Mary Mackinnon – Every time you move you are a different person

The Change Diaries podcast explores how to better embrace change, spark change, or be the change we want to see.

This second series of the Change Diaries podcast explores the ups and downs of changing locations. In this episode I speak with Mary MacKinnon, a consultant in international adaptation and mobility, who is herself a veteran of moving.

Mary leads us through the ins and outs of managing a relocation – from figuring out if it’s the right timing for you, handling the logistics, embracing the inevitable culture shock, and then preparing to head back home for re-entry. It’s a conversation loaded with wisdom, experience and empathy from an expert who has made 14 international moves spanning every stage of her adult life. Tune in, absorb and share with anyone you know who is contemplating a move.  


Guest Bio

Mary MacKinnon has worked as a consultant in international adaptation and mobility, both at home in Canada and abroad, since 1986. As such, she has worked in both the public and private sectors developing programs and delivering workshops for expatriates at many stages of international life.

She was, among other things, co-founder of the International Mobility Program at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 1996 and later a consultant to Ericsson in Cairo and the Department of Foreign Affairs (now called Global Affairs Canada).

Mary is the author of a book entitled The Global Staircase: a handbook for people relocating internationally.

A veteran of 35 years attached to foreign affairs as the wife of a career diplomat, Mary has moved at almost every stage of adult life – young adult, married and childless, with babies, with school-aged children, with teenagers and finally as an empty-nester. 

Her homes abroad included, England, France, Switzerland and Austria in Europe, Tunisia, Iran and Cairo in the Middle East, and South Korea in Asia.

Having made 14 international moves, seven of them back home to Canada, she feels strongly about re-entry preparation and building a sense of community.


Thanks for being with me and joining this second season of the Change Diaries podcast with the theme, ‘Changing your location – the ups and downs. Please comment below, follow my blog, and share with others.  Never miss an episode! Subscribe to get new episodes as they become available.

Thank you for being here. I post new content each week.

 The Change Diaries Podcast theme music by Ellan Neil

The Change Diaries Podcast cover design by Aris Amitirigala

© Arlene Amitirigala 2021. All Rights Reserved.   

Moving Countries? Schooling is a Priority

photo credit: Arlene Amitirigala

In a previous blog post I listed getting schooling right as a top priority. Most parents I know are obsessed about getting their child into the best school but it’s not easy and requires a lot of close attention, especially when you are moving countries. Budget time for lots of research into schooling options, comparing curricula, scouring websites, looking at private vs public, understanding testing methods and cycles. In my life I’ve also had the experience of being the student and that wasn’t a walk in the park either.

As a teen leaving Jamaica which operated under the British system, when I landed in Santiago, Chile in July, it was the middle of the school year and they were on winter break, so I started school half-way through. Fortunately, I attended Nido de Aguilas, a private international school with a blend of cultures and nationalities, and they were accustomed to seeing new faces at any given moment in the year. However, it still meant that I was walking into classes where people had already gone ahead with the curriculum and I was playing catch up in the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) program.

We left Chile for Geneva, Switzerland a year later. I arrived late and missed the first couple weeks of school – an important bonding phase. Not only that, but they also had a completely different curriculum, so I had to shift grades after a month and restart the IB program which set me back a year. I felt as if I was constantly changing and catching up and it was tough to see my daughter experience something similar as she switched schools after only a year in the UK. Fortunately, she adapted well and didn’t experience a setback.

Only you can decide whether to go public or private for your child’s schooling. If you are relocating with your employer on an international transfer or work with an international organization and you can access an educational allowance, then you could explore the private option. Look at international schools closely too as in my experience, they offer these added benefits:

  • Multicultural environment – American International schools and British International school both have student bodies with a blend of nationalities which helps to reduce culture shock for your child and provide a rich experience.
  • Varied programs – such as the International Baccalaureate which are recognized globally, and the academic offering is often enhanced.
  • Rapid integration – students are accustomed to seeing others join at any time in the year and they generally assimilate much faster and easier.

