Exciting news

It’s been so long since I posted anything on here as, although I intended to carry on blogging when I moved back to the UK, it felt a bit like I was moving backwards instead of forwards to be writing about Brunei when I was setting up home elsewhere. I’m glad to be back in Scotland but still think fondly of my time as an expat and when I saw a travel writing competition run by Travelex and Penguin in January I thought I would write about an aspect of my time in Brunei. I was utterly shocked to find out that I have made the shortlist, and thought that my entry would be a good way to end my blog – at least for now. You never know what’s going to happen in the future and one day we may move abroad again, but for now I am content to live there solely in my memory.

You can see the entire shortlist for the competition at The Next Great Travel Writer 2017, and if you want to vote for my entry you can do so on Twitter using the hashtags  #NGTW and #NGTWElizabeth as well as the @TravelexUK twitter handle (any votes gratefully received!)

 

The Ultimate Tourist Experience

It’s early morning and the heat from the sun is still weak, so that it could almost be a hot summer’s day in the South of England. But here the similarity ends. Curious faces turn to look at the only white person walking uncertainly from one market stall to another and, although the stares are not unfriendly, they make me too nervous to stop and ask what these strange-looking fruits and vegetables are. I feel like the tourist I am, but can’t help gaping at the live fish and eels flapping frantically in an inch of water in a small black bucket. I wonder what will be the fate of the tiny terrapins piled five deep in a crate at the end of a trestle table selling bananas. Even the foods which should be familiar are different – the bananas are a quarter of the size of the variety I am used to and come in bunches of a preposterous size.

I am made conscious of the fact that it’s getting warmer by the trickle of sweat I feel roll down the small of my back, so I settle on a busy stall run by a Chinese lady who I overhear speaking English. I select a couple of brightly coloured plastic bags and begin to fill them: oranges, apples, tomatoes, fresh chillies, ginger… my selections get more exotic as I get into the swing of things and run out of familiar foods. I place my bags down at the base of a mountain of onions as I explore further and, picking up a large oblong-shaped fruit, I vow that I will try something new each time I visit the market. When I get ‘home’ I will Google Asian fruits and vegetables and discover that I have selected a papaya – I even find a You Tube video explaining exactly how to prepare it. Eventually I will find out from a novel that a sprinkling of lime juice will transform it into a delicacy. But in all the time I am here, I will never discover how to tell with any accuracy whether a papaya is ripe before I have cut into it – I have about a fifty percent success rate so always buy two.

Several bulging bags hang heavily from my arms, the plastic digging into my palms and leaving red imprints, but this is preferable to making the long pilgrimage back to the car before I have seen everything. Besides, my purchases make me feel like less of a tourist and more like I belong. I walk back through the corridors of laden tables with my head held a little higher and after a couple of small purchases I finally turn away from the cries of “se ringgit se ringgit”, deciding I can carry no more. I have nearly made it to the air-conditioned car, but then I see an island of stalls set apart from the rest and my newfound confidence propels forwards. I move towards the first stall, but as I do so I disturb a cloud of black flies which are crawling over every inch of the glistening fish. Repulsed, I move on but it is the same at the next stall and the next. I come to the last stall where a man is lazily waving his hand over his wares in an inefficient attempt to repel the unwanted customers. I don’t want to buy any of these tainted goods but something inside me insists that I must or I will appear foolish at having made this journey with nothing to show for it. So I point and purchase, only to throw the fish away uneaten when I get home along with the miniature bananas which are bitter and have an unpleasant aftertaste.

I learn much from my early morning visits: how to point with my thumb; cook jungle ferns; to visit the fish stalls at dawn before the flies arrive; and, although the stares will never cease, I find that they are not unfriendly, merely curious. I also learn that I will never cast off my Britishness: queueing politely where no queue exists; unable to haggle from prices already so low; nor unable to overcome my horror at rats the size of guinea pigs scaling market stalls. I embrace some of the local customs – curry for breakfast is better than any fry-up – but draw the line at durian fruit, equally put off by the worry I might like it as by its pungent perfume.

I have many adventures in this tropical paradise, and have experiences that many people would only dream of. But none of these experiences teach me as much as my visits to the market.   

A local market is the place where you can meet the real inhabitants of a country as they go about their everyday lives, and they always say that it is through the food that you really get to know a place. Here the rich and poor come together (although I discover the rich often send their amahs instead), language barriers disappear in the face of universal communication through gestures and smiles, and I feel part of something which I don’t feel anywhere else in the country. Often when I am out by myself I feel uneasy or even unwanted, but here I finally feel as though I have as much right to be here as anyone else. I belong. And, when you are living eleven thousand kilometres away from home in an alien climate, that is something special. 

