First time expat? Read this.

Bet you’re halfway between elated and exhausted, right about now. You’ve probably done your goodbye party weeks ago; the house is packed up, you’ve shipped your stuff. The kids are enrolled into school, your husband’s been gone for weeks and you’re just about to get on the plane and leave absolutely everything behind. You might have even already arrived. You’re nervous, excited, sad and happy all in one go; you’re hoping the kids settle in quickly and that you can still get PG Tips and Marmite from somewhere and you’ve already given everyone your Christmas dates so they know you’re coming back for regular visits, just like you promised you would. You’ve spent the last three weeks feeling like you’re treading water – like you’ve said goodbye about 10,000 times. You know it’s not forever. It feels like forever. You can’t wait to go but you don’t want to.

You’re nearly there. Or you’ve just arrived. Welcome to being an expat. A thousand experiences and challenges await. But something’s already happened: you’ve changed. Life has changed you. You’ve taken a step away from everything familiar and put adventure at the top of the list of things to do. Here’s my list for you to mull over, in the coming days, weeks and months: Ten thoughts on moving and living abroad.

1. No matter what you think life will be like, it will be different. You will be different. You can try and stay the same, try to squeeze the shape of your old life into the new one. But  you will not return the same person, if indeed you return at all.

2. You’ll find yourself high on the experience one moment and crashing down the next, and you won’t be able to predict when or how or what will set you off. It’s not you: it’s culture shock. Even a culture that seems to be familiar, is still different. You’ll experience it a lot for about six months, and then it will ease off. But it won’t ever go away completely, even if your stay stretches into years. Ride the wave, accept that there will be times where you really don’t know what the hell you are doing here, and then move on as quickly as possible.

3. There will come a point when you have to get in a car, or on a train, or a bus and just get lost. Do it the first few days, to get it over with. After you’ve sat crying because you can’t understand anything and you don’t know where you are, know that it will be easier the next time.

4. Talk to people. People in coffee shops, people in the queue at the supermarket, people at school drop off. Everyone is in the same boat as you – bar none. Even seasoned expats need new friends to replace the old ones who left, so don’t be put off by their tenure. The longer you remain alone, the more alone you will be. So put yourself out there, find a club, or a group, or join the PTA. Don’t wait ‘until we’re settled in’ to do this. You won’t settle in until you have friends and in the absence of family, you’ll need them. Go get them. NOW.

5. If you are a trailing spouse, and you even think for a millisecond that you want to continue working while you are abroad, prepare for the fact that it might be a lot harder than it would be at home; because of visa issues, or lack of appropriate childcare, or because the job you do at home doesn’t exist where you are going. If it’s hard to find a job that fits, keep searching, and networking, until you find the solution. Make it work. Don’t be lulled into an expat lifestyle you didn’t want because it’s easier. If work is an important part of your self identity at home, consider the impact not working will have on you, and act on that before everyone gets too comfortable.

6. You will feel very lost, for a while. Not just in the streets, but as a person. Your identity, your life as you knew it, has just been ripped out from under your feet. It takes time to build yourself up again. Don’t feel a pressure to be ‘normal’ on day 1, or day 10 or even day 100. You need time to recalibrate, and you might go off in completely the wrong direction before you figure out who you are in this new world.

7. Don’t forget who you were, either. It’s okay to change but it’s not okay to pretend you’re someone you’re not. You’ll get found out eventually.

8. However easy it seems to get on a plane and go home every couple of months, try to resist the temptation, and commit to the place you have chosen to be in. Commitment will make you happier in your expat life and ironically make you less homesick than if you keep going back all the time.

