“We’re moving again,” I told my dentist this morning, as he stood over me wielding one of those funny little sticks with mirrors on the end they seem so keen on. “South Africa, in the summer”.
He grinned at me as he moved the stick closer towards me now gaping mouth. “Lovely,” he said. “Bet you can’t wait.”
“I need to make an appointment for the children, because we’re going overseas,” I said to the receptionist as I paid my eye-wateringly high bill for approximately ten minutes of mirrored-stick wielding.
“How wonderful!” she said. “What an adventure that will be”.“We don’t need to worry about taking up the flooring just yet as we’re moving to South Africa in the summer,” I explained to the builder and his mate as I handed out their teas.
“Nice,” he said. “Hot,” added the mate.
He might have meant the tea, or he might have meant the South African weather. Or it might just have been one of those things people-slightly-younger-than-me say these days, like “sick” or “fetch”. But whichever it is, the intention was clear, from him and from all the others to whom I’ve mentioned our up-coming posting recently. “Aren’t you lucky.” “That sounds amazing”. “Wow, I wish it were me”.
Well, yes, to some extent. I understand all of these reactions and when they are said to me I do feel lucky. Without a doubt I am looking forward to moving overseas again, especially to a country with the potential for so many fantastic adventures (safari, diving, horse-riding, mountains, beaches…) as South Africa.
But none of those envious people know what I do. None of them know how much work there is to do between now and then. How many arguments I am likely to have with my husband, and how often I am going to lie awake at night, fretting over when we’re going to get the house re-painted, how we’re going to fit the packers in around the end of term, where we’re going to stay after our worldly goods leave this country and how the hell we’re going to sell the car. And none of them know how hard the first few months are going to be.
I’ve moved before, many times. This will be our third overseas move as a family, and the children are a lot older than the last two times we’ve taken them to live abroad. But in some ways the fact that I have done it before doesn’t make it any easier, because this time I know what’s coming.
The first time I went overseas as an expat partner, I had a seven-month-old baby and a toddler. I can’t remember much about the build-up to the move because I had so much on my hands looking after the children that I left most of the organising to my husband. I do, however, remember that we bickered throughout the last few weeks (mostly something to do with his painting our garden fence) and that we were exhausted by the time we finally boarded the plane for the flight out there.
The second time we moved – just a year later, thanks to the unforeseen circumstances of an evacuation – I had two toddlers to deal with. Again, I can’t recall much about the actual day-to-day preparations but I do know that it was as hard as the first time. Packing, renting out the house, selling the cars, saying goodbye to all our friends and families….it all takes a toll, and again, by the time we arrived at our destination, we were both in need of a therapist. Or at least a good holiday.
But of course what we all know, and what I am acutely aware of now, as the time grows closer for our next move, is that leaving your home country is only the start of it. It’s when you arrive in your new country that things really get tough.
We were unfortunate the first time, arriving in Islamabad in the middle of the blistering summer, when all the other families had sensibly left for cooler climes and our heavy baggage, containing toys and other distractions, was still somewhere on the high seas. We were even more unfortunate when, three months later and just starting to settle, we had to leave after the Mariott bombing of 2008.
You would have thought we would have learned our lesson as we planned our replacement posting, to the “idyllic” island of St Lucia. But once again we arrived in the summer holidays – the hottest time of year, with empty weeks gaping ahead of us before the start of the (pre)-school term. Whereas in Pakistan we had at least had someone to look after us (the British High Commission’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO) – a fantastic invention which should be replicated everywhere), this time we were on our own. The office in Castries was too small for any kind of family liaison role, so it was up to me to find my way around, work out where the supermarkets were, which shop sold what, how to get a costume made for my daughter’s dress-up day at school, where we could book swimming lessons….
Of course in the end, we all manage, don’t we? Eventually, I know we’ll get the house painted, sell the cars, get everything packed up, find a place to move to for the last few days, then arrive in our new life, work out the morning routines, brave the roads, find friends….I know in the end it’ll be fine, and there will come a day when I can finally say yes, now I’m at the stage that everyone thinks about when they tell me how lucky I am to be moving here.
But when that stage is still at least a year away, all I can think about is how much I have to get through before I can get there.
Great opportunity? Yes. But there’s a long hill to climb first.
Born an expat, in Cuba to British diplomat parents, Clara Wiggins has travelled all her life, and has lived in 11 countries on 5 different continents. She and her family are currently preparing for another overseas move, to South Africa. Clara has used her extensive experience of living overseas, as a child, as a diplomat and as an accompanying spouse, to write a book The Expat Partner's Survival Guide (due out Spring 2015). You can find out more about the book and read her blog at expatpartnersurvival.