As an expat you’re learning by trial and error all the time. Even something as seemingly simple as returning ‘home’ for the summer is riddled with challenges.
Our return to the UK last summer was a blur of logistics, shopping and travel and felt, once we limped back to Doha, quite exhausting. The overriding excitement at the prospect of our first holiday back home led me to completely overestimate how much we could fit in to a few short weeks.
But we’d been away for a full year – pinch, punch, first year of expat life, and no returns… – and I was determined to make the most of it. We crammed every spare second with a catch up or activity of some description.
Fast forward to this summer, and I thought I’d learned my lesson. We sent the kids back to Europe to stay with their grandparents and play outdoors, rather than keeping then cooped up here during Ramadan.
I hired a bigger car, arranged fewer circumnavigations of the UK and came back with fewer suitcases (the tally chart would show 15 in 2012 when we moved out; 10 including a sewing machine after our first summer back last year, and a measly six this year).
Partly it’s because Doha is changing and developing all the time, and more and more things we had on our home shopping list are now available here (if you’re prepared to pay the premium and zig-zag across town to collect them). It’s either that or we’re getting better at stockpiling, but the net result is the same: I have enough Marmite to see out the apocalypse, if anyone’s interested.
It’s also because unlike last year, we’ve returned to the UK for short trips in the intervening period. Mrs LC has been back for work, I popped over for a few days for an interview, and we all returned in the winter due to a family bereavement.
But all that planning and preparation for this summer still didn’t diminish one of the worst parts of being an expat: the temporary reunion.
It works both ways. For every haven’t-you-grown that my kids get, we’re seeing the same thing in friends’ kids. Over tea or a pint we catch up on the headlines of a life – exam success, work challenges, new hobbies, house moves – without ever quite getting enough time to have a more meaningful conversation.
And whilst this challenge is by no means exclusive to expats – anyone who’s ever moved school, jobs or homes will know the simultaneous joys and frustrations of building new connections whilst trying to maintain old ones – we do get a heightened, concentrated version of the sensation, because for us it typically comes in one exhausting annual burst.
And because you’re travelling in everyone else’s holiday season, there will be people you want to see who simply aren’t around when you’re over, so missing them now means missing them for another year. Such are the costs of expat life.
Maybe I’ve just become more attuned to it, but there seemed to be a far higher number of encounters this summer that ended with a variation on “see you next year”. Maybe people were saying it in an optimistic tone, as many of those we caught up with this summer knew that Mrs LC signed a three-year contract and that she’s done two of them already.
None of these mini-goodbyes are ever easy and having them come in a wave one after the other can be overwhelming. It’s as if you barely get to enjoy the fact that you’ve managed to meet up with someone at all before your brain is racing ahead and spoiling the ending with a hard dose of reality.
The best plan therefore seems to be to simply try and enjoy the moment. Like being soaked to the skin, or picking blackberries. Like taking your son to his first Reading game or walking up a tiny country lane on a quest to retrieve a vital part of your friends’ borrowed motor home (it’s a long story).
Do that enough times and you’ll soon accumulate enough memories to see you through the long, hot winter.
With all of this on my mind when we left Doha for our summer holiday (also known as ‘time off for good behaviour’) it’s probably no surprise that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood resonated so strongly with me when I saw it at the start of our time in the UK. (And I’m so glad I did; it hasn’t been released here and may even be banned here in the GCC.)
If you haven’t heard of it (and I’m really not spoiling anything) it’s the fictional story of an ordinary boy called Mason and his extended family, spanning his childhood from age six to 18.
In one sense, nothing much happens (there are no medical emergencies or family tragedies, just some questionable choices in husbands and facial hair). But then again, everything happens – life happens.
Remarkably, instead of using make up, or multiple actors to portray the characters over more than decade, the movie was filmed in ‘real time’ since 2001, with Linklater spending a few days filming with his cast each year, for a measly total of 39 shooting days over the past 12 years.
The technical risks of the project are mind-boggling: having been hired at the age of six, as an amateur making his debut appearance, what if lead actor Ellar Coltrane had turned out to be crap? What if he’d thrown a teenage hissy fit halfway through and decided he didn’t want to take part anymore? It’s amazing it ever happened at all.
Watching it is an astonishing experience, but while it’s unfolding, you don’t notice the technique or the running time, but the humanity of the work. A series of seemingly ordinary and unremarkable events and choices adds up piece by piece and, before you know it, a boy has turned into a young man before your very eyes.
There’s a lovely moment towards the end of the film where Mason is collecting his things as he prepares to leave school for the last time. One of his teachers tries to articulate the contrasting emotions of leaving the security of one place and the excitement of heading off to pastures new.
Trying to capture the joy and terror of growing up and moving on, she calls the feeling “voluptuous panic”. I think it also describes the first expat experience perfectly.
Boyhood may be an astonishing achievement, but it’s so much more than just a clever gimmick. And as a parent you can’t help but wonder what your own version of the same movie would look like. It’s fascinating trying to spot the clues amid all the false trails to the adults they will become.
The only comparable exercise in recent years has been the race to film every year of Harry Potter’s schooling before the actors became too old for their roles. That decade-long slow motion transformation was brought home by the displays at one of the highlights of our holiday, when we visited Warner Brothers’ Making of Harry Potter studio tour.
Despite casting a vanishing spell on the contents of your wallet, It’s a fantastic way to spend a day, wandering at your own pace through two soundstages of props, sets, costumes, wigs, effects, and behind the scenes magic.
I’m not saying Kid A is a massive fan, but she has already let it be known that all she wants for her 11th birthday in a few months is a letter of acceptance from Hogwarts…
For me, however, the real magic for me was watching the kids as they reacted to seeing their heroes comes to life (and also open their eyes to about a dozen new previously unconsidered careers). The look of wonder on Kid A’s face when she realised she was standing on the actual Diagon Alley set will stay with me for a long time.
For most of us, our lives are made up of hundreds of such moments. Nothing too dramatic in the scheme of things but over the years, one piece at a time, an entire life’s story is told.
So whilst I would have loved to have been able to spend longer with those people we did see, and to have caught up at all with those I didn’t, I’ll take what I can get.
Because after a long summer away from the heat and dust, we’re all back in Doha to start a third year of expat life.
Time for some more snapshots of a work in progress.
Bring on the voluptuous panic.
PS: We spent a few days near Llanelli. Think we can count ourselves lucky we got out unscathed, going by this local newspaper headline Mrs LC spotted…