Tag Archives: expat

Changing Lives

As I stood looking out on Canisbay Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park last Saturday I literally had to pinch myself.  I couldn’t help but exclaim out loud. “I live here, I live HERE”.  

After almost two years of our expat life I’m finally starting to feel more content with our new lives, dare I even say settled?  The bad bits are still there of course but the bouts of homesickness are now becoming less severe and shorter.  Chatting with my family on skype now seems as normal as popping round for a cup of tea would have felt two years ago.

It’s been quite a journey to get this far and I admit there has been many a time when I wanted to get off the expat emotional roller coaster, I wanted to throw my hands up in surrender and say ‘I give up, I can’t cope with living in a different continent to my family and friends’. There are still days when I would give anything to have Sunday dinner at my parents house surrounded by family or have a glass of wine or five with my friends and chat into the early hours.

As I stood on that beach looking at that spectacular place, that is only a couple of hours from our new home, I began to reflect on our journey and how far we have come.  Little remains of our former lives now and for the most part that is not a bad thing.  I don’t miss the days of 12 hours in the office and trying to juggle the needs of our business with the needs of our boys.  I don’t miss barely keeping up with the housework or running out in the middle of sports day to take a call from an important client. I am a ‘stay at home mum’ right now, I am there to take the boys to school and pick them up afterwards.  All four of us have dinner together every single night. We are relaxed and calm and spend more time together than ever before.

I have discovered more about myself in the last two years than I ever thought possible, when you live outside of your comfort zone your strengths and weaknesses become so apparent.  I have surprised myself with my own bravery and realized I can live perfectly well without constant reassurance from my nearest and dearest.  I have become more assertive and more decisive.

The boys are blossoming in a newfound confidence.  Something that happens with migrant kids is they develop skills to cope with change and the experience of living in different cultures broadens their horizons.

Emigrating was the toughest decision of my life but it has been the most exhilarating journey

 

 

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The Expat Emotional Roller-coaster

In my 39 years I have never experienced the emotional range as intensely as I have in the last 2 years since our departure from England.  Every feeling from sadness to happiness, dread to anticipation and everything in between crops up on a regular basis.

I remember walking the kids to school with my best friend about a week before we left England and saying to her how I was “done with the last times” and how I wanted to look forward to the “first times”.  Seeing people and doing things for the last time prior to leaving England exhausted me emotionally like I had never experienced.  Watching my granddad walk down my driveway for the last time, the last meal with my sister and my girlfriends, the final day with my parents were obviously terribly sad occasions but at the same time I was looking forward to seeing my new home for the first time and beginning our new life. I was both excited about our arrival in Canada and very upset at our departure from England.

Niagara Falls, Canada

Tower Bridge, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expat life brings with it a ride on an emotional roller-coaster and the bizarre thing is that often contrasting emotions come at the same time.  An example of this was the intense excitement I felt a fortnight ago as I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew but before they even arrived I was already dreading them leaving.  The happy times we had together were all too soon followed by a tearful goodbye and now the house which just a short week ago was noisy, excited and crammed full is now quiet, calm and feels too roomy.  I really love where I live but miss my old home, I’m enjoying all the new experiences we have but I crave the familiar too.

 

Niagara Falls 2013

London Eye 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I have discovered in the last 20 months of being an expat is that expat life is a series of ‘trade offs’, you exchange regular brief visits with longer times together that are far fewer and further between but on the whole much more memorable. I suppose the phrase ‘quality time’ comes into play here.  Learning to cope with the twists and turns, highs and lows is all part of the journey.  I hope that as time passes I become more adept at riding the emotional roller-coaster, accepting the downsides of expat life is the price we have to pay for this lifestyle we have chosen.

 

“Missing someone gets easier every day because even though it’s one day further from the last time you saw each other, it’s one day closer to the next time you will” – Anonymous

 

Newcomers Guide to the Ontario School System Part 2

Following on from my last post the Newcomers guide to the Ontario School System here is my 2nd installment.  Just to reiterate these are simply my observations as a Mum.

