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

Six months in to my new expat life

I’ve been in Pretoria for six months. Six months and four days, to be precise. I didn’t actually notice on the day we reached our six-month milestone – we are so busy and wrapped up in our life here, it passed me by completely. Which has to be a good thing! No-one’s first half year in a new country is all sweetness and light, and I have had my fair share of downs as well as ups. On the whole though, I think I have got off pretty lightly in the “difficult first six months” department, certainly compared to other places I have lived.

Looking back, it seems incredible that only six short months ago I felt like the helpless toddler that I described in this post – Starting expat life: feeling like a child again.

Or even the pre-teen I was when I wrote this post, three months later: How far I have come.

But am I an adult yet? Well, perhaps not quite – but I certainly feel like someone who knows their way around, is comfortable negotiating daily life here and even feels ready to give advice to newcomers. And so, to mark my six months anniversary in Pretoria, here is a list of some of the things I have learned so far from our time in South Africa:

  • You can get used to living with a high level of personal security. I don’t really think twice now about all the keys, padlocks and bolts we have to open and close to get in or out of the house. I automatically lock my car doors every time I drive anywhere. I am always aware of who is around me, and if a car is acting suspiciously on the road behind me. I never have my handbag open, I put money away when I get it out from the ATM before walking away. You do have to live in a sort of state of high alert all the time, but it doesn’t ruin your life. Having said that, one of the things I am most looking forward to when I return to the UK for a holiday is walking out of my front door at night, simply closing it behind me, and walking….
  • A GPS is a damn fine thing – it brings you freedom in a way no map can. Up until now I have eschewed these relatively new items of technology: early experiences with one back home in the UK when they were still called SatNav’s were not good: they fell off the window; you could never get a signal; they took you down ridiculously narrow roads leading nowhere. But here they have been a revelation – allowing me to go anywhere I wish, knowing that not only will “James”, “Kate” or “Sarena” get me there, but they will help guide me home too. I love my GPS so much I even wrote a whole post about it.
Always ready to go....

Always ready to go….

  • Culture shock comes in many guises. I think I have suffered more from the differences in the school community we are now part of than in the differences of South Africa itself. The school is an American international school so we are having to learn about a whole new curriculum and a whole new way of doing things. Many of the frustrations I have felt since arriving here have been directed at the school. That isn’t to say I haven’t felt culture shock in other ways and places, but perhaps this was the least expected. I’m not sure yet where I am in the culture shock “cycle” with the school but I would guess somewhere between negotiation and adjustment..
  • South African politics and race relations has to be one of the most complicated in the world. You think you know a place….and then you move there. We all followed what was going on here durning the Mandela years, followed his release from prison, the election that brought him to power….and then so many of us stopped watching. I think we thought it was all resolved and everyone would live happily ever after. Of course, something like Apartheid is going to leave a massive legacy that is going to take decades, if not centuries, to unravel. There are problems on all sides of the political spectrum and underlying everything is the question of race. Never have I felt so aware of my skin colour on an ongoing, daily basis. As an outsider it is fascinating. But for the average South African there are difficult times ahead. I hope the “rainbow” nation holds together as when it works, it truely shows the world how things can be done.
Laundry day in Soweto - the racial divide is alive and kicking in South Africa, although the antics of the ANC government mean things are not as straightforward as they seem....

Laundry day in Soweto – the racial divide is alive and kicking in South Africa, although the antics of the ANC government mean things are not as straightforward as they seem….

  • It doesn’t matter if you live in the most wonderful place in the world and go on the most incredible trips every few months – your children will still be children. They will still have tantrums even on safari. I know this from (bitter) personal experience.
  • Living without airconditioning when it is 43 degrees isn’t much fun. Again, bitter personal experience.
  • All Netflix’s are not created equal. There is Netflix UK and there is Netflix US and then there is Netflix SA. We got all excited when Netflix SA arrived and joined up to see what it was all about.  On recommendation from friends, we got stuck into Narcos – which, if you haven’t seen it, is excellent. But knowing it would come to an end pretty soon I started asking around to see what other shows people would recommend. The suggestions came in thick and fast, mostly from my friends in the UK. I got all excited, thinking that for just a fiver a month we would be able to watch all sorts of fabulous shows. Only to find out that you can’t get most of them here in South Africa. Ah well, back to the drawing board it is then (luckily the local TV service DSTV actually has some pretty good shows and we are currently getting into Billions and the second series of the Leftovers).

