Dorothy…you’re not an expat anymore

Today marks the day I stopped being an expat. Or rather, the day I realised I wasn’t one anymore. Maybe this is the wrong way to describe it. I mean – I’ll think I’ll always be an expat. The longer we are here, the more foreign I feel, to be honest. My friend says I’m just going through the ‘I feel stupid’ phase. I feel like this phase might last for years, some days. But setting stupidity aside, today I just feel, well, a bit sad. Maybe what I mean is, today marks the day I don’t live in Dubai anymore.

What has caused this sudden dawn of realisation? On the other side of the world, in the desert we called home, my friends’ kids – my kid’s friends – went back to school on Sunday. Everyone is back from their holidays. Work has begun. Pictures of proud little men and women in their new uniforms begin to adorn my Facebook page, chatter on my Dubai chums whatsapp group has increased tenfold, a new season has begun at the theatre where I spent my life these past three years, and suddenly, I realise that life is moving on without us. I watch it go, full steam ahead, and I know it’s an unstoppable train.

We are just back from a wonderful weekend in France celebrating my birthday, so it’s not like I have anything to complain about. I’ve spent three days eating butter-laden pain au chocolate and drinking cheap but delicious rose wine at various hillside idylls, soaking up the last of the Mediterranean summer at the beach, speaking bad French at everyone who will listen and gazing at beautiful old buildings backing onto impossibly blue skies at every opportunity. There are worse places to turn 41, I realise this.

But it was weird coming back here. It just felt a bit odd. Like, as in, ‘you’ve just come home to the wrong place’ kind of odd. I had a cry in the kitchen, in secret, bizarrely while trying to sing ‘I will always love you’ by Whitney Houston. I’m not sure why. But it appears my son felt it too, whatever the sensation was  – we’ve had tears this evening, about going to the new school, about missing his old house, his old school, his friends. It’s the first time he’s had a wobble like this since we arrived in England and I know how he feels, I feel what he feels – the strangeness of it all, the confusion, the lack of purpose to being here, the wave of homesickness that rears up when you least expect it. All I can do is hold onto him and tell him it will get better, that we will make new friends and it will all get better soon. ‘But how do you remember the old friends?’ he says to me, wiping away his tears and looking at me like I have all the answers. ‘You talk to them, and write to them, and visit them, and when your life fills up again with new friends and things to do and places to go, you don’t miss them quite so much,’ I reply. My heart aches.

The reality is we’re doing fine so far. More than fine. Surprisingly so, if I’m honest. I’m just a bit sad, sometimes, when I notice my old life disappearing. It’s been blurring around the edges and smudging along the lines all summer, and now school has started and everyone is back from their holidays, I know it will quickly begin fading from view altogether. When we visit, as we plan to, we will be visitors. I knew that before, of course, but it’s sinking in now. It’s the bit I was dreading, the purgatorial part of the whole process, where you’re neither here nor there, but everyone else is very definitely here or there and you don’t have any of the answers about how to be, or who to be, or what to do. It is the ‘I feel stupid’ phase. The ‘lost’ phase. The ‘helpless’ phase. Or maybe it’s better to give it it’s official name, and call it culture shock? Or homesickness? Or a bit of both? Whatever, I wish wholeheartedly it would be over, for us all, before it engulfs us along with the truly rotten British weather (sorry to state the obvious, but I’d forgotten how bloody relentless the misery-inducing greyness can be. Three days in the Med only exaggerated the whole thing, I fear).

Mainly, though, I wish it would be over for my boy. There’s nothing more saddening and guilt-inducing than seeing him upset over a decision that wasn’t his to make; an action that I can’t undo; a sickness that I can’t kiss better. He’s been amazing, so strong and I’m so proud of him, but enough’s enough and I need to fill his life up again. Next week, when term FINALLY begins (and really, I just wish it would, I think it would do everyone the power of good just to get on with everything) I will post my own Facebook photo, and embrace the start of a new life for my boy. I hope that his own ‘I feel stupid’ phase is blissfully short lived. I could barely care less about my own happiness in comparison to making sure he finds his. And he will, I know. I will be there with him, egging him on, helping him every step of the way. It works the other way too, of course. ‘I’ve got 37 friends to make, mummy,’ he says, counting all the kids in his new Year 1 who he hasn’t met yet, ‘so you’ve got 37 mummy friends to make as well.’

