A Day in My Expat Life: Abu Dhabi

Welcome to another Day in My Expat Life and again this is a special one because Keri, of the website Baby Globetrotters, is a blogger I have been communicating, coordinating and collaborating since we both started out about the same time a couple of years ago. I have never actually met Keri – even though she came on holiday to South Africa at one point since we have been living here – so was curious to find about a bit more about her life. I also love the fact that even though she has three children, she still manages to have time to do her own thing: so important for us expat parents.

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6.19am(1)

6.19am Our day normally starts when the first child wakes up; this can be anywhere between 5.30am and 7am on really lucky days! On a standard school day though we need to be up and at it by 6.30am Not a bad view to wake up to though, we live in a fairly new beach front development “off island” in Abu Dhabi, Al Raha Beach. This is the view from the top floor of our townhouse (4 floors high!)

7.25am

7.25am We have 3 kids to try and usher out the door for school by 7.25am if we can. The International school the oldest two attend is only a few kilometers away but traffic lights are rubbish and we spend 15-20 mins every morning sat in the school run queue. We have rather a large car to fit our collection of kiddy seats – and kids (they are sadly not compulsory in the UAE but no way we’d go anywhere without them). Our littlest one is only 1, he attends the British nursery near the school.

8.35am

8.35am My favourite part of the day once the kids are dropped off! I start my working day by heading down to the beach front for a coffee. Here I catch up my overnight emails and social media. It’s too hot now for sitting on the beach itself but it’s a great, friendly little place – and makes me love my work from home jobs!

9.25am

9.25am Walking back to my house – it’s a mixed development along the man-made Al Raha Beach (slightly inland from the Persian gulf coast) with apartments, townhouses, villas and some commercial buildings – Etihad Centre is right behind our house. It comes with the convenience of a little supermarket and a few shops. The only real hassle here is parking.

10am

10am Where the work gets done! Back to my desk for the next few hours until kiddy pick up times. Once or twice a week I might be at client meetings but mostly working at home in front of the PC, three mornings a week while my youngest is at nursery.

12.30pm

12.30pm Lunch is just something quick and simple like toast or sandwich. NB note the kitchen only looks immaculate as we have a full time helper. She cleans the house while the kids are at school which is *amazing*

2.45pm(1)

2.45pm School pick up run starts again around 1.45pm when I leave our house, then with staggered finish times over two locations – at least if I am not picking up extra kids, dropping off for play dates etc – it takes about 1.5hrs to get home again. As you can see our cars are big (to fit all those car seats!) but having a 4wd or “Mummy Tank” is fairly standard issue here.

3.15pm(1)

3.15pm Today is slightly special and different as it’s my middle boy’s 4th birthday. We always get a special cake and treat on our actual birthday, he will have a pool party on the weekend with his friends. Afternoons while it’s hot they will generally stay in the playroom or play in the pool until dinner time.

5.45pm(1)

5.45pm As a special treat we let the kids pick birthday dinner and we all go out, including some of my husband’s relatives who live in Abu Dhabi too. We are very lucky to have this connection here and make things like birthday celebrations special – they love their Uncle Sean! My Master L will basically only eat pasta so he picked Carluccio’s at Eastern Mangroves, another fairly new waterfront development.

6.30pm(1)

6.30pm The high life when you have kids! All done by about 6.30pm to be home in bed around 7pm. This is the view from the gorgeous Eastern Mangroves marina back to some of the high rises on Reem Island. There really is no ‘centre’ of Abu Dhabi, just lots of awesome little spots to explore.

 

Thank you Keri for that look at your expat life. Please check out our other posts in this series if you haven’t already done so and let me know if you would like your expat life to be featured in a future post!

An Expat Partner: the First Three Months

Thank you to Sarah who blogs over at Scribbles from Overseas for the refreshingly honest story of her first three months living as an Expat Partner. Those early days are often the hardest for any expat – and even more so for the non-working partner who has to find a new routine to their day, as well as find their way around, find out where the shops are and how to use the local bus service….But as Sarah’s post proves, things do usually start to look up once you have the first few months under your belt.

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My partner was always very honest with me. There was a chance his job might be moving overseas, and it was more a question of when rather than if.

