My Expat Life Story

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to be interviewed for a podcast series for expats – Expat Life Stories – by the amazingly friendly and energetic Mariza of Mariza ABroad (where these youngsters get all their energy from I don’t know!), It wa a fun experience and you can listen to the outcome via her website Abroad Podcast. In the interview, I talk about my experiences as a trailing spouse expat partner in Pakistan and St Lucia as well as discussing why I wrote the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide.

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Whilst you’re there, have a look at (listen to) some of the other stories on the website. The podcasts are quite long, but the one I listened to (about another woman who had lived in Pakistan and now lives in Botswana) was fascinating! There’s another on there about a woman who lives in Antartica and was kidnapped as a child which I am waiting to have the time to listen to! Makes my life sound very boring…..

I would thoroughly recommend this experience to all other expats – she is looking for more victims volunteers, so give her a shout via her website if you are interested!

In the meantime, I’m gearing up for another interview tomorrow night. This one will be via Skype and will actually be a video so no pyjamas! Yikes!

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What’s in your cupboard (even after three overseas moves)?

The other day I had an online discussion with expat friend Vanessa who blogs at Petal and Mortar about some old tahini paste I have in my fridge. I really should have thrown this out quite a while ago, but Vanessa made me feel better by admitting that they had a jar of “neon peppermint sauce” which had followed them over FOUR separate moves.  And this made me think about the business of moving, upping sticks again every few years and all the things we have to decide to take or to leave behind, to keep or to throw away. And why some things come with us when, really, we should have thrown them away years ago.

In my case, it’s mainly spices. Living as we did in Pakistan for a few months back in 2008, one of the things that you could get there at a ridicuously cheap price was fresh spices. And good ones too, none of your namby-bamby supermarket stuff. When we realised we had to leave, we stocked up – big time. Unfortunately, though, what we hadn’t realised is that when you leave a country where you eat in a certain way, your eating habits tend to change as well. So we had the spices for them, but curries stopped being quite such a major part of our lives. So we still have some of those spices. Seven years later.

spices

We’re now getting to that part of our last months in the UK when every time I go shopping I have to stop and think – will we be able to finish this before we leave for South Africa? And if not, will we be able to take it with us? I wanted to buy some balsamic glaze the other day (I know! How middle class!) but had to stop myself. Something like that would normally last us about two years. There is no way we would finish it in the three months we’ve got left here (yikes!). And it’s not something I would want to risk packing – the thought of balsamic glazed clothes and bedding doesn’t particularly appeal.

So we’re gradually running down our cupboards, until we get to the point when we’re having to think what on earth we’re going to make with the three remaining ingredients (frozen blackberries, the above-mentioned tahini paste, an old jar of jerk sauce……), like some sort of cooking show for expatriating families. Perhaps I should introduce it as a concept to the BBC?

But at some point we’ll have to decide what comes and what goes. Do we risk taking un-opened jars of food? What about that packet of kulfi I bought in our experimental Indian Cooking period about 18 months ago and STILL haven’t got round to trying? Will that make the cut? And what about those wretched Pakistani spices – so old now their flavour must have totally faded, leaving them a mere memory of their former, mouth burning selves? Do we bring them, for old-time sakes? Shall we keep them as an ongoing souvenir of our short stay on the sub-continent – or is it time to say enough is enough and send them the same way as the tahini paste and the half-finished, six-month old salsa (it’s amazing what you find at the back of your fridge when you move house).

To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. I suspect it will depend on how sentimental I’m feeling when it comes to time to pack. But one thing I am sure of. There’ll be more strange foodstuffs in our baggage on the return journey. Which, no doubt, will still be there four years later….

What’s in your cupboard? Do you have anything left from living in another country which you really should have thrown out by now? Come on, fess up!

Memorable Journeys #5: London to Islamabad via Dubai (where we should never have been)

The run up to our posting to Islamabad wasn’t easy – we had a baby and a toddler, the baby got ill (gastroentiritis), she then developed some sort of exploding nappy syndrome…luckily at the last moment I remembered the doctor mentioning that gastroentiritis can lead to lactose intolerance in babies (and STUPIDLY I had given up breast feeding just before we were about to launch on an epic journey when not having to worry about her formula would have been one thing less to worry about)….

