Raising kids abroad: it’s all just a guessing game

There has been a huge debate going on in an expat Facebook group I belong to over the past few days about whether it is right to take children to live overseas.

Started by a woman who is obviously struggling, the post hit such a nerve that within 24 hours she had something like 200 responses. And almost every one of them with a different view. Which just goes to show – no-one really knows the answer.

Some people obviously took huge offence at the notion that it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the child to take them away from all that they know and love, into an alien environment where they would have to make new friends and find a new routine. To them, their decision to take their offspring abroad was seen as an entirely positive thing. They would be bringing up global nomads who would navigate their lives with a fantstic grounding in world knowledge, an understanding of different cultures and hopefully an extra language or two.

What could be wrong with that, right?

Well of course to many, this wasn’t so right. Others piled in with a totally different story. Loss of identity, sense of not belonging anywhere, losing friends, missing family……there were plenty of stories from the other side of the coin to counteract the rainbows and unicorns thrown around by the first group.

In between of course were plenty of sensible comments made by people who understood that in the end there is no “right” and no “wrong”. That just like pretty well everything when it comes to parenting (apart from maybe making sure your child doesn’t stand too close to the edge of Niagara falls), it’s all just guesswork. It is impossible to know exactly what effect your decisions today will have on your children in the future – you can only weigh up all the considerations and they chose one way. And hope. Not only that, but every family, every child, every situation, is unique. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. And what worked for your child when they were 5 or 6 years old might be a different story when they reach their teen years.

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Expat life can definitely have its advantages for children….

So should you move abroad when you have children? Well, having been a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, and now raising two more, I am not going to say no. But on the other hand I will caution that it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. I don’t agree with those who do nothing but rave about the experience. To me that sounds very defensive and I think there sometimes is a lot of “guilt” (oh don’t we all hate hearing about the parental gult!) behind their comments. Realistically, taking your children away from their home once, or multiple times, is going to affect them one way or another – and you are doing them a disservice to pretend otherwise.

However, so long as you are prepared and know what you are getting yourselves into, I also believe there are at least as many upsides as downsides to doing this – and hopefully in the end, the scales will come down in favour of taking the plunge. At the moment we are struggling with my youngest daughter who, nearly seven months after we moved here, is still unhappy. But on the plus side she has had some of the most incredible experiences that will stay with her for a lifetime, she is learning new languages, has friends from several different countries and been given an opportunity to learn about a fascinating country with a very unique history, first hand.

My other daughter has settled a lot better but there are a lot of issues around her schooling. Moving her into a different curriculum hasn’t been easy and I foresee problems when we move home again.

I, like others, question every day whether we have done the right thing. But there is no point in beating myself up about it – at the end of the day we are here and unless some emergency forces us home, we are staying for the duration. My youngest daughter might be unhappy but she could equally be just as cross at home – but for different reasons. And of course she isn’t always unhappy – she loves her new friends, seeing elephants in the wild, learning to ride a horse, being in the swimming pool for hours on end….

And the older daughter might have gaps in her maths knowledge, but she will have learnt things from being in a school with an international culture that she would never have the chance to back home. She will also have friends in several different countries – who hopefully we will have the chance to visit once this posting is done and dusted.

So what is my conclusion? Well, really it goes back to the title of this post – which is, who knows! It really is just a guessing game and whilst I would love to give you a straightforward answer, I can’t. To take your children to live abroad or to not take your children to live abroad? Well, that really is the question!

Resources: I can recommend two brilliant resources for anyone who wants to know more, both of which I have reviewed on this site: Your Expat Child website and the book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counselling the Globally Mobile.

What do you think? Have you taken the decision to move abroad with children and if so was it the right one? Were you yourself a Third Culture Kid and if so, do you think it benefitted you? What advice would you give to others?

back-kuaa-on-kickstarter

 

 

The little things you wish you had known

A while ago I wrote this post on the things you wish you had known before you became an expat. Mostly this dealt with the bigger picture, like how to meet people, embracing the culture, and managing your expectations.

But there are the little things too, the things that are very much more specific to your particular country rather than to expat life as a whole. Things that are also very particular to you – after all, what is important to one family may be insignificant to another. I, for one, don’t care that I can’t get American cereals in South Africa. My American friends apparently care very much.

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When you are used to this much choice….

This was a topic recently tackled by one of my road testers, Lynsay of the blog Mills Family Travels, who has moved with her family to South Korea and has been following the chapters of my book as she settles in to her new life. In her post on the subject, Lynsay writes:

Furniture is oddly expensive  – had we known we probably would have shipped our Ikea bookcases rather than sell them for relatively little!  We probably should have brought the bunk beds too but as we were getting furnished accommodation we had to weigh up the cost of shipping (Jeju is not a cheap place to get things to!) versus what we could manage without.

Bikes are not expensive and are easy to get – it probably would have been better to sell the children’s bikes and buy new here.  For some reason they didn’t travel well and arrived a little worse for wear.

