Once upon a time, when I still travelled normally (when I still travelled!), I did things everybody does on holiday: I went to museums; I gawped at famous buildings; I ate in well-known but over-priced restaurants and carried guidebooks around with me. Those were the days before I became an expat.
Forget the beach … real estate offices, next stop
On my last overseas trip, from which I returned the day before I was placed under strict lockdown in Paris, I went to Cape Town. That southern city had been on my to-visit list for a very long time, and I was so excited to finally see the city and its surroundings. On this occasion, I had a to-see list, because I was not only on holiday, but also had a few commissions for travel articles, so I knew which sights to see and which restaurants to visit.
The minute I was off the leash and I was on my own free time, you know what I did?
• I looked in real estate windows.
• I searched supermarkets for products you really don’t need on holidays, such as certain ingredients, cosmetic products, favourite chocolates, even dog food.
• I bought local magazines and examined pay rates for freelance writers.
• When I was driven anywhere in a trusty Uber, I surveyed neighbourhoods as to facilities, safety, closeness to the airport and beaches.
• When I visited a café and found the choices were good, I made a mental note to try the other items “next time.”
• I even noted a dental clinic, for goodness sake.
You never know … a vacay visit might be the beginning of a new life
Typical behaviour of a tourist? I think not. Basically, I was scouting out the place as to its “liveability.” Instead of behaving like tourist I should have been, blithely oblivious to “real-life,” I was being an expat who was just checking out a good place to live and work.
Because, you never know, right?
And this has been happening ever since, maybe not the first time I moved abroad, but probably from country two or three. I guess it started happening once I had realized that this was the life I led, and lead for decades to come, a roaming nomad, not necessarily without roots, but with aerial roots. Easily transplantable, and happy to try out any new place.
I have always loved to travel and visited more than 90 countries so far. I also really love living abroad and changing my address every few years. I get twitchy and restless when I start knowing a place too well. Itchy feet, wanderlust, Fernweh, call it what you may, but in an ideal world, I would not just like to visit each and every country in the world, but live in each one for a while as well.
So, I travel and scout out places. Not that it affects my enjoyment of visiting a new destination; au contraire, I feel that I probably get more out of my way of travelling than I would have done in the old days.
Before becoming an expat.
I sit in cafes and soak up the atmosphere in select areas. I look at the people, the buildings, the shops, the cultural offerings, the day-to-day life of people actually living it.
I know where the international schools are even if we now don’t need those anymore. I know the closest vet to my chosen quarter. I even know
where my husband’s office would be located.
But coming back home and being interrogated by family and friends as to our holiday, I sometimes fall sadly short. No, I did not go and see the stained-glass window of that famous church. I also seem to have missed that popular day-trip out to the game reserve. The important dates and names from the local history seems to have passed me by.
But I do know where to get my hair-dye and which vineyard delivers locally. And that is true for the last 20 countries I visited recently.
So, am I a bad traveller? Or am I just a normal expat? Either way, I have chosen my area to live in Cape Town. Lovely little area, full of cafes and shops, with perfect access to the city center, the beaches … and the airport.
Just in case.
About the author:
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer, guidebook author and serial expat. Having lived in seven countries on three continents and two hemispheres, she is currently based in Paris, France.
See more of Ulrike’s work on her website here.
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