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Life Lessons I’ve Learned In-Flight

My career as a serial solitary flyer started in my last two years of secondary school, when I went to boarding school in the United Kingdom. Flying back for Christmas, Easter and summer each year added up to a reasonable number of flights to and from Qatar.

It’s easy to sit, share recycled air, attempt to sleep on the rock-hard airplane seats and ignore everyone else on the plane. I have found though, that turning to the person sitting next to you, who also happens to be awake at 4 a.m., and saying hello, has taught me an awful lot. I’m going to share a few of these episodes with you.

Date: January 2010
Destination: Schiphol, Amsterdam
Passenger: Margriet
Lesson: I am a Global Nomad

I sit down next to a very proper looking Dutch woman. The little gold card on her efficiently packed hand luggage tells me she is a well-seasoned traveller. At breakfast (served at 5 a.m.), she strikes up a conversation.

Margriet had grown up in South America, attended Dutch University and now lives with her husband in Qatar. With a smile, she tells me that her three kids had grown up all over Europe. Then she talks about struggling with attending a Dutch university because, while she herself is Dutch, she has never lived there.

I knew exactly what she meant. Having an English accent but never having lived in the UK, I ask stupid questions (“What’s a Jaffa cake?” or “What’s the big deal with Rugby?”) and I feel a bit like an alien. I also sorely miss Arabic cuisine between strange things like “pork pies” and endless “baked beans.”

Margriet smiles, rummages around in her bag and hands me a book titled “Third Culture Kids.”

“Keep it,” she says.

That was the first time I came into contact with the concept of the global nomad. By the time I got off the train in Oakham, the book was finished. I wasn’t the only one that felt like an alien, and I didn’t have to like baked beans!

Flying over Doha. Photo by Emma Wind.

Date: December 2010
Destination: Doha
Passenger: James
Lesson: Your future, your decision

It’s the end of an exhausting term at boarding school. Theme of the term: university applications.

Let me summarise what fancy British boarding schools preach as far as university applications are concerned: “Unless you study law/economics/engineering/medicine you will never earn any money, live a pointless life and die alone.” Depressing!

I sit down in my favourite window seat (right by the wing) and leaf through the duty free magazine out of habit. When I look up, a good looking twenty-something year old guy is sitting down next to me.

About half an hour after takeoff, my neighbour has flipped through all of the in flight movies and TV shows. He doesn’t seem to have brought a book — rookie mistake.

“The flight selection on KLM is never brilliant,” I smile.

“It’s pathetic,” he nods.

James is English so we exchange quite a few pleasantries before we get to content. After school he went to Loughborough University to study textiles (he had that nostalgic smile on his face, the one that people always have when they talk about university). Now, he works for a jewellery company between England and Dubai.

“Textiles?” I’m intrigued.

I’m intrigued because, by all accounts according to my university, with a degree in textiles, he should be living a pointless life on his way to dying alone. But here was James, with a jet-setting career in jewelry.

He turns to me and asks what I want to do at university. I explain that I haven’t decided yet; maybe law, maybe some sort of business degree? “My advice? Apply for what you want to.” he says simply.

James reminded me that I was supposed to enjoy life. Going to university to do something I wouldn’t enjoy (no matter how sensible) would only make life harder for me. I don’t know if it was his directness, the fact that he had an awesome job, or that I’m a sucker for green eyes, but I took the advice.

I reminded James to always bring a backup book on KLM flights.

Currently, I’m a first year Anthropology student. I love my degree.

Date: March 2012
Destination: Doha
Passenger: The Colonial Fossil
Lesson: A TCK’s perspective

Stepping off the plane I breathe in the smell of Doha: dust and humidity. Stopping me from getting on the bus is a man asking for my visa. I grab my passport and show him my residence permit.

I’m allowed to get on the bus, and I turn to the man next to me: “Have you ever had to do that before?”

The man is tanned, wearing a shirt with one more button undone than is socially acceptable, and is wearing a pair of well worn and ancient ‘North Face’ trousers: expat.

“Never, and I’ve been in and out since the 70’s,” he replies.

Oh, not an expat. He’s what I call a colonial fossil. Colonial fossils grow up as third culture kids then continue as expats who never settle and have lived in just about every country under the sun.

Learn to recognise this type of character and you’ll be in for some fairly impressive stories.

The Colonial Fossil’s parents had worked here in the seventies when he was a teenager.

“The only building on the cornice in ‘79 was the Sheraton”, he says dramatically. The skyline in Doha is now aiming to rival that of New York or Hong Kong.

His next stint in Qatar was when he was a young drilling engineer.

“I was here during the coup, and tried to take a picture with one of the tanks on the street,” he rattled on. “They wouldn’t let me, the grumps.” No one in Qatar talks about the Coup in 95, but he explains that it was this regime change that finally allowed Qatar to modernise.

Nowadays, Qatar is home to Al Jazeera, the 2022 World Cup and several of the world’s richest people.

“This is me back for the third time,” he said as he walked out towards the premium terminal.

The conversation lasted about 5 minutes, but it gave me a new appreciation for a Third Culture Kid’s ability to watch a host-country grow and change, and feel that it is at least partly your home. We are both insider and outsider.

Have you met any interesting characters, or learned any life lessons, while in transit? Share them with me in the comments below. 

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