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.

Friendless in Pretoria

Ok, it’s not quite that bad but as the “summer” (remember, it’s winter here in the Southern hemisphere) begins I am reminded of what it is like when you first arrive somewhere and don’t know anyone.

Many of my closest friends have now left the country for extended holidays in their home countries. Others are still around but travelling or working. And even though I know there are still people here, our routines have splintered to the extent that regular contact is getting harder by the day.

So I walk my dog alone, I don’t meet anyone for coffee, I await the time of the day when my kids will be back from “winter school” which is the best way I have found to keep them occupied while their own friends are absent. Once they are back through the door I might not get much conversation out of them but at least I can stop talking to the dog.

Walking alone - Howth, Ireland - Black and white street photogra

In all honesty right now, it’s fine. We have just been away for a week long family trip which kept us in each other’s company pretty much 24/7. You can have too much of people even when it is your nearest and dearest. So a little peace and tranquilty and “me time” is welcome.

But what it is reminding me of isn’t just what it is like to be a new expat but also what it will be like to be a new repat. And that’s what’s worrying me.

One of the things I have loved most about our life here has been the constant interaction with friends. Without extended family to distract us, we spend a lot of time with each other. In the week I see girlfriends to eat, drink, walk, exercise or just generally chew the fat with. At weekends we meet en famille for lunchtime get-togethers that stretch into the evenings.  Our kids are in and out of each others homes for playdates and sleepovers. We think nothing of inviting two, three or even four extra girls home to sleep the night and then all meet up again the next day for another round of socialising.

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Of course this isn’t to say that I don’t have friends in the UK and won’t make more. But there is something undeniably social about life overseas. Here in South Africa we are freed from the usual weekend chores by having helpers who do our washing and ironing. Eating out is cheap (for those of us on expat salaries – I totally appreciate how different it is for locals) and thus if you haven’t done a food shop recently it doesn’t matter too much. And the weather is just so damn conducive to socialising – no worry about not having enough chairs in your house, you are almost always guaranteed that you can sit outside.

Back home people are far more likely to retreat into their homes. Many have family living close by – parents, siblings etc – and spend the days with them at the weekend. More people are also likely to work – as we all know, one of the issues about being an expat partner is how hard it can be to find work; the silver lining to this is how many fellow expats you know are free to spend time with. It’s not that people in my home country aren’t friendly or you don’t ever spend time with them – it’s just that, well, they aren’t your replacement family like they become overseas.

(I should hasten to add at this point that I do have family I am obviously looking forward to seeing when we return but they don’t live that close and we only generally see them once a month or so).

So whilst I spend my last few weeks in Pretoria relatively alone I know this is all good practice for what life will become once more in just a few weeks time. I will still be in touch with the friends I have made here and already have plans to meet up with them for holidays, plus social media and instant messaging make long-distance friendships so much easier than they used to be.

But I am stealing myself for a different kind of life. One without quite so much time with friends and without the constant coming and going of pre-teens in our house. I know it will be replaced – although at the moment what or who will replace it is still a little hazy – but it just won’t be the same. I’m not sure you can ever replicate the sort of lifestyle you live when you are living the expat life.

One thing that will remain a constant though is that I will still have my dog to talk to. Let’s just hope I find someone else to take the burden off him before he gets totally fed up with me!

Picture credits: Walking alone – Giuseppe Milo, sleepover – Renee Shelton

The cold, hard reality of expat life: saying goodbye

It comes to us all eventually. Whether you live somewhere for two months, two years or two decades, you will have to hug someone you care about and will miss madly and say goodbye.

But it never gets any easier.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, we are preparing to leave Pretoria in the next few weeks and have reached the point where we are starting to say our farewells. We have have numerous dinners and Sunday get-togethers and parties for the kids with those who we consider our nearest and dearest. The ones who have brought this place to life for us, who have shared the ups and downs, made us laugh, accompanied us on the huge two-year adventure South Africa has been for us. The people who will bring a lump to my throat when I think about the enormous fun we had together living in this beautiful, crazy country.

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But we have just reached the end of the school year and at this point many families are heading home for the holidays. So even though we will still be here making the most of the sun for a while longer, I won’t see them again before we leave. So yes we have reached crunch time – the hugs, the kisses, the tears, the “see you in Ecuador” or “catch up in Florida” or “you must make sure to call us on your London stop-over”. You know the drill, you expats who spend your life moving between far-flung places in this world.

Because of course the only way to deal with this awful period of goodbyes is to pretend it’s not forever, even if you fear that really it probably is. I remember when I left school (it was a boarding school so we were all a lot closer than we would have been at a normal school), someone said to me: “have a nice life”. It stuck in my head as it sounded so…final. You really don’t know if you will ever bump into someone again or not, you don’t know where your future path will take you or where theirs will take them. And isn’t it so much easier to say “hasta luego” than “goodbye”?

So in the weeks ahead I will probably say goodbye to dozens of friends, and watch my children do the same. We will hug and talk about keeping in touch (on Facebook or WhatsApp or whatever will come next).  It won’t be easy, it never is. But, sadly, it is just one of those things about expat life you have to get used too.

