Watch out for mini-culture shock

We’ve been back in Pretoria for a couple of weeks now and I am starting to feel back on top of things. Starting. By that I don’t mean I feel settled back in at all – in fact, I really feel like I could do with about three weeks holiday to get over my holiday, now that the children are back at school…

Because, apart from all the extra work there is to catch up on, the friends I want to see, the chores that have laid abandoned since the day term broke up back in mid-June, there is also that strange feeling of disorientation which we all have to go through on returning from a long trip overseas – especially when it is to your home country.

We all know about culture shock and, to come extent, we all expect it when we first move somewhere new. Most people at least have some understanding of the sort of rollercoaster of emotions they are likely to go through as a new expat – even if many of us don’t realise how hard or how long it may hit for. However, what I hadn’t expected was to go through a sort of mini version of this when we first returned from our long break in the UK.


Expat life can be a bit of a roller coaster at times…..

I was looking forward to coming back. We’d had a good holiday and seen a lot of people we were missing. But it’s always hard when you have to keep packing and unpacking, moving between different places, never sleeping in the same place for more than a few nights at a time. I also missed my own bed, my own shower and my own space. And yes I missed my dog!

So it wasn’t that I didn’t want to return. We had had long enough away and even the children agreed nearly nine weeks out of school is way too much. They positively hopped onto the school bus the first morning back! We also returned to glorious weather (hot, sunny days, cool nights…) and lots to look forward to including various trips and holidays. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be home in Pretoria – it was more just that when I got here it took a bit of time to settle.

For the first few days I felt a bit down, grumpy and even various degrees of anger. Usually exercise and sun helps with these things but I couldn’t shake the feelings. I also felt disorientated, to the extent that once or twice I woke up and couldn’t work out where I was. I don’t think my feelings were helped by the bad memories of the first few days of “Brexit” which were also my last few days in Pretoria before the holiday – sitting in the car park at our local supermarket I suddenly had a flash-back to checking on my phone and discovering our prime minister had resigned while I was doing the weekly shop.

These feelings didn’t last long and gradually I started to “re-adapt” to my surroundings, getting back into the rythm of a life that mostly revolves around working, writing, dog walking, food shopping and organising holidays. But these feelings threw me as they weren’t expected at all and it made me realise that, as expats, we have to continue to be aware that life isn’t linear and the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride will continue throughout our time away from home. It also reminded me that I needed to be kind to myself – it isn’t realistic that I would be able to jump straight back where I left off nine weeks ago; and that the guilt I felt about not making arrangements to see people or starting a new project within a week of returning should be parked straight away in the unrealistic car park.

So here  I am on day 13 and I do feel like I am getting there. I have managed to write a few new blog posts, caught up with most friends, met some of the newcomers (who so far all seem lovely), sorted out the last details for our coming trips to Cape Town and Mozambique and more or less got up to date with work. I realise there is still a long way to go and my to-do list is as long as ever (although sometimes I think that is just what life in the 21st century is like for everyone). But at least now I know what to expect next time I return from a long trip home. Buckle up those seat belts!

As an expat, why I am voting to STAY in the EU

My country has been split over the past few months. Split by an issue whuch has revealed a fault line through the middle of the United Kingdom – a fault line which many of us didn’t even realise was there until this year, and a fault line that the whole country seems to be sliding into with a huge furour of anger and hatred and fear. It has not been pleasant and I would not wish an EU referendum on anyone.

But what it has done is make me take a long hard look at this institution we are fighting over, this huge behemoth with all its defects but also its benefits – the good, the bad and the ugly side of an institution I had assumed we would always be part of. An important part of – as one of the largest economies in Europe, we play a full and vital role in shaping the way the EU is run. A role we will no longer have if we leave, although we will still be affected by the decisions made by those who remain.

So the debate has raged – back and forth. The economy, immigration, faceless bureaucrats telling us what to do. How much we pay to the EU every week, what we could do with that money. The affect on businesses. What sort of a role we would have on the world stage if we left. Personalities and politicians taking sides. Friends and family split by the arguments – others turned off by the whole thing. But in the back of our minds, all knowing that this might be collectively the most important decision of our lifetime.


