Welcome to the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide and WORK WITH ME

Three years ago we moved to South Africa. I wrote about my experience on this blog – as well as more general posts about life as an expat spouse. Now, we are back – back home in the UK and back to not being an expat partner anymore. So what am I up to now? I intend to keep this blog going for now, but I will not be adding as many posts as I did when we lived overseas. However I am still writing and am embarking in my new role as a freelance writer – specialising (at the moment) in expat life, travel, parenting, a combination of the three, and other lifestyle subjects.

I plan to start a new website soon for my writing career but in the meantime if YOU are looking for someone to write for you on any of the above topics – but in particular about being an expat – please contact me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com. My work has already appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Independent, and other publications. If you are interested you can view my portfolio here.

I don’t work for free. But I am not expensive 🙂

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“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.

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Expat reunions are a thing of wonder

I am excited. This time next week we will – fingers crossed – be welcoming Australian friends from our Pretoria days into our home here in the west of England. We won’t have seen each other for around two years, although have kept in touch frequently through social media as they moved on to a new posting and we returned home. But seeing them in the flesh (and enjoying a few beers) will be much more fun than Facebook messenger chats.

Reunions with your expat pals are very special. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why but I think it has something to do with the intensity of the experiences you shared. Expat life isn’t like normal life – you are often thrown together with a whole heap of strangers who overnight have to become your friends, confidantes, family, comforters, and gurus. You go through the good times together, as well as the bad (huddling together in dark rooms through hurricanes; exchanging information on the latest street violence; sympathising over the latest outbreak of vomiting disease), and you get to know each other fast and furiously. Saying goodbye is hard because you really have no idea when, or if, you will see them again.

But when you do – and I do believe the ones that are really important to you will pop up again sooner or later – you instantly connect again over the experiences that only you shared. One of the hardest things about coming home is not being able to explain what life was like for you living overseas. Or even if you try to, most people aren’t really that interested as they just can’t relate to it (fair enough). So it’s always very special to be able to spend time with those people who “get” you when you talk about your former life – and don’t mind if you wax lyrical for hours on end about some of the great experiences you had as an expat.

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Poignant reunions don’t have to be with close friends. One of the most special encounters I remember was with someone I didn’t even know that well. It just so happened he (and his partner) had shared one of the most intense experiences of my life – the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad and our subsequent evacuation. This man – who for the sake of this blog I will call Jack – worked at the British High Commission at the same time as us. He was there on the night of the bomb so understood the immediate panic and fear; he was there in the dreadful days and weeks afterwards when no-one knew what was happening and whether we would be sent home; and he was there when the time finally came for us to pack up and leave. I barely remember Jack from that time but the important thing is that he was there.

So when I bumped into him at an event in Pretoria (where he was also now living) it was like a reunion with a long-lost relative. As I said to him at the time, he was the first person I had met since the day we left Islamabad – bar one meeting with a friend – who had been there. Who knew. Who got it. It felt like such a relief to be able to talk to him about the events of those days, and to know that he understood completely what I was wittering on about. I think it was the first time I had been able to offload about an extraordinary experience that I had been carrying around with me for years. It made me realise how important counselling must be for people caught up in conflict like Syria and Yemen, especially those who have also had to leave their home and family behind to try and escape.

But of course most of my reunions are not like this. Most are based purely on good memories and happy shared experiences. As well as looking forward to seeing my Australian friends, we are also off to see a wonderful family in Sweden in July and will also be hopefully seeing one of my daughter’s good friends and her dad in August – so there will be reunions a-plenty all through the summer.

As we move on with our lives, the memories of our expat days fade. But friendships will often out-last those memories and when we get together the years fall away and we are back living together in those distant lands. I still have expat friends from as far back as my childhood in Manila who I see every year or two, and from almost every subsequent country I have lived in. Mostly we keep in touch through social media, emails, or the occasional Christmas card. But when possible, we meet up, and immediately we are our young, expat selves again.

It’s not as good as going back in time, but it’s not bad.

 

Favourite recipes from afar

I recently wrote an article about a favourite curry recipe brought with us from Pakistan for an excellent blog called Eat Your World. It was one of a handful of local recipes handed to us by our helper Ansa just before we left under difficult circumstances, following the bombing of the Marriott hotel in 2008.

You can read the article here, but in the meantime I have been thinking of other recipes, ideas or food that we have “brought” back with us from various postings.

