And so, the time has come….

Here we are then. The last day. I am trying to look forward and not back but it’s hard. Everywhere you go it’s like “the last time we….” walk the dog in the dog park, shop in Woolworths, take the kids to Bounce, visit the school….

But forward I must look because that is where we are heading. It has been a fantastic two years – although I have to remind myself that I didn’t always love it. When I visited our dentist the other day (the last time we visit that dentist!) he asked whether I was happy here now. I must have looked a little confused because he then admitted he had made a note from my first appointment that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my time in South Africa.

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It’s hard to pick a favourite photo of South Africa because I have so many but this one is so beautiful……

To me now, that sounds very strange but then other memories come back: getting a rush of home-sickness at the supermarket check out one day; sitting alone having an ice cream to cheer myself up because I didn’t have any friends; crying into my pillow at night because I was missing my old life so much and this new life was so different and disorientating. It is only memories of feeling unhappy that I have left rather than the unhappiness itself but I know it existed.

Time. That is all it takes. Time, some friends and a bit of routine. And a little dog called Cooper.

South Africa, Pretoria, friends that I have met here – I will miss you all. The sunshine, the wine, the braai’s, the dog walks, the lions and leopards and cheetahs, the penguins, whales and turtles, the hadedas, mouse birds and go-away birds, the mountains of the Drakensbergs, the sea of the Cape,  my helper, the school, even the bloody pizzas (there were a LOT of pizzas!).

It’s been good. See you on the other side.

x

Don’t worry new expats, that blank canvas will soon be filled

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I saw this map a few weeks ago and it really resonated. In fact, I have been thinking about it a lot as I drive round Pretoria in our last few weeks here. It really doesn’t feel that long ago that we were living in the city on the left. I knew no-one, every street was strange to me and I was nervous that every time I left the safety of our compound I would never find my way back home again.

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This is what it looked like at the beginning…

But now it’s different. Now as I go about my daily chores almost every street corner, every mall entrance, every road reminds me of something or someone. Or lots of someones. There’s the turning to the park where we took the dogs after brunch with Bonnie and Geoff. There’s the restaurant where I last met Katy and Naomi. There’s the mall where I lost my car in the enormous car park and had to ask a car washer to help me find it. There’s the place where we bought the beaded schnauzer, where we had our the last meal with the Naslund’s, my husband’s favourite liquor shop, the cafe where I first met Karen.

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The familiar streets of Pretoria

It’s hard to believe it sometimes when you have just arrived somewhere and you have no friends and don’t know where anything is but gradually – sometimes quickly, sometimes a little slower – your map will start to fill up too. There will be meeting places and parks to walk in and favourite shops and that special restaurant and probably dentists, hospitals, schools and offices too.

So if you are new and your map is still looking a bit blank please don’t despair. It is only a matter of time and you can start to fill in those blanks. All I will say is try not to include the “site of a broken canoe”!

 

 

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

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.

 

How modern technology has transformed expat life: travel

This is the third in my series on how modern technology has transformed life as we know it living overseas. In my first post I wrote about how our work life has been affected, and in the second I discussed communication.

Now in my third and (probably) final post on this topic I want to talk about travel.

Of course, it isn’t just expats who travel. But it is undeniably a huge part of our lives – not just travel to and from our countries but travel around them and to other countries in the region. After all, isn’t the ability to explore one of the best things about living abroad?

When I was young and lived in the Philippines, we were restricted to phone calls and travel agents when we wanted to book our holidays. No internet, no mobile phones, no apps – how on earth did we manage? It’s funny to look back now and think about being completely incommunicado for weeks on end; and can you imagine those long road trips without being able to plug the kids into their electronic devices?

Anyway of course things have improved quite a bit since then and if I am honest I can’t keep up with many of the latest innovations. So to help others out who, like me, are a little behind the curve in these matters, here are some of the better technical innovations to help us get around:

Getting there

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In order to travel somewhere you first have to get there and unless it’s within a reasonable distance this usually means flying. Here are a few suggestions to help ease this burden:

Kayak is a site which basically promises to scan all the available flights for your dates and come back with the cheapest suggestion. However, don’t forget to use filters otherwise you may be booking to go from A to B via about eight different places with a three day stopover on the way….

