Monday, January 31, 2011

Country Profile: United Kingdom

Country profiles are simply overviews of how to get into a country and some obstacles you'll face. They are not intended to be in-depth discussions of the country.

BBC, Wikipedia and CIA World Factbook articles on United Kingdom.

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Official: English.

There are many regional languages spoken, such as Welsh, Gaelic, Scots, and others. However, English is universal. That being said, having lived in the United Kingdom a number of years, you may find the the further north you go, the more difficult the accents are to follow. In fact, many Americans (and even British!) find some Scottish accents inpenetrable to the point where there's been controversy over the BBC's decision to offer subtitles for one show filmed in Scotland.

Work permits

If you are an EEA citizen or legally recognized partner of an EEA citizen, you generally have the right to live and work in the UK. That being said, the UK has been expressing concerns about immigration. I had to turn down a position which would have doubled my salary because the UK government hadn't yet recognized my legal right to work there without a permit, despite my wife being French. Unfortunately, the UK is notorious for being rather slow resolve these matters.

For those outside the EU, it's getting harder to get into Britain. Your author lived there for years and watched the government flip-flop routinely on matters of immigration law and while most British people are very tolerant and open-minded, there's a strong sense that immigration to the UK should be limited. This is due in part to English being the most popular geographically diverse¹ language and thus the UK is a tempting target in Europe. Unfortunately, there's another "anti-immigration" mood impacting voting and the government is again limiting the hiring of skilled and highly skilled workers from outside the UK. As of this writing, no more Tier One visa applications are being accepted, though they will open up again soon.

The UK Home Office Website has very good information about the entire process, but you must check this regularly as I've noticed that the UK immigration process seems to change (relatively) frequently and they do not always grandfather in people who emigrated under the old rules. You will note that there are currently several categories of workers. I'll explain some of the basics, but I will not go into details due to the frequency of legal changes (and there are currently legal challenges to some of this). There is also a limit being imposed as of April 2011.

  • Tier 1: these are highly skilled workers (currently not permitted to apply) who can work without a permit, investors, entrepreneurs, and post-study workers (you graduated from a UK university with desired skills). None of these require work permits, but they require plenty of experience, money or studying in the UK.
  • Tier 2: these are immigration routes for those who have a job offer. The organization behind said offer will generally need to apply for a permit on your behalf. These are for skilled workers, ministers of religion, sportspeople and company transfers (say, from a US to UK office).
  • Ancestry: there is a common belief that if one of your grandparents was born in the UK, you have the right to live and work there. Sadly, this is not usually true. It only applies if you are from a Commonwealth country.

There are a number of other categories, but again, check out the Home Office Web site. It's actually pretty good.

Kitchen 2
My first kitchen when I moved to the UK.
I know it's silly, but I loved that flat.

Being legally allowed to permanantly reside in the UK is referred to as settlement or "indefinite leave to remain". The procedures vary, but if you're going a traditional work permit route, it basically means you have to live and work (legally!) in the UK for five years, at which time you can apply. This is one bit of immigration law which is fairly straightforward.


Applying for British citizenship isn't terribly hard, but you have to legally get there first. You must be of sound mind and character and if you're over 18 and have been living in the UK for five years, you're pretty much good to go (it's only three years if you're married or the civil partner of a British citizenship — and yes, that means that gay people have options here too).



At the end of 2008, the UK government decided to no longer allow persons of independent means to retire to the UK. Unless you are an EEA or Swiss citizen, it would be very difficult to retire here ...

... unless you're rich, in which case, the UK government is happy to allow you to move there as an investor. They'll even waive the English language requirement for settlement. However, this route generally involves having £2,000,000 net worth (currently around $3.2 million US), or £1,000,000 which you intend to spend in the UK. Amusingly, there doesn't appear to be any actual requirement that you invest this money, only that you have it.

And even then this visa is only good for three years, though you can contact them for advice on how to extend your stay. I'm sure that if you have enough money, they'll come up with something.

1. Though the exact figures are disputed, Mandarin is the most widely spoken language and has more speakers than English and Spanish combined. However, it is mainly spoken in China and other Asian countries. Spanish has slightly more speakers than English, but its use is primarily in Spain, Central and South America and parts of the Southwest US (though it's spreading rapidly). English dominates in terms of geographic diversity and, perhaps due to the economic prowess of associated nations, is the most popular second language in the world. This is why teaching English is a viable way to leave the country for many native English speakers.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Photo Collection: Senegal

Another reminder that the world is round. Today I thought photos from Senegal would be lovely. Despite high poverty and low employment, it has one of the most stable economies and democracies in Africa.

Dakar Senegal - Looking North
Dakar, Senegal
Photo by Jeff Attaway

dakar street
Dakar, Senegal
Photo by Jeff Attaway

St. Louis, Senegal River Delta
Senegal Rivert Delta
Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia

Dunas Loumpoul, Senegal
Dunas Loumpoul, Senegal
Photo by jose pereira

Dakar, Senegal
Dakar, Senegal
Photo by Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

Senegal Girl
Senegal Girl
Photo by Jeff Attaway

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Country Profile: Thailand

Country profiles are simply overviews of how to get into a country and some obstacles you'll face. They are not intended to be in-depth discussions of the country.
BBC, Wikipedia and CIA World Factbook articles on Thailand.

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Official: Thai.

Multiple languages are spoken in Thailand, with Thai being the most prominent. English is spoken in the cities and it's a required subject in school, but fluency levels remain low. Without basic knowledge of the Thai language, you'll probably struggle.

Work permits

Thailand is a very popular destination for expats. It's friendly people and low cost of living make it very attractive.

Due to the Thai Amity Treaty of 1966, Americans are allowed to start a business there with few restrictions, making Thailand a bit easier to get into than other countries (other nationalities may have businesses there, but it's not as easy). As this is a treaty and not laws passed by the Thai legislature, it's fairly stable, legally, and thus gives Americans a something solid in a country which otherwise has had a troubled political history.

