Concrete Airplanes

We had our first visitors this past week. My husband’s mother and sister traveled to Dubai from California, a journey that spanned nearly 50 hours when all was said and done. Their visit was particularly special because my mother-in-law turned 70 while staying with us. So, in addition to showing her our new home in the Middle East (and reassuring her that us moving here was a good idea) we had the added bonus of celebrating an epic birthday. No pressure at all.

So of all the many spectacular things to do and see in Dubai, we decided to start with perhaps the city’s biggest showstopper: the Burj Khalifa. For anyone unfamiliar with Dubai architecture (or with Guinness World Records) the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world and is one of Dubai’s most ambitious—and expensive—endeavors, costing a whopping $1.5 billion. With its blinking disco lights and syringe-like topper, the Burj Khalifa is nearly impossible to miss from any vantage point in the city. Standing a grand 829 meters (more than 2,722 feet!) the structure is now as iconic to Dubai as the Sears Tower is to Chicago, which isn’t coincidental as the two share the same architect.

I’ve always admired the audacity of the Burj Khalifa in the Dubai skyline, an architectural marvel even to an ignoramus like me (I tend to refer to anything built before 1970 as ‘pre-war’). So when the hubs said he made us a reservation at At.Mosphere, the restaurant on top of the Burj Khalifa, I didn’t think much of it. Like anyone else, I was interested to see it up close and curious whether it could possibly live up to its deafening hype. But somewhere I must have missed the part about ‘going to the top’ because when we got there I was completely unprepared for such a terrifying experience. It was as if, in addition to forgetting my house keys, I forgot that I am DEATHLY AFRAID OF HEIGHTS. And not just the mild variety ‘have a cocktail to take the edge off’ kind, but more the ‘all out, cold sweats, there-ain’t-enough-Xanax-in-Dubai’ kind of afraid. So this evening was already promising to be memorable.

As we entered the lobby of the Armani Hotel on the ground floor of the Burj, we were escorted to a special elevator with direct access to the restaurant. The staff was incredibly kind and the ambience was so chill that I (almost) forgot where we were headed. As we stepped into the elevator it felt like we were entering a space capsule—the walls looked as if they were made of titanium and there were no windows or views or even tacky ads on display. There wasn’t even a panel of buttons to push, just a small solitary disc with one destination: THE MOON.

My anxiety was pushing full steam at this point, so I turned to the young woman operating the lift and asked how many times she’s ridden to the top. She laughed and said so many times she couldn’t even count. Somehow that felt reassuring. As we started to ascend it felt like any other elevator ride, but then after several seconds we could feel the gravitational pull in our ears, the pressure making our heads feel a little lighter (or was that sheer terror??) so we chomped on the little hard candies we were given upon arrival. As we headed up, our speed quickening, I had images of being in the Willy Wonka elevator where at the end of the film Charlie and his grandfather are riding up and up and up until finally they blast through the roof of the Wonka Factory and fly out into the sky. Panic took hold of me.

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After what seemed an eternity the doors opened and we stepped out onto a wide mezzanine with the most incredible views (these pictures do not do justice).

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Unlike the rest of my family that rushed towards the glass, I retreated to the corner where I gave out a little cry (with real tears) until I eventually forced myself to peer out the windows. It felt surreal.

When you are standing atop the tallest building in the world, you are so impossibly high that any semblance of being in a building is lost. It’s completely disorienting and you have to remind yourself that you are not floating in the air, and that those are not clouds outside the cabin doors. I quickly realized that the only way I would make it through the evening (unmedicated) would be to trick myself into believing I was indeed flying at 30K feet, instead of closer to 2K. That I was inside an airplane, a concrete airplane, and it was outstanding.

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There was a mother-daughter duo posing for pictures, their backs against a wall of glass, as they continued to turn their faces from the glass to the camera and back again. I watched my fearless husband make his way down the spiral staircase towards the restaurant. With each step he grew more and more encased in blue sky, the windows looming larger around him. I was impressed when I saw my mother in law follow, her steps slightly more tentative but heading down nonetheless, my sister in law at her side. By the time I made it down the stairs, I could breathe easily enough where I didn’t sound like I had run up 122 flights instead of taken the lift. I even managed to stay still long enough to snap a few pictures. But I didn’t touch my nose to the glass. I won’t do that until I’m safely buckled into my seat with my tray table stowed, thank you very much.

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Housewife/Not Allowed To Work

It arrived! Finally, after nearly two months and about a million phone calls into my husband’s HR, my UAE residency visa arrived. I am finally and legitimately a legal resident of Dubai. While it’s certainly possible to live as an expat without real papers (initially, at least), it is a huge inconvenience that borders on the unbearable. Take, for example, my recent conversation with the sales person at Eti Salat, one of the UAE’s largest mobile carriers:

Me: Good morning. I would like to get a phone.

