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Of Mail and Metaphors

What’s your address? Everyone asked us that question before we moved to Abu Dhabi, as if they were really going to write actual letters that needed to be delivered to actual addresses.

As if.

But even if people were going to write letters to us, or send us packages of things I can’t find here (what I’ve learned is that what you can’t get in a certain place tells you more about that place than what you can get)…you couldn’t send it to my apartment.

I don’t really have an address. No one does.  There isn’t any home mail delivery in Abu Dhabi and there aren’t what you’d call street addresses, either.

I’m used to hopping in a cab and barking out the address of my destination New York style: 14th between 2nd and 3rd; Houston and Avenue D, south side.

Not here. Here everyone navigates by landmarks because instead of the streets having no name, ala U2, the streets have 2 or 3 names. Our building is on Electra Street. Also Sheikh Zayed the First Street. Also 7th street.  The nearest big cross street is Sheik Rashid Al Bin Maktoum Road. Also Old Airport Road. Also 2nd street.

To add another layer of fun to this larky layout is the fact that behind these multiply named streets, behind the tall buildings that line the wide avenues are honeycombs of shopping districts: tiny shops jammed along crisscrossing little alleys that have no names or numbers at all.

It’s a constant set of triangulations: to find one thing, you need to have one or two other things to orient against: the tailor who hemmed my pants said his shop was “behind Wear Mart and down from Swiss Arabian perfume store.”  The dry cleaner puts this address on the dry cleaning bags:

Not having street addresses creates a disconcerting sense of living in a small town—just turn left at old Mike’s café, drive on past Aunt Tilly’s shop—even though we’re surrounded by skyscrapers and multi-lane highways.

If you want mail, actual mail? You need one of these:

Instead of a post-box, though, many people get their mail delivered to their offices. To get a post-box, you need to fill out an application, turn in copies of your residence visa or passport, two passport photos (I have no idea why), and then of course you need to stand in a bureaucratic line (or two or three). Getting mail at the office means I get my beloved New Yorkers in print, as god intended them to be, but about two weeks after the fact.  You want to know what’s happening in the city in late August? I’m your gal.

What surprises me is how strange it seems not to get mail delivered here, to our apartment. Who knew that “getting the mail” was a ritual important enough that it would be missed?

We’re slowly putting together our routines—boys off to school in the mornings, Husband and I off to work—but I still don’t feel “at home” here.  And as I was roaming around taking pictures of post office boxes, I found a (slightly overstated) metaphor for these early days of expat life: I am an unknown letter…or, rather, a letter that hasn’t yet been addressed.

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11 Responses to Of Mail and Metaphors

  1. Tracy September 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    You are living in a place where illiteracy is the norm. Even if the majority were literate, the majority would not be literate in Arabic or English, especially the taxi drivers. Also, the local capacity for memory is astounding. To generalize; these are “visual” learners relying on their memories. It is here that the impact of illiteracy is felt acutely by us minority westerners. The majority are fine with it…strange but true.
    I think your address has become “General Delivery, The World”…not the centre of the world, just anywhere. Glad you are here. It gets better, so just hold on!

    • Deborah Quinn September 22, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

      @Tracy: what a great reminder. There’s another post brewing about watching my own cultural assumptions in play–about what’s “better” and “worse,” about who people are or where they’re from. The lack of addresses doesn’t really bother me–I think it’s kind of funny that in a place that looks so hyper-masculine on the surface, everyone has to navigate in a stereotypically feminine fashion (landmark to landmark). I’m also wanting to write about the rather astonishing fact that this city as it is didn’t exist even forty years ago…so the fact that there is ANY kind of systematic mail delivery seems remarkable. It’s more my own sense of displacement…thanks for the comment! I went looking for the Lebanese Roastery, btw, but I didn’t find it. I did, however, find the world’s best macaroons, at the kiosk in AD Mall. I would sell one of my children for the caramel macaroons.

  2. anna ~ random handprints September 22, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    what an amazing way of looking at things – never thought of visual learning vs. the western norm of exact addresses.

    love your abu dhabi posts, it is the ultimate armchair traveling!

  3. Dick Horwich September 22, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    A stunning post — how I envy the tonality of your writing! The irony doesn’t cancel out the feeling; it’s like Sondheim.

  4. Stasha September 24, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Love this post. So true. I grew up with going downstairs to get the mail. Then in Bahrain I had a pigeon hole at work that always had bad news like denied leave applications. Then in England I my postman would come in for a cuppa. And now we cross the road. I love getting mail. Specially when my husbands family send me the New Yorkers, page six and New York spaces.

  5. Lady Jennie September 25, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    It was the same thing when we lived in Somaliland.

  6. Erica M September 26, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    This was a wonderful post. I love learning about other cultures, especially from an outsider’s perspective. Moar like these!

  7. Stacey September 26, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Wow. I had no idea. I guess I never thought about what mail would be like in another country. It must be fascinating all of the differences you are experiencing there. Great post.

  8. Barbara September 27, 2011 at 1:46 am #

    That is a little insane. I will say that the first year as an expat is the hardest. I think I cried every other day wanting to go back home cursing the things I couldn’t get or have. I hope it gets better.

  9. Marcus October 5, 2011 at 9:10 am #

    We lived in Maine for two years. All of our mail was covered in snow.
    When it wasn’t snowing in Maine, people used to say ‘This is God’s country’. When it was snowing, they would say ‘Hey. You live in Maine.’
    I lived in western Australia also: Maine without snow and grass and largely without people. The mail there was delivered at random times, almost as an after-thought; it dropped through the letter box with a twang. Everything in western Australia had a twang, so it seemed.
    I was also a postman, in England. I know my way around a letter box, sadly. We used to have to be at the depot by 4 a.m., have the first post delivered by 10 and the last by noon. The last included packages which one had to deliver by bicycle. The bicycles were hundreds of years old and dishevelled. In the winter and in the rain, riding that thing with packages strapped to your back was like trying to navigate a buffalo through a rain forest.
    What this has to do with anything, I forget.

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