Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Germany: Blue Card Applications Now Being Accepted

Frankfurt, Germany skyline
Frankfurt, Germany
Photo by Jens Meyer
Just a quick note: Germany: Blue Card Applications Now Being Accepted. I have written about the German Blue Card when it was announced, but now it's for real. Get a job offer, apply for the card and you're in!

Particularly for you high-tech types, Germany is very attractive and its economy is still going very strong.

Also, I've just started a Google+ Page for Overseas Exile. If you're on Google+, follow the page!

Monday, July 30, 2012

July 2012 quarterly list of US renunciants

The quarterly list of US renunciants has been published for July, 2012 (pdf, xml). I am highly suspicious of this list. First, only 189 people were reported as having renounced and this is one of the lowest numbers in years (it should have been at least twice this number). Given that people are saying they've renounced and their name is not showing up on the list and others reporting long waiting lists to get a renunciation appointment, I simply don't find this list very credible. I also wonder about "John Joseph Bentley" and "John J. Bentley", both of who are reported to have renounced.

I don't know if this is deliberate political tampering with this list or if it's just inefficient bureaucracy, but I find it highly unlikely there are only 189 renunciations (unless people have wised up and started relinquishing their citizenship instead of renouncing, thereby skipping this list).

My software has flagged several interesting names and I'm sending emails to people to verify (I won't report results unless they give me permission). Others, such as Chris Moonkey Nam are already known to have renounced their citizenship.

As an interesting side note: I was thinking about how many Republicans wanting to define life as beginning at conception. Since the US recognizes jus soli, are they going to start screaming about "anchor embryos"? Tourists visiting the US for their honeymoon could conceive on US soil and conceivably (hah!) give birth to US citizens in their home countries.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Must you tolerate another culture?

Eric Raymond related an interesting historical tidbit from Britian's colonization of India.

In the 1840s, Sir Charles Napier was the commander of the British forces in India. Hindu priests approached him, upset that they were no longer allowed to burn widows alive on their husband's funeral pyres, a practice known as suttee or sati. Sir Napier responded:
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.
This incident is related in the History of General Sir Charles Napier's Administration of the Scinde¹ (the book is now in the public domain and can be downloaded as an ebook).

Women in Afghanistan wearing a burka
Cultural differences or oppression?
Photo Wikimedia Commons
Or consider the famous case of the Etoro tribe of new Guinea. Young boys (as young as 12) must perform oral sex on the older men of the tribe to receive the "gift of semen". This gift allows them to grow up to be strong men.

Now think about examples closer to home. Saudi Arabia denies women the right to travel, study, or work without permission of a male guardian. Gay rights are non-existent in Saudi Arabia and churches are not allowed because freedom of religion is not tolerated. In Niger, though slavery is still technically illegal, it's still practiced openly. Iran still puts people to death for being gay.

Regarding Eric Raymond's posting of the interesting story of the Hindu priests, I think we can all agree that Napier's response was brilliant, but it also shows the absurdity of too much multiculturalism. While I strongly support multiculturalism, there does come a point where we have to draw a line in the sand and say "enough!" There are limits to tolerance. Even if you were open-minded enough to dwell among the Etoro and and accept their culture, how would you feel if you were presented a little boy and told to give him the gift of semen?

Yeah, that's what I thought. It's OK  to say "I can't do this." That's not too far removed from "I can't support this."

But where do you draw the line? I can't tell you that because it's different for every person, but I can tell you one thing: cultures matter more than even the most tolerant of us would think. Specifically, the further a culture is from your own, the more likely it is that you will not succeed as an expat. If you want your dream of living abroad in another country to live, then you will need to research carefully if you get a dream opportunity in a place you've never heard of. Some expats discover that merely having too much bureaucracy is enough for them to hate a country. Discovering that you will be served bugs for dinner might be too much.

I suspect this is why almost 40% of respondents to my last expat survey said they wanted to move to Europe.

Update: Simon Cozens is a missionary in Japan and he recently made an excellent blog post about his cultural experience there. Very relevant!

1. Sinde, in this case, appears to refer to Sindh, one of the four modern-day provinces of Pakistan.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Accustomed to life in Denmark

Today's guess post comes from Tess Pajaron, who shares her experience in Denmark. I've written a bit about the Danish Green Card and having been to Copenhagen twice, I can tell you it's lovely. That being said, Tess doesn't touch on the cost of living there, which is quite high.

The photos are from Tess's personal collection and are used with her permission.


When I was younger, like many of you, I dreamt of moving overseas one day. I had traveled the world with my family, seen the diversity and fell instantly in love. So to move to a new location where I would be surrounded by new experiences, new cultures, and of course a new language, seemed like nothing but a thrill to me.

