One of the most wonderful things about getting older is all the friends you collect as you go through life. This past few weeks have taken some interesting turns, not least because of all the people I have met in the past twenty years (and then some…). I have been so inspired by an old school friend in recent months that I felt compelled to take action and jump start my career, which was rewarded last week with my MA acceptance. Encouraged by a few of the many talented, fun people I have met whilst performing, I have uncovered via the power of Facebook a previously unheard of hotbed of creativity and artistry in Dubai, and begun to experiment with the boundaries of my acting skills (and discovered that apparently there are boundaries to them – good to know). I have ended up co-ordinating ‘background artists’ for a UK TV crew shooting over here, because a friend from college is on the production team and messaged me to ask if I could help. I have shared a rare but precious skype session with an old work colleague in South Africa who never fails to brighten my day. A dear friend from home called me on the telephone, which doesn’t happen very often and was a real treat. Not counting the several friends I have emailed or facebooked just to say hi.
But how much do I take this for granted, that I am in touch with all these people, from school, college, work, my hobbies – and spread all around the world? I’d like to imagine that it’s 100% down to my sparkling personality, but in reality I think it has an awful lot more to do with modern technology. The internet and its merry band of men, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, email, Skype – they keep us in touch with each other no matter where we are of course – but in particular they are a serious contribution towards making expat life much easier than it would have been in days gone past. And I am extremely thankful for that.
Realistically, if I was me now, in the 80’s, I reckon barely half of the people I am in contact with would even receive a Christmas card. Long-distance phone calls would be reserved for family only. I would only have a very small pool of people from which to pick my friends, and it really would be the place where everybody knows my name, for better or for worse. In fact whilst writing this post I did some digging on what life in Dubai was like thirty years ago to try and get a feel for what I would have been up against and it made me realise that back then it was a true hardship posting. In fact it kind of made me a bit ashamed at all the fuss I’ve made about being here.
But then I dug around some more. Yes, it was hot (no A/C back then, of course!) and there was nothing to do – it would seem from these archives that the first coffee shop (cafe, if you will, rather than a roadside pitstop) didn’t even open until 1981 – but it was also a much more caring, social, friendly place to be. There isn’t much I found to read about personal experiences, rather a lot of old photos and some descriptions to go with them – but where there are comments from people it seems they genuinely loved their time here. It was a special and unique experience of a select few rather than the mass exercise in money-making and spending that it has become today. There was room for sisterhood because these expat women had no-one else. They were literally cut off from everyone they knew and loved and only had each other to rely on. I guess that would make you the odd lifelong friend or two.
I wonder what my life would be like if we’d been here then instead of now. Would I have morphed into a ‘Jumeirah Jane’ and partaken in hosting competitive coffee mornings and elaborate dinner parties for my villa compound friends and my husband’s co-workers? Would I ever have been brave enough to come here in the first place, send my kids to UK boarding schools in their teens so they were prepared for ‘real life’, be content not to work – not be able to work – and learn to consider social standing in this tiny community as a career ladder to be climbed? Would I have despaired at the heat, the sand, the basic amenities and the lack of contact with my family and friends back home? Or would I have embraced the kinship of my fellow ‘Janes’ and joined the party? Indeed – would I have been happier without all the technology to remind me of life back home? I wonder if this is why their memories are so fond, that they didn’t have anything to distract from their lives as they stood, and therefore just had to get on with things. I know when I am busy I miss home the least. Detachment from your old life is a very simple way to ease homesickness and so in that sense I wonder if the Trailing spouses of the 80s had a easier in that sense.
But not being able to Skype, or Facebook, or sms anyone, or email – gosh, if someone took that away from me now I would be utterly distraught. Communication from home fills in my days, colours my world with something other than sand and sun, and makes me feel not quite as ‘foreign’ as I would otherwise. How else would I know about politics, VAT on pasties and snatchels? Not even counting the volume of news I get from my friends on a near-daily basis, filling in the gaps left by living thousands of miles away.
No, I think I’ve got it better. I get to see my niece growing up eight time zones away, my son knows his grandparents and ‘plays’ with them while they watch, and I can still be inspired by someone I was friends with nearly thirty years back living in the depths of the English countryside. My predecessors may have made lifelong friends in Dubai out of a necessity to survive, but I’m kind of glad to have mine spread about – sitting at their computers all around the world, keeping me virtual company and at my disposal whenever I need to laugh or cry or just touch base. All hail the world wide web.