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When Alison was appointed Acting Director of International Press Institute (IPI) located in Vienna, Austria last August, she became the first black person in the world to head a global press freedom organization.

Where were you born and in which countries have you lived?

I was born in Miami, Florida, U.S.A. Aside from my home country, I have lived in The Bahamas, Ghana and now in Vienna, Austria.

What can you recall about your first trip abroad?

Gosh, it was so long ago that I barely remember. I think my first trip “abroad” was probably right across the Detroit (Michigan)/Windsor (Canada) bridge back in the early 1990s! <laugh> Actually, not counting that experience, I remember going to London for the first time with friends. It was scary, largely because I didn’t know what to expect — how the money would work or how I would be received by people or how the food would taste … I remember it being a great experience, though. And then I got adventurous and rented an apartment in the 7th arrondissement in Paris (on the Left Bank) for a 10-day holiday.

When did you realize that you had the Expat bug, that you wanted to live abroad?

I had talked about living abroad a number of times with friends, but it wasn’t a real burning desire for me. I love the United States of America. I love the diversity of it and the variety in almost everything, from food to clothing to landscape. My moving abroad was really the result of an employment opportunity.

What experiences have enlightened you, have opened your eyes while living in other countries?

The most enlightening experience about living abroad has been the lack of racial diversity in some cities or countries and the living standards by which much of the world lives. By and large, we are so privileged in the United States. One other thing: I initially was totally taken aback by the disdain that many, many people have for the United States while still craving everything American, like music and style of dress, for example.

Oh, two other things have been enlightening, so to speak: How accessible healthcare is for EVERYONE in other developed countries and the lack of extraordinary taxes placed on people in other countries. And it’s been fascinating to see the prejudice lodged against people from neighbouring countries or ethnic groups in Europe. We are so used to the black and white thing in America and that’s often not the focus in Europe; its more of a geographical or ethnic dislike. Having said that, in terms of black and white, it still always surprises me when people call me “colored.” (I should note that it is not a term that many people in Europe and Asia think of as offensive, and it is not said in a negative or degrading way at all. It just is what it is.)

Lastly, I am in awe at how many languages people in other countries — from Africa to Austria — speak.

… And on the flip side do tell us about your most disheartening experiences while living in abroad…

The lack of diversity in some cities and countries. Sometimes it is disheartening to always be the only black person for miles. Likewise, I find it disheartening to be in some countries where everyone is black and there are few Hispanics or Asians. I know it sounds strange, but sometimes you miss the different experiences and cultures, which is why I always seek out other minorities and specialty stores that sell ethnic food products. In smaller countries, many of them newly independent from mega powers like Britain, it’s sad to see the level of corruption and the constant hustle not only to cheat foreigners, but their own countrymen.

One of the most tragic personal experiences I had living abroad was when my newspaper in The Bahamas was sold. The lack of transparency and honesty was amazing and was due in large part  to the fact that I was a foreigner and, therefore, expendable. I will say, however, I learned a huge lesson about making solid contracts and written agreements when living abroad.

Now that you are living in Vienna, have you adopted any new customs that are particularly Austrian?

My husband and I haven’t really adopted any Austrian customs, per se. Actually, on second thought, when I asked my husband this question, he said, “We now greet people by kissing them once on each cheek. … Well, I’m not sure that’s Austrian.” Maybe not, because in Africa, we often kissed three times on the cheek.

One thing we have adopted is the practice of waiting until everyone has their drink when we are out with friends, then lifting our glass to toast each person by looking them directly in the eye. Proust! Come to Vienna and I’ll show you how it’s done.

I should also mention that I have had to adopt the use of British spelling in all three countries where I have lived. And I have had to learn to convert into the metric system and time into military time.

Thanksgiving festivities in Vienna, 2009

Which customs from home do you miss the most?

THANKSGIVING! Hands down. THANKSGIVING. The whole act of cooking that special feast and the smells and the chatter of women in the same kitchen and the traditional foods and the gathering of family — I miss all of that the most. The good thing is that I recreate it as best I can wherever I live. Thanksgiving 2009 I celebrated TWICE and for some of my Austrian friends, it was their first Thanksgiving ever. It was nice to share that tradition with them. This past Thanksgiving, my husband and I went to a Thanksgiving dinner a week before the actual day hosted by the American Women’s Association. On Nov. 25, we had dinner at a girlfriend’s house who is also from the U.S.

Did you move with your family?

Yes, new husband, who is Bahamian, moved with me, which was quite a compromise considering Vienna is a landlocked country.

