Be Who You Are

My kids went to the dentist the other day. It was a normal check-up and everything went well with the exception that I was once again informed that ALL THREE are future candidates for braces (sigh… think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts…).

I like our dentist. He’s a nice guy, late-40s, immigrated to Australia four years ago with his wife and kids from Yorkshire, England. We had the typical conversation about what brought us to Australia, how often we go “home” and how our children have adapted to life down under.

It’s a conversation I have a lot here. I’m not sure if it’s Australia in general, or more of a reflection of the Bayside area of Melbourne to which we’ve moved, but there are a large number of people living here who have picked up their lives to give Australia a try.

A 2011 Census study shows that one out of every four people in Australia was born overseas. Since it’s actually four out of five in our household, I can believe it. If you break down these numbers by country of birth, the largest migrant group comes from the United Kingdom, with one out of every 20 people living in Australia originally from the UK.

On occasion I’ve had coffee with a group of moms/mums from the kids’ school and looked around to realize that out of the half-dozen women at the table, only one or two were actually born in Australia. The others are often from the UK, Ireland, South Africa or New Zealand.

When our daughter was admitted to the hospital a few years ago with her initial diabetes diagnosis, the seven or so medical professionals who worked with us in the Emergency Room were all non-Australians. We had a laugh (refreshing, considering the circumstances) as we questioned where all the Aussies were hiding.

I like spending time with other people who have chosen to upend their lives despite the inconvenience and impracticality of such a move. It makes me feel slightly less unorthodox, knowing other people have chosen to do it as well.

For another, we seem to “get” each other, without the need for an excessively analytical discussion. We’re far from home, we live with a foot in each country, never completely settled anywhere. It can be a disjointed existence, but it can also be one filled with new experience and perspective.

We left behind a good life filled with loving family and friends in first world countries. None of us fled dictators or wars; none of us have entered Australia as an escape from conflict or poverty. We had perfectly good lives back home.

Why we did leave was for change, for adventure, for not wanting to live a life wondering “what if”. It’s such a 21st-century, first world privilege: to change tracks midstream solely due to desire and curiosity. To even have the time to reflect on such a move is a privilege a large percentage of the globe lacks.

I recently said goodbye to a friend I made here in Melbourne. Another expat, she and her husband had migrated from London over ten years earlier on a whim to see what life “down under” could provide. While in Melbourne, they had acquired a home and careers, friends and a life. And they were moving again.

Not back to London, no- her gypsy soul had once again begun to stir within and her family was moving across the Southern Ocean to Tasmania.

As I offered genuine congratulations (Tasmania is one of my favorite places), her smile waned.

“I’ve started to worry about what I keep doing to my kids,” she said, between sips of coffee.

I know what she means; is it selfish as a parent to follow your dreams and expect your children to keep up? Our oldest really struggled with the idea of moving when we first shared our plans with our children. And yet now, after two and a half years here, he is grateful we did- he loves the lifestyle and has made some good friends. But it would be difficult to move him to somewhere new again.

I assured her that it was fine, that she would know if one of her children couldn’t handle it or if one of them wouldn’t grow and benefit from the experience, as difficult as it might be at first to start over.

She looked up and paused, seeming somewhat embarrassed.

“I saw a psychic recently… it was at a party. The psychic looked at my hand and she spoke of our moves. I asked her why I always have this need to leave, why I can’t stay still.”

My friend smiled and relaxed, “She said, ‘it’s who you are.’”

Be who you are.

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So an Insulin Pump walks into an Airport…

TSA, airport security, insulin pumpI recently flew across the Pacific (one-way) for the 23rd time. I’m not necessarily proud of this accomplishment; in fact, I’m a bit repulsed by the number of times I’ve squeezed myself into those economy seats and breathed in recycled air for 14+ hours.

I’m no student of probability (and my 12-year old will tell me I have this wrong), but my odds MUST be increasing with each flight: some day I’m going to be handed the Holy Grail of International Flying: the Upgrade.

I don’t need First Class- Business is fine (frankly, I wouldn’t sneeze at Premium Economy either). But as long as I find myself traveling with three children, including one with diabetes, one in the throes of motion sickness (it’s the age, I’m told) and one preteen who views these international flights as a chance to watch 14 hours of movies with impunity (all which fail miserably at meeting the requirements of family movie night), nobody will be giving me an upgrade.

