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.

 

6085252124_605c751a7c_o

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

Advertisements

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.

8063503216_57579702f2_o

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

Expat friends: finding my support system

This month’s Trailing Spouse blog crawl is all about finding our “village”. By this, they mean the people who support us when we are away from home, those who take the place of our families and the friends that we have known for years – the ones you turn to in a crisis, or if you are feeling a bit low. But also the ones who know your children, the ones who you can call on at a moment’s notice if you are delayed at school pick up, or who will have your child in the middle of the night if an emergency calls. Indeed, where do you find these people?

There doesn't always need to be this much wine....

There doesn’t always need to be this much wine….

As someone who has very recently arrived in our new home of South Africa, I am in the midst of finding this out. So far, most of the people I have met socially have been through the school (and what a lovely bunch they are – hello! to any of them reading this!). Although we have a large High Commission here, where my husband works, it doesn’t appear to be particularly well set up for meeting people.  We do, however,  have a new Community Liaison Officer who has started to make inroads into this situation and I actually made a few new acquaintances at a coffee morning she organised the other day.

But one of the problems when you move abroad as a partner is that we are so used to defining everyone by their job, what they “do”, that if you are the one who doesn’t have that job it can become quite difficult to know quite where you fit in. Although I do have a job, I do it from home – so meeting people through it doesn’t happen. It is therefore in my hands to get out there and make friends.

When I lived in St Lucia, I arrived knowing no-one. We literally started from scratch. And there were very few expat groups or obvious places to meet people – plus there just wasn’t the “school gates” culture that you get in the UK. So it took a while for me to make friends. But when I did, I met them in the most unexpected places – not just through other friends and the school, but one at the swimming pool watching our kids learn to swim, another was an estate agent showing us new houses, yet another I just got chatting to in a coffee shop.

I thought the name of this coffee shop was highly appropriate.

I thought the name of this coffee shop was highly appropriate.

I know I am lucky though – with children the age mine are (10 and 7), I will always have an easy way to make aquaintances. But what about those with older children, or none at all – and who don’t work? Where do they meet people?

Even though I am meeting people through the school, I am finding that a lot of them are working, or busy with their lives. So my thoughts are turning to where I can find other adults to talk to – not necessarily to become best friends with, but at least to have that interaction with and perhaps for some of them to turn into something more. It’s important to realise that not every connection will turn into a best friend.

So I am planning to join a gym and do a photography course. I am not sure when (well, the former better be soon before my legs actually forget how to work, it’s been that long since I have done any proper exercise!). Other options people have mentioned to me include book clubs, cookery courses (this is also an attractive option, some time down the line), blogging get-togethers and writing groups.

I don’t think anyone should feel compelled to join anything if they don’t want to. After all, some people aren’t that bothered if they don’t talk to another human being from one day to the next. But for the rest of us, those who do feel the need of the shoulder to cry on or the ear to be listened to, as well as the more practical side of friendship (that someone who can be there for you in an emergency), there are places you can meet people.

Another way I have met a few people has been through the power of social media. Through blogging, I have already turned a couple of “inside my laptop” people into real people, with at least two or three more I am hoping to meet up with soon. Getting to know someone online before you meet them in real life is a good way of assessing whether you have enough in common with them to want to try and form a proper friendship (or even just a casual friendship). You do of course need to be careful you are not about to meet a total nuthead – but so far everyone I have met in “real life” off of my computer has been more or less normal!

Luckily no-one like this yet....

Luckily no-one like this yet….

So these are some of the ways I am meeting people, as well as some of the ways I intend to pursue to continue to make connections. I am sure there are more, and would be interested to hear what others do. Or, if you’re in the Pretoria area, are not too much of a nutter and fancy a coffee, let me know in the comments below! (PS for those in Johannesburg I have already had contact with through the blog, yes, I really hope to get over to see you at some point. It’s just that at the moment JoBurg is just a bit to far and scary for me to get to on my own. And I’m still looking for a friend who will accompany me there!)

Check out other #TrailingSpouseStories in this month’s blog crawl:

Tala of Tala Ocampo delves into research on how a best friend at “work” makes a job (being a trailing spouse not an exception) more engaging.

Didi of D for Delicious tells all about her trailing spouse village if she lived in a Stepford perfect world.

Picture credits: wine drinkers Wendy Brolga, Lonelyville coffee shop:Lou Bueno, don’t worry, we’re from the internet: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE