It’s not easy going back, but coming home again was nice

Sorry again for the long silences. Life has been hectic and then last week we went back to South Africa for half term.

And boy that was surreal!

It was lovely to see everyone again and nice to enjoy some sunshine (sadly, not enough: the weather was NOT on our side). But returning to our old house where my husband is still living just felt….wrong. Because it wasn’t my house anymore, nor was it my life.

For a start, none of our stuff is in the house anymore. So it felt like a shell. In some ways, it was like the early days when we first arrived – bare walls, borrowed bed clothes and crockery, none of our books or games or other distractions. But this time I knew my way around and wasn’t so worried about things like security.

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Luckily our zebras were still on the otherwise bare walls

Then even when I met up with friends (which was lovely), I knew I didn’t belong there anymore. So when they were making plans for the weeks ahead and I (of course) wasn’t included, it really hit me that this was no longer my life.

It was hard, but I also think it was a good thing. Because when we got on the plane to come home, apart from the obvious sadness of saying goodbye to everyone – not least, my husband – I was looking forward to getting back here. Back to my warm house, with all our stuff. Back to what has become my life. And it really made me realise how far we had come. On Monday morning there was swim training and school and picking up the dog and shopping for food and basically just getting on with things. It felt normal. It felt good.

I know we have a way to go yet, I’m not out of the woods. Things are still hard, loneliness in particular is still very real (to be expected when you have been away for two years – both me and the children need to re-make our lives and friendships here). But three months into repatriation and I am perhaps in a better place than I feared I would be.

I will always have a place for South Africa in my heart and I will definitely go back – there is still so much of the country to explore. But for now I feel better about leaving and happier about being here.

At least I would be if it were just a little bit warmer. And sunnier….

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I’m still here – just!

The last few weeks – months even – have been insane.

Everyone tells you that repatriation is hard but it isn’t easy to explain the impact of a physical move WITHOUT ANY SUPPORT AT ALL combined with the emotions of leaving somewhere you love and returning to a life where you don’t really feel you belong any more.

I am surrounded by boxes. Most of them are empty now. Well, when I say empty, many of them are still filled with packing paper. That wretched paper is the bane of my life. It is taking over. I have thrown piles of it into our downstairs toilet, ostensibly to get it out of the way but in reality it insists on spilling out the door, into our hallway. I should just close the door and pretend it’s not there but then I panic about the fire hazard of having a downstairs loo filled with paper…

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That’s what repatriation does to you. It makes you wake up in the middle of the night and worry about the most ridiculous things. Packing paper is one, but I seem to spend half my life fretting over the silliest of things. It certainly doesn’t help that I am on my own for a few months while my husband finishes his job in Pretoria and that my children have chosen to join the local swim team so I now have to drive them to training up to nine times a week. Including at least twice a week at 6am…

But I suspect that whatever your personal circumstances, this period is hard. Even if you wanted to come home, even if you longed for it. You still have to get used to the fact that you have been away and that others haven’t and now you have to find your new place in your old world.

One of my favourite pieces of advice picked up over the years I have written about expat issues is to treat moving back to your home as if it is a new assignment. Of course it isn’t as easy as all that when you already have friends and the children are going back to their old school and you are moving back into your old house. Everyone sort of expects you just to pick up where you left off (and as I already said in my previous post about repatriation, I have changed). But even if you just pick one of two things that are new or different to how you lived before, you can build on the fact that you HAVE been away and that you are not the same person as you were.

In my case I have already joined a Meet Up group for dog walkers. This is a small thing – I only meet with them once a fortnight or so and it’s more for the dog to socialise than me. But it is important  because this is something I never would have done before we moved to South Africa. It marks the fact that I am now someone who can meet with a group of strangers that I contacted over the internet.

