We should have been in a hot air balloon…..

This post was meant to be about our hot air balloon flight. The one I booked months and months ago for my husband’s “big” birthday. The one we had been looking forward to since arriving in South Africa in early August.

It was meant to be but it won’t be – because we didn’t go. So instead this post will be about how we learnt about Mrs Ples, Little Foot and their friends, ate a LOT of meat, and didn’t go in a hot air balloon ride.

A LOT of meat...

A LOT of meat…

The weekend started in the usual fashion with long drawn out coffee drinking for the adults and Minecrafting for the kids. In other words, we didn’t have the usual scramble to get ready for the 6.45am school bus. Ah, don’t you love weekends? However, as nice as this was, the weather was putting a slight dampner on things – having had nothing but bright sparkly sun and clear blue skies from the moment we landed at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg just over a month ago, the weather gods had obviously decided we’d had enough perfect weather for now and sent some rain our way. And I don’t just mean “some” rain – I mean a HECK of a lot of rain. Non-stop downpour. Raining cats and dogs. You get the picture. As well as a huge thunder and lightning storm on Thursday night just to emphasise that they really did mean business.

However, I had been reassured by the Air Balloon company that everything would be calm and sunny again by (very) early Sunday morning and we would be able to fly. I figured they knew what they were talking about, they do this sort of thing every day, so we were still feeling fairly relaxed at this point.

After the coffee and the Minecrafting, we did a bit of packing and were finally on our way just before lunchtime – stopping by my husband’s office on the way out of town to pick up an umbrella (remember: our shipment of heavy baggage still hadn’t arrived at this point, so we didn’t have any of our own in the house).

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Our destination that morning was the Cradle of Humankind, a paleanothological goldmine of fossils and ancient finds that makes the area one of the most important in the entire world when it comes to working out how we evolved and whether there actually is a “missing link” between us and our possible-ancestors the Apes. [edited to say: since writing this paragraph, there has been worldwide news about the latest finds in the Cradle of Humankind, which is all very exciting!]. We headed first to the museum where, after a lunch looking out over the fairly non-descriptive “veld”  that dominates the area (think long, yellow grass) , we headed down a steep stairs and took a boat into the “mists of time”.

The grassy veld - walking over history in the Cradle of Humankind

The grassy veld – walking over history in the Cradle of Humankind

Okay, Disneyworld it was not but it was fun and the museum itself was full of interesting and interactive displays. Plus, we got to learn about how we are apparently all descended from the one type of humanoid ape that survived. Apparently there were others like us who didn’t make it. It’s really fascinating, especially when you are learning all about in the place where it all began. But eventully after the museum we headed off to a very nice hotel called Misty Hills, where we had a thatched roofed bathroom INSIDE our rooms! I kid you not.

Had the weather been good, the hotel would have been lovely – pools, play areas, lots of hanging plants, swinging seats and hidden little nooks. Not to mention hot chocoalate and marshmallows at check-in! However, the weather still WASN’T good and we ended up driving the 100 metres or so to the restaurant that evening because otherwise we would have turned up soaked to the skin. Even with the umbrella…

Anyway, the restaurant was worth the drive. It was a very special restaurant called Carnivore. You may have heard of it’s Kenyan sister, the original Carnivore – where a friend of mine tells me there was elephant on the menu! Well, there certainly was no elephant on this Carnivore’s menu, but there was zebra, giraffe, lots of antelopy things (kudu, springbok, gemsbok etc) and a lot of more normal meat like lamb, pork and beef. All brought to you on long skewers by waiters circling the restaurant, doling out their fare to every table with a flag still raised.

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The meat was all cooked on a central fire, delicious smells emanating…

My husband is a huge meat fan and was in his element. The rest of us did our best to keep up – some of the meat really was fabulous (my top three: lamb, gemsbok, spingbok samosa); some was more of a novelty (incuding the giraffe and zebra. I could only bring myself to try a tiny bit of the giraffe. I really like giraffes!).

Vegetarians, look away now...

Vegetarians, look away now…

Finally after a meal as well as all the mean also included some delicious freshly baked bread, a variety of small salads, baked potatoes, the Southern African speciality “pap” (a sort of maize porridge), a pudding apiece and a special Carnivore cocktail called Dawa, we admitted defeat and lowered our flag. I think we were finally all-meated out!

We made our way back to the room and knowing we had a very early start, headed to bed. Luckily the children were tired form the long day and all the meat-eating, so we were all soon asleep…..

…only to be woken what seemed like no time later by our alarms. Half past four am, we were up and half way into our clothes when I thought I had better check my phone. It seemed to have stopped raining but it was still too dark to see what the weather was actually doing outside. Good thing I did. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the balloon ride was cancelled! To say I was disappointed would be a massive understatement. I booked this special trip months ago, and the weather had been so perfect up until this weekend! We undressed, got back into bed and went back to sleep.

It turned out that the problem wasn’t so much the rain as the “moisture in the air”. In other words, it was foggy. I just wish they had thought to cancel the night before – they must have known it was unlikely to go ahead!

So the next morning instead of heading off to the balloon we headed off to a massive breakfast to compensate for our disppointment. And yes, we should have still been too full from the night before to eat much – but the food was very good!

The weekend ended with a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves, which was a fun and informative trip down underground where the children learned more about how and why fossilised remains are found in the caves, how stalagmites are formed and why it’s not wise to go cave-diving unless you REALLY know what you are doing! We really enjoyed the tour, the guide was friendly and funny and the children enjoyed crawling through some of the small tunnels. But it still wasn’t hot air ballooning.

