Thursday, 6 January 2011

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing...Karen Phillips

Our first guest blogger of 2011 is freelance writer, Karen Phillips who shares a heart-rending account on dealing with the loss of a loved-one and the struggle of whether to stay-put in a foreign country or to go back home.

Should I stay or should I go?

We were lifestyle expats my husband and I; we didn’t move abroad to a job, we didn’t leave our country for money or love of anyone other than each other. We left it for the fun of it. For gentle adventures, discovering new countries and building the kind of houses no one else would bother with and just for the joy of having a whole world to play in.

We picked slightly offbeat places, a little strip of an island off Mexico, a traditional village in Turkey on the Aegean coast. Places with an appealing quirkiness. We built a villa in Mexico overlooking the great Mayan Reef and then a boutique hotel in Turkey in the ecological village of Kirazli and then having fallen in love with the village we took on a complicated rebuild of an old stone house, turning a tumbledown heap into a characterful home. And then things turned for the worse.

One warm spring evening, whilst sipping tea with the neighbours on their porch, looking up at the minaret of the mosque against the blue Aegean sky and listening to the surf sound wave of the wind through the pine forests that surround our village, he died. With no warning, he just passed away.

I flew him back to the UK for the funeral and then I wandered around my house there like a little wraith and all everyone ever said to me was “You’ll be coming home for good now then.” It wasn’t a question; it was assumed that I would now come back.

I felt as though I was supposed to creep quietly back into my old life, the normal life, the one I had before we went off junketing irresponsibly around the world. As if my expat life had been one long holiday with no real meaning and now it was over and I should sensibly retire back to the UK. And I just didn’t want to do that.

We struggle enough with feelings of failure and guilt and a sense of being diminished when we are bereaved, to give up my life overseas would have compounded that, it would have made me feel that the things Phil and I did and the choices we had made were bad ones, ones that lead to him dying!

Because, you see, all the things I loved about being in another country were still there, the landscape, the beauty, the culture, the food, the sense of exploring and adventure. Those hadn’t gone away in the same way that the reasons we went abroad in the first place hadn’t gone away, the UK still felt weirdly controlling, heavily regulated, watchful but detached, and it really wasn’t home any more. So I came back to Turkey and my stone house in my little village and I set about living the life we had chosen.

There are a lot of stereotypes about expats, that they are hard drinking party animals in the tax free desert states; that in the retirement havens under the Mediterranean sun they are fixed income moaners propping up the bar and putting the world to rights, rubbishing Blighty and their new home in equal measure. And in some respects that is true, it wouldn’t be a stereotype if there wasn’t an element of truth in it although god knows I’ve always been a useless drinker myself! But I’ll tell you one thing about expats, boy do they rally round when you need them.

In the small communities overseas you find a deep and overwhelming kindness. At home in Wales, a country famed for close communities, not even the local vicar bothered to call out and see me and it took my next door neighbour 14 months to offer his condolences, whilst here on the outer fringes of Britishness people called, and offered help, and kept offering, and kept helping, and kept caring whilst I went through the long long process of grieving. They do it not just because they are intrinsically kind but because they know that chances are, one day, the choice I made they will have to make themselves. Will I stay or will I go when I am alone?

I chose to stay because whilst I lost half myself when my husband died, it turns out that the half that remained was the bit of me that he liked most, the bit that is interested in everything, the bit that wonders why and where and how and wants to make things and learn things and finds endless fascination in new countries and societies and the way they function.

There is nothing wrong with returning home to family and friends when you lose your partner, it is immensely comforting to have the option, but it is only one option and it isn’t an automatic choice. There are women like me everywhere, remaking themselves after bereavement, but choosing to do it in challenging, stimulating, foreign places.

It is nearly three years since Phil died and whilst there are still bad days when I can't hold back the tears, I am comforted by the fact that I didn’t throw away everything we valued, I still have that spirit of discovery, I still believe that life is too short (hell yes!) to watch it happening to someone else. I am what he made me, a modern nomad, and I’m going to keep being what he wanted us to be, world citizens.

About the author

Karen Phillips is a freelance writer and researcher living in Kirazli Koy in Aegean Turkey. She will write most things for money but draws the line at advertising blurb for off-plan property because she’d never feel clean again. She is a former social care professional and property developer who with her late husband specialised in one off relocation projects abroad. She writes a popular blog on living in Turkey called Being Koy, which can be found at You can also follow Karen on Twitter @Kirazlikoy.


  1. WOW. Fantastic blog, very heart felt. Thank you for sharing that with us.

  2. Beautifully stated. While I haven't experienced the emotional turmoil of losing a loved one, I've found that "should I stay or should I go" dilemma to be an omnipresent part of the expatriate experience. No matter how settled I feel in my home abroad (coincidentally for me, in Wales), a bit of me wonders, "Is now my time to return home?" I hope that someday I can have a clear answer to that question, but I fear it will never totally go away.

    -John F. O'Sullivan

  3. Thanks for your comment John. Agree that the decision of whether to stay or go will always be a question for those living abroad. When is it a good time to call it a day and go back home? Timings can vary greatly from person to person.

    Had a look at your blog as well. Looks great and added to our blog roll :0

  4. Beautifully and bravely written. We've justed started our journey but, no doubt, will have to face the same dilemma at some point in the future.I truly admire Karen's candour.

  5. For a lot of ex-pats, myself included, our domicile of choice becomes home. On our return for short breaks we miss what we have left in our adopted country. There will perhaps be a time when we become a bit disillusioned and then the decision may be 'where to next?' This is such a personal subject with no clear one-size-fits-all answer.

    Many thanks to Karen for such a beautiful and powerfully written piece.

  6. A touching blog! I'm not living abroad, but seven years ago, I lost my husband of 30+ years to heart disease. He was the love of my life, and I couldn't imagine life without him. After his death, people made assumptions about what I would or should do. (Travel overseas on my own? They'd say, "Oh no, you shouldn't do that!") Well, I'm living my life now . . . with my choices. Our lives have chapters, and like yours, one of mine came to a heartbreaking end -- but a new chapter began. I am once again happy. Always follow your heart.

  7. Thank for sharing. Such beautifully piece written from the heart.


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