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.
Six weeks to plan the move: find a shipper, rent out the house they’ve lived in for all of six months, sell the car, have a party and emigrate.
Back in the UK, Marge obtains quotes from removal companies, advises schools of departures, struggles to keep the house tidy for prospective tenants, reroutes the mail, rents temporary furniture (who knew this existed?) so they can stay in the house until they leave, changes names on utilities, turns down kind offer from prospective tenants that they all live in the Simpsons’ house together until the Simpsons depart, as they have to move out their home sooner and have nowhere to go.
“What am I? Your mummy?” Marge mutters to herself.
New tenants are found.
Marge has never been so focused. A whirlwind of such efficiency, she impresses even herself. Some things weren’t unpacked from the last move – a useful time-saver if ever there was one. The only possessions not loaded onto the lorry are the piano (pianos and humid ships’ holds are not a good mix) and a lifetime of photo albums (irreplaceable if the ship goes down). Everything, EVERYTHING else goes into the container and leaves for the Middle East.
It’s so liberating to have nothing but clothes and toiletries, and camp in your own home, Marge thinks, trying not to hyperventilate at the thought that if the ship does go down, they will have nothing at all, just an insurance claim.
Bahrain has shops, she reminds herself.
It’ll be fine.
Besides, Marge’s greater angst, if she’s honest, is how she’ll keep her hair frizz-free in 80% humidity. Last time she was there, her hair shrunk and widened with every passing day. Not a look she wishes to repeat. She has, unbeknown to Homer, sent a crate of many (many) hair products in the shipment, but if she runs out…
Her mind flits to details of their last trip.
Should Marge go down in the ship with everything they own, she thinks the Poolside Banquet might be the perfect last memory. Not the pomp and glamour of five star dining expat-style (though that was nice), just the food. (Always the food). Live cooking stations, white-hatted chefs, gastronomy from around the world. Marge could sacrifice decent hair for food like that. Those seafood displays, the sushi, sashimi, mezze and tapas, cold appetisers, hot hors d’oeuvres, salads and vegetables, roasts and meat dishes, curries and stir fries, pizza and pasta, cheeseboards, breads, exotic fruits, chocolates, puddings and tarts, cakes and ice cream, fresh juices, mocktails, cocktails and wines, a band, entertainers… Gratuitous waste, obscene greed, Marge knows all this.
But she’d do it again.
On balance though, their Day of Culture pips the post for that week’s Best Outing.
A lover of markets and scavenger of tat, Marge (shoulders covered, hemline below knee) and gently accommodating Homer herd the children across a car park whitewashed with pigeon poo, and the jammed streets of central Manama, through a regal gateway – Bab al-Bahrain (not unlike the flat jig sawed entrance of a child’s toy fort) – into the souk. Here they discover a warren of cooler, narrow streets lined with open-fronted stores brimming with wares. Up and down they go, scouring the souk for souk-ey bargains – jewellery, fabrics, toys, stuff. One road sells electrical goods. Another kitchenware. Dresses best left to children’s beauty pageants flap from awnings, sandals of dubious quality spill from baskets. Floor to ceiling shelves are stocked with jewel-coloured fabrics. Tailors sit hunched over machines. Gaudy gold glitters in windows. And round a corner, lured by the sweet, smoky, musky scent of spices, dates, oils and oud, they stumble upon Find Of The Day – The Spice Market! Dingy, dusty shops, with tables of dried tobacco, sacks of nuts and seeds and, Marge’s favourite – gravity-defying pyramids of fiery-coloured spices layered with mathematical precision.
A quick shawarma (street food – keeping it real) and on to A’ali Pottery, in the heart of Bahrain. A one-road town lined with earthy sand dunes, surrounded by desert.
“Unusual,” thinks Marge, “sand dunes inland”.
Unusual indeed, were these hillocks actually sand dunes, but they are not. These are burial mounds, 50-foot high; the pottery nestled in amongst them.
Bart, Lisa and Maggie see a kitten.
