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Monday, June 16, 2014

Superstar, Supermarkets and Shangri-La

About a month after my arrival in the UAE, I learned that blogger ManhattanMama was giving a lecture on New York University’s role in the UAE. I went along and it was a fantastic talk that swirled around a number of subjects including the UAE’s vision, the Emirati people, the education process, Frankenstein, what it means to be female here, day-to-day expat life and what they might think at home and so many other things that I wished I had taped it.

Afterwards I went up to chat with ManhattanMama in a small group of other new expats and one of the things she asked us was ‘Have you cried in the supermarket yet?’

At the time, I thought it was such a strange question. I mean, sure, I had experienced the frustration and chaos of not knowing that I needed to get my produce weighed and priced BEFORE going to the cashier. And I had also survived the one or two glaring looks (scowls actually, and I think I might have heard growling) by women who I suspect thought my cart was getting a bit too close to theirs, but whateves, right?  So, I kind of shrugged at ManhattanMama, not really sure what she was getting at.

But fast forward a few weeks and one day, there I was, standing in front of the abbreviated pasta section of the local Spar supermarket, trying to remember the difference between Spaghetti No. 2 and No. 3 (and wishing the box just said 'angelhair' like it does back home) when it started…

“Long ago, and oh so far away….”

A familiar song over the supermarket sound system. A song and soundtrack supposed to cheer shoppers to buy more. Then came the sad clarinet, the grieving sound of brass and violins, and the wistful croon of Karen Carpenter. My lip quivered. I started wincing.

“Loneliness is such a sad affair….”

And then, well, I lost it.

An open, unrestrainable weepy crying jag as I pretended to study the ingredients of a box of macaroni and cheese.

What the hell was happening? Where were my tissues? I didn’t understand. Everything was FINE fifteen minutes ago… I was having a great day. It included golf. And new friends. And sunshine. WTF was going on here!?

And then it hit me. I was homesick. 



Earlier in the week, I had to say goodbye to a friend who was visiting me in the UAE from home. 

Having the time of my life when my BFF was in town.

There were lots of tears the evening of her departure, but I knew that would happen. I’ve never been good with goodbyes. Following a fantastic time catamaran sailing, visiting the mosque and dune bashing, as she and her niece packed up their things I had this sudden urge to pack my bags as well. I wanted to just continue the fun on the plane, head back to the States, flop into my bed back in NYC, recover, and just get back to my life.

My former life, that is. 

When I was a kid at summer camp, they used to tell us that homesickness wasn’t ‘real.’ But I’m here to tell you it is. It’s a low grade heaviness that sits in one’s throat and chest, and wells up into tears at the strangest and most modest of triggers…

Like when I hear The Carpenters.

Or when John and I watch DVD episodes of Person of Interest and Blue Bloods and with each new scene I try to pick out the NYC spot where it’s being filmed, and if I recognize it, then I think about what the spot means in my own personal NYC history. The Brooklyn Bridge, a park in Washington Heights, a tree-lined street in Hell’s Kitchen… The Dive Bar.  (Sigh.)

Or when I went to the Gap store at the mall and spotted a t-shirt that said, ‘Montauk, as East as it Gets!’ And suddenly I see a painful irony. Montauk is… was, my turf, afterall, growing up on Long Island, lifeguarding on its beaches and spending many, many, many summers out on its east end. 

Based on my world view at the time, Montauk was ‘As East as it Gets!’ 

Until I moved to the Middle East, that is.

Oh, the IRONY!
While I’m no expert in getting over homesickness (no 'Ten Tips!' here), I know what has worked for me over the past few weeks is keeping busy, but not to the point of being ‘overwhelmed.’ You can busy yourself to exhaustion here with all the expat activities, so I’m taking care to take plenty of time outs, as needed.

The other thing I have done is just let people know if I’m on the verge of a crying jag that I’m feeling homesick. This has resulted in a lot of great talks with great women who have been there and completely understand.

But one of the best things I did was write a note to a few friends basically saying ‘Hey! I’m homesick!’ And their response was awesome. ‘Hey! That sucks!’ they said. But then they filled me in on the day to day things going on in their lives, the things they would chat about to me if were together out for a run on the weekend. And that felt… well, great.

I don’t expect you to have pity for me. Seriously, I know these ‘expat problems’ probably sound worse than ‘white people problems.’ I know what I signed up for, and I knew that this might come with the territory.

The reality is, as pretty a place this is, it’s still real life. Despite the pretty photos, this ain’t no Shangri-la. There are bills and work and worries that mingle in with the glamour, glitz and exotic-ness of the place. And, like anything, you gotta take the good with the bad.

The Fabulous Life: Golfing with Ferrari World as the backdrop
So everyday, I get up and try to find some grounding. Lately it’s been reading a chapter of a book. And when I get up, I put on my big girl pants and think about the good stuff, the great new people I’m meeting, the great golf courses I’m playing, the prospect of work in my future, the latest screenplay I’m writing, the big and little adventures I’m having with John, our beautiful cats, and the great little spot with a waterview we call home, for now.

So yeah, even though there will be times when I will find myself crying in the supermarket, recently I also found myself in Dubai -- sexy, fast-paced, swinging Dubai -- driving past the Burg Khalifa with that ‘oh-my-god-pinch-me-now-because-I can’t-believe-I’m-really-here’ feeling. Everything was good. Really good. And there was a kick-ass song on the radio…

And it wasn’t The Carpenters.

Because that sh*t has been permanently banned from my playlist.
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