We need to talk about dog poo

This morning as I dragged Cooper around the block on his lead (he can be very obstinate when he wants to go in a different direction to you!), I thought about how hard it is to clear up your dog’s poo when there are so few bins on the street. One, on my usual walk, to be precise. And as night follows day, Cooper will always, ALWAYS, do his business after we have passed that lone receptacle. Nevertheless, I dutifully bag up his offering and carry it round with me until we either get back to said bin or reach home. After all, I’m a Brit: it’s what we do.

The dog park we frequent is another matter: bins dotted about everywhere, each one close to the main path, ready and waiting for the deposits. But sadly, even this doesn’t seem to make the slightest bit of difference: the park is littered with dog turds of all shapes, sizes, colours and smells. It is particularly bad at the moment, thanks to there having been no proper rain for months. But it’s not the lack of rain that is putting the poo there in the first place: it’s the local population who simply don’t have a culture of picking it up. And yes, it is pretty revolting.

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So why do I feel the need to share this story with you? After all, who wants to read about dog crap when you could be reading about sunsets and cocktails?

Well, mostly because this is exactly one of those small (but not insignificant) things that can trip you up as a new expat somewhere, one of the culture shock traps perhaps no-one will tell you about and you yourself won’t even have thought about until you move. One little thing like this on its own may not be a problem, but lots of little things added together can be. Especially if they happen slowly, one at a time, drip fed into your psyche until one day you reach your limit and you blow – without really understanding why.

Half way through writing this post I downed tools and walked to our local shopping mall to pick up a bit of food shopping. As I did so, I thought about what other little things were “different” from what I would be used to back home. Not better, not worse, but different. There were loads – the way people cross roads, the way people drive, the type of food available in the shops, the etiquette at the check-out tills in the supermarket, the types of childrens clothes for sale, the rubbish on the street…..after you have been here for a while, you get used to it all but when you start looking at it through a newcomers eyes it reminds you again what it is like to have to adjust to a totally different culture. The trips and the traps are everywhere.

But back to the dog poo. One of my newly arrived friends here (she will know who she is if she is reading this!) stated the other day that she wanted to start a campaign to clear up the dog mess in the park. It’s a great idea and I’m behind her but really, even if successful, it would be a drop in the ocean (or in the mounds of poo). Ultimately, as expats, we might be able to make small differences to our immediate surroundings but we can’t control the wider world we live in. So in the end we just need to get used to it, go with the flow, embrace the differences – or, at least, live with them.

So next time you go out for a walk and find yourself stepping around or over a bit of dog crap on the floor stop and think. Does it bother me? Did I even notice it? Am I even letting my own dog do his business and leaving it on the path? All of these things will help guide you as to which part of the culture shock cycle you have reached. And if it’s the latter, if you are so comfortable in your surroundings you’re at the “living like a local” stage then congratulations! Hopefully this means you have fully intergrated and can now enjoy your expat life to the full.

So this is the time to start encouraging your nieghbours to pick up their dog crap. Good luck!

 

Photo credit: Phil Thirkell

 

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A trip home: what did I learn?

So I’ve just returned to South Africa after five weeks home in the UK – my first trip back since we arrived in Pretoria a year ago. I am very happy to see the sun again (ok, we saw it a bit at home but there weren’t that many of the cloudless days you get in the African winter), and to swap Brexit politics for South African politics. The former is as depressing as it comes; the latter is quite exciting and in an entirely selfish way won’t affect me or my family as much as what is happening back in the UK.

Everyone who is an expat knows what it feels like to go home after a spell away from it. Always slightly surreal, like nothing has changed but everything has. You know that people will be less interested in you and your adventures than you hoped they would be. You also know you will not be able to see everyone you would like to – and will feel guilty for half the holiday about this fact. And then get over it: by the time you have driven 3,000 miles between eight different places, unpacked and repacked 28 times and slept in about 13 different beds, you will stop fretting about those people you couldn’t catch up with. After all, they can always come to you!

