Expat to Repat: Moving forward, not back.

We moved out of our house in Dubai on 11 June. Since then we’ve stayed in seven different beds, living out of our suitcases and trying to hang on to some semblance of sanity despite the incredible strain of leaving, then arriving, and all the in between. Anyone who hasn’t done it – there is just no point in trying to explain to you how completely emotionally and physically draining this period of displacement has been and expect you to appreciate what the hell I’m talking about. It’s beyond stressful – beyond feeling, even, in many ways. And yet, because we’re somewhere we’ve been before, it’s a constant battle not to beat myself up about not being ecstatic, or even comfortable with being here for large portions of time. Although I know this is where we are now, I’ve accepted we have left Dubai and I’m okay about being in London, I’m not really sure what happens now to turn it into my actual life, or how long that might take. There’s no explaining that feeling.

I’ve had so many people say things like ‘look on the bright side, you’re home now’ or ask me things like ‘how does it feel to be back?’ and the answer is, to these questions and the many like it: I’m not home. I’m not back anywhere. It’s SO foreign. It shouldn’t be – but it is. I’m somewhere that I know, that is familiar, sure; but we’ve been gone so long, changed so much, and become different people in the time away that I can’t possibly say that we are ‘back’. And it isn’t home either. Home can’t just be switched on like a tap. It takes an enormous amount of time, to make the place you are living into the place you call home.

The bright side I can look on, is that the journey is over, and we are living in the most gorgeous part of London that I already love. The weather helps, of course, because it’s been mostly splendid since the container arrived and our stuff was tipped, jimmied and jammed into the new house. We’ve been here for 2 weeks now, and I’m sitting in rather idyllic conditions, up on my roof deck, with a view of the London skyline silhouetted against perfect blue skies. My shoulders are a bit burnt from a morning at the park, and from our picnic on the common yesterday, and I’m wondering when is a good time to have my first glass of rose. I’ve got a baby sitter sorted for the next few weeks so that DH and I can go for dinner, I have a few play dates lined up to get us out of the house and I still can’t quite get over the fact that in a minute I’ll order my shopping online and it will arrive sometime tomorrow. I’ve booked tickets for shows, seen my sister for drinks and in a shock move my mother called me on the phone this week because it wasn’t going to cost her 27p a minute. I spent half the call trying to figure out the time difference before I realised there wasn’t one.

I’m incredibly tired, but I don’t feel as stressed as I was, even though I know I am still very, very stressed – I know that it’s going to take more than a few days to undo the past three months. Little bits of it keep popping out now and then, when I just want to be left alone for five minutes so I don’t ‘go postal’ and I pretend to go to the toilet just to put my head in my hands and scream silently at the mirror (it’s been a VERY long school holiday), or when I can’t get the TV to work properly, or when I look at the rest of the boxes I haven’t unpacked yet and I can’t actually bear the thought of touching them. I’ve only really lost the plot once and broken down in floods of tears wailing that I want to go back to Dubai. And I had a bit of a meltdown about getting the car out of a tight spot earlier. But mainly, I’ve been okay, not too sad, not to glad, just sort of waking up each day waiting to see if I veer one way or the other.

Repatriation is hard – harder in many ways than leaving in the first place. I’m scared to recommit to friendships in case I get rejected, yet I’m desperate to reconnect so I don’t feel lonely. But its hard to fit in where once we didn’t have to. Relationships that have been nurtured on the foundation of twice-yearly visits for nearly a decade can’t turn back into weekly coffees, dinner parties and drinks in town overnight. In fact, that will never happen, because everyone else’s life is already ticking along quite nicely, and we are just a small change to their matrix. We’ve been gone too long to be anything else. Not that people aren’t happy to see us, but after the initial welcome home I know that we have to find our own way, and not imagine that we can go back to the life we had before.