Skyscanner is similar to Kayak. Note: they now also do car hire, hotels etc

Flight Aware this brilliant little site keeps track of all the flights in the air at any one time – great for checking if your flight is likely to be delayed. Also helpful if you’re picking people up from the airport. Careful though, it can be addictive (am currently watching the Emirates flight that’s just left Jo’burg and the SAA from Durban that’s about to land….just for the heck of it).

Getting around

If anyone hasn’t downloaded the Uber app to their phones, I suggest you do so straight away. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of freedom it gives me to know that if I am stuck anywhere in Pretoria (or other South Africa cities) all I need is my phone to get me somewhere. The fact that it is cash free is genius.

The post that initially started my hunt for technology to help the modern expat was actually based on an idea about how useful I found my GPS. As above, I love the freedom it has given me not to worry about getting lost. I love it so much I even wrote this post about it.

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Google Streetview and Google Earth have been revolutionary in how we can now view the world. We used Streetview to explore our neighbourhood before we even visited Pretoria, and who hasn’t checked out their hotel on Earth in advance of booking that holiday? But Google maps is the one that I now use the most often – either as a GPS when the one in my car is having a bad day or as a way to find out how long it will take me to get from A to B. If you haven’t watched the film Lion yet I thoroughly recommend it as a way to see the real power of Google maps!

Finding a place to stay

I rarely book anywhere these days without first checking reviews on Tripadvisor. I try and read as many reviews as possible because I realise how easy it is to post fakeness but generally I do think that as long as there are enough of them you can get a fair idea of what you are getting yourself into.

There are several ways to book private accommodation these days. Probably the best known is Airbnb, a brilliant way to find well-priced accommodation in exactly the location you are interested in (their use of maps for searching makes it so easier to pinpoint where the homes are). VRBO (which stands for Vacation Rental by Owners) is another one.

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If you are up for it, trying out a home exchange can be a great way to score cheap accommodation. It’s not something I have tried yet but with the way Sterling is dropping I suspect this is going to become more and more popular in years to come. This site claims to have 65,000 homes in 15 countries.

When you are there

Ok so you have arrived and checked in – what’s for dinner? Trip Advisor (see above) can be helpful here too but there are other ways to find local restaurants, bars, cafes etc as well as local attractions, shops and even services. Yelp is one such site. Zomato is another. But please, distract me quick before I spend the rest of the day browsing restaurant menus…..

Converters

Finally, life can get complicated when you are on the move. Here are two ways to help you keep track – firstly, to make sure you know how much things cost are currency converters like this one (although to be honest these days if you just put the currency you need converting into Google it will tell you – sigh, is there anything google can’t do?). Secondly, do you ever wonder what time of the day it is back home (easy when you live somewhere, not so much when you are travelling)? Or in that other country where you want to book a flight but are not too sure what time you are going to arrive? Then you need a time zone converter.

So that’s just a quick run down of some of the sorts of sites and apps that are out there now to help us when we travel. I am quite sure there are many, many more (as a quick example, in London we used this app to tell us how long we had to wait for the next bus). In fact, this post really is just a “for starters” and I would love to hear if you have any more great travel apps that you would like to share. If so please post in the comments section below.

Otherwise, bon voyage!

Photo credits: BA plane – Nick Fewings, Crooked House by Don McCullough

How modern technology has transformed expat life : part 2 – communication

Before Christmas I wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of three or four posts looking at how modern technology has changed expat life (hopefully for the better – although I think there is a sting in that tail and refer you to this post I wrote about facebook envy).

In my first post I looked at how the world of work has been affected and how much easier it is now for us all to work remotely. This is potentially a huge game changer for the expat partners who may otherwise have to give up their jobs or even career to follow their spouses overseas.

But technology is there to help us in many ways other than for work and in this post I am going to have a look at communication.

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Way back when we lived overseas when I was a child, 99% of communication was done by letter (snailmail as it became known). Once a week we could send back and recieve letters through the diplomatic bag. Every post had a day when the bag came in; in every household eager wives (for it mainly was wives in those days) and children awaited news from home. Birthday presents, Christmas cards, even my O level results arrived this way, along with those long letters from parents and grandparents full of the news of Aunt Edna’s hip replacement and how the tomatoes were doing. It all seems so trivial but those everyday stories of home were what we craved. Every so often, we got a phone call – I remember this being the case when my grandmother died. But usually the only news we got from home was at least 5-7 days out of date.

