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Making Your Move a Great One
Expat Assignment Expert Katia Vlachos explains how to make the most of an international move
Buy A Great Move From Amazon
Thank you for talking with us Katia. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself – how did you find yourself living the expat life?
I was born in Cameroon, Africa and moved to Greece when I was four years old. I was raised there, but as long as I can remember, I knew that I was going to spend my life outside my passport country, ideally in many different places. Though my parents were Greek, for different reasons they had spent their formative years outside Greece; they felt like foreigners in what was supposed to be their homeland. So whether it was in my genes (some call it the 'nomad bug') or because of my parents' background and the way they brought me up, I always knew I was going to leave. When the opportunity came to go to the US for graduate studies, I took it and never looked back. That was 23 years ago.
Your latest book is called A Great Move and is aimed at supporting those involved in expat assignments. What was your inspiration for the book?
My interest in writing about how to make great expat moves was triggered, funnily enough, when I made a very bad move – to Vienna, Austria. It was not my first international move, but, in contrast to the previous ones – which had gone relatively smoothly – it was the first time I really struggled to adjust. Nothing 'clicked'; I hated the cold climate, couldn't get used to the local culture or way of life, didn’t understand (or accept) the mentality of the people. I couldn't feel at home.
Trying to make sense of that experience sparked my curiosity about how people cope with international moves. My background as a researcher made me want to answer questions such as: What makes a difference in how we fare through an expat move? Why do some thrive, while others struggle? What are common mistakes we make and what helps make a smoother transition? I wrote this book because I wanted to create the resource that I wish I’d had to help me cope with my difficult transition.
Right from the book's introduction, you use real life stories to help illustrate your points, including those from your own experience. Why is it important to learn from the experience of other expats when planning a move?
Much of the research for this book is based on interviews I did with expats from many different backgrounds and transition experiences who told me their stories. I believe that including those stories – as well as my own – not only makes the book much more alive and interesting to the reader, but it also helps them identify with and learn through the experiences of others in similar situations. Readers also can draw comfort from the realization that they are not alone: many others are going through similar struggles and making the same mistakes as they did.
Among those real-life stories, you refer to the experiences of expats from around the globe. Is there a common thread to the expat experience which expatriates of all nationalities can relate to?
There are several common threads. In the book, I call them 'Principles' because they apply to any expat transition experience. The idea of 'creating home', for example, is a key thread running through the whole book – and every phase of the expat experience. Also, the psychological stages of transition are universal; even if every experience is unique, there are certain common patterns.
The book is split into two parts, one which looks at 'Principles' and one which looks at 'Actions' – why did you choose to framework expat moves in this way?
The principles are the enduring truths or ideas that guide our actions. They are - or should be – always in the back of our mind, providing the foundation and rationale for everything we do. I strongly believe in the power of intention and the principles I provide help readers set their intentions when they make international moves. Then, the actions provide the specific process and guidelines for deciding whether and when to make a move, preparing, executing the move and settling in.
One of the first things 'Principles' looks at is having the right intentions for a move – particularly with upcoming matters like Brexit in mind, what advice would you give to an American in London who may be asked to another European country at short notice?
Intention is not necessarily about choice. In fact, intention is even more important when we don’t have a choice, as in the case in the situation you mentioned. When we don’t have full control over when, where or even whether to move – for instance, military families have to go whenever and wherever assigned – it helps a lot to have a clear intention about what we can control and what we want to achieve, namely how we want to be through the move and how we will make the most of it. Often in such situations, we can get stuck feeling helpless, sad, angry or resentful and while these are all very human reactions, they may lead to resistance, preventing us from adjusting and finding home in our new location.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people make in expat moves?
Given that every move is unique, there’s an infinite number of stories and within every story there are both successes and failures – things we do right and things we do wrong. Overall, though, the single biggest mistake people make is deciding to move for the wrong reasons or without full buy-in. Beyond that, the second ('action') part of this book looks at common mistakes people make in every phase of a move and what we can learn from those. These mistakes can be practical – for example, forgetting to put important documents in a safe place before the movers show up, and ending up with all your family's passports packed in your shipment, being unable to travel as scheduled. They can also be emotional, such as not thinking through what you need to feel at home (e.g. being close to a city center) when you look for accommodation and ending up feeling isolated in your beautiful suburban home.
What is your top tip for an American moving to the UK for work with their spouse and children?
Make sure your partner or spouse a) is on board from day one and b) have their own reasons / intention for making the move. They will be much more committed to making the move a success and happier because they will make the most of it.
Also, involve your children early on – in age-appropriate ways – in the decision-making (as much as possible, even if it’s small decisions), planning and moving process. This will make them more invested in the move’s success and less resistant.
Something that applies to both spouse and children: stay connected and keep open the lines of communication. Acknowledge (don’t diminish or dismiss) their feelings, needs and concerns and be real about your own.
How can an expat who has made the move successfully continue to benefit from the lessons of your book throughout their time on assignment?
The final part of the book talks about the settling-in phase and how to feel at home in the new location. This is an ongoing process that does not end when everything is in place after we've moved. Creating 'home' is a powerful concept that shapes the whole expat experience – and it is also a concept that evolves. The more we move, the less our concept of home is rooted in a specific place and the more it becomes about people, feelings and a sense of belonging.
Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from this book?
That an international move is an exciting, enriching, inspiring, life-changing journey not to be missed. And that, while there will be challenges along the way, adopting an intentional, systematic approach through every phase of the move – from decision, to planning, to moving and finally, settling in – will allow them to make a smooth transition and thrive in their new lives.
Katia's Book, A Great Move, is available to purchase now from the Amazon UK website.