I was in Germany on my last book tour for the season, looking out of the window to the cluster of twigs as they gnarled and twisted in the winter wind, when it suddenly hit me.
“No, it can’t be…. I’m never late” I whispered to myself as I flipped out my phone and pored over the calendar and the dates. But it was true. I was late, and I had no time to dwell on it because in precisely two hours I was going on stage in front of an audience of a 100 people to give a book talk on living a messy mobile life around the world. In German.
“We need to talk” I sent a quick WhatsApp message to my husband M, while zipping up my boots ready for the 6 degree weather outside.
Little did I know that at the precise moment, M sitting at his office in Ghana had just gotten off a phone call himself.
“Yes, we really need to talk” he replied back instantly, taking a last sip of the fresh coconut water he had bought during his lunch break from one of the many street vendors outside.
What we BOTH didn’t know was that each of us sitting in different corners of the world, were about to drop our own bombshell on each other.
The Backstory: Our Expat Life in Ghana
We had moved our expat family of four from Dubai, UAE to Accra, Ghana in the summer of 2018. M had signed a 3-year contract. But of course, as soon as we had arrived the earth beneath our feet shifted dramatically. A major cost-cutting initiative meant that the management team in Ghana would likely be shifted to South Africa instead within the year. Suddenly, it became clear we would never make it for the 3 years of our contract. We’d be lucky if we even made it to the 6-month mark!
However, if there’s one thing you can rely on in the corporate world, it’s that nothing ever goes according to plan. First a move to Johannesburg was scrapped, then within the year, Cape Town was dismissed as well. The major cost-saving effort had been overtaken by a major reorganisation of the company and an internal merger. Hastily some jobs were recommended for M.
France, Bahrain, Cote d’Ivoire – none of them a good fit for various reasons.
As a result, almost two years later, we were still living in West Africa’s golden child: Ghana. And enjoying the warm, intoxicating embrace of a country boasting a fascinating historical heritage, rich cultural traditions, coastal palm-lined sandy beaches, with a good mix of exotic wildlife and waterfalls, while surrounded by friendly locals and a wonderful community of friends. Our kids were happily settled at school, I had achieved my life-long dream of becoming a published author in Ghana, and M had enjoyed his role even when working with uncertainty constantly looming in the background. But we knew that this happy situation would not last much longer. We eked out 2019 without making an international move, but I knew that come 2020, all bets were off. This time I was prepared for it.
When January 1st, 2020 rolled in amidst the fireworks, I saw people all around me – online and offline – share their goals, their dreams, their “words” and their motto for the new year. I bit my tongue and reminded myself that absolutely nothing was in my control this year, so I had to be ready for everything and anything. I had spent the past one year carrying out an international book tour for my book ‘This Messy Mobile Life’. I had given book talks, to expat communities and spoken at international schools in eight different countries, and in 14 different cities. I agreed with M, that I would conclude my book touring by March 2020, after that, it would be transition time. We had been granted an extension to stay in Ghana till March. After that, who knew?
The Anatomy of an International Move:
Having spent the last 18 years, living in 9 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America, and having made countless of international moves, I finally understand that the anatomy of every international move has 3 key elements:
- The Knowns: the location, the job, the salary, the school you ultimately choose
- The Unknowns: the duration of the assignment, the global economy, how the family will adjust
- The Plot Twists: the events you don’t plan for that catch you by surprise in the middle of an international transition
The Knowns: Many expats start out by comforting themselves with the known factors. The location of our next country. Where the new job will take you. The salary you are being offered; whether it’s on local terms or expat terms. The cost of living in your new city. You start researching schools to enrol your children and try to get a sense of the different neighborhoods, you can imagine yourselves living in. If you are lucky, your employer offers you a ‘go see’ trip to your new location to sort out schooling and housing in advance. The more ‘knowns’ you rack up, the more confident you feel about your next move.
The Unknowns: You also learn to accept the unknowns. Each international move comes with a set of unknown factors. How long will you reside in the country you move to? Contracts are signed but often there are no guarantees. Assignments can be cut short or extended at a moment’s notice. If you get posted to the Middle East and suddenly the oil price is down and the region goes into a recession, well, how will the state of the global economy impact your employment? Another big unknown, is how well will your family cope in your next international move? How do different family members feel about your upcoming move? How much of a change will it be for your family and for your family culture between where you are living now and where you are moving to next? How well will you cope with learning a new language? Figuring out a new healthcare system? Switching to a different school curriculum and/or going from an international to a local school or vice versa?
