Friday, August 3, 2012

A Prude Awakening

Repatriation. That's what they call it when you move back to your home country after a long absence, after a stint as a working resident, or an expat, in a foreign country. 2012 is our own Brady-Watts year of repatriation, re-immersion, even re-introduction back into American life, and it is almost as complicated as it sounds. And though we are anxious to fill out this next chapter of ours, the questions keep on coming as to what we miss, and what we were sad to leave behind us in the United Arab Emirates. The land of Sheikhs and camels and oil and the tallest building in the world.  And the guilty truth I am afraid, goes like this.

We will miss our winter weekends on the beaches of the Arabian Gulf. Cheap air tickets to Turkey and India and a daily dose of culture, foreign intrigue and all those folks un-American. We'll miss the wonderful maids. Our office coffee cup cleaners and mall bathroom attendants. The chai guys at the rental car office and gas pumpers in 122 degree weather (and don't forget cheap gas). And the ever so smiley and grateful  live-in nannies, efficient bus boys in deluxe food courts and the best most beautiful malls in the world. 

But at this very moment, I must coordinate our complicated multi-national move.  Our Dubai stuff, which arrived by ship, train and truck to Chicago, is now en route to our new Virginia house, while I sit watching our Colorado stuff get loaded for the trek to Virginia into a massive long-haul truck.  All while turning over the to-do list in my mind for enrolling the kids in new schools.  As my brother pointed out when we were shifting houses within Dubai, we now had too much junk in too many countries, and now it's in too many states. Whatever.  We are a family of five who has travelled the world and accumulated some stuff. Can someone please explain this to my husband?  

But our junk aside, after a seven month transition in Chicago, during which we found Billy an exciting DC consulting job, a lovely yellow Virginia house, and while the kids famously are about to change schools for the second time this year, we are excited about our prospects while still adjusting to our American life. 

But it has not been without some surprises and uncomfortable discoveries.  Though I hated self-censoring my blog in Dubai and the blacked out magazines on the racks in book shops, I did enjoy worry-free (blocked) Internet where the kids would never come across inappropriate YouTube, and clean, drug and alcohol-free radio.  I appreciate now,  not having to field questions about a massive condom ad across from the pediatrician's window as I did upon our return to Chicago.  So you see, a little gentle oppression of democratic freedoms does have its puritanical  advantages. It makes one become a prude. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Love it and Leave it

Having one day left in Dubai, and on the second day of a partial inexplicable power outage, with extension cords jerry-rigged around the place so that our maid's room and TV room have power,  I need to pause 'n ponder what it is I will miss and what I can't wait to leave behind.  With three and a half years in the Middle-east under our belts, and after completing a 3-year contract with the government colleges, I leave the place with mixed feelings;  those of great excitement (and trepidation) for what is next, as well as a certain sadness (and relief) over what we leave behind.

I will certainly miss the wonderful diversity of the children's schools - the European moms in skinny jeans, Arab moms in headscarves and veils, British school principals, Zimbabwean teachers, and the American moms who stand out for their volunteerism and a tendency to talk way too loud.  Never have I with such quickness found people to be friends with among both neighbors and colleagues.

I will definitely miss the fabulous winter weather, all the gorgeous places for al fresco dining, and the night time January BBQs.  But I will be happy not to suffer ever again through the oppressive 125-degree months, and the fear that your own skin is cooking when you find yourself unprepared in the summer sun.

I will surely miss the hotel pools where the burkini and string bikini sit side by side and where the smiley East-Asian staff will clean your sunglasses and bring you tiny bits of melon on a stick.  But what I will not miss, and yet I feel so sorry about, are the labor camps where thousands and thousands of toiling construction workers live in such poor cramped conditions while they build for Dubai its next 7-star hotel and the world's tallest most luxurious residences.

I will categorically (yet slightly shamefully) miss having a full-time housekeeper and the freedom to read the paper while someone is cooking our dinner, having someone to sweep up broken glass, wash nasty lunch boxes, iron Billy's shirts (and undershirts) and to wash dishes so I can help the kids with their homework.  All with a smile.  Chamry, Nazrin and Dilani.  We will miss you.

