Welcome to Africa!

So we have landed at long last! And now a year exactly to the date since we found out we were coming to South Africa, here we are.

I am currently sitting in a very bare and frankly quite chilly house, the children are rattling around somewhere while – although it is my birthday (!) – my husband is at work 😦 . He has promised to be home in time to take us out to lunch though.

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Last night we tried to go out for a meal but were thwarted by load shedding – a particular South African problem whereby there isn’t enough electricity to go round so each district has to do without power for a few hours, a couple of times each week. Unbeknownst to us (as many, many things are at this stage), last night was the turn of the area where we live. Just as we were arriving at the place we had chosen to eat all the lights went out. We entered the mall just as everyone else was streaming out. Shops were shut, the restaurants were packing up. Luckily the supermarket must have a generator (as, luckily, do we) and was still open so we bought a ready-cooked chicken and some salad and ate at home. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

As well as load-shedding, I have also been introduced to one of the other problems in this country – crime and security – by having to fight our way through three layers and about five locks to get on to our patio this morning. And that isn’t counting the “keep” door at the top of our stairs. And not forgetting the electric wire around our house and the guard at the gate to our compound. You definitely feel like you are living in a well-protected fortress.

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Other “issues” I have so far encountered though are as much a part of moving somewhere new as moving to South Africa: being woken early in the morning by unusual sounds (in this case the screechy hadada birds  – a type of ibis whose noise isn’t that dissimilar to our seagulls back home); not being able to find anything in the kitchen cupboards (and there not being much to find anyway – we had to wait for the dishwasher to finish this morning before we could have more than one knife between us for our toast); knowing where to buy decent peanut butter that hasn’t got a ton of sugar added; leaky taps and showers, curtains that don’t quite fit in the middle…..

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But teething problems, lack of electricity and security issues aside, there are certainly plenty of compensations. The pound is very strong against the rand at the moment, which means that a decent bottle of red wine costs about a third of the price you would pay in the UK. It’s cold at night, but the days are full of bright sunshine and the winter temperatures warmer than back home in England (where rain seems to be the order of the day). We might be living behind bars and barbed wire but every day I am grateful for how well protected we are by seeing how the majority of people have to live in this “beautiful but troubled” (as everyone seems to label it) country.

Yes, overall I think we are going to like it here. It’s been a long journey from the day we first told the girls we were moving to South Africa , I realise we are still in the very early, “honeymoon” stage and there will be many mountains to climb ahead of us. But I am sure in the end it will all be worth it.

Anyone else out there just moved? How are you enjoying your first few days? 

At Home Between the Pages by Dan Gemeinhart

A lovely post about books and how they can help children transitioning between different schools or even countries….

Nerdy Book Club

When I think of my childhood, two themes immediately rise to the top: movement and books.

We moved a lot when I was growing up. In the beginning it was because my dad was in the military; later, just because we were following (or looking for) jobs. From when I was born in a military hospital in Germany until I entered middle school, we moved nearly every year. I was used to putting all my stuff into boxes, then taking it all out of boxes again in a new house, in a new town, with a new school. Each move brought a different bedroom, a different neighborhood, a different teacher, different friends. My family was strong and constant, but the rest of the world swirled and shifted around us.

I was a quiet kid, shy and introverted. It’s not easy always being the new kid. Walking into a classroom full…

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Memorable Journey’s #2: A Step into the Unknown at Frankfurt Airport

Following my first post about a memorable journey when I travelled the wrong way to Cameroon via Moscow, Silver Linings Mama has kindly contributed her own story about arriving at Frankfurt airport and getting lost in the German language.

Thank you for this interesting post and please don’t forget to let me know if you would like to contribute your own Memorable Journey to this occasional series!

 

A tale of a toddler, a crayon and a multilingual experience in Czech hospital

A perect example of why it’s always wise to be prepared (where to go, how to communicate when you get there…) for any medical emergency when you move overseas. A scary situation at the best of times, somethig like this can be very daunting if you have just relocated somewhere new.

Having two small kids around, it helps to occasionally let go and allow yourself not to worry about little things. Little annoying things. For example, mess all over your flat, plastic cutlery in a socks drawer, toys in a kitchen cabinet, etc. A tidy up maniac that I am, I think, I’m doing pretty good nowadays, trying to control the urge to wash everything as soon as it gets dirty and yesterday was a pretty good example.

