Welcome to the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide

“I wish I’d had this book when I first became an Expat Wife”

Brigid Keenan, author of Diplomatic Baggage and Packing Up

Welcome to the blog that accompanies my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. Here you will find many posts about expat life and, in particular, about life as an accompanying spouse. If you are not sure exactly what I mean by an accompanying spouse – also known as an expat partner or “trailing spouse” – then a good place to start would be this post I wrote for the Expat Focus website: Accompanying Spouse – What is It?

But if you pretty sure what this term means and you are looking for more information, then an even better place to start would be with my book.

From what to pack to how to cope in the event of an emergency, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide is a light-hearted yet supportive book which uses the experiences of more than 70 contributers to help guide you when you move abroad. Aimed initially just at accompanying spouses, since publication I have had a lot of very positive feedback from all sorts of expats – and hope it will be of use to anyone, anywhere moving abroad.

click here to buy the book

The Blog

As well as information about general expat life, you can also read posts about some of the issues that have come up again and again during my research for the book and for the blog. This includes more specific information just for expat partners,  the important topic of expat depression, and what life is like for male trailing spouses.

As well as writing about expat life, I also enjoy writing about travel and, in particular, about our adventures in South Africa.

I hope you enjoy both the blog and the book – do get in touch if you have any comments, feedback, ideas, topics you would like me to cover or if you would like to write a guest post.

How modern technology has transformed expat life : part 2 – communication

Before Christmas I wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of three or four posts looking at how modern technology has changed expat life (hopefully for the better – although I think there is a sting in that tail and refer you to this post I wrote about facebook envy).

In my first post I looked at how the world of work has been affected and how much easier it is now for us all to work remotely. This is potentially a huge game changer for the expat partners who may otherwise have to give up their jobs or even career to follow their spouses overseas.

But technology is there to help us in many ways other than for work and in this post I am going to have a look at communication.

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Way back when we lived overseas when I was a child, 99% of communication was done by letter (snailmail as it became known). Once a week we could send back and recieve letters through the diplomatic bag. Every post had a day when the bag came in; in every household eager wives (for it mainly was wives in those days) and children awaited news from home. Birthday presents, Christmas cards, even my O level results arrived this way, along with those long letters from parents and grandparents full of the news of Aunt Edna’s hip replacement and how the tomatoes were doing. It all seems so trivial but those everyday stories of home were what we craved. Every so often, we got a phone call – I remember this being the case when my grandmother died. But usually the only news we got from home was at least 5-7 days out of date.

To expats today this must all seem very strange. Can you imagine putting your child into boarding school and then having to wait a week to hear how they were getting on? Nowadays of course we have so many – maybe even TOO many – ways to communicate when we move away from our friends and family. Here are just a few of them:

Skype and FaceTime

There are of course now many more face-to-face ways to talk to people but these are prehaps the best known. Skype was the one that really broke down the barriers – for the first time we could not only speak to but see our loved ones without having to pay astronomical international call prices. FaceTime is useful because it is on phones and Ipds so more portable (ok I know, I am a bit backward here – you can get Skype on phones too now, right?). But both are excellent ways not just to talk but to share – how many grandparents have watched their grandkids growing up through the wonder of this kind of technology? Personally we have been able to build a great relationship with my broter-in-law in Florida thanks to Skype and FaceTime and there is nothing I like more than sitting down for a cup of coffee with friends in England, all over the internet.

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Messenger, WhatsApp, Snap Chat etc

More immediate and probably now the most used type of communication is instant messaging. I love that you can connect so quickly and easily with anyone, anywhere in the world. Whilst Facebook is still perhaps the number one way people keep in touch with each others lives (see below for more on Facebook) I think we have started to move off the public pages and into more private spaces.

Of course we don’t just use these services to keep in touch with people back home or to communicate with friends new and old in other parts of the world; group messaging has become a real boon to expats making contacts and friends in a new country. What easier a way to organise a meet up than one Whats App group message? So much better than the old days of having to send separate emails or individual messages and then send them again when one person can’t make that particular time….