Despite the repetitiveness of our economy seating, there was something different about this trip: this was our first time flying with an insulin pump.

We had heard the horror stories: individuals pulled aside by TSA agents unfamiliar with an insulin pump and arguments when flight attendants refused to let a insulin-filled carry-on onto a crowded plane.

I was prepared; I had a plan, especially since I was flying without my husband. Each child had a role- the boys were to go first through security, collecting our possessions at the other end. My daughter and I would then explain to the security agents that she was wearing an insulin pump and would not be going through the body scanner. I tried to keep it light, since the whole possibility of being asked to step aside was making a certain 8-year old rather nervous.

But the truth: Just fine. Friendly, kind and had all seen it before. No questions, just smiles and pleasantness. Yes, pulled aside, but with dignity… “We like to keep families together.”

Even when she tested positive for explosive residue on her hands, there were understanding smiles and explanations for what the next level of security would entail. Inevitably, one agent would take it upon himself to get my daughter laughing as we stood to the side, curious passengers stealing glances at us as they proceeded forward. And that explosive residue? A false positive that was discarded after further testing.

I sheepishly admitted to one agent that I was expecting the worse. He shook his head, “Yeah, I hear the crazy stories every once in a while; I just can’t believe it. It doesn’t have to be like that.”

We only had trouble at one airport. In Denver, the agents seemed puzzled at our request to avoid putting her insulin pump through the scanner. After a lengthy consultation, the verdict was that I would be the recipient of an invasive pat down and every carry-on bag with us would be systematically unpacked and repacked.

“TSA at other airports do this differently, you know,” I mentioned offhandedly as precious minutes ticked by. The female agent ignored me, her hand running up my inner thigh past what I thought was a respectable stopping point.

After twenty minutes of inspection, we were back on our way. While our Denver experience wasn’t ideal, it was an anomaly on our trip. Overall we were treated with dignity and understanding, and just a minor amount of inconvenience.

Now, if I could just snag that upgrade…

Posted in Diabetes Should Be a Four-Letter Word, Travel Survival Tips | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ten Random Differences Between America and Australia

American money, australian moneyThere are obvious differences between the US and Australia. We drive on different sides of the road, seasons are opposite and there is an accent (though who actually has the accent is debatable…)

As someone just off a five-week trip to the US, here are ten lesser known differences between the two countries:

1.  The formality of language. Mr. and Mrs Martin, Dr Wilcox, Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Justin…. My children call very few adults by their first names in America and very few adults by their last names in Australia. I miss the protocol and formality of the US- some people may think it’s stuffy and archaic, but I like the tone of respect that is set. Fortunately, my kids know they need to revert to their “American manners” as soon as they set foot back on US soil.

2.  Sugary drinks… Capri Suns, Kool-Aid, juice boxes, soda… what about water? It really is no surprise that America has an obesity problem when you see the selection of liquid refreshment available during a US summer. In the US, I served water as an afterthought, in Australia, it’s the first thing offered to kids.

3.  Americans drive fast… and you’d better too or you’ll cause an accident. Just merge over to let the cop fly by. Probably better to go slighter slower than the authorities, but that’s not too hard when officers of the law fly by 15 miles over the speed limit. Frankly, I like driving fast. The US isn’t the Autobahn, but it’s nice to be trusted to flow with current traffic conditions without the fear of a speed camera targeting your plates.

4.   Holidays are a big deal with a lot of accessories… I love holidays (as in special days, not vacations… though I love those too). I love that Americans make a big deal out of a holiday. We were in the US over the 4th of July which meant red, white and blue clothing, parades, flags flying, fireworks, a traditional Fourth of July BBQ, and if you wanted themed decorations (and why wouldn’t you?) they’re cheap and accessible. Would anyone care for an American flag themed cake on a star-spangled dessert platter?

5.  Convenience… is the modus operandi of America. Need cash? Go to a drive-thru ATM. Need a coffee? Ditto. Putting gas (petrol) in your car? No need to actually walk into the station to pay- just slide your credit card at the pump. Need to shop for groceries at 2 am? Why not? The store will be open and you won’t have to battle crowds (though you may need to wake the deli worker).

