Far be it for me to dispel the myth that expatriate life in Dubai of all places is anything other than a permanent holiday. Everyone knows we expat females are perma-tanned and mani/pedicured within an inch of our lives. Not to mention botoxed and wrinkle-free. Eternally young, when we’re not obsessing about ageing and beauty treatments, you’ll find us glossy and gleaming down on the beach. We lunch, we’re ladies, and we love it.
An expat of seven years, I understand the importance of an open mind; it allows room for personal growth and to see other people’s point of view, leading to love and tolerance. It is only a rebellious few who go to work, use their brains and think therefore aren’t glam.
As readers of my blog will know, before moving to Dubai I lived in Bahrain. There, on occasions, I felt like I’d landed a supporting role in Mike Leigh’s Abigail Party. Invited to a whirl of corporate dos, Bahrain’s expat women, circa 2006, had hairdos, the likes of which I’d not seen on anyone since my mother and her friends glammed up for parties back in the 70s. Manicures, pedicures, botox, fillers and more boob jobs than you could throw a push-up bra at…this was expat life in all its glory. Women were terrifyingly well groomed. Long dresses were having their day in Bahrain’s expat social circles. Cocktail parties were prolific. All that was missing were the car keys in the bowl at the end of the night. I realized early on that I was going to get it wrong on so many levels. Couture from Camden Market wouldn’t cut the mustard. Irony would be misunderstood.
Socialising was a minefield. My first ‘friend’, was, by all accounts (her own), a terrific mum. At our first ‘playdate’, on the Friday, she suggested I find a supernanny for my four year old before drinking her way through the equivalent of a small off licence and stripping off for a bout of skinny dipping amid a group of families with kids in tow. Our brief, but intense relationship came to an end the next day when she rang and screamed down the phone that I needed to remind my 11 year old daughter to keep her mouth shut at school on Sunday if she knew what was good for her.
‘What we do in private, remains private…’
Yes, bye bye.
The next ‘friend’ gave a pretty good impression of being normal. Until she told me with a huge laugh how she poured pepper in her 7 year old’s mouth as a punishment when he was naughty. We also didn’t get past first base.
Thinking it might be easier to make friends if I got involved with school life, I offered to be ‘Class Parent’. How hard could that be? Three weeks into my new life in Bahrain, I was asked to organize dinner out for all the parents. Tragically, everyone came down with the same bug on The Day and I took the executive decision to cancel the event. Within minutes of my email pinging into 25 inboxes, a mother called me up, foaming at the mouth. How could I mess her around like this? She now had to cancel her hair and nail appointments at short notice. My laughter evaporated when not reciprocated.
‘You are joking?’ I asked nervously.
‘Do I sound like I’m joking?’ Was the terse reply. Followed by the disconnection tone.
A neighbour’s fancy dress 40th birthday party ‘ Bollywood Bling’ was a learning curve. Not a great fan of dressing up parties, unless it’s a decade as opposed to a theme, I nevertheless did my research carefully and discovered that the great and good of Bollywood wear sexy western gear for parties. The hostess told me she and her husband were getting their outfits made by a tailor. I took no notice. I had a skirt that was going to look great. Except that on the night when I put it on it made me look like grandma going to a gypsy dance. Back to the drawing board with half an hour to spare. I reverted to the slinky black skirt, a stretchy black top and high wedge sandals. Lots of bangles, a necklace from India (see? I tried) and there I was nodding to Bollywood Bling. Mr S took one look at me and swallowed a wry smile.
Saris and Nehru jackets were la mode du jour. (‘You wouldn’t get me cleaning in a sari like that,’ one of the maids whispered, eyeing her ‘madam’ scornfully.) I was subjected to those very slow up and down looks, which from a man, in a fog, suffering from myopia, might be misconstrued as ‘you’re hotter than a Bollywood actress in a tight black skirt’. Thrown, as one, from the female faction of the party, it was clear that they weren’t thinking along those lines at all. Mr S, in jeans and t-shirt, was let off lightly – they asked if he was the photographer. The present, contributed to by all bar us (my solitary gift was put on a chair in the corner) – a beautiful, sparkling new mountain bike – was ridden into the garden by a guest, but instead of giving it to the birthday boy, he rode it straight into the swimming pool to screams of laughter, not once, but five times.
One evening I took my 11 year old to a hair salon, which purported to be the Middle East’s answer to TONI&GUY. It was heaving with young Bahraini women being coiffed before a night out. Women entered in their twenties and left looking thirty years older. Hairpieces; backcombing; painfully, intricate styles; manicures, pedicures; everything was happening at the same time. I’d entered the hairdressing equivalent of Life on Mars or a time travel version of Stars in Their Eyes – ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be my mother.’
A British stylist in one corner caught my eye. Pulling his hair out with frustration at the demands of the woman whose hair he probably wanted to shave off completely, he looked like I’d been feeling for several months. She wanted layers but to keep her hair long, thick curls but straightened all over. Pushed to the limit, he finally snapped, silencing not only his customer but also the entire salon. ‘You listen to me, and you listen carefully,’ he enunciated tightly. ‘Your hair’s too thin for this style and the reality of how you’ll actually look is NEVER going to resemble your perception of how you think you’ll look.’ Not waiting for a response he walked behind a screen (still in my line of vision) sunk his head in his hands and silently screamed. Recomposing himself, he smoothed his hair back and walked back to his client, wielding his scissors.
I knew how he felt. I really did.