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.

3243790269_650eb36d69_o

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….

8182564517_ed41f39764_o

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

The Male Trailing Spouse series: Ian in Abu Dhabi

Welcome to the second post in my series on male trailing spouses. I have had a feeling for a while that more needs to be done on this subject and was delighted when I was contacted by Eric in Nairobi who was the first to be featured in this series. The reaction to his post was fantastic – it was shared widely and I know from my referrers it reached a whole new audience for me. Today, I feature my second man (and another stay-at-home dad), Ian, who lives in the UAE with his wife and family. Thank you Ian for helping me connect men like you, around the world.

christmas party

Welcome Ian and thank you for contributing to my  blog series on male accompanying partners. First of all  could you tell me a little about yourself and your partner/family?

My name is Ian Davies a software developer from the UK. My wife is a Senior Associate with Herbert Smith Freehills. We have an almost three year old son and a four month old daughter and are based in Abu Dhabi (UAE) where we have been for the past four years. This is our first taste of life outside of the UK.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?

To begin with we were both full of excitement and keen to get on with making the most of my wife’s two year contract. We had quite a large amount of debt before coming here but tax free earnings promised to allow us an opportunity to wipe it all out. I was lucky enough to be given a matching length contract from my employer to continue working remotely so it was pretty much business as usual. Find a house, sort visas, get connected to the internet and find a good takeaway!

Looking back, I was quite lucky in terms of isolation issues. Working from home with only the dog for company was tough to begin with. No contact with anyone all day was an odd wrench that I hadn’t expected. Of course, once my colleagues came online in the UK I wasn’t short of instant messages and emails, but even so, sitting at home on your own for long periods can be hard. However, we were fortunate to have some friends already here and being sporty types we quickly managed to replicate much of our UK social life.

Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?

Initially, no, but once my wife’s contract ended we decided to move her on to a local, permanent one. The job market here for IT work is not what it is in the UK and with the arrival of our little boy I was faced with the possibility of only earning marginally more than what childcare would cost. The obvious choice was for me to give up work and become a stay at home daddy!

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?

The middle east has a huge expat population so finding like-minded people to socialise with was really quite easy. Although I don’t recall meeting many (if any) other men that had followed their wives.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?

Yes, definitely! Most expat communities will be predominantly populated by families where the wife has given up work. Perhaps a failing on my part but I have found that groups of ladies are not all that keen on having a man join in.

If you have children, are you the main carer? And if so how have you found this – are you welcomed by other expat parents or do you feel like a bit of an outsider?

I have been my son’s daytime carer since my wife returned to work when he was four months’ old (maternity leave here not being quite as generous as most other countries) and will do the same when our daughter reaches the same age. Having said that, the availability of good nursery care here has relieved the pressure massively; the half day he spends there (7:30am to 2pm) means he is stimulated both physically and mentally in a way that I couldn’t hope to replicate at home.

To be perfectly honest, I have felt very much like an outsider. As far as I know, there are perhaps one or two other stay at home Dads within the social circles that I am part of and I haven’t actually met them. Before my son started nursery I was very concerned about his social skills development as he had only me for company. Even now, after two and a half years of taking him to classes and play groups, we are yet to be invited to a “Play Date”. Only with my wife taking him to these activities while on maternity leave have the invites started.

Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS? Either positive or negative.

Not directly linked to being a male trailing spouse, rather being a male trailing spouse & stay at home Dad. To give some context to the above opinion, I had been attending a play group with my son for several months, I was the only Dad there and while everyone was very friendly, was yet to snare one of these illusive “Play Dates”. One of our friends, who had not been before, asked to come along with her daughter to see how she got on. Within the first half hour she had exchanged numbers with three other mums and had two “Play Date” invites…

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?

I would say “do it” but do so with open eyes and a willingness to “put yourself out there”. Without a job to go to (assuming that a male trailing spouse won’t have one initially) you will not have a ready-made social circle so you’ll have to make a little extra effort. Not so much that it should put you off going though; it’s all part of the experience!

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

I’m not sure that any external influences could have improved my experience, as a trailing spouse of either sex, you get as much out as you put in. Friends, much like dinner, don’t make themselves!

Thank you Ian for being part of my Male Trailing Spouse series and sharing your experiences. I hope by doing so, you have helped others in a similar situation to yourself. I would love to hear more stories like this so if you are a man accompanying your partner abroad, or if you know someone who is, then please do get in touch – either via the comments section below or email me clara@ijbpe.com.

Culture shock

Have you ever stood there, staring at a sign in a totally different language, not understanding a word of it, and just felt like weeping? Or found yourself shouting uncharacteristically at a stranger in shop because, well, they just aren’t doings the way you are used to?

