Cultural Low Bridges [—at A Life Overseas]

September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t quite fit in.

At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.

I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”

When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”

And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.

During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.)

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

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33 Clickbait Headlines for Expats—Number 12 Will Make You Gasp [—at A Life Overseas]

December 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

Giorgi - Shocked

Normally, clickbait headlines are created simply to grab clicks—and clicks and clicks and more clicks. But you can’t click on the titles below, since there aren’t any stories linked to them. Instead, if being an expat is in your past, present, or future, the stories are up to you, to write or live out yourselves.

So here’s to the new year . . . and all the stories ahead!

  1. They had no idea why all the nationals were staring at them
  2. She said the same thing to her neighbor every morning for a month—until her language teacher explained to her what it meant
  3. Only 1 in 1000 people can identify these countries by their shapes—can you?
  4. He thought his carryon would fit in the overhead bin, then this happened
  5. 5 things visa officers don’t want you to know

See the rest of the list at A Life Overseas

[photo: “Giorgi – Shocked,” by japrea, used under a Creative Commons licesnse]

Of Big Macs, KFCs, and Tall Lattes: A Full Menu of Global Indexes

October 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”

When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.

But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”

Well, funny you should ask.

One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.

The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.

If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:

The Tall Latte Index
Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.

The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.

The Mini Mac Index
Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.

McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access
Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders writes that

no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.

The Coca-Cola Index
This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?

The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)

And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have

The Better Life Index
from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Legatum Prosperity Index

The Human Development Index and The Gender Development Index
from the United Nations Development Programme, and

The Where-to-Be-Born Index
from the Economist Intelligence Unit

And finally, if you’re looking for some straight-up cost-of-living indexes, take a look at

Expatistan’s Cost of Living Index and

Numbeo Indexes
The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.


(D.H. and R.L.W, “The Big Mac Index,” The Economist, July 13, 2017; Daniel Politi, “Argentina’s Big Mac Attack,” Latitude, The New York Times, November 24, 2011; Darlene Storm, “Local Cost of a Big Mac Decides Ransom Amount for Fatboy Ransomware,” Computerworld, May 8, 2017; Jonathan Whittall, “The McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access,” MSF Analysis, February 7, 2014)


[photo: “NRT: McDonald’s Menu,” by jpellgen, used under a Creative Commons license]

Repost: 11 Ways Moving Abroad Is like Skiing to the North Pole

May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.

Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?

 

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Ben Saunders sits on top of the world, the youngest person to reach the North Pole alone and by foot.

In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”

  1. Luggage is a drag
    Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
  2. It can be lonely out there
    One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
  3. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus
    When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
  4. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back
    According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
  5. The only constant is change
    Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
  6. Culture stress can be a bear
    Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
  7. Coming back can feel like the bear wins
    When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson:
    “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
  8. People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
    When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
  9. Some people really do want to listen
    “I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
  10. Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
    When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
  11.  One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?”
    Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
    (1 ) Why?
    (2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
    (3) What’s next?
    That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”

As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:

(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]

[photo: “North Pole (3),” by Ben Saunders, used under a Creative Commons license]

Sorry: Another Difficult, but Necessary, Word [—at A Life Overseas]

August 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

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The following is adapted from “Sorry: No Ifs, Sos, or Buts” for A Life Overseas. The original was posted here.

Last month, I wrote about the difficulties of saying goodbye, something faced over again by those living overseas. Today I’d like to discuss another word that can come up during times of transition: Sorry. It, too, is hard to say, at least in the right way.

R is for Reconciliation

When it comes to transitions between countries, it can be easy to feel as if we’re drowning in all the emotions, responsibilities, and stressors. That’s why David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, in their landmark book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, talk about building a “RAFT” to keep your head above water. The four parts of that raft are

  • Reconciliation
  • Affirmation
  • Farewells, and
  • Think Destination

“Reconciliation,” say the authors, “includes both the need to forgive and to be forgiven.” And this forgiveness is especially important preceding a move across time zones and oceans.

