Expat guides are notorious for not agreeing on anything, from the best method of learning a language, to where to go for the most ‘authentic’ local meal.
But there is one topic on which there is an unequivocal consensus.
When it comes to the matter of what to do on your first full day as an expat, they speak as with one voice:
In order to best familiarise yourself with the customs, traffic laws, judicial process and social codes of your new host country, simply bundle two confused, sleepy kids into a car, drive halfway across an unfamiliar city and present yourself at the Airport Traffic Police Station before 8am.
Welcome to Qatar.
Our unexpectedly early start was the consequence of the fender bender Mrs LC had caused the previous morning on her way to collect us at the airport.
She had been in a heightened emotional state to begin with. After all, ten weeks of separation from her family were only minutes away from ending. She could be forgiven for being distracted.
Added to that, she was driving a borrowed car. A borrowed, left hand drive, automatic truck. With a stick shift.
Not home territory, to put it mildly.
My wife has many admirable qualities, but geographical skills or a sense of direction are not among them. Having been carless for her first couple of months in town, she’d borrowed a ride from a colleague a few weeks ago whilst they were away on holiday.
On her first day behind the wheel, a quick trip to the supermarket turned into a two-hour mystery tour of Doha.
On her second day, she bought a sat nav.
But when she found herself at Departures instead of Arrivals earlier this week, and then got lost trying to get from one to the other, her thinking wasn’t at its clearest. Having put the truck into neutral at a red light whilst she tried to check the GPS, she’d then flipped it into what she thought was Drive, and hit the gas when the lights changed.
Only she’d slipped it casually into Reverse instead, and hammered home her mistake into the grill of the car behind.
Aside from an unharmed but hacked-off Toyota driver, it was a distinctly humdrum prang. Even the Police – who by law have to be summoned to all road accidents – were distinctly underwhelmed. “Why are you crying?” the officer asked Mrs LC. “This is nothing!” (It’s true.)
But when you’re on your way to collect your family after two and a half long months apart, it must have seemed like the end of the world.
Her first call was to some colleagues, who immediately flew into action bringing assistance and back up vehicles. She then called me to let me know that she was ok and that her colleagues were on their way to collect us.
I took in the news in a kind of daze. Once Mrs LC’s safety had been assured, I knew the next priority was to keep the kids calm. Adding the words ‘mummy’ and ‘accident’ into their current state would have been like driving them up to the door of Disneyland and then performing a screeching u-ey. Whilst laughing.
So I told them mummy’s car had broken down – “Today of all days!” I mugged, with added eye-rolling – and that some of her colleagues were on their way to get us.
And so then we waited some more. Only at least this time we knew there was a sort of end in sight.
If you’d seen me that morning, staring mutely into the distance from behind two overflowing trolleys while the kids hared around the terminal building, you might have looked down to the floor for a hat to put a few coins in, so mute and still was I.
But it was all I could do until the cavalry arrived – and with them, a surprise. They’d brought Mrs LC herself, and she arrived looking just as she had when we left: standing in an airport terminal, her eyes filled with tears.
That old Circle of Life, eh? Gets you every time.
She then went and stood in front of the kids, who genuinely failed to notice her for a few seconds, before Kid A looked up from the magazine she was reading to her brother, and said the words every mother must long to hear from their eldest child after such an extended separation.
“You’re not supposed to be here.” Which is one way of putting it.
And with that, parents, kids, colleagues and luggage were split across two cars, and we set off across this little city, heading for the flat we’re temporarily calling home.
It might not have happened the way we’d imagined it, but we’re all back together again at last, and as a bonus we got a free trip to a police station out of it, too.
As for restorative justice, turns out it’s like a real-life game of Monopoly: “Minor traffic accident. Pay 100 Riyals.” (That’s about £18.)
Six minutes and one payment later (was it a fine? an admin fee? who knows…) and we were on our way back home, ready to start our new lives.