There are, of course, many others things I have learned since living here. I know the sound of a displaying weaver bird. I recognise when a huge black cloud means hail, and when it means just rain. I understand a bit more about what happened during the Apartheid years, and why there is a whole generation here whose education was messed up. I know which shops I need to go to for cleaning products, and which for food. I even know where to get the best type of puppy food (less than four weeks now until the puppy arrives!). However, there is – of course – still a LOT that I don’t know.  A HUGE amount. And so I start the second six months of our time here with lots of unanswered questions: why DOES the weaver bird keep destroying his beautifully crafted nest? Who WILL people be voting for in the next set of elections? Just how cold DOES it get in the winter here? How likely AM I to see whalesharks in Mozambique????

Yup, the next six months look like they are going to be as much fun as the first.

My Expat Family

Review Wednesday: Plymouth Primer and the BASED traveler website

Sometimes you come across something that is such a great idea, you can’t believe no-one has had it before. Today’s review is about one of those great ideas – a guidebook (which will hopefully become a series of books) and an accompanying website aimed purely at expats living in some of those more forgotten cities that more traditional guidebooks just don’t reach.

The BASEDtraveler website, and the “primer” books that go with it, are the brainchild of American expat Emily Stewart, who quit her well-paid sales job in Plymouth to set up her own company which provides – in her own words –  “comprehensive, amusing, and diverse information for creating the most delightful life as an expatriate living internationally in port cities, industrial hubs, academic villages, or military locations.”

plymouth primer

In other words, she’s reaching out to all those people living in the less well-known, the less-glamorous and the less-written about parts of the world but who still need to know where to find decent accommodation, how to get around their new location, what the local schools are like and where they can find a local job.

But as well as including meticulous detail about the location the book is based on (for example, in the case of the Plymouth Primer, there is information about which charity shops in the city are the best place to look for certain items of furniture and which local newspaper is best for job-hunting), Emily also outlines a huge amount of information about moving to the UK that would be useful wherever you ended up living. In fact, I would go so far as to say the book would be useful even for those of us who are natives and have lived here all our lives – how to open a bank account, what the British workplace culture is like (“Your first days in the office will likely be a whirlwind of introductions, offers of coffee, faffing about, and signing papers”) and even a useful dictionary to explain terms like “bimble” “bric-a-brac” and “pissing out”.

In her introduction, Emily calls the book a “labor of love”. I would say this was an understatement. You can see that she has poured everything into this book. Its detail is extraordinary and anyone moving to Plymouth will be extremely well prepared if they pick this up before they arrive. She also writes with a low-level sense of gentle humour, and what comes across as a genuine fondness for the place she is writing about – another plus point for anyone who might be worried about finding themselves suddenly cast adrift in one of the lesser-known cities of the world.

Accompanying the book is the BASEDtraveler website, which includes up-to-date information and reviews. This makes perfect sense as this avoids the traditional guide-book conundrum of how to write about somewhere that will probably have closed down by the time the book is published. The website also includes her personal blog and a quick-and-easy how-to list of things like how to calculate your tax benefits, how to build credit when you have none and how-to get a library card (I told you it was useful for natives as well as expats!).

At the moment, the Plymouth Primer is a proto-type and the only other book in the series is Wiesbaden in Germany, which has it’s own section of the website just like Plymouth, with more information and how-to guides (how-to have a baby in Germany, how to navigate an indoor kinderspielpark….). But Emily is on the look out for writers and contributors to help grow the company, so let her know if you think you fit the bill (eg lives somewhere slightly off the usual expat-beaten-track) and would like to get involved.

It’s a tough market out there and trying to get a book and website like this noticed in the crowded world of guidebooks is going to be tough for Emily. But if anyone deserves success, she does – she has obviously worked so hard on this book, I really hope lots and lots of people buy it. Now, I’m off to find out how to get my bus pass 🙂

Recommended for: Anyone moving to Plymouth or Wiesbaden; anyone moving to the UK or Germany; anyone interested in collaborating on a future Primer book.

To find out more about Plymouth and Wiesbaden Primers and the BASEDtraveler website, including how to buy the books, click here.

If you are interested in writing for the site or even writing your own Primer click here

EDITED TO SAY: Huge apologies but Emily has contacted me to explain that the Wiesbaden Primer isn’t actually available quite yet. However, you can still find plenty of information about the town on the website.