Ex-pat life is a bit like trying to walk on desert sands.
Your first tentative steps involve surveying the lay of the land, reassuring yourself that “it’s all just sand, what could possibly go wrong?”, only to find that there’s sand and then there’s sand – whether it’s the hard salty flats called sabkha, quicksand, or the soft silky stuff that rolls in undulating splendour across the Rub’ al Khali (the Arabian desert mass known as the Empty Quarter) for hundreds of miles in ever deepening shades of red and gold. I could talk about the desert all day, but I digress. Back to my tortuous analogy. Stick with me and I’ll get to the point.
Just like being in the desert, an ex-pat newbie will learn that It’s easy to get lost in the strangeness and it takes time and effort to appreciate the detail, to know where to wander and where not to stray, to find your feet as the ground appears to shift and change beneath them, making the going at times hard, and sometimes soft.
And then there are occasions when you arrive breathless at the apogee of a massive incline and are gobsmacked by a ravishing vista that proves that you are somewhere different, new, that YOU ARE HAVING AN ADVENTURE. Of course, it’s also easy to cock up completely, as in the case of my beloved BW, who got our Range Rover stuck in the dunes TWO METRES off the road and had to be dug out by a very kind Bangladeshi camel herder with a shovel. Which just goes to show that it’s not always best for the going to be soft.
This sand motif has drifted on long enough, but as I’m surrounded by the stuff it seems churlish not to employ it as a means of exploring what I’m feeling just now: a little bit lost. Life was a stroll in the dunes but now I can see that all the time the sands were shifting and suddenly nothing is what it was anymore. Life is like that everywhere, I guess, but it seems particularly so in ex-pat land.
Summer in Abu Dhabi is the time of comings and goings, a sort of New Year, marking the end of the busy social season and the start of a winding down, a heat-induced hibernation. The newspaper is no longer full of things to do and places to go, but instead touts low-season hotel deals, food, food, food (a bit hard to swallow when everyone is fasting during Ramadan) and things that are going to happen three months ahead. No longer distracted by events and classes and invitations one has time to reflect and review. And if you’re me that means rabid introspection, leading to panic, yet again, about what to do with one’s life. Coming to Abu Dhabi was for me the latest of a series of crossroads that we all face, but I still can’t make up my mind which way to go even though I know, at 52, I am rapidly running out of road.
I am into my second year in Abu Dhabi and those experiences that were once new are already familiar landmarks in the calendar: Ramadan, soaring temperatures, summer humidity – and mass exodus.
Having rounded off a month back in the UK with a series of tear-streaked farewells I have returned to find that I am now saying goodbye to a host of new-found friends and acquaintances who are heading the other way and out of the UAE – some for a few months and some most likely for good. Ex-pat life is highly transitory (though I have met quite a few Brits and others who have lived in Abu Dhabi for decades) so one of the big rules of Ex-Pat Club is “be prepared to let go”: to people, to the lifestyle, your home. There are a host of reasons why people seemingly suddenly depart: Contracts come to an end; commitments back home become too pressing; retirement looms; the kids finish school and want to go to uni back home; or illness, death and hard economic realities strike. So you learn to surf the changing sands, go with the flow, wave goodbye and say hello all in one. Well, I try.
I was genuinely sorry to see some people go, having just got to know them. Their generosity in supporting me through ex-pat life’s little ups and downs, in introducing me to new people and interests and helping me be part of the gang meant a lot and I benefitted greatly during the balmy days and nights of winter and spring. And those who are leaving to escape summer heat and sort life out “back home”, well they’ll be back in the autumn and we’ll take up where we left off, won’t we?
Now I face the long hot days of summer in the sandpit relatively alone (OK, I’m painting a bleak picture here – I have a couple of hard-core compadres who will kick the dust around with me – and I’ve got my best mate, BW). But I’m not two days back in the gilded cage before my inner brat is kicking off: “I mean, I just spent a whole year ‘doing change’, didn’t I?”, she squeals. “I waved my goodbyes and got on the plane and played the new girl in a host of different social situations (which has never come easily to me) and now I’ve got to do it all over again because my selfish new-found brothers and sisters have got bloody lives and want to get on with them somewhere else? Without ME? Really?”
Seriously, I need to get a life but frustratingly the options seem limited. I review them.
1. Get a job.
Nah, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.
2. Commit to get seriously fit – that gym will be empty over the summer and it’s too hot for chocolate!
Well, I had been working on this – when there were fun classes, when you could swim and run and play and laugh outdoors. But now everybody’s gone and if I tried running outside now I’d turn purple and die. Add to that the fact that my cleaner saw me for the first time in a month today and said “Ma’am you are a little fatter, I think,” while making motions with her arms that suggested I’d taken on the proportions of a small whale. It was a bit demotivating. I contemplate a gym with no one in it but me and three or four perfectly honed and bored personal trainers, all watching me doing squats and lunges and doing them all wrong. I can see them rolling their eyes at each other, shaking their heads, folding their exquisite biceps across their ripped abdomens and wincing as the poor old fat lady collapses in a puddle of her own sweat trying to do press-ups. The horror! The horror!
3. Write that novel! Pick up the guitar again. Finish that Arabic language course! After all, you’ve got hours and hours and hours to kill before BW gets home.
Hahahahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaa! Are you joking? Do you know much time and mental energy it takes to empty the washing machine, or stare at my toenails?
4. OK, hang out with the cat then.
I can’t. He went and died on me. Selfish, selfish puddytat.
5. Get a job.
I hear you BW, I hear you. I’m on it. Just checked the vacancies column. Hmmmmm. Nope. Sorry, I’m gonna be lying in after you’ve gone to work for a whole lot longer. Don’t slam the door on your way out.
Time to play desert cliche bingo: The fact is, the sands of time are slipping through my manicured fingers (tick) – a year has passed and it’s been a lot of fun, but going back to the UK, where my old life was more free-range, shall we say, has made me realise that I need to find a new sense of purpose. Do I really want to discover that when I leave I’ll have nothing to show that I was ever here (a bit like footprints in the sand, eh? Tick!!!) Life is moving and shifting around me (like sand? tick!) while I sit in my oasis of inertia (tick) contemplating the Universe and hunting for new HBO box sets on the internet. My year of living lazily was simply a mirage and not the life I should aspire to (BINGO!).
The luxury of indolence is seductive but like those monster-size bars of Galaxy, ultimately unfulfilling (even if you eat every last chunk and then feel a bit sick and ashamed). Sat at my desk I once dreamt of lazy days by the pool with nothing but a pile of books and a cold drink to occupy me. Now that pool is not enough. I need to dive into something else. Maybe those biblical hermits who kipped out in the desert had the right idea. Could I be having some sort of …. revelation? (At this point BW will be hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand and making strange noises, probably something like “just get an *****ing job”. Perhaps he’s right. After all, we have to have an exit plan. Our long journey here is simply building towards another one, a new life on a further horizon, beyond Abu Dhabi. The Outer Hebrides, perhaps.
So it’s goodbye old friends, goodbye old me, and hello better me, with new friends, new opportunities. I will shake the sand off my sandals, I will pupate this summer and emerge an autumn butterfly, stretch my wings – and get a job. Probably a desk job.
Oh all right then. Don’t hold your breath.
I think the tennis is on soon so if you don’t mind I’ll leave it to the Fab Four to conclude. They’ll probably make more sense. Until we meet again?