Burning Up on Re-Entry

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).

Where, in suburban England, might one be served a cappuccino with actual gold flakes on top?

Where, in suburban England, might one be served a cappuccino with actual gold flakes on top?

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.

Possibly slightly nicer than the Brentford Community Swimming Pool.

Possibly slightly nicer than the Brentford Community Swimming Pool.

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.

Economy class? What's 'economy class'?

“Economy class? What’s ‘economy class,’ Daddy?”

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.

Who's gonna ride your wild horses? Who's gonna steam-clean your chandelier?

Who’s gonna ride your wild horses? Who’s gonna steam-clean your chandelier?

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.



  1. Ha this reminds me of a documentary I watched a few years ago about real old colonials returning from Kenya to the UK and not being able to work anything, even really simple things like plug sockets confused them! I have to say I’ve always loved coming home… But then I’ve never lived anywhere quite like Dubai!

    • It’s so easy to see how that disorientation could happen, though, particularly over many years… In the few years since we moved out here cheques have been abolished and that crazy new touch / contactless payment thing has been introduced… All very bewildering for a returning expat! Thanks for visiting 🙂

  2. Well, I think if I couldn’t source a ten tier cinderella cake, or have my chandeliers steam cleaned, then a country is not worth living in! 😀

  3. Rick

    When labour is cheap, luxury reaches down to people of quite modest means, (you can quote me on that if you want).
    You’ll be OK when you get back; you can take a college course on how to use each kind of wheelie bin, cheques are still used mainly for personal financial exchange (for those too frightened to use on line banking), petrol will soon be back to its rightful level of eight or ten times the cost of it in Dubai, the EU is about to ban the use of diesel, it will soon be compulsory for every World Heritage View to have a minimum of a hundred giant wind turbines, cars no longer have tax discs, and it seems that the government of the entire UK will be controlled by a few dozen Scots.
    You may miss a lot about Dubai when you come back even if you find some of their ways over indulgent, but in comparison with this country, Dubai looks relatively sane and normal. Here, when ridiculous and obviously stupid legislation is suggested by the EU, it immediately becomes law in the UK. Very sensibly when such things happen in the UAE, it seems they are quietly forgotten. How wise. Oh yes, and the only things shown on TV over here now are, Antique Shows, Fly on the wall docu-soaps and cooking competitions so you should be OK for your ten-tier Cinderella Birthday cake!

    • 😀 Please enrol me on the wheelie bin course ASAP! And thank you for the updates – I shall now feel fully prepared for the transition when the time comes… xx

  4. Thanks for another thought-provoking post on a theme I’ve often mulled over, especially on long flights! Amongst my travels I spent a few years in your home county and although I was very happy and made many friends, I observed that people who stay in the vicinity of their birth find it very hard to relate to us more nomadic types. The experiences you gain from periods abroad often make you observe your original environment in a fresh way that isn’t always flattering. It’s very hard for home to live up to the idealistic place you’ve created in your imagination during your exile and the people you left behind have remained the same whereas you have changed imperceptibly, thus the difficulty to fit in – not to mention the recycling! I hope you keep up your blog when you return to Kent.

    • Thank you! Yes – in the words of Terry Pratchett, “Coming back to the place where you started is not the same as never leaving.” … I might do a blog on that when I eventually get back to Kent! 🙂

  5. What a great piece. It really chimed with what I have seen ex-pats experience.

    • Thank you, Robert. I’m hoping for a comparatively smooth transition… (wheelie bins aside)

  6. This really reminds me of a friend who is out in Dubai. Her posts on Facebook are becoming more entertaining and hilariously detached Rochdale-living the longer she is there. 😉

    • Hi Lucy – yes, I think there is definitely a cumulative effect! Let’s hope she manages to keep her feet on the ground 🙂

  7. Dear Lucy,

    We are looking for a well established blogger for our travel site: http://www.dubai.com

    The blogger would be the main contributor and be responsible for growing subscribers/readers/advertising revenue on our blog.

    The main objective of the blog would be to provide our readership with up-to date reviews/news of all the latest activities, entertainment and nightlife Dubai has to offer!
    Think Time Out Dubai and you get the idea…

    We are looking for someone who is good with people, photography and writing.
    They will be working remotely, communicating with our Europe office to make sure we have the best coverage of events in Dubai.

    Let me know if the above is of interest, and we can arrange a phone call to discuss further.

    Look forward to hear from you.

    Kind regards,

    Media Manager
    TravelAgents.com Dubai.com Prague.com RioDeJaneiro.com Malaga.com
    +44-207-193-3767 (T)
    +44-798-675-6423 (M)

    • Thank you for asking, Jacques, unfortunately I will be leaving Dubai this summer so I won’t be able to contribute to http://www.dubai.com. Very best wishes, Lucy


  1. 15 Creative and Adventurous Dubai Bloggers You Should Know | Adewale Adelani

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