Going Home: The Upsides

Enough doom and gloom. I am two months away from a new experience and starting to think about all the things I’ve missed, that I can’t wait to get back to and explore with a decade more of life under my belt. It doesn’t feel like going home after so long; it feels like a brand new adventure waiting. I have a different career, a different outlook, a family; I am older, wiser, and a lot more relaxed. Even though my heart aches at the thought of leaving Dubai behind, it beats a little faster at the idea of the next chapter. Why?

1. LONDON

My first love. There is nowhere like it, nowhere I feel more at home. Yes, it’s noisy, and dirty, and crowded and it smells. Yes, it’s a heaving, writhing hell of commuters and tourists. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, the tubes are horrible in rush hour. Yes, your snot turns black and the traffic is hideous, and there’s dodgy areas where you wouldn’t take your mum at night. But then…there’s the parks, and the summers with their long light evenings; there’s museums and galleries and you can walk everywhere and there are pubs and clubs and restaurants and theatres; there’s crazy people and real people and people from every part of the planet pounding the streets alongside you just being who they want to be. The idea…the thought of being amongst it all again, of not being put in some expat wife box and left to find my own way out, is seriously exciting.

2. GROCERY SHOPPING

Well, hello Ocado, how very nice to see you again. Please, come and change my life.

It feels odd to put this as number 2 on this list, but I loathe grocery shopping, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that the very idea that I will be able to buy food without visiting the supermarket three times a week – that I can buy fresh vegetables and free range chickens online – and OMG ready meals – leaves me unbelievably excited. Let’s not even start on farmer’s markets. (Dribbles). And I can buy wine. Without a letter from my husband. Without taking out a second mortgage (drifts into a sort of orgasmic coma).

3. PUBS

Pubs and bars, with food, and wine, and gardens, and roaring fires, and Sunday roasts and Saturday BBQs….pubs spilling into streets, stuffed into old houses, heaving with people on a Friday evening…pubs you can walk to and stagger home from. Pubs on every street corner, to cater for every whim. Oh, the wonder of pubs. I have missed pubs.

4. FAMILY

I suppose they should have come first but it goes without saying, the presence of family in our lives again is simply the most awesome thing. I will finally be able to offer my son access to at least one side of the family on a regular, on-demand basis – and he to them (the other half still being another 7 hours away on a plane, but still remarkably more accessible than before). He will finally understand – or at least appreciate – what it really means to have family nearby. And so will we.

5. FRIENDS

Friends from childhood. Friends from work. Friends from married life. Friends from Dubai. Writing friends, acting friends, old friends, best friends: they will all form the backbone of my new life – and there’ll be new friends too, as time goes on, who are just waiting in the wings for me right now, unseen, unknown and unimaginable. If being an expat has taught me anything, it’s how to make friends again, and that is a wonderful thing I will do my best to honour and celebrate. I know it will take time again, to find my tribe, and I will miss my old one desperately. But I cannot wait to see who fills my world next, especially given there’s an 80% likelihood of them not moving away after two years.

6. CAREER

Where better to be a writer and an improviser? Well, arguably Chicago, or New York – but London is a pretty amazing place to hang out if you’re a Josie Lawrence/JK Rowling wannabe. The sheer number of people doing the same thing – but different – is cause for celebration. There’s so many people to learn from, be inspired by, and share ideas with. The possibilities are endless.

7. EUROPE

Trains to Paris. Two hour plane rides to the beautiful countryside of Spain, France and Italy. Ski slopes that are on actual mountains, not inside a shopping mall. The northern lights, just a hop, skip and a jump away. While I’m aware I’m not going to be going to Europe every weekend, the idea that I can, at any point, choose to head to the continent and stroll around the cobbled streets of some random town on market day scoffing croissants and quaffing rose, is just too delicious for words.

