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.
Bahrain – Year 3
MAY – JULY 2009
On what should be her penultimate day at work, Marge is proofreading the final version of the June issue before it goes to print. She pauses at the fashion pages. The model looks familiar. But only just. She stares at the images of a girl, heavily made up, pouting and posing in haute couture. Now she recognises her. It’s the photographer’s daughter.
‘We can’t use models under the age of sixteen. For legal reasons.’ The editor had told Marge when she started at the magazine.
Marge is confused. ‘You know that girl’s only fourteen years old,’ she says showing the pages to her editor.
‘If Vogue can do it, so can we,’ The Editor retorts.
‘We’re not Vogue,’ Marge says, hating to state the obvious, reflecting (silently) that as well as being inappropriate, exploitative (and illegal) it smacks of good old nepotism. She recognises that this is not going to end well, but she just can’t help herself. ‘Perhaps if we were to pay our models, we might attract some older ones.’
The Editor does not reply. But that evening she sends Marge a text. ‘Do not bother coming into work tomorrow. Your reference and outstanding pay will be forwarded on. For your information, I am fighting a world recession. I do not have to justify to you how I run my business.’
Well that told Marge.
So, no last day in the office. No acknowledgement of her contribution during the last year and a half. No leaving do. Though what did Marge expect? The atmosphere at the magazine has been toxic for some time (Editor and Publisher now separated). Other colleagues regularly fall foul of the Duelling Duo, but this time Marge crossed a line. It’s her turn to take one for the team.
The following week, on a day when the warring couple are elsewhere, the Deputy Editor calls Marge into the office. Her colleagues present her with gifts, a cake, a card, and, from the Design team, a CD of her portfolio.
It’s Marge’s birthday. A true expat at last, Marge has organised a ladies’ lunch. The venue – new, Italian, licensed (though if the politicians have their way that won’t last) – is perfect. And as the waiter brings their drinks, the power fails, the A/C cuts out, the lights go off.
‘Do not leave,’ the waiter begs. The kitchen is unaffected. Food can still be prepared. They are the only ones there.
Troopers the lot of them (no one will see their sweaty, shiny faces in the dark) Marge and her friends raise their glasses and opt to stay.
The highlight of Marge’s birthday, however, is Bart singing a choral arrangement of the Beatles’ Here, There and Everywhere in a school concert that evening. A GCSE music student, he has been coerced against his will to be part of a choir made up of four boys and twenty girls. No one is quite sure why the Singing Teacher has planned a concert in the middle of GCSEs and A Levels, but she clearly has her reasons, and the Music Teacher (who happens to be her husband) attempts to justify them by way of an introduction to the event.
But she’s having none of it. Barrelling through his presentation, she barks orders, at the top of her voice, to the orchestra on stage, instructing them to rearrange themselves. Awkwardly they stand up, and with manic vigour she proceeds to bang and scrape chairs into different positions.
No longer able to hear himself speak, her husband turns round and asks her to quieten down.
‘Someone has to do it!’ she snaps. And carries on.
Teachers are visibly smirking. The audience, more polite, tries not to laugh.
And then the choir, neat in school uniform, stands up. The orchestra plays the opening bars. The singers open their mouths. And Singing Teacher, who this particular evening, seems to have ignored not only the note on staff-etiquette, but also the living-in-Bahrain dress code – resplendent in über-tight extremely mini mini skirt, black fishnets, black boots, and red strappy top – nudges a space in the middle of the front row of the choir and bellows at the top of her voice, to a melody that is neither Lennon’s nor McCartney’s, a superbly original rendition of Here, There and Everywhere
Applause is thunderous as the performers take their bows. The Head (who, the parents have discovered from a bitter, revelatory email sent to them earlier by Singing Teacher, has recently sacked her and Music Teacher; this concert was their swansong) thanks them, insincerely, and presents them with flowers. The pair remain seated, refusing to acknowledge his words or his offering. The silence is painful.
Marge admires Singing Teacher for her not so subtle two-finger salute at the establishment. If only she’d been so bold with her editor.
As they are leaving the concert hall, Bart, bursting with pride, relates an anecdote about the letters affixed to the back wall spelling out Summer Concert 2009. Earlier that day, Bart and his friend, seeing all the letters laid out on the stage ready to be hung on the wall, decided to rearrange some of them.
‘Excellent, boys,’ said Music Teacher entering the hall, with a scant glance at Summer C**t 2009. ‘Make sure the words are spelled correctly so the workmen can put them up later.’