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One of the best things about travel is, of course (as all us foodies know), trying the local cuisine. It is one of the reasons I love travelling to Thailand and other parts of South East Asia so much – it’s almost impossible to get a bad meal in that part of the world (unless you are pregnant as I discovered: suddenly going off spicy dishes wasn’t a lot of fun in those circumstances).

But when your time in that country is done, whether it be a holiday or a posting, how easy is it to recreate the dishes you have known to love back home?

So far from South Africa we have had some success with bunny chow and my husband still likes to make his own biltong. We also have some great braai recipe books that we dive in to from time-to-time, including for a favourite Namibian meat stew cooked with coca cola and red wine. But braaiing is hard because the weather is generally too cold and wet, plus the price of meat here compared to South Africa makes it more of a treat than an everyday thing. I also have yet to attempt to make a milk tart.

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From Pakistan of course we have Ansa’s recipes, as well as a beautiful book of recipes  which we occasionally get out and attempt one of the simpler dishes. Getting fresh spices here isn’t as easy as it was in Islamabad but nevertheless most things are available if you look hard enough.

My husband was a huge fan of Jamaican food and luckily now there are Caribbean restaurants popping up all over the place (we have yet to try this local one in our town, but it is on my list). You can also buy patties, jerk sauce, even Ting in local supermarkets here. And I have become a dab hand at making banana bread from one of our Jamaican recipe books. But I think we would have to fly back to Kingston to get the red pea soup, jerk chicken with breadfruit, rice and peas, country chicken etc of the quality that we grew used to while we lived there.

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Overall though, I think our lives have been incredibly enriched by the food we have eaten overseas and the recipes we have brought back with us. It is getting easier and easier to try different things here in the UK – the latest meals we are enjoying use fresh recipe kits that give you the sauces and spices you need for curries and other dishes, making it quick and easy to whip up a quick delicious dinner in the evenings.

But there is still nothing like recreating favourites from places you have lived. You might not be able to go back there, but by cooking some of the food you remember and loved so much you can at least pretend you are back there living that life again.

Now if only the sun would stay out long enough, we could get the braai out….

Picture credit (milk tart) – Dimitra Tzanos

Have you got any favourite recipes or dishes that you still make from places you have lived in or travelled to in the past? I would love to hear about them. 

Should I write a wish list?

I have a Big Birthday coming up this year – one which ends in a 0 – but to be honest I am sort of ignoring it. Partly because I don’t really want to think about getting older, but also because the last year has been so chaotic, with the move back to the UK, single parenting for five months, getting the girls settled into new schools etc, that the thought of organising ANYTHING more than a trip to the supermarket seems just too overwhelming right now.

But today I saw one of those “40 things to do before I am 40” lists which looked…kind of fun. The blogger originally wrote the list in 2013 but was updating it to see how many she had left to do (a few, but she had completed most of them). It led me to think what I would have written on my list 5 years ago, and how many I would have completed.

Five years ago, we still had no idea a move to South Africa was on the cards. So, it’s hard to know whether some of things I might put on this list in retrospect (eg seeing wild dogs and cheetahs in the wild, going up Table Mountain, climbing a huge sand dune, visiting the highest pub in the world etc etc etc) would ever have even occurred to me. I know I would have added “write/publish a book” and “swim with whale sharks”, which have been the two things on my wish list for as long as I can remember (I have managed the first but still not the second). But what other things do I think I would have tried to do before I got to this age had I thought to write them down?

 

 

Quite frankly I have no idea! Mostly because life has a habit of changing to the extent that I have stopped trying to guess where I will be or what I will be doing be in a year’s time, let alone five years. Which makes it hard to set myself a list of tasks to do when I don’t know if I will be in a place (physically or mentally) to do them.

Not only that, but I have also been extremely lucky and already done many of the things that might make it on to this sort of a list.  Learned to dive? Tick. Whale watching? Tick. Swim with dolphins (tick – and in the wild in New Zealand, rather than in an enclosed artificial environment). I’ve given birth, bought a house, been up in a hot air balloon. Star watched in the desert, visited Petra, swum at the base of the Angel Falls, slept in a hammock in a rain forest, walked on a glacier. Owned a dog, learned to make bread, started a blog.

Okay of course there are many, many more things I could put on a list that I have yet to do. But somehow I feel like I have been spoiled and perhaps I should just wait and see what life will throw at me rather than making a list which may, or may not, be achievable depending on circumstances. And which may just make me feel even more stressed when I can’t get through it (it’s bad enough just trying to get through my normal day-to-day To Do list). Additionally, there’s something slightly depressing about making a list of things you want to have done in a decade’s time: who wants to think that far ahead? When you get to this stage in life, it’s easier not to think how old you will be in ten years time.

