Having lived as an expat for nearly five years now, during which time I have seen many fellow expats come and go (it’s a transient sort of place), I have noticed that, while many take back to British life like ducks to proverbial muddy water, others find it a little bit more tricky to adjust… They plummet back down to earth, burning up in the British atmosphere like metaphorical meteorites.
For some people it’s just the little things that are difficult: remembering to open and pour your own bottle of mineral water at lunch (rather than waiting for the waiter to do it); remembering to park (and then find) your own car at shopping centres (rather than availing yourself of the highly convenient valet parking); remembering to insert your debit card, enter your PIN and then retrieve your card without being politely prompted (this one foxes me every time I’m home).
The cost of certain things in the UK comes as the culture-shock equivalent of a slap around the face for some folk: a packet of cigarettes is about £2.50 here (or as cheap as £1.60 if you’re not fussed about a smooth flavour / having a functional larynx…); for returning expat smokers £9.16 for 20 Marlboro Lights might just have them hopping straight back on the plane. Petrol is about 30p a litre in Dubai – less than a third of the price back home… So chain-smoking Hummer drivers may well find the repatriation process just a little stressful, not to say hellishly pricey.
For other returning expats, it’s the fact that life’s luxuries have (without them even noticing) become life’s necessities – and we are perhaps all guilty of this to some extent. People bewail the loss of their own private swimming pool or gym, or the fact that there are significantly fewer ‘Bikini and Bubbly’ yacht parties in Surbiton. They find that they simply can’t cope without someone to deliver a litre of semi-skimmed and a four-pack of loo roll to their front door at 11:39pm. It’s the lack of perspective that becomes so shameful and comical: expatriate Dubai is perhaps the global epicentre of the ludicrous ‘First World Problem’. There are online forums for expat mums here in Dubai which are filled with women simply desperate for someone to steam-clean their chandeliers, or to bake them a ten-tier Cinderella birthday cake. A few of them, sadly, have been here so long that they have lost not only their sense of perspective and their manners but quite possibly their wits too – they clearly believe that employing a nice girl as a home-help makes them a character in Downton Abbey.
You sometimes come across people who have been expats for much too long – colonial dinosaurs who have got so used to what they call ‘the lifestyle’ here (they don’t just mean the luxuries they are fortunate enough to enjoy, they mean behaving as if being white and wealthy somehow makes them better or more important than other people – and totally getting away with it), that they could never survive back home. I think of them as being a bit like institutionalized prisoners, incapable of integration back into civilized society.
Some (perfectly nice and normal) British expat parents who have been used to having an extra pair of hands around the house, find that going cold-turkey on the nanny front inevitably makes the first few months back home rather tough. For others, the mere thought of it is enough to keep them living in Dubai until all their children are old enough to feed themselves / play unsupervised / vote.
The funniest anecdote I have heard about an expat couple struggling to readjust to British life was not to do with luxuries or indeed childcare, but their sheer horror and confusion at the UK system for rubbish collection. This particular couple simply could not cope with having to sort their rubbish into seven different coloured wheelie bins, or remembering to put the appropriate wheelie bin at the bottom of their driveway on the assigned day of the bi-weekly timetable. They got it horribly wrong. They missed the right days. They probably did something crazy like putting the corrugated cardboard in the same bin as the newspapers and magazines. In the end (and on the verge of lunacy) they gave up altogether, crammed several weeks of stinking rubbish into one bin, stuck it in the boot of their car and drove it to the tip themselves. Forgivable for the first week home, maybe, but they continued to do this for months. Months…
As environmentally reprehensible as such behaviour is, it’s easy enough to see how one could get a little flustered after being used to the rubbish collection system in Dubai. In the apartment blocks here we have a garbage chute on every floor. One opens the garbage hatch and drops the bin bag down the chute, and… Hey Presto! – You never see it again! No sorting of tin from aluminium or potato peelings from banana skins. And no remembering to put the garden waste bin out only on the second Tuesday of the month if there isn’t an R in it and / or the moon is in the third house. Garbage chute = easy-peezy-lemon-squeezy. And yah-boo-sucks to the environment, too…
There are various recycling initiatives that happen over here (though they certainly don’t cover all areas of the Emirates yet and none of them are compulsory the way they are in other countries), and one does occasionally see a recycling bin being used in a way that corresponds with its intended purpose. According to a national goal made public in 2011, by 2030 100% of all domestic waste in Dubai will be recycled. 100%. They’re nothing if not ambitious over here. Actually they’ve gone rather quiet on that recently, so maybe we’ll be sticking with good old one-size-fits-all garbage hatches for a while yet.
