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Monday, April 21, 2014

Confessions of a (Rookie) Expat Wife

It’s been a month now since I’ve arrived in Abu Dhabi, and for the most part, I think I’m settling in nicely. In fact, I’m almost finding that my hysteria surrounding my coming to Abu Dhabi that I wrote about earlier on this blog is almost, ever so slightly, a bit embarrassing.

Already I can say that I love the sun, the beach, the golf, the food AND our apartment.

But I have to admit, I do have this sort of low-grade uneasy feeling of this new situation I’m in. And it’s certainly not about the place, but about finding my place in it.

One of the key deciding factors for us to come to Abu Dhabi was that tourism is growing here. So the thought was that not only would John be working, but I could potentially move my career forward as well as a marketing/public relations expert in the travel industry.  Sure, I applied to a few jobs before I got here but as things go when you’re breaking things down and then building things up again in a new place, the job search hit the back burner.

Now that I’ve had a few days on the beach and enjoyed a few rounds of golf, and know how to get around, I’m beginning the search again. But I realize this could take time. And luck. And persistence. And a little thing around here called ‘wasta.’

In the meantime, I’ve become what they call…

An Expat Wife.

And seriously, folks, I just don’t even know how to begin to describe what this entails.

For starters, there are the coffee mornings. 

The American Women's Network's Abu Dhabi bi-weekly coffee mornings
regularly attract crowds of 150+ ladies from around the world

Then there’s the golf. 

Golf at Yas Island - Ferrari World as the backdrop.

And the beach.  

The Beach at the Corniche

And let’s not forget the belly-dancing lessons (Oh, the belly-dancing lessons!). 

Attempting to shake my money-maker.

There’s also the mah jong, bridge and book club. And road trips. Awesome road trips to the Falcon Hospital and the Dubai Mall and the Souqs. 

And the beach parties.  And coffee.

And more coffee.

Did I mention the coffee?

And the truth is… I am such a ROOKIE at this!!!

I’ve never done the expat thing, but a lot of the women I have met have. They come from all over the world – the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Philippines. And they have lived all over. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia. And they are fascinating, savvy, no-nonsense, go-getting types of women. These are strong, brave women who know how to get things done.

I had a dream recently that I showed up at one of the many coffee mornings and everyone was wearing a Girl Scout-like sash with badges. They wore badges that indicated where they’ve lived, what activities they did, and badges that indicated everything they knew about being an expat. And being an expat in Abu Dhabi. 

And in this dream, they had a slew of badges, back and front. 

And me?  In this dream I have only one badge. And it says, “ROOKIE.”

Last week, John applied for my residence visa and in the line that said occupation, it read: HOUSEWIFE.


When I chatted with another woman who used to have a career before she came here a few years ago, she kind of shrugged and said, “So what?”

And that's just it. There’s an incredible ease about these women. They roll with the punches, take things as they come. This is an entirely different kind of life. A life where you need to be more open and flexible and always seek out creative ways to live and work and thrive. Maybe they'll work. Maybe they won't. So what. Life will continue. Opportunities will unfold.

Inshallah, at some point I will be working. But in the meantime, I need to RELAX and enjoy the ride that life is giving me right now. 

And while I don't think I need to find myself, it might not be a bad idea to just be a bit more comfortable with my situation and work to not feel quite so lost... because I'm not. I'm just getting used to my new surroundings. 

So I go and enjoy the golf. And I go and enjoy the beach.

And I consider Kerry's (one of John's friends from his expat stint in Nigeria) suggestions to sign up for the Scottish Folk Dancing, and Drama Club and to get in to the 'best damn shape of my life.'

And this guilt thing, I’m not sure if it's a New Yorker thing, a German work ethic thing, or just a ‘me, myself and I’ thing. Why should I feel guilty for having fun while the rest of it all shakes out? 

So I look at my to-do list, and sure, there’s stuff on it. Stuff that my husband even has to remind me about…

And yeah, I need to do a bit more job-hunting... but once you comb the job boards and look into the networking, you gotta fill up the time...

So I guess that means I could do the housekeeping, but hell, cleaning three bathrooms every week? Forget it.

And I could probably cook more.  But there are restaurants to check out, and delivery to take in.

And I have golf lessons, and book club to get to…

And suddenly, I realize, maybe I am starting to feel right at home. 

That's me!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Introducing... The Cats of the Corniche!

First of all, this isn't an easy thing to tell you, but...

John’s been cheating!

Meet Crinkle....

He’s one of the beautiful kitties who live along the Corniche, Abu Dhabi’s famed waterfront promenade and public park area.

Crinkle was named by a Kiwi couple who feed the kitties on the Corniche for his distinctive broken tail…(you can see the 'hook' in the photo above).

But when John first met him… and sent me photos of this singular cat… I called him

That’s because L’Orange bears an uncanny resemblance to our own orange fella, MIDO, our kitty that John has a very special bond with.

Seriously, don’t these two look like they were separated at birth?


The similarities don’t end there. They are also both quite territorial.