…so eventually we bought some lactose-free formula, the baby’s nappies stopped being quite so horrendously green and smelly, our bags were packed, we said our goodbyes to all and sundry and we set off to the airport, all of us packed together with about 6 large suitcases, two car-seats, a buggy and one of those huge nappy bags you have to take everywhere with you when you have any child under the age of about two.

We were lucky enough to be flying business class – these were still the days before the austerity cuts put an end to that (for us, at least). So check in and the period leading up to the flight was all relatively relaxed. We got on the plane, found our seats and settled in for what we thought would be a nice, straight-forward, A-to-B flight.

Never turning right again!

Never turning right again!

I can’t say the main part of the flight was fun. First the baby slept while the toddler was awake (see above – E, aged two, enjoying the best BA Business class has to offer). Then when the toddler finally feel asleep, it was the baby’s turn to wake. Still, I told myself as I paced the aisles bouncing a crotchety seven-month-old in my arms, it won’t be long until we’re there and we can all collapse into bed in our new house….

And we were nearly there. We were VERY nearly there. Unfortunately, we had been beaten to our destination by a very large thunderstorm. Which meant landing in Islamabad was going to be impossible. And since we couldn’t land in Karachi (security issues) or in Delhi (too many Pakistani’s on board – the Indians wouldn’t let them in) the only viable option open to us was to turn around and head for Dubai. Groan!

From London to Dubai

So the captain turned the plane around and back we went. This was annoying but we thought it would just be a blip. We were reassured that there would be BA ground staff waiting for us when we arrived in Dubai – they even made it sound like someone somewhere had a clue what they were doing. Ha ha ha ha ha.

When we landed in Dubai – one of the busiest airports in the world – it soon became clear that in fact no-one, not the Captain, nor the crew nor anyone at the airport had any idea of who we were, where we had come from or what to do with us. The plane wandered around aimlessly for a bit before finally finding somewhere to park. We were ushered off and taken on a bus first to one gate, then another. Eventually we were pointed inside the airport building and led around in a few circles. No-one went through any kind of security and I almost lost the toddler in the scrum. I screamed at her across the airport as she was about to disappear into a dense thicket of thawb’s, abaya’s, kameezes and dishdash’s….

Finally we found ourselves, plus some of our suitcases, on a bus to a hotel. Where there was a queue of fellow-passengers snaking around the room and to the door. We found some seats and made ourselves at home. While my husband and I took it in turns to queue, the children fell asleep…..

Now just to add some context here, the London to Islamabad flight was a night flight. We hadn’t managed to snatch more than a few minutes sleep before we arrived in Dubai – by which time it was some time the day after we originally took off. As for meals, I don’t think we had any idea as to what we should have eaten when. We’d gone through so many different time zones, and then back again, by this point that the only clue as to when it was time to eat was our grumbling stomachs. Unfortunately we were now in a country for which we had no relevant currency….

Eventually we were taken up to our hotel room where we were presented with one bed for the four of us….and certainly no such thing as a cot or anything safe for the baby to sleep in. Luckily, although the rest of us hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, I had packed some pouches of food for the baby (Ella’s Pouches – thoroughly recommended!) as well as some formula in little boxes (once again, why oh why had I stopped breastfeeding before this journey?), so she was able to eat. We were eventually presented with some tokens for the restaurant downstairs – where we managed to stuff the toddler with bread as there wasn’t much else that she recognised on offer.

So at this point we thought we would all at least be able to sleep while we waited for some news from the airline. However, if you remember a little further up the story, the children had slept while we waited to check in. And were now wide awake and full of beans. And jumping (well, the toddler was jumping, the baby was watching her) all over the room.

We were getting close to two days without sleep and it didn’t look like we were getting any soon.