8. ENVIRONMENT

Rolling hills. Mountains. Trees. Clouds. Seasons. I love the desert; love the expanse, the desolateness, the heat. But the thought of staring across Wastwater or spying the deer in Richmond park; the feeling of the wind on my face at Brighton pier on an early spring day; the crunching of leaves underfoot in the woods…once I learn to put up with the dark, grey, wet cold weather that makes up a large proportion of the year, there are so many things to experience again, that we have missed and my son has never even seen.

Is eight enough? I wanted to round it off at an even ten, but this was all I could think of.

‘All’. Look how full it feels already. I know the reality will be harsh; there’s 10 weeks of summer holidays to get through, the wrench of leaving Dubai, the waiting and unpacking and settling in, making sure my son is happy and making friends and enjoying his life, and all the while getting ready to face months of winter time that will shock us I’m sure. But these eight things give me hope that there will be lots of good things ahead as well, in the months and years to come. As a friend said recently, of repatriation: ‘there’s no moving home, only moving forward.’  So forward it is.

CRASH

So, here I am, looking forward to going back to London, thinking about all the glorious reasons to be happy about it, messaging friends, when CRASH.

And just like that, my amazing friend and mentor, Moira Gemmill, was dead. She was the 5th cyclist this year to be killed by a tip truck in London, according to the BBC report. She died on Thursday, pronounced dead at the scene, her bike crushed under the wheels and that was that. As I don’t know anyone else who knows her, I found out from a newspaper article early this morning. If my husband didn’t read the paper, it would have taken months for me to find out, probably when I hadn’t heard from her after trying to arrange a meet in the summer to celebrate my return. It is fair to say I am in shock. I cannot comprehend the awfulness of what happened, or begin to process the idea that I will never see, or speak to her again.

My inspirational and talented boss who I worked with at the V&A museum for two years and have known another ten. Gone.

My funny, stylish, picture-straightener of a friend who I shared too many bottles of white wine with commiserating over the dreadful actions of the other 600-odd employees we worked with. Gone.

My long-term mentor, the woman who encouraged me to aim high, gave me my reference for my MA, who I trusted, who believed in me, who regularly asked me what I thought about her incredible career because for some strange reason she respected my opinion as much as I did hers. Gone.

All gone. There is so much sadness. I am finally coming to London (as she said when I told her, ‘about time too, missy’) and now she won’t be there. If it wasn’t all over the news, I would think it a lie. I keep hoping, stupidly, that it weren’t true. How can it be true, that my friend was run over and killed by a truck? How can she be an item on the news instead of a person sitting opposite me a few months from now, laughing and chatting and being alive? What a tragic, awful way to die. Not that there’s a good way to die. But this is a terrible, devastating shocker of a way to go.

She was in the prime of her life, with an amazing career behind and ahead of her. ‘I’m going to work for the Queen’, she’d emailed me, in January. I know she got a kick out of saying it even though she was always so super cool about everything. She was fifteen years my senior and I knew I would never catch up with her, or achieve half of what she did, but it was fun to try, and she encouraged me every step of the way. How do you replace someone like this in your life? The answer: I never will. I don’t think I could even bring myself to try.

The last time I saw Moira, last summer, she got on her bike after lunch and with a wave, she was gone. And now, just like that, she isn’t coming back.

London will not be the same without her.

Support the London Cycling Campaign at www.lcc.org.uk 

Gone, girl (nearly).

So. Here’s the thing. We’re leaving Dubai.

Oh yes. It’s quite true. The flights are bought, the packers are booked, the school is secured, and we’re gone, as of June, off to the grey skies of London town, after nine years and two months away.

NINE YEARS. This city, this expat life, has changed me so much, and been such a pivotal part of my life. I can hardly bear to think it is over. I will have plenty more to say, but I’m a little stressed, a little sleep deprived, and a lot emotional. Having spent the week breaking the news to people and trying not to get upset on too many occasions, I admit I’ve cried in coffee shops, teared up in living rooms and sobbed in the car (For sale: RAV4, one lady driver, 82,000 kms, black, 2009, new tyres, PM me if you’re interested) on numerous occasions. I’m a tad drained; I move from excited to devastated and back again on an hourly basis.