Bedding is not the same size as in the UK!  So our duvet covers and sheets are not very useful!

(you can read the full post here)

I am sure some of these points will resonate with some of you. I am also sure that they will be totally irrelevant to others. Here in South Africa, I wish we had known how hard it would be to get buy good quality children’s shoes and clothes. I also wish I had known how cheap everything would be. There are a lot of things we should have just waited to buy until we got here. On the other hand, I wish we HADN’T been told to bring lots of sun tan cream. The shops here are full of it (although to be fair, fuller now that it is summer than when we first arrived in August and really needed it…).

As it is important to try and get location-specific information before you move somewhere, I always recommend trying to find a local blogger in similar circumstances to yourself (eg has children, doesn’t have children, is working, is the accompanying partner etc) to follow. Even better if they are a friendly type of blogger who will answer your questions. And these days, there are more and more Facebook pages set up for expats in foreign cities – here we have Trailing Spouses Johannesburg and Trailing Spouses Pretoria. These are excellent resources, and just the sort of place to ask questions like whether you can get a certain brand of tea bag in yor new country, what size sheets to bring, and whether you are likely to find a decent dentist….

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Will they have your favourite brand of tea?

But of course, however hard you try, there will always be some questions you won’t get answered before your move. It would be impossible (and actually pretty boring) to know everything about your new location before you get there. There will also be questions that you won’t even know you needed to ask before you left.

And yet, even when things are uncertain, even when there are things you wish you had known, we all cope in the end. Yes you may not be able to buy the exact brand of toothpaste that you have become used to – but there are plenty of very decent alternatives. There aren’t any great clothes shops, but there is always online shopping. Bookshops are scarce – but friends with books are aplenty. Not knowing is one of the excitements of travel, an excitement that has been all but taken away thanks to our interconnected, global world. Let’s leave a few suprises in place.

Even if it is just what size bedsheets you will need for your new home.

Are there any location-specific things you wish you had known before moving somewhere new? Or do you prefer to find out about these things when you get there?

Photo credits: Cereal – Rex Roof; tea: Sarah R

Expats, drinking and driving.

It’s that time of the year – party time. Whatever your take on Christmas and celebrating it (or not), I would say for most of us the number of social occasions rises in December. Whether it’s work parties, social occasions with friends or an evening of shopping accompanied by a glass of wine  – there is no denying that this is the month of indulgence.

However, whilst it’s all good fun and festive there is a darker side to this way of life and that is drinking and driving.

As an expat I don’t think I have ever lived somewhere where this hasn’t been an issue. Just the drinking side of things alone is a problem and really that needs a whole post to itself. But whilst we mostly damage ourselves when we simply drink too much, the real dangers of drinking and driving is what might happen to others.

Of course, drink-driving is not just an expat problem. On average, apparently, 3,000 people are killed or seriously injured as a result of drink driving in the UK each year. That’s pretty serious. But we have had some pretty good campaigns in our country over the last few years and I would say that not many people I know these days would risk driving under the influence. The law comes down pretty heavily on those that do – even if you don’t end up having an accident, if you are caught you are likely to lose your licence. Which is pretty tough on most people – many also lose their jobs because of it.

But around the world, for expats, it is often a different story. Laws might be the same but enforcement often isn’t. It may be easier to pay off the police. Or equipment such as breathilisers may not work properly or simply not exist. In the worst case scenario, you may drive with diplomatic plates as many people I know do. This does not mean you are untouchable – but police will often not bother to stop you as it is probably a lot more hassle than stopping someone on ordinary plates (I am sure this is not the case in many countries, but it certainly is in some of the ones I have lived in).

There is another side to this, which is that walking and/or public transport may not be as straightfoward for you as it might be in your home country. Even taking a cab might not feel that safe – especially after a long night out on the booze. So in the end, a lot of people do get into their car and drive home when they are quite obviously over the limit. Sometimes a long way over the limit – I remember one colleague literally passing out with his head on the steering wheel as he left a bar in one of the countries where I have been posted.

The trouble is, so many people do it that it is “normalised”. There is a bit of a feel of “what happens in Vegas…” or wherever you happen to be living – it’s accepted when you live there but not necessarily something you would do or talk about when you return to your non-expat life. It is also one of those things that creeps up on you – first of all, it’s just one drink, then two. Before you know it, you are weaving your way home after three bottles of champagne and six tequila shot chasers.

And of course the problem is that although the consequences to yourself for drinking and driving might not be the same as it would be in your home country, the worst consequences of all – eg hitting, even killing another road user – are the same whichever country you are in. Many talk themselves into it by telling themselves that they drive slower here, there are fewer road users, it’s only a short drive…But do they consider there may be fewer street lights, people are more likely to be walking in the roads, the traffic is more erratic? Probably not.

