I am in Cyprus this weekend, celebrating my father's 75th birthday. He's a man prone to keeping a low profile – but we've decided to throw him a bash all the same. Alongside the typical Cypriot meze, served up in the garden that he has so lovingly crafted with his own hands, are all the signs of a life well-lived. A house brimming with memories and souvenirs; a couple of classic cars he has restored from scratch; a bevy of stray cats saved from almost-certain death; and a throng of family and friends who have travelled far and wide just to celebrate with him.
My dad is the ultimate expat. He left the United Kingdom nearly 50 years ago, spending time in Kenya, Oman and the UAE, before settling in Cyprus just prior to my birth. In Kenya, he met and married my mother – a Muslim of Indian descent living in the tiny, still-conservative town of Mombasa. It is testament to his charm and my grandparents' open-mindedness that they accepted him with open arms.
In Oman, my parents welcomed my brother – in the middle of nowhere, my dad sat on the steps of a ramshackle, female-only hospital for nearly two days as my mother battled through a difficult birth. I can just imagine him there, sitting stoically in the heat, with a good book in hand, waiting for his son to arrive.
At home, in his overflowing office, rows of old-school photo albums, each picture painstakingly dated and captioned, chronicle my dad's many adventures; books and CDs line the walls, speaking of diverse musical tastes and an insatiable love of fiction – Bach, Beethoven, The Beatles, but also Abba, Lonnie Donegan, the Safari Sound Band and, inexplicably, Lily Allen. There's an ancient chess board, its wood chipped and peeling, that has been lugged from continent to continent; and in a special box, the boarding pass for every flight he has ever taken – about 1,800 in total, to 64 countries in every corner of the world.
In every instance, my dad embraced local cultures and customs, respecting them, even if he didn’t always fully agree with them. He eschewed that all-too familiar British mentality of sticking to his own, and made friends of every colour and creed (many of whom have made the journey to sing happy birthday so many years later). In each of these very different places, he immersed himself fully in the culture, learning snippets of Swahili, Arabic and Greek that he can still pull out of the hat at a moment’s notice.
In this way, he paved the way for me to be able to embark on my own expat adventure – taught me to be open to new experiences and foreign ways of thinking. He instilled in me a love of travel, although, having caused an elephant stampede in the Tsavo National Park and having been shot at in Yemen, his stories make mine seem quite feeble in comparison.
I'm sure I wouldn't be in the UAE if it wasn't for him. I wouldn't have been able to so comfortably navigate the cultural complexities and turn this unfamiliar land into my home. I would not have been open to the friendships I have made, or achieved half of the things that I have achieved. So thank you, daddy. Happy birthday.
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