 

A Long Silence…

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog, partly because moving countries is hard work and I had patchy internet connections and partly because I have been busy throwing myself into my new life back in the UK. But I still have plenty enough to talk about, so for as long as that continues I am really happy to be back here!

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Stonehaven beach on a sunny day – no sandflies!

Last weekend we finally finished unpacking our things into our rented house and, just as when we moved to Brunei and our container arrived, I feel much more settled. Thankfully our possessions didn’t take too much of a hit from their two month journey across the seas, despite the December storms which held it up this end. The flat we were put up in in the UK while we were waiting for our things was lovely but a bit claustrophobic after a month with a toddler. Still, at least it was clean and had all the utensils we needed – unlike our final apartment in Brunei which had no cups, kettle (how does a Brit survive without a cuppa?), pans… Luckily we knew what to expect from the beginning of our expat journey in the same apartment and had come prepared with many things, or else leaned on the generosity of our friends to loan us the essentials.

It feels like we have been in limbo for a long time so it’s good to finally feel settled again. I think it started when we found out we were leaving Brunei as we were only given six week’s notice that our visas wouldn’t be renewed so after that things were pretty hectic. The company organised all of the logistics but, it being Brunei, we had to chase quite a few things ourselves and of course we wanted to organise our personal effects before shipping them and sell off any items we didn’t want to transport (something which is deceptively time consuming.) The packers came a week and a half before we were due to leave and were actually very efficient – so efficient that we had no chairs or any comforts saving our beds and the kettle for our final few days in the house! Once the container drove off we had just under a week in a temporary apartment and I was glad it was for no longer! The moment our container drove off I felt like we were just waiting around until it was time for us to leave, but my husband still had his last few days at work and we did have some lovely final meals and visits with friends before we departed for good. Not to mention the lack of stress once we didn’t have to worry about what was getting packed or coming with us. The flight itself I won’t go into save for mentioning that my husband came down with bad food poisoning the morning we set off to fly halfway around the world and I swore I wasn’t going to fly anywhere that took more than a few hours for the foreseeable future! Anyway, we managed to get back however miserable the journey was.

Arriving this end was just as frantic. My son had no coat or cold weather clothes and needed a whole new wardrobe, and all of mine and my husbands warm clothes were at least four years old. For the first three weeks, until the air freight arrived with my son’s toys and all other baby equipment, we only had what we had brought with us on the plane. There was, and still is, a lot of shopping to do with a toddler who is not too happy about the idea of shopping! There were also some lovely moments – my first trip to a supermarket (and every subsequent one – wow, look at all the lovely fresh food!); spending more time outside; a visit to the gardens where my husband and I got married (now one of my son’s favourite places to go); a haircut where I came out of the hairdressers really pleased with how it looked; the joy when you exchange phone numbers and realise – I just made a friend!

For now, the lovely moments keep on coming and displace the sadness I have at leaving behind many good friends and beautiful sunshine. Next time I’ll talk about the challenge of settling in to a new place and finding friends, but for now I have to get back to the housework now I have no amah…

 

Around the World Reading Challenge: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set in Ferrara, Italy, in the period leading up to the Second World War. The Jewish narrator looks back on his fascination and relationship with the Finzi-Continis – another Jewish family, in the setting of their idyllic garden. The main part of the story is set in a relatively short space of time in which we see the effect of the introduction of the Racial Laws on the protagonist and his friends. This is set against the narrator’s love affair with Micol Finzi-Contini, during a time in their lives which should be happy and carefree but which is instead full of foreboding and the threat of war.

Micol and Alberto Finzi-Contini are of a similar age to the narrator but, due to their older brother’s death at the beginning of the novel, they are home-schooled and are seldom seen in the community apart from once a year to take their exams at the school and, by the narrator, at the synagogue. However, the narrator feels a special attachment to them:

“So far as I was personally concerned, in my relationship with Alberto and Micol there was always something more intimate.”

But, apart from a thwarted encounter with Micol, when the narrator feels he has “escaped some great danger”, it is not until they are much older that they become properly acquainted.

The majority of the novel is set in the Finzi-Continis’ garden, where the narrator becomes friends with both Micol and Alberto. He and Micol spend numerous afternoons exploring the vast gardens:

“The garden being ‘some’ ten hectares in size, and the driveways, large and small, extending over a dozen or so kilometres, a bicycle was, to say the least, indispensable.”

