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

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

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

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

I know the people, I know the humour. There is no other country that does better television. We have our radio and our music. Our culture and our history. The NHS. Marks and Spencers. Cheese rolling and Morris dancing. We have the diversity of Birmingham. We have the beauty of the Cotswolds. In my opinion, having travelled and lived in all four corners of the globe, there is no better country in the world.

The view from our kitchen window

The view from our kitchen window back “home”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot and sweaty smallest daughter in St Lucia

Hot and sweaty smallest daughter in St Lucia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has it been for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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