Dorothy…you’re not an expat anymore

Today marks the day I stopped being an expat. Or rather, the day I realised I wasn’t one anymore. Maybe this is the wrong way to describe it. I mean – I’ll think I’ll always be an expat. The longer we are here, the more foreign I feel, to be honest. My friend says I’m just going through the ‘I feel stupid’ phase. I feel like this phase might last for years, some days. But setting stupidity aside, today I just feel, well, a bit sad. Maybe what I mean is, today marks the day I don’t live in Dubai anymore.

What has caused this sudden dawn of realisation? On the other side of the world, in the desert we called home, my friends’ kids – my kid’s friends – went back to school on Sunday. Everyone is back from their holidays. Work has begun. Pictures of proud little men and women in their new uniforms begin to adorn my Facebook page, chatter on my Dubai chums whatsapp group has increased tenfold, a new season has begun at the theatre where I spent my life these past three years, and suddenly, I realise that life is moving on without us. I watch it go, full steam ahead, and I know it’s an unstoppable train.

We are just back from a wonderful weekend in France celebrating my birthday, so it’s not like I have anything to complain about. I’ve spent three days eating butter-laden pain au chocolate and drinking cheap but delicious rose wine at various hillside idylls, soaking up the last of the Mediterranean summer at the beach, speaking bad French at everyone who will listen and gazing at beautiful old buildings backing onto impossibly blue skies at every opportunity. There are worse places to turn 41, I realise this.

But it was weird coming back here. It just felt a bit odd. Like, as in, ‘you’ve just come home to the wrong place’ kind of odd. I had a cry in the kitchen, in secret, bizarrely while trying to sing ‘I will always love you’ by Whitney Houston. I’m not sure why. But it appears my son felt it too, whatever the sensation was  – we’ve had tears this evening, about going to the new school, about missing his old house, his old school, his friends. It’s the first time he’s had a wobble like this since we arrived in England and I know how he feels, I feel what he feels – the strangeness of it all, the confusion, the lack of purpose to being here, the wave of homesickness that rears up when you least expect it. All I can do is hold onto him and tell him it will get better, that we will make new friends and it will all get better soon. ‘But how do you remember the old friends?’ he says to me, wiping away his tears and looking at me like I have all the answers. ‘You talk to them, and write to them, and visit them, and when your life fills up again with new friends and things to do and places to go, you don’t miss them quite so much,’ I reply. My heart aches.

The reality is we’re doing fine so far. More than fine. Surprisingly so, if I’m honest. I’m just a bit sad, sometimes, when I notice my old life disappearing. It’s been blurring around the edges and smudging along the lines all summer, and now school has started and everyone is back from their holidays, I know it will quickly begin fading from view altogether. When we visit, as we plan to, we will be visitors. I knew that before, of course, but it’s sinking in now. It’s the bit I was dreading, the purgatorial part of the whole process, where you’re neither here nor there, but everyone else is very definitely here or there and you don’t have any of the answers about how to be, or who to be, or what to do. It is the ‘I feel stupid’ phase. The ‘lost’ phase. The ‘helpless’ phase. Or maybe it’s better to give it it’s official name, and call it culture shock? Or homesickness? Or a bit of both? Whatever, I wish wholeheartedly it would be over, for us all, before it engulfs us along with the truly rotten British weather (sorry to state the obvious, but I’d forgotten how bloody relentless the misery-inducing greyness can be. Three days in the Med only exaggerated the whole thing, I fear).

Mainly, though, I wish it would be over for my boy. There’s nothing more saddening and guilt-inducing than seeing him upset over a decision that wasn’t his to make; an action that I can’t undo; a sickness that I can’t kiss better. He’s been amazing, so strong and I’m so proud of him, but enough’s enough and I need to fill his life up again. Next week, when term FINALLY begins (and really, I just wish it would, I think it would do everyone the power of good just to get on with everything) I will post my own Facebook photo, and embrace the start of a new life for my boy. I hope that his own ‘I feel stupid’ phase is blissfully short lived. I could barely care less about my own happiness in comparison to making sure he finds his. And he will, I know. I will be there with him, egging him on, helping him every step of the way. It works the other way too, of course. ‘I’ve got 37 friends to make, mummy,’ he says, counting all the kids in his new Year 1 who he hasn’t met yet, ‘so you’ve got 37 mummy friends to make as well.’