I have always found myself torn between two separate paths in life. The first is the kind of ‘normal’ one I suppose – go to school, get a good job, a house, get married and live happily ever after. I am a self-confessed homemaker.

The second, however, is the travelling path. I would love to see more of the world and experience new cultures. When I was growing up I always said one day I would like to spend a year or two living and working overseas.

So when my partner told me we were moving to Toronto, Canada I was excited. There were the initial stresses to deal with – like packing up our house, sorting out shipping and leaving my job. But I loved the idea of Canada. I looked forward to spending my weekend’s hiking in mountains or hiring out cute log cabins by a snowy lake. And I could not wait to go exploring all the cities in North America that I’d always wanted to visit. These would now be on the right side of the ocean for us.

Yet lurking underneath all that anticipation, buried somewhere deep in my subconscious was a growing anxiety.

bubblewrap! Starting the long task of packing our stuff in Bristol

Bubblewrap! Starting the long task of packing our stuff in Bristol.

Leaving England was stressful. Only a couple of days before our flight I was still trying to shift our stuff on gumtree whilst my partner did multiple trips to the dump. Well after dark on the day we were supposed to move out of our house in Bristol, we were still cleaning and sorting out what would be coming with us, and what was going in the bin. It didn’t help that I had come down with the world’s worst (and most badly timed) cold and was feeling entirely wiped out.

Waving goodbye to our house somewhere close to midnight, we drove to my partner’s parents to stay the night before our flight. I felt so nauseous I had to stop the car to throw up. The illness (and general exhaustion) was probably partly to blame, but also the brewing nervousness.

In Toronto

Me, My partner and the CN Tower

Me, my partner and the CN Tower

The first few weeks after you get off that flight will be the hardest. We had two days in Toronto before my partner returned to work in his new office. You feel like you have to squeeze everything into that short period of time. It is a whirlwind of trying to get the important stuff done – such as opening bank accounts and setting up phone numbers. But mixed in is the desire to learn your way around the city and make the most of the time you have off together before work takes over. I was glad we managed to find the time to have some fun and fit a little of the touristy stuff in, such as visiting the CN Tower.

It was after he went to work that supressed bubble of anxiety really shimmied its way to the surface. I had this sugar-coated idea in my head before arriving in Toronto that I would spend this time getting to know the city. However, in reality there is only so much exploring you want to do by yourself. Plus there’s the ever growing guilt that you are not working and therefore should really hold back on spending too much money.

I quickly realised I do not like being dependent. I have always worked since the age of thirteen when I had my first paper round. I do have a work permit here, but I found the process of job hunting agonising. Trailing though endless pages of job advertisements, half of which specify applicants with Canadian permanent resident status will be prioritised was an incredibly de-motivating experience.

Far too excited to find a shop selling British baked beans and squash!

Far too excited to find a shop selling British baked beans and squash! (not at all: I think we all know where you are coming from – look, Yorkshire Tea! Ed).

I got into the habit of researching trailing spouse syndrome online and convinced myself I was doomed to two years of depression and there was nothing I could do about it. Finding some temping work pulled me out of that routine. It stopped me sitting in our apartment thinking, or getting frustrated at job hunting all day. And even though I am not working again now and those niggles do still exist, after three months of being here I am able to enjoy having the opportunity to spend my time writing, cooking and doing the things I love. Things I wouldn’t normally have the time to do when working a full-time job.

I don’t want to make this all sound too negative. Things do get better once you get over that initial first month hurdle. Yes you will undoubtedly sob into a cup of tea wondering whether you made the right decision and consider getting on the next plane home at various points. Yes you may go slightly loopy some days, and I certainly crave that path one lifestyle from time to time.  However, if I could go back in time six months I wouldn’t change my decision to move overseas and become an expat partner. Most days I really love being here, and for every day I want to go home there’s another where I am thinking about where might be next on the list after Toronto.

On top of all the obvious positives of seeing a new place, meeting new people and learning about new cultures, I have found this an opportunity to learn what makes me happy. I have realised what is most important to me – and who is most important to me. You learn who your true friends are. It gives you the chance to step back, re-evaluate and maybe write a whole new path for yourself.

Three months in and Toronto is bright and blooming. It is summer here now and the weather at least certainly beats the grey drizzle England promises most of the year around. Toronto is a really great place – and I have still only seen the tip of the iceberg!

