Life in the Foreign Service, Expat Interview with Nicole
|Published:||8 Oct at 9 AM|
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Here's the interview with Nicole...
Where are you originally from?
Ah yes, one of my all-time favorite questions! I was born and raised in a small town outside of Mannheim, Germany but spent three years during middle school in the U.S. I moved back to Germany for high school and then back to the U.S. for college and graduate school (hence starting my obsession with packing boxes and moving!). I met my future husband while studying in NYC, and after a few more years in the Big Apple, we traded our corporate (his) and student (mine) lives to becoming global nomads. Since then, we have lived in Toronto, Canada; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and now Vienna, Austria.
In which country and city are you living now?
I am in Vienna, Austria right now; one of the most beautiful (and coldest!) places I’ve lived in so far.
How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
We have been here for a little more than a year and are moving again next summer (where to is still up in the air!).
My husband is a Foreign Service Officer posted with the U.S. Embassy in Vienna.
Did you bring family with you?
I sure did! My kids were a little too young to be left behind to fend for themselves – my son is 4 years old and my daughter is 2.5 years.
How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Considering that I am originally from Germany and speak German as my native language, moving to Austria has been one of the easiest moves. Despite the fact that I hadn’t lived in Europe for over 15 years and that Austrians speak a bit of a different German than I was used to, I could not think of a smoother transition for us.
Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
My kids attend an Austrian preschool and I am quite active in the expat community (particularly centered around the various U.S. missions here in Vienna; check out our community website that I co-founded and co-manage: http://trivienna.wordpress.com). Austrians tend to be more formal so socializing and getting together typically does not happen very quickly.
Where to start? Vienna is simply a beautiful city and there is always something to do; no matter what your interests are – it’s all here! Museums, art; sports; night life; food/restaurants; performing arts; kids’ activities …. and that’s just Vienna alone. Aside from exploring Vienna, we’ve also really enjoyed getting to know the areas outside of Vienna (particularly the wineries and small towns along the Wachau). Everything is so close and easily accessible so visiting other cities like Bratislava, Salzburg, Budapest, and Prague can be done very easily.
What do you enjoy most about living here?
I love how simple life is here – I can walk everywhere I want to or use the quick and affordable public transit system and the city is very safe.
How does the cost of living compare to home?
Well, it is Central Europe so the prices are a bit steeper than at home. In general, groceries are about 25% more expensive (compared to our base in Washington, DC) but alcohol is much more affordable. You can save money here if you shop smart but if you’re not careful, it’s easy to spend a lot of money simply by living here!
I am sure some people would say the cold and grey of winter. And yes, last year, we had our first snow in October and the last in April plus many, many dreary grey and dark days (it gets dark around 4pm) – yes, this can drag one down but on the upside of it, the Viennese and Austrians embrace that time of year by setting up various winter sport activities (a huge ice skating rink in front of city hall) and don’t forget about the Advent/Christmas markets that open up in the middle of November and last right up to Christmas. In fact, it seems as if the entire city of Vienna turns into a magical winter wonderland.
If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Aside from the usual advice I give to those moving out of the U.S. (e.g., get a credit card without international transaction fees; manage your finances etc), I would recommend that you invest in a good winter/cold weather wardrobe – you’ll need it!
What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
Hmm, I can’t think of anything hard about living or moving here but I know that a few other expats struggle with the language. While it seems that everyone here speaks at least some English, knowing a little German will go a long way.
If you/your spouse are interested in life in the Foreign Service, where international moves every 2-4 years are the norm, I highly recommend:
- Make sure you’re both on board with this decision! Yes, this sounds like an exciting (and affordable!) opportunity to travel and learn about other cultures, but moving is also stressful and difficult particularly for the spouse who carries much of that burden while the employee jumps into work as soon as s/he hits the (new) ground. So, make sure you both know and understand what this lifestyle involves on a daily/yearly basis (a great read for what our life is like is the “Realities of Foreign Service Life” series – see here: http://www.aafsw.org/foreign-service-books/realities-of-foreign-service-life/).
- Get connected – seek out resources and make friends who understand what it’s like. Life abroad and in a new career can be exhausting, so find others in the same boat and learn from them. For example, the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (www.aafsw.org) provides a wealth of information and support for families in the Foreign Service (e.g., publications, listservs, special interest groups etc). There are also a number of relevant Facebook groups and Foreign Service blogs!
- Think about your own (spouse) career – one of the biggest challenges for couples in the Foreign Service is spouse/partner employment. Yes, there are numerous employment opportunities inside U.S. Missions abroad specifically designed for spouses and with the availability of Internet, there are also tele-commuting and online learning opportunities. Some spouses also use this time to research “portable” career options such as writing/editing, teaching online or starting a home-based business. But, realistically, it is a difficult decision for many spouses to leave their working comforts and identity behind to follow their partners’ careers around the world so be mindful of that and think of ways to further your career abroad.
- Digitize your life – when moving on official orders, you are limited in the amount of things you can take with you. An easy way of saving that precious space? Digitize! Invest in an e-reader to replace all those pounds of books and to borrow books from a local U.S. library while you are abroad (this saves money too!). And, say good-bye to schlepping heavy photo albums around the world by storing pictures online. And when you’re already thinking about all things electronic; invest in a good scanner and scan all those important documents (e.g., marriage certificates, school documents, vaccination records, car/house titles, passports, insurance documents, last wills etc) in case anything gets lots during your move.
- Don’t stop learning – moving around the world every few years provides great motivation to keep those brain cells working. Read the global and local news, study a new language (a little always goes a long way), and research potential future postings (see Tales from a Small Planet - http://www.talesmag.com - a great resource that offers articles and advice on living overseas from people who know what it's like to live there). Find something exciting and interesting about your host city and country, set new personal or professional career goals, or learn a new hobby or skill (I never thought of myself as crafty but soon learned the fun of knitting when I realized I needed a project for those long and cold Vienna winter days!).
Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
My blog is mainly a platform to share our memories and adventures with our family and friends around the world. It helps me remember what we did and saves me having to retell the same story over and over again on the phone!
One page on my blog menu bar is dedicated to spouse employment (click on “Foreign Service Resources”) as that’s an issue I have been interested in working on improving along with the input of the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (www.aafsw.org).
How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
The best way of contacting me is to leave a comment on the blog!
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Comments » There is 1 comment
Nicole, thanks for sharing your story and advice about Vienna. I was born there and lived in and around Vienna for 30 years before moving to London. What I found most challenging, even as a native, was to connect to new people outside my circles of friends. Funnily enough, when I set up regular meetings for travellers to connect with locals in Vienna a few months ago ( http://www.vienna-unwrapped.com/vienna-coffeehouse-conversations.html ), these became hugely popular with expats. Partly because they are held in English, and partly because expats love opportunities to connect with local Viennese. You seem to have settled in perfectly - well done, am glad for you. Vienna is a super place to live (especially with family). Barbara