An Italian, an American and a Brazilian walk into a bar.
What do they have in common?
They all live in London but they are not exactly Londoners – or are they? They are what we sometimes call “Expats”.
So what exactly is an “Expat”? What are they doing in London? Where do they come from and what are their hopes for the future?
Well, “Expats” come in all shapes and ages and sizes. And more and more often, they come from more and more countries too. They may start out from different places but their new UK experience means that they will have much more in common than you might expect and many more shared needs than they first realise. Now, many “Expats” are single, working in London with a corporate plan and are busy making their way in this international capital with other singletons from all over the world – as well as getting to know the locals. But one category of “Expats” rejoices in the secondary title of “Trailing Spouse” – the partner in a marriage or relationship who is here because their other half has moved for their career. Trailing spouses are often, though not exclusively, women and their new life in London requires adaptability, resourcefulness, humour and a large dollop of courage.
And all of them can really benefit from a helping hand in getting their disrupted lives back on track – which is exactly where the FOCUS organisation comes in.
Naturally, everyone will advise a travelling partner – perhaps recently out of work so as to be able to accompany their “other half”- to join a group, take up a hobby and usefully fill their time while they do or don’t get on with re-shaping the pattern of their new life. But the question is which group? How do you find the “right” one? Do you want a cultural group, a professional association, a business network, a parents’ forum or do you want to meet with like-minded people who may want to use this relocation period to assess their priorities and take stock of what challenges and opportunities this new situation has to offer?
And all the while the person nominally “at home” will most probably be completely on their own as they deal with the day-to-day of settling-in a household that may include children, pets, extended family and one or two highly-stressed professional adults – while sorting out the plumbing and the internet connection, of course.
Well, the beauty of FOCUS is that it was founded over 30 years ago by a small group of women who found themselves in a similar situation and who realised that some issues were key to almost all of the expatriates they surveyed. So, with a lot of determination (and a more than a dollop of courage) they set up FOCUS Information Services, a non-profit organisation offering referrals, courses and volunteer opportunities to accompanying spouses who, at that time, were mostly women.
Nowadays the “Expat” profile has changed somewhat and many of the accompanying spouses are men. FOCUS has added many, many services to its initial list. But its primary purpose and its own focus have not really changed: to offer practical support to persons and families relocating to the UK in as many aspects of their lives as members require.
Membership has grown hugely, from a couple of dozen to over a thousand men and women and their families. FOCUS does not just advise when there are problems to solve, it also anticipates issues and offers tried and tested advice to help avoid problems. After all, why not learn from mistakes and pass on the experience! A glance at their website shows a very long list of activities from the hugely popular (and highly rewarding) Career Development Programmes, Seminars and Special Events to Coffee Mornings, get-togethers and cultural excursions all over London.
The multi-national, multi-talented FOCUS team has certainly also grown and changed, but it is still made-up of people who have lived through the varied challenges that most expatriates will encounter on both a professional and a personal level. And the team freely share from their heartfelt experiences. At the office in Kensington, you will not only find a very useful Resource Centre and Reference Library but also a genuinely warm and friendly welcome. You don’t need to know what exactly you are looking for – just drop in and someone on the team will be glad to suggest a useful “taster” or meeting you can drop into so you can gently feel your way.
Meeting people who are going through similar life changes, sharing funny stories about re-location, cultural differences, rules and regulations that seem completely bizarre – these are as much a part of the daily adjustment to life in a new country as finding a new job, a new home, a new school, a new set of friends and a new way of doing things that suddenly no longer seem familiar. The people who have been through it know how to help – with laughter and with practical solutions. It’s a shared experience that will also bring you closer to this fascinating city and all it has to offer.
As one Brazilian FOCUS member said, having come to London for 2 – 3 years over 15 years ago, “I am of course a ‘carioca da gema’, but I also feel like a true Londoner!”
Do get in touch.
FOCUS, 13 Prince of Wales terrace, London W8 5PG
Tel: 020 79377799
Written by Jan Winter