The Selfish Expat

Last week was St. Patricks Day and it got me slightly nostalgic for the ole Irish sod. We have a small but great Irish community here and in many ways we take more celebration in St. Patricks Day than we would at home because we are away and want to mark the day anyway.

It got me thinking about expat life in general and how we are so removed from Ireland and the goings on. Sure, I watch the Irish news and keep up to date with current affairs but on a day to day level we are away from family and friends and not living in the same world. It may be only temporary but how do you integrate back into that when it’s time to go home?

It’s not the same with family when you’re abroad. You can’t celebrate their good news, hold them when things are going wrong and support them when they need it. Most of the time you’re watching a clock as you’re in a different time zone and it’s about trying to get time to make the call.

So does this make us expats selfish? Are we not there for our families and friends in the way that we should be because we want adventure and the chance to be abroad? Is enhancing our lives and experiences at the detriment of being close to our families and being able to support them? Will our long term friendships with those in Ireland suffer in the long run simply because we struggle to stay in contact?

I’m trying my best to plan our trip to Ireland this summer to allow catch ups with all the family and friends that we need to see but it’s difficult in such a short space of time. I feel obliged to spend as much time as I can with family and feel guilty for being away to see friends.

Do all expats feel selfish at some point for not being at home?

Flying with kids

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I partly feel like I’ve no right to write on this topic because we only have one child. I see lots of people flying with 2/3 kids on a regular basis and I take my hat off to them. Flying with one is hard. Flying with three kids under 5 is like undertaking a special mission.

Flying as an expat is different to flying on your annual holiday. In most cases you will be flying multiple times a year depending on what family events you need to trek home for. It’s also common, not always, for expats to fly in business class when it’s available as one of the perks. This brings its own challenges. Trust me! Business class is lovely for the extra space and the opportunity to lie down on a long flight.. But what if you’re travelling with a teething 8 month old that refuses to sleep and is crying and you’re worried that it’s upsetting the other passengers who have paid an extortionate fee for some extra comfort on their flight?

We have been on over 20 flights with Michael in the two and a half years that he’s been in this world and this is my advice to anyone that has to fly regularly with kids.

  1. Be prepared. If your child is too small to be distracted by the tv screens than you’re going to need lots of things to entertain them. My top tips are snacks, colouring books, a magna doodle or etchasketch, sticker books, iPad with their favourite cartoons downloaded and some small compact toys. Make sure they’re all new and not something that they’ve seen before. This will really help distract them when you need it most. Prepare them by telling them about the journey in advance. Talk about it excitedly, about the plane, what to expect and where you’re going. Make it an adventure!
  2. Bring back up batteries. You’ll need them for charging your phone and entertainment devices. Trust me!
  3. Carry pain relief. Altitude does funny things to smallies and it’s always good to have pack up. Often their ears will pop, throats will be dry and can even have a fit of vomiting or diarrhoea so it’s good to have the essentials to hand when you need them.
  4. In your hand luggage have at least one change of clothes for yourself and two for them. See point two.. You’ll need them!
  5. Layovers are a pain. Often we can be in JFK for 4/5 hours waiting for our second flight. This is when you want to tire them out. Bring one of those backpacks with straps and reigns and let them run around. Take turns if there is two adults travelling. If you have access to a lounge take them there and take advantage of it. If not, then lots of airports have kids areas that you can avail of. Now is when you want them to burn up their energy so that hopefully they will sleep on the next flight!
  6. If you can book a seat for them. I know under 2 they can sit on your knee but if you’re on multiple long flights then they’re not going to be comfortable sleeping on you and you will also be exhausted. I found with Michael that if he fell asleep he would wake after 45 mins if I was holding him.
  7. I don’t take a stroller. They can be awkward to collapse and then you have to wait for them on the other side. Instead I got a wheel attachment that attached to his car seat and then he sits in his car seat on the plane. It makes life so much easier. I ordered it from amazon but it’s by a company called go go babyz. You can see it here 
  8. I’ve travelled a few times on my own with Michael and it can be hard to handle the hand luggage, the car seat, settling him and yourself, trying to use the bathroom and everything else on your own. I’ve been so lucky with other people offering to help and these usually aren’t the airport or airline staff. Some airlines have flight nannies or can offer extra assistance so it may be worth checking out if travelling alone.
  9. Call the airline before you fly to check requirements around flying with a child. What food and drink items you can take through security, can you bring your car seat on board (Delta now don’t allow this and don’t provide any safety harness for this child when sitting on your knee!!!!), is there priority boarding for kids? All these things will help with your journey if you know what to expect.
  10. Have a plan for when you get to the other side. If you’ve flown multiple flights, are now in a different time zone and have been travelling for over 24 hours you’re going to be tired. Have someone pick you up so you’re not relying on public transport to get to home. You’ll be so glad of a friendly face.
  11. Expect the unexpected. Flights get delayed. Changes happen. If you’re prepared for them then you can cope with unexpected travel changes. I have been delayed for 10 hours in total during one journey home alone with Michael. It’s tough but this is where the back up of toys, iPads, colours etc come in. Wine for you if you need it too!

