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.

 

 

 

 

Life, death and expatriation

It’s my grandad’s funeral today. I’m thousands of miles away listening to my son having his drum lesson before going home to cook dinner and head out to rehearsal for an improv show. Just another day. And the third time I have not made it home to say goodbye to one of my wonderful grandparents. Words cannot convey how desperately sad I feel.

The thing is, I could have gone back. I could have put us on a plane and headed back for a week or so. It’s the Easter holidays and we have the time. But my son’s starting a new school and I don’t want to disrupt him before we begin. In a few months we have to undertake seven weeks of travelling across the world (other people know this as ‘summer’) and I really don’t want to ship him overseas before then if I can help it. And it feels like I only just got back from the last batch of trips, dealing with the sudden and devastating loss of my dad. (Yes, 2014 has been an excellent year so far. Not).

So instead, I’ve elected to stay. I will get home from rehearsal tonight and log into the webcast, and watch the recorded version from the comfort of my living room. It’s great in one way, that technology means I don’t miss it entirely. But it’s a bit macabre watching a funeral on an ipad; it’s not the same as saying goodbye in person, and it doesn’t take into account the complete and utter loneliness of being so far away from everyone else, of not being able to hold my sisters’ hands, or hug my mum, or just have time to reflect and raise a toast with everyone afterwards.

Worse still, no-one who hasn’t had to make the decision understands. I’m sure that there are people reading this and thinking ‘well you should have got on the bloody plane then, if you feel so bad’ – or alternatively, ‘well you get to be away from it all, so it’s not as bad for you.’ Well, this year I’ve done both – made one, missed one. Neither is ideal. Attending your dad’s funeral and then heading straight to the airport because, between the emotional toll, two return trips and the ensuing jet lag you haven’t seen your 4 year old son for the best part of two weeks isn’t exactly a choice I enjoyed making. Not being there at all this time around just fills me with untold amounts of guilt and unresolved grief that I will have to store up for a moment in time when I’m not running about like a nutter or completely dog tired and have a moment to myself to think about it all. The third way – being there already so you don’t have to make all these decisions – isn’t really in my control.

It’s the worst, most terrible thing about being an expat – being torn between two lives and knowing that commitment to either at a time like this will always, in some way, be the wrong decision. It’s been a long time since I felt this way about being here: this deep sadness that the choice we have made makes some things harder than they need to be. I know it will pass, that the rawness will fade and be replaced by small, less intense moments of regret. But for today, I think it’s okay to feel sad.

 

The Chicken Song

Cast your minds back….(this one might be for the Brits amongst you, sorry everyone else) Remember it, Spitting Image fans?

‘Its that time of year, now that Spring is in the air
When those two great gits, with their girly curly hair
Make another song for moronic holidays
That nauseate-ate-ate in a million different ways’

Etc. etc.

Why do I still know all the words to this? Because it was played in every bar and club in every holiday town in Europe for the best part of a decade of my – er-hem – ‘formative’ years. And today it’s back, running through my mind with the ease of an olympic sprinter and driving me slowly crazy. ‘Why?’ I hear you cry. Well, it’s that time of year. (‘It’s that time of year….’ see?) Despite the rain (yes, RAIN) this week and the glorious resurrection of jeans and t-shirts just when we all thought bikini season was upon us, the pre-summer buzz has begun. And with it, the inevitable annual friend cull. This year I’m losing a few acquaintances, and, as seems to happen each time I think it’s safe to come out, one very dear friend, who has the audacity to return home just when I’d got used to the idea of her being a permanent fixture.

It’s that time of year. (It’s that time of year…arghhhh) The bit where I am trying not to write off the ones who are going but at the same time knowing I will have to fend for myself when they are gone. A cloud of aloneness wafts over my skyline and although I know I will be fine, and there will be others come (and probably go again), the friends that truly have become part of your life are hard to let go of. It’s difficult to accept starting over again. Again. And when you’re as picky as me, losing a few friends actually creates quite a hole in life.

This year is the first year that my son is losing friends too. He’s sad, that a few people are moving away who he’s got to know and like. He wants to know why they are going home and we are not. He doesn’t understand why they are leaving, and is insistent we will visit them in California/Oklahoma/Switzerland/Australia. He is asking about his other friends, and whether they will leave too, one day, and if we will see them again either. He says we can skype them but I’m not sure he believes we will.