I do. And I’ve got a ton of stuff coming my way that will help me find a new tribe and begin to heal the wounds over from leaving the old one. I’m sad, in a mourning kind of a way, but I’m not miserable, or stressed, or any of the things I was when I first moved abroad. To coin the analogy (or whack it over the head with a big stick)*, we’re nearly ‘over the rainbow’. Nearly. We’re so close to being in a new place and point in time we can call ‘home’, while knowing that in some other dimension there’s another place just like it, but different, that we love just as much. Just a bit more time, just a few more steps along the (yellow brick) road and we’ll be there, and we’ll miss the other place just a bit less. Whether we’ve landed in Oz or woken up in Kansas is questionable. But then that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

*I can’t believe I’m reading this much into the Wizard of Oz. It must be the weather.

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Confusion, Emotion and Perpetual Motion

I’m waiting for my flight back to London. Not THE flight; this is the one before that, where I go and find us somewhere to live. Our new home. I thought this would be the exciting bit, but the stress of this responsibility is, I now realise, of an intensity way beyond what I expected. Forget all the coordinating, the logistical nightmares, the turmoil of leaving; these are small fry. They are events that will happen, and pass, and be forgotten about over time. But this decision – choosing our home – will be the lasting legacy of this move, the thing we will all have to live with every day. It forms a major part of what determines whether the transition is successful and happy, or not. 

It’s only four walls, I know. But those four walls contain us. They will gather us together as a family, nurture us, comfort us, and give us the first taste of being grounded in our new world. For my son, it is the place he will take his first impressions of his new life from, the place that will form his memories of living in London forever. For my husband, it is the place that will make him feel all his hard work is worthwhile; that although London is not where he comes from it can still be his home. For me, it is the place I can sit in, alone, and yet not feel lonely; a place I can fill with friends and family or just enjoy the intimacy of our unit of three; a place where I know we can feel at home again in this foreign yet familiar city. 

How? How do I do this? How can I possibly predict where we will be happiest, where we won’t find ourselves wishing we were somewhere else? I remember these feelings, from a near-decade ago, when we left for Dubai. That panicky, slightly sick sensation that I might royally screw up (we did) and be saddled with living somewhere we don’t want to be (we were). I have a list of beautiful homes to look at and yet I’m terrified I won’t find the right one, or worse still I will think I found the right one and then find out when we move in that I’ve made a terrible mistake. I know, I know; we can always move again. But I don’t want to. It seems such a waste of time, energy and emotion. I just want to get it right, first time. I just want all of us to be happy.

On top of this insomnia-inducing anxiety about not cocking up, the fog of sadness about leaving Dubai is finally beginning to descend. There have been at least two incidents this week where I’ve burst into tears in an awkward public display of emotion and I’m trying hard not to make it three. But sitting at the airport waiting to board, all I want to do is cry. It all feels so ENORMOUS. The idea, the notion, flits through my mind, that in some way I’m betraying Dubai. Like some torrid affair, years of sneaking off to see London are finally turning into concrete plans to elope. I’m sorry Dubai. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve changed. It doesn’t mean anything.

What a lot of tosh. It’s HUGE. Of course it means something. It means everything.

The enormity of what is about to happen pushes down on me, threatening to crush my spirit; my determination that this will all be fine wavers like a sapling in a storm, flapping and flexing and fighting to stay upright and alive. I cannot fathom how I can possibly have the stamina to keep feeling this way for months, until it is all over and I know we are going to be okay. The worst thing is, I’ve done all this before: the goodbyes, the leaving, the learning somewhere new. The loneliness, the longing for the old life, the attempt to embrace the unknown. There are so many things to look forward to, but they won’t all arrive on my doorstep the second we touch the ground. I’ve done my research, done my reading, listened to the repat war stories of friends and friends of friends. I know that it will be a long time until we are okay.

Until now, it’s been a lot of talk. Big ideas, imagined lives, self-engineered scenarios. When I get off this plane later today, it all becomes real. Step by step, I must begin the task of converting the picture we have in our minds to glorious 3D technicolor. I’m scared, because there’s no signposts, no guides, no list of rules to abide by. Like a skydiver waiting by the door, there’s only my parachute of intuition, and the trust in myself that I will get the landing just right.

 

So I take a deep breath, and jump.

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.

I am simply absolutely not having another baby

I am a mother of one and proud of it.

There, I said it.

