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.
Year 2: August/Sept 2007
Suffering from a severe case of cabin fever, the summer holidays come not a moment too soon. But if Marge thinks they are going to be restful, she can think again. Now they are expats, ‘summer holiday’ takes on a whole new meaning. July to September is timetabled on a spreadsheet with military precision. An exercise in trying to please everyone and spreading oneself too thin. The Alps (holiday), Hometown (friends), The Midlands (family), Berlin (brother’s wedding), Hometown (housesit), Wales (family), South (family).
After six weeks of packing and unpacking and camping in too many beds, Marge makes an unsettling discovery. Every suitcase has had a baby. When did this happen? Marge’s final day in England is spent researching courier services. She tries to ignore the fact that transit costs far exceed the booty’s value. And that all of it has come from Primark.
It’s a relief to get on the plane. Plugged into headphones she talks to no one and watches back-to-back movies the full seven hours.
Back in Bahrain, porters swarm like bees desperate to fetch luggage in return for tips. The airport is heavy with the scent of oud. The heat cossets like a thick blanket.
Home is a haven of space and calm.
Notable gossip is imparted at once. The gateman’s been sacked! During the holidays he brought in a busload of friends to play in the compound pools while the residents were away. And was caught.
Once Marge has dealt with the excitement, she reflects how nice it is, a year on, to no longer be the ‘new girl’. She has friends to touch base with. She appreciates the glorious weather. Seef Mall has grown more shops. The driving is as dire as ever. And Burgerland Roundabout has new sets of traffic lights at each junction and across its middle too. As a result, the traffic is now at a constant standstill, but at least the death toll is down. It’s good to be back.
But, pale, wriggly, bubbly trails over the door and doorframe to the spare room dampen Marge’s swell of positivity. On closer examination, the wood seems to be alive.
Yes, she is told. That’s because it is. With an infestation of termites.
Nests of giant ants have moved in too.
Wildlife aside, the house feels bare. It needs more furniture. Or a lick of paint. An injection of colour. And more stuff.
“Shall we unpack first?” Homer suggests to a stressy Marge. “And what’s happening with your work?”
A flurry of emails to colleagues at the museum establishes, at least, that they remember her name, she still has an office and they are expecting her back.
But Marge is struggling.
No – she is not sorry the holidays are over. And yes – she would rather be in Bahrain than the UK (sense of adventure…no Sunday night feeling…anything is possible…blah, blah, blah), but a raging debate in the local paper – servants deserve more than a pittance for their wages v. servants should just be grateful – sees her back on her soapbox to anyone she can corner: this region needs to open its eyes… it needs to recognise that there’s a whole world out there… it needs to understand that slaves and religious oppression and segregation of the sexes is not all right…
But eyes glaze over. All well and good, she is told, but she has chosen to live here, and she needs to get on with it. Bahrain is not the first place she would have chosen if she could have chosen anywhere… she mutters crossly to the Primark haul.
The children return to school, Homer’s back at work, and Marge unpacks, does washing, restocks the fridge and returns to the museum. There, she discovers she is sharing an office with a young woman who has just started and has not been given anything to do. In fact, no one, including Marge, has anything to do. They sit in windowless offices, drinking coffee and chatting. Departments operate like islands. Everyone is bored.
With so much time on her hands, Marge questions her existence. The years are passing her by. She’ll get old. She’ll have nothing to show for it. She’ll never be anyone…
She knows there are stages to moving to a new country. First year – honeymoon. Second year – crap. Third year – settled. And that difficult periods are like surfing big waves – sometimes you just have to ride them out until you’re completely through. But home-grown philosophies do not help. She’s miserable as sin.
If there were such a thing, her work would be up for the Most Underwhelming Job of the Year Award. After a month of nothing, she is given a single task. To write a press release. When it’s done, Bea demands that Marge emails it across so she can check it over.
A week later, Marge sees her press release in print. Bea’s name attached.
The children are home from school, and Marge is in the kitchen. Bart and Lisa are on the computer under the stairs. Maggie is tearing round the house, playing with her friends
“Mum’s going to kill you,” Marge hears Lisa hiss to Bart.
Something’s. Going. On.
Marge saunters out of the kitchen. Bart is tense. He is banging the keyboard frantically. He turns the monitor to face the window.
Marge is intrigued. “What are you doing, Bart?”
“Nothing, Mum,” he says, voice cracking, finger manic – Esc, Esc, Esc.
