Expat reunions are a thing of wonder

I am excited. This time next week we will – fingers crossed – be welcoming Australian friends from our Pretoria days into our home here in the west of England. We won’t have seen each other for around two years, although have kept in touch frequently through social media as they moved on to a new posting and we returned home. But seeing them in the flesh (and enjoying a few beers) will be much more fun than Facebook messenger chats.

Reunions with your expat pals are very special. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why but I think it has something to do with the intensity of the experiences you shared. Expat life isn’t like normal life – you are often thrown together with a whole heap of strangers who overnight have to become your friends, confidantes, family, comforters, and gurus. You go through the good times together, as well as the bad (huddling together in dark rooms through hurricanes; exchanging information on the latest street violence; sympathising over the latest outbreak of vomiting disease), and you get to know each other fast and furiously. Saying goodbye is hard because you really have no idea when, or if, you will see them again.

But when you do – and I do believe the ones that are really important to you will pop up again sooner or later – you instantly connect again over the experiences that only you shared. One of the hardest things about coming home is not being able to explain what life was like for you living overseas. Or even if you try to, most people aren’t really that interested as they just can’t relate to it (fair enough). So it’s always very special to be able to spend time with those people who “get” you when you talk about your former life – and don’t mind if you wax lyrical for hours on end about some of the great experiences you had as an expat.

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Poignant reunions don’t have to be with close friends. One of the most special encounters I remember was with someone I didn’t even know that well. It just so happened he (and his partner) had shared one of the most intense experiences of my life – the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad and our subsequent evacuation. This man – who for the sake of this blog I will call Jack – worked at the British High Commission at the same time as us. He was there on the night of the bomb so understood the immediate panic and fear; he was there in the dreadful days and weeks afterwards when no-one knew what was happening and whether we would be sent home; and he was there when the time finally came for us to pack up and leave. I barely remember Jack from that time but the important thing is that he was there.

So when I bumped into him at an event in Pretoria (where he was also now living) it was like a reunion with a long-lost relative. As I said to him at the time, he was the first person I had met since the day we left Islamabad – bar one meeting with a friend – who had been there. Who knew. Who got it. It felt like such a relief to be able to talk to him about the events of those days, and to know that he understood completely what I was wittering on about. I think it was the first time I had been able to offload about an extraordinary experience that I had been carrying around with me for years. It made me realise how important counselling must be for people caught up in conflict like Syria and Yemen, especially those who have also had to leave their home and family behind to try and escape.

But of course most of my reunions are not like this. Most are based purely on good memories and happy shared experiences. As well as looking forward to seeing my Australian friends, we are also off to see a wonderful family in Sweden in July and will also be hopefully seeing one of my daughter’s good friends and her dad in August – so there will be reunions a-plenty all through the summer.

As we move on with our lives, the memories of our expat days fade. But friendships will often out-last those memories and when we get together the years fall away and we are back living together in those distant lands. I still have expat friends from as far back as my childhood in Manila who I see every year or two, and from almost every subsequent country I have lived in. Mostly we keep in touch through social media, emails, or the occasional Christmas card. But when possible, we meet up, and immediately we are our young, expat selves again.

It’s not as good as going back in time, but it’s not bad.

 

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When you’re a local again, don’t forget the expats

A short story:

When I was 29 I went on a round-the-world trip, typical backpacker stuff. Not really a gap year as I was a bit old, but the whole staying-in-hostels, having a good time stuff.

For six months of that year I lived in Auckland, so I was sort of an expat. Mostly, I mixed with other expats: my Japanese housemates (the best housemates you could ask for, by the way), other backpacking Brits. It’s hard to get to know locals when you are only fleetingly living somewhere. I was working in various office around the city so had lots of interaction with local Kiwis but mostly that interaction stopped after work hours.

Until one day I went to a local pub to meet friends. A couple were sitting at a table, with otherwise empty chairs. I went to ask if we could share their table and the woman said they were also waiting for friends who should be there soon. I left, looking for somewhere else to sit. Then suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder – it was the woman. Her accent quickly gave her away as a New Zealander but her words were what I remembered.

 

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Auckland

 

“Sorry,” she said. “That was really rude of us. Come and join us at the table. We were backpackers in London once and we know how hard it is to meet locals”. And this is how I met Jo, and started a new friendship, unusual because it was one of the only friendships I had with a local, settled person the whole time I lived in Auckland. Jo took me to local beaches, introduced me to her family, and showed me parts of her home city I would never otherwise have seen. The friendship didn’t last beyond a few years after I came home (these were the very early days of social media), but it was still an important one for me.

