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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Master of Expatriation

I found this today, and have proudly declared myself a ‘Master of Expatriation’. One part of me is glad I only just found it, the other half thinks it would have explained a whole lot about life that I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to figure out. Ah well. Here it is for all of you, to save you some time thinking you’ve got everything sussed when in fact you are merely ‘competent’.

Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 13.55.35

Where are you on this chart?

 

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.

 

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.’

Welcome, newbies

September: I crawl down the road behind the shiny new no-dents-in-the-doors 4×4 that carefully weaves its way across the three lanes of traffic using – OMG – INDICATORS to change lanes, and catch the driver’s eye as she ‘Mirror, signal, manoeuvres’ her way into the slip road to Spinney’s. She parks – within the lines – and nudges her door open so as not to disturb the car parked so precariously close to hers, before grabbing her recyclable reusable hessian bag collection from the passenger seat and encouraging her kids to make their way to the store. Once safely inside, she tucks her non-designer sunglasses into her non-designer handbag and consults her list. She spends hours wondering where the organic section is before realising there isn’t one, and does the same for ready-meals. She checks over her shoulders before she enters the ‘Pork for Non-Muslims’ section, even thought she’s perfectly entitled to be there, and hides the sausages and bacon under the rest of her shopping to avoid being detected by the Pig Detectives who haunt every supermarket checking passports for illicit pork consumption. (Okay, don’t panic: I made that bit up). She reaches the checkout and juggles her screeching kids, loading the conveyor belt at one end and packing her shopping at the other, whilst the jaded long-time expat behind her (possibly me) wonders why a) she didn’t let someone else pack the bags, b) why she didn’t leave her kids at home with the maid and c) how many weeks it will be before she leaves the hessian bags in the car and can’t be bothered to go back for them.

Ah yes, it’s September; the birth of a new generation of expats. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, wondering if it’s always this hot (yes, quite a lot of the time – and sometimes its hotter) and if people really do leave their kids with the maid in order to get their grocery shopping done faster (yes) – in fact they will wonder why everyone seems to have a maid and if it’s weird having someone live in your house who cooks, cleans and babysits on demand (yes, it is, until it isn’t, and then it’s just genius). They will no doubt stare aghast at the fashion parade that is the school run, shiver with horror at the cost of birthday parties for an entire classroom of over-priviledged children and wonder if manicures and pedicures are absolutely necessary on a fortnightly basis (again, you’d be surprised). They will join PTA and attend coffee mornings and zumba classes and slowly build a life along with the hundreds of other women going through exactly the same thing. One day soon they might meet me, and ask the standard question, and my answer will be ‘eight years’. They will raise an eyebrow, comment that they can’t possibly imagine being here that long, and they are only here for a couple of years. I will smile, and say ‘that’s what I said’. They will think they know better. But before they even know it, they will find themselves in a three year old car with paint chipped off the doors, skating through slow traffic at warp speed to make a nail appointment and swearing at the woman in her new 4×4 who is actually slowing down at speed humps. And then, newbie, you will know you have truly arrived in Dubai. Welcome. Have fun. Embrace it. And get your nails done.