Finding your feet

So, you get off the plane, all excited (but just a little apprehensive), jump in a taxi and head to your temporary accommodation, eagerly taking in the sights on the way. Forgetting their jetlag, the kids run around the apartment like dogs off a leash and you smile indulgently as you think “this has gone well” –  until one of them says, “I’m hungry!” And you’ve run out of snacks. Reality kicks in – you need a supermarket.  But where is it…and is it open?

No matter how much you research the place that you’re moving to, the simplest tasks can be monumental in size when you actually have to tackle them.

When we first moved to The Hague, the local supermarkets didn’t open on Sundays. In fact, virtually nothing opened on Sundays apart from churches, so finding bread and milk became a bit of a challenge. As for Mondays – shops opened at lunchtime and closed promptly at 5.30, so forget the jetlag – you had to get out and get shopping – once you’d discovered where the shops were. (By the way, bring your own bags – a requirement we weren’t aware of during the first expedition, but applaud!)

So, once you’ve figured out how to feed the family for the next 24 hours, what next? The relocation companies will only take you so far, and establishing yourself in a new community takes time. There is always a product or service you seek, but unless you connect with your community – expat or local, you’ll never be able to find it.

Fortunately with this move, I’ll be able to hit the ground running and  I’ll have support. I know what to expect and I still speak Australian…but at some point we’ll need to find a doctor, dentist, hairdresser – the list goes on.

Deep down, I’m an introvert and loathe asking for help, but over the years I’ve had to overcome my fears and speak up.

So, when I’m at the school meeting the principal or having coffee at our nearest cafe (there’ll be one close by, won’t there…?), I’ll happily ask where’s the best place for a haircut or if they trust the local mechanic. Most people are happy to help and a few minutes of conversation can save a lot of wasted time and effort!

The trailing spouse – what’s next for them?

The year we left Australia, I was one subject away from finishing a Professional Writing and Editing course. Everything was working out perfectly – final assignments due in October – around the same time as the baby.  I’d started to do some corporate writing for the marketing team at work – the area I wanted to move into and I was negotiating part-time employment after maternity leave. And then we found out we were moving…in the July.

No maternity leave – I resigned; no diploma – the course wasn’t offered off-campus (and now no longer exists) and the 18 month secondment somehow turned into 10 years.

Some companies understand the career sacrifice that trailing spouses make to support their partner and offer retraining programmes – I had a close friend who become a qualified yoga instructor during their two-year stint in Brunei. Unfortunately this is the exception rather than the rule and didn’t apply to us. Realistically though, as we moved on average every two-and-a-half years and acquired three kids in the process, there wasn’t much time to study or try and find a job.

We’d also made a decision that one parent would be in the country with the children at all times. My husband travelled a lot, so that was my role and that was fine. But now we’re moving home, I’m starting to think like the kids – what about me? How employable am I now? And what would I do? What roles are available for someone in my position?

Certainly my skills have changed, particularly in the areas of multi-tasking and time-management. Roomful of toddlers over for a play date? No problem! Give a talk to a class of Grade 4’s about descriptive vocabulary? Sure thing! Juggling three kids in two different schools? Just part of everyday life.

So why does the thought of a formal interview process bring me out in a cold sweat? Is it the fear of being judged and found lacking after a 10-year hiatus?

Anyway, I still have a while to ponder over the intricacies of re-entering the Australian workforce. We’ve got the move to sort out, a settling-in period to work through and another school system to navigate first. But that niggling thought still pops up with alarming regularity – once everyone’s sorted, what will I do?

Clearing the clutter

Even though it’s only been three years since our last move, we’ve accumulated a LOT of stuff. At this point, fitting everything into a 40ft shipping container will be a tight squeeze, according to the relocation agent. He delicately suggested we earmark a few (Ikea!) things to be packed into the container last,  just in case they need to be sacrificed. And he’s right – even though our apartment isn’t huge, we have quite a lot of clutter to sift through.

So we’re starting to clear out the cupboards – the part I dread almost as much as saying goodbye to my friends.  The task is a little tricky at the moment too, because the kids are on school holidays. They tend to get a little cranky when they see me heading towards the bins with their treasures in plastic bags.

First task was the arts and crafts cupboard, a mission in itself because T loves to draw and he’s getting quite good at it. And I must admit, I’m just as bad as he is at hoarding his masterpieces. But you can’t keep everything, can you? And really, will he appreciate the massive collection of scribbles and stuff I’ll dump on his doorstep when he moves out of home? Probably not, so I decided to keep only a few of the very best works. The rest I took a photo of before I filed them in the recycle bins.

The next job will be the toy cupboards. Finally I’ll start to get rid of the baby toys that still lurk in the depths of the drawers. But I’ll have to be more subtle with my approach this time and make sure they’re not around when I do it. I can imagine the conversations already…

“Don’t throw that out! It’s my favourite!”

Guiltily I’ll turn around clutching the one-armed, misshapen and slightly smelly stuffed animal they’d been fond of when they were a toddler but ditched for something newer…cleaner.

“But you haven’t clapped eyes on it since you were two!” I’ll say in protest.

“Don’t care, it’s mine,” and they’ll snatch it away and hide it somewhere safe.

All I need is peace, quiet and a few large garbage bags to help me along. But we’ve got another two weeks of holidays before they go back to school…

Wish me luck!

Playing tourist…before it’s too late!

It’s happened again – we’re getting close to the end of our time here and we still haven’t done all those things we’d planned to do. Life always gets in the way – sports, school, activities and the general day-to-day stuff that just has to be done – there never seems to be enough time, no matter how long we’ve had. But nothing like leaving things to the last minute and I am deadline driven!