If your company isn’t paying for it but you are able to afford it then, by all means, do the research well in advance and select a school that will give you the value you are seeking. Figure out what’s important to you and your child and contact the admissions departments early. Research online, look for reviews, do the virtual tours, find out about financial aid, and submit applications early.

There’s also something else you should be aware of – bias. Assumptions about abilities are easily made based on ethnicity. This is a watch out depending on your ethnicity and new location. On my first day walking into Economics class, which turned out to be one of my favorite courses in the I.B., a fellow student said to me, “This is a really tough class. Are you sure you are meant to be here?”  They thought they were being helpful, but the comment was based on some measure of bias. So, stay positive while being a ready advocate to catch any discrepancies that could affect your child at the outset.

If you are going the state route, then for countries where I’ve lived such as the UK, USA and Canada, I’ve found that the number one rule is to pick the school first. Then you can decide where you will live to ensure that you are smack dab within the boundary. My experience has always been that fantastic state schools with great facilities and programs are available – just do the research in advance of moving!

Sometimes however, it does get tricky as I’m sure you might have experienced. I’ll share more on that in an upcoming post in the series Navigating Change. What’s been your experience on finding schools during your move? Share your views and comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for stopping by. Please share your comments below and visit again soon. Don’t forget to subscribe and share. I post new content each week.

© Arlene Amitirigala 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Moving Countries? The Secret to Settling in Smoothly…

photo credit: Arlene Amitirigala

Lower Your Expectations!

Moving to a new country is exciting. At the beginning there is so much to discover and, if you move to a city like London, every day is a beginning. Even after three plus years I had barely scratched the surface. But what was it like settling in?  

Firstly, and I write this with a lot of love for Old Blighty, it wasn’t particularly smooth settling into #Londonlife. There were a few key factors. Distances seemed short on the map, but I soon learned that a 5km journey can take you the better part of an hour. As a family we ended up commuting in different directions to work and school which was added stress.  

Secondly, coming from the US, there was more bureaucracy than I had anticipated in getting services going. The two-week wait for a telephone call and then further wait for an in-branch appointment to open a bank account was incomprehensible. There were lengthy telephone interviews with service providers to sign up for gas/electricity. Getting internet service was challenging. I paid for service with one provider who later admitted that they didn’t have capacity (which they failed to tell me at the outset) and offered me a negligible discount while they took six weeks to iron out the kinks! We ended up switching providers. 

Thirdly, my experience with landlords hit an all-time low. Cleaning standards, ethical standards and adherence to safety were disappointing. We ended up moving after the first year and then had our lives upended again the following year when the second landlord decided to sell the house. We lived in three different places. When we were packing up to leave the last place, my son confessed, “Mom, moving is stressful. When we move, I don’t know where anything is!” I agreed. It was a lot of adjusting.  

When I consider what would have made things smoother, the key thing that comes to mind is … lowering my expectations.

The customer service-oriented nature of the US, the immediacy and accessibility of certain services there, the ease of operating with landlords and the option for my children to attend ‘A’-rated schools meant that I was accustomed to a different standard in various areas. This is not to suggest that in some areas the UK didn’t have comparable or better services, but the truth is that at the outset, I found things to be bureaucratic and time-consuming.  

I will say however, that there were many things that made a positive difference at the outset and helped us feel settled and happy, despite the challenges. In fact, we had an outstanding first summer! Some of these were: 

  • We chose a great primary school in Richmond that had an extremely caring environment. They allowed the kids to join in June even though there was only a month left in the school year so they both participated in the end of year show. 
  • My husband took two weeks off from work when we arrived so that he could support the kids in settling into the new environment  
  • We connected with folks we knew who had grown up in London or lived in the UK for a while. They were kind and generous in hosting us, giving advice and sharing valuable perspectives.  
  • My friend Jennifer visited London that summer with her family. It was the best feeling ever to see familiar faces from home and to introduce them to our new lives.  
  • As a family we were very open with each other. We checked in on how we were feeling, what was challenging and how we could support each other.  
  • We created an itinerary and explored each weekend, seizing the opportunity to do things only available in this magnificent city. Highly recommend this useful book of walking tours around London – Walk London from Pitkin publishing:  Another great book is Watching the English by Kate Fox.    