I do. And I’ve got a ton of stuff coming my way that will help me find a new tribe and begin to heal the wounds over from leaving the old one. I’m sad, in a mourning kind of a way, but I’m not miserable, or stressed, or any of the things I was when I first moved abroad. To coin the analogy (or whack it over the head with a big stick)*, we’re nearly ‘over the rainbow’. Nearly. We’re so close to being in a new place and point in time we can call ‘home’, while knowing that in some other dimension there’s another place just like it, but different, that we love just as much. Just a bit more time, just a few more steps along the (yellow brick) road and we’ll be there, and we’ll miss the other place just a bit less. Whether we’ve landed in Oz or woken up in Kansas is questionable. But then that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

*I can’t believe I’m reading this much into the Wizard of Oz. It must be the weather.

Advertisements

You know you are creating an expat brat when…Part 2

I’m starting to think we may have permanently ruined our child. I’ve mentioned this before, but feel it’s prudent mention it again. He does not live a normal life, despite our best intentions. Honestly, we try to keep it real, but it’s kind of difficult when your life involves jetting across two continents at a time (and back) for the summer holidays. My son isn’t five yet and already has two separate air miles accounts with more points racked up than most people get in a lifetime. He’s living in a gold plated sandpit for three quarters of the year in near-permanent sunshine, where ‘nature’ is limited to sand, camels, scorpions, palm trees and bougainvillea flowers blowing across the fake grass.  Then we blast him through time and space to various destinations for the remainder of his year, travelling with as many upgrades as our own air miles can muster in order to make our travel experience just that little bit easier. The kid barely knows what economy class looks like and certainly has no idea that flights can sometimes last as little as two hours to get you from A to B. But it’s not all bad. He’s had some pretty cool experiences that mean expat life can and should be celebrated. Ask him about time zones and he can tell you which of his relatives is eating breakfast while he’s tucking into dinner. He hasn’t been on a pony, but he’s ridden a camel across the Liwa desert. He hasn’t been to a football match but he’s nipped to the Dubai 7s for the afternoon. And the ferris wheel in London was cool, but not as high as the Burj Khalifa.

But living a normal life? Keeping it real? WTF is normal about any of this?  NOTHING.

So I admit defeat. My son is an expat brat. Here are seven more signs for the summer vacationing expat parents out there, that you’ve probably been smoking something if you think your little darlings are growing up ‘normal’:

1. Arriving in at any airport, the first words they utter are: ‘Mummy, where’s the driver?’

2. When other kids ask where they come from, they mutter ‘America, England AND Dubai’ in a sort of reluctant mid-atlantic accent which leaves the other child in question a bit flummoxed and their accompanying parent rolling their eyes, as though you’ve deliberately trained them to show off about it, as oppose to encouraging them to embrace their international heritage.

3.You go to lunch with old friends at their house, and turn up in jeans and jumpers. You walk in to find their kids dressed in swimmers and galavanting in 4 inches of freezing cold paddling pool. Instead of begging to join in, your child takes one look at the grass and dirt infested ice water and scarpers inside to play in the warm.

4. When you mention, six weeks into the summer trip, that they need a haircut (again), they say: ‘But Mummy, I had a haircut two places ago.’

5. Long sleeves are such a novelty your child insists on wearing jumpers all the time, even when the temperature hits a reasonably warm 24 degrees. You acknowledge, however, that they may actually still be cold in the shade, and don’t bother to argue about taking it off.

6. They collect stones off of people’s driveways, presenting them to you as ‘special gifts’. Twigs, seaweed and flower petals hold similar fascination as unique aspects of nature they don’t see at home which are expected to be kept and transported back without being detained at customs. In fact, everything is exciting. This is because the average 5 year old expat has spent approximately 80% of his or her life living away from the things the rest of us take/took for granted. This includes letter boxes, policemen on the beat, rain, cbeebies, flowers that smell, and trains.

7. They know the airport drill better than most grown adults: ‘Are we at Heathrow Mummy? After we’ve checked in, and gone through security, can we go to Giraffe for pancakes?’

