Vincent: A Brand New Sky
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to South Africa, etc.
Hi! My name is Vincent, I’m a French guy in his mid-30s, working in Finance for a pharmaceutical company, who has done his fair share of travel and who has settled in Johannesburg a year ago, in April 2014 after having spent 5 years in Barcelona.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Actually, it started when we took the decision to move to Johannesburg. We had always considered Barcelona as our home and had no intention to leave, so when the job offer was proposed to us, we were taken by surprise. Our first reaction was to start looking for information on the web. And of course, from the very beginning, we came across these horrendous stories about Johannesburg. We were about to give up and turn down the offer when we finally found out a few blogs (2summers.net and storyofbing.com) that really helped us to picture how our life in Jozi would be. This, combined to some testimonials received from a few friends who lived there, convinced us. This is what got me started: With my blog I wanted to add my shares and help as much as I could to change the perception of this beautiful city.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
That’s a tricky question! But yes, there are a few posts that I cherish particularly. Most of the expat blogs you find out there will tell you what to do in the city, or where to go. I do that as well, but from time to time, I try to add stories and reflections showing how, as a European, I connect to the city and its people. South Africa is still healing from its wounds, and this makes it a unique country to observe, especially when you come with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. These stories about my cleaning lady: I learned something valuable today or the kid who wanted to become a train driver: The true weight of heritage have an emotional dimension that you will not find in the posts about the places I visited.
Tell us about the ways your new life in South Africa differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Actually, getting used to our new country was rather a smooth process, to our own surprise. I thought we would miss my strolls in Barcelona, that we would feel confined in our own home, that we would not dare to step out at night. But very quickly, we adapted to our new life, and started breaking the boundaries that people had set for us. Both my partner and I are very curious and very stubborn, so if you tell us not to do something, sooner or later, we will try it, even if it means we might end up getting burnt. This really helped us here. I know so many expats who haven’t come out of their clusters, who haven’t visited the CBD. When I think of this, I feel sad because this is the whole purpose of an expatriation: to discover a new country and a new culture. And this cannot be done by staying at home.
There are two other elements that made it easy for us: first of all, we came to South Africa knowing that we would not live the same life as in Europe. This might sound obvious, but I believe it is the main reason why people face some challenges when settling in a new country. Secondly, the people in South Africa are very curious about foreigners who want to settle in, and make it very easy for us to adapt. And as for the challenges, there are not the ones we expected, as you can see from my latest posts such as: 5 main challenges that await you!
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in South Africa? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
You’re never fully prepared for such a life changing decision, and don’t even try to be, because you’re bound to fail. But when your company backs you up, it always makes things much easier. In our specific case, what was instrumental to our smooth transition was to speak extensively of our relocation to everyone we knew before moving. It’s amazing to see the number of people who actually know someone living in Johannesburg. Some friends gave us the phone number of friends they had there, and from the very beginning, we found “our people”. This really helped. And of course, I fully agree with all the statements from my fellow bloggers about the visa. Getting a general work permit visa is next-to-impossible nowadays. So plan in advance, and in case you’re not transferring from a company abroad, seriously consider what your plans are in case you don’t get the precious document.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Ok, this is not a hilarious experience per se, but it gives the measure of the culture shock we are experiencing sometimes, and clearly indicates where the country is coming from. When we arrived to Jozi, we decided to get a dog, and we are now the proud owners of a French bulldog. Of course, as a way to celebrate our commitment to South Africa, we decided name him Thabo, which means joy or happiness in many of the local languages. (And which, by the way, is also the name of one of the previous South African presidents). This was without considering that in a country that is still healing from apartheid, where for decades the black population had been systematically treated worse than most of the dogs of the white families, it would not be very well received. We’ve had such a wide range of experiences in the park when people found out what the name of the dog was that I could write a sociological study about it. I even blogged about it: The name dilemma. Anyways, when we finally decided to have a second one, an English bulldog this time, we name her Montserrat, to avoid any awkward situation. At least as long as we live in Africa…
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in South Africa?
- Don’t believe half the stories you’ve heard, and don’t let anyone who has not come to the country influence your decisions. People are, unfortunately, wrongly biased about South Africa in general, and about Johannesburg in particular.
- Plan your visa in advance, pray for the best and prepare for the worst. Be very clear about what your plans are in case you don’t get a working permit.
- It’s not all about Cape Town and Kruger. There are many other gems in South Africa, less known and much more fun to explore. Johannesburg is one of them!
How is the expat community in South Africa? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
There is a big expat community in Johannesburg, but unfortunately, it usually embodies all the bad stereotypes the community has always been associated with. In a country where domestic labor is so cheap and where expats are enclosed in secured clusters, you become very quickly acquainted with your neighbors, and before you know it, it’s all about going to the golf club on Saturday morning for the men and hitting the spa salon for the ladies. And that’s a pity. Luckily, we’ve been able to find a place outside of such clusters, which I strongly recommend. It’s then just a matter of going out, through InterNations, meet up or Instagram, to start finding like-minded people which will happen sooner than you expect, believe me.
How would you summarize your expat life in South Africa in a single, catchy sentence?
Jozi is my playground: Come play with me!