Getting Sick Abroad

Getting sick sucks, especially if you are away from home, homeland.  There is nothing worse than having a medical emergency while traveling abroad.  But don’t let that scare you off the plane.  Take a few travel tips from a seasoned traveler…aka your fav ex-patriot.

My parents have made dozens of cross Atlantic trips to visit our Norwegian relatives and me without a hitch.  After a recovering from 4 different surgeries, my 79-year-old dad attained his goal to fly to Switzerland and almost didn’t make it back when he became gravely ill. Fortunately our daughter, a pediatrician, insisted we call an emergency doctor who demanded we take him to the hospital immediately where they put him on intravenous antibiotics and saved his life.  A simple urinary tract infection had developed into a life threatening sepsis. Luckily, we had a Frenchman aboard, who spoke both English and French and could interpret in the ER.  But in the course of ensuing chaos, it made me realize how frightening illness can be for someone traveling abroad especially if you don’t speak the local language.  When packing your bags be sure to include these items.

  • Medication for the duration of your stay in your carry on bag
  • Carry insurance and medical cards and a photocopy of prescriptions
  • Type up a short resume of your recent medical history
  • List emergency numbers of contacts in your homeland
  • If possible, obtain the number of a friend living in the area you are visiting (this is especially reassuring to parents when their sons/daughters go abroad)
  • In the event of serious illness call SOS Médecins
  • When in doubt, go directly to the emergency room

In Switzerland and France, public hospitals will admit you, but you may have to pay a fee, like the $500 up front that my dad paid at the Hospitale de Nyon before services could be rendered.

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

The medical system varies in each European country. In some places, doctors still make house calls.  Many medical people have independent practices in apartment buildings or a room of their homes.  Unlike our clinics or convenient urgent care centers in the states, often times in Europe you will have to go to separate laboratories to have blood drawn and/or X rays taken. Pharmacies display the universal sign, a green cross. In Europe pharmacists will answer simple medical questions and can advise you on minor problems. Major hotels have a doctor on staff or will call a local doctor for you.

Accept that medical practices in other countries, though different from those at home, are not necessarily bad.  For example in France and Switzerland, prescriptions are not counted out by the dose, but boxed in plastic in 7 day to one month doses.

During my overseas stint, I have been hospitalized after accidents and illnesses, for surgery and childbirth.  I‘ve seen my fair share of doctors, but I can assure you that like people, there are good and bad ones everywhere regardless of nationality.

Alors santé! (Here’s to your health) Bon voyage!

Deflated Dollar Leads to European Invasion in America

The dollar is at an all time low, which means almost every European I know is heading to the United States for summer holidays. For some, it will be their first visit and like many Americans who venture abroad, it will be the dream of a lifetime. My dentist is flying to Seattle, a French colleague is heading to Grand Canyon, and our Swiss educational psychologist is off to the Arrondikes.[cincopa AUBA_rqiwimE]

Be kind to the visitors. Smile. If you can, try to speak a few words of their language, even if only to say hello: Grüsse (German), Bonjour (French), Hola (Spanish), Buongiorno (Italian) or Kalimera (Greek). Ask simple questions about their homeland.

Even with the best intentions, misunderstandings are bound to occur. A German friend, studying in the US, once brushed her teeth with denture cream. Years ago a 6’7” French basketball player, walked out the men’s store changing room in downtown Chicago in his skivvies to find another size of jeans, and his teammate peed behind a bush in a public park. I was equally mortified when a well-endowed  French teammate whipped off her top and perched on the bow of a speedboat.

If Europeans don’t ask a lot of personal questions, it does not mean they aren’t interested, only that they are respectful and fear invasion of privacy. Food and weather are safe topics; work and income are not. Sharing food is a special time of interaction. Mealtime is sacred.

Talk slowly. Use hand gestures. When people do not speak the language, they will pretend to understand even if they really don’t.  I know this from my own experience of feigning knowledge to avoid appearing dimwitted.

I have dined on local specialties in European homes, sipped wine in private cellars and shared coffee in living rooms across the continent.  Each time I learned far more about the culture and customs than guidebooks could ever divulge.

Greet my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with a big grin as they travel from sea to shining sea. It takes so little, really, to make someone feel welcome…a smile, a handshake, a kind word. Not only is it good for business, it is also good for the soul.

Certainly the Europeans will be awed by our spacious landscapes, daunted by our city skyscrapers, and enamored with our natural beauty found in our Badlands, Grand Canyon and other National Parks. But what I hope they will remember mos,t is the warm, embracing spirit of the American people.

 

Twelve Tips for Air Travel in the 21st Century

Sometimes, when when there are no glitches, Air Travel rocks. But most of the time, it has become a nightmare. Make the best out of it with a few tips:

1. Never trust what the airline say.

2. When airline staff  say« No problem » it really means « Don’t KNOW the problem. »

3. Fly at times when no one else wants to, for example Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, Easter Sunday.

4. Carry aboard prescription medicines for the duration of the trip vacation and a written explanation of one’s medical condition.

5. Pack snacks such as nuts, dried fruits, and cereal bars. Airlines may charge $3  for a small package of M & Ms or chips.

6. A small empty water bottle passes through security controls and can be refilled as needed.

7. Nowhere is Murphy’s Law (Sod’s Law in the UK) more prevalent than in air travel « accept that what can go wrong, will go worse than you would dream ».

8. Limit carry on baggage as courtesy to fellow passengers, so they won’t have to stow their luggage ten rows away from their assignments seats.

9. An electronic seat assignment does not guarantee a boarding pass, and a frequent flyer membership these days is nothing more than another plastic card in your pocket.

10. Wear comfortable, layered clothes, which make it easy to disrobe at security and to accommodate fluctuating temperature in the aircraft.