My last year of University, I finished out my studies in Marketing and International Business at the Copenhagen Business School. Here, I lived with a host family and found myself a Danish boyfriend which allowed me to become full immersed in the culture of this incredible country. In fact, I loved it so much that I found a job and was hired to do international marketing at a Danish firm specifically to the American market. For just over a total of three years I lived in the capital of this incredible country and found my way in a unique but wonderful culture.

If you have ever dreamt of moving to Scandinavia, there are some important things to know about the country to help you get accustomed to life in Denmark.

Get a Bike

In Denmark, bikes are used far more than cars. In fact, the center of the capital of the country closes down on some days to car traffic and only bikes or pedestrians are allowed. Denmark is also home to the world’s longest walking street. The Danes value the non-motorized modes of transportation and with everything so close by getting around is usually not a problem. Public transportation is also superb in this country so you should have no problem getting to anywhere that is a bit further than a bike ride away.

If you cannot afford a bike at first, city bikes are available for free. Simply find a rack (they’re all over the city) and place your 20 kroner coin in the slot. This will free the bike. Once you have finished riding, return the bike to any location and you will get your 20 kroner coin back. The country values bike riding and has developed wide bike lanes to help people get around in this popular mode of transportation.

Learn the Language

The Danes have admitted that it is often times very difficult for them to make new friends. Because the culture in this small country of only 5 million is so tightly knit, there is somewhat of uneasiness among befriending foreigners. In my experience, this uneasiness was easy to overcome in just a few ways.

  • Learn the language
  • Show them you are learning the language
  • Use language to get more involved with their culture

Understandably no one wants a foreigner coming in and changing their country to their ideals and ignore the rich history this region has to offer. Their language is very important to them and is closely tied to their culture. If you make no effort to learn the language and expect that just because the vast majority of the country speaks English you won’t have to learn, you are very wrong.

Learning the language shows a respect for the Danish culture and will quickly drop any walls of fear held by Danes allowing you to become closer to them in immerse yourself better in their culture.
For foreigners, a free language course is offered through something called Studieskolen. This is a great place to start and allows you to meet other expats, as well as Danes who have an interest in helping others learn about their great country.

Be aware of potential visa challenges

This country has been said to be one of the hardest to get into in the world, and from my experience that is true.

In the 1970’s, this socialist country opened up their doors and gave anybody who wanted a new home a place to live. This led to many people coming from poorer countries and living off the generosity of the government without integrating into the culture or learning the language – yet another reason why a foreigner learning Danish is so important. This quickly caused the government to close their doors and while they are slowly loosening the reins on who they will allow in, it is not easy.


This singular term is the best way for any expat to fully understand the Danish culture. It is a non-translatable word, but most closely it means ‘Cozy’. Danes love their time spent with friends and family. They eat dinner for hours at a time without a rush to the television set (except when there is a big soccer game). They get together and have a ‘hyggeligt’ time together. The sooner any expat fully learns what this feels like, and any Dane will be glad to help with that, the sooner they will feel accustomed to life in Denmark.

Tess Pajaron is part of the team behind Open Colleges. She has traveled to many different countries and loves to explore various cultures and histories. She can be also seen on her social media profile at Google+.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What it's like to be an American in China

I listened to this at lunch today and it was fantastic. It also makes me curious about moving to China for a while. I suspect my wife would be less than thrilled, though.

So why should you listen to it? Well, if you're an American, there's a damned good chance that you have as little knowledge of China as most Chinese have of America. This is a great opportunity to try and understand, just a little bit, what it's like to live in a truly foreign country.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Walk Through Paris

At two million people, Paris isn't really a terribly large city. Of course, it's over 12 million when you count the metropolitan area, but inside the Boulevard Périphérique (the road around the city), it's small. That being said, when I say "small" I mean "I lived in London for years", so your mileage may vary.

We live in Les Lilas, on the north east border of Paris and almost every day I walk to work. I'm fortunate that it only takes half an hour and I like to vary my route to see a bit more. On Friday I veered north a bit, smack dab in the middle of the 19th arrondisdement, yet still in Belleville. Up until the mid 1800s, Belleville was still an independent commune in France, but was eventually annexed by Paris. It has a long history of being a rich mix of different cultures and is the home of Édith Piaf (who?).

I took a few pictures along the way. I think they're lovely and show off some of the charm in Belleville, a charm that is largely missing from much of Paris.

You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.

Interestingly, I can't really remember if these are really that different from US buildings. I only left the US six years ago, but it seems a lifetime ago.

And finally, our friends David and Julie have been visiting from the US. David took a picture of my daughter at the park.

Friday, July 20, 2012

ING France turning away US customers

Instead of the quiet "I'm sorry, but we can't help you", ING in France is now publicly turning away US customers for some financial accounts:

A savoir
Déjà client ING Direct ?
Connectez-vous sur votre espace client pour une souscription plus rapide.
Information « US Person »
Si vous êtes une « US Person » au sens de la législation américaine, vous ne pouvez pas souscrire à notre Compte Titres ou notre PEA.
En effet, le Groupe ING a choisi de ne pas appliquer les règlements fiscaux du Ministère Américain des Finances, ce qui ne nous permet plus la commercialisation de contrat de Compte Titres ou de PEA aux « US Person ».
Nous vous remercions de votre compréhension.
L'équipe ING Direct.