User-friendly garbage chutes aside, my husband claims the sunshine is the main thing he’ll miss (well, that and the tax-free income), though he does send his shirts out to be ironed and I’m not entirely sure who will inherit the joy of that weekly task once we move home… Who am I kidding? I know exactly who will inherit that joy. Actually I don’t mind a spot of ironing if I’ve got a G&T on the go and a vintage Midsomer Murder on the telly… So other than rain, tax and ironing, I can’t see us struggling too much to settle back into the swing of things back home… So long as he can find someone to make me a ten-tier Cinderella birthday cake, obviously.
We’re all guilty of it: never visiting that National Trust property that’s only half an hour away; never getting around to trying that lovely looking restaurant passed every day on the way home from work; never walking the promising public footpath that cuts back across the fields just before the motorway turn-off; never exploring the historic building that’s tucked away just off the high street… We all have a Must-Get-Around-to-Doing-That-Soon List somewhere on a back-burner in our minds – a list of all the things nearby that are worth investigating. It’s a quiet sort of list, much quieter than the every-day To Do list of errands, dentist appointments and home improvements. It just sits there silently, invoking mild feelings of guilt and frustration whenever we remember all those lovely things we really ought to have got around to doing by now.
Growing up in Canterbury, a tourist hot-spot in the South East corner of England, I often took for granted all the beautiful old buildings, the forgotten cobbled lanes and, indeed, the magnificent Cathedral itself. I would walk past them all at a purposeful pace whilst reciting a shopping list in my head and navigating the numerous crocodiles of French school children. Tragically, familiarity can turn beauty into mere wallpaper, and over time we just stop seeing the wonderful things we are surrounded by. When we first moved into our new apartment, we used to sit on the balcony in the evenings and have a drink watching the magical lights of the Dubai skyline; two years later, it’s simply not something we take the time to do.
Opportunity is part of the problem too – or rather, too many opportunities. I think it works something like this: I could visit the nature reserve any time I like – it’s just down the road… But it’s precisely because it’s so close and so easy that we never actually get around to doing it, and after a while it just fades into the background. Perhaps this is even more likely when we have grown up in a particular place: what surrounds us is simply ‘normal’ – it has always been there and it always will. How many of us have been only vaguely aware of a pretty yet familiar view or admired it only in a purely two-dimensional sense – like a picture on the wall or a theatre back-drop – without ever taking the time to explore it on foot? (Now I’m thinking of Mary Poppins jumping into the chalk paintings on the pavement… View halloo!)
Being an expatriate has not always been a happy experience for me (hence the Homesick and Heatstruck thing…), but I am very grateful for the way in which it has sharpened my appreciation of the many Untaken Paths of home, both literal and metaphorical: don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (they paved paradise and put up a parking lot…). When I return home to England for a holiday, I am essentially a tourist, and see things through the eyes of a tourist – each time noticing and appreciating so many more details in the previously ignored wallpaper patterns of home (Alain de Botton writes about this sort of thing much more eloquently in his fabulous book ‘On Seeing and Noticing’). I am a holiday-maker, so I can make home into a holiday. This is something I wish I had done a lot more of when I actually lived there, and I hope to continue to do so when I return for good.
In the meantime, the reverse is also true, of course. Am I really making the most of living abroad? Am I appreciating the many opportunities I have here for new and interesting experiences? If I’m honest, the answer is no… I certainly did when I first emigrated, and I get a resurgence of enthusiasm for it all every now and then, but I’m afraid ‘real life’ has all but taken over. And, to be frank, the novelty has rather gone out of it all. As dazzling as Dubai can be, its charms are not exactly diverse or profound. In fact, much of it is rather predictable in its superficial, shop-bought shininess. I feel I know exactly what lies at the end of most Untaken Paths and have therefore lost all impetus to go and find out. It’s only when we have friends or relatives visiting that I now make the effort to be a tourist… I might take an abra ride on the creek, go shopping at the Textile Souk, or go swimming at a quiet bit of beach.
