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.
School and house sorted, Lisa makes it known that what she needs are sandals. 97 degrees outside, permanent summer; can’t be hard to find, thinks Marge.
“So, what time do you think you’ll be back?” asks Homer, flicking through the TV channels.
The temperature plummets in the hotel room; nothing to do with the over-efficient air conditioning.
“What?” Homer says, glancing up.
“I’m not going on my own,” says Marge. “We’re doing this as a family.”
Homer’s smile slips. He switches off the TV.
“I hate shopping,” he reminds Marge, as they leave the hotel complex.
The mall – Seef Mall – is modern, vast. And were the floors not marble, the smell of oud not omnipresent and the call to prayer not echoing, Marge could almost imagine herself in any mall in Britain. There’s Debenhams, BHS, Next, Clarks, Claire’s Accessories, Topshop, Mango and Miss Sixty. She’d quite like to go into Miss Sixty, but Maggie is veering towards Claire’s, Homer and Bart towards a café and Lisa towards – well not Clarks.
It’s reassuring to see familiar shops, but what Marge would prefer is H&M and TK Maxx, her favourite stores in all the world. (Once, when Marge was researching Other Places In Which To Live, she’d done a search of all the towns that had both H&M and TK Maxx. She’d found Exeter).
A shoe store on steroids – Shoe World – draws them in. Lisa, focused now, tries sandal after sandal. Maggie (and Bart – who, 10 years her senior, should know better) play hide and seek around the aisles. Homer, slightly tense, finds a seat, and Marge rearranges her face into the approximate expression of one enjoying a day out with her family.
Lisa finds the perfect pair of sandals and Homer, with indecent haste, launches himself at the exit, failing to hear the screams. The terrible, traumatised screams.
“Homer!” Marge says, trying to pay, trying to keep Bart within her sights, trying to keep her voice serene, “That is our child. That is Maggie.”
Maggie has lost the electric puppy, the brand new electric puppy that Homer bought her fifteen minutes earlier. Marge scans the lanes of six-foot high shelves across the several million square feet that is Shoe World and in clipped tones to husband and son, says – “Find. That. Toy.”
Luck is on their side and, pup found, the Simpsons need to eat. The range of food outlets is broad as it is exotic. Starbucks, Pizza Hut, McDonalds… Settling on Costa, Marge, ever adventurous, picks the eggplant, mozzarella, tomato and basil panini. Homer plays it safe with beef bacon.
“Can we leave this mall now?” Homer asks, “I’d like to explore the island.”
He has rented a car and the Simpsons set off with a large map, criss-crossed with remarkably few roads and a lot of blank space.
Marge has read up a bit about Bahrain; she likes to be ahead of the curve. Her latest purchase The 1st Edition Complete Residents’ Guide Bahrain is hot off the press.
Bahrain, she learns, is an archipelago of 33 islands, sitting off the east coast of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran lies about 125 miles to the north-east. Bahrain is roughly the same size as Singapore. But is nothing like Singapore in any other way. Nor is it Borneo, which is where some of her friends think she is moving to. And it is not a war zone, which is what concerns some of her relatives.
The main island, where she will be living, extends 11 miles east to west, and 30 miles north to south. (Marge has never before experienced cabin fever. But she will.) Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 15 mile long King Fahd Causeway. Marge will learn quite quickly that the Causeway is a useful landmark: if it’s signposted ahead, she’s going the wrong way.
Marge is under the impression that she’s grasped the layout of the island. They are staying in the Diplomat Hotel in the Diplomatic area in Manama, the capital – top right of the island. This is the business centre but also the souk area. The mall they visited is in Seef District, to the left of Manama, along the north coast. Their house is in Saar, a small village further left still – a little more inland, and this is next to Budaiya – where the children’s school is located. Adliya – the arty area – is below the Diplomatic area…
An island this small – she’ll find her way around it in no time. Marge has lots to learn, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Homer asks Marge if she would like to drive. She declines. She will of course man up when they move here for good. But for now, she does not want to spoil her afternoon trying to prove that she can master both a left hand drive and what seems to be non-existent road etiquette.
Besides, she’s searching for oases. According to her guidebook, Bahrain was once lush and green. But from what she can see, the landscape is now quite samey: flat and sandy. Even in the built up areas there are no pavements. Merely sand. Bahrain is clearly a work in progress.
Homer has been given some pointers by his colleagues on the best places to visit: The Rugby Club, the Dilmun Club, the Golf Club and the British Club. Marge would like to visit the pottery, the wildlife park and the souk. They have been invited that evening to a Start the Poolside Season Banquet at the Gulf Hotel with Homer’s work colleagues. This leaves them approximately three hours to do their sightseeing.
Homer is keen to do clubs today, culture tomorrow. Marge is skilled at compromise.
The British Club is quite possibly one of the nastiest places Marge has ever been to. In. Her. Life. Her sandals stick like Velcro to the dated patterned carpets; the Club Room – a bastion of chauvinism, serves whisky and cigars. The menu in the restaurant is British School Dinners circa 1980. And the smell! Marge is reminded of a pub she went to in Dublin with someone she’d rather forget.
A person on a recliner (Marge thinks it’s a woman, but the cough is so harsh and the voice so deep that she keeps her options open) soaks up the 97-degree rays. She frowns as the Simpsons cast her briefly in shadow. Marge thinks she might have been by the pool since 1935 when the club first opened.
“There is a waiting list,” says the Club Captain at the end of the tour. Marge and Homer try to hide their surprise and politely decline the proffered application form.
“I hate clubs,” says Marge as they retreat to the car.
“Golf Club, Dilmun or Rugby Club next,” says Homer.
“Golf Club, I think.” Homer does not play golf, but he’ll be bringing the PGA Seniors Tour to Bahrain and he knows people there.
In an airport lounge sort-of-way, it’s an improvement. Smoother people. Better food. Boards announcing social nights and tournaments, villas to rent and maids for hire. Homer shoots the breeze. Marge’s face aches.
The Dilmun Club next. Why, Marge wonders idly, move abroad, if all you want to do is mix with people from back home? Pool – tick; restaurant – tick; bar – tick; games rooms – tick. But wait, what’s this? Something different! Stables! Horses! Ruddy-faced women in tight jodhpurs.
Perhaps, Marge concedes, after a friendly welcome, as long as they don’t have to join the club, the children could learn to ride.
And finally, The Rugby Club. Social hub of expat Bahrain. Marge picks up the Irish-pub-in-Marbella vibe and a whiff of testosterone. Bart’s eyes light up – boys his own age. Maggie and Lisa make their way to the playground. Homer eyes the pitches. And the televised sport.
But no time to linger. They have to prepare for the Poolside Feast. Homer accepts that Marge will never love clubs, but is glad, that should she be pushed, she’s prepared to pick testosterone over horses or golf any day.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 3