After he’d gone, when they had picked themselves up off the floor, it occurred to Bart and his friend (not complete idiots after all) that the workmen, for whom English was not a first language, conditioned to doing as they are told, probably would put Summer C**t up on the wall. And then they’d be sacked. And it would be Bart and his friend’s fault. And so, after many photos to capture their burst of creativity, regretfully returned the letters to how they’d been before.
In Dubai, thanks to that world recession the Editor is fighting single-handedly, properties are flooding back onto the market as contracts end and expats have to go home. Homer spends his spare time house hunting, while over in Bahrain Marge is conducting her own private battle with three years’ worth of admin.
‘This is why I go to work,’ she mutters to herself, filled with envy as Homer flies off to London for the week.
Marge is excited about their imminent move, but increasingly weary. She can’t remember the last time she woke up feeling refreshed, and vows to focus her last few weeks in Bahrain getting fit. In a country where walking outside is deemed a health risk, she discovers how redundant her muscles have become, when at a Pilates class she cannot attempt the simple act of sitting on a balance ball whilst lifting the embarrassingly light one-kilo weights, without her body shaking all over. And not because of her mortified giggles. At least in Dubai, the area they hope to live in will be within walking distance of a park, the beach, shops and cafés, and just a fifteen-minute drive from the schools. Finally, Marge will be free of her car.
With Homer away, she invites some friends for dinner. Embracing her new job-loose and fancy-free lifestyle, she spends a lazy day preparing food. She wouldn’t necessarily want this lack of structure to become a regular thing. But for a month it’s a novelty she’ll enjoy. For the work/life/single-married-parenting balancing malarkey has been a challenge. Not one Marge has embraced as magnanimously as many expat wives do. It’s worn her out. She’s looking forward to the family regrouping in Dubai. Of sharing home life with Homer again.
One of Marge and Homer’s final invitations – dinner at the British Embassy – is a timely reminder of all that has been extraordinary about their years in Bahrain. Hosted by the British Ambassador and his wife, they find themselves in exalted company – the French Ambassador, the Italian Ambassador and his wife, the British Consul General and his wife, the American Consul General and his wife, the private financial adviser to the king. A political adviser to who knows what. And, bringing up the rear: Marge and Homer.
Were Marge not tempted to purr in a sexy French accent, to anyone who might listen, ‘Monsieur, with these Rocher you’re really spoiling us,’ she would acknowledge that this was less Ambassador’s Reception and more dinner for parents of her children’s friends. For in the Land of Expats, where normal is but a distant memory, diplomats send their children to the same international schools as everyone else.
Marge is not looking forward to the goodbyes and wishes she could slip away quietly with minimal fuss. But the final weeks are a whirlwind of last minute get-togethers. Final dinners, final gatherings, final coffees… Marge has to disconnect a little to get through them without weeping. She is looking forward to their next adventure, she is ready to leave Bahrain, but she is so sad to leave her friends. And sadder still for Maggie who came to Bahrain aged three and will be leaving the first best friends she has ever known – her neighbours, who became her second family, with whom she has played every day since she arrived.
Marge makes herself focus on Dubai – on finding a home, on securing a job, on starting again. But there is still much to be done in Bahrain – numerous leaving parties for the children, packing up the house, packing suitcases for the next three months, and taking photos of absolutely everything; the house – room by room, their street, their friends, the neighbourhood, the surrounding villages, the increasing building work and new constructions, the classmates, the teachers, the classrooms.
The last morning of school – all the children in their street congregate for final photos in uniforms. All except for Maggie. Upset, she runs away and hides. She doesn’t want to be in the photos. She doesn’t want to say goodbye.
Leaving an expat posting is a draining process, even with the excitement of moving somewhere new. Those final months, one has to focus on the next place, detach emotionally if not physically from the current one, and attempt to withdraw subtly from relationships that have been so intense, so important in making you happy.
The older children are managing, but Maggie is struggling.
The removal company arrives to pack up the minutiae of their life, turning their home back into a house. Traces of the Simpsons in Bahrain, like footprints in the sand, are smoothed quickly away. They might have touched a few people’s lives, but their presence is already fading. It’s hard to believe that this adventure has come to an end.