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So since returning to Pretoria, we have rebooked the balloon for early October We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the weather will behave this time and we’ll finally be able to go up, up and away….in our beautiful balloon. And if it doesn’t work out this time I know we’ve really done something to madden the weather gods. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

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Interesting expat: relationship specialist Vivian Chiona

I first came across Vivian when she contacted me via LinkedIn. We had a chat on Skype – her in the Netherlands, me at my kitchen office desk – and I found her to be an incredibly warm and supportive person. An experienced expat herself, Vivian has founded her own counselling service – Expat Nest – to help others transitioning into expat life, with a special emphasis on relationships and a specialism in children and teenagers. The Expat Nest website introduces the service as a “warm, safe and confidential” counselling service and, having spoken in person to Vivian, I am quite sure this is what it would be. I thought it would be interesting to hear a bit more about Vivian, her own background and about the service she provides to help expats with parenting teens, expat life and relationships generally.

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Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how long you have been an expat, where you are from and where you have lived?

I am a bicultural, multilingual expat with family all over the world. I was born and grew up in Greece and have been living and working in the Netherlands for the past eight years. I love travelling, exploring new cultures, trying different food and collecting folktales from all over the world.

I’m also a qualified psychologist and the founder of http://www.ExpatNest.com. Expat Nest provides emotional support to expats and their families by offering telephonic and online counselling services (via Skype and Facetime).

What brought you down the expat road to start with? Was it planned or accidental?
Because of my multicultural background, I’m not really surprised to have expatriated! I feel it’s a big part of who I am. My relocation to the Netherlands to study was planned; however the length of my stay was not. The initial plan of staying for one year in Holland has since become almost a decade!

What has been the most positive thing for you about being an expat?

Celebrating diversity and getting to know people from all over the world… trying their food, listening to their music and just enjoying the blessing of being in a multicultural setting. I simply love it! I also feel at home when I’m around internationals.

And what about the least positive? If you could change one thing about your way of life, what would it be?

The most challenging part of being an expat is that the goodbyes accumulate as friends come and go. Saying goodbye to my family after a visit to Greece is also difficult. No matter how many years I’m away, I still feel the sadness of farewells.

As for what I would change… the weather in the Netherlands! I know it seems trivial, but as someone from a country with 10 months of sunshine a year, I have really struggled to adjust to the climate here.

Tell me about Expat Nest, the online-counselling service you started for expats. Why did you start it, why do you think it’s something that is needed? Who is it aimed at and how do you help them?

It all started with my vision to inspire love and joy in expats everywhere! Founding Expat Nest has therefore been a dream come true for me. I’ve always been really passionate about supporting expatriates and it didn’t take long for me to notice a significant need for counselling services devoted to them.

I know from both my personal and professional experience that expat life can be daunting and lonely at times. This spurred me on to create a comforting, empathetic environment (hence the name ‘Expat Nest’) in which expats could feel heard and understood and deal with the unique challenges they face (like saying all those goodbyes!).

In a mobile life, technology is often the only constant, so it made sense to offer online counselling so that I could truly serve expats. As a result, Expat Nest’s services are accessible, convenient and flexible for all expats, across all borders and all time zones – this is truly counselling without borders. What also makes us different is that we are expats/internationals and highly qualified – so expats are guaranteed a professional supportive service.

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In my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I talk about how hard the expat life can be on relationships. What can people do to try and protect their relationship? Would you recommend counselling even before they move?

I think it helps to understand that relationships exist within an emotional eco-system. When the external variables change – whether a new friend group, job or neighbourhood – the relationship often has to adapt. And of course, it’s also challenging when one partner follows their heart to a new country. Moving for love is one of today’s classic dilemmas and it’s important to recognize that the person moving is not weaker or less-than.

Fortunately there are a number of ways expats can protect and nurture their relationship, including:

• Keeping communication open and honest so that you avoid letting negative feelings build up
• Rediscovering your identity in the new place so that you feel empowered and whole in the relationship
• Setting realistic expectations of your partner so that you don’t expect all your happiness to come from one person
• Meeting other expats (both individually and as a couple) so that you have the space to discuss your unique challenges as an expat. For more pointers, check out this article I recently wrote on moving for love.

And yes, I would highly recommend counselling before moving abroad as it can make a significant difference to the whole relocation experience. (This could be a one-off session or a limited number of sessions – it needn’t be a lengthy process.) Pre-relocation counselling allows you to prepare emotionally and mentally for the move, but it also facilitates a safe space in which to talk about any thoughts and feelings that are not easy to discuss with our partner or children, or those we are leaving behind. That said, if you’re about to move and weren’t aware of the benefits of pre-relocation counselling, or just don’t feel ready for it, that’s okay too. Trust in your wisdom and do what feels right for you.

As well as adults, you also work with children – particularly teens – and in fact one of your specialisations is as a child and adolescent psychologist. I feel this is a hugely important subject and one that perhaps isn’t considered enough before families make the decision to move abroad. What sort of issues do you particularly find yourself dealing with in this area?

There are a number of common challenges faced by expat teens, including:

• Grief at having said many goodbyes
• Feeling disempowered due to lack of preparation or discussion by the parents before the move
• Being reluctant to invest in friendships/relationships as they know they will move again or have already experienced the pain of leaving people behind
• Shutting off emotions to avoid feeling the same pain again
• Feeling confused about their identity or uncertain where “home” is
• Feeling angry without knowing why
• Loneliness as they miss old friends and attempt to make new friends
• Struggles in adjusting to the new culture and way of being

If you’d like more info on helping expat teens and TCKs to thrive in their new country, feel free to read our blog articles, including “10 things you might not have known about TCKs”; “10 ways to improve communication with your child (teens too!)” and “How expat kids can use their difference to make a difference”.

