Few people would disagree with the adage ‘Home is where the heart is’. Ex-pats everywhere know the heartache of separation from parents, siblings, the extended family, and friends. When you leave your adopted city and return to your native town, the question changes from, ‘Where are you from?’ to ‘How long are you staying?’
I’ve tried the quick holiday of two weeks or even less, when I travelled back to Ireland from the United Arab Emirates for particular events and of course, it’s nowhere near long enough. If you really want to spend quality time with your family back home, the trip has to be at least a month long. It would be unthinkable for me to dedicate less than four to six weeks to my elderly parents, my two sisters and my brother. After one of those short trips I came away feeling frustrated. I hadn’t managed to have one long, private, meaningful conversation with my older sister, because I was spreading myself too thin.
When you’re single, it’s easier. Now that I’m married with a young daughter, the stakes have risen. An Indian woman I met in Dubai once told me that choosing to work and live abroad means ‘we are torturing both our kids and their grandparents.’ Torture might be going too far, but she had a point. My father dotes on his only granddaughter (words can’t describe how my mum feels about her) and has been asking me ‘when are you coming?’ or ‘are you still coming?’ since January of this year. Don’t worry, we’re on our way, Dad – I’m writing this on the plane.
My husband can’t come with us this year and there’s the rub. My four-year old is going to miss her father like crazy. She’s excited about seeing her Nana and Granddad and her Aunties and her loopy Uncle who does the silly voices, but I know her little heart is torn. She’ll miss her Emirati friends, the two sisters who live in our neighbourhood and have popped over every day since Ramadan started with foil-wrapped plates of goodies from their mother’s kitchen. We’ve been reciprocating, as is the tradition, and it’s Layla, my daughter who insists on this. Her face lit up the first time she was given the responsibility of going alone to deliver some hummus I’d made. These are small details, but at
four almost five, this is her life. Playing is her job and she’ll miss her favourite playmates, her routine, and speaking Arabic.
As for me, I feel guilty for leaving my husband alone, but he’s young enough – he can cope, although I doubt there’ll be any homemade hummus for six weeks. My parents on the other hand, would find it extremely difficult and hurtful if I missed my annual pilgrimage home to Ireland. I need to see and embrace them, to discover for myself how bad the health problems are that they’ve been playing down. What’s more, I need the freshness of Irish air in my lungs again. I need to see lush, vibrant green everywhere instead of sand and intermittent trees and bushes that go limp if deprived of water for one day.
I’m dreaming of a drizzly day and rain that wouldn’t wet you, of sea breezes, and a hefty farl of wheaten bread from my local bakery. There are things I’m not too keen on as well, but I’ll leave the rants for another time.
In a little over five hours we’ll touch down in Dublin airport which will no doubt be hectic compared to the stately calm of Terminal 3 in Dubai at 6am on a morning in July. I’m looking forward to hearing those Dublin accents and later in the day as we travel north, the Belfast equivalent. I will do my best to spend enough time with all the people I hold most dear, and to give my daughter some wonderful memories of the trip the year she turned five. But I know in my heart that after six weeks we’ll both be itching to get ‘home’. For the irony is, in order to reunite with my birth family, it was necessary to split up my chosen family. Six weeks is long enough for a husband and wife to be apart and it may even be too long for a young child to be away from one of her parents.
There are many benefits to being an ex-pat, but maybe my Indian friend was right. Choosing to live abroad permanently can sometimes feel like torture.
(Written on Monday 15 July 2013 – post delayed due to dongle malfunction.)