How to expand your horizons when you are back home

One of the wonderful things about expat life isn’t just getting to know the country you are posted to, but being surrounded by other people with the same mindset as you. Globalist, internationalist, citizens of nowhere (or even citizens of everywhere), call us what you will but you know what I am talking about: people who have travelled, seen the world, and whose outlook on life encompasses the sort of open-mindedness that goes with this.

So moving back to your old life can be hard. Not only are you giving up the lifestyle that inevitably comes with being an expat (including, for many of us, a bit of extra help in the house), you are also losing the company of a huge range of interesting people from all over the world. Who won’t either raise their eyebrows at you or completely switch off when you talk about some of the places you have lived in or travelled to. There aren’t many people in the “real world” who care about your road trip to Mozambique or problems crossing the Zimbabwe border.

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Depending on what sort of person you are, this might not matter all that much to you. Many will slip gently back into their old life, get up to speed with the latest goings-on in the school PTA, join the local neighbourhood watch group…Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things, of course. But many of us will miss the sort of discussions we get with people from other countries, the different outlook on life we get from living in another place.

So how do we recapture this life? For many the solution will just be to start planning the next move abroad – repatriation can cause much worse culture shock than moving overseas in the first place, so the answer could be just to move again. But of course for many of us (most?) this isn’t practical – we often return home for reasons either out of our control like our employees require us to, or for reasons such as the education of our children. There must be other, less drastic, ways of continuing to live the sorts of lives we enjoyed while abroad.

And yes of course there are, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post about it! SO here are a few of my ideas – feel free to agree, disagree, or add some of your own:

  • Live vicariously through your still-expatted friends (mostly through the sort of photos on their social media pages that you used to annoy your own friends back home with), and then book a flight to go and see them.
  • In case you don’t have any such friends, just plan some exotic holidays to the sorts of places you used to go when you lived in another exotic location. When you see the prices you now have to pay because it’s a longer flight and you can’t get local deals, cancel said exotic holiday and book something cheaper and closer. But you enjoyed the researching and the daydreaming for the original trip anyway.
  • Find some local expats to hook up with. As I wrote about in this post, there will be plenty around if you look carefully enough. Make them your new friends and pretend you too are still an expat. Just try not to cry when they take you to their enormous house and talk about their children’s private education…
  • Do something completely different like volunteer with refugees, start a university course, get a job doing something you haven’t done before. Expanding your mind is the next best thing to expanding your actual physical surroundings.
  • Trying out unfamiliar food is another big draw of expat life, so keeping this up when you are home is a good way to feel like you’re still living that life in some way. Either by recreating some of your favourite meals from whichever country you have just left, or by trying new dishes that perhaps you wouldn’t have thought about before moving abroad.
  • Read, watch films, TV series or documentaries about foreign lands. Escape into your imagination.

I am sure there are many more ways to hold on to some of the expat life once you are home and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. But in the meantime, I’m off to the local supermarket to find some ingredients so I can try cooking something that reminds me of sitting in the hot sun with the sounds of the Go-Away birds and hadedas in the background, or of an early morning game drive, or a trip round the wine estates of Stellenbosch….

 

 

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Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring…the seasons of repatriation

I can’t believe we have been home for nearly half a year. It feels surreal how quickly that time has gone. But weirder than that, I realise we have now almost been through every season since we returned to the UK. Ok I realise we are pushing it a bit to say we have been here during spring but on my morning’s dog walk today I noticed crocuses pushing through the grass and lately the birds have certainly been singing with extra gusto. It won’t be long and there will be lambs in the fields and buds on the trees…

I have been noticing the turning of the seasons on my daily walks with Cooper. I think it is one of the things you miss the most when you are away from the UK, where the seasons are so clearly defined. In Pretoria it went from cool and sunny to hot and sunny with some rain. That was about it. In Cape Town of course, as I am sure many of you have seen, they are desperate for rain. If they don’t get a good amount of it this year I don’t know what is going to happen. It is a good warning for us all.

But here in the UK it is rain that keeps this country so beautiful. Although this season we were lucky enough to get snow as well. So just to prove my point here are some pictures from my walks over the past few months:

First: SUMMER

And AUTUMN:

WINTER:

And finally, taken this morning, the first signs of SPRING:

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So there we go. Although we are a way off having been back for a year, it does feel like we are properly back and settled now. Of course we are not really – my husband is still in Pretoria (until the day-after-tomorrow when he will finally join us here) and the house isn’t fully unpacked yet. I also still miss South Africa a lot, I think I have recently been going through a bit of a six month repatriation slump. But by and large this now feels like home.

What now? You may have noticed this blog has been very quiet. As I have been solo-parenting since last August I haven’t had much time on my hands. I have also given up the remote-working job I took with me to Pretoria and am now trying my hand at full-time freelance writing. I plan to set up a separate website for that but will link to it here. In the meantime I will try and add to this site as often as possible, plus I am playing with an idea of writing the Repats Survival Guide and would love to hear your thoughts on that. Do you think it is a good idea? Would you read it? Or is there anything else you would like to know or read more about? Please comment below – I value each and every one of your thoughts!

Happy January!

 

“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