When transitions approach, those leaving—and those staying—have a small window of opportunity for a face-to-face healing of wounded relationships, a window that gets smaller as the departure gets closer. That’s why apologies become more and more necessary, even at a time when they may seem more and more difficult.

But simply deciding to say “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, because not all apologies are created equal. In fact, we live in the age of the “non-apology apology.” When you say, “I’m sorry,” do you add on any qualifiers? Do extra words reveal your true feelings?

Or do your words of remorse stand on their own? Do you say Sorry, with no ifs, sos, or buts?

Go to A Life Overseas to finish reading. . . .

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[photo: “More Fun with Sorry,” by Erin Kohlenberg, used under a Creative Commons license]

On Home and Moving and Childhood Anxiety, from Jess Archer, a Voice of Experience

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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As the daughter of the director of Billy Graham’s North American crusades, Jess Archer had moved 12 times by the time she was 14—going from city to city and country to country. This, she wrote this week in Christianity Today, turned her into “the poster child for generalized anxiety disorder.”

In her article, she groups relocating during childhood with experiencing divorce and being in foster care as “major traumas” that weaken or destroy the concept of home and can lead to “serious anxiety disorders in kids.”

When it comes to describing the trauma of moving, some Third Culture Kids and some TCK parents would agree whole-heartedly; others would say they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. But can we all agree that moving produces anxiety, even if it’s not of the serious-disorder kind?

Archer goes on to give advice on how to ease our children through transitions, including preparing them, taking time to say goodbye, protecting their routines, and praying over them.

I especially like her prayer, offered for an anxious child at bedtime. I like it so much that I don’t mind that she uses the word season (just a pet peeve of mine). I like it so much that I’m praying it for my children. I like it so much I’m praying it for my wife and for myself, and for my friends in transition, too:

God of peace, this child needs rest. Her body is tense and her mind is wired. Nothing in this space feels like home. Good shepherd, loosen the knots of anxiety. Infuse her with hope of a grand design for good in her life. Show her that a new season is coming, and that you make all things new.

Amen.

You can find Archer’s post, “Too Many Transitions Can Traumatize Our Kids,” at Her.meneutics (Christianity Today, July 25, 2016). And if you’d like to read more of her thoughts on finding stability as a child in a life filled with change, go get a copy of her memoir, Finding Home with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Billy Graham: A Memoir of Growing Up Inside the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (Westbow, 2015).

At her blog, Archer includes the following excerpt from her book:

What people wanted to ask me growing up the way I did was: Can you tell me what it means to have a home? They wanted to ask me, but they didn’t have the language for it, and I was only a child. They thought, How would she know? She’s just a young girl.

Instead, people asked me a standard set of questions: How many places have you lived? Which was your favorite place? Which was the worst place to live? But what they really wanted were answers for their own lives. When I said I didn’t really have a home, they shivered for themselves . . . displacement at the core of every heart. The haunting need to know a place is yours forever, but the deep fear that it isn’t. Because I didn’t have a permanent home, I wrestled better and harder than most adults with the need for one, and by the time I was a teenager I had burned through to an expanded definition.

And amen again.

[photo: “Big Pilot,” by Chris Murphy, used under a Creative Commons license]

11 Ways Moving Abroad Is like Skiing to the North Pole

December 3, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Ben Saunders sits on top of the world, the youngest person to reach the North Pole alone and by foot.

In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”

  1. Luggage is a drag
    Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
  2. It can be lonely out there
    One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
  3. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus
    When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
  4. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back
    According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
  5. The only constant is change
    Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
  6. Culture stress can be a bear
    Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
  7. Coming back can feel like the bear wins
    When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson:
    “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
  8. People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
    When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
  9. Some people really do want to listen
    “I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
  10. Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
    When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
  11.  One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?”
    Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
    (1 ) Why?
    (2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
    (3) What’s next?
    That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”

As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:

(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above.

Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust.

[photo: “North Pole (3),” by Ben Saunders, used under a Creative Commons license]

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