It is near dusk on a Thursday and I’m sitting with my daughter on the Wadi Trail waiting for the start of what she calls “singing”, which is of course the call to prayer, one of the six we hear daily in Riyadh. My California-born baby, my Pacific Ocean child: I never imagined we’d be spending so many of her early years in this part of the world.
My husband and I moved to Morocco just before our daughter was born, and after a hectic birth and two months spent back in the Bay Area we tucked her into a baby carrier and boarded a plane back to Casablanca. She was just 10 weeks old.
At the time she seemed so much sturdier than the tiny newborn I’d nursed and cuddled in the warm sun of my San Francisco apartment; two flights and a layover in Paris would turn out to be no big deal despite her small size. Still, she was so very young. Finally landed and ensconced in our new home with a view of the Atlantic Ocean from the upstairs bedroom, we began to ease into our new life.
The first year of motherhood is a life-changer, and experiencing it far from familiarity and even a common language (my French and Darija being not quite up to par) tested my limits. I was ecstatic to spend my days with a rapidly growing baby but I missed the community and coast I’d left behind. Living overseas is not for the faint of heart and for every exciting trip to Marrakech there was the crazy daily traffic and frenetic pace of life in Casa to deal with.
We had planned to live in North Africa for four years but life intervened and when Sierra was 18 months old we packed up again and flew east, to Saudi Arabia.
My husband and I had each spent our entire childhoods in the same house; my parents still live in my childhood home and it has become our California base when we return to the States. Though I never had more than a hazy picture of what my life with child might look like I probably imagined I’d be living similarly: ensconced in a cozy 2-bedroom apartment in San Francisco that would serve as the backbone to her memories. Or maybe we’d have carved out a little garden and cottage among the woods of Point Reyes with plenty of room for rambling.
So far, we’re doing things quite differently.
Like many expat families, I struggle with the concept of what home will mean to Sierra. For sure we are not settled permanently in the Middle East, but the Foreign Service lifestyle does not lend itself to much advance planning. I’m not sure where we’ll go next — maybe back to the States, maybe to another overseas posting.
I’ve had to give up the notion of her childhood being firmly grounded in a particular place as mine was. And yet I can’t regret the experiences she’ll have while we live in these diverse countries.
When I worry that she is missing out on the more traditional American childhood I experienced I remind myself that she will grow in ways I can’t anticipate, shaped by her time away from her birth country. When I worry that all this moving around will negatively affect her psyche I remember that the firm family foundation we’re building will hopefully help her weather all the changes still to come in her young life.
While she doesn’t remember much of her months in Casablanca it was the city where she learned to walk, first heard the call to prayer, and met so many friends and strangers who adored her simply for her babyness. Those early months are precious to me and now are indelibly marked by our walks down to the crowded beach, the trips around our somewhat gritty neighborhood and waving to Rachid, the guy who collected the daily yard waste with his horse-drawn cart. Sometimes we’d see cows nibbling on low-growing palm trees off the busy Rue d’Azzemour and to a toddler these sights were endlessly fascinating.
Here in Riyadh we’ve had friendly conversations in various languages with locals in the park down the street, chased beetles on the trail behind our house, coaxed the stray cat that lingers outside our back door to come in for a dish of milk, sampled strawberry juice and hummus in equal measure. I don’t know what she’ll remember of her years here but now that she’s a bit older I’m sure it will be more rather than less. Our sprawling house, on loan for two years, will be the first one she identifies and remembers as ‘home’.
And after all, what is home? Is it a physical place? A certain feeling of belonging? Something indescribable? When I say ‘home’ I mean Northern California and it’s more than simply where I grew up; it’s a part of who I am. California may mean home to Sierra too or she may have a harder time identifying where it is.
For now these late afternoons spent listening to the call to prayer at sunset and watching swallows dip and fly over the desert landscape are precious to me. For now this is home and though we won’t stay it is enough that we are here, together, in this moment.
Nicole Spiridakis is a writer and editor currently halfway through a two-year stint living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with her husband and young daughter. Previously she lived in Casablanca, Morocco, but definitely left her heart in San Francisco.