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  • Writer's pictureLiz Totton

The Kind of Friends You Make Abroad

Cape Town, South Africa 1998

Cape Town, South Africa 1998

I thought I knew a lot about living overseas, and I kind of do. I have lived, studied and/or worked for over a year on three different continents and spent significant time on at least one other continent. Okay, one of those times in Europe was with my husband in London, but we were newlyweds–there was little to concern us other than where to live next.

Fast-forward twelve years.

I thought I knew a lot. I thought, “Sure, I can do this. I can move my family overseas–easy peasy. What’s to consider?” That was me last spring, this is me now.

What I neglected to consider was that, back when I lived abroad, it was just me. I was young. My parents were younger. I never needed much. I did not make a lot of money. I travelled light. My burdens were even lighter. I was carefree and independent.

Cheetah in the car, Dubai

Only in Dubai….

I expatriated with a husband, two daughters, a house full of furniture and memories. We left great friends and pets behind. We sold our souls for the Faustian bargain of travel, not for the fortune for which others may come to the Middle East. We simply wanted a place to work, school our daughters, hang our hats and chill as a family that was much closer to places in the world we wanted to see. We wanted to leap off the hamster wheel and try our luck! We had no grand visions of 7 star everything, BLING!, luxury, Porsches, Cheetahs as pets, household help (though that would be really nice), et al. We had a yen for a travel exit plan.

Square pegs

It’s complicated. What isn’t? Relationships are tricky. Why should life, which should and is be dominated by relationships, be any easier? Establishing yourself professionally is hard. I wouldn’t really know. While I apply for every decent-sounding job under the Arabian sun, my husband plods along daily trying to make this square hole of a country fit into his concentrically round, engineer’s vision of both how a country and a workplace should be run. Every day, that day’s damned square peg tries to jam itself into Rob’s perfect circle. I cannot imagine the daily frustration he endures.

While he toils thusly, I sometimes (truly, not often enough) have a mental health morning, such as the other day. Dalia, the consummate hostess, availed far too many lucky new friends with a homemade Sudanese-ish Brunch. To say that this brunch was thoughtful is an understatement. Dalia made and presented delectable food that might, on any given day, cause Martha Stewart to gasp, pause and book a flight outta New England for just a second to sample other world’s cuisines. It was that good!! Thank you, Dalia for this!!

Dalia's Brunch, Sudanese brunch

Dalia’s Beautiful Brunch

My friends here are very different than the ones I had at home. Both sets are wonderful, loyal, unique and giving. In the past ten years, most of the friends I made in the U.S. happened to be the parents of friends of my kids. The friends I have made, so far, here in Abu Dhabi were forged out of some odd sense of urgency. Some are the parents of my kids’ friends. Some are empty nesters. Some are young mothers. Here, you become friends really fast. You learn each other’s life stories: triumphs and struggles in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. My friends here come from all over the world. We, of course, share a common language, but we do not share a common cultural experience which makes getting to know each other much more exhilarating for a traveller, such as myself. What I have always loved most about travelling was learning each other’s history, both personal and cultural if you can even make that distinction—they are usually entwined just like the roots of a tree.

seahawks, jello-shots, superbowl 2014

A toast to my wonderful friends, back home, that toasted me during the Superbowl with my seriously juvenile weakness–Jell-o shots! I MISS YOU!! Friends. Yes, you too, Jell-o shots!! I just won’t venture into the Pork Fridge for you, Jell-O!

Here, we need to be supportive in a way usually reserved for one’s nuclear family. As expats, most of us have no family whatsoever: nuclear or extended. We must be prepared to be a shoulder to cry on to a complete stranger—soon to be your close friend—at any given moment. I should know. I did this just last week. It’s an amazingly equalizing and humbling experience to share some of your deepest worries and insecurities with a complete stranger. Dually, it’s joyful to share a laugh with a nod and wink about the hysterical aspects of expatriating. We find shared elation in the things that make no sense to us here from our foreign perspectives. We laugh and we laugh, I think, far more than we cry!

In the beginning, we bantered about our prospective time here in Abu Dhabi as though it were a prison sentence. It went a little like this when you met someone new.

Me: “Nice to meet you. How long have you been here. I have been here 6 weeks.You: “8 weeks. How long are you supposed to be living here in Abu Dhabi?”Me: “We are supposed to be doing 3-5. We’ll see.”You: “Me too. 3-5. We’ll see”

Most conversations went a little like that, with an exaggerated “Inshallah” or two. Not there is anything at all wrong with being here in Abu Dhabi. Again, I love it here, but it’s hard for many people to make sense of a new place. The professional life is–let’s just say–nothing like anyone’s home. Many of us with kids feel some natural guilt for uprooting our children out of perfectly comfortable existences elsewhere for our dreams of travel, distance locations, fantastic experiences and I guess I cannot leave out that specter of the mid-life crisis that haunts many of the 40+ set even if they don’t know it yet.  In case you were wondering about the preponderance of the radio stations play 80s and 90s music here, well that’s the sound of mid-life crisis radio, friend.

Now, I am feeling a bit more seasoned to life here in Abu Dhabi. I know my way around. I can speak some key phrases in Arabic–almost convincingly, but everyone still laughs when I speak Arabic. Why?! I can drive in the round-a-bouts like a pro—like a Formula One Driver (Seriously, I fit right in). I know where to buy most of the things that I require to make my home comfortable and meals familiar-ish. I learned how to do all this with the help of friends who were also new and lost here and with the grace of those who had were longer into their “sentences” and who knew the ropes. Thankfully, I have two sets of both here and they help me survive this roller-coaster of an expat life here in Abu Dhabi like a pro.


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