Winter in South Africa

It feels weird seeing all the posts from my home in the northern hemisphere about their summer. Apparently there has been a heat wave – cue multiple pictures of kids in paddling pools and moany posts about not being able to sleep at night. I gather they even cancelled sports day at our old primary school due to the heat!

But here in South Africa it is, of course, mid-winter.

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But what does winter actually mean on this part of the continent? Well, it means that we are shivering at night but still enjoying the bountiful sunshine in the day. It means no rain, dry air,  but a temperature cool enough to walik, run, cycle, play tennis or whatever other exercise takes your fancy at any time of the day rather than just in the early mornings.  If only the houses were better insulated and heated this would be a near perfect weather!

Outside, the trees are bare against the sky, which makes it all the easier to see the noisy mousebirds that seem to gather at this time of the year – maybe they feel a need to huddle together as the temperatures drop. But although lack of rain means the grass is mostly brown and there are more leaves on the ground than on the trees, flowers miraculaously still bloom.

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As I walk my dog in the mornings, I notice workers on their way to their daily jobs bundled up against the weather. My own children – hardened by living through northern European winters – might still be wearing t-shirts and shorts, but most of the locals have resorted to hats and gloves. I also notice the occasional blanket accessory – one of the quirks of local culture that I love.

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As the sun drops the air immediately chills and even we Brits retreat indoors to build a fire and wrap outselves in blankets on the sofa. It’s a beautiful time of the year but I am grateful it only lasts for a couple of months.

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

We’re lost without a community

The other day I was meant to be going to a welcome party thrown by our new High Commissioner who has recently arrived in the country. It was to be a braai, that most South Aftican of get-togethers, at his house. Everyone was invited and it all sounded very jolly.

Except unfortunately I didn’t get there. My husband was stuck in traffic after a road closure between Pretoria and the airport and didn’t get home in time to pick me up. Of course I absolutely could have gone on my own and I am sure I would have been welcomed. But I didn’t really want to. So I didn’t go.

I have been thinking about this because there was no reason why I felt I couldn’t go alone – I would have known a few people there and it’s always interesting to have a nose at a new head of mission and his wife. But when it came down to it, it felt odd going without my husband because it felt like I would have been going to his work do without him. And this made me feel a bit sad.

I have been part of embassies and high commissions on and off all my life. We spent four years in the Philippines as a child and I can still remember the Christmas partys, with one of the staff members dressing up as Santa in the crazy Filippino heat. Then later we were in Caracas and my social life revolved around the young staff at the embassy – nights out, weekends away…even though I didn’t work in the embassy, I was always welcomed and asked along to things.

More recently we were in Islamabad when the Marriott bomb of 2008 forced our evacuation. I believe strongly that things could have been a lot more chaotic had the High Commission not built up a sense of community among the families working there. As it was, the days and weeks following the bomb were pretty distressing but at least we felt the people-in-charge knew who we were and cared about our well-being. We might only have been the non-working spouses and children but we were made to feel like we were part of the High Commission and that our needs mattered.

Since moving to Pretoria I haven’t really felt this. The High Commission here is a distant place full of people I don’t know. We are not connected and there are many other spouses I have never met. For me personally this is not a huge issue – I have lived in many other, much harder, places and because I have school-age children have been able to meet many friends and built a community through other methods.

But for other people who have never lived abroad before or are not used to living in a developing world country (even though South Africa is a relatively easy place to live, the fear of crime does impact on many when they first arrive in particular), this lack of an inclusion into a ready-made community can be devastating.

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Of course not everyone wants to be part of their spouse’s office life and over time all of us will undoubtedly build our own connections elsewhere. But if you don’t have an office or a school or a mosque or church or some other instant “thing” where like-minded people will welcome you, help you, just talk to you in those early, lonely days, if you don’t have that then well life can be pretty tough. And although those of us who have been through this before know well that it does, over time, get easier, that isn’t much comfort for that person going through it right now. Or for that person who might give up before they get to that point.

So what do you do if you are in this situation? If no-one from the office calls you on your first day and asks you out for a coffee? If you don’t have children to meet people through or they go on a school bus so you never see any other parents anyway (and yes, there are plenty of things to get involved with at school like Parent Assocations, but they’re not for everyone)? Luckily for us we live in the age of the internet and because of this you can start to build your community before you even arrive. These days almost every location has am expat group where you can post questions and ask about things like housing and schools long in advance of your arrival. Many of these groups are also social and organise nights out, day trips, cinema evenings etc.

But even if you don’t find such a group or you don’t like the look of what’s on offer, the internet can be a god-send in this situation in another way. Nowadays, because I work from home, I spend a lot of time “talking” to people on line. Sometimes via Facebook posts, often through messaging. I would say quite a decent percentage of my friends are now people I have never met – and I know some of them so well that I actually forget I have never physically met them in person. This includes expats in other countries I have clicked with, writers in various writer groups I belong to, “mum” friends made from the days when my children were babies, and a various assortment of odds and sods I seem to have picked up along the way who I just enjoy being in contact with. And one of the lovely things about these relationships is that when you move – they will still be there. Whilst the relationships you have with people you see on a day-to-day basis will by necessity change when you move on, with some of them staying friends and others dropping off, the ones that you have with the people in your computer will remain.

And yes of course I know that real-life, warm, huggable people are so important to have around, sometimes that just isn’t happening. So in those circumstances, don’t feel you have no friends. Don’t get lonely or give up on ever meeting someone you get along with. You still have friends, you can still talk to them every day as much or as little as you want. And in the meantime you will slowly build up friendships in “real life” who won’t replace the ones in the computer but will complement them.