The Plot Twists: What you and I usually don’t prepare for, are the plot twists. Unpredictable events or complications during a transition, which can throw you off balance, screw up your best laid plans or simply have you wanting to sit down and catch your breath. Interestingly enough, plot twists can happen in any move AND they can happen anytime in a move. Right before you move, when you move or right after you move. They are powerful because they catch us by surprise when we are the most vulnerable and already in a state of heightened emotions. Plot twists could mean the death of a close family member, right when you are in the middle of moving between continents. It could mean things going completely wrong in the physical packing up of your home. It could mean your container never arriving at your new destination, or something going wrong with your pet relocation. There are a number of scenarios that could play out unexpectedly.
And Then We Moved To…an international pregnancy, an international move and an international pandemic:
After I returned from Germany to Ghana, I took a pregnancy test.
The same day I tested positive on a pregnancy test, was the same day M accepted a new job offer. We both looked at each other in a mix of jubilation, excitement, terror and that look of “what have we just signed up for?” (This Messy Mobile: The Sequel?)
“I can’t believe it!” I kept on saying as M beamed at me with excitement and hugged me close. There was a time in our 20’s when infertility and loss meant it didn’t look likely we would even have one child. Now God was blessing us with three! It seemed an incredible turn of events, one I could have never predicted, and it humbled me to my core – paving the way for immense gratitude.
If you know me personally or have been following ‘And Then We Moved To’, you will know that making an international move during an international pregnancy felt like déjà vu for us. I had already left Denmark at 5 months pregnant and moved to Singapore mid-pregnancy to give birth to our daughter in Singapore. Two and a half years later, I had left Singapore 4 months pregnant with our son and moved to Dubai to give birth to our son in Dubai.
Soon it became clear that our Ghanaian baby would not be born in Ghana. For this, I was relieved. Unfortunately, maternal health care facilities in Ghana are very poor, prompting the majority of expats to travel to their home countries to give birth there. Both my previous pregnancies had ended up either starting out as high-risk or ending as high-risk. It was clear, I needed to be in a more developed country with excellent healthcare options. In a way, our next expat move seemed like divine intervention.
So, where will our Ghanaian baby be born later this year?
“Lisbon, Portugal. They have offered me a really exciting new leadership role there driving the transformation at the new joint headquarters for Europe and Africa”, explained M excitedly.
Lisboa (the Portuguese pronounce it as “Leesh-boa”).
Portugal; the land of medieval castles, cobblestone villages, captivating cities, golden beaches, great food, an amazing climate and more.
The perfect crossroads between Europe and Africa.
With absolutely no hesitation, I said “yes”. I was excited. M and I had visited Lisbon together many years ago. I forgot which year it was, so as usual I had to do that expat trick. When you think back to “wait a minute…which country did I live in, when we made that trip to Lisbon? Ah yes, we were living in Denmark at the time, so okay, it must’ve been 2011.”
I had already lived in 3 European countries. But it would be the first time our kids who were born in Asia and raised in Africa would get to live in Europe. When we told them the news, they were excited. They were even more excited at hearing they would be getting a new sibling. The questions were never ending! I have put them both in charge of choosing a multicultural sounding name that starts with M and can be pronounced in German, Urdu, Italian and English. This should keep them busy all summer 😊
As if one plot twist was not enough, soon we found ourselves dealing with another.
Covid -19 started to spiral out of control and was soon declared a global pandemic. I was relieved when all travel was banned, schools were shut down and we were asked to work from home. But as news of the Coronavirus became constant, I started waking up each day feeling anxious. Anxious worrying about our friends and family around the world and praying for loved ones to stay safe.
Deep within, my anxiety stemmed from not knowing how to manage an expat move in the time of Corona nor how to manage an international move in the time of self-isolation, social distancing, travel bans, lockdowns and quarantines. Our go-see trip to Lisbon got cancelled as both Ghana and Portugal went into complete lockdown.
How was I going to choose the right school for our kids in Lisbon, without being able to visit it in person?
How would I be able to get the right medical care I needed during this pregnancy in Ghana?
What if, my pre-eclampsia came back in this pregnancy and I could not be flown out anywhere for proper treatment?
How can we say a healthy goodbye to our lives in Ghana, if the self-isolation measures continued into April and May and June?
I had promised my daughter, we would not leave Ghana without celebrating her 8th birthday here. Her last birthday in Ghana. I knew she would be terribly disappointed if she could not celebrate one last time with her friends here. M was turning 40; a huge milestone birthday and the surprise trip I had prepared for him could be forgotten.
Being pregnant in the time of Covid-19, brought a whole new dimension to my angst. I read about mothers birthing alone in hospitals, as their partners were not allowed to be by their side. I didn’t know if the situation would improve by the time my due date rolled around. So many unknowns.
The sense of loss was profound. Leaving Ghana was going to be tough even under normal circumstances. But leaving Ghana, in the midst of a global pandemic, not able to say our goodbyes to loved ones and favorite places, was a reality I hoped would not materialize.