So it’s inevitable, that this relatively peaceful part of re-entry won’t last. I know that the enormity of moving hasn’t hit fully, and that there will still be moments when I feel ten times more lonely than I do now, and I’m going to wish more than once in the next few months that we hadn’t left Dubai. The weather will get shitty, probably way before school starts again, and I’ll be driving around in the rain cursing and trying not to cry because I’m lost and can’t work the sat nav, and then DH will come home and I’ll yell at him for something that isn’t his fault and tell him I hate it here, hate him for moving us back, hate his job, hate my lonely, rotten, wasted life…you get the picture. It will, of course, be code for ‘I’m missing my old life, where I knew everything and everywhere and everyone, and all this is strange and new and I don’t know how to do anything, or where anything is, or who to be anymore.’ When you move abroad, it’s called ‘Culture Shock’. When you return, it’s called ‘sort it out, FFS’. And I will sort it out. Time will make these things fade and disappear, eventually, and I just have to accept that. Experience tells me this, and wraps me in a sort of comforting blanket of expattiness, that I will get through; that we will survive. (Gosh I sound so dramatic. It’s the stress, I’m telling you).

And as long as I remind myself of this once in a while, that life will just take time to form into the thing we want it to be, I think things will be okay. Embrace the old, but explore the new. It’s scary, but we’ll get there. It’s just another step forward, another adventure. It’s fine. I’ve done it before.

I think it’s time for that glass of rose.

…gone

And then we got on a plane.

It was all a bit surreal in the end. The week leading up to the big day was teeming with horrific goodbyes; I think I stopped wearing make up sometime around Tuesday and by Thursday literally couldn’t speak to anyone without crying. Leaving Dubai was without doubt one of the saddest moments of my life, knowing that everything – the good bits and the bad, the adventure we’d undertaken all those years back – was well and truly over. I tried looking back over my Facebook posts for the past six months to see what I’d done to make the most of it all: BIG mistake. I’ve resolved not to do that again for a while. It hurts too much to see it all now I know it’s really gone.

In a rather inconvenient turn of events, the day before we left, the boy developed a fever. It was no big surprise; firstly, the whole city is rife with kids coughing and sneezing and throwing up at this time of year, and secondly, his school decided the best thing to do three days before the end of term, to make sure absolutely everyone left for the holidays with a virus, was to take them to a soft play area for their end of year school trip – complete with ‘make your own pizza’ activity, which involved about a fifty pairs of germ infested hands lurking about in vats of grated cheese and not much chance of getting your own pizza back at the end. Guaranteed to end in a 39 degree fever, obviously.

So instead of sitting back and sipping my champagne in First class (thanks Air Miles) gazing wistfully out of the window at the city I call home getting smaller and smaller while I sobbed into my smoked salmon canapes, I spent the first half of the flight worrying about the boy’s temperature and hoping his symptoms would ease up before we arrived at Heathrow and got taken into some sort of Ebola quarantine tent. Also, having been awake the entire night before administering various combinations of Nurofen and Calpol, plus nursing my own colossal hangover (physical and emotional) from my final leaving dinner 48 hours earlier, I was exhausted. I fell asleep before the plane even took off and in a reverse biblical moment of sorts, never even had chance to look back.

Arrival in London was, at best, mechanical. We got into the apartment we were borrowing, threw more drugs down the boy’s neck, and discussed what the hell to do with him given we weren’t registered with a doctor. This resulted in a Sunday afternoon outing to A&E, the first thing we did as a family in our new city. We sat for 2 delightful hours in a grim waiting room on what was one of the best days of weather in London for about ten years, only to be told it was flu.

The next few days passed in a haze of more Nurofen, very little sleep, a lot of children’s TV and absolutely no adult company at all from 7.30am to 6.30pm every day. This, by the way, is torture for an extrovert attention seeking horror show like myself. I tried really hard not to let it get to me but the stress and loneliness and emotional exhaustion of the whole debacle meant I knew I was fighting a losing battle. By Day Three I could hear the shrillness in my voice, the resentment, the anger at having to, I don’t know what really – cope with it all. I didn’t have the strength for it, hadn’t prepared for it, and didn’t want to deal with it. In the end, of course, I had to. My little man was a total trouper as we trekked via buses and tube trains to yet another doctor for a second opinion – where – guess what – a chest infection was finally diagnosed. Yay.

