Still leaving the EU, still breaking my heart

The closer we get to the day we are due to leave the EU, the louder gets the noise about it. Although some news commentators seem to downplay the significance of this event, you would have to be living under a stone in a desert far, far away not to realise how important an issue this is.

And it continues to break my heart.

What I find really hard is the messages I see from expats discussing whether they should come to live in the UK or not. It really hits home when I see these stories which reflect how the outside world sees us. European expats wonder whether it’s worth coming here. Brits married to non-Brits worry what it will mean for their partner’s status, or the status of their children. Expats from non-European countries discuss the rise of racism in this country. And while some question whether this is really true, both police statistics and stories I myself have heard from good friends would indicate that, sadly, it probably is.

What is so frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way.

Had we had a sensible, clever leader in June 2016 – not one who ran away as soon as possible – they could so easily have stopped the country splitting in two as it has. They could have said thank you very much for the information you have given us by your vote. There is clearly something very wrong in this country which needs solving. Now we will go away and do some modelling, have some focus groups, set up a cross-party group which will travel the country to talk to people, and eventually we will come back to you with what we have found out. Once we can show you whether what you are voting about is as a result of us being in the EU or not, and once we can properly see what the affect of leaving the bloc will mean, we can discuss next steps.

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They could have calmed the situation down. They could have been seen to be taking action without rushing into this fool-hardy process as they did. Triggering Article 50 without a plan, any sort of plan, was shameful. Even if the end result was still that we would, eventually, leave the EU, to do so without a careful plan was simply, I believe, a dereliction of duty.

Of course you would need to go back further in time if you really wanted to sort out this mess (oh for a time machine!). Back to stop Cameron allowing the blame for his austerity policies to rest on the shoulders of immigrants. Back to stopping him promise in leaflets pushed through doors that he would carry out the result of the vote, whatever it was. Back to preventing parliament from backing a vote without a supermajority (eg two-thirds of the vote). Back to, somehow, allowing all EU nationals within the UK and all UK expats in Europe to vote on something that was going to have such a huge impact on their lives. And back to making sure the ballot was more than a simple yes or no – leaving confusion about whether leaving the EU also means leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.  Something some still insist it does even though I highly suspect most people in this country had barely heard either of those two terms before the referendum.

In fact, if we could really go back in time, what we should actually try and do is stop Cameron promising to have the referendum in the first place. Who but for a few members of his party were calling for it? How many people can really say, hand on heart, that EU policies have been having a negative impact on their lives? And how many of us really want the country that we have got now – more split than I have ever known it, friends pitted against friends, family members against family members, and worst of all, a nasty, vocal majority suddenly believing that they have the right and freedom to spout their nasty racist nonsense in public whenever and wherever they want?

Many people voted to leave the EU because they want to go back in time. Back to an imagined past, where in their memories life was good. No-one seems exactly to be able to pinpoint when this was because the past might have been better for some but I don’t believe it was better for all. I too want to go back though. I want to go back to 2012, to the summer of 2012 to be precise. To the golden days of the summer Olympics, when London welcomed the world to what then seemed like an open, tolerant and liberal-minded country. When Mo Farah, an immigrant from Africa, won races and we all cheered.

Will we ever be that country again? Right now, I don’t think we will. My heart remains broken.

Picture credit: EU flag – Rock Cohen

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Proper, suffocating, sweat-inducing culture shock

We were in a crowd. A huge, jolly, Christmassy crowd. Kids running to get on a merry-go-round, mothers enjoying a sneaky glass of mulled wine. Gaggles of pensioners on a coach trip from across the water in Wales, poking at wooden ornaments on brightly decorated stalls, then suggesting a trip to the nearest warm coffee shop to get away from the winter weather.

It was raining – not hard, just that usual British drizzle. But it was cold rain, cold and damp, the sort that gets under your skin and you can’t warm up from.

Crowds and rain, shouting, noise, cars streaming down the road we were trying to cross. I held on to my daughter’s hand – she is nearly ten but I still fear traffic. People coming up behind us, pushing and shoving, joking amongst themselves. No-one in a bad mood, no malice or anger, just a typical busy British pre-Christmas shopping day at one of those festive markets that are almost obligatory in every town in the country these days. Everyone else was having a good time but I couldn’t bear it.

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This is culture shock. Or, in my case, reverse culture shock.

I remember this feeling from before, although it was different then. I think the things that affect us most when we return from living overseas reflects very much the situation in the country where we have been living. After coming back from Jamaica and St Lucia, I remember going into a shop and not knowing where to look. There was so much…stuff. My eyes darting around, up behind the cashiers shoulders, looking at all these bright, exciting goods. It was overwhelming and I didn’t usually buy anything. But I had just returned from countries where although there was plenty of goods in the shop, the overt over-the-top commercialism wasn’t so blatent. Perhaps they had what they needed and nothing else, unlike our ridiculously stuffed-to-the-gills stores where you really can buy just about anything your heart desires.

South Africa shops are similarly well-stocked, at least the ones we used. But what they have more of in SA is space. And although there were places you could go that were crowded, it was rare to find yourself in the sort of stifling, fear-enducing crush that you can get in this country.

It just makes me miserable, especially when I look around and everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. But recognising it for what it is – reverse culture shock, getting used to being back here, readjusting to a different way of life, helps. It will take time and eventually I will again feel comfortable in a crowd, accept that I am only allowed a square inch of pavement to move on, get used to the noise and shouting, the cars on the road, the people in my way.

It’ll take a while but I will get there. At least, I will on the crowds. I am not sure I will ever get used to the dismal British weather.

Photo credit: Ley

Have you repatriated recently? Or even not recently? How are you finding it? Getting easier?

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….

“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!

 

 

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