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
AUG – SEPT 2009
The month in London is a full-on, don’t-waste-a-second schedule of catching up with friends and family. And musicals in the West End. And mooching in Portobello and Camden markets. And Madame Tussauds.
And must-do tourist sites.
And lots of walking – to the Serpentine – its Lido and the pedal boats, its gallery (Jeff Koons sculptures, or, to Marge’s untrained eye, lots of blow-up swimming pool toys suspended from hooks – there’s conceptual art, and there’s an artist laughing all the way to the bank);
Kensington Gardens (the Playground for Maggie, the flower gardens for Marge); North, South and West Kensington, and Knightsbridge, and Hyde Park, and Chelsea… And more shopping than anyone has ever needed to do in their lives. Because This Is London And IT’S FANTASTIC. Lisa does a Fashion and Design course with a friend at the V&A. Bart spends a week in Italy at the home of one of his Bahrain friends. Only Maggie is at a loose end. She has no friends in the UK and is missing those from Bahrain.
Meanwhile, Homer escapes to the office for the occasional day of work, and Marge escapes into her dreams, of a time when they might win the lottery and buy a flat in SW7. Or SW3. She’s not fussy.
Their holiday comes to an end and it’s time to pack. Marge is aware that a fair amount of shopping may have been done. But looking at the bags of clothes that each child now brings into the living room from their bedrooms, they seem to have bought the whole of Primark. Marge feels a bit sick. They have twice the volume of luggage than when they arrived. They’re going to need more suitcases. There’ll be an excess to fork out. And worst, the excess will most likely exceed the cost of the clothes.
But, she won’t spoil the last few days dwelling on that, or giving Homer the satisfaction of telling her so. She quickly returns the children’s spoils to their rooms. Quietly buys a few extra suitcases. And nobly does all the packing.
D(eparture) Day arrives. The taxi is ordered. The cases sit, quite a lot of them, in the hall. Marge and Homer, experienced travellers (important document folder – check; passports – check; suitcases labelled – check), glance briefly at their tickets. And glance again. Wait a minute. Can that be right? Their plane is leaving Monday? Not Sunday? They have an extra day!
They cancel the taxi, inform the letting agency, go out for dinner, unpack, repack and twenty-four hours later begin again.
Finally on the plane, Homer, a master of restraint – he’s made no barely any mention of the eye-watering excess that had to be paid – plugs himself into a movie fest, while Marge sits back, closes her eyes, and allows herself to dwell for the first time on the start of their next adventure. She is, if she’s honest, a little nervous. The enormity of another move – unpacking, settling in, finding their feet, making new friends, finding a job. Bart’s GCSE results… She’s sure it will all be very exciting and interesting once they’re immersed, but just thinking about it now, especially after such a responsibility-free month, makes her feel weary.
Cleverly, they’ve timed it so that they land in Dubai the day before their container arrives, and Marge’s initial concerns are unfounded. The unpacking and settling in are remarkably stress-free.
Moving onto a compound, particularly with teenagers, seems to have been an inspired decision. There is a semblance of community, of not feeling isolated, and still being on summer holidays. The children can hang out at the pool in the company of lots of other families, and pretend that they are not Billy-no-mates.
The compound comprises eighty residences (three, four and five-bedroomed) housing families from all over the world. During their first couple of weeks, before school starts up again, they meet two Turkish families, three French, one Irish, one Scottish. Their neighbours on one side are a German/Iranian family. On the other, new tenants are arriving any day.
Marge is disproportionately excited. She won’t be the newbie on the block! Of course not wishing to appear too desperate, she’ll give them a few minutes to get out of their car. Then will saunter nonchalantly into the street, proffering incidental bottles of iced water (as her saviour neighbours in Bahrain did for her three years before).
With Maggie a little bored (or maybe that’s Marge) they make the most of the compound pool.
An area that seems to typify the melting pot that is Dubai, as well as offer a fascinating study of an anthropological nature. Mothers group together in their national cliques. The French corner sees gorgeous, bronzed mamans with bodies to die for, sprawled unselfconsciously, in teeny-weeny bikinis. They far outshine the other women in their loveliness and self-confidence and have no compunction about yelling at their children when the occasion arises. Close behind, the Spanish and Turkish mamas – a little less flaunty, but equally skinny and tanned, vivacious and noisy, laughing and smoking, and occasionally addressing their out-all-summer nut-brown children (clad merely in trunks or bikini bottoms) as they leap fearlessly into the water. The British mothers are wearing sarongs. And big cover-all swimsuits. And factor 50 suncream. They are trying to read, but their little ones, shrouded in UV protection swimwear, faces white with trowelled on sunscreen, caps and sunhats forced on at every opportunity, and armbands so they don’t drown, require diligent monitoring. Somewhere in the middle of this cultural spectrum sit the Dutch and Australian mums, practical, impartial, self-contained, clad in sporty bikinis and sports caps to protect their faces, their children, well-mannered, calm and capable swimmers.
Three years in a hot climate and a year of physical labour on the digs have bestowed upon Marge confidence in her body, and the modest belief that she will not let the side down in a bikini. She may not be sufficiently à l’aise à la française to limb-sprawl, but she’s not quite ready to succumb to the one-piece/sarong combo in solidarity with her fellow country-women. And maybe it’s an attitude like that, which only serves to highlight the fact that compound life is not immediately as warm and welcoming as Marge would hope.
