Home Life: A new life in the sun - with children

Robert Nurden talks to a couple who are old hands at upping sticks. But this time they're taking the babies
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Indy Lifestyle Online
To be honest, we're worried sick about moving abroad," says Will Helyar, as he sits in his Pembrokeshire cottage, cradling his baby son in his arms. "We don't really know what to expect."

The fears of Will, 36, and his partner, Louise Robinson, despite years of working in Africa behind them, underline how disruptive pulling up your roots to live in another country invariably is. In February, with their children, two-year-old Ned and one-year-old Jonas, they go to South Africa where Will starts work as a consultant on a project designed to provide poor rural communities with clean water.

"It's the children we're really concerned about," says Louise, 34. "The security aspect is a worry, and their health of course. If it was just us two going, there wouldn't be the same problem but having young children makes it far more complicated."

They are leaving behind their much-loved white-washed one-bedroomed cottage in the Preseli Hills, near Cardigan. The contract - with the Third World charity VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) - is for two years so they decided to rent out their house rather than sell it. The close network of contacts in the region meant that they could bypass estate agents and rental advertisements; they soon found a tenant through a friend.

"My mum and dad hate the idea of us going away again but they're being very brave about it," says Louise. Paradoxically, perhaps, Will and Louise believe that moving to Africa will in some ways be less of a jolt than it would be if they were to return to England. "Here there is still a fantastic community spirit, which is what we've found in Africa but which seems to have been largely lost in England," says Louise. "Having the children with us will make it easier to get into the local way of life. Luckily we don't have to think about schools yet. But we're keen for them to experience other cultures early on."

What they are bound to run into at an early stage is the "attach and detach" syndrome, according to expatriate consultant Joanna Parfitt. She says that newcomers in a foreign country make attachments far more quickly than is normally the case. In one's own country the scenario for someone moving into a new area is to become closer gradually through nodding in the street, getting asked round for coffee, etc. There are stages to go through, starting at one and ending up at five with close friendship.

"The expatriate invariably misses out the early stages, and goes straight into heart-to-heart chats with other expatriates. But while they may get to stage four quickly they never get to stage five because before long they have to move on," says Ms Parfitt.

Most studies on transmigration indicate that an expatriate assignment is most likely to break down when the family as a whole is unable to adapt to the new conditions. Consequently, companies and aid agencies alike now invest much time in preparing their workers for the cultural shift they will undergo. This will usually involve learning the local language - in Will and Louise's case, Shangaan, one of the Bantu dialects.

But however sophisticated the preparations, there will be always be an element of risk in moving abroad. And it is that willingness to call on a certain degree of bravado, to stay flexible, open-minded and to keep a sense of humour that are vital ingredients in making a success of a posting.

"No one should be too rigid in their expectations," says Will. "I will have to be honest and say that the aspect of the unknown and the adventure, as well as the chance to deploy my skills usefully, is important."

They are both keen to continue working in the developing world because of the greater responsibility that they have been given. In 1995 Will had the job of designing, organising and managing a camp for 20,000 Rwandan refugees. "I would never have got a job of that importance in the UK," he says.

Evidence shows too that if someone has worked abroad once, they are more likely to do so again. There is a kind of psychological make-up which enjoys an exciting nomadic lifestyle, and that probably never goes away. Certainly after working jointly or separately in Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania, with Aids victims in Uganda, in water conservation schemes in Namibia, in orphanages in Romania and with the Kurds in Turkey, Will and Louise would seem to fit this profile.

As long-time aid workers - Louise is a health educationalist - their reasons for going abroad are serious. "We like working with people and if that's your remit rather than making money then you'll let an interesting job take you almost anywhere," says Louise. With the measure of altruism and professionalism they bring to their work, they are a million miles from the disenchanted traveller who goes abroad to "get his head together". Will refers to this as the "sod off and go back home" syndrome - the entirely justified response of locals towards these armies of self-indulgent Westerners searching for the meaning of life.

One of the advantages of working for an aid organisation or a company is that a house is usually found for you. The downside is that you either have to like it or lump it. "We don't know what kind of home we'll get but after living in a tiny hut in Tanzania we can cope with anything, except that we need a bit more room for the children," says Will.

VSO arranges visas, work permits and pays National Insurance contributions. Because his pay will be less than the taxable limit, Will avoids the complexities that usually bedevil those working abroad.

HOW TO SURVIVE ABROAD

Before you go

1. Research where you are going - it will make you more positive about the move.

2. Give self-addressed envelopes to friends.

3. Pack personal mementoes, eg photographs.

4. Learn some of the language and talk to nationals.

5. Take time to say proper goodbyes - children need to do this too.

After arrival

1. Accept all invitations of hospitality.

2. Build a support team: find a reliable doctor, dentist, car mechanic and electrician.

3. Keep in touch with old friends - by phone, letter and best of all, e-mail.

4. Enjoy the honeymoon period because homesickness - or culture shock - will follow.

5. Treat yourself - it may lower your bank balance but it'll lift your spirits.

Tips to buying property abroad

1. The three most important factors when buying a property abroad are position, position, position.

2. Visit the property in the off-season.

3. Shop around. Don't buy the first you see.

4. Beware of smooth-talking agents. Take advice from an impartial local.

5. Don't take on a renovation property lightly. It's harder to get good builders in a strange country than at home.

6. Never assume that sewerage, electricity and water are on tap.

7. If you want to rent out the property check what demand there will be.

8. Find out what the tax implications are.

9. Find a good lawyer before you agree to purchase. Check fees.

10. Find out as much as possible about buying abroad before you start looking.

Useful contacts

Words That Work offers publications, training, and counselling for potential ex-pats. Find its booklist on: http://website.lineone. net/wordsthatwork or phone/fax Bobby Meyer on 01797 225772.

Forced to Fly is packed with tips, true-life experiences and anecdotes and will ensure you keep a sense of humour. Contact: Summertime Publishing, 55 Church Street, Easton on the Hill, Stamford, Lincs PE9 3LL, tel 01780 480304. E-mail: summertime@lineone.net.

Survival Books publishes a series called Living and Working in... - seven countries so far. Survival Books, PO Box 146, Wetherby, West Yorks, LS23 6XZ, tel 01937 843523.

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