The garden acts as a shelter for a small group of Jews, at a time when they are losing their rights in the rest of society, and the novel provides some very poignant moments as summer comes to an end and the threat of war draws ever closer.

I found this novel quite difficult to get in to; the first section up until the point where the narrator meets Micol seemed a little slow going, although the part when he muses about what it would be like to kiss her was, I thought, one of the best lines I have read. However, I enjoyed the rest of the book and thought that the juxtaposition of the narrator’s love affair with Micol against the build up to the war was very well done. This is more of a slow, leisurely read than a page-turner but an enjoyable read all the same.

The End of a Journey

Welcome to the very last #TrailingSpouseStories blog crawl. This last time, we all give our final words about the entire trailing spouse journey. 

This past week has marked the end of my life as a trailing spouse, for now at least, as by the time this is published I will have moved back to the UK and will no longer be classified as a trailing spouse. In a way I am hugely excited about throwing off this label, despite the fact that I will be exchanging it for another one that I am not particularly fond of (a housewife)! But since I set off on my trailing spouse journey four years ago, what has changed?

In some ways, my experience as a trailing spouse has changed me completely. I feel so much more confident about moving across the world this time around, and not because I am going back ‘home’. Things that used to seem huge are no longer so daunting. As a trailing spouse you have to put yourself out there in different and challenging situations on a regular basis. Now, the idea of turning up in a new city and going to join in a club where I don’t know anyone doesn’t seem scary, whereas four years ago I would have spent ages worrying about whether the people would be friendly or if I would fit in.

Over the past year I have really enjoyed sharing stories with other trailing spouses, both in real life and online. I know it won ‘t be as easy to find a sense of community when I move back, the sort of close community spirit that exists here amongst the trailing spouses is very rare indeed. I’ve learnt how other people can surprise you with the things they are willing to do for someone they may not know that well, or how much effort friends will go to – when there are no family members nearby to offer their support, your friends often offer a lifeline. I hope that I will remember all the things that made me so happy over the past four years, and that I continue to make the effort to stay in touch with everyone who has offered their friendship and support to me. Thanks to the kindness of some friends here I will miss Brunei very much, and always look back on my time here fondly.

When I first became a trailing spouse I struggled to work out what that label actually meant. From my own experience and from reading about other trailing spouses I think I can sum it up a bit better now. A trailing spouse is not just a person who has followed their partner to a new country. A trailing spouse is resourceful, energetic, courageous, and many other things besides. They have much more to them than meets the eye, and if you spend any time talking to one you will find plenty of interesting stories. I am grateful to have had the chance to share my story and read about the journeys of others on the Trailing Spouse Blog Crawl and am sure that, although my journey as a trailing spouse may be over for now, there will be many more stories to come.

Check out other #TrailingSpouseStories in this month’s blog crawl:

Clara of The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide shares how she returns back to trailing spouse-dom in the move from the UK to South Africa.

Tala of Tala Ocampo takes a look back into finding her tribe through the year of #TrailingSpouseStories.

Didi of D for Delicious tells more about the happy ending of the trailing spouse fairy tale.

Jenny of My Mommyology describes how the roller coaster trailing spouse ride left her in a trailing spouse twilight zone.

Yuliya of Tiny Expats shares why the trailing spouse life is a challenge and why its great to share stories with fellow trailing spouses.

Liz of Secrets of a Trailing Spouse reflects as her time as a trailing spouse comes to an end.

Around the World Reading Challenge: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet has won three literary awards, and as far as I am concerned deserved every one. I loved this book – the characters, setting and story were all brought to life incredibly well, and it’s one of those rare reads where I didn’t want to finish it as I was enjoying it so much.

The novel follows two families – the Pickles and Lambs – whose fates are entwined when they move in to Cloudstreet – a large, ramshackle house in Perth:

“It was a big, sad, two-storey affair… but there was still enough white paint on the place to give it a grand air and it seemed to lord it above the other houses in the street which were modest little red brick and tin cottages.”

The house is almost a character in itself, and its inhabitants alternatively love and loath it but never manage to leave. The families themselves couldn’t be more different. The Pickles are as slovenly as the Lambs are resourceful, and Sam Pickles leaves his fortune to luck or, as he calls it, the “shifty shadow.” The Lambs are driven onwards by Oriel – a small, tough woman whom no one seems to like:

“Oriel Lamb mouthed off a lot about work and stickability until you felt like sticking a bloody bility right up her drawers.”