It was a dismal, dismal situation. We were stuck in a small hotel room in Dubai with no money, no information, no food and no sleep. And this is what the view out of the window looked like:

Dubai_Arch_Tower_Under_Construction_on_10_January_2008

As the day wore on we started to get more and more desperate for information. I am sure our sleep deprivation, as well as all the accumulated stress from the weeks leading up to the move, wasn’t helping, but things were starting to get a little emotional. We tried calling the airline, but just kept being put through to the inevitable clueless call-centre operators. There was no-one from British Airways to be found, anywhere.

EVENTUALLY we were told a bus would take us back to the airport that evening and we would be put on a flight to Islamabad. The children fell asleep and we all managed to get a couple of hours kip, before we had to wake them up, bath them and get them ready for the next leg of our seemingly never-ending journey.

We didn’t want to stand in any more lines so changed enough money for a taxi to get us to the airport and thus one step ahead of our fellow passengers. We still had a three or four hour wait at the airport and I remember how interesting it was watching all the people in all their various different outfits – Dubai really is a true crossroads of the world. I was also starting to feel a little more benign towards our unwanted destination, now that we knew we were on our way out of it.

So the rest of the story is actually quite unremarkable. We got on the plane. It flew to Islamabad. We got off, entered Pakistan, were picked up by my husband’s predecessor, drove to our house on the diplomatic compound, found with huge relief that someone had turned the air-conditioning on….and collapsed into those beds we’d been dreaming of since before the u-turn over Islamabad. Our time in Pakistan was difficult, full of drama and short -lived. But despite this, the memories of that awful journey haunt me to this day.

This post is part of my memorable journeys series. Read the other posts in this series: 

London to Cameroon via Moscow 

Keeping it Sterile

A Step into the Unknown at Frankfurt Airport

Mongolian Airways to Khovd via Moron

And please don’t forget, if you have ever had a memorable journey and would like it to feature in this series let me know!

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Ten totally fantastic things that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been an expat partner…

So I realise that sometimes what I write about trailing spouse life can sound a bit, well, negative. Recently I have posted about depression, relationship problems and the reality of expat life – all of which have their place (after all, the point of both the book and the blog is to prepare people for this reality). But this is, of course, only half the story.

I promised myself the last time I wrote one of these posts  I would follow it up with a positive one. So here it is. To prove to you that there is an up-side to being a trailing spouse, here are ten brilliant things that would never have happened had I not been an expat partner. (Note: these are all things that have happened because of or during my time as an accompanying partner; there were lots more fantastic things that happened to me as an expat but before I met my husband and officially became a “partner”. Perhaps I’ll include those in a future post).

1) I would never have learned how to make watermelon daquiris. Or mango, lime, banana (insert tropical fruit here) daiquiris. A stable of our time in St Lucia, this delicious drink was a particular favourite of ours because we had a lime tree in our garden and lime + rum + sugar + fruit = daquiri. The watermelon one was the prettiest; it’s actually a Nigella recipe: cut fruit into chunks; freeze; when ready to make drink, whiz with rum and lime sugar syrup. Drink. Repeat.

Actually strawberry daquiris...

Actually strawberry daiquiris.

2) My children would not be such good swimmers. (Almost) every day we swam, from the age they were one and three until they were three and five. We had pools in both gardens of our houses in St Lucia (we didn’t have two houses simultaneously, we moved from one to the other). There wasn’t a lot else to do. They were both little fish and still are. Let’s hope they get to continue with their swimming in South Africa.

emma in the pool

3) I wouldn’t know the recipe for Ansa’s curries. Ansa was our fantastic helper in Islamabad, who helped me with looking after the children, cleaned the house and taught us how to make her amazing curries. Telling her we had to leave (we had two week’s notice following the Marriott bombing in 2008) was one of the hardest things about the whole episode. She cried, I cried. She presented me with her recipes as a leaving gift. I still cook them to this day.

4) We wouldn’t have spent so much time here martha and minnie

Here:

dora girls

or indeed here

potter land

 Just a hop, skip and a jump away from St Lucia and we could use air miles to get there. How lucky were we? How lucky were the children! TWO visits to Disney in the space of a year…..

