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.

 

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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.

The sound of summer

It’s occurred to me that the summer is finally here. I had a feeling it was, for a number of reasons:

1. My son appears to be on a permanent sugar high from birthday parties, end of term parties and because ice cream is almost a necessity at this time of year

2. The driving has gone into ‘Special Summer Mode’ where everyone is too busy adjusting the aircon to blow on their armpits and dozing off in the heat to actually concentrate on the tiny issue of driving from A to B without a near miss.

3. I have been out drinking for what feels like a solid two months – having that ‘one last meet before the summer’ with practically everyone I know – a sort of perverse panic to ensure the friends I have managed to collect over the course of the year will remember who I am come September.

4. I have come to the conclusion that the three month detox, diet and exercise masterplan has failed spectacularly and I will be packing tankinis again this summer. The ‘Body of J-Lo’ will have to go on the bucket list for September.

5. I have applied fake tan this week in an effort to emulate the colour that I should be from living somewhere perpetually sunny, whilst in reality I have been gazing at the blue skies from behind my triple glazed tinted windows for weeks because it’s too damn hot by 8am to even think about lying in the garden.

6. Soft play areas have become an indoor destination of choice despite their germ-infested surfaces, deafening noise and the no-fun-for-a-big-person act of climbing through too-small tunnels, crashing my head on too-low ceilings and injuring my back sliding down too-small slides. The trampoline is quite fun though.

7. Everyone I know has been sick from a) a chest/ear/eye/sinus infection, b) a stomach bug or c) both

8. I have been heard to say on more that one occasion in the past few weeks “it’s too hot to go swimming”

9. The spare room looks like a jumble sale but is actually my annual attempt to start packing for two months of holidays without forgetting anything. (I will forget something.)

10. Everyone I know, including me, is exhausted with the business of being in Dubai. Standard conversation the past week with practically everyone has been “Are you travelling? When are you travelling? How long are you travelling for?” and most people are champing at the bit to Get. Out. Of. Here.

"Modhesh", Arabic for amazing, is th...

“Modhesh”, Arabic for amazing, is the mascot of Dubai Summer Surprises and its appearance all over the city heralds the start of true summer in Dubai. This is not me in the picture by the way. That yellow worm freaks me out and I would certainly never let a child of mine show emotional attachment to it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And this week, just in case I wasn’t quite in the spirit of things, the searing heat that we have been steadily building up to made its killer summer move: humidity. It’s hard to explain what a massive difference it makes but everyone that has lived through a summer or two in Dubai will agree that it’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity. And it can be extreme; this week saw temperatures of 40 degrees, which is perfectly manageable to us desert-dwellers – but the humidity climbed to 75%, which is borderline intolerable even for the hardcore sun-lovers. This heat/humidity combo is the equivalent of wading through ‘weather soup’ every time you leave the house – your sunglasses steam up and leave you either flailing around in a blind frenzy trying to locate your car/front door/child, or force you to (gasp of horror) remove them and squint whilst your mascara melts down your face, your hair frizzes up where you stand and your t-shirt develops so many damp patches it looks like it’s been tie-dyed.

I have not felt the need to escape Dubai this year quite as badly as other years. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we have been spectacularly lucky with the weather and enjoyed a long and relatively cool spring/early summer. But suddenly, this week, it’s as if someone has flicked the switch. My son has ‘graduated’ from nursery (a proud moment), my Improv group is on hiatus, my husband is working like a dog and I am officially fed up with the heat, the humidity, with being indoors all the time. And my hair is baaaaaad.

I am ready to go. So forgive me if my prose sounds reminiscent of previous posts because it is about now that I begin to form the images in my mind of how I will spend my real summer. In busy streets with over-excited Olympic-loving Londoners; with precious family and friends and rain – endless, endless rain which I will never complain about (until about three days in when the novelty will wear off). In my husband’s beloved Boston: with grandparents and aunts and uncles and on the beach and in the freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean. In my beloved New York, to soak up the dappled sunshine of Central Park with my much-missed sister and niece. In the gardens and farms and fields of Essex and at pub lunches drinking pints and enjoying long summer evenings. All of this is within my grasp and worth the pain of long haul flights and jet lag. It is just around the corner and I can’t wait.