A question for you dear readers

This is kind of off-topic but I am interested in hearing from as wide a range of people as possible on this scenario:

A question for you. If you belonged to a small company, let’s say a flourishing flower selling business with franchises around the country. Once a year or so all franchise owners get together to strategise for the year ahead. At this year’s meeting, a group of you meet in the kitchen ahead of the main meeting. While getting your coffees, someone mentions that they have just seen a new type of flower on offer – let’s call them Leavonias. Apparently these Leavonias were stunning and smelt beautiful. At present, your particular company doesn’t sell Leavonias – they are so new to the market that no-one knows much about them. But this person who saw them keeps on and on about how incredible they were. When pushed he doesn’t have many answers about how much they cost to buy or grow but he manages to pursuade most people in the kitchen that the company should start selling them. A few people even get on their phone and start ordering them from the wholesaler. Remember – this is before the annual meeting has started.

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Anyway you all go into the main meeting and start discussing strategies. Someone brings up the Leavonia idea. All those who were in the kitchen support the idea whole-heartedly and start to talk about how good it will be for their business. But someone who wasn’t in the kitchen is a little more cautious. “I know someone who tried selling them and it didn’t work very well,” she says. Apparently they cost a lot more to grow than you get back when you sell them. Nevertheless the enthusiasm for the venture in the room is still strong. As a group you decide to go away and think about it. Two or three people are designated to look into the pro’s and con’s – to draw up a risk strategy if you like.

Over the next few weeks, those designated people can’t find a single reason as to why selling Leavonias would be a good strategy for your company. They can’t find any evidence they would make money and in fact in many scenarios they would lose money. The only plus would be to save the blushes of those franchisees who have already started negotiating to buy their Leavonias from a wholesaler (who has already said it’s fine, they don’t have to go through with the deal).

Oh and they also find out that if you do decide to start selling Leavonias there is no going back.The only people that sell them make you sign a contract for life (or until the demise of the company). Even at a loss. It doesn’t make business sense but everyone can still smell that lingering scent of the beautiful flowers.

So – question: do you still go ahead and start to sell the Leavonias or do you bin the idea and carry on selling the flowers that are already making you a profit?

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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

 

Post Referendum culture shock

Yes I am devastated. I am also angry. Depressed. I feel like a car crash is happening in slow motion in front of my eyes and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. Welcome to the world of post-Brexit Britain.

It’s been a month now since we voted to leave the EU. A vote that should never have been put into the hands of the people. It has become clear very quickly that no-one really understood what they were voting for. And by that I mean people on BOTH sides of the vote. After all, how were we meant to understand about tariffs and subsidies and trade negotiators? Bank passports and freedom of movement. Access to the single market. These are all very technical matters that very few people really get. And the people who do are the ones we know as experts. The experts who were warning us of the consequences of our actions, but that were apparently ignored by a small majority of those people who actually voted. The consequences that we are now starting to see slowly happening although, if you read many of the social commentators, they aren’t happening at all and this country is a much brighter, happier place. I personally think these people are deluded.

There is so much I could write about here. We have had an incredible roller coaster of news over the past few weeks. Blink and you would miss another resignation. The biggest “suprise” was the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary – although many still think this is part of a clever game that Teresa May is playing. Time will tell.

But putting aside the news, I’ve been thinking about how this weird period in time feels very much like another thing – it feels like we’ve just landed in an alien country and it feels like we are collectively going through the culture shock cycle.

I have written about culture shock many times and discussed the cycle in the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. For those who haven’t read the book it goes something like this:.

Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere unfamiliar, a rollercoaster of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally speaking they are: wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four phases in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.

So here we are, in a new, angry world and it feels very much like culture shock.  First is the honeymoon period. In my book I do also discuss the grief cycle and in fact at this stage, what we are going through/have been going through is much more like grieving than anything else. So whilst some of us did experience a sort of honeymoon stage (a weird “high” of the excitement of the first day or two), many jumped straight into the second stage which is denial.