And most of all…. RELAX! I repeat to myself constantly when travelling that this will pass. It’s just one day. One long day that you have to get through and you’ll get through it. It’s always worth it to see family on the other side!

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Mothers..

I wrote this piece 10 months ago on Mother’s Day and never pressed publish. It was too painful and I felt like a broken record. I’m finally ready to publish it because I’m now in a better place. I want others to know that it’s normal to feel like this. This it is ok to be sad. It’s ok to still miss someone after they’ve died if you’re not ready to move on.

_________________________________________________________________ It’s Mother’s day. I obviously have a love/hate relationship with this day. I love being a Mom myself but I miss my own mother more than words can convey.

It’s almost two years since that day. The last day that we had hope. The day that Rob walked into my room in hospital and told me that you weren’t going to get better. That there was nothing left to do – only wait for your time here to be over.

You were so brave. I felt so bad for crying on the phone to you when I called later that day. You were talking about faith and putting your trust in god. I wanted to scream and tell you that none of it mattered. What was the point in god and faith if he was taking you from us? What god was taking you away from me when I was weeks away from becoming a mother myself. You weren’t going to be there when I needed your help and guidance. I knew nothing about having a baby or raising a child.

I miss you. More than I ever imagined. I miss everything – how soft your hands were. How you laughed. How on a Friday night when we would come to stay for the weekend you would stay up late chatting on the couch with me. How until I moved out at 19 you came into my room every single night without fail to check on me. How you ran out of the kitchen on a Sunday morning when you were in your nightie and Rob came down early. How I painted your nails – it makes me giggle that at the moment you passed away I was holding onto your feet, your bright pink nail polish still on from the very last time I had painted them a couple of weeks before. I spent so much time over the years painting your toe nails. I probably would have picked a different colour had I known that I would never get a chance to do them again. It was shocking pink!

I miss your work ethic. How you worked so hard to make the businesses a success. How you never complained about the hours and how hard it was travelling the country every weekend at trade shows. How your feet ached at the end of the day. How you made our house a home. The dinners, the tea, the packages of food being sent home with us on a Sunday. The Sunday morning fry where we would sit and chat for an hour after. Your energy for looking after your family never ceased to amaze me.  The Christmas morning about five years ago that we ate about 30 mini pan au chocolat and watched Miracle on 34th street and forgot about dinner – a Christmas day will never go by without that memory bringing a tear to me eye.

Your phone has long been cancelled. But I replay the phone number over and over again. I miss being able to dial it and ask for your help and advice. You always knew what to do. Your instinct was always scarily accurate. You just seemed to know when something was up. Even the days that during my pregnancy that things were complicated you seemed to know I was in hospital before I told you. It was weird!

I’ve thought a lot about being a mother – what it takes and what I’ve learnt from you. I used to think at one point that you put too much pressure on me. The endless music lessons, auditions, singing, dance classes, french lessons, art classes, speech and drama… everything. I thought that you were pushing too hard and that I was never good enough at any of these things. Hindsight and experience has now taught me that you enrolled me all of this because you had faith in me. You believed I was probably more talented than I ever really was and I love you for that. Your dedication to trying to make me the best I could be. I’m eternally grateful to you for that love and support and I’m sorry that I didn’t live up to those expectations a lot of the time.

Thank you for everything. Thank you for your guidance, wisdom, knowledge, love and dedication. I’ll miss you forever.