Road tripping in New York last month, my girlfriends and I were on the hunt for a quick coffee stop. We found a Starbucks just off the exit… combined with a BANK. Need to get a latte while you wait for your loan to be approved? Done…

6.  (Most) EVERYTHING IS CHEAP (until you get used to it). God Bless America, the Land of Shopping. Clothing, shoes and food. I ate buckets of blueberries every morning for breakfast- stocking up on my antioxidants for when I returned to where a dozen blueberries might cost me three dollars. Can’t decide between two pairs of sandals? At that price, just grab both. P and I were nearly gleeful as we threw down our credit card at restaurants…

7.  The Toilets have a lot of water… random, but true. When my father-in-law first visited the States, he returned from our bathroom shaking his head. “Something’s wrong with your toilet,” he said. “The water nearly fills the bowl.” Sure enough, I saw what he meant on this visit. Australian toilets have a minimum of water sitting in the toilet- and toilets never flush in a swirl like they do in North America. A quick rush of water, and you’re done. (Granted, a toilet brush gets much more of a work-out down under. Kind of gross, but that’s how it goes.)

And speaking of toilets… Americans never do. You ask for the restroom, the bathroom or the men’s or ladies’ room, but never for the toilet. In America, the toilet is the actual porcelain throne, never the room itself. In Australia, go ahead and ask for the toilet or even the loo… it will get you where you need to go… literally.

8.  Your bill is never your bill… Restaurants may be cheaper in the US, but don’t forget to tip. The rule is 15-20% of the bill, depending on the service. Unless the waiter spits in your food, I would still tip 10% for poor service- when the federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, wait staff depend on tips to survive (and if a waiter did spit in your food, I’m assuming you’ve left before the bill even came).

And don’t forget sales tax. An item may be marked at $45.99, but a tax as high as 9.45% (depending on the state you are in) will be added when you get to the register. Just to keep you slightly confused….

9.   Pennies are a pain, and the US should lose paper dollar bills too. I prefer Aussie money with its colorful plastic notes and its gold $1 and $2 coins (have a handful of change? In Australia, that might actually buy you a coffee!). If something costs $4.08 (after tax) in America, you need to dig around for some copper coins. In Australia, they just round up or down.

10.  To Hug or to Kiss…? Greeting an American friend? Give ‘em a big hug. Ran into an Aussie friend? Lean in to give them a kiss on the cheek. Me? I’ve become confused, kissing some and hugging others, but never doing what’s expected. I recently moved in to kiss the cheek of an Aussie friend we met for drinks in a Melbourne pub. He met me halfway with a hug and we ended up doing an awkward dance. Granted, he was visiting from the US (where he had lived for 20 years), but I thought the location would determine the motions. Now I just stand there slightly perplexed and with what I hope is a warm smile on my face. I may forgo any physical contact… but I’m still happy to see you.

Did I miss any?

Posted in Life Down Under | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Endless Summer

IMG_2173Forty-eight days have passed since my last post and during that time I have boarded seven airplane flights, changed watches in four time zones, crossed borders into five different US states, driven over 1200 miles and generally squeezed every possible moment out of our five-week trip home.

It was exhausting, but extremely satisfying. An American friend of mine who also lives in Melbourne and had taken a similar trip home at the same time summed it up: “It’s hard to say goodbye at the end, but you feel so full after a trip like that.”

And I do. I feel like the time spent with family, the outings with friends, the experiences shared over meals and glasses of wine, the boat rides, the lakes, the beaches, the warm summer nights- it all adds up to this wonderful feeling of contentment. I am truly blessed with the people in my life, no matter where in the world they live.

When you visit after living abroad, people make time for you. There are BBQs and dinners and baseball games. There are coffees and play dates and late night drinks. It’s a bit of an all-around love fest and we soaked it up, reveling in friendships that have stood the test of time and distance.

Our boys especially enjoyed a heightened level of socializing. Leaving the US aged eight and ten, they had had the time to develop deeper friendships than their younger sister. In some ways, it was as if they hadn’t left. All it would take was one text and six boys would be converging on the local swimming pool for the afternoon.