11. Forget cost cutting, book the direct flight whenever possible. In the end, it costs less than additional taxi fares, meals and hotel rooms when you miss your connecting flight.

12. Acknowledge that the skies are no longer friendly. Airline companies, even code sharing partners, are at war and passengers are in the line of fire. Accept what you are : at the best a user and very rarely a customer.

Eventually, get rich and fly First, it might do the trick…May be.

Expat Women: Confessions For Gals on the Go

In 1980, I became a globetrotting professional basketball player and my plane touched down in Paris.  When I saw little women with baseball bats (baguettes) slung on one shoulder, and vegetable-laden baskets over the other, stopping on cobblestone street corners to kiss, I thought I’d landed on another planet. I moved dozens of times between continents and countries and have three decades of experience teaching in international schools abroad. With the world as my classroom, everyday is a learning experience, but when I first moved abroad I was clueless.

Expat Women: Confessions, 50 Answers to Your Questions About Living Abroad hits home with me.  The authors, Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth, address issues any woman faces leaving home, yet the stakes are higher as an expat.  In a simple-to-read, down-to-earth, no nonsense style, the authors tackle the toughest questions with aplomb. They touch on complex topics women confront in their roles as partners, mothers or employees, which are more complicated when living overseas. The book includes sensitive issues from transitioning-in to, to child raising, to culture shock and repatriation, to divorce and death abroad.

Expat Women: Confessions (http://www.expatwomen.com/expat-women-confessions.php) is a must read for anyone leaving the homeland.  It offers insightful advice from women who have years of experience living cross culturally. As valuable as the Berlitz Language guide, I would highly recommend this for anyone contemplating the expat life.

Thirty years ago, I lifted weights, ran laps and shot hoops to train my well-honed body for the rigors of international ball, but my mind was ill prepared for life abroad.  I had no idea where to locate Paris on a map, how to ask for the restroom in the local language or how many times to kiss cheeks in greeting.

In retrospect, for anyone contemplating an overseas assignment, I strongly recommend 5 basics before signing the contract.

1.  Research – find out as much as you can about the country, culture, customs, and language including work place protocol

2.  Network before leaving your home – sign on to newsletters and blogs that entail expat life (http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/subscribe-to-my-blogs/)

3.  Make sure the salary allowance includes or covers health insurance and costs of trips to the homeland for holidays or family emergencies.

4. Be open minded, flexible and willing to make mistakes (a sense of humor helps)

5.  Read Expat Women: Confessions, the book I wish existed when I first moved abroad

My Norwegian great grandmother, Eugenie, immigrated to America in 1902.  Her four-year-old daughter died a fortnight after arriving at Ellis Island; then, Eugenie passed away 5 months later giving birth to my grandmother. Leaving the nest and striking out for a better life elsewhere is as old as time; yet with high tech connections shrinking our globe, no one needs to be blind-sided as to what awaits. Sacrifice has long been the female’s role, but no one no longer needs to lose the self in the transition.

From the pioneer women loading wagon trains Westward to the trailing spouse and adventuresome entrepreneurs paving new trails in Africa, Asia and Europe, women, round the globe, have always been bridges between generations and cultures. Bon voyage!

 

 

 

Easter Customs Across Europe

Easter is a holiday filled with family, friends and reflection.  And eggs.

Since ancient times, the egg and the rabbit symbolized spring and in Europe, different colored eggs, pinched from the birds’ nests, were made into talismans. During Lenten season in Medieval Europe, eggs were forbidden and consequently, considered a treat again at Easter.

In modern day Norway, during the five day weekend holiday from Holy Thursday to Easter Monday, Norwegians head to the mountain cabins and devour detective novels.  The Easter pastime became so popular, Paaskekrim (Easter crime) refers to the novels released at Easter.

Church bells, not the Easter bunny, deliver eggs in France.  The bells remain silent from Good Friday until Easter as a token of mourning for the crucified Christ. On Easter, my mother-in-law would ring a dinner bell and my children would race down the stairs like on Christmas morning, to find eggs hidden in the flower pots on the wrought iron balcony.  French children search the skies to see the bells flying home to the Vatican in Rome.

hunting eggs in France

hunting eggs in France

In general, the Easter celebration in Switzerland entails elaborate preparation like in the U.S. and Germany.  School children share a giant omelet for lunch and spend hours decorating human sized, paper machete bunnies to be displayed in commercial centers.  Whereas in France,the church bells ring dropping eggs from the skies, the Swiss adopted the German legend dating from 1572 of the Easter bunny hiding eggs in the garden.

Centuries ago in Switzerland, the cuckoo bird delivered the eggs – an appropriate legend for the capital of the cuckoo clock.  According to the Swiss, the cuckoo bird sat on the eggs of neighbor birds.  In modern times, the rabbit delivers the eggs.

Some families have adopted the German custom decorating the Easter table with a branch of a tree adorned with small wooden chickens, bunnies and eggs as decoration. Egg decoating is popular too. Unlike France where only brown eggs can be found, the Swiss stores sell individual white eggs. However, nothing is more popular than the chocolate egg.  Easter is big business especially for Lindt and Nestlé and other world famous Swiss chocolate makers.

But it’s not chocolate; its the egg representing fecundity, new life, new beginnings that is the greatest symbol of Easter in Switzerland.  When the thick veil of winter clouds disappear, revealing snow capped mountains and emerald yards where yellow jonquils dance in the wind, one feels reborn with the stirrings of spring.

kids popping out of giant egg

kids popping out of giant egg

In the past, Europeans exchanged cards more frequently at Easter than at Christmas, with drawings of bunnies, ducks, lambs, and eggs. So wherever you may be in the world, Happy Easter from Switzerland!

Wishing you bells ringing, good tidings, bunnies proliferating with chocolate eggs and leisure time for a good read.