One of those, hard cold things.

Friends of Pretoria: I will miss you.

Group hug photo – Meg Cheng

“I’m fine, mustn’t grumble”…

I was messaging with a good friend back in the UK this week and happened to mention that I was feeling a little overwhelmed. With just three weeks until the end of the school year, followed a few weeks later by an international move, I am sure many of you can relate.

“What is it that’s stressing you?” she asked. “The actual logistics of moving back or being back?” She was well meaning and right now I really appreciate any kindness. But I realised it was hard to convey to someone who has never led this sort of life exactly how I felt.

“ALL OF IT” I wanted to scream. Saying goodbye to people and watching my children say goodbye to their close friends and having five leaving parties for the kids to organise and never mind any leaving do’s for myself and making sure the dog is booked on a flight and what if his crate isn’t the right size and when will his rabies certificate be ready and how will we get everything packed up on time and should we send our bedding in our heavy baggage or our air-frieght or bring it on the plane because what happens at the other end when we have nothing to sleep under and we have a car to sell and another to buy and I will be a single mother for months and I am already having to think about child-care arrangements for meetings in London in October and I don’t want to live in England but it’s the best thing for my children but oh the weather!

And will I have any friends left when I get home, will they remember me, will they care and how am I going to deal with one daughter’s very obvious stress about the move and the other’s internalisation of it and I have three articles to write and no time left and no-one is answering my calls and how am I going to cope being home missing expat life…..

suitcase

You know what it’s like. Your head is a swirling mess of worry especially at 3am in the morning when everything seems gloomy. Yes of course things get out of proportion and compared to what so many other people have to go through this is a doddle. After all, I’ve done it several times before and with much younger children (but no dog) so why would it be so difficult this time?

I think what is hard to explain is the mixture of the physical and the emotional. The feelings of being overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done and the emotions about leaving a place and people behind. The fear that you won’t be happy when you get home, knowing that when you repatriate your novelty value wears off pretty quickly. You know your life is about to change pretty drastically but it is so hard to explain to someone what this actually feels like. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is that is bothering you, it is a mixture of so many things, sometimes separately, sometimes all at once.

So in the end you fall back on that good old typically-British answer: “I’m a bit stressed but you know, it’ll all be ok.

“Mustn’t grumble”.

And back to moving preparations. It’ll all be over eventually.

Are you moving or repatriating this year? How are you coping right now? Are you at the panic stage yet?

Things I look forward to….

As the date fast approaches for our return to the UK I continue to put my head in the sand about us actually leaving. I love South Africa and our life here and if you follow this blog you know there are so many things I will miss (sunshine, wine, food, people, travel, wildlife, Channel 5 on the radio…)

But there is no point wallowing – we are leaving and I need to accept that. So in order to try and make things a little easier about the move home I have started to think not so much about all the things I will miss but the things I am looking forward to about being back in cold, damp, grey clean, safe, errrr, green Britain.

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So first and foremost yes I will appreciate being able to step outside my front door and simply walk. Walk whichever way I like, on my own, without thinking about whether my handbag is zipped up properly or if someone is following me. Even at night. Not only that but we won’t have to battle our way through a grill, double lock and security gates just to pop to the shops. Plus at night we can sleep without locking ourselves in a keep (which will be good for our dog, Cooper, in particular who resents being woken and dragged upstairs when we go to bed at night; I realise we could leave him downstairs and outside of the safe area but he is too precious to us to do that!).

Talking of dogs, and talking of popping to the shops, I am also looking forward to taking him with me. I am not yet sure if I will ever be confident enough to tie him up outside a shop like so many people do back home while they nip in for a pint of milk and a daily newspaper (ah yes! getting my news from a hard print copy rather than online, that will be a nice novelty too). But I like to think I will be able to take him out and about with me a lot more regularly than I can here. The Brits love dogs – they are even allowed in pubs. I will just have to remember that it’s an absolute no-no to leave any dog poo unbagged, even if he does it nice and neatly in a little bush out of the way where no-one can see it….

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And when I go to those shops I am looking forward to more choice. In all honesty, the food shopping in South Africa is fantastic and we really haven’t missed much. But there are some areas where they don’t do so well and where we in the UK seem to be world champions – like yoghurts and other desserts (so many types!), and bread. Ah, freshly baker bakers bread. And familiar brands that taste right rather than just slightly…wrong.

I am looking forward to seasons, to the smell of Autumn and the cold air of winter. To blackberries and apples off the trees. To watching our many excellent dramas or documentaries without having to download them first. Decent internet speeds. And lots more people to talk to about British politics.

There are of course many things I am not looking forward to (the rain, the lack of diversity, the expense of everything, the traffic….) but this isn’t what this post is all about so I will ignore all of those. In fact I will continue to put my head in the sand, my hands over my ears and say lalalalala for the next few months because otherwise I might just decide I’m not leaving.

And as nice as that would be for me, sadly for the reasons why we chose to go home in the first place it really isn’t an option.

Yup, the countdown is on – Blighty, here we come.

Photo credits: Green England – highlights6

Mini schnauzer – kawabata