It was a miserable week. At the end of it, we got on another plane, and finally we are at a point in the journey where I know I can relax. I’m sitting staring at the Atlantic ocean now from our wonderful second (first? third?) home by the sea somewhere north of Boston. I feel more at home than I have done since our container left, and the relief at feeling like we’re somewhere familiar, somewhere we actually belong, is amazing. The boy is getting better and the sun is shining and I spent the morning wandering around galleries and shops, lunchtime sipping rose and gazing at sailboats in the water and the afternoon at the beach. I am healing. I know I am, because whereas I’ve avoided blogging all week despite ample opportunity while various episodes of ‘Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures’ has been on, today I could actually sit down to write this coherently.

I know this is the bit in between – two weeks of respite from real life, whatever that means.  I don’t know what happens next. But for now I can quietly repair and prepare myself for the coming few months, when everything will be thrown into the air again and life will undoubtedly be tumultuous. We are gone, and we are not there yet. We are somewhere in between, and right now, that feels like the right place to be.

Confusion, Emotion and Perpetual Motion

I’m waiting for my flight back to London. Not THE flight; this is the one before that, where I go and find us somewhere to live. Our new home. I thought this would be the exciting bit, but the stress of this responsibility is, I now realise, of an intensity way beyond what I expected. Forget all the coordinating, the logistical nightmares, the turmoil of leaving; these are small fry. They are events that will happen, and pass, and be forgotten about over time. But this decision – choosing our home – will be the lasting legacy of this move, the thing we will all have to live with every day. It forms a major part of what determines whether the transition is successful and happy, or not. 

It’s only four walls, I know. But those four walls contain us. They will gather us together as a family, nurture us, comfort us, and give us the first taste of being grounded in our new world. For my son, it is the place he will take his first impressions of his new life from, the place that will form his memories of living in London forever. For my husband, it is the place that will make him feel all his hard work is worthwhile; that although London is not where he comes from it can still be his home. For me, it is the place I can sit in, alone, and yet not feel lonely; a place I can fill with friends and family or just enjoy the intimacy of our unit of three; a place where I know we can feel at home again in this foreign yet familiar city. 

How? How do I do this? How can I possibly predict where we will be happiest, where we won’t find ourselves wishing we were somewhere else? I remember these feelings, from a near-decade ago, when we left for Dubai. That panicky, slightly sick sensation that I might royally screw up (we did) and be saddled with living somewhere we don’t want to be (we were). I have a list of beautiful homes to look at and yet I’m terrified I won’t find the right one, or worse still I will think I found the right one and then find out when we move in that I’ve made a terrible mistake. I know, I know; we can always move again. But I don’t want to. It seems such a waste of time, energy and emotion. I just want to get it right, first time. I just want all of us to be happy.

On top of this insomnia-inducing anxiety about not cocking up, the fog of sadness about leaving Dubai is finally beginning to descend. There have been at least two incidents this week where I’ve burst into tears in an awkward public display of emotion and I’m trying hard not to make it three. But sitting at the airport waiting to board, all I want to do is cry. It all feels so ENORMOUS. The idea, the notion, flits through my mind, that in some way I’m betraying Dubai. Like some torrid affair, years of sneaking off to see London are finally turning into concrete plans to elope. I’m sorry Dubai. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve changed. It doesn’t mean anything.

What a lot of tosh. It’s HUGE. Of course it means something. It means everything.

The enormity of what is about to happen pushes down on me, threatening to crush my spirit; my determination that this will all be fine wavers like a sapling in a storm, flapping and flexing and fighting to stay upright and alive. I cannot fathom how I can possibly have the stamina to keep feeling this way for months, until it is all over and I know we are going to be okay. The worst thing is, I’ve done all this before: the goodbyes, the leaving, the learning somewhere new. The loneliness, the longing for the old life, the attempt to embrace the unknown. There are so many things to look forward to, but they won’t all arrive on my doorstep the second we touch the ground. I’ve done my research, done my reading, listened to the repat war stories of friends and friends of friends. I know that it will be a long time until we are okay.

Until now, it’s been a lot of talk. Big ideas, imagined lives, self-engineered scenarios. When I get off this plane later today, it all becomes real. Step by step, I must begin the task of converting the picture we have in our minds to glorious 3D technicolor. I’m scared, because there’s no signposts, no guides, no list of rules to abide by. Like a skydiver waiting by the door, there’s only my parachute of intuition, and the trust in myself that I will get the landing just right.