You know those soft crayons, which are made specifically to use as a face paint? My girls love them. Not only do they’d colour all of their bodies in an Indian/Avatar patterns, these crayons are easily washed off the surfaces, therefore, mom doesn’t get all mad, when they make living room laminate floor so much prettier. The colour of the day was black and by the time the girls moved on from body…

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I’ve spent my whole life feeling home-sick for somewhere….

As part of a trailing spouse link-up this month we have been asked to write about home-sickness. At the moment, I am home. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get home-sick. For all my life I have been leaving places – and people – behind. And even now I still get a pang for countries that are so far in my past I can hardly remember what they feel like.

A friend of mine has recently returned from a posting in the Philippines. On her arrival back in the UK, she posted a set of photographs – set to some stirring song or another – of her time in that beautiful country. As I watched the pictures flick across the screen in front of me they not only showed me what a fabulous time my friend had had, it also brought back my own memories. And suddenly I was there again – the smell of Frangipani on a humid tropical evening; the excitement of arriving at our favourite beach resort at the start of the weekend. Diving from the top board at the Army and Navy club – and the agony when the perfect arc turned into a belly flop. Eating pizza at Shakey’s. My first sleepover, at a Korean friend’s house. Birthday parties with the rich children from school at the Country Club. Running barefoot round the corner of our gated village to my best friend’s house….

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The Philippines in the 1970’s

The feelings are fleeting but they are still there. Another example: I recently met someone who is about to be posted to Venezuela. I spent some very formative years of my life in that country – we were posted there when I was 15 and left when I was 19. I was at boarding school for much of that time but spent most holidays in Caracas and then a year there between leaving school and university.

As we spoke about what Venezuela was like (sadly very different from the country I knew – so safe I was able to go out at night on my own, finding my way home via taxi’s or lifts from strangers I met in bars; now it’s all armoured cars and close protection teams), I remembered trips to the Llanos, swimming at the base of the Angel Falls, endless cinema outings to watch the latest 80’s teen movie. Terrible clothes shops. The blandness of arepas, but the wonderful beef. These memories are deep but they haven’t gone away.

Yes I get homesick all the time – for all of these countries and for more. For verdant New Zealand, with its stunning views and laid-back people. For Jamaica, where I met my husband and we spent the weekends underwater. For St Lucia, with its beaches and its pools. Even for Pakistan, a strange three-month interlude in my life where I barely touched on getting to know the country but nevertheless gained so much.

Jamaica wedding

Jamaica wedding

But all of those will still pale into insignificance when I move abroad again this summer as I know the one place I will always miss more than any other is this one.

I wasn’t born here – that honour goes to Cuba – but I have always known the UK is home. Maybe not even the UK, maybe more significantly England, or perhaps even west England, where I live now. We always had a house in this country and family. We returned here between postings and I went first to school and later to University here. I have lived and worked here – in Kent, Hertfordshire, Essex, the Midlands, the west, and of course London. I know the people, I know the humour. There is no other country that does better television. We have our radio and our music. Our culture and our history. The NHS. Marks and Spencers. Cheese rolling and Morris dancing. We have the diversity of Birmingham. We have the beauty of the Cotswolds. In my opinion, having travelled and lived in all four corners of the globe, there is no better country in the world.

The view from our kitchen window

The view from our kitchen window

So why do I keep leaving it? This is a good question – but maybe one of the reasons I love it so much is because I do keep going away. This gives me a different perspective on this place, I can see it from a different angle. And while others might see ambulance queues and GP waiting lists, I see free and universal healthcare open to all. Where others complain that our politicians are corrupt, I see freedom of speech, freedom to wear (almost) whatever we want, freedom to complain openly and voraciously about those politicians. And where others moan about immigration and foreigners taking our jobs, I see an open and generous country.

But of course I won’t just be homesick for the country as a whole, I will be homesick for the little things, the meaningful things, the things that really mean OUR home. The autumn blackberry picking. Chats with other mums on the school run. The girls running outside to play with their friends in front of our house. Being able to walk into town and buying sausages from the local butcher. Reading the Times on Saturday afternoon with a coffee. Looking out of my window at the oh-so-familiar view of the road, trees, houses and play park in front of our home.

