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 4 – Dubai
It’s time to go back to school and not a moment too soon. Bart and Lisa have exceeded their tolerance of each other’s company and of their mother as their only friend. They are desperate to meet people of their own age. Conveniently the junior and senior schools are almost opposite each other and only fifteen minutes from the house. They follow the British curriculum, like the school in Bahrain, but structurally are similar to an American school.
To his parents’ relief, Bart I-told-you-I’d-be-fine got decent GCSE results and will be studying his chosen A Level subjects. Lisa is entering Year 9, and Maggie is starting junior school. The first day is Induction, and a Meet and Greet – for teachers to meet parents, and for parents to eye up the competition.
‘Do not talk to us if you see us,’ Bart and Lisa simultaneously order Marge, jumping out the car and zipping through the school gates without a backward glance.
Maggie is less sure. Pining for her Bahrain friends, she is not happy in Dubai. There is weeping every day. She does not want to start a new school. She does not want to live here. Why can’t they ‘go home’? Marge aches with sadness for her littlest. So happy in Bahrain, so free, a Swallows and Amazons existence – outside from dawn to dusk, always with best friends – she’s left an idyllic childhood.
The consummate actress, Marge does upbeat. ‘It’ll be great. This is such an adventure. You’ll make lots of new friends.’
Maggie doesn’t want an adventure. She does not want new friends.
Each morning that first week she cries at drop off. Out of sight, Marge, so upset, sheds tears too. Mothers at the school gate instinctively understand her predicament and offer support and kindness. Other children are welcoming. The teacher is lovely. He assures Marge that once she leaves, Maggie quickly settles down, but Marge feels hollow and sad. Expat life brings a switchback of emotions. And once again she must negotiate them alone.
Bart is happy because classmates live on his compound, and school is very sports-orientated. It was too easy to be lazy in Bahrain, but here he can swim, do athletics and go to the gym. Lisa immediately connects with another girl and starts to find her place. Maggie, it transpires, is good at swimming. Who knew? Certainly not her mother. Slightly embarrassed, Marge is astounded to discover that Maggie can do breaststroke and crawl. She takes advantage of the swimming lessons at the compound’s pool to help Maggie flourish.
At school all children must each choose two extra-curricular activities. Maggie opts for cooking and gardening.
My emancipated twenty-first century girl, thinks Marge fondly.
That first weekend, it’s Lisa’s birthday. Too soon to have made friends, this will be a family occasion. Had Marge known that in a future life she would be an expat and that her family would move countries every few years to coincide with the start of school term in September, she might have planned Lisa’s conception earlier or later than a Christmas special for Homer. As it is, Lisa is doomed to spend her eleventh, fourteenth and eighteenth birthdays in the company of only her siblings and parents, without any friends. As luck would have it, a local mall has a climbing wall. Lisa liked rock climbing. Once. What an inspired birthday outing (who needs friends?); the whole family can take part.
Marge gets halfway up and decides that climbing walls and her are a ridiculous combination.
‘Mu-um!’ the children cry, as an ashen-faced Marge passes them on her way down. Even Maggie scales to the top as if she were born to it.
Marge is very happy for her.
With time on her hands she starts to explore. And rediscovers her love of driving. For there are road maps (joy), and a grid system (clever), and she can find her way around. Marge is glad they experienced Bahrain first. It would be difficult to understand the region or the culture from living only in Dubai but she does not regret the move. Life is very easy in this Middle East Lite.
Her impressions come in waves.
First: Gotham City. Futuristic architecture. Anarchic ten-lane highway.
Lovely beaches. Pretty residential areas. Parks and green spaces. Better shops. Great cafés. Places to drive to. Things to do: two theatres, several museums, many art galleries, bus tours, boat tours, skiing. It’s urban and exciting, buzzy and extreme. And women aren’t hassled or ogled.
