EXPAT LIFE. THE REALITY

LOVE & MARRIAGE, MOTHER OF ALL LISTS, MOTHERHOOD, TRAVEL, WORK & MONEY

It’s a rainy Feb day and I am fantasising about life in the sunshine. Imagine waking up to blue skies every day – surely that’d be brilliant? Of course in my dream version of becoming an expat all the ‘mundane bits’ disappear. When of course the reality is far different: bills still need to paid, kids still needs to be raised and is the great weather as valuable as being near friends and family? Here Katy Granville gives the lowdown of being an expat in Dubai:

  • At first, it’s just like being on holiday. There’s lots of sunbathing, doing tourist-y stuff, and drinking cocktails on your new balcony until 3am.

  • Setting up your new place to live is exciting. We found a gorgeous 2 bedroom apartment in the trendy Marina area that was all the way up on the 40th floor. We kept pinching ourselves. Both my husband and I got very generous relocation allowances with our jobs, so it felt like all those late night trips to Ikea were funded with Monopoly money. We also used it to buy things like cocktail shakers and lilos.

  • Then the novelty wears off. For us, I would say this was after about a year. Reality begins to kick in.

  • The friends back home that you swore to stay in touch with, start to disappear. WhatsApp groups dry up. You stop getting invited to events on Facebook for so and so’s engagement party, or kid’s christening, or birthday bash. It’s understandable – realistically, everyone knows you’re not going to take a seven hour flight for one evening in the local pub, but you still feel a bit sad and left out.

  • But you are surprised by the people you do stay in contact with. If you had asked me ten years ago to write a list of the people – friends and family – that would come out to visit, it would be almost totally wrong. There are even some friends that we are closer to now we have moved over 4,000 miles away, then we were when we lived 10 miles apart.

  • Once you’ve got through this slump, it picks back up again and you start to feel settled. Your friendship group becomes smaller, but tighter. You’re no longer the new girl at work. You know where to order the best pizza from. You get better at navigating the local culture and social norms. And you stop counting down the months until your next trip back ‘home’, because actually, ‘home’ is where you are now.

  • Life becomes a lot more mundane than your friends and family in the UK imagine. The phone bill needs paying, the car insurance needs renewing, I need to do the big weekly food shop, schedule the baby’s next lot of vaccinations and get round to dropping the cat-sick-stained rug into the drycleaners. It’s not all sunset cocktails and palm trees.

  • Just as you think you’re fully acclimatized, something will slap you in the face and remind you that you’re still in a strange land.

  • The bonds you form with other expats are special. These friendships are like the pillars that underpin your whole expat existence. When life gets shaky, these are the people you will turn to, because they get it.

  • The six women I met at antenatal classes when I was pregnant with my first are like a family to me now. Every single one of us is of a different nationality and on paper, we have very little in common apart from the fact that we all had sex around the same time in 2015. But these women are my anchors, my lighthouse in the storm. Together we have navigated the terrifying newborn baby stage and the very testing toddler stage. I honestly believe that even if some of us have moved on from Dubai, we will still be sharing tales of woe from the teenager years.

  • But that’s another problem. Dubai’s a transient place and people move back to the UK or onto other places all the time. You have to get used to saying goodbye to the people you are closest to and it only gets harder.

  • Being pregnant, giving birth and raising kids in a different country is daunting. The approach in Dubai is quite different to back home, from the care you receive to opinions on things like pain relief in labour and weaning. Most of my Arab friends and colleagues thought I was insane for having a natural water birth with my first because it’s still a pretty new concept here. I had the same planned for #2 but a pretty intense induction kept me stuck on dry land.  

  • Maternity leave is short in Dubai. We’re talking three months max. But actually for me personally, that was ok. I was ready. I have a great job, lovely colleagues and an understanding HR who built me a cosy little room for pumping. My company also offer all working mums a two hour reduction in their working day every day until the baby turns one so I feel like I get to be both Katy with the career and Katy with the kids. I’m always fighting to find the balance between the two but I have a very supportive husband and a great nanny which is a huge help.

  • That’s another thing. If you told me ten years ago I would employ a nanny I would laugh. But she’s great and our house would not run without her. At the beginning I worried that I would get jealous of another person spending all day with my kids but I love that they love her and that she loves them.

  • You’ll be surprised by the things you miss from home. Every time my mum comes to visit, my husband asks her to bring several packs of crumpets. But none of those fancy Warburtons ones. He specifically requests the cheapy Sainsburys own brand ones that get squashed in the toaster.

  • You will laugh at what is on the shelves in the ‘British Food’ section of the local supermarket. Apparently we exist solely on a diet of Parma Violet sweets and Pot Noodles.

  • Trips back home are stressful. Sometimes you hide the fact that you’re home, so you don’t have to spend every second of every day trying to meet up with everyone. Actually, you just want to head to the nearest M&S and stock up on Percy Pigs.

  • But every time you’re heading to the airport, you feel a huge surge of guilt. Was this the last time you would see your elderly grandparents?