All of these things are what I miss. All of these things are what home means to me. And all of these things will be what I most look forward to when it’s time to return.

 

Read more about other trailing spouses’ experiences with homesickness:

• Elizabeth of Secrets of a Trailing Spouse shares how homesickness wasn’t what she expected
Tala Ocampo writes about the Life that Was in the Philippines and how she would still say yes to the trailing spouse life
• Yuliya of Tiny Expats relives the sensory experience of being back home
• Jenny of My Mommyology explains why we become homesick in the first place
• Didi of D for Delicious talks about her love-hate relationship with her home country

Packing for Venezuela 2015… and $755 condoms

A few weeks ago I wrote about all the (sometimes unexpected) things you might take on an overseas move   Then I came across this EPIC post about all the things one international school teacher took on her posting to Venezuela. I thought this was a great example of why it is always worth looking into what you can and can’t get in the country you’re moving to -in good time to buy and pack it all before you go….

Teaching Wanderlust

You will be lucky to find these in Venezuela! photo cred https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/15102035685/in/photolist-p1vT4B-3i4V6a-oJ2nAf-p1vSGV-oJ2Jft-oJ23XH-4fFbcy-4fFaR9-bvR8eA-2sgfT2-e8ZybD-8cfomA-kZjak-3vfFcY-6Dii5R-46Rf16-5Rgdr-3vbcQF-8RXmab-8GSASe-3vbcot-3vbbhZ-ekU49e-4fFb2m-3vfEVW-5YydqG-gDp6j-pLZRtj-91aSi4-8RUdJT-cEoQ8W-qTS2u7-qBocEY-5bpbUL-68tV9i-umJa1-cHV5C-oVa1sC-6g96H-8Ld7B3-3vbcDi-6Q4rQC-skRQL-7zFfR-4fBbEM-4fFbnj-d9AUts-R5VRT-g9wn-8GSAg8 You will be lucky to find these in Venezuela! photo cred 

Recently this article came out about the $755 condoms in Venezuela. While that number is large, the biggest news is that CONDOMS ARE HARD TO FIND. This makes me think of my annual packing list, which is especially important in Venezuela, where so many items are very difficult to find.

If you have been teaching abroad for a while you know that you should pack a professional wardrobe, whatever tools and books you can’t live without in your classroom, and whatever makes your apartment feel like home to you. When it comes to packing for Venezuela you need to consider packing several other items as well!

Remember, if you are lucky enough to find these items in Venezuela there is no such thing as brand loyalty. As I tell my students, “you get what you get, don’t have a…

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Depression and expat life: something we don’t talk about enough

I wasn’t going to write a post today. I have a busy week with school assemblies and meetings and work to catch up on. I’m trying to do a final read-through of the Survival Guide before sending it to the proof-reader. The washing needs doing….there’s mouths to feed…you know the score.

But as I scrolled through my Facebook feed this morning, something caught my eye. One of my online ex-expat friends Nicola had posted something about today being “time to talk about mental health” with a supporting campaign called “Take 5“. As I read the post,  I wondered how many expats suffered from depression or other mental health issues – and how many of them (us) ever talk about it.

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According to the Take 5 campaign, one in four of us will suffer from some sort of mental health issue every year. Now, I am no expert on this but knowing what I do about moving and living overseas, I can’t believe that already fairly shocking figure isn’t even higher amongst expats. Some of the sort of things that can lead to depression or mental health issues – isolation, loneliness, change – are all part and parcel of life for many expats, especially those who are newly arrived. And for the partners, this is often magnified by their other half going to work and immediately finding a role, colleagues, friends – while their accompanying spouses stay at home and need to work all of this out for themselves.

But how many people ever admit they have a problem? Who would you admit it to, anyway? Your partner? Many of us don’t want to worry him or her, as they try and get their head around a new job. Or they’re so desperate for you to be happy that you don’t want to upset them.

Friends? You may be lucky and know one or two people when you first move overseas – but even then, they are unlikely to be someone you feel close enough to do talk about things like your mental health. At least not straight away.

Family? Once a week you have those Skype or Facetime discussions. Your mum wants to see the kids and she wants that tour of the house, loves looking at the tropical foliage in the garden or the city view from the upstairs window. How do you start a conversation with her about how down you’ve been feeling?