What advice would you give to parents contemplating an overseas move with their children?

It’s essential that parents have in-depth discussions with their teens before moving, so that teens feel empowered (and even excited!) about the move.

After the move:
• Ask your teen to describe his expat experience in three words – this is a great way to lead into an honest discussion about his feelings/thoughts. Above all, listen to your teen… even if what he says is difficult to hear!
• Brainstorm ways to help reduce any painful feelings that have come up. Do this together – the idea is to avoid giving instant solutions and rather help your child to build up his own coping tools. Be sure also to convey the comforting message that any hurtful feelings will lessen in time.
• Focus on the positives of expat life, such as a fresh start, the chance to learn about another culture or learn a new language, and the opportunity to develop an expanded worldview.
• Remind your teen that friendship and love are not gone; all the important people in the previous country/school are still there. Encourage your teen to communicate with those left behind using online technology.
• Put up photos of your previous life to give a sense of stability and continuity (assuming that your teen is ok with this).
• If the painful feelings persist and are affecting your teen’s ability to function (e.g. disturbed sleep, poor academic performance, isolation, high levels of anxiety), seek out professional help.

Thank you Vivian for telling us about yourself and your counselling service. You might want to know that you can get free resources by signing up to Vivian’s website; but in the meantime I would be interested to hear what any expats think of specific counselling aimed at them – do you think it’s necessary? Do you wish you had known about services such as Expat Nest? Would you consider using a service such as this?

Children’s parties: a cultural quagmire for new expats

Last weekend was a weekend of parties. My elder daughter attended one on Saturday and my younger daughter went to two on Sunday. I was Mrs Taxi Driver all weekend, although I did get to meet some new people and have some fun chats with other parents, so all happy.

However, what these parties did bring home to me is what a potential mine-trap parties can be when you are new to a place and don’t know how others do it.

Let them have cake!

Let them have cake!

In our case it’s not so much the South African culture we have to worry about as the girls go to an International school and have friends from all over the place. But there is still a collective “knowledge” of how things are done – and the fear is that you will just get it plain wrong.

Sounds a bit silly? Well consider the following:

  • first of all – who do you invite? Just a couple of friends? The whole class? The whole YEAR group?
  • in some countries, no-one answers the invites, but they all still turn up
  • in some places, everyone will be at LEAST half an hour late
  • in others, they will all turn up on the dot of time
  • in some, you have to cater for at least two or three times the number of guests you have invited because they will all bring a brother, or a cousin, or a granny….who will all expect to be fed
  • do you leave your children at the party? If you do, will anyone be looking after them?
  • if the parents stay, will they expect to be fed?
  • if the parents leave, will they be back on time to pick them up? Will they even actually come back at all (and yes, this has happened to us – in St Lucia).

So whilst an earlier post I wrote about birthdays was whether we would have any friends to invite to my daughter’s 10th birthday party in a couple of weekends time, now my worrying has reached a whole new level. Add to the above things like how much food is expected, will we have to do party bags and will those guests who haven’t replied to the invitation turn up anyway? On top of this, we have had to battle venue issues (what sort of place was available? When we found somewhere, we had to book the food separately from the activity…); payment issues (they wouldn’t take an online credit card payment; we couldn’t pay direct into their bank account because we don’t have a bank account in the country yet…); and cake issues (where can I get one???? I can’t make one even if I wanted to – my baking equipment is still on the high seas….) and it’s left me feeling quite weak and in need of a llie-down instead of pumped up and ready to celebrate!

But in the end I decided that as this WAS such an international enviroment actually everyone would probably do it differently anyway. So we’re doing it the way we would back home (except we are inviting more children than we would – as she doesn’t yet have one or two “best” friends). We’ll only cater for the invited guests. Parents can look after themselves. I won’t encourage extra brothers or cousins to stay. We probably won’t do party bags but will send them home with some cake. And I will assume that only those who have said they will come will, actually, turn up.

It could be great…..or it could be a total disaster!

What birthday party cultural clashes have you encountered? Have you made any major boo-boo’s – and if so did you manage to cover up any faux-pas’? Do share your stories, it’s always good to know we’re not alone stumbling crazily through this expat life!

Facebook envy: an update

A few months ago, while I was still living in the UK, I wrote this post: Facebook envy: or the self-perpetuating circle of how we present expat life to the world.

In it, I discussed how easy it is to only show one side of expat life to our friends and family back home – I used Facebook as an example because that is mostly how I communicate with people I know, but this should also include Instagram, Pinterest, blogging etc. To quote myself:

Over the past few years, as Facebook has evolved, I have watched the lives of several expat friends as they moved from one country to another, settled in, started work or got the children off to school. I have seen photos of beaches and parties, cocktails and safaris….why do expats tend to focus so much on the “good-side” of life? Is it because we’re trying to prove to our friends that the life we’re living is actually as good as everyone expects it to be? Are we trying to prove it to ourselves?

Now, as I settle into our new life in South Africa, that post is coming back to haunt me a bit. Because guess what I have put up on my FB site? Ok, not beaches because we live about three million miles from the sea. But lots of posts about the weather (hot and sunny), the wildlife (impressive) and the wine (delicious and deliciously cheap). So for now, my friends back home basically think I am lying around in the sun, drunk on red wine and watching the elephants go by.

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Any excuse for another cute mum-and-baby elephant pic….

Which of course I am not.

Life is a lot more boring than my posts would have you think. There is a lot of dealing with tantrums, getting up too early, emptying the dishwasher, cursing the school for yet another confusing rule that we don’t understand, answering work emails, checking our bank accounts, trying to work out which drawer houses the vegetable peeler, buying a new vegetable peeler because it turns out no drawer houses it…

But have I posted any of this information? Not really. But why not?

This is a question I have been pondering. Back home I had plenty of updates about some (not all – no-one REALLY wants to know that we have just done our accounts…) of the above. Mostly about things like tantrums. I think it is healthy to share the bad as well as the good side of life, especially when it comes to parenting. It makes it a lot easier to know that you are not the only one whose child is lying on the floor screaming because her sister wouldn’t listen to her when she was trying to explain the rules of the “summer game” (yes that was yesterday. No I don’t know what the summer game is either).

But something stops me here. There are a lot of things I could moan about. At time of writing, I am still waiting for our air freight to turn up (let alone the sea freight) so we’re still living out of the same three suitcases we packed more than a month ago. And quite frankly I am a little fed up of these clothes. My social diary is empty, I can go all day without speaking to another soul bar for the check-out woman (I managed to spin a complement about my top into a five minute conversation yesterday!) and I am struggling to do any exercise at all as I don’t know where and when I can walk or run in this city. We had a fantastic day at a safari park, but I didn’t mention the horrendous traffic accident we passed on the way home with at least one fatality.

So boo hoo me. Although actually not boo-hoo me at all because all of the above is mixed in with the sun and the wine and the trips we have already booked to Cape Town and hot air ballooning and Kruger national park. And yes the girls are dreadfully homesick and we have had a lot of tears and I can’t get Madam M to wear anything but the same three playsuits to school every morning (when they have to leave at 6.45am!!!). But they also have a school with tiny class sizes and amazing facilities which includes a swimming pool and a stand-alone library. And we can afford to take them for pizza every weekend if we like. And our oldest daughter already has two party invites and she’s only been at school for less than a week.

Which brings me back to the updates that I have already posted, those leaving my friends with an overwhelmingly positive view of my life and why it is I don’t balance it out a bit with more of the reality. And I think it is because to do so would somehow seem ungrateful. We have been given this fantastic opportunity, and I realise how amazingly lucky we are. I know that it will also be hard, especially at the beginning, but I suppose I didn’t want to start the moaning until I could at least put it into perspective. Maybe I have gone too far the other way. Perhaps I should do it the other way round – start with the bad side and then add some of the good. But that, I suppose, is not the message I want to convey.

I will post about more mundane things. Gradually, as life here returns to some sense of normality and the excitement of seeing elephants and rhinos in the wild fades slightly, as the price of the wine stops impressing me so much and I start to get blase to the never-ending sunshine, then I am sure my posts will become more and more blah. Just like they used to be. I probably will still post when we do interesting trips, or something unusual happens. But eventually my friends and family back home will get a more realistic portrayal of what day-to-day life is like.

I just promise I won’t ever post anything about buying vegetable peelers.

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Help! I’m new!

For this month’s Trailing Spouse blog crawl, we were asked to consider what sort of advice we would give to newcomers to our current location. In fact, we were asked to blog about our travel secrets. Well, when you have only been in a country less than a week (as I have at the time of writing) then you don’t really have any travel secrets. In fact, you don’t really know very much at all!

However, the advantage to this is that I am still at that stage of discovering other peope’s travel secrets, and where to find out more about Pretoria, the surrounding state of Gautang and the neighbouring states of North West Province, Limpopo and Freestate, and other parts of South Africa. As well as Mozambique, Namibia, Mauritius, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho….yup, there are certainly going to be plenty of places to see around here!

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A view of Harbeespoort dam.

But because there is so much out there to see, it’s actually all a little overwhelming. The guide books have page after page of places I have already bookmarked as places I would like to visit; my laptop is similarliy bursting with bookmarked pages of safari parks and moutains and wine routes and beaches….and yet there is only so much time (annoyingly, other people in my family have boring things like school and work most days, making non-stop travel a bit of a non-starter!).

So where to start? Well, one piece of advice I give in my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, is to find a blog (or blogs) from the country where you are moving to and start reading the archive as soon as you know you are going there. If possible, try and find a blog written by someone who has similar interests to you, or whose family situation is the same (following someone who writes about day trips with the kids isn’t going to be much use for singletons who want to know more about nightife).

For me, the first such blog I found was Joburg Expat, which I particularly liked because blogger Sine’s children were a similar age to mine when they were here so she has some great tips for family trips. But more than this, I also love that she doesn’t sugarcoat family life – I was sold when I read one of her posts about a visit to Capetown which included various tantrums, disputes, whines and fall-outs – in other words, a totally normal family trip where you know that you are never going to be able to please everyone, all the time:

True to character, Sunshine and Jabulani take off their shoes and go play in the (freezing cold) waters of the Atlantic, while Impatience and Zax give us an earful as to their suffering on this horrible and boring beach. We are almost convinced that we are practically torturing them. For Impatience, all memory of the gift shop and the earrings seems to be wiped out. I have her repeat “I shall be grateful for the earrings I got at the gift shop” for the next 5 minutes to buy myself some peace and an opportunity to consult with Noisette about lunch plans, since the other truth in our family is that the best answer to whining is food. We settle for a nice late lunch at Zenzero on the Promenade in Camp’s Bay, where the kids are somewhat mollified with Virgin Daiquiris and Spaghetti Bolognaise.

I’ve dipped in and out of Joburg Expat many times and I am sure I will continue to do so, but I am also slowly starting to discover other blogs with further information. For example, there is Expatorama, a blog by a British expat who lives in Johannesburg and has also started a Facebook group for local “trailing spouses” (which I have also just joined: another great way to tap into local knowledge); The Average South African (which has lots of yummy posts about places to eat) and 2Summers, another Joburg dweller who blogs about life in that crazy city.

