Our second Christmas in Doha has now been and gone and, in a time of quiet reflection, I find myself pondering one of the sacrifices we have made by moving abroad.
As a child, Christmas was always an exciting time of the year for me. It started in earnest when the whole family (there were quite a few of us) walked up to our local Church for the Crib service on Christmas Eve and sang, in what I like to think was a melodic way, an array of well known Carols. If I was lucky, I would be chosen to carry one of the Nativity scene pieces down to the front of the alter and lay it in its rightful place as the story of Christmas slowly unfolded.

After the Church service we would return home and sit down as a family with bowls of steaming soup and crusty rolls. We had  to save our appetite for the snacks that would be on offer a short while later as my parents always played host to friends who would pop in for a drink to toast the arrival of Christmas. There was always a sense of excitement and lots of laughter in the house.

Christmas Day was thrilling from start to finish - from awaiting the arrival of relatives, to opening our presents, the hilarity that ensued around the dinner table, the afternoon lull as we started to build/play with our new toys and the eventual sitting around the television with our warm sausage rolls, mince pies, Tunis cake and/or slices of Christmas cake.

This happened every year, even into adulthood, until Simon and I had our own little family and it made sense to remain at home with them for Christmas and create our own special experiences for them. But still we were surrounded by family. This time the rest of the family came to our house on Christmas Eve and we were the ones that plied them with food and alcohol until late at night, played various games together and laughed until our sides hurt. 
Now it was the turn of our children to leave a little drink and snack out by the fireplace for Santa, along with a little something for the reindeer, before heading off to bed. We would spend Christmas morning alone with the children and eat dinner as a small family unit, but then the hoardes would descend upon us again mid afternoon to continue where we had left off the night before.

As an expat, you don't have the extended family to share Christmas with anymore and therefore it is a whole different experience. The very thing that has always made this time of year so very special is missing. An afternoon Skype on the big day just doesn't cut it!!

Add to that the fact that we are living in a Muslim country that doesn't celebrate Christmas and I'm sure you will understand my maudlinness. I want to walk into the shopping centre and hear Christmas music playing, see all the seasonal food products and gifts in the windows, even fight the crowds in a last minute dash to buy additional gifts, and to generally soak up the atmosphere that you only find in the build up to Christmas. I can not find that experience here. If you look hard enough you can visit the Hotels when they have the lighting of their Christmas trees and hear a couple of carols sung. The kids can also go and decorate gingerbread houses but other than that there is very little on offer to help build that sense of anticipation and one aisle of Christmas decorations in the Supermarket hardly inspires me. The school even has to use the term Festive Fair, not Christmas Fair, to describe their annual event at the end of November, as reference to the religious event is not allowed here.

For the past 2 years we have found ourselves travelling to Dubai in the week before the 25th, just to try and find that little bit of Christmas magic, and in part it has worked. We have then returned to Doha for the big day itself. Last year we went to a Christmas Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. We were there with a big group of friends and sure enough had a really lovely day, but somehow there was something missing and it just wasn't the same.
This year we stayed at home in the Villa for Ethan's first Christmas, just the 6 of us, and Simon collected our pre-ordered turkey with all the trimmings from the Movenpick Hotel at Midday (costing QR400/approx £75). The kids had loads of presents to open as we tried to make up for all those gifts they would have got in the past from other family members, but didn't have this year. We also downloaded some Christmas films to watch together and let the kids eat whatever sugary treats they wanted, but unfortunately I felt that, even though the kids seemed excited and happy, there was still something missing........

For me, Christmas is a time for entire families to be together, from the very youngest members, right through to the oldest generations and when that can't happen then the magical sparkle of the Festive season just doesn't seem to shine so brightly somehow.  
Christmas cards sent to us from family in the UK
When I first talked about our intended move to Doha, in Qatar, I saw a lot of blank faces staring back at me as many of my friends and family had never even heard of the place (not surprising as I hadn't known myself where it was a few months before the big announcement!). I therefore found myself frequently having to explain that Qatar is in The Middle East, and is the country located between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It would probably have been a lot simpler and sounded much more appealing if Si had declared he had found a new job in Australia..... or maybe New Zealand. That would most definitely have saved us the looks we regularly got as people wondered why on earth we were moving the family 3000 miles to somewhere they had never heard of and where ladies had to modify what they wore, ensuring their shoulders and knees were always covered when out in public. I thought it best not to mention the fact that, as a Muslim country, alcohol and pork products are not available on the Supermarket shelves!    

Doha is the capital city of the state of Qatar and is located along the coast of the Persian Gulf. It is not a large city and, when we first arrived in 2011, I had a much used little map to refer to whenever I went out visiting somewhere new. However, I was able to put that aside relatively quickly and was soon navigating this small, but quickly expanding city with ease (and that's saying something if you are to believe what my husband says about my navigational skills!).

In January 2012, the population of Qatar is reported to have exceeded 1.76 million people with over 60% of these people living in Doha. Men outnumber women greatly here (3 men to every lady!) and it is obvious to see straight away the huge diversity of nationalities here - in fact, Qatari nationals are in the minority and account for only about 20% of the country's entire population. The majority of residents are expatriates, coming in the main from South Asian countries - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Phillipines, etc. There are however a substantial number of Western folk here too and after the initial culture shock when we first moved here I have never felt particularly out of place when I am out and about in the City. 

With some stunning buildings, Doha really is a beautiful place if you can look past the 
dusty and unlandscaped roads that you often find yourself driving along when travelling away from the heart of the city and between landmarks. Don't get me wrong as some areas are beautiful and green with the same feel as Dubai, but with the hot climate here and the constant care these areas need to maintain them, I can forgive that not everywhere has been afforded that magic touch yet.  

The City is a hive of activity in its drive for expansion and growth, with cranes and new buildings changing the skyline at an alarming rate. Everybody says that Qatar is about 10 years behind Dubai in its growth and development and it is obvious to see that the Qatari people are determined to fulfil their quest for continued expansion. New projects are starting daily and we know they will get finished.....eventually, but maybe not on quite the schedule that had initially been predicted. The long awaited IKEA is however now due to open in January 2013 and is currently the talk of the expat community - it's the little things that please us here!!

In Doha you have to drive pretty much everywhere. Gone are the days of just stepping out of the house and taking a pleasant little walk to school, to the shops or just to a friend's house (unless they live on your Compound that is!). It is a shame but I can no longer leave the house and simply go for a run like I used to in the UK. Instead I am confined to running on the treadmill, doing laps of the Compound  or driving over to perhaps the Corniche or Aspire Park to get some exercise (when the heat is not too relentless). Needless to say I don't run as much as I used to and this is just one of the things I do miss about my old life. 

And that is just it - for everything I like about my life here in the desert, there is always a gentle reminder of the life I have left behind. I have to hope that the new experiences we gain by moving to this foreign land will enrich our lives in such a way that we will not regret those years our family will inevitably have lost out on in the UK. I also want to change those blank faces and swap them for knowing looks and hope to achieve this by sharing snippets of our life in Doha through this site, so please do return to see new posts here soon!!