What means means, more or less, is "We're happy to open new securities accounts to anyone who isn't a US Person."

This is because of FATCA, the US law that tries to force every other country in the world to turn over their banking information to the US. I've been hearing repeatedly of people being turned away for bank accounts because they're an American. This is the first time I've seen a bank go public with this, so I decided to look for more. Here's the Royal Bank of Scotland's "US Person Disclaimer"(emphasis mine):

US Person Disclaimer
Important information for US Persons!
The offering, sale and/or distribution of many of the products or services described on this website is not intended in any jurisdiction to any person to whom it is unlawful to make such an offer, sale and/or distribution, including the United States. If you intend to obtain any product or service from The Royal Bank of Scotland N.V. ("RBS") that is described on this web site, you must first inform RBS N.V. whether you are a US Person or if you would not be allowed to obtain such products or services from RBS N.V. in your home jurisdiction.
This website and its respective contents do not constitute an offer or invitation to purchase or subscribe for any securities or a solicitation of any offer to sell any securities or any other banking product or service to US Persons. Any brokerage and investment advisory services described herein are not intended for U.S. Persons. Furthermore, any solicitation on this web site of retail banking services (including accepting and/or soliciting deposits), insurance services, mortgage and/or consumer lending services or credit card services is not intended for U.S. Persons
"US Persons" are generally defined as a natural person, residing in the United States or any entity organized or incorporated under the laws of the United States. US Citizens living abroad may also be deemed "US Persons" under certain rules.
Neither RBS N.V. nor any of its affiliates accepts any liability whatsoever for any loss howsoever arising from any use of this website or its respective contents or otherwise arising in connection therewith. RBS N.V. cannot be held responsible for any damages or losses that occur from transactions and/or services in defiance of the relevant rules of the purchaser's home jurisdiction.

ANZ Bank in Hong Kong is also denying services to Americans. They have identical text to the above, but it substitutes "ANZ" for "RBS".

And the Canadian Banker's Association is warning US Person's about the legal consequences of being American:

I am a U.S. person. What does FATCA mean for me?
If you are a U.S. person, you may be asked to complete IRS Form W-9 (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification) which will be kept on file at your financial institution. You may also be asked to provide consent to your financial institution to provide the IRS with personal and account information.
If you do not complete IRS Form W-9 or provide your consent to disclose information to the IRS, your financial institution maybe required to withhold a tax of 30% on any U.S. source payments1 that you receive and send this money to the IRS. Also, your financial institution may refuse to open an account or may be required to close existing accounts.

I've actually been finding a lot of these running around.

This is not discrimination: this is self-protection. All the bank has to do is misidentify one financial transaction which is "US source income" and they're subject to a 30% financial withholding of all US source income and they'll have to file paperwork with the IRS to get the money back, even if they have no business in the US. This could potentially bankrupt financial institutions who accept Americans.

Also, note that this says "US Person", not "US Citizen". This is because the US has a pretty sweeping notion of who falls under its jurisdiction. If you're a foreigner who used to live in the US and pay taxes there, there's a good chance that you're a "US Person" and the US will demand that your bank turn over your information to the US if you have enough money in the bank.

I'm still unclear how making life harder for Americans abroad helps Americans at home.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

MBA Scholarships for International Students

Photo by Mitch Bennett
Just a quick repost about MBA Scholarships for International Students. Getting a university degree in another country (particularly an MBA) is one of the surest ways of being able to remain in that country.

Many countries are limiting immigration, but they still want skilled workers. If you want out to another country, this is one of the surest ways of doing it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Move to Austria with the Red-White-Red Card

Ronacher Theater, Vienna
Austria now offers the Red-White-Red card, a pathway to permanent immigration. It went into effect on July 1st, 2011 and is designed to attract skilled workers to settle in Austria. It targets the following groups:
  • very highly qualified workers
  • skilled workers in shortage occupations
  • other key workers
  • graduates of Austrian universities and colleges of higher education
  • self-employed key workers

"Key workers" is a common term referring to people who (usually) work for the government in essential areas such as postal delivery, medical personnel, traffic officers, and so on.

Wiener Schnitzel is delicious
Why would you want to live in Vienna? Well, the 2011 Mercer Quality of Living Survey lists Vienna as having the best quality of life in the world and having been to Vienna twice, I am not surprised (the US barely made it into the top 30 with Honolulu). Vienna was also listed as the fifth safest major city in the world (no US city made the top 50).

Oh, and the Austrian unemployment rate was at 4.3% in January of this year, about half of the US 8.2% unemployment rate.

If the "graduates of Austrian universities" category attracts you, be aware that the University of Vienna charges non-EU students a whopping €416 a semester.

