Like many expats on temporary assignments, our posting is for a fixed contract – eg we will not be here indefinitely or for an unknown amount of time. I prefer it this way, I think it must be harder for those who land somewhere and have no idea how long it will be for – six months, five years, until the bosses back home change their minds about you….
Anyway, with the job my husband does, we always know that when we move somewhere it most certainly won’t be forever and chances are it will be for between two and four years. It so happens that this time we are most likely looking at two years – this is how long his initial contract is for and we and his employers then have the option to extend by a year and then another year.
The way I feel right now I would much rather do longer but we have schooling issues to consider so until we know more (it is all to do with my older child and the crazy UK semi-selective education system) we are assuming it will be two. And this is something that has been going round and round in my head: two years is not enough!
Personally I think two years is probably the worst case scenario when it comes to length of postings. It’s long enough to need to organise a major move – complete with packers and shippers and all the palaver that goes with that. And then to organise is all over again to get home. Your children can’t see it as a short-term option – to them two years is basically forever. So when you leave, they mourn their friendships, believing that the special bonds they have made will be broken irreplaceably. And if you happen to have a job back home that you love and need to leave, two years is a proper goodbye and thank you very much, not a leave of absence.
But at the same time, two years just isn’t very long. Already I am thinking about how we are nearly a quarter of a way through our posting (gulp!) and we are making plans for our “half time” trip home. We have a list as long as my arm of places we want to go to while we are living here and I just can’t see how we are going to get to them all. And I know that just at the time we all start to feel settled, we will have to start thinking about upping sticks and moving all over again. With all the stresses and strains and sleepless nights and tantrums and marital strife that goes with it.
One year is totally different – one year is basically a short-term, temporary adventure. One year would be living out of suitcases, treating it as a very long holiday. Whilst one year is never going to be enough to see everything or do everything you would want to in a country like South Africa, you would know this from the start and would plan accordingly. You would make a list of your top four or five places you really wanted to go to – and then you would make darn sure you got to them.
Three or more years is also different. It’s long enough to really get settled, to not have a year or settling in and then a year of preparing to leave. You could spend the whole of your first year getting to know the country slowly and without panicking that you weren’t going to get around everywhere. If you went somewhere you loved you would know that you would almost certainly have time to come back and revisit.
Three years is also enough time for the children to really feel settled, to feel like they belong in your host country and to make enough memories and associations for it to have a meaningful impact on the rest of their life. It’s enough time for the non-working partner to have a year to enjoy exploring and learning about my new country, have a “year out” even (as someone I know chose to do) before finding a job or a new hobby or writing that novel or….you get the gist. With three years or more, you can relax. With two years you feel pressurised to get on with it straight away. With one year you probably wouldn’t even try.
But this is where we are and until we know more I am working on the assumption that we will be here for two years and I am trying to make the most of it. So far this has meant trying to do as much as possible locally at the same time as booking as many trips and holidays in the region. The children, in the meantime, are straddling two lives – busy making new friends, but at the same time keeping up with the old ones via Skype and Facetime, knowing that they will be living back with them again in the not-too-distant future. And my husband is, I think, trying to get up-to-speed in his job as quickly as possible knowing he may not have long before he has to start thinking about a handover.
It’s not ideal but it’s still better than not having this opportunity at all. It also means that you try to make the most of every spare moment – our weekends here tend to be busier than at home, even when we aren’t travelling. And, to look on the bright side, if we do end up extending by a year we can use that last year as the time to revisit all those places we rushed to in the first 24 months.
And if we have another year on top of that? Well, if that happens we may never want to come home at all!
What is your view? Are you or have you been on a fixed contract? What do you think is the ideal length of time to live somewhere? And if you don’t know when you are going home or moving home how does this affect you?