If yes, then you could be experiencing culture shock – a term that describes those feelings of frustration, exasperation, annoyance, confusion, disorientation and all-round crapness that almost always accompanies a move to a new environment.

DSC_0136

Even the differences in things like clothing can be difficult for newcomers

Do you know much about culture shock? Did you read up on it before you moved abroad? It’s something that I started researching in detail as I was writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide – and went back to recently as I was interviewed for an excellent new podcast series called Tandem Nomads.

Culture shock is something that generally hits most of us at some point in our overseas lives. It isn’t necessarily a negative thing – sometimes it is just a “thing”. But when it can become a problem is when you don’t understand that what you are going through is normal, part of the “roller coaster” ride of moving to another country, and something that will generally pass once you have adjusted to your new life.

When I was researching for my culture shock chapter in the book, I looked at various definitions of the term, and amalgamated a few to come up with my own definition – which is:

Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere unfamiliar, a roller coasters of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally speaking they are: wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four phases in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.

Not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way – for some it will come and go fleetingly, for others it will last throughout their stay in their new country, and possibly even turn to depression. But for everyone, it is worth finding out a bit more about what you are likely to encounter when you first go abroad. Knowing the stages, recognising which stage you are at and realising that it will  almost certainly get easier is one of  the best pieces of advice I can give a new expat – they say forewarned is forearmed and in this case that is certainly true.

To find out more about culture shock please listen to the podcast, or buy a copy of my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your views – have you suffered, or are you suffering, from culture shock? If so, how did it affect you? And do you think you can get culture shock even moving within your own country? Please comment below 🙂

The perfect Christmas gift for a new expat….

Holidays are coming! Holidays are coming! As I write this, I can hear the tinkle of reindeer bells, the thudding of hooves on the roof, the ho ho ho as Santa takes off into the sky….

Ok well not quite, but although the weather outside would tell me otherwise (don’t forget, I am in the southern hemisphere so for me, this isn’t right!), Christmas really is just around the corner. And as you scratch your head and try to work out what to buy your expat friend, mother, daughter, brother, sister, colleague or basically any random person you know who happens to be moving abroad – let me present you with the perfect answer:

christmas book

Too much?

Anyway, the book has been called “an absolute must-have for anyone moving abroad“, “perfect for anyone living abroad or thinking of it” and “a must-have for soon to be expats as well as seasoned expats“. Even Bridget Keenan, the author of the acclaimed Diplomatic Baggage and follow-up Packing Up, said she wished she had had this book when she first became an expat wife.

Available from all good book stores Amazon, starting at the budget friendly price of just £2.99/$4.62 (who makes up these prices??) for an ebook,  or £7.99/$9.99 for a hard copy, you can use this as the perfect stocking filler, wrap it to put under some lucky person’s tree or send it by email as a gift card (or ebook if you are in the US) to that certain someone who you know will most appreciate such a gift.

Happy Christmas, thank you to everyone for your support this year and especially to everyone who has bought the book and/or left a review. Here’s to another great expat partner year!

click here to buy the book

 

 

How far I’ve come….

My husband was on a business trip last week. To the Seychelles. Yes. the Seychelles. And funnily enough, it was extended from three nights to five nights. So in the end, he was away more or less for the whole week.

It was a bit of a pain – mainly because we had parents meetings at the school on Thursday, which he hoped to attend with me. But in all honesty, it was no more of an inconvenience than it would have been had we still been living back home in the UK.

Which made me realise quite how far I have come in the three months and 20 days since I first arrived, wide-eyed and disorientated, on the flight from London.

Back then, it seemed impossible that a time would ever come when I would understand all the locks, keys, bars, codes and fobs – let alone the alarm system – that we have to battle through to get in and out of our home on a daily basis. I would fumble for the wrong key for what seemed like eternity, getting increasingly panicked that I would be locked inside forever. I also doubted that I would ever drive further than the bottom of the road, terrified that I would get lost and never find my way back to the house. Or get hit by another car.

IMG_20150806_090728277_HDR

I’ve finally worked out how to escape the house!

The mornings also seemed like something I would never get used to. Our children have to be up by 6am every day in order to be ready for the school bus that picks them up at the gates of the compound at 6.45am. This mad scramble includes forcing the youngest out of bed and into her clothes, finding something that they will both agree to eat at that time of the morning (tortilla, bread sticks, dried fruit – I don’t care, as long as they don’t walk out of the house on an empty stomach), making two packed lunches, checking they both have caps, water bottles, homework, reading books, football kit or swimming kit and musical instruments, and applying sunscreen.

A mad rush it always is, but between myself and my husband we now have the routine down pat: he does the upstairs part and gets dressed himself; I come downstairs and make the breakfasts and lunches and look after things like homework folders and swim kits. He then walks them to the end of the road (or walks with them as they run, on the frequent days when the bus is here before we are ready) and waits at the end of the road until they are picked up.

With him away, I have to be both upstairs AND downstairs person. I have to be in all places at once, and I have to get myelf dressed as I can’t be seen walking to the end of the road in my PJ’s. Although, sorry neighbours, the stripey blue and white slippers stay.

So, parenting solo, I am having to do a lot of things I really couldn’t imagine myself doing a few months ago, back when I was a “newborn” and wrote this post. But do them I do – I get the children to school on time, I cope with all the security measures surrounding the house (and haven’t even set the alarm off while being here alone!), I find my way all over town, taking myself and the children to social events in places I have never heard of.

I know where to shop for the best meat, I know where to get the peanut butter that I like (from a chemists. weirdly!) and which supermarkets sell the best fruit and veg. I have found a hairdresser, bought rugs and tables and chairs and printer cartridges and all sorts of other things I wouldn’t have had a clue where to source not that long ago. I have worked out how to tell a 200 Rand note from a 20 Rand note, I even know which coins are which. Although don’t test me on the little copper ones – I need my reading glasses for those! I have also joined a gym, put our name down for a puppy and – last but certainly not least – managed to accumulate a really great group of new friends.

16504179413_6f83a8f654_o.jpg

South African coins. I know what they are now!

It happens wthout realising, this growing up, passing from being a newborn to a toddler to where I am now – perhaps a pre-teen or even an adolescent. Confidence grows with every night alone, every car trip somewhere new, every small emergency dealt with. It also helps when you get to know a few people well enough to be able to ask them things – and have numbers in your phone that you know you can call on if you needed to.

I’m still only a youngster though as I know I have a little way to go. I still balk at going into Johannesburg on my own, or taking the one safe transport public transport system open to me (the Gautrain). I have also yet to use Uber, although many here recommend it. I haven’t yet had to deal with a REAL emergency (one that involves doctors or hospitals or getting locked out). I also haven’t opened a bank account or even got myself a Woolworths card – although they ask every time I plonk my shopping down at the check-out.

So I have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. I am growing up, learning every day and hopefully gaining confidence with each new discovery. Before I know if, we will have been there six months – and I will be welcoming new arrivals like an old hand. When you are an expat, you don’t have to have been somewhere for very long to feel like an old-timer.

But until then, I think I am going to carry on sulking, wearing black and listening to Death Rock Kill Queens – or whatever it is that teenagers listen to. After all, I’m still just a young thing.

Where are you on your expat journey – still in nappies? High school age? Or perhaps collecting your bus pass?

Photo credit: South African coins – Paul Saad

 

click here to buy

Expat World – it’s very weird

“Where do you go for a new tyre on a golf cart?”

This was one of the questions posed on a local expat forum last week. Nothing wrong with that at all, and people started adding thoughtful replies and suggestions. Hopefully whoever posted the original comment soon had her new tyre and her golfcart was once more back on the road…errr, green….

But occasionally when I see comments like this I stop and think what an absurd world we live in. Back home, how many of us would ever ask where we would need to replace a tyre on a golf cart on anything but a specialist golf forum? And how many more of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid when we saw such a question posed? Yes, it is a weird world we live in.

Many people call it the “expat bubble”, although really, given all the debate there is over the word “expat” and how it differentiates from the word “immigrant” or “migrant”, I think it is more about a certain type of expat bubble. Really, this is the bubble of those of us lucky enough to be posted on corporate or government packages which include housing and schools, and to countries in which we are able to afford to do things like play golf all day. The down-side to this, of course, is that we often also can’t work – finding a job as an expat partner in many of these countries is downright difficult thanks to the local labour market or things like visa restrictions. Hence the need to find things to do – like play golf. So long as our tyre isn’t busted!

As I read the question about the golf cart tyre I was reminded of the chapter I wrote for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide about domestic staff. The chapter starts with a discussion on a parenting forum between women living in a country like Singapore or Hong Kong, where having a full-time nanny is normal. They talk about whether it is better to have a live-in or a live-out. Had the discussion been kept just to those expats who had experienced this way of life then it would all have been fine. As it was, they were interupted by others – others who had only ever lived in countries where in order to have a live-in nanny you would have had to be married to a hedge-funder. Or be a hedge-funder yourself. Or both.

Children and their nany - 1924

Children and their nanny – 1924

It wasn’t a bad-natured exchange between the different groups of women but it did show the original group up for what they were – immensely privileged women living in a world where everyone else was in exactly the same situation so they possibly forgot how unusual their circumstances were. Not to say we don’t all appreciate our lives as expats  – it’s hard not to when you pass men literally on their knees begging for a bit of food for a few rand at traffic lights every day. Or you donate some scuffed old shoes to your helper who tells you she will give them to the school where her granddaughter goes because there are children at the school with no shoes at all.