He’s starting to sound an awful lot like me.

So to cheer him and me up, and for the rest of you who weren’t living in the UK in the 80s and therefore have no idea why I’ve called this post ‘The Chicken Song’, here’s a link. Listen at your peril, it’s not one that’s weathered the passage of time particularly well (although unless you’re on your seventh pint in some hell hole in Magaluf, I’m not sure it ever did).

It’s might be a bit soggy in my desert world this week, but I feel it. The heat is on, the crazy is coming and the goodbyes are looming. It’s that time of year.

Master of Expatriation

I found this today, and have proudly declared myself a ‘Master of Expatriation’. One part of me is glad I only just found it, the other half thinks it would have explained a whole lot about life that I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to figure out. Ah well. Here it is for all of you, to save you some time thinking you’ve got everything sussed when in fact you are merely ‘competent’.

Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 13.55.35

Where are you on this chart?

 

Best laid plans

Here it comes, lurching onto the horizon like a drunken uncle at a wedding: Summer. The time of year I have sworn, regularly, might be my breaking point on how long I can keep up this expat life. The six to eight weeks of living out of a suitcase, dealing with jet lag, the ceaseless activity of sitting on planes, trains and in automobiles;  the horrendous amount of money it all costs to torture ourselves with being away from home just to avoid the torture of being here. The grand tour planning department has opened its doors once more and I am its reluctant operations manager.

But this year there is a twist. Because this year, on top of finishing a masters degree, changing my son’s school, and figuring out what to pack for a summer that most likely includes every type of weather and setting you could think of, we are also moving house.

I’ll let that sink in a little. And then if anyone can come back to me with some valium, that would be good.

Our house will go up for sale this week after four happy years living here, to celebrate it finally being worth what we paid for it back in 2007. We will be the proud recipients of approximately $10.47 profit, which is better than nothing. I’m fine with the concept of moving, but I’m getting that niggling sense that it might be a while before I recover from it when you bolt on the fact we will most likely be moving house and then leaving for a couple of months to assume our gypsy lifestyle in the west. And – yippee! – I get to spend my time away mentally adding to the bulging list of things to do which will no doubt bug me the entire time until I can get back and do them: curtain hanging, garden landscaping, pictures to go up on the wall, shelves to put in, boxes to unpack, THE KITCHEN OMG THE KITCHEN…I was up at 5am yesterday thinking about all this and we haven’t even advertised the house yet.

And I worry, that the upheaval of the summer and moving house might send my son over the top as well. Poor little man. It’s not as though he’s going to grow up in the same house his whole life – we knew that already. But it seems particularly unfair to turf him from his room, make him camp in seven different places, then tell him we’re going home to a completely different house from the one he’s been in since he was a baby.  Also I can’t imagine I’m going to be a salad cart of giggles; moving in fifty degree heat and 80% humidity will be the least amount of fun EVER, and I’m not relishing the struggle through box loads of accumulated crap to try and find a summer’s worth of clothes, books and toys with which to bundle us off to Blighty and beyond.

Maybe I’m just seeing problems for the sake of it, though. The upside is that we will come back to a new adventure, another part of our journey as expats. I will get to go shopping for new stuff for the house because inevitably, the old stuff will fall apart in the move or won’t fit (except the sofas: I promise I’ll keep the sofas). This time, I am not moving with a six week old baby. That is just so 2009. No, this time will be different: less hormonal, more experienced. This house move WILL take three days, no matter what the movers tell me about it only taking two. I am prepared for this. I will not be packing anything myself ‘in case the movers break something’, because through experience I know that they are insured, whereas I am not. They are also very good at their job, whereas I am not. Anything we don’t want to take with us will be gifted to our housekeeper, put in a crate and sent to Sri Lanka. It will not be saved ‘just in case we need it in the next house’, only to rot in the garage after a few years. A bottle of something will be waiting in the fridge for the end of days one, two and three.  I will get the curtains put up and shelves installed and pest control round before we move in, not two months after. And then I will get on a plane, and hope that my rose tinted spectacles are still working well enough to ignore the enormity of the trip before me.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to help with the logistics spreadsheet I’m creating, do drop me a line.

 

Eight years an expat. (And counting…)

We’ve just celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. My friend’s baby just turned eight years old. It can only mean one thing: we have been here eight years.