Just one of those days..

After almost two years I have learned that not much happens fast here in Puerto Rico. I should be used to it. Every once in a while something happens in a relatively easy process and I slightly raise my expectations and then I have to remind myself again that efficiency isn’t a strong point here.

Don’t get me wrong – Ireland leaves a lot to be desired at times. It’s just that sometimes it would be nice to actually achieve what you plan out to get done in a day.

Yesterday afternoon when Michael got up from his nap I had errands to run. I wanted to get a tyre fixed on my car, get some groceries and go to the pharmacy. I thought that this would take a maximum of 2 hours.

I asked around where was the best place to have the tire fixed and off we went. I was nervous going in due to my lack of Spanish. I always feel bad about this. Not everywhere will have someone that is comfortable in conversing in English and this is my problem. It’s me that hasn’t picked up the local language and I can’t expect others to constantly be able to speak English. Anyway, there was an assistant who spoke English and he was very nice. He laughed about my name and asked how long it took to get to Ireland and the differences in the climates in the two countries. He took my car keys and Michael and I took a seat to wait. We waited. And waited. And waited. Two hours later they hadn’t started my car. I had an angsty boy bored who was getting hungry. My phone battery had died from him playing games and he had already finished his snack and juice that I brought for him. We had to resort to bribery and luckily the shop part of the auto fix place had some sweets and toy cars for sale.

It took a total of three hours. I eventually went to ask how much longer it would take and I think they realized how long I had been waiting and went to do it. They were very nice about it and I didn’t like complaining but it is so hard to entertain a toddler for that long without being well equipped for it. By the time it was finished I didn’t have time to get groceries or go to the pharmacy as it was after 7pm and I had to get him home for dinner and bed.

I got into the car, strapped him in and was releaved that the experience was over. I got to the first traffic lights about fifty meters from the garage and the warning light came on my dashboard for low air pressure in my front tyre. The one that had just supposidly been fixed.

If I didn’t laugh I would cry!!

Tomorrow is another day to tackle the errands right?

Making a plan..

A few months back I wrote about my personal experience as the trailing spouse and how it has left me feeling deflated about a return to work. I’ve lost confidence in my ability to be more than the care giver.. minding our son and ensuring that there’s shirts ironed and food in the fridge. You can see the original blogpost here….

For my own sanity I need to start getting back in the game and I’m putting on my big girl pants. I’m so afraid of putting myself out there to work again that I need to build up that confidence again. So I’ve started to make a plan…

First of all I’m starting a diploma in Digital Marketing. It will include social media marketing and SEO. I know most of this already but the refresher will do me the world of good. The changes in two years since I was in full time employment have been drastic too so I’m sure there’s something to be gained from this. It’s all distance online learning so it gives me the opportunity to work it around my schedule and Michael and still have time for the activities that we do here and my never ending battle in the gym to some day regain my pre mammy body!

Next on my list are online advanced courses in web and graphic design.. Again skills that I’ve used before but need a little updating. I’m hoping if I have time then before the summer that I may undertake something in photography and/or video editing.

Then when all this is done it will be time to put myself out there again and start using these skills. The plan will be to work from home and freelance but hopefully on long and short term projects. Essentially I would also like to produce a marketing toolkit – a how to guide with basic instructions and guidelines for small businesses. I don’t believe in social media experts and I see people being ripped off constantly so essentially I would like to make this guide available for training purposes and show people how they can do it themselves.

Lastly, I’ve always been passionate about volunteering and charity. I’m meeting with a volunteer from a local orphanage this week to discuss how I can get involved. I’ve committed to run a small fundraiser for them in the coming months as well as some other things in the pipeline. We already support a child in Uganda so I really want to be involved hands on as well as financially.

As scary as this is I need it for my sanity. I need to gain my personal and financial independence. I need to be more than the trailing spouse and I hope by the end of 2017 I will be a long way to doing this. And who said living in the sun was all about cocktails on the beach? Trust me… they’re nice too but I need to be more than just that!

Weekend escape to Paradise

This post has taken me forever to write so I’m hoping I haven’t forgotten loads already but in December, myself and the hubby and a couple of our friends here took a weekend to visit the Puerto Rican island of Culebra to celebrate Rob’s 30th birthday. He’s in the oldie group now!

