I think the term "expat" sounds terribly glamorous. Maybe I've read too many books or watched too many films, but the term does make me think of very posh English people sitting in a wood paneled bar drinking cocktails while the fan overhead makes vain attempts to move the heavy, muggy, tropical air. The locals serve ice cold drinks while the ladies fan themselves and the gentlemen smoke cigars while talking business. An elderly piano players tinkles away in a corner. I think, in my head, this is all taking place in the Hotel Nacional in Havana.
This is all rather bizarre as I have been to the Hotel Nacional in Havana, and none of this happened. Except for the mojitos. And I think there was some wood paneling and a fan somewhere. Further, if ever such a scene existed, it was a significant time before I was born.
It is also strange because I am an expat of sorts and have yet to spend any time fanning myself in a muggy bar. In fact, I don't think I've actually ever spent any quality time with a fan.
Clearly, I have far too active an imagination and have wasted too much time on romantic spy novels and films set in tropical locations. The reality of expats these days is that we/they are people who move abroad for quality of life, for work or for money. We are people trying to get do our grocery, shopping, beat the traffic and get our kids to school, albeit in a different place to the one in which we born, raised or even educated. We're not so special anymore, there are more and more of us and we swirl round and round the world, filling international schools, setting up expat bank accounts and providing estate agents and airlines with a profit.
I think, most of the time, that this is totally amazing. That- for a proportion of the planet's population at least- you can step in to a giant tin can and some lost hours later, the tin can lands and vomits you up somewhere completely different. You can learn the language, see the country, eat the food, meet the people. You could even live there in some cases. In theory, it should mean people understand each other better and confront less (in theory!)
My family is a classic case in point. My brother and I are the children of the Polish immigrants. We have lived in Poland, South Africa, England and Norway. Additionally I have lived and worked in New Zealand and I live in Cape Town, South Africa at the moment. I am married to an Englishman. My brother has, as an adult, spent some time in Barcelona, Spain and currently works in Brussels, Belgium where he lives with his Catalan girlfriend.
Most of the time, I think that is totally amazing. The opportunities that my brother and I have had, the knowledge of and exposure to other countries makes us very lucky, very privileged people.
On Saturday, I thought it totally sucked. That our lives would have been infinitely less complex, less full of goodbyes and Skype calls if my parents had just stayed put. My fantastic brother had been here for 3 weeks and we had enjoyed his company immensely and intensely. He was here for long enough that we just hung out, and it felt like he lived here. And then, of course, he had to leave to return to his job, his girlfriend, his life. And it was horrible. I won't go into the tears, except to say that Cape Town seemed like a lesser place without having him to hang out with. My daughters didn't understand why we couldn't "keep him".
My doctor, of all people, said to me that it's better to have a wonderful brother far away in Brussels than a brother you can't stand just around the corner. Which is an excellent point. Exceptional people are worth knowing, wherever they are.
And the other point is that would be both be as happy had we stayed put? Would we be the same people?
The problem with globalisation in the context of being an expat is it causes far too many goodbyes, it causes too many tears. Yet, without it, if we simply stayed put, we could well have missed out on many, many hellos which may have changed our lives for the better.