5) And the girls wouldn’t have had such a close relationship with their Uncle. My husband’s only living relative, my brother-in-law, lives in south Florida and rarely leaves it. By our regular visits, we were able to build up a good relationship between him and the girls, which carries on via Skype (and bi-annual visits to the Sunshine State) to this day.

6) I wouldn’t have written 9/10ths of an as yet unnamed novel, set on a fictious Caribbean island which isn’t anything like an amalgamation of St Lucia and Jamaica, starring a young female British diplomat who very definitely isn’t me, and who gets embroiled in the drugs trade…..one day I promise I will finish it. I haven’t really touched it since returning to the UK from St Lucia; although I did eventually get my main protagonist out of the boot of the car she had been stuck in for about 3 years….

7) We wouldn’t have been able to wake up to this view every morning

august 09 best view ever

Which could also look like this:

august 09 beutiful sunset

8) I wouldn’t have had the chance to understand Islam and the Muslim religion in the way I can thanks to having lived in Pakistan. I’m certainly no expert, we only lived there for a few months. But despite the fact that I have lived all over the world, I had never before lived in a predominantly Muslim country. We were there during Ramadan so I learnt what it meant for the locals to fast, and what iftar was, why Eid was so important. I was also able to introduce my oldest daughter to the concept of other religions at an early age (something I blogged about here). Learning about other cultures and religions is so important for all of us in this day and age.

9) I wouldn’t have met such a fantastic range of people of all nationalities – both in person while living in Pakistan and St Lucia and as online friends (some of whom are also real-life friends) I have met through our mutual expat-partner status….

10) And finally I wouldn’t have had the inspiration, and the opportunity, to write the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, nor the blog that goes with it….which means, dear reader, that I would never have had the chance to get to know YOU!

So now I’ve shared mine, I’d love to hear yours. If you are an expat partner/trailing spouse, what’s been GREAT about it? What would you have never done? What fabulousness about your life would you like to share? And if you’re not one of “us” do you think I’ve managed to balance things out a bit?

 

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I’ve spent my whole life feeling home-sick for somewhere….

As part of a trailing spouse link-up this month we have been asked to write about home-sickness. At the moment, I am home. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get home-sick. For all my life I have been leaving places – and people – behind. And even now I still get a pang for countries that are so far in my past I can hardly remember what they feel like.

A friend of mine has recently returned from a posting in the Philippines. On her arrival back in the UK, she posted a set of photographs – set to some stirring song or another – of her time in that beautiful country. As I watched the pictures flick across the screen in front of me they not only showed me what a fabulous time my friend had had, it also brought back my own memories. And suddenly I was there again – the smell of Frangipani on a humid tropical evening; the excitement of arriving at our favourite beach resort at the start of the weekend. Diving from the top board at the Army and Navy club – and the agony when the perfect arc turned into a belly flop. Eating pizza at Shakey’s. My first sleepover, at a Korean friend’s house. Birthday parties with the rich children from school at the Country Club. Running barefoot round the corner of our gated village to my best friend’s house….

Maya maya pic

The Philippines in the 1970’s

The feelings are fleeting but they are still there. Another example: I recently met someone who is about to be posted to Venezuela. I spent some very formative years of my life in that country – we were posted there when I was 15 and left when I was 19. I was at boarding school for much of that time but spent most holidays in Caracas and then a year there between leaving school and university.

As we spoke about what Venezuela was like (sadly very different from the country I knew – so safe I was able to go out at night on my own, finding my way home via taxi’s or lifts from strangers I met in bars; now it’s all armoured cars and close protection teams), I remembered trips to the Llanos, swimming at the base of the Angel Falls, endless cinema outings to watch the latest 80’s teen movie. Terrible clothes shops. The blandness of arepas, but the wonderful beef. These memories are deep but they haven’t gone away.

