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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Expat Paparazzi

One of the strangest phenomena of the Abu Dhabi ex-pat experience is what I call the 'Expat Paparazzi.'

At first I wasn't sure if this was something borne out of an overall society trend of posting everything we do on social media, or as one of Dubai's top travel marketers explained to me as "having to constantly justify our decision to live here to the people back home." 

Whatever the reason, I was, and still am, astounded at the number of pictures taken whenever a group of expats get together (particularly, but not exclusively, with women). 

Go for coffee with new expat friends? Snap a photo! Go for coffee with old expat friends? Snap a photo! 

Yoga class? Snap! 

Tuesday morning golf? Snap! 

Pool date? Mani-Pedi? Book club gathering? Snap! Snap! Snap!

Sure, at first I saw the excitement. “We’re in a new place! Doing new things! With new-found friends!” But after a while, any time somebody called out to me to gather for a photo, my eyes began to roll. 

"Not this again," I thought. 

At first I assumed this was a sign that my inner jaded New Yorker was clouding my bright, shiny, new expat exterior. That said, I kind of understood it. Despite all the comforts and unusual number of similarities to home, the reality is that living in the UAE *is* an exotic, less than one-percent of the world's population kind of experience (especially if you stick around for the summer... and Ramadan). And there are mosques and camels and palm trees and things that, after awhile, don't feel so extraordinarily foreign when you live here day-to-day, but do make for extraordinary photo displays 'for the people back home.'

But posing for a group photo after going to see a movie??? (I mean, come on, right?!)

Recently, however, I began to have a different view on the whole Expat Paparazzi thing.

You see, now that I'm about a year and a half in to our 'new' life in Abu Dhabi, the never-ending turnover of the place is starting to have its effect on me. When I first arrived, I found the transitional nature of the place surprising, but refreshing. I knew no one, and that brought freedom to me because for the first time in twenty-five years, I was a blank sheet of paper. As a person who lived her life up until that point looking for ways to stake roots, here I was among an entire community of people who didn’t like to see grass grow under their feet. It was eye-opening, awe-inspiring, electric.

But this summer it happened. Those people who I started out with in Abu Dhabi were suddenly packing up and leaving. For some, it was planned and we saw it coming for months. For others, it wasn't planned, necessarily, but part of a chosen way of life as an expat. Simply put, a new, more lucrative offer had come their way. And for others, just like anywhere, you just never know when you'll wake up and walk into the boss's office and say, ‘enough,’ or when the work just won’t be there any longer. Unfortunately in the UAE, there's no such thing as waiting around for another opportunity. Without work, you are politely pointed to the exit sign, so you quickly, (and for the most part) quietly pack your bags and move on. 

In the past three months I have 'lost' about a dozen fabulous women from my core group in Abu Dhabi to their new outposts and adventures. In fact, I have lost so many people that I don’t even have a core group anymore! (Ha!)  

In some ways I feel like the kid whose mom forgot to sign her up for summer camp. If I'm honest, it’s been a rather dull summer, and I keep waiting for everyone to come back, only to remind myself that that won’t be happening. And sure, I’ve used my quiet time wisely, regrouping on my goals (for the umpteenth time), sticking with the golf and screenwriting. 

So now when it comes to the 'Expat Paparazzi,' and someone jumps up and wants to take a group photo, I'll understand the meaning of it more. I realize that maybe it's not about the social media and the 'look at me, look at me' aspect of it, but of the fleetingness and the 'here and now' of it.

Because those fast-found friends, the ones I was laughing like teenagers and swinging golf clubs with? The ones with the itchy feet who are so full of life and adventure that they've broken me wide open to new possibilities in my own life? The ones who I’d never likely befriend in NYC, but who have proven to be the greatest of allies and have shown me new ways to look at my world? Well, those fabulous people may not be here next year, next month or sometimes next week.  

Or maybe, I will be the one with the itchy feet and be next to move on.

So, from here on in, I’m embracing the Expat Paparazzi.

I’ll be the one throwing myself in the middle of the group photos. Snap!

I’ll be the one smiling big for the cellphone camera. All six iPhones at a time. Snap! Snap! Snap!

I’ll be the one looking around and taking in -- really taking in -- the people I'm sharing the moment with. Snap!

And not just here in Abu Dhabi. When I visit home and spend time with my nearest and dearest peeps, too. Snap! Snap!

And sure, my Facebook newsfeed may run over with group photos this fall. But that whole part of it doesn't matter so much anymore. I won't be as embarrassed about it as I have been in the past. It reminds me of a time several years ago (when I was using a Polaroid), when a friend told me that if I wanted to make friends with someone else, all I had to do was take a picture with them. 

"It’s not about the photo," she said, "but the moment shared."

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