Archive | What’s It Like?

it’s not politics, just a day at the beach

It’s been a cold winter here and a cold spring. Even now, in the middle of March, it’s only 73F and usually, by now, the temperature hovers in the low 80s.  Weather, here, seems to mean two things: wind and sand.  Sometimes the sand hangs so thickly in the air it looks like fog…and then you realize that everything is coated with a thin film of grit: hair, clothes, shoes, skin, eyelids.

The other day, though, the wind stopped blowing and the sand settled down, so we went to the Corniche for ice cream and a walk along the beach.  Everyone else in the city had the same idea, which meant the beach become an easy illustration of all the different types of people who call this city home.

Everyone has to be warned about how to dress:

But people define “appropriate” in all kinds of different ways:

Ah the banana hammock. I contemplated showing this man the sign about “appropriate,” but I’m not sure he’d see things my way. Gotta love that European unselfconsciousness, right?

Others, however, prefer a more modest masculine bathing ensemble:

After the picture was taken, these guys took turns dunking one another; there was much splashing and sputtering, although from the looks of it, none of them knew how to swim.

A more sedate group chose to watch from the beach:

Yes, they are wearing actual bikinis. Right there, on the public beach.  No one ogled them, no one scolded them, no stones were thrown.  Down at the water’s edge, meanwhile, these women were also enjoying the day:

So were they:

I don’t want to get all sentimental and over-dramatic–it was just an afternoon at the beach, after all–but spending time with all these different people, all sharing the same narrow patch of sand, I found myself feeling weirdly optimistic about the fate of the world.  I mean, what would happen if we all decided to just…get along?


Continue Reading · on March 13, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, Politics, UAE, urban nature, What’s It Like?

I’m moving WHERE?

Friends and colleagues of ours from Manhattan are moving here next year, various children in tow, and I’ve been emailing back and forth with them about all the weird little details involved with moving to…not quite the far ends of the earth but a further end of the earth than, say, Westchester.

This morning, I got an email in which S. asked “Did you ever get huge pangs of “oh shit–what the hell am I thinking moving to Abu Dhabi?” And maybe in her email she mentioned that some people in the family were maybe crying a little bit about the thought of this impending move. I’m not saying there were tears, I’m just saying that there might have been.

It’s not a bad question, actually. In fact, it’s a question that, with a slightly different verb tense, I ask myself pretty regularly. Tears are also not unusual.

Here’s what I wrote:


Dear S.

Well DUH of course you’re going to cry. Maybe even daily, hell maybe even hourly. You’re moving HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD.

I mean, holy crap, right?

And so there will be parts that suck a little and parts that suck a lot.

That said of course, as “hardship duty” this barely, barely qualifies.  Everyone speaks English, there is an intact government that doesn’t open fire on its citizenry (or at least not when the news hounds are looking), you can buy likker, wine, and bacon and really, what more is there?

But yeah. Plan to be exhausted for a while–weeks after the move is finished and you think you’re “settled,” you’ll realize that you’ve never been this tired in your life. Holding it together for everyone else can wear a person down to the nubs, so be ready to be easy with yourself. Sit a lot. Maybe lie down occasionally. Drink, if you’re a drinker. And kiss your efficient type-A New Yorker self good-bye for a while. She’ll still be there when you return. I’m finding that actually if you move more slowly, it’s okay. It feels weird but everything mostly gets done (mostly) and no one else seems to be moving super fast. It’s not a very efficient city. It’s not Rome, but it’s not Manhattan, either.  On the weekends, you’ll maybe hear about this festival, or that exhibit, or that kid-friendly event, and you’ll be all “okay! we are totally there and we’re getting there at 10am and really seize day, dammit.”

That’s a great idea except that all those special events open at like, 2.  Maybe 3.  But if you go to that event at 11pm or midnight? There will be tons of little kids running around having a great time.

You will be fascinated by the contradictions and weirdnesses of this place. I’m trying to dig deeper but it’s hard to find ways out of the expat bubble–and inside the expat bubble, it’s easy to float along with relative freedom. It’s not Riyadh; you’re not going to be stared at (or worse) if your arms are exposed or your hair or god forbid your knees.

That said, however, as KSB asked in this comment, it is a city that has different attitudes for different shades of skin. It’s a city with two or three (or ten) tiers: the one I live on, for white euro/north americans, is pretty comfortable. For others, it’s less comfortable. Husband, with his brown skin, is asked for ID every time he goes into the boys’ school, while I waltz by the security kiosk and no one even blinks. And a (white) colleague here has a wife who is from South Asia, and she is not treated with the same deference I am.  As for “locals?” Emiratis rarely cross paths with expats, unless you work in one of the corporate offices owned by the government.

