“It’s like you’ve never been away”…err no it isn’t

So here we are back in our house in our home town. And, as people keep telling me, it must be like we’ve never been away.

Except no, it can never be like you have never been away.

In some respects, things do look very similar. I look our of the window from my kitchen table, where I sat for hours and pounded out my book on this very same lap top in 2015, and yes – things do look very familiar. The view is what it was two years ago. Just up the road is the school were both my daughter’s went before we moved to Pretoria and where my youngest will go again. Across the street still live our good friends.

But looks can be deceptive. On the outside things might appear the same but once you have had the sort of experience you have as an expat, you will always be changed.

It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t ever done this, because as far as they can tell we are the same people moving back into the same street doing the same jobs and going to the same schools (apart from my older daughter who starts secondary school in a few weeks – but as do her contemporaries). From the outside, we looks like the same family moving back into the same house.

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The view from our house and no, it has not always been this sunny since we returned…..

But given a chance to look inside our house and you will see that it is still pretty empty. We won’t get our shipment for another month or so and so are still living out of the suitcases we brought back with us plus a couple of extra trunks of bedding etc. It may seem that we are getting on with normality but that sort of routine, day-to-day living is still months away. Our life is a long way from being settled.

And the emptiness of our home is a good metaphor for the emptiness inside us as we adjust to our new lives away from the place we have called home for the last two years. Of course there are many, many great things about returning to this country (that will be my next blog) but you can’t just walk away from a life where you were happy and forget about it. That goes for all of us – me and the kids, and yes even the dog!

So if you happen to come across me (in real life or in virtual life) just be conscious that while I may look fine on the outside, I may be a little delicate still on the inside. And while I am still the same person as I was before we left, in many ways I have changed – some of them easy to explain and understand (I have started writing properly for pay and edging towards being able to call myself a writer; I know a lot more about rhino poaching in Africa etc), others are undefinable. I am still discovering these differences myself but I think some of them include having a different outlook on life from having lived in such a complicated culture, being more laid back about things, having a totally different view of my own country having watched it from afar during these turbulent times.

The flip side to this is that I also have to understand that others around me will have changed too. In some ways we think of people back home as being “frozen” while we are away. This is particularly hard for our children who hope to be able to simply pick up where they left off with their friends, only to find that those friends have moved on. It’s a hard lesson to learn and even as an adult we have to be aware that many of our friends won’t be where we left them.

So as we enter this strange limbo period of re-adjustment and re-entry I will need to keep reminding myself that repatriation takes time, and that just because things look the same they usually aren’t. I need to help my children through this time too – and am ready to deal with the inevitable fallout from friendship realignments. We will have some rocky times ahead, I am sure of it – but to be aware that this is coming and is normal can at least prepare me mentally.

Now I just need to try and explain to the dog where the sunshine has gone!

 

 

And so, the time has come….

Here we are then. The last day. I am trying to look forward and not back but it’s hard. Everywhere you go it’s like “the last time we….” walk the dog in the dog park, shop in Woolworths, take the kids to Bounce, visit the school….

But forward I must look because that is where we are heading. It has been a fantastic two years – although I have to remind myself that I didn’t always love it. When I visited our dentist the other day (the last time we visit that dentist!) he asked whether I was happy here now. I must have looked a little confused because he then admitted he had made a note from my first appointment that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my time in South Africa.

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It’s hard to pick a favourite photo of South Africa because I have so many but this one is so beautiful……

To me now, that sounds very strange but then other memories come back: getting a rush of home-sickness at the supermarket check out one day; sitting alone having an ice cream to cheer myself up because I didn’t have any friends; crying into my pillow at night because I was missing my old life so much and this new life was so different and disorientating. It is only memories of feeling unhappy that I have left rather than the unhappiness itself but I know it existed.

Time. That is all it takes. Time, some friends and a bit of routine. And a little dog called Cooper.

South Africa, Pretoria, friends that I have met here – I will miss you all. The sunshine, the wine, the braai’s, the dog walks, the lions and leopards and cheetahs, the penguins, whales and turtles, the hadedas, mouse birds and go-away birds, the mountains of the Drakensbergs, the sea of the Cape,  my helper, the school, even the bloody pizzas (there were a LOT of pizzas!).

It’s been good. See you on the other side.

x

Leaving without (too many) tears: how to get it right?

When I wrote my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I put a lot of thought into how to make an overseas move with the least amount of stress possible. I talked about sending your partner ahead without you, not moving at the start of the summer holidays and other ways to smooth your passage at a difficult time. I had learned the hard way and as we were preparing at the time for our move here to South Africa, it was all clear in my head how to do it.

Well now we are doing it in reverse and I am wondering if we are leaving in a way that I would recommend to others.