I share this story because now I am home, I have realised how easy it can be to slip back into your old ways. I have written before about how things won’t ever be the same because your life abroad changes you forever. But when you return to a familiar culture it can be easy to get caught up in the life you used to lead – whether that be through work or school-gates friendships or wherever it is you meet the people you used to know.

But having now been on the other side of the fence, I think a great way to preserve that person you have become is to purposely go out of your way to meet some of the temporary visitors to your community.

It’s funny, many of us might not even realise they are there. Where I live, for example, I am surrounded by foreigners. I have friends who are American, Ukrainian, German, Indian, Spanish, Bulgarian…and that’s just in the small area close to my house. But  most of the people I have got to know down the years are very settled, married to Brits or with a permanent job here. I always enjoy talking to them about their home countries, trying their food, hearing their views on life seen through the eyes of someone who grew up in a different culture. But they are no more in need of local friends as I am.

Dig deeper, though, and you can find the people who aren’t settled, don’t have ties through family, or kids at the local school. The ones like me when I was in Auckland – always on the edges of the life in the city, never quite part of it. And you can do what Jo did for me: be welcoming, be inclusive.

You don’t need to become their best friends. It’s up to you if you want to form a friendship at all of course. But if nothing else, why not at least draw them in to the community, be a good neighbour, help them out, ask of they need anything. Take them places or recommend somewhere.  Invite their kids to play with yours.

I wrote a lot about  loneliness, and depression as an expat while I was living in Pretoria. It is a recurring theme and one that sadly is a feature of most people’s experiences living as an expat at some point. And one of the things that makes it hard to get past these feelings, especially at the start, is disinterest from the people who surround you.

Imagine if you knew there was someone like that living close by to you, and you did nothing to help them? Sometimes all it takes is a quick hello, a smile, or an offer of assistance. You never know, you might be making all the difference to that person’s experiences in your home country.

Photo credit:

Stewart Baird

Ever wondered what you need in an emergency?

Although I rarely feature sponsored posts on this blog, every so often I come across an idea that I don’t mind promoting because I believe it is something that will be truly useful to my readers. I also like to help out fellow expats – in this case, Richard Miles who lives in Botswana, not a million miles from my old stomping ground in South Africa. I love the idea of someone else telling me what I might need in an emergency and – having been in a few (mostly hurricane related!) I can really see how this would be of great benefit to many fellow expats around the globe. 

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As a native Californian, I know from experience that sometimes you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. My wife Michelle and I have lived through earthquakes our entire lives, and our house in California sits in the Oakland Hills fire zone, right on the Hayward / San Andreas fault. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” the Big One will hit. Many of our dear friends in California just lived through the recent fires and floods and few of them lost everything. And living in Africa we know at any minute we could be without power, in the middle of some interesting times, and we need to be ready to go. And someday someone’s going to knock on our door and say we have to get out now and we aren’t going to be prepared.

Last fall we had a briefing from the Office of Emergency Preparedness where they told us all to make an emergency kit — a “Go Bag” — in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. Everyone nodded in agreement and said, “oh, yes, very important, will get right to it.” Of course, no one did. And the entrepreneur in me thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could put these kits together and offer them to my friends? And that way we all could go from feeling guilty that we hadn’t got it done to sleeping well at night knowing it was handled. But then I thought it would be ridiculous and massively expensive to try and buy all these products, ship them to Africa, assemble them, and then pay to ship them out to people all over the world. I also realized I could find all these products at great prices on Amazon.#

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Getting our Go!Bag together turned into an item on my to-do list. And that to-do item kept getting pushed back. Because it’s an enormous hassle. Going online searching for emergency supplies and pre-made emergency kits very quickly turns into product overwhelm. most of these pre-made kits are either trying to prepare you for the zombie apocalypse or are just full of useless junk (and quite expensive). What should I buy? There are 40-100 choices (or more) for every single thing I need. Figuring out what we need to buy made my eyes glaze over. Trying to sort through the 1,000s of products out there is overwhelming. Add procrastination and not wanting to think about, and it simply slides off the to-do list uncompleted.

Thus, Let’s Go!Bags was conceived.

I was fully committed and I continued to do research — I spent hours reading articles from FEMA (US Government Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross, even the Humane Society and more — learning what goes into a great emergency kit, and just as importantly what you don’t need. As a result, I put together a pretty comprehensive Emergency Plan & Go!Bag checklist. You can download it for free and use it to create your own family Emergency Plan. Then I spent many (many!) more hours searching for decent products I could buy – and recommend to others, reviewing detailed product specifications and reading user comments and reviews. I found great products on Amazon and I organized them into kits for your home, for your car, for your pets… The products I put on the website are the ones I personally bought for us after all my research. I looked for the highest quality affordable products and quite happily I succeeded.