So I know all the arguments. I have read as much as I can get my hands on. Right from the start I have always said that we don’t really know what will happen if we leave – this is an unprecedented situation and the claims from both sides are only based on best guesses. Economics is more of an art than a science and we can’t predict how people will act if we withdraw so there are still a lot more if, buts and maybes than definites in this debate.

But beyond the economics, the question of migration, the laws on bendy bananas and all the other nonsense that has been thrown at us over the past few years there is an issue which as an expat seals the deal for me. And that is that I want to be part of the world.

I realise I am luckier than most in that I have been able to travel all my life. I took my first plane ride before I can remember and I have lived on every main continent. I have visited more than 70 countries and that includes, as a wide-eyed teenager, the obligatory inter-railing trip around Europe.


I love Europe. I love the beauty of Italy, the food of Spain, the efficiency of Germany. As a child we took holidays in the south of France, canal boats linking up towns where we could cycle to pick up baguettes for breakfast and practice our schoolgirl French. As a student I took part in sponsored hitch-hikes to Paris. I have stayed in Germany with old family friends, lived in Spain and Gibraltar, taken the children on holiday in the Netherlands. I once took a ferry to France for the day to stock up on wine. Another time I did an overnight boat trip to the Hook of Holland just because we could.

Like it or not, Europe is a part of us and I don’t want to lose that. But more than that, as a global citizen I don’t want to belong to a country that looks to the outside world like it is pulling up its drawbridge and isolating itself from everyone else. I love my country but I know it is not perfect – there is so much else out there, so much we should be part of. From food to culture to trade, we need to stay connected or we will be left behind. Not just economically but every other way as well. And it’s a two-way thing – we have so much to offer the rest of the world, why should we put up the walls and say no, we don’t want you? Because to the rest of the world this is what it will seem like we are doing if we vote to leave. In my expat life here in South Africa I am friends with people from all over the world. Many of these friends are Europeans. Proper friends, friends I am sure I will remain in touch with for the rest of my life. I have as much in common with them as I do with my friends back in England. To leave them, to symbolically tell them them we don’t want to be part of you – well, to me that is unthinkable.

This is why I (thanks to my proxy back home in the UK) will be voting to remain a part of the EU this week.


Bloggers in Africa – we want you!

Are you a blogger? Do you live in Africa? Then please join a brand-new link-up starting later this month.

From Angola to Zimbabwe, Algeria to Zambia we want you writers and photographers from all over the continent to share a bit of your life with us. The idea for a link-up specifically for bloggers in Africa started when I began corresponding with Frances who runs the wonderful Africa Expat Wives Club – which, for those of you who don’t already know isn’t a club at all but a very insightful blog about life in Kenya. Looking for a way to better connect with other writers on the continent I suggested a blog link-up and the idea rolled from there.


This is my African world – but what’s yours?

The idea will be to link up on a monthly basis with ANY Africa-related post, whether it be funny, serious, political, photographic…even a poem or short story is welcome, in fact the only rules really are that the post mustn’t be offensive and we don’t accept posts that are pure advertising. A new post would be great, but if you don’t have something relevant written recently then an old post is good too.

The first link-up will be on Wednesday May 25th and we hope to continue monthly from there, alternating between this blog and the Africa Expat’s Wives Club. If you want to join in then all you need to do is leave your contact below – either email or twitter name, or email me directly at [email protected] and we will remind you closer to the date!

Feeling like a nobody.

One of the hardest thing about moving overseas as an expat partner is losing your identity. Okay at the start it’s difficult finding a house, navigating the roads, comforting the homesick children…but once the initial few months have passed and you begin to find yourself back into some sort of a new-normal, you realise something else has changed. Something pretty bloody massive. You are not who you used to be.

Well, you are who you used to be but you would be forgiven for feeling this way because this is how you will be treated from now on. As the sidekick. The uninteresting one. The one to avoid at parties (that is if you are ever actually invited to any). Never mind that you used to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse or a teacher or whatever it is that you did back in your home country. And never mind that actually you have a life here too, possibly even a job. As far as many people you meet are concerned you are a nothing. Your status is somewhere lower than the dogs and actually the only use you have is smoothing the way for your partner’s brilliant career.

