Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leaving Abu Dhabi - Everything is Temporary

A month to the day after we left Abu Dhabi, Mark boarded an Airbus a380, on his way back. When will I return?

When expats arriving in Abu Dhabi first meet one another, they always ask, “How long have you been here?” And then, “Where do you live?” It’s an interesting topic because there, everything is stunningly new, shiny, and sky-high, with panoramic views across the city and the Arabian Gulf.

They may live on the 70th floor of a brand-new tower on Reem Island, or in a great location on the water like the Shangri-La, with a view of the Grand Mosque or the Ritz Carlton from the infinity pool.
Or maybe, in a neighborhood of spacious villas with lots of other expat families, and their kids and dogs.
Or like us, in an apartment compound with a mini-mall under construction a few feet away.

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One practical reason for these questions is that  you want to make friends with people who live nearby. The American Women’s Network coffees help people who live near one another find each other. It’s easier to socialize with people who live close, so you can walk home from the party. Or take a short taxi ride.

Next, everyone asks, “How long will you be here?” What makes this question so redundant and absurd is that nobody ever knows, and the asker, who knows this, asks anyway, and so it always ends: “Well, we think (some length of time,) but we’re not sure. Probably at least (shorter time.) It depends on (source of job uncertainty or level of frustration.)”

Yes, you never know. It’s the UAE. Ha-ha. Anything can happen. You meet people and, the next thing you know, they‘re gone.


So cliché, but we all found ourselves saying those words. I had that conversation dozens of times, if not a hundred. Leaving is a topic that most people are thinking about even as they arrive, and continue to think about on a daily basis. It colors the experience there. I knew from the beginning that our days in Abu Dhabi were numbered, and I wanted to get my feet under me as soon a possible, and understand this crazy place, because anything could happen. I wanted to experience everything, starting asap.

One of the first things I went to, looking to meet some people, was a chocolate event at the Fairmont Bab al Bahr. I got lost trying to find the hotel, even though it was only 5 minutes away from our apartment. I arrived a half hour late, but not too late to feel welcome and get my goodie bag with the apron and several types of chocolate. We learned about chocolate’s history and geography, and how to make a chocolate lava cake. Which I have not yet made, even though I used to love to make desserts. I was known for them, in fact.

Anyway. That day was important. There was a person there who I noticed because she had a big camera and was skulking around taking photos. She is in the striped top in the photo above. (I am next to the chef, because I am drawn to men who wield power. Or tall men in hats?) I realized that I had met her a few days before, and I had her phone number. Sensing a kindred spirit, I resolved to call her. And that’s how it works. You click, and from there you develop a clique of people who live near you and you can do things with. So that’s how Terry and I met. And I got my souvenir Fairmont apron.

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“When are you leaving?” That question became part of every conversation, because we were always leaving each other. Each time we got together, the talk migrated to a vacation – always to some enviable and tantalizing destination like Beijing or Bangkok, Singapore or the Seychelles, Tuscany or Turkey.

Or we talked about when we were going home to see family and when we were coming back. Home might be Australia, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, Oregon or Washington. Then finally, inexorably, someone would ask someone, “So, when are you … leaving?” Because the answer to that question was always news. It was news if it was still unknown, it was news if it was decided, it was news if it had changed, and it was news, especially, if the answer was the same as last time.

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And it was big news when the tickets were bought and the packing had commenced. Which often seemed to happen overnight.

So, what was it like, living over there? Well, here are some pieces of the real story. Without going into specific details, let me just say that working in the UAE is rife with uncertainty. There are so many expats there, and you never know why, exactly, they are there. Is it because they were recruited to a golden opportunity, selected from a field of top candidates? That was what I originally envisioned. But then I heard a Brit utter the unflattering acronym, FILTH. What’s that? “Failed In London, try Hong Kong.” So … there is a certain percentage of people who are there because they didn’t succeed elsewhere? And then, it didn’t take long to realize that sometimes, in fact often, the golden opportunity you think you are seizing has its tarnished elements. I knew of many situations where people came thinking they could accomplish something, only to find out, once they arrived, how different things were than what they thought. Or, that their benefits weren’t what they thought, or their contract had somehow changed, or was not being honored. It’s not America. Things happen more slowly, and often not at all. Or not in the way, and on the timeline, that they had envisioned.

Like us, for example. Maybe I had delusions of grandeur, but the second-floor apartment that the company provided us wasn’t as nice as I had envisioned, mainly because there was no view and no outdoor space, which I craved from day one. And the furniture, picked out by someone (male) in the company, was uncomfortable. The kitchen was dark, with no dishwasher. The oven control broke the first time we tried to use it. And the few lamps and other items of décor were – well, there is no other way to say it – BUTT UGLY. Oh, and there were more casserole dishes than plates, and I don’t even make casseroles. And we were given dozens of wine glasses, more than even we could use, but no coffee cups. I could go on, but you get it.

But it’s hard to complain when your employment agreement includes housing and utilities, a car complete with insurance and gas card, medical insurance, and business class flights at the beginning and end of your employment. Yes, I saw lots of people whose housing was, in my opinion, nicer than our apartment. But, did I really want to live in a tower? Not really. In a resort hotel? It had its good and bad features. And many people didn’t have a company car. We had one, because Mark needed it to get on base, although he carpooled often. And I liked our lap pool, just steps away, where I could swim in peace during the day.

