A few months ago, I was lucky enough to have two of my close female relatives for a visit. Now that I no longer consider myself to be a newbie expat, these occasions are much more exciting than before, simply because I’ve actually got a life to show them now. Any visitors I had in my first year were treated to an empty apartment, erratic driving (I was still scared then), and disappointing visits to the wrong fort (I didn’t know about the good one yet).
Not so now. There’s furniture, a partner, a social life, and a happiness and confidence that comes only from absolutely loving your life after fleeing your home country before. Apparently it’s quite nice for your loved ones to witness.
On their first day, which just happened to be a Friday (the first day of the Middle East weekend), a driver collects us and takes us to brunch at The Golden Tulip Hotel. This needs explaining for the non-expats here - brunch in England means bacon and avocado on toast and catching up with friends at 11am. Brunch in Bahrain is A. Big. Thing. All of the hotels provide an all-you-can-eat buffet with varying degrees of deliciousness and quality, depending on which hotel and how much you have paid. This will be anywhere between 18BD (approximately thirty-five pounds) for something reminiscent of school-dinners, and 45BD (around ninety pounds) for high-end lobster and caviar. Oh, and it’s all you can drink too... yes, alcohol. NOW you’re interested, right?
The Golden Tulip falls around the middle of the scale, and is, hands down my favourite brunch yet. I’ve not been to even half of them though, so don’t take my word as the truth. However it combines decent food with decent cocktails for a decent price, which is refreshing on an island of extortionate rates for everything remotely nice or fun. It also has a laid-back yet lively atmosphere that ensures you have a ton of fun, without the lairy vibe of some of the cheaper ones, mostly frequented by navy boys on the prowl and those who wish to leave without all of their senses intact.
My visitors' eyes widen as they take in the buffet. Sushi is arranged in brightly-coloured parcels, crabs and lobsters glisten on beds of ice, and on each of the four food stands, bowls of pasta, salads, plates of pastries and twelve kinds of bread wait to be selected. A rainbow selection of fruits and miniature portions of cake are presented on the desert stand, and chefs outside stand at a barbecue, waiting to sizzle up whatever succulent cut of meat or fish you would like.
A waitress brings us sparkling wine, and we are off. The tiny, energetic Filipino singer sashays around the room singing party tunes, encouraging diners to join in on the microphone. A man dressed as a clown makes balloon animals, while a small table offers Henna designs for any lady who would like her hands decorating. Some diners are westerners, some are Arab, including one mountain of a man near us wearing a bright red baseball cap, box-fresh trainers and a spotless white thobe, whom we nickname DJ Khalid. The drinks flow, and I can’t help but laugh as I watch my visitors disbelievingly take in the sheer lunacy of it all, remembering how my mind boggled during my first brunch here two years ago. Brunch is not a meal, or even a meal and drinks, it is an event, and one that you better be prepared to write off your entire day for. If you’re doing it right.
That night we go back to our compound, eat and drink some more with our neighbours around a fire, and swim in the sea with the lights of the Saudi causeway twinkling at us from the distance. Such evenings have become the norm for me in the last couple of years, but my visitors are as excited and enthusiastic as if they were at a five-star resort holiday in Spain.
The next few days pass in a blur of morning coffees and non-stop gossiping, lunches in Adliya, and a spot of shopping at City Centre Mall - approximately ten times the size of the shopping centre back home, and received with wide-eyed wonderment by my companions.
One day we have breakfast at a local restaurant called Emmawash. This is frequented by locals and westerners alike, and is well-known in the expat circle as the place to take visitors if they want a traditional Arabic dining experience.
The walls are adorned with different-coloured writing from diners, and we climb some steep wooden stairs to go upstairs, where we remove our shoes and sit on the Arabic cushions on the floor. Families sit around us wearing their abayas and thobes, conversing comfortably in low voices, and letting their children crawl around in delight on the carpet and colour in the windows with the marker pens provided.