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So I built a website where folks can come and check “go bag” off their to-do list with a click or two. A lot of our friends said they wanted to just click one link and get a kit. Others wanted to pick and choose. Others (a small few!) had a kit and just wanted to find specific products to expand them. So you can Buy A Kit, Build A Kit, or check our full catalog. We boiled it down to 10 essential products for your basic Go!Bag and you can order a kit for one, two, three or four people with a single click. Then you can expand it with more items if you want, plus get a kit for your car(s).

So be happy I did all the heavy lifting, download the Emergency Plan and checklist I put together, and then order what you need. Now’s your chance to just get it done.

And it wouldn’t hurt if you told all your friends about this: http://www.letsgobags.com

Still leaving the EU, still breaking my heart

The closer we get to the day we are due to leave the EU, the louder gets the noise about it. Although some news commentators seem to downplay the significance of this event, you would have to be living under a stone in a desert far, far away not to realise how important an issue this is.

And it continues to break my heart.

What I find really hard is the messages I see from expats discussing whether they should come to live in the UK or not. It really hits home when I see these stories which reflect how the outside world sees us. European expats wonder whether it’s worth coming here. Brits married to non-Brits worry what it will mean for their partner’s status, or the status of their children. Expats from non-European countries discuss the rise of racism in this country. And while some question whether this is really true, both police statistics and stories I myself have heard from good friends would indicate that, sadly, it probably is.

What is so frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way.

Had we had a sensible, clever leader in June 2016 – not one who ran away as soon as possible – they could so easily have stopped the country splitting in two as it has. They could have said thank you very much for the information you have given us by your vote. There is clearly something very wrong in this country which needs solving. Now we will go away and do some modelling, have some focus groups, set up a cross-party group which will travel the country to talk to people, and eventually we will come back to you with what we have found out. Once we can show you whether what you are voting about is as a result of us being in the EU or not, and once we can properly see what the affect of leaving the bloc will mean, we can discuss next steps.

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They could have calmed the situation down. They could have been seen to be taking action without rushing into this fool-hardy process as they did. Triggering Article 50 without a plan, any sort of plan, was shameful. Even if the end result was still that we would, eventually, leave the EU, to do so without a careful plan was simply, I believe, a dereliction of duty.

Of course you would need to go back further in time if you really wanted to sort out this mess (oh for a time machine!). Back to stop Cameron allowing the blame for his austerity policies to rest on the shoulders of immigrants. Back to stopping him promise in leaflets pushed through doors that he would carry out the result of the vote, whatever it was. Back to preventing parliament from backing a vote without a supermajority (eg two-thirds of the vote). Back to, somehow, allowing all EU nationals within the UK and all UK expats in Europe to vote on something that was going to have such a huge impact on their lives. And back to making sure the ballot was more than a simple yes or no – leaving confusion about whether leaving the EU also means leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.  Something some still insist it does even though I highly suspect most people in this country had barely heard either of those two terms before the referendum.

In fact, if we could really go back in time, what we should actually try and do is stop Cameron promising to have the referendum in the first place. Who but for a few members of his party were calling for it? How many people can really say, hand on heart, that EU policies have been having a negative impact on their lives? And how many of us really want the country that we have got now – more split than I have ever known it, friends pitted against friends, family members against family members, and worst of all, a nasty, vocal majority suddenly believing that they have the right and freedom to spout their nasty racist nonsense in public whenever and wherever they want?

Many people voted to leave the EU because they want to go back in time. Back to an imagined past, where in their memories life was good. No-one seems exactly to be able to pinpoint when this was because the past might have been better for some but I don’t believe it was better for all. I too want to go back though. I want to go back to 2012, to the summer of 2012 to be precise. To the golden days of the summer Olympics, when London welcomed the world to what then seemed like an open, tolerant and liberal-minded country. When Mo Farah, an immigrant from Africa, won races and we all cheered.

Will we ever be that country again? Right now, I don’t think we will. My heart remains broken.

Picture credit: EU flag – Rock Cohen

Repatriation and a crisis of confidence

I always knew there would be ups and downs, bumps in the road, hills and mountains. No-one said repatriation was easy. But up until now I think I have actually got off relatively lightly – mostly because I have been too busy to really think about it.

But now we are half a year in to our time back in the UK (half a Year!! Where has that time gone?) and I am having a mini crisis of confidence. What do I do now? Where am I heading? What am I FOR?