9. Remember your spouse is new at all of this too, and if you have moved because of their job, the responsibility and pressure on them is IMMENSE, to make it work for everyone. Cut them some slack and make time to talk (not yell) about why life is different/difficult/depressing. Try not to blame them for your feelings (easier said than done, I know) because unless someone held you at gunpoint, it’s pretty safe to assume you had a say in this adventure too.

and finally,

10. It might not feel like it now, when you are lonely, stressed, don’t know how to get anywhere, or where to buy anything, or how to say thank you even – but this is the best adventure of your life. It will take time, oodles of it, to really appreciate this  – perhaps you won’t even realise until you’re back home again, what an amazing thing you did. But you’re doing it, and in between all the hard work, it’s going to be awesome. The very best of luck. Now get out there.

Ruby. x

 

You know you are creating an expat brat when…Part 2

I’m starting to think we may have permanently ruined our child. I’ve mentioned this before, but feel it’s prudent mention it again. He does not live a normal life, despite our best intentions. Honestly, we try to keep it real, but it’s kind of difficult when your life involves jetting across two continents at a time (and back) for the summer holidays. My son isn’t five yet and already has two separate air miles accounts with more points racked up than most people get in a lifetime. He’s living in a gold plated sandpit for three quarters of the year in near-permanent sunshine, where ‘nature’ is limited to sand, camels, scorpions, palm trees and bougainvillea flowers blowing across the fake grass.  Then we blast him through time and space to various destinations for the remainder of his year, travelling with as many upgrades as our own air miles can muster in order to make our travel experience just that little bit easier. The kid barely knows what economy class looks like and certainly has no idea that flights can sometimes last as little as two hours to get you from A to B. But it’s not all bad. He’s had some pretty cool experiences that mean expat life can and should be celebrated. Ask him about time zones and he can tell you which of his relatives is eating breakfast while he’s tucking into dinner. He hasn’t been on a pony, but he’s ridden a camel across the Liwa desert. He hasn’t been to a football match but he’s nipped to the Dubai 7s for the afternoon. And the ferris wheel in London was cool, but not as high as the Burj Khalifa.

But living a normal life? Keeping it real? WTF is normal about any of this?  NOTHING.

So I admit defeat. My son is an expat brat. Here are seven more signs for the summer vacationing expat parents out there, that you’ve probably been smoking something if you think your little darlings are growing up ‘normal’:

1. Arriving in at any airport, the first words they utter are: ‘Mummy, where’s the driver?’

2. When other kids ask where they come from, they mutter ‘America, England AND Dubai’ in a sort of reluctant mid-atlantic accent which leaves the other child in question a bit flummoxed and their accompanying parent rolling their eyes, as though you’ve deliberately trained them to show off about it, as oppose to encouraging them to embrace their international heritage.

3.You go to lunch with old friends at their house, and turn up in jeans and jumpers. You walk in to find their kids dressed in swimmers and galavanting in 4 inches of freezing cold paddling pool. Instead of begging to join in, your child takes one look at the grass and dirt infested ice water and scarpers inside to play in the warm.

4. When you mention, six weeks into the summer trip, that they need a haircut (again), they say: ‘But Mummy, I had a haircut two places ago.’

5. Long sleeves are such a novelty your child insists on wearing jumpers all the time, even when the temperature hits a reasonably warm 24 degrees. You acknowledge, however, that they may actually still be cold in the shade, and don’t bother to argue about taking it off.

6. They collect stones off of people’s driveways, presenting them to you as ‘special gifts’. Twigs, seaweed and flower petals hold similar fascination as unique aspects of nature they don’t see at home which are expected to be kept and transported back without being detained at customs. In fact, everything is exciting. This is because the average 5 year old expat has spent approximately 80% of his or her life living away from the things the rest of us take/took for granted. This includes letter boxes, policemen on the beat, rain, cbeebies, flowers that smell, and trains.

7. They know the airport drill better than most grown adults: ‘Are we at Heathrow Mummy? After we’ve checked in, and gone through security, can we go to Giraffe for pancakes?’

And I say ‘Of course we can, my lovely little world traveller.’ And then I realise all over again, that although his normal is not my normal, and my normal is not very normal either, however not-normal it may be, we are just plum lucky to be doing what we do.