I can’t tell you what to do. I realise what the reality is – many people I know will be drinking more than the legal limit and getting into their cars over the next couple of weeks. A far higher percentage than people I know back home. And this will be replicated amongst expats all over the world. All I will say is think about it. How would you really feel if you hit someone? Probably just as bad as you would if you hit someone in your non-expat life. And if you can just hold that thought, perhaps it will be all you need to get you to call that taxi, duck out of the third round of drinks or organise a lift with a non-driver.

 

 

Supermarket hopping, talking the lingo and keeping safe

Earlier this week I shared a post about the first of two “practicalities” chapters in my book – the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the book, I look at what it is like when you first move somewhere and discuss some of the nuts and bolts of life as a new expat. Taking the points made in the book I wanted to look at my own experience of moving to South Africa – to test what I had written and check how I was doing so far. In my first post on this subject I looked at finding a home, furnishing it and getting around. In this post I move on to the second chapter on practicalities – shopping, learning the language and keeping safe.

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Shopping

It’s interesting how a supermarket, which at first glance seems stuffed to the rafters with food, can quickly start to drive you crazy trying to find exactly the right ingredients to make a carefully planned menu, or has everything you need except one, vital thing. This can lead to one common expat phenomenon: supermarket-hopping.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

This has been exactly my experience here in Pretoria. Exactly. When we first arrived here, we were overjoyed. Compared to the supermarkets in other places we have lived (notably Islamabad and St Lucia), the choices here in South Africa are phenonemal. And I still stick by this – this is a foodies heaven in many ways and we could eat our every day for a year and still not get through all the restaurants and cafes I want to visit. There are plenty of good shops too and things like meat, wine, bread, fruit and vegetables are all bountiful.

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Plenty of wine here….

But now that I am out of the early, honeymoon stage, I have found irriration starting to creep in. Yes the supermarkets are good – but they are not always reliable. And you can’t usually get everything you need for a week in one place. And some ingredients are difficult to track down altogether.

Whilst I know I will find goods galore when I visit my favourite supermarket Woolworths (which is basically Marks and Spencers), they do not always have everything I need for my planned meals. The other day, for example, they didn’t have the particular type of sausages I had scheduled to give the kids that evening. It didn’t really matter, I bought them something else – but little irritations like this add up.

I have slowly started to work out where the best place to buy different things is – Hinterland for beef, Woollies for sausages and chicken, Almas butchers for pork loin, Food Lovers Market for ready-prepared food; Macro for bulk items like dishwasher tablets. In the end, I know we can get more or less everything we need here (the list I have asked my parents to bring out with them when they visit soon is very short – Yorkshire teabags, (UK) Marmite and Oxo cubes), but shopping can be very time consuming.

However, for the meat and the wine I am very, very grateful!

(One of my roadtester for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, Lynsay, has also written on her blog about shopping in their new location in Korea. You can read her take on this important subject here)

Language

The feeling of isolation of being a new expat in a strange country can be massively increased if you can’t interact with those around you, or if you find yourself left out of conversations because they are going on in a language you don’t know.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

Boy am I lucky with this one. Everyone I have met so far here in South Africa speaks English. They might all speak about seven other languages as well, and English may not be their first language, but I have had no trouble at all being understood.

I do sometimes find it hard to know what others are saying, mind you. Firstly, I get spoken to in Afrikaans quite a lot. I was told by my English South African cousin that Afrikaans women tend to be more glamorous than their English-speaking counterparts, so perhaps the days people first try me with Afrikaans are the days when I make more of an effort. But even when people speak to me in English, I still find some of the accents very difficult to decipher.

I am getting there, but there are still many moments of “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”.

I do love all the languages here though and enjoy practising saying many of the words. Sawubona. Dumela. Molo. Unjani. And, errr, cliick! I have also found myself starting to pick up some of the South African sayings, like Just Now, and Ach, shame. Yikes!

Keeping safe

In many countries these days, you will have bars on your windows, panic rooms or parts of the houses that can be locked off from the rest, gated and guarded communities and more. This can all seem quite alarming if you’re not used to it, but it soon becomes part of life. A sad, inevitable part of life because these precautions are there as a daily reminder of how harsh life can be for many of the other residents of the city you live in.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter 5 – Practicalities part two.

Sadly, while we have had it easy with the language side of things here in South Africa, we certainly have not with the security. This country has a reputation for violent crime, and stats certainly back this up.

I have previously lived in Kingston, Jamaica, so had an idea what to expect here. Horror stories abound and these do lead to the creation of a “feeling of fear” that you have to live with, day in, day out. We sleep behind a keep in a house with grills, surrounded by electric fence, on a compound with a security guard. I have had to speak to the children about what to do if we get car-jacked; they also have “duck and cover” drills at school.

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Life behind bars.

