First time expat? Read this.

Bet you’re halfway between elated and exhausted, right about now. You’ve probably done your goodbye party weeks ago; the house is packed up, you’ve shipped your stuff. The kids are enrolled into school, your husband’s been gone for weeks and you’re just about to get on the plane and leave absolutely everything behind. You might have even already arrived. You’re nervous, excited, sad and happy all in one go; you’re hoping the kids settle in quickly and that you can still get PG Tips and Marmite from somewhere and you’ve already given everyone your Christmas dates so they know you’re coming back for regular visits, just like you promised you would. You’ve spent the last three weeks feeling like you’re treading water – like you’ve said goodbye about 10,000 times. You know it’s not forever. It feels like forever. You can’t wait to go but you don’t want to.

You’re nearly there. Or you’ve just arrived. Welcome to being an expat. A thousand experiences and challenges await. But something’s already happened: you’ve changed. Life has changed you. You’ve taken a step away from everything familiar and put adventure at the top of the list of things to do. Here’s my list for you to mull over, in the coming days, weeks and months: Ten thoughts on moving and living abroad.

1. No matter what you think life will be like, it will be different. You will be different. You can try and stay the same, try to squeeze the shape of your old life into the new one. But  you will not return the same person, if indeed you return at all.

2. You’ll find yourself high on the experience one moment and crashing down the next, and you won’t be able to predict when or how or what will set you off. It’s not you: it’s culture shock. Even a culture that seems to be familiar, is still different. You’ll experience it a lot for about six months, and then it will ease off. But it won’t ever go away completely, even if your stay stretches into years. Ride the wave, accept that there will be times where you really don’t know what the hell you are doing here, and then move on as quickly as possible.

3. There will come a point when you have to get in a car, or on a train, or a bus and just get lost. Do it the first few days, to get it over with. After you’ve sat crying because you can’t understand anything and you don’t know where you are, know that it will be easier the next time.

4. Talk to people. People in coffee shops, people in the queue at the supermarket, people at school drop off. Everyone is in the same boat as you – bar none. Even seasoned expats need new friends to replace the old ones who left, so don’t be put off by their tenure. The longer you remain alone, the more alone you will be. So put yourself out there, find a club, or a group, or join the PTA. Don’t wait ‘until we’re settled in’ to do this. You won’t settle in until you have friends and in the absence of family, you’ll need them. Go get them. NOW.

5. If you are a trailing spouse, and you even think for a millisecond that you want to continue working while you are abroad, prepare for the fact that it might be a lot harder than it would be at home; because of visa issues, or lack of appropriate childcare, or because the job you do at home doesn’t exist where you are going. If it’s hard to find a job that fits, keep searching, and networking, until you find the solution. Make it work. Don’t be lulled into an expat lifestyle you didn’t want because it’s easier. If work is an important part of your self identity at home, consider the impact not working will have on you, and act on that before everyone gets too comfortable.

6. You will feel very lost, for a while. Not just in the streets, but as a person. Your identity, your life as you knew it, has just been ripped out from under your feet. It takes time to build yourself up again. Don’t feel a pressure to be ‘normal’ on day 1, or day 10 or even day 100. You need time to recalibrate, and you might go off in completely the wrong direction before you figure out who you are in this new world.

7. Don’t forget who you were, either. It’s okay to change but it’s not okay to pretend you’re someone you’re not. You’ll get found out eventually.

8. However easy it seems to get on a plane and go home every couple of months, try to resist the temptation, and commit to the place you have chosen to be in. Commitment will make you happier in your expat life and ironically make you less homesick than if you keep going back all the time.

9. Remember your spouse is new at all of this too, and if you have moved because of their job, the responsibility and pressure on them is IMMENSE, to make it work for everyone. Cut them some slack and make time to talk (not yell) about why life is different/difficult/depressing. Try not to blame them for your feelings (easier said than done, I know) because unless someone held you at gunpoint, it’s pretty safe to assume you had a say in this adventure too.

and finally,

10. It might not feel like it now, when you are lonely, stressed, don’t know how to get anywhere, or where to buy anything, or how to say thank you even – but this is the best adventure of your life. It will take time, oodles of it, to really appreciate this  – perhaps you won’t even realise until you’re back home again, what an amazing thing you did. But you’re doing it, and in between all the hard work, it’s going to be awesome. The very best of luck. Now get out there.