It’s pretty close to the mainland but not easily accessible. There’s a ferry that runs daily from Fajardo but I’ve read so much about it being unreliable and not worth the hassle that we decided to fly. This was actually a great option. We flew with Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande which was so convenient. It was a small 8 passenger plane and scared the life out of me as a nervous flyer but it was an experience and fun too. It cost about $150 pp return and was so stress free. Except when instead of weighing our bags they weighed us individually at check in… If I had known that was happening I would have been dieting a bit more before hand!

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We rent a house called Villa Pelicano and to be honest I don’t have much good to say about it. It was over priced and just about adequate. The owner gave me a lot of grief for leaving a neutral review on trip advisor and made up random facts that never happened… for example when booking it he upped the price from the original quote and said it was due to demand. I said in my review that there was no one else staying at the villa so it couldn’t have been based on demand. He responded to the review stating that my husband had called him and upgraded us to a different apartment which is untrue! Anyway, if you come across this place maybe avoid for your own sanity. There are lots of nice accommodation options that are within walking distance to beach or the town and this villa isn’t in walking distance of anything. Think it was approximately $1,100 for two nights so much cheaper options available too.

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We rented a jeep for two days from Carlos’ Jeep Rental. Really convenient as they’re based in the airport. It’s mainly Jeep Wranglers available which is kind of cool to experience driving but if your accomodation is in the town then a golf buggy is also a good rental option to get around. The rental was $250 for two days.

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The morning we arrived we visited the highly popular Flamenco Beach. Here you will find lots of huts at the entrance with food and drink options. They only allow plastic glasses on the beach which is great and all in all it was really clean and sufficiently cared for. Lots of people swimming, enjoying themsleves and taking in the sun. It is consistently rated one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and I can see why.

We did some grocery shopping for supplies for the house and there is a really small store in the town and one at a petrol station just outside. Not a huge selection and priced the same as the mainland so if travelling by car on the Ferry I would recommend taking your supplies with you.

That night we dined in Zaco’s Tacos which was really nice. We then went to Dingy Dock for drinks and it was so cool seeing people arrive in their boats and dock up against the bar and go in for a drink. It’s a really small island so everything is pretty accessible.

The next morning we decided to visit Playa Brava. Slightly off the beaten track I would most definitely recommend this beach. It’s about a 20 minute hike through the woods but it’s worth it. There was a total of three other people on the beach when we arrived and they left soon afterwards so we had the entire place to ourselves. The waves were bigger here and the boys were keen to surf if equipment could have been rented on the island but it was very beautiful .

That night we ate in Dingy Dock and there was a wait for a table. The food was pretty average, drinks were good and the service was good but not worth the price tag on the food.

We really enjoyed getting off the mainland for the weekend. It’s a beautiful, scenic island and is probably close to what Puerto Rico was like 20 years ago. Rural and less spoiled. I was really taken back by the amount of Americans I met there that were working. Hearing there stories it seems like people fall in love with the island and end up staying! I can see why.

 

 

 

 

 

One year in….

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So we have been in Puerto Rico for just over a year now. I can’t comprehend just how quickly that time has gone – particularly the last seven months since we were home in Ireland. It’s been a whirlwind and an adventure at the same time.

I think it’s normal with any expat journey to have some challenging experiences when trying to settle into a new country. I’m so settled here now that I think of Puerto Rico as our home. We have a routine and have adjusted to making life work here. And it’s wonderful. I have to pinch myself at times to remind me just how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful country. The beaches, the weather, the friends that we have made here. We have been so lucky to have so many great friends here for support and to have so many laughs with. To be honest without those people our experience would be a lot different and Puerto Rico would be more of a stop gap rather than our home for the next two years.

When thinking back over what we have been through to get to this point of our expat journey there is a number of things that I wish I had known before we started. So here’s my top 10 notes of advice for anyone considering an expat assignment in Puerto Rico but which I’m sure apply to all countries.

