This is the time of year when my thoughts turn to that place I called home for 26 years - good old England. Yes, it's almost time to make my annual trip back to Blighty to see the family.
And of course, there are all those decisions to make. What clothes do I have to pack? Do I really need to take the big suitcase this time? How much money will I need? Which of my old school-friends (if any) will make the list of people to see? How many football matches will I be able to squeeze in? What gifts from Thailand do I need to buy? What food do I need to bring back? Will I be able to spend enough time with family?
Hold on. Isn't this supposed to be a holiday? I'm stressed out already. But truth be told, the trip home has this effect on me every year. Actually, I've spoken to a number of teachers and Bangkok expats on this topic - and I know I'm not alone in feeling this way.
Part of the problem is that whenever I choose to go back home for a couple of weeks, there is nearly always a major crisis ticking away in the background. Does anyone remember the Icelandic volcano and the ash cloud that forced all flights out of Europe to be grounded for over a week? Well, I was in England, desperately trying to book a return flight home.
Remember the floods of several years ago, when depending on which part of Thailand you lived in, the water level came up to either your knees or your neck. Well, I was in England - a ball of stress and worry - as my wife gave me daily Skype reports on the increasing odds of the canal next to our house bursting its banks and our house going under.
There have been other times as well but I won't go into detail. Life just never seems to want me to go back to England and have a good time.
I usually return for two weeks, at the same time every year - the last week in September and the first in October. I'm not really sure why but it just feels like the right time to go.
December to April is always too cold and I never fancy the thought of being home for Christmas anyway. And being a bad hay fever sufferer (at least I was when I lived in England) the peak summer months - when the pollen count is at its highest - are totally out of the question.
Temperature wise, late September is a most agreeable time of year. You get the opportunity to wear a nice jacket as you stroll home from the pub in the evening and perhaps a light sweater during the day - both make a welcome change from the staple Bangkok outfit of shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops.
Just the ticket
The biggest expense associated with the trip home will almost certainly be the air-fare. My usual route for several years was Bangkok to Birmingham (via Dubai) in Emirates economy class. Alas, Emirates Airlines and I have had something of a falling out - and last year, when I took my seat in economy class and surveyed my surroundings, I began to wonder if it was physically possible to squeeze more passengers into a cabin without us having to sit on each other's laps.
Then the fat guy next to me gained control of the arm-rest before we'd even had chance to ignore the safety demo and I decided enough was enough. Perhaps it's got a lot to do with getting older but I just can't do economy class anymore.
Unfortunately, I can't afford business class either, so I've trawled the net to find the best deals with those airlines offering a premium economy service and I've ended up paying 63,000 baht to fly with Lufthansa to Birmingham (with a three-hour layover in Frankfurt)
Lufthansa's basic economy class ticket comes in at around 35,000 baht so I've ended up paying almost double for a bit of extra legroom, food served on plates, a complimentary bottle of drinking water and a free toilet bag. I'll let you know how it goes.
When booking plane tickets, timing is everything. Had I bought that premium economy class ticket just a fortnight before I did (and had Lufthansa's website booking system been working properly) I would have got the seat for just 46,000. Lesson learned. I think.
You'll never catch me looking down on teachers who hunt around for the cheapest possible air ticket though. Believe it or not, one of the best flights I ever had back to England was with Bangladesh Biman (are they even still in business?) I was a poor teacher looking for a bargain - and 17,000 baht return was certainly a bargain. Who cares about safety records at that price?
We took off from Don Muang Airport in Bangkok (back in the good old days when DM was not the chaotic, cattle market it is now) and quickly realized that airline crew outnumbered the passengers by two to one. The ‘fasten seatbelt' light went off, and it was up with the armrests, as every passenger found themselves their own personal row of four seats in which to get horizontal. And I slept all the way to London. What a flight!
So what's next? Oh yes, the major headache - and it is a major headache - of which friends to see while you are back home.
I suppose I'm lucky. I'm one of those miserable sods who hasn't kept in touch with very many of my old school-friends or drinking pals. It hasn't been for want of trying but let's not forget that over 25 years have passed since I left England. That's a bloody long time.
I've reconnected with many of the ‘old gang' on social media, but like me, some of them have relocated to various parts of the world and even if they've moved to a nice little village just a half-hour's drive from Birmingham (where we all grew up), meeting up for a reunion still seems to require too much effort. And I totally understand. We all lead such busy and hectic lives. And we didn't love each other that much anyway.