Transportation to school

Here in Canada the vast majority of children travel to school on the school bus.  You know those big yellow ones you see in films?

 

Here in the suburbs they drive around the streets picking the kids up and driving them to school.  For little ones in daycare they can often pick the kids up from daycare take them to school and drop them back there in the evening. Canada really likes to help the working work mum!  Once your child is registered in school you get issued a student number, this is all you need to book a place on the school bus.

 

 

The Structure of the School Day

Like most schools in the UK the school day is usually around 9am-3.30pm give or take.  Some schools provide before and after school care (another thing to help those working mums).  The amount of lessons and the length of them vary from school to school but a few things stay the same; Canadians like to snack so ‘snack time’ is part usually part of morning recess.  They also love their fresh air, so children go outside unless it’s raining hard or below -20C so kids must be dressed appropriately for the weather, whether it’s sun hats and sun screen or snow boots and thick coats.

Schools are equipped with PA systems, they announce important news in the morning, so very rarely send home letters.  They also play the national anthem every morning and have the children stand to listen to it.

Generally, Elementary schools don’t have a canteen so kids need to take a packed lunch and their snack.

It is usually only the Catholic schools that have a school uniform. Students dress casually, younger kids don’t always get changed for PE (Phys Ed/gym) so they need to wear suitable clothing.  They will also need a pair of indoor shoes that are left at school and are worn whilst inside the building. Trainers are ideal for this.

In Elementary schools homework is rarely given unless it is for a specific project and never given in the holidays, as ‘family time’ is deemed extremely important.

 

 

School Holidays

The school year starts in September on the Tuesday following the Labour day weekend and goes through to the end of June (around 27th). The year is divided into 2 semesters September to January and February to June.  At the end of January reports are issued and there are usually subject changes.

There are long weekends in October for Thanksgiving, February for Family day, Easter and Victoria Day in May.  There are two weeks holiday at Christmas and 10 days for March Break.

My boys really struggled with the change in the school year, they were so used to a break from school every 6 weeks when it came to several months between breaks they were exhausted.  9 weeks off in the summer really makes up for it though!

 

In my final part I will cover which subjects are taught and information particular to High schools

Newcomers Guide to the Ontario School System

 

 

Like many immigrants moving with kids I had a thousand questions on the school system prior to arriving in Canada and unfortunately I struggled to find answers anywhere.  The Internet is full of practical information to help newcomers settle but there was little on the workings of schools, the routine, the everyday experiences that your children will encounter.  How are you supposed to calm a child who’s nervous about a new school when you are armed with such little information?  Over the next few posts I am going to attempt to share my knowledge of the Ontario school system, it is worth noting that I am writing this not as an educator or anyone in authority but simply as a Mum.  Eldest son is now in the final semester in High school and youngest son is in Grade 6 in an elementary school.

 

Overview

Ontario is divided into 83 publically funded school boards, which are one of the following four types; English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic.  As I am neither French nor Catholic I will only be writing about the English public school system. Some elementary schools run a French Immersion programme where the children are taught all subjects mainly in French, usually French Immersion programmes need to be started by Grade 1. Compulsory education begins when children turn 6 and continues until grade 12 when they turn 18.  The school year runs from September to June

 

Grades

School starts with Junior Kindergarten (JK) and Senior Kindergarten (SK) and then it moves onto grades 1 -12.  Elementary schools are usually JK – Grade 8 and High schools are grades 9-12.  Some areas have middle schools, which cater for grade 7 and 8 only.  Kindergarten education is not compulsory although the vast majority of children do attend.  Kindergarten is usually part time, however, it is in the process of becoming full time in all schools across Ontario. The structure of the grade is somewhat different to the UK.  Children attend school with those born in the same calendar year, for example, grade 6 students will all turn 12 between January 1st and December 31st whereas in the UK the year 7 students will all turn 12 between September 1st and August 31st.

