Friendless in Pretoria

Ok, it’s not quite that bad but as the “summer” (remember, it’s winter here in the Southern hemisphere) begins I am reminded of what it is like when you first arrive somewhere and don’t know anyone.

Many of my closest friends have now left the country for extended holidays in their home countries. Others are still around but travelling or working. And even though I know there are still people here, our routines have splintered to the extent that regular contact is getting harder by the day.

So I walk my dog alone, I don’t meet anyone for coffee, I await the time of the day when my kids will be back from “winter school” which is the best way I have found to keep them occupied while their own friends are absent. Once they are back through the door I might not get much conversation out of them but at least I can stop talking to the dog.

Walking alone - Howth, Ireland - Black and white street photogra

In all honesty right now, it’s fine. We have just been away for a week long family trip which kept us in each other’s company pretty much 24/7. You can have too much of people even when it is your nearest and dearest. So a little peace and tranquilty and “me time” is welcome.

But what it is reminding me of isn’t just what it is like to be a new expat but also what it will be like to be a new repat. And that’s what’s worrying me.

One of the things I have loved most about our life here has been the constant interaction with friends. Without extended family to distract us, we spend a lot of time with each other. In the week I see girlfriends to eat, drink, walk, exercise or just generally chew the fat with. At weekends we meet en famille for lunchtime get-togethers that stretch into the evenings.  Our kids are in and out of each others homes for playdates and sleepovers. We think nothing of inviting two, three or even four extra girls home to sleep the night and then all meet up again the next day for another round of socialising.

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Of course this isn’t to say that I don’t have friends in the UK and won’t make more. But there is something undeniably social about life overseas. Here in South Africa we are freed from the usual weekend chores by having helpers who do our washing and ironing. Eating out is cheap (for those of us on expat salaries – I totally appreciate how different it is for locals) and thus if you haven’t done a food shop recently it doesn’t matter too much. And the weather is just so damn conducive to socialising – no worry about not having enough chairs in your house, you are almost always guaranteed that you can sit outside.

Back home people are far more likely to retreat into their homes. Many have family living close by – parents, siblings etc – and spend the days with them at the weekend. More people are also likely to work – as we all know, one of the issues about being an expat partner is how hard it can be to find work; the silver lining to this is how many fellow expats you know are free to spend time with. It’s not that people in my home country aren’t friendly or you don’t ever spend time with them – it’s just that, well, they aren’t your replacement family like they become overseas.

(I should hasten to add at this point that I do have family I am obviously looking forward to seeing when we return but they don’t live that close and we only generally see them once a month or so).

So whilst I spend my last few weeks in Pretoria relatively alone I know this is all good practice for what life will become once more in just a few weeks time. I will still be in touch with the friends I have made here and already have plans to meet up with them for holidays, plus social media and instant messaging make long-distance friendships so much easier than they used to be.

But I am stealing myself for a different kind of life. One without quite so much time with friends and without the constant coming and going of pre-teens in our house. I know it will be replaced – although at the moment what or who will replace it is still a little hazy – but it just won’t be the same. I’m not sure you can ever replicate the sort of lifestyle you live when you are living the expat life.

One thing that will remain a constant though is that I will still have my dog to talk to. Let’s just hope I find someone else to take the burden off him before he gets totally fed up with me!

Picture credits: Walking alone – Giuseppe Milo, sleepover – Renee Shelton

We’re lost without a community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture credit: Orangoing

Things I look forward to….

As the date fast approaches for our return to the UK I continue to put my head in the sand about us actually leaving. I love South Africa and our life here and if you follow this blog you know there are so many things I will miss (sunshine, wine, food, people, travel, wildlife, Channel 5 on the radio…)

But there is no point wallowing – we are leaving and I need to accept that. So in order to try and make things a little easier about the move home I have started to think not so much about all the things I will miss but the things I am looking forward to about being back in cold, damp, grey clean, safe, errrr, green Britain.

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So first and foremost yes I will appreciate being able to step outside my front door and simply walk. Walk whichever way I like, on my own, without thinking about whether my handbag is zipped up properly or if someone is following me. Even at night. Not only that but we won’t have to battle our way through a grill, double lock and security gates just to pop to the shops. Plus at night we can sleep without locking ourselves in a keep (which will be good for our dog, Cooper, in particular who resents being woken and dragged upstairs when we go to bed at night; I realise we could leave him downstairs and outside of the safe area but he is too precious to us to do that!).