 

So I take a deep breath, and jump.

On your marks…

Hang on a minute while this relocation thing turns into a full time job. God, if I thought moving house last year was an effort, it pales into insignificance in comparison to moving countries. With eight weeks to go I thought I had everything in the bag, but the horrible realisation that I’ve only scratched the surface is beginning to dawn. I did the entire ‘leaving Dubai’ bit in about two days. I forgot that the ‘arrive in London’ bit would be slightly more daunting.

Let’s take the house hunting to begin with. I thought I was organised. I’ve been looked online for months, since the whole ‘we might be going to London’ thing reared it’s ugly head. I know the market inside out. So you’d think it would be a quick job to put together a list of places to view when I go to London next week for my recce.

How mistaken you would be. I’ve just spent the best part of two hours tonight emailing and conversing with estate agents about viewings next week. Prior to that I spent a full week researching the houses I wanted to view, and another afternoon over the weekend printing out the particulars, seeing where they were on a map, and figuring out how far each one was to the school and the station, to make sure the men in my life are fully catered for. It doesn’t matter to me where the house is; at the moment I can’t envisage when I might leave it.

For starters I have no friends. I mean, I do, but not the sort that pick your son up from school if you need to, I dunno, work or something. Not the kind that live just around the corner, who will take your little cherub for the afternoon so you can get some unpacking done, do the housework, or sit rocking gently in a corner lamenting the state of your unmanicured nails. I leave all those friends behind in Dubai. And to get new versions I need to wait for school to start. And probably join the PTA, dammit. (Sobs. Stamps feet.) So I have to accept that I will be doing most of this on my own. Which means I need to be in control of the entire move. Which means I have to organise it. Everything, from the container packing to the paperwork we take on the plane; from the cat boarding to new uniform shopping; from dawn ’til dusk everyday this task will be mine, to sort, order, plan and plot, all while I entertain my lovely little boy.

Because before any of that making friends stuff happens we have the summer holidays. Which, due to an early finish in Dubai and a late start in London, are approximately ten and a half weeks long. TEN AND A HALF WEEKS. WTF am I going to do with a five year old for TEN AND A HALF WEEKS?? With no toys until the container arrives? Whenever the hell that is. So I have the summer to plan as well, on top of the move. Where shall we go, what shall we do? How do we get there? Do we need tickets? I comfort myself with the idea that it might be nearly three months before I have any time to myself again, but at least I can order wine online to be delivered to the house on a regular basis. That’s always assuming my new sim card arrives for my phone and I can get on the internet in the first place.

Maybe we can get in the car and drive somewhere exciting each week, to keep things interesting. Drive? Oh hang on, that would require a car. Back we go to the internet for more research. And a couple more mornings spent test driving various models of small SUVs and MPVs and what the hell is the difference anyway and will any of them will fit in the parking space outside the house that I haven’t found yet? If it doesn’t have a garage or off street parking. (Heads back to check each house on the list for parking – another hour).

Anything else? Leaving dos. Must organise dinner/drinks/coffee/brunch/lunch with everyone. Not too soon though, or they’ll want to do it all over again before we go. I didn’t want a big do with everyone but I’m starting to see the attraction. One do, one date, one time. Hey, does anyone want to organise a leaving do?

What about a cleaner? And a babysitter? When does the container arrive again? Shit, the insurance forms. Don’t forget to fill those in. And the cats. A trip to see the cattery and pay the deposit is another nice little trip to eat up half a morning.

FOR SALE: Yeah, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the woman who wanted to buy my guest bed and came to the house and used the bathroom and came out after five full minutes saying ‘I’ve opened the window’. EWWWW. And left water all over the floor from the bum hose thing. And then didn’t buy the bed. Let’s talk about the toys, the furniture, the bits and bobs, the Dubai wardrobe of shoes and dresses, all too good to throw away but such a friggin’ hassle to sell. Let’s talk about how I’m driving the books to one charity, the toys to another, the boy’s clothes to a third. Another day or two just for distribution. Does anyone want to buy a bed?

