Moving countries – part II

The last few weeks, I have been partly irritated, annoyed, frustrated. What happened?

After we have been living here for nearly twelve months, after the first school year finished and we have had our first summer vacactions, I decided that now it was time for myself. I had gotten my kids into the school we always wanted (and which had first told us that they could not offer them a place as classes were full). I had assisted them in countless homework sessions, struggling with the Spanish language that they had heard and partly used since they were born with their father and their Mexican grand-parents, but that they had never been formally taught in. I had found us an apartment. I had waited – also it seems – countless times for some handyman to not show up on time or not show up at all to fix something in our flat – informality is widespread in Mexico, and in the capital there is always “trafico” that serves as a good excuse. I had found us a maid, a pediatrician, a dentist; struggled with the lack of service from banks, insurance firms, the gas company.

So, after all that, I though that I would like to find a job; find a company or an organization that could make use of my professional experience, that would give me opportunities to add value, to grow, and hopefully appreciate my services by paying me a decent salary. And that is when irritation, annoyance and frustration started. And when I got aware of my blatant ignorance of Mexican labor market conditions.

I knew that the minimum wage was very low – it actually is 66 pesos, or a little bit more than 5 US Dollars, a day. As most laborers work six days a week, but get paid for seven, that would make close to 2000 pesos a month. Having a masters degree, I was considering my earning potential far above minimum wage. But still, what I have been offered so far is considerably below my NGO salary back in Vienna. And that was less than what I had earned working in knowledge management in The Netherlands. And that, again, was not as good as what I had gotten as a business journalist in Germany. You see – my career, when you measure it by income, has been in a downward spiral for the last 13 years. I have been doing something wrong (but that would be the subject of at least one other post, I guess).

But back to my job hunt in Mexico. I also knew that Germans are very spoiled when it comes to vacation days. I had 30 days when I worked at Financial Times Deutschland. Times have changed a bit in Germany as well, particularly if you enter the labor market, but still, Germans enjoy a great amount of vacation a year. In one of my first interviews, I learned that according to Mexican labor law the employee actually does not have the right to ANY day of paid vacation during the first year. In year two, law grants her or him six days. After ten years, you have the right to ten paid days a year. There are several employers that offer more than the legal minimum. However, for a European even 15 days a year is meager, and it does not even cover a third of Mexican school vacation. So, if you try to combine family and career, start saving up for summer camps.

In addition, Mexicans work the most and the longest hours – at least within the club of industrialized countries (OECD). A Mexican worker puts in more than 2200 hours a year; a German not even 1400; an American close to 1800.

So, bad pay, little vacation, and long hours. On top of all that, trying to commute in a metropolitan area of 20 million people can be stressful and can take an hour or more, each way. That is not exactly the jackpot. With that in mind, when I feel irritated, annoyed and frustrated, I am trying to cut myself some slack. And then I remind myself of the theme of this blog that says “keep on trying” – and I write another application.

What adds to my irritation is that I would rather like to find something, but without the searching part. Yes, I admit, I confess. After having moved countries four times in 13 years, searching for a suitable position has felt taking as much time as actually working in the different jobs. But, as the Mexicans say: ni modo. What happens to me now is just another phase of adaptation to a my new place of residence. I should congratulate myself that I have managed part I so well. Keeping on trying.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

So, my PLAN was to write this blog. To write about “a range of subjects”, such as gender, equality, parenthood, living abroad, society, culture, politics and economics. That is what I put down in my first post on 4 October 2013. After that, only two more followed. Post number three starts with “It has been six weeks since I wrote and published the last blog on” Accordingly, this one could start with “It has been nearly four months”. But I am not doing that, as otherwise you might expect the next post not before 2015.

A friend of mine told me last summer that when you move countries as a trailing spouse and parent, the first year is usually consumed with settling in. I thought she was exaggerating. I had moved continents twice over the last twelve years by then, on top an inner-European move, and then last summer crossing the Atlantic again to go back to Mexico. The settling in during our first time in Mexico in 2002 had to be turbo-charged, as I was 30 weeks pregnant when I arrived. We had to do so many things in little over two months to be ready for when the baby was born. When we moved to The Netherlands in 2004, it was a bit like in the movie “Groundhog Day” – I was expecting my second child, just that this time round I had another six months to go until the due date. Both moves and adaptations were intense.