Since moving to Dubai four and a half years ago, I have had a ‘UAE Must Do List’. I am ashamed to say that there are items that have been on that list for precisely four and a half years: I still haven’t had afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab, for example. Every now and then, when I have an appropriate surge of energy or enthusiasm (not to mention the corresponding requirement of cash) I do get around to ticking something off the list – not long ago, we had breakfast at a wonderful restaurant called The Farm, situated in an artificial but beautiful oasis in the desert; a few months ago we made the most of our geographical location by hopping over to Sri Lanka for a few days (AMAZING).
For reluctant expatriates such as myself, the element of choice is crucial. Am I just going to kill time until I move back home?
– sitting in our local pub (the one I like because it feels like an English pub and I can pretend I am actually in England), or curled up on the sofa, transported home by the BBC’s gorgeous remake of Mapp and Lucia? OR am I going to make the most of my remaining time as an expatriate, conquer my cynicism, get off my arse and choose to explore some of the Untaken Paths that are still appealing?
It’s a fair cop.
Looks like my cynical arse and I will soon be going for afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab. I’ll let you know how it goes…
Regular readers may have noticed that H&H took a bit of a sabbatical last year… I wasn’t doing anything terribly exciting like restoring frescoes in Florence or skydiving over Machu Picchu; I was very much here on my sofa, doing exactly what I’m doing now. Writing stuff.
Last year I wrote a children’s novel called Moth and the Nightingale. Amazingly, the first few chapters won the runner-up prize at the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival, and I am delighted to announce that my novel is now going to be published in the UK by the amazing people at Chicken House! Hurrah!
Watch this space for further announcements, folks…
‘Tree-hugger’ is a vaguely insulting term for those perceived as hippy environmentalists, used fairly indiscriminately to describe pretty much anyone from an animal rights activist to a bypass protester. It’s also an epithet that has come to be associated with Prince Charles following his mid-1980s confessions about talking to his trees and plants to encourage them to grow… And it’s something, dear reader, that I have recently become. A tree-hugger. A hugger of trees.
Much of my babbling on Homesick and Heatstruck refers to nature – and those aspects of British nature that I particularly miss whilst living abroad – but last year, these yearnings must have reached some sort of critical pitch as, whilst on a summer ramble in the Cotswolds, I felt an overwhelming urge to wrap my arms around an oak tree.
I can report that it was quite a nice feeling. Solid, rough, a bit scratchy. But I did feel what I was hoping to feel – close to something living and breathing and benign and ancient. It was very comforting and peaceful.
And – this is particularly reassuring for those concerned about the state of my mental health – it may not be quite as bonkers as it sounds (fairly bonkers, admittedly, but perhaps not certifiably so). Research has shown that proximity to trees is actively good for the health. Plants release phytoncides or wood essential oils – antimicrobial organic compounds which help to defend against bacteria, fungi and other nasty things. When inhaled, they can help to slow our breathing, reduce our anxiety and even strengthen the immune system. Oak trees, pine trees and tea trees are particularly good for us, apparently. In parts of Japan and Korea, shinrin-yoku – or ‘forest-bathing’ is an established practice to reap the relaxing and health-giving properties of these phytoncides.
Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many forests for me to bathe in out here in Dubai, and, sadly, many of the more mature trees that lived in and around my beloved Safa Park have recently been uprooted to make way for a glamorous new canal-side
development (heaven knows we desperately need more upmarket boutiques and restaurants here…). There are other parks nearby though. Mushrif Park is big and green and has some pleasingly wild bits – it’s a good spot for bird-watching, and Zabeel Park is just a twenty minute walk away from our apartment. Last Saturday morning, before it got too hot, we set off to explore Zabeel Park properly. It’s very much a park of two halves – the footbridge that adjoins them straddling a multi-lane motorway. One half of the park is filled with exciting rides and activities for children and permanent barbecue and picnic spots. It hosts the wonderful Ripe Market every weekend; the other half (a hop and a skip over the footbridge) is much quieter. It’s green and peaceful and full of lovely trees.
We walked a full circuit of the park and sat down for a while in the shade. The trees were very pleasant company, but I didn’t feel particularly moved to hug anything. On reflection, that may have been for the best, given the attitude to public displays of affection in this part of the world… The forest-bathing will have to wait for my next trip home; until then, a spot of park-paddling will just have to suffice.