And somehow, in all of that, I’m trying to find time to make the most of my last few weeks. But time is leaking away and so are the people. They have their own thing going on, they don’t want to hear about me leaving. I know, because I’ve been there too.

I feel like I’m in between worlds – neither here nor there. I am terrified and sad but I don’t have time to be terrified or sad and no one is interested in me being terrified or sad anyway. I’m excited but I don’t have time for that either, and I keep thinking that being excited is a bit of a fool’s errand, given I’ve got all of the above to get through. I’m not alone, I know; I’ve read several articles doing the rounds at the moment that are kindly being sent to me at every opportunity with titles like ‘The Dark Side of Repatriation’ or telling me things like ‘make sure you leave well, rather than leave happy’. I’m not ungrateful. But just trying to figure out what that means took me the whole of yesterday morning. Personally I think I’ll just be leaving knackered.

Going Home: The Upsides

Enough doom and gloom. I am two months away from a new experience and starting to think about all the things I’ve missed, that I can’t wait to get back to and explore with a decade more of life under my belt. It doesn’t feel like going home after so long; it feels like a brand new adventure waiting. I have a different career, a different outlook, a family; I am older, wiser, and a lot more relaxed. Even though my heart aches at the thought of leaving Dubai behind, it beats a little faster at the idea of the next chapter. Why?

1. LONDON

My first love. There is nowhere like it, nowhere I feel more at home. Yes, it’s noisy, and dirty, and crowded and it smells. Yes, it’s a heaving, writhing hell of commuters and tourists. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, the tubes are horrible in rush hour. Yes, your snot turns black and the traffic is hideous, and there’s dodgy areas where you wouldn’t take your mum at night. But then…there’s the parks, and the summers with their long light evenings; there’s museums and galleries and you can walk everywhere and there are pubs and clubs and restaurants and theatres; there’s crazy people and real people and people from every part of the planet pounding the streets alongside you just being who they want to be. The idea…the thought of being amongst it all again, of not being put in some expat wife box and left to find my own way out, is seriously exciting.

2. GROCERY SHOPPING

Well, hello Ocado, how very nice to see you again. Please, come and change my life.

It feels odd to put this as number 2 on this list, but I loathe grocery shopping, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that the very idea that I will be able to buy food without visiting the supermarket three times a week – that I can buy fresh vegetables and free range chickens online – and OMG ready meals – leaves me unbelievably excited. Let’s not even start on farmer’s markets. (Dribbles). And I can buy wine. Without a letter from my husband. Without taking out a second mortgage (drifts into a sort of orgasmic coma).

3. PUBS

Pubs and bars, with food, and wine, and gardens, and roaring fires, and Sunday roasts and Saturday BBQs….pubs spilling into streets, stuffed into old houses, heaving with people on a Friday evening…pubs you can walk to and stagger home from. Pubs on every street corner, to cater for every whim. Oh, the wonder of pubs. I have missed pubs.

4. FAMILY

I suppose they should have come first but it goes without saying, the presence of family in our lives again is simply the most awesome thing. I will finally be able to offer my son access to at least one side of the family on a regular, on-demand basis – and he to them (the other half still being another 7 hours away on a plane, but still remarkably more accessible than before). He will finally understand – or at least appreciate – what it really means to have family nearby. And so will we.

5. FRIENDS

Friends from childhood. Friends from work. Friends from married life. Friends from Dubai. Writing friends, acting friends, old friends, best friends: they will all form the backbone of my new life – and there’ll be new friends too, as time goes on, who are just waiting in the wings for me right now, unseen, unknown and unimaginable. If being an expat has taught me anything, it’s how to make friends again, and that is a wonderful thing I will do my best to honour and celebrate. I know it will take time again, to find my tribe, and I will miss my old one desperately. But I cannot wait to see who fills my world next, especially given there’s an 80% likelihood of them not moving away after two years.

6. CAREER

Where better to be a writer and an improviser? Well, arguably Chicago, or New York – but London is a pretty amazing place to hang out if you’re a Josie Lawrence/JK Rowling wannabe. The sheer number of people doing the same thing – but different – is cause for celebration. There’s so many people to learn from, be inspired by, and share ideas with. The possibilities are endless.

