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.
The container reaches Bahrain’s shores and, working for the Sheikhs, Homer finds he has special privileges. With none of the usual delays, his cargo is released at once.
Moving-In Day is two weeks early. A well-oiled operation, Marge and Homer are in the way.
“Madam – you sit outside and tick the inventory. Sir you show us where to go.”
Marge settles in the shade, crossing off box numbers as they are called out one after another by men whisking them from container to house. Homer, traffic-controller-efficient, directs from room to room.
The container empty, Marge and Homer brace themselves for the Great Unpack.
“No,” says the foreman, “We help you put everything away.”
And Stanley knives ready, they’re opening boxes, removing paper, unpacking goods, tidying as they go.
Three days and the house is done!
This moving abroad lark – a doddle, thinks Marge
The only niggle is, everything seems to have shrunk. Like Homily Clock in The Borrowers, Marge eyes her dolls house furniture and doormat rugs, her room-size wardrobes and warehouse-size rooms and hears the vast expanses of space crying out to be filled. Homer does not share Marge’s acute sense of hearing. For the first time in his married life their house is clutter-free. He’d like to keep it that way.
Easing into their new reality, Marge and Homer take pleasure in the dawn chorus of goats and chickens. The swollen clumps of yellow ripening dates suspended from the palms behind their house. The rosy wash of colour at sunset each evening.
Homer, in summer holiday mode, dips in and out of the office and, when summoned, socialises with the Sheikhs. Marge (with more time on her hands than is good for her) discovers several things. The Boots Intelligent Colour Foundation she’s shipped in stockpile quantities to this furnace is not intelligent at all. It now slips off her face. Curly hair and a Bahrain climate have transformed her into the 1970s love child of Cher and Brian May. And she has nothing, nothing to wear that does dying-of-heat, nodding-to-fashion and hiding-body-bits combined
These are not world problems, it is true, but her inability to retain a semblance of control over any of them makes her edgy.
As a diversion, she drives up and down the island mastering her navigation skills. She discovers in the process different pockets of life. From palaces to hovels and everything in between, the contrast between the haves and have-nots is significant.
Aware that they’re lonely, Marge persuades the girls that they will enjoy the summer holiday club she’s seen advertised on the supermarket notice board. “You’ll love it, lots of new friends. You just have to make the effort.”
Marge does not practise what she preaches. Married to a man who chats to everyone, she sometimes likes to pretend she doesn’t know him. Especially in the supermarket. For by the time their trolley’s been scanned, Homer could write a memoire about the woman standing behind them in the queue. She has sons the same age as Bart. They go to his school. She rescues stray dogs. Her husband works for –
Homer pauses for breath, nods encouragingly at Marge: I’ve made a friend for you. Be nice! Speak!
The woman recognising a dazed newbie, brings chocolate cake to Marge’s house, invites the Simpsons for dinner, introduces them to people.
Marge notices that many of the mothers at the girls’ holiday club often have a maid in tow. She wonders if this is their way of being kind – by letting their servants join in with normal activities, or have they become so reliant on someone else they are no longer capable of doing things for themselves? Marge puzzles over this regression in cultural evolution.
Over the next few weeks, Marge has the opportunity to visit other people’s houses. Most are like show homes; pristine, shiny, chandeliered and marble-floored. Their maids (and drivers) live tucked out of sight in the outbuildings, their rooms the size of broom cupboards; a single bed, a chair, shower, sink and toilet.
“You don’t understand,” Marge is told. “These are much better conditions than they’d have back home. Much bigger. We’re doing them a favour. They can send money back to their families.”
Marge thinks someone’s missing the point here. She’s not sure who.
One night, a colleague of Homer’s invites the Simpsons to a barbecue. Marge thought her house was large, but this one competes with Versailles. The wife (in her twenties – in her head) totters round the pool in white stilettos, shorts that need a UTI risk warning and a boob tube. The music is loud, the alcohol flowing, the food keeps appearing. The maid, grey with exhaustion, serves and clears, serves and clears. Marge, uncomfortable, not sure of expat etiquette, helps clear the dishes, tries to strike up conversation with her. The husband, a bigwig in the golfing community, shows a video highlighting his work achievements. The teenage children get rapidly pissed.
That evening leaves a bitter taste in Marge’s mouth.
Bahrain is a mass of contradictions; endless desert and leafy green areas; modern business district next to age-old souks; western shopping malls dwarfing dusty stores; housing projects for those on limited incomes, palaces for those who’ve never worked. For wealthy expats – golf clubs, F1 circuit, 5* hotels, man-made beach resorts, but no public beaches or parks or swimming pools for the locals.
A trip on a speedboat – past a skyline of industrial tankers and haulage piers, brings welcome relief to the relentless heat, taking the Simpsons out into a motionless sea. There, dolphins jump and play. Homer and Bart, on the skipper’s suggestion, jump into the sea, but the salt and possibly something chemical stings unpleasantly, and under the brutal sun, with the anchor dropped, the heat is punishing.