Determined to be sociable, and with quite a lot of unwanted free time, Marge attends a Meet the Sixth Form Mothers Coffee Morning. Something like speed dating, she imagines, extract five fascinating nuggets about each person and move on (not that she’s actually done speed dating, because she’s quite old and back in the day ‘dating’ consisted of packs of drunken girls eyeing packs of drunken boys in pubs and, if you were lucky, getting a snog in before last orders). It quickly becomes apparent, however, that there’s no one here she’d like to snog, let alone be friends with (apart from the mum she went with who also has a child in Lisa’s class and with whom Marge connected the moment they met (for friendship not snogging). These women are immaculately turned out – more afternoon tea at Claridges than morning snacks in the school hall – and awfully earnest.
As someone with just two friends (she is making progress) Marge could be less picky, but she’s come from a very hard Pilates workout – because that’s what one does when one doesn’t have a job – at the very serious Stretch Studio – and she’s starving. The Little Gem-sized chocolate biscuits and fig rolls (fig roles! loved by no one ever) are not the food of athletes and she’d quite like to go home.
Despite the fact that the only task awaiting her is the last room of unpacked boxes, Marge is eking out the chores to keep herself occupied, aware that if she’s not careful she could find herself on a school committee, then a scrapbooking group, and before she knows it, the slippery slope to golf and bridge.
Fortunately, and she is very excited about this, one of Homer’s colleagues shares an apartment with the Deputy Editor of Grazia, and she has set up a meeting for Marge with her editor. Marge goes all out with her appearance. Lots of makeup. Unfrizzed hair. A vintage dress she found in London. Some funky shoes. Eclectic. But chic as chips. It works. The meeting is a success. She’s offered freelance work.
And, they are going to be launching a monthly publication in Bahrain. As Marge lived there, would she be interested in writing for it too? And could she send them her CV as the position of Lifestyle Editor is coming up. With her usual dose of upbeat pessimism, Marge reckons this all sounds too good to be true. The Editor has admired her outfit, but Marge hasn’t got a cat’s chance in hell of becoming Lifestyle Editor. Nevertheless she’s buzzing for a week.
But, as she expected, after the ‘we can offer you the world’ meeting, nothing happens. Marge will not feel despondent. She’s been in Dubai a month. It’s good to take her time. Not rush into anything. It’ll all sort itself out. Just like it did in Bahrain (it bloody better not take that long). It’s just a process.
She catches up with her old friend the News Reader from Bahrain. NR has been in Dubai six months longer than Marge. She was a (very good) News Reader for ten years and is struggling to find a job.
Ever resourceful, ever upbeat, they make a list of inspired career-change ideas. They’ll be Tour Guides for the Big Red Bus Company! Not only will they get to travel – up and down Sheikh Zayed Road all day – on a London double decker, but they’ll meet loads of people and be allowed to talk a lot.
Failing that, they both speak English, they’ll retrain as TEFL teachers. Or – revolutionary concept – they could not work at all and go to the Berlitz Language School to learn Spanish (Arabic being so last year). But, a quick Google reveals that the fees are prohibitive. So, maybe a photography course? But they’d need digital SLRs and whilst their cameras are digital they’re not SLR.
Back to the drawing board, NR makes plans to retrain as a fitness instructor. Marge will do Pilates twice a week until the editor calls. And she will continue to explore Dubai. But not the shopping malls. Nor Ikea. Not after Homer’s meltdown the weekend before when Marge went off list with her purchases. Again.
A few weeks on and Marge’s first impressions are expanding. The beach within walking distance of the house is not necessarily the one that Marge would want to sunbathe at on her own.
People walk and cycle even in the heat. Workmen are transported from the labour camps to the building sites in air-conditioned buses, not on the back of open trucks, Bahraini-style.
Life in Dubai is ridiculously easy for western expats, unlike Bahrain (where it was merely easy.) The parks are full of trees and flowers, play areas for children, sports pitches, picnic areas and walkways.
Beach Road is lined with cool, independent boutiques while the malls are populated with all the usual western high street suspects. Off licences are situated next to the supermarkets (radical) unlike Bahrain where they were sited in hidden places leading not into temptation. Sheikh Zayed Road, the ten-lane highway dividing the city in two, is a big urban-planning fail.
Taxis are cheap and have meters. But best of all – the Madinat Theatre puts on a pantomime at Christmas.