But apart from the obvious, what else did I learn? Following our visit, here are a few of my observations:

  • The United Kingdom has become obsessed with Prosecco. This obsession had started before I left and it was already the drink of choice when I went to the pub with friends. But now the price of a bottle seems to have come down to lower than a decent bottle of red and it’s everywhere! There were even Prosecco bars at shopping malls – as if the proleteriat wanted to mimick the “ruling classes” with their champagne and oyster bars at Harvey Nicks……

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  • I think we can now safely say there will never be a proper summer in England again. We have been going to the same place in Devon for the end of July/beginning of August period for 10 years now and without fail it always rains non-stop for at least two days. My childhood memories of endless sunny days are just that – memories.
  • After you have been away for a year, you will be that fumbly person at supermarket check outs with their new-fangled card machines and paying 5p for bags and not having someone to pack those bags for you and trying to remember you enter the card into the machine yourself rather than simply hand it over…..ditto petrol stations – what do you mean you have to fill it up yourself?!
  • Politics is the new soap opera. It is the main topic of conversation with pretty much anyone you meet. If you don’t get on to the subject of Brexit within 5 minutes of meeting someone there can be only one reason: you suspect they voted differently from you. In which case talk about the weather, last night’s tv, sport….anything but the EU!

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  • Have we reached tipping point with social media? I have never seen so many people spend so long staring at their phones as I did this last month. Surely something has to give soon?
  • For the first time ever on a return from a period of living overseas I didn’t go mad in a supermarket – which proves the quality of food here in South Africa. I did, however, go fairly mad in all other shops including clothes and book shops.
  • The Brits love their dogs. But luckily they do not love their dog poo. It was very refreshing to be able to walk around without watching where you were stepping, especially in parks. I wish South Africans would learn to use their doggy poop bags…..
  • I still love London more than any other city in the world. Yes the crowds do my head in, yes it’s flipping expensive. But it still feels to me like the centre of the universe – there is always something going on, and something new happening. Bath and Bristol run it a close second though.
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Bath – my joint favourite UK city after London.

  • It was also nice to be able to walk out of the house, including at night, and feel safe. I started off always locking my car door as soon as we were in but got more relaxed as the holiday went on. I am now doing the opposite and have to keep remembering to lock doors, keep windows up etc. It hasn’t helped that my domestic helper’s son was kidnapped, tied up and badly beaten for his card and pin nuber last weekend. A timely reminder that we are “not in Kansas anymore”.

I’m sure there are many other things I could say about my trip and my feelings about being home but this post has gone on long enough already so I will leave it there. But let me know if you’ve just been back to your home country after a spell abroad and if so, what were your observations? Did you find it just as you left it – or did everything feel a bit off-kilter? Did it live up to expectations – or were you happy to leave it all behind again?

Photos: glass of bubbly – Meg, EU umbrellas – Jeremy Segrott

 

Expat children – how and when do you tell them you’re moving?

When and how do you tell your kids you’re about to move to the other side of the world?

This is how it happened for us.

Whenever we’d broached the idea with our two daughters – E, who was 8 at the time, and her sister, M, 6 – we were met with a negative wall. Nope, they did not want to go. They were (are) both very happy living in our little home in the west of England, their beloved school on the doorstep, friends living in the street across the road. Parks close by, grandparents and cousins only a short drive away. Life was sweet.

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A Happy life in a Happy street in a Happy town….

So sweet in fact that we put off the move for a year. My husband had a chance to apply for an overseas posting the year before; but when our older daughter said she would tell him not to take it if he was successful, he stopped his application.

But fast-forward a year and he was still stuck in the same, highly stressful work environment. He had been there for four years, dealing with human trafficking, as well as a lot of political interest and pressure from bosses up the chain. It was time for a change – and due to cuts, the only real opportunities open to him were overseas. So this time we gritted our teeth, and he went for it.

I didn’t think he would be offered a post. Lots of people chasing too few jobs, apparently. He didn’t necessarily have the right friends in the right places. Or so I was led to believe….he ticked off each hurdle (paper sift, assessment centre, interview…) until the fateful day when he received an email letting him know he had been successful – and would we like to go to Pretoria.

Holy c**p.

We were on holiday in Devon with my family at the time. Within minutes of receiving the email, my mother and my youngest brother were already aware of what its contents were. This was not a secret we would be able to keep for long. We needed to tell the children – and fast.