Aside from the Amity treaty, entry into Thailand via work permit is pretty standard. An employer must offer you a job and you must have apply for a non-immigrant work visa. The BSA Law Web site seems to have better coverage of the requirements than most.


Acquiring residency in Thailand is fairly straightforward, though it sounds like the bureaucracy is painful and multiple readings of blogs on the topic indicate that local officials may have a lot of leeway in how they interpret the law. In short: don't piss them off.

To qualify for residency you must:

  • Have held a non-immigrant visa for at least 3 consecutive years before application (this is shorter than most countries!)
  • Have a personal qualification for staying, such as being an investor, having a business, a relationship with a Thai national or an alien with a residence permit.

Bangkok, Thailand
Photo by Bruno Ideriha
Unfortunately, as a foreign national, you won't be permitted to own property in this lovely country without marrying a native, so this is a disincentive for some. Also, you can lose your residency if you commit a crime or if they think you have knowledge of an illegal alien and didn't say anything (so be careful of your friends). To top it off, they only allow 100 immigrants of each nationality and you may not leave the country without notifying the Immigration Division.

There is a dedicated Web site, Thai Visa, which will cover all of this in depth for you.


Citizenship is possible, but they do not recognzie dual citizenship (except in rare cases which you won't qualify for). To qualify, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Not be in trouble with the law.
  • Have a job.
  • Lived there for five years.
  • Be able to speak Thai.

There are other considerations, but those are the major ones. has a good summary of the requirements, but sums up the general issue with Thailand:

"Last year 48 people applied for Thai nationality. Ten received approval from the Minister of Interior."
Pol Lt Col Somdej Khanthawong, Special Branch, Royal Thai Police, Bangkok


Thailand is a popular retirement destination. There is a multi-step process that you have to go through. First, you must apply for the non-immigrant "O-A" retirement visa. There are several requirements:

  • You must be at least 50 years of age.
  • Not barred from entering Thailand
  • Have no major criminal convictions/contagious diseases
  • Have 12 months left on your passport
  • Apply from your country of nationality or permanent residence
  • Have 800,000 baht in the bank or a guaranteed income of 65,000 baht per month. A combination of savings plus monthly income times twelve equaling 800,000 baht will also suffice.

(As of this writing, 800,000 baht is rought $26,000 US and 65,000 baht is roughly $2,100 US)

That is enough to start you on your path to a Thai retirement, but there is more work to do along with plenty of paperwork. The Siam Legal Web site has a fantastic section walking you through the process.

I've also provided a bit more information about Thailand in my Retire Overseas post.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Joining the Foreign Service

Sadly, I failed to blog yesterday as I was recovering from my father being in town for the night. He lives in Germany and he was here on business. We had a lovely meal of raclette and far too much beer.

Once again a post for folks from the US. A lesser-known option for working in other countries is becoming a Foreign Service Officer for the US Department of State. What's that? You'd be embarking on a diplomatic career as a representative of the US government. You'd be required to move to new countries every two to four years and act as a representative of US interests in a wide variety of situations. You would likely be in an uncomfortable position of supporting policies which you may strongly disagree with. The State Department has a checklist you can go through to figure out if this is the right choice for you.

Entrance is very competitive, but there are three requirements. Applicants must be:
  • U.S. citizens on the date they submit their registration package
  • At least 20 years old and no older than 59 years of age on the day you submit your registration
  • At least 21 years old and not yet 60 on the day you are appointed as a Foreign Service Officer
You are not required to have a college degree, not do you have to be proficient in any foreign languages, though both will benefit your application chances. They detail their selection process very carefully and you will have to pay special attention to the FSOT, or "Foreign Service Officers Test". This test is what most people do not get past. You will have to know about economics, US history, foreign policy, management, US race relations, immigration issues and so on. For many of you, this will be the hardest test you've ever taken. Less than a third who take it pass, and about a third of those will be invited for an oral assessment.

Wikipedia has a nice introduction to many aspects of applying and working for the foreign service.

As a personal note, I would advise you to think carefully about this. I've had business with the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, on a few occasions. As you're standing in line outside the embassy, staring at guards with automatic weapons patrolling the grounds, working your way through the tight security and the barricades to prevent vehicular assaults, you can look across the square to note the Canadian High Commission. There are no guards in sight. There are no barricades. You can walk right up to it. I've also had to be at the French consulate several times and it's the same: no guards or barricades. Few countries need to protect their foreign service properties quite as closely as the United States. If you're not comfortable with possibly being a target, this won't be the right position for you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Who's Reading What?

I try to pay attention to my blog stats because I am curious, and I can provide more relevant information if I know my audience. Then I decided I could present some of those stats for you.

Who's reading me? (roughly 86% of readers)

United States58.84%
United Kingdom9.84%
South Korea0.58%

What are they reading? (roughly 25% of views)

Work permit 1 of 5: Introduction5.00%
Work permit 3 of 5: Applying for Jobs3.50%
Work permit 2 of 5: Preparing your Résumé3.32%
Why you'll say "no" to living abroad3.03%
Work permit 5 of 5: Salary Negotiation2.84%
Work permit 4 of 5: Interviewing2.23%
Do I need a college degree?1.52%
What's up with the hookers and pot?1.45%
Are your papers in order?1.39%

Make of that what you will. Most of my traffic has been driven by Reddit, but a substantial chunk has been driven by my blogs and links from the Perl community, thus skewing the numbers quite a bit.

Now I'm trying to figure out the best way of driving my readership even higher. It looks like I'm on track for about 5,000 views a month, but I want this to reach out to more people who'd like to experience other countries. SEO advice anyone?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lisbon, Portugal

No commentary today. Just photos from a trip to Portugal where I proposed to my wife. You can click all of the photos for a larger view.

View From My Hotel
The view from our hotel

Lisbon at Night
Lisbon at Night

Leïla at the Castle of São Jorge
Leïla at the castle of São Jorge

Me. I hate the photo, but Leïla said I had to upload it.