But regardless of their nationality, all the children speak English as well as their own language. Unlike their mothers, they cross the cultural divides and play with each other in the pool. Bart makes friends with boys who will be in his class at school and Maggie is befriended by a slightly older girl; Leader of the Kids’ Pool Gang. Her mother – Turkish, speaks fluent English with an American accent – is extremely beautiful and very accomplished in a way that makes Marge (not unconfident in her bikini) feel a little inadequate. Trilingual, she has a day job with Exxon Mobil – doing something extremely intelligent, and a night job where she writes a daily column for a Turkish broadsheet. Marge knows all this from the instant they meet, because the woman tells her so. In fact she finds herself so interesting that she has no need for Marge to speak at all. But the daughter’s nice and Maggie likes her, and they live on the compound. So that’s a plus.
When Marge can drag herself away from the pool (the French contingent have HUGE cars, their children have VERY expensive-looking toys, one of the mothers shouts EVEN MORE than Marge and not in the privacy of her own home – sad little observations Marge makes from the view point of someone with no friends, nor likely to ever have any if she carries on like that) she is sorting out the house.
They are now online, the air conditioning has been fixed (some control boxes in the unusual position of up-near-the-ceiling – because, according to the engineer, not all residents can be trusted to control their own thermostats and might start a fire – have, after a little discussion with Marge I’m paying the bills, I’ll choose my temperature, been moved to the tenants-can-be-trusted height of a light switch), they have purchased a fridge, a washing machine and a cooker (because in Dubai white goods are not included in house rentals), they’ve found the suppliers of bottles for the water coolers and gas bottles for the cooker. The cooker arrives with only one shelf. Marge rings the store. Is told that if she wants more she must buy them separately. The fridge, on the other hand, has many shelves. And a key. A key for the lock on the front of the door. A lock so that Sir and Madam can prevent the maids from stealing their food.
The children start school in a few days’ time. Marge isn’t counting. It’s all systems go. A trip to the uniform shop, two uniform shops – one for the juniors, one for the seniors – in a small mall housing all manner of useful shops (the dressing up/party decorations/art supplies/stationery store she commits to memory for future reference) is sheer chaos. Frazzled parents, demanding children, obsequious sales staff, and uniforms that underwhelm Bart and Lisa, and intrigue Maggie (a straw boater, a tartan pinafore dress), render the loss of several thousand dirhams more painful still. Marge, weeping a little inside, tries to be upbeat as she irons nametapes onto fifteen shirts, six pairs of trousers, three PE kits, three school bags and two school tunics (she draws the line at knickers and socks). It’s been a long summer. The children need some friends. School will be fun!
This move has been less easy than the one to Bahrain, because when they moved to Bahrain they went from a normal size place to something resembling a trophy mansion in St John’s Wood. There, the cupboards could house a house. And even the storage space had its own storage space. Moving from Bahrain to Dubai (bit of a downsize: château to holiday villa), with more, SO. MUCH. MORE stuff, and proportionately fewer cupboards, they have a mess. But all is not lost. As luck would have it, Ikea is in Dubai. Marge is extremely excited by this. Homer is definitely not. Homer is still traumatised by the memory of the first time he and Marge went to Ikea – seventeen years earlier, before Bart was born.
‘Just a chest of drawers,’ Marge had assured him, soothingly. ‘And a baby changing mat.’ Three hours later, in the world’s longest queue, they had not one, but two – two – trolleys overflowing with things Not On The List.
Most of the rooms are now unpacked, pictures are up and Marge has commandeered the spare room for her office. An improvement on Bahrain where, in the biggest house in the world, she was relegated to the space under the stairs. This house does not have outside maid’s quarters. Instead there is a tiny room, with shower over the loo, and no kitchen, in the house, near the door into the garage. Marge and Homer are not planning on having a live-in maid, so this will become their dumping ground, but most families on the compound seem to have live-in help. And some – including Marge’s neighbours – have two. In uniform.
In the evenings, after their jobs are done, maids might stroll in pairs around the grounds, but it is at the compound’s play area when the scale of the home help situation becomes more clear. For here, every child is accompanied by a maid. Maggie is the only one with her mother. A little self-conscious, Marge wonders if she’ll be mistaken for an old maid.
After driving in Bahrain, the roads in Dubai are uneventful. But not without their quirks. Should you wish to go back the way you came, or indeed turn left across the oncoming traffic, you can’t. For all main roads have barriers along the central reservation. The only way to perform this manoeuvre is to do a U-turn at the first available traffic lights around the central barrier and double-back on yourself. As for roundabouts, they don’t exist, deemed too dangerous for the average driver.
Food shopping is simple. With Choitrams five minutes from the house, and Spinneys and Park N Shop conveniently close to the school, Marge can pick up food daily. She is cautious at first. In Bahrain, local chicken was break-your-jaw tough (something to do with the slaughtering methods; clearly not a happy experience for the bird) so chicken was off the menu for a while until she discovered imported poultry. But Emirati chicken is fine, the hummus is outstanding, fruit and veg are lovely, and the fish, best avoided in two stores, is excellent in the other.
Marge knows it’ll take time to make friends again, but even with that knowledge, even though it’s really early days, it’s still hard having none. She smiles at everyone and is always looking happy and kind, so she’s sure to meet people in due course. And each evening, when Homer gets home from work, they amble round the compound like a geriatric couple in the grounds of an old people’s home. On one of these perambulations, they meet a friendly English woman two doors down. All smiles, she welcomes them to the compound. She’s invited a few girls in for a drink the following evening. Marge must come.
Continued here View From A Broad Part 25