28 January 2016


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.

to another
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.
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Ersatz Expat

Linked as part of Seychelles Mama's monthly link up

Seychelles Mama

26 January 2016

Another New Canine Family Member

Before readers start to think we have lost our minds and added a third dog to our family the dog in question is not ours - or at least - not quite.  We love our expat pets but appreciate that following our adoption of Kismet the kitten our family is at capacity right now, particularly given that we are in the middle of a lengthy relocation and our pets are living in another country to us for the next few months.
We are missing our own girls very badly.
No the dog in question is not quite ours but a member of the extended family.  We met Archie (my sister's dog) a few weeks ago and now we have the opportunity to get to know another family pet.   My father and step mother's dog died a few months ago.  I was sorry not to have a chance to say goodbye as I had known him from the day he joined the family (indeed I saw the advert that prompted my mother to go and rescue him) and he was a good friend to Abbess before she left the UK for Kazakhstan. Still, Lewis had reached 15 or more which ranks as a spectacular age for a lurcher and he lived in the lap of luxury for the last 9 years of his life.

Adamant that they would rescue another lurcher my step mother searched the dog rescue websites and listings.  Rescuing a dog is quite hard in the UK and requires extensive home checks and questionnaires.  It was worth it, however, as the end result was that they brought another dog home.

Rufus is a young lurcher.  Nobody knows where he comes from or what his life was like before he went to the rescue centre.  He has not lived in a house before but is slowly adapting - fascinated by every little mundanity of human life (and bemused by the television).

Rufus wants to run but has to learn to walk on a lead
Of course when you have children you always wonder about how a new dog will behave with them.  We met Rufus and my father in a local woodland and took him for his first ever walk.  The children are very used to dogs and the older two remembered the instructions we had given them on meeting Perdita for the first time.  We may be a family of pet lovers but the children have always been taught to recognise a dogs 'signs' and of course the baby is never ever alone with them.  He took to them like a duck to water and sniffed their hands politely with a wagging tail.  By the end of the walk he was interacting with them like a dog who had grown up with children from puppyhood.

Everything is new!
One of the bright sides about being stuck in the UK on this extended visa wait (Mr EE is now in the new posting thank goodness) is that we get this opportunity to spend time with family both two and four legged.


20 January 2016

How We Dismantle Our Expat Life Step By Step

Expat life is a constant round of goodbyes and hellos.  We left Malaysia for the final time on 8 December and this is a post I wrote while we were in the middle of the relocation process...  Our time in Malaysia, short as it has been (18 months total), is now coming to an end.  We were very lucky to be able to live in both East and West Malaysia and really get a sense of this country and its people.  

Pantai Bungai
Goodbye Malaysia
That very piece of luck, however, meant that we were never really able to settle down in one place.  I remember the day, in Sarawak, that I finally thought ‘I have life here licked’, was the day Mr EE called me to say that his company were relocating us to Ipoh.  We knew our time in Ipoh would be short and we were expecting to move to KL in mid 2016.  While we are always happy to move at the demands of work we felt that life here was just that little bit too unsettled.  A few months ago Mr EE was invited to speak to the management of a school in another country about going over there to run it.  Neither that country nor a move were really on our agenda but we decided to look into it.  In the end the prospect of some few years stability looked attractive and we decided to take up the offer.
Of course expat life is also all about hurry up and wait and we did not get the final confirmation of timings until quite recently, schools usually want staff to start in September meaning you typically have between 6-9 months notice of a move but the new place confirmed that they want us as soon as possible, and that means going back to the UK (we were going on holiday anyway thank goodness) to sort out visa applications.  Not wanting to have to fly back for just a few short days to pack stuff up we decided to get as much of the move sorted out  as we could before we go to UK. 

So I am in those last few weeks of a posting – a limbo land where parts of life (school, work for Mr EE) continue as normal while we watch other elements of our life disintegrate around us, not yet knowing quite how they will be built up again at the other end.  I am at the stage of choosing the bedding and clothing to use based on what will be shipped and what will be packed to come with us and we are eating some bizarre combinations of food as I attempt to use up as many store cupboard goods as possible (the other night Mr EE and I ate a gourmet meal of Nutella sandwiches with Malteasers and white wine!).