Lisa watches gleefully. Maggie and friends, a whole house to play in, decide they now need to be under the stairs too.
“It doesn’t look like nothing, Bart,” Marge says, turning the monitor to its correct position.
“No, Mum! No!” Bart barks, Esc! Esc! Esc!
The screen is frozen.
What are they looking at?
It’s in so close. It’s REALLY big. (Marge’s not seen it from this angle before).
Marge can feel laughter bubbling up. Bart is puce. Lisa’s giggling. Maggie’s oblivious.
“It’s not what it seems, Mum,” Bart blusters. “Year 12s told me I had to look up this website. I didn’t know what porn was.”
Marge presses Ctrl, Alt, Del, unfreezes the offending image. And has to walk away. It takes some moments before she can recompose herself – stern face, grave tone.
“It’s three in the afternoon, Bart,” she says calmly. “The computer is in the centre of the house in a communal area. Maggie and her friends are five years old. Are you completely bloody stupid?”
“It wasn’t my fault, Mum, I didn’t know what porn was – ”
“Well now you do.” Marge says, cutting him off. “And tomorrow, you will go into school and thank the Year 12s for educating you and your family. If they share any more useful websites with you, we will ask your Computer Studies teacher if you can look them up in class. Understood?”
The Simpsons receive invitations to their first Christmas party, a housewarming party and a dinner at their neighbours. It’s better than last year, Marge tells herself. Then she was Billy No Mates rapturising about date palms. Nevertheless, she’s feeling hideously discontented now that work’s dried up at the museum. Why can’t she be more like that mother she met recently: ‘My life is so full what with pottery, art, spinning class, shopping and sitting on the sofa reading.’
Last year Marge was Mrs Positivity now she’s My-Life-Is-Shit.
But a conversation with another mother makes her think. She works full time, her 18 month old and four year old are at a nursery all day, and when they wake in the night, they go and sleep with the maid so that Mum is not disturbed.
Perhaps, Marge reflects, and she needs to dig deep here (because an interesting career sounds ever so nice), she should stop stressing about personal happiness (so overrated) and be grateful that she’s doing the most selfless job of all. Just Being There for Homer and the children. This surely deems her worthy of a sainthood. And hopefully, in time, she’ll be a nicer person too.
An article in The Times about the newly opened Banyan Tree Resort and the ensuing response from Gulf Weekly ‘the community newspaper at the heart of Bahrain’ sees Marge’s skewed faith in humanity temporarily restored.
‘The Bahrain hotel that’s mad, bad and boring’
By John Arlidge
September 8 2007, 1:00am, The Times
‘There are so many stylish luxury hotels vying to pamper and indulge these days that it can be hard to know where to splash your cash. So it’s a relief when one haute hotelier comes up with an idea that is so comically awful it can be crossed off the must-visit list for good.
‘The new Banyan Tree resort at Al Areen in Bahrain is not only the silliest hotel in the Middle East – quite an achievement in a region noted for al-bling! style-over-sub-stance properties – it is the silliest venture the usually top-class Asian hotel outfit has ever embarked on. Whoever gave it the go-ahead should be sentenced to spend the rest of their “career” running a kids’ donkey park. In the East Midlands.
‘There is so much wrong with the Banyan Tree that it is hard to know where to start, but let’s begin with location. You might think of Bahrain as an airport stop-over where you stock up with duty-free before going somewhere more interesting. And you’d be right. Bahrain is so boring even the expats who live there call it “the Isle of Wight of the Middle East”.
‘For holidaymakers, the Gulf island offers watersports and horse riding. And that’s, erm, it. Unlike Dubai or Oman, there is little wildlife, limited diving, no mountains, no cutting-edge architecture, no designer shopping, no reclaimed Palm islands, no ski domes, no Michelin-star restaurants, no nightlife and no razzle-dazzle seven-star hotels where you can watch Russian women with exuberant hair and cantilevered chests prowl the pool.
‘Instead, the high point for most locals is going to the Hawaiian-themed Trader Vic’s bar and collecting the little plastic men that decorate the Menehune Juice cocktail.
‘The position of the resort itself is catastrophic. The Banyan Tree Al Areen, the brochure claims, “nestles in the heart of the Arabian Desert”. “Nestle” may mean different things to different people, but one thing it does not mean to anyone is being in the middle of a giant building site.
‘All around the hotel a small army of sun-dried Asian labourers toils night and day in the 40C (105F) heat to build Oryx Hills, a development of more than 100 villas for expats and foreign investors. The noise, dust, bulldozers, quarry and the shanty town of cabins make a mockery of the promised “tranquility and spiritual serenity”.