Did your marriage to him have any influence in your moving abroad?

I married a person from another country, but it didn’t lead to my move to Austria, or my move to The Bahamas, for that matter.

How important is it to know the local language? Do you have proficiency in German?

I believe it is very important to learn the local language when you live abroad. I would even go so far as to say that I think it’s an insult to the people of that country if you don’t even TRY to learn a little of the language. It also makes it easier to get around and to understand what is happening around you. For example, you could be on the subway and there could be an emergency and you wouldn’t understand a word the announcer was saying. The only way you would know to run is by seeing other people run. What kind of way is that to go about life? Having said that, I had so much work-related travel after I first arrived in Austria that I wasn’t able to immediately start my German lessons, but that has changed. I’ve taken my first 10-week course and will begin my second Deutsch course in a couple of weeks.

How have you gone about making friends, do you find it easy to make connections wherever you live and travel to?

I am notorious for making friends. It is one of my many talents. My husband is fond of saying that I could go to the moon and within five hours know all the inhabitants. It’s true, though. I make acquaintances quickly and easily. I start every move by first doing exhaustive research on the city and reading about the country’s history. The electronic age has made things so much easier. I reach out to people by emailing for advice, etc. It’s a great way to enter a new environment and people often have very good advice on what to bring to your new country and what to expect when you get there. Once there, I make sure to look up organizations and associations that I am interested in. The first one anyone should start with is the North American Women’s Association. Most major cities have one. Then there are fraternal organizations and other groups. And, in European countries, you will always find black athletes, mainly basketball players, and some sort of English-speaking group, or if all else fails, there is always an American Embassy or maybe even a UN organization. The native English speakers all have that in common and they can easily tell you where “to get on,” as the Brits say.

Oh, and earlier this year, I started asking around in a search for black women from North America and actually found about 15 women! So now we meet every month to shoot the breeze. It’s great.

Describe the general composition of the expat population – students, working, teachers, etc…

In Vienna, probably the largest group of non-EU expats generally work for the United Nations or one of the US Embassy posts here or for IAEA. There are many expats, if you call them that, from surrounding countries and a significant number of blacks from North Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. There is also a good representation of people from Venezuela and a few other Latin American countries. While the greatest number of non-EU expats are working for international organizations, I would say the second largest group are musicians and other entertainers followed by students.

Have you connected with the expat community where you live?

I have. It’s easy to find white expats, from any country, in Vienna; the black Americans are harder. There is a very sizeable African population and they are easy to find, as are the Hispanic expats. There are several expat groups in Vienna who meet socially on a regular basis. In Vienna, there are English-speaking churches and even an English-language theater (fine arts) as well as an English-language movie theater. You can always find expats in those places. Word of advice: If you are desperate to find expats, check out special events hosted by big-name American-based hotels like the Hilton or the Sheraton or hosted by U.S. chains like T.G.I. Fridays. Sometimes you will find expats working there or they will attend the Super Bowl or Thanksgiving events the hotels/restaurants hold for expats.

How do you keep in touch with family and friends from home?

Skype. It’s the best invention ever. I also recently created a blog on my travels — www.alisonbethel.blogspot.com. I also keep in touch through Facebook and LinkedIn. What is more difficult is keeping abreast of U.S. news. I mean, the domestic stuff. Famous or well-known people will die, controversies will start and end and I won’t know about it for months and months.

It’s true that you are working at IPI, do you know what the difficulties are for other expats to find a job and what advice can you share?

Yes, I am working. I’m acting director of the International Press Institute (www.freemedia.at). I feel very blessed to have a great job and to be making a difference in terms of fighting for press freedom globally. I’m also lucky that my office is an English-speaking office. For my husband, it’s been a little more difficult, but he has a special skill that not many people in Austria, or even eastern Europe, have, so we think it will work out. His challenge is getting enough German language knowledge under his belt to be able to work in almost any environment.

People who want to work in Austria, and many other parts of Europe, have to have a work permit, which, typically, an employer has to secure and pay for; and most employers would rather avoid the hassle and the expense and hire locally. That’s true in most foreign countries where I have lived. Of course, if you bring a very special skill or a certain amount of experience to the table, employers are more likely to pay for that.

Have you found that you have to live on less income? And if so how have you made the adjustment?

I think that nowhere are people paid as well as in America, so for the most part you have to learn to live with a smaller income. The good news is that it seems to go farther and you don’t have to pay excessive amounts for taxes and healthcare. As far as adjusting to less income, it’s been a slight challenge, but not an overwhelming challenge. And I still make way more than the average Austrian or Londoner, for that matter. The one thing is that it has taught us the value of a dollar because when you are so far from home, you have to do a better job at budgeting and saving. You especially have to save enough to be able to fly home at the drop of a hat.

