Monday, 21 July 2014

Time to Celebrate with the Locals

National holidays are a great way to immerse yourself in the country you’ve moved to. The jubilant atmosphere is the perfect place to showcase the local culture from carnivals in Brazil to military parades in Moscow. And on top of this, the local people are going to be in high spirits – after all, who doesn’t like a holiday?

Here are four of the world’s great national holidays, tell us if there are any that we’ve missed in the comments below!

Image: Creativecommons/Wonderlane
USA – Independence Day, 4 July
One of the greatest displays of American culture and national pride is surely Independence Day, 4 July. In the build-up to the day, don’t be surprised by how everything from shops to schools will be immersed in holiday preparations. On the day you can enjoy fantastic festivities and fireworks in public spaces.   Alternatively, use the opportunity to befriend your neighbours by hosting a true American cook-out?

Russia – Victory Day, 9 May   
As a show of military might, you will be blown away by the Russian celebration of Victory Day which marks the Russian victory in World War Two, known by Russians as The Great Patriotic War. If you’re in a large city like St Petersburg, head to a major thoroughfare to see parades of tanks and soldiers. If you’re in Moscow, Red Square is the site of the largest marches, overseen by the President himself. Be sure to know how you’re getting home though, the metro systems will be heaving!

Turkey – Ramazan Bayrami, July-August
Ramadan (also Ramazan) is an Islamic holy month, which consists of 30 days of fasting. It is observed in all Islamic countries so check out whether it affects you. Whilst the usual bustling Turkish teashops go quiet and some restaurants close, the locals really appreciate it when expats eat discretely during the day. The end of Ramadan, however, is a major celebration. There is a three-day holiday, Ramazan Bayrami, when offices often close and public transport is limited. Local Turks pay visits to loved ones and send greetings cards so why not do the same and send greetings to your Turkish friends?

Image: creativecommons/PortoBayEvents

Brazil – New Year
In Brazil, New Year’s celebrations are a major calendar event and as an expat you don’t want to miss out! Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro is a mecca for travellers who flock to watch the fireworks over the Pacific Ocean. But to avoid the masses without missing the atmosphere, how about taking friends and family to a quieter corner? Find a spot in the shadow of Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, immortalised in bronze on the promenade, where you can set up with drinks and food and enjoy at your leisure!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The top five cafes in Central Helsinki

I love the cafe culture in Finland. Sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and flipping through a book is one of my favorite ways to spend a few hours in my newly-adopted city. Expat life can be hectic, so I think it's important to slow down and enjoy your surroundings. This is my home for the foreseeable future, but I still like to play tourist when I can (one of the perks of being a 'trailing spouse'), which includes discovering new places to get my caffeine fix... and maybe a snack or two. If you're in the area -- and you should visit! -- check out my top five cafes in central Helsinki:

5. La Torrefazione -- This is one of the best-located cafes for visitors and Finns alike. It's in the city center, right in the middle of the major shopping area. What better excuse do you need to take an hour for lunch? It is truly amazing. Their coffee beverages are like a work of art and they have delicious food, including lunch specials that change frequently. The customer service is great here too, and everyone is very friendly and will happily answer any questions you may have or translate the menu.

4. Johan & Nystrom -- Right around the corner from Uspenski Cathedral, this little cafe is sure to please even the most selective coffee drinkers. I found it randomly one morning – we had only just moved in and I didn't have a coffee machine yet. A quick internet search yielded a coffee shop a few minutes away from me, I went for a quick cappuccino, and I was in love. In nice weather, Johan offers beautiful marina views and if the weather is bad, cozy up inside their red-bricked cafe. They offer a great selection of pastries (go early!) and even raw cakes, for those with special diets.

3. Cafe Regatta -- Okay, this isn't quite in the center, but it's so accessible by public transport that it still counts. Cafe Regatta is located on an inlet from the sea and offers spectacular views of the water. As a big bonus, it's open seven days a week (a rarity in Finland, especially for a small place like this). The lines are usually out the door, but for good reason; their karjalanpiirakka (rice pastries) are out of this world, and the coffee is also very good. If you're feeling chilly, sit by the bonfire and roast all those sausages you bought inside.

2. Brooklyn Cafe -- Yes, this is run by a pair of American sisters, but I swear that's not why I like it! They actually own both this cafe and a bakery down the street. I love them both, but the cafe is my favorite of the two. I found it online before I left (this girl needs her bagel fix) and it was one of the first places I tried after the move. I was not disappointed! They have a variety of goodies, but I never leave without a prosciutto-on-everything bagel, complete with a tasty drink (usually one of their smooth cappuccinos). Bonus for having amazing iced coffee, a true treat during the short Finnish summers. Don't forget to try their brownie -- they are the best in Helsinki! Trust me, I've tried them all.