Yes I get homesick all the time – for all of these countries and for more. For verdant New Zealand, with its stunning views and laid-back people. For Jamaica, where I met my husband and we spent the weekends underwater. For St Lucia, with its beaches and its pools. Even for Pakistan, a strange three-month interlude in my life where I barely touched on getting to know the country but nevertheless gained so much.

Jamaica wedding

Jamaica wedding

But all of those will still pale into insignificance when I move abroad again this summer as I know the one place I will always miss more than any other is this one.

I wasn’t born here – that honour goes to Cuba – but I have always known the UK is home. Maybe not even the UK, maybe more significantly England, or perhaps even west England, where I live now. We always had a house in this country and family. We returned here between postings and I went first to school and later to University here. I have lived and worked here – in Kent, Hertfordshire, Essex, the Midlands, the west, and of course London. I know the people, I know the humour. There is no other country that does better television. We have our radio and our music. Our culture and our history. The NHS. Marks and Spencers. Cheese rolling and Morris dancing. We have the diversity of Birmingham. We have the beauty of the Cotswolds. In my opinion, having travelled and lived in all four corners of the globe, there is no better country in the world.

The view from our kitchen window

The view from our kitchen window

So why do I keep leaving it? This is a good question – but maybe one of the reasons I love it so much is because I do keep going away. This gives me a different perspective on this place, I can see it from a different angle. And while others might see ambulance queues and GP waiting lists, I see free and universal healthcare open to all. Where others complain that our politicians are corrupt, I see freedom of speech, freedom to wear (almost) whatever we want, freedom to complain openly and voraciously about those politicians. And where others moan about immigration and foreigners taking our jobs, I see an open and generous country.

But of course I won’t just be homesick for the country as a whole, I will be homesick for the little things, the meaningful things, the things that really mean OUR home. The autumn blackberry picking. Chats with other mums on the school run. The girls running outside to play with their friends in front of our house. Being able to walk into town and buying sausages from the local butcher. Reading the Times on Saturday afternoon with a coffee. Looking out of my window at the oh-so-familiar view of the road, trees, houses and play park in front of our home.

All of these things are what I miss. All of these things are what home means to me. And all of these things will be what I most look forward to when it’s time to return.

 

Read more about other trailing spouses’ experiences with homesickness:

• Elizabeth of Secrets of a Trailing Spouse shares how homesickness wasn’t what she expected
Tala Ocampo writes about the Life that Was in the Philippines and how she would still say yes to the trailing spouse life
• Yuliya of Tiny Expats relives the sensory experience of being back home
• Jenny of My Mommyology explains why we become homesick in the first place
• Didi of D for Delicious talks about her love-hate relationship with her home country

Travelling with children: why introducing them to the world is so important

Yes I know taking children overseas is hard work. I’ve wrangled with the miniscule changing tables in airplanes. I’ve dealt with the most horrendous nappies known to mankind at 30,000 feet. I’ve also worried about malaria and sunburn and heat rash and food poisoning. Oh yes and I have dealt with the tantrums from hell while trying not to miss a plane.

Granted, much of the travel we have done with the kiddies has been sort of forced upon us – either to get to my husband’s place of work, or to escape from it before we went insane. But even if our life didn’t involve moving abroad for work, I still think we’d be taking our children to other countries as often as we could afford. Let me tell you why.

First there was Pakistan
When my eldest daughter was nearly three, and the baby not yet seven-months-old, we moved from the UK to Pakistan. We weren’t there very long – just three months, before we were evacuated following the bombing of the Islamabad Mariott hotel in 2008. And those three-months were pretty hellish: the outside heat made it difficult to leave the air-conditioned house between the daytime hours; most of the other expat families were out of the country and preschool was closed. We also didn’t have most of our stuff – the girls’ toys only arrived a few weeks before we left.

But despite everything, despite the heat and the loneliness and the fear and then the massive disruption of having to re-pack everything we’d only just unpacked, I’m still glad we went.