So for now I am holding off making any kind of a list but I will continue to mull it over and see if I can come up with anything more than “re-visit Jamaica” which I decided I wanted to do after seeing a programme about the island the other evening. I’d love to hear if anyone else has such a list and, if so, what’s on it. If I do start a list I need some inspiration. Just don’t suggest anything safari related (although come to think of it, returning sans kids to Kruger really IS something I want to do at some point….then there’s all the children-free wine tours….not to mention adult-only liveaboard dive trips….hmmm, there seems to be a theme developing here….).

Hit me up – what’s on your wish list?

Photo credit: _Bunn_

 

 

When you’re a local again, don’t forget the expats

A short story:

When I was 29 I went on a round-the-world trip, typical backpacker stuff. Not really a gap year as I was a bit old, but the whole staying-in-hostels, having a good time stuff.

For six months of that year I lived in Auckland, so I was sort of an expat. Mostly, I mixed with other expats: my Japanese housemates (the best housemates you could ask for, by the way), other backpacking Brits. It’s hard to get to know locals when you are only fleetingly living somewhere. I was working in various office around the city so had lots of interaction with local Kiwis but mostly that interaction stopped after work hours.

Until one day I went to a local pub to meet friends. A couple were sitting at a table, with otherwise empty chairs. I went to ask if we could share their table and the woman said they were also waiting for friends who should be there soon. I left, looking for somewhere else to sit. Then suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder – it was the woman. Her accent quickly gave her away as a New Zealander but her words were what I remembered.

 

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Auckland

 

“Sorry,” she said. “That was really rude of us. Come and join us at the table. We were backpackers in London once and we know how hard it is to meet locals”. And this is how I met Jo, and started a new friendship, unusual because it was one of the only friendships I had with a local, settled person the whole time I lived in Auckland. Jo took me to local beaches, introduced me to her family, and showed me parts of her home city I would never otherwise have seen. The friendship didn’t last beyond a few years after I came home (these were the very early days of social media), but it was still an important one for me.

I share this story because now I am home, I have realised how easy it can be to slip back into your old ways. I have written before about how things won’t ever be the same because your life abroad changes you forever. But when you return to a familiar culture it can be easy to get caught up in the life you used to lead – whether that be through work or school-gates friendships or wherever it is you meet the people you used to know.

But having now been on the other side of the fence, I think a great way to preserve that person you have become is to purposely go out of your way to meet some of the temporary visitors to your community.

It’s funny, many of us might not even realise they are there. Where I live, for example, I am surrounded by foreigners. I have friends who are American, Ukrainian, German, Indian, Spanish, Bulgarian…and that’s just in the small area close to my house. But  most of the people I have got to know down the years are very settled, married to Brits or with a permanent job here. I always enjoy talking to them about their home countries, trying their food, hearing their views on life seen through the eyes of someone who grew up in a different culture. But they are no more in need of local friends as I am.

Dig deeper, though, and you can find the people who aren’t settled, don’t have ties through family, or kids at the local school. The ones like me when I was in Auckland – always on the edges of the life in the city, never quite part of it. And you can do what Jo did for me: be welcoming, be inclusive.

You don’t need to become their best friends. It’s up to you if you want to form a friendship at all of course. But if nothing else, why not at least draw them in to the community, be a good neighbour, help them out, ask of they need anything. Take them places or recommend somewhere.  Invite their kids to play with yours.

I wrote a lot about  loneliness, and depression as an expat while I was living in Pretoria. It is a recurring theme and one that sadly is a feature of most people’s experiences living as an expat at some point. And one of the things that makes it hard to get past these feelings, especially at the start, is disinterest from the people who surround you.

Imagine if you knew there was someone like that living close by to you, and you did nothing to help them? Sometimes all it takes is a quick hello, a smile, or an offer of assistance. You never know, you might be making all the difference to that person’s experiences in your home country.

Photo credit:

Stewart Baird

Ever wondered what you need in an emergency?

Although I rarely feature sponsored posts on this blog, every so often I come across an idea that I don’t mind promoting because I believe it is something that will be truly useful to my readers. I also like to help out fellow expats – in this case, Richard Miles who lives in Botswana, not a million miles from my old stomping ground in South Africa. I love the idea of someone else telling me what I might need in an emergency and – having been in a few (mostly hurricane related!) I can really see how this would be of great benefit to many fellow expats around the globe. 