Professionals? In some countries this will be possible. In others, it will be a lot harder. It all depends on what is available locally.

This is a difficult subject to talk about – but sometimes that is all we need. Someone to discuss it with. I don’t have any magic answers here except to assure you, if you think you are depressed or do have other mental health issues, that this shouldn’t be something to feel ashamed of. And that you shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. DO talk to your partner – he or she needs to know and it’s better they hear about it early on rather than when it’s gone too far. If you don’t have any local friends you can trust enough to open up to, what about online forums? Mumsnet (as an example) will always have a sympathetic ear – whatever time of the day or night it is. There are also specialist expat coaches or counsellors who work over Skype or via email – often they will have been expats themselves and will have a really good idea about what you are going through.

Moving is said to be one of the most stressful things you can do. Moving overseas can be even harder. Being somewhere new, where you don’t know anything, can’t get around easily, have no routine to your day and possibly don’t even speak the local language, it’s not surprising if you don’t feel your normal self.  For most expats, things will get better as they settle in, get to know more people and start to get some routine back into their lives. For others, it make take a bit longer or they may need to get professional help. But for all of you, just remember to go easy on yourselves. This is a big life change – don’t expect it all to be sundowners and pool loungers. And don’t forget to talk!

 

Have you found it harder than your thought to settle in to expat life? What advice would you give to others, especially those who have just moved or are about to move overseas? Any tips for dealing with depression or low mood generally, even if you are not or have never been an expat?

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So you’re a fresh expat in town -where do you meet new friends?

Moving somewhere new is a daunting prospect, whatever your age and situation. But what is really hard is when you move somewhere new and you don’t have a role. When you’re not going to school, or university. Or when you don’t have a sparkly new job to turn up to the day after you arrive.

As an expat partner, I have accompanied my husband on two different postings. Before that, I moved as a single, childless woman several times – but all of those times I had a role. I wasn’t the spare part. I had a way to meet people.

So where exactly do you make friends when you’re not going to work? Of course this is difficult whether you are moving to a new city within your own country or to the other side of the world. But relocating overseas does give you a particular sense of vulnerability that having a few buddies around you can at least partially alleviate.

I polled a number of friends – some had been expats, some hadn’t – and they came up with a list of great ideas. So here, in order of the number of times they were mentioned, are my top tips for finding new friends in your new location:

Through the kids

credit: Claire Broomfield
Image courtesy of Claire Broomfield at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Okay, if you don’t have any you can ignore this one completely. But the number one way most people moving overseas who DO have offspring meet their new-found mates is via their own children. School-gates, baby-groups, playgroups. It’s the easiest and most natural thing in the world to get chatting to the other mums and dads as you wait for little Lottie to finish her ballet class. I’m not going to go on about this as most of us know how it works. There’s something about the desperation of parenting that opens us up to the possibility of endless conversations about the most mundane subjects. I will say one thing though, don’t always assume that if someone doesn’t have children with them, they don’t have children at all. One of my friends is currently in Cairo, while her son and her daughter are at boarding school in the UK. “It’s now been a year and a half and I do have new friends, but I am constantly thinking ‘where do I belong!’” she told me.

Expat groups

You’ll discover many of these groups online, but very often there will be a local “branch” or activities run in your host city. Internations, A Small World   Expat Blog  and Gone Girl International were all examples given to me. Or you might find there’s a country-specific one where you live. One of my friends, for example, made friends through the group DR1  in the Dominican Republic.

Volunteering

If you aren’t able to get a job (for one or more of many reasons – visa or work permit issues, childcare responsibilities, non-availability or if you just don’t want to work) then volunteering is often a great alternative. It’s a good way to keep your cv up-to-date, it gets you out of the house and into the local community and – if you’re lucky – you might find some friends along the way! Examples given to me included helping out with IT at a local bereavement group, working in a school and volunteering with ACCESS – a not-for-profit organisation serving the local international community in Amsterdam.

Women’s groups

No good this one if you are a man, but many people mentioned women’s groups specifically as a way they have found people to bond with when they first move abroad. This included local International Women’s Groups (sometimes linked to international schools or embassies), Gone Girl International  and in the case of one of my friend’s in the UK, the Women’s Institute. She was, apparently, the youngest person there by about 25 years, but “they still gave me the warmest welcome I have ever had joining a new group”. Others said “just say yes to everything” at the start (and then start being a little more discerning after about 6 months). It might not be your thing, but you might meet someone else there who also thinks it’s not their thing. And bond over it not being your thing….