Breakfast consists of spicy dahl, beans, Arabic breads, flavourful chicken and strong, herb-smelling tea. I remember how upon coming to Bahrain, I couldn’t think of anything worse than eating spicy food and meat for breakfast, a sentiment which is echoed by my visitors until they try it, and exclaim how delicious it all is. We write on the walls to mark our presence, and off we go with full tummies and a little bit of local tradition under our belt.
Our next stop is the Grand Mosque, the biggest mosque in Bahrain, and a stunning sight to behold. It’s name matches its appearance perfectly, and its exterior beauty is continued by the stunning architecture inside. Visitors are required to dress modestly, and as women must cover their hair to be inside, we are provided with a black abaya and headscarf inside the entrance. We have a self-conscious giggle as we see each other in our new, modest outfits, then behave ourselves as the tour starts from the library.
We have to remove our shoes, and as we pad across the huge expanse of carpet in the main room, our gazes stretch up the huge fibreglass dome above us – one of the largest in the world. Our guide is softly spoken, friendly and knowledgeable, instantly making us feel at ease and encouraging our questions about the building and the Muslim faith.
The time is just past midday, and an older gentleman shuffles barefoot towards a large microphone at the front of the mosque. Our guide tells us we will hear the call to prayer, which happens five times each day at similar times, and the group falls silent as we listen to the melodic baritone echoing across the halls. Despite hearing the call to prayer across the island every day since I arrived here, I have never experienced it first-hand so closely, and the hairs on my arms stand on end with awe. We watch reverently for a few minutes before continuing our tour, and are then allowed to wander freely to take pictures of the upper gallery and sunlit courtyard.
Of course the best thing about having visitors as an expat is getting to spend quality time with loved ones. The things I miss most from home is just day-to-day hanging out with those I love - going to my dad’s for dinner, coffee dates with my mum, or gossiping over a bottle of wine with my oldest friends.
Another lovely part of having visitors is slightly more ego-centrical – the satisfaction of showing off the fruits of your labour. Despite the huge number of expats in the Middle East, most people report similar experiences of going back home – people think you’re mad to have picked up your life and left everything you know, and they don’t know what your daily life looks like any more. It’s often found that people’s heads are filled with hyped-up news stories and preconceptions of the Middle East, and it can be tricky dispelling those myths without getting frustrated. Having visitors is a great way for them to see everything first-hand, and understand your new life from their own experience.
One other benefit that I didn’t anticipate however, was the genuine feeling of happiness and gratitude that I got from seeing Bahrain, through fresh eyes. All too often, things that we experience every day become the norm, even those that we once thought we would never take for granted. Even with the best of intentions, the sun, sea and sand become part of the daily scenery. You look past the domes and turrets of mosques rising over the rooftops because you’re driving to work. The spectacular sunrise happens every morning, and your curiosity in exploring the treasures of the local markets are overtaken by the errands you need to run. It was nice to have a reminder of how very lucky I am to be here, and what a wonderful little piece of the world I have.
Wherever you are, and whatever you life looks like, don’t forget to stop and look for the beauty, the history, the wonder of your surroundings. And remember how very lucky you are.
