In this guest post, InterNations Founder Malte explains what it means to relocate with a family of six from Germany to South Africa and shares some tips on moving with children. Previously, he discussed his expat experience from a business perspective in this article.
After years spent in Munich, relocating to Cape Town let him put his expat shoes back on and relive the experience of our community members. A customer-centric mindset was also essential to persuade four legally non-competent, but very powerful stakeholders to join him in South Africa — his children.
In my previous role as a television reporter, I had also lived abroad. Yet, packing my suitcase for South Africa last year felt extremely different from my past relocations. Since then, I had not only founded InterNations, but I had also become a dad. I now have four kids, aged ten, eight, five, and three.
I knew that moving to Cape Town would have a huge impact on their lives. Yes, even if it was only for a year. Children have a very different concept of time, after all.
Make sure you inform your kids as early as possible
Unfortunately, our plans to involve them in the relocation process as early as possible actually failed. There were too many uncertainties, including whether we’d be able to go at all, which kept us from sharing anything.
It was only two months before we were to leave for Cape Town that we could break the news. We sat our children down in the living room. When they heard that they’d have to pack their bags for South Africa very soon, they weren’t happy at all.
Sell the decision, but manage expectations
The oldest one protested because she wanted to spend the rest of elementary school with her friends in Munich. Our second-oldest then started crying as well because he was taking his cues from his sister. The toddler had no idea what was going on.
Only our third child seemed excited. He wanted to leave right away “to see the lions and elephants”, so some expectation management was required there, too.
We spent a lot of time “selling” the decision to the older kids. This involved explaining both my professional motivation and why we believed it would be good for us as a family. Eventually, the strategy worked.
Involve your children in the preparations
I’d say packing is the perfect opportunity to involve your kids and share some of the decision-making.
Every family member had to make three piles. One for items to give to others or to throw away, one for things that would go into storage, and one for things we’d take along.
The last pile was the smallest by far, because we were only allowed to take one bag or suitcase each. It was a difficult exercise for everyone. Still, I think it really helped my children focus on what was most important to them.
Of course, we had to advise them on practical things, such as clothing. They were the ones, however, who were responsible for selecting favorite toys, books, and cuddly toys. They also had to decide which possessions to donate to a local charity, so that other children would get a chance to play with them.
Choose schools and daycare close to your home
When you have four kids, you should never underestimate the logistics involved. We therefore wanted to center our life in Cape Town around the school, and to find a house and nurseries for the younger ones nearby. The plan didn’t work out completely, though.
Since we were going to stay for only one year, it was best for the two older ones to attend a German school. They wouldn’t have to follow lessons in a different language, and local schools would be ready to accept their academic transcripts upon our return to Munich.
The schooling matter was the easy part of relocation, in fact. I just needed to reach out to the school and ask about their admission requirements. Luckily, they had two places available at the time.
My third child, however, has to be driven to the German kindergarten. Initially, we had sent him to an Afrikaans-speaking one closer to our new home, but that didn’t work out. After a week of him being unable to interact with the other kids, we sent him to the German daycare instead. Very young kids can learn a new language effortlessly, but at four and now five, he was already a bit old for that.
Our youngest, on the other hand, is thriving in an English-language playgroup. She used to attend a German-Spanish nursery in Munich — German and Spanish being her native languages. And she now fully immerses herself in English every day!
Keep cool about the first day at the new school
We were slightly nervous when we dropped off the two older ones at school on their first day, especially after their initial reluctance to relocate. They hadn’t been too thrilled about having to wear a school uniform, for example, as this is very uncommon in Germany.
But, as we were relieved to hear, they turned out to like their new school — probably even better than their old one in Munich. Even the school uniforms soon became a normal part of their morning routine.
Though the school follows the German curriculum, its approach to education is more “Anglo-Saxon”. The school offers lots of extracurricular activities, from sports to music lessons. I find this model much more convenient for the parents, too. In Germany, similar activities would take place at sports and music clubs scattered across Munich. For a family of six, transportation can be a bit of a challenge.
Since my kids are now attending these activities on campus, they were able to integrate and make friends at school easily.
Enjoy the benefits of moving together as a family
Of course, there are moments when the kids want to return home. For example, my oldest son got upset because he really wanted to celebrate his birthday in the Allianz Arena, Munich’s largest football stadium and home to the FC Bayern football team, which is obviously not going to happen here.
Yet, they have learned to adjust — moving to another country, living in an environment where few people speak their native languages, switching schools, picking up new hobbies, and finding new friends. More importantly, we have all learned to view moving abroad as an everyday adventure that has brought our family closer together.
And I’m very happy that even my most critical stakeholders are now fully on board with Project Cape Town!
Image credit: InterNations / iStockphoto / private (Malte Zeeck) / Shutterstock