Expat Facebook groups

Another thing that I have noticed happening more and more commonly now is the use of groups for particular needs and interests and the ones aimed at expats have to be one of the greatest innovations to have hit the expat scene in a long while. As soon as you know where you are heading, you know you will probably be able to find a group to help you with your questions. I admin one here in Pretoria, where people come to ask questions about anything from where to get passport photos done to whether you need a pool heater (as an aside, there is good writing material in some of these groups – I always laugh when I see the posts asking whether anyone has a golf buggy for sale…). In the meantime, we have a separate “buy and sell” page which is a great place to get rid of all that stuff before you move on or conversely buy it when you first arrive; and (perhaps this is more pertinent to South Africa than many places) a travel page for sharing information about places to go and things to see.

Video and photo sharing sites

Another way we can keep in touch is by sharing our photos and videos. Some do prefer just to do this via facebook but equally many prefer to keep these things private. You can set up a You Tube video channel and set the settings to ensure only people you invite can view, and there are also lots of cloud-sharing photo sites (I am told Flickr is good for this, as well as Google Photos). So when you store your photos you can alert your parents back home and they can view at leisure. No more labouriously sending photos back as email attachments, two or three at a time (particularly painful for those of us without a speedy internet connection).

Blogs

Finally, I had to include this one as of course one of my main methods of communication is via my blog! In my case, it is not really aimed at friends and family but many people do initially set up a blog in order to keep the folks back home abreast of their new, shiny overseas life. In a way it is just a public diary for many people (although how public is up to you – again, like a YouTube channel, you can set it up so that only chosen viewers can see it). But even if this is not the intention of a blog site it is still a way to communicate. I, for one, have met several people in real life thanks to my blog – and have many more friends who I have never actually met but who I have close and important relationships with because they found me this way. After all, it is just a way of bringing people together with a commonality so why not use it as a basis to make friendships?

 

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So those are our main communication channels – let me know if you think I have left anything out. Next time I want to look at ways that we use modern technology for travel. After all, for so many of us travel is one of the more important aspects of our lives – so we may as well use the best tools available to help us enjoy it.

Photo credit: Yining Zhang

 

Happy New Year and a Monkey in a Toilet

I realise things have been a bit quiet around here….but what with Christmas, travelling and now trying to catch up on all the work that has been sadly neglected for the past few weeks I have been pretty busy. I hope to get back to the blog asap and have some nice interviews and ideas brewing but in the meantime I wanted to do two things. First wish you a

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And secondly just share a little taster of our travels over the holiday period – one of those unexpected moments that will hopefully make you smile as much as it did me:

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Yes – that is a monkey with his head stuck in a toilet!

I hope you all enjoyed your breaks (if you got one….) and see you soon x

 

(Not) Going Home for Christmas

This could be my very last Christmas as an expat. Note: I don’t say my last Christmas overseas. I am sure I will still travel abroad for the holidays at some point in the future. And given my last post about the differences between migrants and expats the chances are that I may be living abroad again but very possibly not as an “expat”.

So last Christmas. How does it feel? Well in all honesty, I always think this is the one day of the year (for people who celebrate Christmas, whether that be for religious or for cultural reasons) when many of us would probably prefer to be at home. Yes, I know, that might very well mean family rows and turgid afternoons watching the Queen’s Speech and stuffing Quality Streets down our throats. But don’t we all love going home for Christmas? The comfort of routine and the warmth of familiarity.

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Th mess of Christmas past…..

Of course when I say “Christmas” personally I do only mean the actual day itself. Even just half the day would be fine. What I am perfectly happy to be missing is the never-ending build up to the big day that is now as British as red post boxes and Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night. Starting sometime in early October, the shops fill up with tinsel and crackers and those huge packs of chocolate bars that are apparently meant to keep the kids quiet on the morning of the 25th so you can get an extra half an hour in bed…..as the weeks go on, the background carols start to seep into your brain until you find yourself humming “Mary’s Boychild, Jesus Christ” manically as you try and track down the last Hatchimal or whatever this year’s “in” toy is. Then the supermarket aisles and car parks get more and more crazy as people start stock-piling mince pies and those biscuits and cheese sets just in case somehow they need extra food on the one day of the year when the shops don’t open…