On Our Way to Fado
On our way to a fado bar.

A quiet side street.

Sculpture Near Restauradores
Magnificent public art.

Downtown Lisbon
The view from the castle.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Health care: I pay for insurance

Fair warning: this is another "political" post. I just can't seem to stay out of this.

A friend of mine, Damian Gryski, sent me a fascinating link comparing the US and Netherlands in several key areas that you would want to know about if you lived here. I found the following bit particularly interesting:

spend 48.19% less money on health care
Per capita public and private health expenditures combined in Netherlands are $3,481 USD while The United States spends $6,719 USD
This entry contains the per capita public and private health expenditure at purchase power parity using US Dollars. This figure combines government, personal, and employer spending on health care
Source: World Health Organization
A right or a privilege?
Photo by edenpictures
Please note that "per capita" spending doesn't mean what you and I pay, it's what is paid overall and the US is paying around twice the amount as the Netherlands. So while the US is has the most expensive health care system in the world, one which operates fabulously if and only if you have the money to participate in it, my wife and I spend only €220 a month on our health insurance. That's a bit higher than normal, but only because we spent a extra to cover any issues she might have with her pregnancy.

And the US? Back in 2009, US households were spending an average of $13,000 per year for health care. Your out-of-pocket health care costs in the Netherlands more than make up for an apparent 15% drop in income (naturally, the situation is far more complex than this facile analysis).

During the recent US debate about health care — well, no, I have to stop already. There was no "debate" in the US. There was idiocy everywhere as politicians and media were busy supporting their team rather than the American people. One argument I kept hearing over and over again was what a disaster "socialized" medicine has been for Europe. And yes, you can find individuals for whom it's been a disaster, just as you can find individuals for whom the US system has been a disaster. However, you can't look at individuals to tell if a system works or not. You have to look at the system. You have to look at its aggregate outcomes and in Europe, it's indisputable that our aggregate outcomes generally involve a better quality, coverage and cost of health care.

But do we really have socialized medicine over here? What we have varies from country to country. In the UK, there was definitely what one would call "socialized" medicine and that served the vast majority of people very well. Sometimes people would buy supplementary insurance to handle issues which the National Health Service was less likely to cover, but all in all, the health care in the UK was free and excellent.

Here in the Netherlands the health care system is different. I am required by law to have insurance. No insurance company may turn me down if I apply and they must charge me a flat rate. Children are free. Actual health care costs are subsidized by the government. Despite the widely held US belief that government intervention always makes things worse¹, the Dutch government has clearly done a better job than the US government. Of course, the same is true for most European governments in this regard.

Soldiers receive treatment for IED injuries
Enjoying socialized medicine
while defending your freedom.
Photo by the US Army
Ironically, when I was a child my health care was free because I was a military dependent and the US military enjoys the finest in socialized medicine while fighting to keep our country free of socialism. I never could figure that one out. Some have been offended by my characterization of the US military's doctors, government-paid and operated hospitals and complete "cradle to grave" free health care for military personnel and dependants as "socialized", but I honestly can find no definition of socialism which doesn't cover this situation (lest anyone forget, the US military is a branch of the US government). Mind you, this is not a criticism of the excellent health care the US military provided for me and my family. I'm just pointing out that sometimes we need to step back and put things in perspective.

Compare the Dutch "everyone must have insurance" system to the mess in the United States. They have so many problems with their health care that the government has tons of public programs to try and plug the gaps:

  • Medicare, generally covering citizens and long-term residents 65 years and older and the disabled.
  • Medicaid, generally covering low income people in certain categories, including children, pregnant women, and the disabled. (Administered by the states.)
  • State Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance for low-income children who do not qualify for Medicaid. (Administered by the states, with matching state funds.)
  • Various programs for federal employees, including TRICARE for military personnel (for use in civilian facilities)
  • The Veterans Administration, which provides care to veterans, their families, and survivors through medical centers and clinics.[66][67]
  • National Institutes of Health treats patients who enroll in research for free.
  • Government run community clinics
  • Medical Corps of various branches of the military.
  • Certain county and state hospitals

Before you think about moving abroad, check out the health care system of your target country, its costs (always lower than the US) and its outcomes (usually better than the US). And stop getting your news through profit-driven corporate media and find out the truth for yourself.

1. This is a naïvety which is breathtaking, to say the least, but one which is enshrined not only in US political thought, but in astoundingly popular, yet foolish, economic theory (why the hell hasn't the Chilean disaster and the Soviet transition to "capitalism" put the lie to the Chicago School fanatics?)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cultural Humiliations

Warning, the following has strong language. There was really no way I could get my point across without it.

Black Pete is lovin' it
Is McDonald's lovin' this?
Photo by Andrew Yee
People often don't believe me when I say this, but I've experienced more cultural awkwardness in the UK than the Netherlands. That's because here in the Netherlands, I expect things to be different. In the UK, it kind of crept up on me.  My first few months in the UK were one faux pas after another. I'm talking about serious mistakes, not minor gaffes. I escaped unscathed largely because the British people understood that our cultures are not the same. In those few months I flipped off one of the bosses, offered to masturbate for a friend's girlfriend and asked our exquisitely beautiful office manager — in front of our HR director no less! — if she knew what a "pussy" was.

I'm not going to explain the context of those situations because that would kind of kill the point of highlighting the importance of knowing another culture. Suffice it to say that many Americans who've watched an episode or two of Monty Python come over here and think they "understand" Britain. After Canada, the UK is probably those closest country to the US in terms of both politics and culture. We were part of the UK, for cryin' out loud. However, I strongly expect that many Americans could have watched me in the various offending situations above and not realized I had done anything wrong.