Book clubs

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ever popular amongst expats this one. I’m never too sure how much actual book-discussion goes on in these groups but it’s a great way to get everyone together for a reason and if you all love books, you’ve got at least one thing in common. And there is often cake and/or wine as well. I belonged to a fun book group in Kingston, Jamaica, where I worked as a singleton, and really enjoyed meeting people from a totally different background to myself (most of the others were trailing spouses). We also got to read books from all over the world, books I would never have even known about, about let alone chosen for myself.

Sports and hobbies

Another obvious one – you make friends much quicker when you are doing something you love. But it’s not always easy to find something to suit. Cooking lessons, art classes, horse-riding, walking groups…all these were mentioned to me, but where do you find them? Someone told me about a great website called Meet-up  where you can find groups of all shapes and sizes close to where you live. This will of course depend on where you are – it’s entirely possible that the choice will be slightly more limited in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland  than in Manhattan, New York.

Dog-walking

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve never actually owned a dog (yet. This is at the moment under debate in our household so watch this space). But I am told that walking the pet pooch is a great way to get chatting to people. I’m not sure if these people go on to become proper friends, or whether they’re only ever your “doggy” pals. Perhaps someone with a dog can tell me. But nevertheless, a chat over a pooper-scooper can be just as welcome as a chin-wag over a dirty nappy….
 
Language classes

Another easy way to meet fellow-expats is to join a local language class. The most obvious one would be a class to learn the language of the country that you are living in, but there’s nothing to stop you expanding your repertoire into other languages if you enjoy learning them. I met some great, giggly Korean women this way when I was young and living in Venezuela. I don’t think their English was much better than their Spanish, but it didn’t matter. We bonded over the fierce teacher who would pick on us if we were ever late to the class.
 
Church/not church.

I wasn’t sure what to call this as a couple of people mentioned church being a good place to meet people, but then someone else also mentioned non-religious groups such as local secular or humanist societies. So I have come up with a sort of church or non-religious equivalent. Perhaps community groups where you share a common belief?
 
Friends-of-friends

This is still a common way to meet people. Difficult when you first move somewhere and literally know no-one. But eventually you’ll make at least one friend and then hopefully through them, others. Ask them to introduce you to people, tag along when they go to groups. Don’t be shy. And then return the favour when you’re a bit more settled yourself and meet someone who has just arrived.

And finally…

One answer that stood out came from a friend of mine whose husband is an officer in the British army. She said when she moved into her new house, she invited the whole village for coffee and cake. The whole village! Well, I wouldn’t expect you all to do this but there is a message here. If you want to meet people sometimes you have to be the one making the effort – especially if you are moving somewhere where there aren’t that many other newcomers. People get settled in their lives, they have friends – why would they need new ones? However, if you can show them you’re someone worth knowing, they might well make that effort. So go on, put on the kettle, start baking (or pop to the cake shop) and invite over the neighbours!

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So that’s my round up. Now I would love to hear from you – where did you meet your friends when you moved somewhere new? Has anyone met anyone somewhere totally unexpected?

 

Survival tips for new expats

“Staying inside feeling like you may as well be on Mars is only going to make you feel more isolated. Each day you’ll gain the courage to explore that little bit further.”

Arriving somewhere new is always daunting. But if you not only don’t speak the language, you can’t even recognise the letters, how do you cope? Especially if home is a hotel and you’ve got a three-year-old daughter to entertain?

Here, fellow Expat Focus columnist Nicole Webb shared her strategy. Do you agree?

 

A Long Hill to Climb – my blog post on Expat Focus

I am delighted to be blogging at the expat website Expat Focus. This month, I decided to write about the coming months and what I know I have to get through before we’re settled into our new life in South Africa. Read it here and please let me know what you think – do you agree it’s usually at least a year from your first preparations  until the day you can finally say you feel settled in your new home? Or if you’re not an expat and have never been an expat reading this, does it surprise you how long it can take for someone to feel happy when they move abroad? Are we all just a load of moaning minnies? Or has this opened your eyes a bit?

 

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