We arrived in fall 2011 and settled in, but right from the start, we were talking exit strategy. At first, Mark thought we should leave the UAE at the end of December, 2013. Just make a clean break at the end of the year when the Abu Dhabi Cruiser Association sailing season was on hiatus for the holidays. Then, he suggested late January, 2014, so we could take advantage of more paid holidays and avoid the rush of travelers that time of year. In the UAE, there are no government holidays between the end of January and June – which is a very long dry spell, holiday-wise. Then Mark decided – with finality – that he wanted to leave at the end of his contract on March 31st.

But then, a certain high-ranking Emirati Army official with whom Mark is a favorite, and whom I shall call the “Customer,” got wind of the fact that Mark was planning on leaving, and he simply said, “You cannot leave. I forbid it!”

Forbid it? A contract is a contract, right? And when it’s over, it’s over. Right? Well, that is true. Mark’s contract was with the American company, and they accepted his resignation. However, the Emirati Customer was of a different mind. He suggested to Mark that he could, with one phone call, prevent him from leaving the UAE. For weeks, nay months, Mark talked about this as if it could really happen, and I always laughed. We would be detained at the airport? I couldn’t quite believe it. But, as time went by, after every casual meeting with the Customer, Mark would come home from work and repeat the story, and I began to believe it was true. Really? Our bags packed, we’re ready to go, and we’re not leaving on a jet plane? It’s called wasta. Clout, Influence. The ability to make things happen. Or stop things from happening.

Although it was surely more bluster than threat, it did make Mark reconsider his plans. The truth is that he had very mixed feelings about leaving the Emiratis that he's been working so closely with, has built a relationship with, and who still need his unique experience and expertise on the project.

So, Mark made a deal. He extended his contract for another two months. The first month he was on leave, taking care of some medical needs and business at home. Now he’s back in the UAE, working on base for a week, then taking off on a business trip to Strasbourg, Paris, and some place in Austria, visiting suppliers with the Customer. Then our hope is to negotiate a contract extension through this year, where he will provide technical expertise but not be working in the UAE full time.

Airbus a380 015So when we got to the airport in Dubai, ready to board the Airbus a380 to fly home in business class, with the cocktail lounge waiting for us, we didn’t feel like we were leaving permanently, but we felt like we were almost sneaking out. Would we really be going back there? Technically, we are still residents of the UAE because our resident visas are still valid, as long as we return within 6 months. October 8th, for me. Then, my visa expires in December, because it’s only good for three years. After that, I’ll be happy with a 30-day tourist visa.


I’ll be honest. I was really, really ready to come home. I am loving puttering around the house, thinking about painting a wall here, a ceiling there. Buying and installing new kitchen appliances, starting with the new fridge/freezer and dishwasher. Working in the yard, planting shrubs and pulling weeds. Planning to finish the deck, redo the bathrooms.

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I’ve been watching the amazing weather roll in – it’s May, it was 80 degrees last week, and this week it snowed! But the California poppies and purple penstemon are still getting ready to bloom! I spend a lot of time staring out the windows at our amazing views of Job’s Peak, Carson Valley, and Kingsbury Grade.


I find myself watching the jackrabbits, cottontails, mule deer, bluejays, magpies, quail, doves, chipmunks, squirrels, and lizards, all grazing in the yard. I can buy wine at the grocery store if I want to. Eat all the cherries, avocados, and asparagus that I want. I’ve been planting and plucking lettuce, kale, herbs, and onions in my planter box/cage.

But I’m not really ready to never go back to the Middle East, either. I want to return, stay in one of the many fabulous hotels, and take my two grown kids to see the UAE. I want them to see the crazy, insane, magical, futuristic city that is Dubai, with the amazing Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (at least for now) and all the others with their spires, squiggles, twists and tiaras.


And take them to the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which Mark, I am ashamed to disclose, has yet to visit.

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They would both love to go out into the desert, dune bashing in ATVs. Brian would love to jet-ski and go fishing.

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Nicole and I could paddle the mangroves together. We could rent boards or kayaks. I want them to see this place that is so, so different from any place we have ever been together, and yet has so much to offer us.


They would see the Arabs in their abayas and kanduras. They would meet our Emirati friends, and have a huge Arab meal while sitting on the floor. They would visit a camel farm. Maybe watch a camel race. They would see what it’s like to drive there.

Concord 006Why didn’t they come and visit us while we were living there? I sometimes wish they had but they didn’t, and for good reasons of which I must remind myself. They are still getting established, and can’t just take off and fly halfway around the world. When I went home to visit, I could see how involved they were with their own lives and how happy they were to see me – but it was hard to carve out the time, even on their turf.

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They didn’t have college breaks and weren’t between jobs, like some of my friends whose kids came and went with what seemed great frequency. And to be honest, my son Brian doesn’t much like flying. Will he even want to come all the way to the Middle East, given the opportunity? We’ll see.

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For my granddaughter, a trip to Disneyland with her best friend was a much better option.

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I think, in a way, I needed to discover my UAE before I could show it to them. I wanted to understand this strange, confounding place myself. If they came all the way over there, I wanted to know what to show them. Now, I think I do.

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We miss the wonderful friends we made. Most of the expats have, like us, moved on, and we hope to reunite with them in the USA. We are the Class of 2011-2014. But we were fortunate to have formed some strong bonds with Emiratis, as well. Not many expats have that opportunity. We will stay in touch with them, and I hope to see them again.

I don’t think we’ll ever completely leave. Arabia is now part of us, and we are part of Arabia.

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