How to expand your horizons when you are back home

One of the wonderful things about expat life isn’t just getting to know the country you are posted to, but being surrounded by other people with the same mindset as you. Globalist, internationalist, citizens of nowhere (or even citizens of everywhere), call us what you will but you know what I am talking about: people who have travelled, seen the world, and whose outlook on life encompasses the sort of open-mindedness that goes with this.

So moving back to your old life can be hard. Not only are you giving up the lifestyle that inevitably comes with being an expat (including, for many of us, a bit of extra help in the house), you are also losing the company of a huge range of interesting people from all over the world. Who won’t either raise their eyebrows at you or completely switch off when you talk about some of the places you have lived in or travelled to. There aren’t many people in the “real world” who care about your road trip to Mozambique or problems crossing the Zimbabwe border.

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Depending on what sort of person you are, this might not matter all that much to you. Many will slip gently back into their old life, get up to speed with the latest goings-on in the school PTA, join the local neighbourhood watch group…Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things, of course. But many of us will miss the sort of discussions we get with people from other countries, the different outlook on life we get from living in another place.

So how do we recapture this life? For many the solution will just be to start planning the next move abroad – repatriation can cause much worse culture shock than moving overseas in the first place, so the answer could be just to move again. But of course for many of us (most?) this isn’t practical – we often return home for reasons either out of our control like our employees require us to, or for reasons such as the education of our children. There must be other, less drastic, ways of continuing to live the sorts of lives we enjoyed while abroad.

And yes of course there are, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post about it! SO here are a few of my ideas – feel free to agree, disagree, or add some of your own:

  • Live vicariously through your still-expatted friends (mostly through the sort of photos on their social media pages that you used to annoy your own friends back home with), and then book a flight to go and see them.
  • In case you don’t have any such friends, just plan some exotic holidays to the sorts of places you used to go when you lived in another exotic location. When you see the prices you now have to pay because it’s a longer flight and you can’t get local deals, cancel said exotic holiday and book something cheaper and closer. But you enjoyed the researching and the daydreaming for the original trip anyway.
  • Find some local expats to hook up with. As I wrote about in this post, there will be plenty around if you look carefully enough. Make them your new friends and pretend you too are still an expat. Just try not to cry when they take you to their enormous house and talk about their children’s private education…
  • Do something completely different like volunteer with refugees, start a university course, get a job doing something you haven’t done before. Expanding your mind is the next best thing to expanding your actual physical surroundings.
  • Trying out unfamiliar food is another big draw of expat life, so keeping this up when you are home is a good way to feel like you’re still living that life in some way. Either by recreating some of your favourite meals from whichever country you have just left, or by trying new dishes that perhaps you wouldn’t have thought about before moving abroad.
  • Read, watch films, TV series or documentaries about foreign lands. Escape into your imagination.

I am sure there are many more ways to hold on to some of the expat life once you are home and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. But in the meantime, I’m off to the local supermarket to find some ingredients so I can try cooking something that reminds me of sitting in the hot sun with the sounds of the Go-Away birds and hadedas in the background, or of an early morning game drive, or a trip round the wine estates of Stellenbosch….

 

 

Hey! Parents! Leave your expat child’s stuff alone!

I have been having a little frenzy of tidying over the past few weeks. Piles of toys, outgrown clothes, unloved teddies, random art-work….some days I feel like the house is going to collapse under the weight of all the “stuff” my children seem to collect.

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It’s just “stuff” to us but to them it is their history….

But when it comes to throwing it out – or giving it away – I have a problem. Not only do I have to contend with the girls’ pleas not to get rid of their once-favourite t-shirt or that unopened game they may get round to playing at some point, I also have a little voice in the back of my own head saying: remember how it felt when you were a child? What DID happen to that stuffed hippo? And have you ever really gotten over having your collection of china animals whisked away the moment you left home for boarding school?

But although parents everywhere go through this exact same battle with their kids – what to keep, what to get rid before the stuffed toy collection takes complete control of their bedroom – there is a difference for us expats. Because whilst other children will have continuity in their house, their friends, their schools, their playgrounds and so many other things,  those stuffed toys and random bits of rubbish we could so easily sweep into the bin are the very things that help our children with transition.

Take my youngest daughter, for example. When we arrived in Pretoria just over a year ago we brought with us in our suitcases a set of beautiful fairy lights made of delicate pink roses. She had them hung around her bed at home and used to go to sleep with them turned on (much to the annoyance of her older sister who at that point was sleeping in a bunk bed above her). The first night in our new house we strung them up around her bed and switched them on. She was able to go to bed with something that made her feel immediately familiar. It probably didn’t stop her coming in to us in the night anyway, but it was a start!

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Now, those fairy lights have stopped working. They are looking distinctly bedraggled and so many fuses have blown they don’t work anymore. We were cleaning out her room the other day, sticking some pictures on the wall and sorting out her books. She fingered the fairy-light roses, still delicate but now not quite so appealing. She started to say she wanted to get rid of them but hesitated. Then said no she would keep them for now. I could tell she couldn’t quite move on yet.

Now I could have insisted we get rid of the lights – along with the piles of c**p that stack up on her shelves, in her cupboards, by her bed….but actually when we have taken everything and everyone else away who are we to also take away the things that gives her her identity? The bits of paper with funny little drawings on? Reminds her of the time she and her friends played schools in Year 2. The 45 various stuffed toys? Each one has a history, a place in her heart. The old school books? She looks through them from time to time and it connects her with her past.

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HOW many stuffed toys?

It’s pretty hard being an expat child and if one thing we can do for them is let them keep their stuff then let’s do it. One of the most heart-rending sections in my book, The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, was a section written by an expat child herself. In it she describes never being able to decorate her room the way she wanted, not having those marks on her wall which show how she has grown. It is a plaintive cry from the heart for a permanence she will never know, and which my own children may also now never know. We all hope that what we are giving them will outweigh what we take away but at this point, in this moment in time, sometimes it is hard for our little ones to recognise this.

So leave their stuffed animals. Don’t throw away all the old drawings. Ignore the books you think they will never read again. It may seem like rubbish to us – but to them, it is the home they carry with them.

 

A Day in My Expat Life: Abu Dhabi

Welcome to another Day in My Expat Life and again this is a special one because Keri, of the website Baby Globetrotters, is a blogger I have been communicating, coordinating and collaborating since we both started out about the same time a couple of years ago. I have never actually met Keri – even though she came on holiday to South Africa at one point since we have been living here – so was curious to find about a bit more about her life. I also love the fact that even though she has three children, she still manages to have time to do her own thing: so important for us expat parents.

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6.19am(1)

6.19am Our day normally starts when the first child wakes up; this can be anywhere between 5.30am and 7am on really lucky days! On a standard school day though we need to be up and at it by 6.30am Not a bad view to wake up to though, we live in a fairly new beach front development “off island” in Abu Dhabi, Al Raha Beach. This is the view from the top floor of our townhouse (4 floors high!)

7.25am

7.25am We have 3 kids to try and usher out the door for school by 7.25am if we can. The International school the oldest two attend is only a few kilometers away but traffic lights are rubbish and we spend 15-20 mins every morning sat in the school run queue. We have rather a large car to fit our collection of kiddy seats – and kids (they are sadly not compulsory in the UAE but no way we’d go anywhere without them). Our littlest one is only 1, he attends the British nursery near the school.

8.35am

8.35am My favourite part of the day once the kids are dropped off! I start my working day by heading down to the beach front for a coffee. Here I catch up my overnight emails and social media. It’s too hot now for sitting on the beach itself but it’s a great, friendly little place – and makes me love my work from home jobs!

9.25am

9.25am Walking back to my house – it’s a mixed development along the man-made Al Raha Beach (slightly inland from the Persian gulf coast) with apartments, townhouses, villas and some commercial buildings – Etihad Centre is right behind our house. It comes with the convenience of a little supermarket and a few shops. The only real hassle here is parking.

10am

10am Where the work gets done! Back to my desk for the next few hours until kiddy pick up times. Once or twice a week I might be at client meetings but mostly working at home in front of the PC, three mornings a week while my youngest is at nursery.

12.30pm

12.30pm Lunch is just something quick and simple like toast or sandwich. NB note the kitchen only looks immaculate as we have a full time helper. She cleans the house while the kids are at school which is *amazing*

2.45pm(1)

2.45pm School pick up run starts again around 1.45pm when I leave our house, then with staggered finish times over two locations – at least if I am not picking up extra kids, dropping off for play dates etc – it takes about 1.5hrs to get home again. As you can see our cars are big (to fit all those car seats!) but having a 4wd or “Mummy Tank” is fairly standard issue here.

3.15pm(1)

3.15pm Today is slightly special and different as it’s my middle boy’s 4th birthday. We always get a special cake and treat on our actual birthday, he will have a pool party on the weekend with his friends. Afternoons while it’s hot they will generally stay in the playroom or play in the pool until dinner time.

5.45pm(1)

5.45pm As a special treat we let the kids pick birthday dinner and we all go out, including some of my husband’s relatives who live in Abu Dhabi too. We are very lucky to have this connection here and make things like birthday celebrations special – they love their Uncle Sean! My Master L will basically only eat pasta so he picked Carluccio’s at Eastern Mangroves, another fairly new waterfront development.

6.30pm(1)

6.30pm The high life when you have kids! All done by about 6.30pm to be home in bed around 7pm. This is the view from the gorgeous Eastern Mangroves marina back to some of the high rises on Reem Island. There really is no ‘centre’ of Abu Dhabi, just lots of awesome little spots to explore.

 

Thank you Keri for that look at your expat life. Please check out our other posts in this series if you haven’t already done so and let me know if you would like your expat life to be featured in a future post!

An Expat Partner: the First Three Months

Thank you to Sarah who blogs over at Scribbles from Overseas for the refreshingly honest story of her first three months living as an Expat Partner. Those early days are often the hardest for any expat – and even more so for the non-working partner who has to find a new routine to their day, as well as find their way around, find out where the shops are and how to use the local bus service….But as Sarah’s post proves, things do usually start to look up once you have the first few months under your belt.

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My partner was always very honest with me. There was a chance his job might be moving overseas, and it was more a question of when rather than if.

I have always found myself torn between two separate paths in life. The first is the kind of ‘normal’ one I suppose – go to school, get a good job, a house, get married and live happily ever after. I am a self-confessed homemaker.

The second, however, is the travelling path. I would love to see more of the world and experience new cultures. When I was growing up I always said one day I would like to spend a year or two living and working overseas.