Goodbye Blue Raja
The other day we sold our car; we fell in love with our comfortable if ancient Pajero nicknamed the Blue Raja (yes he is green but people who have seen the film Mystery Men will get the joke) and it was a wrench to see him go.  Not least because I now have to drive Mr EE’s company car and the final few weeks will involve juggling our very car based life around having just the one. 

I have been making arrangements for our shipment and in a few days from writing we will watch as our life gets divided down into boxes.  Master and Miss EE will have only their colouring pencils and the toys they can fit in half their hand baggage.  We will no longer have our books or DVDs (thank goodness for tablets and kindles)  and Miss EE will no longer have a bed, playpen or highchair, will have to be watched like a hawk at all times when she is not in her pushchair and will have to sleep with us (she has a tent style travel cot but, unlike her brother and sister who never invented this particular game, has been known to take it zorbing around the bedroom).   We have no float so I will have to cook on a single pan and we will eat off paper plates with plastic knives and forks and we will all sleep on a cheap pillow and with a basic fleece blanket that we can leave behind.  All the comfortable trappings of our daily life will go and we will be campers in our own home.

See you later pets

The other arrangements we have had to make are for the care and transport of the pets.  Our vet here in Ipoh has offered to keep them for us.  This is a perfect solution as they will stay in the climate they are used to right up until the move.  They will stay together and they will not be in kennels and our vet can make sure that their vaccinations (Perdie’s are due while we are away) are maintained and that Bessie who is over 100 in human years is cared for if she gets sick.  We will miss our furry family members though (I cried when I dropped them off) – life is never quite right without them and Bessie is old enough that I worry every time we leave her. 

So as I type the car, the stuff and the pets have left us and I sit in a house devoid of character and the things that make our life our life.  We will have just a few days to revisit what we enjoyed about our time here.  Eat at favourite restaurants for one last time, go on a special walk or enjoy a spectacular view for the last time.  We have to take the opportunity to fix this chapter of our lives in our minds forever, the mental photographs will have to last us a lifetime.

Goodbye - will we ever have a view like this again?
The hurry up and wait, the cycle of goodbyes and hellos are the basic facts of expat life.  This feels like the 100th time I have done it and while we want to go, we are all excited by the move and a chance to settle in one place for a few years we are all of us sitting here watching the comfortable rituals we have built up over the last 9 months slowly disintegrate before our eyes and are wondering what will replace them and when.  All we do know is that while some of the pieces will be the same, enduring through each and every move, some will be very different indeed and it is our job to make them fit together in a new design. 

So, as all expats do time and again we will raise a toast to the next step of the adventure.

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Ersatz Expat

Posted as part of the monthly #ExpatLife linky hosted by Amanda of the excellent Life with a Double Buggy.

Expat Life Linky


One of the places in the world that feels most like home to our children is their granny's (my mother in law's) house in the Durham dales.

The older bull - part of the family for many years.
She lives reasonably high up on a smallholding on which my father in law kept a herd of Dexter cattle and some sheep.  When the children were very young they used to love going to 'help' their granddad feed and water the cows and to pet his (very friendly and surprisingly gentle) bull and the little calves.  Indeed the animals were so much a part of their life that Mr EE had to tell the children bedtime stories about their 'adventures' when we were overseas.

His son, the younger bull was every bit as friendly
One of the great advantages of having the children grow up, if not around farm animals, then at least familiar with them, is that they have always been aware of the cycles of nature and the essential part of them which explains where their food comes from.  The first time they realised that the beef on their plate came from the cow they had petted on their last visit, they were a little upset but they have since learned to accept that the cows have a good and happy life and would not even have existed had they not been needed for food.  Furthermore, the efforts of the family are a critical part of supporting the animals and bringing food to the table.

The calves are tiny (Dexters are very small cows)
Sadly my father in law died some years ago but the cows have remained on the land and the children still look forward to going to see them and help their aunt (and Mr EE who takes over duties when we are staying) with the cows.  The herd will be leaving the farm soon, with the cows moving on to new owners, a real shame but a necessary move nonetheless.

Helping with the animals is a key responsibility
in summer and winter!
Animals are very important to us and, we believe, a most important part of the children's upbringing, teaching them the importance of care, stewardship, respect for the power of animals and hard work.

