Deirdre is a Canadian expat to many countries — Grand Cayman, Belgium, Ireland, France, Switzerland, and Spain — which is certainly more than the average expat. Deirdre, her husband Bruce, and her children first left Canada in the mid 90s for Grand Cayman to experience life the way many of us wish we could — by visiting a foreign country and not leaving for a long, long time. When Deirdre and Bruce first left home, they brought along their sons Alex and Andrew (7 and 5 years old at the time). After spending two years in Grand Cayman, the family moved to Brussels, but only to return to Canada to provide a more stable environment for their boys. As time passed and Alex and Andrew grew up and flew the coop, Deirdre and Bruce set out on the road for good — first stop…Galway, Ireland.
Why did you decide to relocate to a new country?
Why not? We live on such a diverse, interesting, beautiful planet. I want to experience as much of it as possible. You can’t truly experience another culture buy going to a city for 2 weeks and traipsing from one tourist trap to the next. Or the dreaded this-is-Tuesday-so-we-must-be-in-Paris bus tour.
“You have to love Swiss efficiency.”
As you know, moving to a new country for an extended period of time can present a whole host of legal challenges. As such, if you want to be an expat, you’ll unfortunately have to navigate a lot of red tape…
How did you navigate the legal/immigration issues of the move? Was it easy/difficult?
That depends on the country and year. Can you imagine trying to register your children for school in a foreign language before google translate? Or trying to navigate a strange city before maps. Thank goodness for smartphones is all I can say. But even the best smart phone can’t help you overcome every red-tape nightmares. My husband and I spent 9 tortuous months in Paris trying to navigate the archaic French bureaucracy before finally giving up and moving to Switzerland. Within the first week in Switzerland we had our residence permits, health insurance and drivers licences. You have to love Swiss efficiency.
Once you get passed the immigration hurdle, supporting yourself in your new country is another challenge. Some countries are so strict that unless you are a citizen in that country, you can’t legally work. So as you can imagine, I was naturally curious about how Deirdre planned to make a living…
Did you have a way to earn a living when you first moved? If so, how did you secure that opportunity?
My husband works in IT and always had a job lined up before we moved. Our first move was in the early 90s. It involved many hours in a research library looking through phone books for each country we were interested in living in. He then faxed his resume to the relevant employers. These days it’s much easier. Most of the time he can work remotely from the cockpit of the boat.I help run a small charity that I co-founded in response to the current European refugee crisis. Skype, email and WhatsAp are the tools of my trade. We are truly digital nomads.
So, what about that small charity? After prodding Deirdre some more, she shared that she is the Co-Founder of an amazing charity called foodKIND.
foodKIND is a small 100% volunteer-run charity that runs a community kitchen project in a refugee camp in Greece. The organization empowers the residents to cook for themselves by providing equipment and food, as well as leading the children in sports, games and educational activities. foodKind gets no government, EU or corporate funding so they rely on social media and grassroots fundraising. foodKIND’s goal is to fill the gaps that aren’t being met by the Greek army or the big NGOs. Because they are small, they don’t have a fancy head office in Geneva, they don’t have staff, their volunteers cover their own expenses for travel and accommodations, but it means the money they raise has a much greater impact. Their webpage is foodKIND.org and they have a Facebook page as well.
When it comes to getting used to your new digs, Deirdre relies on her family, friends, and confidence to get through some of the tough times…
How has your experience been with assimilating to a new culture? Were there language barriers? Culture issues? How did you overcome them?
Each time gets easier, at this point I am pretty damn good at hitting the ground running. The most important thing is to make friends and make them as soon as you can. Friends will help show you the ropes and commiserate with you when you are homesick. There are amazing organizations out there to help. There are all sorts of international organizations, women’s groups and meet-ups. Try not to live in an Expat bubble but make local friends too. If you do find yourself in an Expat bubble at least make it a divers one.
How did you decide on the area/neighborhood in which you lived?
We always moved to temporary furnished apartments while we got to know the new place we were living. The most important aspect for me was always the view. I didn’t want to move half way around the world only to look out my window and wonder if I was still in Toronto. It’s important not to rush into signing a lease before you really get to know your surroundings. Now that we live on a sailboat it’s much easier. If we don’t like our neighbourhood, we just untie the ropes and sail away.
A sailboat? Yes, a sailboat. Deirdre informed me that she and her husband now live on a sailboat off the coast of Spain and will soon be sailing to Portugal…
When I first met Bruce, he was 23 and dreamed of living on a sailboat and traveling. He soon traded in his dream for a wife, kids, minivan and a mortgage. When we lived in Toronto we bought a sailboat for weekends and holidays. We moved aboard while downsizing in preparation for our great escape. I always knew that one day I would live aboard a sailboat because it was Bruce’s dream but I was surprised by how quickly I took to the lifestyle. It forces you out of the consumer driven society we are all immersed in and makes you value experience over possessions. It also makes you acutely aware of your carbon footprint.
When we moved to Europe we sold our sailboat with the idea that when we retired we would buy a sturdy seaworthy vessel and sail off into the sunset. A few years ago, I lost my sister at the age of 42. It makes you take stock of your priorities and we started to wonder why we were waiting for retirement. If your careful, living on a sailboat can cost considerably less than living in Switzerland. Bruce works in IT so he is lucky enough to be able to work remotely with a laptop and a good cell phone signal. I am the Director of Operations for foodKIND, my tools are skype, email and WhatsApp so I can work anywhere. We started doing some calculations and realized that Bruce could work in the winter months and we could sail in the summer. It was settled, we gave notice to employers and landlords, bought a used minivan and sold up anything that wouldn’t fit in the mini-van. Last October we hit the open road in search of a boat. We found Rollon in Brittany, France. We moved aboard and spent the winter on the River Vilaine. In the spring we sold the minivan and headed across the Bay of Biscay for ports south.
Do you have any regrets about your experience as an expat? What do you wish you knew before you made the move?
When our children were young they were having a hard time assimilating in Belgium. We moved home for the sake of the kids. I often feel that the kids would have benefited if we had just stuck it out but at the time I didn’t want to see my kids unhappy. Other than that I don’t regret a single move especially the one to the boat. I’m typing this as the gentle waves lap against the boat on a quiet lagoon on the west coast of Spain. What’s not to love?
Lastly, when I asked Deirdre if she ever plans on moving back home to Canada, she responded with a perfect statement…
Plan? What’s that? Canada will always be our home, but we don’t believe in making plans. We like to take life as it comes.