Talking of dogs, and talking of popping to the shops, I am also looking forward to taking him with me. I am not yet sure if I will ever be confident enough to tie him up outside a shop like so many people do back home while they nip in for a pint of milk and a daily newspaper (ah yes! getting my news from a hard print copy rather than online, that will be a nice novelty too). But I like to think I will be able to take him out and about with me a lot more regularly than I can here. The Brits love dogs – they are even allowed in pubs. I will just have to remember that it’s an absolute no-no to leave any dog poo unbagged, even if he does it nice and neatly in a little bush out of the way where no-one can see it….

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And when I go to those shops I am looking forward to more choice. In all honesty, the food shopping in South Africa is fantastic and we really haven’t missed much. But there are some areas where they don’t do so well and where we in the UK seem to be world champions – like yoghurts and other desserts (so many types!), and bread. Ah, freshly baker bakers bread. And familiar brands that taste right rather than just slightly…wrong.

I am looking forward to seasons, to the smell of Autumn and the cold air of winter. To blackberries and apples off the trees. To watching our many excellent dramas or documentaries without having to download them first. Decent internet speeds. And lots more people to talk to about British politics.

There are of course many things I am not looking forward to (the rain, the lack of diversity, the expense of everything, the traffic….) but this isn’t what this post is all about so I will ignore all of those. In fact I will continue to put my head in the sand, my hands over my ears and say lalalalala for the next few months because otherwise I might just decide I’m not leaving.

And as nice as that would be for me, sadly for the reasons why we chose to go home in the first place it really isn’t an option.

Yup, the countdown is on – Blighty, here we come.

Photo credits: Green England – highlights6

Mini schnauzer – kawabata

Two worlds

I learned something new the other day – there are hand signals used by people here in South Africa who want to catch a taxi on the road side. I got this from my helper, Sannah, who comes in to clean our house twice a week. I can’t even remember how or why we got on to the subject but apparently if you whirl your hand in a circle it means you want to go to Mamelodi (one of the main residential areas in the city), pointing upwards means “town” and downwards means you are asking them to stop so you can find out where they are going.

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It was like a secret that I had been let in on, like a code that only some people in this country understood. I was fascinated – but also a little embarassed that I didn’t know this already. Taking a minibus-taxi is something that the vast majority of people in this country have to do if they want to get anywhere and many spend long periods  (including waiting by the side of the road at certain times of the day) simply getting to work or home.

But the reason I didn’t know about the hand signals is because I will never use one of these taxis. I have a car and on those occasions when I don’t want to drive we can use Uber. For most people however both a car and Uber are simply out of their price range and instead they have to rely on the packed, hot, uncomfortable and often pretty dangerous minibusses that are used as taxis here. And if you want to know how dangerous, just don’t ever try and get ahead of one at a red-light. These guys mean business.

Long wait 37/365

Anyway all of this got me thinking – that although we often talk about living in our expat bubbles, how hard we find it to make friends with local people and to integrate, the two worlds here aren’t really between “us” (expats) and “them” (South Africans). Really, it is between us with money and jobs and cars and warm homes and security – and everyone else. We aren’t South African but in so many ways we have more in common with those locals who drive cars, send their kids to private schools, shop in the same supermarkets we do, go on holiday and basically live in “our world” than we – or they – do with everyone else.

It isn’t just South Africa of course but globally there are two completely separate worlds and I suspect few of us really ever gets to see the “other”. Sure, we go on tours and peak into homes and eat meals in downtown restaurants or sit and chat with the people who clean our homes and cut our grass. We listen to the radio and talk about politics with anyone who will listen and try and understand what it means to feel so hopeless about the state of your country that you haven’t voted in more than 20 years.

But we can’t understand it, not really, because we haven’t lived it. I don’t know what it feels like to live hand to mouth with no back up. To not know how long your job will last and if you lose it whether you will ever get another one. To fear that your children won’t ever get a job when they grow up or, worse, that they won’t survive long enough to grow up. To never have seen the sea in your own country or an elephant in the wild when you live in Africa.

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So when we talk about “understanding” a country I don’t think many of us will ever really understand what life is like for (in the case of South Africa, at least) the majority of the people who live there. We can scratch the surface, we can do our best and we can keep trying but in the end the two worlds are so far apart I suspect we will never be anything but brief visitors to the other side.

To finish, another short tale. I started a discussion on a local expat Facebook page the other day about how much we should tip the people who help carry our shopping and guard our cars. Most people agreed roughly what we tip, which amounted to between 5 and 20 Rand depending what they had done for you (for perspective that is around 30p – £1). I don’t know what the local South Africans tip but hopefully if enough of us give a little each day then some of these people can at least afford to buy food.

