“It’s like you’ve never been away”…err no it isn’t

So here we are back in our house in our home town. And, as people keep telling me, it must be like we’ve never been away.

Except no, it can never be like you have never been away.

In some respects, things do look very similar. I look our of the window from my kitchen table, where I sat for hours and pounded out my book on this very same lap top in 2015, and yes – things do look very familiar. The view is what it was two years ago. Just up the road is the school were both my daughter’s went before we moved to Pretoria and where my youngest will go again. Across the street still live our good friends.

But looks can be deceptive. On the outside things might appear the same but once you have had the sort of experience you have as an expat, you will always be changed.

It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t ever done this, because as far as they can tell we are the same people moving back into the same street doing the same jobs and going to the same schools (apart from my older daughter who starts secondary school in a few weeks – but as do her contemporaries). From the outside, we looks like the same family moving back into the same house.

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The view from our house and no, it has not always been this sunny since we returned…..

But given a chance to look inside our house and you will see that it is still pretty empty. We won’t get our shipment for another month or so and so are still living out of the suitcases we brought back with us plus a couple of extra trunks of bedding etc. It may seem that we are getting on with normality but that sort of routine, day-to-day living is still months away. Our life is a long way from being settled.

And the emptiness of our home is a good metaphor for the emptiness inside us as we adjust to our new lives away from the place we have called home for the last two years. Of course there are many, many great things about returning to this country (that will be my next blog) but you can’t just walk away from a life where you were happy and forget about it. That goes for all of us – me and the kids, and yes even the dog!

So if you happen to come across me (in real life or in virtual life) just be conscious that while I may look fine on the outside, I may be a little delicate still on the inside. And while I am still the same person as I was before we left, in many ways I have changed – some of them easy to explain and understand (I have started writing properly for pay and edging towards being able to call myself a writer; I know a lot more about rhino poaching in Africa etc), others are undefinable. I am still discovering these differences myself but I think some of them include having a different outlook on life from having lived in such a complicated culture, being more laid back about things, having a totally different view of my own country having watched it from afar during these turbulent times.

The flip side to this is that I also have to understand that others around me will have changed too. In some ways we think of people back home as being “frozen” while we are away. This is particularly hard for our children who hope to be able to simply pick up where they left off with their friends, only to find that those friends have moved on. It’s a hard lesson to learn and even as an adult we have to be aware that many of our friends won’t be where we left them.

So as we enter this strange limbo period of re-adjustment and re-entry I will need to keep reminding myself that repatriation takes time, and that just because things look the same they usually aren’t. I need to help my children through this time too – and am ready to deal with the inevitable fallout from friendship realignments. We will have some rocky times ahead, I am sure of it – but to be aware that this is coming and is normal can at least prepare me mentally.

Now I just need to try and explain to the dog where the sunshine has gone!

 

 

And so, the time has come….

Here we are then. The last day. I am trying to look forward and not back but it’s hard. Everywhere you go it’s like “the last time we….” walk the dog in the dog park, shop in Woolworths, take the kids to Bounce, visit the school….

But forward I must look because that is where we are heading. It has been a fantastic two years – although I have to remind myself that I didn’t always love it. When I visited our dentist the other day (the last time we visit that dentist!) he asked whether I was happy here now. I must have looked a little confused because he then admitted he had made a note from my first appointment that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my time in South Africa.

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It’s hard to pick a favourite photo of South Africa because I have so many but this one is so beautiful……

To me now, that sounds very strange but then other memories come back: getting a rush of home-sickness at the supermarket check out one day; sitting alone having an ice cream to cheer myself up because I didn’t have any friends; crying into my pillow at night because I was missing my old life so much and this new life was so different and disorientating. It is only memories of feeling unhappy that I have left rather than the unhappiness itself but I know it existed.

Time. That is all it takes. Time, some friends and a bit of routine. And a little dog called Cooper.

South Africa, Pretoria, friends that I have met here – I will miss you all. The sunshine, the wine, the braai’s, the dog walks, the lions and leopards and cheetahs, the penguins, whales and turtles, the hadedas, mouse birds and go-away birds, the mountains of the Drakensbergs, the sea of the Cape,  my helper, the school, even the bloody pizzas (there were a LOT of pizzas!).

It’s been good. See you on the other side.

x

Leaving without (too many) tears: how to get it right?

