We’ve now been back in the UK for just over two months, and I’ve written my final post for Telegraph Expat. In this one, I list five things I’ve noticed since my return to Britain.
It’s been a huge pleasure to write for the Telegraph, but as I’m no longer an expat, I’m heading onto pastures new. Exciting challenges await.
Edited, September 2016: As the Telegraph has now deleted its expat blogs section, here is the piece in full:
We’ve now been back in the UK for two months. When we were still living in Qatar, I often speculated about how we’d feel by this point. I suggested that life might feel a little dull after so many adventures, both good and bad, over the past six years; a little monochrome rather than technicolour. I also wondered whether our country would feel alien to us after so many years away, and whether I’d feel lonely, starting again in a new place with no supportive network of expat friends to fall back on.
It turns out I was wrong on all counts. Granted, moving continents with two children in tow and establishing said family in a new (unfurnished) house, a new school (little lad) and a new job (big lad) in just a couple of weeks had its moments (I never want to see an Allen key again), but we are loving being home.
The UK doesn’t feel alien at all, although it does feel a little like we’ve missed a couple of episodes of a long-running TV series; Austerity Britain part 1 and 2 have been shown already, but we’ve still got several episodes left to run, so I guess we’ll catch up in the end.
And my worries about loneliness were pretty much swept away on the first morning of my son’s new school when lots of his classmates’ parents introduced themselves, handed me kids’ party invites and invited me round for coffee. Similarly, lots of old friends got in touch and I’ve been gradually reconnecting with them.
Settling back in easily, however, does not mean I’ve been oblivious to the enormous change our daily life has just undergone. Here are just some of the differences I’ve noticed.
Only in the UK can you experience several different seasons in a day. Yesterday, for example, it started off really chilly, then it rained, and then it was warm and sunny. A few days ago, we had hail, in June. (It was the first time my son had seen it. He picked pieces up and was distressed when it melted.)
Coming from a country with just two seasons – winter and summer – I’d forgotten the unique challenge of dressing for British weather. I am the mother at the school gates who consistently dresses both herself and her children wrongly. Baking hot but wearing a jumper, jeans and boots? Pouring with rain, and then discovering that neither child actually owns a raincoat? Yes, that’s me.
I am also the crazy woman who stands outside in the rain, inhaling deeply. This phenomena also occurs when someone nearby is mowing a lawn.
Fresh fruit and veg
One of the first things I did when I got home was to buy some English strawberries. To a palate accustomed to air-freighted fruit with an eye-popping air mile history, they were astonishingly lovely. Then I indulged in Jersey Royal potatoes, which were such a joy after the tasteless Saudi-grown variety we used to buy.
Granted, it was possible to buy good quality produce in Qatar, but it was hugely expensive, and not an everyday option. So since coming home, I’ve experienced the reverse of the “Doha stone”, the common weight-gain many experience when settling into expat life there.
Instead of dining out all of the time (a pretty cheap option in Doha) I’m now indulging in, and craving, fresh fruit and vegetables. My body is thanking me.
And then of course there’s the joy of getting it all delivered via online supermarket shopping, something many British expats crave in Doha. I’m fairly certain my five year old does not miss being dragged about Lulu once a week, consistently being refused chocolate.
Private healthcare in Qatar was a double edged sword. It was pretty easy to access – you could just walk up to a receptionist and request an appointment with a GP, or even a specialist – but its quality was incredibly patchy, and I always had the niggling suspicion that treatments and medication were being prescribed for profit reasons rather than because I actually needed them.
The UK’s cash-strapped NHS by contrast has a very tight fist, and I recently had to fight to continue to be given a medication I’ve been on since I was 21. I’ve also had to re-adjust to dealing with pharmacists who adhere to incredibly tight regulations on what they can and can’t sell over the counter; my days of buying the contraceptive pill without prescription are definitely over, although given the benefits of medical oversight in this regard, I’m rather glad.
One huge negative I’ve spotted since coming home, however, is dentistry. How on earth does anyone get their teeth done in this country without going into debt? We’ve actually registered with a local NHS dentist to try to get care at a decent price, but the first date they can give us is in August. I made the appointment in May.
This is a predictable one, of course, but it’s been so significant a change for us that it warrants a mention. Before moving to Qatar, I’d never have stopped to marvel at an enormous oak tree, or the blossom on a cherry tree, or the curve of a meandering river, or the freshly-mown stripes on a lawn. My son did a football course over half-term in the tree-lined playing fields of a local primary school. Sitting down in the sunshine waiting for him to finish, I shed a little tear.
Living in the desert for six years has truly made me appreciate the wonders of nature. Hell, I even love it enough to want to don my dusty trainers and go running outdoors for the first time in years, so it must be good.
The cost. Oh, the cost.
Moving back to the UK from Qatar is rarely going to be financially beneficial. It was a lifestyle decision for us, and we were prepared for a squeeze on our finances.
Having said that, it’s still a shock the first time something breaks down and you realise that instead of the cosy expat renter’s solution of simply calling maintenance, you have to pay for the fix, and ooh, it’s gonna cost yer. It will also, it turns out, take at least a week for the engineer to turn up.
Then there are cars. Our time in Qatar means we have no no-claims bonus, and this year’s insurance has been painful.
Having said that, while doing the maths when buying our new car, we’ve realised that the cheap fuel in Qatar wasn’t such a steal after all. Our gas-guzzling Ford Explorer in Qatar might have cost us a tenner to fill, around a quarter of our fill-ups in the UK, but it was actually four times less efficient than our new car.
Mind you, our Golf is, err, somewhat smaller, but this bit of maths magic does make us feel a bit better when we’re averting our eyes at the petrol pumps.