1. Cafe Aquamarine -- Blink and you'll miss it. There isn't a clear sign outside and you'll probably walk by it six times before finding it (not that I did that...). Friends from San Francisco actually introduced me to this place while they were visiting us. They randomly stumbled on it and brought me back one of their pastries: Love at first bite. This is now my go-to place when I want a quiet afternoon with a great drink and snack. Cafe Aquamarine is run by a sweet older woman whose cafe looks like it belongs in her house; cushy mis-matched armchairs, Asian artwork, and flower prints. I love it! She bakes everything onsite and it's worth any potential wait. My top choices are the chocolate cappuccino (my husband adores them, too) and the korvapuusti, which is the best of its kind in the city. Really. You'll leave full and happy. Don't miss this place!

About the Author
Danielle Laurence spent most of her life bouncing around the US, and now her sights are set on Europe. She's been living in Finland for three months with her husband and cat -- and loving every minute of it! She has a passion for history, exploring new cultures, and traveling. You can follow her Finnish adventures at and via Twitter @ExpatDanielle

Would you like to guest blog for us? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting @expatexplorer

Monday, 14 July 2014

Young, free and expat

Being an expat student has to be one of the best expat experiences possible! You’re young and free with fewer commitments and a hunger to learn. In fact there is so much potential for exploration that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. With all that in mind, here are our tips to getting the most out of this unbelievable opportunity.

Image: creativecommons/TheLEAFProject

Sort your finances in advance
As a student, you’re unlikely to have a lot of cash whilst abroad so make sure you sort out how you’re going to pay for your time abroad before you leave. If you’ll depend on a part-time job whilst studying, talk to your university in advance to get something lined up. We’ve all relied on the bank of Mum and Dad from time to time, but try to ensure you have your own contingency fund ready – just in case.

Live with other students
Living in university halls is a great way of meeting other students and immersing yourself in the student culture. Many unis will group expats together with a single corridor representing the four corners of the globe. Treat it as a whistle stop tour of the world and inspiration for future expat jaunts! Once it’s time to move out of your student digs take the opportunity to move in with the local students. Once you’ve got a real taste for the local style of life you might never want to leave! Talking of which…

Image: creativecommons/TheLEAFProject

Get to know the local students, not just the other expats!
Friendships with other expats can become lifelong bonds, but remember you’re here to experience the local culture! The local people will know the best (and cheapest!) bars, cafés and cultural hotspots. They can introduce you to their friends and take you to the places no one else knows. If you want to learn the language, why don’t you also set up a weekly language exchange with a local student from the university? It’s free for both of you and it’s just another way to make more friends!

For more helpful hints, check out our Hints and Tips tool, and if you’ve already moved abroad, why don’t you add your own?

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Country in review: Spain

Spain has long been a hotspot for expats, with many flocking there each year to bask in warm temperatures and enjoy the Mediterranean diet. But there’s more to expat life in Spain… here’s our rundown of the other things you don’t want to miss while you’re there!

City vs. country
Spain is often characterised by its buzzing metropolitan cities, with Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville among some of the country’s most popular places for expats and tourists alike. But it’s also a haven for those who crave a bit of peace and quiet. Venturing into the countryside, you’ll find rolling hills and lots of open space. Perhaps most famous is the 500 mile stretch known as the Camino de Santiago, or ‘Way of St James’ - to complete the whole thing will take you just over a month, but the good news is that it’s easy to do smaller sections. Just make sure you’ve got your walking shoes with you! Along the way you’ll find beautiful views, delicious food and, inevitably, other walkers enjoying the same scenery. It’s the perfect way to fill a weekend – that is, if you’re not too busy exploring the rest of Spain!

Nurture the travel bug
There’s no better way to catch the travel bug than relocating abroad. In our 2013 Expat Explorer survey, more than half of the expats that we spoke to who lived in Spain agreed that they were travelling more than they did before they moving abroad. And it’s a brilliant location to make the most of other gems within Europe too – be it Portugal, France, Germany, the UK… or wherever! For those expats looking to get away from it all, be sure to hop on a flight or boat to the Canary Islands for  Ibiza might cut it as a best beach but I don’t think that can be said of the Canary Islands. our favourites are Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife and Puerto Naos in La Palma. 