 

On the road…again…

It’s a funny thing, this expat life. We are 4 weeks into our world tour and have just under 3 weeks to go, now (mainly) staying put in the same beds, and although I’m happy to be here, and the sun is shining, and my little boy is content, I’m a teeny, tiny bit homesick. For Dubai. Ironic? Rather. Here, in no particular order, is why:

1. I miss routine. School, work, social: I miss it all, for a variety of reasons but mainly because routine gives purpose and order and a kind of contentedness to life you don’t seem to get from living out of a suitcase for 2 months

2. I miss my quiet time. The bit where I come home from drop off, put the kettle on, and go upstairs to write for two glorious, uninterrupted hours. Or sit watching TV with a glass of wine when I’m home alone and the boy is in bed. It is a serious situation. I’ve even taken to doing the ironing just so I can get half an hour of time to tune out.

3. I miss my friends. I haven’t spoken to an actual peer, i.e. a person who shares my day to day existence for a month  except via the odd Facebook comment. It’s tough, not talking to the people you usually share the minutiae of life with. They are either sighing with relief or miss me too. (It’s debatable which).

4. I miss my bed. My glorious, comfortable bed. My bed in my bedroom, with my bathroom, and my wardrobe with all my stuff in it, with floors that don’t creak and walls that block out anything quieter than a fighter jet and air conditioning and occasionally containing a husband.

5. I miss exercise. Not that I ever do a lot of it, but I miss the idea that I could just pop to the gym whenever I wanted. I seem to lurch from one mealtime to the next while we’re away, so much so that I’m starting to feel absolutely sick of food. And as a result of relying on eating to fill my days, the relatively svelte bikini body I’d accidentally acquired due to stress appears to be disappearing amongst lunchtimes out, afternoon ice cream and mid morning muffins at the coffee shop as a substitute for any other kind of ‘routine’.

6. I miss pedicures. This is admittedly not going to win me any sympathy, but I would really, really like to get the dead skin filed off my feet and for someone to make my toes pretty again and give my feet a nice rub. If they could see about doing my hands and thread my eyebrows as well, that would be brilliant.

7. I miss my son. He’s here, with me, but he’s not the same little boy we have at home. He’s spent a lot of time feeling unsettled, disgruntled, and fed up with the lack of normality in his life. We expect so much of him with all this travelling and it’s really not very fair. I feel so horribly guilty for putting him through this upheaval every year. It’s the worst bit about living away.

8. I miss my kitchen. I want to flick through a recipe book, to shop and cook and serve a meal without getting halfway through and wondering if there is a can opener, or not being able to work the grill. I want to not eat lunch if I don’t feel like it, or eat 4 chocolate digestives with a cup of tea because they’re mine and I can if I want to.

9. I miss privacy. I’m surrounded at all times. I love everyone, they are my family; but I miss having precious hours of my day to sit and muse in silence in front of my computer, or to wander the shopping mall deep in my own thoughts, or sit in a car by myself singing, or not to have to put a bra on as soon as I get up in the morning for fear of running into a male relative on the stairs.

10. I miss myself. I’m on the road. I have no time to write, no chance of getting on stage and worst of all, I left my hairdryer in Dubai. I love seeing everyone, but I don’t feel truly like ‘me’ while I’m away from my home. Ironically this is exactly how I will feel all over again when I leave the UK and return to Dubai in three weeks.

And let’s be honest: I’ve got all year to enjoy my life in Dubai, but only a few weeks to make the most of this one. As a result, I’m enjoying every second of being home, before I go back there. I hope you are all having a great summer too.

Ruby x

On grief and goodbyes

I often feel like I’m not an expert when it comes to being an expat; there are so many other people out there who have been away longer, been to more places, had more difficult lives in incredibly challenging countries. But lately, involuntarily, I have become an expert on losing loved ones and coping with it away from home. (more…)

And they all lived happily expat after

Once upon a time, there was a Prince who came from a far off land, and married a girl from Essex. The Prince and Princess hung out in London for a while but soon they became tempted by the treasure-laden lands of the Middle East, and decided to move there for a couple of years. Two years turned to five, and a young Prince was born to them, who turned out to be smart and funny and handsome and not at all bothered about living in England. So although the Princess still yearned to go home, in time she learned to accept her new life, and filled her palace with gold shoes and Jo Malone candles and other fineries as her Prince permitted (and several he probably didn’t).