Suffice to say there are upsides and downsides. Expect more on both of these subjects just as soon as I have garnered enough energy to blog about it. But I just thought you should know. I’m going home. Or not. I haven’t quite figured it out yet…

Expat or Immigrant?

Hello blog, it’s been a while. I’m not going to start making excuses or apologies because I sort of haven’t had much to write about for a while. But I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard this week to address an article published in the Guardian which both irritated me and made me pause for thought in equal measures. So here I am, stirring up a hornets’ nest, and getting on my gin-soaked white middle class expat high horse to write about it.

The article in question is dramatically headlined ‘Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?’ It’s a good place to start; to open up the debate, and it’s had me thinking a lot about whether this statement is actually true. My gut instinct was that it wasn’t, but then I began to fear that it was. So I read the article; then I read the links; then I re-read my own research on the subject. The conclusion I came to, is that in a world of flux, where people are coming and going from place to place, stopping for a few months or years, or never going back, or going back one day, or next year, or as soon as they can, or running from somewhere, or running to somewhere, or running after someone, or something, or seeking money, fame, happiness, peace, a job, a safe haven, inspiration…the conclusion I finally came to, is that there is a lot of confusion about the labels we use, because they don’t all mean the same thing, and yet maybe the judgemental society we live in wants them to mean the same so we can apply them in the same way to different groups of people.

Let’s address the facts first. Immigrant, if you care to search beyond the Wikipedia entry my esteemed Guardian journalist quotes in the first paragraph and actually look it up in a dictionary, is defined as ‘a person who comes to a country in order to settle there.’ An expatriate, on the other hand is ‘a resident in a foreign country’, or ‘a person who lives in a foreign country’. See the subtle difference there? Let’s put a third definition in, because it’s another word that’s bandied about a lot: ‘migrant’, meaning ‘a person that moves from one region, place, or country to another.’

The use and abuse of these three words is, I am supposing, what the journalist had in mind as the point of their article. And this is where I have the problem. Because while I appreciate the words ‘immigrant’, ‘expat’, and ‘migrant’ are all misused by governments, media and the general public, for better or for worse I believe it to be a class issue, not a race issue.

In the UK, ‘immigrant’ is seen as a derogatory word, feeding the idea to paranoid Daily Mail readers that thousands of illegals are stealing our jobs or living off benefits they don’t deserve. This is not the truthful or correct definition for the thousands of immigrants who move countries determined to make a better life for themselves (no mean feat, by the way), but the article has played nicely on the negative connotations and emotions of their reader to get their point across. So let’s be a little clearer. An immigrant is someone who is settling. Someone who intends to stay. Someone who left their own country to live somewhere else. Forever. They don’t get called ‘expats’ because their intention is to put down roots and not go anywhere. They have to be called something, and as they are immigrating, it would seem only fair to call them immigrants. In the US, everyone is historically referred to as an immigrant. Irish, Italian, Polish, German – and yes: Arab, African and Chinese – the yanks don’t discriminate. If you want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you’re going be an immigrant first. I suppose you could say they are emigres, if you wanted to use a word with less negativity attached to it. But I’m not sure there’s enough evidence to suggest anyone refers to someone as an expat instead, purely because of the colour of their skin.

So why does the word ‘expat’ exist at all then? As one Facebooker put it ‘there’s the suggestion of something a bit temporary about the word expat.’ I agree; I think of it as a word to describe someone who’s gone to live and work in another country on a temporary basis. But I admit, we don’t use it to describe everyone. I don’t see many Bangladeshi construction workers being referred to as expats, for example.  Housemaids aren’t usually called ‘expats’. So maybe it’s a term that’s reserved for white-collar workers? A term for the middle classes?

Or maybe I’m just more comfortable with that idea than the alternative? And god, how awful is that? I’m more comfortable with being differentiated by my wealth than by my skin colour? It’s at this point I’m horrified by myself.

I push further. Was the article right? Is ‘expat’ a problem word? Is it a ‘white’ word? I question what I would label some of my friends and acquaintances, if I had to choose: the Indian doctor, the Pakistani teacher, the Lebanese administrator, the Egyptian business owner, the Kenyan nursery teacher; the mums I’ve met from Syria, China, Brazil, Greece, Russia and Iran…and find myself describing all of them as expats. The colour of their skin doesn’t even occur to me, nor does their nationality, except that halfway through making the list I find myself marvelling at what an amazing array of languages, cultures and religions exists alongside each other here, and wonder if ‘expat’ is just a made up term used by the media to make us feel bad about our cosy middle class lives.

But no; there’s truth in the fact that ‘expat’ is a term that’s used for a specific group of people and it’s not just the media that feed it. There’s no doubt that everyone I know, everyone I think of as an expat, is of a certain social status. I wonder if the word even exists in some less fortunate parts of the world, or whether it’s just a word that’s been made up by more affluent people to try and describe how we all wander about the globe, lucky enough to be able to live a comfortable existence and trip off home whenever we’ve had enough of living away. The construction workers, factory workers, domestic workers – I still wouldn’t use the word ‘immigrant’ here in Dubai, because it implies a permanence none of us will ever have. I guess that ‘migrant worker’ is probably the description I’d use, or something similar. I’ve never really thought about it. It makes me feel very uncomfortable to admit this. I’ve never dissected it in this way before, never really examined the word ‘expat’ for all it’s meaning.

I may be naive, but I still believe there’s more to it than the colour of someone’s skin. Maybe I’ve just been away from the UK too long, or live in some sort of idealist utopian dream most of my life, and I’m completely wrong about it all. I’m fascinated and appalled by the idea that I might be, yet stubbornly convinced I am not.

I’ve never had to worry about much, in terms of the bigger picture; never had to live or work anywhere I didn’t want to, never doubted I would have an education, or a roof over my head, or my own freedom. In those terms, I have everything. My living abroad status is about wanting to, not having to. It’s a choice – a luxury even – fuelled by desire not necessity. Maybe that is what makes me an expat versus anything else: the ability to choose to be one. It’s certainly one way to think about it.

But there’s so many lines of argument, so many reasons why these labels work in some places and not in others – and why they mean so much to different people, positively and negatively. While I don’t agree with the sweeping statement made by the Guardian, it’s certainly made me more aware that the imbalance – that divide between how we label and treat the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’ in our odd little bubbles, is something we all should address.

What are your thoughts?

Man flu

My husband has just diagnosed me as having man flu. Having greeted me this morning by way of ‘you look like sh*t’, accusing me of over-dramatising a mild sense of unwellness seems like a compliment in comparison. But he’s right on both counts: I’m just ill enough to not function in any real capacity, but, with no fever in sight, not actually feeling bad enough to be officially sick; and I do look like sh*t. And actually, he’s been very kind and told me to rest up and get better, while he runs about with the boy all day. This is a luxury I am not about to say no to; I have taken him at his word and vanished as fast as my shakey legs will carry me. However, it being the weekend, I am stuck in our bedroom and can’t sit downstairs watching TV and drinking hot Ribena, which is how I would like to be spending my confinement. I’m tired, but awake. I’m bored but don’t want to do anything. I’m hungry but I don’t want anything to eat. Except maybe a chocolate digestive would be nice, if only we had any. Also, no one likes me very much. On my occasional forays downstairs even my little boy has been full of helpful comments like ‘go away mummy, I don’t want your germs on me’. So instead I’ve laid up here for hours wishing my headache would go away and making a list of things I need to do when it does, that finally got so long I started to go crazy. In a last ditch attempt to rescue myself from utter boredom I’ve grabbed my laptop and decided to write a long overdue post until my head gives in and falls off.