“Don’t touch!” hisses Marge.
The potter, on a seat sunk into a hole in the ground, turns a pot on an ancient wheel that he’s operating by foot.
“You want to try?” he asks the children.
Charmed, they crouch in front of him, and taking their hands, he lets them guide the clay. The colourful pots they bring home as souvenirs are now in the container returning back from where they came.
The journey continues further south, a new wide highway taking them past the Formula One Track (so vast and shiny it jars with the sandy plains as far as the eye can see) towards the Zallaq shoreline.
For a tiny island, there are surprisingly few accessible beaches. The Sheikhs laid claim to most of them. A few belong to luxury hotel complexes, hefty membership fees attached. But this one is lovely. Informal, more like a beach park, natural, and unpretentious. A nominal entrance fee and they’re in. Large parasols made from dried palm leaves offer shade, the sea – gentle and clean. Not equipped with beach gear, they won’t stay today, but Marge makes a mental note to return.
And just before the beach – Al Areen Wildlife Park.
Marge, for some unfathomable reason, anticipated something like a British safari park. Why, she does not know. This is, after all, the desert. Chain-linked fencing encloses a few acres of sand, further cut up into sections for different species, that is dry and hot and unforgiving. Lethargic animals mope in the sparse shade with nothing to graze on. Such is Al Areen.
Emigration Day – E Day arrives. Marge and Homer are ready to go. None of this travelling light malarkey, they have seven suitcases. (Seven). The Largest In The Universe. Excess. Schmexcess. They’re too tired to care.
Only trouble is – Health & Safety Regulations. To avoid injury to baggage handlers, suitcases must not exceed 32kg. The queue at Heathrow is on the long side. And all seven of Marge and Homer’s suitcases exceed the weight allowance.
“Redistribute the contents if you want to get on this plane,” the check-in woman says. She points vaguely at a distant corner of the departures hall where Homer can, if he is lucky, acquire even more suitcases, even more padlocks.
“Move your luggage off the belt please sir.”
Homer mutters something Marge hopes no one else can hear and strides off, without a backward glance.
The queue snakes round the hall, round the seven suitcases, round the Simpsons. Marge affects a relaxed demeanour. The children hover, uncertain what to do.
A tense amount of time passes – enough to make Marge fear that they’ll miss this flight, not enough to make the queue diminish – and Homer returns, stony-faced, trundling two new cases behind him. He glances at Marge. Looks round the departure hall. And registers that they must pack and unpack before a thousand billion interested strangers.
Sensing a possible fall out, Bart and Lisa wheel Maggie in her buggy a safe distance away.
“Sir, Madam, you cannot unpack here – ” The airport staff’s words fall on deaf ears. The cases are already unzipped.
Coat hangers, like arrows, shoot out in every direction.
“Why?” Homer sounds deceptively calm, “Did you bring? All the hangers?”
Marge does not dignify this with a reply. Homer, trying to untangle them, looks like he’s playing giant Tumblin Monkeys.
In almost perfect harmony (as long as they don’t talk), well past the give-a-shit stage, they transfer clothes and toiletries, sanitary products and underwear, toys, books, hangers and more hangers, backwards and forwards, to this case and that. They zip and they padlock, they label and weigh.
“Not a word!” snaps Marge to Homer, as they eventually clear Customs, heads held high.
Finally, on the plane, they find their seats. Seats booked by Homer’s company. Four are together. The fifth – many rows behind. Homer won’t hear of Marge sitting by herself. Decent to a fault, he’ll take one for the team.
The children, finally settled, start searching for their video screens.
But what is this? Only food trays?
Marge would quite like to discuss the one-screen-per-50-heads scenario they find themselves in. And the fact that they are on the oldest plane in the world. And that they are sat apart for their Emigration Flight. But that will have to wait.
Wedged in, she cannot move. She contemplates instead what she would like to do with all those hangers.
Seven hours later, breathing in the torrid night air, Marge feels a mixture of excitement and melancholy.
This is it! This is their new home.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 4