Moving Abroad: The Must-Read “Expat Bible”

I have always said that I started Joburg Expat mainly to help other people in my shoes, because before we moved we had such little information. And it is exactly that aspect of my blog that has given me the most gratification. I love hearing from people who’re preparing a move and have come across my blog and find it invaluable.

But a local blog, while a great start, is just one tool in the soon-to-be expat’s toolbox. What’s also a must-have, in my opinion, is a more general How-To manual for expats, no matter where you move. There are certain general topics – schools, healthcare, the trailing spouse – that apply universally, and one can learn a great deal from someone who’s moved around a bit and is willing to share (and can write!).

One such “expat bible” is Clara Wiggins’ The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. At $3.99 on the Kindle, it’s an absolute steal, in my opinion. See below why I liked it so much and highly recommend it to anyone contemplating a move overseas, whether they’re the trailing spouse – excuse me, expat partner – or the main breadwinner. The fact that Clara has since then moved to – you guessed, it South Africa! – is an added bonus.

Book Review: The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide

When you move abroad to accompany your partner or spouse on a foreign assignment, who are you? Simply an expat, or the expat spouse, the trailing spouse, the glamorous expat wife? This is a question Clara Wiggins poses right at the beginning of her book The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide.

“The ‘trailing’ word is hated by many as it suggests someone sort of pathetically following after the successful worker, limply hanging around in the margins, just sort of being there while your spouse works on his or her brilliant career,”

is what she has to say about that, perhaps an indication why she chose to forgo the “trailing” label for the title of her book.

I knew right off the bat that I was going to like this book when I learned that Clara “spends her days writing, looking out of the window and picking things up off the floor.” As one who also spends an inordinate amount of time on picking things up off the floor, I knew that I had not only found a kindred (expat) spirit, but that whatever it was I would learn about expat partners, I would probably be getting a few good laughs while doing the learning.

I was not disappointed during the remainder of the book. Clara’s voice is cheerful, uplifting, occasionally funny, and she keeps it moving along at a nice clip. To me, that’s immensely important. I have to like the author if I’m going to stick with them for 300 pages of a self-help book, otherwise… sorry, there just isn’t enough time in my day to spend on uninspired reading.

Here is an example of her tongue-in-cheek humor:

“And some of you might not actually think the needs of your children are that great – in which case, well done, you have passed one of life’s parenting tests – you will not let your kids dictate your life (goes off to change pink cup for blue cup on demand of youngest daughter. Sighs).”

Add to her writing skills and sense of humor the fact that Clara has lived in 11 countries – make that 12, now she’s arrived in South Africa – and you will trust that she speaks with authority about the expat life. Some of it as a child moving from posting to posting with her British family – she was born in Cuba – and the latter part of it moving her own family of four between different continents. One of the highlights of her own experience is the story how they were evacuated from Pakistan after the Marriott hotel bombing most of us remember well from the news.

So trust me when I sway the author’s own credentials and voice are a major strength of this book.

expat partner survival guide

The second strength of The Expat Partner Survival Guide is the voice of other participants. Clara has collected hundreds of personal stories from other expats and expat partners, interweaving them very smoothly with her own narrative. For me it felt a bit like coming across long-lost friends, as I recognized quite a few of the people she interviewed from my own connections in the expat world, like Maria from I Was an Expat Wife and Apple Gidley of Expat Life Slice by Slice.

The huge bonus of these vignettes by other expats in the most far-flung corners of the world is that collectively they cover a great number of countries, so you get quite a bit of country-specific information in the process as well as a wide range of opinions on how certain questions should be tackled – for instance whether to give birth abroad or return home, what time of year not to arrive in a new country, or how to think outside of the box to find meaningful employment abroad.

Third, the links at the end of each chapter to websites/blogs/books of note for that particular topic are invaluable. The reason it’s taken me rather long to finish the book is that I was constantly sidetracked on exploration of further information, always spot-on and informative. The fact that they are all listed in a tidy summary according to topic, rather than sprinkled throughout the book, makes it very easy to go back and explore later, leaving you in control and organized. In fact, Clara has gone one step beyond by generously re-listing all those links on her website for easy lookup, chapter by chapter – what an awesome resource to her readers.

I like that Clara is always ready with sound advice you can translate one-on-one to your situation. For instance:

“If they’ve been pleading for a pet, perhaps this is the time to tell them you’ll get one”

regarding the dicey topic of when and how to tell your children you’re moving and leaving their friends behind. Sometimes she is outright philosophical.

“Many a family have fallen foul of the lure of places like Australia… only to find that the problems you have at home tend to come with you,”

she says at some point, which I know to be oh so true. You can’t escape everyday life, no matter where you are. Here is another good one:

“I’ve always thought arriving in a new country is a bit like starting university. You spend your first six months or so madly making friends with anyone who will have you, and the next six months trying to shake some of them off.”

And here, once again, the kindred spirit – she must be my spiritual twin:

“Some of us are born list-makers. I, for example, seem to make lists for everything. I am even one of those annoying people who writes things on lists that I’ve already done just for the satisfaction of seeing that it’s been accomplished.”

The book is organized into chapters along the following topics: before you go, the move, arrival and early days, accommodations and transport, shopping and keeping safe, domestic staff, settling in, culture shock, relationship with your partner, Third Culture Kids, schooling, pets, work, health, if it all goes wrong, male trailing spouse and same-sex partner, and repatriation. I’ve covered these exact topics on my blog in various intensities and know that Clara has covered them well. In these chapters you will find everything you’re racking your brain about before the big move – and occasionally things you may not be thinking about but should!

Clara doesn’t shy away from the more difficult topics, like same-sex spouses, expat partners divorcing while living abroad, or catastrophes and natural disasters. Her mantra: Even though you can’t know what’ll happen, you can do a few things to prepare for certain events, and here is what you can do…

Even though The Expat Partner Survival Guide gives you plenty to think about, it never feels overwhelming. Throughout the book you feel calm and confident and perhaps a bit excited about all the possibilities. It’s upbeat and informative at the same time. At some stage Clara even distills her advice down to three pieces of the most important advice for expats and their partners.

But I’m not going to divulge that here, you’ll have to read for yourself to find out.


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