I’ll wrap up with my best advice – if you are moving countries, go ahead and do all the research and all the preparation that you possibly can. Absolutely aim to get the schooling and the housing right. But after that, take a deep breath and simply lower your expectations. It will save you a lot of stress.  

Tell me what resonated with you. In an upcoming blog in the series Navigating Change, I’ll share my experience and views on schooling.  

Thank you for stopping by. Please share your comments below and visit again soon. Don’t forget to subscribe and share. I post new content each week.

© Arlene Amitirigala 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Adjusting is intentional; ask for what you need

Arlene at age 2, Kingston, Jamaica

When I was three years old, I went to live with my paternal grandparents along with my brother. This was a big change for us both.

My grandparents enrolled us in a private in-home kindergarten called Auntie’s School. Each morning my Grandmother would walk the half mile to this lady’s home holding my hand the entire way. And every morning I wept at the door and clung to her to no avail. After she left, I would cry all day into the handkerchief that was pinned to my blouse. A fresh one was pinned each morning for the new round of tears. All my memories of Auntie’s School literally consist of me crying. The only exception is my memory of when my brother got in trouble for splitting open his no.2 pencil and writing with the bare lead.

The following year we were deemed ready to go to proper kindergarten at the big primary school attached to the Teacher’s college a couple miles away. Come September, first day of school, all the children had to line up outside the classrooms. What I remember most was the wailing of children attending school for the first time. Crestfallen faces in crisp new navy-blue pinafores and white blouses, khaki uniforms and shiny black shoes. I stood patiently in line and observed them. I was silent and dry-eyed, but I had a deep sense of empathy. I had been there. I knew what this change represented. I could relate.

Sometimes when we observe others going through change, wrestling with learning a new language, adapting to new customs or navigating new ways of working, it is easy to be unsympathetic and want them to ‘get on with things.’ We can misinterpret their adjustment period as them ‘complaining’ or ‘whining’ but they are simply coming to grips with the scale of change they have just undertaken in their lives.

In the corporate environment, we might politely shove some training videos at them with a few slides on intercultural communication and expect them to move along and settle in seamlessly. But moving countries can be particularly challenging; uprooting isn’t easy, even when it is desired.

In my experience, both professionally and personally, it is most valuable to connect with someone else who has also undergone this type of change. In the corporate setting, this is not career coaching or leadership development, this is a ‘buddy’ or ‘mentor’ who firstly can listen and then empathize. They will be able to relate and can offer advice to help a newbie adjust to life in their new environment. They are often most helpful in suggesting service providers like where to find a great barber. It’s the little things that make a difference, especially since the website or the brochure from the relocation consultants is inevitably never enough.

If you are contemplating making a move or just made one, here are a few tips that have worked for me in each new place:

  • Ask a lot of questions and ask for what you need. This is the time that people will be most willing to help you as you are new.
  • Explore, explore, explore. Kick your curiosity into high gear. Whether you are single or with a family embrace the freedom to learn something new.
  • Join a mix of groups and associations. I find that it is valuable to form friendships with locals and expats – even if they are from a different country as there is automatically a shared understanding, which is useful as you strive to assimilate.
  • Register at your consulate or embassy. Get on the mailing list for events and news that keep you connected to your home country. Remember, one day you may be returning.
  • Start reading the local papers – all of them and then pick a couple you like and read those regularly. It helps to be able to contribute knowledgeably to conversations and lifts you out of ‘tourist status’. Language might be a barrier but I was usually able to find a local news source in English when I lived in non-English speaking countries.

Before I forget – register with healthcare providers as soon as possible i.e. a doctor and dentist. My husband fell ill shortly after we arrived in the UK and the doctor at the local surgery refused to see him because he was not yet registered.

Finally, recognize that culture shock is inevitable. You will go through it. Just ride the wave and be kind to yourself. More importantly, remember that it passes.

Keep tuning in, I’ll continue to share my experiences and tips in each blog post. Subscribe and share your thoughts in the comments.

© Arlene Amitirigala 2020. All Rights Reserved.