Five years ago, on a cold April day, I said my goodbyes to the UK and boarded a plane to Dubai to live.
Apprehensive, nervous, resentful even. I did NOT want to be an expat. Much less an expat in a place I had barely heard of let alone ever been too.
There was none of the excitement that moving abroad can bring. There was sullen glances, and moody silences as I contemplated just what my husband was asking me to do.
A whole new life ahead of me, new friends to meet, places to explore.
But I didn’t want to.
Grumpily, sulkily, we arrived. Three hours later I made it through customs, hot, sweaty and with a screaming six month old attached to my front. Precariously collecting my entire life onto a trolley we went out to meet my husband.
To begin our expat life.
The new girl in town.
I couldn’t be grumpy, or sulky, or indeed anything but positive. No matter how I felt inside I had to suck it up. Face the great unknown, meet people.
It wasn’t just me, it was my son as well. And as adorable as I knew he was, and still is, spending my days with only him for company was a sure fire way to drive me crazy.
So I went.
Nervous. Apprehensive. Still cross and grumpy. Always cross and grumpy. Squashing that down.
Fake smiles plastered on. Fake it til you make it attitude in place.
We went. Oh how we went, saying yes to every invitation that came our way. To the opening of an envelope, a walk around the mall. Anything. Everything.
We saw. And wondered in awe if we would ever get there. The easy glossy life that others portrayed.
We watched. And we watched. Everywhere we went we saw someone who we wanted to be. At coffee shops, at meet ups, in the supermarket, at playgroup.
And we saw you.
The ones who had it all together
Those expat wives and mums who were settled. Breezing along the mall, knowing which shops were way, the best place to get coffee, where to go to feed a baby. Chatting away, laughing even.
And there was me. And my son.
Hovering on the periphery. Not knowing how to approach you, how to find a coffee morning, how to integrate with these mystical expat wives.
Shy smiles turning into conversations.
How long have you been here? What does your husband do? Where are you from. Conversations spilling into advice, how to get around, where things are, what you need to know. Advice given freely, information overload.
Nodding eagerly, but my brain about to explode.
Then the baby wakes up. Demands attention. And food. Always food. Shyly looking around, seeing what to do, where I can go.
A kind word. A sincere smile.
They’ve been there. They understand. They want to help.
What I don’t understand yet is that they understand. I think they’re just being kind, feeling sorry for me. And that is not the case.
They’ve been there
And they remember.
The crippling loneliness as your husband goes off to work and you’re sat at home, staring at the same four walls again, children climbing them.
Getting lost going in a straight line, feeling as though you’ll never be able to navigate this city, much less breeze through to a friends house without using Google Maps.
The anxiety for your children, how are they coping, how can you help them?!
Where are the doctors, the hospitals, the dentists, the schools, the nurseries? Who are the best?
What are all these strange foods in the shops that other people throw wily nily into their baskets. Do they know something you don’t know? Will you be forever stuck buying brands of things that you know are safe?
Will you make friends? Have that close bond you see others with? Go to the ladies night, the book club, the restaurants?
You don’t ever think you’ll get there, that you’ll always be the new kid.
And all of a sudden without realising it, you’re the one advising. It’s you who is offering a smile to the shyly smiling new expat wife in town. The hand of friendship that you so eagerly grabbed and clung to as you felt you were drowning? Is now your hand being offered.
You’ve become the settled expat wife.
You aren’t grumpy and cross any more. In fact you’re loving it, embracing it, and revelling in it.
All of a sudden it’s been five years since you left the UK.
And although you have moved house four times since then, across two countries. You are now the settled expat wife. With the positive outlook. Smiling across at those who are new, seeing yourself five years ago mirrored in their eyes.
Knowing what they do not yet know, that this life embraces you if you let it, you learn to love it, to live it.
Yet you never forget, those first trembling moments of being a new expat wife. That feeling never leaves you. And no matter how settled you are, and you are settled, that is why you’ll always reach out to meet new people who might be struggling just as you were.