If you're moving to another country, remember that you are the foreigner, not them. More than once I've watched Americans berate staff because — gasp — things are not the same as their ignorant asses were used to in the US! What? You didn't want to pay for the water with your meal? You should have asked for tap water. Bottled will be assumed. You're upset that the restaurant didn't offer table service? Many of them will have numbers on the table and you're expected to order at the bar and give your table number. No waiter/waitress is going to come by. Or my favorite (so to speak) was watching two American women in Albert Hijn (a Dutch grocery store) scream at a clerk because they didn't realize that they had to weigh and label their own fruit and vegetables (er, this was a decade ago and I don't know if that still applies).

Empty plates - Demitri's Feast
Who would have thought this
is rude in some cultures?
Photo by avlxyz
Some cultures require you to eat all of the food on your plate to show that you enjoyed the food whereas others require you to leave a bite to show the host that you had enough food to eat. Some cultures require the main guest to start eating first and others require the host to begin. In the Middle East, some countries expect you to only eat with your right hand. I grew up thinking eating with the back of the fork was somewhat lower class, but this is common practice in Europe as is eating with the fork in the left hand instead of the right as the US does.

And honestly, before the shoe was thrown at Bush, how many of you knew that showing someone the sole of your foot was a strong insult in many Arabic nations? I certainly didn't.

I don't care how easygoing you are, it's worth your while to study your target country's cultural practices and at least get to know the taboos. You may just save yourself considerable embarrassment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Working Remotely

I was recently contacted by someone who wrote the following:

> I've been reading your blog for awhile now and I've got
> the moving bug as well. I own an independent website
> content writing service that I could do just about
> anywhere as long as I had an internet connection and a
> phone.

> I wanted to inquire as to how difficult it is to find
> a place of residence and if you think the time difference
> would affect my business. Also, thought it would make
> for an interesting blog post.

Montemarte: Nighttime Stroll
Having to work in a different timezone
might mean skipping this nightime
stroll in Montmartre, Paris
Photo by edlimphoto
I responded with the following:

I've been trying to put together a short article about this and yes, it would be a fantastic post because I know you're not the only one thinking about this.

The timezone issues are difficult. I know many large companies who wind up having staffing halfway across the globe to deal with timezone issues. If you're moving from New York to Venezuela, you probably won't have too much of a problem. If you're moving from New York to Singapore, things could change.

  • How often are you on the phone?
  • Do your customers really want to pay for an international call?
  • Do you want to pay for that call? (Less of an issue with Skype)
  • Do customers expect email to be answered in a timely fashion?
  • What are they going to think when email is answered at 2AM, their time?
  • If they find out you're living in Slovakia, will this cause issues?
  • Could you legally find local customers?
  • How reliable is the local phone/internet?

One way you could potentially test some of the time issues is to start "living" in a new timezone now. Pick one or two small clients (or whatever you think is appropriate), figure out a likely timezone for yourself, and start dealing with those clients like you're in the new timezone. Is there a reaction? You can back out quickly if there is, but if you've damaged your reputation, you may have lost a client or two.

Being able to work remotely is clearly one of the best options for living abroad. Even if you can't legally accept a job in Germany, you could go there for a couple of months, still earn money, and then move on to another country. If my wife and I ever had to move to a country where I couldn't find work locally, I can always get remote work.

Even if you don't yet have a remote job, they are available. The problem is that most of the "I made €2,000 a month working from home" jobs are scams. Dig for reputable positions and you can make something happen. Three sites for helping you find working from home jobs are Rat Race Rebellion (they authored the book at left), Work at Home Moms and Work Place Like Home. You probably can't afford to live in Monte Carlo or London with these jobs, but you could probably afford to live in Nottingham, the first UK city I lived in. Many flats in Nottingham are only £250 to £450 a month!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Language Difficulties

I knew this could happen, but I expected it years from now.

My wife and I were cleaning out a walk-in closet on the ground floor and moving everything to a first floor cupboard¹. We needed to make room for the pushchair (stroller) so that life would be easier when the baby arrives. I pulled out a basket of shoes and noticed that several of them needed minor repairs and my wife mentioned that she was going to take  them to a ...

Monza Grand Prix
While we're on the subject, I want these shoes
She's French and simply didn't know the word in English. I'm American, but I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know the word in English. I did, however, know that the word she wanted was schoenmakerij in Dutch. I was flabbergasted. I don't speak Dutch and my studies of it have been haphazard at best, but I always try to read Dutch signs and pick up little pieces here and there. I only noticed schoenmakerij (shoemaker) because I thought of the word schoonmoeder (mother-in-law) and — not noticing the misspelling — wondered if they were related.

In this case it's a fluke, but I know that when I first met my wife, we were on a picnic one day and she said "sunburn" in English, but couldn't remember the word in French (coup de soleil), her native language. My father has a similar problem. He's an American who's lived in Germany for decades and while still fluent in English, often finds that due the love of cooking he developed while in Germany has left him knowing the German for many cooking terms and not knowing the English equivalent. It's led to some strange conversations where we he tries to describe the thing he's talking about and I just give him a blank stare.

And if you're wondering (you're not, I'm sure), the above shoe belonged to a pleasant Italian gentleman and the photo was taken while my brother Greg, our friend Tom and I were at the Grand Prix in Monza, a small town outside of Milan. I have photosets of this trip here and here.

1. Unlike in the US, the first floor in Europe is generally the first floor above the ground floor, the second the next floor, and so on. So my office at work in on the fifth floor, but Americans would refer to it as the sixth floor in the US.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Two Typical Dinners

My wife and I were worried that she wasn't going to be able to make dinner with friends last night as we had dinner with friends the night before and as she's in her eighth month of pregnancy, she was pretty tired. Fortunately, we made it out and had a great dinner with two Canadian expats and commiserated about the difficulties expats and their spouses face abroad.

The night before that, a friend from London called up and announced she was in town and would we join her and others for dinner? There were six people at dinner and their nationalities were:

  • USA
  • France
  • Namibia
  • Sweden
  • Irish
  • Denmark

And unlike in the US, there was very little talk about our home countries because it's just so normal to have so many nationalities grouped around the same table (depending on your source, Amsterdam has around 175 to 178 nationalities living here).

