There’s been much harrumphing in the past week over Prince Harry and Meghan’s rumoured move to Africa. These harrumphs have included ‘who do they think they are?’, ‘what about the security costs?’ and ‘haven’t they just spent £4m on refurbishing their house in Windsor?’
Practicalities aside, I’m all for it because I believe everyone should live abroad for a spell. Admittedly, Meghan is already away from home in California and Harry has travelled extensively across Africa, but basing and immersing yourself in a foreign country is wholly different to nipping somewhere for a couple of weeks and slurping a few Mai Tais in the sun.
When I was 23, I took the slightly odd decision to move to Abu Dhabi where an English newspaper had just been launched as part of the Gulf city’s plan to promote itself as a thrusting, international destination and lure tourists away from its cousins up the road in Dubai. It was odd because I had a good job in London on the Evening Standard and didn’t know a soul who lived in Abu Dhabi. But I went out there for an adventure and have never regretted it.
My plans to learn Arabic were scuppered early on when a Pakistani taxi driver insisted the language would be ‘too impossible’ for me (shortly before he proposed marriage), but being an expat teaches your other life skills which you’ll never appreciate if you stay comfortably and firmly put in the same place.
Declining proposals from amorous taxi drivers was just one of these vital lessons. I also learned how to survive summers so hot it feels like your skin is melting and what camel tasted like. I learned about Islam, fell in love with the call to prayer and once went to an iftar, the evening feast that follows a day of fasting during Ramadan, where I joined in so enthusiastically my belt broke. Dealing with truculent Gulf officials, men who seemed reluctant to speak to a Western woman or even look her in the eye, made me develop a confidence I probably wouldn’t have picked up in Fulham. We Brits can be feeble beings when we travel, embarrassed by our paltry language skills, afraid to look foolish by stepping into the road at the wrong time and convinced that everyone we meet is about to scam us. Go abroad and tackle estate agents, builders, plumbers and beetle-browed traffic police and you’ll soon find any timidity disappears.
I’m not saying I’m Gertrude Bell. After a couple of years in the desert, I missed home and wanted to sleep in a room without the purr of air conditioning. I’d also tired of the excesses of expat life, still alarmingly similar to those found in White Mischief, James Fox’s book about the high-jinks in Happy Valley. After one dinner party in Abu Dhabi, I started receiving strange messages from a random mobile number when I got home. A husband I’d never met before that evening had gone into our hostess’s phone and extracted my number from it, then decided to start sexting me. The same could easily happen in London, obviously, but there’s a lazy insouciance to bad behaviour abroad, almost an expectation of it, which you don’t find at home. Real life is what happens when you move back again.
Still, I don’t imagine Meghan would have to put up with such nonsense and the educational benefits of living somewhere alien far outstrip the wandering hands. Go away, I would, Haz and Meg, things will be exactly the same when you return.
Best of luck to everyone running the London marathon today. It’s hugely admirable that so many do it and raise such whopping amounts of dosh for charity, although as we all know, you only ever run a marathon to be able to tell people that you’ve run a marathon. I’ve done three – in Oslo, Istanbul and Amsterdam, since you’re asking – and barely a day goes by when I don’t drop at least one of them into conversation. ‘Ah Istanbul, wonderful city. And I should know because I saw 26.2 miles of it,’ I say whenever someone makes the mistake of mentioning their recent minibreak. Just remember that when you’re at mile 18 and fantasizing about sawing off your own legs. The pain will last a day or two; bragging rights are forever.
In further travel news, I drove from London to Catalunya last weekend where my dad and step-mother live. It’s a journey of 932 miles and I set off with multiple jars of marmalade, horseradish, redcurrant jelly, plus a bronze statue of an ibex which was being relocated from their flat in London which, for safe-keeping, I stowed on the passenger seat beside me. Turns out, this was a moronic thing to do in an English car while motoring solo across Europe. Every time I stopped at a peage (12 times), I had to undo my belt, wriggle out from behind the steering wheel and perform acrobatic moves to reach for the ticket or pay through the passenger window, trying to avoid impaling my bottom on the ibex horns. If you’re plotting a similar road trip on your own, a friend tells me the trick is to invest in one of those litter picking sticks and extend that through the window instead.