Yes, you read that right. Here in Europe, government generally recognize that education is important, so it's strongly supported by the governments (except for the UK). I've also written about how you, as a foreigner, can study in Germany or Norway without paying tuition. It's not a trick; it's how governments work over here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Creating a New Expat Survey

In my ongoing attempt to understand the US diaspora abroad, I want to create a new USA expat poll. My last poll and its results were over a year ago and it was focused quite heavily on my audience¹ This time, I want to focus on US expats for the simple reason that I want to capture one interesting bit of information: what's their US political affiliation? So far it seems skewed away from Republican, but others claim that "Republicans aren't joiners". So I have a twofold goal: design a useful poll and spread it as far and wide as possible. Obviously, internet polls have an inherent bias, but lacking any other way of capturing useful information, I'd rather settle for some rather than none.

This is all a very rough draft and the final poll won't look like this. I would love to have feedback on what I should include or exclude and where I should distribute it.

Personal Information
  • Gender
  • Age
  • What state/region did you last live in?
  • What state/region would you most consider your "home" state?
  • Occupation
  • Annual income
  • Education level
  • What were your primary reasons for moving abroad?
  • What political party would you say most closely fits your personal views?
  • Current employment
  • Marital status
  • Nationality of partner/spouse
  • Primary language spoken with partner/spouse
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Do you still vote in US elections?
  • Who do you plan to vote for in the 2012 Presidential election?
  • Which, if any, of the following expat groups do you follow or belong to?
    • ACA
    • AARO
    • Democrats Abroad
    • Republicans Abroad
    • Isaac Brock Society
    • Local expatriate group
    • Other
Your Current Country
  • What country do you currently live in?                                                                                                                                            
  • How long have you lived in this country?
  • When did you leave the US?
  • Why did you leave the US?
  • How many countries have you lived in?
  • Which countries?
  • How well do you speak the local language?
  • How well do you read the local language?

Relationship to the US
  • How likely are you to return to the US?
  • How likely are you to acquire citizenship of another country?
  • How likely are you to give up your US citizenship?
  • If you do, why?
  • How often do you visit the US for other than business reasons?

Financial (need more here)
  • When you first moved abroad, were you aware if your US tax obligations?
  • How did you learn of your US tax obligations?
  • Have you missed filing your taxes?
  • Have you ever been turned down for a foreign financial account due to your US citizenship?
  • Have you had to file an FBAR?
  • Have you had to file form 8938 (under Fatca)

1. As of this writing, Overseas Exile is ranked about 189,000 on Alexa stats. That's pretty damned good for a niche blog!

Friday, July 13, 2012

All men are created equal, so long as they're loyal

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Wikimedia Commons
This article from the New York Daily News states that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is absent from congress with a "mood disorder". Now that sounds pretty serious and I wish both Jackson and his constituents a speedy recovery.

Regarding exactly what type of mood disorder is involved, the article has this tidbit:
... the statement noted that information about Jackson’s treatment is protected under federal law by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA (sic).
I think that everyone has a right to privacy regarding their health issues. It's troublesome when your elected representative has a mental health issue requiring treatment but that appears to be pretty rare (notice how I'm not even going after the low-hanging humor fruit).

So why is the above tidbit interesting to me? Because the HIPPA the article refers to is actually the HIPAA, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This act comprises two parts:
  • The protection of your health insurance should you change your job
  • The privacy of your health information.
In fact, your privacy under this act is so sacrosanct that the US Department of Health and Human Services HIPAA portal focuses on privacy first, and portability later. They even have privacy in the URL! It's serious business, folks.

If you're an expat, there's a good chance you'll smell a whiff of hypocrisy here.

Since 1996, there's been a legal requirement to have the IRS publish, in the Federal Register, the names of those Americans who have chosen to expatriate (in the sense of "renouncing citizenship). Where did this legal requirement come from? Section 6039G of HIPAA (as noted in the previous link, but misspelled in almost every Federal Register).

Why does a health insurance law so focused on privacy have a completely irrelevant provision to violate the privacy of expats?

Welcome to being an expat.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

IRS offers reprieve to expatriate tax filers (sort of)

This could have been a huge announcement: IRS offers reprieve to expatriate tax filers. In fact, I think it's a very positive step, but there are some issues.

Tax Return - 1040
Photo by 401(K) 2012 (www.401kcalculator.org)
For those who haven't been following along here's what's going on.

If you move from California to New York, you may have failed to notice something that didn't happen. Specifically, California does not come after you for income taxes for the rest of your life. Why not? Well, why are taxes collected? Taxes are collected to offset the costs the government incurs for providing you services. If you're forced to pay money to a government and receive nothing in return, this is called paying tribute, not paying taxes. In my case, I've lived in Texas, Louisiana, Washington (state), Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska. If all of those states were to chase after me for taxes, I'd go bankrupt just paying for the tax preparation, not to mention the taxes.