Ruby. x

 

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.

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.’

The Other Inbetween

English: Plane Tree Plane Trees in Berkeley Sq...

Trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last time I wrote I was in the boiling heat of Ramadan, wondering what on earth to do with myself and the boy to keep us entertained until we could get on the plane ‘home’. Currently I am in the freezing cold of England, wondering what on earth to do with myself and the boy to keep us entertained until we could get on the plane ‘home’. It’s the worst bit about the summer, that feeling of relief at escaping the heat and the emptiness of Dubai and heading towards loved ones, only to get there and find, a few weeks later, you’re missing the very thing you’ve spent months wishing you could escape from.

As the years roll by I find myself becoming increasingly foreign in my own home, too. (By ‘home’ I’m referring to the UK at this point…try to keep up). There are now loads of things that have changed so much since we left I am convinced that should we EVER make it back here again for good, I will spend six months looking like a complete spanner whilst I play catch up with ‘how to be English’. One of my first ever posts on this blog was called ‘Staying Relevant‘. I wrote it during the Royal wedding fever of early summer 2011 and much of it still holds true. However as the years roll by and we still aren’t back, I’m finding being an expat in England ever more trying, and here are just a few examples of this I’ve accumulated so far this summer:

– I got fined for not paying the congestion charge I forgot existed because despite living in London my entire adult life until 2006, I’ve never driven through it (who lives in London and drives?)

– I casually asked my son to pop his jacket on before he got out of the car because it was raining. He gave me a blank stare and said ‘I can’t.’ I thought he was being a sissy about the rain until I realised he had no idea how to put a jacket on, because he’d never worn one.

– I had to put a message out on Facebook to ask people where a really good bookshop was in central London.

– I packed two maxi sun-dresses and honestly believed there would be opportunities to wear both of them.

– The US family say the boy sounds english, and the UK family say he sounds american. I am fully aware he has what I would term an ‘expat accent’ – a sort of faux american Third Culture Kid twang that will probably mean he sounds foreign no matter where he is for the rest of time, leading people to say things like ‘he can spell really well considering english isn’t his first language’. (Someone said this about a fully grown TCK friend of mine recently, so I can say with full authority that it happens).

– I still can’t remember if you’re supposed to turn right on the filter light even when the filter isn’t green yet. I spend a lot of time hoping I don’t end up at the front of the queue so I can copy everyone else.

– I found myself taking pictures of trees this weekend. Trees. WTF.

So, we have another 2.5 weeks to go and it’s all good, but I’m a little jaded. I miss my house, my cats, my friends and my life. And yet I’m living the double here, and loving living my life here too. It’s the best and worst of both worlds, five weeks of split personality that never seems to get any easier to manage and never gets any easier to leave behind. I guess the answer is to make the most of it, and enjoy the trees.

Battening down the hatches

Firstly, a big thank you to new and old readers. I made it to 20,000 hits this week!

Secondly, the end of school is nigh, and reality is setting in fast. Could someone please tell me what on earth I am supposed to do with my son for the next nine weeks? Yep, you read right. NINE WEEKS. Hampered by the small matter of a degree to study for, we are unable to leave Dubai along with the other 200,000 expat wives and children this weekend, and instead will sit here for half of July, alone and extremely bored. I am still resolutely looking on the bright side, but several factors are now chipping away at my previously perky demeanour:

1. The boy has refused to attend summer camp at the local nursery because ‘nursery is for babies’. That’s my fault: in an effort to encourage him into his pre-school at the start of the year I announced nursery is for babies. Now he has taken me at my word.

