Muscle memory

Family Little City are back in the UK for the first time after a year of expat life; time to see which bits of my cultural identity have survived 12 months in the scorching sun

If my mission on returning to the UK had been to reconnect with my own cultural identity, to remind myself again what it is to be British, then my friend K’s funeral made a grimly appropriate start to my trip back.

Other cultures bury their dead sooner, often with less ceremony and nearly always with more overt displays of emotion. But the British way of death is also a unique, beautiful and dignified thing.

Amnesiac tops up his Britishness

A centuries-old church, tucked away in surreally green surroundings. Stained glass windows, creaky pews, random scatterings of columns and pillars, terrible acoustics, all present and correct. And in those dignified and peaceful surroundings, she was given a rousing send off by a full congregation.

A colleague delivered a moving tribute to K’s career and passion for helping others, and I was mostly keeping it together until her dad stood up and apologised if what he was about to say sounded familiar, because it hadn’t even been five years since he’d used much of it at K’s wedding.

As the father of two young children myself, I can hardly contemplate what the future holds for K’s husband and sons. But from the support and love on show that afternoon, they’ll be in very good hands.

At the wake afterwards, chatting with former colleagues, wondering why bad things happen to good people, I found myself in a scene that was almost stereotypically English: standing on the edge of a cricket pitch, eating a scone, whilst trying to maintain a stiff upper lip.

I had been gone for barely a day, but I already felt as far away from Qatar as possible.

A modern midnight conversation

Keys. Birthdays. People’s names (all the time). Where I live (after a heavy night out).

Yes, I’ve forgotten many things in my time, but I never expected “how to drive a manual car” to join their ranks.

Agreed, there were extenuating circumstances. We had just landed; a full day of last-minute packing hell behind me, plus a seven-hour flight during which the kids didn’t sleep a wink. Bluntly, we were fried.

And it was midnight and – of course! – raining and the hire car was way smaller than the one I’d booked, so I spent far too long getting wet playing suitcase Tetris and, and, and…

But still.

A gearbox, yesterday. How hard can it be?

A year of using my left leg for nothing more strategic than ‘balancing out my right leg’ had finally taken its toll. As I pulled the car up to the garage attendant’s booth, slowed down nicely…and juddered to a halt with a flourish.

I needed to let the attendant know I could drive a manual. So I said, out loud: “I can drive a manual, honest.” The pleading tone in my voice was pathetic.

Looking at me as if to say “Whatever, pal,” he raised the barrier. I smiled weakly, drove haltingly forward to the junction…and spluttered to another dismal stop.

I felt 18 again, and not in a good way.

Unlike my car, the action should have been automatic. But it had taken just one year to bury a muscle memory 20 years in the making.

Hello trees, hello sky

And that’s how I’ve been finding my first trip back. All the cultural norms of my old life are there – like being able to expose my knees to sunlight, or ordering a pizza with toppings not seen in 12 months – once you blow off the layer of desert dust they’re covered by.

On my first morning back, driving on a small, suburban roundabout, I used my horn a little too quickly in warning a driver not to pull out, probably scaring the life out of them, before I remembered I wasn’t in Doha any more.

Amnesiac and I played a fun game on a walk to the barbers. We counted how may differences we could spot between our journey through the back streets of a quiet market town and the equivalent journey in Doha.

That’s Basil Fotherington-Thomas on the left. You really need to read this book

And we hadn’t even reached the end of the road before we’d spotted people observing parking regulations, letter boxes in front doors, post boxes on street corners, pavements that were safe to walk on, drivers who indicate and apologise if they forget, birdsong, trees, rivers, clouds, newspapers, coins, pubs, churchyards, hedges.

I was about two seconds away from turning into Basil Fotherington-Thomas (catchphrase: “Hello trees, hello sky”) from that most English of books, Molesworth.

(Don’t worry, this isn’t about to turn into some rose-tinted paean to all things British, because we’re still finding enough cultural differences back in Qatar to make our adventure worthwhile.)

After K’s funeral, I headed off to part of the celebrations for my mum’s 70th birthday. It turned out to be the ideal distraction from the sad events of earlier in the day. We went to a brilliant riverside pub (The Mayfly in Fullerton, if you’re passing). There were ducks, and trout, and a weir, and willow trees and a breeze and a dozen other things we don’t get in Doha.

Family and friends appeared. I got some late birthday presents, including a replacement Aerobie from my mate who’d hoofed my last one into Qatar’s only lake when they’d visited in March, bringing a little slice of Doha life into this quintessentially English scene.