So it’s not that we aren’t aware or that we aren’t grateful but I do think sometimes we forget how weird it all is. That it’s normal that every single other expat I have met here has a swimming pool in their garden. That we book safari weekends away in the same way that we would book a shopping trip to London back home. And that asking about a new tyre for our golf cart is as normal as asking about where to get the half price offer on cocoa pops.

Yes, it’s a weird world we live in. But a rather wonderful one as well.

(Nanny picture: Robert of Fairfax)

Expat friendships – fast and furious!

“I’m new”

“I’m new too”

“Can I be your best buddy and do lots of things with you and chat every day and feel like we have known each other for years instead of basically 0.3 seconds?”

“Of course!”

So goes expat friendships – there’s nothing like being in a totally alien place with literally not a single contact in your phone to force you to find friends. And quick.

I’ve written about friendships a number of times on this blog already – perhaps an indicator of how important this aspect of expat life is to most of us. I wrote about Finding my Support System in this post, My New Best Friend (my GPS) in this one and about how and where you meet people when you first arrive somewhere in this one. But what I have been pondering more recently is not just about how you find those friendships, but what those friendships really mean when you are an expat.

So far I think I have been extremely lucky here in Pretoria.  Thanks to the fact that my children are still primary/elementary school age, I have found it reasonably easy to meet other parents. But already even though it really is only a matter of weeks since I met these new friends, I feel like I have known them for years. Once you find those friends, your bond is often a very strong one.

As I was pondering this fact I read two stories from expats who confirmed this view – that there really is something special and different about expat friendships, where you meet in a vacuum and fill it as fast as possible with coffee dates and Facebook chats and playdates with your kiddies and evening get-togethers with your other halves.

It starts with a coffee...but soon it could be friends for life.

It starts with a coffee…but soon it could be friends for life.

First, there was a beautiful tale shared in an expat Facebook group from a woman who ended up being the birth partner for someone she had only just met. The pregnant lady’s husband was out of town when she went into labour so she called on one of the only people whose contact number she had in her phone (having very recently arrived in her new location).

But even though they were still relative strangers, the fact that they were both living somewhere with none of their usual support groups (family, old friends, long-term colleagues) meant the woman telling the story felt entirely comfortable and okay about performing this role. I feel sure that now these two will remain in touch for a long, long time even if their lives are scattered to the winds as our expat lives so often are.

Secondly, I read this post by now ex-trailing spouse Liz who writes about the “end of her journey”:

“Over the past year I have really enjoyed sharing stories with other trailing spouses, both in real life and online. I know it won ‘t be as easy to find a sense of community when I move back, the sort of close community spirit that exists here amongst the trailing spouses is very rare indeed. I’ve learnt how other people can surprise you with the things they are willing to do for someone they may not know that well, or how much effort friends will go to – when there are no family members nearby to offer their support, your friends often offer a lifeline.”

The words “close community spirit” really sums it up for me. I have joked many times about how we desperately find friends in our first few weeks in a new location – and then spend the next six months trying to shake them off. Or about the “friendship dance” we do when we meet someone new and spend the first few meetings trying to work out whether we actually like them or not.

But in reality, this life brings us together – often with people we wouldn’t naturally be friends with, but people with whom our situation bonds us. Having no-one else to rely on but each other means that we turn to these new friends for support, comfort, entertainment, reassurance, companionship…..all the things friends and family back home have been giving us, but now we need it all at once and all in double-quick time.

Some of those people will be “just now” friends – the ones who you spend time with while you are both living in the same place, but who you won’t stay in touch with apart from perhaps the odd Facebook comment. Others will be friends for life – the ones you long for, visit in new places, whose children you will watch growing up (even if from afar) and whose birthdays you will still mark. But every friendship is valid – as expats, we all know how important they are. And each friend we make helps this strange peripatetic life just that little bit easier, that little bit less lonely and that little bit….well, friendlier.

When we move on, to another country or back home, we may not take the friends with us but we take the MEMORY of those friendships. We know how it feels to be alone, to be the one whose only daily adult interaction is with the supermarket checkout person or the security guard at the gate to our compounds. And we know how it felt when someone reached out to us and offered us even just a smile, a few words, an invitation or a recommendation. We remember this and hopefully we take it with us so that we in turn can become that person. The one who offers friendship to those who need it most.

Here’s to our expat friends!

Have you got any special expat friends? How and where did you meet them? Have you kept in touch with friends from previous locations?