  1. Relocation companies suck. Do not rely on them for support or even to know the basics of what they’re doing. Google the hell our of where you’re going and have a back up plan for what you need to do if the company doesn’t deliver on their promises.
  2. Don’t go into any assignment with a set amount of time in your head. They always change. Just be open to the time frame and then there’s no disappointment if it’s shorter or longer.
  3. Make contact where possible with someone who has done a similar move and ask all the questions in the world – forewarned is forearmed.
  4. Do come on a reki – I didn’t and I really wish I had. I just got on a plane and moved and while that added to the excitement it also added to the stress. Take a week to visit and get your bearings. Particularly as a trailing spouse – most likely your partner goes to work after a day and you’re left at home. A week before to find your way around will ease the transition into calling your new location home.
  5. Don’t rush into your long term home or accommodation. We were stressing over not being able to find anywhere to live that we liked due to the incompetent and greedy realtors. The best move we made was booking a house rather than a hotel as our temporary accommodation that we could extend if needed. It allowed us time to get to know the area, seek advice and to find the house that we loved. Best thing we did. We love our house and area.
  6. Relax – it took me a long time to get this one. I was stressed over finding somewhere to live, setting up home, buying everything we needed. Particularly here in Puerto Rico where it’s difficult to get anything done fast. Everything takes time but you’ll get there in the end and guess what? You’ll grow and learn so much about yourself in the process.
  7. Routine – this is the most important one. Short term assignment or long term expat you need to make this new strange location your home. Routine is the only way to do that. Get out there, make plans, particularly if you have kids. All those play dates and coffee dates are now your access to the community around you. For me routine involves working out and having part time childcare in the form of a nanny. Without either of these things I wouldn’t be as happy as I am here. I’m often approached by ladies in the gym looking for a chat – its a great resource for meeting people and the exercise helps with stress relief.
  8. Ship what you can. We decided to just basically come with our suitcases and I miss having our  personal belongings and all my own kitchen items. Making your house feel like your home is an important part of settling into life here.
  9. Take some time out as a couple – plan a night away or date nights after your first month. Most likely your spouse will have been adjusting to a new job and possibly new culture and language and you will have been trying to adjust your entire family and keep it all together. You’ll have been so busy that you won’t have had time to catch your breathe and take stock of where you’re at. Lean on one another for support and talk about what you can do to help the transition for the other one.
  10. Last but not least – Travel. You’re here because you wanted to see more of the world. Because you wanted your kids to experience something new, to see something different. You can’t do that if you stay in one place. Here in Puerto Rico, and especially in Dorado it’s so easy to just stay in our little gated communities where everyone speaks English. That’s a great convenience for every day life but it’s not what you came here to do. Get out, go on day trips, visit other islands. See everything that your new home has to offer. Your time will go quickly once you establish a routine and before you know where you are you’ll be planning your move home or your next assignment. Make sure that you’ll really experienced the place that you’ve been living in.

 

 

Guilt for grieving…

I’m beginning to think that maybe this blog should be titled highs and lows of being a parent rather than expat life. I feel like once you have kids you can never make your own decision again based on what you or your partner want – everything revolves around the boy. Your mindset and thinking changes completely and in so many ways you understand your own parents and their decisions better.

I’ve written about the loss of my mum before here and I don’t want to be a broken record. I don’t know if it was because I gave birth two weeks before she passed or if I would feel the same way if Michael had been older but my grieving seems to be taking longer than I expected. She will be two years gone in August and I still miss her desperately at times.

 

It will hit me out of nowhere. I will just be driving down the street or doing my grocery shopping and something will trigger it. A song, a smell, an item of food and I will struggle to catch my breath. There’s a lump at the back of my throat that I can’t swallow and my legs go weak. It seems silly – death is something that everybody experiences. I feel like I should be able to control the situation better, deal with things in a more mindful way and focus on the positives. But the truth is, I miss her. I feel like I need her more than ever now that I’m a Mom. I feel hard done by at times and envious of those that still have their parents for advice. So many times I want to pick up the phone to call her and ask about a cough or a fever, how to get him to eat, tell her his new words and the funny stories. It makes me sad to think about everything that he will miss out on by not ever having her in his life. I know I’m blessed that she hung on to life to meet him and held him as he was baptised but when I close my image that mental image doesn’t always bring me to the best place. Even telling her I was pregnant makes me swallow hard when I recall it. Her tears. The realisation that she probably wasn’t going to be around for this grandchild. Her happiness that this has happened for myself and Rob and that anxiety over our ability to have children could be put to rest for the time being. It can at times just bring a sadness to my heart and mind that makes it difficult to lift.