I will sweetly miss teaching the Emirati college gals, those crazy, decked out, emotional, teacher-dependent students, who taught me how to wear my make up, and how to trust in Allah when nothing else makes sense.  But I will not miss the rigid and chaotic and oppressive management of my place of employment.  I don't work there any more so I can be ever so slightly more candid in this space now.  Can you hear my great sigh of relief?

I will most absolutely and positively miss the proximity to the exotic places you can fly to from Dubai.  We've managed Jordan, India, Turkey, Oman, Italy and Croatia during our time here, and I only regret having not yet made it to Egypt and Sri Lanka and Cyprus.

What I am so truly happy to kiss goodbye are the reckless driving, irrational road rage, institutional classism, limited freedom of speech, the fact that it's illegal to curse and use your middle finger in public (some close calls for sure), the illogical and sporadically enforced modesty laws, the fabulous inefficacy of the phone company, the internet provider, the power company, the immigration office and the truly unbelievable landlords.

Now heading off to a good spell in Chicago, we are sure to get back to our American roots, while we fondly remember our Emirates Adventure.  Yalla!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hellen Keller. On Sheikh Zayed Road.

Fetching my 9-year-old Liam from the school library, we bumped into his school mate, whom I'll call 'Little A'.  This is the same sweet pal whose massive SUV Liam had ridden in, free-style you might say, with no seat belt on the infamous Sheikh Zayed Road, several weeks ago.  Little A, a gentle and super-smart boy, who according to Liam's teacher nudges Liam to care about his 'potential' in class, was very excited to see me and to ask when Liam could come around to play after school again.  I said well, maybe tomorrow.  Check with your Mom and I'll be happy to drive Liam over, as I had promised myself that Liam would not again ride in that car, with the family's driver, who doesn't bother to make the kids belt up.

But then Little A says:  But it's ok now.  We found a seat belt.  Under the seats. Liam can wear it.  

OK, I'm thinking.  Maybe my freaked-out-safety-mom lecture to Liam about being assertive in the cars of friends has trickled down.  Maybe he said something to Little A about not being allowed to ride home with him any more.  Let's explore this.  So I say: Well that's great.  I am glad you found the seat belts.  You will wear one too.  right?  

At this point, Mr. O'dell, the Canadian librarian takes an interest.  Mr. O'Dell says: Yes, everyone needs a seat belt.  

But Little A says:  No no no.  We are Muslim we have Allah.  And we didn't find all of the seat belts anyway.

Mr. O'dell and I shoot each other a look that says two things:  Number One:  Oh boy, can you believe what we are hearing?  And Number Two:  Here is an opportunity to make some impact, take some action, say something meaningful.  Or not.

And I say: Well Little A, that is not quite enough. And besides we are not Muslims anyway.  (I am now sounding as illogical as Little A).

Little A says:  No, no, no, don't worry.  Liam can wear a seat belt yes.  But then he holds out his hand.  And kind of like Helen Keller, he draws onto it with the other hand, almost as if signing the letters of his name.  We say this thing, says Little A, and we do this thing on our hand, which he shows me again.  You know, it protects us.  

Like a prayer? I say?  Can you say this prayer for Liam.  (All the more illogical I become as I reason with this child..)  And what about you.  Can you please ALSO wear your seat belt in the car?  You know, all the time?

Little A says (chuckling at this point, I am sure at the thought of his saying prayers for little Christian Liam):  OK.  Yes. I can do it for Liam too. And we can wear our belts.

I mean it Little A.

Yes, OK, yes. Can Liam come to my house then?  

And then I say, you know Little A, Mr. O'Dell and I, we are North Americans, safety is so important to us, and scientists know it's true that seat belts protect your life.  Keep you alive.  Right?

And Little A says, more seriously this time:  Really?  OK I see.  Can Liam come to my house then?  We will wear our belts.

Yes, I say, he can come.   But I have plenty of time.  I don't mind driving you guys myself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Romance, Intimacy and S-E-X on the Radio

The irony of maintaining your adventure blog is having the least amount of time for it when the most newsworthy and bloggable items are happening.  As well, when you find yourself unemployed, and imagine the bliss of having time for  'things that matter', you end up with much less free time than when you were giving 50 odd hours a week to your work.  What I mean to say is I how remiss I feel at not quite keeping up with this blog as I would have hoped.