And I say ‘Of course we can, my lovely little world traveller.’ And then I realise all over again, that although his normal is not my normal, and my normal is not very normal either, however not-normal it may be, we are just plum lucky to be doing what we do.

 

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.

A Yuletide Typo

I’m aware it’s only the middle of November, but things are hotting up in our house as the weather outside cools, and the small fella has a moment of realisation that – YESSSSSS! – Christmas is coming. So, the countdown to putting the tree up has begun. Negotiations about which date Christmas songs are allowed to be played on the ipad have started. And we purchased a snowy owl decoration yesterday the boy has fondly christened ‘Owl’. But earlier today whilst in conversation once more about the festive season, I was surprised to find him looking rather sad.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, seeing his face go all serious.

The boy: “Mummy, the Christmas Elves is dead.”

Me, the grammar police: “ARE dead, babe…anyway, not they’re not, what makes you say that?”

The boy: “He is dead like John Lennon.”  (We are currently in the midst of a death obsession and a Beatles obsession, which happily for him, coincide in the form of JL.)

Me (Pause. Try to think like a 4 year old and join the dots. Dawn of realisation. : “Do you mean Elvis?”

The boy: “Yes, the Christmas Elvis that helps Santa.”

After another 15 minutes of explanation, we have closure on this subject, and whilst Elvis is most certainly dead, Christmas is not cancelled and all elves are immediately relieved of sideburns and burgers for the remainder of the festive season. I am however, looking forward immensely to the grotto visits this year when he inevitably asks some dude in a green hat and leggings to sing ‘Hound dog’.

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.

Sleeping with the enemy

We’re back after a long weekend away in the mountains of Hatta. I say long weekend with rather a large dose of irony, because although it was only for three nights, it felt more like seven. Or none, depending.

My son is four. I love him. He’s becoming a real person, whom I can spend weeks on end with in confined company over an extended summer holiday and not feel completely demented. But, as I may have mentioned before, he is a rubbish sleeper. I admit, it’s not all bad. He goes to bed like clockwork every night at 7pm, and we have managed to train him to only exit his room if a) he needs the bathroom, b) he has a bad dream, or c) it’s past 6.30am. Since the demise of the baby monitor, this has meant an interruption-free night most nights, with the odd exception not really registering.

But holidays, well…. they are a cruel reminder of life before the ‘sun clock’. Room sharing with someone who sleeps like a ferret with tourette’s is a slow, purposeful torture usually reserved for new parents, and long since forgotten by us. We really should know better, but the gaps between our holidays somehow heal the wounds and we forget the incessant dawn chattering, the tossing and turning, the shout outs to the masses that can occur at any time in the wee small hours. I promise, I do not exaggerate my son’s night time activity. Before now we have been known to return, exhausted, from long weekends away, sometimes a day early if we really couldn’t stand it any more. This weekend was pretty close to being one of those times, if we had been booked a fourth night I don’t think we would have made it through. With endless fidgeting and rustling on the first night, a 4.30am start after night two, and a nightmare at 3am followed by a wake up call two hours later on the final morning, my husband and I gazed glassy eyed at each other over breakfast and finally admitted defeat. Instead of continuing to enjoy the financial benefits of having an only child who can pretty much squeeze into any room in any hotel of our choosing, we are taking the plunge. It’s time for adjoining rooms.

Part of me is relieved to have made this decision; the other part mourns the family holiday ‘lie ins’ we never had, all pillow fights and giggling and breakfasts in bed – the thing I assume the rest of the world is enjoying when we’ve already been up for three hours. I thought by now we would be there, that he would have learned to sleep in at least on a Friday, FFS, but I fear by the time my son figures out how to not to rise with the birds he’ll be a gangly teenager who smells a bit odd. And frankly it would just be weird to have him snuggle up and watch cartoons with me in our PJs.

So another snip is made in the umbilical chord, as we banish him to his own hotel room in order to get some much needed sleep. I feel sad. Then I remember that the picture in my mind of blissful vacation lie ins is not my picture, and the reality is a little closer to me hissing across the room ‘its the middle of the night, will you please go back to sleep’ about 20 times, before throwing a pillow over my head to try and block the sound out and swearing silent tears of frustration and exhaustion into the mattress. So there you have it. Love and exhaustion and hard decisions that cost a fortune. Parenting in a nutshell.