But despite all this, you can live your life relatively normally so long as you follow basic guidelines – don’t walk anywhere at night, stay away from certain areas, keep your car doors locked at all times etc. But there is a certain tension that goes with always having to be “aware” that means it is necessary to take a break from city life as often as you can. Will I ever get used to it? Not completely. One of the things I am most looking forward to when we return to the UK on holiday is being able to open the front door and just walk.

So those are my experiences of the “practicalities” of life in South Africa, I would love to hear about yours. In future posts I will look at some of the other chapters in my book, including finding domestic staff, keeping my sanity and that huge subject: schooling.

 

Finding a house, buying a rug, and learning to drive all over again…..

A few months ago I asked some lovely expat partners to review my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide chapter by chapter as they went through their overseas move. So far posts have covered the first few chapters of the book, including preparing for the move, the actual move itself and the early days. But I have also been doing my own little road test of the book and over the course of two posts this week I look at the two chapters on Practicalities: first of all Accommodation, Furniture and Transport; and on Wednesday Shopping, Making Yourself Understood (or not) and Keeping Safe.

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Accommodation

First and foremost you need somewhere to live. At this stage, many people will be in temporary housing. Some will be in a hotel or in someone else’s house while they either look for their own home or wait for their predecessor to vacate it. Others might have moved straight into their new house and have moved on to accommodation – part 2: furnishing. But whatever your situation, and as long as you have some choice in the matter, it is very, very important to get where you are going to live as right as possible.

Extract from The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four: Practicalities Part One.

I think it goes without saying that one of the most important things to do when you move to a new country is make sure you get your home right. This isn’t always an easy task – you may have to househunt from afar; you may have no choice and already have a home assigned to you and your family; or you may not be presented with many possibilities. Over the past 15 years I have lived in four different overseas locations – and had very different experiences in each:

  • In Jamaica, I decided against moving into my predecessor’s apartment because it was quite a long way out of town and I didn’t feel safe driving there alone at night. So I was shown what seemed like dozens of unsuitable homes filled with shiny furniture until I eventually found the right one. It was relatively close to the office, on a small compound with friendly neighbours and a shared pool, and wasn’t too hideously furnished (although I did remove the zebra-print curtains)
  • In Islamabad, we were given the choice initially of living off compound in my husband’s predecessor’s house – but when the time to move got closer they had already decided they wanted to move all families on to the safety of the diplomatic compound. In the end I was pleased about this; although I am not a huge fan of living side-by-side with your colleagues (and I dislike the “British enclaves” that can be a by-product of these sorts of compounds), it was a lot easier to get to know people this way and much safer for the children.
  • In St Lucia we had to find our own house from scratch – the home that had been rented by the previous officer wasn’t suitable for a family. We took our children on the recce to look for this house and viewed countless unsuitable places. St Lucia suffered from basically being a holiday destination on a poor island – the choice was either a shack or a luxury villa. In the end we did find a beautiful home with an even more beautiful view, but it came with an insufferable housekeeper and was too far from the school/other expats. After a year we moved again, to the more popular end of the islands – where life got a lot easier for me, but my husband had a longer commute for work.
The view from our St Lucia villa#1

The beautiful view from our unsuitable home in St Lucia

  • Here in Pretoria we have moved into my husband’s predecessor’s house. We were told we wouldn’t have a choice but that it would almost certainly be this house. We did look at the one other possibility and it was fine – but this one is in a much better location and in a small, safe and friendly compound. It isn’t perfect (we have had to do battle over getting a shower fixed since we arrived) but it’s done us well and we are happy here. For once, I think we have got it right!

Furniture

Once you have found somewhere to live, you will need to think about furnishing it. You might be lucky and inherit a fully furnished, even – if you’re REALLY lucky – tastefully furnished, house or apartment that needs nothing more than your own finishing touches like pictures and perhaps new curtains. On the other hand, you might need to throw everything out and start from scratch.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four – Practicalities Part One.

We didn’t have any say over furniture really at all as the houses we move into come fully furnished. Our shipping allowance means it would be very expensive to bring over more than the odd small bookshelf or bedside table, so we have had to rely on local shops to supplement what was already in the house. And this we have had to do – the guy we took over from was a single man, who travelled a lot for work and didn’t need the same amount of stuff in his house as we did. Thus so far we have had to buy two bookshelves, a rug, two desks, two office chairs and a patio table and chair set.

Although on the surface the shops here are pretty good, what we have found is that their stockrooms are often not stocked and goods need to be sent from elsewhere. There seems to be a lot of this, waiting on shipments – particularly frustrating when you are not told when you buy something that it won’t be delievered for several weeks. I have had a few heated phone conversations about this matter!

As well as furniture we have had to work to make our house look a little less bare – there is a lot more space than our home in the UK, including some pretty huge walls to cover. Luckily this is a country where crafts are bountiful and I am slowly accumulating pretty bits and pieces to beautify the house. Heaven knows where it will all go when we return back to the UK!