When we changed from The Hague to Vienna in 2009, I thought that things would be so much easier. Being German, I considered settling in in Vienna a home match. But little did I know, that Austria and Germany are actually quite different in some aspects. Looking back on our first year there, I was on constant information collecting mode: school, kindergarten, babysitters, apartment, dealing with bureaucracy (registering a car bought in another EU country; dealing with the Finanzamt; etc.), football teams, swimming lessons, music class, doctors, winter tires, skiing vacation (for a Northern German and a Mexican definitely a new experience), the list goes on and on. I managed all that really well, but when the first school year ended in June 2010, I felt drained – and I had “only” been a “homemaker” and a mum. It took me two years to find a fixed employment in my profession.

This time with our fourth move, I find the adaptation process much easier. I am hugely profiting from the fact that I had lived in Mexico City before.  And that my husband is a “native”. For a European who has not spent time in the developing world or an emerging country, coming to this place is a challenge: the sheer size of the city, the distances, the traffic, the noise, the density of concrete buildings and asphalt streets, the amount of people, the lack of green spaces, the poverty and the stark differences between rich and poor take time, emotions and energy to get used to. Some people never get accustomed to it, and remain feeling foreign and alienated forever. And even though a lot of things are not new to me here, eight months after we arrived I am realizing that what my friend said last summer was actually not exaggerated. All of us – my husband, my two boys, and me – are still to a certain extent settling in.

So, in September of last year I made the PLAN to do this blog. And then life happened. But in line with the motto of this blog, I am keeping on trying. I am failing (when it takes me four months between posts), and I am believing that I will improve my output (next post in days or weeks rather than months; write about something else than moving and settling in). This blog is a proof of my daily imperfections. But it is also the source of satisfaction and joy when I finally come around and create something.

A personal note

It has been six weeks since I wrote and published the last blog on What happened? Life happened. I got the keys to our new apartment and a couple of days later two trucks pulled up outside the building with nearly all our belongings, i.e. 38 cubic meters.

By that time we had stayed for twelve weeks with my husband’s mother, i.e. my mum-in-law. We had basically lived out of five suitcases – one for each of our clothes, and one for shoes. That was what we had taken with us on the plane when we moved from Vienna to Mexico City at the end of July. And actually, during those twelve weeks, we had hardly been missing those 38 cubic meters. It is both impressive and embarrassing how much stuff one has.

Impressive, because after twelve weeks, I had forgotten about a lot of things that had surrounded me before. All these books – a lot read, a lot bought with the intention to one day read them; all those clothes and shoes that did not make it as “essential” into our five suitcases and that could dress another two or three families of four easily; all those souvenirs, photographs and handicrafts made by my two boys that document life and growth. The fact that one is struck with a certain element of surprise getting a lot of those things out of the movers’ boxes is partly owed to life just being intense. One usually does not have time to “miss” one’s old life when one is busy trying to establish the most practical elements of one’s new – such as getting one’s kids accepted in a new school, finding an apartment, asking around about car insurance, or making an appointment with the internet service provider.

Embarrassing, because, seriously, one has so many things one does not need – the salad spinner I bought just half a year ago, but after 25 years without a salad spinner, I cannot get used to using one; the old video camera that was overtaken by technological advancement at least twice by now, but is still the format my wedding video was shot on; the Nordic walking poles I never quite had the patience to really learn how to use them.

After four moves with a family during the last twelve years, I have learned that it is usually best if you clear out your things before the movers come. But I have also experienced that usually your time at the place you are going to leave soon is too valuable to spend it with “properly” clearing out your things. So, that task at least has to be continued when unpacking at the new place. That is why I spent the last six weeks opening boxes and putting books, clothes and dinner plates into their new spaces; arranging photographs, mothers’ day postcards and fathers’ day paintings; and throwing out some odd souvenirs that we bought some where, but that never really meant anything to me. Proof for my daily imperfections – the salad spinner is still in a box and the Nordic walking poles are stored, as I could not bring myself to just tossing them or giving them to charity.

What I also did during the last six weeks was sticking the little Jip and Janneke-magnets to our new fridge and putting the Julius Meinl-coffee jar in our kitchen – as the former is a fond memory of our time in The Netherlands, and the later of our years in Austria. Those little things make me feel at home, and looking at them again after a long while, they manage to put a smile on my face. With this achieved, I hope that “life” in the upcoming weeks and months will offer more time for contributions to