I love being here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Guest Post - What it's like to teach in Korea

After yesterday's post about the bad part of teaching English (TEFL) in Korea, I thought it was only fair to (finally) have this guest post from Andrew Leonard about his first-hand experiences in teaching English in Korea. He has a great blog about his experiences and it turns out that he's also a talented photographer. He's now trying to leverage his teaching English in South Korea into a teaching position in France. I wish him luck!

I'll shut up now and let Andrew speak for himself (this post is lifted, with his permission, almost verbatim from this blog entry):

Guard in the winter [EXPLORE]
Guard in the Winter
Photo by Andrew Leonard - Used with Permission

Let me just start by saying that I love living in Korea. Just about everything adds up to make for an awesome experience. Examples:
  • There are a ton of things to do even if you live an hour or two away from Seoul. If you're an outdoorsy person, you're lucky since Korea is 80% mountainous and there is a lot of hiking to be done.
  • The pay is good. Eating out every single day and taking cabs several days a week, and drinking one night out of the week, you can still save around $1000 per month. You can save $800/mo if you're more liberal about your spending. I keep telling people that your overall salary is not a good indicator; sure, in Japan you make more money, but Japan is insanely more expensive than Korea.
  • Things are cheap. A dinner out by yourself should cost you no more than $5, or about $8 for a huge sushi dinner. A BBQ dinner with a beer or two out with friends averages about $8-10. A Western-style lunch or dinner at what's considered a "fancy" restaurant will set you back $15-20. If you're working at a public school you get lunches and the cost of about $2.50 per lunch is deducted from your salary.
  • Food is healthy and fresh. You don't see many prepared foods here, and everything is a lot healthier than American foods. I know some vegetarians and they have a hard time here, but that's because Korea will serve you a salad with bacon and call it vegetarian. Vegetarianism is a very foreign concept here. Even a lot of Kimchi is made with seafood products and most soup broths are meat-based.
  • Public transit is amazing. a 2km cab ride is about $2.25 and I've spent as little as $18 for an hour in a cab in Seoul traffic. The train is insanely cheap (about $1.40 for a trip as long as 2 hours in many cases), and city buses go everywhere. "Limousine" buses are cheap and will get you across the country and back for around $30 round-trip. So, travel within Korea is amazingly affordable and consistently so.
Things I don't like about living in Korea:
  • You get made fun of for trying to speak the language. English is butchered a lot more by non-native speakers than Korean is by non-native speakers. So, it's hard to get taken seriously when you try to speak Korean even if the people you're talking to don't speak any English. It's not always like this, but it's an annoyance at times. Tolerances for understanding bad pronunciation are also very low because Korean pronunciation is A) hard and B) rarely attempted by non-Koreans.
  • There's xenophobia and racism. Most people are nice, but I've been turned away from restaurants or charged more because I'm a foreigner. It doesn't happen a lot but I remember each time it has happened. It's not because you're American, or because you're white, it's because you're not Korean. This is a very old and complicated issue.
And then there's the teaching....

As an inexperienced teacher you don't get a lot of support. Most GETs here are more or less ornamental fixtures in the school, and you really have to develop a rapport with your school (which means staying more than a year) to really get your kids and your staff to take you seriously.

You get paid to sit on your ass a lot, and then you get paid to deal with horrible kids as well. Your mileage varies a LOT depending on where you are and the English ability of your students and co-workers. I have friends who've had far worse experiences and I have friends who've had much better experiences than I. My experience I think is pretty much middle-of-the-road as far as teaching goes. I also teach middle school, which is just about the hardest possible age group you could ever hope to teach.

Maybe they're not too different after all?
Photo by Andrew Leonard - Used with permission

There's a layer of bureaucracy and distrust that serves the employer to control the GET and basically annoy the hell out of the GET at the same time. Communication issues are unavoidable at times and you are often left with a lot of WTF days.

That said, the good days outnumber the bad days. I'm not staying a second year at this public school, because I know that I could get a better gig in Seoul (I'm in Incheon) teaching at a private school. My location away from Seoul and my teaching situation leave me with some angst that prevents me from wanting to stay another year. However, I have a feeling I may be back in a year or two because the expat community here and the standard of living are both very excellent. It's a comfortable life if you can put up with the job.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The bad part of teaching English in Korea

Sooner or later, anyone who doesn't have a college degree or highly sought after skills and wants to live in another country considers teaching English. If you are properly TEFL certified (and particularly after you get some experience under your belt), there are many places in the world you can travel to. Currently, South Korea is the "hot spot" for the TEFL community because a relatively "modern" (by Western standards) culture and often TEFL teachers make good money.

However, at least one individual begs to differ.

From my research this seems pretty extreme, but the various incidents described can happen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Seeing the world via cruise ships

There's nothing quite like a cruise ship holiday. Though I've only been on one (to Bermuda), it was great. Of course, the fact that I went with some of my closest friends (and became friends with more, including at least one in Wales who reads and comments on this blog) probably helped. The ship itself can be quite relaxing, there's always something to do — though shuffleboard and lounge singers aren't my style — and if you factor in all of the costs, it's often far cheaper than a regular "hotel" vacation.

Disney Wonder Cruise Ship
Photo by Mr. Thomas
But what's it like to work on one? This might be your way to see the world and actually get paid for it. Unfortunately for you, many people think the same thing and the jobs are very competitive. Just a quick search engine check for "cruise ship jobs" shows tons of links, many of them to companies of rather dubious provenance. In researching this for you (hey, that's what I do!), I've found that generally you should avoid those sites as they're often scams trying to take your money; cruise lines generally have more than enough applicants (and high turnover) and you should just apply directly to them. Just search for "cruise ships" on your favorite search engine and you'll find the ship lines directly.