Wall decorations to fill a large wall

Wall decorations to fill a large wall

 

Transport

Working out transport right from day one is one of the most important things you can do when you first arrive somewhere. Unless you’re in a relatively modern city with good transport links, or where it’s safe and easy to walk around, you really do need to think how you are going to get out and about if you don’t want to feel completely trapped.

Extract from the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, chapter four – Practicalities Part One.

I have already written a post about how my GPS became my new best friend; but I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that I drive here. There really is very little alternative – walking is only good for short distances and the public transport is not to be recommended on the whole.

Before I arrived my husband was already on the case. We had discussed cars and started to narrow down the possibilities for me (he gets a humungous Landcruiser with his job). Once I had got here, and after the first few days when he was at home and could ferry me around, we hired a small car so that I wasn’t stranded at home. It was pretty small and started off a little smelly as some water had leaked through somewhere and the carpet was a little pongy. But it got me around and for that I was happy. I will never forget my first drive here – to the local mall, with the kids in the back cheering me on. I actually managed to take a wrong turning – but then fixed it by driving around a roundabout and back again – which made me realise that actually driving in this city wasn’t going to be so difficult.

Now here I am a few months on, and we have bought a family car (decided on because the girls sat in the back and my youngest was able to see out of the window). I am driving more and more without the aid of the sat-nav and, cross fingers, so far have not had any accidents. I fear it is only a matter of time though – the driving here isn’t great and it is unusual NOT to come across at least one accident every time I go out. Some of which, sadly, have been pretty horrific – we saw our first dead body in the road on our first weekend in South Africa.

So we have passed some of the hurdles of the early days, settled into our home and worked out how to get around. Next, I look at some of the other practicalities of living in a new location abroad – finding your way round the shops, learning the language and keeping safe.

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There’s a new place for expats to chat…..

The eagle eyes amongst you may have noticed a new logo appearing on the side bar of my blog. But in case you missed it here it is:

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This is a new venture set up by the wonderful Your Expat Child website – which I know many of you use and I would encourage you to use as it is chock full of excellent information for living abroad with your child. I think Carole, who runs the site, recognised how much expertise there was amongst her readers and thought it would be a great idea to pool that expertise in one place. Hence the idea for a forum was born – where you can chat, ask questions, answer other people’s questions and generally feel that you are not alone in your new weird and wonderful expat life.

The forum is very new so it’s a little echoey at the moment. However, the more people who join the more useful it will become so I urge you to hop on over and sign up. And please share in expat groups and with others who you think would be interested. Hopefully I will see you there!

My new best friend…..

You know what it’s like when you first move somewhere. Everyone you meet is new, so you can’t be yourself. It’s all false smiles and over-enthusiasm. Or alternatively it’s feelings of panic and complete tongue tie – when everything that comes out of your mouth sounds ridiculous. Or if you are like me, a bit of both. It takes time to make proper friends, to feel comfortable enough with your new pals to be able to say nothing if you’ve got nothing to say, or to not mind if what you do say doesn’t make any sense.

But in the meantime, as you sit in this limboland alone waiting for the people you meet to become more than just aquaintances, you do need someone to talk to. Or at the very least, someone to talk to you. And this is where my new best friend comes in: my GPS.

Always ready to go....

Always ready to go….

At first, there was Sarena. Sarena was very polite and so, so helpful. Sarena always told me which lane to be in when I needed to turn. She liked to have a go at saying the road names, even if sometimes the words that came out of her were indecipherable from the actual pronounciation. She gave me lots of notice when a junction was coming up or when I needed to be aware of something about to happen (well, she wasn’t able to warn me that yet another minibus was about to cut me up – but that’s just something you have to get used to in South Africa). She even sometimes told me that there was “light traffic” on my route. And most importantly, Sarena didn’t get cross with me if I didn’t turn where she told me to, she calmly gave me an alternative route to follow. She was so much more efficient than her British cousins who just love to over-use that incedibly annoying phrase “re-calculating….re-calculating”. Not quite as annoying as “unexpected item in the bagging area” – but getting there.

So Sarena and I were getting on well. There were days when I would go hours without hearing anyone else’s voice. Sometimes I attempted to make conversation with her, but she managed to ignore me and carried on doing her job.

But one day Sarena and I fell out. I asked her to take me to Brooklyn Mall. She took me to the Pretoria Country Club. Now my geography of this city is still not brilliant (based partly on the fact that I am over-reliant on my best friend…) but I am pretty sure the Country Club is not hugging up to the Mall. Sometimes you can forgive a GPS’s mistakes when you realise that the place you are trying to get to is basically just next to the place they have taken you to. After all, satellites are a long way away – I am sure they are not always entirely accurate.

However in this case there was quite a lot of space between the two places – I mean like streets and streets, possibly even districts. She had just taken me somewhere that was totally WRONG. Was she doing it on purpose? Was she rebelling?

