Out and about: an email from Edinburgh

In Out and about we talk to people who currently live or have lived and worked abroad. This week, we talk to Irene-Marie Esser, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Hello, Irene-Marie. From where in South Africa are you, and why did you decide to live abroad?

My husband and I grew up in Johannesburg. We were high school sweethearts and started dating when we were only 16! We both studied at Stellenbosch, then went back to Johannesburg and from there to Pretoria. We moved to Edinburgh in 2013 when our two boys were only nine months and three years old! My husband got a wonderful job opportunity as Laser Device Physics and Engineering professor at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was already a law professor at UNISA and was then appointed as an extraordinary professor to do contract work at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow so that I could look after my children myself.

Edinburgh Castle in the background

Please tell us about your family.

I am married to Daniel and we have two children, Matthew (12) and Christo (10). Matthew will start high school in August (here they go a little earlier) and Christo will then go to Primary 6. The freedom that children have here is remarkable. Matthew takes the bus to school and walks back with his friends; they often stop along the way for a cold drink or sweets.

Irene-Marie, Daniel, Matthew and Christo

You have been living in Edinburgh since 2013. Tell us how you experienced the emigration process. Was it difficult to adapt?

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It’s a huge change. People move for many different reasons. You need to know why you are moving and what you want to get out of it. It’s just a time-consuming process. The administration is very exhausting and one has to be very organised and have a lot of perseverance. It is also very expensive to apply for visas and passports. You must know what you’re getting yourself into.

If one gets a good opportunity and your quality of life will be the same as or better than in South Africa, why not? You can always go back again; nothing is written in stone. But you have to take the chance! You have to keep an open mind. By the grace of God, we are very happy. We fit in well and we often see our family. My mother visits about four times a year and that helps a lot. We also go to South Africa once or twice a year. I often work at South African Universities and that also helps a lot.

We live south of Edinburgh in Morningside, about 15 minutes outside the city. It has a real community feel, with lots of shops and coffee shops, so you get to know many people. I always say Edinburgh is a city with all the advantages of a town. Where we live, the people are exceptionally friendly and always willing to help. We don’t really have help here, so friends help each other and take turns to help each other with the children, for example.

The weather is a different story … One has to get used to literally four seasons in one day. In the summer, it only gets dark after eleven at night, but in winter, it is already dark by the time we pick up the kids in the afternoon. I like winter weather, but here it sometimes lasts too long, making us long for South Africa’s glorious sun!

So, was it a shock? Not really, but it definitely is different and exciting.

Do you still speak Afrikaans?

Of course. We are Afrikaans! My children are 100% fluent in Afrikaans, and Afrikaans is the only language we speak at home. The children sometimes translate things directly from English or vice versa, and then we have a good laugh! For example, they will say: “Die mense het huis geskuif.” Or: “Kan ons die kos in die groot plate skep?” They do notice quickly if someone mixes their language!

Tell us what kind of work you do and how the work culture in Edinburgh differs from that in South Africa.

As I already mentioned, my husband and I are university professors. I have been a Corporate Law and Governance professor at the University of Glasgow since 2015. We both enjoy our work very much. The challenges, interaction and exposure are amazing! The work environment is generally very accommodating regarding one’s family, and most people respect one’s time away from work. The academy is also quite flexible, which helps a lot with children. It is sometimes difficult to work, look after the children, cook and clean the house without help, but after almost ten years we are used to it. Daniel and I make a good team!

The University of Glasgow where I work as a professor of law

I still have many contacts in South Africa and am currently an extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University. It’s great to still be able to work with South Africans, and I have a bit of a niche area in terms of work because I can explain both the United Kingdom’s and South Africa’s positions. I do a lot of training in corporate governance, and my knowledge of the two countries makes it much more relevant.

How does the education system in Scotland differ from that in South Africa?

It differs quite a lot. So far, I only have primary school exposure, but it is already very different. For example, there are no exams, tests or homework. All assessment is unprepared and based on the work done in the previous weeks. Children are placed in groups for maths in line with how advanced they are, but they are in one class for everything else.

They do not have specific subjects such as History or Geography; the work is linked to themes, and they learn that way. Children are given a lot of freedom (especially regarding their thinking and ideas), but there is still discipline. They are not very strict about hair and nails, though (definitely not the way my teachers were, haha!). Children generally read a lot here (probably because of the weather!) and have a very good general knowledge and awareness of what is going on in the world. The only academic pressure comes from the child himself or from the parents, not from the school. Top performers are never openly announced.

Are there any South African shops nearby where you can buy comfort food like biltong?

There aren’t many here in Edinburgh. At least I can easily get hold of Mrs Ball’s chutney, and my mum always bakes us rusks! There is a place about 20 minutes from us that makes excellent biltong, so we go there sometimes.

Are there a lot of South Africans in Edinburgh and do you get together sometimes?

As far as I know, there are quite a few (now not as many as in London, but still many), and meetings are sometimes organised. I have some very good South African friends who live in Edinburgh, but most of my friends are from Edinburgh. Some even refer to my children as their children’s nephews! It is wonderful and very special.

What do you miss most about South Africa?

My family!

Anything you would like to add?

One will always be able to find fault with your surroundings, and one sometimes questions your choices, but in the end, you determine your happiness yourself. Of course, it’s easier when things go right and are as you hoped they would be. We are grateful for a wonderful life here, but we were also very happy in South Africa. It is a choice and a mindset. For us, happiness lies in a life with God, a close family that does things together, family visits, safety, and daily life with ordinary things such as work, activities, eating and sleeping.

Would I do it again? Yes, definitely. Was it difficult? Yes, definitely. Are there still hard days? Yes, definitely! But as my youngest always says: “That’s life.”

Greetings from a sunny Edinburgh, Scotland, a city and country that I have come to love – from the people and the incredible nature to the coffee, castle, snow and late summer evenings.

Thanks for the chat!

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