Both families are large, and become even bigger as the novel follows the progress of their children in to adulthood.

Although there is a narrative arc, this book is more about the characters than the story and I found the comparison to a soap opera (on the back cover) to be very apt, although I must add that it is an exquisitely written one. The Lambs’ son, Fish, has an accident at the beginning of the novel, and never recovers from it:

“It’s like Fish is stuck somewhere. Not the way all the living are stuck in time and space; he’s in another stuckness altogether. Like he’s half in and half out.”

Fish’s accident affects the whole family – from Oriel, who Fish no longer recognises, to Quick who blames himself for the accident. Plenty of other events occur, but I felt it was Fish’s story which held the narrative together.

I love magic realism, and it’s clear from the opening chapter when Sam encounters the “shifty shadow” that the novel contains elements of the fantastical. It also contains plenty of humour, such as this:

And plenty of sad moments too. I felt myself completely drawn in to these families and almost felt like I could start talking to the characters (I love the phrase “fair dinkum” but did think that “carn” was a character for a while). I cannot emphasise enough how much I enjoyed this book, and am so glad that this challenge made me step outside my usual reading habits enough to try it. If anyone has any other recommendations for Australian authors (I’ve read Peter Carey but can’t think of any others) who are as good as Tim Winton then please let me know!

Flying with a Baby

My baby boy at a year old is extremely well-travelled, for the sole reason that he is an expat. Otherwise I’m not sure I would have dared take him on a plane by now. As it was, my best friend was getting married when he was two and a half months old so we flew long-haul for seventeen hours to get the the wedding (we were also dying to introduce him to his grandparents).

Flying at three months old
Flying at three months old

Not through any conscious planning we flew with him at around three months old, six months, nine months and then a few weeks after his first birthday. Not all long-haul, but we covered some fair distance! So I thought I would share my experiences, mostly because I would have loved some reassurance before setting off on that first flight!

Firstly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. Actually, the younger you travel with a baby the easier it is in many ways. I was (and still am) breastfeeding which meant up until six months old I didn’t need to take any food for him, he had an instant source of comfort, and he had absolutely no problem with ear pain as I fed him on take off and landing (he was a lazy feeder when he was little and took his time so we managed it all the way down.) Now I take water and snacks which take a long while to eat for landing (and as entertainment on the plane), and jars of baby food for meals although on our last flight he refused all of his and wanted my plane meal! I take plenty of food in case of delays, but as they get older they can eat parts of your meal too. A feeding cover was my best baby buy, as it stops anyone getting offended and also prevents the baby from getting distracted while breastfeeding. It’s a good idea to practise with it before you fly, I hadn’t used it for ages before my last flight and my son thought it was for playing peek-a-boo! Luckily he soon remembered it’s real purpose.

Entertainment options are more limited on flights due to the amount you can reasonably take with you (on top of the spare clothes, nappies, food etc.)  Small babies need very few toys, and you can utilise things already on the plane when they get a bit bigger like the magazine and cards with what what to in an emergency. The window blind and tray table are a source of endless entertainment (but annoying) and you can walk up and down the plane looking at things (and people) for quite a while. For our last flight I bought some new, small toys and took them out at intervals – a mini wooden jigsaw (he couldn’t do it but liked playing with the pieces), some Duplo, flash cards with pictures on and some paperback books. The best option is to fly overnight with a bassinet seat, which you can also put them in when you need to eat (especially if travelling solo).  This also gives you more legroom and a little play area if you are by the window.

My last tip is to just take plenty. Changes of clothes, nappies, wetwipes… Anything you might need for your travel time, plus extra for delays. I always pack enough to get me door to door so that I don’t have to go through my  suitcase for spares when I land, though I guess this isn’t always very practical if you have more than one child! I’ve given up taking things on for myself, I haven’t watched a single film or read anything on any flight since I had my son so that saves some space and the airlines have never questioned my hand luggage when I turn up with a full changing bag plus a bag of my own. If you take your pushchair to the gate then you can balance the hand luggage on there around the airport, and we have a baby sling so that we can be hands-free any time we don’t have the pushchair. Depending on which airline you fly with, the crew are generally very helpful (though often busy), and are happy to hold the baby or fetch things down from the overhead locker if you can’t manage them. Other passengers can also be very helpful, and may even entertain your baby for a while, though be prepared for the groans of some when they realise they are sitting near you (very rude I think, given that most of the disturbances on planes come from the grown-ups).