I forgave her this one time and we carried on as before. But then it happened again. I asked her to take me somewhere and, well, I am not quite sure what happened but we went all OVER the place. Maybe she thought I needed to go a scenic route? Maybe she was just having an off-day. I ended up coming up against road barriers on one of those guarded estates, none of which I was able to pass – and in the end just had to ignore everything she told me and actually start to read some of the road signs. Well I suppose it was a good way to begin to get my bearings!

So me and Sarena fell out – what next? I looked at the settings and with a slight pang of guilt I switched from Sarena to James. Now James is a different kettle of fish altogether to Sarena. James is a smooooth operator. He never raises his voice, his is so monosyllibic I worry sometimes that he will send me to sleep while I drive. His is also not as good as Sarena at telling me which lane to get into and doesn’t want to try and pronounce the names of the streets. Instead, we get a lot of “turn left, turn left, turn right”. I am not sure if he is scared of some of the harder words he might need to say or whether he has decided it’s easier to ignore them altogether in a country where the road names keep changing anyway.

So James has been ok so far, he hasn’t made any major mistakes. But he’s a little, well, boring. I miss Sarena and her attempts at pronouncing “AISJ” (the acronym for our children’s school) or the way she put several separate parts of a word together to make something else entirely. I feel like maybe I should give her another chance.

However, I have just had a look at my GPS and I see I have another English option – Kate. I have avoided Kate so far, with her associations with the “English rose” Kate Middleton, I have a feeling she will annoy me. But maybe I should give her a go – you never know, she might be the sensible, head-girl sort that I need.

And if Kate doesn’t work out I can always try Italian Simona, German Marie, French Agatha or “Afrikaans” (who doesn’t appear to get a name). If there’s one guranteed way to get me lost – that would be it!

Do you use a GPS? If so, do you prefer a particular voice? Have any funny GPS stories?

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Roadtesters update: early days and settling in.

If you have been following this blog you will recall that a few months ago I put a call out to expats who would volunteer to “roadtest” the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. I was lucky enough to get three volunteers, all in quite different circumstances – Erin, who had already arrived in Denmark on her first expat adventure so would look at the early chapters of the book retrospectively; Lynsay, who was about to move as a second time expat – from Dubai to South Korea; and Nichole, who was a first time expat moving with her family from Australia to the US. By clicking on the roadtesters tag at the end of this post you can follow some of their earlier exploits, but now we are at the point of discussing the early days in our new lives, the settling in period.

I may or may not get something specific from Erin, and if I do I will post a link to it. Lynsay wrote this post on Arrival and the Early Days, and I myself hope to do an update to cover the first few chapters in the coming days. But in the meantime, Nichole wrote to me from Manhattan, where she has been discovering the joys of driving in a new location, juggling looking after small children with all the practical elements of setting up a new home, and the art of “supermarket hopping”.

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Chapter Three – Arrival and Early Days

Chapter Four – Practicalities Part One – Accommodation, Furnishings, Transport

Chapter Five – Practicalities Part Two – Shopping, Making Yourself Understood (or not) and Keeping Safe

Chapter Six – Domestic Staff – Finding Them, Keeping Them and Treating Them Like Human Beings

Quite the punchy group of headings there. I particularly fancy Chapter 6 but am pleased to say that this doesn’t apply to our particular set up circumstances. I do remember discussing the difficulties of having to become used to having a cook, house keeper and nanny in your house with a friend that moved to Jordan with her young family a year or so ago. It might sound like a dream come true at face value but it would totally weird me out in reality.

We are now two months into living in the USA and, as I have been incredibly slack in my blogging, I am reflecting over this time in reference to these chapters.

Thankfully, my husband had the first couple of weeks off work when we arrived. During this time we stayed for a few nights in Manhattan and then moved out to some temporary accommodation in East Elmhurst (Queens). We imbibed in some touristy malarkey, got over our jet lag and then started looking for a permanent residence.

Clara rightly notes that,
Finding permanent accommodation is stressful, but it’s also worth getting right. And this can take time.
 

Our temporary accommodation was, on paper (and Airbnb), in a family friendly, secure area with lots of amenities close by. In reality, we did not feel comfortable here at all. Miss E couldn’t sleep because she didn’t feel safe. It’s amazing how sometimes kids have the ability to sum up a situation so easily. We didn’t feel safe here, whether it’s because we are used to our cosy, suburban Melbourne life and the culture shock of having someone sleeping in a clapped out limousine on the street 5 doors down was a little too confronting, or perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered where we were, we just needed to find our permanent place here so that we could start to feel normal again. For most of that period Miss E slept with me and my husband slept with Master P.

It was hot and humid, the cooling provided was useless, there was no TV and we had minimal things to keep the kids occupied. It was nice to be able to cook a meal but tough trying to find ‘normal’ food. It wasn’t really a place you could chill out in for the day. The need to find a house became instantly pressing as we just wanted to get the heck out of East Elmhurst as quickly as possible. 