But, as always, I reminded myself of our immense privilege, even in the face of uncertainty. We had good things to look forward to, and I had to focus on staying positive.
Then I got practical. I reminded myself as expats, we have incredible sources of resilience and adaptability and no matter what, I would manage this next international move and this next international pregnancy the best I could. I took a leaf out of my own book (quite literally) and went back and read my MOLA framework for international families. I had to re-think my MOLA and start applying it asap.
Instead of focusing on what I could not do, I started focusing on what I could do.
Instead of a physical go-see trip to Portugal to look at schools, hospitals and housing, I set up virtual meetings with various schools.
Instead of physical tours, I arranged virtual school tours of the schools we had shortlisted.
Instead of physical hospital visits, I asked for virtual meetings with potential doctors in Lisbon to explain my medical history.
Research, technology and expat groups have always been my best friends, but now they became my lifesavers as I gathered as much information as possible, while sitting remotely. I even interviewed expats who were moving to Lisbon and had just visited the schools I had on my list and begged them to share their impressions! If there was one silver lining amongst many, it was that I realized most people would go out of their way to help you.
What’s the latest and what’s next?
The past few weeks have been exhausting and overwhelming. First, Ghana decided to shut its international borders and we had to make a quick decision on whether to stay in Ghana or be medi-vacuated to Germany and just leave our house and all our belongings behind, to be packed up at a later date. Given the early stage of my pregnancy and my previous medical history, our international team of doctors agreed it was best for me to stay put.
It took only two days to see that they were right, in advising me not to travel. I had a terrifying experience, where I experienced a threatened miscarriage and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance in Accra.
M was not allowed to accompany me due to new hospital restrictions in place amidst Covid-19. Thankfully and miraculously the baby is doing fine, I heard and saw the heartbeat, and everything looked good. I thanked my lucky stars I was not in the air when this happened and could receive medical attention on the ground right away. My doctor put me on immediate bed rest which is why I have not been active on social media in March and April; simply using all my energy to focus on my health. If I thought self-isolation was tough, being put on complete bed rest, while trying to home-school the kids compounded my anxiety. And yet, I was grateful since I had nowhere to be or nowhere to go and could simply focus on getting rest.
Thanks to Covid-19, we don’t know exactly how much time we have left in Ghana. M has already started his new job remotely as of April 1st, and is scheduled to be on-the-ground in June, but a delay is looking likely. No matter when we leave, I will write a proper goodbye letter to my beloved Ghana soon, as per my expat tradition whenever I leave a country to move to another one. I’m dreading this break up…it has come sooner than I would have liked and under the most trying of times.
I am grateful that I insisted that our kids finish their academic year here, citing my preference for a summer move, which meant we bought ourselves some time. We hope our kids can finish their last day of school (physically or remotely) here in June before we move in June or July 2020. We don’t know when Portugal or Ghana will open its borders and when we might be able to enter. We are making contingency plans to be in Germany in between. Keeping all options open, as we see how things play out in the coming weeks.
I am excited for M’s new job, which he is already enjoying a lot. I am hopeful and excited for our new baby although I would love any tips on how to adjust to life as a family of 5!
Life is so messy at the moment and every day brings new plot twists and turns in our story. If I’ve learned anything in this incredible global journey, across countries, continents, languages, cultures, races, nationalities, identities, sense of home, feeling of belonging and more – it’s that we should not fear the mess, we should embrace it. The messy bits of life are where all the fun, and growth and personal development happens. We should expect the plot twists and look forward to turning obstacles into opportunities. Of finding new meaning in unexpected ways. Of knowing that all these experiences are building our emotional resilience to weather the storms coming our way.
I hope you will join us for our next adventure. Country number 10 for me, I’ll reach double digits in the expat world! The ‘And Then We Moved To’ adventure will continue in Lisbon, Portugal 2020! And nope, I don’t speak a word of Portuguese so this should be interesting 😊
About the author: Mariam Ottimofiore is an adult TCK and a Pakistani expat, who has lived in Bahrain, US, Pakistan, UK, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, UAE and Ghana. She is an economist, author, researcher, and writer at And Then We Moved To in which she explores expat life, raising multicultural and multilingual children, and world travel. Her recently published book ‘This Messy Mobile Life; How a MOLA can help globally mobile families create a life by design’ (Summertime Publishing, 2019) is the first book in the expat genre that ties in multiculturalism, multilingualism and mobility to equip international families to navigate the complex challenges they face while living a life on the move. You can find more info here: http://www.andthenwemovedto.com/book
If you enjoyed reading this, you may also enjoy reading about the time I announced our expat move to Ghana: