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

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A tale of travel, inspiration, and beautiful clothes.

I get contacted almost daily by people who want to write guest posts or sponsored posts for this site. In all honesty I am pretty picky – this blog isn’t a way for me to make money but to spread the message about expat life and to tell people about my book. But sometimes people contact me who I think would be a good fit and Kim was one such person. I love her inspiring story of travel and adventure, experience which eventually led her to setting up her own clothing line. It helps that I also love her clothes and can definitely see myself wearing a tunic such as the one pictured at the bottom of this blog. So please enjoy Kim’s tale of how she travelled the world, met her husband, sailed to the Caribbean and eventually set up a company called West Indies Resort Wear.

I left my home in Australia to travel the world at the ripe old age of 24.  I had graduated fashion school, and had a few years industry experience before I left, but my main goal was to work and see the world.  I didn’t want to do bar work, or fruit picking, or nannying, I wanted to find garment industry type jobs.

My first job was as a pattern maker in London, but after a few months, and with winter fast approaching that just didn’t seem interesting enough, so I started applying for jobs in the fashion industry in 3rd world countries.

It didn’t take long to land a job in Alexandria, Egypt, where I spent a year working for an enormous clothing manufacturer who was supplying cute ladies tee’s and knits to British high street stores like Top Shop.

This was my first experience of real “expat life” as the lifestyle in Egypt was so different to home, that the expat community really sought each other out for company.  There were suburbs where most of the expats lived, and there were stores, bars & restaurants targeted towards the expat community.  There was even a little supermarket in my neighborhood that catered to the expats.  I was so excited to occasionally find New Zealand cheddar cheese there.  The smallest tastes of home could get you through a whole week.

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Expat life in Egypt was great in terms of earning hard currency and having very little expenses, so I saved a lot of money for my future travels, but it was not an easy life.  As a young single woman, in a Muslim country harassment was a part of my daily life.  Even at work I was stared and jeered at.  After my year there, I was desperate to leave.  Looking back I think that I could have lasted longer, if I had have gone away more regularly to get my western world sanity back.

After Egypt I travelled for a while again, and then found myself as Head Designer at Billabong in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.  This was another world entirely, but way more similar to Australia.  As South Africa had been such a closed world for so many years of apartheid, the biggest initial adjustment was just trying to understand what people were saying.  I was not familiar with the South African accent at all, so for the first 2 weeks I barely understood what anyone was saying.  Yes, they were speaking English, but there were so many Afrikaans words and slang mixed in, that I really battled to understand.

I ended up meeting my future husband and living in South Africa for 5 years.  I loved my job at Billabong, which was so challenging, and gave me a lot of opportunities to travel.  Here I am in China, where they sent me to visit factories…

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After my husband & I met, we started to look for some sort of adventure to do together.  We were camping one weekend, and one of us had bought an adventure magazine with us.  In it was a story about a young couple who bought a boat and went sailing to the Caribbean.  As I had done a lot of sailing with my family as a child, and I read a lot of books about amazing solo sailors, I had always thought I would LOVE to go sailing but knew it wasn’t something I would do alone.  When my then boyfriend read the article, put the magazine down and said “lets buy a boat and go sailing to the Caribbean” my jaw hit the tent floor !  We hurriedly packed up our campsite and rushed back to “town” to see if we could find a boating magazine and see how much boats cost !

2 years later, we were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.  We had saved our money, bought a boat, learnt how to sail, learnt how to navigate, done some boat deliveries with other people to get experience, provisioned our boat and set sail on the biggest adventure of our lives.  Here we are on our tiny boat mid-Atlantic…

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It took a total of 55 days at sea to get to the Caribbean, and when we finally dropped anchor off the island of Tobago we were exhausted.  We stayed put for 6 months!  Eventually the hurricane season ended and we headed north to the more developed islands, we got jobs, got married, saved money again and had dreams of sailing the Pacific.  However I got pregnant and we had our first daughter.  That changed everything.  I couldn’t go get a job, as I didn’t want to leave our child in Caribbean daycare so young, so I started looking for things to buy and sell.  I imported some beautiful baskets from Africa, and I started making beaded jewelry on the boat, which I sold to different resort boutiques as we sailed around.  Eventually my good friend who had been the Production manager at Billabong when I was there said, “when are you going to stop fiddling around making jewelry and start your own label?”.

That was an “aha” moment for me, and the beginning of West Indies Wear.  I flew to India where I found the most amazing pure cotton fabrics, and I designed the first collection on an overnight train to Delhi.  Once the samples arrived with me back in the Caribbean, my husband, daughter & I would dinghy all around the island looking for good places for the photo shoot.  Here we are in the dinghy….

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We sailed between the islands, visiting resorts and introducing the collection to the different buyers.  12 years on, and West Indies Wear is still going strong.  We have moved back home to Australia now, had 2 more babies, built our own little house with an adorable design studio and we are back to dreaming of our next boat, and next adventure.

West Indies Wear is inspired by tropical island travel, so we use vibrant Caribbean colors and feature beachy, on-trend prints like sea stars, coral, palm trees, pineapples and tropical flowers.  Here is a photo of my little sister Amy wearing our number one seller… the Starfish Tunic.

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Kim Van Loo is an Australian fashion designer, who started West Indies Resort Wear, whilst sailing the Caribbean islands. She currently lives at home in Australia with her husband and three children, but travels several times a year to USA to show her new collections at trade shows and catch up with all of her buyers.