Thursday, 26 August 2010

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing… Rebecca Self

This week, we’re happy to share another instalment to our Guest Blogger Series. Say hello to Rebecca Self. We came across Rebecca’s blog- XpatAdventures and were inspired by her story to set off on a journey of self-discovery by living in a foreign country. Here, Rebecca shares some of her tips on the logistical challenges in becoming an expat, and the importance of asking the right questions before you set off.

Naïveté is no position for an Expat

I've been overseas five years now, and am starting to get a lot of questions from other people who'd like to move abroad. They're not asking the right questions though, and neither did I when I moved from the United States to Switzerland.

People always ask, "What made you decide to do it?" "What was it like to sell everything you owned?" and "What's it like to live so far away?" The part that seems to fascinate people is the emotional and personal part of the story. Maybe that's in part because we all seem to romanticize moving abroad... all that Under the Tuscan Sun, you know?

Looking back I see I was much more naïve than I should have been. I did not ask the right questions. Here's the story, and the questions I should have asked (and you should, too).

I was a professor

In the States I had a great tenure-track job with the best colleagues and boss in the world. They were supportive and kind and great to work with. The environment was respectful, fun, creative and easy-going. It was in a very small town though and I taught media and politics, about which I had very strong opinions in late 2004 and early 2005.

I found the job in Switzerland on the Internet. I wasn't really looking; I didn't apply for any others. It was a bizarre combination of courses and requirements that fit me to a T. And I'd always had this dream of living in Europe; I'd studied French and Italian. It took about ten minutes to apply.

In April 2005 I went for an interview. It went well. I liked the people even though I could tell it was a strange, small institution and not as good a job as the one I was leaving. That was a risk I was willing to take to live in Switzerland.

I met with the Dean, the Head of HR & Finance, the President, professors, enough people to get a feel for the place. They had a lot of turnover, this I'd heard and our conversations were pretty well scripted. The HR/Finance guy had his spiel down pat. He told me they'd handle my permits, taxes, etc. That sounded great, because I'd be busy with summer school and getting ready for the move. I asked questions mostly about salary and benefits. The job paid considerably less than I expected and there were virtually no benefits. This would be a setback for me financially, and was my primary concern. The Dean said he wanted this to be a long-term commitment, for me to build my professional life here.

That night I dined alone on the lakeshore downtown. Over steaming pizza and a tasty local red merlot, I decided I wanted it to be a long term commitment, too. I went back home and sold everything I owned, including my home.

I'm sorry to say that becoming an expat has taught me to trust people far less than I used to. I shouldn't have believed the things they said; they had a position to fill. They had a way they'd done this for years and I had no idea what I was doing. I guess it could have happened anywhere and may not be cultural, but it seems remarkably Machiavellian and they speak Italian... either way, what happened is not what you want when you're alone and thousands of miles from home.

What happened was I got a nine-month contract, a twelve-month apartment lease and a permit fit for a migrant worker. The same the following school year, too. It wasn't legal. I didn't know that until later, when I had no recourse.

Having this experience made me realize how important it was to ask the right questions before deciding to make the move. I learned this the hard way.

Here are the Right Questions.

1. What kind of work and residence permit will I be issued? For what duration will the permit be issued?

2. What is the duration of my contract? How will it be renewed? How can it be terminated?

Do not simply ask the hiring authorities at your potential employer the above questions - ask the authorities, ask local attorneys.

Make no plans until this is handled. Take it upon yourself to learn exactly what the different types of permits are and the implications and consequences of each.

Find out basic things like: will you be able to buy a car and secure auto insurance with this type of permit? Call auto insurance companies (more than one, the answer may vary) to find out.

And for your future employers and colleagues:

3. What sort of support for housing, language, insurances or other logistics is available?

4. How often do you socialize with colleagues? Do you have close friends in the community?

Get everything in writing

Get even informal agreements in writing, especially if it's important to you, and clarify details before you leave home. Decide what's important to you and make sure the details are clear on those things. One thing that was important to me was my dog. He'd come to school with me in the past occasionally, and this job new involved longer hours. During the interview my potential boss offered that the dog might come to school with me, even when I'd never mentioned it. When I arrived in August I was informed that dogs were not allowed to set foot anywhere on campus.

At a dinner party I threw with a few professors after I'd arrived, a colleague who'd been at the school for six years said, "This is the first time I've ever had dinner with a bunch of the professors like this." If they don't socialize, are there places in town where you'll meet people? Clubs or sports for example? If I ever return back to the United States, it will be for this reason alone. As a lifelong solo traveller, I'm accustomed to plenty of alone time; being an expat, though, has been isolating to a degree I never expected.

A Final Caveat

Would I do it again? Absolutely! I'd ask the right questions this time, too. I'd place my trust where it's been earned, and maintain safe boundaries and skepticism as needed. I'd continue to enjoy all the things I've loved about being in Switzerland, too -- from the food and languages to the public transport, hiking and hot springs.

Good luck on your adventures!

About the author

Rebecca Self is originally from Sarasota, Florida and now works globally in organizational development and talent management for multinational clients. She's moving again next month. You can find her professional presence on the Web here or on Twitter. To find out more about Rebecca’s adventures, see her personal blog XpatAdventures or XpatAdventures on Twitter.


  1. Rebecca...your post reminds me of the old joke about the person who was trying to decide between Heaven and Hell and chose Hell because it showed him parties, women and general wildness. But when he got there he found gloom and despair. "This isn't what you showed me!" he said. The devil replied, "Yesterday you were a recruit. Now you're staff."

    I don't mean to imply that Switzerland is Hell or that the HR rep is the devil. But I think that it's true that the ease with which you can arrange for adequate housing, work permit, etc. is not as quick or easy as was presented.

    A couple things I would add to Rebecca's list of questions (they are tips, actually):

    1. Even if things look OK, try to give yourself an escape hatch. Find a renter for your house and put items into storage. See if you can arrange for an unpaid leave of absence or a sabbatical from work. It does not mean that you are giving yourself freedom to hate your new life. But things happen, not the least of which is your contract is not renewed and you find that you have to return to your home country whether you like it or not.

    2. Even if you do ask all the right questions and are satisfied with the answers, stuff happens. So don't beat yourself up because you didn't have all the (right) information. There are always surprises. That's part of the journey.

  2. Rebecca....I don't know if you're the person I'm looking for but I grew up with a Rebecca Self in Crystal River Florida and if you are her I would live to say HI and to see you well and also my e mail is Mooney


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