2. Ramadan is looming, meaning the end of cafes, leisurely lunches and munching popcorn in front of the latest Monsters, Inc. Whilst we are escaping to Italy for ten days of it, we will be here for another two weeks afterwards. This rules out going anywhere for longer than a two hour time period unless I want to spend half of it dragging the boy into a toilet cubicle with me in order to swig water and the rest trying to avoid being taken out by zombie drivers denied food and water for hours on end in the middle of the summer in the desert.

3. The clement spring weather is definitely over. Now it’s just the same as it always is: unbelievably hot and humid. Touching surfaces with bare skin is not recommended unless you don’t mind losing the top layer, and outside, even for breakfast, is becoming a sweaty and unpleasant business = No more outdoor play.

4. The only outdoor play we can still manage is a spot of swimming. So what better message to receive yesterday than our club pool is closed for maintenance for the whole of July. Great timing guys.

5. I can’t find Wimbledon on the TV.

Nine weeks sounds so dramatic. It’s true, ‘only’ three and a half of them are in Dubai, and then we are off to enjoy the delights of rain and reality tv at my mother’s house for four weeks. But it’s enough to make me nervous, because I know with nowhere to go, no-one to see and nothing to do, with a nearly-4 year old insisting I am on tap to entertain him at all times, there is a limit to how much time I can spend pretending to be holding it together. The horrific realisation is dawning that everyone I know will be gone in a matter of days and my husband is travelling for work for much of the duration, leaving me very firmly in the ‘I only spoke to my pre-schooler this week’ crazy lady category specially reserved for trailing spouses in the desert in Ramadan.

It’s just another expat summer. And it starts tomorrow. Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Excuses excuses

Okay, okay, so I’ve been slack….sorry….things have been kind of busy….okay, no, they haven’t; I just went on holiday and then got sick, and then my MA started up again and then the dog ate my homework and I sat in coffee shops and got my nails done instead of blogging…so sue me…I’m making the most of my leisure time before the pre-summer mad months begin.

Yes, its winding up to that strange time of year in this funny little city of ours where life shifts gear – I’m never sure up or down – and everyone starts preparing themselves for the return of the summer.

The weather is changing on a daily basis – last week we enjoyed a heady mix of thunderstorms, torrential rain and apocalyptic sandstorms that made the sandstorm in Mission Impossible: Ghost protocol look quite realistic after all. I was seriously worried the mix of sand and water would mean it rained cement out if the sky. A few days and it was all over – and with it the first whiff of summer arrived. Hazy days, afternoons suddenly too warm to sit in the garden, and for me the first true sign that summer is nearly upon us – a trip to the soft play centre. Groan.

It is traditionally the time of year when I start to make my plans for the summer, desperate to ensure we have enough weeks away from here to gain some respite and perspective from Dubai life whilst not really wanting to uproot myself yet again. The school ‘gates’ are awash with women asking ‘when are you leaving?’ ‘how long are you away?’ and for some ‘are they running summer camp here?’ as we all attempt to juggle the tricky business of getting out before we go loopy in the heat vs. living out of a suitcase for weeks on end and going loopy from that too.

Wardrobe choices are shifting, as the mornings get warmer and the evenings are no longer a ‘pashmina/long trouser’ zone. Last night I spent a very pleasant time sitting about until the early hours in a strappy maxi dress, when only a matter of a few weeks ago I was debating a jacket. And it will only be another few weeks before I’m wondering how to cover up sweat patches at 9pm as the gauge continues to rise and the humidity sets in.

I’m not sure it matters how many summers you live through here (this will be my eighth, for the record), you can never quite accept just how hot it gets, and how relentless the heat is for days and nights on end. The suntan I have been so carefully nurturing will be a short-lived affair, because soon the challenge will be to jump from house to car to destination of choice with as little contact as possible with the non-airconditioned outside world.

But for now, I am making the most of morning coffees in the shade and nighttime dinners gazing at the stars (or the lights from the driving range, take your pick). And despite the temptation to laze about by swimming pools all morning while my son is at school, I will attempt to leave my flip flops and chick lit at the door and buckle down to some writing again before the summer heat renders me limp and crazy.

