At face value, you have to wonder why Dorothy wanted to leave Oz. Kansas was gray and windy and ugly; Oz was technicolor and gorgeous and magical. To top it off, by the time she got to the capitol the witch was dead and she was being treated like royalty. Why on earth did she keep saying she wanted to go home?
Home has a pretty powerful pull. We have a neighbor who’s been here only a few weeks and came over to watch the Masters with us one evening. At the opening shot of that American golf course he teared up. America. Right there, in bright green and blue. I confess I did the same thing when we were watching the home opener for the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver a few days earlier. Look at the scoreboard! The mountains behind it! Remember when we sat right there? Remember when our kid leaned on the dugout fence right there when he played in high school? Remember that view down the foul line? Honest—I could smell it. And I hoped and longed for the chance to go back. It’s my home.
A week later we got news that our permanent trip home, suddenly, could be just around the corner. And I find myself processing it in a really mixed-up, complicated way. It’s not as if it’s a surprise–it happens to every expat here. We come, we go, we make friends, they move on…none of us is here to stay. In America there are immigrants; in Saudi Arabia there are expats who are expected and required to leave. Replaceable parts in the machinery that serves the Saudi citizenry. And going home is what everyone dreams of, right? If anything, life here is Dorothy and Oz inside out and backwards—I came from a technicolor place WITH the people that I love, to a black and white one
(Get it? Punny!) full of strangers from strange places. I should be jumping at the chance to click my heels and go, right?
I’m bereft. Maybe if Dorothy had stayed in Oz a little longer she would’ve been confused about where she belonged, too. Or maybe if Dorothy had blown in and said, “Okay, I guess this is where I live now,” put herself out there a little bit, done some shopping, learned how to navigate the city, gone to a wedding, read the papers and the local Twitter feed, gone to the Princess Souk…well, I don’t think she would have been so clear about what her heart’s desire really was.
From where I sit, Dorothy got off easy. She woke up at home, and surprise! Her friends from Oz were right there! Home, and she got to bring Oz with her! I can tell you right now it’s not going to work out that way for me. The experiences I’ve had here, the people who have become part of me, the things I’ve seen–none of them will come with me, except hidden inside. And what’s inside has changed me. In more ways than one, come to think of it. I mean, I certainly don’t fit in my old clothes (thanks a lot for that one, by the way, Saudi Arabia), and I don’t know if I’ll have just as hard of a time fitting in my old life. I worry about being the insufferable bore who tosses off things like “Well in Saudi we always…” or “This reminds me of a place in Paris,” or “There was this time in Istanbul…” So am I just not supposed to talk about anything I’ve done over the last two years? Oh, sheesh.
Apparently, I’m not alone. The Beloved just sent me this article on “repatriation blues” from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Sounds about right.
But as I say all this I have to be clear that he and I have had VERY different experiences here. I live in a slightly weird international residential resort, where I can choose to hang out with girlfriends or write or quilt or garden or go to the gym. Have exotic adventures. Meet for lunch. Meanwhile, he has been fighting horrific life-threatening traffic to go to a hopeless, high-stress job, where failure is built in and frustration has been constant and mounting. His health has suffered. His soul has suffered. A couple of months ago I asked whether we needed to just pick a final date and leave, no matter what was or wasn’t waiting for us at home.
I haven’t written about this in the blogs because it hasn’t been my experience to tell, but the naked truth is that the constant thread you get from consulting businesspeople here is the bafflement and frustration of having been brought from around the world, at great expense, to offer expertise that in the end is refused. Accomplished professionals, accustomed to tying their identities to achievement, get together on the weekends and try to keep from chewing their own arms off. Lawyers, engineers, retail chain managers, restaurant chain managers, teachers, military advisors…the stories are the same. The projects you were brought in to manage, to fix, to improve, are going to be only a sliver away from what they would have been without you. If that. Guaranteed.
That’s standard around here. What’s not standard is being asked–repeatedly–to authorize expenditures so fishy they leave a scaly trail on your desk. At that, it was time to say no and embrace the fallout. Unsurprisingly, the Beloved was moved to another project within a few weeks. The contract for that project had not yet been signed by the appropriate minister, but was expected any day, any day. Then that self-same minister got into an argument with a dissatisfied citizen in public, which was duly videoed and went viral. Within two days he’d been sacked and an interim minister named. The fifth this year. Let’s be clear: interim minister. Think he’s gonna sign that contract? Fat chance. As oil prices fall and military expenditures go up, projects are getting shelved and people are being sent home all around us. So here we are, just another cog in the works that are getting shut down. Thirty days. And sooner would be fine. G’won now. Shoo.
When we get back, it’ll be time for selling the household goods, then scrambling through last purchases, last gatherings with friends, last visits to favorite places. Knowing that a place that’s held your life for two years is about to be closed to you forever is a tough pill to swallow, but when we got to Thailand the Beloved slept for an entire day. Perhaps it’s the pill he needs. We’ll see.