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

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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