Eight years. Who would have thought it? Not me. Not some of you, either, if you’ve been reading from the start. But it appears that you really never do know what life is going to throw you. So, from the happy place I find myself in lately, what pearls of wisdom do I have to share about my eight years of life in Dubai? There’s many to choose from but here are a few of the more important ones:

1. A trip to the supermarket will only ever yield a maximum of 82% of what you have on your list.

2. The rate at which you anticipate bad driving rises exponentially over time. This is represented by the following equation:

Road Rage + Bad Driving = Anticipation to the power of 100
Time

3. Do not underestimate how painful bare legs on a hot car seat can be.

4. Wearing sunglasses in 80% humidity will result in bodily harm.

5. Lipgloss and sandstorms do not go well together.

6. Shopping is an art form.

7. Boredom is the nemesis of the Trailing spouse. Do not get sucked in. Find something you love, and you will find yourself.

8. People leave and you will feel abandoned. But you will get over it. Get over it.

9. Don’t kid yourself. It is a little bit like being on holiday all the time.

10. To quote the great Bill Bryson, once you’ve left, you’re gone:

‘There are things you just can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.’

Out with the old, in with the new

So, apparently while I’ve been whirling in a hideous vortex of transcontinental travel, heavy drinking,large quantities of single parenting, and actual work, it would appear that Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year have occurred. And yet still I have failed to put fingers to keyboard and start typing. So here we are. Happy new year and all that. I have flu, which, although this is really not much to complain about, is making me feel gross and bad tempered. So while my big boy and the little one galavant around the garden, having not seen each other since Boxing day, I am roaming the house, sniffing and sighing like a crazy but slightly house proud animal, and indulging in the thankless pursuit of sorting, boxing, binning and fixing everything in sight.

Living in Dubai seems very attractive at this time of year. It’s good to be back, despite missing log fires, pub grub and knee high boots, and countless other things that make living in the UK in the middle of winter vaguely bearable. But when you’ve just returned from the dim wet murk of England, everything looks so wonderfully bright. The sunshine is just so good to come home to. Only one big problem: Sunshine doesn’t just light up the room, it magnifies it. And by default, therefore, it shows up all the flaws – in your face, your clothes, your floors and your furniture. Once you start looking closer than, say, a couple of metres or so, at any of the above, it’s fairly easy to see what you used to class as ‘reasonable wear and tear’ beginning to look a little less reasonable. Let’s avoid any discussions about my face and head straight to the heart of this particular discussion: furniture.

We were never meant to still be here. Our lack of investment in our home is starting to reflect this. Our sofas are so tired they fell asleep standing up. Our walls don’t just need a lick of paint, they need an enthusiastic dog slaver of the stuff. Various side tables are still adorned with toddler-safe corners that are welded on and would require a crowbar to remove. And far too many Billy bookshelves still lurk, sagging and groaning in their pre-adolescent state. There is nothing IKEA make that was supposed to last anywhere near this long, and I’m pretty sure there are several items in our house that are fully aware of this fact and plan to fall apart next time I look at them.

There are also the things you can’t see from a surface glance, or that have been long forgotten about, that are rearing their ugly heads once more. A favourite hobby of our cat has been, over the years, to burrow into the underside of our sofa suite and sit in a nest of stuffing. We have tried all sorts of things to stop this delightful practice, including stapling industrial strength canvas to them. No worries for our feral friend though. She just works on the staples until one finally comes loose and then hey presto! We start all over again. On arriving home this week I sat down and looked in horror at the sofas, which have once again been systematically broken into in our absence, the canvas lining loose and the stuffing leaking out from the bottom once more.  I glanced into the TV room and remembered that we had no rug, due to a series of red wine and cat pee incidents that nearly gave me a nervous breakdown last month. And I realised, I can put it off no longer. It’s time for (gasp) new furniture.

And so began the negotiations. It was unanimously agreed that we needed new sofas, and a rug. A budget was loosely discussed, in line with what we were willing to spend for what might be only a few years’ worth of use (well you never know, one day we might leave Dubai. Alternatively I’ll be the one sweeping up after the Exp0 2020 with another set of worn out furniture to get rid of). When it came to the shopping part, I realised very quickly my plans for Pottery barn or Crate and Barrel were the stuff dreams are made of, and instead turned to Dubizzle for inspiration. I held my breath as the search ran. Could I get my dream sofa within budget? Dubizzle is the ebay of Dubai, and you can get some very reasonable stuff on it if the wind is blowing in the right direction. And indeed, it was. I found a beautiful, pristine sofa and chair for nearly the right price, and called immediately to arrange a viewing. Eight hours later, I was kindly informed they had been purchased by a friend of the owner. My dreams blew up in smoke. I searched again, but nothing.

