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.
If Marge thought that the start of school would free up her time, she could not have been more wrong. Times and numbers consume her day. Up at 5. Retch over turkey slices. 3 packed lunches. On the road at 6.45. 1 ½ hour school run. Supermarket at 8.30. Me-Time at 9.30 (exercise/coffee) or queue to pay bills in J.K. Rowlingesque establishments like the Ministry of Electricity only to learn Homer must be present. 12 noon – back on the road. 1 ½ hour school run. Home by 2.30. 2 hours of after-school activities. Homer back by 6. Dinner and bed by 9. Up at 5…
The days have never seemed so long. Marge has never felt so empty.
Homer is enjoying work. The children are busy with school. Marge thinks her head might explode.
Homer is bemused. Marge shares with him things she’s never shared before. The school run. The supermarket. Paying bills. The school run. She never used to be this dull.
She used to have a life. Mundane stuff (though never this mundane) was saved for friends. Now, she has no friends. She has no work. All she does is drive. Up and down the island. Or stand in lines in government offices to pay bills. Perhaps this is why she is dull. And sad. AND VERY FRUSTRATED.
“Find a job!” says Homer.
Marge weeps. Are all men this simple?
She takes photos of ripening dates and reflections of advertisements on mirrored buildings, sends emails to (old) friends, negotiates the roads – Ramadan, drivers, low blood sugar – and learns things about the maids, her cleaner and the gateman in her road:
- J, 22, from Sri Lanka, hard worker. Bright, GSOH, smartly dressed. Sister, in her forties, spent last ten years trying for a baby, finally had one three months ago. One brother of 18. J and the brother live with the sister and sister’s husband. No friends of her own, shares sister’s friends. Has lived in Bahrain for four years.
- D, older than J, from Bangalore. Two sons – 17 and 19 living in Bangalore with D’s husband, their father. [Marge wonders what he does]. D off to visit her family in a few days time.
- C, also from India, similar age to D. Lives with her husband. One son back home living with C’s parents.
These women are attractive, articulate, strong-minded. They send their money to their families back home. In some houses they are lucky to get a day off. In others they are treated like family.
- M, the gateman – early thirties. Lives in a hut at the end of the road. He gardens, cleans the grounds, washes the cars. Smiles a lot.
Marge will find out more.
Intrigued by everything, she misses the freedom she’s used to in the west (or is that just London?) Freedom of speech. Freedom of opinion. Freedom of sexuality. How does segregating males and females, from childhood, promote a healthy society? She knows she cannot question, but this is what she wonders.
Lisa asks Marge when she’s going to buy tops like the other mothers. Marge thinks probably never. She’ll cover her shoulders and knees, of course, but does she have to change her style?
Homer tells Marge of a conversation he’s had with some Bahraini women. Wearing an abaya is liberating, they say, because then men don’t bother them.
“Are you implying that men can’t control themselves, if a woman is not covered from head to foot?” he asks. “That’s an insult to all men.”
Marge struggles with a male-dominated society but there’s one aspect she rather enjoys. Homer, Head of the House, has to go in person and pay all bills.
“Ridiculous!” he protests. “You used to be good at things like this. It’s time-consuming and it’s boring and I have better things to be getting on with.”
Hmm, thinks Marge, welcome to my world.
Bahrain is child-orientated and Marge loves this. Day or night, children accompany their parents everywhere. They are adored. Family is everything.
Marge hopes her children will take the best bits and learn from what life in the Middle East has to offer.
She hopes she will too.
She also hopes that sooner rather than later she will have less time to be so introspective.
After a slightly humiliating rejection for a Classroom Assistant post at Maggie’s school, Marge aims lower and volunteers as Class Parent. Not quite sure what she’s signed up for, the warm welcome she receives from the other parents (particularly from the previous Class Parent, who seems ecstatic that someone else has taken over) gives her renewed confidence in her abilities.
Perhaps she didn’t get the Classroom Assistant post because she asked a question.
“Is there provision for special needs at this school?” she asks.
“What sort of special needs are you thinking of?” the Head seems uncomfortable.
A lengthy pause. The Head admits that his state of the art school for 2000 children has no provision for anyone with special needs. Bahrain only acquired its first two speech therapists in the last nine months. The country has no child psychologists at all. He tells Marge (off the record) that he believes his school has a responsibility to inform multinationals that the country has no resources for anyone with special needs, before they try and persuade their employees to come and work in Bahrain.
Marge remembers the recent conversation she had with a lady with four children, one of whom has Downs Syndrome, another severe disabilities. They have to go to Saudi for medical care and she employs private tutors.
In Bahrain, disability carries a stigma.
Keeping her options open, Marge is delighted to be offered a job interview at the Exhibition Centre. Communications Specialist: sounds right up her street. She’ll write all their English language documents – marketing materials, posters, letters and brochures. Three days a week. Fifteen minutes from home. Between the hours of School Drop Off and Pick Up. Plus – and Marge really likes this – the opportunity to work with Bahrainis as well as westerners.