And if all else fails it’s possible I’ve booked a cheeky few days in London to give me some respite from it all…

 

A little ‘me’ time

Firstly, apologies for the radio silence. Things have been a little hectic due to visiting relatives, theatre performances and the small matter of a 4000 word short story to write for my degree portfolio. Not to mention the PTA obligations, Sports day, International day, and the various overseas train smashes concerning future schools, renting houses and sick family to manage.  Blogging has been beyond what time has allowed. And so when it came to dress making, I figured it was time to outsource.

I have a perfectly good sewing machine at home, I just have no inclination to do anything more complicated than table runners and cushion covers. On the tourist trail to Bur Dubai a few weeks back, I came across a particularly spectacular bolt of patterned silk (well they said it was silk) for a mere £7/m in the fabric souk, and decided to get a jump suit copied I’ve been wearing almost non stop since I bought it nearly three years ago.  For Dhs 250 (about £40) I will have a brand new swishy silk pantsuit to play in, made to measure and cheaper than the original one. Tick in the box for supporting the ‘local’ (chinese) economy while I’m at it.

Having visitors, especially first time ones, often opens my eyes back up to what’s around and gets me out of my self imposed local living rut. Going down to the creek always reminds me where we are, that we aren’t just in this little bubble, that there is a lot of other real life to see out there. Of course it’s full of touts trying to sell me pashminas and boat rides but if you get past that you can really enjoy just being part of the city, haggling for fabric and riding the abra alongside every other creed and colour who is crossing the creek for one purpose or another.
Somewhere lurking near the opposite end of the expat spectrum, during my blog hiatus I was also part of Dubai’s first Short+Sweet theatre festival. A great initiative to encourage local people to write, direct and act in a series of 10 minute plays, it was a spectacle of good, sometimes great, and some downright awful entertainment, but it was ours. Five years ago or so there is no way the city could have even conceived of hosting a festival like this, and it is really exciting to be contributing to the arts scene and (hopefully) changing it for the better. This weekend was spent performing and at and participating in the Emirates Literature festival, another fantastic example of how much things have moved on in the past few years.
And so that’s the end of my excuses; why the dog ate my homework etc. I now have three glorious weeks of relative relaxation, or two weeks of holiday and a  ‘reading week’ as its called in university circles.  I’m looking forward to it: gym, spa, vacation in the desert, and maybe even a trip to my beloved but much neglected mall. The year has certainly got off to an intensive start but it’s been incredibly satisfying too. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so full of ideas and optimism for the time ahead.
It’s also fair to say I’m knackered. Pass the wine someone…

No rest for the wicked.

Apologies. Over the past two weeks there has been a slight pause in delivery of any kind of the brain spill I usually call ‘writing my blog’ due to the fact that I’ve barely had time to pee. Which my sister, by the way, informs me is bad for the complexion. Who knew? Anyway, the combined forces of visiting family, no internet, flying halfway across the world and the ensuing jet lag have put a spanner in the works the size of a small cocker spaniel. Never mind the unnecessarily cruel third week of Christmas holidays (who the f*** decided that was a good idea?) which have rendered me completely incapable of escaping upstairs to the inner sanctuary of my office for the past week.

But here I am. At last. Amidst tears of frustration and exhaustion around about Tuesday night, I claimed the weekend as mine and mine alone, to sort out my crap and get my life back on track again. My husband was surprisingly compliant (I think he may have feared for his life or my sanity, or both) although judging by the look on his face earlier today as I breezed past him with my third cup of tea and left him to the mercy of our three year old, I think he may have regretted it.

It’s always the same. Term time lulls me into a false sense of security, that I’m not mainly consumed the rest of the time by the business of running a family and living abroad. But as holidays loom and packing lists emerge, it becomes increasingly obvious that the task ahead is not easy. By ‘task’ I mean what other people refer to as ‘vacation’. I’ve spoken about this before, at the other end of the year, when we were on the road for six weeks or so and visiting several different continents. Of course this time it was only a few weeks. “Piece of cake!” I hear you cry. I would be inclined to agree with you, but of course Christmas brings it’s own special kind of bonkers. Trust me, going on holiday for a fortnight in the sun at a 4-star in Alicante is not quite the same as trying to recreate a home from home in a place that hasn’t been your home for twenty years and counting. It has to be done just right, so that your little one doesn’t question the existence of Santa (“But how will he know we’re not in Dubai?”)  and of course that the relatives and friends all get their pound of flesh (oh how I wish that were true, then I could have eaten even more food) and so that everyone within the ring fence is fed and watered and has lots of things to do to keep them interested but not so many they are overwhelmed. (Decent TV and internet would have helped with that, I dare say)- and that the boy gets his fix of fuss and attention from his adoring fan club before we up and leave them all behind for another six months.

