The author is a travel and feature writer. This is an account of her expat years. Names have been fiddled with to avoid offence but most of what you’ll read here is true. She loves the UK, but hopes to live abroad again before she’s of pensionable age.
In 2006, a family of Simpsons from the East of England moved to the Middle East. For the purposes of this story-in-parts, and to allow a little distance from Mr, Mrs and the three mini Simpsons (boy, girl, girl), they will now be referred to as Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa and Maggie – their Springfield counterparts. When they moved across the world, this Marge and Homer were in their forties, Bart was 13, Lisa was 10 and Maggie was four.
Marge had lived abroad and backpacked around the world in her late teens and early twenties. Then she fell in love with Homer. They planned to live a little, do VSO, have a life less ordinary. But adventures à deux were quickly shelved when Marge fell (happily) pregnant with Bart.
They got a mortgage, bought a little house (“It’s very small,” said Homer, once the furniture and Marge’s clothes were in), had Lisa, rented places for two-week holidays in godforsaken parts of the European countryside that never resembled the pictures on the internet, and bought a bigger house.
Each year, ever optimistic, Marge acquired another book on Living Abroad.
“I’m not travelling round the world in a camper van,” Homer would reply, crushing her hopes.
Now in her thirties, loving being a mum, dying a little inside, Marge did jobs that worked around the children and then returned to college to study Art and Design.
“You would be most suited to curating*,” her tutor said.
But Marge had other plans. She gave birth to Maggie.
“I’ll never get to Euro Disney now,” said Homer.
Not that this was ever a life-long ambition, but it was something to say.
Marge, now the oldest mother at the school gates, wistfully stroked her Living Abroad books whilst Homer ‘I’m not travelling round the world in a camper van’ now travelled to the Kingdom of Bahrain a week each month as a sports sponsorship specialist.
Marge unpacked the boxes in their third new house by herself.
The last crate done, Homer returned home with a supply of fancy shower caps and an Arabic tea set.
“Fancy moving to Bahrain, Marge?” he said.
With a flicker of excitement, and a quick search to see where Bahrain was, Marge replied, “Is the Pope Catholic?”
In August 2006, the Simpsons embarked on an adventure that would be abruptly cut short seven years later, owing to unexpected circumstances.
But rather than jumping ahead, let’s start at the very beginning.
“Fancy moving to Bahrain, Marge?”
“Are you serious?”
“Yup, I’ve been invited by the Ministry of Youth and Sports to bring sporting events to Bahrain. All expenses paid. For at least two years.”
“Is the …?”
An exploratory trip in March leads to the organisational trip in May. From whence this story begins.
One Friday night at the end of May, the Simpsons land in Bahrain where the mercury is hitting 97 degrees and Marge thinks her contact lenses might melt to her eyes. The next morning, they take Bart, Lisa and Maggie to view International School B (2nd choice). Landlocked in the centre of the capital – Manama, the school is poorly resourced, cramped and overcrowded. “Not moving here if this is where they have to go,” thinks Marge to herself.
Redundant, as their offspring take their entrance tests, Homer and Marge explore Adliya, Bahrain’s arty, bohemian district. There, they stumble upon a photographic gallery with a stunning exhibition. “Culture!” Marge thinks. “I can relate to this, even if the school is shit.” Her faith restored, they collect their underwhelmed offspring – “You never said we’d have to take tests…” – and indulge in a seafood feast that pleases everybody except Homer who hates fish. Replete and appeased, they spend the rest of the afternoon lazing around the hotel pool.
Sunday, start of the Middle East working week, Marge and Homer take the children to look at wonderful, gorgeous School A. “This is more like it,” thinks Marge. Sniffy Admissions Officer aside – “We can’t guarantee three places. They’ll have to go on the waiting list” – Bart, Lisa and Maggie warm the Head’s heart and can start in September after all. Nothing to do with the fact that three children from one family means three sets of fees.
Whilst they are sitting in the capacious over-air conditioned school reception, a cool-looking mummy in jeans – jeans in 97 degrees heat – walks in. Shallow Marge’s eyes light up. A trendy person! This will be her first friend.
School sorted, the Simpsons turn to house-hunting.
“You travel in the taxi with the children,” says Homer. “And I’ll go in the lovely air-conditioned car that doesn’t fit seven, with the estate agent and his driver.”
Marge doesn’t like this plan.
“It’ll be fine,” says Homer. “I can talk to the estate agent and get a sense of the best areas, and you can look after the children.”
Marge’s eyes prickle.
Some twenty houses later and Marge is losing the will to live. It’s icy in the taxi and a furnace outside. The children are grotty. The vacant houses are steaming, dirty, and smell stale. Each one more excessive, more enormous than the last. So many bedrooms, all ensuite, numerous living rooms, two kitchens downstairs and up, maids’ quarters, gardens, pools, gyms. If she wanted, Marge could run a B&B and lose her guests as well as the children.
“Enough!” she cries, feeling like she’s sniffed too much perfume and her nose has gone numb. “I’m overwhelmed. All I know is that I don’t want to live on a compound with a shared pool and gym. It would be like living in a holiday village without ever being able to go home.”
Nineteen of the houses are on compounds. One is not. It’s in a little road with just four houses backing on to a goat farm. A friendly American family with two children around the same age as Maggie, bearing much-needed icy water, live opposite. Another American family, also with two children Maggie’s age, are their neighbours. And incredible to behold, the cool jeans-wearing mummy from gorgeous School A, with four children around Maggie’s age Lives. Next. Door.
“Done deal!” thinks Marge. “Fate! Destiny! Meant to be! My mind’s made up.”
The children see the pool in the garden. Homer sees the double-height ceilings. Marge sees the palm trees out front, the date farm out back, the shocking pink bougainvillea at the side, the flash of the green parakeets, the rosy glow from the setting sun and that woman in jeans. She notes the multi-screen cinema on the other side of the goat farm, some nice restaurants close by and a good supermarket that even sells Marmite. She’s not yet sure if there’s a Boots in Bahrain, and that might be a worry, but when they return to their hotel that evening, Marge feels, for the first time that day, calm and ready to tackle the world.
[*Curating: relevant later on…]
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 2