And if all else fails, remember it is only one flight, it will eventually come to an end, and hopefully the baby will sleep before then!

I would love to hear how other people cope with flying. Does having another child change everything? Or have I just been incredibly lucky? Please let me know!

Jet lag and an update

I survived seventeen hours on three separate planes alone with a one year old without too much trouble, but it turns out that the journey wasn’t the difficult part. Jet lag has struck again, and it is a lot worse when your co-traveller doesn’t understand what on earth is going on.

We landed back in Brunei late in the evening a week last Friday, and didn’t start off too badly. I had timed the flight to land at the weekend on purpose so that my husband could do the day shift while I managed nights, but on Saturday night my toddler surprised me by sleeping through with only one brief wake-up in what was the best night’s sleep he’s had for weeks. I was so tired that I wasn’t awake much longer than he was and I woke up on Sunday morning congratulating myself that we had somehow beaten jet lag.

I should have known that there is no way you can beat jet lag!

Sunday night he finally went down at midnight and I crawled in to bed. Half an hour later he was refreshed from his nap and was up until after 4am. Monday night he did the same, only slightly earlier, and since then he has alternated late bedtimes with getting up for 2-3 hours in the middle of the night (or sometimes doing both). Last night he finally slept a decent amount and I feel like a human being again, as well as being able to string a sentence together and finish this post that I started at the beginning of the week.

For me, jet lag is the worst aspect of travelling and the one that stops me going home as often as I might do otherwise. Even pre-baby, it took at least three days either side of the holiday to get rid of that feeling that it was the middle of the night and I should be asleep, or those nights when you are wide-awake at 2am and spend hours staring at the ceiling. At least post-baby I don’t have that any more – when I finally get to go to sleep I am too exhausted to wake up.

Anyway, my rant is over and I take comfort in the fact that I have only one jet lag left as while we were away my husband signed his next contract and we are officially moving back to the UK. We don’t have a date yet but it will be sometime before the end of the year. Having said when we moved here that there was no way I wanted to return, my feelings have gone completely full circle (mostly since my son arrived) and, although there are many aspects of my life here that I will miss, I can’t wait to return to Aberdeen, especially after the lovely break I’ve just had over the summer. I know there will be challenges ahead, but there are so many people and things I miss from home that I am delighted to be returning to a ‘normal’ life.

And if anyone has any tips for battling jet lag (in adults or young children) then please share them – I’m not too hopeful that last night’s long sleep will be repeated!

People Who Live in Small Places #8: Brunei (and no that’s not next to Dubai)

Here is my interview with Clara about life in a small place…

Huge thanks to Liz at Secrets of a Trailing Spouse who has kindly volunteered details about her life in the small country of Brunei for my occasional series People Who Live in Small Places. Brunei is one of those places that many have heard of – but few could place on a map. It sounds like it belongs somewhere in the Middle Easy whereas in fact it’s very firmly in South East Asia. So, to find out more, over to Liz:

Thanks for being part of this series, Liz. First of all, can you tell me a bit about your ‘small place’

Brunei Darussalam is a small country nestled between two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It has a population of around 400,000 and a land mass of 5675 square kilometres. Brunei has an equatorial climate and is mainly covered in rainforest. Many people have no idea where…

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So long for the summer…

With a week to go before our planned departure, my husband finally got permission to go on holiday so this past week has been crazy! Finally the flights are booked, cars hired and accommodation found and we are off. Apart from a guest post in August, I have not managed to schedule anything in so it will be quiet around here over the summer (I am clearing out for the entire summer so that I can spend plenty of time with my family back home). But I will be back in September with plenty of new ideas hopefully, or at least something new to write about!

I hope you all enjoy your summers, whatever you have planned.

Becoming a first time mother abroad

Here I talk about becoming a first time mother abroad, with a lady who has plenty of stories about being an expat mother!

Becoming an expat is a challenge in itself. Add to that relocating with kids and you take it to a different level. But what about a situation, when you are about to become a mother for the first time and it happens to be abroad, far away from your family and friends? It can definetely be just a little scary, if I may put it mildly.

Of course, Skype and Viber are at your service to call for advice, but online babysitting is not exactly the same thing as a real life grandma by your side. Our older daughter was born in Germany, where it was just the two of us – very determined, but very unexperienced first time parents. I still remember the relief provided by those short family visits. The farther away you live from them, the trickier it becomes.

Here, I talked to Elizabeth, the first…

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