Having said all of that, in Austria, you get 14 paychecks instead of 12! They give you an extra months pay in November so you can shop for Christmas and and extra months pay in June so you can have more money for your holiday. On top of that, you walk into your job with something like 15 national holidays before you even get the required 20 paid days vacation! I get 25 on top of the national holidays!

How is the housing situation in Vienna, is it hard is it to find a good place to live?

In Vienna, finding housing is a challenge because it’s not done like many other places. In Vienna, you almost always have to go through an agent and they ask for two to three months rent as their fee (on top of first, last and security), so it could cost you a whole lot to move into a place. Also, you have to register with the city every time you move!

You also have to, or should, in my opinion, do a lot of research on neighborhoods before selecting a place. That can be daunting, especially when you don’t speak the language. Boning up on tenant laws and what is expected of tenants is also challenging.

What are the opportunities to buy property?

There are opportunities to buy property in Vienna, but it’s not cheap and I am sure there are certain hurdles you must first overcome as a foreigner. It is wise to do your research and hire an agent. I do think, though, that because something like 90 percent of Austrians live in an apartment, you can certainly rent out any place you buy quite easily.

A contrast of culture – a trio of classical musicians and modern day break dancers in The Graben

What would you say are the top 3 attractions or ‘must see’ places of interest?

Austria is known for its architecture, its music, palaces and museums, so it is hard to name just three top attractions, really. But here are just a few you should definitely see:

1. Salzburg. The small city is best known to Americans because of “The Sound of Music.” It is also the birthplace of Mozart and is a beautiful city to tour.

2. The 1,440-room, elegant Schönbrunn Palace is the summer palace of the Habsburgs. It’s gardens are superb and the interior is done in the Rococo style with lots of white, gold and red. A must-see.

3. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is, in a word, magnificent. According to All Travel Austria, It is one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe. It is also the resting place for 56 members of the Habsburg family and is the symbol of Vienna (like the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris).

Schönbrunn Palace, the summer palace of the Habsburgs

Where are the best places to vacation in Austria and the surrounding region as a single person? A couple? A family with children?

The best thing about Austria is its proximity to so many other eastern European countries. You can be in Croatia, Montenegro, Milan, Frankfurt, Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul, Belgrade, Prague and a number of other places within a couple of hours — really. So there are great places to vacation for singles, couples and families. If you like the sea, try Croatia or Montenegro. If you like skiing, try the alps in Austria or Switzerland. If you want to a cultural experience, try Istanbul or North Africa or even Russia. For the family, head to the beaches in eastern Europe or take the hour-long flight to Paris to go to Disneyland.

What goals have you achieved while living abroad?

Well, I’m not sure. In Africa, weight loss and better eating habits. In The Bahamas, more time for myself. And in Austria, I’m fulfilling the goal of learning another language and reinventing myself career-wise.

What has living abroad taught you about yourself?

That I am more flexible that I thought. That I have, for the most part, placed a very high value on money and on material things. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something I think people should keep in perspective. I also have come to a greater realization that as an American citizen I have a certain responsibility to the global community. Living abroad has at the same time given me a greater appreciation for the United States and for the privileges we have as members of that country.

Has your life as an expatriate changed who you are?

It hasn’t really.

Do you consider yourself a permanent expatriate, a temporary expatriate or an incidental expatriate? And why?

I consider myself both a temporary expatriate and an incidental expatriate, in a way. I am not opposed to going back to the States and believe that one day I will. Or I might settle in The Bahamas, where I hope to open my own business.

In your opinion, through your travels and living experiences do Blacks (or foreigners in general) have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?

Oh, yes, particularly Africans. In Eastern Europe, there are not a lot of racial minorities and so it’s strange to people. The same can be said about China, where I spent a month doing training a couple of years ago. Americans generally are treated fairly well. But that’s once they hear your accent. Africans sometimes have a very difficult time and that’s because of stereotypes dealing with criminal activity and laziness.

In terms of adjustment, I have met a few blacks in Vienna who are having a very difficult time adjusting. I think it has to do with not having the right to work and, in all honesty, Vienna is one of those places where you actually have to work to make friends. People are not automatically open and trusting here.

What would you say to a friend or relative who is considering moving abroad?

