The little things you wish you had known

A while ago I wrote this post on the things you wish you had known before you became an expat. Mostly this dealt with the bigger picture, like how to meet people, embracing the culture, and managing your expectations.

But there are the little things too, the things that are very much more specific to your particular country rather than to expat life as a whole. Things that are also very particular to you – after all, what is important to one family may be insignificant to another. I, for one, don’t care that I can’t get American cereals in South Africa. My American friends apparently care very much.

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When you are used to this much choice….

This was a topic recently tackled by one of my road testers, Lynsay of the blog Mills Family Travels, who has moved with her family to South Korea and has been following the chapters of my book as she settles in to her new life. In her post on the subject, Lynsay writes:

Furniture is oddly expensive  – had we known we probably would have shipped our Ikea bookcases rather than sell them for relatively little!  We probably should have brought the bunk beds too but as we were getting furnished accommodation we had to weigh up the cost of shipping (Jeju is not a cheap place to get things to!) versus what we could manage without.

Bikes are not expensive and are easy to get – it probably would have been better to sell the children’s bikes and buy new here.  For some reason they didn’t travel well and arrived a little worse for wear.

Bedding is not the same size as in the UK!  So our duvet covers and sheets are not very useful!

(you can read the full post here)

I am sure some of these points will resonate with some of you. I am also sure that they will be totally irrelevant to others. Here in South Africa, I wish we had known how hard it would be to get buy good quality children’s shoes and clothes. I also wish I had known how cheap everything would be. There are a lot of things we should have just waited to buy until we got here. On the other hand, I wish we HADN’T been told to bring lots of sun tan cream. The shops here are full of it (although to be fair, fuller now that it is summer than when we first arrived in August and really needed it…).

As it is important to try and get location-specific information before you move somewhere, I always recommend trying to find a local blogger in similar circumstances to yourself (eg has children, doesn’t have children, is working, is the accompanying partner etc) to follow. Even better if they are a friendly type of blogger who will answer your questions. And these days, there are more and more Facebook pages set up for expats in foreign cities – here we have Trailing Spouses Johannesburg and Trailing Spouses Pretoria. These are excellent resources, and just the sort of place to ask questions like whether you can get a certain brand of tea bag in yor new country, what size sheets to bring, and whether you are likely to find a decent dentist….

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Will they have your favourite brand of tea?

But of course, however hard you try, there will always be some questions you won’t get answered before your move. It would be impossible (and actually pretty boring) to know everything about your new location before you get there. There will also be questions that you won’t even know you needed to ask before you left.

And yet, even when things are uncertain, even when there are things you wish you had known, we all cope in the end. Yes you may not be able to buy the exact brand of toothpaste that you have become used to – but there are plenty of very decent alternatives. There aren’t any great clothes shops, but there is always online shopping. Bookshops are scarce – but friends with books are aplenty. Not knowing is one of the excitements of travel, an excitement that has been all but taken away thanks to our interconnected, global world. Let’s leave a few suprises in place.

Even if it is just what size bedsheets you will need for your new home.

Are there any location-specific things you wish you had known before moving somewhere new? Or do you prefer to find out about these things when you get there?

Photo credits: Cereal – Rex Roof; tea: Sarah R

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Supermarket hopping, talking the lingo and keeping safe

Earlier this week I shared a post about the first of two “practicalities” chapters in my book – the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the book, I look at what it is like when you first move somewhere and discuss some of the nuts and bolts of life as a new expat. Taking the points made in the book I wanted to look at my own experience of moving to South Africa – to test what I had written and check how I was doing so far. In my first post on this subject I looked at finding a home, furnishing it and getting around. In this post I move on to the second chapter on practicalities – shopping, learning the language and keeping safe.

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Shopping

It’s interesting how a supermarket, which at first glance seems stuffed to the rafters with food, can quickly start to drive you crazy trying to find exactly the right ingredients to make a carefully planned menu, or has everything you need except one, vital thing. This can lead to one common expat phenomenon: supermarket-hopping.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

This has been exactly my experience here in Pretoria. Exactly. When we first arrived here, we were overjoyed. Compared to the supermarkets in other places we have lived (notably Islamabad and St Lucia), the choices here in South Africa are phenonemal. And I still stick by this – this is a foodies heaven in many ways and we could eat our every day for a year and still not get through all the restaurants and cafes I want to visit. There are plenty of good shops too and things like meat, wine, bread, fruit and vegetables are all bountiful.

