From Ireland to Western Australia - Expat Interview With Claire

Published: 11 Jan at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Australia
Claire is a mother to five kids, a trailing spouse to her husband, and when she gets the time, a freelance writer. Having spent many years dreaming of a life abroad, she got her chance in 2008 when her husband was offered a job in Abu Dhabi. They lived in the sand pit for three years, before heading off again, this time to Western Australia, where they live on a house on legs, in the Perth hills. Having studied for a degree in Anthropology in a former life, Claire is fascinated by the cultural differences she encounters - not just the serious stuff like language, religion and traditions, but the silly things that make every culture bizarrely unique. A year on, she's enjoying Perth, but has an irrational desire to move to Kazakhstan... Claire blogs at Chronicles of a Trailing Spouse... (see listing here).

Me standing on our balcony at our home in the Perth hills...
Me standing on balcony at home in Perth hills

Here's the interview with Claire...

Where are you originally from?
I was born in England, but moved to Ireland when I was ten. In Ireland we lived in Kinvara, in Galway (that's on the west coast and is definitely the best bit!)

In which country and city are you living now?
We're currently living in the Perth hills, in Western Australia.

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
We've been here almost a year now. No idea how long we'll stay, it all depends on my husband's work. I would like to go somewhere else after a year or two - for some reason Kazakhstan really appeals, but my long term plan is to one day buy a house in Italy and spend the winters there. I think I have gypsy blood in me...

Why did you move and what do you do?
In 2008 we left Ireland for the UAE, keen for an adventure, and we spent a fantastic three years there, although my husband's employer became very unreliable, so we eventually started looking around for an alternative. A job offer from Australia very quickly became the solution, and after a few months back in Ireland, we headed for Perth in early January this year.

John is a construction project manager, currently working up in the Pilbarra in a FIFO (fly in fly out) capacity. I am a freelance writer.

Two of my sons on the beach near Dunsborough, down south.
Two of my sons on the beach near Dunsborough, down south
Did you bring family with you?
Yes, we have five children - too many, I know! Emily (11), Oscar (10), Jude (8), Rufus (5) and Hugo (2) - thank god the company has relocated us on both occasions - it ain't cheap flying seven people around the globe!

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
After living in the Middle East, Australia hasn't been too much of a stretch, but of course there are always things we struggle with, not least the fact that we are now living on the opposite side of the planet from our family and home. I studied cultural anthropology in university, and it's only since we started travelling that I'm beginning to really understand what it was all about! I remember learning about Nancy Adler's five stages of culture shock, and not really understanding it. I now see that relocating is a process - you don't arrive to your new country fully formed and ready for it - it is a process that takes time, and for some people they never reach the end of it, and struggle for their entire stay. For me, I love finding myself out of my comfort zone and into something entirely alien. Of course Australia sounds and looks a lot like home in the sense that it's westernised and English speaking, but in many ways it is as foreign as the UAE.

The kids are fantastic at settling into their new environments, and already can sing the Australian national anthem as well as the UAE national anthem - in Arabic! I'm proud to have five little global nomads who take different races, religions and cultures in their stride.

My husband, John, with a couple of the kids outside London Court in Perth City...
My husband, John, with a couple of the kids outside London Court in Perth City...
Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
I belong to the Irish families in Perth facebook group which is a fantastic resource for newcomers. I've met up with some of the women on that, and they are a great bunch of people - very supportive of each other with great advice on how to settle in. As for meeting locals, I joined a writers group when I first arrived, which was great fun, although I hadn't realised when I signed up that the majority of the members were over 65! But what a great group of people! - they did a great deal more chatting than writing, and I learned that many of them came over here from the UK as 'ten pound poms' when they were kids, i.e. the price of the ticket was 10 pounds! I thought that was fantastic, particularly when they shared their experiences about arriving to the bush and moving into houses with spiders and no airconditioning; a big shock coming from the UK!

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Well we live up in the Perth hills, and for me it is the only place in Perth to live. When we first arrived we drove from Yanchep in the north, right down to Mandurah and Secret Harbour in the south, looking for somewhere to live, and it wasn't until we discovered the hills that we felt we could live here. It is very beautiful up here, and Swan Valley is on our door step.

Swan Valley is like a mini Margaret River with tons of wineries, breweries and chocolate factories - it has a very mediteranean feel. My favourite places to go are Taylor's Art and Coffee House, which does the most amazing organic food, but is also an artists studio selling some amazing printed fabrics and paintings. The overall feel is very bohemian, nothing matches, lots of retro furniture, and a really nice vibe.

The Laughin' Barrell is a great place to go too - it's a vinyard and while we are trying the latest vintage, the kids can make their own pizzas or play in the playground.

The Margaret River Chocolate factory is another lovely place to go for lunch, and the kids can watch the chocolate being made through a glass window.

At the top of the hill is Lake Leschenaultia, which is an amazing lake where you can take a boat out or just swim in it. The kids love it up there.

My daughter Emily feeding the parrots at Karri Valley, in Pemberton (down south)
My daughter Emily feeding the parrots at Karri Valley, in Pemberton (down south)
What do you enjoy most about living here?
I love the drama of the hills; the people are friendly and the children are in a wonderful little school in Helena Valley. I like living in a place where there isn't a constant threat of redundancy, that counts for a lot in these uncertain times!