Of course it’s hard when your dad then asks him if he’d like to live in Doha and his reply is a mix of explosive laughter coupled with a resounding ‘No!’ (If I’d lived in and around Sydney for 14 years, my reply would probably have been exactly the same.)

Because expat life can be hard. I met a guy only this week who asked us how stressful it could be “given that it’s basically a holiday, right?”

If only.

Doha sometimes takes more than it gives back. Endless heat and dust and beige can take their toll on the spirit. Add to that the stresses of working life, the move itself, the 101 adjustments, plus the events and people you’re missing, and the first year will always be a challenge.

But we’re still having new adventures and new experiences. We’re looking forward to what the next year holds. The hardest part is hopefully behind us.

And who knows what muscle memories of Doha I am committing to my subconscious, ready to emerge unbidden somewhere down the line in locations unknown.


13 thoughts on “Muscle memory

  1. midwestkite August 16, 2013 / 5:19 am

    Very sorry about the loss of your friend.

    On a brighter note, I love the idea of “suitcase tetris”!

    My friends and family back home also seem to think I am on a full time vacation.. if they only knew..

    • littlecity August 16, 2013 / 7:00 am

      Thanks for the good wishes, it’s appreciated. As for being on permanent holiday, we don’t have school runs, homework, jobs, deadlines, bills to pay… none of it. So that’s good, right? *sigh*

  2. Jo Haines August 16, 2013 / 12:11 pm

    I am so lucky – my husband works in Doha, and I travel between the UK and Qatar all year round more or less as and when I please. The only real downside is trying to second guess things like Ramadan and Eid holiday dates as well as professional commitments to plan our diaries to spend as little time apart as possible while still making our children (all grown up but even so…) feel less abandoned. Who would have thought dates for massive religious holidays would be so fluid and international meetings so last minute? Ah – yes – anyone who has either lived in Doha or read this blog – less and less amazes us as we adjust to all the topics raised by Nat in his entertaining and oh-so-accurate blog.

    • littlecity August 17, 2013 / 7:15 am

      Thanks for your comments, Jo, glad you’re enjoying the blog. Keep enjoying that freedom to travel as and when you choose; it sounds as if you’re in a very fortunate position. A common thread that ties a lot of expats together is the ability to appreciate both what we had once, and what we have now. There are far worse lessons we could learn.

  3. Jinty Joy Orange August 16, 2013 / 2:34 pm

    Thanks for this, it could be something I would have liked to have written but eloquence failed me. Living in Doha was indeed an adventure ( have just completed my 2 yr contract!) I missed all the nuances that made me cherish the quintessence of England. On the other hand Qatar also had that je ne sais quoi that held my attention. Enjoy your sojourn there and make the most of it, it has the stuff that fills the memory banks.

    • littlecity August 17, 2013 / 7:19 am

      “It has stuff that fills the memory banks,” is a great way of putting it! Knowing it won’t be forever, making the most of Qatar is very much our intention.

  4. Rutland65 August 17, 2013 / 2:30 pm

    It is a strange place, Qatar. It can get a grip of you. I have been here 5 years. My wife tried to live here, but surrendered after 10 months. Next year she is going to try living here in 3 month cycles, fingers crossed. And yes, most of my mates in blights think I spend my spare time licking Champagne off Sienna Miller!

    • littlecity September 7, 2013 / 5:29 am

      Sorry to hear you had such a rough introduction to life here. Think the three-month cycles idea sounds great. There’s no single right answer to this problem – so if you’ve found a solution that works for you both, mabrook!

  5. Paula August 23, 2013 / 2:55 am

    That’s some trip home for you guys. Doha is a good place to be and I will forever hold fond memories of the place. I hope it will be for you too.

    • littlecity September 7, 2013 / 6:54 am

      Thanks Paula! Great to hear you’re looking back on your time here with fondness.

  6. Holly Elizabeth December 18, 2014 / 10:48 am

    So glad I am not the only one who forgot how to drive when I first flew back home from Doha!

    So pleased to have stumbled across this great blog about life in the sandpit from a family perspective – great writing 🙂

    • littlecity December 19, 2014 / 9:50 am

      It gets better: I went back to the UK a few weeks ago (

      Needed to borrow a car while I was there; my dad made me drive him round town by way proving that I wasn’t going to crash his right-hand-drive, manual car if I took it out for the day.

      I felt 17 again, and not in a good way 🙂

      Glad you like the blog and thanks for stopping by!

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