Which of course brings me to The Return Home. Never mind the fact that I got back on the plane more exhausted physically and emotionally than when I had left. The next bit was even more fun. Husband went back to work the morning after we landed and then the true cold turkey began. Not more leftovers, but the bit where the boy and I have only each other for company for an entire week in horrific post-Christmas isolation while everyone else gets on with their lives. Post-travel fall out of the worst kind.

It’s been interesting. After the brief meltdown mid-week, it got better when we both realised that shouting was definitely not the answer. I am not sure who came to that conclusion faster, me or my pre-schooler, but it’s a small victory that we had two days of blissful harmony that included a supermarket trip, a doctor visit and soft play, and there were no tears and no rows and it felt like I was somewhere near being one of those nice mummies after all.

But I have failed, utterly, to get anything done. I think part of the improvement in my relationship with my attention craving, chocolate-withdrawing, overly-stimulated-by-relatives child was due to resignation on my part of getting anything done at all before the end of the week. Once I’d given up all hope things seemed far easier. Maybe that’s what women mean by ‘having it all’ – ‘all’ being by definition a very personal expectation of what you hope to achieve in life. If you hope for very little for yourself, it seems you may be in luck.

But today I have excelled. The PTA agenda for Monday’s meeting is drawn up and ready to go. The Christmas photos are downloaded. Property management issues both here and abroad are now a little more managed than they were. Finances have been straightened. Spreadsheets updated. Improv team is standing by for rehearsals. Reading list books read and notes made. I am not there yet – for example the thank you letters are still unwritten and there is no food in the house except fish fingers – but the fact that I’m sitting writing this is testament to how much better I feel about the state of things than I did. Of course I need to make the most of it given I have a Masters degree starting on Monday, and Improv performances looming.

And we still haven’t hit Day Nine of return yet, which is traditionally the day when something goes horribly wrong with the boy, or our lives, the house, or all of the above. That, co-incidentally, is also on Monday. I am full of fear about what it may be, the day will be fraught with ‘what ifs’ until it is over. ‘What if’ my son has got a bug from the soft play and can’t go to school? ‘What if’ my car breaks down on the way home from rehearsal and I miss my virtual MA course introduction? ‘What if’ all the white goods in the house suddenly realise they are three years old and break down simultaneously? ‘What if’ travelling has produced a profound but as yet unseen psychological effect on me, my husband, my son? Previous years the curse of Day Nine has included acute depression on my part, as the realisation that there is no going back sinks in. Two years ago my son developed a sleep disorder and my grandad passed away, both on Day Nine. The sleep disorder came in the form of crying every hour, on the hour, all night, for two months whilst I gradually positioned myself closer and closer to the door waiting for him to go back to sleep. Tiring, exhausting and upsetting, but not terrifying. Last year starting on Day Nine was worse. He refused to eat anything for three days after a nightmare that left him screaming and grabbing at his tongue –  resulting in assessment by an occupational therapist for possible autism. That was a fun week, let me tell you.  So the jury’s out until next Tuesday, on whether we have truly survived Christmas intact. I am hopeful this year, that as we have travelled about less and offered a greater number of grandparents up for play than usual, that we will be lucky and Day Nine will pass uneventfully.

In the meantime I have unpacking to finish, a tumble drier to fix and visitors to prepare for. No rest for the wicked? My brother in law is right. I must be the Wicked Witch of the Middle East after all.

The Wicked Witch

I’m here! I’m here! (Photo credit: Dulce Dahlia)