So when my partner told me we were moving to Toronto, Canada I was excited. There were the initial stresses to deal with – like packing up our house, sorting out shipping and leaving my job. But I loved the idea of Canada. I looked forward to spending my weekend’s hiking in mountains or hiring out cute log cabins by a snowy lake. And I could not wait to go exploring all the cities in North America that I’d always wanted to visit. These would now be on the right side of the ocean for us.

Yet lurking underneath all that anticipation, buried somewhere deep in my subconscious was a growing anxiety.

bubblewrap! Starting the long task of packing our stuff in Bristol

Bubblewrap! Starting the long task of packing our stuff in Bristol.

Leaving England was stressful. Only a couple of days before our flight I was still trying to shift our stuff on gumtree whilst my partner did multiple trips to the dump. Well after dark on the day we were supposed to move out of our house in Bristol, we were still cleaning and sorting out what would be coming with us, and what was going in the bin. It didn’t help that I had come down with the world’s worst (and most badly timed) cold and was feeling entirely wiped out.

Waving goodbye to our house somewhere close to midnight, we drove to my partner’s parents to stay the night before our flight. I felt so nauseous I had to stop the car to throw up. The illness (and general exhaustion) was probably partly to blame, but also the brewing nervousness.

In Toronto

Me, My partner and the CN Tower

Me, my partner and the CN Tower

The first few weeks after you get off that flight will be the hardest. We had two days in Toronto before my partner returned to work in his new office. You feel like you have to squeeze everything into that short period of time. It is a whirlwind of trying to get the important stuff done – such as opening bank accounts and setting up phone numbers. But mixed in is the desire to learn your way around the city and make the most of the time you have off together before work takes over. I was glad we managed to find the time to have some fun and fit a little of the touristy stuff in, such as visiting the CN Tower.

It was after he went to work that supressed bubble of anxiety really shimmied its way to the surface. I had this sugar-coated idea in my head before arriving in Toronto that I would spend this time getting to know the city. However, in reality there is only so much exploring you want to do by yourself. Plus there’s the ever growing guilt that you are not working and therefore should really hold back on spending too much money.

I quickly realised I do not like being dependent. I have always worked since the age of thirteen when I had my first paper round. I do have a work permit here, but I found the process of job hunting agonising. Trailing though endless pages of job advertisements, half of which specify applicants with Canadian permanent resident status will be prioritised was an incredibly de-motivating experience.

Far too excited to find a shop selling British baked beans and squash!

Far too excited to find a shop selling British baked beans and squash! (not at all: I think we all know where you are coming from – look, Yorkshire Tea! Ed).

I got into the habit of researching trailing spouse syndrome online and convinced myself I was doomed to two years of depression and there was nothing I could do about it. Finding some temping work pulled me out of that routine. It stopped me sitting in our apartment thinking, or getting frustrated at job hunting all day. And even though I am not working again now and those niggles do still exist, after three months of being here I am able to enjoy having the opportunity to spend my time writing, cooking and doing the things I love. Things I wouldn’t normally have the time to do when working a full-time job.

I don’t want to make this all sound too negative. Things do get better once you get over that initial first month hurdle. Yes you will undoubtedly sob into a cup of tea wondering whether you made the right decision and consider getting on the next plane home at various points. Yes you may go slightly loopy some days, and I certainly crave that path one lifestyle from time to time.  However, if I could go back in time six months I wouldn’t change my decision to move overseas and become an expat partner. Most days I really love being here, and for every day I want to go home there’s another where I am thinking about where might be next on the list after Toronto.

On top of all the obvious positives of seeing a new place, meeting new people and learning about new cultures, I have found this an opportunity to learn what makes me happy. I have realised what is most important to me – and who is most important to me. You learn who your true friends are. It gives you the chance to step back, re-evaluate and maybe write a whole new path for yourself.

Three months in and Toronto is bright and blooming. It is summer here now and the weather at least certainly beats the grey drizzle England promises most of the year around. Toronto is a really great place – and I have still only seen the tip of the iceberg!

There is still a lot to learn and a long way to go until I will feel completely settled, but I am starting to realise it is OK to not have everything neatly in place.

 

South Africa: You think you know a country and then you move there…..

South Africa – what images do those words conjure up for you? Is it of elephants and lions lurking behind the bushes of Kruger National Park? The iconic Table Mountain standing sentry over Cape Town? Or maybe it’s the legacy of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders of modern time who changed history in this Rainbow Nation?

On the other hand, it might also be car-jackings and armed robberies. House invasions and corrupt police officers. Shootings on the streets of Johannesburg. Or perhaps the huge division of wealth  between the shacks of inner-city townships and the shining villas of the opulent suburbs?

In fact, as I have discovered since moving here last year, it is all these things but it is also more – so much more. And the things that dominate both the negative headlines and the positive tourist brochures are often very out of proportion with the reality. In fact, just like I am sure is true for almost every country in the world, you really can’t know a country like South Africa until you live here. And even then, having been here less than a year still, I am really only scratching the surface.

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

The Size and the Beauty

First of all I have been totally blown away by the beauty and the diversity of South Africa. It is a huge, I mean really enormous, country. At least it is for me who comes from little old England. We have only been used to doing car journeys of an hour or two to get anywhere – a four hour trip would seem like a massive adventure! We also previously lived with our children on an even tinier island (St Lucia in the Caribbean), where the longest drive you could do was only about 2 hours long. So to find ourselves contemplating driving hundreds of kilometres for a weekend away was at first rather daunting – but we are getting used to it. And one of the reasons we are getting used to it is because there is so much to see and do we really don’t want to miss anything!

