What’s your address? Everyone asked us that question before we moved to Abu Dhabi, as if they were really going to write actual letters that needed to be delivered to actual addresses.

As if.

But even if people were going to write letters to us, or send us packages of things I can’t find here (what I’ve learned is that what you can’t get in a certain place tells you more about that place than what you can get)…you couldn’t send it to my apartment.

I don’t really have an address. No one does.  There isn’t any home mail delivery in Abu Dhabi and there aren’t what you’d call street addresses, either.

I’m used to hopping in a cab and barking out the address of my destination New York style: 14th between 2nd and 3rd; Houston and Avenue D, south side.

Not here. Here everyone navigates by landmarks because instead of the streets having no name, ala U2, the streets have 2 or 3 names. Our building is on Electra Street. Also Sheikh Zayed the First Street. Also 7th street.  The nearest big cross street is Sheik Rashid Al Bin Maktoum Road. Also Old Airport Road. Also 2nd street.

To add another layer of fun to this larky layout is the fact that behind these multiply named streets, behind the tall buildings that line the wide avenues are honeycombs of shopping districts: tiny shops jammed along crisscrossing little alleys that have no names or numbers at all.

It’s a constant set of triangulations: to find one thing, you need to have one or two other things to orient against: the tailor who hemmed my pants said his shop was “behind Wear Mart and down from Swiss Arabian perfume store.”  The dry cleaner puts this address on the dry cleaning bags:

Not having street addresses creates a disconcerting sense of living in a small town—just turn left at old Mike’s café, drive on past Aunt Tilly’s shop—even though we’re surrounded by skyscrapers and multi-lane highways.

If you want mail, actual mail? You need one of these:

Instead of a post-box, though, many people get their mail delivered to their offices. To get a post-box, you need to fill out an application, turn in copies of your residence visa or passport, two passport photos (I have no idea why), and then of course you need to stand in a bureaucratic line (or two or three). Getting mail at the office means I get my beloved New Yorkers in print, as god intended them to be, but about two weeks after the fact.  You want to know what’s happening in the city in late August? I’m your gal.

What surprises me is how strange it seems not to get mail delivered here, to our apartment. Who knew that “getting the mail” was a ritual important enough that it would be missed?

We’re slowly putting together our routines—boys off to school in the mornings, Husband and I off to work—but I still don’t feel “at home” here.  And as I was roaming around taking pictures of post office boxes, I found a (slightly overstated) metaphor for these early days of expat life: I am an unknown letter…or, rather, a letter that hasn’t yet been addressed.