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As a native Californian, I know from experience that sometimes you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. My wife Michelle and I have lived through earthquakes our entire lives, and our house in California sits in the Oakland Hills fire zone, right on the Hayward / San Andreas fault. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” the Big One will hit. Many of our dear friends in California just lived through the recent fires and floods and few of them lost everything. And living in Africa we know at any minute we could be without power, in the middle of some interesting times, and we need to be ready to go. And someday someone’s going to knock on our door and say we have to get out now and we aren’t going to be prepared.

Last fall we had a briefing from the Office of Emergency Preparedness where they told us all to make an emergency kit — a “Go Bag” — in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. Everyone nodded in agreement and said, “oh, yes, very important, will get right to it.” Of course, no one did. And the entrepreneur in me thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could put these kits together and offer them to my friends? And that way we all could go from feeling guilty that we hadn’t got it done to sleeping well at night knowing it was handled. But then I thought it would be ridiculous and massively expensive to try and buy all these products, ship them to Africa, assemble them, and then pay to ship them out to people all over the world. I also realized I could find all these products at great prices on Amazon.#

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Getting our Go!Bag together turned into an item on my to-do list. And that to-do item kept getting pushed back. Because it’s an enormous hassle. Going online searching for emergency supplies and pre-made emergency kits very quickly turns into product overwhelm. most of these pre-made kits are either trying to prepare you for the zombie apocalypse or are just full of useless junk (and quite expensive). What should I buy? There are 40-100 choices (or more) for every single thing I need. Figuring out what we need to buy made my eyes glaze over. Trying to sort through the 1,000s of products out there is overwhelming. Add procrastination and not wanting to think about, and it simply slides off the to-do list uncompleted.

Thus, Let’s Go!Bags was conceived.

I was fully committed and I continued to do research — I spent hours reading articles from FEMA (US Government Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross, even the Humane Society and more — learning what goes into a great emergency kit, and just as importantly what you don’t need. As a result, I put together a pretty comprehensive Emergency Plan & Go!Bag checklist. You can download it for free and use it to create your own family Emergency Plan. Then I spent many (many!) more hours searching for decent products I could buy – and recommend to others, reviewing detailed product specifications and reading user comments and reviews. I found great products on Amazon and I organized them into kits for your home, for your car, for your pets… The products I put on the website are the ones I personally bought for us after all my research. I looked for the highest quality affordable products and quite happily I succeeded.

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So I built a website where folks can come and check “go bag” off their to-do list with a click or two. A lot of our friends said they wanted to just click one link and get a kit. Others wanted to pick and choose. Others (a small few!) had a kit and just wanted to find specific products to expand them. So you can Buy A Kit, Build A Kit, or check our full catalog. We boiled it down to 10 essential products for your basic Go!Bag and you can order a kit for one, two, three or four people with a single click. Then you can expand it with more items if you want, plus get a kit for your car(s).

So be happy I did all the heavy lifting, download the Emergency Plan and checklist I put together, and then order what you need. Now’s your chance to just get it done.

And it wouldn’t hurt if you told all your friends about this: http://www.letsgobags.com

Still leaving the EU, still breaking my heart

The closer we get to the day we are due to leave the EU, the louder gets the noise about it. Although some news commentators seem to downplay the significance of this event, you would have to be living under a stone in a desert far, far away not to realise how important an issue this is.

And it continues to break my heart.

What I find really hard is the messages I see from expats discussing whether they should come to live in the UK or not. It really hits home when I see these stories which reflect how the outside world sees us. European expats wonder whether it’s worth coming here. Brits married to non-Brits worry what it will mean for their partner’s status, or the status of their children. Expats from non-European countries discuss the rise of racism in this country. And while some question whether this is really true, both police statistics and stories I myself have heard from good friends would indicate that, sadly, it probably is.

What is so frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way.

Had we had a sensible, clever leader in June 2016 – not one who ran away as soon as possible – they could so easily have stopped the country splitting in two as it has. They could have said thank you very much for the information you have given us by your vote. There is clearly something very wrong in this country which needs solving. Now we will go away and do some modelling, have some focus groups, set up a cross-party group which will travel the country to talk to people, and eventually we will come back to you with what we have found out. Once we can show you whether what you are voting about is as a result of us being in the EU or not, and once we can properly see what the affect of leaving the bloc will mean, we can discuss next steps.

