Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Canadian in Abu Dhabi turns 5 OR today is my Abuversary

Somewhere in the desert, 2009.

Five years ago today, I walked out of Abu Dhabi International Airport early in the morning, squinting out against the bright sunshine. There were five suitcases piled on my trolley, the Lululemon hoodie I was wearing was way too hot (and I didn't want to take it off for fear of exposing my shoulders) and the driver who was supposed to meet me did not show up.

I had never been to Abu Dhabi before, nor the UAE, nor the Gulf or the Middle East. (I'll confess this: I had to Google "Abu Dhabi" when I first heard about the job. Who was that idiot?) I had never been anywhere, not really, except for Europe and Mexico and Maui, and one eye-opening two-week trip to India two years prior. 

The prospect of finding a taxi to take me to the Ramee Hotel Apartments was terrifying. Everything terrified me, and later that night, I bawled out the window looking onto Muroor Road, trying not to think about the army of cockroaches in the kitchen and trying not to freak out about the life and people and great job I left behind. I cried a lot those first few months. Being surrounded by an instant posse of new friends, warm sunshine and lots of interesting work challenges did not diminish the deep culture shock I felt, the sense of displacement and disorientation and loss - made worse, I felt, by the fact that I had imposed it all on myself. 

It was hard for me to think positively in those days. There was one night in particular though, about two months after I arrived, as I was late-night crying again in my hotel apartment about some perceived injustice at work and slight from home, that it hit me with a jolt (it was almost like I heard a voice, to be honest). This, almost all of it, was entirely up to me. Sure, moving country and being on your own is hard - but it doesn't have to be that hard. 

Things turned around after that, and although I've never settled into expat life with the ease that I've seen - and envied - in others, even though it's always stayed kind of hard for me to live abroad, that piece of learned wisdom remains the most important lesson of my time here: I am responsible for my well-being, for how I look at the world, for my experiences and my happiness and my screw-ups, for how I treat others and let them treat me and for how I react to everything that happens - the good and the bad. 

I can't even begin to describe all that has happened in the last five years. The sun has literally almost never stopped shining, even when it rained a couple of times. I fell in love; made and lost friends - including the beautiful, funny, inimitable Rob Evans who left too soon and too far away from his family. I met crazy, off-the-wall people, amazing and lovely people, weird and odd people, some not-so-great types and some truly awful ones too, learning again that the best people for you stay and those that go, you just gotta let go.  

To the negative people, and there have been a shocking number, I say thank you. You have utterly fortified my positivity bone with your complaining. To all the observant blog readers who have taken the time to point out my many mistakes, I say yes, while I might be an editor, I don't have an editor here. And everyone needs one. (To all the camels I've encountered, and all those I haven't, you are perfection in an animal).

Back home things have stayed the same and utterly transformed. After losing my mom to pancreatic cancer 15 years ago, my dad remarried. I now have the most delightful niece and nephew (ages 3 and 1). Then, last summer, the worst kind of bombshell almost out of nowhere: a life-altering cancer diagnosis for my brother's wife, an amazing person and young mom to said niece and nephew. They are all coping back there, and coping remarkably well, and there is tons of hope for the future. Being far away while this all happened has been difficult beyond description, but not one bit as hard as the past 9 months have been for them.

On the lighter side, I've travelled to almost 20 countries and tackled an assortment of other challenges, including five years of writing this blog, my lovely job as an arts and life editor, turning a broadsheet section into a tabloid in a very short time with a tiny crew, the painfully slow writing of a novel, spinning and, of course, driving in the UAE. Guess what? Everything is hard, until you do it. Then it gets easier and soon, you wonder what the problem was. Yet no matter what you want to try, or how often, it's always fear that can back you down.

I've learned that although we are all so much the same, cultural differences are a chasm between us. I wonder, over and over, how many instances there have been that I have left others scratching their heads at my behaviour, so normal to me, so odd to them. 

I find these differences all the time now, in my delightful work circle that includes people from Jordan, Lebanon, Canada, the Philippines and the UK via South Africa. Did you know Arabs think Nescafe is the best coffee in the world? That if you serve Arabs one plate of food they can't understand where the spread is and think you are chinzy? That raising your voice and getting angry will get you nowhere (where does it though, really)? That kids can stay up and run around until all hours and still be okay? That people from the Philippines love to sing? That British people say alb-ee-no instead of albino?  That in the UK Stella Artois is considered a redneck beverage, for chavs to get a quick buzz from? I didn't either, and now I do. And that's not the half of it. 

When I passed back through the airport on my way back from a visit back to Canada last Friday night, the immigration official smiled when he looked at my place of employment on my visa, at my passport and all its stamps. For the first time I was told, warmly: "Welcome back". 

To those who ask, and thank you for your interest, I have no idea what I will do next or how I will (eventually, inevitably) make my way back home. I cannot believe, having vowed to move here for just 12 months, maybe two years, that I am still here. That in the future, as Tom Petty sings, I will again head into a sort of "great wide open", which is both terrifying and awesome at the same time. 

And so today, to be dramatic, as I face an anniversary I never thought I would have, and having changed and grown and stretched in ways I could never have imagined, I am immensely grateful and at a certain, weird peace. 

Because no matter what happens next, I do know this: I am so very, very glad that I came.


Macthomson said...

A great post, Ann Marie. There are times when I wish I was still there in Abu Dhabi, especially during this winter and so-called spring ("feels like" three degrees today in Munich!).

As for culture shock, I relish it! We moved from Scotland to the States when I was fifteen, then there were the 'swinging sixties' in London, the seventies in Paris. Then the Emirates were a wondeful interruption of my time in Germany.

You may find that you, too, want to continue globe-trotting for a while!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ann Marie for schooling me for 5 years about all things UAE without having to step in any camel shit myself. Keep up the good work and come home soon!

PS - always thought Stella Artois was no better than 50!!

Jennifer J said...

Excellent post. I've been reading your blog for the last few years, since I moved to the UAE (I'm a Canadian in Dubai), and I've really enjoyed your great mix of the wow! and what?! aspects of expat life. Onward to more adventures!

Gaia said...

Congratulations! I've followed your blog right from the start (I was a fresh graduate straight out of college and landed my first job in Abu Dhabi). Thanks for entertaining me with your anecdotes/escapades and good luck with your next venture!

Ann Marie said...

Thanks guys! Appreciate your kind words.

usman said...

HAPPY Anniversary, Very well written. I have been reading your blog from quite some time and like almost all of ur psots :)

ritch said...

From the bottom of my heart, I truly thank you for this post. I have been a long time follower of your blog and I must congratulate you, not just for writing this blog but letting us know that we are not ever alone in our journey whether it be here in Abu Dhabi or anywhere else in the world.

Silly me, I think I shed a tear while reading your post. Again, thank you.


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