As I happily pushed my trolley around the nearly-empty Woolworths here in Pretoria this morning, I thought of my home town and the stand-up rows people have over the last parking space in Tescos and smiled. This is the pay-back for missing the day with my family when we would drink bubbly and exchange silly secret Santa gifts and stuff ourselves on at least five different types of vegetables along with two or three different meats. It’s hard to even remember it is Christmas here – the weather is all wrong for a start (we are sweltering in a heatwave) and there just isn’t the sort of level of panic you normally associate with this time of year. I don’t have to worry about not buying everything I need for the “big day” because the shops don’t actually close at all – I found out today they would be open until 3pm on the 25th.

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A more relaxed Christmas Day: Pretoria 2015

So I will miss Christmas with the family but at the same time we are all enjoying a less-stressful holiday season than we are used to. Many people leave Pretoria at this time of year so traffic is light and shopping is pleasuable. Christmas Day will be low-key, but fun and a few days later we are doing what most people do at this time of the year: heading for the coast. And as we sit on the beach or dive in the sea I will be raising a toast to everyone recovering from post Christmas Distress Syndrome back home.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Am I an expat or a migrant? What is the difference?

Apparently, by calling myself an “expat” as opposed to a “migrant” I think I have an elevated status. That I am better than others. Oh and probably that I am either a crusty old British colonial living out my years in some post-Raj fantasy or an aging peroxide Daily Mail-reading pensioner living on the Costa, eating full English breakfasts every morning and complaining about why the Spaniards don’t speak proper.

This is the result of a slightly heated “debate” I have just had on what should be a friendly Facebook group I belong to. It is a huge group, made up of people from all different backgrounds, ages, parts of the country etc. We have one thing in common but of course that one thing won’t mean we always see eye-to-eye on everything else. And, it seems, the one thing we don’t all see eye-to-eye on is the term expat.

The discussion started because the term “British expat” has become more well known in our country following the EU referendum. A group of expats (they use that term themselves) are part of a consortium bringing a case to the Supreme court to try and force our government to debate the plan to leave the EU. Many expats were also denied the vote in the referendum because they had lived overseas for more than 15 years, and EU expats in the UK were inexplicably denied it completely. We also hear of expats on the continent who voted for the UK to leave the EU despite the obvious impact this would have on their own lives….

In these cases, the word “expat” isn’t necessarily what I would call an expat – but there again, my feeling is that people should be able to call themselves what they want to. However, what I do object to is being told I think I am better than others because I insist on calling myself an expat and not a migrant. So what is the difference?

Firstly, I am a migrant: someone who moves to find work. Although already I could question that definition as we didn’t move to FIND work but because we HAD work in another country. However, pedantics aside there are certainly different types of migrants and an expat is definitely one of them. Here is the Wikipedia definition of expat:

An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing, as an immigrant, in a country other than that of their citizenship. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).

In common usage the term expatriate is often used in the context of professionals or skilled migrant workers, though it actually applies to all immigrants.[1]

The interesting thing for me here is that technically we may be immigrants but I’m not after technicalities – I am after how we define ourselves. And in the expat community that I inhabit (both in real life and online), few of us call ourselves immigrants.

Now, I know what people will say: you don’t call yourselves immigrants because you think you are better than that. You have an elevated status. Yes, that last one was actually the term thrown at me in my online discussion.

No.

We use that term because it distinguishes us from other types of migrants. As expats we have distinctive needs and by using the term we recognise each other for what we are. It gives us a sense of community (so important when you are away from friends and family). It is also a sort of shorthand understood by most of us who use it, for someone who is here for a while but not forever, often keeping one foot in their home country, usually in a situation where a job, housing, possibly schooling and a relocation package, is provided. When you meet another expat you know that you understand it each other. That you know where you come from and where you are going. That you won’t be here forever but while you are you will probably be looking for friendship and support. That as much as you might love your host country it isn’t and probaby never will be your home so you will always keep some sort of distance from it. That you might try and learn the local language or you might not, but you know that you don’t necessarily HAVE to. That your children will probably never call this place home.