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They could have calmed the situation down. They could have been seen to be taking action without rushing into this fool-hardy process as they did. Triggering Article 50 without a plan, any sort of plan, was shameful. Even if the end result was still that we would, eventually, leave the EU, to do so without a careful plan was simply, I believe, a dereliction of duty.

Of course you would need to go back further in time if you really wanted to sort out this mess (oh for a time machine!). Back to stop Cameron allowing the blame for his austerity policies to rest on the shoulders of immigrants. Back to stopping him promise in leaflets pushed through doors that he would carry out the result of the vote, whatever it was. Back to preventing parliament from backing a vote without a supermajority (eg two-thirds of the vote). Back to, somehow, allowing all EU nationals within the UK and all UK expats in Europe to vote on something that was going to have such a huge impact on their lives. And back to making sure the ballot was more than a simple yes or no – leaving confusion about whether leaving the EU also means leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.  Something some still insist it does even though I highly suspect most people in this country had barely heard either of those two terms before the referendum.

In fact, if we could really go back in time, what we should actually try and do is stop Cameron promising to have the referendum in the first place. Who but for a few members of his party were calling for it? How many people can really say, hand on heart, that EU policies have been having a negative impact on their lives? And how many of us really want the country that we have got now – more split than I have ever known it, friends pitted against friends, family members against family members, and worst of all, a nasty, vocal majority suddenly believing that they have the right and freedom to spout their nasty racist nonsense in public whenever and wherever they want?

Many people voted to leave the EU because they want to go back in time. Back to an imagined past, where in their memories life was good. No-one seems exactly to be able to pinpoint when this was because the past might have been better for some but I don’t believe it was better for all. I too want to go back though. I want to go back to 2012, to the summer of 2012 to be precise. To the golden days of the summer Olympics, when London welcomed the world to what then seemed like an open, tolerant and liberal-minded country. When Mo Farah, an immigrant from Africa, won races and we all cheered.

Will we ever be that country again? Right now, I don’t think we will. My heart remains broken.

Picture credit: EU flag – Rock Cohen

Repatriation and a crisis of confidence

I always knew there would be ups and downs, bumps in the road, hills and mountains. No-one said repatriation was easy. But up until now I think I have actually got off relatively lightly – mostly because I have been too busy to really think about it.

But now we are half a year in to our time back in the UK (half a Year!! Where has that time gone?) and I am having a mini crisis of confidence. What do I do now? Where am I heading? What am I FOR?

To be fair, these kind of little freak-outs could happen to anyone, whether they had ever lived overseas or not. Others might call them a mid-life crisis. But I think the reason it hits people like me who have recently moved back from being abroad is that for so long we have either had a purpose (preparing for a move, the move itself, helping your family settle in somewhere new etc) or an excuse (I can’t get a work visa, I don’t speak the language, there’s no work available, my partner travels too much for me to be able to work etc). That doesn’t of course always equate to contentment as anyone who has read my blog knows (eg this post about feeling like a 1950’s housewife). But it does mean you don’t spend all day with you head in your hands wondering what on earth you are going to DO with the rest of your life.

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I’ve been here before. Every time we have come back from an overseas posting I have had to re-invent myself. After Jamaica, I was a full-time mum. After Pakistan, I was waiting to go again as I knew it was likely we would get a replacement posting. After St Lucia I retrained as an antenatal teacher.

This time, I am trying to make a go of freelance writing. I’m half way there with some good commissions from great publications (including the Washington Post, the Independent, Euronews, and many others – if interested please check out my portfolio here). But it’s an uphill battle to actually make a living from this and I know I need to find some regular clients before I can start to believe it will actually work. It’s terrifying to actually be faced with the reality of something that for years I have wanted to do but never really dared. So in a way the easy way out would be to find another excuse – we’re moving again, I don’t have time, I can’t get a work visa (!).

All of those things would stop the little voice in my head that tells me “you’re not good enough”.

But I won’t because I can’t. As far as I know right now, we’re here for quite a few years (possibly – gulp! – forever) so I need to stop making excuses. I need to put my big girls pants on, take a deep breath, and make myself do it. Hopefully it won’t be long and I’ll have my repatriation mojo back.

Have you recently repatriated? How are you finding it? Easier than you expected? Harder? Leave some messages below and I will write another blog post about this at some point when I get my head out of my hands….

Photo credit: Emily