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.

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.

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.

 

A note on karma

I feel the karmic powers are conspiring against me, and I’m not quite sure what I did wrong. If someone can explain to me how, merely in the last ten days, I have managed to rack up a child with an ear infection, flu (me), a violent, hideous stomach virus (also me), the cat peeing on my BRAND NEW SOFA, and a root canal (me again), I would be most grateful.

I’ve been racking my brains, and the thing is, I really was a good person this year. There have been years, I admit, where I have been less than delightful. But this year I have helped friends in need, I’ve done people favours, travelled the world for my family, and generally been a solid, dependable person. A positive influence, even. For crying out loud, I’m even still on the PTA despite three unsuccessful attempts to resign from a job that doesn’t even pay me. Yes, I’ve had the occasional wish to slap someone who was being foul, but I didn’t. I didn’t (unlike former times) even pick a fight (mostly). I’ve worked hard, played hard, studied hard, and I’m actually happy.

So why is my parade being rained on? With cat urine? My husband assures me bad things happen to good people all the time, but if that’s really the case and there is no upside to wearing pastels and smiling all the time, I might go back to being an evil old witch. But the black cat can take a hike. There’ll be no peeing in my cauldron, my ungrateful four-legged friend.

 

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’?

An open letter to Ahlan…don’t get ME started…

Dear Ahlan

What an interesting article you published recently, on the agony of flying on planes that have – gasp – children on them.

I love how the author of the column assumed that every child who ever flew on a plane is by default loud and annoying, that all babies scream, and that they, as a childless passenger, were entitled to make us parents sound like the most inconsiderate, incompetent set of people ever to travel the earth. Talk about alienating half your readership, right there. The suggestion that all families could be given a section at the back of the plane was particularly generous. Personally I would prefer the upper deck, if that’s okay, and you can go and sit at the back and inhale 350 people’s farts and bad breath. I also love the assumption that all parents would want to sit together…”somewhere they can sit with other sympathetic parents who understand what it’s like to have a small child, and who won’t tut or glare when the kid goes into siren mode”. Ah yes, you’ve really got the measure of parents there. We don’t just love our own kids and forgive them anything, we love all children. Especially the small ones that cry all the time, or the little gits that run around during a night flight like they own the joint. This is just a suggestion: you might want to observe parents a little better next time you’re on a flight. You might just see that if someone else’s child is screaming, or kicking, or being loud, we don’t generally do much except look smug and thank our lucky stars it’s not ours. How ridiculous, to think we’re all going to club together at the back of the plane, shrug our shoulders, and mutter ‘kids, eh?’ to each other while they run riot on sugar highs and boredom.

You mention that top airlines have created bar areas, massage rooms, and showers on board, so why not soundproofed zones for kids? Great plan. Maybe we should have sections for the business travellers who lie snoring like juggernauts the whole flight too. And one for the people that don’t seem to be able to walk down an aisle in the middle of the night without hugging the backs of all the seats on the way to and from the bathroom. Maybe all the fat people could go in one section in the middle so that the rest of us still have space for our elbows. Ooo, and maybe there could be another part of the plane for people who smell bad. Really?

Flying is a necessary part of life for many people; everyone is different, none of them are perfect, and it is generally annoying for us all, no matter our personal circumstances. That’s what happens when you stick 350 strangers in a tin can and throw them through the air in order to get from A to B. If you don’t like it, take the car, or hire a private jet. But leave us parents out of it. My son has been commuting with me from Dubai to London and the US since he was four months old. Never once has he screamed, never once has anyone had cause to complain about him. I’m not saying there aren’t some horrors out there, but don’t tar us all with the same brush. How about considering that most parents dread long haul flying beyond anything you can possibly imagine, but that many of us have no choice in the matter – and that most of us do our best to make it as pleasurable as possible for everyone – the kids, us, and you included. If you’re going to attempt to take a stand, maybe publish something that offers your opinion on what civil behaviour and parental responsibility should look like on planes to those that need a kick up the backside. It would certainly offer a more positive message than encouraging persecution and segregation based on lifestyle choices. Making the world a better place and all that, don’t you think?