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Plenty of wine here….

But now that I am out of the early, honeymoon stage, I have found irriration starting to creep in. Yes the supermarkets are good – but they are not always reliable. And you can’t usually get everything you need for a week in one place. And some ingredients are difficult to track down altogether.

Whilst I know I will find goods galore when I visit my favourite supermarket Woolworths (which is basically Marks and Spencers), they do not always have everything I need for my planned meals. The other day, for example, they didn’t have the particular type of sausages I had scheduled to give the kids that evening. It didn’t really matter, I bought them something else – but little irritations like this add up.

I have slowly started to work out where the best place to buy different things is – Hinterland for beef, Woollies for sausages and chicken, Almas butchers for pork loin, Food Lovers Market for ready-prepared food; Macro for bulk items like dishwasher tablets. In the end, I know we can get more or less everything we need here (the list I have asked my parents to bring out with them when they visit soon is very short – Yorkshire teabags, (UK) Marmite and Oxo cubes), but shopping can be very time consuming.

However, for the meat and the wine I am very, very grateful!

(One of my roadtester for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, Lynsay, has also written on her blog about shopping in their new location in Korea. You can read her take on this important subject here)

Language

The feeling of isolation of being a new expat in a strange country can be massively increased if you can’t interact with those around you, or if you find yourself left out of conversations because they are going on in a language you don’t know.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

Boy am I lucky with this one. Everyone I have met so far here in South Africa speaks English. They might all speak about seven other languages as well, and English may not be their first language, but I have had no trouble at all being understood.

I do sometimes find it hard to know what others are saying, mind you. Firstly, I get spoken to in Afrikaans quite a lot. I was told by my English South African cousin that Afrikaans women tend to be more glamorous than their English-speaking counterparts, so perhaps the days people first try me with Afrikaans are the days when I make more of an effort. But even when people speak to me in English, I still find some of the accents very difficult to decipher.

I am getting there, but there are still many moments of “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”.

I do love all the languages here though and enjoy practising saying many of the words. Sawubona. Dumela. Molo. Unjani. And, errr, cliick! I have also found myself starting to pick up some of the South African sayings, like Just Now, and Ach, shame. Yikes!

Keeping safe

In many countries these days, you will have bars on your windows, panic rooms or parts of the houses that can be locked off from the rest, gated and guarded communities and more. This can all seem quite alarming if you’re not used to it, but it soon becomes part of life. A sad, inevitable part of life because these precautions are there as a daily reminder of how harsh life can be for many of the other residents of the city you live in.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

Sadly, while we have had it easy with the language side of things here in South Africa, we certainly have not with the security. This country has a reputation for violent crime, and stats certainly back this up.

I have previously lived in Kingston, Jamaica, so had an idea what to expect here. Horror stories abound and these do lead to the creation of a “feeling of fear” that you have to live with, day in, day out. We sleep behind a keep in a house with grills, surrounded by electric fence, on a compound with a security guard. I have had to speak to the children about what to do if we get car-jacked; they also have “duck and cover” drills at school.

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Life behind bars.

But despite all this, you can live your life relatively normally so long as you follow basic guidelines – don’t walk anywhere at night, stay away from certain areas, keep your car doors locked at all times etc. But there is a certain tension that goes with always having to be “aware” that means it is necessary to take a break from city life as often as you can. Will I ever get used to it? Not completely. One of the things I am most looking forward to when we return to the UK on holiday is being able to open the front door and just walk.

So those are my experiences of the “practicalities” of life in South Africa, I would love to hear about yours. In future posts I will look at some of the other chapters in my book, including finding domestic staff, keeping my sanity and that huge subject: schooling.

 

Finding a house, buying a rug, and learning to drive all over again…..