But as well as discussing the amount we give we talked about how it made us feel. Yes I don’t particularly like following someone to my car as he (it is almost always a he here) pushes my trolley (“Princess syndrome”) and the guards that stand behind you and “guide” you out of your parking spot – often into the path of an oncoming car – drive me nuts. However, it isn’t about us and it isn’t about our feelings. Ultimately we are paying people to do a job and I can be pretty sure that most people would rather get paid for doing SOMETHING than to beg or steal.

So even though we can’t ever really know what it feels like to live on the “other side”, I think most of us can guess how hard it probably is. If all you do to help is pay as many people as possible to work for you in one way or another then you are doing something at least.

Two worlds – I wonder if there will ever be one?

 

Photo credits: Hand Signals – John Karwoski, Taxi ride – Rafiq Sarlie

Politics from afar

I have written a few times about politics and how it feels to be so far from home when so much is going on. I have never felt like this before – I have lived abroad during several general elections and although have followed with interest, I have never before felt so hopeless about not being able to do anything to aid the cause.

This time is different because I do feel like we, the people, have been abandoned by our politicians and it is being left up to grassroots campaigners to make a real difference. And yes when I say “the people” I do mean ALL the people – not just the 48%. Well, all but a tiny percentage of our population who will be the ones getting rich from all of this.

But here I sit a very long way from Brexit Britain and in all honesty I feel a bit useless. In just over a week’s time there will be what is planned as the biggest march possibly in the UK’s history against Brexit and my facebook timeline is full of it. I have been asked if I am going but I can’t – the round trip would cost me more than £1,000 and be very difficult for the rest of the family in terms of child (and dog) care. I do know some of my friends who travelled to the US (one from here, one from Sweden) for the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s election and i take off my (pink) hat to them. Sadly it just isn’t possible for me to emulate their lead.

So instead I have to think of other ways I – and others in a similar position – can get involved. And so I am doing two things – I have donated to the cause and I have pledged to share the information as much and as widely as possible. So here for those who live in the UK, are British, aren’t British but care about the future of Europe, think money should be spent on social care and education instead of our Brexit divorce bill, and consider themselves to be open, tolerant and basically an all-round good Egg  – for you all here is the info:

And once more here is a link to donate to the march – money that will be spent on advertising and marketing, health and safety on the day, marshalls with megaphones, helping people who can’t afford it to get there and more. We really need to make the UK government sit up and take notice – they’ve been pretty well ignoring us up until now.

The modern world is changing: will expat life adapt?

On this blog I have tried to cover as many different “types” of expat partners as possible – male trailing spouses, same-sex partners, partners who work, partners who don’t…but the other day, reading a post in an expat Facebook group, I came across a new one to me: someone with TWO partners.

Apparently called polyamory, this is a consensual relationship between more than two people (here’s is Wikipedia’s explanation if you want more detail). Not a casual threesome, I understand that polyamory is considered by those who practise it be an important part of their identity – similar to being heterosexual or homosexual. In other words, it isn’t something you chose, it is something you are.

The woman in the Facebook post was trying to work out where the best place she and her two partners could move to. The problem was going to be, of course, that they were going to need more than one partner visa. And I am sure that in many parts of the world this really would be a big problem.

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I’m not sure what the outcome for this woman and her partners was but it struck me that with ever-changing attitudes towards things like relationships, careers, sexuality, gender and more, there was going to be a continual need for flexibility towards many types of  expats as they try and negotiate their way around the world. Sadly of course, attitudes to many of these newly recognised identities are not flexible at all in much of the world – making it very stressful for some expats who may be limited in their choices.

It’s not just about gender and sexuality though. Families are changing too – and the way families live. It is becoming more and more common for partners and their children not to accompany the worker when they are sent abroad, sometimes for reasons of security, sometimes schooling, sometimes career or sometimes just because it’s easier all round this way.

But are our posting organisations doing enough to keep up with these changes? Some decisions are of course are out of their hands – it’s not up to them whether they issue two partner visas or allow same-sex marriages to be recognised. But there is much they can be doing: welcoming everyone whatever their gender, identity or family situation; helping with things like supporting partners who stay at home; making sure people have the right information for their situation; setting up buddy systems; listening to what people’s needs actually are.

I have limited knowledge of the corporate world when it comes to expat life as have amost exclusively been overseas as part of a government organisation. From my point of view I think they could do a lot more in certain areas but realise they are constrained by lack of funds. However I would be really interested to hear what others think – what future challenges will expats be facing that perhaps we haven’t really acknowledged yet? Are current challenges being addressed? What more could be done?

