Picture me, January 2020. I’m standing at the self-service checkout till in a Tesco, wrapped in a coat that is designed for people hiking to the North Pole. I’m still cold. But the bigger problem is the queue of angry people behind me, growing longer by the minute. I am silently pleading with the self-service checkout robot to allow me to pay for a packet of McVitie’s dark chocolate digestive biscuits.
I have been in the UK for one week. I am tired and lonely and cold, and this packet of chocolate digestive biscuits feels like the last thing anchoring me to sanity.
But the self-service checkout robot will not allow me to buy this packet of digestive biscuits. It scolds me in a smooth, recorded woman’s voice. ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area.’
I try rescanning the biscuits and putting them back on the scale. ‘Please remove last item,’ says the robot.
The queue of angry people is growing longer by the minute. There is only one working self-service checkout machine, and the clerk is AWOL. The woman in the front of the queue exhales loudly through her nose. An audible exhale is British for ‘I wish great harm to you and every person you’ve ever met’.
I remove the biscuits to rescan them. Now the voice says, ‘Item removed from bagging area. Return item to bagging area before continuing.’
A child of nine, who no doubt has been confidently scanning his groceries for years, rolls his eyes at me. An actual eye-roll is British for ‘you are the worst person who has ever existed on this or any planet, and I hope your face is slowly eaten off by leeches’.
I put the biscuits back on the scale. The recorded voice echoes through the store. ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area.’ So much scorn is being projected in my direction from two dozen queuing Brits that I’m in danger of being boiled alive in my skin. I think, Well, at least I’ll die warm.
A clerk finally comes to my rescue, waving a magic tag thingy to shut up the robot voice and force it to accept my biscuits. ‘You’ve got to make sure it’s scanned before you put it in the bagging area,’ he tells me, in the same voice you’d use to tell toddlers you have to put your pants on before your shoes.
I nod, shamefaced, as the clerk vanishes back into the depths of the store, leaving me with my nightmare audience of angry queuing British people all wishing me various painful deaths. But I am so close to success (i.e. sitting on my couch, plugging my loneliness with chocolate biscuits). All I need to do now is pay.
I pull out my bank card. I tap it on the unfamiliar card reader. It doesn’t respond, but I feel my phone buzz in my pocket, which must be the transaction going through. Victory! I pick up my biscuits and turn to leave, triumphant in my hour of courage.
The recorded voice rings out through the store.
‘Item removed from bagging area. Return item to bagging area before continuing.’
The entire queue groans.
I abandon the biscuits on the shelf and run home.
A week ago, I was a competent thirty-something-year-old adult who basically had her shit together. Today, I’m the person having a meltdown in a Tesco because I can’t figure out how to buy a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits.
This is what it is like to move to a new country: it means starting from scratch, completely. It means having to relearn how to see a doctor, how to make friends, how to pay your taxes, how to be polite, how to go to a restaurant, how to buy biscuits.
It’s exhausting. It’s heartbreaking. It’s expensive as heck.
It’s also one of the best things I’ve ever done.
But back then, returning to my sad, cold, biscuitless flat, I was starting to wonder if moving to England was all a huge mistake. At least the hardest part is over, I reassured myself.
The universe laughed at me. It was January 2020.
If you're a regular reader of this newsletter, you know that my partner, my cat and I moved to the UK three-and-a-half years ago. I’ve helped a dozen friends to make the same move since then and I can tell you with certainty: moving countries is bloody hard, and there’s no guidebook.
But there should be!
So (with your help) I wrote one. And it's going to be on your shelves on 24 August.
Moving to the UK: A Concise Guide for South Africans will take you through the whole process of disassembling your life in South Africa and moving to the UK. Inside, you'll find helpful tips, funny anecdotes and to-do lists to keep you on track. This guide covers everything from discussing whether moving is the right choice for you, to the practicalities of finding a job and a visa, to the cultural quirks of British life (yes, they really are obsessed with tea), equipping you with everything you need to know about fitting in on this weird, adorable island.
No one should have to do this alone, so I’m also inviting people to join The Newcomers’ Club, an online community of brave souls who’ve also taken the plunge and moved across the world. There, you’ll be able to download resources, share tips and commiserate with other Saffas about how much you miss Wacky Wednesdays. And you can join the club right now!
You're the first people I'm inviting, so there's not a lot of chatter over there just yet, but feel free to start a conversation and ask any questions you have about moving, to kick things off.
The book is specifically written for South Africans, but the Newcomer's Club is for anyone who's moved to the UK. Please do share this invite with whoever you think might find it useful.
If you're one of the total lunatics who's considered moving to the UK, I'm looking forward to seeing you on the Newcomer's Club!
Moving to the UK: A Concise Guide for South Africans will be out on 24 August.
Wishing you tweed, tabloids and tea,