Migrants/economic migrants/immigrants/refugees: all these terms stand alone and come with their own baggage and can be argued about ad infinitum. But most people who I asked agree that a migrant moves for the purposes of finding work and with the intention of staying at least semi-permanently; an immigrant is that person once they are in the country; and a refugee is someone who is forced to move for reasons of security, war, food shortages etc. An expat on the other hand certainly doesn’t set off with the intention of staying in that country, even if they do eventually settle there (at which point they become an immigrant – although what they are once they aquire nationality of that country I don’t know!). An expat also usually has a certain socio-economic status; if nothing else, they have the support of whatever organisation has sent them to their host country and are unlikely to be left completely to their own devices.

Having been quite rattled by the “discussion” I had about this in the supposedly friendly Facebook group, I put the question of how they describe themselves to another group who I knew would be a lot more forgiving of me – the I am Triangle group, made up of people who are living or have lived overseas . I asked them whether they use the term expat to describe themselves and if so, do they think it makes them “better” than others. Note: this is a group made up of many different nationalities and certainly not just Brits, and who have lived or are living in countries all over the world.

The answer came back almost unilaterally – we are expats. This is a term that most of them use and recognise and no, apart from in some cases where translations made the term “expat” into something that it wasn’t in English, most of them did not think it made them “better” than anyone else moving abroad. There was a healthy discussion and most of us understand our privilege in terms of our socio-economic status. But to say that makes us “better” is the same as saying someone who lives in a bigger house than the family down the street thinks they are superior just because they can afford the bigger house.

At the end of the day it is a word that is recognised within our community and is ours to use. If others don’t like it that is for them to worry about, not us. Some people did say they don’t use the word expat and prefer the term “traveller” or similar instead. In my view, that is fine too. We should all be free to use our own description for our own status and people should stop worrying so much how this is viewed amongst those who perhaps have never walked in our shoes.

After all, expat, immigrant, migrant, refugee, traveller: at least we have all have one thing in common. We have all got off our backsides (or in some cases of course been forced off our backsides) and seen something of the world. Maybe some of those who are complaining are just a little bit jealous.

How modern technology has changed expat life: part 1 – work

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the number of apps you can now download on to your ever-increasingly sophisticated smart phone. So many that I suspect most of us can’t keep up – I am sure there are now apps to help you with doing just about anything and everything short of putting the rubbish out (ok – have just Googled that and apparently Coventry City Council have an app called Your Rubbish….).

But for expats, many of these apps are improving our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not just phone apps, but modern technology generally – the whole idea for this post started after I called a last-minute Uber following a minor car emergency when my husband was out of town. A year or two ago I would have been stuck as normal taxis are just too risky to use for us here in Pretoria. By plugging straight in to the Uber app on my phone however I was able to rescue a tricky situation and get everyone to where they were meant to be on time.   Working, travelling, communicating, living – all things that we can now do easier, quicker, better thanks to technology. And as expats this can include the sort of improvements in our lives that means living overseas doesn’t have to be as isolating, as boring or as lonely as it used to be.

So I thought I would ask around and get some suggestions from fellow expats as to what apps, tools and other technology they love and would recommend to others. I had so many brilliant replies that I had to divide them up into several blog posts, and start today with WORK.  The list below isn’t exhaustive by any means so please feel free to add any that aren’t on it in the comments section.

Work and study

As someone who remote works, I know how important it is to be able to sit at your desk in one country and be able to easily and effectively communicate with someone in another. The improvement in WiFi and 4G in many countries has made remote working a real possibility for so many people. As it becomes more normal in our home countries so it will give us the opportunity to bring these jobs with us when we move. But apart from the ability to connect, what else has been happening to make remote working so much more realistic than it used to be? And how much easier is it is now to be able to study online?

