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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  1. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I found your blog. I am an expat living in Michigan, America. It’s our first move and I am struggling a bit at the moment (even though we have been here for 2 years!). You have a wonderful way of putting into words, exactly how I am feeling! So thank you. I look forward to reading your blog in the morning and you give me lots to think about. Thank you 🙂

  2. Well done, you’ve nailed it with that quote (the vibe of the thing) from that great movie (note to self, dig it out and watch it again). It’s a real problem both for repats who find they need/want to make new friends and also for many expats who find themselves in places that are not used to expats (small towns, rural areas and the like). As expats we quickly learn to dive into new relationships. After all we know that a) we desperately need friends in a new location (if only to find a decent hairdresser) and b) the friends we do make will all leave soon, so we need to get to that BFF stage as soon as we can.

  3. When MrL and I ( expat kids who’d never lived anywhere that wasn’t expat-rich (or at least expat-friendly) first married, we bought a house in a small farm town with the idea of becoming absorbed in a ‘real’ (eg, not expat) community. We very quickly learned that people who have lived somewhere their whole lives simply don’t have a frame of reference for people who come from somewhere completely different. It wasn’t that they weren’t kind and friendly: it just never occurred to them that we didn’t have oodles of local family and a close-knit network of school, work, and childhood friends within a 20-mile radius. It took us about 3 years to get to the point where we started feeling like we were really accepted in the community. Again: it wasn’t anything personal, it was just that most of them had no idea what it was like to be new and what kind of contacts, friendship, and support might be needed.
    Expats? They know.

  4. Yes, military people have this same problem when they settle (albeit temporarily) in a civilian community. Trained to make friends in 10 minutes or less, we have no idea what to do with people who will wait MONTHS to suggest getting together with the kids.

  5. Loved this post! We are moving to Poland in two weeks and soon I’ll be faced with making new friends again in a new place. I’ll try not to scare the locals and hope I’ll meet some friendly expats there. 🙂

  6. Again your words resonate loudly, I wonder if we’re kindred spirits in a past life. I’ve not repatriated and I’m not in an expat community this Adventure and OMG it’s so hard. I sometimes think its HAS to be me as I’m the common denominator but maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m more expat that first thought. MsCaroline and others mirror my thoughts too. Tho 3 years is a long time, and you usually are moving on by then. Words for thought, again, so thank you! xo

  7. I moved only 6 hours from my home town -same country and everything. I had travelled all over the world and made friends easily, but immediately that I chose a place to put down roots, I found it incredibly hard to meet people. 3 years before I’d made a proper friend. Soul destroying. Still here tho 🙂

  8. I am giggling a little at the above anon comment. I am getting hundreds of them at the moment too. What’s going on with spam protection??

    Anyway, love your ability to meet people everywhere you go. x

  9. I’m not an expat of any kind, but I have moved around Adelaide quite a bit. My mum would do as you do and know everyone within a week, but I’m not as bold. I’ve been in my current flat for just over a year and a half and have got to the stage of nodding hello, sometimes even saying it, to people I see on a regular basis when I walk to and from the shops.
    Hint: disable your anonymous comments.

    • My children are sometimes horrified by my insistence at saying hello to everyone “Oh my god Mum, do you HAVE to speak to everyone? So embarrassing!”. The anonymous spam is truly hideous at the moment, I disabled it but then had a lot of people tell me they were unable to comment so I turned it back on. I think I may need to remember to turn it off before I go to bed 🙂

  10. As one who’s just become a repat, I can say you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head with this. There is a certain efficiency to being an expat, cutting through the chase and the extra fluff and getting right to the point. Like “I’ve talked to you for ten minutes and you’ve made the cut to be in my circle so let’s move on to the next stage.” I never really thought about how scary that may sound to a neighbor in a non-expat community, but now that you’ve mentioned it it explains a few things that have happened so far:)

  11. Thanks for your blog … I love, love, love it. A mutual friend suggested I check it out, and I’m so glad I have! You manage to hit the nail on the head pretty much every time. Everything resonates. Thanks for capturing life’s little moments so eloquently.

  12. I have been a very timid expat – small-town girl with a youthful foray amongst the artsy fringe-dwellers across all of the East-Coast capital cities before seeking sanctuary in a little coastal sprawl.. Oh my, trying to crack that market is tough!

    I think the whole world is extremely multi-cultural, its just the micro-cultures are not acknowledged but they certainly do exist.

  13. It took me two years to crack this issue, when I first moved to Australia. It is indeed hard to make friends among a community of people who already enjoy an established network of friendships. At first I thought it was because I was a Pom and a tad too open and eager etc. But my friends from out of state felt very much the same way 🙁 Ever since, I have gone out of my way to welcome all newbies who cross my path particularly the parents at the Chisslets school. In consequence I have established a rich network of friends who have hailed from across Australia and indeed the globe.

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