There is still a lot to learn and a long way to go until I will feel completely settled, but I am starting to realise it is OK to not have everything neatly in place.

 

The Male Trailing Spouse series – Brian in Iran

Welcome to the latest post in my series on Male Trailing Spouses. I love that I have had such a great variety of men taking part in this series, from so many different places. This week I feature Brian, an Australian who lives in Iran with his Swedish wife and their daughter. Brian’s answers to my questions are extremely insightful and I hope they will help other men in his situation or considering taking the plunge into trailer-dom.

brian head shot

Hi Brian and welcome to the series! First of all, please could you tell me a little about yourself and your partner/family.

My name is Brian, a native Australian and naturalised Swede. I am trailing spouse of a Swedish diplomat, and we have a 4-year old daughter (dual Australian/Swedish). We are presently posted in Iran. Prior to this we have been posted to China (where we met), Syria, Sweden, Belgium, and Austria. I have also been posted to Thailand, while my wife worked in China.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?

Every posting is the same, and yet at the same time different, at the start; that is to say there are things you find normal for every arrival, and things you notice are different. It is all about compare and contrast! I don’t think that being newly arrived is much different for male spouses as female. Certainly, however, the spouse’s arrival is very different from the arrival of the posted officer who often immediately has work to preoccupy them

Arrival is always hectic, filled with new people, new places, and new sights and sounds. You need to make a lot of notes, get very familiar with maps of the area, names of places, and where to go for this and that. In hardship postings, that initial difficulty is often greater, and start-up fatigue is more common.

The cycle of postings is clear that, even in difficult places, there is a honeymoon period where things are all new and mostly interesting, and you are striving to make the posting fit you, or the other way around. It is the fast-learning-curve end of the posting.

In difficult places, this is more about acting quickly to create your ‘nest’, and finding any networks for support. It is also about a crash course in taxi-level language, map-reading, shopping guide, eating guide, and finding out what groups, if any, exist for networking and support. And, of course, about settling the child into schooling, with the logistical issues that often brings.

In easy places (admittedly I find it dangerous to call any major international relocation ‘easy’), setting up home and network is less urgent because there are lots of familiarities and less hostility in the context. Exploring and ‘conquering’ the new context is considerably faster in easy posts, but common to both sexes of spouse.

Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?

Yes. I gave it up at the start so that we could be together. I had a job that was to take me back to Australia after we had really only just met. So I quit that job of more than 12 years and joined the UN to be nearer, and after a year of that, starting a consultancy to focus on freelance contracts around the world. For a lot of reasons, furthering the relationship included, it was an easy decision.

In hindsight, I was young and self-confident enough to take it rather lightly, or at least with more gusto than I perhaps should have. I would not have so easily jumped in (or is it out?) if I had known the trials and tribulations of working when permanently on the move.

There are severely constrained choices confronting the trailing spouse to develop into a location-independent professional. Freelancing is the most obvious fit for spouses. However, this often means being away from home and post for long periods, as well as the vagaries of securing contracts, major financial ups and downs, and little in the way of financial consistency, for example, pension, allowances, and taxation.

A lot also depends on how easily you can service contracts from the posting; some difficult posts, for example, have such lousy communications (both internet and air traffic), that clients drop off quickly when they cannot even get you on the phone. That certainly cools the enthusiasm for consulting work.

Frankly, jobs that are all about working from home are by far the best for all trailing spouses, as long as communications by phone and computer work well.

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?

In Tehran, I am a rare species. The Diplomatic Ladies Group even had to change their name and constitution to allow male members. And still, in the end, being almost the lone male was unsatisfying for several reasons; the group activities were strongly focused on women (perfectly fairly, since women are 99.9% the membership). And it felt like any suggestions I might have to change the group would subvert the real needs and interests of the group.

Being a male trailing spouse makes more difference in difficult posts, or strict Islamic posts, In both of which there are fewer male spouses and fewer contacts with other expatriates and the local population as well. In other difficult postings I have been less of a rare species, and sometimes been able to eke out strong friendships with one or two other male spouses. But being a working spouse, which often demanded travel and long periods away from the post, militated somewhat against forming friendships. In easy postings, it is less necessary to establish a network with other male spouses; friends can be found in many other places.