File sharing

You remember how it used to be – someone would email you a file as an attachment, you would open it, change it and email it back. In the meantime the same document has been sent to someone else who has added their own changes. The document owner now has to take all the changes from all the different versions and merge them into one….well, no more. Now you can of course simple share a document with all in your team and everyone can see the same document and change it as required. Dropbox is probably the best known file sharing tool but there are plenty of other services out there.

Affordable webinar platforms

Webinar is basically a Web-based Seminar – so a way for lots of people to “attend” the same lecture, meeting or presentation using video conferencing software. Webinars are also interactive so not just receiving info but adding to it as well.  Video conferencing itself has of course been around for a long time – I used it when I was working in Jamaica back in the early noughties. But the key here is affordable – many small companies or businesses can’t afford the sort of full-on video conferencing facilities and technology needed for the old-fashioned way. A key to opening up remote working to expats like you or me is for companies and organisations of all different shapes and sizes to be able to take us on. This is one way to help that happen. Webinars are also an important and integral part of studying from a remote location. One webinar platform that was recommended to me was Zoom.

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Working in your pj’s: one of the advantages of remote work

Social media management tools

Many of us who work remotely also manage social media. Whether this be for a specific job or for our own blogs/websites, what we realise is important is being able to manage our posts across different time-zones. And unless you want to be getting up at 3am to make sure your tweet is sent at optimal time for the US West Coast, you need to reply on clever social management tools. I myself use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter feed (although in all honesty my management of Twitter is very patchy!). Someone else suggested Buffer and someone I know in the UK who I work with remotely on website design and admin recommends Sprout Social. The beauty of some of these platforms is that you can share your posts across multiple disciplines eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – all at the same time, and all while you are peacefully sleeping.

Project management

When I was having the front cover of my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, designed, I employed a company that used something called Basecamp. It meant that several of us all working on one project could see what everyone else was doing, could comment on progress, could discuss changes – all in one place. It meant things didn’t slip through or get lost – everything was always where it should be. This is of course a useful tool whether you work remotely or in the same room as each other. But for those of us who ARE working in a different time zone to our clients/bosses/contractors this is a great way to keep on top of a complicated project. Or even a simple one.

Online study

Of course studying remotely has been around for a long time but we are well past the days of having to stay up until 2am to watch the Open University lectures from men in questionable jumpers and bad facial hair. Nowadays you can study from the comfort of your home for courses ranging from just-for-fun short tutorials to full on degrees and post-graduate studies. Coursera is one such organisation bringing together online courses from a number of different providers – in fact, they even have a course called Communicate Effectively in a Globalised Workplace! Another company offering a huge variety of online courses is Udemy – anything from mastering meditation to learning software development. One particularly neat feature of Udemy is that they offer courses as gifts – so if you are still stuck for that last Christmas present for someone special…

Personal digital assistants

I will admit when I first heard about this, I thought we were talking about virtual assistants. By that, I mean people in other places who help you with things like typing up a document or doing your accounts. All useful but obviously becoming obselete now we are in the brave new digital world. So what is a Personal Digital Assistant as opposed to a person personal assistant? The ones we probably know best are those like Siri or Cortana attached to the devices we use everyday. These are still more useful for the kids to play games with, if you ask me. But I am told the future is coming and soon we will be asking these guys to do all sorts of things for us. If you don’t believe me read this. And although it looks like we will be using digital assistants to help us in many ways, from telling us what the weather will be like to re-stocking our fridge, I am sure there will be many ways they will also be able to help us work from home. I just don’t quite understand yet how….

Others

I was recommended a number of other apps and tools that I thought were worth a mention. These included Prezi – a cloud-based tool for creating and storing presentations; Figure It Out, which helps you keep track of time across different timezones; Wunderlist – which is a virtual, shareable to-do list (also great for when you move); and Join.me which I am told is a good way to share screens and team calls .

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So that’s some of the best tools around for remote work; in my next post on this subject I want to look at how technology has helped us communicate, keep in touch with home and make and keep friends in our new location.

Photo credit: Kevin Schraer

When you know you are leaving….