But enough remorse, especially since I have two hours on my hands and lots to share.  But not to worry, I won't carry on here for pages.  Instead I vow anew to post more frequent sound bites (perhaps every Tuesday) about what I and my Brady-Watts clan are up to here in the United Arab Emirates, and for today, I'll be tooting my own horn.

Twice recently I landed on a radio show called 'Talking of Books', sponsored by Magrudy's bookshops here in Dubai.  My dear friend Thom got me roped in to the program to talk about the classic 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn', and I must say my debut was thrilling.  A bookish endeavor indeed, this going on the radio about a book.  But for someone who's always enjoyed a good yarn, and being rather militant about book clubs over the years, this was a welcome and thoroughly enjoyed opportunity.   During my first spell on the show, I got to talk about American culture, lovable characters, a daring author (Betty Smith) and I became so comfortable in my skin that the host invited me back again, for a chance to be the 'lead reviewer'.  So on I went, this time for an hour spot about a deep and quirky book called 1Q84, in which we are taken on a strange journey through modern Tokyo, through the eyes of a disturbed 17 year old girl.  The challenge in both cases was to lay out the themes, some of them rather adult-ish (erotic memories of your mom and a strange man, etc.), while not offending our mixed Western-Arab audience with reference to S-E-X and J-E-W-S.  Though I sweat through all layers of clothes both times on the show, I found the confidence to almost pull it off, using words like 'intimate' and 'bedroom' in place of 'sexy' and 'sex' (though a kind friend told me never again to refer to myself as a 'novice' on the radio waves), and as a result I've been asked to be a moderator at the Emirates Lit Fest next year.  Wish me luck!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy to Drive

The homework and pimple control, teachers notes and play dates, emotional middle school fits and all the miscellany of our children's daily schtick are under my jurisdiction now, since I am on a professional break.  Yes, the benefits of unemployment reach beyond the beach workouts on week days, for which, by the way, I received a lynching after gloating about it on Facebook.  Indeed, I am getting reacquainted with the world of my kids, while fine-tuning my choppy front crawl.

In the recent three years, with both parents (mostly) working, we said 'no' to outings that required too much parent help.  We avoided after-school activities and play dates unless they were in the neighborhood.  And we didn't commit to any bake sales, because saying 'yes' either meant overtaxing our nanny or relying on other parents to drive our kids around town.  Though we did manage without too much trouble and much to our children's delight, to send Krispy Kreme donuts on potluck days.

But without a proper job any more, I can say yes to play dates and I have ingredients stacked up on the counter for the Fall Concert Bake Sale this week.  If I could just figure out how to get my lousy Egyptian oven to cooperate.

But the trick now is determining when to 'just say no', being diplomatic with my kids' teachers and yes, trying my best to tolerate the other moms.  All are more easily said than done.  At least for me they are.

A few days ago, 9-year-old Liam arranged a play date with a lovely Pakistani kid whom I've met several times at school.  I made final transit arrangements with his mom over the phone.  The afternoon would go like this:  her driver would fetch the kids after school (only 4 in total), bring them to their residence, a place called 'Executive Towers', and I could pick Liam up a few hours later.

Considering the high fees we pay at this school, and the fact that this family has a driver, which is not  uncommon here, I wrongly assumed that the kids would be safely belted into the car for the 10 minute ride home.  The route to their towers, though short, includes the infamous Sheikh Zayed Road, a beautiful 16 lane automatic tollway through Dubai, where reckless drivers cause mayhem and daily wrecks.

All went well, Liam had an incident-free ride, followed by a few great hours at the Executive Towers, and I picked him up before dinner. However, though they do have a driver, two maids, and by Liam's description a 'really nice car',  this car does not actually have functioning seat belts.  Liam just said, 'Nope.  There weren't any.' After many discussions with my local college students about this issue, and knowing that big families actually have the seat belts removed (citing that they are a hindrance to fitting an over-sized family into the car) I know Liam was telling the truth.  But I figured wrongly, that my kids and their friends and people enrolled at our school had the same knowledge, the same sensitivity to safety, the same car-riding practice that we do.  And not for the first time on this Middle-East adventure of ours, I was wrong.  Potentially dead wrong.

