“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!

 

 

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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.

Things I look forward to….

As the date fast approaches for our return to the UK I continue to put my head in the sand about us actually leaving. I love South Africa and our life here and if you follow this blog you know there are so many things I will miss (sunshine, wine, food, people, travel, wildlife, Channel 5 on the radio…)

But there is no point wallowing – we are leaving and I need to accept that. So in order to try and make things a little easier about the move home I have started to think not so much about all the things I will miss but the things I am looking forward to about being back in cold, damp, grey clean, safe, errrr, green Britain.

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So first and foremost yes I will appreciate being able to step outside my front door and simply walk. Walk whichever way I like, on my own, without thinking about whether my handbag is zipped up properly or if someone is following me. Even at night. Not only that but we won’t have to battle our way through a grill, double lock and security gates just to pop to the shops. Plus at night we can sleep without locking ourselves in a keep (which will be good for our dog, Cooper, in particular who resents being woken and dragged upstairs when we go to bed at night; I realise we could leave him downstairs and outside of the safe area but he is too precious to us to do that!).

Talking of dogs, and talking of popping to the shops, I am also looking forward to taking him with me. I am not yet sure if I will ever be confident enough to tie him up outside a shop like so many people do back home while they nip in for a pint of milk and a daily newspaper (ah yes! getting my news from a hard print copy rather than online, that will be a nice novelty too). But I like to think I will be able to take him out and about with me a lot more regularly than I can here. The Brits love dogs – they are even allowed in pubs. I will just have to remember that it’s an absolute no-no to leave any dog poo unbagged, even if he does it nice and neatly in a little bush out of the way where no-one can see it….

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And when I go to those shops I am looking forward to more choice. In all honesty, the food shopping in South Africa is fantastic and we really haven’t missed much. But there are some areas where they don’t do so well and where we in the UK seem to be world champions – like yoghurts and other desserts (so many types!), and bread. Ah, freshly baker bakers bread. And familiar brands that taste right rather than just slightly…wrong.

I am looking forward to seasons, to the smell of Autumn and the cold air of winter. To blackberries and apples off the trees. To watching our many excellent dramas or documentaries without having to download them first. Decent internet speeds. And lots more people to talk to about British politics.

There are of course many things I am not looking forward to (the rain, the lack of diversity, the expense of everything, the traffic….) but this isn’t what this post is all about so I will ignore all of those. In fact I will continue to put my head in the sand, my hands over my ears and say lalalalala for the next few months because otherwise I might just decide I’m not leaving.

And as nice as that would be for me, sadly for the reasons why we chose to go home in the first place it really isn’t an option.

Yup, the countdown is on – Blighty, here we come.

Photo credits: Green England – highlights6

Mini schnauzer – kawabata

A trip home: what did I learn?

So I’ve just returned to South Africa after five weeks home in the UK – my first trip back since we arrived in Pretoria a year ago. I am very happy to see the sun again (ok, we saw it a bit at home but there weren’t that many of the cloudless days you get in the African winter), and to swap Brexit politics for South African politics. The former is as depressing as it comes; the latter is quite exciting and in an entirely selfish way won’t affect me or my family as much as what is happening back in the UK.

Everyone who is an expat knows what it feels like to go home after a spell away from it. Always slightly surreal, like nothing has changed but everything has. You know that people will be less interested in you and your adventures than you hoped they would be. You also know you will not be able to see everyone you would like to – and will feel guilty for half the holiday about this fact. And then get over it: by the time you have driven 3,000 miles between eight different places, unpacked and repacked 28 times and slept in about 13 different beds, you will stop fretting about those people you couldn’t catch up with. After all, they can always come to you!

But apart from the obvious, what else did I learn? Following our visit, here are a few of my observations:

  • The United Kingdom has become obsessed with Prosecco. This obsession had started before I left and it was already the drink of choice when I went to the pub with friends. But now the price of a bottle seems to have come down to lower than a decent bottle of red and it’s everywhere! There were even Prosecco bars at shopping malls – as if the proleteriat wanted to mimick the “ruling classes” with their champagne and oyster bars at Harvey Nicks……

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  • I think we can now safely say there will never be a proper summer in England again. We have been going to the same place in Devon for the end of July/beginning of August period for 10 years now and without fail it always rains non-stop for at least two days. My childhood memories of endless sunny days are just that – memories.
  • After you have been away for a year, you will be that fumbly person at supermarket check outs with their new-fangled card machines and paying 5p for bags and not having someone to pack those bags for you and trying to remember you enter the card into the machine yourself rather than simply hand it over…..ditto petrol stations – what do you mean you have to fill it up yourself?!
  • Politics is the new soap opera. It is the main topic of conversation with pretty much anyone you meet. If you don’t get on to the subject of Brexit within 5 minutes of meeting someone there can be only one reason: you suspect they voted differently from you. In which case talk about the weather, last night’s tv, sport….anything but the EU!