A few months ago I asked some lovely expat partners to review my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide chapter by chapter as they went through their overseas move. So far posts have covered the first few chapters of the book, including preparing for the move, the actual move itself and the early days. But I have also been doing my own little road test of the book and over the course of two posts this week I look at the two chapters on Practicalities: first of all Accommodation, Furniture and Transport; and on Wednesday Shopping, Making Yourself Understood (or not) and Keeping Safe.

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Accommodation

First and foremost you need somewhere to live. At this stage, many people will be in temporary housing. Some will be in a hotel or in someone else’s house while they either look for their own home or wait for their predecessor to vacate it. Others might have moved straight into their new house and have moved on to accommodation – part 2: furnishing. But whatever your situation, and as long as you have some choice in the matter, it is very, very important to get where you are going to live as right as possible.

Extract from The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four: Practicalities Part One.

I think it goes without saying that one of the most important things to do when you move to a new country is make sure you get your home right. This isn’t always an easy task – you may have to househunt from afar; you may have no choice and already have a home assigned to you and your family; or you may not be presented with many possibilities. Over the past 15 years I have lived in four different overseas locations – and had very different experiences in each:

  • In Jamaica, I decided against moving into my predecessor’s apartment because it was quite a long way out of town and I didn’t feel safe driving there alone at night. So I was shown what seemed like dozens of unsuitable homes filled with shiny furniture until I eventually found the right one. It was relatively close to the office, on a small compound with friendly neighbours and a shared pool, and wasn’t too hideously furnished (although I did remove the zebra-print curtains)
  • In Islamabad, we were given the choice initially of living off compound in my husband’s predecessor’s house – but when the time to move got closer they had already decided they wanted to move all families on to the safety of the diplomatic compound. In the end I was pleased about this; although I am not a huge fan of living side-by-side with your colleagues (and I dislike the “British enclaves” that can be a by-product of these sorts of compounds), it was a lot easier to get to know people this way and much safer for the children.
  • In St Lucia we had to find our own house from scratch – the home that had been rented by the previous officer wasn’t suitable for a family. We took our children on the recce to look for this house and viewed countless unsuitable places. St Lucia suffered from basically being a holiday destination on a poor island – the choice was either a shack or a luxury villa. In the end we did find a beautiful home with an even more beautiful view, but it came with an insufferable housekeeper and was too far from the school/other expats. After a year we moved again, to the more popular end of the islands – where life got a lot easier for me, but my husband had a longer commute for work.
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The beautiful view from our unsuitable home in St Lucia

  • Here in Pretoria we have moved into my husband’s predecessor’s house. We were told we wouldn’t have a choice but that it would almost certainly be this house. We did look at the one other possibility and it was fine – but this one is in a much better location and in a small, safe and friendly compound. It isn’t perfect (we have had to do battle over getting a shower fixed since we arrived) but it’s done us well and we are happy here. For once, I think we have got it right!

Furniture

Once you have found somewhere to live, you will need to think about furnishing it. You might be lucky and inherit a fully furnished, even – if you’re REALLY lucky – tastefully furnished, house or apartment that needs nothing more than your own finishing touches like pictures and perhaps new curtains. On the other hand, you might need to throw everything out and start from scratch.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four – Practicalities Part One.

We didn’t have any say over furniture really at all as the houses we move into come fully furnished. Our shipping allowance means it would be very expensive to bring over more than the odd small bookshelf or bedside table, so we have had to rely on local shops to supplement what was already in the house. And this we have had to do – the guy we took over from was a single man, who travelled a lot for work and didn’t need the same amount of stuff in his house as we did. Thus so far we have had to buy two bookshelves, a rug, two desks, two office chairs and a patio table and chair set.

Although on the surface the shops here are pretty good, what we have found is that their stockrooms are often not stocked and goods need to be sent from elsewhere. There seems to be a lot of this, waiting on shipments – particularly frustrating when you are not told when you buy something that it won’t be delievered for several weeks. I have had a few heated phone conversations about this matter!