So for now, as the next play date is on my turf, in my car and at my house, I can teach a safety thing or two to another kid.  The hard part is later, when I've got to tell the other mom that no, I am very sorry, for everyone's personal safety, Liam cannot ride in her car.  And since I do not have a job, I can honestly say, I will be happy to drive.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rolls Royce in the Carpool Lane

Two weeks into my new life in Dubai without a job,  here are some things to be observed:

  1. American moms talk the loudest
  2. You can't have enough bling on your flipflops for this lifestyle
  3. Massive marquee handbags are de rigeur among the moms here, especially Louis Vuitton 
  4. Flipping the bird still gets top billing in the local newspapers
  5. It is ok to drive your illegally black-tinted windowed-Bentley through the carpool lane, and stop it on the wrong side
  6. Race cars on Sheikh Zayed Road are even worse in broad daylight than they are on weekend evenings.  Who are these guys and why the reckless antics on work-days?
  7. Fake grass is way more expensive than wall-to-wall carpet  (OMG did I really just have fake turf installed in my yard... for shame)
  8. Most kids here have their hair combed (or moussed or braided)  by 'their maid'.  We still awkwardly insist on calling our helper a nanny or a housekeeper.  I mean, isn't the word 'maid' a bit antiquated, at least by American standards?
  9. The neighbor's helpers still don't like to see me washing my own car  (though perhaps I should do it without a jug of red wine nearby)
  10. And yes, I do miss the collegiality of work

However, after a hard-fought but rewarding three-year contract, I have returned to the UAE, to a new post.  I gave up my faculty job at the Higher Colleges of Technology and we're switching over to my husband's work visa,  which makes me his dependent in the eyes of immigration (as soon as his visa actually gets through, that is). So I am now driving the kids to school, checking out the PTA and having leisurely morning coffee.  Just call me Jumeirah Jane..

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Transcontinental Ham

Chicago roasted coffee, Illinois venison steaks, ground elk meat from Colorado and a few dozen pixies from Chicago's Fanny Mae candy. Along with butterscotch chips, real salami (the kind with pork), giant marshmallows, bacon, ham, and two cases of Girl Scout Cookies. The frozen meats, if packed properly in newspaper with giant ziplock bags swaddled in blue jeans, will survive the 24 hour door-to-door trip from Tinley Park to our freezer in Dubai, with only some mild thaw. Though I'm still trying to figure out the best way to transport a couple of dozen bagels to our freezer in Dubai. After three years of back and forth from the Middle-East, our routine is well-rehearsed, and the six giant bags and six carry-ons sit strewn across the 'packing room' in various states of dishevel as I blog away a little stress while I think over the best spot in the right bag for the 10 pound ham. Oh the ham.. So tasty in our Muslim country villa.

But the emotional toll it takes on everyone is never any different. Grandma says she always starts feeling bad at least 2 days before we leave, even when 7-year-old Rosie is raising cane. And as we wind down our time here after a 2-month summer in America, 9-year-old Liam starts asking how much time he's got left. What he really means is how many more bike rides on Grandma's suburban streets, how many more goodnight hugs from Gramps, and how many more breakfasts with his cousins and the dogs.

At the same time the kids are all looking forward to getting back home to our neighborhood in Dubai, to their international schools, to the beach that'll still be too hot to walk on when we get there on Sunday, to our Jordanian, Indian and New Zealand neighbors, to the most fabulous malls in the world, to the water parks, the schwarma stands and yes, to a doting housekeeper. But we are also going back to the reckless roads, the occasional cultural misunderstandings, the homesickness during Thanksgiving and to a place nearly a world away from our family's very solid American core. We are indeed so lucky yet so sad about leaving again that I really wonder is there something wrong with us?

And so it's at about this time when I get that low-grade headache, partly from the melancholy of leaving my parents in their giant house behind us, but also from the excitement of being re-united with Billy who's spent most of the summer without us working in the desert.

The most excellent part of this year's return is that I am not going back to my college faculty post. I am taking a break to soak in the Arabian culture from a new perspective, as our in-house homework over-seer, taxi-driver and piano page-turner. Wish me luck! And do come and visit.