Surfing in Devon

Surfing in Devon

We were both dreading it. I knew E, in particular, would feel betrayed. We had reassured her the previous year that we wouldn’t be moving overseas. I had gently mentioned that it might happen anyway a couple of times since then, but she had always shut down. We were on our way to the beach with my mum and youngest nephew L when the email had come in, so we continued with our plans, all the time communicating silently about how and when we were going to tell the girls.

We had an enjoyable morning at the beach, mostly digging in rock pools and clambouring over rocks. But we knew the inevitable was drawing closer and at lunch time in a nearby typically English pub, as we waited for our food to arrive,  the moment had arrived. We told them we had something to tell them – and my husband broke the news.

Silence. Tears. Both of them.

My heart dropped and my immediate instinct was to withdraw the news. Tell them we wouldn’t go after all. It was going to make them so unhappy. But then my head over-ruled my heart and I told myself to stop being silly. We couldn’t allow the children to run our lives – especially as what we were about to offer them was actually quite an exciting adventure.

So instead of placating them, I told them how wonderful it would be. How they would see giraffes and zebras in the wild. How we could go whale-watching, and zip-lining and visit not just South Africa but other countries nearby like Mozambique and Madagascar and Mauritius. My mother, who has visited South Africa herself, was able to join in, telling them about the penguins in the street in Cape Town. The tears started to slow but they didn’t stop, so I pulled out my greatest weapon: “We’ll get a dog,” I said.

Pause.

“Or a giant tortoise?” asked E. And stopped crying. I can’t say her mind was totally changed yet, but she did at least start taking some interest in the things we were saying.

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And at this point my little nephew L, still just seven and not much travelled, piped up “I’ll go. I want to go”. It may have been the dog, or it may have been their cousin’s reaction – but one thing I think the girls finally realised was actually how lucky there were to be offered this amazing chance.

We’re not out of the woods yet. My younger daughter in particular, always the more dramatic of the two, still bursts into tears from time to time at the thought of leaving her friends and school and family members behind. When I asked her once what she was most looking forward to about going to Pretoria, her answer was “coming home”.

But on the whole they both seem to be looking forward to it now. It helps that we were able to do a pre-posting recce, and they have seen their school and house and even been on a little safari. I know the day they say goodbye to their friends is still going to be hard. But hopefully the as-yet-unknown dog at the other end will make it slightly easier. So long as it IS a dog and not a giant tortoise…..

How did you tell your children about a move? I would love to hear how people have dealt with different ages – ie what do you tell a teen? A toddler?

 

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My Expat Family

So you’re a fresh expat in town -where do you meet new friends?

Moving somewhere new is a daunting prospect, whatever your age and situation. But what is really hard is when you move somewhere new and you don’t have a role. When you’re not going to school, or university. Or when you don’t have a sparkly new job to turn up to the day after you arrive.

As an expat partner, I have accompanied my husband on two different postings. Before that, I moved as a single, childless woman several times – but all of those times I had a role. I wasn’t the spare part. I had a way to meet people.

So where exactly do you make friends when you’re not going to work? Of course this is difficult whether you are moving to a new city within your own country or to the other side of the world. But relocating overseas does give you a particular sense of vulnerability that having a few buddies around you can at least partially alleviate.

I polled a number of friends – some had been expats, some hadn’t – and they came up with a list of great ideas. So here, in order of the number of times they were mentioned, are my top tips for finding new friends in your new location:

Through the kids

credit: Claire Broomfield
Image courtesy of Claire Broomfield at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Okay, if you don’t have any you can ignore this one completely. But the number one way most people moving overseas who DO have offspring meet their new-found mates is via their own children. School-gates, baby-groups, playgroups. It’s the easiest and most natural thing in the world to get chatting to the other mums and dads as you wait for little Lottie to finish her ballet class. I’m not going to go on about this as most of us know how it works. There’s something about the desperation of parenting that opens us up to the possibility of endless conversations about the most mundane subjects. I will say one thing though, don’t always assume that if someone doesn’t have children with them, they don’t have children at all. One of my friends is currently in Cairo, while her son and her daughter are at boarding school in the UK. “It’s now been a year and a half and I do have new friends, but I am constantly thinking ‘where do I belong!’” she told me.

Expat groups

You’ll discover many of these groups online, but very often there will be a local “branch” or activities run in your host city. Internations, A Small World   Expat Blog  and Gone Girl International were all examples given to me. Or you might find there’s a country-specific one where you live. One of my friends, for example, made friends through the group DR1  in the Dominican Republic.

