A year and a day ago, Husband and I knelt in front of the departure counter at JFK, enroute to our new home in Abu Dhabi, and played “rearrange the suitcases” because two of our suitcases were over the weight allotment for international travel. Liam slunk behind a pillar so he could pretend he didn’t know us, while Caleb laughed at the sight of stuffed animals, Trader Joe’s multi-grain pancake mix, and pairs of shoes being tossed from one suitcase to another. Husband and I tried to pretend that we had everything under control as we shuffled around our belongings, but as our whispered cursing revealed, we were nervous wrecks trembling on the brink of disintegration.
Instead of shipping things to Abu Dhabi, we’d decided to max out our luggage allowance and bring everything with us in suitcases. Twelve suitcases, to be exact, each stuffed beyond capacity. Oh, and five or six carry-ons, plus entire satchels of anxiety. If the Joads from Grapes of Wrath had traveled by plane, we were what they would’ve looked like. At least we weren’t carrying livestock.
A year and a day later, I’m writing this post in the screen porch of a house we rented in Long Beach Island, “down the shore” in New Jersey (a completely Snooki-free zone, thank god), and right now that sweaty anxious moment in the airport seems like a dream. In fact, our entire life in Abu Dhabi seems like a dream. It’s easy to imagine that we’ll pack up from here, drive back into Manhattan to our cramped apartment and resume life as we knew it.
But no. For one thing, we don’t have an apartment in the city anymore; for another, I seem to have lost my New York callouses. When we were in the city last week, it seemed extraordinarily loud, crowded, dirty, and expensive–the things that out-of-towners always say about Manhattan. There were some perfect moments–a gathering of old friends for an evening picnic, a night at the Delacorte in Central Park with Husband, watching “Into the Woods,” lingering in the Met with my dear friend S. from San Francisco and then wending our way to a ladies lunch, complete with quartinos of crisp summer wine. Bliss.
But also? Sirens, and slow-moving tourists, and traffic jams along 14th street that seemed to last for days. I found myself thinking “at least in Abu Dhabi there’s a dedicated left turn lane, for god’s sake.” Yes. It’s true. I miss Abu Dhabi traffic patterns, despite the death-defying drivers slinging themselves into those turn lanes.
Trying to cram all my visiting into a week (and yes, I know, I missed many of you, apologies apologies apologies) meant moving fast: coffee downtown, lunch uptown, drinks in Queens. I felt winded all week; I don’t move that fast any more. My friends in New York move at a pace that I recognize but no longer practice. Some part of me feels like I’ve lost my macho mojo–I mean, I regularly used to win the “who is busiest of them all” competitions–but part of me is happy to have slowed down.
I spent this past year feeling as if I were floating, as if I were playing pretend in someone else’s life. It reminded me of those early days of parenthood, when I would wait for the “real mommy” to show up and take over, because I sure as hell didn’t know what I was doing. Remember those days? When you’d just drift through the day, sleepless and bemused, and just getting the laundry folded (okay, just getting the laundry washed) felt like an epic accomplishment? Yeah. Much of the first year of expat life felt like that.
Now, however, to continue my metaphor, it’s as if that damn baby has finally started kindergarten and I can get some of my life back. My brain is waking up: there’s a non-fiction book percolating, and a novel or two. I am discovering what expat writers have been discovering for generations: sometimes being on the outside is the best way to get at what’s inside.
So. A year. I’m looking forward to going back and–because ambivalence is my true homeland–I am also bereft at the thought of once again saying good-bye to my family and friends. This whole expat thing would be great if you could just bring all the people you love along with you, don’t you think? That’s what we were trying to do last year with our over-packed suitcases: cram “home” into our luggage so we wouldn’t be lonely.
But maybe loneliness is a fact of expat life, maybe it’s something you adjust to, like breathing in the Abu Dhabi heat or hearing the call to prayer and knowing what time it is.