There are some definite upsides to working on cruise ships. First, the very point of a cruise ship is to take people to interesting, exotic locations; they're not going to take you to Hoboken. Second, your room and board are paid for. Salaries aren't mind-blowing, but you have very little to spend it on. On board, there's often a Crew Bar with cheap drinks and cigarettes and a crew's mess for free. You don't have to do your own laundry and your rooms will be cleaned for you. Some lines even consider spouses working together on a ship!

A bay near the dock.
From my Bermuda Cruise
The downsides, though, are tough. First, you're often working 45 to 60 hours a week, seven days a week. When you want to relax, some lines let you have access to passenger areas while others do not. You will probably have to share a small cabin without so much as a porthole. To top it off, you have plenty of passengers who will simply assume you're little more than their personal slave to order around and abuse.

To better flesh things out, here are some articles from various sources about life working on a cruise ship:
Were I single and in good health, I'd definitely give this one a try for a while. Even if I couldn't stay in those exotic locales, I could save money and at least start to get some ideas of what the rest of the world might be like.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Seeing the world as a nomad

This weekend, my wife and I were down on Utretchstraat in Amsterdam. They've a lovely selection of restaurants, including one which I can't bring myself to eat at. They claim they're a Mexican restaurant. Having grown up mostly in Texas, I miss good Tex-Mex food and if you love it and move to Europe, you'll miss it too. I make some pretty mean enchiladas. I'll have to see if I can find the ingredients.

Is it possible? Can you really travel for free? The short answer is "yes". The long answer adds "... if you're a masochist with an extreme tolerance for adventure." Some initial expenditures can go a long way to making life easier for you. I'm not going to pull punches, though; it's often a hard, painful experience. Obviously, this one is for people who aren't planning on leaving permanently. Some people think of it as being a "nomad" or a "vagabond", but the word "homeless" isn't too far from the truth.


Paradise still sucks
when you're homeless
Photo by Scott Hudson
I was standing in a Wendy's fast food restaurant, rooting through the trash looking for a relatively clean coffee cup and one of those weird, orange-colored styrofoam plates. Having found them, I put them on a tray and walked up to the cashier and asked for refills because Wendy's was running a special on free refills of french toast (free coffee refills were standard). The person behind the counter looked at me dubiously because frankly, when you're homeless, it tends to be pretty damned obvious. Fortunately, most people strive to avoid confrontation and I received my free breakfast. After all, this was Hawaii and some tourists look pretty shabby.

When people find out I where I was homeless, they often say "oh my God, but you were in Hawaii!" My response: "try it."

Until you've been homeless, you have no idea how hard it really is. You can't keep clean, you can't "hide" being homeless and no one wants to look at homeless people, much less talk to them. Your only other friends tend to be homeless people and from my experience, they're a sad lot indeed — though some of them have amazing stories of how they happened to get there.

So what does this have to do with living/travelling in another country? I've a friend who bought a ticket to the UK several years ago and "missed" the return flight home. He squatted in London, hitchhiked across France, got beaten up and had his backpack stolen in Paris and the police weren't interested in helping a homeless American bum. Still, people have dreams of hitch-hiking across Europe and they sometimes think of the Travellers or Gypsies with an air of romanticism due to their nomadic lifestyles.  Hitchhiking across South America can be a wonderful experience (I've a friend who did it for a few months), but there's a good chance you'll be sleeping rough, longing for a shower and discovering that the police don't care much what happens to bums.

It might sound like an adventure, but honestly, many "adventures" are only adventures after the fact — though these are often the most memorable adventures of all.

Understanding the Nomad Lifestyle

Homeless and cold
The reality of being a "nomad"
Photo by Ed Yourdon
If you insist that being a nomad is the way to go, then you can start with no money (effectively being homeless), save up a lot of money and learn to budget like you never had to before, or have a source of remote income (maybe a friend who sends you $100 a month). No matter which route you go, it's going to be rough, but obviously the "no money" route is the most difficult for a couple of reasons. First, you have no money for food. Second, many countries won't let you in without a return ticket home and they might demand evidence of your ability to support yourself while you're there. You're also often asked where you plan to stay while in the country. Showing up with a backpack and looking scruffy can easily get you pulled over and questioned. If your intended destination can't be contacted or doesn't acknowledge you're staying there, you are likely on the first plane back home (note: call your destination and verify that they'll confirm you're staying there. There's a guy in our office who wasn't let in to Sweden because the hotel lost his reservation).

In other words, if you go this route and have to fly to your first destination, by a round trip ticket and have a place to stay during that time. This doesn't mean you'll be flying back on your return ticket (and honestly, they're very unlikely to notice at first), but you need to look normal (side note: the round trip tickets are often cheaper than one way tickets). You can also check out an "open return" ticket. You'll need to contact your airline for this. They're much more expensive, but they allow you to change your return date without cost. Very handy if you don't know how long you'll be gone!

If you're homeless while travelling, you might very well find yourself in a very dire situation. However, if you're completely destitute and you're an American, even though the US State Department doesn't mention this directly in their "financial emergencies" FAQ, they can loan you money to get home, but you'll not be able to use your passport again until you repay the loan.

Shelter, Food, and Travel

Next you'll need to figure out where you're going to do this. This is tricky because the richer the country, the better the pickings for you if you go dumpster diving. The poorer the country, the further your limited supply of money will get you.

First you need to decide if you're going to be sleeping rough (outside) or trying to find free/cheap places to stay. I would advise extreme caution about sleeping rough, particularly if you're female. I made it work in Hawaii by hiking a couple of miles outside of town almost every night. On the nights I was too tired to leave town, I was far more likely to get hassled by police and once I found myself fleeing a man who exposed himself to me and decided to give chase when I ran (fortunately, I escaped). If you go this route, try not to do it alone (though I can tell you that this can stress a friendship more than anything you can imagine).

