Today we meet Trina Cooper, a Canadian expat with a chequered history who has experienced all the highs, lows and uncertainties associated with life as a trailing spouse and living and working in foreign countries. Here she describes the challenges she faced as an expatriate going through a divorce abroad and shares how she channeled her negative experiences into establishing a productive life for herself as an entrepreneurial expat in yet another new country.
You have a very interesting story. Please tell us a little about your background. Where are you originally from and why did you initially move abroad?
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. Since I was a child I always wanted to travel, probably due to the fact that I was lucky enough to travel extensively with my family. After college I moved to Toronto and started a career in fashion. I became a make-up artist and through that career was lucky to live in many European countries, as well as Miami and New York. I eventually decided to make New York my home and embarked on a career change after selling my bath and body product industry to Benetton. I ended up in real estate and became a Vice President at Corcoran. There I met my husband and we married in 2005. After three years of marriage, my husband’s place of employment closed and, disillusioned with NYC, he looked for work further afield.
Which places did you live in and what experiences did you have there?
When my husband was offered a regional advertising job in Hong Kong he wanted it. I have to admit I was a little nervous about leaving my career in NYC and living in a place where I probably would not gain appointment. After long discussions, we decided that we would take two years to pursue his career and I would support him, then return home. We even had our dog put in his contract in regards to moving her there and back!
Unfortunately, he was fired 11 months after we arrived (that is a whole new story). However, he was not prepared to return to NYC. I obtained my real estate license in Hong Kong and was hired by Savills; however, as a result of the custom and visa requirements there I was no longer legally able to work in Hong Kong after my husband was fired.
Long story short, we returned to my husband’s home country, which was the UK, hoping that he would find employment there. During that time he was offered a job in Switzerland. It was not a country of my choice and I did not relish the thought of living there. However, he promised we would return to London after two years.
During our time in London I started researching a career for myself. It was then that I knew I wanted to do something for people who travel with their pets, especially expats.
Unfortunately, while living overseas with your husband you went through a divorce. What challenges did you face as an expat who found herself in this situation?
Through living in Hong Kong and observing expats in the advertising industry in general, I have observed how spouses are still treated in the sense of the 1960’s mad-men attitude. For example, while in Switzerland my husband was offered personal language courses and his own personal mobile, while I was only permitted a “pay as you go” mobile due to our visa. He was whisked away to a retreat where he learned about living in Switzerland, and was invited to dinners and parties that spouses where not able to attend. Meanwhile, I was left at home.
I feel this gives one spouse a total integrated and glamorous introduction to a new country with a support system. The other spouse, who usually can’t even get things in their own name, becomes dependent on their partner and is left to face challenges alone (setting up house, etc.)
I feel quite strongly that this puts a couple at odds.
So yes, a divorce happens abroad.
Do you believe that it was more difficult to go through a divorce while living overseas or easier than if you were at home? Why do you believe this?
Yes, it is more difficult to go through a divorce while living overseas. There are so many other things to consider.
When you are in your own country, you are near family and close friends. You have a working knowledge of how divorce works where you live, and if not you have an easier way of finding it. I had no idea who to contact in Switzerland about laws, or close friends that went through it. It’s also hard to find relevant information in your language. During that time Google Translate became my best friend.
One thing that helped me was I contacted my embassy and was given a list of English-speaking attorneys.
What specific challenges did you face going through a divorce as an expat in a foreign country?
- Finding support. Even if as a spouse who has joined an expat group, negative things are not discussed. It’s usually tea, lunches, care about children or dog walks. No one talks about trouble at home. We’re all “happy expats,” living on a high salary and enjoying the benefits that we may never have had at home. This can be anywhere from enjoying not working, or having your child in an international private school.
- Feeling trapped. How do I leave was my first thought? My closest friends or family members were far away. Luckily, I did not have children, but I did not want to leave my dog, my life, and my property behind and just leave. However, as an unemployed spouse, you can’t just say you’re going to get your own place for a while you sort things out…no one will rent to you and you may not have the resources or visa requirements you need. As in my case, my husband removed me from the credit card and closed my bank accounts. He also sued me on our separation agreement to retain the home and not supply any financial support. However, I won the rental home and alimony, I also won custody of the dog with him supply dog support. (A first in Switzerland law)
- Understanding the laws. I had to figure out really fast what to do. I found out that since we left New York and were gone for over a year. You can’t file there; you’re no longer considered a resident and it takes a year to reestablish it. In Switzerland you need to have been a residence there for a year before they will see your case for a divorce. In my case, I was lucky that we were there for two years, if it had been less I would not have been able to file there either. Then you need to find out about the laws of that country. If this had happened in Hong Kong, considering I was not on the lease, he would have been in his rights to have me removed and revoke me from his visa. Luckily, Switzerland demands that all tenants are on the lease so my rights to live in my home were protected (he did try in court to have me removed).
- Visa requirements. Considering I lacked resources, was a little stressed, and confused. I was in no condition just to get on a plane and leave my home. My next fear was losing my visa to remain in Switzerland. (my husband wanted it revoked, luckily the court ruled in my favor and I was permitted to remain while we were separated.) In Switzerland there is no quick divorce, you have to have two years to sort out your “no-fault” divorce.