So far we have already ticked off many of those attractions that most people know about – Cape Town, Kruger, the Winelands, the whales of Hermanus. But we have discovered there is so much more to this country than the main tourist attractions – the Drakensbergs will  blow you away with their majestic beauty, Madikwe is a wonderful safari park only a few hours drive from the capital, Johannesberg is in every way as interesting a city as Cape Town (and a little more hip to boot!). And there is so much more: coming up we have a trip planned to the KZN coast to include some wildlife, some diving and a lot of beautiful scenery (including a short diversion in Swaziland – that is another thing about South Africa: with both Swazi and Lesotho contained within its borders you get three for the price of one, never mind the close proximity of Mozambique, Botswana, Zimababwe and Namibia…).  I also hope to drive the Garden route and up the coast, visit areas such as the Karoo and the Kalahari, explore Limpopo and Mpumalanga and so many other places with wonderful evocative names…

Namibia road trip....

Namibia road trip….

The Dirty Side

Of course you can’t ignore the dark side to this country and without a doubt there is a crime problem. But, and this is a big but, for me personally it is not as bad as I feared it would be. By that I in no way want to diminish the seriousness of this problem for a huge proportion of the population – you only have to look at the rape statistics or read about some of the awful home invasions to know that I am in a very priviliged position to be able to say this. However, as an expat with the backing of good physical security provided by our employer and a lot of common sense, I can go about my daily life more or less normally once you have become used to the bars and gates and locks and guards and alarms and keep doors…

But one thing I hadn’t really thought about but that concerns me far more is the high number of road traffic accidents and death toll they create. On our first weekend in the country we passed a horrific accident – there was a dead man lying in the road and two more badly injured at the side. Just yesterday we passed another here in Pretoria, two bodies lying under tarpaulin. In less than a year in this country I have seen more dead bodies due to road accidents than I have in all my life in the UK. I have lived places where the driving is a lot worse than here (apart from the minibus taxis, which are a law unto themselves) so it is hard to understand why the accident rate is so high but I wonder if it is something to do with the distances, the good roads, the fact that everyone is going to the same places at the same time…..

The Bit They REALLY Don’t Tell You About

This is the thing – what I have found hardest about living here isn’t the crime or the fear of crime but the weird underlying edginess and the racial tension that some might have thought would have disappeared after Mandela’s release in the 1990’s. But of course something like Apartheid doesn’t disappear overnight and in fact it will take generations for the problems it has caused to be resolved.

Often, I liken living here to living in an African version of the Help (the novel and then film set in 1950’s America). I live in Pretoria which I am told is the “Afrikaans heartland” and certainly in the part of the city I am in we are surrounded by affluent white people being served by black people (many of whom are immigrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi).

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At the same time though there are white beggars on the street and white people leaving in their droves for other countries because thanks to a positive discrimination policy they feel they have no chance of getting a job.  And the current (black) government is incredibly unpopular and yet most people I speak to won’t vote for the main opposition party because although their leader is black they are known as the “white” party. The other opposition is seen as a bit mad by most but has a charasmatic and clever leader and is gaining popularity amongst the disffected youth. There are things happening here – like students burning down their own universities – which may or may not be connected to race but is somehow all tied up in the same problems of an unhappy younger generation. The so-called “born free” children (those born after Apartheid ended) are starting to reach maturity  and starting to question why life for them isn’t that much better than it was for their parents. It is a hot cauldron of bubbling tension that feels like it could overflow at any point. Add to that an economic crisis not helped by one of the worst droughts on record and this definitely feels like a country on the edge.

And yet

And yet my life here is wonderful. I realise that I am priviliged and my life does not in any way reflect that of the majority of South Africans. But I can enjoy gorgeous weather, beautiful countryside, cheap prices (thanks to the weak Rand – sorry South Africans!), good food, some of the best wine in the world and daily interactions with some of the friendliest people on the planet.

It’s a unique place alright but that is one of the reasons I love it!

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Soak it in while you can for soon it will all be mundane

So nine months into our time here in South Africa and something occurred to me today. As I was taking our now pretty lively puppy Cooper for a walk, a flock of startled mousebirds flew out of a tree. I love mousebirds, they have cute tails and make a funny noise and I was reminiscing about our observations of these birds when we first arrived in Pretoria. It was nostalgic. Ahh, the early days, I thought. I miss them.

And then I realised that so much time has now passed since our arrival that things aren’t new or exciting any more. Life has basically returned to being mundane.

It isn’t really of course – see my recent post about a holiday in Mauritius. Plus how could life POSSIBLY be mundane with a four month old Miniature Schnauzer in the house whose main mission in life is to steal our laundry.

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But what has happened is that I have been through the expat cycle to the point where life here has become normal. It is hectic, a constant round of swimming and horseriding and sleepovers and play-dates. When I am not working or writing blogs I am booking flights, hotels and car hire (there is a LOT of that here), running to the shops, trying to top up my phone AGAIN, chasing some workman or another, attempting to register to vote in the UK elections, taking the dog to the vet, filling out a school form….you get the idea, it’s a normal, busy family life. That happens to be in South Africa now and not a town in the west of England.

So how does this make me feel? In a way a little sad as I loved the early days when every bird was interesting, seeing the zebras on the way to horseriding was something to put on Facebook. Eating out was always a treat, discovering new coffee shops and trying new wines was something that made me happy. It still does, but these things happen less often and aren’t quite so unique. As I am sure happens with everyone, eventually your new expat life returns to some form of normality and in my case seems even busier than it used to be (possibly thanks to the addition of lively puppy).