I am sure I will discover more blogs like these (including, hopefully, some Pretoria-based ones) as our time here goes on, but I just wanted to give an example of some of the sorts of blogs that are out there – and literally bursting with fabulous information.

So, other than blogs, where else am I getting my information from?

One of the things we were most excited about when we heard we were coming to South Africa was the wildlife and so, as soon as my parents decided they would come out and see us for the Christmas period this year we booked a few days at that most famous of South African parks – Kruger. Where, hopefully, we will have plenty of chances to see more of these:

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But to start with, booking the park was as confusing as a chicken in a pillow factory. In other words, the more I read, the more baffled I became – until, hurrah! I found the Sanparks wesbite. And here I was able to work everything out that I needed to know – including exactly which date I needed to book our accommodation in order to make sure of getting in during what is probably the busiest time of the year (hint: it’s a year in advance!) and which camps best suited our needs. We were also able to view maps, accommodation details, hints and tips for game drives and even live webcams of animal activity. Oh, and the ever-useful forums where you know you will always be able to get an answer to pretty well any question you ever have.

In a similar vein, I have always found Trip Advisor to be a good site for general travel advice – a sort of overview of a country, region or city and then more specific reviews of restaurants, hotels and activities. Whilst you need to take some of the reviews with a pinch of salt, I have usually found that if you read enough of them you get a good idea of whether somewhere is worth visiting or not. And for South Africa-specific advise, a couple of people have already recommended WhereToStay.co.za – I can’t say if it’s any good or not as I haven’t actually used it yet, but it’s certainly a site that looks like it will be full of good accommodation options.

Finally, for more day-to-day activities (as opposed to the wonderful trips away and holidays we are planning), I have also started having a look at a website aimed at parents – Jozikids. Most of the information seems to be based on Johannesburg, but as we’re only 45 minutes drive away at least we know there’s plenty to do just up the road.

So that’s my lot for now. As I said at the start, it’s early days for me still and I am pretty sure I will soon discover more and more websites chocca with information. This country is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, with accompanying food, wine, scenery, beaches, sport, wildlife…..I know there’s no shortage of things to do. Now if only I could pursuade the rest of my family not to bother with that boring work/school stuff…..

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

Yuliya of Tiny Expats lists down the top info sites, blogs and directories for expats living (or planning to move) in Czech Republic.

Tala of Tala Ocampo shows us around her ‘hood of Balestier Road in the island city state of Singapore

Didi of D for Delicious reveals her bookish nerdiness with her go-to resources about Dubai and the US.

Guest post: Expat Emergencies and Turbulent Postings – a Child’s Perspective.

Today’s post in my summer of guesting comes from a blogger with whom I share a lot of background. The more I read or hear about The Ersatz Expat, the more I keep wondering if we have actually ever met in real life. Both of us have lived in Nigeria and Venezuela, and both went to school and university in the UK. We also both married Brits. Our lives are very different now, but both of us have a similar sort of childhood to look back at and compare to what we are able to give our own children. Here, the Ersatz Expat talks about some of the experiences from her younger years – and how it has helped her parent her own expat children.

Irrational fears

I have never not been an expat. As a child we lived in some benign places (Norway, the UK and the Netherlands) but also experienced some more challenging postings. This has coloured how I relate to the expat experiences our own children have and I try, wherever possible, to see things through their eyes.

Age 11, I was parachuted into a British boarding school far from the culture I had grown up with. Following a first term at my new school, I had to travel to Lagos on my own. (Yes the airlines supervise UM (unaccompanied minors) but the help they gave in the 1980s was close to useless so I had to fend for myself). I remember sitting on the plane to Nigeria for the first time having had no correspondence with my parents for 4 months. I was very worried about what I would find on arrival; I even thought my family would have become africans because they were now living there and I wondered if I would recognise them with brown skin and curly hair. This crazy memory makes me realize that children, no matter how mature and capable, can become irrationally worried about things.

A few months ago our son, who had previously spoken good Russian was refusing to ‘understand’ it any more. He was also failing to progress in his Mandarin and Bahasa Malay lessons. It turned out that he realised that I no longer spoke my birth language (Dutch) easily and that it takes me some time to get back into the groove, mostly because I have no real reason to speak it now my mother and grandmother are dead. He was worried that he might forget English if he learned another language. It was another irrational fear that, when analysed, makes perfect sense in the mind of an expat child.

Handling emergency situations with children

One time, when leaving Nigeria I got caught up in an armed robbery at the airport. Our flight could not leave as we were in lockdown and had been sent to the arrivals hall to collect luggage. We heard shots in the unloading bay and 5 bodies came up the conveyer belt. My mother took me to her car and told the driver to wait somewhere safe she then went off to investigate. I knew that I would be safe if I did what my mother told me with no questions asked and I trusted her to know what to do. Luckily our children have not been involved in an armed robbery or anything like that but we make sure that they know that when we speak in a certain tone they must do as they are told (being absolutely silent when the car is hit by a sudden blizzard for example) and that we will explain the reasons why later. We also make sure that they have confidence that we can handle any situation we are in (even if we don’t) and that our children are never an outlet for our fears.

We lived in South East Turkey in the 1990s (enough said). It was possibly the most dangerous posting we have ever had. A bomb went off in the building next to us while I was doing some work experience with a family friend, my parents were directly involved in another bomb scare and we had to check under the car on a daily basis. A guard followed me if I went out and flights to the local airport were in danger of being shot down and these experiences were the tip of the iceberg. Every time I called to reconfirm our flights (remember those days) I was told the airline advised against travel there. My greatest fear was that I would be called in to the housemistress’ room to be told my parents had been killed and I used to think carefully about how I would tell my sister. I was scared stiff for three years straight. My parents were always scrupulously honest about dangers and issues that arose which helped me to worry less. I also got the school to let me have R4 (Radio 4) on late at night in my room so I could sleep knowing that there were no reported issues at home.

What do you tell the chilldren about something like this?

What do you tell the chilldren about something like this?

Being honest

From this I have learned never to brush things under the carpet, we have always made sure that our children are aware of everything they need to be without blowing things up out of all proportion. We also make sure that they have the props they need to feel safe. My father in law died just before we left the UK for Kazakhstan. They were very young but felt his loss keenly and when they first went abroad they were concerned that another family member might disappear or that they would never see them again. We have always promised them that we will let them know if they need to worry and make sure that they have regular ‘phone and skype contact. Hopefully this helps to dispel some of their concern.

Just after we arrived in Sarawak the terrible news came through about MH17. A child in the children’s new school lost a parent and many others in the community were impacted. Our children heard what had happened and they knew that family would be coming to visit us via the same route and that we would be flying with Malaysian Airlines whenever we travelled out of country. They also knew the Ukraine, Kiev being a regular stop over on flights to and from Kazakhstan. Knowing how I would have reacted to the news as a child helped to inform the way we spoke with our two. We were very honest about what had happened and why and we have been similarly upfront about recent terrorist attacks. We feel that if the children are prepared for the world being a scary place while knowing that there are good and decent people in it they will be better able to handle it as they grow up and have more independent experiences in life.

One of the great benefits of expat life is the independence, maturity and capability it fosters in children from a young age. I certainly hope that our children gain those benefits although I also hope they avoid bombs and shootings for a few years yet.

(photo: RNW.org)

Have you been in any emergency situations with your own children? Or needed to speak to them about something that has happened? How have you handled it? How honest have you been with them?

Moving day sucks!

Just keep swimming….just keep swimming…

Those of you who know the excellent film Finding Nemo will recognise this quote, but I was reminded of it by fellow expat Eline from the blog Pasta and Patchwork who is also mid-move at the moment. Exchanging tweets about what stage we were at and how stressful it all becomes, this was her excellent advice. Indeed, when you feel like you will drown if you don’t keep kicking forwards, this really does sum up how I am feeling at the moment.

The moving company turned up on Friday morning quarter of an hour earlier than the earliest time they said they would arrive. Our youngest was still at home, waiting for me to take her up to school. I was at least dressed – my husband was still running around in his pj’s doing all those last minute things that you always do leave until the very very last minute because there always seems something more important to do.

So we were all a-fluster from the start and anyone who has been through the nightmare of packing up a home and moving to the other side of the world will know how the rest of the day went.

There was

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and then there was

moving day 1

and finally there was

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And along the way we found out that we couldn’t take ANY food with us at all so goodbye all our herbs and spices, as well as my baking beans which aren’t beans at all but ceramic balls – yet still didn’t make the cut because they are called beans. And that enormous box of Yourkshire tea bags I bought to keep me going? Not allowed. And the pillows that we were going to throw away got packed but the bedside cabinet that we wanted to take didn’t. We found strange bits and pieces all over the house that somehow got left out like two coasters and the dustpan and brush. And in the end there just wasn’t room for our Dyson cleaner (probably thanks to the pillows) so that’s another thing we’ll have to buy when we arrive at the other end.

Still. Basically we are there now and we’ve left our house and started saying goodbye to friends. We’ve moved into a holiday rental just around the corner from our house for a week, while our place is decorated. Gradually we are all letting go and by the end of the week, when we move on to my parents’ house, I think we will feel ready to leave.

It’s a relief to be past the worst of it. The last few weeks, and last week in particular, has been stressful. But by doing it in small chunks, dividing tasks up and not becoming overwhelmed, and, of course, by just keeping swimming, we’re nearly there.

To all you others out there going through the same thing – good luck!

Show your world: A waterslidingtastic holiday to Egypt

A couple of years ago we decided to take advantage of the brilliant value – not to mention pretty well guaranteed all-day sunshine – that is Egypt and booked a holiday to the resort of Hurghada. I had been to Egypt before, to dive in Dahab and a couple of days visiting Cairo. But this time, with two, active children, we decided to chose our hotel based on one thing: the number of waterslides provided!

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In the end we went for Jungle Aqua Park – which had a huge waterpark attached and also offered countless swimming pools and about eight all-inclusive buffet restaurants. Sadly the quality of the food didn’t live up to the size of the water park, but nevertheless with so much choice, we always found something to eat.

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One of the gorgeous pools at the resort

Fun in the pool

Fun in the pool

While we were in Hurghada, we booked a few trips out of the resort (after all, watersliding has its limits!). This included a great snorkelling trip we made to the nearby Red Sea – which involved spending most of the day on the boat or in the water. Sadly, one of my daughters is not a fan of salt water and has never really taken to snorkelling. The younger one though absolutely loved putting her head under the sea and watching the beautiful jewelled fish and waving corals.

DSCF0012 - CopyWe also took a trip out into the desert one evening – certainly a trip we weren’t going to forget! It started with a hair-raising race through the sand, over dunes and rocks….we did wonder what their health and safety level was like….

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When we finally ended our initial bone-rattling drive in the dry desert heat, we were taken to an enormous sandune which we climbed from one side… DSCF0053and then….

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…ran down the other! The tour guide took us on to meet some of the local desert bedouin living nearby, a fascinating mix of the ancient and the modern, the old ways and the new. My daughters loved seeing how these ancient people still lived – and also enjoyed tasting their just-baked flat bread (stones and all!).

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The next part of the trip saw us climbing a nearby hill to watch the sun set in the stilness.

DSCF0087While nearby, tribesmen prepared their evening meal.

DSCF0084The evening ended with a simple meal and then the most magical experience looking at the stars. I can’t show a photograph of this but lying on the still-warm desert ground, staring up into the velvet black punctuated by millions and millions of bright stars, the milky way so clear that it made you feel dizzy with the knowledge of what was out there…this is something that will stay with me always.

We managed another trip to a museum in the next door hotel which, we were told, was holding some of the antiquities from the Cairo museum, to keep them safe whilst there were all the problems in the capital.

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But to be honest, the thing the girls loved best was…..

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Anyone else holidayed in Egypt? What did you think?

show your world

Packing my Suitcase

The moving game.

All around the world there will be families going through exactly what we are doing right now.

Relocating to another country.

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Packing and lists and decorating and sorting and letting and selling and more lists and goodbyes and checking and booking and calling and re-checking and more lists.

Houses and schools and visas and passports and children and pets and cars and boxes and suitcases and suncream and…..you get the idea. There is a lot to do, and lot to take in. My head is constantly spinning and when someone asks me how’s it all going sometimes I just go blank. How is it all going? Well, it’s going….and we’ll get there.. But the next few weeks are not going to be fun.

When I found my three roadtesters – Erin, Nichole and Lynsay – I asked them to help me out by using my book as a guide for their relocations and then write about it. Erin is already living in her new country (Denmark), and has been there for more than six months – so for her, these difficult days are in the past. But she wrote a post reflecting on the move and her first six months in Copenhagen, which you can read here. The post includes a list of some of the things Erin has learned since she arrived in Denmark, including the immortal line: Traveling, holidaying or vacationing somewhere is vastly different from LIVING there. Oh yes.

Erin and her family

Erin and her family

But both Nichole and Lynsay are yet to relocate and are basically both in more or less the same place as I am: in the midst of their move. Nichole is moving with her family from Australia to New York, and Lynsay from Dubai to Korea (Lynsay might have actually left already – I await updates on her arrival!).

Nichole covered chapters one (Before You Go) and two (The Move) of the book in one post – which you can read on her blog From Melbourne to Manhattan. But as a taster:

The first couple of chapter’s of Clara Wiggins’ The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, ‘Before you Go’ & ‘The Move’, have really been brilliant in reassuring me that I’m not going crazy and that I’m basically doing the right things!

Clara has used her previous experiences and a very down to earth delivery style to provide support and a vital second reference for when your mind is going through the endless ‘what have I forgotten’ cycle, which usually occurs in the way too early a.m. hours and sees me knocking things off my bed head as I flounder around for a pen and notepad.

I find the information itself helpful but also the anecdotes from other expats, that quite often oppose one another. We’re all different and each family has it’s own little world order and when it comes down to it, you just have to make decisions based on the best information/gut feel that you have and go with it.

I think it’s so important to know that you are NOT going crazy – and also that you are not alone.

In the meantime, Lynsay took each chapter separately and wrote two posts on her blog Mills Family Travels, one on Before You Go and the other on The Move (part one), about which she says:

Sorting began last month and I am gradually trying to move anything that is coming with us to a spare room.  Anything to avoid the few surprises that were shipped here (an empty suitcase that we needed for the flight, a tennis racquet case minus the racquet and an empty cardboard box!).  The arguments caused in looking for that suitcase!  Fortunately this time there is very little in the way of furniture as we are moving to a furnished accommodation.  So whilst that makes things easy in some respects it is amazing how much we are still taking (having 3 children with all their toys and books means lots of boxes!).

I love that they found an empty suitcase, empty tennis raquet case and even an empty cardboard box when they unpacked!

As for me, well here is my take on the first two chapters of my own book:

Before you go

It wasn’t an easy decision to apply for an overseas post – but I kept telling my husband applying didn’t mean we had to take whatever was offered – but if we didn’t apply, we would never have that choice. All through the long process, he kept telling me he wouldn’t get through…he wouldn’t get through….so many times that I believed him.

So it was a bit of a shock when we found out he had been accepted! To be honest, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a shock as he has exactly the right background, skills and experience for the job. I just believed him when he said he wouldn’t get it!

The second shock was hearing we were being asked to go to Pretoria. We had had a whole list of possible postings right back at the start of the process, and had gone through them with a tooth comb. We cut the list down to about half, and then took out a couple, added a couple….eventually I think we ended up with about six or seven real possibilites – of which Washington and the Netherlands were probably at the top for schooling reasons. South Africa would have been my first choice had we not had children, but there are a few issues around schools that luckily we now think are resolved.

So, finding out we were moving again – and then finding out it would be South Africa – was quite a shock. First thing we had to do was tell the kids – and you can read exactly how that went in this post. But after that, other than a couple of days up in London for a sort of “orientation” meeting with my husband’s department, we sort of returned to normal. We had a years notice almost from the day for this posting so it’s certainly not been a rushed process!

During that year we have managed to do quite a bit of research, and I have made contact with a few people already lving out there (we are lucky in that I have two friends in place in Pretoria, plus relatives living all over Southern Africa). But the highlight of our preparations was the trip we made to Pretoria last October.

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Zebras by the side of the road, Pretoria

When writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I did urge people if possible to make a pre-move recce to their new country. Although we had managed this previously as a family to St Lucia, this time – with school  now such an important part of our lives – I found it even more useful. Seeing their school, as well as their house, local shopping malls, restaurants etc, will definitely make the move far easier for the girls (and therefore for me).

The Move

So now we’re in Chapter Two mode. I wrote a checklist for myself a few months ago, based on the checklist in the book, and have been going back to it every so often to see how we are doing. But now that we’re weeks rather than months away from going, I write weekly and then daily lists on top of my general list. I wonder whether, by the last week, I’ll be writing hourly lists?

Lists on lists....

Lists on lists….

As we go through the process of sorting out letting the house, selling the cars, changing our addresses, sorting out all our stuff (what to take, what to leave, what to sell, what to give away…), buying insurance, chasing new passports and visas, booking flights, organising decorators and cleaners, one thought keeps coming back to me.

How on earth did we do this in 2008 when we moved to Pakistan with a baby and a toddler?

As it is, at least this time the children are at school 6.5 hours a day (although to be fair, I didn’t have a part-time job, blog to write or book to market back in those days). However, as someone pointed out to me this morning while I was discussing this, that time I didn’t have to worry about dealing with the chidlren’s emotional baggage.

As part of the organisation for this move. I have printed off little slips for the girls to give out to their friends with their email addresses, my Skype address etc – and a place for their friends to do the same and give back to them. Taking them away from their friends and the school that they love is probably the hardest thing I have had to do for this move – and I am hoping that little things like making sure they’ve swapped addresses with their schoolmates will help.

We’re at M-day (moving out of house day) minue 15, and F day (flying day) minus 31. It will be a little while yet before I can relax – but we’ll get there.

So long as I don’t lose all my lists first.

(Overseas pic courtesry of BiblioArchives)

Are you moving this summer? If so, how’s it going? Are you feeling ready?

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Siblings and the expat child

Growing up as an expat child, moving constantly between homes, cultrues and continents,  there were really only five constants in my life until the age of 13 when I left for boarding school: my parents, and my three siblings. To be more precise, my parents and my three brothers. And actually, to be fair, the 1970’s being the 1970’s, I saw an awful lot more of my brothers than I did of my parents.

We spent what I think of as my formative years (from the age of 4 until I was 8) in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. It was, for the priviliged expat children that we were, a fantastic place to spend a childhood. We went to a large, International school; lived on a safe, gated compound where we were able to freely move around and run barefoot to friends’ houses; spent weekends either at the Army and Navy Club diving from the high board or at the Maya Maya Reef Club, snorkelling and collecting shells on the beach. We had what I remember as a large house surrounded by garden, filled with various pets – from cats and rabbits to quails and cockerals.

Maya maya pic

But when I think back to those days, although I do have memories of my mother (shopping, putting on puppet shows to raise funds for a local family planning clinic, plaiting my hair, ) and father (listening to the BBC World Service, putting on his tie, showing us how to catch fish), it is the time I spent with my brothers that really stands out in my mind.

We had to make our own entertainment. We not only had no internet, playstation, Minecraft, tablets, Wii, computers and all those distractions of modern childhood – we didn’t even have a television. There wouldn’t have been much to watch even if we had – bar the 1976 Olympics (when my parents managed to borrow a set for that glorious summer, and we all gorged on Wacky Races and the Road Runner), and the 1975 Ali/Fraser Thrilla in Manila fight. But we found plenty to do.

My family (plus one stranger, minus one brother) on the summit of Mount Apo, the Philippines 1977

My family (plus one extra, minus one brother) on the summit of Mount Apo, the Philippines 1977

Card games, in particular, loom large in my childhood. Like the leader of some sort of slightly shady crime family, my eldest brother would regularly set up his own card school where we used centavos or pennies (depending which country we were in), beans or even matches (yes, really – this was the 1970’s don’t forget!) in the place of proper money. I learnt three-card brag, poker, gin rummy….I learnt to lie convincingly, not get too upset if I lost and how to spook someone else out about what was in my hand. All great skills for later in life!

We played numerous other games – from non-gambling card games (knock-out whist, something involving the black queen that kept getting called different things), to board games like Monopoly (never my favourite – it went on WAY too long) and Diplomacy. We  made endless, complicated mazes for our pet mice out of bricks. We climbed on the roof and scrambled under the house – trying not to entangle ourselves in the electric wiring. We spent hours swimming in our neighbour’s pool, playing Marco Polo and a game that you had to pretend to die and the one who died most convincingly was the winner….

We also travelled a lot so for much of our free time were away from our school friends. On a beach, in the middle of nowhere without our toys, our imaginations really ran wild. I remember one game where – as there were four of us – we became the Swallows and Amazons: finding an abandoned sail boat to use as a prop was the icing on the cake. I always had to be Titty – but my poor second-born brother was forced into being Susan. He seems to have got over it!

All of this doesn’t mean that we didn’t fight. Boy did we fight! I can still feel the pain of my hair being pulled from the roots, and there will always be a place in my heart for the dolly who got thrown in the swimming pool and whose eyes never opened again….But isn’t this part of growing up, of childhood? Isn’t the rough and tumble with our siblings one of the ways we learn how to behave in the adult world?

On the Kyhber Pass (also 1977)

On the Kyhber Pass (also 1977)

Of course childhood doesn’t last forever. In fact, my own children’s childhoods are passing in a flash. And as we grew older, we started to go our separate ways. There is six or seven years between the oldest and youngest of us siblings so while my younger brother was still quite little, the oldest was off to boarding school. We all followed one by one, but then it was university, the world of work – and then we were spread to all corners of the globe.

Childhood bonds don’t always translate into adult closeness, and so it has been for us (although the birth of our own children has brought us closer than we have been for a while). But the shared childhood, so precious because we were our only constants, will always be there. I look at my own two girls now as we are about to take off for another overseas adventure and I hope that they too will look back on these days, and the time they spend together, as a precious time. Even if I don’t let them gamble with matches!

In memory of my eldest brother Matthew Quantrill: May 21st 1965 – June 30th 2014.

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