Homesick and Heatstruck’s Top Tips for Tree Hugging:
- The best tree hugging is to be had with big, old, wise trees. Young trees have very little to say for themselves. Oak trees give particularly good hugs.
- Ensure you are alone and not observed. People will laugh at you. Or maybe call the police. Alternatively, hug trees with lots of friends – there’s safety (and, indeed, dignity) in numbers.
- Select your tree very wisely – and be sure to choose a friendly-looking one. Avoid anything prickly, rotten or potentially poisonous.
- Beware of insect nests, territorial squirrels or burly men with axes shouting, ‘Timber!’
Further reading on this topic:
This is, apparently, one of the most depressing times of the year for British folk. The sparkling fairy lights of Christmas are long gone, but the winter drags on – bitingly cold and remorselessly damp. The mornings are dark and, throughout the grey days, the evenings loiter just beyond the horizon, bringing back the night-time before the day has even had a chance to brush its teeth and put its socks on.
‘The weather’ seems to be the main reason there are so many of us Brits here in the UAE (240,000 and counting…). Talk to any British expatriate and I guarantee ‘the weather’ will be in their top five reasons for leaving the UK. In fact, I’d wager it would be in the top three for most people. When friends out here are considering returning home, ‘the weather’ seems to be the thing they dread most (swiftly followed by taxation, pot holes and British politicians). We had one grey, rainy day here in Dubai last week. One day. A colleague told me it had left him feeling deeply depressed. I think he might possibly be the most sensitive sufferer of Seasonally Affected Disorder on the entire planet.
And I just don’t get it. As any regular Homesick and Heatstruck reader will know, I’m very fond of green things (You know – trees and plants and the like, not Kermit the Frog. Although I am also very fond of Kermit the Frog…) and without rain there are no green things. I’d much rather live somewhere green and damp than somewhere arid and lifeless.
I know how bloody miserable it gets – I used to find the cold, dark winter mornings just as terrible as everyone else does, particularly when you have to force yourself out of your warm bed, scrape the ice off your windscreen and go to work. But, like many other things that four-and-a-half-years in Dubai has made me appreciate about home, ‘the weather’ is now right up there at the top of the list of things I love. Any British weather at all – grey weather, chilly weather, blustery weather, drizzling weather, sideways-rain weather… It’s not just that I like talking about it (which I do – see my post Talk About The Weather), it’s that it does stuff. No matter how grim the British weather may feel, it’s still weather: it’s seasonal; it changes.
I remember very well how the long, dark winter can grind down the spirits, but, for me (and I appreciate I may be alone in this), there’s something about relentless sunshine that’s equally dispiriting. It’s a bit like that CIA sleep deprivation technique of 24-hour blindingly bright neon lights… So much sunshine makes my head ache – it’s against nature. When it rained the other day and everyone here was panicking about flooding and cancelled barbecues, I put my boots on and went for a walk on the beach. It was BRILLIANT – and really rather pretty – in a brooding, heathery skies sort of way. Oh, how I long for a frozen windscreen.
I went home to the UK for ten days in December – my first British Christmas since 2010 – and I saw winter in a whole new way. Winter is nature’s chance to rest, and if you too can find an opportunity to do so, it suddenly all makes sense. The darkness allows you to simply stop, to be cosy and sleep and recharge the old batteries. It gives us permission to hibernate.
And it can be beautiful too. There’s something uniquely lovely about bare, brown fields beneath a water-coloured, wintery sun. It’s a different sort of beauty from the bright, brassy tones of summer; it’s gentle and strange and humble. The stillness of winter is lovely too (when it’s not blowing a mighty gale of course) – the quiet, barely-breathing stillness of grey branches against grey skies.
Unlike the Middle Eastern Summer Heat (for which there really is no answer but to stay inside with the air conditioning on full whack), the British Winter Cold is bearable. Even on the chilliest days you can still get outside – put on your thermals, wear some thick gloves and a woolly hat – and walk briskly until the cold air makes your cheeks go pink. As Billy Connolly once said, ‘Get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.’ And you can always come home to the central heating and a nice cup of tea.
It’s amazing how many British beauty spots are deserted at this time of year. When I was at home in December, the cold was an incentive for me to get outside rather than a deterrent. I went on some wonderful walks with my family. I saw the morning sun shining on frozen puddles and frosted berries; I saw kingfishers darting amongst the reeds and perched on bare branches, watching the cold water of the lake; I saw seal pups playing in the grey waves of the Swale.