I’ve had to grief before. I thought I knew what it meant. It looks like this time its harder and longer because I’m now a mother myself. I love my little boy more than anything, he brings unbelievable joy to my life. I love how when I pick him up in the morning and he says “Mammy,”at the top of his lungs excitedly and leans in to hug me and blow me a kiss before escaping out of my arms to run for his toys. I’m happy. I just never realised how missing someone so much can overshadow the greatest happiness I’ve ever  experienced.

 

Being the trailing spouse….

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I had never heard the expression trailing spouse until this time last year. It’s a phrase I’ve heard over and over again. It refers to the non expat spouse – the one who trails behind with the kids while the expat is one who works. I’ve learnt that trailing means you’re the one that’s usually left to pick up the bits and pieces and organise your lives in both countries – the one you’ve left behind and the one you’re trying to make home.

In most cases and which was true in ours there isn’t really a transition period to settle in before the working spouse starts their new job. In Ireland both of us finished work on a Friday, flew out the Saturday morning, arrived in the middle of the night and Rob started his new job on the Monday. I unpacked the suitcases and boxes and looked after the child. I do understand that this is my role in this journey, to be the home maker per say – but I feel there isn’t enough consideration given to this role when people talk about expat life in general.

The working spouse usually works long hours and this has at times left me lonely with a child and missing my husband. I miss having a purpose outside the home and my own career. I do get to spend so much precious time with our son and we have been unbelievably blessed with the friends that we have made here that it is easier than if we were secluded but being the trailing spouse has also made me an irrational human being.

I read a piece on this recently where it described the trailing spouse as a character ready to blow at the minute. It was a comedy piece but it’s scarily accurate also. Consistency isn’t Puerto Rico’s strong point and at times it can be excruciatingly difficult to do simple things. The irrational trailing spouse blames the working spouse; it’s their fault as they’re the reason that you’re here in the first place. You’ve given up your friends, family and job for them and in that moment of complete despair where you’re thinking how much easier this would be at home you blame them. My poor hubby has been on the recieving end of irrational trailing spouse more than once and I’m surprised at times that he hasn’t booked me a one way ticket home just to shut me up!

I have to keep reminding myself that this is a beautiful island, that my role in our lives here is appreciated, that this is time with my son that money simply can’t buy and that eventually when I go back to work that my career will fall into place and I won’t have to start at the bottom of the ladder again. The irrational trailing spouse in me then counter offers with the fact that we don’t know how long we will be here or where we may possibly end up next and who knows when it will be possible for me to go back to work. And that whenever the move does happen that I will probably be organising it with very little help.  I’ll never regret this time.. I know that for sure…. But it’s not always fun in the sun.

 

 

We are on the move!

So for those of you who know me.. Well you know what this is all about.

I’m Siobhan.. A PR & Event Manager who is married to Rob, an engineer. Last year we welcomed a new addition, the sunshine in our lives and dare I say it, in my opinion, the best behaved little boy in the world, Michael.

In January 2015 I was on my maternity leave and I decided to change career paths and take a new job, venturing in the world of poltics from fundraising. The week that I made this decision, my wonderful husband came home and said that he had an opportunity to relocate… to PUERTO RICO!

Now, I have to say… I didn’t initially give this much thought. I thought this was a passing phase and that when he would look more into it that he would decide that it wasnt for him and that we should stay here. Alas, two weeks later and after a transatlantic phone call it was a done deal. And here we are.

Today is my last day in work. I am about to leave my job as a political assistant, drive to Dublin Airport and fly to JFK before taking a connection to San Juan with a 9 month old baby. We will be living in Dorado. Neither of us speak spanish. We wont know how to drive on the opposite side of the road, have anywhere confirmed to live, know many people or I wont have a job but yet here we go. Just yesterday we got temporary accomodation for a month until we can find somewhere long term. The start of this has been stressful at times, no doubt about it. But.. thats all part of the adventure.

We have connected with some super helpful Irish people already there who have been full of advice and support that we are already indebted to so hopefully the transition will be as smooth as possible.

I’ll be using this blog to keep you all updated on goings on but also as a record of our adventures, the life of expats in the Caribbean.

Wish us luck!