How to expand your horizons when you are back home

One of the wonderful things about expat life isn’t just getting to know the country you are posted to, but being surrounded by other people with the same mindset as you. Globalist, internationalist, citizens of nowhere (or even citizens of everywhere), call us what you will but you know what I am talking about: people who have travelled, seen the world, and whose outlook on life encompasses the sort of open-mindedness that goes with this.

So moving back to your old life can be hard. Not only are you giving up the lifestyle that inevitably comes with being an expat (including, for many of us, a bit of extra help in the house), you are also losing the company of a huge range of interesting people from all over the world. Who won’t either raise their eyebrows at you or completely switch off when you talk about some of the places you have lived in or travelled to. There aren’t many people in the “real world” who care about your road trip to Mozambique or problems crossing the Zimbabwe border.

PicMonkey Collage

Depending on what sort of person you are, this might not matter all that much to you. Many will slip gently back into their old life, get up to speed with the latest goings-on in the school PTA, join the local neighbourhood watch group…Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things, of course. But many of us will miss the sort of discussions we get with people from other countries, the different outlook on life we get from living in another place.

So how do we recapture this life? For many the solution will just be to start planning the next move abroad – repatriation can cause much worse culture shock than moving overseas in the first place, so the answer could be just to move again. But of course for many of us (most?) this isn’t practical – we often return home for reasons either out of our control like our employees require us to, or for reasons such as the education of our children. There must be other, less drastic, ways of continuing to live the sorts of lives we enjoyed while abroad.

And yes of course there are, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post about it! SO here are a few of my ideas – feel free to agree, disagree, or add some of your own:

  • Live vicariously through your still-expatted friends (mostly through the sort of photos on their social media pages that you used to annoy your own friends back home with), and then book a flight to go and see them.
  • In case you don’t have any such friends, just plan some exotic holidays to the sorts of places you used to go when you lived in another exotic location. When you see the prices you now have to pay because it’s a longer flight and you can’t get local deals, cancel said exotic holiday and book something cheaper and closer. But you enjoyed the researching and the daydreaming for the original trip anyway.
  • Find some local expats to hook up with. As I wrote about in this post, there will be plenty around if you look carefully enough. Make them your new friends and pretend you too are still an expat. Just try not to cry when they take you to their enormous house and talk about their children’s private education…
  • Do something completely different like volunteer with refugees, start a university course, get a job doing something you haven’t done before. Expanding your mind is the next best thing to expanding your actual physical surroundings.
  • Trying out unfamiliar food is another big draw of expat life, so keeping this up when you are home is a good way to feel like you’re still living that life in some way. Either by recreating some of your favourite meals from whichever country you have just left, or by trying new dishes that perhaps you wouldn’t have thought about before moving abroad.
  • Read, watch films, TV series or documentaries about foreign lands. Escape into your imagination.

I am sure there are many more ways to hold on to some of the expat life once you are home and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. But in the meantime, I’m off to the local supermarket to find some ingredients so I can try cooking something that reminds me of sitting in the hot sun with the sounds of the Go-Away birds and hadedas in the background, or of an early morning game drive, or a trip round the wine estates of Stellenbosch….

 

 

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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.

 

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

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

 

Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring…the seasons of repatriation

I can’t believe we have been home for nearly half a year. It feels surreal how quickly that time has gone. But weirder than that, I realise we have now almost been through every season since we returned to the UK. Ok I realise we are pushing it a bit to say we have been here during spring but on my morning’s dog walk today I noticed crocuses pushing through the grass and lately the birds have certainly been singing with extra gusto. It won’t be long and there will be lambs in the fields and buds on the trees…

I have been noticing the turning of the seasons on my daily walks with Cooper. I think it is one of the things you miss the most when you are away from the UK, where the seasons are so clearly defined. In Pretoria it went from cool and sunny to hot and sunny with some rain. That was about it. In Cape Town of course, as I am sure many of you have seen, they are desperate for rain. If they don’t get a good amount of it this year I don’t know what is going to happen. It is a good warning for us all.

But here in the UK it is rain that keeps this country so beautiful. Although this season we were lucky enough to get snow as well. So just to prove my point here are some pictures from my walks over the past few months:

First: SUMMER

And AUTUMN:

WINTER:

And finally, taken this morning, the first signs of SPRING:

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So there we go. Although we are a way off having been back for a year, it does feel like we are properly back and settled now. Of course we are not really – my husband is still in Pretoria (until the day-after-tomorrow when he will finally join us here) and the house isn’t fully unpacked yet. I also still miss South Africa a lot, I think I have recently been going through a bit of a six month repatriation slump. But by and large this now feels like home.