 

Admission Requirements

In England getting your child a place in a particular school is difficult and stressful to say the least, deadlines for application and then putting your fate in the lap of the Gods while you await the decision is enough to cause sleepless night for parents and kids alike.  In Ontario it could not be more different.  I remember visiting the schools that we hoped the boys would be attending when we were on our fact-finding visit.  I was desperate (with my English head on) to get the boys names put down but we couldn’t do it.  We kept being told that we needed to be living there first, I just didn’t understand. When my husband then made his solo trio over to buy the house I armed him with all the necessary forms and paperwork to register the boys in school and followed up with emails to the schools explaining our situation.  In hindsight I must have looked like a complete lunatic.  He was able to register youngest son at Elementary school but Eldest son needed to be present in order to register him in high school.  I tried to explain that we would be arriving in the summer holidays when school was closed so they told me to phone when the staff was back to school during the last week in August some 7 days before the school year started!  The point I was totally missing was that here kids go to their ‘home school’. Each school is given a specific area (which can be checked on the Internet) EVERY child who lives in their particular area goes to that school, end of story. There is no such thing as changing boundaries depending on numbers, priority to siblings or schools being full. Wherever you live you have a designated school that you will attend.  I wish someone had told me that earlier so I that needn’t of worried about the boys getting in to our chosen schools.  You can register a kid one day and have them start the next, easy peasy!

You will need certain paperwork in order to register you child in school namely, a birth certificate, proof of your emigration status, proof of your residence (rental agreement or mortgage) & immunisation records.  That is it, so simple.  There seems to be much less of a gap here between good schools and bad schools so going out of catchment to find a good school is pretty much unheard of.

 

 

Coming up in my next installment;

Transportation to school

The Structure of the School Day

School Holidays

The 5 Worst Things About Being an Expat

 

 

To follow on from my last post the best things about being an expat inspired by Maria over at Iwasanexpatwife here is the altogether sadder worst things. Just so you know the weather isn’t one of them!

 

1.Homesickness, Isolation and Loneliness.

Without a doubt the worst thing about being an expat is that your family and friends are so far away. There is probably nothing like the feeling of being alone, when there is no one around who knows you or knows anything about you or has any kind of shared experience or history with you.  You are isolated from anything familiar and the comfort blanket of your nearest and dearest is miles away. No one pops in for a coffee, no one sends you a text to see if you’re free for lunch, there’s no one to moan to about the kids or the weather.   You stop looking around you when you’re out and about because there’s no chance of you seeing anyone you recognize, no chance of bumping into someone you know in the supermarket and having a quick chat.  There’s a gaping whole in your life that used to be filled with your loved ones and now they aren’t nearby anymore.  Thank goodness for skype, facebook and twitter for helping us to keep connected, at the end of the day it is a poor substitute but it will have to do.

2.Culture Shock

I thought culture shock was the feeling I had when we first crossed the strait of Gibraltar from Spain into Tangier, Morocco on our first visit to Africa.  When your senses are bombarded with the sights, sound and smells of a completely different culture.  To a certain extent it is but it can also be subtler than that, it can be a feeling that something’s just not right and you can’t quite put your finger on what it is that’s wrong.  A surprising percentage of expats suffer from some form of culture shock even when moving between relatively similar cultures.  It can manifest itself in many ways but generally it is a feeling of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings, disorientation and feeling totally alone.  Fortunately the Internet is full of information to assist expats with the adjustments needed to combat the effects of culture shock

3. Guilt

This is another tough one.  In our first year or so of being in Canada several members of my immediate family and closest friends experienced some real traumas, accidents, illnesses and bereavements and the feeling of being too far away to help is awful.  Missing out on family gatherings, significant events and not being there for your loved ones when they need you most are all sources of guilt, there’s nothing you can do about it.  Part and parcel of expat life is learning to be self reliant and accepting that you will need to deal with anything that life throws your way by yourself but that does not prepare you for the guilty feeling of not being able to help others that may need you.