We had hired a car for the gap before we picked up our own. Clara’s detail in Chapter 4 around driving in a different country, not only entailing the actual physical act of, but also including things like what kind of petrol you need, where to get it, what to do if you break down, where to park and getting some local landmarks down pat was brilliant. There are many things that you take for granted, especially as a seasoned driver, but doing so in a new country comes with its own challenges, not just including remembering to drive on the correct side of the road! Driving in snowy and icy conditions is going to be interesting.

At this point, we left the house in the morning and came home to sleep. And the kids had to be towed along on all of these outings as we don’t know anyone here. Kids don’t like looking at houses. Kids don’t like sitting in the social security office. Fair enough. I unashamedly upped the amount of GB on my phone and the kids pretty much had open slather when SK and I had to attend to administrative details. During this time, particularly if you have children, you really have to reassess some of the hard and fast rules that usually apply, just for a little bit of a calm.

SK going to work and us moving into a house both happened and both of these things increased the amount of boring shopping trips that I needed to drag the kids to. Finding furniture, getting utilities connected, registering for school etc, it seems never ending for a while.

Supermarket-hopping” . I’m not sure if Clara penned this phrase originally or if it’s a recognised expat phenomena but YES, I have been doing this. We have been living in our permanent house on Long Island, New York for approximately 6 weeks now and in that time I think I have visited around 8 different supermarkets and have only now developed a preference, (which my husband disagrees with). Going forward, I believe we will be working on a two-supermarket-preferred basis and throwing in a farmers market when we can. The agent that we rented our house through provided us with a list of her local personal favourites and this has been quite invaluable, although we disagree on supermarkets. Take advice where you can get it, you have to start somewhere after all!

I find that even though we have moved from one English speaking country to another, there are still many times where I am not understood or there are completely different words for the same thing. Many of Clara’s anecdotes deal with the more obvious language issues when your first language is generally not used in your new environment which I am so glad that I did not have to go through. My issues are generally quite amusing. For example, I asked a store worker where the ‘rakes’ were. After saying it three times he asked me ‘what do you want to do with it?’. When he realised what I meant he repeated ‘rake’ back to me and I swear it sounded exactly the same as the way that I had pronounced it! And my old favourite, don’t ask for lemonade in the US unless you want something that resembles lemon cordial. You have to ask for Sprite or 7Up.

Until next time

Nichole x

Thanks Nichole – it’s great to hear the book has been coming in useful. If anyone else has read the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide and found my advice to be helpful please come and tell me – and spread the word with others in the same situation!

Photo courtesy of Rachel at https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelpasch/

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We the 1950’s (expat) housewives….

While I am certainly enjoying my new life here in South Africa in the main, there are days when I feel like throwing in the proverbial towel and jumping on the first plane home. These are the days that I spend at home….waiting for the plumber, the electrician, the cushion cover man…the days when I feel that my entire role in life now is to be in the house just in case someone turns up….the days when I feel like a 1950’s housewife, trapped in my gilded cage.

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Luckily, unlike the ACTUAL 1950’s, we now have the Internet. So thanks to the power of technology I know I am not alone with these feelings. I put something on my Facebook page the other day about how boring the expat life of an expat wife can be and within minutes I was garnering sympathy from near and far. It’s hard to moan too much because basically we know how lucky we are. But when the highlight of your day is your husband buying you a new Swiffer mop (you know who you are!) then you know something isn’t entirely right.

While being at home far more than we’d like to be is one thing that unites us, the other is that many (most? all?) of us actually had a decent job, career even, and, you know, one of those brain things before we left our homeland behind in order to follow our dear partner abroad. Of course many of us even brought that brain along too and occasionaly get the chance to use it. But in many cases we’ve had to pack it away in an attic somewhere, with the winter coats and the thick British-winter duvets. We take it out from time to time to look at but who needs a brain when all you do all day is sit around waiting for a plumber?

I exaggerate of course (and don’t forget I do actually have a part-time job) but there is a point here. Living abroad without your normal support networks can make life pretty tricky if one of you isn’t in a position to be at home for quite a lot of the time. Not to mention someone to visit at least three different supermarkets to pick up enough groceries for one meal, queue up in five separate queues just to get your phone reconnected and still be around to ferry the children to their after school activities. I don’t know how dual-working families do it. Oh yes I do, it’s called a full-time nanny (at least here in South Africa).

I realise that I speak from a position of enormous privilege. Just the fact that I don’t HAVE to work puts me in a luckier position than most. But this doesn’t make it easier when I feel like I’ve slipped back 65 years in time, to an era where it was the norm for the female half of the partnership to spend her time “home making” while her husband took off to the exciting world of work every day. There are a number of us out there, many with professional qualifications (I’ve recently met doctors, lawyers, teachers and more – few of whom have been able to find paid work here). Some of us have chosen this route, some haven’t. For most it is something in between – this was the best solution for the family as a whole and while we may have wished for more in an ideal world, we know we are not living in an ideal world. But for all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, the frustration is real.