But don’t judge us because we are not those nobodies. We were and dammit we still are very big somebodies. There is nothing worse than being ignored because you don’t work in the office  of the people you are meeting. Even worse for those of us who USED to work in that office and therefore actually could join in the conversation. As far as those people are concerned your brain is made of cotton wool and you couldn’t possibly have an opinion on anything useful!

This has happened to me here in Pretoria – with a few very honorable exceptions in some of my former colleagues who actually deem me fit to discuss what they do (and no I don’t expect to know everything and yes I realise that even though I have signed the official secrets act that was a long time ago and by now out of date so I don’t expect to be filled in on everything that is going on). As far as most people here are concerned I am fluff. I am my children’s mother, my husband’s wife. I am not a person who needs to be acknowledged.

Added to this sense of frustration is that everything I need to get done has to go through my husband. Want to open a bank account? He needs to get the ball rolling because I don’t work here. Something wrong with the house? Needs to go through his office. Flights home? School bills? Even medical treatment? Yup you guessed it – through his office!

We went to a party the other day thrown by someone fairly high up in diplomatic circles here. We were guests because I am friends with the fairly high up person’s wife. It was so refreshing to be there because of me not because of my husband – refreshing for him as well as me because he didn’t have to feel like he was working. It was a great night, I met some fun people and never once felt like I shouldn’t have been there. I was invited as me, not as the other half of the main man.

It’s frustrating and I know it is felt by many. What to do about it? Well if you are reading this and you know people who are the partners then ask them what they do or did, be interested in them, ask their opinions (some of us even do things like follow the local news and – shock horror – spend quite a lot of time getting to know our host country by interacting in various ways with the locals). Realise that they have a brain and treat them accordingly.

If like me you are the fluffy sidekicks then lets reclaim ourselves, our identities. Perhaps when we meet people and they ask why we are here the first thing we say SHOULDN’T be what our partners do or where they workbut rather why we decided to come with them. I wanted to travel. The opportunity to see more of the world was too much of a temptation to turn down. I decided it would be a good way to get my novel finished and do some more scuba diving.

And then, before they can start looking at you down their noses trying to sum up whether you are worth another three minutes of their time or not, be the first to move. Tell them you need to be somewhere or you’re on your way to the bar for another drink. Smile sweetly and walk away. Leave them wondering.

And always remember, whatever your situation, you are important. You are not a nobody you are a somebody and you always will be. And anyone who judges you because of what you do or don’t “do” isn’t worth another minute of your time anyway.

Here’s to all us expat partners – may we ever realise just how bloody important we are!

Charity and Nicole – a wonderful expat tale.

Whenever I think about the many places I have lived over my years I am reminded of the domestic staff we had at the time: Enca the cook in Manila, Arricelli in Caracas, Anne Marie in Kingston, Ansa my saviour in Islamabad, and now here in Pretoria Sarna who keeps the house clean and  me sane at the same time with her company and funny tales.   They play such a huge part in our lives and yet so little is heard from them. All these people have stories of their own and when I get the chance I love to talk to them about their lives, their upbringing and also about things like their take on current politics. After all, what better a place to get a feel for the thoughts of the “man on the street” than from someone who is out there living it?

So I was delighted when I came across the story of two women right here in South Africa, German expat Nicole and her Zimbabwean helper Charity, who have collaborated to produce a book about Charity’s life. As far as I am aware this is a unique product but do let me know if you think otherwise. But in the meantime I leave it up to Charity and Nicole to tell their story and why they have produced this amazing book together:

Charity Musayani - Coverfoto 800 dpi

It´s a common situation on the African continent and in many other places around the world: A family has a domestic helper, a nanny or a gardener, often staying with them under the same roof. For many years they might be living on the same grounds, spending the day together, but how much do they really know about each other’s lives? We are not aware of the path that this person went along before ending up in our household.

First of all, how did this project come about? Who came up with the idea and what was the inspiration for it?