Picture credit: Luis Cerezo

click here to buy

ExpatLifeLinky

The last few mad weeks – a round-up!

The last few weeks for me, my book and my blog seem to have gone a little crazy. I am not sure why – planets aligning, new moon, old moon, no moon….I think it is just one of those things that sometimes happens  and your life gets a little mad for a while. So here is a wee round-up for those who have missed some of these events:

First of all there was the post about Quirky South Africa that was widely shared and widely commented on. I only put nine things with the hope that someone would suggest a number ten. I got so many ideas (plus I have a few more or my own) that I am currently lining up Some of the Quirky Things I Love about South Africa Part Two. Watch this space!

Tiny eggs - one of the puzzling aspects of this country

Tiny eggs – one of the puzzling aspects of this country

Then I was honoured to be interviewed about family holidays for the fabulous expat podcast Two Fat Expats, by expat extraordinaire Kirsty Rice. I have read Kirsty’s blog for years (as have literally squillions of other expats) so it was great fun finally getting to talk to her over Skype. As many know, Kirsty has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. But I think most will agree that she is meeting this challenge with huge dignity and using it as a way to share her experience with others in exactly the same way she has used her expat experience to help others in a similar situation.

I have also featured not once but TWICE in the Wall Street Journal expat’s section – once talking about trying not to put my foot in it when we lived in Cameroon, and then a week or so later discussing expat nostalgia. In the latter, the article linked to my post on Jamaican banana bread that I mentioned in the interview – and I now have visions of WSJ readers all over the world enjoying a slice of this delcious bread with their morning coffee!

I can smell it from here...

I can smell it from here…

I also recieved a lovely review of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide on one of my favourite blogs, Joburg expat – which I started reading when we first heard we were moving to South Africa and has been a great source of info for me over the months.

I have been writing for the Expat Focus website for a while now (must be coming up for a year as the first post I wrote was about the daunting task of moving to a new country) and my latest column Making the Most of Expat Life – or Spoiling my Future was out at the end of October. I also wrote the last post for a trailing spouse “blog crawl” I have been participating in, a post that turned into a bit of a mega essay tracing my journey here to Pretoria through the various posts I had written for the crawl and titled Making a New Home Abroad – My Journey Back to Trailing-Spouse Land.

Another of my posts went semi-viral (by that I mean it went MEGA viral by my standards but probably not so much by the standards of those posts you read on Buzz-Feed and Huffington Post; it did get shared and read quite a lot though and thus I conclude it hit some sort of nerve with people) – What Do You Wish You Had Known Before Becoming an Expat.

And finally I started a new series, one I am really excited about as I think it is a topic that needs more acknowledgement – the male trailing spouse series. My first post in this series featured Eric in Nairobi, who contacted me after reading my book. Again, the post was widely shared and viewed and I sincerely hope it has helped others in the same situation as Eric. I am on the lookout for more men expat partners willing to be featured to please let me know if you are one or know one!

So that’s it for now – a quick round-up of a busy few weeks. I need to get my head down and start work on another important project which is some posts I want to write about expats and depression. In the meantime please let me know if you have any questions about being an expat partner or if there are any subjects you would like to see covered – either in the comments below or by emailing me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.

Making a new home abroad – my journey back to trailing spouse-land.

For the last nine months or so, I have been participating in a blog crawl called #trailingspousestories. Every month we were set a question or theme to write about, all related to being a trailing spouse abroad but with the flexibilty to interpret the subject as we wished. It’s been an interesting opportunity but sadly it’s now coming to an end. I came late to the crawl as it actually started a year ago, so November is apparently the last one.

At the same time as partiipating in this exercise I was preparing and moving here to Pretoria in South Africa. So I thought it would be interesting, for the final blog in this series, to look back at both journeys together. To revisit each of my posts and see whether, now that I am back in “trailing spouse land” properly, my thoughts on what I wrote previously have changed. And if so, how – and why. So, here goes!

In FEBRUARY I wrote a post called I’ve Spent My Whole LIfe Feeling Homesick for Somewhere.  In it I wrote about how I have travelled so much and lived in so many different countries that I am constantly missing somewhere. And yes, that still continues – I miss Florida (where we spend a lot of holidays) constantly, and even as I drive around Pretoria I can’t help but think how much I am going to miss this place when I leave. But in the post I also say that the place I always miss more than any other is my real home – the UK:

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 back “home”

Do I still feel like this? Of course I do! I have been lucky so far in that I am so busy and South Africa offers so many distractions that I haven’t been too homesick. But homesickness is one of those things that rides with you all the time, that can hit you at any time, any place and often when you least expect it. Standing in the queue in the supermarket I suddenly miss with a heart lurch our local shops at home. Meeting a Japanese family and I am reminded of our Japanese neighbours in the UK, which makes me think of our house, which makes me think of our old life….I don’t think you can ever escape it however long you have been away and however well travelled you are. I think you have to accept it, acknowledge it and move on. It’s part of expat life.