My message thus to new expats is to enjoy it, soak it up, because before long it won’t seem special or new or exciting any more. But with a word of caution – just like those annoying people who tell you to enjoy every second of your new baby because before you know it they will be all grown up, this advice probably isn’t terribly welcome if you are struggling in your new home. So to these people I would say just wait, get through this bit, perhaps try and find something interesting or new or even just different as often as you can and make a note of it. It may not mean much now, it might not bring any light into your life. But when you are ready it or they will be there waiting.

Just like my mousebirds in the tree.

My Expat Family

Feeling like a nobody.

One of the hardest thing about moving overseas as an expat partner is losing your identity. Okay at the start it’s difficult finding a house, navigating the roads, comforting the homesick children…but once the initial few months have passed and you begin to find yourself back into some sort of a new-normal, you realise something else has changed. Something pretty bloody massive. You are not who you used to be.

Well, you are who you used to be but you would be forgiven for feeling this way because this is how you will be treated from now on. As the sidekick. The uninteresting one. The one to avoid at parties (that is if you are ever actually invited to any). Never mind that you used to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse or a teacher or whatever it is that you did back in your home country. And never mind that actually you have a life here too, possibly even a job. As far as many people you meet are concerned you are a nothing. Your status is somewhere lower than the dogs and actually the only use you have is smoothing the way for your partner’s brilliant career.

But don’t judge us because we are not those nobodies. We were and dammit we still are very big somebodies. There is nothing worse than being ignored because you don’t work in the office  of the people you are meeting. Even worse for those of us who USED to work in that office and therefore actually could join in the conversation. As far as those people are concerned your brain is made of cotton wool and you couldn’t possibly have an opinion on anything useful!

This has happened to me here in Pretoria – with a few very honorable exceptions in some of my former colleagues who actually deem me fit to discuss what they do (and no I don’t expect to know everything and yes I realise that even though I have signed the official secrets act that was a long time ago and by now out of date so I don’t expect to be filled in on everything that is going on). As far as most people here are concerned I am fluff. I am my children’s mother, my husband’s wife. I am not a person who needs to be acknowledged.

Added to this sense of frustration is that everything I need to get done has to go through my husband. Want to open a bank account? He needs to get the ball rolling because I don’t work here. Something wrong with the house? Needs to go through his office. Flights home? School bills? Even medical treatment? Yup you guessed it – through his office!

We went to a party the other day thrown by someone fairly high up in diplomatic circles here. We were guests because I am friends with the fairly high up person’s wife. It was so refreshing to be there because of me not because of my husband – refreshing for him as well as me because he didn’t have to feel like he was working. It was a great night, I met some fun people and never once felt like I shouldn’t have been there. I was invited as me, not as the other half of the main man.

It’s frustrating and I know it is felt by many. What to do about it? Well if you are reading this and you know people who are the partners then ask them what they do or did, be interested in them, ask their opinions (some of us even do things like follow the local news and – shock horror – spend quite a lot of time getting to know our host country by interacting in various ways with the locals). Realise that they have a brain and treat them accordingly.

If like me you are the fluffy sidekicks then lets reclaim ourselves, our identities. Perhaps when we meet people and they ask why we are here the first thing we say SHOULDN’T be what our partners do or where they workbut rather why we decided to come with them. I wanted to travel. The opportunity to see more of the world was too much of a temptation to turn down. I decided it would be a good way to get my novel finished and do some more scuba diving.

And then, before they can start looking at you down their noses trying to sum up whether you are worth another three minutes of their time or not, be the first to move. Tell them you need to be somewhere or you’re on your way to the bar for another drink. Smile sweetly and walk away. Leave them wondering.

And always remember, whatever your situation, you are important. You are not a nobody you are a somebody and you always will be. And anyone who judges you because of what you do or don’t “do” isn’t worth another minute of your time anyway.

Here’s to all us expat partners – may we ever realise just how bloody important we are!

The Male Trailing Spouse series – Brian in Iran

Welcome to the latest post in my series on Male Trailing Spouses. I love that I have had such a great variety of men taking part in this series, from so many different places. This week I feature Brian, an Australian who lives in Iran with his Swedish wife and their daughter. Brian’s answers to my questions are extremely insightful and I hope they will help other men in his situation or considering taking the plunge into trailer-dom.

brian head shot

Hi Brian and welcome to the series! First of all, please could you tell me a little about yourself and your partner/family.

My name is Brian, a native Australian and naturalised Swede. I am trailing spouse of a Swedish diplomat, and we have a 4-year old daughter (dual Australian/Swedish). We are presently posted in Iran. Prior to this we have been posted to China (where we met), Syria, Sweden, Belgium, and Austria. I have also been posted to Thailand, while my wife worked in China.

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

Every posting is the same, and yet at the same time different, at the start; that is to say there are things you find normal for every arrival, and things you notice are different. It is all about compare and contrast! I don’t think that being newly arrived is much different for male spouses as female. Certainly, however, the spouse’s arrival is very different from the arrival of the posted officer who often immediately has work to preoccupy them

Arrival is always hectic, filled with new people, new places, and new sights and sounds. You need to make a lot of notes, get very familiar with maps of the area, names of places, and where to go for this and that. In hardship postings, that initial difficulty is often greater, and start-up fatigue is more common.