Charity got to read all these books in the house, because we didn´t provide her with a TV. Many different stories, lots of them stories about women. Women on all continents in all situations. So suddenly one-day Charity comes up to me and asks/says if she shouldn´t write down her story. We had a short chat about it and I really liked the idea a lot. So I encouraged her. I got her a notebook and two pencils and then obviously she sat down and started it.

How did you work together – Charity, did you tell Nicole your story? How hard (or easy!) was it working together?

Charity: I sat down in my room many nights and weekends writing down my story into a notebook, handwritten. When this was finished, Nicole provided me with a laptop and showed me how to type and save. As I was only typing with one finger, it took forever. My daughter, who is attending IT school in Harare came over in her school break for two weeks and typed the whole rest that was left for me. We sat together many, many hours. It was tough times also, because she learnt so much more in detail about her mother´s life. Many tears rolling down our cheeks during that time. Only when everything was saved in a word document, Nicole got to read my story. During the time of writing I often asked her about her opinion on certain types of writing, which we discussed then.

Nicole: Only after Charity´s whole book was digitalized, I started reading and correcting it. We often sat together, when Charity had to explain to me what she wanted to say and how certain African traditions work… I often needed to ask about types of food that are described. It was a very interesting process. We worked very hard.

Here is a story, the story of Charity, of her life, that is really touching. It´s the story of a not so ordinary Zimbabwean woman. Charity was born in 1972 and although her childhood wasn´t very easy she succeeded in getting a decent job. Unfortunately she picked a difficult husband, she lost a child and soon life was turned upside down. But still Charity could afford a maid looking after her household and her two kids while she was working. One day she made one big wrong decision. She gave up her job to go out and dig for gold. That didn´t bring her any luck and life got worse. Trying to survive with her family she ended up risking her life in the diamond fields. Also without any success. She went through extreme times in Mozambique, trapped by her own family. Many times betrayed she finally ends up in South Africa. Now working as a maid herself.

How important do you think it is for this story to be heard – not just for Charity but for all the women like her out there?

It might be a typical story of many women out there that went through similar stages or situations in life. But I still think that Charity´s life was/is very interesting to tell, because she went through so many different types of struggle, in different countries, that she managed to get through and always got out of it somehow. Always and forever having her two kids in mind and mostly wondering about their wellbeing.

What can we (as expat employers of domestic staff around the world) learn from Charity’s story? What would you like us to take away from it?

The story/book will give an expatriate an inside/background on what a woman in their household might have gone through before ending up in their house. I can only speak for Charity, but it seems to me that she just works to get a good education for her kids, that´s the most important for her. Because she knows she doesn´t have a retirement fund or similar. Her kids are her guarantee for later. If they will not be able to feed their own families and Charity, she will have a problem. She knows that she needs to finish her house in Zimbabwe and pay for their education. All she wishes for is that they will have a better, easier future/life than she had. And sure, that they will be able to look after her, when she is too old to earn her own money one day.

Charity – what would you like to see for your own future, and that of your children and grandchildren?

Charity: I want to have a better life. If I manage to finish my house I know I would have the possibility to rent out a room and earn some monthly income to get me food, even if my children wouldn´t be around, when I am older and back in my home country. Kids should have a good education and I hope that my ones can finish their courses one day and get a chance for a decent job.

I am very proud of my kids. They are always studying. Although I can only barely afford to send one of them to school at the moment, they still sit together in the afternoon at home and share their knowledge. My daughter, who is one year older, is still going to IT school and doing very well. I hope that I will be able to pay for her school fees in the future. I managed to pay for a driver licence for my son, but at the moment he is the one staying at home and studying the books for a ACCA course. Maybe I can pay for his exam fees also one day.

So a better and more stable future for the three of us, that´s what I am hoping for.

I understand Nicole is leaving soon (to go to Germany?) – will you stay in touch?

We sure will stay in touch. We have this important project going on together which is long not finished. There is still a long way to go and we will go it together. I am still looking for a publisher for the printed book for Charity.

My plan is also to translate the book in German for her. And maybe I can find a publisher for her in a Germany then.

To find out more about the book and to buy a copy please click here.