When I wrote my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I put a lot of thought into how to make an overseas move with the least amount of stress possible. I talked about sending your partner ahead without you, not moving at the start of the summer holidays and other ways to smooth your passage at a difficult time. I had learned the hard way and as we were preparing at the time for our move here to South Africa, it was all clear in my head how to do it.

Well now we are doing it in reverse and I am wondering if we are leaving in a way that I would recommend to others.

First of all, let me tell you how we planned it this time: Instead of moving soon after the school year ended in June, we decided to stick around for most of the summer. This way we could stay together as a family for as long as possible as well as make the most of our last days in the southern hemisphere sun. We have had to say a lot of separate goodbyes over the last few weeks as one-by-one friends have left for the summer or gone off on their holidays. I call this the death by one thousand cuts.

The alternative, which friends of ours chose as their preferred leaving method, was to get out of town as soon as school ended. One big emotional hurrah and poof! Gone. I call this the ripping off the band aid method.

So has our way worked? Well so far I would say on the whole yes. Although we have had a lot of goodbyes, it has meant we have been able to focus on each and every friend separately. We have had dinners and lunches and evening drinks and get-togethers for coffee – but spread out over the past few weeks so every occasion has been fun and personal.

With less going on I have also been able to sort the house out slowly, one room at a time, so when the packers arrived yesterday we were ready for them. It felt relatively calm compared to other moves.

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The down side to hanging around in Pretoria for so long is that with (almost) all our friends gone it has got a bit, well, boring. But even with this, there is a silver lining: as each slightly tedious day passes, we all look forward more and more to leaving and getting back to our UK home. It is definitely still going to be emotional but leaving a bare city as well as a bare house is a lot easier than leaving somewhere still full of your friends all having a good time without you.

On a practical side we have also managed to organise ourselves well this time. My husband will return to Pretoria later in the summer for a few months which means we don’t have to worry about things like selling the car or closing our bank account. That is an awful lot of additional stress taken away right there. I wouldn’t recommend splitting your family  up for this reason alone but if you are in this situation look at the positives!

And finally one last thing that we are trying this time: with my husband still being here until probably January, we are returning for a short holiday later in the year. This means that many of our goodbyes haven’t been final ones, that the girls know they will see their friends again and that we will all get to come back to South Africa one last time.

It will still be hard but hopefully by the time we come out here in October our lives back home will be a bit more sorted than they will be when we get home in a couple of weeks time, so returning after our holiday will be both physically and emotionally easier.

That’s the theory anyway. Let’s see how it goes.

A question for you dear readers

This is kind of off-topic but I am interested in hearing from as wide a range of people as possible on this scenario:

A question for you. If you belonged to a small company, let’s say a flourishing flower selling business with franchises around the country. Once a year or so all franchise owners get together to strategise for the year ahead. At this year’s meeting, a group of you meet in the kitchen ahead of the main meeting. While getting your coffees, someone mentions that they have just seen a new type of flower on offer – let’s call them Leavonias. Apparently these Leavonias were stunning and smelt beautiful. At present, your particular company doesn’t sell Leavonias – they are so new to the market that no-one knows much about them. But this person who saw them keeps on and on about how incredible they were. When pushed he doesn’t have many answers about how much they cost to buy or grow but he manages to pursuade most people in the kitchen that the company should start selling them. A few people even get on their phone and start ordering them from the wholesaler. Remember – this is before the annual meeting has started.

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Anyway you all go into the main meeting and start discussing strategies. Someone brings up the Leavonia idea. All those who were in the kitchen support the idea whole-heartedly and start to talk about how good it will be for their business. But someone who wasn’t in the kitchen is a little more cautious. “I know someone who tried selling them and it didn’t work very well,” she says. Apparently they cost a lot more to grow than you get back when you sell them. Nevertheless the enthusiasm for the venture in the room is still strong. As a group you decide to go away and think about it. Two or three people are designated to look into the pro’s and con’s – to draw up a risk strategy if you like.

Over the next few weeks, those designated people can’t find a single reason as to why selling Leavonias would be a good strategy for your company. They can’t find any evidence they would make money and in fact in many scenarios they would lose money. The only plus would be to save the blushes of those franchisees who have already started negotiating to buy their Leavonias from a wholesaler (who has already said it’s fine, they don’t have to go through with the deal).

Oh and they also find out that if you do decide to start selling Leavonias there is no going back.The only people that sell them make you sign a contract for life (or until the demise of the company). Even at a loss. It doesn’t make business sense but everyone can still smell that lingering scent of the beautiful flowers.

