Birthdays. Everyone has them. Some of us try and forget them, but most of us do something to mark the occasion. Especially when it’s one of the “big” days, one with a zero.
But what happens when you’ve just arrived in a new country and you don’t have any friends and your family are on the other side of the globe? Who do you celebrate with then?
Welcome to the sometimes-lonely world of the expat.
In 2008 we were posted to Islamabad and arrived shortly before one of my “big” birthdays (I won’t tell you which but yes it did involve a zero). As an August baby, I’ve always felt a little hard-done by when it comes to birthdays. I wouldn’t change it as, well, were I born in any other month than August then I wouldn’t be me. But as a child my holidays fell slap bang in the middle of the summer and no-one was ever around. I was also always one of the youngest in my class and as a consequence have spent most of my life thinking I am a bit fick (well, I can blame it on my birth date if I want to).
But as an adult expat, being born in August has had its downsides too. July and August tend to be the “moving” months for expat familes; either that, or they’re away enjoying their long holiday in their home country. Arriving in Islamabad as we did just a couple of weeks before my birthday, I didn’t exactly have much chance to make enough friends to invite to the celebration (remember – the birthday had a zero in it). In fact, I didn’t have that usual dilemma about who to include on the guest list: I literally invited every single person in the country I had ever had a conversation with (the shop keeper only didn’t make it because he wouldn’t have got past security on the diplomatic compound).
As it turned out, I had a great evening. For some reason, it was possible to get very cheap champagne through our commiserary at the High Commission, so everyone bought a bottle or two. Nothing better for breaking the ice with someone you’ve barely met than a glass (or five) of bubbly.
I must have had the same problem in St Lucia as we also arrived there in the summer months – although I literally have no memory of my birthday that year (perhaps it was so awful I have wiped it from my mind). But I certainly remember my daughter’s birthday as she also suffers from the same birthday-soon-after-arrival syndrome (hers is in September).
She had only just started preschool, and was going to turn four. While she did have a couple of new friends at school, there wasn’t anyone we knew well enough to invite to a party. This was probably a good thing: at the end of our posting we hosted her fifth birthday party in our garden. Several children were abandoned by their parents and one wasn’t even picked up at the end of the day – we ended up having to track down an aunt and finding someone to take her home. It was a very different culture to the one we were used to, and we certainly would not have known what to do about abandoned children at the start of our posting.
So there we were with a little girl about to turn four, and no-one to invite to her party. Luckily, we had a trick up our sleeves and arranged a trip down to an all-inclusive resort on the south coast (Coconut Bay, for anyone thinking of a visit to St Lucia), where we organised a cake to be brought to the room and she discovered the art of water-sliding. She (and we – think unlimited free cocktails and swim-up bar) had such a good time, she forgot all about the lack of a party.
This year, I will be celebrating my birthday the day after we arrive in Pretoria. It isn’t a big one (no zero involved), so just being in South Africa will be enough for me – although some wine and a bit of local steak wouldn’t go amiss. But both my eldest daughter and my husband will be marking big ones (with zeros) within a few weeks of our arrival, so we’ve already started thinking about what we are going to do.My husband isn’t one to worry about having a party (or even having friends), so hopefully a weekend away somewhere will please him. And let’s face it, there will be plenty of places to choose from.
But for my daughter, things might be a bit harder. Yes, she’s got past the stage where she wants twenty friends, a big cake and party bags. But she still enjoys doing something on the day, and she still loves spending time with her best friends (two of which, coincidentally, where born on the same day as she was, in the same hospital). If nothing else, the day will remind her that she isn’t with those friends, and that they are somewhere, celebrating without her.
I know we will have ups and downs as a family when we move abroad, but occasions – birthdays, Christmas – are often the toughest times. We will do what we can to mark my daughter’s birthday and hopefully by then (she will have been at her new school exactly a month), she will even have some friends we can invite over or take to the cinema (or zip-lining. Or cheetah petting….). We will do our damnest to make sure that she has a good time, as we parents usually do (and we expat parents possibly even more than most). And if she doesn’t, if it’s a bit flat or she’s sad because she’s not with her old friends, well, we’ll just have to think of something to make up for it.
I’m sure there’s a waterslide somewhere near Pretoria!