In MARCH I wrote a post for International Women’s Day which was actually about Male trailing spouses: Being a Woman and a Trailiing Spouse: In Honour of the Male Trailing Expat Partner’s. The suggestion given for the post was to look at how being a trailing spouse has affected our views of being a woman. I immediately thought of all those accompanying partners who weren’t women – the men, and how they felt about this life.

When I was asked how being a trailing spouse has affected my views on being a woman, I couldn’t help but think of these men, and think that, in the name of equality (and isn’t this what International Women’s Day is about?), we shouldn’t forget about them. We’re not all women – there are fewer, a lot fewer, men giving up their careers and their financial independence to follow their partners to another country. But they are out there.  And the fact that their numbers are growing is testament to the fact that more women are getting better paid jobs. Plus life is as hard (possibly harder – I know, I know, I am sure some will disagree…) for them as it is for all of us.

Here in Pretoria, I have been amazed at how many male trailing spouses there are. I have no idea why but I have never met so many! It’s been really refreshing – and a trend I hope is going to continue. And then, just last week, I was contacted by a male partner in Nairobi who thanked me for writing the book, I told him I was thinking of starting a new series on the blog about male trailing spouses, he agreed to take part, one thing led to another and voila! If you didn’t already see it last week here is a link to the post: The Male Trailing Spouse Series #1: Eric in Nairobi.

In APRIL we were asked what “fooled” us into becoming trailing spouses, what myths did we start out with and what did we discover in the process. The resulting post was called Trailing Fools? and in it I talked about how different it is to move overseas as an expat partner rather than as a child or as someone with the job you are moving for. And that this was the basis for my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. Trailing spouses aren’t fools but they are often underprepared.

So I still think this? Certainly! Mostly based on the amount of fantastic feedback I have had about the book, from people thanking me for writing it and also from people commenting on my blog posts. I am still convinced there is a great need for books and blogs like mine – books and blogs that will help ensure more of us don’t go blindly into this life.

In MAY things went off on a bit of a tangent when we were asked to write about how we had “bloomed where we were planted”, how we had developed and blossomed as expat partners…..but all I could think of was Blooming Hell: Life on a Hothouse Island. This post talked about living in St Lucia and how living in “paradise” isn’t always what you think it may be.

Oh yes, the sun, did I mention that yet? It is of course wonderful to greet the tropical sun when you’re on holiday, bikini at the ready, pool loungers and cocktails beckoning. But try shunting twelve bags of shopping from your car to the kitchen when it’s 95 degrees and 99 per cent humidity. Because it wasn’t just the sun that was the problem, but the stifling, draining air. The air that made you feel like you were constantly swimming through cotton wool, that kept you dripping with sweat all day long….and that made your clothes, canvas chairs, towels, and pretty well everything else in the house that was made with the right material bloom with mould.

Luckily for us, South Africa isn’t anywhere near as humid as St Lucia – although we have been experiencing a heatwave with temperatures knocking on 40 degrees. But the same idea still holds – that just because you live in a place where others come on holiday doesn’t mean that your life is one long vacation. We still have the daily frustrations not just of normal life (children’s tantrums, conflicting priorities, grumpy husbands..) but those extra ones due to not living in our home country. All I will say is, next time you spend a glorious two weeks in a beautiful holiday destination think very, very hard about what it would be like to actually live there. Life still happens.

Hot and sweaty smallest daughter in St Lucia

Hot and sweaty smallest daughter in St Lucia

In JUNE we were asked to “explore our national identity” and I wrote Why I have always felt British all my Expat life. Basically this comes down to the fact that I have moved around so much that no one culture has dominated apart from my home country. I think that the fact that whoever I was moving with (my father, myself, my husband) has also always worked at the British embassy or high commission has also added to this feeling.

I would say this certainly still holds true. Interestingly here in Pretoria most of my new friends are NOT British. They are Swedish, Australian, American, Belgian….and I also really enjoyed spending time with my South African relatives. However, that doesn’t mean that when I DO get together with other Brits I don’t immediately feel at ease. I think it is inevitable, when you have that shared culture and background. Although I must say that with television so globalised these days, I am finding much more in common with my foreign friends than ever before. Plus, I feel very comfortable with other expats who have moved around a lot and those who have lived in some of the more “hardship” countries like we have. So yes I still feel very British. But living here has also reminded me that as much as anything I am a true global citizen.