‘Things don’t get much better when you make it through the wasteland to the glass-fronted lobby. When watersports is one of the few attractions Bahrain offers, you would think that the Banyan Tree would be on the coast. Through the windows, I could see the mint-choc-chip green waters of the Gulf – ten miles away, past the children’s water park. No briny pre-breakfast dip for me, then.
‘Making the resort villa-only may be a good idea, but arranging the 78 mini-walled compounds in neat rows running down the hillside, with precious little greenery in between, makes the place look like a posh retirement home. In my villa the curious mix of Asia-meets-Arabia dark woods and bright tiles did create the promised “understated, elegant” interior, but, for me, the pared-down aesthetic was ruined by the giant Vertigo bar on stilts that hovers above the main reception like a space ship. Gazing up at the red and blue spotlights and gawdy twinkling-star lasers in the roof, I felt like I had arrived at Cinderella-Rockefeller’s disco in Southend, rather than a boutique desert bolt-hole.
‘Size matters in the money-no-object Middle East and the resort boasts “the largest spa in the Middle East (the size of 38 tennis courts)”. Sadly, big is one thing a spa should never be. With long, echoing, sterile corridors between the changing rooms, the hydrothermal pools, and the treatment rooms, it felt more like a Victorian sanatorium than a “a sanctuary of wellness and rejuvenation”. I half expected to be handed a straitjacket, instead of a bathrobe, and carted off by a team of psychiatric nurses.
‘The treatments are first-rate, as you would expect. My masseuse unThai’d my knots.
‘But because of the heat – it reached 40C when I stayed – all the treatments take place indoors. Eyes closed, lying in a glass box, listening to the plinkety-plink piped music over the whirr of the air-conditioning unit, I could have been in the Elemis Day Spa off Bond Street, rather than in the Arabian desert.
‘Service is a hysterical mix of the over-the-top and the clunky. When I arrived, hot-and-cold-running slaves bearing pyramids of scented, chilled towels and sticky drinks prostrated themselves before me to pledge their dedication to my vacational pleasure. Every morning my personal butler assured me that my every wish, my tiniest whim, was at the Banyan Tree’s command.
‘Except that it wasn’t. One of the joys of having a private villa is private dining, but with no kitchen in or near the one-bed-room villas, all the food is cooked in the main kitchen and carted over in golf buggies. By the time my traditional Arab barbecue reached my villa, my hot food was cold and my cold food was hot. When it’s 32C at night, getting an ice-cream that hasn’t already melted doesn’t seem too much to ask – especially when villas start at £1,400 a night and can easily reach £1,800 when meals, drinks, spa treatments and activities are taken into account.
‘All hotel operators want to be seen to be green and there was the usual brochure in my villa assuring me that Banyan Tree resorts “personify (sic) ecological vision… and a steely faith to heal and preserve the earth”. Set aside – if you can – the issue of how green it is to fly for seven hours to a giant air-conditioned box in the desert, with 80 swimming pools, countless fountains and a hydrothermal spa featuring an ice-igloo, and consider one of the activities the resort offers: Hummer driving in the desert. For £90, you can drive the six-litre, three tonne Hummer H2 in the off-road course built alongside Bahrain’s Formula 1 circuit “handily located only five minutes away”. Driving a US military vehicle that does gallons to the mile, not miles to the gallon, may be fun, but it scarcely affirms a “steely faith to heal the earth”.
‘After so much woe, there’s only one thing to do. Order a stiff drink. But wait. What’s this? I can’t. The Banyan Tree does not have an alcohol licence. The nearest drink is half an hour away at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Bahrain or the back-street BMMI off-licence, where a bottle of Lebanon’s Château Musar costs an eye-watering £50.
‘All of which leaves us where, exactly? Well, if your idea of a holiday is spending thousands of pounds, going to the most boring country on earth, to while away the days behind the fortress-like walls of your private villa in the most unPC hotel in the world, the Banyan Tree Bahrain is your cup of camel’s milk yoghurt. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an enjoyable, genuine boutique desert spa experience, try the five-star tented Al Maha resort in Dubai. It’s less expensive, ten times the quality, and you can enjoy sundown with a sundowner.’
‘Trashed by The Times’
By Stan Szecowka
September 19 – 25, 2007, Gulf Weekly
‘Travel writer John Arlidge visited the classy Banyan Tree Resort in Sakhir and described it as “pretty as a picture” but “so awful that it would drive you to drink (if only you could get one)”.