We are a family of many pets, and although the cows are certainly not that, they have given the children a lodestone of solidity and rootedness which many expat children find a little lacking in their lives.  In the years to come, Master and Miss EE will look back on their time on the farm with great fondness.

For more posts on expat life click on the link below.

Ersatz Expat

Posted in a link up hosted by Eco Gites of Lenault


16 January 2016

A Photo Tour Of Miri and Ipoh - Show Me Your Neighbourhood

The other year I was privileged to post a Show Your Neighbourhood article on living in Astana, the fascinating and beautiful capital of Kazakhstan.  When we left there we moved to Malaysia where we spent 18 months, 9 in Miri, Sarawak in Eastern Malaysia and 9 months in Ipoh, Perak on the Peninsula.  Both of them are fairly typical mid size towns - big enough to have everything you need but smaller than the large commercial centres of KL and Penang.  Our life in the two towns was very different but rather than do two separate posts I thought I would combine them into a single (but perhaps a little lengthy) post. 

Malaysia is, of course, a world famous tourist destination and, as a place to holiday it has it all, caves, modern metropolises, old towns, varied food and beautiful scenery.  We enjoyed all of that in our time in the country but, of course, day to day life is about so much more than and very different to a tourist experience.  With that in mind here is my ‘tour’ of day to day life in Miri and Ipoh.


Malaysia does playgrounds really well, at least for the people who can afford them.  Most neighbourhoods will have one although the quality of these varies greatly.  High end developments will have good set ups whereas children in less affluent areas have, of course far less luxurious equipment or even nothing at all.  Most larger towns will also have playgrounds in public parks that are freely accessible to all children.

Malaysian Playground
A typical playground in a high end development in Ipoh

Malaysian Playground
And in a smaller, less affluent town.
Our favourite public park was the imaginatively named Tamam Awam (Public garden) in Miri.  Set between the town and the airport this garden had an aerial walkway, a dry playground and a water playground.  Our children used to love to bring their swimming costumes and water pistols to the park and could happily play for hours, making new friends in the process.  The park was also fitted out with many barbecue spots and, on weekends, would be filled with groups of family and friends enjoying a convivial evening.

Tamam Awam Miri
Skywalk in the Miri Public Gardens

Tamam Awam Miri
Public Waterpark In Miri Park


In Miri and in Sarawak as a whole there was very little in the way of public transport other than buses.  Most people drive cars (Proton and Perodua, the two Malaysian car manufacturers having a near monopoly on the non 4x4 market) or the ubiquitous mopeds and the standards of driving are generally poor.  The city roads are well maintained but outside Miri, with the exception of the plantation roads, they become rather ramshackle and poorly maintained. The state is crossed by many rivers so boat traffic is popular.  Some of the boats are gigantic, closed and air-conditioned to give a comfortable ride.

Mopeds, Motorbikes, Perodua Myvi and Proton Saga Cars are everywhere
On the peninsula there are wider options available.  There are still local and long distance buses and a very good train service that connects the length of the country.  Driving standards are a little better and the roads are well maintained.  Malaysia has one of the best motorway systems in the world, it is tolled but the prices are not expensive, at least for expats and foreigners.  For average wage Malaysians who live in KL and need to use a minimum of two toll roads twice a day on their commute the price can become a drain.

Road in Rural Sarawak
In Sarawak anything that is not a main road is still an adventure to drive down.
River Crossing In Sarawak
Sometimes the road just...ends and you have to get a boat instead.
With so many people relying on private transport parking can become a nightmare with double parked cars being the norm in some commercial centres. 

A Typical House/Building and Streets

There is no such thing as a typical house in Malaysia.  The housing in a chic condo or high end housing development in any main town will be very different to that in the kampongs (villages).
In Sarawak the traditional house is a long-house where the whole village will live under one roof.  Traditionally made from wood and palm they are now made from concrete and tin and look rather like terraces.  In the kampongs all over Malaysia you will still see houses raised on stilts. 

