New Memory Syndrome

For the rookie expat, every day brings new things to remember – and new memories

For the past five years, living in the south of England, the October half term has meant only one thing to family Little City: Wales.

Each year, we’ve rented a different cottage in a different part of the country and immersed ourselves in its stunning scenery, wildlife, cuisine and beer.

Our decision to holiday locally in the UK was a very deliberate one. When I first met Mrs LC, her parents lived in Botswana. By the time they left southern Africa, we were married with a globetrotting toddler.

But as much as Kid A claims to remember our safaris and the wildlife (and gets hysterically indignant if you doubt her) it’s more likely that her “memories” are based on photos and anecdotes.

Naturally, we can’t wait to take her back there, and bring her brother too. But it’s a long and expensive trip, so had we done it before now they wouldn’t have fully appreciated it. (If you’ve ever seen a child more fascinated by the paper a present’s wrapped in, rather than the present itself, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

So we decided to spend short breaks closer to home; after all, there was enough of the UK we hadn’t explored without worrying about adding exotic stamps to the kids’ passports.

This decision was also right around the time of the financial crisis, when holidaying at home became so de rigeur that it got its own noun – staycation – and we became accidentally trendy.

Those October breaks have been some of the best we’ve had as a family. The pictures from last year’s edition – the kids silhouetted against the fading sun, leaping in the scrub surrounding Strumble Head lighthouse as the wind barrelled in off the Atlantic – bring back powerful, happy memories.

Strumble Head, October 2011

I asked the kids what they remembered of the trip. Amnesiac, for all his short-term memory challenges, is like a steel trap for the longer term. He remembered hearing the story of the local boys who smashed up the lighthouse, which is why it’s now closed to all visitors. (“They ruined it for everyone,” was his succinct summary.)

Because memories are what we use to anchor ourselves to a place, a time, a person. He doesn’t need to remember what colour socks he wore that day, or what brand of toothpaste he used. What stuck with him was a really important life lesson.

There’s a scientific condition – hyperthymesia – where sufferers (and that really is the right word) remember pretty much everything.

For a moment, a skill like that sounds really useful – so you don’t, for example, reintroduce yourself to someone you’ve already met, like I did the other day – but then you start to realise how debilitating it would be.

Forgetting is actually one of our greatest skills. (Homer Simpson expressed it beautifully: “Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.”)

We forget because we have to. It’s how we adapt as a species. We need to identify, extract and retain useful data from a situation or experience, and lose the rest.

But what remains is all the more powerful precisely because it has been edited and selected for retention. And whether they’re triggered by a song, or a word, or a smell, those memories take us right back to a time and place in a way that science fiction can’t ever hope to match.

Any relocation – even if it’s just to the other side of the town where you already live – is a constant process of learning, adapting, editing and remembering. Moving abroad merely exaggerates the relentlessness.

There are practical things to remember – like exactly which unmarked turning leads to your compound; social ones, like how a new colleague takes their tea or who’s got PE today; random ones, like where you can buy antibiotics at 11pm… right now, it’s all being thrown in the mental pot.

And the strange part is that even as our brains are struggling to cope, it’s actually the desire to create different memories that subliminally drove our decision to start a new life abroad in the first place.

Now, Octobers will mean something different to us. And by providing a contrast, a range of options, whatever, then one day the kids can make informed choices for themselves about how and where to spend their leisure time.

This half term has coincided with Eid-al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the two major annual Islamic festivals.

It’s been a public holiday here all week, and thousands of people have left for a short break (I recommend exotic Wales; lovely at this time of year). That’s made the roads markedly less Mad Max than usual. The sun’s still shining.

In short, it’s been a great week to explore and make new memories.

Fuwairit Beach, October 2012

We left Doha for the first time, taking a recommendation from Twitter, a map from another blog and heading north to Fuwairit Beach. Last October, the half term sky was filled with red kites; this year it was kite surfers.

And even when things don’t go according to plan, like your day trip being delayed due to a sandstorm, or you voluntarily walking out of a film before it started for the first time ever, because of the appalling view, you laugh, make a new plan and carry on.

We’ve tried new restaurants, swum in the Arabian Gulf; there have been barbecues and parties; we’ve stared a little too wistfully at the crowded tube trains and rainy London streets in Skyfall from the incongruous surroundings of an air conditioned shopping mall in the desert.

There’s been a lot to take in, and not all of these things will still resonate in a few years’ time. But for now, they’re being added to our ever-expanding collection of Qatar memories.

Move down please, there’s plenty of room.


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