To expats today this must all seem very strange. Can you imagine putting your child into boarding school and then having to wait a week to hear how they were getting on? Nowadays of course we have so many – maybe even TOO many – ways to communicate when we move away from our friends and family. Here are just a few of them:

Skype and FaceTime

There are of course now many more face-to-face ways to talk to people but these are prehaps the best known. Skype was the one that really broke down the barriers – for the first time we could not only speak to but see our loved ones without having to pay astronomical international call prices. FaceTime is useful because it is on phones and Ipds so more portable (ok I know, I am a bit backward here – you can get Skype on phones too now, right?). But both are excellent ways not just to talk but to share – how many grandparents have watched their grandkids growing up through the wonder of this kind of technology? Personally we have been able to build a great relationship with my broter-in-law in Florida thanks to Skype and FaceTime and there is nothing I like more than sitting down for a cup of coffee with friends in England, all over the internet.

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Messenger, WhatsApp, Snap Chat etc

More immediate and probably now the most used type of communication is instant messaging. I love that you can connect so quickly and easily with anyone, anywhere in the world. Whilst Facebook is still perhaps the number one way people keep in touch with each others lives (see below for more on Facebook) I think we have started to move off the public pages and into more private spaces.

Of course we don’t just use these services to keep in touch with people back home or to communicate with friends new and old in other parts of the world; group messaging has become a real boon to expats making contacts and friends in a new country. What easier a way to organise a meet up than one Whats App group message? So much better than the old days of having to send separate emails or individual messages and then send them again when one person can’t make that particular time….

Expat Facebook groups

Another thing that I have noticed happening more and more commonly now is the use of groups for particular needs and interests and the ones aimed at expats have to be one of the greatest innovations to have hit the expat scene in a long while. As soon as you know where you are heading, you know you will probably be able to find a group to help you with your questions. I admin one here in Pretoria, where people come to ask questions about anything from where to get passport photos done to whether you need a pool heater (as an aside, there is good writing material in some of these groups – I always laugh when I see the posts asking whether anyone has a golf buggy for sale…). In the meantime, we have a separate “buy and sell” page which is a great place to get rid of all that stuff before you move on or conversely buy it when you first arrive; and (perhaps this is more pertinent to South Africa than many places) a travel page for sharing information about places to go and things to see.

Video and photo sharing sites

Another way we can keep in touch is by sharing our photos and videos. Some do prefer just to do this via facebook but equally many prefer to keep these things private. You can set up a You Tube video channel and set the settings to ensure only people you invite can view, and there are also lots of cloud-sharing photo sites (I am told Flickr is good for this, as well as Google Photos). So when you store your photos you can alert your parents back home and they can view at leisure. No more labouriously sending photos back as email attachments, two or three at a time (particularly painful for those of us without a speedy internet connection).

Blogs

Finally, I had to include this one as of course one of my main methods of communication is via my blog! In my case, it is not really aimed at friends and family but many people do initially set up a blog in order to keep the folks back home abreast of their new, shiny overseas life. In a way it is just a public diary for many people (although how public is up to you – again, like a YouTube channel, you can set it up so that only chosen viewers can see it). But even if this is not the intention of a blog site it is still a way to communicate. I, for one, have met several people in real life thanks to my blog – and have many more friends who I have never actually met but who I have close and important relationships with because they found me this way. After all, it is just a way of bringing people together with a commonality so why not use it as a basis to make friendships?

 

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So those are our main communication channels – let me know if you think I have left anything out. Next time I want to look at ways that we use modern technology for travel. After all, for so many of us travel is one of the more important aspects of our lives – so we may as well use the best tools available to help us enjoy it.

Photo credit: Yining Zhang

 

Happy New Year and a Monkey in a Toilet

I realise things have been a bit quiet around here….but what with Christmas, travelling and now trying to catch up on all the work that has been sadly neglected for the past few weeks I have been pretty busy. I hope to get back to the blog asap and have some nice interviews and ideas brewing but in the meantime I wanted to do two things. First wish you a

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And secondly just share a little taster of our travels over the holiday period – one of those unexpected moments that will hopefully make you smile as much as it did me:

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Yes – that is a monkey with his head stuck in a toilet!

I hope you all enjoyed your breaks (if you got one….) and see you soon x