Image source: Creative Commons/Ignacio García

Find a fiesta
Fiestas and carnivals are at the forefront of life in Spain, often taking over cities for days at a time as locals and tourists mingle among professional dancers, singers and performance artists. You’re spoilt for choice as there are plenty taking place all year round. Perhaps one of the most famous is the Bienal de Flamenco in Seville, which celebrates the authentic dance which is so often seen as one of the national emblems of Spain. Don your Spanish attire, take your castanets and get involved in the party! In Valencia, Las Fallas is one the biggest and most popular.

A spectacular soiree with historic roots, it usually takes place at the beginning of each March. Its origins lie in the historic burning of pieces of wood, tied together by local artisans to resemble a human form (known as ‘Ninots’) and placed upon pedestals, signifying rebirth. Each afternoon, between the 1st and 19th of March, gunpowder explosions or ‘mascletà’ echo around the city’s Plaza del Ayuntamiento, meaning that no one can ignore the presence of the fiesta! If your tastes are more modern, you might enjoy Sónar in Barcelona – also known as the International Festival of Advanced Music and New Media Art - as it’s one of Europe’s largest electronic music festivals. 

Image source: Creative Commons/Brendan

Live like a local
Expat life is definitely a different kettle of fish to being on holiday – and there’s a lot to get used to. It can feel overwhelming but the best way to get to grips with everything that Spain has to offer is to jump straight in! Food is at the heart of day-to-day life for many Spaniards and local markets abound with fresh, regionally produced produce. Some of the best and oldest markets to visit in Spain’s bigger cities include the 100+ year old Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid and the Mercado de la Boquería in Barcelona. Whether it’s meat, cheese, wine or sweet pastries that you’re after – these markets, or even one that’s local to you, promise to be an Aladdin’s cave of tempting treats for any palette. A visit to the market is the perfect place to have a stab at speaking the language: although picking it up can be tricky initially, there’s no substitute for practice. A bustling market can be a daunting prospect for your first go at mastering the lingo, but you’re more likely to gain kudos from the locals for having a go… Good luck!

What’s your experience of expat life in Spain? Share your best travel insights with other expats using our Hints + Tips tool

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Healthy Way to Relocate

Image Source: creativecommons/takisteve
As an expat, falling ill abroad can be a difficult experience. You have settled into your house, have made friends and are even beginning to master the language. However, the experience of an unexpected illness can drag you right back to feeling isolated and lost in your new country.

This post will help you navigate the medical mazes and healthcare hazards.

The key to good healthcare abroad is careful preparation at home. There are 2 parts: vaccinations and research.

For many countries, expats will have to have vaccinations against different diseases. These can be time-consuming and must be completed before moving to your host country to ensure that you are fully protected. Don’t leave these to the last minute! Your local doctors may run out of popular vaccines, waiting lists for treatment can be long and it may not be a one-off injection, but a course of treatments.

This has two parts: choosing your country and researching your country.

If healthcare is a top priority for you, we can offer a helping hand in choosing a country with top-rate healthcare. Our Expat Explorer survey in 2013 revealed that Taiwan tops the list for the best healthcare, followed by France and then Bahrain. Meanwhile, Germany tops the list as the best country for children’s healthcare.

Once you have chosen a country, check out what basic healthcare system operates in your chosen country. Systems can differ widely across the globe so make sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for. A quick internet search should set you off and your own national healthcare providers should be able to help you before you leave. Why don’t you also check out our Hints and Tips tool to find out first-hand from other expats how they tackled healthcare issues abroad or add hints from your own experience?

Friday, 4 July 2014

“Enter your new surroundings with an open mind” - How to be an expat in Hong Kong, according to Jennifer Greaves

Our latest expat guest blogger, Jennifer Greaves tells us about how her perceptions of Hong Kong changed once she moved there. 

It’s easy to have preconceptions about places, and sometimes it takes some time to diffuse these ideas and see a place for what it really is. I certainly had this experience when I decided to move to Hong Kong almost seven years ago. I’d never lived abroad before, and had just been accepted for a job in the Asian World City. My first thoughts were big city, skyscrapers and rice! The day before I accepted the offer, I took a trip to the bookstore and opened a few Hong Kong guides. I flicked through a few photos of beaches, greenery and dolphins, and decided that I’d be open to exploring this city.

I’ve come across many questions about Hong Kong from people around the world, and friends from home. I was even asked if I spoke Japanese once! I’ve heard tales of people asking if electricity was stable here. From a friend who didn’t like foreign food, her concern for visiting me was “What would I eat?”! Hence, I realised that we all have preconceived ideas about places that might not be true. There is only one way to shatter these…

Personally, I find one of the best ways to explore a new area is on foot, meandering and observing with an open mind and absorbing what’s around. It’s good to go beyond the stereotypes and scope out the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. Anyone else’s opinion is subjective, so form your own opinions and your own impressions. 

