Travelling without moving

…or, in the alternate plane of reality I appear to live in: ‘Hell, after all we’ve been through this year, let’s move house AND depart for a two month round the world trip all in the same week’.

Several people thought I was insane. Many more thought I would go insane. But against all odds, I survived, and despite a rather last minute approach to packing and a house so full of boxes I thought we’d never get out alive, I am now sitting in dear damp old London town, apparently in possession of not only my marbles, but, it would appear, all the necessary belongings required for our trip. (I even remembered my decaf tea bags and a sunhat. Years of list making and packing everything not nailed down for various long haul trips have apparently not gone un-wasted).

Our departure from Dubai for the summer draws a line across what has been the most tumultuous six months of my life. Never have I been so glad to see the back of time, to be so relieved to move on and away. There’s guilt about this as well as relief: I’ve neglected people, near and far, as I’ve buried myself in my own life trying to cope with it all – and in spending large amounts of time lurching from one disaster to the next I fear one of the worst crimes I’ve committed is that I didn’t stop to notice a lot of the growing up my son did while I wasn’t watching. But now, suddenly, I feel like the worst is over. And although I was already beginning to feel better as the list of horror got shorter and the time away from it grew longer, getting on a plane has purged me and left me feeling lighter, able to enjoy myself at last. The immediate future is bright, filled with adventures to have and memories to be made and time away from normal life that our little family unit of three badly need to have. And when we return again, refreshed, it will be to a new home, which I know when the teething pains of moving house are over, will be a joy to live in.

I understand now that it takes time to heal, to regain strength when so much happened to take it away. I appreciate I’m not there yet, but I’m on the way. Sitting listening to the rain fall outside and watching my son manage his jet lag with (mostly) good grace, I feel like I am, in this moment, travelling without moving. My heart and mind float slowly to surface to breathe the fresh air and I feel a peace I haven’t felt for months. I can look outside myself again. My summer will be filled with vibrant cities, country lanes and quaint seaside towns; culture, art, the sand between my toes, glasses raised with friends, the joy of family – and I plan to make the most of every minute, knowing the moments will pass without me if I let them. But I won’t, now; I’ve let enough of them go by.

Seven signs it’s summer in Dubai

1. Due to lack of fresh air and sunshine, your face has taken on a greyish, putty like consistency usually reserved for when you’re lying on the slab at the undertaker’s.

2. You don’t decide what to wear based on what you will sweat least in, just what will show the least sweat.

3. Your spare room is hosting a plethora of open suitcases containing jumbles of new clothes for the holiday bit of your summer in the Med/United States/Cornwall (delete as appropriate) and a collection of ancient light jumpers and jackets for cooler days in the UK that, for the eighth year in a row, you wish you’d replaced during the spring sales.

4. If you have to walk outside for any reason, you track shade like an overgrown scorpion.

5. You avoid going anywhere with a small child who can’t (or won’t) get in their car seat within the 30 second window you have to get their seatbelt fastened before you melt onto the pavement.

6. Your child actually says things like ‘can we turn off the television and go outside to play?’ And you actually say things like ‘no.’

7. You tell all the newbies that ‘it’s not as bad as last year’ because your sunglasses haven’t fogged up and left you staggering around blindly in the car park at drop off yet, and despite the fact that your mascara has slid down your face and landed on your cheekbones by 8.30am, you’re somehow convinced it isn’t.

 

On grief and goodbyes

I often feel like I’m not an expert when it comes to being an expat; there are so many other people out there who have been away longer, been to more places, had more difficult lives in incredibly challenging countries. But lately, involuntarily, I have become an expert on losing loved ones and coping with it away from home. (more…)

And they all lived happily expat after

Once upon a time, there was a Prince who came from a far off land, and married a girl from Essex. The Prince and Princess hung out in London for a while but soon they became tempted by the treasure-laden lands of the Middle East, and decided to move there for a couple of years. Two years turned to five, and a young Prince was born to them, who turned out to be smart and funny and handsome and not at all bothered about living in England. So although the Princess still yearned to go home, in time she learned to accept her new life, and filled her palace with gold shoes and Jo Malone candles and other fineries as her Prince permitted (and several he probably didn’t).