The cycle of postings is clear that, even in difficult places, there is a honeymoon period where things are all new and mostly interesting, and you are striving to make the posting fit you, or the other way around. It is the fast-learning-curve end of the posting.

In difficult places, this is more about acting quickly to create your ‘nest’, and finding any networks for support. It is also about a crash course in taxi-level language, map-reading, shopping guide, eating guide, and finding out what groups, if any, exist for networking and support. And, of course, about settling the child into schooling, with the logistical issues that often brings.

In easy places (admittedly I find it dangerous to call any major international relocation ‘easy’), setting up home and network is less urgent because there are lots of familiarities and less hostility in the context. Exploring and ‘conquering’ the new context is considerably faster in easy posts, but common to both sexes of spouse.

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

Yes. I gave it up at the start so that we could be together. I had a job that was to take me back to Australia after we had really only just met. So I quit that job of more than 12 years and joined the UN to be nearer, and after a year of that, starting a consultancy to focus on freelance contracts around the world. For a lot of reasons, furthering the relationship included, it was an easy decision.

In hindsight, I was young and self-confident enough to take it rather lightly, or at least with more gusto than I perhaps should have. I would not have so easily jumped in (or is it out?) if I had known the trials and tribulations of working when permanently on the move.

There are severely constrained choices confronting the trailing spouse to develop into a location-independent professional. Freelancing is the most obvious fit for spouses. However, this often means being away from home and post for long periods, as well as the vagaries of securing contracts, major financial ups and downs, and little in the way of financial consistency, for example, pension, allowances, and taxation.

A lot also depends on how easily you can service contracts from the posting; some difficult posts, for example, have such lousy communications (both internet and air traffic), that clients drop off quickly when they cannot even get you on the phone. That certainly cools the enthusiasm for consulting work.

Frankly, jobs that are all about working from home are by far the best for all trailing spouses, as long as communications by phone and computer work well.

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?

In Tehran, I am a rare species. The Diplomatic Ladies Group even had to change their name and constitution to allow male members. And still, in the end, being almost the lone male was unsatisfying for several reasons; the group activities were strongly focused on women (perfectly fairly, since women are 99.9% the membership). And it felt like any suggestions I might have to change the group would subvert the real needs and interests of the group.

Being a male trailing spouse makes more difference in difficult posts, or strict Islamic posts, In both of which there are fewer male spouses and fewer contacts with other expatriates and the local population as well. In other difficult postings I have been less of a rare species, and sometimes been able to eke out strong friendships with one or two other male spouses. But being a working spouse, which often demanded travel and long periods away from the post, militated somewhat against forming friendships. In easy postings, it is less necessary to establish a network with other male spouses; friends can be found in many other places.

In both difficult and easy posts, I find it is really important to be a ‘joiner’, at least in the first 6-12 months. Join groups, clubs, meetups etc and also accompany the spouse to events to make acquaintances. Although male diplomats mostly fully ignore male spouses, sometimes you can make a breakthrough through asking questions like “do you play squash?” etc. And sometimes, just sometimes, male diplomats won’t drop your hand before the handshake is done; they might actually want to get to know you even if meeting spouses is not the reason they came to the event.

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

Yes. There are a number of factors, social, economic, and personal. Male spouses often have indelibly imprinted on them the need to have a job, and provide for the family. That is hard to break and even the staunchest male feminist can have trouble rising above identity issues such as that.

Male spouses are also a fairly rare commodity, even with the egalitarian Swedish foreign service. And this is especially so in hardship places. So making friends for them is overall harder than female spouses who can often engage with a much larger grouping of spouses in every post also looking for doing things together.

Whether we agree with it or not, the simple fact is that many female spouses don’t want to hang out overly much with male spouses and vice versa.

Male spouses are also treated differently by male diplomats: I think the male diplomats don’t quite know what to make of a man who stays home with the children, whether the spouse is working or not. Let’s put it this way, as the male spouse you are not of primary interest to male diplomats for their information needs, which means many do not bother trying to understand out at all. Those who do, however, can often become friends because both sides started with engagement in mind.

brian and daughter

Brian with his daughter, in Australia

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?

Yes. This has been by far the most beneficial aspect of being a male trailing spouse; being able to build a close relationship with my daughter. I have had the time to be there for her more readily, and have witnessed my wife suffering the “I never get to see her” syndrome of the working parent. I am mostly welcomed by parent’s groups, but it often feels a bit odd as the only Dad in the room. Like it or not, Mums like to hang out with other Mums, not dads. I am also an oddity at school; almost the only father to pick up the children and be in the playground with them; the mothers even (not with bad intentions) exclude me from their social media groups because I am a man. Trailing spouse dads just don’t fit into the vast majority of circles created by spouses who, traditionally, are mostly women.

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

Consider very carefully your career options. If you are young and successful, don’t be over-confident about finding work wherever you go. You might find something but it may not be meaningful or rewarding and, in many cases, doesn’t even contribute well to paying the bills. Consider your pension; it is never too late for a pension saving but the peaks and troughs of freelancing as a spouse make those savings far, far harder.

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

In my opinion, the posting Ministry should take more responsibility for helping spouses find work. Embassies are a vast web of contacts and networks, and can offer great support to spouses looking for work in a new context, whether that be with other Embassies or international bodies such as the UN. And the posted officer suffers very badly if the spouse is unhappy, and unemployed; there are truly deleterious effects for all involved.

