This could be my very last Christmas as an expat. Note: I don’t say my last Christmas overseas. I am sure I will still travel abroad for the holidays at some point in the future. And given my last post about the differences between migrants and expats the chances are that I may be living abroad again but very possibly not as an “expat”.
So last Christmas. How does it feel? Well in all honesty, I always think this is the one day of the year (for people who celebrate Christmas, whether that be for religious or for cultural reasons) when many of us would probably prefer to be at home. Yes, I know, that might very well mean family rows and turgid afternoons watching the Queen’s Speech and stuffing Quality Streets down our throats. But don’t we all love going home for Christmas? The comfort of routine and the warmth of familiarity.
Th mess of Christmas past…..
Of course when I say “Christmas” personally I do only mean the actual day itself. Even just half the day would be fine. What I am perfectly happy to be missing is the never-ending build up to the big day that is now as British as red post boxes and Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night. Starting sometime in early October, the shops fill up with tinsel and crackers and those huge packs of chocolate bars that are apparently meant to keep the kids quiet on the morning of the 25th so you can get an extra half an hour in bed…..as the weeks go on, the background carols start to seep into your brain until you find yourself humming “Mary’s Boychild, Jesus Christ” manically as you try and track down the last Hatchimal or whatever this year’s “in” toy is. Then the supermarket aisles and car parks get more and more crazy as people start stock-piling mince pies and those biscuits and cheese sets just in case somehow they need extra food on the one day of the year when the shops don’t open…
As I happily pushed my trolley around the nearly-empty Woolworths here in Pretoria this morning, I thought of my home town and the stand-up rows people have over the last parking space in Tescos and smiled. This is the pay-back for missing the day with my family when we would drink bubbly and exchange silly secret Santa gifts and stuff ourselves on at least five different types of vegetables along with two or three different meats. It’s hard to even remember it is Christmas here – the weather is all wrong for a start (we are sweltering in a heatwave) and there just isn’t the sort of level of panic you normally associate with this time of year. I don’t have to worry about not buying everything I need for the “big day” because the shops don’t actually close at all – I found out today they would be open until 3pm on the 25th.
A more relaxed Christmas Day: Pretoria 2015
So I will miss Christmas with the family but at the same time we are all enjoying a less-stressful holiday season than we are used to. Many people leave Pretoria at this time of year so traffic is light and shopping is pleasuable. Christmas Day will be low-key, but fun and a few days later we are doing what most people do at this time of the year: heading for the coast. And as we sit on the beach or dive in the sea I will be raising a toast to everyone recovering from post Christmas Distress Syndrome back home.
Happy Christmas everyone!
So I’ve just returned to South Africa after five weeks home in the UK – my first trip back since we arrived in Pretoria a year ago. I am very happy to see the sun again (ok, we saw it a bit at home but there weren’t that many of the cloudless days you get in the African winter), and to swap Brexit politics for South African politics. The former is as depressing as it comes; the latter is quite exciting and in an entirely selfish way won’t affect me or my family as much as what is happening back in the UK.
Everyone who is an expat knows what it feels like to go home after a spell away from it. Always slightly surreal, like nothing has changed but everything has. You know that people will be less interested in you and your adventures than you hoped they would be. You also know you will not be able to see everyone you would like to – and will feel guilty for half the holiday about this fact. And then get over it: by the time you have driven 3,000 miles between eight different places, unpacked and repacked 28 times and slept in about 13 different beds, you will stop fretting about those people you couldn’t catch up with. After all, they can always come to you!
But apart from the obvious, what else did I learn? Following our visit, here are a few of my observations:
- The United Kingdom has become obsessed with Prosecco. This obsession had started before I left and it was already the drink of choice when I went to the pub with friends. But now the price of a bottle seems to have come down to lower than a decent bottle of red and it’s everywhere! There were even Prosecco bars at shopping malls – as if the proleteriat wanted to mimick the “ruling classes” with their champagne and oyster bars at Harvey Nicks……
- I think we can now safely say there will never be a proper summer in England again. We have been going to the same place in Devon for the end of July/beginning of August period for 10 years now and without fail it always rains non-stop for at least two days. My childhood memories of endless sunny days are just that – memories.
- After you have been away for a year, you will be that fumbly person at supermarket check outs with their new-fangled card machines and paying 5p for bags and not having someone to pack those bags for you and trying to remember you enter the card into the machine yourself rather than simply hand it over…..ditto petrol stations – what do you mean you have to fill it up yourself?!
- Politics is the new soap opera. It is the main topic of conversation with pretty much anyone you meet. If you don’t get on to the subject of Brexit within 5 minutes of meeting someone there can be only one reason: you suspect they voted differently from you. In which case talk about the weather, last night’s tv, sport….anything but the EU!
- Have we reached tipping point with social media? I have never seen so many people spend so long staring at their phones as I did this last month. Surely something has to give soon?
- For the first time ever on a return from a period of living overseas I didn’t go mad in a supermarket – which proves the quality of food here in South Africa. I did, however, go fairly mad in all other shops including clothes and book shops.
- The Brits love their dogs. But luckily they do not love their dog poo. It was very refreshing to be able to walk around without watching where you were stepping, especially in parks. I wish South Africans would learn to use their doggy poop bags…..
- I still love London more than any other city in the world. Yes the crowds do my head in, yes it’s flipping expensive. But it still feels to me like the centre of the universe – there is always something going on, and something new happening. Bath and Bristol run it a close second though.
Bath – my joint favourite UK city after London.
- It was also nice to be able to walk out of the house, including at night, and feel safe. I started off always locking my car door as soon as we were in but got more relaxed as the holiday went on. I am now doing the opposite and have to keep remembering to lock doors, keep windows up etc. It hasn’t helped that my domestic helper’s son was kidnapped, tied up and badly beaten for his card and pin nuber last weekend. A timely reminder that we are “not in Kansas anymore”.
I’m sure there are many other things I could say about my trip and my feelings about being home but this post has gone on long enough already so I will leave it there. But let me know if you’ve just been back to your home country after a spell abroad and if so, what were your observations? Did you find it just as you left it – or did everything feel a bit off-kilter? Did it live up to expectations – or were you happy to leave it all behind again?
Photos: glass of bubbly – Meg, EU umbrellas – Jeremy Segrott
As we prepare for our move to South Africa, I have been thinking about what to take with us. What little thing from home that I won’t be able to find in Pretoria will make life in the early days (or, in fact, in all days) just that little bit easier? As I shopped this morning I found the perfect answer:
I posted a picture on Facebook, and everyone agreed this was the one thing they always packed when they moved abroad.
We’re just so British!
But I know it’s not just us Brits – every nationality has something they miss from home. I have been reading a thread this week on the Grumpy Expat forum about smores (some sort of combination of crackers, marshmallow and chocolate I understand). And, as I have a British friend about to move to Texas, what do those of you who live in the States take in particular? I look forward to reading your answers!
So I have decided to join the photography 101 workshop for the month of March. Apologies in advance for some of the random pictures that may start appearing on my blog, but this is my attempt to try and improve the photos that I use here.
The first assignment was called ‘home’ which is fairly prosaic, knowing that I will soon be leaving my home and all the things I love about it. I have recently blogged about how I already know I will be homesick as soon as we leave – and some of the things I know I will miss. One of those things is the view from our kitchen window, my own window onto the world. But I’m not the only one watching out of this window, and my first photograph for the 101 workshop shows our own llittle version of someone who will forever represent this country watching and waving at the world outside.