After eight years, the Prince was declared King of the Middle East (Office) and the Princess realised it might be a while more before she got to go home. She didn’t really mind; she had built a very happy life for herself by now, and had a career she loved, and a hobby, and some dear friends, and the little Prince was doing very well at school. So she resigned herself to another sweltering summer and began arranging for her annual trip to the old Kingdoms to see her friends and family.

Except this year, something was different. She had suffered terrible losses to her family, and many old faces would not be there on her return. Many of her friends who she had so diligently missed all year were not around, due to the fact that all the children were now of school age and everyone was decamping to Spain or France or Italy for the holidays. Everyone was busy and she felt as though she had somehow made a big mistake, staying away for so long, and that people were beginning to forget her. All the old feelings of loneliness and abandonment came flooding back and she wondered if she would ever feel happy again.

Then she remembered what an amazing life she had lived all those years in between, and that her old friends wouldn’t forget her just because they were all busy with their children right now, just as she hadn’t forgotten them because she was busy with her life too. And she gazed out from the turret of her castle at the city she was growing older in, and realised that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, as long as you choose one of them to live in, and stick to it, but remember to love everyone still, and miss them just the same. She paused for a moment, and decided she was fine with all of it, and would simply enjoy the summer exactly as it happened, without worrying to much about the future, as it had tended to look after her and the King and the little Prince pretty well so far.

And so, they all lived happily expat after.

New Girl in a Small World

I’m standing like the proverbial spare one at a wedding, clutching my iphone and gazing intently at the screen to hide the fact that I’m feeling just a little bit redundant and a tad insecure. People chat all around me, clutching babies and laughing and asking how the holidays went. Yep, it’s my son’s first week at a new school, and I’m back to a social square one. I don’t know the system, I don’t know the teachers, I don’t know anyone. And it’s a parent assembly today, so everyone is gathered in the foyer waiting to be allowed in to see their little ones show off their Easter hats and wondering if they did a good enough job with the eggs and straw and feather boas. (They did, by the way. I think I’m going to have to raise my game in the creative mum department). I hover near the mum I met briefly at drop off yesterday, who’s chatting to a larger group; I keep hoping she’ll notice me as I don’t really feel brave enough to just go and stand with them. I give myself a mental slap. Seriously. I’m nearly 40 years old, I’ve lived here for eight years, I go onstage every other week in front of complete strangers and I’m still as bad at making friends as ever.

But I’m saved from having to chastise myself any further because - magically – she does notice me, and introduces me to the crowd standing around. I instantly forget everyone’s names, except all the dads appear to be called Ian which is a result. But I warm to all of them and the tiniest bit of confidence begins to flow through me. I chat, briefly, and we establish who belongs to which child, before we are ushered into the hall for assembly. I sit next to one of the women, and we start to ask the usual questions. Our conversation feels strangely comfortable for two women who’ve never met before. ‘Where are you from in the UK?’ I ask. Turns out her hometown is about 20 miles from mine. Honestly, you can take the girl out of Essex, but you’ll always know when you meet one. It’s a humour thing, I think. Well I hope it is, because I’m just about to crack a joke. ‘You don’t sound like you come from Essex,’ I say. ‘Neither do you’ she replies and we smile. I suggest we can both relax and ‘get our Basildon on’ and she laughs, and suddenly – just like that – I’m not alone anymore.

Being at a new school is good for me – it makes me feel like I just arrived in Dubai all over again and reminds me to be a better, kinder person to the ones who are really new to the whole expat business. I might feel lonely for twenty minutes of a new school run but the rest of the day is filled with calls, emails and meetings with the friends I’ve made over the years here. I remember when the school run was the only part of the day I spoke with anyone, and how important it was. And it still is. I’m excited to add to my circle of friends at a time of year when traditionally I’m saying goodbye to them, excited to fill a bit more of my life with new company, to get to know them and become friends. I just hope my little boy settles in too, and isn’t left standing too long in the metaphorical foyer either, before someone helps him find his feet. But something tells me he’ll be just fine.

 

Career of Champions

“Mummy, I want to be a superhero when I’m older.”

“Do you? Which one?”

“Which one is the best?”

“Well, I think it’s probably Superman. Would you like to be Superman?”

(Pause)

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because Superman is Superman. I want to be my own superhero.”

“Well you have to have a magical power to be a superhero.”

“I don’t have one.”

(Thinking there may be a learning opportunity here) “Well maybe you could be an everyday hero instead, like a policeman or a firefighter, or a doctor.”

“Dr. Khan is a hero.”

“Yes, he is.”

“He makes sick children feel better.”

“That’s right.”

“I could be a doctor hero then.”

“That’s a good hero to be.”

“Yes. A doctor. (Long pause). Or a hairdresser.”

Not a hero in the traditional sense, I admit. However, there have been some days I’ve walked out of the salon and would be inclined to agree.

Celebrating the expat brat

Annabel Kantarina, writer and fellow expat, wrote a post this week about the demise of the Expat Brat. Whilst I’m not inclined to believe it’s the last we’ve seen of the spoilt rich kid abroad, I do think it’s probably not as relevant a ‘label’ as it once might have been. Not meaning to start a war here, but let’s face it, there’s plenty of kids who live in their home countries who are spoilt rotten, plenty who have no manners and can’t seem to behave themselves if their life depended on it, and plenty who are lazy and let everyone around them do everything for them. I know, because they come here on holiday. So I agree that it’s grossly unfair to tar all our third culture kids with the same brush, and hats off to Bellakay for championing their cause.

As coincidence would have it, I’d actually been thinking this week, about how totally cool it must be to grow up in Dubai. We’ve just got back from a few days in the desert, and my son hasn’t stopped talking about how much he loved it. And he really did have a blast, discovering new things about his environment and himself and filling every bodily crevice with sand in the process. Despite my continual misgivings that he is ‘missing out’ it occurred to me this week just how much he would have missed by growing up in Surrey instead. Our expat brats might miss the leaves falling, have no idea how to put gloves on, and have an unnerving tendency to ask ‘is it real?’ about every animal they come across, but they have another host of experiences notched up that most ‘stay at home’ children can only ever read about in books. So here are my reasons to celebrate being an ‘expat brat’ in Dubai:

- You get to run up around the dunes or dance in the waves every weekend and picnic on the sand in either place while you watch the sun go down.

- You can eat your lunch and watch the fountains go off next to the tallest building in the world.

- You can have your lunch inside the tallest building in the world.

- You’ve been up the top of the tallest building in the world. Twice. Aged four.

- The sun always shines. Yes, it might get hot (gross understatement) but everyday, for months, you know you can make plans for the park/pool/play date and pretty much rely on the weather being perfect.

- When it does rain, it’s magical: a day off school in case a lethal puddle engulfs the 4×4, and as exciting as snow. And snow – well snow is just THE BEST THING EVER because it is only ever accompanied by grandparents and presents, or it means you’re about to hit the toboggan run in Ski Dubai.

- By aged five you can pack your own suitcase for a six week holiday taking into account travelling to three countries with three different weather patterns, and you are able to negotiate airport security and long haul flights with expertise and finesse usually reserved for fifty year old travelling salesmen.

- Being different is your norm.You have friends from 15 different countries speaking 15 different languages and you will grow up never knowing what it’s like to only know people who come from the same place as you, or who all dress the same as you, or who all look and sound the same as you.

- You have no idea what a sheep looks like in real life but you’ve ridden a camel.

- You’ve been to Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand and Oman and seen temples, beaches and ways of life you would normally have to wait until a gap year to experience. Plus you stayed in a nice hotel instead of a dingy hostel (you’re welcome) and the only thing in your backpack was a set of felt tip pens and a Leap pad.

- You accept change as easily as ice cream, and adapt to it faster than a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust.

And finally

- You think all this is normal, which means on trips home when you’re collecting conkers or climbing trees or staying at Nanna’s house it’s special and exciting but at the same time, feels like slipping on an old familiar pair of shoes.

The best of both worlds, our kids live a special life that we can barely imagine having as a child, one that is certainly privileged, but doesn’t have to mean spoilt. And for the most part, I think we all do our best to make sure it’s as kept as down to earth as it can possibly be, when, let’s face it, it’s pretty surreal to us parents a lot of the time. But, in 2014, if this is what it means to be one: all hail the expat brat.