Well, here it is. The Rip Van Winkle blog, stumbling out of the woods after a long, lazy nap to try to pick up where it left off, only to find out that the world has moved way, way on.
Things have changed in Saudi Arabia since I left a year ago. We were toward the front of a wave of expat departures that have happened since oil prices fell. With money tight, the Saudi government has cut off or chosen not to renew contracts for non-essential projects around the country, and in many projects contractors have gone unpaid for more than a year and have cut staff down to the bone. Many of my friends are gone, returned to their home countries. Even if I’d stayed, things would be different now.
I sorely miss them all, though, doggone it. Saudi Arabia gets a pretty harsh rap as a tough place for expats to live because of all the restrictions and lack of entertainment. But here’s the flip side: with little else to do, you spend a lot of time with your friends. I don’t know that expats would have a chance to get as close to each other anywhere else, where you’re herded into enclosed communities, don’t have independent transportation or many places to go, and don’t have much beyond work claiming your time.
The restaurant in our compound put on a themed buffet dinner every Thursday night, which is the beginning of the Saudi weekend. Italian Night! Indian Night! Mexican Night! (Note: The Mexican food you get from an all-Indian kitchen crew in Saudi Arabia is…distinctive.) Thursday morning on the shopping bus, or around the compound on Thursday afternoon, friends would start to check with each other: “Are you coming to dinner tonight? How many of us are there? Should I reserve a table?” The food was…adequate. The price was a little high. But the restaurant was the community gathering spot on Thursday nights, and people would drift around the room on the way in or out, visiting with neighbors, free to wear what we wanted and mingle with whoever we wanted. We’d share a meal with friends, week after week, catching up, laughing, sharing frustrations and puzzlement and bizarre experiences with the only people in the world who will ever know what that period of our lives was like.
I had big ideas about trying to bottle that fellowship and import it to my American neighborhood. It wouldn’t be the same, of course—American families are busy and people have options and obligations pulling them a thousand different directions. We don’t have a place to gather, and no one wants to host some ridiculous huge dinner party with people who don’t decide whether they can make it until the last minute, and or be tied down to some relentless repeating obligation…but still. Maybe a once-a-month potluck? No pressure? Rotating between a few neighbors’ houses?
I’ve done nothing. I needed to get settled back into my home first, of course, which still hasn’t fully happened. And then it was Christmas. And then I had work obligations. And then…and then…and here we are, one year later.
I’m really annoyed that I’ve allowed something important to slip through my fingers so easily. You see, here’s the thing I figured out from expat life. Okay, one thing. But still. It’s important, and super-profound, so sit down and brace yourself.
It’s all about people.
Yeah, okay, that’s it. I’m not the first to figure this out, and far from the smoothest, but there it is. The only things you really get to keep in this life are experiences and relationships. And the value of the experiences doubles when they’re connected with a relationship. I don’t mean A Relationship with a standing Saturday date and holiday obligations—just another human, and the remarkable, irreplaceable things that happen when our complicated, messy lives cross each other, get tangled, and move on a little differently for the encounter.
The experiences I had in Saudi Arabia were enriched by people, and I count among them the many of you who have read and shared these blog posts, who have commented or written to me. I hope you’re willing to let our paths continue to cross as we both move forward. I won’t continue to write exclusively about Saudi Arabia or I’ll be that bore who can’t stop going on about the glory days. Yes, there are a few more subjects I never got to while I was there, but there is also other stuff:
- Guys, I’m in a book. Once Upon an Expat is a compilation of stories from amazing, adventuring, fearless, humor-seeking, humanity-loving women from all over the world, and they let me chime in. The book will be available June 6, electronically and in paperback. All profits go to Books Abroad, an organization that promotes literacy and education in developing countries. It’s available on Amazon right now for Kindle pre-order or with Kindle Unlimited.
- Guys, I wrote a book. I finished the first-run version before I moved to Saudi Arabia, worked through editing with my agent while I was there, and she managed to sell it a few months ago. Among the Lesser Gods is a novel about a woman afraid to take action after starting a deadly fire as a child. But her efforts to hide from humanity end up weaving her into the lives of a complicated community and a damaged family, helping her discover the ways that tragedy and blessing are intertwined, and that in the end you can never be sure which is which. The book will be released by Arcade Publishing in April 2017, and it’s the main reason I’ve been a subpar blogger for so long. I’ll keep you updated on news here.
- Guys, my life is a mess. But it’s more interesting that way, right? A year after leaving Saudi Arabia we’re living like squatters in our Colorado home, with no idea where or when we’ll be going next. Or staying. Or what we’ll be doing. My country has lost its mind and I’m terrified of what the consequences might be. (Dear non-American friends: I have nothing to do with the bouffant buffoon clown show you’re seeing in American politics. I’m praying as hard as you are that my people come to their senses.) I’m working through an identity-altering mid-life transition. I’ve got 25 Saudi pounds to lose. (2 stone, 11 kilos, whatever. It’s a job.) Some of my favorite reality TV shows are about to start their summer seasons. And I’ve really, really got to do something about my roots.
So I think there’s material here. My life is messy. Everybody’s life is messy. And extraordinary. And unpredictable. And priceless. The experience of living it, with fascinating people on every side, is important, no matter where it happens. I’m up for the adventure, and I hope you’ll continue to make it better by sharing yours with me.