After eight years, the Prince was declared King of the Middle East (Office) and the Princess realised it might be a while more before she got to go home. She didn’t really mind; she had built a very happy life for herself by now, and had a career she loved, and a hobby, and some dear friends, and the little Prince was doing very well at school. So she resigned herself to another sweltering summer and began arranging for her annual trip to the old Kingdoms to see her friends and family.

Except this year, something was different. She had suffered terrible losses to her family, and many old faces would not be there on her return. Many of her friends who she had so diligently missed all year were not around, due to the fact that all the children were now of school age and everyone was decamping to Spain or France or Italy for the holidays. Everyone was busy and she felt as though she had somehow made a big mistake, staying away for so long, and that people were beginning to forget her. All the old feelings of loneliness and abandonment came flooding back and she wondered if she would ever feel happy again.

Then she remembered what an amazing life she had lived all those years in between, and that her old friends wouldn’t forget her just because they were all busy with their children right now, just as she hadn’t forgotten them because she was busy with her life too. And she gazed out from the turret of her castle at the city she was growing older in, and realised that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, as long as you choose one of them to live in, and stick to it, but remember to love everyone still, and miss them just the same. She paused for a moment, and decided she was fine with all of it, and would simply enjoy the summer exactly as it happened, without worrying to much about the future, as it had tended to look after her and the King and the little Prince pretty well so far.

And so, they all lived happily expat after.

New Girl in a Small World

I’m standing like the proverbial spare one at a wedding, clutching my iphone and gazing intently at the screen to hide the fact that I’m feeling just a little bit redundant and a tad insecure. People chat all around me, clutching babies and laughing and asking how the holidays went. Yep, it’s my son’s first week at a new school, and I’m back to a social square one. I don’t know the system, I don’t know the teachers, I don’t know anyone. And it’s a parent assembly today, so everyone is gathered in the foyer waiting to be allowed in to see their little ones show off their Easter hats and wondering if they did a good enough job with the eggs and straw and feather boas. (They did, by the way. I think I’m going to have to raise my game in the creative mum department). I hover near the mum I met briefly at drop off yesterday, who’s chatting to a larger group; I keep hoping she’ll notice me as I don’t really feel brave enough to just go and stand with them. I give myself a mental slap. Seriously. I’m nearly 40 years old, I’ve lived here for eight years, I go onstage every other week in front of complete strangers and I’m still as bad at making friends as ever.

But I’m saved from having to chastise myself any further because – magically – she does notice me, and introduces me to the crowd standing around. I instantly forget everyone’s names, except all the dads appear to be called Ian which is a result. But I warm to all of them and the tiniest bit of confidence begins to flow through me. I chat, briefly, and we establish who belongs to which child, before we are ushered into the hall for assembly. I sit next to one of the women, and we start to ask the usual questions. Our conversation feels strangely comfortable for two women who’ve never met before. ‘Where are you from in the UK?’ I ask. Turns out her hometown is about 20 miles from mine. Honestly, you can take the girl out of Essex, but you’ll always know when you meet one. It’s a humour thing, I think. Well I hope it is, because I’m just about to crack a joke. ‘You don’t sound like you come from Essex,’ I say. ‘Neither do you’ she replies and we smile. I suggest we can both relax and ‘get our Basildon on’ and she laughs, and suddenly – just like that – I’m not alone anymore.

