A year, a sense of achievement, some news

The weather is on the turn again, the leaves on the trees in our local park turning bronze and falling to the floor, the hedgerows bursting with blackberries, a nip in the air. And all of this takes me straight back to this time last year when we had just arrived back in England and I was on my own with my two daughters while my husband spent his last few months working in Pretoria.

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I can’t believe it has been a year – and yet, when I look back, I feel a strange sense of nostalgia for the time after we had just repatriated.

It was been puzzling me why I have been feeling like this about a time which was, in reality, a bit crazy. On my own I had to unpack more than 150 boxes, find places for everything to go, and then get rid of all the cardboard and packing paper. At the same time, I was seeing my eldest daughter off to a new school and my younger one back to her old one, working out the confusion of a swim schedule which meant rising at 5.20am twice a week to take my daughter to train and then driving them both to various pools in various parts of town, on various nights and weekend days, looking after a confused dog, still freelancing, and dealing with all the usual mini-dramas of running a house (oh what fun we had building the bed and trying to fit the new dishwasher into a space that was too small for it!).

So why do I look back fondly at that strange period in my life when in all honesty I barely knew whether I was coming or going?

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Mainly I think because I did it. Yes it was hard (especially the dark early mornings in the dead of winter) but we survived. No-one went hungry, missed their school bus, or got locked out of the house. The dog got walked, the children made friends. The house didn’t fall apart, burn down, or get burgled. I can’t say it was easy but it does strike me how important achievement is to your well-being – and this brings me on to the other point about this post: I have got a job.

It seems somehow symbolic that this job has come almost exactly a year after we returned from living in South Africa. Perhaps this is the time it takes to settle in, re-establish yourself, and get ready for the next adventure. Of course I realise some don’t have the luxury of waiting that long and for some it will take longer to find the right thing, but for me a year is what it took.

I wasn’t really looking, or at least, I wasn’t really looking for the job I have ended up getting. I have been working remotely and/or part-time ever since having children and this has worked best for us as a family. As well as anything else, my husband’s job has always been a bit unpredictable so it has been important to have one parent around for the kids when needed. But they are growing up now and a lot more independent so when I saw a job that was a really close match to my skills, experience, and interests I decided to apply even if it was full-time and meant going to an office every day.

And I got it.

So in a few weeks time my life will change again. I will be working as a communications officer for a local charity, in a job that hopefully I will be able to use the skills gained over a long and slightly eclectic career but in particular from my time as a press officer for the Foreign Office (and as a local journalist, many moons ago). I realise life will get a lot more complicated, there will be a lot more juggling, and I will probably need to be a lot more organised. I suspect that this will be the last blog post I write for a while but I will try and update it from time to time. In the meantime, I will start to prepare for the next phase in my life and try not to freak out too much about going back into the workplace where I will probably feel like a complete dinosaur.

Repatriation isn’t easy and however nostalgic I feel about those early days they were, in reality, damn hard. But here I am a year on, settled in and with a new adventure ahead. So to all of you who have just moved home or are about to, and feeling a bit lost about it all, don’t give up hope. There is life beyond repatriation – even if, at the start, this gets lost in the total mess that is unpacking, settling in, and trying to fit the damn dishwasher.

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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

It’s not easy going back, but coming home again was nice

Sorry again for the long silences. Life has been hectic and then last week we went back to South Africa for half term.

And boy that was surreal!

It was lovely to see everyone again and nice to enjoy some sunshine (sadly, not enough: the weather was NOT on our side). But returning to our old house where my husband is still living just felt….wrong. Because it wasn’t my house anymore, nor was it my life.

For a start, none of our stuff is in the house anymore. So it felt like a shell. In some ways, it was like the early days when we first arrived – bare walls, borrowed bed clothes and crockery, none of our books or games or other distractions. But this time I knew my way around and wasn’t so worried about things like security.

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Luckily our zebras were still on the otherwise bare walls

Then even when I met up with friends (which was lovely), I knew I didn’t belong there anymore. So when they were making plans for the weeks ahead and I (of course) wasn’t included, it really hit me that this was no longer my life.