In both difficult and easy posts, I find it is really important to be a ‘joiner’, at least in the first 6-12 months. Join groups, clubs, meetups etc and also accompany the spouse to events to make acquaintances. Although male diplomats mostly fully ignore male spouses, sometimes you can make a breakthrough through asking questions like “do you play squash?” etc. And sometimes, just sometimes, male diplomats won’t drop your hand before the handshake is done; they might actually want to get to know you even if meeting spouses is not the reason they came to the event.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?

Yes. There are a number of factors, social, economic, and personal. Male spouses often have indelibly imprinted on them the need to have a job, and provide for the family. That is hard to break and even the staunchest male feminist can have trouble rising above identity issues such as that.

Male spouses are also a fairly rare commodity, even with the egalitarian Swedish foreign service. And this is especially so in hardship places. So making friends for them is overall harder than female spouses who can often engage with a much larger grouping of spouses in every post also looking for doing things together.

Whether we agree with it or not, the simple fact is that many female spouses don’t want to hang out overly much with male spouses and vice versa.

Male spouses are also treated differently by male diplomats: I think the male diplomats don’t quite know what to make of a man who stays home with the children, whether the spouse is working or not. Let’s put it this way, as the male spouse you are not of primary interest to male diplomats for their information needs, which means many do not bother trying to understand out at all. Those who do, however, can often become friends because both sides started with engagement in mind.

brian and daughter

Brian with his daughter, in Australia

If you have children, are you the main carer? And if so how have you found this – are you welcomed by other expat parents or do you feel like a bit of an outsider?

Yes. This has been by far the most beneficial aspect of being a male trailing spouse; being able to build a close relationship with my daughter. I have had the time to be there for her more readily, and have witnessed my wife suffering the “I never get to see her” syndrome of the working parent. I am mostly welcomed by parent’s groups, but it often feels a bit odd as the only Dad in the room. Like it or not, Mums like to hang out with other Mums, not dads. I am also an oddity at school; almost the only father to pick up the children and be in the playground with them; the mothers even (not with bad intentions) exclude me from their social media groups because I am a man. Trailing spouse dads just don’t fit into the vast majority of circles created by spouses who, traditionally, are mostly women.

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?

Consider very carefully your career options. If you are young and successful, don’t be over-confident about finding work wherever you go. You might find something but it may not be meaningful or rewarding and, in many cases, doesn’t even contribute well to paying the bills. Consider your pension; it is never too late for a pension saving but the peaks and troughs of freelancing as a spouse make those savings far, far harder.

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

In my opinion, the posting Ministry should take more responsibility for helping spouses find work. Embassies are a vast web of contacts and networks, and can offer great support to spouses looking for work in a new context, whether that be with other Embassies or international bodies such as the UN. And the posted officer suffers very badly if the spouse is unhappy, and unemployed; there are truly deleterious effects for all involved.

Thanks so much to Brian for this insight into the life of a male trailing spouse – although many of his answers will resonate with women expat partners as well as men. If you haven’t already done so then please check out my other posts in this series HERE and do let me know if you would like to be featured on the blog.

Raising kids abroad: it’s all just a guessing game

There has been a huge debate going on in an expat Facebook group I belong to over the past few days about whether it is right to take children to live overseas.

Started by a woman who is obviously struggling, the post hit such a nerve that within 24 hours she had something like 200 responses. And almost every one of them with a different view. Which just goes to show – no-one really knows the answer.

Some people obviously took huge offence at the notion that it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the child to take them away from all that they know and love, into an alien environment where they would have to make new friends and find a new routine. To them, their decision to take their offspring abroad was seen as an entirely positive thing. They would be bringing up global nomads who would navigate their lives with a fantstic grounding in world knowledge, an understanding of different cultures and hopefully an extra language or two.

What could be wrong with that, right?

Well of course to many, this wasn’t so right. Others piled in with a totally different story. Loss of identity, sense of not belonging anywhere, losing friends, missing family……there were plenty of stories from the other side of the coin to counteract the rainbows and unicorns thrown around by the first group.