Thanks so much to Brian for this insight into the life of a male trailing spouse – although many of his answers will resonate with women expat partners as well as men. If you haven’t already done so then please check out my other posts in this series HERE and do let me know if you would like to be featured on the blog.

A Series on Expat Depression #9: What role should our employers play?

So I am nearly at the end of my voyage through the sea of expat depression. It has certainly been an interesting exercise and actually very useful for me who has found writing these blog posts to be a very reflective process. I hope others have also found them helpful, or at least to have given them pause for thought about their own situation. Today, I look at an area that I haven’t seen much discussion on – that of the role of the employer. Do they have a responsibilty to our mental welfare? Should they? What do you think?

“I think companies who move people abroad should consider their employees’ and their families’ mental health situation and be encouraging and supportive” – “V”.

Sending someone abroad to do a job is a risky strategy. But how many employers ever think to screen their workers for mental health issues before they go, or to help them once they are there?

This was the question I posed in my survey on expat depression, curious to know whether people thought employers had a responsibility for their workers overseas – and if so, what they should be doing about it.

Anecdotally, I have heard of some companies or agencies making sure anyone they send abroad (including the partners and families of their employees) are mentally fit for the stress they are fairly likely to encounter when they get there. This could include anything from having to deal with a totally new working culture to the loneliness and isolation of a non-working partner.

But in reality, most people confirmed what I had already suspected – the majority of employers either don’t even think about depression or mental health issues as a potential problem, or they do nothing at all about it.

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First the good news

“Our organisation (a church) had been sending missionaries overseas for over 100 years by the time we went overseas with them. They tried to screen for it before agreeing to send people overseas, provided a wide variety of support while you were overseas and would spend the money to send you home if you really needed help…” Missionary Kid.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There were sporadic reports of attempts to help both employers and partners/families. One person said their employer was very aware of depression and that they could have accessed professional help through them. Another that her partner worked at a university where they had “monthly workshops for spouses”.  And Robyn told me:

“The HR manager in one location certainly attempted to stay in contact with workers and their spouses on a regular basis and tried to help with …problems related to settling in and certainly made herself available to help if any other problems arose during our stay….”

As mentioned above, I have heard reports of employers carrying out psychological screening of not just their employer but also their family before deciding where to send them (or sending them anywhere at all). This might seem like taking things a little too far until you consider how many people probably are unsuited to certain destinations. Although I would prefer to see proper support in place for everyone rather than stop people going “just in case”.

But more realistically…

Despite the isolated reports of caring employers most said this wasn’t something they had come across. Of course there was often “awareness” of the issue – as one person put it, they “must be aware as there as so many”. But awareness doesn’t always mean anything is actually done about it.

Not everyone thought the employers necessarily had a responsibility to their employees in this area – one saying “we put out hands up for the move and we were aware of the challenges we would face”. But the vast majority believed that not only was it “nice when they did”, but that it also made business sense for them to do so.

“I do think it is in their best interest to offer resources. It’s expensive to move families overseas. A failed assignment is more costly than counselling resources”.  Mary.

Unfortunately it seems many (most?) employers still have not understood the importance of making sure not only the person who is working for them is happy but their partner and family is as well. As Alison put it:

“I don’t think the employer does much to tackle the problems a trailing spouse might have. They just throw a huge chunk of money at you hoping that’s enough to entice you to go…and then you are on your own. I guess they feel that if they’re paying you so much more (in extra benefits and stipends) that it’s up to you to seek your own help”.

Which is a good point – even if an employer is aware of the issue, what can they actually do to help? Isn’t it better to leave things to the professionals?

How can they help?

Suggestions for what people thought their employers could do to help them ranged from the very simple – “even just asking after me a bit would have made me feel less irrelevant” (I will back her on this one!!), to the more ambitious eg “offering the benefit of some therapy sessions for their employee and/or partner”. Others said just having the employer be more open and communicative on the subject would help – I wonder how many people are briefed on this issue before they leave home? But practical help was also suggested – like this from Mary:

“Simple things that don’t cost a lot like a phone list would help, sponsoring a coffee morning every six months, info on working with the local internet and phones would be a great help. Providing several hours of translation services to spouses every 2-3 weeks after arrival to ask questions of local shopkeepers, apartment staff or tech service people would be a godsend”.

I might add to that list – wouldn’t it be great if every employer provided a copy of my book to anyone taking their partner overseas?

What do you think – is it the responsibility of a global employer to care about the mental health of their workforce? What can they – or should they – do to help? Have you got any stories, good or bad?

Picture credit: Jlhopgood

The Male Trailing Spouse Series: Billy in Atlanta

Welcome to another post in my series on male trailing spouses. This post is a little different from my others as Billy (who blogs at St Pats to Spartans) isn’t really accompanying his partner so much as joining her. But nevertheless as an Irish expat in the US, he finds himself in a position very familiar to many of us: starting again from scratch with finding work, friends, a routine….all the while his partner’s life carries on more or less as before. Added to this, Billy and his wife Leanne had the extra stress of needing to sort out a visa for Billy before he was able to join her. All in all, I think Billy’s story adds another very interesting dimension to this series.

We got engaged in Ireland and visited Ardagh for some photos together

“We got engaged in Ireland and visited Ardagh for some photos”

Thank you for being part of this series Billy. First of all please tell me a little about yourself and your partner.