For some reason, some people just can’t seem to accept that we don’t want another child. They are convinced that secretly I am desperate for another one and its all just a matter of time until I come to my senses. Top five responses from people who, when asking the question “So, when are you giving him a little brother or sister?” and receiving the answer “Actually, we’re not.”:

1. “You’ll change your mind I bet”

I will not be changing my mind. I absolutely love being my son’s mum, but I really enjoy the life I have made for myself and our little unit of three as well and don’t have any intention of ruining it for any of us a year shy of turning forty. I have a very, very long list of reasons why I like our family numbering three. Not least that holidays and plane journeys – well everything in fact – is significantly easier to manage, less expensive and far less stressful.

2. “Ah that’s a shame, to leave him all on his own.

There is plenty of research as well as anecdotal evidence to suggest that ‘only’ children thrive in exactly the same way as an ‘older child’ in a family of siblings do. They simply continue to enjoy the attention lavished on most ‘older children’ for the rest of their lives instead of being ousted by younger brothers and sisters just as they reach an age where they might most benefit from it. Parents exert the same pressure and expectations on an older child as an only child. The difference is that parents of only children have more time, attention, energy and money to spend on a single child, so they may have an advantage in terms of their education as well as their social and emotional well being. Only children will not be told they can’t have help with the homework until Mummy’s finished feeding the baby. Or that they can’t go to the bowling alley for a birthday party on Tuesday because their brother has soccer practice. Only children will not bicker and brawl with their siblings either, so that you are tearing your hair out trying to make them like eachother. And they will not feel ‘lonely’ for a brother or sister that they have never had. Their lives, like anyone’s, will be filled with friends and peers to talk to and share things with when family is not enough.

3. “Don’t leave it too late to start trying”

I love this one, completely ignoring my opinion as if it’s so abhorrent you can’t acknowledge it. Also suggesting that I’m old, which may be true but it is a little insulting to me and my ovaries which I’m sure still have a few years left in them yet. Although my OBGYN was one of the people that said this too me, so maybe there is some truth to the rumour that I am getting on a bit.

4. “They grow up so fast though. Don’t you miss having a little baby to cuddle?”

No, I don’t. I’ve thought about it a lot and I really don’t miss it. I missed it the first time around, in a sleep deprived haze of panic, if truth be known. ‘Missing it’….missing what? You could say that about any age, not just the baby bit, and having another one does not make you miss it less as it passes, because if anything you are mourning the loss twice over. To make up for all the things you miss as your child grows up you’d have to keep on breeding forever. Also, like any mother if they are truthful, there are significant chunks of baby and toddlerhood that would absolutely not make it onto my list of ‘things I miss’.

5. “Really? Why not?”

Because it’s OUR CHOICE and there is no law that says you have to have more than one child. ‘Why not’ is a decision that we have made carefully and with some consideration, for many reasons related to health and happiness, and isn’t just some rash or selfish conclusion we came to in a few seconds flat. These are the same people that ask when you are getting married, or when you are going to start trying for a family…thoughtless, embarrassing and nosy, unless you are very good friends and don’t mind hearing about the inner workings of my womb or my time as crazy baby mum.

But the main reason? I will never have to sit through the Teletubbies again.

Teletubbies

Teletubbies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Flowers and Whistles

It’s always good to read what other Dubai bloggers are up to. For one, it helps me appreciate I am not the only one out there going slowly la-la, increasingly reliant on shoe shopping and sauv blanc to cure the ails of everyday expat living/parenting. Secondly, it gives me all kinds of ideas of things to do and places to go, that I didn’t even know existed. And better still, what can be struck off the ‘to do’ list because it’s crap/expensive/hot/busy. So when my pal over at Circles in the Sand wrote about a new horticultural extravaganza that had opened up just down the road from us, I decided to give it a try. Armed with a bottle of water and enough antihistamine tablets to cure an elephant of hay fever, my son and I and our friends set out this afternoon for the self-proclaimed “most beautiful and biggest natural flower garden in the world”.

English: A Petunia sp.

Like this, but more  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sounds dubious? Well it’s very pretty. And big. It feels like you are standing in the world’s largest hanging basket. There are pyramids, birds, heart shaped archways, and even a set of flower power painted cars, all full to the brim with flowers of every colour. Sustainable? Well, the developer claims the huge site is using waste water to keep the gazillion petunias flowering. But natural? In Dubai?

Natural or not, the ‘Miracle gardens’ were, indeed, miraculous. If slightly incongruous. Like a giant ski slope protruding into the sky, or a huge offshore development built into the shape of a palm tree, a massive garden of flowers is one of the last things you expect to see on the side of a motorway in the desert.