It was hard, but I also think it was a good thing. Because when we got on the plane to come home, apart from the obvious sadness of saying goodbye to everyone – not least, my husband – I was looking forward to getting back here. Back to my warm house, with all our stuff. Back to what has become my life. And it really made me realise how far we had come. On Monday morning there was swim training and school and picking up the dog and shopping for food and basically just getting on with things. It felt normal. It felt good.

I know we have a way to go yet, I’m not out of the woods. Things are still hard, loneliness in particular is still very real (to be expected when you have been away for two years – both me and the children need to re-make our lives and friendships here). But three months into repatriation and I am perhaps in a better place than I feared I would be.

I will always have a place for South Africa in my heart and I will definitely go back – there is still so much of the country to explore. But for now I feel better about leaving and happier about being here.

At least I would be if it were just a little bit warmer. And sunnier….

“It’s like you’ve never been away”…err no it isn’t

So here we are back in our house in our home town. And, as people keep telling me, it must be like we’ve never been away.

Except no, it can never be like you have never been away.

In some respects, things do look very similar. I look our of the window from my kitchen table, where I sat for hours and pounded out my book on this very same lap top in 2015, and yes – things do look very familiar. The view is what it was two years ago. Just up the road is the school were both my daughter’s went before we moved to Pretoria and where my youngest will go again. Across the street still live our good friends.

But looks can be deceptive. On the outside things might appear the same but once you have had the sort of experience you have as an expat, you will always be changed.

It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t ever done this, because as far as they can tell we are the same people moving back into the same street doing the same jobs and going to the same schools (apart from my older daughter who starts secondary school in a few weeks – but as do her contemporaries). From the outside, we looks like the same family moving back into the same house.

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The view from our house and no, it has not always been this sunny since we returned…..

But given a chance to look inside our house and you will see that it is still pretty empty. We won’t get our shipment for another month or so and so are still living out of the suitcases we brought back with us plus a couple of extra trunks of bedding etc. It may seem that we are getting on with normality but that sort of routine, day-to-day living is still months away. Our life is a long way from being settled.

And the emptiness of our home is a good metaphor for the emptiness inside us as we adjust to our new lives away from the place we have called home for the last two years. Of course there are many, many great things about returning to this country (that will be my next blog) but you can’t just walk away from a life where you were happy and forget about it. That goes for all of us – me and the kids, and yes even the dog!

So if you happen to come across me (in real life or in virtual life) just be conscious that while I may look fine on the outside, I may be a little delicate still on the inside. And while I am still the same person as I was before we left, in many ways I have changed – some of them easy to explain and understand (I have started writing properly for pay and edging towards being able to call myself a writer; I know a lot more about rhino poaching in Africa etc), others are undefinable. I am still discovering these differences myself but I think some of them include having a different outlook on life from having lived in such a complicated culture, being more laid back about things, having a totally different view of my own country having watched it from afar during these turbulent times.

The flip side to this is that I also have to understand that others around me will have changed too. In some ways we think of people back home as being “frozen” while we are away. This is particularly hard for our children who hope to be able to simply pick up where they left off with their friends, only to find that those friends have moved on. It’s a hard lesson to learn and even as an adult we have to be aware that many of our friends won’t be where we left them.

So as we enter this strange limbo period of re-adjustment and re-entry I will need to keep reminding myself that repatriation takes time, and that just because things look the same they usually aren’t. I need to help my children through this time too – and am ready to deal with the inevitable fallout from friendship realignments. We will have some rocky times ahead, I am sure of it – but to be aware that this is coming and is normal can at least prepare me mentally.

Now I just need to try and explain to the dog where the sunshine has gone!

 

 

(Not) Going Home for Christmas

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.

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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.

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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!

A trip home: what did I learn?

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……

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  • 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!

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  • 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.
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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

 

Tea, Worcester Sauce, Baked Beans…what do you take?

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:

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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!