Contracting in Europe - a short guide for Brits

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Reasons not to work abroad

  • The first week will suck out your brains. After that you will have to deal with isolation, paranoia, boredom, and exhaustion.
  • There is only so much CNN you can watch in any one lifetime, and NBC is worse.
  • Simple things become incredibly frustrating.
  • Heathrow is the 5th pit of hell.

But: if you can get used to all of this, then working abroad gives great opportunities for experiencing people, situations and challenges you simply won’t come across in the UK. Also it is fun, particularly when the pound is strong, and the tax is low.

Time to spare? Go by air!

The airlines build delays of up to 20-40 minutes into their published schedules, even so the London airports run to such tight tolerances that a heavy rain shower at 11.00am will make your 18.00 flight home on a Friday two hours late. Allegedly.

There are a few simple rules which will make taking regular trips marginally less awful.

  • Do your journey with hand baggage only – if you really want to, you can follow the example of e-prophet Nicolas Negroponte and send your laundry on ahead by FedEx, or ask your hotel to store your suitcase over the weekend.
  • Better still, do you journey with no baggage at all – why take your toothbrush with you, when you can keep one in each place.
  • Bags more in business – most airlines permit business class passengers to take an additional item of hand baggage, though this has come under pressure since September 2001.
  • Fly any airline except BA.
  • Or AirFrance.
  • Use any airport except Heathrow.
  • Flights from Birmingham and other regional airports use smaller planes, and some of them provide business class meals to the economy passengers.
  • Don’t use Charles de Gaulle as a hub.
  • Get tickets for connecting flights with the same carrier, or carriers that operate jointly. If the first flight is delayed, then you remain their problem until the end of your journey.
  • French letters - if you are delayed overnight on an AirFrance journey, you will find that they include a condom in their emergency freebie pack. It doesn't even say 'Air France' on the packaging, so this is not a reason to fly with them.
  • Stack up the miles on a loyalty card. The airlines bump the economy class passengers who don’t have loyalty cards first.
  • Go home for the weekend, rather than away for the week - round trips are cheaper if they include a Saturday night.
  • Know your enemy! Heathrow in particular is surrounded by a lot of rat-runs; getting to know them can mean the difference between catching or missing the flight.
  • If you are lucky enough to be travelling Business Class remember that if you have no baggage to check in, you can if necessary do a telephone check in from the motorway. This works particularly well with Schipol.
  • Likewise life is much better when you know where in the airport you can get a decent cup of tea, and which levels of the car parks will be empty.

And finally: Don’t do it! Stay where you are, do some shopping, sit in the sun drink the kaffee, eat the kuchen, and watch the world go by. Or get someone else to do it for you - Your wife, partner, or significant other may enjoy the trip away, finding it exciting or – heven help us all - fun.

Language Lessons

One of the best things bout working abroad is the opportunity to learn another language, or improve one you stopped learning when you were 16. But don’t think that you can pick up a language by osmosis. Unfortunately you only get one free language voucher, and it ran out when you were eight years old.

What sort of language school?

There are mixed reports on language schools which cater to large classes of mixed nationalities:

When I was working in Hamburg, and I ended up in a class of 12 people, from 11 countries. The class which started a month after we did overtook us in 3 weeks flat. 3 weeks worth of learning for 7 weeks of money is not a good deal. By then I was 5 weeks off the end of my contract, so I quit the class. I am still angry about this, because one of the reasons I came to Germany was to learn German, and by then it was too late to sort out anything more effective.

On the other hand other people have found it a good way to learn German:

I found it very positive being in a multi-nationality language class when I was learning German. With Romanians, Tunisians, Russians, Koreans and so many other nations present, it seemed very natural only ever to converse in Deutsch. In ciggy breaks, (sorry, 'coffee' breaks, we tried to swap attempts at what we'd learned in class, and try to cobble together a chat about what we'd been up to outside of class. Not exactly Johnson and Boswell content-wise, but great for the spoken German.

Private Tutors

These are good, but obviously more expensive. Even so, this is a good route to go if you need flexible arrangements, and are not too bothered about meeting other English-speakers, or if you want to make progress in a short time.

Online Utilities

There are a number of sites which help with translations. Some are language-specific. Here are three which cover a wide range of languages.

Alta Vista

AltaVista provide an online utility which you can use to translate up to 1000 characters of text at a time; or which you can use as a combined translator and browser to view entire web pages at or The translations vary from the bizarre to the downright unintelligible. Here are instructions for using OneTel translated from German: “As soon as your number is de-energised, select from your telephone from simply our preselection 01086 before each target call number abroad the in or. Telephoning with One.Tel is so simple and favorably!”

Translation pairs are available between English and most major European languages.


The Altavista site is powered by Systranet:

Netscape Navigator 6

Netscape promise that with Navigator 6 you can “Translate web pages in a single click to your native language with the AutoTranslate feature in Navigator, based on Alis Technologies, Inc.’s Gist-In-Time service for the Internet.”


Global Diallers

If you want to access the Internet then you will either need to find an Internet café, or use a local ISP.

Using a local ISP is in fact very easy. There is a great dialler called Gric, which provides local access to ISPs all over the world. This means that you can access the net for the cost of a local phonecall, because you do not need to login to your home ISP in the UK. Gric’s site is: Some ISPs include the Gric dialler as a freebie, but you have to pay the ISP a monthly charge to subscribe to them. Check the Gric site for up to date information.

Cheaper phone calls

One of the unexpected costs of working abroad is increased mobile charges, as you pay the international element on calls made to your mobile. Quite often the cheapest option is to get a local pre-paid mobile for incoming calls. There are phones available that support two sim cards (alas, not yet simultaniously, only one is functional at any one time). Some people swap sims between two phones, others run two handsets. Your UK mobile is still probably cheaper the better option for calling home, unless you get a landline. Navigating menus in a language you do not speak is a nightmare, so get them to help you set up your own message before you leave the shop.

Useful things to take with you

Photocopies of the details in your passport authorised by a bank. You may not need these; but they are worth having in case you do. For example, you will need them if you need to open a bank account but cannot visit the bank in person. UK banks should do this while you wait, and shouldn’t charge you for it.


Christine Hall says in Living & Working in Britain “The British generally drink their tea diluted with milk. You may find this custom barbaric, spoiling the delicate flavour of the tea. But once you have tried British tea bags, you’ll understand”. The “delicate flavour of the tea” in Europe is a good reason to take your own supplies of PG Tips.

Different people miss different things. Heinz beans can be hard to find in France, and German loo roll may be called “Happy End”, but it sure isn’t kitten-soft.

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