Today marks the day I stopped being an expat. Or rather, the day I realised I wasn’t one anymore. Maybe this is the wrong way to describe it. I mean – I’ll think I’ll always be an expat. The longer we are here, the more foreign I feel, to be honest. My friend says I’m just going through the ‘I feel stupid’ phase. I feel like this phase might last for years, some days. But setting stupidity aside, today I just feel, well, a bit sad. Maybe what I mean is, today marks the day I don’t live in Dubai anymore.
What has caused this sudden dawn of realisation? On the other side of the world, in the desert we called home, my friends’ kids – my kid’s friends – went back to school on Sunday. Everyone is back from their holidays. Work has begun. Pictures of proud little men and women in their new uniforms begin to adorn my Facebook page, chatter on my Dubai chums whatsapp group has increased tenfold, a new season has begun at the theatre where I spent my life these past three years, and suddenly, I realise that life is moving on without us. I watch it go, full steam ahead, and I know it’s an unstoppable train.
We are just back from a wonderful weekend in France celebrating my birthday, so it’s not like I have anything to complain about. I’ve spent three days eating butter-laden pain au chocolate and drinking cheap but delicious rose wine at various hillside idylls, soaking up the last of the Mediterranean summer at the beach, speaking bad French at everyone who will listen and gazing at beautiful old buildings backing onto impossibly blue skies at every opportunity. There are worse places to turn 41, I realise this.
But it was weird coming back here. It just felt a bit odd. Like, as in, ‘you’ve just come home to the wrong place’ kind of odd. I had a cry in the kitchen, in secret, bizarrely while trying to sing ‘I will always love you’ by Whitney Houston. I’m not sure why. But it appears my son felt it too, whatever the sensation was – we’ve had tears this evening, about going to the new school, about missing his old house, his old school, his friends. It’s the first time he’s had a wobble like this since we arrived in England and I know how he feels, I feel what he feels – the strangeness of it all, the confusion, the lack of purpose to being here, the wave of homesickness that rears up when you least expect it. All I can do is hold onto him and tell him it will get better, that we will make new friends and it will all get better soon. ‘But how do you remember the old friends?’ he says to me, wiping away his tears and looking at me like I have all the answers. ‘You talk to them, and write to them, and visit them, and when your life fills up again with new friends and things to do and places to go, you don’t miss them quite so much,’ I reply. My heart aches.
The reality is we’re doing fine so far. More than fine. Surprisingly so, if I’m honest. I’m just a bit sad, sometimes, when I notice my old life disappearing. It’s been blurring around the edges and smudging along the lines all summer, and now school has started and everyone is back from their holidays, I know it will quickly begin fading from view altogether. When we visit, as we plan to, we will be visitors. I knew that before, of course, but it’s sinking in now. It’s the bit I was dreading, the purgatorial part of the whole process, where you’re neither here nor there, but everyone else is very definitely here or there and you don’t have any of the answers about how to be, or who to be, or what to do. It is the ‘I feel stupid’ phase. The ‘lost’ phase. The ‘helpless’ phase. Or maybe it’s better to give it it’s official name, and call it culture shock? Or homesickness? Or a bit of both? Whatever, I wish wholeheartedly it would be over, for us all, before it engulfs us along with the truly rotten British weather (sorry to state the obvious, but I’d forgotten how bloody relentless the misery-inducing greyness can be. Three days in the Med only exaggerated the whole thing, I fear).
Mainly, though, I wish it would be over for my boy. There’s nothing more saddening and guilt-inducing than seeing him upset over a decision that wasn’t his to make; an action that I can’t undo; a sickness that I can’t kiss better. He’s been amazing, so strong and I’m so proud of him, but enough’s enough and I need to fill his life up again. Next week, when term FINALLY begins (and really, I just wish it would, I think it would do everyone the power of good just to get on with everything) I will post my own Facebook photo, and embrace the start of a new life for my boy. I hope that his own ‘I feel stupid’ phase is blissfully short lived. I could barely care less about my own happiness in comparison to making sure he finds his. And he will, I know. I will be there with him, egging him on, helping him every step of the way. It works the other way too, of course. ‘I’ve got 37 friends to make, mummy,’ he says, counting all the kids in his new Year 1 who he hasn’t met yet, ‘so you’ve got 37 mummy friends to make as well.’
I do. And I’ve got a ton of stuff coming my way that will help me find a new tribe and begin to heal the wounds over from leaving the old one. I’m sad, in a mourning kind of a way, but I’m not miserable, or stressed, or any of the things I was when I first moved abroad. To coin the analogy (or whack it over the head with a big stick)*, we’re nearly ‘over the rainbow’. Nearly. We’re so close to being in a new place and point in time we can call ‘home’, while knowing that in some other dimension there’s another place just like it, but different, that we love just as much. Just a bit more time, just a few more steps along the (yellow brick) road and we’ll be there, and we’ll miss the other place just a bit less. Whether we’ve landed in Oz or woken up in Kansas is questionable. But then that’s rather the point, isn’t it?
*I can’t believe I’m reading this much into the Wizard of Oz. It must be the weather.