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 has been so disorientated by life in a new country that she has not noticed the passing of time. Somehow, out of nowhere, with no preamble, no warning, no cold weather, carol concerts or nativity plays to signpost the way, Christmas is JUST THREE WEEKS AWAY.
It’s been so warm and sunny, and Marge has been so busy ‘living the dream’, working out ways to shave minutes off the school run and sorting out the job-to-keep-her-sane that monitoring the diary and planning for the festive season were left off her to-do list. Sure, there were decorations in the mall. And her parents are coming to stay. But these are merely details and Marge has overlooked them.
The shock causes an adrenalin rush the like of which Marge has not experienced since an unfortunate incident with chemicals (best left forgotten) during her wayward years.
On the upside, her struggle-to-juggle-lethargy is knocked out of the park and Marge feels more alert, more focused than she’s done in months.
In a flash she yearns for snow and cold weather, gratuitous commercialism, Christmas adverts on TV and overcrowded shops.
She goes all Fanny Craddock, spends mornings macerating fruit for Christmas Puddings. Still trying to defeat the Oven-That-Burns-Everything she embarks upon the creation of a Cranberry Christmas cake. The key, she reckons, is baking parchment – layers of the stuff – over, under, round and on top and if the stars are aligned, and the thermostat doesn’t break, the cake might not be charred or raw-in-the-middle.
Marge, the rookie-expat, is not on top of anything. She’s left it too late to order a fresh turkey – it’s frozen Butterball or nada. And, she discovers, also too late, that she could have avoided the baking fiasco by buying everything from Budaiya Highway’s A Piece of Cake.
“Why don’t we have any decorations or a tree, Mum?” Maggie asks two weeks before the big day. The Simpsons have a tendency to leave the tree until the weekend before Christmas (late by all standards), but Marge sees that now she will have to step up. With none of the usual markers to prove it’s nearly Christmas, the least she can do is decorate the house two weeks early. They brought some decorations with them, but they’ll have to get a tree.
Marge and Homer take the children, as they’ve done every year, to pick their tree. A stand-alone warehouse, stuck out in the desert, is crammed, several floors high with Christmas stuff and camping gear. A marriage of wares if ever there was one.
The children visit all the floors but cannot find the trees.
“There,” says Homer. “In those boxes over there.”
The children digest this information silently. But where are the real trees?
“This is the desert,” Marge says. “Firs don’t grow in or near the desert.”
The children are not impressed. Quickly, Marge and Homer, thankful for their double-height ceilings, buy the biggest fake tree they can see. At least five feet taller than every real tree they’ve ever had, Marge needs more decorations, more lights, mini Christmas trees for the children’s bedrooms, Christmas present sacks… the car groans under the Christmas paraphernalia.
Once unfolded, slotted together, fluffed up and laden with decorations and lights, the tree is Not That Bad. Marge and Homer pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done.
“Where shall we leave our letters for Father Christmas, Mum?” The children ask. “There is no fireplace.”
“How will he know where to find us?” Maggie adds, worried.
Marge improvises like mad. There is, on one wall, a mantelpiece (but no fireplace). It will do. The letters are left and as if by magic disappear. Marge prides herself on having Christmas back on track.
Then she reads the lists.
And in silent homage to Churchill, she realises that never in the history of human Christmases was so much wanted by so many; she was so screwed.
“Where are the toyshops, Homer?” she whispers when the children have gone to bed.
“I don’t know, Marge,” Homer whispers back. “Why don’t you ask some of the other mothers?”
Marge is grateful to Homer for such helpful advice and finds out that Toys R Us is the answer to her problems. It is immense. She will find everything there.
It certainly is immense. But – much of what is on the lists does not tally with what is on the shelves. And it is the only toyshop in Bahrain.
“Homer,” Marge whispers the next night, once the children are in bed. “You will have to come Christmas shopping with me. I can’t find any presents.”
Homer looks queasy. Christmas shopping is Marge’s forte.
(Apart from that year, long before Maggie was born, when, relatively inexperienced at parenting, after Marge and Homer had attended the requisite once-a-year Crib Service, posted the last remaining Christmas cards through neighbours’ letterboxes, put sherry, mince pies and carrot out for Santa and his reindeer, and eventually got Bart and Lisa to stay in bed ‘because Santa will not come IF YOU DO NOT GO TO SLEEP NOW!’ Then, and only then, as the Night Before Christmas inched wearily into Christmas Day in the Morning and they laid the presents out in order to start the wrapping, did they discover that one of the children had considerably less presents than the other.