First of all, let me tell you how we planned it this time: Instead of moving soon after the school year ended in June, we decided to stick around for most of the summer. This way we could stay together as a family for as long as possible as well as make the most of our last days in the southern hemisphere sun. We have had to say a lot of separate goodbyes over the last few weeks as one-by-one friends have left for the summer or gone off on their holidays. I call this the death by one thousand cuts.

The alternative, which friends of ours chose as their preferred leaving method, was to get out of town as soon as school ended. One big emotional hurrah and poof! Gone. I call this the ripping off the band aid method.

So has our way worked? Well so far I would say on the whole yes. Although we have had a lot of goodbyes, it has meant we have been able to focus on each and every friend separately. We have had dinners and lunches and evening drinks and get-togethers for coffee – but spread out over the past few weeks so every occasion has been fun and personal.

With less going on I have also been able to sort the house out slowly, one room at a time, so when the packers arrived yesterday we were ready for them. It felt relatively calm compared to other moves.

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The down side to hanging around in Pretoria for so long is that with (almost) all our friends gone it has got a bit, well, boring. But even with this, there is a silver lining: as each slightly tedious day passes, we all look forward more and more to leaving and getting back to our UK home. It is definitely still going to be emotional but leaving a bare city as well as a bare house is a lot easier than leaving somewhere still full of your friends all having a good time without you.

On a practical side we have also managed to organise ourselves well this time. My husband will return to Pretoria later in the summer for a few months which means we don’t have to worry about things like selling the car or closing our bank account. That is an awful lot of additional stress taken away right there. I wouldn’t recommend splitting your family  up for this reason alone but if you are in this situation look at the positives!

And finally one last thing that we are trying this time: with my husband still being here until probably January, we are returning for a short holiday later in the year. This means that many of our goodbyes haven’t been final ones, that the girls know they will see their friends again and that we will all get to come back to South Africa one last time.

It will still be hard but hopefully by the time we come out here in October our lives back home will be a bit more sorted than they will be when we get home in a couple of weeks time, so returning after our holiday will be both physically and emotionally easier.

That’s the theory anyway. Let’s see how it goes.

The cold, hard reality of expat life: saying goodbye

It comes to us all eventually. Whether you live somewhere for two months, two years or two decades, you will have to hug someone you care about and will miss madly and say goodbye.

But it never gets any easier.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, we are preparing to leave Pretoria in the next few weeks and have reached the point where we are starting to say our farewells. We have have numerous dinners and Sunday get-togethers and parties for the kids with those who we consider our nearest and dearest. The ones who have brought this place to life for us, who have shared the ups and downs, made us laugh, accompanied us on the huge two-year adventure South Africa has been for us. The people who will bring a lump to my throat when I think about the enormous fun we had together living in this beautiful, crazy country.

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But we have just reached the end of the school year and at this point many families are heading home for the holidays. So even though we will still be here making the most of the sun for a while longer, I won’t see them again before we leave. So yes we have reached crunch time – the hugs, the kisses, the tears, the “see you in Ecuador” or “catch up in Florida” or “you must make sure to call us on your London stop-over”. You know the drill, you expats who spend your life moving between far-flung places in this world.

Because of course the only way to deal with this awful period of goodbyes is to pretend it’s not forever, even if you fear that really it probably is. I remember when I left school (it was a boarding school so we were all a lot closer than we would have been at a normal school), someone said to me: “have a nice life”. It stuck in my head as it sounded so…final. You really don’t know if you will ever bump into someone again or not, you don’t know where your future path will take you or where theirs will take them. And isn’t it so much easier to say “hasta luego” than “goodbye”?

So in the weeks ahead I will probably say goodbye to dozens of friends, and watch my children do the same. We will hug and talk about keeping in touch (on Facebook or WhatsApp or whatever will come next).  It won’t be easy, it never is. But, sadly, it is just one of those things about expat life you have to get used too.

One of those, hard cold things.

Friends of Pretoria: I will miss you.

Group hug photo – Meg Cheng

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

Spinning in Circles & Getting Your Bearings

It’s always a pleasure to “bump” into other expats who get what you are writing about and today’s guest post comes from one such person. Janese Carstons is a transition coach whose speciality is helping expats in their first year. Here she writes about what helped her when she first moved to China.

spinning

“When facing north, the ocean is on the right so it’s East!” I exclaimed as I was pointing out the direction we needed to go to get back to our new apartments. My teammate and I lived in a coastal city in China and we were finishing our first trip out to the market and back by bike. She was spinning in circles, literally, trying to see which way we needed to go and I was pointing in the opposite direction because it was the way home. I can’t help it but I always know which direction I’m headed – at least using cardinal points.

There we were in the middle of a market’s parking lot, when it struck me – the first weeks after transitioning overseas IS spinning in circles while trying to get your bearings.

