As I sit in my living room gazing at the sun setting over my beautifully manicured garden it occurs to me that I might feasibly miss Dubai one day. Take last weekend as a prime example. We took our son swimming – not to a sightly scabby indoor council pool that’s so full of chlorine you could conduct chemistry experiments in it, but instead to our local – the polo club, where the sunny outdoor pool is surrounded by lush palm trees swaying in the breeze and waiters to bring you cold drinks and fresh towels to order. After our swim we drove home for our son’s tea, bath and bed, and some time later, after an enjoyable cocktail hour in the living room, knocked on the door of the live-in maid’s room, so that she could come and babysit for us while we went to dinner. Dinner was in a 5 star hotel and we enjoyed it so much we decided the hangover would be worth it and foolishly polished off a bottle of wine in addition to the pre-dinner drinks. Given neither of us had to drive the sitter home, and for about five quid we could just slide into a waiting taxi to get ourselves there, it didn’t really matter. While we were gone our maid took care of all the tidying up from the day, so we were able to go out for a big breakfast at the local golf clubhouse rather than spending half of Saturday morning making beds, cleaning the bathroom and emptying the dishwasher.
Now, I am fully aware of how spoilt this sounds. It’s because we are totally and utterly spoilt. We have a maid and a gardener and when occasion demands, a regular handyman and driver. I also have a personal trainer, hairdresser, colourist, massage therapist and a manicurist. I’m considering adding a tennis coach to the list when the weather cools off again in the autumn. I am a stay at home mum and have enough time to sit and write this blog, which can only mean that I’m not busy doing housework during all the spare hours naptime and nursery afford me. Instead I get to go to the gym, swim, shop, meet friends for coffee, and occasionally indulge in reading a book or a newspaper. My house is taken care of, my son is looked after when I need him to be, the garden is maintained and the cars are cleaned. I have a french manicure once a fortnight and it doesn’t get trashed doing washing up. It is undoubtedly a good life, full of privilege, that I try not to take for granted.
But lets be serious here: of course I take it for granted. After 5 years of living like this it’s pretty hard not to. It’s just really, really difficult not to have help in Dubai. People make it very hard for you to do things for yourself. I did try for the first few years. I had a cleaner come in twice a week, the same as in the UK, and did my own washing and ironing. Then I subbed out the ironing because inbetween working and travelling I didn’t have time to do it. Oh alright. I didn’t want to do it. Then, when we realised it was actually more economically sound to have full time help, we got a live-in maid and I gave up doing the washing as well. Ironically, the only time I have to look after the house is when we go on a self-catered holiday. And honestly? I don’t miss it. Who would?
I haven’t ever used a petrol pump in Dubai. Or packed up my own supermarket shopping. Or cleaned my car (although my husband might claim that I could try doing the inside once in a while). This morning at the mall, a lady took my parking ticket from me at the exit and put it in the machine that operates the barrier. Had she been able to shut my car window without cutting her arm off I have no doubt she would have done that as well.
DIY has no meaning here. The term simply does not exist. Now, I used to be a stage carpenter, so I’m not shy when it comes to power tools. I tried to hang my own curtains in our first apartment but the walls were reinforced concrete and required a heavy duty drill to get through more than 2mm, so after my experiment involving the installation of the pole into the window alcove with two semicircles of little tacks didn’t work, I admitted defeat and got a man in. I used to assemble my own IKEA furniture but then discovered during a subsequent house move you can get someone to do it for you when they deliver it to you (yes, deliver – you don’t have to try and fit 14 bookshelves and a flat pack bed into your car) so don’t ask me where the hammer is. Who would actually volunteer to put IKEA furniture together when someone else will do it?? Last week we had someone come in to change the garden lightbulbs and regrout a few tiles and (inwardly cringing now I actually stop and think about it) it didn’t even occur to me to do it myself.
All this ‘get a man in’ business sounds great. It leaves us free to enjoy the finer things in life instead of spending weekends painting and mowing and cleaning toilets. But there is always another side to every story. It makes us lazy and complacent about certain things. I worry it will spoil my son because no matter how much we try to give him a ‘normal’ life, he can only draw from his own experiences and observations, and the bottom line is, we are all very well looked after and don’t have to lift a finger if we don’t want to. He sees this. And it’s not something I want him getting used to. A friend of mine who I know is extremely rigorous when it comes to her children was only saying today how they have forgotten even the basics of pushing a chair under the table or closing a drawer, because if they don’t do it someone else will. It happens to anyone who is here for long enough – we stop seeing things the way they really should be and sit back and let someone else do the work.
Paid help is not the same as having family or friends around. They do their job, and do it well – but have no responsibility for us or our feelings or situations. Our maid, however great she is with our son, is not a substitute for grandparents or aunties and uncles. Although he likes her and respects her, I see how naturally relaxed and confident and ‘at home’ he is with my mum and other family members and realise that blood runs very deep even though we might be too young to understand why or how. Maybe he intuitively picks up on my relationship with our maid too. Let’s be honest – she is as much a ‘part of the family’ as we can make her – but the bottom line is she works for me. There is a line, even if we don’t openly acknowledge it. I have to instruct her on what needs to be done. No matter if she is the only person around, I can’t run to her with my problems, my hopes or fears. She is an employee, not a flatmate.
Having help with everything, all the time, can actually be pretty annoying. There are certain things I like to do my way, the same as anyone else. Well actually, there’s an outside chance I’m a bit more anal than the average person, which probably doesn’t help. But the thing is, when other people are doing things for you constantly, they tend to do it their way, unless you micromanage each and every situation. And when that involves supervising everything you have done for you, from unpacking the shopping to trimming the bushes to banging a nail in the wall, it becomes a chore. So, to add to my illustrious title of Trailing Spouse, I am also a Home Supervisor. I might not work in the traditional sense, but this week alone I have 5 separate sets of people in my employ working at the house in some capacity or another, and all because of a lack of DIY stores and the urban myth that persists here despite a whole load of evidence to the contrary – that it’s easier to ‘get a man in’.
But to be honest, as irritating as it can be sometimes to be relieved of doing anything for myself, it is still one of the true perks of living in Dubai. Returning to the real world after being here for so long will be a real shock to the system, I know this. I’m actually frightened of it. Not having the freedom to go out any time we like, for dinner or drinks or meeting friends – that alone is enough to keep me here until my son is 16 and old enough to babysit himself. Never mind having to iron shirts or put petrol in the car on a freezing cold winter morning. But the bottom line is that when we live near our families and friends, we have a different kind of support. They might not do my washing up but they will know when to offer a hand. They will allow me to feel useful by returning the favour when they need it the most. I am determined my son will not grow up a over-priveledged expat brat, and will learn that toys do not tidy themselves, beds do not make themselves, and sometimes Mummy will put the TV on just so she can cook tea in peace instead of asking someone else to do it. Yes, I will surely miss Dubai. My nails will not look as beautiful, I will have to learn where the wheelie bin is, and accept that a portion of my evenings will be spent reading furniture assembly instructions. But I have no plans to lose my ability to delegate entirely. I like it too much and do not remember tiling the bathroom or weeding my garden in the UK with any particular fondness. I may eventually retire my position of Trailing Spouse but I am very sure my career as Home Supervisor will live on in no matter where we are.