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  • Have we reached tipping point with social media? I have never seen so many people spend so long staring at their phones as I did this last month. Surely something has to give soon?
  • For the first time ever on a return from a period of living overseas I didn’t go mad in a supermarket – which proves the quality of food here in South Africa. I did, however, go fairly mad in all other shops including clothes and book shops.
  • The Brits love their dogs. But luckily they do not love their dog poo. It was very refreshing to be able to walk around without watching where you were stepping, especially in parks. I wish South Africans would learn to use their doggy poop bags…..
  • I still love London more than any other city in the world. Yes the crowds do my head in, yes it’s flipping expensive. But it still feels to me like the centre of the universe – there is always something going on, and something new happening. Bath and Bristol run it a close second though.
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Bath – my joint favourite UK city after London.

  • It was also nice to be able to walk out of the house, including at night, and feel safe. I started off always locking my car door as soon as we were in but got more relaxed as the holiday went on. I am now doing the opposite and have to keep remembering to lock doors, keep windows up etc. It hasn’t helped that my domestic helper’s son was kidnapped, tied up and badly beaten for his card and pin nuber last weekend. A timely reminder that we are “not in Kansas anymore”.

I’m sure there are many other things I could say about my trip and my feelings about being home but this post has gone on long enough already so I will leave it there. But let me know if you’ve just been back to your home country after a spell abroad and if so, what were your observations? Did you find it just as you left it – or did everything feel a bit off-kilter? Did it live up to expectations – or were you happy to leave it all behind again?

Photos: glass of bubbly – Meg, EU umbrellas – Jeremy Segrott

 

Memorable journey – Kingston-Miami-London-Bangkok-Phuket…..

It’s been a while since I had a memorable journey post on my blog so I thought I would write about one trip that I will certainly never forget. For many reasons. Read on…..

I was living in Kingston, Jamaica when the awful Asian Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 struck. I am sure many of us recall watching the news unfold on our television screens, a long, long way away. It was the way the numbers went up so rapidly…..tens dead, hundreds dead, thousands dead…..at around that point I think the brain shuts down a bit. And being so far away, pretty well on the other side of the world, it all felt very distant and very unreal.

A few days later, my now husband and I went away for the new year’s holiday. We stayed, as we often used to in those days, at an All-Inclusive hotel in Negril – one of the nicest beach spots in Jamaica. We relaxed, swam, dived and saw in the new year at a table that included (amongst others) a prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the upcoming elections. I wonder what happened to her! (for the non-Brits amongst you, the Lib Dems were all but wiped out at our last set of elections, earlier this year).

So refreshed and relaxed we returned to Kingston – and a message in my in-box from London that called for assistance in Thailand. It seemed that our embassy there couldn’t cope with the sheer numbers involved in the tsunami – Thailand (and the other involved Asian and Indian Ocean countries) is a very popular tourist destination and untold numbers of British nationals might or might not be caught up in the tragedy. Hundreds of bodies were lying in morturaries, unidentified, and a huge number of people had been reported missing. So anyone who could be spared was asked if they could come to do temporary duty in Thailand – either at the embassy in Bangkok or at the emergency unit that had been set up in Phuket.

Now look on a map or, more usefully, a globe, and you will see quite how far apart Kingston and Bangkok are. So although I put forward my name – in particular because I had good experience of press office work in exactly this sort of emergency – I didn’t think for a moment that I would be called.

So imagine my surprise when the next day I received an email saying yes please, could I come? Perhaps the woman who was organising the extra help hadn’t actually looked at the map. Maybe she was too busy. But yes I would need to fly to the other side of the world and yes it was going to take quite a long time.

memorable journey kingston to thailand

I packed my bags and within a couple of days my flights were booked and I was ready to go. But because it was a busy time of the year in the Caribbean (if you remember, the tsunami was on boxing day so we were still in January and the holiday period) the only flight to the UK I could get on was via Miami. So off I went on step one of my journey: Kingston – Miami.