How does the cost of living compare to home?
It is expensive in Perth - rent in particular is problematic. With five children we need a large house, but that means paying upwards of 600 dollars a week so at present we're living in a ridiculously small one - beautiful, but small. Shopping is expensive if you're not smart, which sadly I'm not, I'm also disorganised meaning I tend to shop in my local shop out of convenience which can work out twice the price of going down the road into Coles or Woolies. Eating out is very costly, but for those who are well organised, most parks have free BBQ facilities and families here are well prepared for picnics - they even bring camping furniture! The first time we arrived to a park with a picnic, we looked rather pathetic by comparison, with our plastic bag of shopping and couple of paper plates. I'm getting better at it though!

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
The obvious negative is that we are half a world away from home and family, and it would be better if my husband worked locally - he will soon hopefully. Oh, and the spiders, definitely the spiders! And the bull ants, which bite. And apparently there are snakes around here, athough I've yet to encounter one. Other than that I'm happy to enjoy the experience while we're here.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Bring everything with you! Furnishing a house is expensive here, and often it makes more sense to ship your stuff from home than buy everything once you get here.

It's also best to not compare everything to home - it can be hard not to, that's human nature - but if you can just go with the experience and not fight it, you'll be happier in the long run.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
In the UAE the uncertainty over work was hard to live with, and ultimately the reason why we left. Here in Perth the fact that my husband is away most of the time has undoubtedly been hard for me. I don't spend much time missing home; athough I love Ireland, I know it will still be there when I get back to it. I talk to my siblings on facebook and the phone regularly.

Myself and John having a glass of wine at the Laughin' Barrell winery in Swan Valley
Myself and John having a glass of wine at the Laughin' Barrell winery in Swan Valley
When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?
We repatriated last year - well for nine months anyway - and it was wonderful and sad at the same time. We knew we wouldn't be staying long, and I fell in love with Ireland in a way I hadn't been before. I remember strolling through the wonderful streets of Galway feeling a strong sense of 'these are MY people...this is MY place - I BELONG' and just utterly loving it. No strange outfits, no foreign languages (other than the odd tourist) and an overall sense that this country would love and protect me. Of course I was viewing things through rose tinted spectacles, Ireland can offer us precisely nothing at present, which is a great pity both for us and for it.

When we leave here we will no doubt go somewhere else before we wind up back in Ireland. Who knows where, and that is the best thing about the expat life!

What are your top expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. Go with an open mind, and don't fight it.
  2. Do as much as you can while you're there - I regret bitterly that I never did a desert safari in the UAE - I always felt it hard to justify the cost, but it would be so useful to me now that I'm trying to write a book about my time there.
  3. Get to know local people if at all possible. In the UAE that is pretty hard to do, but in somewhere like Australia it is very easy. Don't confine yourself to your own community, mix it up. My best friend here is a girl from Melbourne and I'm learning so much about Australia just by talking with her. When I asked her was her furniture from Bali, she looked ashamed, looked at the floor and said 'yes, I know, embarrassing eh?' and I couldn't understand what she meant. In Ireland, Bali is exotic and expensive sounding. To her it's as exotic as the UK is to me!

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
I started the blog because my friend had started one - no reason beyond that in the beginning. But it changed my life actually. I realised within a few months that I absolutely loved writing - having spent years wondering what the hell I was going to do when I grew up - I had found something I could do and loved too. Rather cheekily, I sent my blog link to Time Out Dubai magazine, asking if I could write something - anything, and they kindly gave me a regular column. From there I got another regular column with another Dubai based magazine, and I'm still writing them now. I absolutely love doing it.

The blog itself is an eclectic mix of cultural observations, rants about children, and the occasional review about anything which takes my fancy. I like to make people laugh, and like to make fun of not just myself, but some of the things that don't make sense to me being a foreigner. I poke fun but not in a malicious way. I tend to write for other expats more than anyone else since they can relate to my observations. For example, Australian supermarket's stock fresh dog food right next to the sausages (euw!), or that the Aussies don't seem to enjoy wearing footwear - seriously, they actually go out to the shops without bothering to put on so much as a pair of flip flops (or 'thongs' as they call them!). And did you know that some of the local Emirati people in the UAE sit in their cars and beep the horn outside the shops, to demand someone come out and take their order for them - they won't get out of the car themselves! These are the things the guide books won't tell you, but can be a great source of amusement to the newly arrived.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
You can contact me via my blog, on Twitter @Arabiaclaire

Claire blogs at which we recommend a quick visit if you haven't been already. Chronicles of a Trailing Spouse... has an listing here so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with Claire, please also drop her a quick comment below.
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Comments » There is 1 comment

Cass wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks Claire! Have been reading far too many of these interviews, looking to stave off homesickness - this one did it! A rural Queenslander myself, but Perth is near enough psychologically.. (You'd never hear me say that back home!) Currently residing in Bavaria, Germany with darling hubby & two boys. Some days thinking of the harsh sunlight & baking heat of home becomes a physical pain.. And I HATE wearing shoes, let alone winter boots. We will stay for now as it is a wonderful country & opportunity, but we both want our boys to be teenagers in that sun, wearing nothing but boardies for 10mths of the year, with shoes optional. That's livin! All the best & thanks again!

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