The Repat Expat or How To Scare The Locals

Two years ago, days after we had bought the beach house, I went into expat mode in a repat situation.  It didn’t work out very well.

I was home, but I was new. I needed to do all of those familiar things that I’d done in my expat life: furnish a house, get the phone and electricity connected, and find the nearest alcohol supplier. And while all of this was going on I was attempting to have the children in some sort of a routine. Library cards were obtained, there were regular swimming lessons and trips to the park. We were setting up house, putting a stake in the ground and claiming a little piece of Australia as our own.

Initially I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that felt different. I was doing all the same stuff in a far more comfortable surrounding, but something felt harder perhaps even colder than usual. As Dennis Dunoto famously said in The Castle “It’s the vibe of the thing”. There was something wrong with the vibe. I was getting bad vibes.

I’d managed to make one friend. A woman at the local restaurant down the street who had a daughter the same age as the eldest little traveller. She rang one afternoon and invited me down for a glass of wine at the restaurant while the kids played down on the sand. “Come down and say G’day, there’s some people here you might like”. It was my first invitation anywhere so I bundled the kids up and just about ran down down to see her.

I was as nervous as anyone is when you’re about to enter a room on your own with new faces looking back at you, but I was determined to meet some locals. I attacked the situation in the same way I would have anywhere, big smiles, lots of questions, being open and friendly.

I joined a group of guys on the balcony as it supplied the best vantage point for me to see the children clearly. One of the guys was talking about wine and exports to China. I listened in but each time I asked a question or mentioned a possible connection, there was an inaudible frosty response. It became clear very quickly from both his body language and his lack of eye contact, that he wasn’t at all interested in talking to me. There it was again, the vibe. For a moment I wondered if he thought I was actually trying to hit on him and found myself feeling really awkward, I stepped away from the group. Luckily, there was a woman with three children who had just arrived, so I moved to safer territory. Our conversation flowed smoothly, but as time went by I was overcome with the same feeling. What was it?  What was I doing? And then I realized. I was just a little too eager. I had become the overly keen girlfriend, the one who talks of second dates while you’re in the first hour of your first. The only problem being that no-one at the restaurant knew they were on a date, I’d just turned it into one.

In my expat world, it’s not only about needing to make friends, the real trick is to continue making friends. You can’t stop. People move on, people leave, you need to be open to new faces at the table. You need to be ready to go through it again and again and again.

You don’t have to do this at “home”.

Repatriation may mean returning to a neighbourhood where people are often fiercely proud of the age and depth of their relationships. “We were in Kindergarten together” people will tell you. “My father bought a house here in 1975” others will offer. I get it, I’m from a small town myself, I know the comfort that familiarity brings, but I also know how complacent you can be about finding new friends if you’re happy with the ones you have. New friends take work, new friends require effort, new friendships can be awkward in the beginning “Oh, I didn’t mention my recovery from testicular cancer?”

After retuning home, my girlfriend Sarah found herself at the park with the same women for six months before she gained an invitation from any of them. She described it as a mission. She was going to get to know those women, they were going to be her friends whether they liked it or not.

Now, when I return to the beach house, I think I probably tone down my eagerness. I’ve learnt that it freaks people out when you accost them as they wander by the house. Although, if we do happen to meet, you can be assured I’ll probably ask you over for a coffee within ten minutes of an introduction – just ask our local baker, the woman who sells honey at the market, and the woman who owns the fancy restaurant in the neighbouring town.

I can’t help it.

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