I arrived in Miami and due to the timings of the flights I had pretty well an entire day to fill. I have spent a lot of time at Miami airport and it is safe to say it is not my favourite airport in the world. I have been delayed there overnight after missing a flight from Dominican Republic, I have spent the day there waiting for luggage that was checked in and needed to be checked out again as our flight was cancelled. I have lost bags there, I have had a camera stolen from checked-through luggage there. There are other reasons not to like this airport – including the particularly unfriendly and unhelpful TSA staff, the inevitable immigration queues which I think are the worst I have ever encountered and the absolutely totally rubbish shops that only seem to sell stuffed flamingos and salt-water taffy. Oh and chocolate in the shape of crocodiles….

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Welcome to Miami!

So having a day to spend there didn’t exactly fill me with joy but at least, due to the fact that I was flying business class (those were the days!) I was able to use the lounge. Where, as I was sitting reading my book, an elderly man walked in with what seemed like family members and a buzz went around the room. People looked and whispered and then a military man in combat uniform asked to have his photo taken with him. I had no idea who he was. After a while, the man and his family left and most of the people in the room stood up and clapped. I was so curious, I had to ask the staff on the reception who he was. Apparently they weren’t allowed to tell me – but he was an ex president. Well he certainly wasn’t Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan….eventually I worked it out.

Apparently it was Jimmy Carter! Who I grew up knowing as Carter Carter the peanut farter! Although now I know him as a good guy who has done a lot to promote human rights around the world. So I was glad to have seen him in the flesh. Even if I didn’t know it was him….

Anyway eventually it was time for the next leg of my flight, from Miami to London. As I checked in I chatted to the woman doing the check in who asked why I was going all the way to Bangkok. I explained that I would be helping out with the UK Foreign Office’s efforts to help distressed British nationals post-tsunami. She said British Airways (the airline I was flying with) was also doing some work in this area as some of their staff and many of their passengers had been affected. I went on my way, thinking nothing of it, until I got on the plane. They looked at the name on my boarding card, they looked at their list and then they took me to the front of the plane. Right to the front. I had been upgraded to first class!

This is (and will probably remain) the only time I have flown first class as an adult. There were only about eight of us in there and we had beds and duvets and pyjamas and amazing freebies. As much champagne as you could want. However, as you can imagine given the circumstances and what I was headed to, champagne was the last thing I wanted. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. But the flat bed and duvet was nice and I was at least able to get a bit of sleep.

I arrived in London the next morning and had to whizz around between the office and a travel clinic where I answered questions about my general health and made sure I was up to date with all the needed vaccinations. One of the questions was whether I might be pregnant as there were certain medicatons they wouldn’t give me if I was. Well I guess it was a vague possibility but I doubted it….

Finally that evening I boarded the second overnight flight within a 24 hour period and we were on our way to Bangkok. I wasn’t upgraded this time but we were still flying business class so it was another comfortable flight. But two long-distance flights and a time difference of 12 hours was always going to take its toll – so getting to Bangkok and basically being take straight into the office was hard.

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However, it wasn’t as hard as what so many people in that part of the world had been through in the last couple of weeks. As well as having to deal with a lot of very distressed British nationals, staff at our embassy were also going through their own grieving process as one of the staff members had lost their life in that dreadful event. Those of us who had arrived to help put our heads down and tried to get on with it – we wanted to be as supportive as possible.

A few days later, I was moved to Phuket to take over the role of press officer there. This was even more difficult but we did at least feel we could help in a more immediate way. I was able to see first hand some of the terrible, terrible consequences of the tsunami and some of the images from those days will live with me forever.

However, a week or so after I arrived, I found something out. Something that would change my life forever and something that, from a very personal point, shielded me in some ways from the trauma of what we saw and heard about in Phuket. I found out that I was pregnant.

The daughter that was inside me has just turned ten. She is a long-legged. blonde-haired, sports-crazy near-teen. I look at her and can’t believe she was inside me all that time, when I left Jamaica, during my hours in Miami, the flight to Bangkok. Just she and I, we did that together. I bought a little orange elephant in Phuket just after I found out I was pregnant and I have it still, a reminder of those strange, strange days. Although now that I desperately want to add a photo of it to this post I can’t find it – one of the perils of having just moved to a new country and still be in chaos!

I immediately went off anything spicy and had to pretend to not feel very well every time someone invited me to the bar. I think all my colleagues had me down as the most boring or antisocial person in the group. But I decided not to tell more than a couple of people there and started plotting my escape. Another week or two and it was decided my work was done, I could return home. I packed my suitcases again and did the whole journey in reverse. Only, this time, I knew I wasn’t alone.

To read about other memorable journey’s in this series please click on the tag below. And if you have a memorable journey you would like to share please let me know – I am always after interesting tales!

Photo credits: Miami skyline Bryan Sereny Bangkok sunset: Mike Behnken