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It’s obviously early days yet and my priority is still unpacking those flipping boxes as well as my freelance writing, working, running the household, making sure the kids are fed and clean, walking the dog etc. But I am starting to think about a project. Something I can do that is new, that marks this new stage in my life. I am someone who always needs to have something to look forward to, to work on. And I think when you repatriate  – especially if you are not sure you will move again – this is especially important. Otherwise it can feel a little like you have moved home just to wait to die.

I don’t know what this project will be yet – I am hopeful that something will present itself. It may be that I won’t know for months or even years to come. It could be that it’s already there, staring me in the face.

But for now, I will carry on as before with my work and looking after the kids and dog and basically, well, surviving.

And I WILL finish unpacking those boxes…

“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.

Friendless in Pretoria

Ok, it’s not quite that bad but as the “summer” (remember, it’s winter here in the Southern hemisphere) begins I am reminded of what it is like when you first arrive somewhere and don’t know anyone.

Many of my closest friends have now left the country for extended holidays in their home countries. Others are still around but travelling or working. And even though I know there are still people here, our routines have splintered to the extent that regular contact is getting harder by the day.

So I walk my dog alone, I don’t meet anyone for coffee, I await the time of the day when my kids will be back from “winter school” which is the best way I have found to keep them occupied while their own friends are absent. Once they are back through the door I might not get much conversation out of them but at least I can stop talking to the dog.

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In all honesty right now, it’s fine. We have just been away for a week long family trip which kept us in each other’s company pretty much 24/7. You can have too much of people even when it is your nearest and dearest. So a little peace and tranquilty and “me time” is welcome.

But what it is reminding me of isn’t just what it is like to be a new expat but also what it will be like to be a new repat. And that’s what’s worrying me.

One of the things I have loved most about our life here has been the constant interaction with friends. Without extended family to distract us, we spend a lot of time with each other. In the week I see girlfriends to eat, drink, walk, exercise or just generally chew the fat with. At weekends we meet en famille for lunchtime get-togethers that stretch into the evenings.  Our kids are in and out of each others homes for playdates and sleepovers. We think nothing of inviting two, three or even four extra girls home to sleep the night and then all meet up again the next day for another round of socialising.

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Of course this isn’t to say that I don’t have friends in the UK and won’t make more. But there is something undeniably social about life overseas. Here in South Africa we are freed from the usual weekend chores by having helpers who do our washing and ironing. Eating out is cheap (for those of us on expat salaries – I totally appreciate how different it is for locals) and thus if you haven’t done a food shop recently it doesn’t matter too much. And the weather is just so damn conducive to socialising – no worry about not having enough chairs in your house, you are almost always guaranteed that you can sit outside.

Back home people are far more likely to retreat into their homes. Many have family living close by – parents, siblings etc – and spend the days with them at the weekend. More people are also likely to work – as we all know, one of the issues about being an expat partner is how hard it can be to find work; the silver lining to this is how many fellow expats you know are free to spend time with. It’s not that people in my home country aren’t friendly or you don’t ever spend time with them – it’s just that, well, they aren’t your replacement family like they become overseas.

(I should hasten to add at this point that I do have family I am obviously looking forward to seeing when we return but they don’t live that close and we only generally see them once a month or so).

So whilst I spend my last few weeks in Pretoria relatively alone I know this is all good practice for what life will become once more in just a few weeks time. I will still be in touch with the friends I have made here and already have plans to meet up with them for holidays, plus social media and instant messaging make long-distance friendships so much easier than they used to be.

But I am stealing myself for a different kind of life. One without quite so much time with friends and without the constant coming and going of pre-teens in our house. I know it will be replaced – although at the moment what or who will replace it is still a little hazy – but it just won’t be the same. I’m not sure you can ever replicate the sort of lifestyle you live when you are living the expat life.

One thing that will remain a constant though is that I will still have my dog to talk to. Let’s just hope I find someone else to take the burden off him before he gets totally fed up with me!

Picture credits: Walking alone – Giuseppe Milo, sleepover – Renee Shelton

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