So, happy new year and all that. 2014 was a terrible year, all things considered, and I’m rather glad to see the back of it. When your 40th birthday is the highlight of the year, you know it’s not been a good one. Turning middle aged should definitely not be as awesome as I think it is. But there’s been so much loss and sadness in our family this year that I just can’t say I’ve enjoyed it, despite it being peppered with personal highs like finishing my MA and rocking the improv world (okay, maybe that’s a gross exaggeration, but I’m sick, remember, and taking that cold and flu stuff that makes your head go la la so cut me some slack). Looking back, I’m really just relieved to have got through it with my sanity intact.

Onwards and upwards. I’m totally excited for 2015. It’s a blank canvas for me, in many ways. No more assignments to finish, no feedback that has to be given by Monday night every week. No more milestone birthdays for at least 10 15 years. No more musing that I don’t know what to with my life. I know exactly what I’m doing with it and I love it. I have gasp – spare time. The boy is settled into school and I have successfully avoided all kinds of PTA nonsense this academic year that I so foolishly volunteered for the year before. I am working a few days a week doing something I love that earns me some money, and hit the theatre once a week to be applauded by strangers who think I’m funny. The rest of the time I get to write, and in theory, go to the gym and have a nice long swim in the pool. Mostly I just write. Apart from the possible collapsed lung I am suffering from, life is GOOD.

But it would appear that 2015 is not charming the pants off of everyone. Me, who is renowned for her generally glass half-empty state – or more accurately ‘what f-ing glass?’ – logged off Facebook on Thursday because it was full of grumpy people arguing, posting depressing news and statistics and generally being miserable. Where’s the happy, people? I know it’s January, and January is always a bit rubbish, and maybe it’s the weather, or the dark, or whatever…and I know there are things going on in the world that suck, but there are always things going on in the world that suck. We need happy in our lives to balance all that. Especially when you might have japanese encephalitis.

And that’s what I like about social media, or, at least, what I used to like about it. For every person bemoaning the evil in the world, there was another one in the wings waiting to fill your heart with joy. I know it’s not for everyone but I genuinely enjoy logging on in the morning and seeing what’s been going on around the world while I’ve slept – and I don’t mean ‘the world'; I mean the worlds of the people I’m friends with, who give me a window onto their lives. But those windows are open less and less, holiday snaps and snippets of personal news replaced by quizzes and newspaper articles and marketing. And yes, before you say it, this is a middle aged person speaking. No doubt something waaaaaaay cooler has already been invented that’s taken its place, like, three years ago, and I just don’t know about it. But I’d like to know about it, because I’m fast falling out of love with what I’ve got. Facebook seems to be more of a place to air your political views or promote your business or watch videos of cats than check out what your friends are doing these days. Linked in is just a convenient way to stalk people. Twitter – ugh – is there anything more exhausting than Twitter? – seems to be much the same as Facebook, but just 170,000 times more prolific and annoying. Instagram? Is this my only choice? Do I have to??

Where do you go these days to just hang out and be happy, make sure your friends are happy, and then log off? It may be the rabies talking, but come to think of it, I vaguely remember that it used to be called ‘the pub’.

Happy new year everyone. Now log off, and may your year be filled with happy people and pubs.

Having it all – Part IV

Many moons ago, I sat musing on this blog about what to do with my life. I was bored, frustrated, lonely, quite possibly depressed and was desperate to break out of the stay at home mum mould that I’d put myself into only a year or so before. I thought about it. I wrote about it. I thought about it some more. Then wrote about it again. Lots of people asked me to keep thinking, and keep writing. And then it occurred to me, that thinking and writing for a living probably wasn’t such a bad idea. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d discovered the holy grail of the trailing spouse: a portable career.

I’ve just finished the MA degree that idea, and this blog, led me to. It’s why I’ve not been around a lot, because apparently they don’t give masters degrees out like sweets and you actually have to work pretty hard to get one. No one in real life understands this, of course, and the general assumption is the past two years I’ve been doing quite a lot of what is generally expected of me as a trailing spouse, i.e. drank coffee, got my nails done, hit the mall….and yes, I’ve done all this, but in between it all I’ve also carved out the time to research, draft, edit and market my way into a new episode of my life.