  • You becoming increasingly disconnected from stuff back home. I have friends who I no longer ask about their job or boyfriend, because actually, I’m sure they’ve changed job since I last spoke to them, and I can’t actually remember what their boyfriend is called, even though they’ve now been together for almost 4 years. There’s no longer enough to talk about and at the same time, there’s too much.

  • As a Politics graduate it shames me to say it, but you also become disengaged with political goings on in the UK. I don’t actually have much to say about Brexit, purely because I haven’t really followed it closely enough to have an informed opinion.

  • Unexpected people become an important part of your life. I guess it goes back to the ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling expats have. My Danish OB/GYN used to WhatsApp me heart emojis at 1 o’clock in the morning in the days following a really shitty miscarriage. We’re still in touch now even though she’s no longer in the country.

  • You feel a weird sense of pride when you realise your kids are expat kids. My eldest son Leo will start Arabic lessons in school in September and some of his best friends are from countries that even now, I would probably struggle to identify on a map. My youngest son Caspar eats food that I hadn’t even heard of ten years ago.

  • Being an expat definitely puts a strain on your marriage at the beginning. I felt a huge responsibility to make it work for us, as the initial move was all my idea. And in the first stage, when you’ve had a row and you’re sat in bed in a sulk, it’s easy to think ‘I want to go home.’

  • But being an expat is a really unique experience. And experiencing something unique together definitely brings you closer.

  • It’s easy to become nostalgic for things back home. The English passion for queueing and our emphasis on ‘manners’ come to mind. But you’ll also spot things in your new country and wonder why the UK doesn’t have the same – all the way from McDonalds delivery to a designated Minister for Happiness.

  • You do an internal eye roll every time you hear a misconception about Dubai. Yes, I can drive here. No, I won’t get my hands chopped off because I stole a towel from my gym.

  • For the first few years you are away, people love to ask you ‘so when are you moving home?’ After a while, they stop asking.

  • You stop even asking yourself that question. At first we always thought our time here was a short term thing. I scoffed at the idea of even considering trying for a baby while away from home. Eight years and two kids later, I honestly have no idea how much longer we will stay. But I do know that ‘going home’ isn’t no longer the default option. There’s a whole world of possibilities. Quite literally.

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

5 Comments

  • Reply Maria February 5, 2019 at 2:37 pm

    What a brilliant heart felt and real account….Iv not moved countries only counties but I can resonate with all you wrote. Thank you!

  • Reply Harold. S. Pearson February 6, 2019 at 5:18 am

    I am 77 years of age and have spent nearly 50 years working in developing countries in Africa and Asia working as a hands on industrial development engineer. I have raised two sons and a step son and daughter via a second marriage. Among my services was 3 years in Nigeria during the Biafran civil war, 7 years in Ethiopia (,76 to83) and 20 years in Cambodia (1998 to 2018) working on land mine clearance projects. Postings to locations such as Dubai are the luxury end of expat work!

  • Reply Jenna February 10, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    Love this…. I am currently in Abu Dhabi, moved here from Qatar and moving to Malaysia this year. I can sit and nod my head in agreement to almost all points. We have a 18month old son and his first birthday party had children from different nationalities… I miss home and being an expat mum can be hard if you don’t have your ‘village’ to support you which automatically back in the uk you have family and friends. The options to travel to meet new people and raise children to be culturally aware is just another positive to being an expat.

  • Reply Lisa February 10, 2019 at 9:32 pm

    A very honest and true account of being an expat. My Husband spent 6 years in Jeddah and I had the opportunity to spend 2 of those years with him once we where married. Yes Saudi is strict but i thoroughly enjoyed the experience I had there and the friends I made are now family. My Husband is an International school teacher and I had the opportunity to work in his previous school as a TA and I have to say it was lovely to see so many children of different nationalities altogether and we would like our daughter to experience going to an International school. We moved over to Houston 18 months ago and while we are classed as expats here life is not very different to the UK just a bit more expensive. We are hoping to move again this year but it wont be back to the UK as we are enjoying our expat experience. Yes we miss our Family and Friends but since we have been in the US we now have visitors unlike when we where in Jeddah, plus when we go home during the some of the school holidays our Family and Friends make us feel like we’ve never been away.

  • Reply Lucia February 11, 2019 at 1:02 am

    I’m not a mum, but have been living abroad for over 6 years now, and I’m happy to see stories about parenting outside your home country, since it’s the no. 1 thing that brings me anxiety about living far from family, followed by the death of a loved one. It’s comforting to see a family making it work abroad 🙂

    But, I would like to invite you all to think about the term expat and how much (usually white) privilege comes with it. Expat is almost exclusively used to refer to mostly white people from white English-speaking countries or western Europe, and it has been used, I my opinion, to create a category of better, ‘higher-level’ migrants. After all, I doubt most people refer to Philippino women working temporarily in the UAE as expats. I personally prefer to say foreign workers, or internationals.

  • Leave a Reply to Lisa Cancel Reply