It’s winter here in Dubai too, of course. For the next few months it will be warm rather than boiling hot, and British tourists will be flocking here to escape ‘the weather’ and soak up their bit of winter sun. Sorry tourists, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for a few more grey, rainy days before this winter is out…
It has been a lovely winter over here in Dubai. Usually the winter is only distinguishable from the rest of the year by a slight drop in temperature: in all other ways the weather remains the same – blazing blue skies and relentless sunshine. This year, however, it has rained A LOT. We’ve had proper, pelting-it-down rain lasting for hours; we’ve had thunder storms, tenacious fog, thick cloud coverage and day-long drizzle. We’ve had plenty of sunny days too, of course, but they have been tempered by a delicious cool breeze. All in all, it has been much like an English summer, which makes me very lucky as that means I have had two English summers in the course of a year (I was home for a couple of glorious months in the middle of last year, and what a wonderful summer it was!).
On several occasions over recent weeks the temperature has plummeted to 13 degrees centigrade. While the tourists are still optimistically strolling around in shorts and t-shirts, local residents and those from other toasty-warm Arabic and Asian countries are wearing thick woollen jumpers, waterproof trousers and fur-lined boots. Children are being sent off to school wearing winter coats stuffed with goose-down. I even saw a chap out walking his Labrador, and both man and dog were wearing fleece jackets. But people are still boldly braving the beach – shivering in their bikinis and swimming briskly in the sea. Last week, friends on a boat trip spotted a pod of dolphins playing in the surf near the Dubai coast; we are not often honoured by such guests, the sea temperatures are usually much too warm for their liking. What next? one wonders: Penguins huddling for warmth on the beaches of The Palm Jumeirah? Polar bears hunting amidst the frozen tundra of Arabian Ranches?
I have loved being able to walk around all morning or even all afternoon without getting sun stroke: going to the park, walking down to the beach, eating lunch outside. My intrepid husband has even been out running in the middle of the day, giving credence to the famous Noel Coward lyric, ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen attempt to improve their 10K PB in the midday sun…’ We have enjoyed a few cosy evenings at home as the rain poured down outside. The giant flag at the bottom of Diyafah Street has, for the first time in my memory, been fully unfurled by a strong, steady wind. Patches of sandy wasteland have sprouted with grasses and tiny bright flowers.
Of course, this wintry weather is not without its drawbacks: the roads have flooded, the washing takes longer to dry and, several times, I have had to put on socks in the evenings. The cat has taken to sleeping inside the wardrobe, snuggling up on an old jumper of mine and, when the sun does shine, she stretches out on the windowsill, soaking up every single moment of warmth, like a basking reptile (but much more pretty and fluffy).
Schools have been closed due to downpours; outdoor events have been cancelled. Our favourite Greek restaurant closed their terrace seating area ‘Due to inclement weather’ (there was a chilly breeze). At the school at which I teach, the fate of Sports Day hung in the balance as PE teachers nervously watched the grey skies. In the same way that children in the UK feel it is entirely justified to stop a lesson with, ‘Miss, it’s snowing!’ (followed by a stampede to the window), children here will actually interrupt a high-level discussion on Wilfred Owen’s powerful lexical choices in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est…’ in order to tell me that it has started raining outside.
While many British expats have complained, claiming they could have stayed at home if they had wanted to be wet and miserable, I have loved every blessed, drizzly minute of it. After all, it’s only a matter of time until the skies clear, the mercury rises, the tarmac melts and the sand becomes hot enough to burn the soles of your feet. In the mean time I shall be the one out walking in the morning mist, taking pictures of the sparse desert flowers and turning my grateful face up to the cool and cloudy sky above.
[Exit, pursued by a polar bear]
Another Christmas away from home and here I am, listening to ‘Carols from King’s College’ and eating hot mince pies while the warm sun shines outside in a bright blue desert sky. It feels cooler than usual for the time of year – a very pleasant 25 degrees or so, with a wonderfully refreshing breeze and a few substantial clouds floating about. It would be my ideal weather in fact, if only it wasn’t Christmas Eve.