Being at a new school is good for me – it makes me feel like I just arrived in Dubai all over again and reminds me to be a better, kinder person to the ones who are really new to the whole expat business. I might feel lonely for twenty minutes of a new school run but the rest of the day is filled with calls, emails and meetings with the friends I’ve made over the years here. I remember when the school run was the only part of the day I spoke with anyone, and how important it was. And it still is. I’m excited to add to my circle of friends at a time of year when traditionally I’m saying goodbye to them, excited to fill a bit more of my life with new company, to get to know them and become friends. I just hope my little boy settles in too, and isn’t left standing too long in the metaphorical foyer either, before someone helps him find his feet. But something tells me he’ll be just fine.

 

Celebrating the expat brat

Annabel Kantarina, writer and fellow expat, wrote a post this week about the demise of the Expat Brat. Whilst I’m not inclined to believe it’s the last we’ve seen of the spoilt rich kid abroad, I do think it’s probably not as relevant a ‘label’ as it once might have been. Not meaning to start a war here, but let’s face it, there’s plenty of kids who live in their home countries who are spoilt rotten, plenty who have no manners and can’t seem to behave themselves if their life depended on it, and plenty who are lazy and let everyone around them do everything for them. I know, because they come here on holiday. So I agree that it’s grossly unfair to tar all our third culture kids with the same brush, and hats off to Bellakay for championing their cause.

As coincidence would have it, I’d actually been thinking this week, about how totally cool it must be to grow up in Dubai. We’ve just got back from a few days in the desert, and my son hasn’t stopped talking about how much he loved it. And he really did have a blast, discovering new things about his environment and himself and filling every bodily crevice with sand in the process. Despite my continual misgivings that he is ‘missing out’ it occurred to me this week just how much he would have missed by growing up in Surrey instead. Our expat brats might miss the leaves falling, have no idea how to put gloves on, and have an unnerving tendency to ask ‘is it real?’ about every animal they come across, but they have another host of experiences notched up that most ‘stay at home’ children can only ever read about in books. So here are my reasons to celebrate being an ‘expat brat’ in Dubai:

– You get to run up around the dunes or dance in the waves every weekend and picnic on the sand in either place while you watch the sun go down.

– You can eat your lunch and watch the fountains go off next to the tallest building in the world.

– You can have your lunch inside the tallest building in the world.

– You’ve been up the top of the tallest building in the world. Twice. Aged four.

– The sun always shines. Yes, it might get hot (gross understatement) but everyday, for months, you know you can make plans for the park/pool/play date and pretty much rely on the weather being perfect.

– When it does rain, it’s magical: a day off school in case a lethal puddle engulfs the 4×4, and as exciting as snow. And snow – well snow is just THE BEST THING EVER because it is only ever accompanied by grandparents and presents, or it means you’re about to hit the toboggan run in Ski Dubai.

– By aged five you can pack your own suitcase for a six week holiday taking into account travelling to three countries with three different weather patterns, and you are able to negotiate airport security and long haul flights with expertise and finesse usually reserved for fifty year old travelling salesmen.

– Being different is your norm.You have friends from 15 different countries speaking 15 different languages and you will grow up never knowing what it’s like to only know people who come from the same place as you, or who all dress the same as you, or who all look and sound the same as you.

– You have no idea what a sheep looks like in real life but you’ve ridden a camel.

– You’ve been to Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand and Oman and seen temples, beaches and ways of life you would normally have to wait until a gap year to experience. Plus you stayed in a nice hotel instead of a dingy hostel (you’re welcome) and the only thing in your backpack was a set of felt tip pens and a Leap pad.

– You accept change as easily as ice cream, and adapt to it faster than a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust.

And finally

– You think all this is normal, which means on trips home when you’re collecting conkers or climbing trees or staying at Nanna’s house it’s special and exciting but at the same time, feels like slipping on an old familiar pair of shoes.

The best of both worlds, our kids live a special life that we can barely imagine having as a child, one that is certainly privileged, but doesn’t have to mean spoilt. And for the most part, I think we all do our best to make sure it’s as kept as down to earth as it can possibly be, when, let’s face it, it’s pretty surreal to us parents a lot of the time. But, in 2014, if this is what it means to be one: all hail the expat brat.