All of these assume you actually like your family – at least a little – and that you get on well enough to make time together a positive experience, rather than one you leave with a few extra frown lines.

Wishing you all happy holidays in 2014, with successful, nurturing unions between you and your family, blood tied or otherwise.   

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Only an Aussie would see a snake in England

Pic from wikipedia.org

Pic from wikipedia.org

With the myth of the venomous daddy longlegs truly busted, the only deadly creature I’m aware that we have in England is the adder, a slithery snake of a thing often seen sporting a brown zigzag overcoat.

‘Just ‘adder’?’ asked D-man, ‘not ‘death adder’?’   

‘Erm,’ I thought quickly, racking my brain for any hidden information that might boost the reputation of our only venomous beast. I found nothing. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s just an adder. But it can kill.’ 

Rewind back from this conversation, maybe ten minutes in time.

Having been in the UK for less than a week, D-man and I had trained west from London and were now enjoying a British springtime walk in the woods overlooking Stroud in Gloucestershire. An early summer sun shone down through spindly branches on which bright green buds unfurled and leaves leftover from last autumn lay crunchy underfoot. D-man suddenly stopped.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘I just saw something. Do you have snakes here?’ He didn’t move.

‘Yep. Where did it go? What did it look like?’

D-man pointed to a heap of dead branches and leaves. I rustled the pile with my feet, but he pulled me back.

‘Careful!’ he said, ‘Get away!’

And there it was: the different attitudes that Aussies and Brits have to snakes. For me, having grown up in England, the sight of a snake is a cause for celebration. On the few occasions that I have seen grass snakes and adders I have sat and watched and followed them when they moved.

D-man, an Australian through-and-through, has grown up with regular sightings of some of the world’s deadliest snakes and has had a healthy fear and respect instilled in him through snake awareness classes in school and real life survival tales of friends of friends.

Would the adder have come for me, had I disturbed it? Possibly. Would I have died, had it bitten me? Probably not. What I didn’t tell D-man was that no one has died from an adder bite in the UK since 1975. Instead I let him run with the idea that I was both curious and courageous in my pursuit of a snake sighting.

Or just completely stupid. And totally, totally un-Aussie.

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And just when I started to feel settled…

…I decided to pack my bags and head home.

Home to Europe.

Only this time I would be a tourist in my own country. Countries.

It had been nearly two years since I’d set off from the UK to solo travel South America. How might things have changed? Would I recognise my old life? Would my friends be strangers? Would I feel displaced, neither at home in Britain nor Australia?

I felt the travel excitement bubble up in my belly, and each day the longing to hold my friends and family in tight cuddles grew stronger. In the last year Skype had brought me news:  friends  married and  fell pregnant. My sister gave birth to her first child, my first nephew. My Oma battled a heart attack and fought for her life. My other grandmother gave up the fight to finally reach a place of calm.

And I, like many a travelling expat, felt so far away from those closest to me. Time to return and see and experience the changes for real.

But life, ever playful, gave me something else to ponder.  The sun reappeared and dried out a good few months of damp, and each day closer to my departure date brought me closer to people in my Aussie life. And then I saw it clearly: I was part of a new community. Things and people were starting to become familiar. I was starting to belong. Anticipating that a glimpse of what I’d left behind in the UK would make me too drunk dizzy to get back on a plane to Oz, they made me promise I’d return.

But, really, I didn’t know the outcome, how I’d feel reimmersed in my native culture. I had heard  that a growing number of  Europe to Australia emigrants  return to their home country within a year, so I kept my mind and options open and boarded that first flight to Singapore looking forward to little else but a mama hug some 27 hours away.

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8 ways to get settled in Australia

keep-calm-and-settle-down-5In May 2012 I saw a Facebook update from a friend in Melbourne that stated ‘…over 40 resumes and nothing… I continue the travels…’, and so I decided to skip the call of the city and head straight to the north coast of New South Wales on my return to Australia. But another friend warned ‘It might be difficult to find work here in Byron. You’re arriving at the start of winter, people are losing their jobs’.