So no, it’s not perfect by a long shot. But there are interesting people here doing interesting things–a group started a farmer’s market; there are people making art and music and working for conservation effots. And, as with anywhere, there is an idiot contingent, most of whom drive around in polysyllabic fancy cars that end in “i” – Maserati, Ferrari, whateveri. I don’t even blink any more when a Lamborghini pulls up next to me at the stoplight. I see a yellow one around a lot that always looks to me like the swiss cheese hats that Green Bay Packer fans wear on their heads.

Anyway.  It’s an easy place, in a lot of ways – which means the weirdnesses sneak up on you with a WHAP when you’re least expecting it. Little stuff, like WHAT DO YOU MEAN I  CANT BUY PURE VANILLA EXTRACT?  WHY DO FURNITURE STORES ONLY SELL CARMELA SOPRANO’S CASTOFFS? I NEED A LICENSE TO BUY BOOZE? VEAL BACON?  There are big weirdnesses too, but I’ll save those for later, after you’ve already bought your plane tickets.

Here’s the thing: the weather is (mostly) lovely; there are good restaurants; the people you’ll be working with are terrific; it’s a kid friendly city; you’ll do yoga on the beach and kayak in the mangroves; it’s safe and quiet and relatively clean.

And every day–even on those teary, exhausting, pull-your-hair-out-crazy days–you’ll get an absolutely gobsmacking sunset that makes you really glad you don’t live in the concrete canyons of Lower Manhattan anymore.

Yes, you’re going to cry, but mostly? You’re going to be fine.



(that’s really how the sunset looked tonight, I promise – no camera enhancements whatsoever)


linking up this post to Bees with Honey – thanks Bruna!

Let's BEE Friends

Continue Reading · on February 8, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, moving, NYC, Travel, UAE, What’s It Like?

the ATM, the workers, and me–the white girl

A little while back, on a Friday morning, Caleb and I walked out of the front of our building on our way to his first-ever Abu Dhabi playdate. We were running late, but I needed to stop and get cash from the ATM machine built into the front of our building.

Standing in front of the machine was a group of about ten laborers, all wearing the bright blue jumpsuits of the street-cleaning crews.  They didn’t notice me as they laughed and chatted and took turns inserting their bank cards into the machine.

I figured it would take at least fifteen minutes for them all to finish their transactions, so I turned back around to ask the desk attendant in our lobby if he knew where I would find the next closest ATM.  He came out to the street–his uniform, of white shirt, black trousers, a jazzy tie, and some sort of epaulet type thing on his shoulders, looked much spiffier than the other men’s grimy blue coveralls.  Instead of pointing me towards the next ATM, he said something in a language I didn’t understand (Urdu? Tagalog? Arabic? Hindi?), jerked his chin at the men, and then waved his hand at me.

The laborers melted away from the ATM like ghosts and stood quietly to one side.

What to do?  I didn’t want to cause the desk attendant to lose face, so I didn’t want to not use the ATM. That would make him look bad in front of men he clearly considered to be his inferiors.  And yet the workers were there first, obviously, which means they should’ve been able to finish their business before I got my turn.

They all stared at me, waiting.  I felt Caleb’s head swiveling, looking at the desk attendant, looking at the laborers, looking at me.

I smiled, muttered my best “shukran” (Arabic for “thank you” — although I have no idea if anyone involved in this situation was a native Arabic speaker), got my money, muttered another thank-you, and darted to the curb with Caleb to hail a cab to his friend’s house.

In the back of the cab, Caleb said “mommy, why’d that man make the other guys let us go first?”

How to answer?  “Well,” I said, “those men were workers, and so the man in our building thought–”

Caleb interrupted: “I know. It’s because that machine is on our building. So it’s like it’s ours. So we get to use it first.”

I stopped. “Yep,” I said. “That’s right. It’s our machine.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget here, in this city of expats (only about 19% of the population is native Emirati), that we’re living in a culture very different from our own.  You can trot around reveling in the weather and the deep blue sky and imagine you live outside LA, maybe, or Houston.  And then sometimes, whammo, my whiteness and my outsiderness sinks right down into my bones until I spin around in my head like a dervish. I have privilege because I’m a white expat; I have no privilege because I’m a woman; I am deferred to because I am a woman; I am suspect because I am white.

So yes, you’re right. I did bail on the teachable moment. I have a feeling that, unfortunately, there will be plenty more where that one came from.

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Continue Reading · on December 10, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, Children, expat, UAE, Uncategorized, What’s It Like?

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