A Series on Expat Depression #2: What is “expat” depression?

Last week I kicked off this series on expat depression with an introductory post, explaining why this was a subject that needed tackling properly. In this week’s post I look at the term “expat” depression and whether it really needs a category of it’s own. As always, I want to thank mental health specialist and counsellor Anita Colombara for her contribution to this series.


I have tried writing this post now about three times, and every time I’ve had to screw up the paper I’m writing it in and throw it in the bin (my computer’s bin of course!). I wanted to try and set out exactly what expat depression meant, why it is different from other types of depression, and how knowing about these differences can help you cope with it.

But of course, depression – of any kind – just isn’t that simple, and an easy, straightforward explanation just kept slipping out of my hands.

At first, I based my ideas for this post on feedback I had had whilst carrying out the survey for this series of expat depression posts. I had been told very firmly by more than one person that there was a huge difference between “low feelings” and proper depression. Taking this one step further, I started investigating “clinical” depression – eg that which is caused by a proper chemical imbalance in the brain; and “situational” depression – eg that which is caused by a change in circumstances, the situation you find yourself in. A good example of “situational depression” would be postnatal/postpartum depression, which is well documented and at least partially understood: the mix of a huge change in the life of the new parents, loss of job/career/money, loss of identity, isolation, sleep deprivation…..all things that can be readily compared to moving to a new country and becoming an expat, bar (hopefully) the sleep deprivation.


Having a new baby can trigger a roller coaster of emotions – much like moving abroad.

So, I wanted to be able to compare the two types of depression – clinical and situational, discuss which was most likely to be experienced by expats and then talk about how one required proper intervention in the form of a counsellor or psychiatrist, or even medication such as antidepressants; whilst the other could be worked through with a mixture of self-help methods and basically the passing of time. I thought making this distinction would make it easier for anyone reading these posts to know what they were dealing with and thus seek the appropriate help.

But then I emailed the mental health specialist, Anita Colombara, and asked for her opinion on this. Did she see the difference between the two and if so did she agree that “expat” depression was much more likely to be “situational” (after all, this makes a lot of sense – it can’t be a coincidence that many of us only ever experience depression or, perhaps, experience it for the first time, on moving to another country). And this was her response:

Situational depression, aka Adjustment Disorder (AD), occurs when one is unable to adjust or cope with a particular stressor or a major life event. This type of depression often alleviates once the stressor resolves or the individual learns to adapt to the situation. Clinical depression, aka Major depressive disorder (MDD), on the other hand, consists of a pervasively low mood that adversely impacts most areas of a person’s life, habits, and general health.

Honestly, I have difficulty separating “situational depression” vs “clinical depression”. Whether ones depression is triggered by a life stressor (situational depression) or a chemical imbalance in the brain (clinical depression), depressive symptoms look and feel pretty much the same. Most people who struggle with depression have at least four of the following symptoms:

• Loss of joy or interest in hobbies you normally enjoy
• Loss of interest in relationships or decreased libido
• Often irritable, impatient with self or others
• Pessimism, feeling stuck, hopeless, empty
• Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
• Insomnia or restlessness
• Low energy, fatigue, or difficulty getting out of bed
• Change of appetite, over eating, not eating enough, or other unhealthy eating habits
• Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-hatred
• Excessive crying or lack of emotion
• Excessive anger, breaking objects
• Lack of self-care, grooming, or hygiene
• Thoughts or attempts at self-harm or harming others

In other words, when someone feels crappy, does it matter what it is triggered from? Yes, treatment may be different depending on whether there is a chemical imbalance component involved. However, seeking professional help would not hurt either way. A good therapist will help determine where the depression is coming from and assess what kind of intervention would be appropriate.

So I felt like I was back to square one. But not really because thinking this issue through, and discussing it first with Anita and then with a “real-life” friend here in Pretoria who has first-hand experience of depression, has been a useful exercise in itself. Because what it taught me was never to make assumptions, don’t try and pigeon-hole something, don’t assume that everything is as straightforward as it might at first seem. Which is a really useful way of looking at depression – it isn’t something that comes with a label and a list of instructions. It is something that might…or might not be. That this may work for….or may not. That this is what it is like for you….but not for her.