We’re almost halfway through the first term here in Bahrain, and I’ve been reminded daily of the absolute bloody carnage of trying to take a bunch of five-year olds who have been on holiday for nine weeks, and turn them into something resembling humans learning things. It’s got me thinking about the things that you don’t know about teaching until you’re actually committed, and by then it’s too late - you’ve got your QTS, your classroom, your crippling student debt. There are obviously different challenges depending on what age group you teach, but here are my top five for Infants:
1. 1. Children are annoying. Yes, I know they’re just children and probably the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, but hear me out here. During your teacher training you will have lectures on behaviour management strategies - how to discipline without corporal punishment, how to deal with a crier who won’t enter the classroom, how to get them to line up without shanking each other with a pencil sharpener blade, that kind of thing. At no point will anybody warn you that even the most well-mannered, well-behaved class will have you muttering “for fucks sake” (to yourself, silently of course) and reaching for the wine glass every. Single. Day. The bottom line is this. Because of their young age and developing social skills, children are essentially tiny self-centred creatures that haven’t learnt the art of not being a pain in the arse yet. They have a very limited sense of awareness, or personal space. You will spend your days being stepped on, bumped into, hit by a rogue swinging lunch-bag and spoken to with a bare centimetre between your face and the Fruitloop-breath of whichever munchkin is demanding your attention. They can’t walk anywhere without pirouetting, bouncing, pushing each other, touching everything they pass or falling over. Their little brains haven’t quite grasped yet the concept of some thoughts staying in their head, so your day is a constant (yes, that is constant) stream of high-pitched chatter about their play-dates, their birth (which they can obviously remember), their bleeding finger (it’s not bleeding) or their second cousin who lives in India. Which is fine if you’ve got nothing else to do, but you’ve got to get them to Expected Standard in twelve weeks and the original conversation was about capital letters. It’s already taken you twenty minutes of your lesson just to get them to remember what a letter is. As individuals, they are delightful and funny and you care about them a great deal. As a collective you feel like a zookeeper feeding penguins – just get in and get out again before they start belly-skidding into the water.
2. 2. Shop assistants will think you’re insane. You can spot a teacher a mile away from the things inside their shopping basket. We spend a lot of time teaching children concepts with “practical” activities, i.e. they think it's play when actually we’re assessing the shit out of their fine motor skills as they attempt to spell their name with alphabet spaghetti. You will purchase all manner of bizarre things, and all manner of normal things in enormous quantities. I was recently at a shop purchasing the year-group’s supply of stuff for a building activity. Thirty bags of marshmallows and fifteen packs of spaghetti pasta is no mean feat to load onto the conveyor belt inconspicuously. The woman behind me commented with a smile, “This looks like a fun party.” I explained my teacher/building activity situation, to which she laughed and showed me her own shopping basket of twenty cans of shaving foam. Early Years.
3. 3. You will never be finished work again. Teachers are never done. There is always something else to do, another book to mark, another step to implement, a learning strategy to research, a new report to read, another display board to put up. When I first started teaching, being a classic To-Do list type person, I struggled with the reality of my list being unending. I am never as productive as I want to be because some things, e.g. teach reading, try not to scream, are ongoing. The best way to manage it is just to accept that you can only do so much of your best at once, and draw a line under the rest. If you did everything that needed doing for each child every day, you would literally die in a week.
4. 4. You will frequently be dressed like a twat. The way to really help children to learn is to completely immerse them in an experience. Unfortunately for you (or fortunately, depending on your outlook), this means you will spend a large portion of your working life in fancy dress. In the last two years I’ve been dressed as a superhero, a fish, a cat, a farmer and even come to school in my pyjamas. Let’s be honest, there’s not many jobs where you get to do that. It’s pretty cool, unless you have a minor car accident on the way to work when you’re dressed as a pirate…
5. 5. You’ll be a better person. Apologies if this sounds enormously trite, but it really is an amazing job you’re doing. Nobody goes into teaching for the money. You will clench your teeth, and tear your hair, and shout when you don’t like shouting, and lose your voice, and occasionally do a little cry in the art cupboard. You will try and fail, then try again and fail in another spectacular way, then somehow, somewhere near the end of the year you’ll watch them write a story when they couldn’t even hold a pencil six months ago. All the effort of biting your tongue, smiling when you’re sick, being energetic, not swearing at a five-year old, not arguing with that difficult parent who questions every decision you make… it all takes a toll on you. You will find yourself more stressed, worried, more exhausted than ever before, yearning for the days when you worked in a call-centre and could tell a dirty joke with adults as you take half an hour to make a cup of tea. But, you will have more understanding, more professionalism, more awareness, more patience and kindness than you ever thought you were capable of owning. And that’s not a bad day’s work.