As well as furniture we have had to work to make our house look a little less bare – there is a lot more space than our home in the UK, including some pretty huge walls to cover. Luckily this is a country where crafts are bountiful and I am slowly accumulating pretty bits and pieces to beautify the house. Heaven knows where it will all go when we return back to the UK!

Wall decorations to fill a large wall

Wall decorations to fill a large wall

 

Transport

Working out transport right from day one is one of the most important things you can do when you first arrive somewhere. Unless you’re in a relatively modern city with good transport links, or where it’s safe and easy to walk around, you really do need to think how you are going to get out and about if you don’t want to feel completely trapped.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four – Practicalities Part One.

I have already written a post about how my GPS became my new best friend; but I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that I drive here. There really is very little alternative – walking is only good for short distances and the public transport is not to be recommended on the whole.

Before I arrived my husband was already on the case. We had discussed cars and started to narrow down the possibilities for me (he gets a humungous Landcruiser with his job). Once I had got here, and after the first few days when he was at home and could ferry me around, we hired a small car so that I wasn’t stranded at home. It was pretty small and started off a little smelly as some water had leaked through somewhere and the carpet was a little pongy. But it got me around and for that I was happy. I will never forget my first drive here – to the local mall, with the kids in the back cheering me on. I actually managed to take a wrong turning – but then fixed it by driving around a roundabout and back again – which made me realise that actually driving in this city wasn’t going to be so difficult.

Now here I am a few months on, and we have bought a family car (decided on because the girls sat in the back and my youngest was able to see out of the window). I am driving more and more without the aid of the sat-nav and, cross fingers, so far have not had any accidents. I fear it is only a matter of time though – the driving here isn’t great and it is unusual NOT to come across at least one accident every time I go out. Some of which, sadly, have been pretty horrific – we saw our first dead body in the road on our first weekend in South Africa.

So we have passed some of the hurdles of the early days, settled into our home and worked out how to get around. Next, I look at some of the other practicalities of living in a new location abroad – finding your way round the shops, learning the language and keeping safe.

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It’s all about perspective….and more news.

Having been away for a couple of weeks, and then spent the last week trying desperately to catch up on everything (as well as continue preparations for our move – we let the house yesterday, yay! One more thing off the list…), quite a lot has been going on while I wasn’t looking.

Firstly, my June post on Expat Focus went up – It’s all about Perspective, in which I write about how we view things differently in other places when we don’t live there, but how important it is to keep a balanced mindset:

There are victims of violent crime in South Africa, lots of them. Life is very, very tough for a lot of people living in its townships and downtown areas. But we will never have to live in these areas and we will always have proper protection, wherever we live. And if anything is going to put things into perspective, that is it.

You can read the full post here.

I was also featured in an author interview on the BlogExpat.com website, in which I talk about how and why I wrote the book, what my favourite part of the book is, what I think of the expat book market and more! You can read that interview here

I was also extremely flattered to be featured on the blog of one of the lovely contributors to my book, Farrah from The Three Under. Farah, who is originally from the States but now lives in the Netherlands, has three boys (twins plus a singleton) and blogs about family life and travels as an expat. On her blog she features the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide on her April and May Reading Recap for Expats, and kindly calls it a “wealth of information”. You can read her post here.

Finally I was made even happier when I read what one of my Road Testers, Oregon Girl Around the World Erin, had written about my book on her blog:

And if you have found your way here to this post because you are the one embarking on this road of expatriation as the “trailing spouse” or “expat partner” –  I can’t recommend highly enough reading The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide by Clara Wiggins.

and

I wish I had found this book sooner, I’ll tell you that. The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, by Clara Wiggins. January was dark and lonely here and this book would have made it a little less so knowing that countless families had picked up done and experienced exactly what I was feeling. What we all were feeling.

Thank you Erin, that really made my day 🙂 You can read the full post’s at Oregon Girl Around the World’s blog here.

I think that’s it for now, although I have probably forgotten something or someone! Thanks for reading this far (if you have!) and have a deliciously delightful weekend folks. See you on the other side!

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My own contribution to being a road tester…..

