Can expat life be lonely? Having been an expat in East Africa for 16 years now (gasp!), I have come to accept that loneliness comes with the territory. It was only when speaking to some younger, newbie British expats last week (I was honoured to meet them and kept on referring to myself as ‘so old‘ by way of an apology…) that I realised that the situation hasn’t changed. It’s still lonely sometimes.
Sundays are the real bone of contention. Sundays can drag and if your other half is away on business, then you can literally find yourself counting down the hours. As an expat, you are obviously nowhere near your home turf, so there’s no family member who might step forth from the breech and provide a safe haven for you and your bickering, antsy offspring for 12 or 24 hours. There are no close friends from way back to pick up the phone and chat to. It’s just you and the kids bouncing off the walls for 12 hours straight and honestly, that can be hell. Sundays are when you feel most trapped. People the world over can relate.
What doesn’t help is that some friends DO have a sprinkling of family members around here – which always makes me feel deeply jealous, especially at weekends.
An invitation to Sunday lunch can be a life saver but you can’t rely on that happening every weekend (however many Sunday lunch parties you choose to throw). Saturday is more social as it tends to be a working day, so is more bearable. There are children’s birthday parties and activities. You can go and get your hair cut or do the shopping. Being seen ‘out’ is not so surprising ‘What are you doing here?’. Organising a coffee meeting or a play date for the children is widely accepted on a Saturday but the unwritten rule is that Sundays are sacrosanct. It’s a family day and only closest friends are contactable.
Oh, and Christmas is also a problem for some:
“We’re going to go home for Christmas this year.” one of my new friends said. “Last year was a bit of a disaster – everyone goes away and the ones who stay tend to keep out of sight. Everything shuts down, the days drag on and frankly, it’s really not that fun.”
(My strategy; ship in family from overseas and then, on pain of death, make best friends here commit to sharing christmas lunch. We’ve been sharing Christmas lunch with the same family for 12 years.)
I pointed out to the new South African girl that I met last week (one was British, the other South Africa), that she’s relatively lucky; members of the South African community who live in our area are pretty good at looking after their own. They are always organising Sunday braais and potji pot competitions and events that I only hear about a week or so later, but my new South African friend said, “Oh, they are all very nice but if you will forgive me for saying, they are also pretty scary!” Admittedly she is a good 15 years younger than the people I know.
A British friend whose husband traveled all the time, weekends included, said that the secret is to keep busy. Get organised. On Sundays, go to the cinema, take the kids for a swim somewhere, arrange sleepovers, ride horses, go for a picnic, get out of the house wherever possible. But this leads to the question, where to go and who with? She was incredible at galvanizing herself and all of this rushing around took a good deal of energy. “It’s the only way I keep sane.” She said. She’s moved back home (near family) now.
In my opinion, options for Sunday outings are definitely more limited here than back home (forgive the generalisation) but of course there are some options if you look hard enough that don’t involve eating out – but there is security to think about too. For instance, are you really brave enough to go on a bike ride, drive into the Rift Valley or climb the Ngong Hills with the kids alone? Loneliness compounds when close friends, often made via baby groups and school runs, up and leave the country and are then are not replaced (because life has moved on and when their kids are older, they have less time).
The lowest point for me comes during the x9 week July and August school holidays when the weather here is depressing and friends leave the country for months on end to travel and visit family. ‘Depression (or Death) by Facebook’ should be a recognised condition when inundated over those months by holiday pics and constant talk of heat-waves back home. The overarching impression is that everyone else is having a high old time and this social media onslaught might go some way to explaining why I never joined the dreaded FB. Having a job – even if it’s part time (or not having an elastic budget) prohibits the employed from taking large chunks of time off work and, let’s face it, husbands are generally left behind with their nose to the grindstone which is not much fun for them either.
And now we have a daughter who is studying overseas and although she is very happy, things at home seem a little bit broken. For the past 16 years, if nothing else, we have grown accustomed to sticking together (or being stuck together) as an amorphous unit that until recently, was never parted, through thick and thin.
Anyhow – this was not supposed to be a rant but rather, food for thought. Expat life is often perceived as tremendous fun in the sun but loneliness still happens – even for the most outgoing and proactive among us (not character attributes that I own, unfortunately). There are a few things that tend to work for me though – those are persistence, resilience, oh and a little bit of luck…