When John arrived in Abu Dhabi and was living in the Sofitel, he would regularly take walks and run along the Corniche. During his visits he spotted the cats… and then he spotted people feeding them. So, naturally, as a crazy cat lady himself, he joined in. :)

The walks and feeding became a bit of a ritual, but John really had a special bond with L’Orange. Every time John went to visit, it was like L’Orange was waiting for him... but he also got upset from time to time when other cats came near John...

L'Orange drinks from a fountain on the Corniche... reminds me of Life of Pi.

Now that Mido, Tessa and I have arrived, we’re trying our best to continue the tradition, and take walks along the Corniche and visit L’Orange when we can.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been as often as we’d like. :(

We suspect that L’Orange was someone’s house cat. He’s very friendly. He jumps up in John’s lap, and purrrrrrrrrrs like crazy.

We would take him in ourselves (really, we'd scoop him up in a heartbeat!) and think that L'Orange was most definitely someone's house pet who wasn't able to make the flight home when the Expats left, but we fear that Mido and L’Orange, because they are so similar in temperament and so smitten with their Cat Bro John... well, it could lead to lots of fights and just end badly. 

This makes us very sad. Though we know we can’t claim to know what’s best or right for L’Orange, we do have an offer on the table for anyone who reads this and is taken by this little fella...

If you are SERIOUSLY interested in adopting L’Orange, we will take care of the first vet visit fees. This means a check-up and neutering (if he hasn’t had that done yet…I haven’t looked too closely to be honest) and say, any other medical expenses up to... a reasonable amount.  

We think L’Orange would not only thrive as an only kitty in a household, but would also do well in a home with other cats where John isn’t! ;-) 

He needs a new slate of people to love... 

L'Orange is a cuddle-bunny. Gets ear rubs from John.
We’ve also seen him around children and he’s been extremely well-behaved and tolerant to children who have not had any exposure to house pets in the past.

Any takers? Purrrr-ty please….

I’m just learning more about all the animal welfare groups here in Abu Dhabi and will likely volunteer with one or another in coming weeks (should employment not be obtained as quickly as I’d like).  

Cats dining along the Corniche
Feline Friends is a very active group and well-regarded. They have a Facebook page and website here. Other organizations with Facebook groups are Animal Action – Abu Dhabi and in Dubai, the Bin Kitty Collective and Al Rahma Animal Welfare Society.

Also, it should be noted that the Abu Dhabi Emirate has a no-kill policy, and a Trap-Neuter-Return program is in place. The program is run through the Center for Waste Management (a rather unfortunate name for the good work they do in humanely helping to maintain the animal population) For more info, call 800-1122.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Shipping Cats to Abu Dhabi

Mido & Tessa, NYC
Any fan of the Garfield cartoon will know that there is a bit of irony in transporting your cats to Abu Dhabi. The place is full of them. On the upside, they don’t seem to be very mangy and there’s also a sub-culture of folks who look out for them (more on that in the next post). The downside is that if you’re not careful, you’ll have a houseful of forlorn kitties in no time.  As one shop owner said to John and me as we passed his shop and rubbed one homeless kitties’ ear, “You want? Take. Cats are free here.”

To start, I’m not ashamed to admit that Mido (our orange fella) and Tessa (our tuxedo gal) are really like our children. I never thought this way about pets before, and often looked at friends who would make that comment like they were a bit weird. But we love these kitties with all our hearts. When the opportunity arose for Abu Dhabi, transporting the cats was one of the things that kept weighing on me. Was putting the Mido and Tessa through transport worth the risk? Is it morally/ethically okay? Is it in their best interest?

For Mido, who has been with us since he was eight weeks old, it was a no-brainer. He’s happiest around John and me and leaving him behind would be far more traumatic to him that the flight. For Tessa, I wasn’t sure what was best. She loves sitting on our porch at home, watching the birds, getting nose to nose through the screen windows with the deer and just generally being as close to nature without having to use any survival skills of her own.  She wouldn’t have that in Abu Dhabi (at least not at first). Her backstory is that she showed up on our doorstep with fleas, ticks, worms… kind of on her last legs. After a visit to the vet and a night with us we invited her into our posse, and she accepted – on her own terms, of course!

There is a lot of great information about transporting pets to Abu Dhabi, and pretty much any place around the world. There’s also a lot of stuff on the internet that will make your heart sink about the transport of animals, especially to warm climates and such. We’ve all heard the stories about hot tarmacs, pets getting loose through TSA security checks and such, and like anyone, I was really concerned. Sure, there are horror stories, but for all the pets that get transported around the world, day in and out, the statistics are strongly in the pet's favor.

Of course, that’s me talking now that the cats have arrived. But holy hell, people, I lost sleep, found myself in tears and even tossing my cookies as the day approached to ship them. I think in the end, the cats were calming *me* down, sensing something big was about to happen to them/us as the apartment in NYC emptied out, John was AWOL and my stress pheromones were probably off the charts. At one point, I even considered contacting a pet communicator, who could perhaps inform Mido and Tessa of what was going to happen. 

