Pay, Pack and Follow: The Art of Swanning

Uprooting your life to somewhere totally new doesn't mean you can't keep your days fulfilled, as Drusilla Gillen discovers.

by / Published: 11 Oct 2017

Pay, Pack and Follow: The Art of Swanning
Photo: iStock

"It’ll be amazing", he said. "You’re ready for new horizons", he said. "Think of all the different types of plants", he said. And I agreed. I agreed to walk away from my successful garden design and landscaping company, months after winning Silver at the Chelsea Flower Show.

But being the daughter of a diplomat, growing up with the adage of ‘Pay, Pack and Follow’, I followed my military husband abroad; moving, lock, stock and two dippy-dogs half a world away, initially to El Paso, Texas.  

It has been eight years now since we left the UK, moving every two or three years, from Texas, to Rome, to Naples and now to Penang with each move subject to the ‘whims’ of the service. But the initial five months wasn’t at all easy. My confidence came from my success of what I did for a living.

In England, I was my own boss, the owner of a well-respected company I'd built from scratch. We built beautiful gardens; I had a large number of strapping young chaps carry out my instructions (usually); I had true work satisfaction and I earned a more than respectable amount of money.

Suddenly I was just someone’s wife with no status, no income and no identity.  Rather than a day full of activity and achievement, I was faced with the sole stimulation of supermarket shopping, cleaning and cooking...

It took a lot of soul searching to realise I hadn’t lost my identity; I was still the same person, still with the same faults and the same qualities. I was just moving into a new chapter of my life.

Slowly, I began to perfect the art of ‘swanning’. It is something I recommend to all who are taking any time off from their normal work, or who have followed spouses to overseas postings. In all seriousness, swanning is not to be confused with laziness. The skill lies in not being idle, but keeping your days full only with those things that you want to do.

In my case, this was bullying local landscapers, architects and interior designers into using my garden designs; learning more about photographic image manipulation; learning to play mahjong; revelling in organising road trips to places I’d only ever read about; throwing myself into learning how to play tennis; speaking a new language and daft though this may sound, even started cooking some of Julia Child’s recipes – but then you really do need three hours in the kitchen for those. That said her beef bourguignon is something quite magnificent.

I've learnt that there is much to enjoy in each place we live; quite apart from the lack of stress in not being in full-time employment, I come across something to make me laugh at least once a day.

If it’s not being asked (in Texas) what language we speak in England, it’s comparing Penang driving to the infinitely worse lunacy of that of Naples, but at least none here carry guns like they do in Texas. Then of course, adding ‘lah’ to end of every sentence.

Each move is filled with changes; from the size of our house, the job I do, or whether I work at all to the accents around me, the places to visit and the places to shop. Each country is a new set of delights and challenges.

There is no moral to this story, it is just one woman's experiences of a nomadic life and how long since I've realised that I'm more than just a garden designer. I clung onto my perceived identity thinking it was all I was. I am now enjoying life more that I thought possible and without wishing to sound corny, the sky's the limit when you have time to look up and see it.