If there was any concern, it was how I was to get my children back on a flight to Melbourne after five weeks of summer holidays and the unadulterated spoiling by the grandparents. The life they were living wasn’t a sustainable reality, but I wasn’t sure they understood that. A vacation can’t last forever; a holiday eventually has to end or it isn’t truly a holiday, right?

“Are you guys ready to go back to Melbourne?” I asked as we began to pack up the strewn debris of our travels off the floor of my parents’ home.

“Yep,” they all nodded in agreement.

“I’m ready for some routine,” said our middle child.

Our daughter added, “I miss school… and my Aussie friends.”

Their maturity surprised me; I had expected some resistance.

Middle child suddenly looked up from his packing. “Hey, do you think we can do this trip twice a year? I think that would be fun.”

Fun, yes. Financially doable? Nope.

But I liked his thinking.

As for me? Routine be damned. It would take a lot longer than five weeks of vacation for me to cave and request a return to normal life.

It’s a maturity thing.

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Adults Only

Not too long ago, P and I went away a few days without the kids. We treated ourselves to three days in the Yarra Valley, a wine-growing region just over 50 kilometers northeast of Melbourne.

I had brought my good camera, determined to take photos to put together a blog entry focused on this particular part of Australia (every once in a while I try to remember the “down under” part of this blog). Even though our visit was favored with overcast skies and misty rain, it was a beautiful area and I took plenty of photos.

Which I can’t find.

I went to download them from my camera, but my camera is empty. Thinking I must have downloaded them already, I went to my computer, but no photos.

I’ve either deleted them accidentally or they’re mischievously hiding somewhere on my hard drive, but they certainly aren’t cooperating with me.

So, no photos of gourmet meals from boutique wineries or quaint pubs (I’m a terrible food photographer anyway). No pictures of rolling hills carpeted with trellised vineyards. No close-up shots of wine glasses, misty scenery blurring softly in the background. Other than a random photo found on our phones (thank you Apple), we only have the memories in our heads.

Which is fine, too.

In today’s world of tweeting, facebooking and general oversharing, I suppose a few trips that aren’t documented to the nth degree is a refreshing change. When I mention that the scenery was beautiful, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Really, it is somewhat apropos as this was supposed to be a trip for just the two of us anyway. As much as we love travelling with our children, every once in a while, time alone with your spouse is necessary.

A friend of mine calls her adult-only trips with her significant other an investment. Every year, they plan two long weekends away with another couple, travelling each time to a new city or location.

“Our kids are going to eventually grow up and leave us,” she said. “When that happens, I don’t want to sit down across from my husband and wonder, ‘Who are you again?’”

P and I have embraced that philosophy, beginning when our youngest was 18 months old. We took off to the Caribbean for just over a week in celebration of our ten-year anniversary. At the time I worried that it would be too long, that I would miss the kids. But each day away actually got easier (sitting by a pool with umbrella drinks in hand will do that to you…)

And before we had returned home, we had already booked our next trip.

I know that full-on travel without kids is a luxury, both in money and in the efforts of others to care for your children. This recent trip was our first one without kids in over two years.

If a trip isn’t possible, pare it down to date night or a Saturday morning coffee for two (who am I kidding… do you know where I am on a Saturday? Dance class, basketball game…).

The point is, figure out your adult-only alone time any way you can. Time where the two of you can talk away from your routine or normal home environment. Time that is spent rediscovering each other and having conversation beyond the mundane of the everyday. Valuable time that builds the memories that strengthen a relationship.

Consider it an investment.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Wait… that’s it??

I peered at the computer screen before me, our bank account details marching across the screen. Our balance was looking strangely low, especially as a paycheck had gone in only three days earlier.

I had gone online to do some banking, nothing extraordinary, just transferring my share of funds towards a friend’s birthday gift. As I began to shut down, I took another look at the balance.

That can’t be right…

Eyes running down columns… a four-digit ATM withdrawal? Where? When was that?

One week earlier, there had been a $2.00 charge for a balance inquiry at an ATM closer to the city. And then a $1,000 withdrawal immediately after. And then another. And another.

Two days later, there was another.

A day later, there was another.

Each withdrawal was done at a different ATM, but all just southeast of the CBD. And as someone who usually has just enough cash in her wallet to pay for the next coffee, these amounts were way out of league with my habits.