 

4. Starting from Scratch

A fresh start can be good but starting from scratch has many drawbacks. No credit rating and no insurance ‘no claims’ discount for example, result in endless red tape and paying a fortune for things that can be really frustrating.  It feels like taking a massive step back when you go from being quite comfortable financially to having to pay a huge deposit to get a mobile phone or accounts with the utility companies.  You need to constantly prove your reliability and trustworthiness.

 

5. Language Barriers

I’m English and I moved to a country whose first language is English, so it should be easy but it’s not.  I’ve been told I don’t have a particularly strong accent but sometimes making myself understood is beyond frustrating.  Phone calls are worse and I usually have to repeat everything I say at least twice and I find myself dreading having to call someone and putting it off for a day or two.  Canadians don’t seem to understand when I say ‘a’ or ‘i’ so spelling things out doesn’t help at all, it can be a very irritating daily occurrence. You can learn to say the words that are different like closet instead of cupboard and elevator for lift but it’s more difficult to change how you say it.  For me it’s a constant reminder that I am different and it draws attention to me, which I really don’t like.  They only amusing part of having an accent is that all the kids I work with in school are learning new words from me so I have a whole group who say some words with an Essex twang!

 

 

To end on a positive note although the bad things seem really bad sometimes the good things about being an expat are good all the time.  Expat life is hard but it sure is an interesting journey.

5 Best Things About Being an Expat

I was inspired by Maria over at Iwasanexpatwife (who is a true expert of all things expat) to write a personal list of the best and worst parts about being an expat.

 

1. You learn something new everyday.

I know this is an old saying but when you start a new life abroad it becomes true.  In the first few weeks it’s a bit of information overload when every sense is bombarded with new things.  The learning curve it at it steepest as you learn huge life altering lessons like how to drive on the other side of the road or where the best schools are.  After a while they become smaller and less significant like discovering some new restaurant or finding a little pharmacy that stocks your favourite shampoo but the learning is constant.  My husband and I would often start our conversation when he comes home from work with “you won’t believe what I discovered today…”

2. You find out who you really are

I’m brave! Who knew? Certainly not me but moving overseas is a sure way to find out about your character.  It was more of a surprise to me than anyone that I didn’t have a complete panic on the way to the airport or lose my marbles during the emigration process. I have discovered that I can actually handle an awful lot of stress and more importantly get through it relatively unscathed.  In our first 18 months in Canada I have discovered all kinds of character traits that I had never acknowledged.  I wouldn’t go as far to say I didn’t know they were there but I just hadn’t taken the time to really think about who I was.

3. You can change everything and reinvent yourself

We you first arrive in a new country no one has any preconceptions of who you are and what you are like, no one there will be expecting you to be the same old person you always were so you have the freedom to be exactly who you want.  I have learned that I being the reliable ‘yes’ person was draining me, I had a tendency to do anything for anyone even if it meant I didn’t have time to do what I really wanted or needed to do, not anymore.  I can say no if something doesn’t suit me and I don’t want to do it.  You can change everything about yourself, what you do for a living and how you live. You have the perfect opportunity to start afresh, put aside what doesn’t serve you and move on.  Forget bad experiences and fear and embrace a fresh start and a new way of life.

 

4. You learn what’s really important in life.

Any contact I have with my family and friends back in England is so precious now, a simple email, skype call or Facebook message means so much more than it did two years ago.   The last 18 months has taught me to really value the relationships that I used to take for granted.

I have learnt how important time is: we have a family dinner together every night now because we’re not inundated with work or commuting for hours. I am more aware of what is happening in the life of our boys more than ever before.

Exploring the city with family


5. You have a whole new part of the world to explore

It starts with learning your immediate area, where the shops are, where the school is and then your horizons broaden into the nearest city and what it has to offer.  Next you begin to explore further afield as you discover new places to drive to on a sunny day or for a weekend break and eventually you are exploring neighbouring countries and new holiday destinations.  Every trip is a brand new exciting experience and if you’re lucky enough to get visitors you get to explore these places with family and friends too.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Chateau Lake Louise, Alberta

So there you have it, my top 5 things about expat life.  Coming up next the five worst things…get the Kleenex ready!