It’s hard when you know you are leaving because mentally you start to shut down – even when you still have months and months of your posting stretching ahead of you. It’s hard because you close yourself to new people and new opportunities and new experiences. You also stop trying too hard, you don’t bother getting things fixed or putting up new pictures. You look at the bare wall and thing “nah, we’ll be gone soon, can’t be bothered”. This is where I am now.

In a way though it’s also a relief. I don’t have to think if I don’t go to that thing I’ve been invited to, I won’t make any friends because, sadly, one of the last things I need now is new friends. That isn’t to say that if I did meet someone new who I clicked with I would shut them out completely. But I’m not going out of my way anymore to find myself new companions.

It’s also a relief not to have to worry too much about all the little things that go wrong in the house. The ants that just keep on coming (I swear one of these days the entire foundations of the house are going to collapse, eaten out by termites), the light in the cupboard that has never worked, the door intercom that still isn’t connected. I can start to get annoyed about these things and then I can try and take a more zen attitude. I’m probably never going to get any of these things fixed while we still live here so I need to just let them go. It’ll be someone else’s problem soon.

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There are other problems about knowing you are going soon that are more stressful. There are still many, many places I would like to visit before we leave South Africa and now I am having to narrow them down to the absolute “must-do’s”. Should Victoria Falls be on that list? Durban? Lesotho? I have just discovered another holiday in April that I didn’t know about – four extra days when the children are off school. Now I have some more days to play with but still do much to do. I know, first-world problems, right? But still – I’m starting to panic!

Worst of all about leaving though, especially leaving somewhere that you love, is knowing that very soon all of this will be no more. Knowing you will have to say goodbye to the endless sunny skies, the great, cheap wine, the outdoors lifestyle, the never-ending trips, the friendly people, the wildlife and – worst of all – to the wonderful friends you and your children have made. I really hope I will stay in touch with all those friends and get to see them in their respective home countries but it’s not the same. It’s going to be tough continuing to see their posts and Facebook updates from Pretoria, seeing what I am missing out on (especially in the middle of an English winter). But that is my reality and no amount of dreading it will stop it happening.

Of course it’s not all bad. In fact, lots of it is very good. As well as being able to laugh in the face of the ants knowing they won’t be my problem for much longer, there are many other things about my life that will improve once we return to the UK. Things will work properly again. I will be able to watch programs easily on television without having to download it all. Netflix will be the UK version and not the SA version. We will have seasons. I can walk to shops and take my dog to lots of new and exciting places to explore. And I will trade the wonderful friends I have made here for my wonderful friends back home. We will also be close to family again.

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England can be stunning too – this is one of our favourite beaches in Devon

So not all bad but I am still holding on to the life here, savouring every moment, knowing it’s slipping away. As I do something very normal and mundane like walk through our local mall I know that this time next year it will all feel like a dream. I know this because I have done this so many times before. Every time I move on I leave a little bit of myself behind and I know this will be no exception. This time though I think I will leave such a big bit behind I will have to come back for it.

But in the meantime I am trying to shut these thoughts out (I know what you’re thinking – why have you written a post about it then?). After all, we still have months ahead of us – a full quarter of our posting. What I really don’t want to do is waste it on sadness and regret. No, I know I will miss this place and I know it’s going to be hard to leave but in the meantime there’s only one thing to do. Carry on loving it.

From dog grooming to making mosaics – finding ways to escape the expat bubble.

We’re all guilty of it. Meeting friends for a coffee. Chatting at school pick up. Organising weekends away. Who are the people we are most likely to do these things with? Other expats.

Now I’m not one of those people who condescendingly heap scorn upon anyone who has no locals amongst their group of friends. From personal experience I know how hard it can be to get close to the natives when you don’t work. Not necessarily because of your own attitudes but often because of theirs: why should they be your friend when you’ll probably be off in a couple of years? Even worse, why should they let their children get close to yours when those friendships will be broken just as they finally trust each other enough with the name of their latest crush? Additionally, you’ve probably got a lot more in common with other expats who, like you, have left behind their home country and culture to strike out on a grand adventure. Even if your expat friends aren’t the same nationality as you (and to me, meeting people from all over the world is one of the best things about this life), they are still likely to have more in common with you than someone who has never left home.