However, I do sometimes get together with an old school-pal - but find that once every 3-4 years is enough. The time passes so quickly that even when reunions are 12 months apart, it still feels like yesterday when you last met. Those stories that you shared and laughed out loud at just a year ago, are still fresh in the memory and you can simply run out of things to talk about.
But if you have only been an expat or working abroad for a short time, then you'll probably still have a huge circle of friends to see when you return home for a visit.
And they all want to see you. And they all want to hear your war stories. What a nightmare!
I chatted about this topic with international school teacher, Julia Knight. Julia has written a number of blogs for this website in the past and both she and her husband (along with their children) have been living and working in Bangkok for several years. They return to the UK at least once a year for a family visit and have the exact problem that we're discussing here - a large group of friends who Julia and her husband feel duty bound to get together with at some stage of the holiday.
It took a few trips home to work out the best approach, but Julia has come up with an ingenious solution to the problem.
About two weeks before she is due to fly back, Julia sends out a mass e-mail to everyone on her friends list. I assume her husband does the same. It goes something like this.....
"Hi everyone. Just a quick e-mail to let you know that we'll be back in England from April 10th to April 27th and we would love to see you if possible. We'll be at the following places on the following dates from 7.30pm. See you soon"
This would be followed of course by the details of the three venues (presumably three pubs in the local area) and the dates.
What a brilliant idea! And as Julia says "it works like a charm". Julia doesn't have the hassle of arranging to meet up with specific friends on specific nights and there is no pressure on any of those friends to show up on any of the three dates.
The invitation is there. You can come and see us if you want. Job done!
Julia didn't mention it but I'm also guessing that when friends show up, they all want to get their hand in their pockets for a round of drinks. So it's a free night out. I'm just saying is all.
Spend! spend! spend!
Which brings me to the topic of spending money - how much money to take? Yes, it's always a thorny issue but there's rarely a situation where money doesn't rear its ugly head at some time.
In the two weeks I'm back in England, I generally get through about 50,000 to 60,000 baht. I'm not sure if that sounds a lot but while I'm home, I figure I may as well make it worthwhile. But I certainly don't go mad.
I might buy a few clothes from my favourite stores (particularly sizes that I find more difficult to get in Bangkok) and I always bring back plenty of my favourite chocolate bars and snacks (stuff I can't get in Thailand)
I'll always try and take in a football match or two - and that certainly doesn't come cheap. Last year, I took a train to Crewe to see my beloved Colchester United and when you tot up the cost of the train fare, match ticket, programme and a half-time pie and Bovril, you're not left with much change from hundred quid. It all mounts up.
I also take a holiday within a holiday. My parents moved to Spain 15 years ago, so I spend time with my brother in Birmingham before we both fly to Spain to stay with Mom and Dad for a few days. So there's the additional cost of another international flight, albeit only short-haul.
And of course, it's only right that you pay your way for certain things when either friends or family have been good enough to offer you a spare bedroom or perhaps even just a sofa or camp-bed.
Returning home puts us in a strange situation of sorts. Even though your finances might not be in the best of shape, I think you always want to give friends and family the impression that you're at least doing OK and standing on your own two feet. It's human nature surely. So it's nice to be able to treat your friends to a round of drinks in the local or to take your family out for an Indian and pick up the tab or splash the cash on a Chinese takeaway.
The first time I took my wife back to England - over 15 years ago - I managed to scrape together about 20,000 baht in spending money. 20,000 baht went a lot further then of course but it was still very much ‘a budget holiday'. On the first day back, I popped in to say hello to my Auntie Rita and Doreen (my mom's sisters) who had both been wonderful to me as a child growing up. I'm not sure if they had a sixth sense, but at the end of our visit, when it was time to bid my aunts farewell, they handed me a brown envelope and said "we don't see you very often".
In that envelope was a hundred pounds (the equivalent back then of about 7,000 baht). It was a life-saver. But I still had to rely on parents to foot the bill for meals out and to pay for the many ‘treats' that my wife and I enjoyed while we were there.
So, whenever you plan to return home for a family visit, I wish you a safe journey and hope you have a magical time. And don't get stressed out over not managing to keep everyone happy. You're only human. You can't please all of the people all of the time.