Marge thought she had been an adequate mother with her first two. She’d ensured that Bart and Lisa were exposed to as many fine British traditions throughout their childhood as she could tolerate. Circuses in big tops; funfairs on commons; men dressed as dames, women as leading men, and ‘it’s behind you!’ every Christmas; Rosie and Jim (Bart) and Teletubbies (Lisa) on a loop when Marge needed a break from parenting. The soft play area in McDonalds. When parenting needed a break from Marge.
So it was with some sadness that she had to face up to how much she’d failed Maggie. Forcing her into expat life at the tender age of four; denying her the important and formative cultural experiences of her siblings’ youth. But now, in Dubai – city of culture, that’s all set to change. The Madinat Theatre’s Christmas Programme will enable her to redeem herself as a mother and an educator. With great excitement (Homer’s tentative ‘we don’t all have to go’ rapidly quashed by one of Marge’s death stares) Marge – for whom forward planning is akin to ironing underwear (ironing anything) and bleaching the children’s toys (after McDonalds Soft Play the children have immunity for life) – has bought five panto tickets, three months in advance. Not only will Maggie’s cultural development be back on track, she will finally understand the meaning of Christmas, and Marge’s guilt will (temporarily) be assuaged.
With so many distractions, and the fact that Dubai, disguised as Las Vegas, is suffering a small identity crisis, Ramadan passes almost unnoticed. A little more modestly dressed in the shopping malls to avoid a scolding by mall security, but a ride on the Big Red Bus or an afternoon trip to the cinema and a secret picnic can be consumed without causing offence.
Contrasts in Dubai are becoming apparent. The old: Deira, the souks,
abra rides across the Creek, the rickety wooden blue trading dhows moored along the quay, piled high with imports and exports that make Marge hanker after life as a stowaway.
And the new: Atlantis on the Palm. An ocean-themed resort sited on a (highly desirable) housing estate in the shape of a palm. With waterpark, aquarium, Dolphin Bay, Sea Lion Point, Diving in Atlantis, pools and spas, a nightclub, twenty three restaurants, 1500 bedrooms, this (Arabian) ocean-themed resort, with all the appeal of Heathrow during holiday season, is for those who wish to pretend they were anywhere else.
The editor finally calls. Would Marge like to write a piece to tie in with Breast Cancer Awareness month in October?
Elation. ‘Yes please.’
She will need to find a subject to interview.
Acceptance. ‘No problem.’
And they cannot pay her.
Pride is just a distant memory. ‘Right.’
But a piece in Grazia is a piece in Grazia. It can only lead to bigger and better things. Without a doubt.
A friend of a friend in Bahrain, just completed treatment for breast cancer, now in remission, would be happy to talk to Marge. Candid and gutsy, she gives a positive, dignified account of her experience. Marge writes it pretty much word for word – pathos would be inappropriate – and submits her story three weeks before deadline.
Two weeks and six days later, the editor, thirty-something, frothy, calls Marge.
‘We need more drama,’ she says. ‘Some dialogue perhaps. Between your friend and her husband, discussing how she felt about the thought of dying.’
‘You want me to ask her that?’ Marge says.
Marge does not.
A couple of days later, the editor comes back to Marge again. ‘Please tell your friend that we’re not going to run with this piece after all,’ she says. ‘It’s not enough of a tear-jerker.’
Marge bashes out an email and BCCs Deputy Editor in. ‘As this is not a piece about celebrity gossip, and our interviewee has just spilled her guts about possibly the most harrowing experience of her life for an issue focusing on Breast Cancer Awareness, I think the responsibility this time lies with you.’
Several days of radio silence later, Marge receives a phone call from the Deputy Editor. ‘Thank you for sending that email,’ she says. ‘We were all appalled by her decision but couldn’t say anything. She didn’t tell us that you had written to her, but she’s changed her mind and is running the piece after all.’
Marge is overwhelmed with relief, for she has just received an email from her interviewee. ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write down my breast cancer story [Grazia – Beating Breast Cancer], it was incredibly cathartic and has helped me move on.’
Hopes that working for a ‘big’ title like Grazia would be a privilege, are quietly shelved. Marge has had her first encounter (of many) with the typical traits of the ambitious, brittle, single, young, female editor of the glossy magazine world.
To be continued…