I needed to work, there was no question about it. A year of travelling between South America and Oceania meant that I was flat out broke and my financial independence was totally at stake. Additionally, my immune system was also fighting a battle and required rest and a good dose of TLC.

It made absolute sense to struggle (and a struggle was apparently unavoidable) surrounded by familiarity and a good dose of sunshine than in amongst a sea of city strangers. The decision to choose small town life over high-rise buzziness was easy.

Now, over a year later, I find myself reflecting on what has so far helped me to find my feet in a new town on the other side of the world. I’ve begun to build up a wonderful network of people around me, people with whom I can laugh, chat, adventure, dance, just be. I’ve been fortunate to find work – from unskilled to professional positions – that have kept me fed, watered and beyond. And I’ve found time to start exploring Australia, from the beach in my back garden to far further afield.

So, what worked? What helped me to take a break from constant travelling and actually put down some roots?

  1. Plan ahead, a little. Boring. Maybe. I sent emails and CVs ahead of my arrival that meant I had somewhere to live and work for the first few weeks. I stayed with a friend for a couple of days and then moved into a beautiful little B&B in the heart of Byron where I worked a HelpX arrangement for a few weeks, which gave me enough time to figure out something a little more permanent.
  2. Move into a share house. I remember how back in my early 20s this was helpful. When you’re new to an area and don’t have hoards of people to call up for a catch-up, having at least one other person around to say ‘What are you up to today?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ makes you feel a little less isolated.
  3. Know when to spend. In this part of Australia, public transport systems seem to be pretty abysmal so spending the last of my savings on a car was not only the right decision in terms of helping me to maintain a sense of independence, but it also helped me get to interviews, work and social appointments.
  4. Do the official stuff. Like sign up to Medicare. Like sorting out your Aussie driving licence. It might sound silly, but having a few basic things in place helped me to feel more secure in stopping my journeying.
  5. Get a job. Or three. At times I overcommitted with voluntary and paid work and struggled to hold it all together, but it felt great to have a different sort of focus, to contribute, to work in a team again.
  6. Get involved with activities. Back in January 2012 when I first visited Byronshire, I joined a climbing group. I am still friends with people from that group. Since being back in the area I’ve played in a girls’ soccer team, joined a local writing group and become an active member of a Sivananda yoga centre. Being part of things feels good and gives the week some structure.
  7. Say yes to invitations. Initially, you’re not on people’s radars because they have their own life and friends, but the more you go along to things and participate, the more you will become part of their consciousness.
  8. Travel and explore. In the past I’ve found it all too easy to split life between settling and travelling, rather than mixing the two, but on the advice of others I’m now trying to open my eyes to my daily surroundings. A cycle ride into town reveals a shady duneside pathway along which snakes are said to summer lounge. An after work beach walk puts me in near contact with the trailed tentacles of a stranded blue bottle jellyfish. That belly flip of excitement – the type of feeling you might experience when first visiting an exotic country for the first time – can still exist even if you’re not traipsing up mountains in Peru or exploring the salt flats of Bolivia.

But let me be honest. Stopping after travelling and embracing the life of an expat hasn’t been a totally smooth process (and clearly the travel bug lives on in my system as I still can’t claim to have really stopped). It hasn’t been easy, at all.

After the initial post-arrival elation, months three to nine proved tough. Whenever things weren’t going my way I contemplated packing my bags and moving to the next town, a place where there might be work, where people might invite me along to things, where I’d be sprinkled with some magical settle down powder and live happily ever after, my wanderlust diminished. I thought about Europe, about my friends and family there. I pondered: maybe I should just return to what I know, what’s comfortable.

There were times when I questioned why other expats didn’t reach out to me, offer me advice, hang out. At moments I wished so hard that I didn’t have to be the one to contact people, where I just wanted someone to call me up, out of the blue, and say ‘hey, do you want to do coffee?’

And then suddenly, it happened.

How was it for you? Was it easy to stop travelling? Or to settle in another country?

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