One of the first questions she’s asked is – what childcare does she have in place? Marge replies that fresh from England she’s not accustomed to having staff, and it wouldn’t be fair on her children to move them to a new country and then get someone else to look after them. It’s important, she adds, to have a good work/family balance; to be available to support her husband in his big job. That last bit is not strictly true and she’s probably scuppered the interview (which would be disappointing as she’s desperate to get out the house) but she wants to make it clear that she’s not available all hours. Being Stepford-Wifey might carry more clout.
She gets the job.
The first day, she sits at a large desk. And is left to her own devices. She gazes out the window at the bright sun and blue sky, and turns on her computer, and browses the Internet.
The second day, left to her own devices, she notes the bright sun and blue sky, browses the Internet, and asks what she should be doing. She’s told that there will be work for her. Eventually. But she’ll need to come to breakfast meetings and stay late. The boss’s secretary tells Marge to check a five-line letter she’s just typed, for errors.
The third day, bright sun, blue sky, Internet, own devices, Marge thinks Am I Nuts? I did not move to Bahrain to be the secretary’s secretary and do nothing and talk to no one. She writes her letter of resignation: Thank you. But no thank you. And goes home.
This is the first time she has done something so assertive; it feels good. And it feels stupid. Because now she’s back to square one. And she needs more than sightseeing, school run and socialising to make her happy.
New friends are made; beggars can’t be choosers. Marge and Homer have dug deep, relying solely on each other; now any friend will do. But a social situation goes slightly off kilter.
They are invited to supper by Someone With Opinions.
I’m a great mum. The best. I love children. Love them. Especially my own. You need to discipline Maggie. She needs a super nanny. You need to –
Marge needs to give SWO a smack.
That’s what Marge needs.
SWO’s house is glacial – Keep the AC at 15. We never feel the cold. We –
Marge is turning blue. They go outside, sit by the pool. The drink flows, the music blares, the woman slurs.
Let’s swim with our clothes on, come on everybody. Marge, you’re so boring. Everyone in!
Marge is boring. She couldn’t agree more. She’s also bored.
Maggie and Lisa join Marge.
Lisa! The woman screeches. Maggie! Sit with me! She pulls them down, one either side, in a headlock. I love children! Isn’t this fun! I love little girls! I want a little girl. Who’ll be my little girl? Who’s coming in the water?
SWO finally releases them and jumps into the pool fully dressed. She’s joined by her husband and another couple who are also guests.
Marge catches Homer’s eye.
Time to go.
Lisa mentions her weekend to her school friends. SWO’s child is in Lisa’s class.
That evening Marge receives a phone call.
Hi Marge, how are you? I hope you enjoyed yourself at our house. There’s something I need to say. It’s about Lisa. I’m not happy. You need to have a chat with her. She has a big mouth. She needs to understand that what we do in our private lives REMAINS PRIVATE! She has humiliated my child. You need to make sure this NEVER happens again. NEVER! Are you clear? It’s not how we behave here. I expect an apology.
Marge is upset.
“Don’t worry about her,” she’s told. “SWO falls out with all her friends. Welcome to the club!”
Marge is not joining any club. As far as she’s concerned she picked the lucky card:
GO TO FALL OUT
GO DIRECTLY TO FALL OUT
DO NOT PASS FRIENDS
DO NOT COLLECT…
Expat World is way more complicated than she anticipated. Making real friends is a minefield, and whilst Homer is slightly lacking in ‘girlfriend’ qualities, he’s a lot better than the rest.
A little more savvy, a little more cautious, Marge tries again. She’s met someone nice at the school gates. Normal, down to earth, intelligent, funny. What could go wrong?
They have coffee. Explore the island. Chat loads. This is easy!
One morning they visit the souk. They wander, they discuss kids, the frustrations of parenting, how some days feel like WW3 before breakfast.
“Oh God!” New Friend laughs. “This morning!”
“The Five Year Old – what a tinker! Before we even left the house, I had to pin him down on the bed and pour pepper in his mouth – ”
New Friend has mentioned this before, but Marge assumed it was something to say. Not something to do. New Friend’s mobile rings. She relates the anecdote a couple more times. She hoots with laughter.
Marge is stressed. Her instincts all over the place. What happened to normal people?
They browse in a jewellery shop. Marge, distracted, comments on a bracelet, says she has to go…
They leave the shop and find their cars. And as they say goodbye, New Friend pulls out of her pocket the bracelet. “Ta Daa!” she cries. “Here you go! An early Christmas present.”
They’ve known each other a few weeks. It’s not a special occasion.
This was not paid for.
So unnerved, Marge hides the bracelet at the back of a drawer, unable to bring herself to mention the episode to Homer.
She despairs that she will never make a friend.
“It takes time,” Homer says, helpfully. “How about the woman across the road?”
Just because she has lovely children and is always friendly, it doesn’t mean a thing. This is Bahrain; she’s going to be a flake.
“You won’t know if you don’t make the effort,” Homer says.
Gritting her teeth, Marge invites the three ladies in her street for coffee and croissants (safety in numbers). She sets her Bunny Boiler Radar to Full Alert and waits for the quiver.
But – nothing! The morning goes without a hitch.
Everyone is charming. No one is weird. The woman from opposite is lovely.
Marge feels a swell of hope.
She might just have made her first friend.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 7