I don’t know what will happen in this next year of expat life and I don’t know if these ideas stretching around in my head will amount to much. I know only one thing for sure: I am bloody well weighing all my damn suitcases before I get to the airport.
See how much I’ve learned in a year?
sunset from my apartment window in Abu Dhabi
Beatiful reflection that somehow made me cry. As a girl with an obsession with modern #expats in France, I think you’ve stated perfectly why being on the outside can be so poignant. Walking away around one’s former life, even of that former life seemed great is a strange ride. You couldn’t have written more perfectly.
awww…thanks. It’s funny to be outside, looking in, instead of being inside looking out. And it’s good for me, for my family, I think, to have this experience. A concrete reminder about the importance of context and that very little in life is absolute. I confess, though, that for all the good things of my life, I would love to go to Paris in the 20s & hang with THOSE expats. Now THEY were having an experience… plus they were so beautifully dressed.
Wisdom of the ages: we come so far to return to ourselves.
And the strength of our spirit: we can adjust to anything.
Me? Even small town life with a view of Bessie munching on clover across the field.
It was wonderful, wonderful to meet you.
You’re so right: even watching Bessie across the field, a person can dream and wander and write. I guess maybe it all comes down to Oz, right? (The Judy Garland one, not the prison-tv-show one)…you have to leave home to recognize home…It’s funny: people say “oh, I could never do that, move around the world…” but a person can do anything a person needs to, usually. It’s only in hindsight that we think “holy cats that was really effing hard.” But in the doing, in the moment? We’re just putting one foot in front of the other…towards the refrigerator for the brownie mix.
I feel like I so understand what you’re saying, even though my sole expat experience was 2 years living in London in my twenties. It was pre-email/internet though, so I felt really, really on my own. Even if it’s a false sense, I would think Facebook and all the other online connections can make you feel closer to home?
It’s funny, that whole internet thing – yes, FB/twitter/blogs – they’ve all become REALLY REAL to me in the past year. But at the same time, they make me aware of the distance: hey, look, everyone is doing a Labor Day thing…um, we don’t have that where I live right now. That sort of thing. But the internet–I read all you people while you’re asleep & I’m awake with coffee, trolling around for a conversation. You interwebbians, you MATTER.
How beautifuly you put into words feelings that I have felt as my fourth anniversary in Abu Dhabi is approaching.
We await your arrival,and then you and I can go on pretend walks and talk about real things knowing there is no rush to finish the conversation that started about nothing but ends with a cozy feeling inside. Waiting for you here at Home.
Ah, thank you Bahareh – our growing friendship is certainly a reason why the return to AD is less daunting. I am so looking forward to our morning walks and the energy they inspire.
Loved this post!
And that you’re now saying “bloody” rather than “effing”! 😉
I remember reading as you were preparing to leave and wondering how amazing yet scary yet thrilling yet confusing you must have felt. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to change. I think it was most evident whenever you talked about the boys and how fast they adjusted, even in a change of schools. We’re supposed to take our cues from them, right?
If it weren’t for the boys’ ability to adapt, nothing we’ve done in the past year would have been possible. I hadn’t really believed that whole “kids are so resilient” thing but now…I think it’s true. Or true-ish, anyway.
I’m so glad I didn’t read this before writing my memory of preparing to leave Spain.
I can relate to NYC not feeling (smelling, really) the same as I remember. Even though I return for a few hours every so often, I’ve found that I crave the electricity, but I am no longer sure I am willing to give up the more whole pace I’ve found 12 miles west. And the smells. Maybe it’s going soft, losing the callouses as you say, or maybe it’s just another step in my own evolution. I still intend to live my old age back in NYC though. 🙂
We have friends, slightly older than we are, who live most of the year in Easthampton, and say that when they can no longer drive or get around easily, they’re moving back into the city full time, because it’s the best place in the world to get old. I think they’re right. Although Paris & London are running in close second…