I remember one particularly lovely Christmas Eve when I lived in Canterbury: the air was freezing and sparkling with anticipation. I drove to a local farm shop and, wrapped up in several long scarves I picked through their frost-kissed vegetables, choosing some muddy carrots and a long, green stalk of sprouts grown at the farm nearby. I bought some local mistletoe too. I took the bits to my parents’ house along with several bags of wrapped presents. As usual the front door was adorned with a jolly Christmas wreath and I could see the brightly coloured lights of the Christmas tree glowing through the glass. I rang the bell and waited a few moments for the door to open – for the warmth and light and smell of mulled wine to flood out and invite me in. I remember watching my breath steaming in the air and thinking how gorgeous that moment was – all of Christmas still to come; the perfectly still frostiness of the evening and the immediate promise of warmth and family and happiness. And mulled wine.
I’ve got used to these far-from-home Christmases and I know we’ll have a fun and festive day in spite of the perversely lovely weather. The Christmas shopping is all done at least, and that’s certainly a very different affair over here… All the shopping for family back in England is done via the magic of the interweb: with just a few clicks (seventeen passwords, a few online PINs and a credit card security code or two) you can find just about anything you need, get it gift-wrapped and popped in Santa’s sleigh within seconds. Not as romantic or indeed as Dickensian as strolling through the dark, cobbled streets of Canterbury in a blizzard, carrying armfuls of bags and parcels, but it is very practical. Shopping in the malls over here is very efficient too – particularly once you know where all your favourite shops are… After living here for over three years I still get hopelessly lost in Dubai Mall (the world’s largest indoor shopping centre, based on total area), but I can now find my way to M&S or Waitrose in the same eerily instinctive way a drunk person can locate the nearest loo. The malls are so huge here, some people (AKA my husband) have been known to pop in for a spot of Christmas shopping only to stagger home many hours later with little more to show for their efforts than a DVD box set, blisters on their feet and the haunted look of person who has had one too many Starbucks Gingerbread Lattés. One of the good things about shopping in malls is that you don’t suffer from the alternately sweaty and shivery physical discomfort of what I call ROAST syndrome: Retail Over-heating Amidst Sub-zero Temperatures. Wrapped up in a duffel coat, woollen gloves, fluffy ear muffs and a balaclava, you brave the freezing British high street, only to get your eye-balls blasted dry with gusts of burning hot air as soon as you enter a shop, and you immediately have to strip off four or five layers which you then have to carry around with you as you choose your gifts, inevitably dropping one glove on the floor somewhere near the scented candles. ROAST syndrome is responsible for many a homeless mitten.
Shopping for Christmas dinner here requires no Arctic outerwear at all, just a bit more persistence to find all the things you need (GOT the cranberry sauce! but the quest for bread sauce mix is something akin to searching for the lost treasure of the Knights Templar). We’ve managed to get some of our Christmas veg from local organic farms (a rapidly growing industry here – and, frankly, something of a miracle), but much of our festive food is imported… The Turkish Delight really is from Turkey, and the turkeys are from France. Unsurprisingly, brassicas don’t do so well in the desert and our sprouts have come all the way from Holland. Thank you, Holland (my husband may not look grateful but he WILL enjoy his compulsory sprouts come hell or high, foul-smelling water). Sadly, they are not on a stalk. They are wrapped in cling-film.
Where possible this year, I’ve tried to get my Dubai Christmas presents from anywhere other than big chain shops. Global Village (I LOVE Global Village) has provided some lovely hand-crafted pieces from India and Africa and I found some gorgeous things at the local artisans’ market, ARTE. I happen to have a regular stall at this market (Books Bejewelled, for all your literary trinket requirements…) and this weekend I encountered the sorriest victim of last-minute Christmas shopping I have ever seen. The poor man was sweating and had what looked like an entire cup of coffee spilt down the front of his t-shirt (possibly a Starbucks latté, though thankfully I didn’t get close enough to confirm whether or not it was their festive gingerbread variety). He sidled up to my table, a wild, terrified look in his eyes, and whispered in the manner of a Cold War spy, “Do you know my wife?”
“Pardon?” I said.
“Do you know my wife?”
“I err – I’m afraid I don’t know whether or not I know your wife…”
“She likes jewellery. I’ve got to buy her some jewellery. Does she like your jewellery?”
“I… I don’t know…”
“No. No I understand…” He shuffled away and I saw him approach the next jewellery vendor with the same, desperate question – “Do you know my wife?” Poor fellow. I hope he found her some nice jewellery and that she appreciates all his efforts, as they were clearly born of love. And fear. Love and fear.