Yeah, cat lady crazy talk, I know.  
"Break out the calming treats, Mom's acting weird!"
Anyway, rather than go through the steps that are clearly outlined in many blogs and through American Veterinary Clinic (the company we used and had a very positive experience with in helping us on the Abu Dhabi side of things, and really, coaching us through the US side as well), I'll just go through some of the other bits that seem to be left out in other places, and might help another pet owner along the line.
    First off, we didn’t use a professional shipper from the States. The cost was bordering on obscene and some of the shippers we looked into either didn’t respond to us, got snarky with our questions, and also were pretty adamant (read: non-negotiable) that we should ship our pets using KLM through Amsterdam, making our cats go through two flights, putting them through a layover (in a ‘pet hotel’) and then on to Abu Dhabi. For us, especially with our one cat (who spits and hisses at the vet), we thought it would safer to fly direct, non-stop, despite the long trip.

The paperwork isn’t as scary as you think. For shipping from the United States, the steps go like this:

- Get the cat’s shots and check-ups done as soon as you think you might be moving to Abu Dhabi. They need to have their rabies shots up to date and I believe, no sooner than 30 day prior to arriving in the UAE.

- After you have the vet paperwork, you apply for a UAE Pet Animals Import Permit.
This is only good for 30 days, so you need to keep your eye the calendar. For John and I, we basically decided on a target date for the cat's travel and from there, began the paperwork around it. Again, we used American Vet for this and they were great.

- Once the Pet Permit is provided by the UAE, it’s time to check in with your air carrier. For us, it was Etihad and we began the paperwork with them for shipping just about two weeks out from the cat’s targeted flight date.

- With the verbal okay that there was space with Etihad, it was time to get the cats their second round of vet checks. This needs to be done within ten days of their flying and is signed off on APHIS Form 7001 which basically is a statement saying the cats were in good health, are micro-chipped and don’t have rabies.

- From there, I took the form straight out the USDA Vet at JFK Airport to get signed and notarized. I thought this was going to be a minefield of problems. Would I be able to find the place? (Answer: Yes. The google map location is very accurate). Would this be a long line like going to the DMV or getting a passport? (Answer: No. It took me ten minutes and the people are friendly, helpful and clearly animal lovers given how the offices are decorated with photos and drawings of horses, dogs, birds, cats and other animals and wildlife).

- After that, it was time to finalize details with Etihad and get the kennels. John and I decided we’d opt for slightly larger crates for the cats, so that we could fit in a litter tray. That was the $1,000 mistake. I bought crates that could fit a medium sized dog and when the costs were finalized with Etihad, it was only then that we learned that we pay on volume, not weight, for cargo. Cha-Ching! But we were out of time on that front. I had more breaking down of apartment/house to do and couldn’t go out and rent a car for another day to get smaller kennels. Also, I recommend PetMate products for air travel. They seem sturdier (especially in terms of the locks and such) and are also IATA compliant (need to make sure that there are vents in the rear of your carrier, among other things).

- With the back and forth of paperwork with Etihad, I was also informed that we would have to pay with cash or check. Personal check was fine, but credit cards were not accepted. So make sure you have the cold hard cash handy, folks!

- Finally, with these two giant crates, I ended up hiring a Pet Taxi to get us all out to the airport. Another option would have been to rent an SUV on my own, but I was so stressed, I was afraid to drive. Then I worried and worried and worried that the Pet Taxi wouldn’t show up. Or that it wouldn’t be big enough for the crates. When the Pet Taxi lady showed up, I started crying (with joy). It was a mini van with the seats taken out of the back… plenty of room for all of us!  They also waited for me as I finalized the paperwork.

- Once we got to the cargo area, I was introduced to the Cargo Terminal foreman, who told me he was a pet owner and animal lover and that he would be personally seeing to it that the cats were boarded and everything set with the pilots (cabin climate control, etc.) It helped that he also told me he is responsible for shipping live cornea to/from the UAE. I mean, if you have to handle that, then two little kitties are a piece of cake! RELIEF!

They let me hang out in the cargo area with the cats for a bit, but then it was time to go…

From what I’ve read online, the cargo area is dimly lit (not completely dark!) and definitely climate controlled, with pressurized air, etc.

Once in Abu Dhabi, John got word from AmVet that the kitties were deplaning. He went out to meet them. There, they waited for the UAE Vet at the airport to inspect the cats and make sure the microchips matched up. 

"You call this Business Class!?"
Mido, of course, hissed. So John helped a bit in holding him and such. The process was very quick (barring an apparent falcon emergency) and AmVet transported the kitties and John back to their new digs.

Tessa enjoys her sun and view of the Corniche
I think that might have been the toughest seventeen hours of my life, but the cats are settling in. They definitely looked a bit worse for wear even a week after I arrived -- a little tired and a bit skinnier (due to the fact that they don’t have their favorite Fancy Feast flavors and other pet food varieties here). 

Mido, one chillaxed kitten
But I think it's going to be okay.