Monday, October 12, 2020

What it is like to move abroad when you're old... like me!

So, it's been just over a year now since we moved into our latest 'forever home'. A time to reflect on which things conformed to our expectations, and also which things didn't. I guess it might turn into a guide to international moving which could be helpful for any of the last-minuters trying to escape the psycho-state that is the UK before the rug is finally pulled from beneath everyone's feet on January 1 2021...

At the time everything passed in a whirlwind of madness. I was home alone parenting all the kids as Thomas had had to move before me. I was dealing with everything from selling the house, packing everything, dealing with the colossal emotional upheaval on the side of those who were being dragged away from the only home they had ever known and those who were being left behind. I wasn't even in the equation, as I had no mental energy left once I had dealt with everyone else. And when I think back on it now, I wonder how and where I found the strength from, given Thomas had to leave less than ten weeks after I got out of having surgery for a suspected cancerous ovarian tumour. I had literally been out of hospital four weeks (and was 'signed off work' till March) when we had to take the decision on whether or not to jump ship. I was either mad or I have some extra large balls.

Of course, I have moved internationally before, but that was before I was a real adult. Moving internationally as a student is easy and fun (or rather, it was easy and fun till the Tories got into power - it's about to be about as easy as cooking a slice of toast in a tumble drier...) but in my day at least moving about as a student was a wonderful adventure.

Moving abroad as a family is a thousand times more complex. As a home-owner, a lot depended on selling up back home, which we luckily managed to do though not for quite as much as we'd liked. You incur all sorts of house sale expenses which you hadn't been reckoning with, but that's not unexpected at least. Next you sell your cars, but when you're not buying a new one at the same garage, they have no incentive to give you a reasonable price and you have no time to look for private buyers so no matter what you do, you're inevitably going to be shafted on the car front. 

Next, you start gathering quotes to move your possessions. These make your eyes water - literally! We were quoted £14K to move our house contents and I swore that if I had to carry each item on my back to Denmark on foot, I sure as hell wasn't paying £14K! We managed to get it down to about £6K by throwing out every piece of furniture we owned, moving only clothes, books, kitchen equipment and the odd family heirloom (which ironically Thomas had previously paid to ship to the UK!) We tried selling everything, of course, but time was short and most things were fairly used so we probably made less than £400 in total. £400 for a lifetime's possessions is kind of sad really. In the final weeks, I found that by offering things online for free, I at least didn't need to drive our possessions to the local rubbish dump and throw them out, which was quite soul-destroying. Owning nothing after all those years was strangely liberating. Of course, the things that were in too bad a state to sell or give away were invariably the things that were too large to dump, so most of the £400 profit went on bulk rubbish uplifts - typical! So by the end of the day we owned no house, no cars, no beds, no sofas, no tables, no chairs, no wardrobes, no garden tools, no bikes... the list of what we no longer owned was endless! 

Many of the others who jumped ship at the same time had their removal expenses covered by their new employer. Thomas landed himself a wonderful job and we waken up grateful for that every day, but with a company that had not envisaged any international candidates and therefore with a zero budget for international removals. I imagine it'll be several years before we get over that hit too.

And on arrival here, we had to find a way to acquire all of that again. It will, of course, take some years to get back to where we were. Some things were a must - when your garden is 9000m2, prioritising something for grass-cutting goes without saying. Other things that we'd like, for example a bike for me in a country where cycling is the norm and where the lie of the land is almost flat enough that it might not actually kill me, has had to be punted into the long grass!

As with the UK, Denmark is based on a two-income system, so while I am learning Danish, which I had to pay for, we are trying to live on half what our contemporaries are living on. It'll be a while before we can jet off to Thailand for our summer fortnight. It feels as if we're constantly walking the tight-rope between sacrificing my earning ability so I can learn enough to fit in well enough to feel this is home, and giving up classes and job hunting before I can actually speak well enough to get the right kind of job for me. I'll admit the time I spend at my classes is great fun. You feel like you're connecting with the locals while simultaneously making international friends, but of course, the flipside is that feeling of guilt, that I really shouldn't be spending so much time on something that isn't a real job. When you land somewhere wholly alien to you, where you have no friends and no family and you've never really learned to communicate, language lessons are a lifeline. They are the three mornings a week where I actually see other human beings rather than rattling about entirely alone, listening to Danish radio in a fairly pathetic attempt to submerge myself in the lingo. They are a place of sanctuary, where you can actually say 'god, this is hard' and someone will invariably agree. A burden shared and all that... But there's a reason the average age in my class is late 20s. 90% of people just would never consider starting their life from scratch again after they turn 50.

When you reach my age, people tend to be settled in their lives, as we were back home. You have friends, maybe some family close by, you know the parents in your kids' schools, you have a job and colleagues, you have neighbours you know and trust. If you're lucky, a psycho government doesn't get voted in, burning down your house, threatening your livelihood, and toying with the notion of deporting your partner and forcing you to start life again from scratch. There are few opportunities to make new acquaintances at our age. The same is true here. Fifty-somethings in Denmark are no more in need of new friends than those back home. They certainly aren't in need of mates who struggle to express themselves and that's before you throw in a global pandemic so you can barely even introduce yourself to a neighbour, let alone seek out some way of meeting new people.