Grocery shopping is an enjoyable learning curve. Supermarkets cater to all. There are Waitrose and Tesco labels, Marmite, products from America and Australia, Europe, South Africa and Asia. Marge likes the pale green courgettes – smaller and tastier than their English counterparts, the dates and nuts, the mangos and chillies, the hummus – far better than anything back home, and hamour – somewhere between monkfish and cod. Sadly for Marge an unfortunate experience with some seafood teaches her that fresh food goes off fast and the once-weekly shop is a thing of the past. Eating out is cheap and delicious. Middle Eastern, Indian, Persian, Lebanese, Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, French, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, fast food, street food, something for all.
A trip to the south of the island, and criss-crossing the desert Marge sees things that look like rail tracks. They are not rail tracks (there are no trains in Bahrain) they are oil pipes. Nodding Donkeys – machines resembling small cranes in perpetual motion – up and down, up and down – pump oil from Bahrain’s onshore oil fields. The landscape here is desolate and slightly eerie. But the petrol is cheap!
Homer and Marge fill their car for £7.50; back home it cost £75.
The weeks chug along, the summer holidays feel like they might never end, and the children, now underwhelmed, are frank with Marge and Homer.
“You’ve ruined our lives,” they say. “We have no friends. We are not happy.”
“But we are abroad, it is hot and sunny, we are having an adventure.”
“No. You have ruined our lives. The only way you can make it better is to get us a dog.”
“That’s not an terrible idea,” says Homer, who is now at the office most days.
“It is a terrible idea,” says Marge. “I have just moved to a new country. I have no friends and I don’t like dogs.”
They visit the overcrowded animal rescue centre, home to abandoned monkeys and tortoises, deer, and lion cubs, kittens and –
“Why are there lion cubs?” Homer asks.
The sheikhs, they are told, buy themselves cute baby pets. But when these grow (like children) they are not quite so cute. And then they don’t want them. So they abandon them at the shelter.
The shelter is dirty and run-down, the animals scrawny, Marge feels itchy.
She thinks they should go.
But wait – what’s that? Chained by one leg to a metal post. A dirty little Labrador-ish type of dog.
“The only thing that will make my life worth living is to have that puppy,” says Maggie.
“Don’t tou- ”
Maggie flings her arms around the puppy and Homer takes photos of her as if it’s theirs.
“Come on Marge,” he says. “It’s the least we can do. They’re all so sad…”
Sad? SAD? I’ll give you bloody sad! Marge rages inside.
But Homer’s ability to read minds is hindered by his desire to be Best Dad In The World.
The manager of the animal shelter can’t give the puppy away fast enough. The children are hysterical with joy.
Marge is just hysterical.
Once home, the children transform a removal box into a lovely bed. With a blanket and some toys Selby – for this is what they name him – is the luckiest puppy in the world.
Marge and Homer have never had a puppy before. It does not occur to them that a trip to the vet might be a priority. Maggie cannot stop kissing and cuddling Selby. Bart is smitten. Homer I’ve-always-wanted-a-dog is rapidly scouring the Dog Manual. Lisa thinks she can feel an allergy coming on. And Marge is ready to move out.
“Perhaps we should keep it in the maid’s room?” Marge tries. Her words are drowned out.
“SELBY’S ONE OF THE FAMILY. YOU GO AND LIVE IN THE MAID’S ROOM!” (Marge is tempted). “HE WILL LIVE IN THE HOUSE.”
The house is open plan. Except for the kitchen.
The puppy will live in the kitchen.
Trying not to vomit, Marge, determined to tough it out for the sake of her children’s happiness, keeps the back door open in 47 degrees heat. If it’s a choice between the smell of dog and expiring from the heat, she’ll choose the latter.
That night, the children go to bed happy.
The next morning, up bright and early, they throw open the kitchen door.
“MUM!” they yell. “DAD!”
Homer and Marge race downstairs. What are they going to find?
There is Selby. There are his blanket and his toys. But where is his box?
All that remains are a few scraps of cardboard.
Marge can’t be sure but – is the floor moving?
Bending down, she discovers it is. The floor is crawling. The blanket is crawling. Selby is crawling.
As well as a puppy, the Simpsons are now proud owners of box-eating termites.
“Out,” Marge yells to dog and children.
“MUM!” Lisa shouts from the yard. “Let me in, I’m allergic!”
“MUM!” Bart shouts from the yard, “Selby’s poo is red.”
“MUM!” Maggie shouts from the yard, “My bum is itchy.”
“I’m sorry Homer,” Marge says. “You choose. The dog. Or me.”
Homer is strangely compliant. He returns Selby to the shelter, and, feeling guilty for giving Selby (and the children) false hope, tells some gullible work colleagues about a beautiful puppy that needs a home. Lisa’s allergy magically passes, Maggie is dosed with worm tablets, and Marge bleaches her kitchen within an inch of its life.
Term time arrives.
Not a moment too soon.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 6