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Added to the feeling of being tied to the house is the frustration that to all intents and purposes you are only allowed in this country because you are with someone else, and that your life is basically at the whim of that someone else’s career. As it’s common to need to go through your partner’s office for even the simplist of requests for the house or even for healthcare, it isn’t suprising that you rapidly start to lose sight of yourself as an independent person. I have already touched on feeling like a hopeless child in the early days of arrival in a new country in an earlier post. Although this does get a lot easier once you have a car, bank card and know your way around a bit, it is still easy to end up feeling like the lesser person in the partnership.

There isn’t really a solution to this, except to know that if you too are feeling like a 1950’s housewife, trapped in your home while yet another utlity person may or may not arrive at some point in the day, know that you are not alone. In fact, if it really starts to get to you why not embrace it completely? Slip on those fluffy mules, tie up your pinny….and pour yourself a nice big G&T.

NOTE: Please be assured that I don’t feel like this every day – which I am sure is true of most of my fellow “expat wives”. I am managing to get out and about and making a life for myself here. Nevertheless, thanks to the peculiarities of this life, there are still days when all my intentions to return to 2015 are still thwarted by the message that the plumber is due that day……..

Do you feel like you’re stuck in another era? Are you turning into a 1950’s housewife – or even househusband? Come share your stories and sympathise!

Photo credit: woman in kitchen – Ethan.

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Why do we have so much STUFF?

So yesterday our shipment came, aka heavy baggage. For the non-expats among you, this is always a major moment in the life of the newly-moved abroad: your stuff is here at last.

But oh my! Why oh why do we have so much of it?

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Where does it all come from? And where is it all going to go???

As box after box was unloaded and distributed around the house by a small army of Pickfords men, I kept wondering what on earth was in them all. We have been living fairly happily for the last two months out of a few suitcases plus a couple of boxes of “float” (eg crockery and cutlery, linen, a tv etc) from the office. Ok, the house looked a little bare and yes the children did complain from time to time that they didn’t have any toys – but still, we survived just fine.

So why do we have so much STUFF?

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Man with a van…this was only half of our boxes – there was a larger lorry outside the gates of the compound…

Do I really need this many clothes, many of which I haven’t worn in years? And shoes that have sat in my cupboard forlornly since we left St Lucia more than four years ago? Do we really need all those books (ok, maybe yes to the books!), the toys that haven’t been played with in a while, the thirty-eight different shopping bags?

The thing that really got me though was the kitchen goods. HOW many glasses? And mugs….four cafetieres, although only two with glass still intact; cups and bowls and cocktail twirlers; old crockery, new crockery, chopsticks still in their original wrapping from when I bought them in Cambodia; fish-shaped placemats from St Lucia, a beautiful tablecloth with a less-beautiful stain from Pakistan….We thought we had got rid of most of this back home – we seemed to do trip after trip to the second hand shops and the tip. But look at all of this!

I think the reason we have so much STUFF is because much of it is memories that we fear throwing away. We seem to have thousands of glasses – but so many of them are engraved with a particular event that brings back thoughts of a particular night. A disproportionate amount of which seem to be either Oktoberfests or Marine Balls….

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A few of our glasses…

But I know we have to do something about this mountain of STUFF. I found it particularly difficult watching all our goods be unpacked from their boxes yesterday knowing that the people doing the unpacking (the Pickfords Army, plus our helper Sana) probably own less than about a fiftieth of what they were unpacking. Forefront of my mind, just like many in the world at the moment, is the Syrian refugees, arriving in their new homes with not much more than what they can carry to their names. And living here in South Africa, you see terrible poverty all around you on a daily basis. All of this just rubs in how rife consumerism has become in the “west” – and I know I buy a lot less than many people (for one, I hate buying shoes!).

Luckily, living as we do in a country like South Africa, there is always someone who will take some of your unwanted STUFF. Yesterday we passed a frying pan, a couple of chopping boards, some children’s lunch bags and a whole pile of coat hangers to Sana. I later put aside a bag of clothes for her granddaughter, unworn and unwanted by my fussy youngest – who, at the moment, will only wear playsuits (this is an ongoing minor crisis in this family at the moment – we are now down to three said playsuits….).

I am sure that over the next couple of years we will continue to find homes for our unwanted goods. At least here I  I can feel like we are not being wasteful, but rather starting a cycle of life for our stuff that shouldn’t finish when we (spoiled as we are) have had enough of them. But in the meantime, I am now embarrassed all over again as three plumbers have just turned up at the house and I have had to apologise for all the cr**p strewn all over my daughter’s floor. Ah, first-world problems!

Do you think you have too much STUFF? What do you do when you move – take it with you or have a good clear-out?

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