Do it. But be open-minded and do your homework first. That’s crucial. Put aside the romantic idea of living abroad and realize that it’s not easy. Not at all. It takes patience and a willingness to learn, and fortitude and a certain amount of assertiveness. Without those things, you won’t make it. Also, I would advise anyone moving abroad without a job to wait until they have saved up a sizeable chunk of change to have as a cushion. Sometimes it takes months or longer to find a job. In most countries, you can’t just arrive and get a job; local governments view it as taking a job away from a qualified native. You have to come with a skill set that hardly anyone else has. You can find work, but it is a challenge and I have known many a people who have gotten discouraged and have returned to their home country.

Lastly, bring things that remind you of home to help with homesickness. I have found that very few of my friends – especially the black ones – have ever come to visit me abroad, not even in The Bahamas, and that’s 35 miles from the coast of Florida! Many Americans don’t travel beyond their backyard, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot of visitors from home. Also, if you are from the United States, make every effort not to overdue it with comparing your adopted home with America – the locals will hate it and the criticism is often unfair. Besides, if you want the USA, you should stay in the USA.

*Alison was named one of the most powerful Black women in Europe by the Black Women in Europe™: Power List.

Living and Spending in Vienna

Monthly rent:

Based on the size of the unit, but generally anywhere from 450 up to 1,400+ euros a month. Roughly 90 percent of the people who live in the city of Vienna live in apartments.

Cost for meals:

Lunch – 3.50 to 10 euros; Dinner – average 9.50 to 14.50 euros (for an entrée). Wine is relatively cheap at about 2.50 a glass; beer costs about the same. Unlike the U.S., there is not a vast variety of foods. Like, you won’t walk into the grocery and see a row of different types of cereal. You can drink the tap water in Vienna and, in fact, it’s very, very good, so there is no need to spend a fortune on bottled water like in other countries.

Transportation costs:

It costs 1.80 euros for one trip on the underground. A year pass is about 400 euros and entitles you to unlimited rides on the underground (subway), buses or trams any day, any time. Taxis are metered and tend to be expensive, especially considering the amount of traffic during peak morning and late-afternoon hours.

Left: E2 Tram – Schwarzenberplatz, right: the Rathaus Christmas Market

Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?

Of course, foreign food purchased in the grocery is expensive here. Fish tends to be very expensive (Austria is landlocked, so that is probably the reason) as do steaks (such as T-bone, filet, etc). Fast food costs considerably more than in the U.S. At McDonald’s, for example, you pay 30 cents for ketchup. Clothing, shoes and some toiletries are much more expensive. In terms of entertainment, there are a number of free concerts and festivals during the warmer months and those tend to be free.

Recommended monthly living budget:

For one: 1,300 to 1,500 euros. For two: At least 3,000 euros. But 4,200 euros is better.

How modern are basic amenities/infrastructure?

Infrastructure is very modern, for the most part. Like a lot of Europe, things tend to be small – refrigerators, washing machines. Most apartments don’t have dryers. You have to line-dry your clothes inside (or on the balcony if you are lucky enough to have one). Having said that, basic amenities are pretty good.

Vienna old and new, left photo the State Opera House, on right: T-Mobil Center

Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?

Like most countries, you have to be a legal resident or posses a work permit to work in Austria. For many countries, you must have a Visa to enter Vienna. U.S. citizens do not have to have a Visa to visit Vienna for a certain period of time.

Top 3 things you would recommend someone to bring when they come:

1. Glad, or some other good, sandwich bags and aluminum foil

2. Important papers with an Apostille attached to the papers

3. Book and map of Austria written in your native tongue

Top 3 things you would recommend for someone visiting or living here to do:

1. Register with your home embassy

2. Sign up for German language classes

3. Familiarize yourself with the history and cultural/social/ethnic makeup of the country

Photo credits: personal images, Thanksgiving 2009, classical musicians and break dancers courtesy of Alison McKenzie, other Vienna photos sourced via Wikimedia

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Facebook comments:

4 Responses to “Interview: Alison Bethel McKenzie”

  1. Christine says:

    Awesome and informative interview. Thanks to the interviewer and to Ms. Bethel McKenzie for for sharing.

  2. Angelyca says:

    Great interview, thank you for all the information!

  3. MST2010 says:

    Nice couple, nice interview!

  4. frausam says:

    Fantastic interview and as a British ex-pat/trailing spouse with two small children who has been in Vienna well over a year, I agree with so much of what Ms Bethel McKenzie says.  I wish I’d read this when I first got here – it would have been very comforting during the difficult settling in period!  Thanks for the interview! 🙂

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