I haven’t written anything for quite a while, and it’s been something of a subconscious irritation to me. I’d promised myself that this year I would really concentrate on the blog - I enjoy writing, and it has the added bonus of saving me from sending fifty different messages back home, updating friends and relatives on my life.
There’s been no shortage of things to write about – surviving Ramadan as a non-Muslim, the departing of expat friends, and a mini-trip to Cyprus to meet my mum (we used to do that in our local Costa, but we’ve had to be a bit more creative now). But for some reason I couldn’t quite bring myself to sit down and formulate my thoughts into coherent sentences, never mind something vaguely interesting. Admittedly this was half down to pure exhaustion – a ten-week term with a bunch of also-exhausted six year olds really takes it out of you. But mostly, regardless of thought-provoking things happening, I just wasn’t feeling particularly inspired. I’d put a bit of pressure on myself to be interesting (since you know, a few dozen people read my blog), and when it came down to it, I just didn’t want to write.
I’ve noticed this feeling a lot lately, and I’ve put it down to age. Now I’m in my thirties, I have less and less patience with doing things because I feel like I should, or because other people want me to. As a teenager, and even into my twenties, I would tie myself up into anxious little knots, trying to please and appease everybody and their mates. Now though, I’m increasingly feeling a very strong sense that I don’t want to waste my time on activities that I don’t want to do, or fussing about things that aren’t important, or within my control.
Now there’s obviously some things that you can’t opt out of, just because you don’t feel like it. Although I’ve managed a couple of days this week without brushing my hair, I’m not about to forgo cleaning my teeth, paying my rent or going to work. But there’s been a definite shift this year in how I feel towards work, responsibilities and life in general.
I heard something on the radio about accepting things that come to you naturally with age. Sara Cox on the Radio 2 breakfast show (yes, I prefer that to Radio 1, don’t judge!) was busy taking comments from over-40s about things they’d happily started doing, that were considered sad. You know, gardening, listening to podcasts about history, knitting etc. The callers were hilarious in their unapologetic, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude about their age and lifestyle. It not only made me laugh, but it got me thinking. My friends and I spent so much time as teenagers wishing we were older, waiting to be a grown-up. Little did we know that our 18, 23 and even 28 year-old selves WOULDN’T HAVE A CLUE.
But now, here it is. Adulthood has arrived, parading around looking healthy and well-rested from all the early nights, chamomile tea and yoga. It enjoys Scrabble, low-key drinks with close friends, and healthy food. It has developed from a bedroom decorated with Slipknot posters, to a polite but firm request for children to refrain from eating ice cream on the new sofas. It has moisturising lotion on the nightstand, important books on the Kindle and likes to work out without posting a selfie.
My teenage self would roll her eyes derisively and call me a bore, a sellout, a saddo. Adult self responds with the finger, and contentedly carries on with her crossword.
I figured as you get older and maybe wiser, you can fight it, accept it or embrace it. I’ve decided on the latter, and it’s pretty liberating actually. Yes, I want window boxes to grow some herbs in my kitchen, and what of it? Gardening is cool!
And with that three-word sentence, my younger self has well and truly died. Probably loudly and dramatically, whilst proclaiming how unfair life is.
I’ve realised there’s a wonderful contentedness from accepting and appreciating the little things, and relaxing into who you are and what you like, with no thought or care for the outside world and what people think.
Maybe the reason I’ve felt so unable to write lately is that the name “Amateur Adult” just didn’t feel like the right fit any more. I have a good job, a happy relationship, a nice car and a dog that I cart around like a baby… I’m adulting all over the place!
So for that reason, I’ve decided on a name change. Well, that and the fact that I had a few complaints from people who had unsuspectingly searched for my blog on their lunch breaks by typing the words “amateur” and “adult” into Google…
Apparently those images are not OK on company computers.
So. Watch out for the new, improved and mature (sometimes) blog posts from an actual adult, and keep reading on my new blog, This Expat Life. Link to follow, when I've figured out technology.