Here today, gone tomorrow – the temporary nature of expat life hovers ominously into view
In pursuit of my new year’s resolution, I have struck up more conversations this week than I would otherwise consider advisable.
The low point was finding myself discussing industrial sewing machines with a tailor who’d turned up early for an appointment with Mrs LC. My knowledge of that subject would generously be described as ‘slender’, so it was only seconds before we’d exhausted any common ground and arrived at an awkward silence, a destination I know only too well.
Oh, the joys.
Elsewhere, however, the word has got out and a social life is emerging from the dust: dinner invitations have been made, some sort of Ball has been discussed, drinks have been accepted.
Which is how I came to find myself in a heaving bar on Thursday night talking about Banjo-Kazooie with a guy whose partner had popped out for a smoke.
He was a decade younger than me – probably still is – so I thought he might like hearing about the technological culture clash I set up this Christmas when I plugged in an old school N64 for my tablet-generation kids. (Conclusion: they loved it. Gameplay and characters were more important to them than graphics, but the concept of a controller you had to physically attach to the console was a source of much amusement.)
The N64 has been in storage for years, through house move after house move. My vague thought was that one day I’d let any kids I had loose on it.
Truth is, I’ve been hanging onto it for sentimental reasons. It was given to me by one of my oldest mates as part of his own pre-relo clearout when he emigrated from the UK to Australia a thousand years ago.
It’s a little pixellated reminder that things move on. And there seems to be a lot of that about right now.
Turns out the guy I was talking to had spent a significant chunk of his youth welded to his own N64, so we had a misty eyed chat about such cultural touchstones as GoldenEye and Super Mario 64.
And when we’d finished banging on about our wasted youth, I asked him what he did (recruitment) and how it was going.
He said the market for his area of specialisation is slowing down here, but he likes the Gulf, so he might move within the region. He’s been here just under a year.
Then there’s Park Dad, who I bumped into again at – yes – the park. His department’s entire contract is under review, but he was pretty sanguine about his next steps. “I’ve been here seven years,” he told me. “If I have to move on, that’s no problem.”
And there’s the dad of one of Amnesiac’s classmates. He’s returned from his Christmas break to find that there’s been some sort of internal takeover at his employer – and that he’s now on ‘gardening leave’.
Like us, they’ve been here just a few months – but your employment circumstances dictate everything, so if they have to move elsewhere, so be it.
It’s becoming quickly apparent that a healthy dose of pragmatism runs through the expat community, no matter where you’re from, or how long you’ve been here.
One added difference for those of us here in Qatar is that sticking around long enough to qualify for citizenship is simply not an option, meaning the country will never truly become ‘home’.
That’s unlike Australia, and a related conversation I had this week.
I’d emailed my N64-donating mate to make sure they hadn’t been turned into crispy critters by the extreme weather Oz is experiencing at the moment. He Skyped me straight back because he had news: a long-gestating internal transfer might be about to pay off – with a move back to the UK.
He and his wife have been in the Sydney area for maybe 13 years now, having left the UK about five minutes after they got married. We all thought it was just a pre-settling down blowout. But then came a kid or three, job changes, house moves and, finally, citizenship.
Australia has welcomed them, and they are proud to call it their home.
So leaving will be agonising for them. The joy that comes from watching his eldest daughter catch her first wave, as she had done that morning, is going to be hard to replicate in rural Hampshire.
But it’s the right move at the right time. I’m thrilled for him and his wife, whose parents are now too old to fly to the other side of the world to see their grandchildren.
I say ‘thrilled’, now. My first reaction was much more selfish.
If only I’d stayed put for a few more months, I thought, they’d be coming right back to my little corner of the world. Days at the park, nights in the pub – all back on like it never went away.
But then I thought about everything we would have missed out on here if we hadn’t taken the plunge and made our own move.
International sport on your doorstep, for peanuts. (We spent the first week of the year in residence at the Qatar Open tennis). The sunshine. The food. The people.
Watching Amnesiac’s confidence in the water growing daily. Bursting with pride as he learnt to ride his bike in December, a time when it would be shut up in the shed for months back in the UK. Taking my seat in a couple of weeks to watch Kid A star in her school play.
Even ripping out the bricks from our prison-esque back yard and replacing it with a desert garden, as we have done over the holidays, has made a huge difference.
We’ve ‘dug in’, in the words of Park Dad. We’re putting roots down, in the knowledge that even if it’s only temporary, it’s still our home today.
In the meantime, there are plans to be made.
I persuaded my mate to relocate his family via the Gulf rather than the States. We could meet up with them in Dubai, but I hope we can find a way to host them all here in Doha.
Perhaps their kids and ours can have a nostalgic N64 face-off, and start a new chapter of a story that’s been going strong wherever we’ve called home.