“Why. Didn’t. You. Check. Them. Before. Now?” Homer may have asked
“They’re. Your. Children. Why. Didn’t. You?” Marge may have replied.
Feeling less than cordial towards each other, they wrapped presents, created Santa’s Footprints in flour and glitter, and choked down mince pies, carrots and tepid sherry, only to be woken four hours later by “HE CAME! HE CAME! Can we open our presents? NOW! NOW! NOW!”
Homer remembers how that one ended:
- Bart and Lisa opened their presents.
- Bart continued to open his presents.
- Lisa searched in her pillowcase for the Ones That Did Not Exist.
- Lisa started to cry
- Desperate for more sleep, not feeling the love, Homer and Marge, refused to give each other their presents.)
No, Homer has learnt his lesson. He will step up and accompany Marge Christmas Shopping, for the first time in the history of their marriage. Marge cannot pretend that this is a relaxing experience, but Father Christmas is inventive and exceedingly generous.
Marge now on the homeward run, feels positively perky. It’s the weekend of the School Festive Fayre. Carols resound through the school hall, the sun beats fiercely down outside, and as Marge walks past the mince pie stall, like Proust with his Madeleines, the warm, sweet, spicy smell of Christmas evokes such powerful memories of a temps perdu, that she chokes up and starts to cry. Marge cannot believe it – she’s feeling homesick!
She pulls herself together; a girls’ trip to the hair salon will solve everything. She takes Lisa to Bahrain’s answer to Toni & Guy.
Elie and Jean.
It’s a Thursday evening, start of the weekend, and the salon is heaving with young Bahraini women being coiffed for their nights out. They enter in their twenties and by the time they’ve been backcombed and beehived, styled with hairpieces and intricate pinned do’s, manicured, pedicured, and set rigid with half a can of Elnett, they leave thirty years older. Marge feels like she’s landed in Hairspray: ‘Welcome to the 60s!’ or a time travel version of Stars In Their Eyes: ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be my mother.’
In one corner of the salon, a British stylist is dealing with the demands of a woman whose hair he is cutting. She wants layers. But to keep her hair long. Thick curls. But straightened all over. Pushed to the limit, he finally snaps.
“Listen to me,” he enunciates very clearly, silencing not only his customer but the entire salon “And listen very carefully. Your hair’s too thin for any of these styles. The way you’ll actually look is NEVER going to match your perception of how you think you’ll look.”
Not waiting for a reply, he crosses the salon, walks behind a screen (still in Marge’s line of vision), sinks his head in his hands and silently screams. Recomposing himself, he smooths back his hair and wielding his scissors, returns to his newly submissive client.
Most of Marge’s friends leave Bahrain and decamp to their own countries for the holidays. The Simpsons are the only ones remaining in their street. It is lonely and quiet, but Marge will not be defeated. If they are not going home for Christmas, Christmas will come to them. She lights her pine-scented candles, bakes her own (bullet-like) mince pies, fills the fridge with an eclectic mix of Christmas goodies (no pigs in blankets but a giant American Butterball turkey and a stockpile of French foie gras) and blasts the hell out of Now That’s What I Call Christmas.
Marge’s parents arrive anticipating a lovely warm Christmas and the weather changes. Overnight it plummets to six degrees. The winds strike up. The three electric heaters the Simpsons own don’t stand a chance against double-height ceilings and icy marble floors. The only time anyone is warm is in the car. Despite the fact that it is now the Christmas holidays, the hour and a half school run becomes a favourite outing during the festive period.
And then it starts to rain. In biblical proportions. It sits on the top of the road surfaces, which have no drains, and transforms them into rushing rivers. On Christmas Day, bundled into so many jumpers they resemble a family of Michelin Men, the Simpsons unwrap their presents and crack open the Champagne. As if on cue, the drain holes in the icy marble floors of the house transform into cold springs. Lovely bubbly, foamy cold springs that flood the house as the water outside, teeming down, has nowhere to go.
The winds rage and the rains pour and the house grows steadily colder. The family migrate to the kitchen, the warmest room in the house – with the oven and hob on at full blaze. The food smells good and the situation might almost be redeemable. Had someone not been throwing coffee grounds down the sink during the previous three months. For now, as the family sit down to eat their delicious, un-politically-correct foie gras, and juicy Butterball Turkey, dark brown dregs glug up through the drain and slosh around the family’s feet.
Marge dwells briefly on the choices that had been open to them: lunch at the Ritz Carlton – classy. Or lunch at the Rugby Club. Less classy. They’d discounted both. Impersonal! Far more fun at home!
She knocks back another glass of wine and makes a mental note that next year she’s going expat. They’ll never do Christmas like this again.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 10