7. EUROPE

Trains to Paris. Two hour plane rides to the beautiful countryside of Spain, France and Italy. Ski slopes that are on actual mountains, not inside a shopping mall. The northern lights, just a hop, skip and a jump away. While I’m aware I’m not going to be going to Europe every weekend, the idea that I can, at any point, choose to head to the continent and stroll around the cobbled streets of some random town on market day scoffing croissants and quaffing rose, is just too delicious for words.

8. ENVIRONMENT

Rolling hills. Mountains. Trees. Clouds. Seasons. I love the desert; love the expanse, the desolateness, the heat. But the thought of staring across Wastwater or spying the deer in Richmond park; the feeling of the wind on my face at Brighton pier on an early spring day; the crunching of leaves underfoot in the woods…once I learn to put up with the dark, grey, wet cold weather that makes up a large proportion of the year, there are so many things to experience again, that we have missed and my son has never even seen.

Is eight enough? I wanted to round it off at an even ten, but this was all I could think of.

‘All’. Look how full it feels already. I know the reality will be harsh; there’s 10 weeks of summer holidays to get through, the wrench of leaving Dubai, the waiting and unpacking and settling in, making sure my son is happy and making friends and enjoying his life, and all the while getting ready to face months of winter time that will shock us I’m sure. But these eight things give me hope that there will be lots of good things ahead as well, in the months and years to come. As a friend said recently, of repatriation: ‘there’s no moving home, only moving forward.’  So forward it is.

Gone, girl (nearly).

So. Here’s the thing. We’re leaving Dubai.

Oh yes. It’s quite true. The flights are bought, the packers are booked, the school is secured, and we’re gone, as of June, off to the grey skies of London town, after nine years and two months away.

NINE YEARS. This city, this expat life, has changed me so much, and been such a pivotal part of my life. I can hardly bear to think it is over. I will have plenty more to say, but I’m a little stressed, a little sleep deprived, and a lot emotional. Having spent the week breaking the news to people and trying not to get upset on too many occasions, I admit I’ve cried in coffee shops, teared up in living rooms and sobbed in the car (For sale: RAV4, one lady driver, 82,000 kms, black, 2009, new tyres, PM me if you’re interested) on numerous occasions. I’m a tad drained; I move from excited to devastated and back again on an hourly basis.

Suffice to say there are upsides and downsides. Expect more on both of these subjects just as soon as I have garnered enough energy to blog about it. But I just thought you should know. I’m going home. Or not. I haven’t quite figured it out yet…

A word about home

As part of my studies this week I was asked to make a list of words that I associated with the word ‘Home’, to include personal, concrete examples that might include names, places, objects, feelings, sensory experiences, and so on. Here’s what I came up with in a five minute brainstorm:

family – Dubai – sun – city – heat – happy – sad – homesickness – London – childhood home – childhood friends – sadness – missing out – friends – irrelevant – unknown – secret – packing – saying goodbye – depressed – lonely – guilt – grandparents – parenthood – love – phones – skype – email – travel – holidays – visitors – achievement – intensity – strength – coping mechanisms – girlfriends – hobbies – time difference – sausages & mash – green – seasons – trees – walking – the pub – tube train smell – summer nights – cold – Friday club – music – independent shops – carpet beneath my feet – heating – fires – touch – hugs – absence – laughter – eccentricities – familiarity – forgiveness – joy – being together

It made me nostalgic and warm for the vague fuzzy definition of ‘home’ I keep tucked away most days.  I honestly haven’t given it much thought since we got back after the summer, but instead of sinking into a funk, I sat and mused about my friends, and wondered how they were all getting on, how their kids were doing in school, how their jobs were going, what they were doing for Halloween, Guy Fawkes, Thanksgiving, Christmas….I miss them in much more of an abstract way these days; the desperate homesickness I got used to over the years seems to be replaced lately by acceptance that time passes so quickly, it probably won’t be long in the grand scheme of things before I am back in the fold and living life alongside them. (Hey, what’s eight years or so between friends?) But still, it would be nice to feel counted a thousand miles away, to say I love you and hear it back – and to know what they’re up to this very minute. And that’s why this post is so short. Because I’m off to find out.

What’s on your list of ‘home’?