Picture credit: Keoni Cabral

Spinning in Circles & Getting Your Bearings

It’s always a pleasure to “bump” into other expats who get what you are writing about and today’s guest post comes from one such person. Janese Carstons is a transition coach whose speciality is helping expats in their first year. Here she writes about what helped her when she first moved to China.

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“When facing north, the ocean is on the right so it’s East!” I exclaimed as I was pointing out the direction we needed to go to get back to our new apartments. My teammate and I lived in a coastal city in China and we were finishing our first trip out to the market and back by bike. She was spinning in circles, literally, trying to see which way we needed to go and I was pointing in the opposite direction because it was the way home. I can’t help it but I always know which direction I’m headed – at least using cardinal points.

There we were in the middle of a market’s parking lot, when it struck me – the first weeks after transitioning overseas IS spinning in circles while trying to get your bearings.

Moving is always a flurry of activities, emotions, and lists – so many lists. However, in the midst of the moving chaos, I imagined my life in the new culture. I’ll admit it, I’m an idealist when it comes to the future and the amazing potential there is in it.

But that future I envisioned had become reality and it wasn’t as idyllic as I had imagined. I’m sure that is ‘shocking’ to all of you but here are two main reasons it wasn’t ideal.

First, I brought myself with me…not the ‘perfect’ version I wanted to be in my head. I brought my emotions, my quirks, and all my imperfections. I was still excited for the adventure but for some reason, I thought I would morph into this amazing new person on the 14-hour plane ride. Instead, I was jetlagged, emotionally fatigued, and couldn’t understand enough Mandarin to get me to a toilet if I really needed it. The idea of “perfect” crash landed the moment I stepped foot in China.

Second, I did not step into the China I envisioned in my head. You can be told by multiple people the good, the bad, and the amazing about the new country/culture you’re moving to but you’re going to experience it for yourself; and your journey in this new land will not be the same as anyone else’s experience. It’s unique to you – how you see it, how you interact with it, and how you accept it. I’d like to say I moved without expectations, which I did for the most part, but I didn’t move without biases…even ones I didn’t know I had.

Yes, these two reasons popped my idealistic bubble, and yes, it needed to be popped so once it did I was able to stop spinning in circles and start focusing on getting my bearings.

Here are the top 3 ways to stop spinning and start focusing:

1) Be humble and forgiving – to yourself first and to everyone else second

You have just leapt into an incredible opportunity. Your world has been rearranged so of course you feel discombobulated from the world you just left. You’re normal so stop expecting yourself to be more than you can be at this moment in time. It will pass and you’ll continue to grow in ways you’ve never imagined you were capable of doing in your life.

2) Know yourself – be aware of what makes you, You

Moving to another culture is a great opportunity to assess how your values and behaviors are congruent, or not, with each other. Remind yourself of what you like to do, don’t like to do, and why; so that you can move into this new culture with integrity of who you are because you won’t fit the mold of whatever new culture you’re going in to. Just remember that moving overseas usually heightens your challenges rather than removing those challenges.

3) Determine where your areas of influence are in relation to your current consciousness and competence

There are six areas of influence on a person that engages their energy at all times: Emotional, Physical, Social, Environmental, Mental, and Spiritual

There are two additional areas of influence on a person who has moved to a new culture:
Culture and Language

Each of these eight areas of influence are directly related to how conscious and competent you are in each one. There are four stages of consciousness and competence and keep in mind that you’ll be in different stages for all of the eight areas of influence. They are independent of one another.

  1. A) Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. B) Conscious Incompetence – You realized that you’re not as expert as perhaps you thought you were or could be.
  3. C) Conscious Competence – You steadily learn about the new area through experience or more formal learning.
  4. D) Unconscious Competence – You no longer have to think about what you’re doing and are competent without a significant amount of effort.

Based on this information, you can become more aware of how you’re perceiving yourself within the new culture as well as make any changes you believe are needed with who you are in this new culture.

Overall, the greatest thing you can do for yourself within the first few weeks of your move is to focus inward for your bearings. Outside of yourself will continue to spin until you can move with intention in the direction you desire because that direction will be congruent with your values, behaviors, and energy in each area of influence.

To get a copy of the free EICC Audit or the free copy of “Making the Move Manageable” go to www.janesecarstens.com or email Janese at janesecarstenscoaching@gmail.com.

 

Biography

Janese Carstens is an international transition coach who is dedicated to supporting sojourners during their move overseas and setting them up to thrive during their first year in their new country. Her clients would say that her REAL specialty is understanding them through the chaos and confusion as they stretch into their ‘new normal.’

For more information on Janese and her weekly blog go to www.janesecarstens.com or follow her page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jccoachinginternational/.