“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.

blue sky

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!

 

 

Advertisements

(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.

2010-xmas-mess

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.

dsc_0864

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……

6209011081_b535a252de_o

  • 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!

27882760282_f0f69d0995_k

  • 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 umbrellas

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:

tea

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!

Home

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.

DSC_0373