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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

Making up history

This weekend sees the UAE’s first ever Theatresports show, being held in the wonderful newly opened Courtyard Playhouse, a performing arts centre focussed entirely on producing grassroots theatre using ‘homegrown’ talent, and the only official theatresports venue in the Middle East. I am so excited to be part of this – improv is addictive, funny, (occasionally) intellectual and really, really good for the soul, whether you’re in it, or watching it. I’d love to see you there. Go on…do something different this weekend. Have a laugh. Be part of Dubai history.

Tickets are free; yes, FREE! And there are two performances on Friday and two on Saturday, at 7pm and 9pm. You can even pop along to the open day from 1pm to 3pm on Saturday, as part of ‘Quoz Happens‘ – if you’re at the Ripe Market at the Courtyard, or grabbing a coffee and a carrot cake at the Lime Tree – we’re just upstairs. Get involved, cheer us on…play your part in building grassroots theatre in Dubai!

To reserve your seats for the evening shows, click on THIS LINK. Come on…as if you could resist this pretty face….

Theatresports

 

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.