I have a new coffee table. Big and square, it’s exactly the right height to rest my feet on while I sit on the couch. I have a new dining table, too, and in the kitchen cabinet there’s a new mixer—one of those fancy standing mixers with an attachment for mixing bread dough. Of course, in the two years I’ve lived in Abu Dhabi, I’ve made bread exactly three times, so I don’t know if I’ll ever use that mixer.
I bought the mixer as a memento, actually, from friends who are leaving Abu Dhabi permanently. They’re going back to the States after eight years abroad and the mixer won’t work on a US electrical current. The dining table and coffee table are also mementos, purchased from another set of friends also moving away.
Most major metropolitan areas have expat communities, whether the high-end corner office types or the unskilled workers who clean those offices, but in Abu Dhabi, the population seems more fluid than it is in other places. Sometimes, in fact, living here seems like living in Chile under Pinochet: one day you’re nodding and smiling at the nice couple with the little dog who live down the street, and then it’s two weeks gone and you realize their house has been vacant for days.
Where did they go with that little dog? Across town? Across the globe? Back “home,” wherever that might be? Did someone get sick, lose a job, get a job, have a baby, split up? I feel like I live in a city of unfinished stories and loose ends. Sometimes you get the full story: you say good-bye and all those other farewell things that you mean when you say them: “come visit,” and “we’ll visit,” and “there’s always facebook.” But more often than not, people just disappear; we notice for a minute and then life swirls on.
I suppose on the one hand, the optimistic view of these transient relationships would be to see a web of friendships spreading across the globe and to imagine that children who grow up in expat cultures will always have a friend’s couch to sleep on, no matter where they find themselves.
But on the pessimistic other hand, this fluid community creates a kind of tentativeness: why invest in a new friendship if that friendship will soon become long distance instead of down the street? This question seems particularly pressing at my age, which is to say no longer in the first bloom (or even the second bloom) of youth: I’m middle-aged, frequently crabby, often tired, all of which makes making friends really hard. All that small talk and getting-to-know-you chitchat? Really, who has time?
Except, of course, as Simone Weil once said, “being rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Without friends and the sense of community that friends provide, can we feel rooted anywhere? Are we supposed to carry our roots with us, like trees at a garden store, each with its root-ball tenderly wrapped in burlap to make it easier to transport—and transplant?
I have just moved to a new house, with every expectation of putting down our own roots, and as if to literalize the metaphor, there’s a little garden, where come September, I’m imagining frangipangi and jasmine, maybe a pot of herbs in a shady corner. I will cook for new friends in the neighborhood and try not to be crabby. Maybe I’ll even bake bread for these as yet unmet friends. After all, I have a mixer with just the right attachment.
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