If you don't care for sleeping outside, you can check out to try and get free places to stay, but I've heard people saying it's a very hit or miss experience. You can also read this detailed review of and alternatives. Basically, there are people all over the planet willing to give you a free place to stay because they're looking to meet new and interesting people. This can be a great thing, but if you can't see any potential downside here, you're probably a wee bit too trusting.

Dinner is served
Photo by Tal Bright
As mentioned, you really don't need a place to stay, but you do need to eat. So you can try dumpster diving. That link explains the ins-and-outs of dumpster diving and it also has UK and Europe specific guides. Depending on where you are, you can actually eat very well off of people's leftovers (supermarkets often have great pickings) and that can save you a ton of money. I would personally avoid the charities which give out free food (unless you're desperate) because those are really for people who are legitimately in need and your love of adventure means you put yourself in this position. Remember that if you're dumpster diving and you find food, you'll often find several days worth.

Also, to get both food and shelter, check out WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Created in the 1970s, WWOOF is a world-wide network of organic farms who offer volunteers food and shelter in exchange for help on the farm. As usual, Wikipedia provides a useful summary of WWOOF.

After several luxurious days of sleeping in a park and dining on stale bread, you're probably ready to move on. Your feet are the most reliable sources of travel. A bike is nice, but you have to carry supplies to repair it and there's the constant worry of theft. Another think to consider it hitchhiking (again, I didn't say this would be easy! Learning to hitchhike is harder than you think. You're not going to have much success in the center of town and if you look like a scruffy, homeless bum, that's not going to help either.

Here are some basics for hitchhiking:

  • Look clean and friendly (smile!)
  • Make eye contact with drivers
  • Try roads leading out of town
  • Don't get in a car if you feel uncomfortable
  • Ask people at rest areas, traffic lights and gas stations
Again, I don't necessarily recommend this, but if you die, don't come complaining to me!


This might sound stupid, but you can train for this. You'll be walking a lot, so pack everything you plan to take with you into a bag and walk with that. I read a book about a man who walked around the world, but in all of his training he forgot to carry a full pack and quickly had to discard most of it. Don't do that! Go for hikes with that full pack and make sure you know what you're getting into. Try spending a couple of weekends alone in a local environment similar to what you're expecting and see if you can survive. Remember: take no money. Try dumpster diving in a "safe" environment first.

At the very least, you'll need:
  • A bedroll
  • Container for water
  • First aid kit (and any med supplies you might need)
  • A change of clothes
  • Rain poncho
  • Spoon, fork, knife, plate, cup, bowl
  • Emergency contact information
  • Pocket atlas (since you'll be travelling a lot)
Don't bother with a tent. More often than not, you won't bother to set it up. However, you might want something to pull over you if you're sleeping in the rain. You also might consider a writing journal (with waterproof pouch) and a supply of pens. You might think you'll never forget what's happening, but you will. Also, a couple of books you don't mind re-reading will likely help. You're going to be bored much of the time.

You'll probably want a lot more than that, but how much can you carry? Particularly if you haven't eaten for a while? Also, buy the best, most rugged gear you can afford for all of that. If you bought a cheap rucksack and it's falling apart a month into your trip you're going to be pretty unhappy. And if you bring a watch, make it a wind-up or put in a fresh battery before you go.

Should you do this?

For most people, I would say "absolutely not". You honestly cannot imagine how hard this is unless you're actually doing it. By then, it's too late. However, if you have to get out and see the world and you have no money or skills, you can still make it happen. You just have to do it the hard way.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Pub

Maggie Miley's Irish Pub
Typical Irish Military Output
Photo by Charles Taber
Not going to be too much of a post today as my company took all IT staff and their partners out to an Irish pub last night. It was O'Donnells on Heinekenplein (I'm unsure if they named the square after the beer or its creator) and I have to say it was Just Another Irish Pub — albeit with bitterballen. Notice how cities around the world aren't guaranteed to have, say, English pubs? Or Dutch pubs? Or Australian? It's always Irish pubs. Why is that?

My pet theory is that the Irish are planning on taking over the world and these are their advance locations.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A difficult part of being an expat

When I lived in the US, I had two close friends, a married couple, that I used to hang out with all the time. I would housesit when then went on holiday. We went to Burning Man together. We shared many an excellent meal and had great times together.

Now she's fighting breast cancer and it looks serious. I'm thousands of miles away with a new job and a baby on the way. I can only wish them well from afar. Obviously my "difficult part" is not nearly as bad as theirs, but it's difficult nonetheless.

Mark and Jenn, all my love.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

US versus Dutch crime rates

Prison corridor with cells inside Alcatraz main building san francisco california
Home for almost 1% of the US population
Photo by Tim Pearce
Yesterday's "Hookers and Pot" post became the most popular post of the week in just a few hours. I suspect that's because it's the aspect of the Netherlands which most people are curious about and familiar with. However, I also suspect that it's part of the whole "how are things different?" aspect. It's worth noting, though, that Abigail posted some rather interesting commentary:
Note though that the overcapacity in prison is only very recent. It's only a few years ago criminals were send home early due to lack of prison space. It's not just a drop in crime rate (or rather, a drop in the number of convictions, which could have multiple reasons), it's also having build more prison cells than needed in the past decade. The call for more prison cells was drug related: there were so many drug runners flying into Amsterdam that many that were caught got a plane ticket home instead of being booked.
Being new to the Netherlands I didn't know this. Now according to many people, it's keeping more people in prison that reduces crime, so if we're sending people home early due to lack of prison space, then we clearly must have more crime, right? Naturally the situation isn't that simplistic, but I thought I'd do some digging.

For the following table, each statistic is per 100,000 people for the USA and the Netherlands.

United StatesNetherlands
Car thefts387.9233.6
Teen Suicide (15-24 years)13.76.8

Congratulations USA for totally kicking the Netherlands' tail in embezzlements.

If you keep digging, you find that the Netherlands still has a fair amount of crime, but not as much as the US and there's relatively little violent crime. In fact, I find that I can walk down the darkest alleys and streets late at night here in Amsterdam (the most "crime-ridden" city in the Netherlands) and I feel perfectly safe.

