Rachel: Defining Moves
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to San Francisco, etc.
I'm a 'trailing spouse' from Wales, who has spent the last 12 years shlepping kids, dogs, cats and a dinner service through three continents, five locations and countless schools. In the process, I gave up my former career and (in an attempt to regain some sanity and preserve the pitifully few remaining brain cells) started a blog. I have lived in San Francisco's East Bay for the last 2 years, and can usually be found roaming the Briones Regional Park with my motley assortment of dogs and friends.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started Defining Moves a year ago, because after 5 moves, I was frustrated that I couldn't find the information and help that I wanted easily. Judging by the emails that I receive, I'm not alone, so we try to discuss issues, give practical advice and provide a starting point for people who are expatriating. And hopefully, a laugh or two.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
On the life and laughter side of things, I love "Expat Parenting" for the reality of family life; from the expat perspective, my favorites are "9 Essential Questions Every Expat Partner Should Ask" because I wish someone had told me this stuff, and "Expat Communication With Friends and Family" for the way it reflects the emotional highs and lows we all go through.
Tell us about the ways your new life in San Francisco differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Life in San Francisco is not so different from life in Wales - dominated by the school run, the not insignificant food consumption of teenage children, and the unreliable weather. Happily, it's sunnier, we have easy access to Regional and National Parks, and San Francisco City is wonderful. Ironically, of all our postings, Kenya felt most familiar (it's a former British protectorate, so road signs, driving and the way of life have a distinctly British flavour), whereas Los Angeles felt like I had landed on a different planet.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in San Francisco? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
By the time we hit San Francisco, we had done enough moving around to know the basics;
- Do a preview visit which involves looking at neighborhoods, not individual homes, and find a few that you feel 'at home' in, and that has schools that you like.
- Get all your records in paper, in person, and in your hand. And then copy them, scan them, photograph them and email them to yourself. The amount of form filling is immense, and having immediate access to every single piece of paper saves time, mileage and repeat appointments.
- Use your destination consultant (if you have one) for all the tricky stuff like driving license, employment authorisation, social security numbers and school admissions etc., rather than for viewing homes. Most realtors / estate agents are more than happy to tour homes with you and can answer neighborhood questions, and are a useful resource for local businesses and services. Save your DC hours for the tricky stuff.
- Get a GPS. We've even named ours. She's called Doris, and she's my best friend.
- Get out and about immediately. The earlier you start saying hello to people, the quicker you feel at home.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
There are so many - I seem to attract disaster at every turn. The most surreal was waking up in Los Angeles after a 26 hour flight from Nairobi (there weren't any direct flights in those days), and being told that my driving assessor was waiting in the foyer. I trudged downstairs, only to be greeted by an Elvis impersonator, who proceeded to conduct the entire test in character. There are some things that no amount of cultural orientation training can prepare you for...
How is the expat community in San Francisco? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
No - I was adopted almost immediately by the new parents group at my daughter's school - mostly made up of expats. I also have developed the unfortunate habit of striking up conversation with almost anyone, and those with an accent are even more at risk from my attentions. My kids cringe in horror.
How would you summarize your expat life in San Francisco in a single, catchy sentence?
A chaotic, fun-filled, friend-fueled, dog-loving, open-air international traveling circus.