 

My older daughter and the Faisal mosque in Islamabad

My older daughter and the Faisal mosque in Islamabad

I have lived in many places in the world but until Pakistan I had never lived in a Muslim country. For the first time in my life, the calls to prayers became a backdrop to my daily routine. As did having to think really hard about what I was going to wear every time I left the safety of the diplomatic compound. Oh, and missing pork products too – pizza just isn’t the same without pepperoni or ham. But what I liked about living in Pakistan is that it exposed not just myself and my husband (who worked at the British High Commission), but the children as well, to a completely new culture.

We are a family of atheists, but we live in a predominantly Christian community. The girls’ school here in the UK (where we are currently living, preparing for our next overseas move to South Africa) is not church-run but prides itself on its “Christian-ethos”. There are children from other faiths at the school but they are few and far between and subject to the same Christian-dominated RE lessons, assemblies and general dogma as my own children.

So by living in Pakistan we were at least able to introduce the idea that there are other major faiths in this world, and that it is important to understand not everyone thinks as we do, or as our Christian friends, neighbours and school teachers do. It was also a good way to introduce them to the fact that despite these different faiths, we are all (or at least MOST of us) basically the same. We all like to eat and play and sing. We all love our children and moan about work or school.

Of course the children were a bit young to absorb more than the very basics of this lesson – in fact, the baby was too young to absorb anything at all! But to help reinforce the message we took them on a holiday to Egypt a couple of years ago.

And then there was Egypt
This time they were both old enough to understand why the staff at the hotel we were staying in weren’t eating between dawn and dusk (we were there during Ramadan). We were able to discuss why we saw so few women and when we did, why they were so covered up. We were also taken out into the desert where we met some members of a Bedouin tribe – and were able to talk about why their children probably didn’t go to school. On the same trip, our guide discussed why so many men were called Mohammed, talked about the make-shift mosque used by the local tribes and introduced us to the joys of eating gritty naan bread straight off the fire.

Fire in the desert

Fire in the desert

It was certainly a trip the children will never forget. We have travelled a lot with them but mainly it’s been to relatively “familiar” countries (the US, Spain, St Lucia, the Netherlands). To go to somewhere totally different, where people have a different faith and a totally different way of life, was a fantastic learning opportunity for them as well as a lot of fun (there was a large waterpark in the hotel where we were staying!).

The impact of travel in these countries
Now when we talk about Muslims, the girls don’t just think about the women covered from head to toe in black that we sometimes see in one of our neighbouring towns, or the snippets of news from Syria or Nigeria or France that they might overhear on the radio. They also think of our guide in the desert showing them the stars, the colourfully-dressed little girl who tried to get us to ride her camel, and the life-guards who hurried off as soon as the sun started dipping towards the horizon to have their iftar meal.

Yes travelling with small children can be hard work. But as we prepare to take them to yet another completely new culture, where they will learn first-hand about poverty and racism and inequality, but also about how these things can be overcome, I think the effort is worth it.

This post was written as part of a series about travel with children on tinyexpats.com. 

Beautiful things from around the world

Today I just wanted to share some of the favourite things we have bought while we have lived overseas. We haven’t been that great at collecting items – we just didn’t have time in Pakistan (we were only there for three months before we were evacuated) and there just wasn’t that much to buy in St Lucia. Unless you wanted to load up with cheap tackiness from the Cruise ship terminals! But look hard enough and know where to go and there’ll always be something worth parting with your money for. I love these items in particular because of their colours, and they brighten up our British-dull home as we await our next oversea Adventure. How about you – do you have any favourites brought back from foreign lands?

Beauitful bright blue shoes from Pakistan

Beauitful bright blue shoes from Pakistan

"Jingly jangly" trucks were everywhere in Pakistan. We couldn't resist buying some mini ones to come home with us.

“Jingly jangly” trucks were everywhere in Pakistan. We couldn’t resist buying some mini ones to come home with us.

Wooden masks hand-carved in St Lucia. We would see these along the road-side on journies along the coast. Eventually we found the man who carved them and I managed to buy a couple just before we left.

Wooden masks hand-carved in St Lucia. We would see these along the road-side on journeys along the coast. Eventually we found the man who carved them and I managed to buy a couple just before we left.