I have also lived in Japan, the UK, the Netherlands and now France. Can you imagine if I had to pay taxes to five countries and six US states? This would completely shut down large portions of the world economy as people would be incapable of leaving their home countries and multinational businesses would suffer greatly.

This is why countries tax people resident in their countries. Residents receive the services, expats do not. Except that there are two countries that do tax their expats: the dictatorship of Eritrea and the United States.

Except that even with the USA, there's an interesting problem: we expats were never told of this. In fact, it wasn't until the last issuance of our passports that there was even a mention (in small print at the back) that we were liable for them. Having lived abroad for years, I've been in US consulates several times and I was never told of this legal obligation, nor had I ever seen notices to this effect. Surveys that I've read and numerous news articles reinforce this point: We simply had no idea that, with the exception of the Eritrea, the US is the only nation that taxes their citizens abroad (actually, they try to tax foreign nationals too, but that's another post).

Lately there's been a lot of talk about taxation and many expats are finally learning that they're subject to them. Fortunately, I already knew about this and I file my taxes with Expatriate Tax Returns, but not everyone has been so lucky as to know about the issue.

Please note that I am not a lawyer or accountant, so do not consider any of the following to be legal advice!

That's where the IRS "reprieve" comes in. Basically, if you didn't know about your tax obligations, you can "come clean" if you file your past three years of taxes and past six years of missing FBARs (Foreign Bank Account Reporting). From the IRS publication:
While more details will be forthcoming, taxpayers utilizing the new procedure will be required to file delinquent tax returns, with appropriate related information returns, for the past three years and to file delinquent FBARs for the past six years.  All submissions will be reviewed, but, as discussed below, the intensity of review will vary according to the level of compliance risk presented by the submission.  For those taxpayers presenting low compliance risk, the review will be expedited and the IRS will not assert penalties or pursue follow-up actions.  Submissions that present higher compliance risk are not eligible for the procedure and will be subject to a more thorough review and possibly a full examination, which in some cases may include more than three years, in a manner similar to opting out of the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program.
To qualify as low risk, if you owed $1,500 or less for each of the three years, you should be fine. Except ... (emphasis mine):
In general, the risk level will rise as the income and assets of the taxpayer rise, if there are indications of sophisticated tax planning or avoidance, or if there is material economic activity in the United States. Additional risk factors include any additional history of noncompliance with United States tax law and the amount and type of United States source income. Additional information regarding the specific factors the IRS will use to assess the level of compliance risk, and how information regarding those factors should be presented in the submission, will be released prior to the effective date of the new procedure.
Hello! Thank you for being vague. What is "sophisticated tax planning"? And what does "the amount and type of US source income" mean? This procedure goes into effect September 1st, so if you're delinquent on your taxes, you've probably already missed the deadline for this year (unless you have an approved extension), so do not file your taxes before September 1st! (Again, contact a lawyer or tax preparer first! Do not trust my advice).

I think this is a very welcome move by the IRS, but to date they've made it clear that they don't really care that no one was told about the laws they're enforcing, the  IRS has reneged on previous promises to fix the situation and they've been terrifying 70 year old grandmothers. If you're going to accept the IRS's offer, be very careful.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Expatriate Tracking Software

I am rather delighted that I have now turned in the final edits for my book and the proofs are starting to come back. This means that, for the first time in almost a year, I have free time (how the hell did I keep this blog going?)

So what do I do with my free time? I write software, of course. And I'm using it to track you. No, that's not quite true. I'm using it to track people who have renounced their citizenship under section 6039G of the HIPAA act (damn, I've memorized that now). They're reported in the Federal Register and I've download their data and am slowing beating said data into shape. Here's a sample record (listed here because it's well known that Eduardo Saverin renounced his US citizenship):

The basic process works like this:
  1. I add the records for all renunciants per quarter.
  2. I run code that does a heuristic check to find out if the person is "newsworthy".
  3. I refuse to share this data.
Much of this turns out to be an extremely tedious process because the renunciation data isn't structured very well. I'm not going to say exactly how I did this because I don't want to violate people's privacy. If you want to duplicate this, you'll have to start from scratch. As a result, this software and the offsite backups are probably not going to be made public.

So why am I doing this? My intent is to slowly compile a list of expatriates whose voices might be powerful enough to have an impact on the expat debate. I want to try to contact them and confirm their identity. If they agree, I want to interview them and post that here. If they ask for privacy, I will respect that (in fact, I've already started building that into the software). I don't want to cause anyone grief, so no one will be "outed" without their consent. I've already kept quite about one name because the person asked me to.

I have to say that reading through the list of potentially newsworthy expatriates is fascinating. There are some names showing up that have surprised the hell out of me once I started reading about who these people might be, but my heuristic checks are pretty spotty since all I have is a name to go on. There aren't going to be too many false negatives, but there are a lot of false positives. Frankly, I love hacking on data (that's probably why I'm a computer programmer) and this is just fascinating as hell. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

I still can't find Republicans abroad.