To be fair, these kind of little freak-outs could happen to anyone, whether they had ever lived overseas or not. Others might call them a mid-life crisis. But I think the reason it hits people like me who have recently moved back from being abroad is that for so long we have either had a purpose (preparing for a move, the move itself, helping your family settle in somewhere new etc) or an excuse (I can’t get a work visa, I don’t speak the language, there’s no work available, my partner travels too much for me to be able to work etc). That doesn’t of course always equate to contentment as anyone who has read my blog knows (eg this post about feeling like a 1950’s housewife). But it does mean you don’t spend all day with you head in your hands wondering what on earth you are going to DO with the rest of your life.

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I’ve been here before. Every time we have come back from an overseas posting I have had to re-invent myself. After Jamaica, I was a full-time mum. After Pakistan, I was waiting to go again as I knew it was likely we would get a replacement posting. After St Lucia I retrained as an antenatal teacher.

This time, I am trying to make a go of freelance writing. I’m half way there with some good commissions from great publications (including the Washington Post, the Independent, Euronews, and many others – if interested please check out my portfolio here). But it’s an uphill battle to actually make a living from this and I know I need to find some regular clients before I can start to believe it will actually work. It’s terrifying to actually be faced with the reality of something that for years I have wanted to do but never really dared. So in a way the easy way out would be to find another excuse – we’re moving again, I don’t have time, I can’t get a work visa (!).

All of those things would stop the little voice in my head that tells me “you’re not good enough”.

But I won’t because I can’t. As far as I know right now, we’re here for quite a few years (possibly – gulp! – forever) so I need to stop making excuses. I need to put my big girls pants on, take a deep breath, and make myself do it. Hopefully it won’t be long and I’ll have my repatriation mojo back.

Have you recently repatriated? How are you finding it? Easier than you expected? Harder? Leave some messages below and I will write another blog post about this at some point when I get my head out of my hands….

Photo credit: Emily

 

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

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

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

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

First: SUMMER

And AUTUMN:

WINTER:

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

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

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

Happy January!

 

Could a virtual midwife be just what you’re looking for?

I don’t often include affiliated articles on this blog but every so often something comes along that clicks with what I offer and what I think would be a really useful service for expat partners around the world, and this is one of them. Having contributed to two books that focus on being  pregnant and giving birth while living overseas – the Knocked Up Abroad series- I am fully aware how difficult a time this can be for women, especially when you live in a country where the birth culture is very different to the one back home. So I think the idea of having a virtual midwife is a great one, someone who can offer you all the knowledge, support and assistance you need, wherever you are in the world. Please let me know what you think of this idea and whether you would use the service in the comments section.

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It is difficult to imagine how a “virtual midwife” could be of any assistance during pregnancy and birth, after all the word Midwife refers to being “with woman” and in french a midwife is known as a “sage femme” or wise woman. The essence of midwifery is compassion, empathy and intuition: elements that are difficult to transfer online. So how does Karen Wilmot aka The Virtual Midwife conquer these challenges and what led her to offer her services virtually?

“In many ways it was a bit of an accident really,” says Karen.  “I was working in L& D at a busy private hospital in the Middle East and my first contact with my patients was in the labor room when they were already in established labor, frightened and unprepared. It was too late to start teaching them breathing techniques and coping strategies at such a late stage, and I saw a huge gap in the market for effective preparation. I started off by offering informal classes in my home but they soon became so popular that I left the hospital to do it full time and expanded my practice to include prenatal yoga and post natal support.”

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Ten years later,  she was instrumental in opening the first Mother & Baby center in the Gulf region (www.nine.om) while continuing to grow her online platform The Virtual Midwife. “The decision to go online was fuelled by the amount of time I found myself debunking misinformation that my clients had read online. They turned to Google for everything –  often before they turned to me. A lot of my time was spent doing damage control which was frustrating, but it made me realise how powerful and prevalent the internet is.”

“I couldn’t fight it, so I chose to embrace it. I set about learning everything I could about how to create a program that would as closely as possible replicate what I was doing in real life but able to reach millions of people around the world. I chose to focus on expats because I understand the challenges they face – even though nothing about pregnancy or birth is inherently different when you are an expat. I wanted to be able to reach people in remote areas with limited or no access to prenatal support and information.

The Virtual Midwife is a multimedia online platform packed with essential tools, tips and techniques that address the specific needs and challenges of giving birth far from the comfort and safety of home. Along with basic and essential information,  this is a comprehensive guide to help navigate a foreign health care system. The course is designed to give couples the confidence to get the right care at the right time with proven and effective techniques to cope with the intensity of the sensations of labor and the importance of physical, mental and emotional preparation for birth. The program includes video, audio and eBooks and Karen hosts monthly live sessions to be able to offer the empathy, compassion and intuitive guidance that is so essential from a midwife.