I don’t doubt there will be those who scoff, and mutter I’m just doing it to ‘keep myself busy.’ I’m sure there’ll be talk of ‘it’s just something to do; it’s not like she needs the money.’ (Although any writer worth their salt should know they aren’t in it for the money). It’s assumptions like this that make me get all feministic (is that a word? I should probably know that) and wave my burning bra above my head and say I want to work; in fact I need to work; it’s important to my sanity and self worth – yes, to earn my own money – but more importantly to  achieve something lasting. I want to show my son I’m more than the ‘mommy’ some irritating woman at school keeps referring to me as rather than using my actual name. I want to prove to myself and the rest of the world, that I’m still an actual person with skills that extend further than negotiating school run traffic and baking. I want to keep hold of the idea that I’m my own person, rather than an appendage to my husband or my five year old.

It’s all too easy to lose your identity when you’re a parent, doubly so if you’re a trailing spouse (I know some of you hate that term, by the way, but it is what it is). It’s hard work to have it all. To be the hands-on parent while the other gets on a plane to wherever. To juggle work with pick up time, get the groceries in, remember the cat vaccinations, do the Christmas shopping, wait for the inevitable repairman to come and fix something in the house again, cook dinner, make packed lunches, call relatives several time zones away, shoehorn in a bit of study, or work, and then get up at the crack of dawn and start it all over again; I don’t really care what it looks like from the outside, it’s a lot to manage and still retain some sense of self, no matter how glittery the backdrop might be.

I thought for a long time that you couldn’t have it all. Then I thought you could. Then I realised it really depends on your version of ‘all’. I think in my ideal world, I’d like to rename it ‘having it some’. Some of this, some of that, and a little bit of something else for good measure. I know now, that it’s okay to say no to helping on the PTA, or turn down a job, or blow out a dinner when you just want the time for yourself. I know now that if I don’t fit it in before pick up, it can probably wait until the next day. I know to offer my help and my time to people when it matters – when I know it will be valued, rather than because it’s assumed I’m not doing anything else.

I think the word I’m searching for might be ‘balance’. There’s so much pressure on women to have it all when really it’s just about finding the balance that makes you happy. And I think – I hope – that right now, as I hang up my student hat and start back out on the rocky road to writerly success, I’m lucky enough to have found it.

 www.fayebrann.com

How the other half lives

I went to Dubai a few weekends back. I know, I know, I already live there. But we decided to hit up Atlantis for the night, and I have to say, wow, it’s a thankful world away from my version of Dubai. Hot pink super cars, middle aged men in Cavalli beach throws and cowboy hats, and fake tits thrusting their way out of teeny bikinis every which way you turn. The hotel itself is a heaving, seething mass of tourist. Massive groups of families waving cameras, too many selfie sticks to count, and queues of overdressed, over made up women wobbling in ankle breaking heels and bottom-skimming outfits waiting to be let in to stuff their faces with brunch. This is the place where a doubter could find everything they wanted to hate about our city. It’s over the top, garish and full of people who think they are all extremely important. Of course, the same could be said for a lot of places in Dubai. This is a city where there are chandeliers the size of a small country hanging in every hotel lobby, and if you aren’t wearing gold or silver on you, or carrying a decent handbag, you are cast out from society like an unwanted verruca. But visiting a hotel famed for its 15 minute, 100,000 fireworks launch right smack bang in the middle of a global recession, you realise just what the rest of the hotels have achieved, gold horses and all. This place should be amazing, but it makes my brain hurt. There’s a level of noise so incessant that you don’t even realise is there until the thankful hush of your room envelopes you. The people are friendly but overwhelmed by the sheer turnover of guests. No one gives the impression they could care less, because you’re just another face to add to the thousands that grace the corridors of this gigantic hotel every single day.

Maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s so big and so preposterous that no one should go there caring about the things I care about. I’m sure its a match made in heaven for some people. But for me, I was just glad to be able to drive away to my Dubai.