About seven months ago I wrote a post entitled No Republicans in Europe? and wondered why I couldn't find Republicans here. It's not to say that there aren't any Republicans abroad, it's that I generally couldn't find many who weren't over here on a work assignment. A Republican who moves abroad to discover the world is a rare creature indeed. I've met two (that I know of) in six years in Europe.

As it turns out, the groups Republicans Abroad (RA) and Democrats Abroad (DA) are both on Facebook. Apparently, RA was on there almost a year before the DA page. As of this writing, RA has 316 likes with 17 "talking about this" and DA has 14,619 likes with 2,680 "talking about this".  While hardly scientific, the Democrats Abroad group which started later than the Republicans Abroad group has almost 50 times as many members. The DA page is active with lively discussion. The RA page has tumbleweeds.

More to the point, an early post to the RA Facebook page has this interesting post:

No, I am not surprised.

I've actually wondered if Republicans Abroad really exists or if it's just a front organization trying to make the Republicans not look like a bunch of head-in-the-sand isolationists. Here's the Democrats Abroad sign up page. I am not a Democrat, but I joined anyway. The email is sometimes interesting and often useful (particularly when I am alerted to some new tax punishment the US is handing down to expats). The sign up process is simply filling out a form and clicking submit. It's quick, easy, and free.

Here's the Republicans Abroad sign up page, reproduced here in all its glory:


Please Print and fill in the following form:

How Were You Introduced to RA_______________________________________

Name of Spouse__________________
Home Address_____________________________________________________
Country __________________________________________________________
Home Telephone:________________
Email address:_____________________
Office Address ____________________________________________________
Office Telephone: ______________________ Office Fax: ___________________
Please Send Info to (Tick one) ______ Home ________ Office
City and State of Last Registered Voting District __________________________
Spouse – City and State__________________________________________
I am a US Citizen _______ Yes ____________No
Membership Categories
Presidential $ 5000 ________ Envoy $250___________
Ambassador $1000 _________ Sponsor $100____________
Diplomat $500 __________ International $50__________
I Am Willing to Help Republicans Abroad With:
Membership_____ Fundraising Special Events______
Mailings_____ Newsletters/Websites___ Voter Registration _____
State Liaison ___ Public Events ________ College Liaison _______
Credit Card Number____________________________ Card type amex/visa/mastercard
Expiry Date_____________
Please print and send this form, along with your Cheque in US Dollars Made Payable to:
Republicans Abroad International, 2445 M Street, NW, Suite 3103, Washington, DC 20037

Is this thing a joke? The minimum you can pay is $50? And what's that for? A month? A year? Lifetime? And you have to print out the form and mail it? This is positively hostile to getting people to sign up. That might be the point.

I see there's a small amount of activity on the French RA page and I wish I could have attended that dinner they mentioned. It would be interesting to find out if Republicans in Europe are anti-science and global warming deniers as their counterparts back in the US.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How I Accidentally Ended Up Working Abroad in Northern England

Today's guest post is from Kelly Dunning. She contacted me a while ago about writing one and this sounded like a great way to capture the spirit of adventure that many expats share. If you make up your mind to go, this could be you.

Adventures in Accrington: How I Accidentally Ended Up Working Abroad in Northern England

What do you say when the sexy and confident Englishman that you met only a few months before while travelling New Zealand asks you to come back to the UK and live with him?

Kelly and Lee on a Jeep safari in Portugal
If you are me, you say, “why the hell not?” and end up on an unexpected 14 month detour to the small Northern town of Accrington, Lancashire.

In the autumn of 2009 I left my home country of Canada to spend six months working and travelling abroad in New Zealand. I had no idea that it would be nearly two years until I set foot on Canadian soil and that my adventures would take many twists and turns along the way.

The first twist in the story is when I laid eyes on Lee.

I got a job in New Zealand as a tour guide at Napier Prison, which was the oldest prison in the country and a popular tourist attraction on the east coast of the North Island. The site hasn’t been a prison for decades and it now hosts backpackers and offers tours of the historic jail cells.

When I arrived as a young and bewildered traveler one September evening and walked into the staff lounge, Lee was sitting on a table dressed in a prison jumpsuit and covered in ghoulish makeup and fake blood in preparation for a scary night tour event. Despite this somewhat creepy first impression, I was immediately fascinated by his rough Lancashire accent, his irreverent demeanor and his completely disarming confidence.

Over the next month we both started seeking each other out to spend time together, eating at Burger Fuel, swimming at the Ocean Spa and taking walks together in the Botanic Gardens. Then, our travels took us in different directions for six weeks although we kept in contact with one another.

Kelly and Lee hiking in Alberta, Canada
The second twist in the story came in December, when we both ended up in Christchurch at the same time. We both wanted to get jobs and rent an apartment and for a couple of months and decided to share a place to save money, which is how we ended up living together before we were even officially a couple!

