Summer in Doha: It’s 45C outside. You can’t eat or drink in public during daylight hours. And 10 weeks of school holidays have begun. Time to relocate the children…
What kind of activities do you like to do when you’re on holiday? Spend some alone time in the sun with nothing but your Kindle and sun cream, maybe? Perhaps it’s snorkelling, hiking or practising your haggling skills in a bustling, noisy market?
But whether you’re into street food or skydiving, it’s safe to say that it probably wouldn’t include millinery.
Yes, millinery (that’s hat-making, Scrabble fans). Or editing a year’s worth of photos. Or assembling, hanging and fixing things. Or doing pension paperwork. Especially not pension paperwork.
And yet those are precisely the things that have Mrs LC and I have been happily filling our time with over the past week or so. It’s all stuff that’s been on our to do lists forever, but never quite makes it to the top because life – specifically, parenting – gets in the way.
The kind of things that seem to have been stuck there for centuries, like a mosquito in amber. Things I’d normally concoct outlandish excuses to avoid doing. (“Hey, Amnesiac! Want to recreate the iconic rope bridge scene from Temple of Doom using nothing but matchsticks and minifigs?”)
The reason for this eclectic selection of activities is that Family Little City is currently running on two parallel timelines, much like Sliding Doors, only with better English accents.
Married without children
The Young Team are far away from the heat and dust of Doha, doing who knows what. We check in on them every so often, when my dad remembers to charge his phone and switch it on and take it out with him. So, never, basically.
That’s left Mrs LC here to do her day job, with me for company, for another few weeks until a reunion at Toulouse Airport which will hopefully be less dramatic than the last time. (cough)
With them gone, the house is quieter and less paint-spattered than normal, and of course we’re missing them, from their silly jokes and random questions (“How did dinosaurs recognise their cousins?”), to the in-car Frozen singalongs and pool time (I’ve basically stopped going; turns out it’s only fun when there’s someone small to throw around or jump on your back).
In the meantime, however, we have the run of the house. We are free, for example, to do something that no one who’s ever bought a fitness DVD has done before: namely, work out to it, daily. (My inability, as grown man, to keep to a simple four-beat rhythm astonishes me every time we press play.) Exercise kit litters the floor instead of toy soldiers or Lego.
We’ve tried out lots of new restaurants, taken in a fantastic suhoor (the final meal before dawn for those fasting for Ramadan) and I even finally got round to trying shisha (which was nowhere near as rough as I imagined it would be, more like a menthol cigar – though unlike a cigar, you have no idea of how much you have left.)
Enjoy the silence
And whilst it’s certainly weird without the kids around, the logistical complexity of our lives has dropped by about 95%. In my last post, we took a staycation on the other side of the city; now we don’t even have to leave our house.
It’s the little differences you notice most, like being able to put something down, safe in the knowledge that it will still be where you left it when you get back, rather than being relocated under a mound of toy cars, puzzle books or Nerf gun pellets. Or making some jelly, and actually getting to eat some yourself.
It’s basically a sneak preview of ‘empty nest’ syndrome, and now that Kid A is nearer her 21st birthday than the day of her birth, it’ll be here before we know it.
It’s a different approach to the one we took last summer, when we took an early decision to hire an au pair to look after the kids for the first half of the epic school holidays.
As with this year, Ramadan (which, being based on the lunar cycle, moves by about 11 days each year) also fell within the holidays. During Ramadan, Qatari law forbids even non-Muslims* to eat or drink in public. So whilst a supermarket shop for the weekly groceries is still doable, a trip to the park for any worthwhile length of time isn’t.
Au revoir, les enfants
All of which meant that, last summer, the kids spent what amounted to five weeks indoors with only each other for company, miraculously emerging with no significant injuries or damage. But hoping lightning strikes twice is a risk we weren’t willing to take, so this year we shined that special light into the sky and summoned the help of The Grandparents.
Luckily none of them coughed politely and pretended to be busy doing something else, and very quickly, we had lined up a couple of weeks with each set. It’s an arrangement which benefits everyone: quality time for the grandparents, outdoor time for the kids, and peace and rest for us.
Because even when it’s at its most rewarding – like when Amnesiac begs you to read just one more chapter of the latest Sam Silver before bed, and the look of undiluted joy he gives you when you say yes – parenting is still relentless and exhausting.
We’ve called on the help of the grandparents for this before, but not since we moved to Doha. The absence of extended family is one of the major downsides of expat life. Sure, friends will have your kids round for playdates and the occasional sleepover, but no one’s going to have two of them while you take a weekend break.
Once we’d ruled out shipping them via FedEx, we looked at flying them back to the UK as unaccompanied minors. Amnesiac would have been fine with this, as long as someone remembered to physically disconnect him from the inflight entertainment system on arrival. And with a bit of luck the experience might have helped with Kid A’s tendency to panic at the drop of a hat.
But when I found out that BA wanted literally half of what Qatar Airways were charging for a flight to the UK, I bravely volunteered to be babysitter-in-chief and drop off them in person.
Utterly unrelated to this was the fact that in so doing, I could enjoy some World Cup action in an earlier timezone, go running outside, and fill an empty suitcase with supplies (it was fun imagining what the baggage scanners would make of my hoard of cosmetics, DVDs and Twiglets).
And see my family, of course (but mainly buy Twiglets).
My parents still live in the same, quiet country town that we moved to Qatar from, so any return trip is a whirlwind of surreal familiarity. You wear the uneasy expression of Marty McFly when he went back to 1955 for the first time. It all looks so similar, and yet so different.
(Fading cultural touchstones** are another weirdly unsettling side effect of expat life. You’ve basically been on pause since the day you left, so you spend a lot of time asking questions to clarify what everyone else is talking about.)
Being outside all summer will hopefully boost the kids’ independence and sharpen some skills that have gone rusty, like how to climb trees, or be pedestrians.
We’ve got another couple of weeks of this domestic calm before we catch up with them again at Mrs LC’s parents in France. Who knows what we’ll have achieved by then.
The quiet has been fun. But I’m looking forward to them bringing the noise again.
** Talking of cultural touchstones, Mrs LC came home from Mega Mart the other day with a pack of Chewits. OMGChewits! “Chewier than Barrow-in-Furness bus depot,” I announced automatically, dredging a 30-year old memory to the surface in nanoseconds.
She looked at me with her wtf? face until I remembered that, thanks to her army brat childhood, her cultural touchstones are all over the shop. And clearly don’t extend to plasticine sweet-flogging Godzilla rip-offs.