In between of course were plenty of sensible comments made by people who understood that in the end there is no “right” and no “wrong”. That just like pretty well everything when it comes to parenting (apart from maybe making sure your child doesn’t stand too close to the edge of Niagara falls), it’s all just guesswork. It is impossible to know exactly what effect your decisions today will have on your children in the future – you can only weigh up all the considerations and they chose one way. And hope. Not only that, but every family, every child, every situation, is unique. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. And what worked for your child when they were 5 or 6 years old might be a different story when they reach their teen years.

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Expat life can definitely have its advantages for children….

So should you move abroad when you have children? Well, having been a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, and now raising two more, I am not going to say no. But on the other hand I will caution that it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. I don’t agree with those who do nothing but rave about the experience. To me that sounds very defensive and I think there sometimes is a lot of “guilt” (oh don’t we all hate hearing about the parental gult!) behind their comments. Realistically, taking your children away from their home once, or multiple times, is going to affect them one way or another – and you are doing them a disservice to pretend otherwise.

However, so long as you are prepared and know what you are getting yourselves into, I also believe there are at least as many upsides as downsides to doing this – and hopefully in the end, the scales will come down in favour of taking the plunge. At the moment we are struggling with my youngest daughter who, nearly seven months after we moved here, is still unhappy. But on the plus side she has had some of the most incredible experiences that will stay with her for a lifetime, she is learning new languages, has friends from several different countries and been given an opportunity to learn about a fascinating country with a very unique history, first hand.

My other daughter has settled a lot better but there are a lot of issues around her schooling. Moving her into a different curriculum hasn’t been easy and I foresee problems when we move home again.

I, like others, question every day whether we have done the right thing. But there is no point in beating myself up about it – at the end of the day we are here and unless some emergency forces us home, we are staying for the duration. My youngest daughter might be unhappy but she could equally be just as cross at home – but for different reasons. And of course she isn’t always unhappy – she loves her new friends, seeing elephants in the wild, learning to ride a horse, being in the swimming pool for hours on end….

And the older daughter might have gaps in her maths knowledge, but she will have learnt things from being in a school with an international culture that she would never have the chance to back home. She will also have friends in several different countries – who hopefully we will have the chance to visit once this posting is done and dusted.

So what is my conclusion? Well, really it goes back to the title of this post – which is, who knows! It really is just a guessing game and whilst I would love to give you a straightforward answer, I can’t. To take your children to live abroad or to not take your children to live abroad? Well, that really is the question!

Resources: I can recommend two brilliant resources for anyone who wants to know more, both of which I have reviewed on this site: Your Expat Child website and the book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counselling the Globally Mobile.

What do you think? Have you taken the decision to move abroad with children and if so was it the right one? Were you yourself a Third Culture Kid and if so, do you think it benefitted you? What advice would you give to others?

back-kuaa-on-kickstarter

 

 

The little things you wish you had known

A while ago I wrote this post on the things you wish you had known before you became an expat. Mostly this dealt with the bigger picture, like how to meet people, embracing the culture, and managing your expectations.

But there are the little things too, the things that are very much more specific to your particular country rather than to expat life as a whole. Things that are also very particular to you – after all, what is important to one family may be insignificant to another. I, for one, don’t care that I can’t get American cereals in South Africa. My American friends apparently care very much.

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When you are used to this much choice….

This was a topic recently tackled by one of my road testers, Lynsay of the blog Mills Family Travels, who has moved with her family to South Korea and has been following the chapters of my book as she settles in to her new life. In her post on the subject, Lynsay writes:

Furniture is oddly expensive  – had we known we probably would have shipped our Ikea bookcases rather than sell them for relatively little!  We probably should have brought the bunk beds too but as we were getting furnished accommodation we had to weigh up the cost of shipping (Jeju is not a cheap place to get things to!) versus what we could manage without.

Bikes are not expensive and are easy to get – it probably would have been better to sell the children’s bikes and buy new here.  For some reason they didn’t travel well and arrived a little worse for wear.

Bedding is not the same size as in the UK!  So our duvet covers and sheets are not very useful!

(you can read the full post here)

I am sure some of these points will resonate with some of you. I am also sure that they will be totally irrelevant to others. Here in South Africa, I wish we had known how hard it would be to get buy good quality children’s shoes and clothes. I also wish I had known how cheap everything would be. There are a lot of things we should have just waited to buy until we got here. On the other hand, I wish we HADN’T been told to bring lots of sun tan cream. The shops here are full of it (although to be fair, fuller now that it is summer than when we first arrived in August and really needed it…).