The theme for JULY was writing about home – what is home? How do you make your new home home? I had already written on just this topic a month previously so didn’t do a new post. Here is a link to the original post – A bittersweet homecoming, in which I talked about how only when you come home somewhere from being away do you know whether your current accommodaton is “home”:

I think you only really know what home is when you’ve been away. It’s the coming back that makes somewhere special. Even when you’re having the time of your life somewhere, if you think about somewhere else with longing – whether that be a country, city, house or even a person – then you know that is where you belong. Or at least, you know it “belongs” to you.
a corner of the house

At the end of the post I started to look forward to what life would be like here in South Africa, how long it would be before our house started to feel like “home”. Well, we have been here nearly three months now and had our first proper trip (5 nights) away. So I have experienced coming “home” and it’s not quite there yet. This house still feels like someone elses home that we are staying in. It doesn’t help that I have a domestic helper in the house for two full days a week and a gardener who randomly enters the garden at all sorts of times of the day. But slowly we are getting there. We have yet to put up some of our pictures so I hope that will help. And we still have to make more memories here.

It’s not home yet but come back to me in another three months or so…

In AUGUST we were asked to list some of the resources we have found helpful in our host country. This was a difficult one for me as I only moved here in August so I am still discovering how and where and why…..But I was able to list a few websites I had already found helpful in Help! I’m New! I’m still working on this, although I have added a few Facebook pages and forums to my list (including one that discusses all the yummy places to eat in Johannesburg and Pretoria – you would not believe how fantastic the restaurant and cafe scene is here!).

Overall though I have found the best source of info is still word-of-mouth – in particular from other expats who have been here a while. What you need is up-to-date stuff from someone who knows exactly what you are after. Slowly I am amassing a long list of places I want to visit. The problem is how on earth we will ever have the time to go to them all!

And then in SEPTEMBER we were asked to write about our support network – which of course is quite appropriate given that these new friends are exactly who are supplying me with all my new info! In the post Expat Friends: Finding my support system.

This post is only a few weeks old but even in that short amount of time I have met more and more people.I don’t have the “anchor” of daily contact that I used to have when I worked or when I did the school run in the UK, but I have felt really welcomed by the school community here and have found it relatively easy to meet other mums. I also found it invaluable making contact with the relatives in Cape Town and can’t wait to see them again. All in all, I feel very lucky for the support network that I am already building here.

I’m not sure what happened in OCTOBER but I don’t seem to have written a post and can’t find anyone else who has either so I guess that is it. This is my last one. That is my year.

How has it been for you?

Check out other #TrailingSpouseStories in this month’s blog crawl:

Tala of Tala Ocampo takes a look back into finding her tribe through the year of #TrailingSpouseStories.

Didi of D for Delicious tells more about the happy ending of the trailing spouse fairy tale.

Jenny of My Mommyology describes how the roller coaster trailing spouse ride left her in a trailing spouse twilight zone.

Yuliya of Tiny Expats shares why the trailing spouse life is a challenge and why its great to share stories with fellow trailing spouses.

Liz of Secrets of a Trailing Spouse reflects as her time as a trailing spouse comes to an end.

The Male Trailing Spouse Series #1: Eric in Nairobi

Welcome to a new series of posts – the Male Trailing Spouse series. For a while now I have been thinking I would like to do more about male partners. I feel I didn’t really do this subject justice in the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, and this feeling was reinforced when I arrived here in Pretoria to find the place stuffed with men accompanying their working partners. I have yet to get to the bottom of why there seem to be so many male expat spouses here but it has given me the impetus to get on with this new series. And then the final shove that I needed came in the shape of Eric.

Eric contacted me through my Facebook page to say thank you for writing the book and in particular for the (half) chapter on Male trailing spouses. I immediately thought of my idea for doing more on the blog about men like him and asked him to get involved. I was very happy when he accepted the offer and allowed me to start this new series. I wanted to know what life was like for the typical (if such a think exists!) male expat partner, whether there were any particular difficulties they faced that were different from their female equivalents, what advice they would give to others thinking of doing the same thing….So here we are – what is life like for a man accompanying his wife in Nairobi?

2014-11-13 19.50.50
Welcome Eric and thank you for being my first victim subject of this new blog series. First of all  could you tell me a little about yourself and your partner/family?
My name is Eric Camp and I am from the US. My wife is a FSO (Foreign Service Officer) with USAID. We have an 11-month old son. We are based in Nairobi, Kenya and it is our first posting. I am an oil and gas attorney and work remotely for my Texas-based law firm.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new posting?
I don’t know that my initial reactions were all that different as a male trailing spouse than those of a female trailing spouse. At first I felt a little overwhelmed – which was probably to be expected moving to Africa for the first time. The initial goal was to set up my home office as soon as possible – buying office equipment and setting up the internet was no easy task but we had it done in the first couple of weeks.