My heart sank as I realised what had to be done. I loaded the car with a tape measure, my son, and a face set with grim determination, and headed to IKEA.

IKEA Dubai

IKEA Dubai. Palace of dreams. (Photo credit: austinevan)

I swore I would never have another IKEA item in my house, but it’s like saying you’ll never shop in Debenhams again – you can’t help yourself. And blow me down if there wasn’t exactly the right sofa and footstool for the living room AND a little comfy number for the TV room in there, all brand new and delivered and assembled for free, for under my budget. And a rug. So I loaded up the trolley with eight packs of shoeboxes, some box files, and some lightbulbs and kitchenware, then remembered what I went in for and ordered the sofas.

So, it was done, and so it shall be, that on Sunday we once again have the blue and yellow truck outside our door. I am happy because I get new things. My husband is happy because it didn’t cost him a fortune. My son is happy because he got to help choose them. And best of all they all sit tight to the ground so my evil cat can’t get in. I’ve sold the other stuff, by the way, so with that and the money I’ve ‘saved’ from the budget, I’m off to Crate and Barrel for an armchair and some cushions. The key, I’m told, to having a house full of IKEA, is to accessorise expensively. I shall remember this tip next time the sunlight spills onto the mirror in my bedroom as I gaze in horror at my increasingly crinkled face, and see if they sell diamond earrings on Dubizzle.

 

 

The Hardest Part

What’s the hardest part of living away from home? For me, as I imagine for 99% of expats, it’s a close run thing between missing family and a decent cup of tea, but I’m guessing family win out for most of us.

I’ve spent the past decade flying around the world to visit family – my sister in New York  Hong Kong New York, my mother in law in Florida, brothers and sisters in law in MA and NH, (with a stint in Maine for good measure), plus of course my parents, grandparents, siblings and so on, that are sprinkled across the south east of England. It’s all good fun until someone gets hurt, and then, like a one night stand in the cold light of day, living thousands of miles from your blood relatives turns out to be not such a great idea after all.

This has not been the best of years for my family. The events that have passed, and are still passing, are not my stories to share, so I’m not going to – but suffice to say that all plans to sit in sunny Dubai for the winter and enjoy the time in our little unit of three are being systematically abandoned as the responsibilities that come with being a daughter, a sister and a mother slowly rise to the surface.

Is it possible to live away guilt free? I have never managed it. Dragging myself, and on occasions my husband and son across the globe and through several time zones costing thousands of pounds is just part of life as far as I’m concerned. Times like these turn my mind into a war zone, a battle between what’s right for my family unit here versus what is the right thing to do for my family there.  It is the hardest thing in the world, to figure out what is more important, who has priority, and know that due to sheer limits of time and space, all decisions are final. There is always a compromise to be made, and it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. By everyone, I am including me, but I wonder if I should, because all the logistical planning, cross-continental communications, and normal life in between leave very little time to consider ‘me’. In fact, if you asked how I felt about everything going on in my life right now, my only answer would be that I really don’t have a clue.

Part of the pleasure/burden of having a small child is that they don’t give you time to process very much. You tend to only deal with things in terms of ‘stuff I can explain to a four year old’. Which simplifies things, I admit, until your very adult brain catches up and bites you on the arse with all the things you were supposed to think and feel days, weeks, or months ago. Combine that with living away from home, and people tend to think your actions and reactions to events at home are a result of being either a) extremely calm, b) extremely good at acting, or c) being a cold bitch. The truth is that the combination of being time-poor and distanced from events not just by miles, but by GMT+4,  means dealing with stuff has to happen in super-intensive chunks, preferably when everyone else in the world (including said four year old) is in bed, so that you don’t turn into a snivelling mess just as you have to do the school run or go out to dinner, or when you are trying to sleep.

The word ‘distance’ weighs so heavily on my mind at times like these that I wonder if it’s only in moments when you want to erase it that you can understand its true meaning. I can only hope that in the coming months, I can balance distance and time and family in both my worlds, and maybe use the flights in between for figuring out how I feel about all of it.