As it is important to try and get location-specific information before you move somewhere, I always recommend trying to find a local blogger in similar circumstances to yourself (eg has children, doesn’t have children, is working, is the accompanying partner etc) to follow. Even better if they are a friendly type of blogger who will answer your questions. And these days, there are more and more Facebook pages set up for expats in foreign cities – here we have Trailing Spouses Johannesburg and Trailing Spouses Pretoria. These are excellent resources, and just the sort of place to ask questions like whether you can get a certain brand of tea bag in yor new country, what size sheets to bring, and whether you are likely to find a decent dentist….

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Will they have your favourite brand of tea?

But of course, however hard you try, there will always be some questions you won’t get answered before your move. It would be impossible (and actually pretty boring) to know everything about your new location before you get there. There will also be questions that you won’t even know you needed to ask before you left.

And yet, even when things are uncertain, even when there are things you wish you had known, we all cope in the end. Yes you may not be able to buy the exact brand of toothpaste that you have become used to – but there are plenty of very decent alternatives. There aren’t any great clothes shops, but there is always online shopping. Bookshops are scarce – but friends with books are aplenty. Not knowing is one of the excitements of travel, an excitement that has been all but taken away thanks to our interconnected, global world. Let’s leave a few suprises in place.

Even if it is just what size bedsheets you will need for your new home.

Are there any location-specific things you wish you had known before moving somewhere new? Or do you prefer to find out about these things when you get there?

Photo credits: Cereal – Rex Roof; tea: Sarah R

Supermarket hopping, talking the lingo and keeping safe

Earlier this week I shared a post about the first of two “practicalities” chapters in my book – the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the book, I look at what it is like when you first move somewhere and discuss some of the nuts and bolts of life as a new expat. Taking the points made in the book I wanted to look at my own experience of moving to South Africa – to test what I had written and check how I was doing so far. In my first post on this subject I looked at finding a home, furnishing it and getting around. In this post I move on to the second chapter on practicalities – shopping, learning the language and keeping safe.

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Shopping

It’s interesting how a supermarket, which at first glance seems stuffed to the rafters with food, can quickly start to drive you crazy trying to find exactly the right ingredients to make a carefully planned menu, or has everything you need except one, vital thing. This can lead to one common expat phenomenon: supermarket-hopping.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

This has been exactly my experience here in Pretoria. Exactly. When we first arrived here, we were overjoyed. Compared to the supermarkets in other places we have lived (notably Islamabad and St Lucia), the choices here in South Africa are phenonemal. And I still stick by this – this is a foodies heaven in many ways and we could eat our every day for a year and still not get through all the restaurants and cafes I want to visit. There are plenty of good shops too and things like meat, wine, bread, fruit and vegetables are all bountiful.

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Plenty of wine here….

But now that I am out of the early, honeymoon stage, I have found irriration starting to creep in. Yes the supermarkets are good – but they are not always reliable. And you can’t usually get everything you need for a week in one place. And some ingredients are difficult to track down altogether.

Whilst I know I will find goods galore when I visit my favourite supermarket Woolworths (which is basically Marks and Spencers), they do not always have everything I need for my planned meals. The other day, for example, they didn’t have the particular type of sausages I had scheduled to give the kids that evening. It didn’t really matter, I bought them something else – but little irritations like this add up.

I have slowly started to work out where the best place to buy different things is – Hinterland for beef, Woollies for sausages and chicken, Almas butchers for pork loin, Food Lovers Market for ready-prepared food; Macro for bulk items like dishwasher tablets. In the end, I know we can get more or less everything we need here (the list I have asked my parents to bring out with them when they visit soon is very short – Yorkshire teabags, (UK) Marmite and Oxo cubes), but shopping can be very time consuming.

However, for the meat and the wine I am very, very grateful!

(One of my roadtester for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, Lynsay, has also written on her blog about shopping in their new location in Korea. You can read her take on this important subject here)

Language

The feeling of isolation of being a new expat in a strange country can be massively increased if you can’t interact with those around you, or if you find yourself left out of conversations because they are going on in a language you don’t know.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

Boy am I lucky with this one. Everyone I have met so far here in South Africa speaks English. They might all speak about seven other languages as well, and English may not be their first language, but I have had no trouble at all being understood.

