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.
The Simpsons, eating dinner, shoot out of their seats.
It sounds like an explosion, and the house has just shaken from its foundations to the roof.
“What the bloody hell was that?”
“Is it an earthquake?”
The phone rings. Homer answers. He returns to the table. “That was next door. They thought we might be worried, and wanted to reassure us that everything’s fine. It’s just the gas canisters going off in the village.”
“Gas canisters going off in the village?” Marge is far from reassured.
“Yes – in Saar, the villagers are protesting. It’s a Sunni Shia thing – we’re safe – it’s not a threat to us. It happens from time to time. They set off gas canisters and burn tyres.”
The next morning, when Marge drives to school, just before she turns left, she glances right towards the village and notices the black marks on the road.
Marge is pleased they live on the outskirts of Saar; one of the reasons they chose their house in the first place was its location in ‘real’ Bahrain. This however feels a little raw, a little too real. She has heeded the warnings not to drive through some of the villages without Homer (western women are not welcome everywhere), but Saar? It always felt safe – or at least it did at the entrance to the village. At the takeaway shawarma café…
When she gets home, J is waiting for her on the doorstep.
On moving to Bahrain, Marge always planned, over time, to hire a cleaner for a few hours each week (why change the habit of a lifetime?) But within a few hours of moving into their house (the New-Expat-Tom-Tom clearly in overdrive) M, the gateman is at Marge’s door offering her maids, drivers, cooks…
J is one of several women Marge interviews. Maybe three hours a week? Marge proposes. Not worth her while, J says. She’ll do three hours a day. This is challenging for Marge – not because of cost (hourly rates are incredibly low) it’s just the thought of having someone in the house every day… Marge does like her own space.
But J is easy to get on with, and Marge enjoys talking to her.
“I lived in a very small village in Sri Lanka,” J tells her one day. “I’d done my GCSEs and was about to start my A Levels. My sister was living here in Bahrain, working as a maid. She sent money back to my parents and to me so that I could do my studies. Then she lost her job. She said I had to come to Bahrain and work as a maid too as she couldn’t afford to pay for my studies anymore. I came here when I was nineteen.”
She tells Marge a scary story about her elder brother, a drunken night out, and regaining consciousness on a railway line with his fingers and toes cut off… Marge does not yet know it, but this and other women’s stories will inspire her first published article a year or so later. [Hidden In Full View]
Marge pays a visit to the National Museum of Bahrain. It tells the history of Bahrain and is beautiful and modern and deserted. Remembering her Art and Design tutor’s suggestion that she might want to consider curating as a career, she asks if they would teach her to curate. She must wait, she is told, until Sheikha Mai – the Minister for Culture – contacts her to discuss this further.
Patience is not one of Marge’s stronger virtues, but she takes comfort in the fact that she is slowly making friends and that she will eventually sort out a job.
International Day at the children’s school provides Marge with a welcome distraction. The email states that the children must all wear their national costume to school for the day.
Football kits, thinks Marge. That’s Britain’s national costume. That’ll do.
“Everyone’s getting their costumes made by tailors, Mum, we can’t wear football kits,” says Bart.
“I’m not going to a tailor,” says Marge. “And England doesn’t have a national costume. Unless you want to go as Morris Dancers.”
“We’ll be Jamaican,” says Lisa.
Marge is forced to reckon with herself; she’s never considered her children anything other than British before. Does Jamaica have a national costume?
“We could go to the tai-“
“We’re not going to the tailor,” Marge says. In a mad burst of creativity, she makes yellow, green and black rosettes and attaches them to scrunchies. She finds wristbands in the souk, (they’re yellow, green and red, but Marge was never very good at geography and besides, what’s one colour?) Bart and Maggie wear ‘Jamaica’ emblazoned T-shirts. Lisa, with a nod of loyalty towards her mother, wears a dress with the Union Jack on the front and a bandanna in Jamaican colours.
With no expectations about International Day, Homer and Marge are surprised by how lovely it is. Hundreds of small children in more than sixty different national costumes make their way in a procession around the playground at Maggie’s school. Marge is moved by the impressive diversity of nationalities and culture that is now a regular part of her children’s lives.
Still jobless and fancy free, Marge turns her attention to her duty as a Corporate Wife. Over the next few months Homer will be responsible for organising numerous sporting events in Bahrain. And there will be a dinner for each one, which Marge will be asked to attend. The PGA Seniors Golf Tour in November, Beach Volleyball in December, The Torch Relay, the Grand Prix, a football tournament with Inter Milan, a series of football matches in the villages and that’s just for starters.