Probably the most obvious way people have indicated their refusal to accept that this has actually happened is with a petition calling for a re-run. More than four million people have signed this petition even though it is very unlikely to happen (and there would probably be civil war if it did). But it was the only thing we felt we could do. This couldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening.

Denial was mixed up with anger and frustration – which has led to a huge rift opening up in this country. I had already seen this happening before the vote and wrote about it here, but since the 24th June things have descended into a place I never thought I would see in this country. As well as a horrible rise in reports of racism on the streets, the comments sections of online newsites is not a place you want to be. I am seriously upset by the vile that is being spat out across the internet. I just want to turn back time and wish it had never happened.

But what comes next? It should be adjustment and I guess that is what we will slowly have over the next year or two. At the moment we can’t move on because we don’t really know what we would be adjusting to. I am still very hopeful that sense will prevail and even if we leave the EU we will still retain close links to our neighbours including access to the single market in return for freedom of movement If nothing else, I truly, truly hope that our ability to live and work and study in Europe will still be there when my children grow up. I also hope all my European friends in the UK are able to stay and live their lives happily – as can my British friends in Europe. It is a worrying time for a lot of people.

Eventually comes acceptance. At the moment I seriously cannot see how this is going to happen. But I know that eventually we will have to accept whatever the outcome of this debacle is. Or at least we will have to accept the new terms under which we will be living. We won’t have much choice unless, as many probably will, we leave permanently to live in another country. An awful lot of people are currently looking into gaining citizenship of another EU country at the moment.

So here we are stuck in the awful culture shock/grief cycle that has followed the referendum. I feel no better about things than I did straight after the vote but I realise that partly this is because my life is slightly in limbo at the moment anyway – we are still on holiday in the UK so I don’t have the normal distractions that would keep me sane. I recently read an excellent article about how to keep us level at times like this (which you can read here) and I will certainly be following some of this advice – in particular building a supportive community and getting out into nature (eg dog walking when we return to Pretoria).

But for now I continue to plough on, writing to my MP, answering mis-informed views on social media, talking to people about why they voted the way they did. I can’t do nothing, this is too big just to “let go”. We all have a duty to our children’s futures and I for one don’t want to say I didn’t step up when my they ask me in thirty years what I did to try and stop the madness.

In the meantime, all of you Americans need to prepare yourself for what you will be going through in November should Trump be elected. I suspect it will make post-Brexit shock look like a walk in the path…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Expats and the vote

Well it’s certainly been an interesting few days here in the UK. As we still are at the moment – the United Kingdom. Although with SNP pretty well sweeping the board in Scotland, I am not sure how united we will be for much longer. And this country will be further divided by the fact that it looks almost certain we will have an EU in/out referendum within the couple of years.

One group of people who will almost certainly want a say in that will be British expats – especially those living in Europe. But, going on the many, many comments I saw on various forums and pages yesterday and the day before, that is one group who – at the moment – is feeling very disenfranchised.

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What happened? It appears that the postal voting system just isn’t working. Because the voting papers couldn’t be sent out until after the final candidates had been announced, they just weren’t reaching people overseas in time for them to have their say. There are those who would question why someone living in France or Turkey or Australia or Burkina Faso SHOULD have a say in what happens here in the UK. But don’t forget, many expats are only there temporarily, many have children who will be educated back here, still recieve pensions here, still get paid (and pay taxes) here. Just because you live in another country doesn’t mean you don’t care about what happens in your home country. And there are millions of Brits who DO live in another country – and who could have made a difference to the way the vote went.

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So with the possibilty of an EU referendum coming up, my recommendation to any overseas Brits would be – this time, don’t leave it to chance. At the moment I don’t think we can trust the postal system so my suggestion would be to trust a friend or relative instead and get a proxy vote. Whether we stay in or whether we withdraw from the EU is just too important a topic not to have a vote on. I still don’t know what it will mean for expats who live in EU countries, this is a topic I now intend to start investigating. But whatever happens, make sure you have your say!

Are you a British expat and if so were you able to vote? Or are you an expat from another country – in which case, what happens with your vote?