I do sometimes find it hard to know what others are saying, mind you. Firstly, I get spoken to in Afrikaans quite a lot. I was told by my English South African cousin that Afrikaans women tend to be more glamorous than their English-speaking counterparts, so perhaps the days people first try me with Afrikaans are the days when I make more of an effort. But even when people speak to me in English, I still find some of the accents very difficult to decipher.

I am getting there, but there are still many moments of “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”.

I do love all the languages here though and enjoy practising saying many of the words. Sawubona. Dumela. Molo. Unjani. And, errr, cliick! I have also found myself starting to pick up some of the South African sayings, like Just Now, and Ach, shame. Yikes!

Keeping safe

In many countries these days, you will have bars on your windows, panic rooms or parts of the houses that can be locked off from the rest, gated and guarded communities and more. This can all seem quite alarming if you’re not used to it, but it soon becomes part of life. A sad, inevitable part of life because these precautions are there as a daily reminder of how harsh life can be for many of the other residents of the city you live in.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

Sadly, while we have had it easy with the language side of things here in South Africa, we certainly have not with the security. This country has a reputation for violent crime, and stats certainly back this up.

I have previously lived in Kingston, Jamaica, so had an idea what to expect here. Horror stories abound and these do lead to the creation of a “feeling of fear” that you have to live with, day in, day out. We sleep behind a keep in a house with grills, surrounded by electric fence, on a compound with a security guard. I have had to speak to the children about what to do if we get car-jacked; they also have “duck and cover” drills at school.

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Life behind bars.

But despite all this, you can live your life relatively normally so long as you follow basic guidelines – don’t walk anywhere at night, stay away from certain areas, keep your car doors locked at all times etc. But there is a certain tension that goes with always having to be “aware” that means it is necessary to take a break from city life as often as you can. Will I ever get used to it? Not completely. One of the things I am most looking forward to when we return to the UK on holiday is being able to open the front door and just walk.

So those are my experiences of the “practicalities” of life in South Africa, I would love to hear about yours. In future posts I will look at some of the other chapters in my book, including finding domestic staff, keeping my sanity and that huge subject: schooling.

 

Finding a house, buying a rug, and learning to drive all over again…..

A few months ago I asked some lovely expat partners to review my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide chapter by chapter as they went through their overseas move. So far posts have covered the first few chapters of the book, including preparing for the move, the actual move itself and the early days. But I have also been doing my own little road test of the book and over the course of two posts this week I look at the two chapters on Practicalities: first of all Accommodation, Furniture and Transport; and on Wednesday Shopping, Making Yourself Understood (or not) and Keeping Safe.

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Accommodation

First and foremost you need somewhere to live. At this stage, many people will be in temporary housing. Some will be in a hotel or in someone else’s house while they either look for their own home or wait for their predecessor to vacate it. Others might have moved straight into their new house and have moved on to accommodation – part 2: furnishing. But whatever your situation, and as long as you have some choice in the matter, it is very, very important to get where you are going to live as right as possible.

Extract from The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four: Practicalities Part One.

I think it goes without saying that one of the most important things to do when you move to a new country is make sure you get your home right. This isn’t always an easy task – you may have to househunt from afar; you may have no choice and already have a home assigned to you and your family; or you may not be presented with many possibilities. Over the past 15 years I have lived in four different overseas locations – and had very different experiences in each:

  • In Jamaica, I decided against moving into my predecessor’s apartment because it was quite a long way out of town and I didn’t feel safe driving there alone at night. So I was shown what seemed like dozens of unsuitable homes filled with shiny furniture until I eventually found the right one. It was relatively close to the office, on a small compound with friendly neighbours and a shared pool, and wasn’t too hideously furnished (although I did remove the zebra-print curtains)
  • In Islamabad, we were given the choice initially of living off compound in my husband’s predecessor’s house – but when the time to move got closer they had already decided they wanted to move all families on to the safety of the diplomatic compound. In the end I was pleased about this; although I am not a huge fan of living side-by-side with your colleagues (and I dislike the “British enclaves” that can be a by-product of these sorts of compounds), it was a lot easier to get to know people this way and much safer for the children.
  • In St Lucia we had to find our own house from scratch – the home that had been rented by the previous officer wasn’t suitable for a family. We took our children on the recce to look for this house and viewed countless unsuitable places. St Lucia suffered from basically being a holiday destination on a poor island – the choice was either a shack or a luxury villa. In the end we did find a beautiful home with an even more beautiful view, but it came with an insufferable housekeeper and was too far from the school/other expats. After a year we moved again, to the more popular end of the islands – where life got a lot easier for me, but my husband had a longer commute for work.
The view from our St Lucia villa#1

The beautiful view from our unsuitable home in St Lucia

  • Here in Pretoria we have moved into my husband’s predecessor’s house. We were told we wouldn’t have a choice but that it would almost certainly be this house. We did look at the one other possibility and it was fine – but this one is in a much better location and in a small, safe and friendly compound. It isn’t perfect (we have had to do battle over getting a shower fixed since we arrived) but it’s done us well and we are happy here. For once, I think we have got it right!

Furniture

Once you have found somewhere to live, you will need to think about furnishing it. You might be lucky and inherit a fully furnished, even – if you’re REALLY lucky – tastefully furnished, house or apartment that needs nothing more than your own finishing touches like pictures and perhaps new curtains. On the other hand, you might need to throw everything out and start from scratch.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four – Practicalities Part One.

We didn’t have any say over furniture really at all as the houses we move into come fully furnished. Our shipping allowance means it would be very expensive to bring over more than the odd small bookshelf or bedside table, so we have had to rely on local shops to supplement what was already in the house. And this we have had to do – the guy we took over from was a single man, who travelled a lot for work and didn’t need the same amount of stuff in his house as we did. Thus so far we have had to buy two bookshelves, a rug, two desks, two office chairs and a patio table and chair set.

Although on the surface the shops here are pretty good, what we have found is that their stockrooms are often not stocked and goods need to be sent from elsewhere. There seems to be a lot of this, waiting on shipments – particularly frustrating when you are not told when you buy something that it won’t be delievered for several weeks. I have had a few heated phone conversations about this matter!

As well as furniture we have had to work to make our house look a little less bare – there is a lot more space than our home in the UK, including some pretty huge walls to cover. Luckily this is a country where crafts are bountiful and I am slowly accumulating pretty bits and pieces to beautify the house. Heaven knows where it will all go when we return back to the UK!

Wall decorations to fill a large wall

Wall decorations to fill a large wall

 

Transport

Working out transport right from day one is one of the most important things you can do when you first arrive somewhere. Unless you’re in a relatively modern city with good transport links, or where it’s safe and easy to walk around, you really do need to think how you are going to get out and about if you don’t want to feel completely trapped.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four – Practicalities Part One.

I have already written a post about how my GPS became my new best friend; but I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that I drive here. There really is very little alternative – walking is only good for short distances and the public transport is not to be recommended on the whole.

Before I arrived my husband was already on the case. We had discussed cars and started to narrow down the possibilities for me (he gets a humungous Landcruiser with his job). Once I had got here, and after the first few days when he was at home and could ferry me around, we hired a small car so that I wasn’t stranded at home. It was pretty small and started off a little smelly as some water had leaked through somewhere and the carpet was a little pongy. But it got me around and for that I was happy. I will never forget my first drive here – to the local mall, with the kids in the back cheering me on. I actually managed to take a wrong turning – but then fixed it by driving around a roundabout and back again – which made me realise that actually driving in this city wasn’t going to be so difficult.

Now here I am a few months on, and we have bought a family car (decided on because the girls sat in the back and my youngest was able to see out of the window). I am driving more and more without the aid of the sat-nav and, cross fingers, so far have not had any accidents. I fear it is only a matter of time though – the driving here isn’t great and it is unusual NOT to come across at least one accident every time I go out. Some of which, sadly, have been pretty horrific – we saw our first dead body in the road on our first weekend in South Africa.

So we have passed some of the hurdles of the early days, settled into our home and worked out how to get around. Next, I look at some of the other practicalities of living in a new location abroad – finding your way round the shops, learning the language and keeping safe.

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