Marge once had a job that involved Corporate Entertaining. She remembers one lunch in particular where she hid in the toilet between the end of the main course and paying the bill because it was so boring. But that was then. And she has matured. And she has no job. And she likes a challenge; her current game being to kick the small talk past “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”
The problem is what to wear? According to Homer’s savvy female colleague, the dress code is After Five Wear. This does not, Marge is pretty sure, mean tracksuit bottoms and a baggy T. She scours the mall but quickly realises that whilst it may look modern and there are shops called New Look and Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins and Zara (but no H&M, TK Maxx or Topshop) the clothes they sell bear no resemblance to anything in fashion in England this side of 1990. Marge has in mind an outfit that says: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday. But Seef Mall has other ideas. Leggings, tartan mini-skirts and crinkly jeans are Bahrain’s mode du jour. And whilst Marge quite likes this look (for age, in her head, is but a number), she knows it will not do for Corporate Dining.
Marge privately sheds a few tears and things aren’t helped by the new foundation she has just bought that while it mattifies to perfection, makes her look like she’s smeared her face with mud.
The first dinner is a Press Event in anticipation of the PGA Seniors Golf Tour. Guests fall into three camps. The Senior Golfers And Their Wives. The Sheikhs. Homer’s Fun Young Colleagues. Homer, busy chewing the cud with an associate up at the bar suggests Marge goes and sits with twelve senior golfers. This is so unfunny that Marge ignores him, orders another drink, and piles her plate with canapés. The evening is only saved when one of Homer’s colleagues suddenly appears by Marge’s side, whispers, ‘Come with me!” and gathering up Marge’s plate, her bag and her drink whisks her off to the Fun Young Table.
The next dinner Marge attends is in a different league entirely. Invited by the British Ambassador and his wife to a private dinner for 12 at the Embassy, the guest of honour is HRH Princess Anne, accompanied by her Lady In Waiting – Victoria Legge Bourke (aunt of Tiggy who was nanny to Prince William and Prince Harry when they were young. Marge has done her homework.) Homer has been invited because of his contribution to sport in Bahrain, Marge, because of her contribution to Homer. It does help that Marge knows the ambassador’s wife from the school gates (this is Bahrain). But that is where normality ends. Invited with Homer and Marge and HRH and her LIW are the next Bahraini Ambassador to Britain, the previous British Ambassador and his wife, another sheikh and his wife and the Ambassador’s Aide. HRH is in Bahrain because the Olympic Torch is in Bahrain for three days and she has come to spend time with it.
HRH’s orders, the Ambassador’s wife tells Marge quietly, were no spices, no garlic, no sauces, no foreign. It is gratifying to learn (also from the Ambassador’s wife before the arrival of the VIPs) that with several young children in tow, even an ambassador’s life has moments of sheer chaos. Having only taken up post ten days earlier, they still have boxes to unpack. They’d stored these in their one spare room. HRH however requested a room to get ready in, so they had to move all the boxes to the children’s bedrooms. They then, surreptitiously, had to return them to the spare room when she was done, before the guests arrived, so that their children could go to bed.
Whilst the evening is relatively informal (where on a scale of 1-10, formal is 10, informal – 8½) Marge, sandwiched between the sheikh who was the previous Bahraini Ambassador to Britain and the British Ambassador’s Aide, and facing HRH, decides the most intelligent thing she can do is smile and remain silent.
With her social life bordering on the absurd, the final dinner of the month (the evening after the Embassy dinner) – a formal banquet in HRH’s honour, to celebrate the Torch Relay and the start of the Australian V8 Championships – tests Marge’s veneer of nonchalance to the limit. Upon arrival at the venue, Homer is summoned to the VIP antechamber. HRH, it appears, does not want to have to entertain the sheikhs, can Homer talk to them instead? He finally returns to the banqueting hall to Marge’s side, ahead of HRH and her entourage. As she enters, Homer, catching her eye, gives her a cheery wave and calls out ‘Hi!”
People turn to stare.
“What are you doing?” Marge hisses.
“She smiled at me.”
“She’s Princess Anne, Homer. Not your mate.”
Marge has to moves away from Homer as laughter threatens to choke her. Biting her tongue, she watches and tries to learn from the wife of one of Homer’s colleagues who speaks fluent Small Talk. Marge loves learning languages, but this one is just so hard.
The weather starts to cool down and the Simpsons can spend more time outside. Picnics on the beach. Treks into the desert. Marge loves this eerie, pale gold lunar landscape, vast and rocky, hilly with dunes. It’s quiet and calm, empty and exposed; the perfect antidote to the strangeness of the last few weeks.
Marge’s friend from The House Opposite sends her children round with bags filled with nuts and goldfish crackers and pretzels all roasted with some delicious spice mix that she’s made. She reminds Marge that it’s Halloween.
Marge is ridiculously grateful for this much-needed dose of reality.
Continued here: View From A Broad Part 8