But miracles come at a price. Dhs 40, to be exact (they charged my 3 year old full price to enter). And honestly…the experience was average. Maybe if our kids hadn’t been swiped by over-enthusiastic filipinos and used as props for photo calls, or had a whistle blown at them near- continuously by the rather protective security men, I would feel differently.  One particularly enthusiastic guard saw the kids coming and proceed to stalk us, literally manhandling the boys off the grass and picking up long dead plants and shaking them at us, motioning that our children were ripping them up. Now, our kids are good kids, and they knew not to pick the flowers or run through the beds – but it’s a field full of flowers. If there is an opportunity to climb, or run, or play ‘driving’ on the grass that runs between displays, they are going to take it. What they don’t do is rip plants from the ground. It was all a bit OTT for a few limp looking petunias.

After we lost the nazi gardener at the floral pyramids/Tele tubby caves, we decided to finish up and nipped to the snack tent to feed the boys ice cream. We hoped this would distract them from running around any more, which I thought should have been the point of all that open space. It didn’t. They ran around the tables and chairs instead. A learning moment might be that a few more bits of miraculous grassy areas wouldn’t go amiss, and neither would a play area for the little ones if they want to keep the beds free from wandering feet.

All in all, it was a pleasant hour spent herding small children away from the very things we had come to look at. The kids enjoyed it though and the ice cream was a welcome respite at the end. Would I go again? Maybe, if they add some more facilities and put some signs up that tell you what the rules are instead of blowing whistles at me. As for the big claim made by it’s name – well, for my money, the miracle will be keeping it all alive through the summer.

Show me the way to go home

King's bed at the Louvre Museum

Man I miss my bed. It looks just like this too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Less than 48 hours to go and my seven week long jaunt around the world is over for another year. It has been a wonderful holiday full of great memories, the boy has been AMAZING (I attribute this to great parenting on my part, obviously) and I will no doubt be shedding a few tears on top of the ones already parted with as I say goodbye to my dear, dear friends and family for another half year. We have spent time at the beach, in the city and the countryside and immersed ourselves with trips to farms, aquariums, museums and theatres, saturating ourselves with both social and cultural experiences we just can’t get at home. My heart aches at the thought of leaving behind days playing in back gardens with my friends and their kids, and of nights spent in pubs or gazing out to sea or tucked up on the sofa with family all around.

But deep down, in places I don’t talk about, as much as I have had a great time, I’m rather looking forward to being back in Dubai. I would even go so far as to say there were things about it I have missed. A neat ten in fact. So here they are. See you back in the sandpit…

1. My bed

2. My cats. And (and this is a first) my friends. Plural.

3. My kitchen

4. Swimming. Or more realistically, lolling about in a pool to keep cool.

5. The driving (I appear to have gone native and driving in a civilized manner bores me rigid)

6. A manicure, pedicure, massage, eyebrow threading, hair cut and colour and a facial. Words fail to describe the general degenerative state of me right now. I need help, fast.

7. Shopping

8. My weekly thespian fix (the build up of attention seeking behaviour and the need for adulation and applause is overwhelming)

9. My shoe collection. Six pairs of shoes seemed excessive when I was packing two months ago, but I now have serious high heel withdrawal.

10. Going out for dinner with my husband. Well actually, I just miss my husband. See you in a few days babe. X

Mother and son and the power of love

Thursday: I’m sitting on a plane somewhere high above Europe and missing my son so much it hardly seems possible. When I left this afternoon, when I turned my back and climbed into the taxi, my distress was immeasurable. And even though I am trying hard to relax and enjoy this short weekend of ‘freedom’ after three years of being with him constantly,  I am struggling not to think about him all the time. As we edge further apart I feel the binds that tie us together stretching and pulling, thinner and thinner, but never breaking. And I realise the true eternity of motherhood. That he will always belong to me, that I will never stop wanting him by my side, that I will never tire of his voice, his giggles, his love. That even when he is grown and towers above me, I will always want him near. Leaving him even for just a few days, to travel so far away from him, is breaking my heart. I know now that this weekend I will sit for far too long wondering what he is doing and how he is feeling without me and he will in turn, as children do, barely notice I have gone before I am back again. But my goodness I miss him. My body aches for my little boy cuddles and my heart is leaping about madly with the thought of missing him this much for another three days. I feel perversely happy, that my feelings are so uncontrollable and that he holds such power over me. It reminds me that I am a mother, that he is my son, and that unconditional love, that most incredible of human emotions, is sitting right here with me, even when he is not.

See you on Monday my beautiful boy. X