Moving is always a flurry of activities, emotions, and lists – so many lists. However, in the midst of the moving chaos, I imagined my life in the new culture. I’ll admit it, I’m an idealist when it comes to the future and the amazing potential there is in it.

But that future I envisioned had become reality and it wasn’t as idyllic as I had imagined. I’m sure that is ‘shocking’ to all of you but here are two main reasons it wasn’t ideal.

First, I brought myself with me…not the ‘perfect’ version I wanted to be in my head. I brought my emotions, my quirks, and all my imperfections. I was still excited for the adventure but for some reason, I thought I would morph into this amazing new person on the 14-hour plane ride. Instead, I was jetlagged, emotionally fatigued, and couldn’t understand enough Mandarin to get me to a toilet if I really needed it. The idea of “perfect” crash landed the moment I stepped foot in China.

Second, I did not step into the China I envisioned in my head. You can be told by multiple people the good, the bad, and the amazing about the new country/culture you’re moving to but you’re going to experience it for yourself; and your journey in this new land will not be the same as anyone else’s experience. It’s unique to you – how you see it, how you interact with it, and how you accept it. I’d like to say I moved without expectations, which I did for the most part, but I didn’t move without biases…even ones I didn’t know I had.

Yes, these two reasons popped my idealistic bubble, and yes, it needed to be popped so once it did I was able to stop spinning in circles and start focusing on getting my bearings.

Here are the top 3 ways to stop spinning and start focusing:

1) Be humble and forgiving – to yourself first and to everyone else second

You have just leapt into an incredible opportunity. Your world has been rearranged so of course you feel discombobulated from the world you just left. You’re normal so stop expecting yourself to be more than you can be at this moment in time. It will pass and you’ll continue to grow in ways you’ve never imagined you were capable of doing in your life.

2) Know yourself – be aware of what makes you, You

Moving to another culture is a great opportunity to assess how your values and behaviors are congruent, or not, with each other. Remind yourself of what you like to do, don’t like to do, and why; so that you can move into this new culture with integrity of who you are because you won’t fit the mold of whatever new culture you’re going in to. Just remember that moving overseas usually heightens your challenges rather than removing those challenges.

3) Determine where your areas of influence are in relation to your current consciousness and competence

There are six areas of influence on a person that engages their energy at all times: Emotional, Physical, Social, Environmental, Mental, and Spiritual

There are two additional areas of influence on a person who has moved to a new culture:
Culture and Language

Each of these eight areas of influence are directly related to how conscious and competent you are in each one. There are four stages of consciousness and competence and keep in mind that you’ll be in different stages for all of the eight areas of influence. They are independent of one another.

  1. A) Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. B) Conscious Incompetence – You realized that you’re not as expert as perhaps you thought you were or could be.
  3. C) Conscious Competence – You steadily learn about the new area through experience or more formal learning.
  4. D) Unconscious Competence – You no longer have to think about what you’re doing and are competent without a significant amount of effort.

Based on this information, you can become more aware of how you’re perceiving yourself within the new culture as well as make any changes you believe are needed with who you are in this new culture.

Overall, the greatest thing you can do for yourself within the first few weeks of your move is to focus inward for your bearings. Outside of yourself will continue to spin until you can move with intention in the direction you desire because that direction will be congruent with your values, behaviors, and energy in each area of influence.

To get a copy of the free EICC Audit or the free copy of “Making the Move Manageable” go to www.janesecarstens.com or email Janese at janesecarstenscoaching@gmail.com.

 

Biography

Janese Carstens is an international transition coach who is dedicated to supporting sojourners during their move overseas and setting them up to thrive during their first year in their new country. Her clients would say that her REAL specialty is understanding them through the chaos and confusion as they stretch into their ‘new normal.’

For more information on Janese and her weekly blog go to www.janesecarstens.com or follow her page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jccoachinginternational/.

 

How modern technology has changed expat life: part 1 – work

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the number of apps you can now download on to your ever-increasingly sophisticated smart phone. So many that I suspect most of us can’t keep up – I am sure there are now apps to help you with doing just about anything and everything short of putting the rubbish out (ok – have just Googled that and apparently Coventry City Council have an app called Your Rubbish….).

But for expats, many of these apps are improving our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not just phone apps, but modern technology generally – the whole idea for this post started after I called a last-minute Uber following a minor car emergency when my husband was out of town. A year or two ago I would have been stuck as normal taxis are just too risky to use for us here in Pretoria. By plugging straight in to the Uber app on my phone however I was able to rescue a tricky situation and get everyone to where they were meant to be on time.   Working, travelling, communicating, living – all things that we can now do easier, quicker, better thanks to technology. And as expats this can include the sort of improvements in our lives that means living overseas doesn’t have to be as isolating, as boring or as lonely as it used to be.