I remember feeling very isolated – especially that first month before we had a car. We lived in an apartment building typically used for singles so there weren’t any other spouses – men or women – to get to know. And our social sponsor was a single guy that worked at the Embassy – so that wasn’t much help to me during the day.

I found myself walking to Westgate Mall (very close to our apartment) during most days to work from different coffee shops and just be around other people – even if I didn’t know them. Plus I liked the convenience of being able to take care of a lot of errands in one place.

Thankfully we moved into a housing compound a couple of months into our posting that had quite a few trailing spouses – men and women – and many that worked from home, like me. That move helped a lot with the isolation.

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?
I’ve found it fairly easy to fit in and make friends. On the one hand there is a very large US Embassy community here and you instantly have things in common with a lot of folks. But then on the other hand, working remotely can be isolating – especially from other trailing spouses that may not be working. I’ve found that I seem to bond more with trailing spouses that work remotely, like me – perhaps because we have more in common even if we’re working in completely different fields.

I have met other men accompanying their partners but we are still a rare species – unfortunately even more so in Nairobi today than in 2013 when we arrived. I’ve met other male trailing spouses either because they live in my neighbourhood or because my wife learns of a female colleague of hers that has a husband in Kenya – and then my wife would suggest meeting the husband, particularly if she knew the husband worked from home.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?
I want to say that I believe it is difficult for any spouse, regardless of sex, to accompany their partner abroad. Whether it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners, I don’t know – but I do think men face some different challenges.

While progress is being made in this area, there are still far fewer male trailing spouses than female trailing spouses. While abroad, the Embassy spouse goes to the office and gets to interact in person with colleagues / friends all day. Of course, most of this time is spent working – but some is also spent socializing, etc. The trailing spouse, however, typically doesn’t have as much daily interaction with colleagues / friends – unless that spouse happens to also work at the Embassy. Accordingly, trailing spouses then look within their trailing spouse community for friends. Friendships are often formed based off of common interests – and while there are many commonalities between trailing spouses of all sexes, the reality is that male trailing spouses typically have more in common with other male trailing spouses, and vice versa. So I believe that it can be harder for male trailing spouses to form close friendships than for female trailing spouses – primarily because there are so many fewer male trailing spouses.

This historical disparity is also evident in community organizations – often used for networking, etc. Historically, the man was the working expat and the woman was the trailing spouse and so the trailing spouses would set up their own groups for networking, socializing, etc. – such as the American Women’s Association, etc. No such organizations usually exist, however, for the male trailing partner because that person is a pretty new concept.

If you have children, are you the main carer? And if so how have you found this – are you welcomed by other expat parents or do you feel like a bit of an outsider?
I would have to say that our nanny is the primary carer of our son. I am, of course, at home with him most of the day but typically I am working and he is with the nanny. If something comes up, I take care of it but I would say that my wife and I equally share parenting duties when he is not with the nanny. That will likely change as he gets older and starts going to school.

I found that I have been accepted and welcomed by other expat parents.

12074535_10107368900880384_8468185459363119616_n

Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS?
My first story is about our first year in Kenya. Each week the Embassy sends out a newsletter to the community about upcoming events, etc. At the time, the wife of the Deputy Chief of Mission would host a monthly “tea” for Embassy spouses at her home. I was excited to attend because I wanted to get to know other spouses. My only problem with the event was that each week it was advertised in the newsletter – the entire advertisement (a whole half page) was in pink! I still attended a couple of the teas but I think that the ad being in pink probably discouraged other male trailing spouses from attending.

My second story just happened last month when the wife of one of the Embassy leaders hosted a welcome brunch for all new spouses. The event was co-sponsored by the American Women’s Association and the advertisement said nothing about husbands being welcome to attend. I did not go and later learned that of the 20+ attendees, there was one man.

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?
I’ve had this conversation before with other men. Get used to the perception within the community that you and your job are not as “important” as the Embassy spouse.  Find other male trailing spouse friends as quickly as possible. Take it upon yourself to do that because the Embassy will not do it for you.

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

  • Scheduling a get-to-know-you event for only male expat partners.
  • Developing an email list-serve of male expat partners.
  • Giving families with male expat partners the opportunity to serve as social sponsors for families with male expat partners.
  • If there’s a spouse committee (or something similar), have at least one male expat partner on that committee.

Thank you to Eric for his nsight and advice. Please let me know in the comments section below what you think – is life different for male trailing spouses than for women? Do you think organisations need to do more to the men? Or should we all be treated the same, regardless of our sex?

And if YOU are a male trailing spouse and would like to feature in this series please let me know either in the comments below or email me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com. Thank you!

My Expat Family