Another given in Denmark is that over 18s are self-sufficient. In Scotland parents are legally responsible for their kids who are in further education until they reach 25, or get a job. There is the odd loophole, of course... If your parent refuses to help you, you have to bring a court case against them to force their hand. So in real terms, when a student's parents are divorced, you often find the parent who had had the main custody of the child till 18 is left picking up a greater share of the bills (or in our case, all of them). Student rooms here are reasonably priced and students receive 'SU' - a grant, which is not means-tested on parental income, of £750 a month. And yes I do mean grant as opposed to loan. This is a wonderful way of making sure all kids get the same start in their further education. When the three little ones reach that age, I will be first to explain to them the wonderful advantage they have over their friends and family back home. They'll never take it for granted. Back home parental income is taken into account, there are no grants and student rooms are an eye-watering £700+ a month. Having jumped ship while Lots was still at uni, we therefore have a child who falls under Scottish jurisdiction, putting us at a further disadvantage against our Danish peers. But at least it is temporary, and things should begin to even out by 2024.

Moving country when you're middle-aged comes with some other annoyances - some minor, some major - we're too old to join any of the health or dental plans here so we're stuck with the basics, when the majority of our peers have had some scheme or other for years. Thomas had been a member of such a scheme when he worked here in his 20s, but left it when we settled down together. The result is that unlike our peers we have to pay full price for prescriptions, dental treatment and glasses. Doctor visits and hospital treatment are of course still free to us. My UK life insurance is no longer valid now I have no UK address but taking out a new policy in my fifties will be much more expensive than it would have been to continue paying into my old one, which was taken out when I was significantly younger. That is something we haven't been able to deal with as yet so I'm glad we're not in a Corona hotspot. However, the most obvious one which hasn't hit us yet but will to a certain extent devastate our 'twilight years' is the fact that, quite frankly, UK pensions are utter shit for the vast majority of people our age and worse still, we cannot rule out Brexit leading to such a collapse of the currency back home that the tiny pensions we will be receiving from back home when we reach our late 60s will be negligible. Realistically 70% at least of my pension and 50% of Thomas's will be UK based, so we'll be living on less than 50% of our contemporaries come retirement. Unlike our peers here in Denmark, we won't have the luxury of paying a mortgage past retirement. Our only option for survival will be to have paid off the house in full, some time in the next 15 years. Given I've already been paying my mortgage for over 27 years and we were a mere ten years from finishing our Scottish mortgage this setback is a bit depressing. Quite frankly this whole mortgage malarkey is getting a bit tedious!

Looking back over our relationship, most of this is the fault of Brexit. Had we decided many years ago that our plan was to settle in Denmark, we would have done things very differently... To name a few things - Thomas would have paid into his health plan so he could get subsidised dental etc treatment today. He would have continued to pay into his Danish pension rather than his UK one. I would have learned how to speak and write Danish over a decade rather than simply developing a decent passive knowledge of it, as I had. We would have started job hunting on a timescale that suited us, so we would have had time to sell our possessions, our cars, our house without losing out and we could have allowed ourselves the luxury of seeking out an employer for at least one of us who would have paid towards the international removal costs, even if a couple of years later we could then have sought out the type of job Thomas has now, that suits both his education and interests. And more than anything, from my perspective, we would have left sooner, when all the kids could have benefitted from the Danish higher education system, and could have been kept together. Having my family all based in the same country would have been a no-brainer.

So, given the negatives, do I think we made the right move? Absolutely! Every morning I still waken up relieved. I listen to the Danish radio news on my way into Odense in the morning and my heart is no longer in my mouth at the mention of Boris or Brexit. I can sleep at night, knowing whatever the UK government gets up to is unlikely to devastate my life. Looking forward I see that my kids are growing up somewhere open-minded, international, respected and cooperative. Here they are investing in educating the youth and even old people like me! Our government might have its faults but I haven't seen the EU or the US questioning its trustworthiness internationally over the last few weeks. Watching the UK's decline from afar is eye-watering. How could something so respected fall so far, so quickly? Yes, we are currently much worse off than our Danish counterparts and can never realistically dream of fully catching up with people here with an equivalent level of education, but at the same time we will still be in a much better situation than our UK contemporaries, so it is worth the uphill struggle. Learning to speak here, rather than just understand, as had been the case on visits to Denmark up till last year, gives me hope that one day I'll be able to find a job, make a friend or at least function here.

I'm living in a beautiful house. It cost less than our home in Newton Mearns, but if I were to transport it into East Ren brick by brick, it would easily set me back a seven figure sum. At home I could never have dreamed of owning a home like this. My kids' future is safer here and the older two still have the option to jump or even join us, using their French passport. I'm less than five years away from being able to apply for dual citizenship and therefore getting back the EU citizenship I never should have lost. Next month's exam will (hopefully) bring me one step closer to achieving that goal. Thomas has a wonderful job too. We may be no better off financially here in our new life than we were in Glasgow (at least not until I manage to master the language enough to contribute) but we have gained stability which was something we'd been lacking back home for the best part of a decade. Stability is a very undervalued quality that you don't fully realise you are missing, until you find it again. And who knows - there must be some company in Denmark who could use a English language expert with 29 years experience! Surely someone would like to make sure they never again make a single error when publishing the English-language side of their website or any literature pertaining to their company!? Pleeeeease!

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