After a few months of working, living and partying in Christchurch, Lee had to go back to England. Neither of us had discussed whether our travel romance could turn into a long term thing, but we both knew that we were on to something good. When he suggested that I apply for a working holiday visa to the UK and come with him I knew that if I didn’t, I would have always wondered how it would have turned out.

It turns out that saying “yes” was the best decision that I have ever made. I ended up spending 14 months living in Lee’s hometown of Accrington eating steak and kidney pie, watching football matches and taking care of cute little kids at a daycare (or nursery as they call it over there.) The visa was very easy to obtain and it allowed me to work in England for 12 months. I fell in love with the UK; the history, the culture and the gorgeous architecture and countryside. I made lots of great friends and felt like I was accepted as part of the community.

During our time in England, Lee and I decided that what we really wanted to do was to travel the world together, so I started to build up an income as a freelance writer, a job that I could do from anywhere in the world. It took a lot of hard work, but we soon were able to travel from the money that I could pull in while working on the road. We cut down our possessions to only what we could carry on our backs and we set out for adventure.

Since then, we have relaxed in the Algarve region of Portugal, stuffed ourselves with pasta in Rome, backpacked our way across Canada, survived a winter in Newfoundland, stayed with a New Yorker in Brooklyn, visited Lee’s brother in Virginia, listened to Jazz in New Orleans, and toured the monuments in Washington. As I write this, we are in Bangkok, Thailand on a new quest to see the wonders of Southeast Asia.

My experience taught me to be open to what life throws at you. I could have said “No” when Lee asked me if I wanted to apply for a working holiday visa and come back with him to England. It was a risk and there were many ways that it could have gone wrong. However, it was worth taking the risk because everything worked out even better than I could have imagined. Not only did I have a wonderful experience working abroad in the UK, now we are fulfilling our dreams of traveling the world!

Living and working abroad involves taking a lot of risks and requires you to leave the familiar behind and leap towards new possibilities. When you go abroad, don’t be afraid to let your heart make a few important decisions as you just might love where it leads you.

Author Bio

Kelly Dunning is a writer for Global Visas, the world’s leading authority on immigration and your best source for UK working holiday visas. She is also a coffee-lover, very bad singer and international pub quiz winner. She wrote this guest post from an open air café in the heart of bustling Bangkok with the buzz of tuk-tuk engines and the smell of frying noodles in the air.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reminders of World War II

On a plaque affixed to the front of a boy's school in Paris I walk past every day:

The plaque reads:

A la mémoire des élèves de cette école déportés de 1942 a 1944 parce qu'ils étaient nés juifs. Victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicite active du gouvernement de Vichy. 
Ils furent exterminés dans les camps de la mort.
And in English:

To the memory of the students of this school deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish. Innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.
They were killed in death camps.
We constantly see these reminders of the horrors of war. I wonder how the US would be different if it had experienced these horrors on her own soil and had these reminders everywhere?

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Real Difference Between France and the US

If you were to ask me the major difference between France and the US, I would have to answer "France is a democracy".

NAJAF: Election day
At the ballot box.
Photo courtesy Al Jazeera English
I'm not kidding. Nor do I mean this in the sense of those pedants who correct you when you refer to the US as a democracy by replying loftily that "the US is actually a republic."¹

Not much voter choice in the USA

Consider the US Congress. According to the US Census Bureau, since 1975 the US Congress has never had more than two members who were not a Republican or Democrat. For four of those years, Congress only had Republicans and Democrats. With 535 politicians controlling legislation for the entire United States — and impacting the rest of the world, to boot — it's worth wondering if never having third parties representing more than one half of one percent of said politicians is truly representative of Americans?

With more than two-thirds of Americans say they would vote for a "third party" candidate (and half saying a third party is needed), it's interesting to note that the term "third party" seems to imply that there should be a fixed number of parties rather than "parties should exist to reflect the will of the people." Many people in American would vote Green, Socialist, or Libertarian if they had the choice (many Libertarians run as Republicans, though), but doing so is seen as throwing away your vote because your candidate can't win.

The US political system is due in part to something called Duverger's Law which asserts that a "winner-take-all" electoral system like that of the United States tends towards two-party systems. This tends to lead to low voter turnouts and interesting issues where Bush, in 2000, became President even though only one quarter of the eligible voters voted for him (and, of course, the electoral college allowed him to win even though he lost the popular vote, and that's ignoring the Supreme Court issues).