‘He added: “There is so much wrong with the Banyan Tree that it is hard to know where to start, but let’s begin with location. You might think of Bahrain as an airport stopover where you stock up with duty-free before going somewhere more interesting. And you’d be right. Bahrain is so boring even the expats who live there call it “the Isle of Wight of the Middle East”.
‘The Isle of Wight is an island off the Southern English coast, which is now considered an attractive place for many people to retire.
‘The London-based freelance journalist, who also writes for other national newspapers and magazines, continued with his barrage of Bahrain battering by suggesting that for holidaymakers the Gulf island offers watersports and horse riding and little else.
‘He said: “Unlike Dubai or Oman, there is little wildlife, limited diving, no mountains, no cutting-edge architecture, no designer shopping, no reclaimed Palm islands, no ski domes, no Michelin-star restaurants, no nightlife and no razzle-dazzle seven-star hotels where you can watch Russian women with exuberant hair and cantilevered chests prowl the pool.
‘“Instead, the high point for most locals is going to the Hawaiian-themed Trader Vic’s bar and collecting the little plastic men that decorate the Menehune Juice cocktail.”
‘Nabil Kanoo, Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s tourism committee chairman, said: “I think he didn’t give Bahrain a fair chance. He didn’t discover any of the historical aspects like the forts and old souks. It wasn’t a fair commentary. I think he had a short trip and he left with a bad conclusion.
‘“But if you highlight what he says, that there are not enough activities in Bahrain, it’s true.
‘“We have to work at tourist attractions and I’ve been saying this for the past few years. There is room for improvement. We should take on board what he said and improve.
‘“Bahrain is now home to motor-sports in the Middle East, but as an island it’s a pity that we don’t have more proper diving, more regattas and activities to do with the sea.
‘“In terms of comparing us to our neighbours we are slower. But this isn’t a bad thing, it depends on lifestyle.
‘“The Banyan Tree is a new property and it is unfair to say whether or not it’s going to be a success in its first year. You can’t tell until its fourth or fifth year.”
‘Some readers have been less charitable about the article. The reactions posted on TimesOnline includes one from June, of Manama, who wrote: “I totally disagree with John Arlidge’s comments. However, I do feel he would be better suited to a holiday in Torremolinos or Ibiza – somewhere where he can get drink aplenty and all the nightlife he wants.
‘“However, having lived in Bahrain for the last 14 years, I have never heard any expat refer to it as the “Isle of Wight” of the Middle East.
‘“There is plenty to offer – tax free salaries, better quality living accommodation than most people can afford back home, a thriving financial district with stunning architecture, plenty of nightlife, water sports, warm and friendly people and lower crime rates.
‘“Beach holidays are 10 a penny. As for the Banyan Tree, I suspect they are looking for a more upmarket type of visitor, and will not be unduly affected by this type of criticism.”
‘And Basim Al Saie, of Manama, added: “To many people who have visited Bahrain and lived there, it is a special place with a rich history, culture, and best of all – friendly people and atmosphere.
‘“It is like judging the whole of England based on the impression one gets when landing in Heathrow – dull, grey, congested, rude, confusing and an architectural horror.”
‘GulfWeekly contacted Mr Arlidge asking if on reflection he felt his criticism had been too harsh and would he like the opportunity to apologise.
‘The writer replied: “Your suggestion is an interesting one. However, I do not think I am going to take you up on it.”
‘Management and staff of The Banyan Tree Desert Spa and Resort are obviously disappointed about the critical savaging but sensibly declined to comment.
‘They can point out that the resort’s royal pool villa has recently been included in this year’s prestigious list of 101 “most exquisite hotel suites and villas” by the widely-read travel and lifestyle magazine, Elite Traveller.
‘As a global luxury chain it believes representation in the Middle East is “critical” and that the Al Areen development of which Banyan Tree is a part, “provides an ideal launch platform into the region”.
‘Banyan Tree Al Areen offers five star amenities including six international restaurants, the signature being Saffron which serves contemporary Thai cuisine and floats on a lake.
‘GulfWeekly understands it will be granted a beverage license shortly after Ramadan.’
Feathers are severely ruffled and feelings run so high that finally the British Ambassador to Bahrain is forced to intervene. He issues a public apology in print on behalf of his nation and its outspoken journalists and, after some serious grovelling, concludes that in his opinion the writer was only joking…
Marge does love the power of the press.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 15