So how's incarcerating almost 1% of your citizens working out for you America?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What's up with the hookers and pot?

When you say "Amsterdam", many people think of some drugged-out, sex-crazed city, as suggested by Bill O'Reilly, a topic I mentioned in a previous entry. But is that Amsterdam? Culture means something a hell of a lot different if you actually live somewhere. For Amsterdam, culture for young college types is often "pubs, hookers and pot," for more mature visitors, it's "restaurants, museums and pot," and for residents it's "work, friends, and pot."

If you're sensing a theme, it's deliberate, but honestly, the aspect of Marijuana is completely different on the inside than the outside. Most people in the Netherlands don't smoke pot or do any (illicit) drugs at all. However, it's an inescapable part of the politics and frankly, if you live here, you can't walk around without smelling it periodically. It's omnipresent.

This Is Marijuana
Threat to society?
Photo by Taber Andrew Bain
Here's the big secret, though: while many people outside of the Netherlands are unhappy with our prostitution and drugs, many people inside of the Netherlands are also unhappy with our prostitution and drugs. The difference is that they're more unhappy with the crime associated with outlawing it. Others like to moralize and shake their fingers at the Dutch, but the Dutch have first-hand experience with the before and after and they know which they prefer.

The Dutch are often a rather conservative people. As per their Calvinist background, they tend not to brag, they work hard, they prefer consensus, and they'll accept drugs and prostitution if they think that causes less harm to their society than the alternative. Got that? It's not an emotional thing with them. They're not standing up on a moral high horse and preaching about the evils of these things (well, most aren't). They're simply looking pragmatically at society and asking what works. They're very keen on the concept of harm reduction.

If you've noticed anything at this point, it's that we're not talking about a 24-hour party culture. In fact, the Dutch are largely the opposite of this. It's pragmatism which led to their decisions. And has it worked? Well, the Dutch certainly think so.

Amsterdam Red-Light District at Night - 2
Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District
Photo by Nicholas Doumani
Prostitution is a highly emotional topic and it can be hard to find objective information about it. Most of the information I've read starts looking at prostitution in light of a particular worldview and imagines if it's good or bad. However, the overall situation is extremely complex. I suspect even most die-hard Libertarians would feel uncomfortable with a scantily dressed street walker waiting outside an elementary school hoping to pick up fathers dropping off their children.

Because prostitution is such an emotive topic, I won't cover it further here, but drugs are a touch safer (in terms of discussion). In the Netherlands, rather than having complicated drug classifications that other countries have drawn up, there are simply "List I" and "List II" drugs, colloquially known as "hard" and "soft" drugs. Both groups are illegal, but the latter is "decriminalized" and you generally won't be prosecuted for using them. The distinction between the two groups is simply whether or not there is an "acceptable" risk of physical harm or addiction.

The results of their liberal drug laws are pretty clear-cut: they have a lower consumption of drugs per capita than other European countries. They don't have a lot of drug-related crime and very little "nuisance" associated with drugs. Further, while the US has more prisoners per capita than any country on the planet — a trend which started when Ronald Reagan decided to step up "the war on drugs" — the Netherlands is shutting down prisons for lack of criminals and renting out prisons to Belgium. In fact, I could cite a lot more information, but it's simply too easy to find it for yourself; whatever the Dutch are doing, it works.

Further proof that the Dutch aren't simply pleasure-seeking hedonists is the news that they're considering making "coffee shops" only available for residents and Amsterdam has been trying to scale back the red light district. There is simply no way the Dutch are going to give up their laws in these areas — they're convinced they reduce harm — but they're also going to keep tinkering to try and further reduce harm. It's an astounding pragmatism which I think is a perfect example of Dutch character.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Peace Corps

When I was younger, the Peace Corps conjured up images of struggling in a mud hut in Africa and feeding starving children. There's a reason the Peace Corps is often referred to as "the toughest job you'll ever love." However, it's not just Africa, though much of it is. It's also Thailand, Eastern Caribbean, Romania, Fiji and many other places.

What's nice about the Peace Corps is that you're not only helping people in need, you also get a short-term taste of what it might be like to be an expat — albeit in an undeveloped area — and you don't have to worry about rent, food, utilities or other aspects of life while you're doing it. Whether you're helping a local school set up a computer network or teaching English in Guatemala, you'll have a two-year assignment and then can come home with a few thousand dollars in your pocket.

Chilemo - Workshop for Peace Corps Volunteers - November 2010
Forestry management in Ethiopia
Photo by Trees for the Future
Not everyone is eligible to join the Peace Corps. The requirements vary, but generally they're looking for people with four year degrees (not always, but 90% of their positions require a Bachelor's degree) and a background which is useful in helping developing countries. It helps if you have volunteer experience (30 hours or three months) and husband and wife teams can go together, but they both have to be qualified and there has to be an opening for both of them at the same time. You can read up about Peace Corps requirements to see if you're a good fit and figure out if you want to go.

What you really want to know is what being in the Peace Corps is really like on a day-to-day basis. If you can't answer that, it's tough to figure out if this is an opportunity you want. Fortunately, the Peace Corps Journals is a collection of journals from Peace Corps volunteers. Their stories are fantastic and you can start with this lovely little blog entry from a volunteer in Morocco explaining what a "PCV" is.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Nothing to do with Amsterdam :)
Photo by William Cho
There was a huge fireworks display over Amsterdam last night, but not by the city. The people did it themselves. I'm pretty damned certain that last night's fireworks would have been illegal in the US. Very impressive!

We spent the evening with six Dutch people enjoying dinner, champagne, oliebollen and fireworks. I'm spending the morning nursing a touch of a headache and Leïla is trying to sleep in. I think this is going to be the start of a fabulous year for us.

In other news, someone's pointed me to a recipe for homemade Hamburger Helper. I'm definitely going to have to try this on some night that Leïla isn't eating dinner!