As anyone who has been following this blog will know, I too am off on another expat journey very soon. When I started writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, moving abroad again wasn’t actually a consideration. We thought we were done, settled in the UK for the foreseeable future. However, life happens and here we go again…

So during the last year of writing and editing the book, I started to pay a little bit more attention to what I – and my contributors – were saying. I started to realise that all this information was actually going to be really useful for myself and my family as well as for all my readers. And as we get closer to the time to leave, I have started taking sneaky peaks at some of the chapters – on taking children, in particular, as mine are such a different age and at such a different stage than they were last time.

I thought it would be fun to join my other road testers and chronicle my journey in the way that I hope they will be, one chapter at a time. So, here is my introduction and in a future post I will be discussing chapter one: Before You Go

First of all, could you tell me a bit about yourself, your family and your background?

I work from home in a part-time role managing a small independent journal called the International Journal of Birth and Parent Education, as well as spending quite a lot of my time marketing my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. I have two children, both girls, aged seven and nine. We have previously lived as a family in Pakistan and St Lucia. Before that. I lived and worked all  over the world – including Jamaica, which is where I met my husband.

august 09 girls in the purple boat

Where do you live at the moment and where are you moving to? Why are you moving?

At the moment we live in a leafy town in the West of England. It’s a beautiful location full of Georgian architecture and green parks and not far from both the countryside and a couple of large cities. It’s almost ideal for us as our local school, an excellent state primary, is about three minutes walk from the house and we are surrounded by friends. We are moving to Pretoria in South Africa, where we hope we will also be surrounded by friends, as well as interesting wildlife! The girls will be attending the American International School so there’s a lot to get used to. We are moving with my husband’s job; he will be working at the British High Commission.

Have you ever been an expat before? If so, where and when? If not, do you know much about the “expat life”?

Yes I have been an expat on and off all my life – as a daughter, young adult, diplomat and as a mother and accompanying partner. So I have seen it from pretty much every angle. However, I think it is different every time you move and I am waiting to see what this particular relocation will throw up for us.

As an expat child in the Philippines

As an expat child in the Philippines

How prepared are you feeling for the move? As well as from the Survival Guide, where are you getting your information from?

I have been very lucky in that we were able to visit Pretoria late last year so have been to the school where the children will go and the house where we will live. I think this has helped us all prepare mentally for the move. I also have a couple of friends living there already and have made contact with a couple more online, who have been able to answer some of my obscure questions.

Why do you think the Survival Guide will be useful? Are there any chapters you think you will find particularly useful?

As my children are at a very different age than they were when we moved last time, I think the chapters which focus on them are particularly helpful. We’re also planning to get a dog when we are out there so I will be consulting my own advice on bringing a pet home with you when we leave!

How did you find out about my book?

Lol – I wrote it you numpty!

What are you most looking forward to about moving to your new country? What are you most worried about (if anything!)?

I am really, really looking forward to exploring both South Africa and the region. I love wildlife so the safari opportunities are just going to be amazing. I am also a big diver so can’t wait to get back under the water – one of my ambitions in life has been to see whale sharks in the wild so I am hoping to tick that one off my list.

South Africa is also a real foodies paradise so I can’t wait to get stuck into the local restaurants, farmers market’s etc. Oh and then there’s the wine…..

I am of course worried about the security situation. We will be well looked after and well protected but it does play on your mind, especially in the early hours of the morning…

Rhinos in a small safari park close to Pretoria

Rhinos in a small safari park close to Pretoria

How are your children feeling about the move? How did they react when you told them?

They really weren’t keen at first (you can read about their reaction in a post I wrote here) but have definitely come round now. Visiting Pretoria really helped, as has telling them we’ll get a dog. They still have their ups and downs but I think they’re generally pretty excited now.

I have a wide range of expats reading my blog – do you have any questions for them? Either country-specific or just general questions about moving and living abroad?

I suppose really whether people find it easier with each move or whether it’s just different each time, especially when the children are so different. Also, four years is a long time in the world of technology – I wonder how this has changed expat life?

And country-specific, please let me know if you have any tips for secret spots in South Africa – anywhere you think we should definitely visit?

Don’t forget you can also read about my real road-testers Lynsay,  Nichole  and Erin.