A word about home

As part of my studies this week I was asked to make a list of words that I associated with the word ‘Home’, to include personal, concrete examples that might include names, places, objects, feelings, sensory experiences, and so on. Here’s what I came up with in a five minute brainstorm:

family – Dubai – sun – city – heat – happy – sad – homesickness – London – childhood home – childhood friends – sadness – missing out – friends – irrelevant – unknown – secret – packing – saying goodbye – depressed – lonely – guilt – grandparents – parenthood – love – phones – skype – email – travel – holidays – visitors – achievement – intensity – strength – coping mechanisms – girlfriends – hobbies – time difference – sausages & mash – green – seasons – trees – walking – the pub – tube train smell – summer nights – cold – Friday club – music – independent shops – carpet beneath my feet – heating – fires – touch – hugs – absence – laughter – eccentricities – familiarity – forgiveness – joy – being together

It made me nostalgic and warm for the vague fuzzy definition of ‘home’ I keep tucked away most days.  I honestly haven’t given it much thought since we got back after the summer, but instead of sinking into a funk, I sat and mused about my friends, and wondered how they were all getting on, how their kids were doing in school, how their jobs were going, what they were doing for Halloween, Guy Fawkes, Thanksgiving, Christmas….I miss them in much more of an abstract way these days; the desperate homesickness I got used to over the years seems to be replaced lately by acceptance that time passes so quickly, it probably won’t be long in the grand scheme of things before I am back in the fold and living life alongside them. (Hey, what’s eight years or so between friends?) But still, it would be nice to feel counted a thousand miles away, to say I love you and hear it back – and to know what they’re up to this very minute. And that’s why this post is so short. Because I’m off to find out.

What’s on your list of ‘home’?

Spare me the drama

Three years ago I was a completely different person. I was lonely, depressed, desperately homesick and, save the odd coffee here or there, completely friendless. I sat at home with my one year old son and tried not to cry quite a lot, wondering how I could make things better and failing to come up with any ideas. It was a very low time in my life and clearly something had to change. With my husband’s support, I revisited an idea I’d had a few years’ previous, and signed up to be part of the Desert Monologues, run by Drama Dubai. An old hand at musical theatre, I’d never done ‘straight’ acting before, and didn’t know what to expect. It was six weeks of workshopping followed by a performance of my very own four minute monologue, playing a knife wielding crazy lady who had murdered her husband for laughing during an argument. I loved it.

Fast forward three years and once a week, sometimes twice, I leave behind my studies, my parental responsibilities, and all the other every day stresses and skip into rehearsals like a very theatrical Bambi. I have been lucky enough to take this exciting journey at a time when the cultural scene in Dubai is really beginning to take off, and as a result, I’ve performed in a play, appeared at the Emirates Literature Festival, the Sikka Art Festival, and Short + Sweet Theatre festival. I am in love with improv’ theatre – from theatresports, to long form, to musical improv (my current squeeze)…anything goes, I can’t get enough. I am surrounded by people who make me laugh – big belly laughing – and they are my kind of people, from all walks of life, who love every aspect of being up on stage just as much as I do.

Six months ago, the owners of Drama Dubai, Kemsley Dickinson and Tiffany Schultz, did something brave and inspiring. They walked us into a boiling hot, dilapidated office space and told us they were going to turn it into a theatre. Into our theatre. The Courtyard Playhouse. I am so proud to have been part of this story, and I’m so excited for what it is about to become – a performing arts space that’s as unique as the people that will fill it.

It’s nearly finished; there are a few things that still need to be done – lights, dressing rooms, and some decent washrooms – and so a crowd funding campaign has been launched to raise the money that’s needed for the project to be completed. Click on the link and watch the video (you will even get to see me in it!) and if the mood takes you, donate what you can to support.

Being an expat often means you are detached, uncommitted, and uninvolved in the society outside of your immediate home, school, and work life. You don’t always get involved like you would at home. I spent a lot of time being that way, and I can say, hand on heart, I wish I hadn’t wasted so much of it. I am immensely grateful to Drama Dubai for handing me a lifeline even if they didn’t know it – and know that I will always carry the most amazing memories with me of this place because of the people I have met by doing all of this, and the experiences it has given me.

If you love theatre, even if you only love watching it, please think about helping enrich our city with something unique and inspiring. Click on the link and grab your wallet, tell your friends, share this post. Be involved – play your part.

That is all.

faye2