What now? You may have noticed this blog has been very quiet. As I have been solo-parenting since last August I haven’t had much time on my hands. I have also given up the remote-working job I took with me to Pretoria and am now trying my hand at full-time freelance writing. I plan to set up a separate website for that but will link to it here. In the meantime I will try and add to this site as often as possible, plus I am playing with an idea of writing the Repats Survival Guide and would love to hear your thoughts on that. Do you think it is a good idea? Would you read it? Or is there anything else you would like to know or read more about? Please comment below – I value each and every one of your thoughts!

Happy January!

 

Proper, suffocating, sweat-inducing culture shock

We were in a crowd. A huge, jolly, Christmassy crowd. Kids running to get on a merry-go-round, mothers enjoying a sneaky glass of mulled wine. Gaggles of pensioners on a coach trip from across the water in Wales, poking at wooden ornaments on brightly decorated stalls, then suggesting a trip to the nearest warm coffee shop to get away from the winter weather.

It was raining – not hard, just that usual British drizzle. But it was cold rain, cold and damp, the sort that gets under your skin and you can’t warm up from.

Crowds and rain, shouting, noise, cars streaming down the road we were trying to cross. I held on to my daughter’s hand – she is nearly ten but I still fear traffic. People coming up behind us, pushing and shoving, joking amongst themselves. No-one in a bad mood, no malice or anger, just a typical busy British pre-Christmas shopping day at one of those festive markets that are almost obligatory in every town in the country these days. Everyone else was having a good time but I couldn’t bear it.

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This is culture shock. Or, in my case, reverse culture shock.

I remember this feeling from before, although it was different then. I think the things that affect us most when we return from living overseas reflects very much the situation in the country where we have been living. After coming back from Jamaica and St Lucia, I remember going into a shop and not knowing where to look. There was so much…stuff. My eyes darting around, up behind the cashiers shoulders, looking at all these bright, exciting goods. It was overwhelming and I didn’t usually buy anything. But I had just returned from countries where although there was plenty of goods in the shop, the overt over-the-top commercialism wasn’t so blatent. Perhaps they had what they needed and nothing else, unlike our ridiculously stuffed-to-the-gills stores where you really can buy just about anything your heart desires.

South Africa shops are similarly well-stocked, at least the ones we used. But what they have more of in SA is space. And although there were places you could go that were crowded, it was rare to find yourself in the sort of stifling, fear-enducing crush that you can get in this country.

It just makes me miserable, especially when I look around and everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. But recognising it for what it is – reverse culture shock, getting used to being back here, readjusting to a different way of life, helps. It will take time and eventually I will again feel comfortable in a crowd, accept that I am only allowed a square inch of pavement to move on, get used to the noise and shouting, the cars on the road, the people in my way.

It’ll take a while but I will get there. At least, I will on the crowds. I am not sure I will ever get used to the dismal British weather.

Photo credit: Ley

Have you repatriated recently? Or even not recently? How are you finding it? Getting easier?

It’s not easy going back, but coming home again was nice

Sorry again for the long silences. Life has been hectic and then last week we went back to South Africa for half term.

And boy that was surreal!

It was lovely to see everyone again and nice to enjoy some sunshine (sadly, not enough: the weather was NOT on our side). But returning to our old house where my husband is still living just felt….wrong. Because it wasn’t my house anymore, nor was it my life.

For a start, none of our stuff is in the house anymore. So it felt like a shell. In some ways, it was like the early days when we first arrived – bare walls, borrowed bed clothes and crockery, none of our books or games or other distractions. But this time I knew my way around and wasn’t so worried about things like security.

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Luckily our zebras were still on the otherwise bare walls

Then even when I met up with friends (which was lovely), I knew I didn’t belong there anymore. So when they were making plans for the weeks ahead and I (of course) wasn’t included, it really hit me that this was no longer my life.

It was hard, but I also think it was a good thing. Because when we got on the plane to come home, apart from the obvious sadness of saying goodbye to everyone – not least, my husband – I was looking forward to getting back here. Back to my warm house, with all our stuff. Back to what has become my life. And it really made me realise how far we had come. On Monday morning there was swim training and school and picking up the dog and shopping for food and basically just getting on with things. It felt normal. It felt good.

I know we have a way to go yet, I’m not out of the woods. Things are still hard, loneliness in particular is still very real (to be expected when you have been away for two years – both me and the children need to re-make our lives and friendships here). But three months into repatriation and I am perhaps in a better place than I feared I would be.

I will always have a place for South Africa in my heart and I will definitely go back – there is still so much of the country to explore. But for now I feel better about leaving and happier about being here.

At least I would be if it were just a little bit warmer. And sunnier….