To understand more about why third parties cannot succeed in the United States, you can read this excerpt from the book Third Parties in America. In particular, I point you to this interesting point about even getting your name on a ballot:
The Democrats and Republicans have constructed a maze of cumbersome regulations and procedures that make it difficult for minor parties and independent candidates to gain a spot on the general election ballot. Whereas major party candidates automatically appear on the ballot, third parties must petition state election officials to be listed. A candidate whose name does not appear is obviously disadvantaged: voters are not cued when they enter the polling booth; it is difficult and at times embarrassing for a voter to cast a write-in ballot.
Ballot access was not a problem for third parties in the nineteenth century, because there were no ballots as we now know them. Prior to about 1890, the political parties, not the states, prepared and distributed election ballots (or "tickets," as they were called), listing only their own candidates. Party workers peddled their ballots, usually of a distinct color and shape, at polling stations on election day.
This undermines the argument that the US has had successful third parties in the past and therefore can do so again: the Republicans and Democrats are quite happy to ensure that they are the only game in town.

It should be clear that in the United States, where the game is clearly rigged against third-party candidates, it's hard to truly claim to be a democracy if you think of a government where the will of the people can be exercised by voting. Americans regularly mock single-party "democracies", but as one Brian Wisti points out, the US has a 1.5 party system. Though my view is somewhat unpopular, I view Republicans as on their knees, fumbling at the zippers of major corporations whereas the Democrats meekly ask that the door be closed first.

Perhaps most telling of all is President Obama, despite admirable intentions of trying to stop some of the worst excesses that happened under the Bush administration, found his hands tied by even the Democrats refusing to support him because they wanted to be re-elected and couldn't come across as being "soft on terror".

Or if you really want to be depressed, read this detailed Princeton study demonstrating exactly why the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy and then watch this video which clearly summarizes and explains the Princeton study:

Not perfect, but France has plenty of voter choice

France is different. Though not having proportional representation (the voting system that I think best represents the will of the voters — both good and bad, but that's a democracy!), France uses two-round voting. In this system, you vote for any candidate you like in the first round, secure in the knowledge that you're unlikely to be throwing away your vote. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a second "runoff" round of voting is held where you vote for the top two candidates. The system is not perfect and France also has two major parties, the Socialists (who are still in favor of capitalism) and the Union for a Popular Movement (the UMP), a center-right party. However, they also have the New Centre, the Communist Party, the Radical Party, the Radical Party of the Left, the Green Party, the Democratic Movement and many others.

Due to the two-round voting system, the French government usually forms a coalition government whereby minority viewpoints actually get represented. It's far from perfect and yes, like a proper democracy, groups that you don't like actually get to be heard, but at least there is choice. Now compare that to a campaign ad from the last major third-party Presidential candidate to be given serious consideration in the US:

US campaign finance is horribly corrupt

In what's becoming a regular occurrence, a man and his son-in-law hastily set up dummy corporations to each funnel one million dollars to Mitt Romney's SuperPAC. Under US law, this is not a crime. In the now infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations (and unions, but they tend not to have as much money) are allowed to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent political activities. They can't just give this money to Romney, but as long as the Romney's SuperPAC doesn't coordinate directly with Romney (nudge, wink), everything is just fine.

So all you have to do is get a million dollars, set up a dummy corporation, give the money to the corporation who in turn gives it to an "independent" political organization. Then you dissolve your dummy corporation. Were you to give your money directly to the political organization, it would then be a crime.

Does that make sense? Of course it doesn't, but it now means that the megacorporations in the US dwarf anyone else's political power. In a country where Presidential campaigns must burn through hundreds of millions of dollars to be viable, the $20 dollars you mailed in are meaningless.

France campaign finance is relatively restrained

It's expected that the Romney-Obama battle will cost about one billion dollars. In a recent Time Magazine article describing France's recent Presidential election, they revealed that the top two French Presidential candidates spent $54 million between the two of them in 2012. There are no SuperPAC's, corporations and unions are forbidden to fund their desired candidates, and spending your way into power is much harder. From the article:
For better and worse, France puts égalité in politics before the liberté of candidates to invest big bucks in mass marketing displays of what little fraternité they feel for one another. Indeed, flesh-flaying attack ads frequent in U.S. elections are illegal under French rules. Not only is buying French airspace for political commercials forbidden; so is disparaging rivals in any electoral advertising that is allowed. Turning a campaign around with an effective but expensive Willie Horton, Swift Boat, or Morning In America adjust isn’t an option in France.
Presidential candidates must get 500 mayors in France to support their candidacy and, if they do, they get the same amount of space to advertise publicly, same amount of free airtime, and strict laws are in place to ensure the media treats them fairly, whether they are the front runner or a guaranteed loser.

And the icing on the cake: on election day, it is a serious crime to report poll results early. No more manipulating those numbers to encourage groups of voters to stay home.

I actually think a lot could be done to improve the French democracy, but so far, it's a damn sight more fair than the US. If I had to characterize the US political system, I would describe it as a plutocracy with a thin varnish of democracy to make it more palatable to voters. There is, quite frankly, not much that is appealing about the current state of the US political system. By traveling the world and seeing it first hand, you get a shocking sense of just how bad things have become.

1. Invariably this "correction" does little to serve the conversation at hand and seems designed solely to impress.