A Long Way from Home and Lovin' It

It was a blue Chevy, and it was the autumn after the summer of love, and they were four girls on an American road trip, far from home, about to walk into a dark and broody bar somewhere in Colorado.

It was intimidating, this bar full of locals craning their necks to see who were the new kids in town swinging through the saloon doors. But the girls warmed the place with their youth, and warmed hearts with their colt-like use of English and their exotic accents.

It wasn't more than a matter of minutes before some of the locals asked these European madchens to attend their Native American ceremonial dance, and decades later the gesture is still tenderly recalled by one of the erstwhile travelers.

"We started a conversation, saying 'we are from Europe,' and the next thing we know we're being invited to this big celebration," says Elisabeth Speiser.

"It was really impressive [at the ceremony] to see these youngsters with these large feathers [headdress] dancing in a circle. It was something to see. And I think the Indians were touched that foreigners had come and were interested in their own way of life."

Speiser, an Austrian, and her three German friends put a whopping 25,000 kilometers on that blue Chevy in 1968, crisscrossing America, and skimming across into Canada and down into Mexico, too. A dizzying pace, considering it was done in a month. They started in New York, and zoomed along to the famed but now faded Route 66, visited Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and as many places as they could pack into such a short trip.

"That was a great experience," says Speiser. "The people were very friendly. And very helpful.

It was the first step out of my country.... and it is still the greatest time in my life."

Speiser is now an investigations specialist for Raiffeisenbank in Vienna, but when she came to New York as a 20-year-old au pair, she was just a small town girl from Tyrol. "I arrived at JFK [airport] and knew how to say 'yes' and 'no' but that was about it."

She learned English during her year and a half in America, and later spent some time working in South Africa. She has continued to travel back and visit America with her family, having been to at least 47 of the 50 states.

Since Speiser's days of ricocheting across the continent in a Chevy, on the pennies she saved working as a nanny, opportunities for Germans who want to work abroad have blossomed.

Websites such as monsters.com post a variety of work opportunities for foreigners. A South African site, jobs.co.za, reports that it currently has 250,000 CVs in its database.

South Africa is suffering a brain drain, so there is a lot of full time work for educated professionals.

"For the past 10 years, the main draw has been for people with engineering skills, whether it be IT, business engineering, or basic mechanical and electrical engineering," says Tertia Calitz, managing director of jobs.co.za.

On the other hand, in countries such as the United States, which has a plethora of white collar workers, but lacks skilled laborers, companies tend to look for temporary employees when considering foreign applicants. Seasonal workers, like farmhands or campsite helpers, are in demand, but the problem of working abroad under these circumstances can be one of logistics. Since green cards are not issued for such work, and visas are temporary, the guest worker must periodically return to their home country to comply with government regulations--not easy or cheap when the home country is several thousand miles and an ocean away.

So for those who are happy with just a short-term gig, spending a summer working as a bartender or groundskeeper might be the way to go. Or do as Speiser did, and sign on as an eau pair.

But if a career of globetrotting strikes a chord, then there are companies and organizations that fit the bill.

Every couple of years the Wirtschaftskammer Oesterreich has an intensive training program in Vienna, in which Austrian university graduates under the age of 28 can participate. There are only 10 spots available for more than 100 applicants, so competition is tough, but for those who succeed, a lifetime of travel is secured.

"Basically, our job is to be like little international gypsies going around the world," says Dr. Gustav Gressel, Regional Manager for North America and Latin America at the Wirtschaftskammer.

Gressel's terms abroad are from 5-7 years. His first international assignment was in New York, followed by Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, back to the US (Houston, TX), a relatively brief stop back in Vienna, and then off to Brussels. He's preparing for his next move, which will be to Thailand, and will come sometime this summer.

"If I had it to do again, I'd probably do it all over again," says Gressel.

"You have to be prepared to learn all your life. A different country means a different background, so you have to adapt every time." says Gressel. "That's the challenge, but that's also the fun of it."

But for every international gypsy happily ambling around the planet, there is a grousing spouse or kids following behind. Or, at least, potentially.

"The only negative thing is the hardship on the family. The partner has to come with and start everything from scratch," says Gressel. "And my children all react differently. I have three kids. One is angry and says she feels rootless. Another is thrilled and thanks me, and the third is in the middle." Note: if you feel this quote emphasizes the age of both of the sources with internat'l experience, it might be best to leave it out.

Gressell credits openmindedness with a successful work experience abroad, and that goes hand-in-hand with cultural sensitivity.

The Germany-USA Career Center in Massachusetts places native German speakers with firms in the USA, and is very clear about what it looks for in successful candidates.

"[you are often hired because] you are a native German speaker and you are fluent in English. But even more important will be your ability to cooperate and communicate in a highly diverse, multicultural environment, compared to what you are used to," writes Rob Delton in a recent email. Delton is Director of Career Services at Germany-USA Career Center in Massachusetts, and as in the case of jobs.co.za, Delton's firm also has a high interest in recruiting Germans with technical or engineering backgrounds.

"If you're just starting out, the best way to go would be to get an internship or an academic exchange program," says Delton. "But at any stage of the career we want experience that tells us that this person is open to new or different perspectives."

Calitz of jobs.co.za in South Africa agrees. "Workers just have to get used to the kind of people here. The culture is more diverse and it's a question of mutual respect."

Speiser piled 25,000 kilometers onto that old Chevy, but what she gained in personal experience is immeasurable.

She still keeps in contact with her New York 'family' and with her American Road Trip girls. She has developed a philosophy of life that she credits with her days as a naive au pair, showing up on the doorstep of New York with little English and a lot of hope.

"Changing and learning. That's pretty much what life is."

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