So – question: do you still go ahead and start to sell the Leavonias or do you bin the idea and carry on selling the flowers that are already making you a profit?

Don’t worry new expats, that blank canvas will soon be filled

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I saw this map a few weeks ago and it really resonated. In fact, I have been thinking about it a lot as I drive round Pretoria in our last few weeks here. It really doesn’t feel that long ago that we were living in the city on the left. I knew no-one, every street was strange to me and I was nervous that every time I left the safety of our compound I would never find my way back home again.

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This is what it looked like at the beginning…

But now it’s different. Now as I go about my daily chores almost every street corner, every mall entrance, every road reminds me of something or someone. Or lots of someones. There’s the turning to the park where we took the dogs after brunch with Bonnie and Geoff. There’s the restaurant where I last met Katy and Naomi. There’s the mall where I lost my car in the enormous car park and had to ask a car washer to help me find it. There’s the place where we bought the beaded schnauzer, where we had our the last meal with the Naslund’s, my husband’s favourite liquor shop, the cafe where I first met Karen.

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The familiar streets of Pretoria

It’s hard to believe it sometimes when you have just arrived somewhere and you have no friends and don’t know where anything is but gradually – sometimes quickly, sometimes a little slower – your map will start to fill up too. There will be meeting places and parks to walk in and favourite shops and that special restaurant and probably dentists, hospitals, schools and offices too.

So if you are new and your map is still looking a bit blank please don’t despair. It is only a matter of time and you can start to fill in those blanks. All I will say is try not to include the “site of a broken canoe”!

 

 

The truth about publishing a book and why I will rarely write for free any more.

“Write another book,” they say. “Write about repatriation!”.

I can honestly admit I would LOVE to write another book and a Repat Partner’s Survival Guide would absolutely be something I would do. Except for one thing that a lot of people don’t realise.

When you self-publish a book you are lucky to make back the money you pay to produce it. And that’s without the thousands of hours that you really should be paying yourself for the work that’s gone into writing it. Nope there really is very rarely any money to be made in publishing.

A few years ago, before I finished writing my book, I went on a marketing course for self-published authors. It was just one day long and there were about 12 of us in the room, some already published (at least one fairly successfully, if I recall). The rest of us were newbies – still totally unaware of what going-it-alone really meant.

Well while there were no great suprises, one thing that stuck in my head was this: less than 1% of self-published books sell more than 1,000 copies. That’t not very many. And more than two years after I published my book I am not there yet (although creeping closer).

When I decided to publish my book myself, having had quite a few knock-backs from so-called traditional publishers (the book was too niche…nice idea but it wouldn’t be commercially viable etc), the one thing I knew was that I wanted to be proud of the product I put out into the world. And that didn’t just mean the content – while that was my primary concern at the start, I eventually read enough to realise that was the easy bit. I needed it to be written well, edited well, proof-read well and then I needed a great front cover, good formatting, some reviews, some recommendations…the list goes on.

And much of this costs money (I have never and will never pay for reviews, but I did send a few out free of charge for people to review for me). Money that takes a long time and a lot of work to make back.

Every time I sell a book I get around £1 back (ironically I get more back from the sale of a digital copy than a hard copy). I could put the price up and get more back but I have always wanted this to be an accessible product. Thus I have to sell a lot of copies to make back the money I paid to publish it.

So this is where things got hard. The writing of the book and its production were in the end the (relatively) easy part. What I have been doing over the last two years is marketing it.

The first thing I had to think about was who were my audience and how could I reach them? One problem I have had was that most people who needed this book most wouldn’t know they needed it until it was too late. I really wanted to reach expats BEFORE their move rather than months later when they wondered what on earth had just happened to them. I could tell how hard this would be when my reviews often started with “why didn’t I know about this book when I most needed it?”.

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So I did my best – including starting this blog and writing unpaid for other blogs and websites. What I needed was to make people aware that the book existed and where they could buy it so I always made sure to include links to my blogsite.  I did enjoy what I was doing, don’t get me wrong – it is a privilege to be able to write about something you love in exactly the way you want to write it. And I also realised how lucky I was that I was able to do it this way – that I wasn’t worried about paying bills and putting food on the table because my husband had a decent job. I also had the time to do it thanks to our overseas move and a wonderfully flexible remote part-time job.

