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Tales of an expatriate lifestyle – part one

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Peter Thompson
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Tales of an expatriate lifestyle – part one

Having lived in five different countries (Australia, UK, Poland, Netherland and Serbia), I have been exposed to some specific nuances of societies, their laws and the unwritten aspects that lie beneath the obvious. This article is certainly not a how to guide about expatriate life, but provides insight for those considering starting business or living abroad.

In order to survive as a sole operator or company director abroad, it’s important to adapt to the society that you live within, rather than taking your own rules and values and thinking that these are globally applied. If you try and operate business under your own values in another society, it can really increase the chances of failure. It’s one of the reasons that the study of global ethics is so interesting.

We were taught in school that cultures are different. We learned about customs and how respect can be paid differently, our actions or language spoken have a different outcome. It’s also well documented that doing business in other countries is different to doing business in our homeland. I kind of liken the idea of business abroad to teams playing sport. The home record of teams is usually much better than the away record because the idea is that the home team knows every blade of grass, slope or specifics of the playing surface. There is also local support, people who speak their language. Perhaps it’s the local expectation that adds that little bit extra pressure.

Here are a few of the business ideas and interesting challenges I have faced over the past years.

Digital wallet in the Netherlands

In 2007 when I was studying my MBA in Holland, one of the most unusual aspects of the campus was that money in the form of cash was not accepted. In Holland there is a system called Chipknip, which is the equivalent of a digital wallet. You can transfer funds from your bank account via pin and have up to 100 euro at the time on your digital wallet. It sure made it easy for paying for lower cost items.

Parking in Belgrade

Payment by SMS for parking as opposed to having to walk to the machine to pay in a machine. But one wonders what is the driving force behind that? I mean if every time you need to top up your parking payment you walk to the machine as opposed to sit where you have a coffee and simply reply to the SMS message that you want to extend your parking payment, maybe it means less revenue for the local tax collection authority. Probably that is their goal. Sometimes you have to wonder whether the actual tax collection group is working in our favour to improve our situation as citizens or simply to collect more revenue. I will leave you to consider that.

Laws in Eastern Europe

One of the strongest aspects about Australia is relatively clear laws that are less open to the interpretation of the judge. The concept of precedents and clearly defined laws makes it more simple to work within as opposed to wondering what actually might happen where judges are intimidated by thugs or mafia style groups who threaten. I guess if you put yourself in the judges’ position, you might begin to appreciate the complication of working in societies without clearly defined laws and decisions based purely upon what might be the safest for the person making the decision.

Making tips or bribes in Eastern Europe

In many parts of the world it’s still normal to pay traffic infringements as cash to the booking officer. Often this comes with no receipt and you are allowed to continue driving. I guess it’s known as a bribe. But then I also have experienced the other side. One time I refused to pay a bribe to someone for a speeding infringement. Now that is perfectly legal but the process thereafter is rather remarkable. I was escorted to a court house by the two police officers.

We all waited together for several hours until the judge became available. Not being a local resident meant that it was necessary to go the court and face the judge. At that point they confiscated my passport until I went to various governmental offices to pay the menial 50 euro fine which was discretionarily applied by the judge. All in all, the process took around five hours. To make matters worse, I would lose my license for 30 days some time in the future but no one knew exactly when and the police had to serve it to me in person. They never arrived. If I had have just paid the 10 euro to the police officer in the first place I could have saved myself a lot of pain.

The public service in Eastern Europe

The public service can be a real challenge. If you really need to get something done, make sure you have all of your documents and a lot of time. Can you imagine going to counter where there is someone sitting behind the desk reading a book with a sticky taped “on a break, back in 15 minutes” on the counter window? Well it’s the real deal in Eastern Europe. Going over and above for customer service is almost unheard of, for it is a privilege to be served and have them perform their task. A chocolate bar can go a long way in these circumstances.

Living an expatriate life is quite testing. One must have a strong determination and willingness to be open to change.

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About Peter Thompson

Peter Thompson
Peter Thompson founded GCOMM in 1996. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering/Information Systems from Griffith University and his MBA from Nyenrode Business Universiteit in Holland. He believes in building great teams of people, both in business and socially.
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