- Language. All of this you need to do in the language of the country you live in. For me that was in French. Now I know a little tourist French and can get by, however legal jargon is a whole different thing! In court there is nothing scarier than having your life judged in another language that you don’t understand. Even with an interpreter, your point is not always made clear. When something is explained to you in English, it’s different than what was discussed in French. It’s summed up… as opposed to a complete translation. It was really frustrating.
- Complicated life structure. The courts are not used to dealing with international couples. We were a couple of UK and Canadian birth, married in New York, transferred from France (we were living at my friend’s home until his contract came through. We had assets in the UK and debt in Hong Kong and New York… the courts were confused!
Any further advice you can offer trailing spouses who are concerned their marriage may not survive overseas?
Get a clause in your partner’s contract that if anything goes wrong with your relationship abroad you will be supported. This could be as simple as transportation back home for you. Legal advice or that you will be assisted to stay in the country of choice, even if you are in a different residence than their employee.
After your divorce you decided to move to London. What was behind your decision to continue life as an expat instead of returning home?
During my career as a make-up artist I lived in Europe off and on for many years. I loved it and always saw myself one day living here in London. I had already been out of NYC since 2008 and some of my closest friends were no longer in the city. So, in a sense, I would be starting over there too. It took me months to decide New York or London. I decided on London, due to the fact that this was where I started thinking of a career for myself. I started Wag The Dog UK. While in Switzerland, this was where I focused my business, and started making contacts; I felt it was the next step. This time it would be my company, my work that would give me the chance to live here and I would no longer be dependent on someone else.
While living in London you started your own business. What do you do and how did this come about?
After traveling extensively with my dog. Besides moving her from NYC to Hong Kong and then to London, then to the South of France, Paris and then to Switzerland. We also traveled with her on all our holidays. From all this travel I learned a thing or two on how to travel easily with a dog. This included anything from what you needed to get your dog in a country and out, cooking for your dog due to the fact that where you are living does not have the proper dog food, and caring for your pet while on the road. I started helping people on my blog who were expats moving with their pets and it started rolling from there. I was soon being contacted by companies who wanted me to review their products and write posts about them.
It makes me really happy to know that I was able to help expats move with their pets. Most relocations companies are familiar about moving families but, when it comes to the family dog or cat, our precious pets are treated like a piece of the furniture! Furthermore, moving pets internationally can be time consuming and expensive.
Also with all this travel, I found that it was challenging packing for my dog Maggie. So I started designing a streamline dog travel bed that would have all the essentials a dog on the go would need.
Traveling with your dog shouldn’t be a fuss. It’s should be easy and fun. It’s about bonding with your dog and having an amazing experience in new and exciting places. With WAGN’ GO it’s the easiest way to travel. You are ready to travel to your favorite vacation spot. All in one chic and compact bag, your dog’s luxurious ultra-plush bed, dogs bowls that are sturdy, a non-slip place mat, a handy food bag, and a do not disturb sign ready to go when you and your pooch are on your next adventure. It’s a perfect solution too when you need to leave your dog with someone for a few days or hang out at their doggie day care center.
What challenges did you face when starting your own business and how did you overcome them?
In Switzerland my biggest challenge was finding local information in English. The language barrier and, to some extent, the culture made it hard to source the information I needed in that country. This left me isolated in establishing a network, resources and learning the laws; especially due to the fact that my business involved a niche market.
I overcame this by concentrating on finding information online and through the UK. LinkedIn was a great help and traveling to the UK was quite easy from Switzerland. So I started doing business trips to London and the UK to find the resources I needed and started making contacts in the industry this way. I attended Crufts for the first time and it was extremely helpful. In fact I met a woman who has an UK business making dog beds who is an Expat living on the other side of Lake Geneva in France. Also, while I was in Hong Kong, I met an expat in Innovation Strategy/Marketing/Sales. I helped him set up a bath and body company in Thailand and now he’s helping me with my business here in London.
What three pieces of advice would you give to other expats who want to start their own businesses?
If you are a partner of a spouse that has been moved overseas and find maybe for the first time that you’re not working, this is the time to put your creative hat on!
Besides joining that great expat group to bond with new friends, this is the time to “live the dream.” You have this free time that you might not get again.
1. Connect with new friends that might have information in the field you would like your business in. I met a lady here in London through the American’s woman club who used to do market research back home. She’s willing to talk to me and give me ideas and perhaps help.
2. Start your research on the web. The world is getting smaller and smaller and you can start something there and bring it back home. If you are going to be staying awhile in your abroad, listen to what expats complain about, and build a business with a solution. A friend of mine did a dog and hikes fitness boot camp for expats. Think global!
3. Expand your skills while you have the time living abroad, and share them. I used my experience of New York real estate and have helped people buy real estate in New York. I work as a consultant and help them navigate the broker community and find the right broker in the city for their needs. (It’s a known fact in NYC, that the best brokers are usually not the ones you get in contact with. They are already too busy with clients. When I was a broker, I only took referrals and farmed out cold calls to Jr. brokers)
What’s next for you?
Work on my business and keep it growing. Help expats move around the globe with their pets and by the end of the summer start selling my Wagn’ go travel beds! Paws crossed!