The children break up, and weary and a little numb, the Simpsons – all bye-byed out (more adieux than au revoirs) – make the journey to the airport one last time. Marge takes final photos along the journey,
and reflects on the many experiences they have enjoyed. The daily blanket of heat, the call to prayer, the sweet, spicy ever-present fragrances, towns surrounded by stretches of desert, packs of roaming wild dogs, cold stores, gas canisters going off in the villages, shocking pink bougainvillea, parakeets eating the sunflower seeds in the garden, archaeological digs, Shakira whose hips don’t lie every bloody car journey, a writing career in its infancy, friends from all over the world, and some of the best food she has ever eaten in her life. They’ve been immersed in a culture they knew little about. It’s been an eye opener and a privilege. A country full of conflicts. An experience they will never forget.
And, now, as is common in the life of an expat, at the point when the unfamiliar has become familiar, they are moving on to start again. In the United Arab Emirates. The UAE. More specifically – Dubai.
Marge has only been there once. Then they stayed in a shopping mall and played in the snow. Marge is looking forward to discovering other facets of the emirate, to squashing her narrow view that it’s an Arabian Babylon. A land of bling.
That’s not to say she’s not excited to be moving there. There’ll be pavements. And beaches. And better clothes shops. And that, for the time being, is enticement enough.
The first week of the summer holidays and they must find a home. Homer’s company has booked them somewhere to stay. Somewhere rather nice as it turns out. A five-star palace of a hotel. Right. On. The. Beach. And as if that weren’t perfection enough, when they check in. They. Are. Upgraded. Everyone’s glumness at leaving Bahrain miraculously dissipates.
They take a lift to the top floor. Here, the porter unlocks a door and leads them along a corridor. He shows them into a huge living room with floor to ceiling curved windows on all sides – 360 views over the pool, the beach, the sea; three bedrooms, all ensuite; a kitchen; a dining room; a cloakroom…
‘Which is our room?’ Homer asks.
‘All of them,’ the man replies. ‘This is the Tenth Floor.’
Homer and Marge daren’t catch each other’s eye. This is not shoddy. Their stay is all-expenses-paid by Homer’s company.
‘Room number, please, Sir, Madam,’ they are asked when they go down for dinner.
‘Tenth Floor,’ they reply, apologising for not knowing the number of their rooms.’
‘Ah! Tenth Floor,’ comes the hushed response. ‘Welcome, welcome, Sir, Madam.’
This, they learn, is no ordinary tenth floor. It is the Royal Suite. And for the rest of their time at the hotel they have an inkling of what it might be like for, say – the Beckhams (so nearly royalty) when they go on holiday.
Unlike the Beckhams though, who with a budget of nearly $7 million have, over the course of a few years, bought properties on the Palm and in the Burj Khalifa, Marge and Homer, with a budget significantly more modest, have just a week to find a home.
Homer has not, so far, had much luck with his search.
That wouldn’t be, Marge thinks to herself, because for reasons known only to Homer, he has chosen an estate agent whose portfolio is made up solely of houses that are on the verge of collapse?
After a tense afternoon, each property slightly more decrepit than the last, back at their penthouse (they could live there) Marge asks a friend from Bahrain, who moved to Dubai a year earlier, for the name of the agent she used to find her house.
The next day, accompanied by this new agent, they visit endless stand-alone houses. All perfectly pleasant. Just not The One.
Finally, judging Marge I’m-not-living-in-a-compound to be at her tipping point, the agent, canny to the last, pulls her wildcard out of the bag. ‘I know it’s a compound,’ she says, ‘but…’
There’s a huge communal pool, rooftop tennis court, squash court, gym, party room, children’s park and, to everyone’s relief, the deal breaker – a lovely house with its own garden. Yes, it’s Mark Warner crossed with United Colours of Benetton, but they can walk to the sea, the cafés, and the shops, and there are more pavements than Marge has seen in the past three years. (Pavements have become as important to Marge as democracy and freedom of speech).
Best of of all, though, if they take it, they don’t have to do anything else for the rest of the week. The pressure off, the Simpsons breathe a collective sigh of relief (Marge may have been showing her stressy side just a little more than usual at the thought of not finding a home before they returned to England for the summer). They raise a glass to their new home, their next adventure, and do not budge from their royal residence or the beach or the pool for the remainder of their stay.
As they board the plane to London, Homer asks Marge if she’s sad that they’ve left Bahrain. Marge considers the glorious mini-vacation they’ve just had. And the nice apartment in South Kensington (courtesy of Homer’s company) that they’ll be staying in for the next month. And their new life to follow in a holiday village with pavements, near the sea, the cafés and the shops. And trying to rein in her grin, she thinks, on balance, that she’s probably not.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 24