Despite these challenges, many people still love the expat lifestyle. We speak to three Australian women about whether the grass is greener on the other side.
THE CAREER WOMAN
Kate Gibson, 39, Switzerland
“I’m originally from Brisbane. After working for a corporate law firm, I left Australia in 2003 to further my studies and career at Cambridge University. I was fascinated by events and conflicts around the world, and in Australia you’re a bit removed from that. As a human-rights lawyer, I’ve been able to live in a lot of places, meet the survivors and victims of conflicts, and to work in international courts, where there’s such a high calibre of lawyers, people who really believe in what they’re doing. It’s so exciting, but it’s hard work. These cases run for years.
I represented Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia. And in June, my client Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had his convictions for war crimes and crimes against humanity overturned on appeal by the International Criminal Court (ICC). That was a hugely significant moment for him and for the team.
I travel between Geneva – where I live with my family – the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands, and Africa. My work subject-matter is pretty grim. It’s fairly easy to switch off on a daily basis but sometimes it does catch up with you. When you’re away from home, you’re wrapped up in what you’re doing, too. Everything is concentrated around work because that’s why you’re away.
It’s a bit unsettling because although my base is Geneva, people will say, “Let’s do something in two weekends’ time”, and I could be in Rwanda, I could be in The Hague. My husband works for the Red Cross and travels just as much as me, so we both tag-team to look after our two-year-old and four-year-old. If we were home in Australia, we’d have a greater family support network but when you live overseas you’re on your own. It comes down to extreme organisation.
My closest group of friends here are a mummy’s group. I guess I’m trying to re-create the network I would have if I lived in Australia. But I’ve stayed really close to school and university friends back home. I love visiting them and my family. I couldn’t sustain my life or work over here if I didn’t have support from them. What I miss most about Australia is the amazing quality of life. My sisters’ kids in Brisbane do weekend sport, they’re surrounded by their cousins and sunshine. It’s hard to replicate. It’s true, there are real advantages for my kids here in Europe.
They speak French, have learnt how to ski, have a lovely lifestyle. But when my four-yearold says to me, ‘I don’t know why we don’t live in Australia. I love it there.’ That’s heart-wrenching. We may move to Africa again and she’ll live in lots of different places, but is it better than growing up in Australia?
Not at all. It’s just where work is.”
THE TRAILING SPOUSE
Andy Mayer, 46, Portugal
“We started expat life late. We left Melbourne, where I had a business, in 2010 so we could travel and earn a tax-free income. My husband Travis and I also wanted to give our two sons an international upbringing. Travis was offered a job first in Saudi Arabia. We’ve also lived in the United Arab Emirates, Iraqi Kurdistan, Mongolia, Nigeria and now Portugal. During our time away, Travis has mainly worked to provide medical staff to mining, oil and gas projects and run clinics.
In each country I’ve been partying and having pedicures, but I have also learnt about the culture and the languages. I’ve made lifelong friends. But saying you’re a trailing spouse often comes with the assumption that you offer nothing but insight into drinking, entertaining and shopping. Often someone will ask who you work for and when they hear you’re a trailing spouse, they walk away. I’ve seen trailing spouses pegged socially depending on where their husbands work. Having a live-in housekeeper is a privilege, but it doesn’t replace friends, grandparents and extended family. And living with a pool, gardeners and drivers can be confronting when you’re from a humble background.
There’s a belief that a trailing spouse has nothing to worry about, but often you spend hours getting ingredients for dinner because of traffic, or stores with no produce. You’re alone in a new country while your partner travels. There’s the pressure of being the newbie parent at school, too.
Moving every few years and not working can lead to a loss of identity. You lose skills and confidence. Many women talk about repatriating and being unemployable. I’ve also seen many expat marriages fall apart through infidelity; women who have trailed for decades dumped with no job, no legal rights and no money.
I’ve enjoyed the experience but have resented not having my own income. I’ve felt jealous of working partners but I also feel so lucky to have lived abroad. After five years, I’ve finished a book about birth preparation that I’m hoping to have published.
I feel a great sense of accomplishment about that, as well as about the childbirth education work I’ve done in places like Mongolia. We’ve now settled in Porto, where Travis plans to set up a rum distillery. Our boys, aged 15 and 12, have been to eight schools. It’s time we stayed put for a while to allow them to not be the ‘new kid’ over and over again.”
THE PARTY GIRL
Kate Robb, 36, Canada
“My original plan was not to live in Canada, but in the UK and Europe, where a lot of my friends were heading. But during the 2008 global financial crisis, my then-boss in the high-end menswear store I was working in came back from a European trip and said things were not good there. A colleague was going to some place called Whistler later that year and encouraged me to join her. I didn’t know much about the place, but it turned out Whistler is a ski resort.
I left Perth in 2009. It was after a failed relationship, which had also delayed my travel plans. I intended to work for six months on Whistler’s ski slopes, then go to London. The first few days in Vancouver were wild: the smell of weed on the streets, cheap beer, ice-hockey games. Then I landed a job in a Whistler ski shop, which came with staff accommodation.
The next few months were a blur of drinking, partying, snowboarding, and still somehow turning up to work. I had a boss who put the most hungover staff in the role of hosts in restaurants and stores on the slopes. This was maybe as a punishment, or maybe because it was closer to the washroom if they felt queasy. We were probably sightly drunk all the time to avoid the dreaded hangovers.
After the magic 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler, I moved to London. It wasn’t all that bad; the live music scene was amazing. But I struggled with housing and there was red tape attached to my job. I finally realised, after eight months, that I’d have more fun, including getting more time off to travel, if I returned to Canada. So I moved back to Whistler. I’m now working in a hotel and a gallery and am a Canadian citizen. I’ve taken up biking and hiking.
After 10 years here, I’ve swapped ski chairlifts for man-powered split boarding, and nightclubs for summer barbecues and lakeside drinks. People here are now tending to have more house parties than go out, because rent in Whistler is astronomical. Every year is different here, but I love it.”
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 9.