So we’re starting to treat the last few months as a holiday and play tourist. It’s a great way to get the kids involved, to make sure they’ve written – and filled – their “bucket list” before we go.

Yesterday we ticked off the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay. I still can’t believe we’ve been here for so long and never stepped foot inside it before now. We seem to get to the playground and water park but never any further.

The current exhibition features characters from nursery rhymes set amongst some absolutely stunning flower displays. The kids loved it so we’ll be off to the Cloud Dome next week to check that out because we haven’t done that either…

Their list is not particularly lengthy but contains everything that’s important to them. Play dates and sleepovers feature highly as well as simple things such as cycling and dumplings from our favourite hawker stall. A trip to Chinatown for souvenir shopping seems to appear necessary as well!

From their lists I’m drawing parallels with what we can organise in Melbourne and plan to keep them busy, particularly for those first few weeks.

But for now, we’ll focus on being a tourist in Singapore and keep working on their lists. All suggestions are gratefully received!

A different view

We have a wonderful view from our apartment. Our windows face Marina Bay and the Singapore skyline is simply stunning. Different nights bring different lights, a different view.

H likes to leave the curtains open at night so she can drift off to sleep watching the lights sparkling on the water.  They soothe her, comfort her. And it’s this view she’s drawn to now, night after night as tears streak her cheeks.

“I’ll miss it,” she sobs, stabbing a finger at the view, her metaphor for everything she’s too upset to talk about.

So we sit at the window, watching the lights dancing on the water, waiting until she’s calm enough to talk.

This time she asks, “What if I don’t like it there?”  What can I say? I know all the right answers, but do I really mean them? I’m just as nervous as she is. A huge part of me just loves being an expat. I enjoy meeting people from different cultures, different countries and I wonder, will I miss that as much I crave the stability of a normal life? Will she miss that too?

That’s why we’re looking at caravans! I’m guessing we’ll all feel a bit restless for a while so when the feet get a little itchy, we can take off and explore.

So I tell her – it’s perfectly normal to feel sad, scared, anxious – and also a tiny bit excited. The range of emotions she’ll go through are enormous, and while there’s not much about the move she can change, the one thing she can control is how she views it. I know it’s not easy, I tell her, but on the down days, try and think of something about Melbourne that’ll cheer you up – cooking marshmallows on a camp fire, getting up late to go to school – and still being on time, a visit to Nanny and Pa’s.

We’ll all be feeling a bit lost as the move gets closer. So I hope she remembers that when she feels like that, to remember the lights and find a different view.

There’s always one!

Because our focus had been mainly on houses, schools and telling the kids, I’d barely told anyone about our decision to move. So, the next step was putting it out there.

“I thought this day would never come…” Poor Dad was quite emotional and Mum thought I meant we were coming home at Christmas.  And as for our friends, I was amazed and humbled by the overwhelming support and good wishes we received.

But there’s always one… “Why are you coming home so soon?” Wha-at? Ten years isn’t soon. We’d been talking about moving home for years! So what’s with the third degree?

I guess some people like to look for drama in a situation, or can’t see past the negatives to get to the positives. They’re the same type of people who question why you ever left in the first place.

Living as an expat, you learn pretty quickly that you need to surround yourself with positive people to make a go of things. Everyone has down days, days when you feel so lost and alone that you wonder why you thought a life of self-imposed exile was such a great idea. It can be very easy to spiral down towards despair. But it’s your friends – those wonderfully cheerful, like-minded souls – who snap you out of it. So when you come into contact with people who bring you down, or constantly bemoan your adopted country, you find yourself backing quickly away from them.

One thing I’ve noticed time and time again, is how my children seem to have figured this out for themselves. The kids they gravitate to seem to have the same attitude towards life as they do. I’m constantly surprised and delighted at how these little people know just how to support and comfort each other, particularly when they know when someone is about to move. These kids have a depth of understanding and empathy towards each other that seems old beyond their years.

While I fear it may not be easy for H and T to make friends initially, they know the “who” that they like. And they’ll become best friends with them, I have no doubt. They just haven’t met them yet!

Time to tell the kids…

I’m finding out that generally things don’t turn out the way you’d expect.

I was 100% sure my son (T, aged 7), wouldn’t cope at all with the idea of moving. T’s never been good with change and he gets very attached to people, and things… He won’t throw anything away – whether it’s broken or completely trashed – I’ll find it stuffed in a drawer for safekeeping. He even clung to our old fridge when it had to be replaced because he couldn’t bear to see it go. So I thought he’d be devastated when we told him he’ll be leaving all his buddies, his home and everything he knows in a few short months.

But a few days before we broke the news, he found out that one of his mates is moving to Melbourne in August. He was really upset that A was going and made up his mind then and there that “we should move too”. So when we broke the news, he was fine.

“Of course, we’re moving,” he said. “A’s moving too.” He thought for a minute. “And we’re getting a trampoline, right?” Alrighty then!

On the other hand, my daughter (H, aged 9), was almost inconsolable. Her best friend may (or may not!) be leaving in two year’s time, so that was the timeframe she had in her head. We should be staying here until her friend goes and that’s that.

“It’s not fair,” she cried, “I love my friends, my teacher…” Her words were almost verbatim from my book.

We spent a long, emotional night, talking everything through. H is a very mature little girl and she was trying really hard to be brave but she was in free-fall. So how could we give her back some control? Make her feel empowered, like she has a say in this life-changing decision? The only ace we had was the leaving date. It felt dreadful using a date as a bargaining chip but when it became her choice of a quick getaway after Term 2 or stay until the end of Term 3, she seemed a teeny bit happier.

She chose the end of Term 3 and hey, if giving her a few extra months here is what she needs to adjust, then that’s fine by me.

Because I know exactly how she feels.