I started shuffling through my wallet and quickly found my ATM card inside. I then called P and relayed what I’d found; he promptly located his card as well.

I called ANZ Bank and was directed to their fraud department. In a few minutes and with a voice a few notes higher than normal, I had detailed the outrageous and brazen theft of our funds by some nameless and faceless, depraved and conniving miscreants.

The other woman responded in a bored tone, “Yes, we identified the fraudulent transactions earlier in the week. Your husband’s card was compromised. Didn’t you get our text?”

Text?

You mean the one sent to P that we promptly deleted because we assumed it was from some down-and-out Nigerian who needed our help transferring large sums of money out of his country? (with a tidy reward for us, of course).

Ah yes, well… we ignored that text. Yes, it did claim to be from ANZ, but so do some of the scam emails that show up in our in box.

“And we shut down your husband’s card.”

Oh… yes, that too. Um, P did say his card didn’t work the other day; had to use a different one. Forgot about that.

Turns out P used his card at an ATM machine that had a skimming device attached to it.

If you haven’t heard of skimming before (and I had only vaguely), it’s a worldwide problem where offenders attach a skimming device to an ATM machine. Apparently it is quite difficult to identify these devices if you aren’t looking for them and the information contained on every card that is swiped while the device is on the ATM machine is “skimmed” or lifted from the card. The lowlifes can then manufacture a new ATM card that is linked directly to your account. When P spoke to ANZ about getting a replacement card, he was told that this is the first record of it happening in Melbourne (aren’t we lucky!).

So apparently, ANZ did everything you want your bank to do in these situations (including a promise to return the funds to our account), but we failed to listen.

Bastards.

The criminals who did this- not ANZ Bank. We’re ok with them.

Posted in Life Down Under | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Travels and the Tax Man

Uncle Sam, money, taxes, overseas taxes, US citizens, living abroadHere’s a fun little fact for Americans living overseas:

You still have to pay American taxes.

Uncle Sam is perfectly happy to let you country-hop around the world, navy blue passport in hand, as long as you dutifully send a tax return home each year. As one of the few countries in the world that aggressively pursues taxes worldwide from its citizens, this places quite a burden on Americans living outside of the US.

This means that every year, P and I have to file a US federal tax return, even though we are living in Australia. There is an automatic due date extension from April 15th to June 15th, but that’s about the only break we’re going to get.

In addition to reporting any US income we have acquired during the year, we must also report our Australian income. That’s right- the US Internal Revenue Service requires us to disclose our foreign income for tax purposes.

The United States has tax treaties in place with over 42 different countries, including Australia. Apparently, these treaties allow for exclusions on earned income that should prevent double taxation, but I have to take my accountant’s word on that. Once you live overseas, it’s goodbye to Turbo Tax and hello to a good bean counter. Foreign taxation is extremely complex and while I used to have a decent handle on the American income tax system, the convoluted labyrinth of tax laws in play here makes my head swim.

In addition to our annual US tax return, P and I each need to separately file an Australian tax return (Australia does not have a provision for married couples to file jointly). And, as we are residents of Australia, Australia requires us to also report our American income on any investments we have back in the US.

Isn’t this fun? Everybody is keeping tabs on each other!

To add to the hilarity, Australia’s tax year ends on June 30th of each year versus the calendar year (December 31st) that is used by the United States. So when we are calculating income from each country, we cannot rely on the total amounts reported on 1099s, W-2s or other payments statements; we have to break down the income for each country by date.

Finally, the United States has become quite aggressive in pursuing American citizens who fail to annually file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (“Fbar”) for any foreign accounts holding more than $US10,000. So toss that little disclosure statement on top of our tax returns.

If there is anything positive in this scenario, it is that we had the good fortune to locate an accountant here in Melbourne who actually understands the systems at play (or least I think we did… I really have to take him at his word). His entire practice consists of filing tax returns for Americans living in Australia. It’s quite a niche business and one that is probably providing him with quite a good living; I’m pretty sure our fees alone last year paid for his overseas vacation.

So if you need me, I’m not too far away… just within reach of Uncle Sam.

Posted in Moving Overseas | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments