Hello and welcome! No topic off-limits, my blog aims to dispel the myth that all expat mothers in Dubai are gin-swilling, diamond-clad, double-kissing Jumeriah Janes who continually palm their children off on the housemaid to hunt down the latest designer handbag (No really, we don’t!).
I had two things in mind for December: we were NOT going to do the Elf on the Shelf, and – for the first time in a decade – I was going to put up a real Christmas tree.
December 1st draws closer, and the day before, Son2 starts talking excitedly about the Elf.
He knows it’s me. He even calls it the Elf/Mummy. But that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm over the little fella’s arrival.
“Where do you think the Elf/Mummy will appear?” he asks, pinning me with an intent, knowing stare.
I can’t wriggle out of it. “I don’t know,” I say with a shrug. “Erm … You’ll find out in the morning.”
My certainty that this was the year I was NOT going to spend every night from 1-23 December moving a foot-tall plush doll around at midnight evaporated. (For those not in the festive loop, the Elf is sent by Santa Claus to check whether children are being “naughty or nice” – s/he flies off to the North Pole every night, and reappears every morning in a surprising new location in the house.)
Why can’t I shelve this elf?
“It’s okay,” I tell myself at midnight that night. “One more year of Elf/Mummy will be fun … Never mind that what starts out as a good idea quickly turns into a chore, especially when the Elves on the Shelves of 2017 can’t just alight on the toaster or on top of the fridge; kids expect them to be floating round the living room in a miniature hot-air balloon, or ziplining into the Christmas tree.
I suppose a bit of me thinks it’s cute that Son2 still wants to believe in the Elf/Mummy, and so I decide to go for it … But where the hell is the damn Elf? Where did I store him? Yawn. It’s 12.15am by now.
I look everywhere. I search all the cupboards upstairs, I practically crawl under the beds. I have a vague recollection of Son2 opening a drawer in July and coming face to face with the Elf, his eyes widening into saucers, the penny dropping. An image of the Elf being carried around in the dog’s mouth shortly after its discovery also springs to mind.
After a fruitless, late-night search, I give up. The Elf is missing, awol. And in the morning, Son2 is crushed with disappointment.
From then on, he asks every night about the Elf’s whereabouts. “Will he come tonight Mummy?” And, of course, after nearly two weeks of this, I buckle and order a new Elf online – only for the courier to knock at the door and hand over a box that Son2 rips open.
“Mum, the Elf’s here,” he calls out gleefully. “Souq.com [the UAE’s wannabe-Amazon] has delivered …” His voice tails off as I rush in and swipe the box away from under his nose.
Not quite how I’d planned Elf/Mummy’s first appearance.
In the meantime, I’ve got my hands on a real Christmas tree. It’s an extravagantly tall, shapely fir and it fills the Christmas-tree space by the patio doors perfectly. It’s shedding needles already, but it emits the most wonderful sharp, dark green, pine scent, and has springy branches with ample hanging space for baubles, tinsel and lights. I’ve ingeniously used green string to tie the trunk to a curtain hook on the wall, so our kitten (Cookie) can’t topple its six-foot splendour.
But Cookie has other ideas, of course. She scales the foliage like a monkey, causing every needle to quiver and a hundred more to drop to the floor, where there’s a dry, brittle carpet of green collecting. In collusion with the dog, she’s learnt how to bat the shiny baubles off, and then chases each ornament around the house, until the dog eats them. With just two days to go before Christmas, the bottom third of the tree is now in a rather sorry, naked state.
Christmas calamity #3 came yesterday, when I really felt like something sweet and discovered the boys had eaten all the chocolates from the tree, but had left the wrappers dangling from the branches (they were Lindt chocolates, too, the little blighters!). Then, today, we got home from a trip to see Paddington 2 to find the dog had opened all the presents.
The other day I found an old mixtape I’d made sometime last century. It was like discovering an artefact in a dig. A rectangular, plastic blast from the past. Fond memories sprung to my mind of recording off the radio during Simon Bates’ top 40 and copying albums.
A warm, fuzzy feeling washed over me.
I turned it over in my hands like a precious stone, and stared at it in wonder, remembering the excitement with which I used to compile these bulky tapes. I recalled the joy of swapping mixtapes with friends and listening to them on my Walkman, always carrying a pencil around to help me rewind.
“What’s THAT?” Son2 voice snapped me back to the present. He looked baffled. “Is it a phone?”
I laughed. “No, it’s a cassette tape. It plays music.”
He quickly lost interest, but then Son1’s curiosity was piqued. He picked up the rattly old tape, as confounded by it as his brother and equally oblivious to the joys of a new blank cassette waiting to be recorded onto. “What is it?”
“A music tape … I used to listen to these when I was a kid.”
“Really? How?” He looked for an on button, before holding it to his ear. “I can’t hear anything. Where do you plug the headphones in?”
“I know, you play it through the TV,” Son2 interrupted.
“No,” Son1 corrected. “They didn’t have TVs back then.”
I met a heroine of mine the other day: the Little Mermaid!
I’ve always loved Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul (and a prince, though the less said about him the better – he’s actually a bit of an idiot and treats her like a pet).
Re-reading the original fairy tale, and not the Disney adaptation (if you’re a fan of Ariel and her hair-forks and attempts to kiss people in boats, look away now), also reminded me that the 1837 fairy tale isn’t particularly suitable for reading to small kids enamoured by mermaids. It’s seriously gruesome: people dissolve, get stabbed, have oysters attached to them, and suffer all manner of other charming fates.
But I digress: my mum sent me a photo of when we visited Denmark’s famously winsome statue on a family holiday sometime in the 1980s. Once I’d got over laughing at my permed hair, I showed the photo (the bottom one) to Son1.
“Who do you think that is?” I asked him.
“You’ve no idea?”
“Two boys?” ventured Son1, puzzled.
“One of them is a girl!” I exclaimed.
“Ah, right.” He peered at my phone again, using his fingers to enlarge the photo. “The one with the small head and big hair?”
“Yep – so who is it?”
“It’s me – your mummy! When I was just a bit older than you.”
This raised a belly laugh – then, from left field, he came out with, “I didn’t think they had colour photos in those days.”
I was reminded this morning while visiting the car registration centre how lucky women are to enjoy such a VIP status in Dubai.
As DH and I skipped to the front of the queue – thanks to the fact I’m female – we shaved a good 15 minutes off this otherwise tiresome chore. Don’t mind if we do! Result.
When we first arrived in the UAE, it seemed odd to me that there were certain days when men weren’t allowed in the park. I lost count of the number of times we turned up at one of Dubai’s lush green public parks to find it was Ladies’ Day, giving DH a water-tight excuse to sneak off for a shawarma sandwich and a coffee while I schlepped inside to chase two hyperactive kiddos around. “Have fun,” he’d say with a cheery wave. “Keep an eye on your phone,” I’d tell him, through gritted teeth.
Our first villa was located in a compound where the facilities were segregated. There was a women-only indoor pool and gym, and next door an identical set-up for the men.
Now I take it for granted that women in the UAE are given numerous advantages. There are frustrations that’ll make you spit, but there are also women-only queues (which are much shorter) at government offices, ‘pink’ taxis with lady drivers, and Metro carriages exclusively for women and children (a God-send during rush hour).
In Abu Dhabi, the Al Wahda Mall has introduced a women’s only parking section, which is usually fairly empty and close to the door. And I can’t blog about the UAE being a great place for women without mentioning Ladies’ Nights at the city’s bars and clubs – an expat institution allowing women to enjoy a night out without spending a dime.
It all means I can say, with all honesty, to those overseas who don’t know the UAE: Yes we can drive. No, we don’t have to cover. And yes, we love having our own, fast-track queues.
I was determined today to video chat with my BF in London, who has been seriously ill and is recuperating at home. Now, I should say upfront that I’m hopeless with all these video-calling apps. Maybe it’s just me, but it takes me so long to get them working that I might as well just jump on a plane and turn up in person.
I had a go with FaceTime – which now seems to be called FaceTap. But no matter how much tap- tap- tapping I did, it wasn’t going to work – I’d forgotten that it’s blocked in the UAE.
So I turned to Whatsapp. There was a brief moment of elation in the UAE a few months ago when the voice and video-calling features on Whatsapp were unblocked. I remember the day well: we did a happy dance at work and, around the UAE, millions of expatriates called friends and family back home on Whatsapp – rendering the network so overloaded that it became unresponsive.
Holding my breath, I tapped my BF’s contact and then the Whatsapp video icon – it half worked! I could see and hear her, the inside of her London apartment filling the screen, blurred at first, and wonky, then coming into clear focus.
“I can only see your photo! I can’t hear you!” said my BF. Her lovely face, out of sync with the sound, assumed a puzzled expression as she peered at her screen.
After a minute or two of me sending ‘I can see you!’ messages, like some kind of breathy, deep-throated dirty caller, I had to give up on Whatsapp too.
So Skype. This was the answer, I decided. I knew it worked in the UAE as I’ve used it before – there was just the small problem of the app apparently vanishing from my devices and not being able to download it again as my Apple password wasn’t working. Here’s how it went:
I cycle through all my other passwords, try out the obvious, attempt to recall what was going on in my life at the time I made the password. Make sure I’m typing correctly. I even try meditating.
I mean really? To avoid having your identity stolen, use long passwords that contain digits, punctuation and no recognisable words. Make up a different password for every website –and change all of your passwords every 30 days. HAVE THESE SECURITY PUNDITS EVER LISTENED TO THEMSELVES? Apparently the inventor of passwords has even publicly said his creation is a ‘nightmare’.
The Geeks *want one*
My mind wanders to a press release I’d received about a new service in the UAE called Geeks. They promise to come and sort out all your technical problems, from setting up a cloud backup to installing a nanny cam (!) If Catherine the Great ever leaves us, I’m so going to hire a Geek to live in her room and never have any technical problems ever again!
The meditating failing, I get annoyed and want to throw my iPad out the window. I’m so sure one of the passwords I’m trying is the right one.
Eventually, I go about resetting my Apple password, using ‘my trusted phone number’, a combination of digits and the last of my will power.
And a message flashes up: ‘New password can’t be old password”
Minimalists the Lebanese are not, and so when my pilot brother-in-law got married this weekend (previously a confirmed bachelor – we’ve been waiting a looooong time for this!) it was a HUGE and spectacular extravaganza, held in a picturesque village set amid olive groves some 700 metres above the city of Beirut.
In Beirut, there is no such thing as less is more – it’s a case of the bigger the bolder, and the grander the better! Lebanese weddings are a true celebration of two families becoming one. Here are a few highlights from a crazy, magical night in the Lebanese mountains:
Fireworks: The Lebanese love fireworks. They’ll use any excuse to set them off! It’s traditional to have fireworks at Lebanese weddings and we watched mesmerised as bursts of fiery colour flashed into the clear night. Bright sparks of emerald green, magenta and sapphire blue pirouetted above my in-laws’ home, glittering the darkness like a paint palette exploding into the sky. After all, nothing says extravaganza quite like some good old fashioned fire crackers.
Romance: James and his beautiful Danish bride Theresa said their vows just as the sun was setting in an orangey-pink haze over Beirut. The city, laid out below, stretched alluringly across a headland jutting into the azure-blue, east Mediterranean sea. From above, the capital looks peaceful, almost sleepy. It’s anything but – on the ground, Beirut pulses with life, glamour and hedonism. The full-throated growl of a motorbike revving on the mountain road intruded like a profanity during the sermon, but somehow even this seemed fitting – welcome to Lebanon baby!
The feast: Middle Eastern culture places great emphasis on food, and nowhere is this more apparent than at weddings. The meal was Mezza style, with multiple platters of plentiful delicious food: shawarma on a rotisserie spit, falafel, kebabs, tabbouleh, fattoush, hummus and more, followed by baklava (sweet dessert pastries), ice cream and cake.
What a cake knife! Another Lebanese tradition common in Middle Eastern cultures is to cut the wedding cake with a sword. Here’s James and Theresa slicing their cake with the sword given as a gift to my mother-in-law at her own wedding.
Dancing: It’s not a Lebanese wedding if there’s no dancing. There was so much dancing on an outdoor patio lit with fairy lights that high heels had to be jettisoned. The bride and groom were lifted onto the shoulders of the stronger guests amid much whooping and pulsing of music; my youngest son, meanwhile, had earlier hid under the table, terrified at the sight of the belly dancer who seductively pulled guests onto the dance floor for a colourful and jiggly whirl around the twinkling terrace.
Pre-wedding party: A certain degree of stamina was required! Lebanese weddings can go on for a looooong time. The festivities commenced long before the actual wedding, with a pre-wedding party the night before attended by at least 30 guests. The actual wedding went on until 4am, and I believe that, four days later, some of the guests are still staying at the house!
The wedding was a cosmopolitan melting pot of friends and family from all round the world (California, Denmark, Dubai, Kenya, to name just a few), and a remarkable feat that only my mother- and father-in-law-extraordinaire could pull off!
On the one hand, you’re reminded how fast time is passing and feel nostalgic about years gone by when your kids wore pint-sized uniforms and looked so cute and small in their back-to-school Facebook photos.
On the other hand, you’re doing a happy dance and ready to pop some bottles because, HALLELUJAH, the summer is almost OVER.
But first, there’s all the organising to do – the buying of supplies and uniforms, the labeling of clothes, the food shopping for snacks and lunch boxes, the fitting of school shoes, and the brow-beating of your children to get them to finally do their holiday homework.
I saw a Tweet the other day that made me smile – Real American Dadass wrote: “Back to school shopping is kinda like Christmas shopping. It’s an expensive pain in the ass but it leads to a great celebration.”
How true this is, especially when the school uniform shop is as packed as the malls just before Christmas. Of course, we could have gone weeks ago, but that would have been too sensible and anyway my boys – who are shooting up like beanstalks – might have outgrown everything.
Son1, fast approaching his teens, was barely speaking to us as we drove to the store; Son2 wanted to know what reward he’d get for coming with us. I’d persuaded DH to come too, and he looked grim, the memory of being dragged to school uniform stores and made to try on countless items of clothes by his own mother still fresh in his mind.
The queue to park was the first sign of the upcoming chaos, then there was the look on the other parents’ faces: a sort of hollow-eyed, tense, almost defiant refusal to engage: I know we’re all in this together, I know it’s hell, but I’ve been waiting for 25 minutes so just let me hog this poor salesgirl for a bit longer, ok?
I joined the throng at a desk serving uniforms for our school, and tried to block out the soundtrack of impatient exclamations: “You’ve given me the wrong size!” “Do you have this in a 12?” “Don’t you have intermediate sizes?” “There’s threads coming out of this!” (Ironic that the store is called Threads.)
My children were jostling with each other like hamsters, and when made to try items on they pulled faces like they’d eaten a lemon.
“It fits fine Mum,” huffed Son1, even though the trousers were so tight they’d have cut off the blood supply to his lower body. He pulled a face again. “Can we go now?”
“Try these!” I handed him a larger size and he eyed me like I was giving him explosives.
In all fairness, the lady who helped us was fast and efficient, but then in the queue to pay, our escape plan came to a juddering halt. The dad in front was on a mission to organise tailoring. Our school requires blazers and the kids have to be measured so they fit properly. I’d accepted my fate that the tailor wasn’t available until Saturday, but not so this Dad. He wasn’t here on Sat. The woman on the only cash register began making phone calls – all round Dubai to track down another tailor.
Why I thought we’d get out of the shop anytime soon, I don’t know (Open more than one cash register? How ridiculous! That would be … customer service!)
“Excuse me, is there another till?” I ventured after a while. I tried to be polite.
“We’ve been waiting a long time too,” growled Frustrated Dad, deep lines burrowing their way across his forehead as though his kid had drawn them with a pencil. We glared at each other – unwittingly pitted against one another in a who’s been waiting the longest? contest.
But it worked. All of a sudden, a young salesboy woke up and noticed the queue snaking round the shop. We got out … just. Thank God that’s nearly (there’s still Saturday to go) over.
Ras al-Khaimah may not have all the immense, shiny, glass-and-steel spires of polished, tourist-ready Dubai, but as the UAE’s mountainous northern outpost it makes up for this with an abundance of rock.
The rugged Hajar Mountains, sweeping down to the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, are a well-known destination for thrill-seekers in the UAE looking to partake in rock-climbing, mountain biking and trekking. There are all sorts of companies that take groups of adults, children and families on adventure activities or camping trips. Team-building events amid the rocky terrain are also popular.
Full disclosure: We’ve only ever driven through the mountain range, on the way to hotels in Fujairah on the UAE’s east coast. But something just caught my eye that even I might be persuaded to try when it opens in December: the longest zip line in the world.
The zip line is set to be more than 28 soccer fields in length, with those experiencing the hair-raising journey expected to travel at speeds of between 90 to 130 kph. The cable itself will weigh in at seven tonnes and will consist of two lines, allowing friends and family to take part in the bucket list flight together.
Jebel Jais – the UAE’s tallest peak at 1,934 metres above sea level – will play host to the zip line. Its exact length is being kept a closely guarded secret until the multimillion-dollar adventure tourism project opens at the end of the year. Then it will be certified by Guinness World Records; the zip line is also expected to be named as the world’s highest.
I can see it now: me harnessed to the wire in a flying Superman position, the wind whistling past my ears, my cheeks sucked inwards against the acceleration … my eyes shut tight until the end.
This post was going to be about reaching THAT time of the school summer holiday, when you’re so over it and have become a twitchy, cranky mess, breaking out in zits and clawing at your skin because it’s been TEN weeks and the kids are STILL out of school.
You know how it is – they’re fighting and bored and so so loud – not to mention the fact they’ve been talking to you non-stop for ten weeks until it’s got to the point where you can see their mouths opening and closing but can’t really hear what they’re saying and you can do nothing but nod at whatever their moving lips are trying to assault you with.
And while I’m at it, I’m sure I’m not the only mum who has totally run out of things to do with them, having already ticked off two continents, nearly 40,000 kilometres of air travel and, as well as planes, taken them on a cruise ship, a boat, buses, scooters, bikes and trains.
But … that might come across as whining when I am truly grateful to have had this time with my boys.
Instead, it occurred to me that there are a few factors that make these last couple of weeks before school starts again quite unique (read: challenging) in Dubai.
Let’s start with the heat. It’s still as hot as Hades out there. Much of the compound’s communal greenery has been singed to within an inch of being set alight under the hottest sun on earth; large areas of plant life have sadly died. Where there were green, bushy shrubs, there are now dried up, tangly bush-skeletons shedding brown, curled-up, dead leaves onto the dusty paths. On my dog walks past these summer casualties, it all feels very post-apocalyptic – the burnt-out fag-end of a Dubai summer.
Not only that, but while the buildings are still standing, it’s as though the people have all gone. Some of them are still there, of course. They’re just indoors as it’s too hot to come out. They won’t properly resurface until school starts. But many are still away, not wanting the holiday bubble to burst just yet.
Our compound feels like a ghost town. The children who are back from their hols are climbing the walls cooped up at home, and, up the road at the Premier Inn, there are still lots of single-for-the-summer dads staring into their pints, indulging in the restaurant’s 50% off meal deals.
But in just a few more days, a week at the most, all the wives and families will be back. I’ll no longer have to twitchily scour the compound looking for familiar faces, searching hopefully for friends for my bored sons to play with. The compound will be back in business, the hammering on doors non-stop again as the children call for each other.
And then school will start. Followed, a month or so later, by the halcyon days of cooler temperatures and some of the best weather in the world. Bring it on!
Hang in there peeps …
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