Within my first few weeks in Hong Kong I had blown everything I thought it would be out of the water. I’d been lying on a beach, hiking in the verdant hills and spent a day lounging on a boat in the ocean. I hadn’t spent my days walking through corridors of skyscrapers, which is in fact a tiny portion of this city. The day I knew I’d got this city all wrong, and yet the city was so right, was when I went on a trip to see the pink dolphins. They were leaping out of the water and swimming in the wild. 

Hong Kong is a diverse city. If I wanted to live in an expat cocoon and eat Western food everyday, I certainly could. Worldwide brands all put themselves on the map here. How much would you gain from this type of expat experience? With diversity comes opportunity. I’ve eaten street food in night markets, practiced Cantonese, and failed by announcing, “I’m dying” instead of what was intended! I’ve watched ladies celebrate white tiger festival by beating slices of ham with an old shoe in the underpass, and I’ve haggled in the markets.  The random, the weird, the successful and the memorable moments; embrace all that your location has to offer. 

So as an expat, enter your new surroundings with an open mind, and you never know what you may find. Go beyond the stereotypes, and get to know the real country underneath. Not only did I end up learning lots about Hong Kong, I also developed as an individual, expanding my knowledge of different cultures by co-existing with so many different groups of people in this melting pot of a city. The expat world can be a bubble, and that has its uses and its comforts, but remember to go beyond that and make the most of the experience and new opportunities that you have on your new foreign doorstep.

About the Author

Jennifer Greaves came to Hong Kong in August 2007 with the intention of staying for 9 months.....and ended up staying.  She is a keen photographer and writer. You can read more of her posts on The Travel Blog and connect with her on Twitter @GreavesJen

Would you like to guest blog for us? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting @expatexplorer!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

When boredom strikes: how to keep expat life interesting

Moving to a different country can be very exciting… but…what happens when boredom strikes?
The first few months or even years of your new adventure may be a whirlwind of fantastic experiences, but what should you do when the routines of daily life set back in, and when your enthusiasm (dare we say it) slightly wears off? This relapse from the heady heights of new expat life might make you feel a bit lost, perhaps a bit homesick, but it is important to remember that this is part of the course and is entirely normal.

It is important to fight back though - don’t just let your expat life become mundane and monotonous, and definitely don’t give up and go home.  Instead, try and reinsert some sustainable excitement into your expat life, so that it lives up to your initial expectations and you make the most of it. If you get stuck in a rut, why not try out some of these tips to reinvigorate your expat life and keep boredom at bay.

Image source: Wikimedia commons / BrokenSphere
Try a new hobby and get involved

If you find yourself doing the same things every day, and feel like you’re stuck in a boring routine, then it might be time to take up a new hobby. Find out what’s available locally and try it out, even (especially!) if it is something you wouldn’t normally do!

Ask yourself whether you know your neighbours well enough, or even at all. These people are potential friends and they are on your doorstep, so why not set up a book club, host a dinner party, or take part in a community event to meet them and boost your social life.

Image source: Wikimedia commons / KayaZaKi
Have you tried it all?

We’re humans - we love what we know and as a result are often reluctant to try new foods. Can you really say you’ve tried all the national favourites? If the answer is no then it’s time to get the recipe book out, and visit some local foody haunts. Whether you like the national dishes or not, trying out new things will always make you feel more involved and your expat experience will be given a culinary revival. Plus, remember that they are national delicacies for a reason – so they are probably delicious.

But, if you’re having one of those evenings of browsing the internet for affordable flights home, maybe it’s time to go the other way and revert to you home comforts.  Cook up a nice meal with some friends (“just like mama used to make”) that reminds you of home so it doesn’t feel so far away. This is a good way to keep homesickness at bay.

Image source: Flickr / Dennis Wong

Relax and enjoy yourself

Moving to a new place is no easy task. There’s always so much to do, and you might find that your life feels like it is jam-packed full of admin as you establish yourself in the new country. But, once you’re a bit settled in, just remember to relax and enjoy yourself.  Whatever it is that you like doing - whether it’s reading a book, going for a hike or going to the spa - make time for yourself and do it. Savour the moment and remember why you moved, and do all those things you planned to do before arriving but never got the chance to do in the busy first few months. 

How do you keep your expat life interesting? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting @expatexplorer!



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