Volunteering

If you aren’t able to get a job (for one or more of many reasons – visa or work permit issues, childcare responsibilities, non-availability or if you just don’t want to work) then volunteering is often a great alternative. It’s a good way to keep your cv up-to-date, it gets you out of the house and into the local community and – if you’re lucky – you might find some friends along the way! Examples given to me included helping out with IT at a local bereavement group, working in a school and volunteering with ACCESS – a not-for-profit organisation serving the local international community in Amsterdam.

Women’s groups

No good this one if you are a man, but many people mentioned women’s groups specifically as a way they have found people to bond with when they first move abroad. This included local International Women’s Groups (sometimes linked to international schools or embassies), Gone Girl International  and in the case of one of my friend’s in the UK, the Women’s Institute. She was, apparently, the youngest person there by about 25 years, but “they still gave me the warmest welcome I have ever had joining a new group”. Others said “just say yes to everything” at the start (and then start being a little more discerning after about 6 months). It might not be your thing, but you might meet someone else there who also thinks it’s not their thing. And bond over it not being your thing….

Book clubs

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ever popular amongst expats this one. I’m never too sure how much actual book-discussion goes on in these groups but it’s a great way to get everyone together for a reason and if you all love books, you’ve got at least one thing in common. And there is often cake and/or wine as well. I belonged to a fun book group in Kingston, Jamaica, where I worked as a singleton, and really enjoyed meeting people from a totally different background to myself (most of the others were trailing spouses). We also got to read books from all over the world, books I would never have even known about, about let alone chosen for myself.

Sports and hobbies

Another obvious one – you make friends much quicker when you are doing something you love. But it’s not always easy to find something to suit. Cooking lessons, art classes, horse-riding, walking groups…all these were mentioned to me, but where do you find them? Someone told me about a great website called Meet-up  where you can find groups of all shapes and sizes close to where you live. This will of course depend on where you are – it’s entirely possible that the choice will be slightly more limited in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland  than in Manhattan, New York.

Dog-walking

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve never actually owned a dog (yet. This is at the moment under debate in our household so watch this space). But I am told that walking the pet pooch is a great way to get chatting to people. I’m not sure if these people go on to become proper friends, or whether they’re only ever your “doggy” pals. Perhaps someone with a dog can tell me. But nevertheless, a chat over a pooper-scooper can be just as welcome as a chin-wag over a dirty nappy….
 
Language classes

Another easy way to meet fellow-expats is to join a local language class. The most obvious one would be a class to learn the language of the country that you are living in, but there’s nothing to stop you expanding your repertoire into other languages if you enjoy learning them. I met some great, giggly Korean women this way when I was young and living in Venezuela. I don’t think their English was much better than their Spanish, but it didn’t matter. We bonded over the fierce teacher who would pick on us if we were ever late to the class.
 
Church/not church.

I wasn’t sure what to call this as a couple of people mentioned church being a good place to meet people, but then someone else also mentioned non-religious groups such as local secular or humanist societies. So I have come up with a sort of church or non-religious equivalent. Perhaps community groups where you share a common belief?
 
Friends-of-friends

This is still a common way to meet people. Difficult when you first move somewhere and literally know no-one. But eventually you’ll make at least one friend and then hopefully through them, others. Ask them to introduce you to people, tag along when they go to groups. Don’t be shy. And then return the favour when you’re a bit more settled yourself and meet someone who has just arrived.

And finally…

One answer that stood out came from a friend of mine whose husband is an officer in the British army. She said when she moved into her new house, she invited the whole village for coffee and cake. The whole village! Well, I wouldn’t expect you all to do this but there is a message here. If you want to meet people sometimes you have to be the one making the effort – especially if you are moving somewhere where there aren’t that many other newcomers. People get settled in their lives, they have friends – why would they need new ones? However, if you can show them you’re someone worth knowing, they might well make that effort. So go on, put on the kettle, start baking (or pop to the cake shop) and invite over the neighbours!

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So that’s my round up. Now I would love to hear from you – where did you meet your friends when you moved somewhere new? Has anyone met anyone somewhere totally unexpected?