I am a male trailing spouse from Ireland who came over to the USA on a k1 fiancée visa in December 2015 to marry my wife.

I am from Ireland and I met my partner, Leanne, in 2001 while here visiting Savannah for St Patricks Day. We remained friends for a long time before, in 2014, we had a chat about the possibility of our lives being together rather than an ocean apart. Thing then started to move quite quickly as we arranged visits to both the USA for me and Ireland for Leanne.

It was during my visit to Atlanta in February 2015 that we decided that we wanted to be together and get married. Of course the visa process isn’t for the faint hearted but we got started on the paperwork right away. We filed everything with USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Services) in April, got approval at the end of June and visa was in hand mid September for me to be able to travel over to live with Leanne and finalise our wedding plans for December 2015.

My trailing is not for work, it’s not following my spouse to her new role, but it is for love. My wife has a job with Peachtree Orthopaedic Clinic and is well respected in her role there.

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

I was nervous stepping onto the plane in November 2015, I was leaving my life of 48 years behind, I was leaving my 17-year-old son, my elderly parents and all my friends. I knew Leanne had a broad circle of friends and I had met most of them at least once but now I would be starting all over again.

Leanne met my son pictured left while she was visiting Ireland and he was present when we got engaged

“Leanne met my son (pictured left) when she visited Ireland and he was present when we got engaged.”

I was a bit apprehensive about finding my own friends rather than my wife’s friends just adopting me. But they have all been so kind and nice and welcomed me with open arms. I am making friends with them all and have started to make contacts outside of my wife’s circle of friends in other things.

I have joined a photography club and in April I will start back playing football, soccer. These activities will allow me to broaden my horizon and meet new people. Friends to me is an important thing, it’s nice to be able to chat to people and not just my pet dogs.

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

Not really a career, I had already retired from a career in the military after 23 years’ service and had a job in Dublin Airport but that is all it was, a job, not a career. But leaving the military put me in a much better place in my life so when we had the chat about being together I was able to make the choice I did.

I am not able to work here in the USA yet as I am awaiting permission from USCIS and that is quite difficult as I have been employed since I was 17. Add in the fact that I am in a new country and that can make it more difficult, but I find things to do during the day and being a house husband for now is a good thing as it is allowing me get used to the cultural differences in the way things are done here in the US rather than Ireland

Wedding photo of the 2 of us outside the courthouse in Decatur after our wedding in Dec 2015

“Wedding picture of the two of us outside the courthouse in Decatur after our wedding in December 2015”.

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?

As I said my wife has a broad circle of friends and every one of them has been so nice. A few have offered to join me for lunch just so I can have some company during the day. Again something important when I am only settling into life here is help from others and I am never afraid to take whatever help is offered, even if it is only company walking the dogs.

I do have an Irish neighbour who is also married to an American girl and we have got together to watch a rugby match and it’s good to chat to him. He has lived beside my wife for over 2 years but it was only when I arrived and he seen the Irish flag outside the house did he knock in and say hi. I don’t really know any other trailing spouses locally but I do have 2 military friends who live in Massachusetts with their American partners and they were a great help as I was preparing to move over.

Our wedding rehearsal was done with Leanne wearing her mothers wedding dress and I was wearing a kilt the as i was wearing when I met Leanne

“Our wedding rehearsal was done with Leanne wearing her mother’s weding dress and I was wearing the kilt I was wearing when I met Leanne”.

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

I don’t think in this day and age it is any harder, the problems will be more or less the same, especially if not working. It helps that I didn’t follow my wife to a new job for her. She was already living in Atlanta for nearly 20 years and had a firm base and life here. She plays tennis so there is a circle of friends there, she has a good core group of friends and they socialise a lot together and now we are part of the ‘couples’ group which also helps. The loneliness of being at home all day would the same for either of us and it helps to have a plan of something to do every day.

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

I moved for love, we knew each other for 14 years before we finally were able to become a couple in the same country. I am here and starting a whole new chapter in my life, I have to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road, figure out US supermarkets, try not say awesome and figure out sports here too. I wouldn’t change a single thing but if I could it would be that I wish we could have done this a lot sooner on our lives. But it wasn’t to be.

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

Do it, embrace it, have a vague plan of something to do but overall embrace the whole idea. Don’t be a loner, try find something you like to do and go do it. Support your spouse as much as you can as they too will be having certain difficulties and its only together that those difficulties will be kept minor and not ruin the experience. If you are used to or have a make need to be the main bread winner, just park that notion and embrace the new opportunity that being a trailing spouse has offered up to you.

Billy and Leanne with my family in Ireland

“Leanne with my family in Ireland”

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

Don’t really have anything here, but as an Irishman in Atlanta I have reached out to organisations from Ireland based here in Georgia and they are a great help.

Some other stuff: I came over on a K1 visa and we are still in a visa application process. The application process for the K1 can be stressful and we were separated by the ocean so our support for each other was done via phone calls, emails and cards. Patience was key but in the end we got our visa and now we are just started the next step. The next step is ok as we are now together and we can support each other while being together. Why am I adding this in? Well it emphasizes the point of supporting each other, as a trailing spouse its important you support our spouse as they adjust as well as you do. We still have a few more steps in the whole visa, green card and citizenship journey, but we will do them together.

Thank you for sharing your story Billy. Don’t forget to check out the other posts in this series on male trailing spouses – and comment below if you would be willing to share yours!