No-one should feel that they don’t belong. We all belong somewhere. Sometimes, though, it just takes a while to find your tribe.

Picture credit: Orangoing

“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…..

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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

A tale of travel, inspiration, and beautiful clothes.

I get contacted almost daily by people who want to write guest posts or sponsored posts for this site. In all honesty I am pretty picky – this blog isn’t a way for me to make money but to spread the message about expat life and to tell people about my book. But sometimes people contact me who I think would be a good fit and Kim was one such person. I love her inspiring story of travel and adventure, experience which eventually led her to setting up her own clothing line. It helps that I also love her clothes and can definitely see myself wearing a tunic such as the one pictured at the bottom of this blog. So please enjoy Kim’s tale of how she travelled the world, met her husband, sailed to the Caribbean and eventually set up a company called West Indies Resort Wear.

I left my home in Australia to travel the world at the ripe old age of 24.  I had graduated fashion school, and had a few years industry experience before I left, but my main goal was to work and see the world.  I didn’t want to do bar work, or fruit picking, or nannying, I wanted to find garment industry type jobs.

My first job was as a pattern maker in London, but after a few months, and with winter fast approaching that just didn’t seem interesting enough, so I started applying for jobs in the fashion industry in 3rd world countries.

It didn’t take long to land a job in Alexandria, Egypt, where I spent a year working for an enormous clothing manufacturer who was supplying cute ladies tee’s and knits to British high street stores like Top Shop.

This was my first experience of real “expat life” as the lifestyle in Egypt was so different to home, that the expat community really sought each other out for company.  There were suburbs where most of the expats lived, and there were stores, bars & restaurants targeted towards the expat community.  There was even a little supermarket in my neighborhood that catered to the expats.  I was so excited to occasionally find New Zealand cheddar cheese there.  The smallest tastes of home could get you through a whole week.

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Expat life in Egypt was great in terms of earning hard currency and having very little expenses, so I saved a lot of money for my future travels, but it was not an easy life.  As a young single woman, in a Muslim country harassment was a part of my daily life.  Even at work I was stared and jeered at.  After my year there, I was desperate to leave.  Looking back I think that I could have lasted longer, if I had have gone away more regularly to get my western world sanity back.

After Egypt I travelled for a while again, and then found myself as Head Designer at Billabong in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.  This was another world entirely, but way more similar to Australia.  As South Africa had been such a closed world for so many years of apartheid, the biggest initial adjustment was just trying to understand what people were saying.  I was not familiar with the South African accent at all, so for the first 2 weeks I barely understood what anyone was saying.  Yes, they were speaking English, but there were so many Afrikaans words and slang mixed in, that I really battled to understand.

I ended up meeting my future husband and living in South Africa for 5 years.  I loved my job at Billabong, which was so challenging, and gave me a lot of opportunities to travel.  Here I am in China, where they sent me to visit factories…

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After my husband & I met, we started to look for some sort of adventure to do together.  We were camping one weekend, and one of us had bought an adventure magazine with us.  In it was a story about a young couple who bought a boat and went sailing to the Caribbean.  As I had done a lot of sailing with my family as a child, and I read a lot of books about amazing solo sailors, I had always thought I would LOVE to go sailing but knew it wasn’t something I would do alone.  When my then boyfriend read the article, put the magazine down and said “lets buy a boat and go sailing to the Caribbean” my jaw hit the tent floor !  We hurriedly packed up our campsite and rushed back to “town” to see if we could find a boating magazine and see how much boats cost !

2 years later, we were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.  We had saved our money, bought a boat, learnt how to sail, learnt how to navigate, done some boat deliveries with other people to get experience, provisioned our boat and set sail on the biggest adventure of our lives.  Here we are on our tiny boat mid-Atlantic…

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It took a total of 55 days at sea to get to the Caribbean, and when we finally dropped anchor off the island of Tobago we were exhausted.  We stayed put for 6 months!  Eventually the hurricane season ended and we headed north to the more developed islands, we got jobs, got married, saved money again and had dreams of sailing the Pacific.  However I got pregnant and we had our first daughter.  That changed everything.  I couldn’t go get a job, as I didn’t want to leave our child in Caribbean daycare so young, so I started looking for things to buy and sell.  I imported some beautiful baskets from Africa, and I started making beaded jewelry on the boat, which I sold to different resort boutiques as we sailed around.  Eventually my good friend who had been the Production manager at Billabong when I was there said, “when are you going to stop fiddling around making jewelry and start your own label?”.

That was an “aha” moment for me, and the beginning of West Indies Wear.  I flew to India where I found the most amazing pure cotton fabrics, and I designed the first collection on an overnight train to Delhi.  Once the samples arrived with me back in the Caribbean, my husband, daughter & I would dinghy all around the island looking for good places for the photo shoot.  Here we are in the dinghy….

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We sailed between the islands, visiting resorts and introducing the collection to the different buyers.  12 years on, and West Indies Wear is still going strong.  We have moved back home to Australia now, had 2 more babies, built our own little house with an adorable design studio and we are back to dreaming of our next boat, and next adventure.

West Indies Wear is inspired by tropical island travel, so we use vibrant Caribbean colors and feature beachy, on-trend prints like sea stars, coral, palm trees, pineapples and tropical flowers.  Here is a photo of my little sister Amy wearing our number one seller… the Starfish Tunic.

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Kim Van Loo is an Australian fashion designer, who started West Indies Resort Wear, whilst sailing the Caribbean islands. She currently lives at home in Australia with her husband and three children, but travels several times a year to USA to show her new collections at trade shows and catch up with all of her buyers.