Longhouse In Sarawak
A Sarawak long house - modern in build but traditional in outlook
the whole village lives under one roof.
Kampong In Sarawak
Wooden houses in kampongs are often raised on stilts
Kampong In Sarawak
Modern housing built in the interior of Sarawak
Large housing developments are now the norm in many towns, ranging from terraced one story homes to detached bungalows (while a bungalow is a single story house in the UK it is a stand-alone house of any number of floors in Malaysia).  Many of the developments are soulless and built without reference to the environmental pressures of the area, one modern development near the Miri airport seemed to flood up to knee height or more in any period of heavy rain – not ideal in a tropical country.  We lived in an independent house in a garden suburb in Miri but moved to a detached bungalow on a development in Ipoh.  We were very lucky to live in a development where a lot of attention had been paid to the communal gardens and areas and while the house was not ideal the environment, next to a lake, was stunning.

Housing In Ipoh
A typical suburban row of terraces in Ipoh

Housing In Ipoh
A development of 3 story 3 bedroom town-houses
Houses will often have large verandas where people can relax in the shade and with enough space to park the car underneath.  This has the dual advantage of keeping it out of the sun and out of the rain making it easier to load and unload.  Many Malaysian homes will have a double kitchen which can take some time for expats to adjust to.  The wet kitchen is usually outside and a connecting door will lead to the indoors, dry, kitchen.  I think the idea is to do all the messy prep and cleaning in the wet kitchen (many Malaysians buy food fresh daily) but I made sure that our houses had an integrated modern kitchen. 

Housing In Ipoh
Our development in Ipoh - a little greener than most.
More houses are being built all the time.

Schools and Nursery’s

Most towns have a profusion of ‘Tadikas’ or nursery facilities.  These cater to all groups with specialist nurseries ranging from ‘Little Caliphs’ Islamic Nurseries to Chinese language nurseries or those who seek to educate in English to give children a head start in that language (one we saw claimed that it could have your child reading English confidently age 2 – I want to know how as I wish my native English speaking children could do that!).  Montessori nurseries are very popular although how true they are to the Montessori principals varies from one to another.

Tadika Malaysia
A typical nursery
Schools are housed in specially built compounds, because of the weather they tend to be in 2 or more story buildings with classrooms set along an open air corridor and set around the playing fields.  Most classrooms will have open windows along at least one wall to promote air flow.

Rural School Malaysia
Rural school
Education is a political hot potato in Malaysia at the moment.  Of course it is difficult for an expat to comment insightfully on domestic politics but my understanding is as follows.  Vernacular schools for Chinese and Indian Malaysians are guaranteed under the constitution.  These tend to be more academically rigorous than the Malay language state schools and as such the children tend to get much better exam results.  As a result there are some sections of society that wish to do away with the vernacular schools while others, of course want to keep them.  The vernacular schools are not exclusive, however, and it is not unknown for children of other ethnicities to go to, for example, to a Chinese school. 
City School 
International schools, often teaching the iGCSE and offering either A Levels or the IB are very popular with more wealthy parents as these are seen as giving a smother entry into high class universities worldwide.

Markets and Supermarkets

Many Malaysians still prefer to buy their food at the markets and a bewildering array of high quality produce is available, particularly if you go early in the morning.   In Miri where we were by to the sea the seafood was particularly fresh – being loaded into the markets straight from the boats.  Even in Ipoh which was a little way in land it was possible to get good fresh sea food.  In Ipoh we were also lucky to be close to the Cameron Highlands were a lot of temperate vegetables were grown meaning that we could purchase locally grown varieties instead of expensive imports. 

Beautiful fresh fruit from the market
Fresh fish

And ducks...
And pigs - you could make your own brawn
if you like that sort of thing!
Malaysian supermarkets, particularly on the peninsula, are excellent.  They stock a full range of fresh and dried goods and it is possible to find the ingredients to cook just about any type of meal from Indian to Mexican, Chinese to Western.  The only thing that is hard to find in Malaysia is good quality meat.  The meat that is available is very expensive and sold in small portions and the quality is dire.
Supermarkets are excellent and stock most things

I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop taster tour of what it is like to live in Miri and Ipoh.  For more posts on life in Malaysia you can click on the button below or any of the relevant ones in the side bar!

Ersatz Expat

Show me your neighbourhood around the world

Seychelles Mama