So no I am not against having expat friends. I say grab whichever friendships you can – especially at the start. Loneliness and isolation is a very real and not always acknowledged part of this life, so never feel guilty for making a friend with someone just because they are not a host-country native.

However.

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How do I get out of this bubble?

This does not mean you should never leave that safe, expat bubble. After all, isn’t one of the reasons you moved to another country the opportunity to explore a new culture? Won’t you feel slightly cheated if you go home having never stepped out of your comfortable little world? But I know that sometimes doing this can be harder than it sounds. As already mentioned, most locals are not going to be desperate to be your best friend. They will already have circles of friends and/or family and as you get older and more settled, reaching out to new people isn’t always that high up on peoples’ agenda. So don’t expect to immediately gain a whole new circle of best mates from the local populace. It may happen eventually (or it may not, depending on where you are) but you could find it hard to get close to people other than fellow expats in the first year or two.

So, how do you get out of that expat bubble? Well – this is where you need to get a bit creative. Literally, in some cases. What you need is to find something that brings you into contact with nationals from your host country where you will all be focused on doing the same thing and where chat will naturally flow. Something like….ok, this is going to sound weird, but dog grooming. Yes you read that right – and had someone told me even a few months ago that I would have been doing a dog grooming course during my time in South Africa, I would have thought they had been drinking too much of the Kool Aid. But hear me out.

When we first got our puppy Miniature Schnauzer Cooper, we knew that he was a dog that needed a lot of grooming. His hair doesn’t fall out but it grows – fast. He can turn from a perfectly turned out shorn boy to a yeti in what seems like a matter of a couple of weeks. So we got in touch with a local man who comes to the house and does a wonderful job making Cooper look like he’s just stepped out of the puppy parlour. But while we can afford to get this done on a regular basis here, I know that when we return to the UK this is going to eat deep into our pockets. So when the chance to learn how to do it myself came up I jumped at the chance.

And it was so much fun! Run by the professional breeder who sold us Cooper the course was basically a load of middle aged South African ladies (and me) laughing our way through the day. We were each presented with our own dog to practise on and there is nothing like chortling at your sheer ineptness to bond you with a bunch of strangers. Although I was the only “outsider” there, and there was the occasional break into Afrikaans for me to contest with, the fact that we were all there for the same thing meant I was just as included as everyone else. And even though none of those women were ever going to be my lifelong friend, for one afternoon I was emerged in the local culture completely and could almost forget I was even an expat.

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My very patient guinea pig….(yes I did that!)

Similarly aother friend (you know who you are) started mosaic classes with a local art teacher. Classes like these mean that with everyone focused on art and not on each other it doesn’t matter whether you were born and bred five miles or 5,000 miles away. Barriers break down and over time real friendships can be formed.

For my children too I have found a great way to get them away from their international school bubble – local swimming classes. Both of my children train at  the high performance centre at TUKS, which is the University of Pretoria’s top class sports facility. So top class that a 2016 Olympic gold medallist also trains there! But most importantly, the girls are surrounded by South Africans. With most of their friends being Americans, Scandanavians, Germans, other Brits etc it’s great to see them  both swimming alongside and chatting with South African children. And sitting as I was with them at 7.30am at the swimming gala on Saturday morning I really got to feel I was taking part in something very South African!

We’re only here for another 8 or 9 months and I still feel like I am just scraping the surface of this country. I know I am unlikely to ever really blend in. But while I am here I am trying to understand the local culture (or should I say cultures – this is a country made up of as many people as any I have ever lived in). I know I could be doing  a lot more – I could volunteer with a local charity or vow to seek out as many local friends as possible. Yet I have to be realistic. There are only so many hours in the day and most of those are taken up with work, looking after the children, shopping, cooking, dog walking – you know, day-to-day stuff. But whilst I realise I won’t ever be completely immersed in this country, I will always have my day of dog grooming!

So get out there, look for those opportunities. And if you find something or if you are already taking part in an activity that helps you to immerse in the local culture please let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you lot get up to 🙂