Expat life, for most people, is an ever shifting quicksand of postings, emotions, schools, jobs and friends. Nothing stays the same for very long at all which means expats have to be flexible. The situation which calls for the greatest adaptability is (at least for me and all the expat friends I have) the relocation process. It is this moment that crystallises all the instability and uncertainty inherent in this lifestyle.
One of the strongest memories of my young life was saying goodbye to my father at Gatwick Airport as he flew to Nigeria to start a new chapter of our family life. It was just a few days before my 11th birthday and I remember my face was at the same level as his trench coat belt as I hugged him goodbye, I remember the feel of the material and I remember the exact spot in Gatwick North Terminal. The reason that moment of my past is so clear in my mind is because it marked the end of my childhood; of course I still lived at home in the holidays but with his going our comfortable nuclear family life came to an end.
|Moving is always unsettling
My mother, sister and I had to stay behind for a few weeks until the start of term at my new school. During that short interlude my mother not only had to deal with my emotions at leaving home, at least for term times, my sister’s emotions at moving to a new home without a key part of her family, pack the shipment and deal with an unexpected leak, discovered when the bookshelves were moved, that required all carpets, flooring and piping on the ground floor to be ripped up and replaced. It was that move that showed me, more than any other one, how adaptable expats (and trailing spouses in particular) have to be. I remain in awe of how my mother managed the situation. She might have cried tears of frustration, anger and upset but if she did it was in private, I never saw a thing. I doubt I could be so strong.
|It can take you from one extreme
Fast forward a few (well more than a few) years and I find myself in a similar situation (but without the pipes thank goodness). Mr EE is now in post in the new country, a short term visa having come through while we wait for his permanent one and resident’s permit. Until his permit comes through the children and I cannot move to the country, we cannot have our shipment sent on and the pets are mired in Malaysia. This time last year we were struggling to get a tenant in our UK property and it was vacant for use but we were in Malaysia desperate for a tenant. This year we have a tenant that we don’t want to lose so the children and I are sofa surfing around various friends and relatives. We have had a few weeks in my sister’s house, firstly for dog sitting and then she kindly let us stay on for a few weeks, until, today as it happens, the house is being packed up to move her furniture into her new marital home. We will move in with my father and step-mother for a while and take some long visits to my mother in law. Hopefully the visas will come through before we outstay our welcome. I was tempted to just get a holiday cottage somewhere but I need to be close to London in case I have to go to the embassy on short notice and rentals near London are prohibitive.
It is one of the perennial problems of expat life, unless you keep your property in the home country vacant you have no real base, no home. This is mostly fine but from time to time it can cause difficulties. We are very lucky that we have such kind family and many friends have also offered us a visit. Because our situation is so open ended we are just having to play everything by ear at the moment – adaptability has become our middle name! It has given us an opportunity to help people out, however, give family a break from dealing with the farm animals at my mother in law’s, help my sister with dog sitting and the move, do some babysitting for friends.
|Expats have to learn to carry their home with them
Master and Miss EE are pretty versatile and happy to be wherever they visit. They have the dogs, history lessons and long walks at my father’s house and cooking, tv, cows and cousins at my mother in law’s house. Mini EE finds the whole process a little more difficult. At 16 months she is too small to allow her to walk around in non child-proofed houses so she has to be penned. She has to sleep in a travel cot and get used to different rules in each spot. The children are missing a lot of school so I am having to make up lessons (they are getting a lot of history, geography and creative writing, sadly my maths skills do not extend much beyond times tables).
Now that Mr EE is in the new posting they really want to be there and experience it for themselves. Master and Miss EE want to see their school, get to know their teachers and find out if they will make friends. They also miss their father terribly. Skype connections are not stable at the moment so we are stuck with ‘just’ voice calls on What’s App for the moment. We are trying to make sure that they get a flavour for their new home without over or under promising what they will find when they get there. They too are having to learn to be adaptable expats.
So my key tips on staying adaptable over a long move or holiday 'back home':
- Have a plan but be prepared to change it.
- Don’t get angry when a situation changes, deal with the change and its consequences calmly, find out what you can and use that knowledge to alter your overall plan accordingly.
- Don’t stress about things that are out of your control, concentrate instead on what you can do (ie I can’t control when my visa will come through but I can decide what I do in the interim).
- Try to minimise 'stuff'. Of course you need clothes, toys, books etc but carting it around is stressful so try to work out what is enough and what is too much!
- Answer any questions your children have truthfully and honestly but don’t allow them to wallow in worry and stress.
- If you are staying with friends or family make sure that you build in time for personal space for all parties, living with people is stressful, particularly if you or they are used to being alone.
- Set a leaving date, or at least a date on which you will review whether or not your visit should continue. Be a gracious guest, help out with anything you can. If you are staying with a people who have a maid do remember to leave a tip when you leave.
- Don’t ask anyone for extreme favours, particularly those you would not want to do for others but be generous with the favours you offer in return.
- Read up on new destinations, teach your children some of the local language (free apps are brilliant for this) so they don’t feel too at sea when they get there. Help them do a research project on their new home.