So I thought I would ask around and get some suggestions from fellow expats as to what apps, tools and other technology they love and would recommend to others. I had so many brilliant replies that I had to divide them up into several blog posts, and start today with WORK.  The list below isn’t exhaustive by any means so please feel free to add any that aren’t on it in the comments section.

Work and study

As someone who remote works, I know how important it is to be able to sit at your desk in one country and be able to easily and effectively communicate with someone in another. The improvement in WiFi and 4G in many countries has made remote working a real possibility for so many people. As it becomes more normal in our home countries so it will give us the opportunity to bring these jobs with us when we move. But apart from the ability to connect, what else has been happening to make remote working so much more realistic than it used to be? And how much easier is it is now to be able to study online?

File sharing

You remember how it used to be – someone would email you a file as an attachment, you would open it, change it and email it back. In the meantime the same document has been sent to someone else who has added their own changes. The document owner now has to take all the changes from all the different versions and merge them into one….well, no more. Now you can of course simple share a document with all in your team and everyone can see the same document and change it as required. Dropbox is probably the best known file sharing tool but there are plenty of other services out there.

Affordable webinar platforms

Webinar is basically a Web-based Seminar – so a way for lots of people to “attend” the same lecture, meeting or presentation using video conferencing software. Webinars are also interactive so not just receiving info but adding to it as well.  Video conferencing itself has of course been around for a long time – I used it when I was working in Jamaica back in the early noughties. But the key here is affordable – many small companies or businesses can’t afford the sort of full-on video conferencing facilities and technology needed for the old-fashioned way. A key to opening up remote working to expats like you or me is for companies and organisations of all different shapes and sizes to be able to take us on. This is one way to help that happen. Webinars are also an important and integral part of studying from a remote location. One webinar platform that was recommended to me was Zoom.

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Working in your pj’s: one of the advantages of remote work

Social media management tools

Many of us who work remotely also manage social media. Whether this be for a specific job or for our own blogs/websites, what we realise is important is being able to manage our posts across different time-zones. And unless you want to be getting up at 3am to make sure your tweet is sent at optimal time for the US West Coast, you need to reply on clever social management tools. I myself use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter feed (although in all honesty my management of Twitter is very patchy!). Someone else suggested Buffer and someone I know in the UK who I work with remotely on website design and admin recommends Sprout Social. The beauty of some of these platforms is that you can share your posts across multiple disciplines eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – all at the same time, and all while you are peacefully sleeping.

Project management

When I was having the front cover of my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, designed, I employed a company that used something called Basecamp. It meant that several of us all working on one project could see what everyone else was doing, could comment on progress, could discuss changes – all in one place. It meant things didn’t slip through or get lost – everything was always where it should be. This is of course a useful tool whether you work remotely or in the same room as each other. But for those of us who ARE working in a different time zone to our clients/bosses/contractors this is a great way to keep on top of a complicated project. Or even a simple one.

Online study

Of course studying remotely has been around for a long time but we are well past the days of having to stay up until 2am to watch the Open University lectures from men in questionable jumpers and bad facial hair. Nowadays you can study from the comfort of your home for courses ranging from just-for-fun short tutorials to full on degrees and post-graduate studies. Coursera is one such organisation bringing together online courses from a number of different providers – in fact, they even have a course called Communicate Effectively in a Globalised Workplace! Another company offering a huge variety of online courses is Udemy – anything from mastering meditation to learning software development. One particularly neat feature of Udemy is that they offer courses as gifts – so if you are still stuck for that last Christmas present for someone special…

Personal digital assistants

I will admit when I first heard about this, I thought we were talking about virtual assistants. By that, I mean people in other places who help you with things like typing up a document or doing your accounts. All useful but obviously becoming obselete now we are in the brave new digital world. So what is a Personal Digital Assistant as opposed to a person personal assistant? The ones we probably know best are those like Siri or Cortana attached to the devices we use everyday. These are still more useful for the kids to play games with, if you ask me. But I am told the future is coming and soon we will be asking these guys to do all sorts of things for us. If you don’t believe me read this. And although it looks like we will be using digital assistants to help us in many ways, from telling us what the weather will be like to re-stocking our fridge, I am sure there will be many ways they will also be able to help us work from home. I just don’t quite understand yet how….

Others

I was recommended a number of other apps and tools that I thought were worth a mention. These included Prezi – a cloud-based tool for creating and storing presentations; Figure It Out, which helps you keep track of time across different timezones; Wunderlist – which is a virtual, shareable to-do list (also great for when you move); and Join.me which I am told is a good way to share screens and team calls .

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So that’s some of the best tools around for remote work; in my next post on this subject I want to look at how technology has helped us communicate, keep in touch with home and make and keep friends in our new location.

Photo credit: Kevin Schraer