Well, I’ve got some wrapping up of presents to do now. I’ll be putting on the traditional ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ and burning some Christmassy orange and cinnamon candles while I curl ribbons, swear at disobedient rolls of wrapping paper and stick my fingers together with Sellotape. Tomorrow I will Skype the family and eat Dutch sprouts. And I might go for a walk on the beach too… If the sun insists on shining I suppose I might as well make the most of it.
I am about to head home again for a week of British autumn and, as I pack my suitcase full of thermal undies and attempt to zip it closed (having first removed the dozing cat from within), I am reminded of the last time I packed my bags for a flight – back home in Canterbury after a long, glorious summer in England.
The summer of 2013 was filled with family, friends, sunshine, good food and, perhaps most memorably, some really fabulous walks. There was the wonderful Kent coastal walk I went on with my friend, Jeannine, from Reculver castle to Whitstable, on the hottest day of the year. We had a picnic on a remote bit of beach beneath a strange rocky outcrop and felt like Enid Blyton characters. We flagged down a passing ice-cream vendor on a tricycle to buy bottles of cold water, and ended the day with a blissfully cool sunset paddle and a well-earned pint of locally brewed beer at the Whitstable brewery.
I walked with my brother from Wye to Chilham through the beautiful Kent countryside, along the Stour Valley and up and down the Downs, on another day of booming blue skies and summer sun. The fields were golden with ripe wheat and barley, rippling slightly with the barely-breathing breeze. There were butterflies everywhere – Peacocks, Painted Ladies, Marbled Whites, Chalkhill Blues and many I didn’t recognise from my garden childhood of Red Admirals and Cabbage Whites: I’m told this summer was a particularly good one for the butterflies. There were dazzling patches of wild flowers at the edges and corners of fields – nature at its most free and colourful at the height of the summer – an impressionist blur of purples, reds and yellows. The walk took us through cool, shaded, badgery woodland and along the green banks of the river Stour, on its way to Canterbury.
Grove Ferry and Stodmarsh near Canterbury are favourite haunts of my family, largely for the birdlife, the fresh air and the tranquillity of the reed-beds. I walked here many times this year – more than I ever did when actually I lived in the UK I expect – with my parents and my brothers. Water rails screech from the reeds, ducks do crazy flapping take-offs from the water, flocks of geese honk by and a lone marsh harrier drifts high above, watching and waiting.
I wandered around the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle with my parents and my aunt, admiring the magical Rapunzel towers and the lovely, endless gardens arranged in different coloured ‘rooms’. I explored Batsford Arboretum with my dear friend Kate and her two tiny tots. I roamed the beautiful rolling hills of the Cotswolds with my friends Jo and Simon and their gorgeous little Pappy-Jack pups, ending our walk with chips and a pint of beer in a pub garden with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
I scaled the rugged heights of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du in the Brecon Beacons with my brother, on a perfect day of fleeting fluffy-white clouds, taking great cleansing lungfuls of the cool, clear air as we climbed. We discovered the highest wheelbarrow in Wales, posed for pictures on cliff edges (well, he did – I was a bit scared) and ate our sandwiches at the summit, looking out towards the dramatically named Black Mountains.
I pottered through the cobbled streets of Canterbury: through the pretty Westgate Gardens with my friend Lou and her baby, Tom; over the bridge, past the wild flower meadow, to the Greyfriars chapel with my friend Stacy and her son, Milo; to the secret riverside butterfly garden with my mum and Aunty Ange; up St Margaret’s Street in the summer rain to meet my friend Kate for afternoon tea at Tiny Tim’s Tearoom.
I walked along the stripy-deck-chaired beachfront at Westgate with my friend Nicki and her two tiny girls; along the Thames and through Greenwich Park with my sister-in-law, Caroline; down a steep, narrow lane to paddle on a perfect Devon beach with my friends Kate and Jonney and their little boy, Finbar. I walked around a Kentish vineyard in the bright morning sunshine before sampling a dangerously diverse selection of their fine wines (I’m ashamed to say the sun was absolutely nowhere near the yard arm). I wandered around Brighton with my mum and my godmother, popping into jewellery shops and stopping at the Lanes for tea and cake.
