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 and Homer and the children settle in a serviced apartment in up and coming Seef District until their container arrives in a few weeks’ time. Then they will move into their new home.
The apartment is in a modern tower block surrounded by sand. Seef is a residential district in progress. There are a few modern high-rises, the mall, which Marge is familiar with, some small stores and the occasional café. All the buildings are a distance from each other. Roads are in short supply. Pavements non-existent. And, as far as the eye can see – sand.
On the top of the apartment tower block is a rooftop swimming pool. The smoky glass barrier circling the edge is the ideal height for Maggie. She can hoist herself up and lean over. Thirty floors up, the view, it has to be said, is magnificent. Homer, with the reflex of a chameleon’s tongue, grabs Maggie from her perch. The rooftop pool, he explains to all three children, the faintest quiver in his voice, will be out of bounds if anyone ever pulls a stunt like that again.
Although it is the holidays, there are chores to be done. The purchase of school uniforms, buying food and cooking condiments, entertaining the children, and most important of all, persuading Homer’s company that for the wellbeing of their newest employee, his family should have a normal-in-the-life-of-an-expat month’s membership to the Ritz Carlton beach resort.
That last task, Marge delegates to Homer. For she needs milk and coffee, bread and jam. Bravely she ventures out alone, a short trek across the sand to the cold store, tucked beneath another towering apartment block. Like corner shops and grocery stores the world over, this one is crammed full of produce that’s seen better days. But there is tea and coffee, bread and butter, juice and milk, jam and sweets. Marge even has Marmite in the apartment – (it came in her suitcase). She’ll do her main shop at the hypermarket later that day.
Extremely pleased with herself, for braving this new world – all 50m of it – all by herself, Marge returns to the apartment. Table laid, toast made, coffee-maker mastered, children seated, Marge, delighted at how capable she is, takes a sip of her well-earned coffee.
But what is this? No! No! No!
The milk is off!
Exasperated, she marches out the apartment, into the lift, out the building, across the sand and into the cold store.
“The milk is off,” she says, presenting it to the storeowner to sniff.
The storeowner frowns. Examines the bottle.
“Not milk,” he says. “Laban. Like yoghurt. You drink it.”
Just not in coffee.
Tail between her legs, Marge returns to the apartment, Laban in one hand, milk in the other. Ignoring the laughter from the family, she is disappointed that she fell at the first post.
Next on her list is House of Uniforms. (Today will be a long day). Marge stops to examine the window display. This is no ordinary school uniform shop. It is so much more. Should she wish, Marge could kit out her maid, her driver and her cook, the maintenance man, her beautician and her guard.
Tempting as this is, for now she’ll focus on the children.
Maggie is hysterical with joy. Her first school uniform! She loves it. Loves it! She’ll never take it off. Can she wear it home? Sleep in it? Live in the wardrobe with it?
Lisa is appalled. Is. This. A. Joke? The same dress as her four-year old sister? (Seven years her junior). From trousers and shirt back home, to this? She’s never seen such hideousness in her life. Marge does sympathise. The dress, design 1935, material – utilitarian drill – heavy and unyielding, with Peter Pan collar, hangs shapeless like a sack to Lisa’s calves.
Bart, on the floor with laughter, sobers up rapidly on seeing what he has to wear. The shirt as wide as it is long. Trousers tight in all the wrong places.
Not so funny now.
“You take it to a tailor, Madam,” the sales assistant says.
Marge pretends she hasn’t heard.
“I think we should take it to the tailor, Mum,” Bart says anxiously.
But Marge, sobbing inside at how much she thinks she’s spent (she’s struggling with the currency) will not lay out another fils. Go to a tailor? This is not a wedding dress, it’s a school uniform. If it kills her, Marge will keep it real.
Apart from joining the Ritz Carlton for the summer. She is prepared to step down from her moral high ground for that. Because it is blisteringly hot, and there are no free beaches, and it can’t hurt to abuse one’s expat privileges for just one month.
Homer, understanding his priorities, gets his company to pay for a month’s membership.
The beach is lovely and the pools are lovely and the white-clad pool staff proffering trays of frozen grapes are lovely.
Everything is lovely.
But your regular holiday resort this is not. Overweight fathers, pretending that they’re single, scope out skimpily clad women with gravity-defying breasts. As they wallow in the water, splashing in their swimming trunks, their wives recline in deckchairs, shrouded all in black.
They all ignore their children, comfortable that uniformed maids from India/Sri Lanka/the Philippines are parenting their darlings. At their beck and call, they’re in and out the water, fully-dressed, clothes uncomfortable and wet.
Marge (breasts not defying gravity) sits in the toddlers’ pool with Maggie, covertly enjoying the scene playing out in front of her. A blonde British woman, toned within an inch of her life, brittle and too loud (look at me, I’m interacting with my children) sings songs with them. But her eldest daughter, aged three or four, does not want to sing. She wants to splash around her mother, blowing bubbles, drinking pool water.
“I won’t tell you again… I WON’T TELL YOU AGAIN!” Mummy yells. Startled – where has ‘nice’ mummy gone – the little girl begins to cry.
The younger daughter unsettled too, starts to wail. Why can’t she play with someone else’s toys? Why aren’t they hers?
“THAT’S IT!” Mum yells, grabbing both sobbing girls painfully by their arms and dragging them out the pool. Elbowed out the way, her startled, ineffectual, beautiful maid, swamped in an over-sized uniform dress (not dissimilar to Lisa’s school uniform), hastily bundles up bags, clothes and toys and scuttles after her furious Madam.
In the car, on the way home, Lisa is eager to share with Marge what she learnt from two little girls she was playing with. They were there with their two nannies, because their mummy was having a massage. When their mum comes home from work, if she’s tired, she lies on top of the maid. Marge tries to keep her expression neutral. And, when they are naughty, the maids hit them with a belt or a slipper.
The Ritz Carlton has been a revelation. But the highlight of the day is yet to come. To round it off, the Simpsons are making a Family Trip to Géant the Giant Hypermarket.
It did not occur to Marge (the novice expat) to make a master list of everything she’d need, before she gave away her long-established collection of store cupboard basics, back in the UK. It’s been twenty years since she bought everything from scratch. The three A4 pages she has filled are folded very small, so Homer does not see how much there is to buy.
Homer believes that Marge loves supermarkets. “You love supermarkets,” he often says, “You go every week.”
No. Marge hates supermarkets. Online shopping has been her salvation.
Bahrain does not have pavements.
It definitely does not have online shopping.
Marge is adapting to a left hand drive and no Highway Code, but even she would (quietly) admit that directions are not her strong point. That is why Homer must accompany her to Géant the Giant Hypermarket [GtGH]. Which in turn means that the children must come too.
Homer and supermarkets is a horrible combination. Homer, the children and supermarkets is Marge’s idea of hell.
At Bahrain Mall, home to GtGH, Marge realises instantly the error she has made. Not the one that involves food shopping with her family. That, for once, is the least of her problems. No. What Marge has done, is far, far worse. Sundress over bikini, straight from the beach, a mall that is not modern or new, she is being stared at by every shopper there. Women frown and whisper, men, scornful, leer.
Homer cannot be persuaded to come back tomorrow. Today is bad enough. Clenching her teeth, conducting her very own Supermarket Sweep, Marge races up and down the aisles, scribbling items off her list as if her life depends upon it.
“This isn’t real food,” Homer says. “What are we going to eat?”
Marge bites her tongue, ignores the wave of cultural disapproval and hostility in her wake, and allows herself, for one brief moment, (she is after all so blessed to be living abroad), to wonder if this has all been a monumental mistake.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 5