So I wrote and hustled and sweated and wrote some more and I tried to get the word out there and I counted every sale as a success. Slowly the sales figures went up. Very slowly sometimes.

And then one day something changed. I somehow got a commission to write an article (on expat depression, for the Wall Street Journal) and they paid me! Now I realise how naive this sounds – why wouldn’t they pay me? – but you have to remember that not only had I been writing for free simply to let people know my book existed for quite a long time,  but I had also had my confidence in my own abilities totally knocked since I stopped permanent work in 2006.

You see although even I forget it sometimes, I have not got to where I am through luck. I am a trained journalist who spent years learning how to write. On top of that, I have a lot of life experience – things that went into my book and now go into my articles. But I gave up my job as a diplomat following the birth of my eldest daughter and since then have only ever worked in low-paid, part-time jobs.

After a while you stop believing you are worth anything more. You doubt your abilities and you don’t for a second think you are good enough to earn a decent salary. It is an age-old story of mothers everywhere and I am not going to labour the point here. But it did mean that when someone wanted to pay me for my writing I was overjoyed. (I should add that the editor who helped me get this first assignment was a woman; all through this process I have been helped by other women and I now do my best to pass this on and help other female writers get to where they deserve to be).

Anyway things took off from here. Not in some huge, overwhelming way but in slow, small steps – I started finding out more and more about paying markets where I could sell my writing, I made friends with other writers and exchanged ideas, I joined some wonderful Facebook groups for writers. And slowly I started getting commissions.

It is still early days but even getting the few paid jobs that I have (including with the Washington Post and the UK’s Independent, as well as the Wall Street Jounal) has boosted my confidence. And in the end it has meant that writing the book  and starting the blog was worthwhile – not just because of all the people I have (hopefully) helped with the advice because of where it took me.

So here I am. I doubt writing will ever make me rich and I still have that wonderful part-time job that brings in a small income. But I have finally reached a stage where I can start to believe in myself again, believe that I am worth something, that I do have something to give.

I will still write my blog because I think it is important, and one day maybe I will write that Repat book. But right now I am just loving the fact that people want to pay me for doing what I love most in the world – write.

And I have a final message for all of you out there who feel like I did, that they are worthless and that they will never get back into a role where they feel valued again (either paid or unpaid): don’t give up. It can happen. You are worth it. if I can do it, so can you.

Good luck!

I would love to hear your stories – has anyone else self-published a book? Or got back into the workplace or found a new role after a period of absence?

Photo credit: Appalachian dreamer

 

Back to the Kruger

There is something very special about the Kruger National Park, something that keeps pulling us back,  constantly wanting more. Whether it’s the stillness of the early morning savannah as the huge orange sun rises through the mist or the excitement of spotting a pair of cheetahs by the roadside when you are the only car in sight, there really is nothing like the Kruger.

We returned for our fourth (and joint longest) trip to the park a couple of weeks ago. Having spent all our previous trips in the south and central parts of the park, this time we decided to see what the far north was like. But knowing that the south was where the most wildlife tend to be found we knew – for the sake of the children at least – we would need to spread ourselves out. Hence our trip started right in the south in a tranquil bushcamp called Biyamiti (no restaurant or shop, only a small number of guest cottages) and ended in the far north at Punda Maria. Along the way we also stayed at Satara, Olifants and Lataba.

Arriving at the park after a long drive from Pretoria we did what all Krugerholics do the moment they are through those gates – pick up a camera, get the binoculars handy, open the windows and breathe! Even though it was getting late, we still managed a few good sightings on our drive to our first night’s accommodation – including our first ever (fleeting) honey badger.

Then as we arrived close to Biyamiti this happened. Elephant jam!

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As you can see from the photo, it was getting dark and the camp gates would be closed in ten minutes or so…..the gentle giants even looked like they were going to settle down to sleep in the middle of the road at one point. But after a bit of polite revving by the car in front they eventually moved and we were able to get to the camp in time.

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Early morning coffee in Biyamiti

Those elephants set the scene for the rest of the holiday. I am not sure if it was the time of year or whether we spent more time in the centre and north of the park than usual, but we have never seen so many elephants! This included one of my favourite ever Kruger experiences when we came across a huge herd of them playing in a dam near Satara – all the youngsters literally jumping on each other in the water, the mums with their babies keeping watch from the edge. It was a magical site – I could have sat there all day and watched as they chased off a small group of buffaloes minding their own business, helped one of the baby’s out of some mud, and generally larked about like typical teenagers the world over.