On the other hand, though, there are also commonalities (as described by Anita above). And one of the things I hope to be able to do is pinpoint some of these commonalities and help you understand a bit more about why you might be feeling why you do, recognise the symptoms as early as possible, and then try and do something about it. Whether that be self-help methods, seeking professional assistance or a mixture of the two will be very much a personal decision but I hope I can at least show you what had worked for others.

Next week, I will start to look at some personal experiences of when and why expats have been affected by depression – which, I hope, will help you prepare if you know you are likely to find yourself in similar situations.

Photo credit: omgponies2

A series on Expat depression: introduction

Last year I wrote a post that has been read again and again and again…..barely a day goes by when it, or another on the same subject, doesn’t get looked at. When I wrote the post I don’t think I had any idea what a big topic this was. I almost didn’t write it at all, it was actually a bit of a last-minute thing prompted by a link someone had put on my Facebook page.

What was this post about? Expat depression. And since writing that post, I have realised just what a neglected subject this is.

Time to Talk

The original post was called Depression and the Expat Life: Something we Don’t Talk About Enough. I wrote it to mark the 2015 Time to Talk campaign – a UK campaign that encourages us all to talk to someone about mental health. Today is the 2016 Time to Talk day and this seems like the perfect time to launch my new series on expat depression. The campaign is about de-stigmatising mental health issues, and in my original post I set out to highlight how this was something that we needed to do within the expat world where these issues can really be a big problem.

That post has been read many times since I wrote it, not because I have a huge following but because a lot of people find it by searching under the term “expat depression” or something similar. The more I realised this was happening, the more I realised I needed to write more about this important subject.


Interview with a professional

Due to the pressures of finishing and publishing my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide (which includes a chapter on culture shock and depression), and then moving to South Africa, it took me a while to get back to this. Eventually though I was contacted by an expert on the subject – Anita Colombara, who is mental health specialist with a particular interest in the international community. Anita agreed to be interviewed for my blog and to fill in some of the gaps I had about depression in the expat community. The information she was able to give me was excellent, really good practical stuff that I  hope will help a lot of people.

But although the reaction to Anita’s interview was great, with lots of views and lots of feedback, I still knew there were plenty of people out there that I wasn’t reaching. So I decided to tackle this subject properly. Following the same format as I used to write the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I felt that the best way to do this would be to share real-life stories, experiences, tips and advice. Often, just knowing you are not alone can help. So I set up a survey and watched as the answers came in.

Shared experiences

In the end, I had pages and pages of material. Some of the answers were one-liners, some were out-pourings. I was awed that people were willing to share so much, convinced the more I read how important it was that I did this.

It is important though to point out that I am not a medical professional, a therapist or a counsellor. My role here is as a writer and blogger, as well as an expat. I am not the one who can tell you what to do or how to cope. I can only do what I have been doing ever since I wrote my book which is to share the experiences of myself and of others. By doing this I genuinely hope I will help others – by making them realise they are not alone, things will get easier, that they should seek help, that they should talk to someone, how they can help themselves, where they can get help from…..

As I am not the expert I decided to call on the assistance of a professional to ensure that what is published stays within the remit of being responsible. So for this reason I have asked Anita to be part of this series. I have asked her to read each post before it is published and to contribute if she thinks it would be helpful. Many people pointed out as I asked for help with the survey that there was a difference between clinical and situational depression, and that the responses to each could be quite different. I want to explore these differences and I want to ensure that anyone who thinks they need help knows where to at least start trying to find it.

New series

So today, Time to Talk day, I launch this new series on expat depression as a way to hopefully help everyone out there who is suffering from one of the unspoken sides of expat life. I hope to post weekly and will include when and why depression is most likely to hit, how it manifests itself, the link between culture shock and depression and the ways people have found to help themselves. Later I will also talk about how to help others – including partners.

I hope many people will find these posts useful; even if you yourself don’t think this is something you need to know about please share as you see appropriate as only by reaching as many people as possible will I feel I have started to do what I set out to do. I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Photo credit: ashley rose