Many people enjoy walking alone, but for me a pleasant walk is as much about good company as it is about beautiful surroundings. There’s something about talking whilst walking which is uniquely therapeutic. I think it’s to do with the healthy physical activity, the proximity to nature, the fresh air and the ever-changing landscape which stimulates and enriches the conversation. Even if there are other walkers around, a conversation while walking always feel private, and the necessary lack of eye-contact (in order to avoid rabbit holes, puddles or cow pats) somehow allows delicate subjects to be addressed or confidences to be shared in an easy, gentle way. On returning home as an expat, there are so many lovely people I am desperate to see. Going for walks with them is, in my mind, the best possible way to catch up whilst recharging with the healing essence of home.
I’ll be going for another walk tomorrow – along several miles of airport travelators: just a tad less picturesque than the Cotswolds or the Brecon Beacons perhaps, but it’s the way home.
We have moved ten miles up the road and it feels as if we’ve moved to a different country entirely. Al Barsha, our haunt for the last three years, has many good points: it is fairly central, close to the Metro and a big mall, and it is the home of Shawarmaji – purveyors of the finest chicken shawarmas in the country (in my humble opinion… Oh! The roasty, pickley, garlicky goodness!). But it never really felt like home. It never really felt like anywhere if I’m honest. The problem I had with Barsha is, I think, the same problem some people have with Dubai in general: it doesn’t feel finished. Less buzzing suburb, more building site, in Barsha one is never far from the pneumatic drills, dust, trucks, cranes, scaffolding and incessant hammering.
So here we are in Satwa. Our new apartment is smaller than our last but, because the area is nearly all low-rise, there is a wonderful feeling of space and air – and so much LIGHT! In a previous post I wrote about the bizarre ‘Rear Window’ experience of looking out from our balcony straight into the living rooms of the apartments opposite… From our new bedroom balcony we have an amazing view out over the roofs of Dubai, from the scruffier satellite-dished dwellings nearby right up to the glittering lights of the Sheikh Zayed Road and the magnificent Burj Khalifa.
It’s like being treated to a free fireworks display every night; in fact, on New Year’s Eve – our balcony will be the place to be! (It will have to be a rather exclusive party I’m afraid, as you can only fit about three people on it…)
Satwa itself is a wonderful, bustling place that comes alive at night. It is filled with tailors, textile emporiums and haberdasheries, their windows glimmering with satin and sequins, and extraordinary little hardware shops that sell everything you can possibly think of – plungers, piping and boxes of nails filling every square inch of wall, floor and ceiling space. There are bakeries, their windows flung open to the cool night air as men in white aprons puff up pockets of hot bread over naked flames, and neon-lit restaurants with mouth-watering, spiced meat roasting on rotating skewers.
Revelation of revelations (particularly after my recent adventures with driving): here in Satwa we can walk to nice places. Even though it’s hot! We can walk to the beach. We can walk to a huge selection of fabulous shops and restaurants. We can walk up to the aromatic, neon craziness of Al Satwa Road. There are pavements and, what’s more, pedestrian crossings! To head into Satwa proper, one has a choice: take the main roads or short cut through the quieter, residential streets. The main road is Diyafah Street and, unlike some bits of Dubai, it has been here for quite a long time. Yesterday, a friend of mine was telling me about life in Dubai when she first lived here nearly twenty years ago: one day she was walking up Diyafah Street, when who should she see but His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself strolling towards her, with his smart walking cane and a discreet entourage. It’s perhaps not quite the same sort of street that it once was (I haven’t spotted any royalty yet), but it’s certainly still lively and characterful. To mark the fortieth anniversary of the unification of the Emirates, Diyafah Street was renamed after the date of National Day itself – it is now 2nd December Street.
The short cut through the quieter, residential streets has become one of my favourite things about Dubai. Sometimes I count the trees as I walk, just to wallow in the delight of being close to green things. There are old villas here, with mature, rambling gardens; gnarled tendrils of bougainvillea twist over the tops of the white-washed garden walls. There are beautiful old wooden doors and gates, the paint fading and peeling prettily in the heat. There are people chatting outside front doors, washing hanging up to dry between trees and – this one makes me shiver with delight – there are chickens wandering about in the road. Chickens! They may not be wandering for long (one suspects their existence may be somewhat short and purposeful), but while they wander they make the place feel positively rural. And that makes a displaced Maid of Kent very happy indeed. All I need to do now is find a place that does really good chicken shawarmas…