Yours,

Ruby Slippers.

Where are you from?

In most situations here it’s standard, along with ‘how long have you been in Dubai?’, to ask the question ‘where are you from?’ when you first meet someone. I’m starting a personal campaign to get this particular question banned from all social events, and it’s not just because I don’t like answering it. (Although, when you are an Essex girl, it’s fairly easy to see why you might want to avoid the subject).  Aside from the fact I think it’s the second most boring question on earth to ask someone at a Dubai dinner party, I don’t think it captures the information a person is looking for when they ask it. What will it tell you about me, to know where I spent my childhood? It allows you to put me in a box, sure – to think you know me, my ‘type’. Except it’s more likely to provide you with a stereotypical idea of me than anything real about who I am or how I grew up. I prefer the more cryptic ‘Where were you before?’; it encourages people to open up a bit, tell you something of their personal history, allow you to understand their ‘now’ a little better.  ‘Where are you from?’ doesn’t really have much bearing on who I am right now. And with four decades of life behind me, where am I really from, anyway?

On the surface, it’s easy enough to answer. England. Yes, alright – Essex, to be precise. Go on, get it out of your system….you can take the girl out of Essex….hahaha….it’s part of me, I’ll give you that. But deeper beneath the surface, it’s not quite so straightforward. I didn’t grow up, get married and have kids all within the same five mile radius as my parents. Some people do, but not me. It was never for me. At the age of eight I remember driving through London with my mum and dad, falling in love with the huge Victorian mansions of South Kensington and announcing I would live there one day. Of course, South Ken was a pipe dream; I ended up in Catford. Hardly the stuff fairytales are made of, but at least it was away. That’s all I ever wanted to be, was away. Not because my life was so awful (although my family were, and still are, a little above average in terms of strange behaviour), but because I always wanted something different. Specifically, to begin with, I wanted to be in London. Drama school in New Cross seemed like a good place to start, instead of going to get a BA in Communications from Leicester university like I was supposed to – and somewhere between shutting the front door to my parent’s home and opening the one at Dallinger Road SE12, my nomadic days began. For a decade, I went through more houses than most people do in a lifetime. If I drew you a line between all the places I’ve lived in London, from Eltham to Richmond, you’d get the south circular in glorious technicolor. I didn’t stint on career changes either. Or career breaks, taken in order to get on a plane and see the world. It’s become clear to me over the years that I have the attention span of a toddler and the staying power of a chicken caught in a tornado. I am easily swayed by the prospect of adventure until the moment I get what I want and then I’m bored all over again. Shall we move to Surrey? Australia? California? Dubai? Sure. Oh, I’ve changed my mind. And back again. And once more for luck…

But all these places I have been, every house I have stayed in, they have all been home, they have all been where I’m from – a reflection of my life in that moment: the grimy flat on the Loughborough estate in Brixton where I’d stagger back to after a night of clubbing; our first purchase, a little wooden house on the river Wey, where we pottered around the garden and watched swans lay their eggs by our door; the Dubai villa we wake up in every day, filled with the gentle roar of family life. Each and every one held my hopes and dreams and shaped me, and whether for six months or four years, each place, each street, each walk home from the bus stop kept my secrets, saw my tears, heard my laughter and allowed me to feel like I belonged. So where am I from? A small village in Essex, where I grew up. London, where I studied and worked, lived, laughed and loved, for over a decade of wonderful life. The US, where we have a home, family; where a piece of my heart rests, waiting for me to return. Dubai, where I have spent my married life, given birth to my son, where I’ve finally grown up and learned so much, and had a ball doing it. Destination unknown, wherever the next adventure takes me, where I know I will make a place for myself once more.

What will my son say when people ask him the same thing? Will they even ask? Or, in a globalised world full of third culture kids, international marriages and long distance friendships, will the question finally cease to be relevant? I do hope so. I’m getting so tired of Essex girl jokes.