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Elephant fun!

The next day though we had what has to be one of our top three wildlife sightings since we have lived in South Africa. We rose early to give ourselves the best chance of seeing something good. We were staying in Satara which is close to the S100 – a road that many consider the best road in the park for lions. At first we had one of those mornings of nothing…nothing…nothing….why did we get up so darned early….nothing….

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Sunrise in Kruger

…and then roud a bend a few cars clustered in a stop, always a sign of something good, usually a cat…

Someone in one of the other cars pointed up an embankment into the distance. “There’s a lion coming,” they told us. It was hard to make out but yes there were two ears bobbing along behind some bushes. It wasn’t that exciting at this stage and at least one of the other cars drove off. But she (we finally worked out it was a lioness) came closer and closer and then suddenly there was another. And behind it, another. And they just kept on coming and coming and walked down the embankment literally right past our car. And in the middle of the cats was a white lion – one of the rarest sites in the park (I am assured by those that know that this is the only one that is known of in the main part of the park; there is apparently another in Greater Kruger which includes the concessions at the edge).

 

We sat as they passed one by one and then we went round the corner and watched them all settle in the shade of a couple of trees. The white one seemed to be just one of the pack which was nice to see – I am guessing he had no idea he was any different from any of his brothers!

Following that sighting we didn’t think the Kruger would have anything better to offer on this trip but we would be wrong!

The next day started out as one of those quiet but perfectly pleasant mornings when you really don’t see much to write home about but still lots for your own personal amusement – like these buffaloes using a branch to scratch an itch.

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When suddenly down a long, quiet road we spotted two cars pulled up by the road. We drove up next to them but couldn’t see anything. I shrugged at the man in one of the cars, indicating that I was confused and he pointed down right in front of where they were parked. Cheetahs!

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And there they were, two of the most beautiful animals you will see in your life, just lying ther by the roadside totally unaware that they were being watched. The other cars drew off but we sat with them for about half an hour, watching as they stood up, sniffed and quivered at some impala up the road, willing them on to start a hunt so we would get the chance to see these magnificent creatures in full flight….

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They didn’t though and in the end we left them to it – passing just two cars on our way on to the main road, but enjoying watching the faces in the cars light up when we told them what was waiting for them just up the road.

The day had a couple more treats for us – a hyena eating a leopard’s lunch by the side of a river (the leopard only just in sight but the cheeky hyena in clear view)

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But then just around the corner, something in the road – a snake! I realise for some people this isn’t what they want to see but from the safety of our car I am always happy to see one, especially when it is later confirmed to be a deadly puff adder!

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We eventually arrived at my favourite camp in the park, Olifants with its fantastic view out over the Olifants river. But it was the antics of the baboons that occupied us more than the view this time – the cheeky monkeys had already broken into our neighbour’s cottage just as we arrived and were running around with rusks and oranges in their hands. Then, the next morning two of them made a raid on our breakfast table, using my eldest daughter as a spring board in their bold attempt (failed) to steal our packet of muesli! The baboons are quite a pest as they have learned to open bins, windows, fridges, car doors…but they are very amusing to watch!

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Cheeky baboon eating someone’s leftover braai

From Olifants it was on to Lataba which is proper elephant country – there is even an elephant museum here, chronicling the lives of the “great tuskers” – a number of giant males with huge tusks who earned fame back in Ye Olden Days (they have recently agreed on some new tuskers to take over the mantle from their reverent ancestors ). Everywhere we went – elephants! Not that I minded, I love elephants!

 

After Lataba we only had one more night in the park at Punda Maria in the north. It was a long drive up there and wildlife became scarcer but there was still much to see, including some of these huge baobab trees:

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And at some point on the road we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and found ourselves officially in the tropics – it did get noticably warmer as we went further north although it still cooled down at night to a pleasant sleeping temperature.

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And although we didn’t see any more of the predators (bar a lone hyena running down a dry river bed) there were still plenty of things to keep us amused:

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And so we came to the end of our epic trip. We wanted to do the last bit of Kruger right up into the corner where the three countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) meet. But in the end we simply ran out of time, and had had enough time sitting in the car. So we didn’t quite make it – but this means one thing is for sure: there’s a very real resaon to come back. Not that I think I will need much pursuading!

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