Seven signs of summer

Well summer is most definitely here in good old Dubai. I know this, because:

1. The air con in my car isn’t making the slightest bit of difference to how hot I feel until about 20 minutes into any given journey

2. I am continually torn between making conservative, middle eastern friendly wardrobe choices vs. putting on the skimpiest outfit I can find that still avoids the mutton dressed as lamb look (although clearly this is not a universally thought through decision judging by some of the outfits I have seen lately)

3. I am thoroughly irritated by the majority of people who I come into contact with – not the ones who are actually my friends and therefore decent, kind, considerate human beings, but rather the selfish, rude majority that seem to delight in crossing my path of late.

4. No one has conversations any more, it is just a series of questions surrounding leaving dates, summer camps and Ramadan

5. I found a dead roach in the kitchen today. Good news is, it was dead; these days I tend not to panic too much about internal pest control until a six inch diameter spider drops in for coffee or a squadron of the little cockroach critters take up residence under my sink.

6. I have opened excel up on my computer to start planning the great migration. I dream about being a wilder beast, I’m pretty sure they don’t need a spreadsheet.

7. My skin has assumed the sweaty pale pallor of a sea sick sailor, as the sun shines every day but its too damn hot to stand in it. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink springs to mind…

Traditionally this is never a great time of year. Everyone is fed up, hot, tired, homesick and busy as hell. I may have fallen into the whinge-trap myself for various reasons, some valid, some because I am an attention seeking missile when i’m unhappy, but mainly because I just need a damn good holiday. But there have been worse years. I’m not limping to the finish line quite yet. And with three weeks to go until we hit the beautiful Tuscan countryside, I feel I might actually get there this year with my sanity vaguely intact.

Vaguely. Don’t get excited. There’s still time.

Bring on the summer (not)

English: Glass of rosé Français : Verre de rosé

Summer coping mechanism no.1(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shame. On. Me.

Life has once again got in the way of blogging. I was reminded for the third Monday in a row that I have failed to write a single thing this month by the arrival of my fellow bloggers’ weekly summaries dropping into my inbox, and decided the time was ripe for plonking my first-born in front of Jake and the Neverland Pirates to post something, anything before yet another week flew by.

So here we are. For the eighth year in a row the summer has arrived in the space of 24 hours and caught everyone by surprise at just how hot it is, again. Why is it such a shock every year? I feel caught in some sort of Groundhog Day-meets-eternal sunshine of the spotless mind moment and while my brain struggles to come to terms with the fact that it really is very bloody hot out there, I am also panicking at my laissez-faire approach to summer planning which has inadvertently left me with a 4 year old and nothing to do for fourteen days in the middle of July, during Ramadan, in 45 degree heat and 80% humidity, with no one around, while I am trying to churn out a masters degree.

Bad planning, yes. The road to crazyville, sure. But this year I am trying a different approach. Instead of going very quickly insane for lack of human contact over the age of 4, I’m going to attempt to attack the issue head on. This involves spending large amounts of money on trips to the aquarium, dolphinarium, soft play centre, aquaplay, little explorers, the cinema, ski Dubai and quite possibly the ice rink, and swigging copious bottles of water in the toilets instead of hanging out in Neros. Not ideal, but it’s the best I can do. Weekends will, as a result, not resemble anything remotely like family time, but instead be a combination of tapping away at the computer and taking child free time in a dark room while my troubles are massaged away to dolphin music and my face is recreated as a wrinkle free, stress free, pimple free masterpiece. (WTF is the thing with wrinkles and spots, ladies? No one told me that was going to happen)  Evenings will alternate between frantic deadline driven scribbling and light consumption of rosé wine at the golf club to soothe away the day whilst still being able to face the next one. My theory is, take one day at a time, throw money at the problem, find things to make the boy smile, work hard and fast to get the writing done, try to forget the bit where I am melting, and have at least one adult conversation every day.

It won’t be the perfect plan, I know. There will be days when I am sure me and my son will be screeching at each other in splendid isolation, and times when I wish the work would do itself so we can escape to the uk sooner than planned, and moments where i think i will go completely mad from heat and lonliness. But an evening swim can do wonders, and a night out with DH to celebrate Iftar will be something we haven’t done together in years, and you never know, ice skating might be fun.

And when all else fails, you can’t go wrong with a bit of Jake and the Neverland Pirates.