Salesman: Sure, madam (btw- everyone here calls you madam. It’s uber weird. The first twenty times it happened all I could think of was Heidi Fleiss. But I’m getting used to it now.) Can I see your passport and visa?

Me: I have a passport but my visa is in process.

Salesman (with that familiar pitying look): Oh, sorry, madam. You need a residence visa.

Me (looking hopeful): I have a tourist visa. And my husband has a residence visa but mine is not ready yet.

Salesman: Ok, well, we can give you a phone but it will have to be in your husband’s name. And it can only be pre-paid (e.g. money up front and all calls are, like, five times the normal amount) and you cannot have a contract until you have your visa.

Me: Alright. But can I switch to a contract once I get my visa?

Salesman: Yes, madam. But you will lose your number and have to start the process all over again.

Me: (jumping over the counter and putting the man in a headlock) AAAArrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhgghhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!

No, I didn’t really yell or throw things or hurt anyone. That would’ve gotten me deported. But I did take about a dozen deep breaths before I nodded politely and followed along . Which is what I do here in Dubai. Just follow the rules and save my real opinions– and my horrible meltdowns– for my husband when I’m in the privacy of my own home.

Now, imagine that same conversation applied to everything else in my life—e.g. signing a lease, buying a car, getting a driver’s license, a bank account. And don’t even get me started on the alcohol license. Like Kevin Bacon it always comes back to this one thing: the residency visa.

But now I have mine and the jubilance of its arrival is only slightly dampened by what I notice is stamped on the license. Under profession is reads, “HOUSE WIFE/ Not Allowed To Work.”

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Ok, maybe in another lifetime I had dreamed about owning that title. Actually, I’m pretty sure that back in my soul-crushing agency days I begged the high holies to never have to work again. I distinctively remember a period when I was working 50 and 60 hours a week, staffed on some boring and ill-fated project with a wretched boss and equally wretched clients, all the while leaving a new baby at home while my husband and I juggled two impossibly demanding jobs. And I remember asking myself, in the middle of this office swamp, how it was worth leaving my little guy at home for this? Sure, being a ‘lady of leisure’ sounded dreamy and fantastical, like wearing a Marchesa dress, and I’d imagine all the fanciful things we would do to fill our day, which were not limited to eating, sleeping, shopping, strolling in the park, visting museums, drinking (oops, that’s me) and then sleeping and/or eating some more.

But as the adage goes, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Here I am, 6,000 miles away from my old life in New York and my old career and the plethora of professional choices I had (whether I chose to pursue them or not) and according to the UAE I now have but one option: housewife.

It has to be this way, if only temporarily. The way residency works in the UAE is that you have to be sponsored to live here, either by an employer or a spouse. You can’t just show up and try and ‘make a go of it’, at least not in the official sense. If you already have a job lined up in Dubai then the process is quite simple and straightforward—you arrive, settle in while your company processes your visa and then once it’s completed you are off and running up the corporate ladder. If you don’t have a job when you arrive but intend to find one, then the process is slightly more complicated. You arrive on a visit or tourist visa and then begin your search. However, your time is limited to either 30 or 60 days in the country, which puts a slight amount of pressure on you to find a job. You are forced to speed date. They keep it this way so people are not ‘hanging around’ the UAE kicking up unemployment. It also helps to keep a close watch on everyone coming in and out of the country, thus keeping security airtight– a process the Emirates do masterfully well (remind me to explain the Emirates ID card [aka Total Recall microchip] in the next post. And pps- if I’ve misrepresented the process it’s because I’m still new here. Did I mention I arrived only 6 weeks ago??)

And then, of course, there are the expat wives– those who accompany their spouses on the adventure but who cannot legally work and often have no intention to do so. This is my camp, although depending on the day I may or may not relate to that last part. I’ve been so focused on getting our family settled that I haven’t been able to (or perhaps refused to) think that far ahead. Sure, the question lingers in my mind, mostly at 4am when I’m lying in bed wide awake wondering if my kids will ever find a nursery school, or if we’ll ever buy a real grownups sofa, or if I’ll ever resolve the existential crisis called my career before I die?

I’m still sorting it out, so it was quite a shock to see the words stamped in bold in my passport. Housewife? Who, me??

Ok, so my ‘day job’ is raising two kids but didn’t you see this blog I launched?? It didn’t exactly write itself! Technically I’m not working since no one is paying me to write (and I don’t see any of you rushing to get out your checkbooks to read this story). So until my lil’ homespun digital diary gets bought out by Buzzfeed or some big fancy publishing company gives me a book deal, I am- to the naked eye- a housewife/not allowed to work.

 

 

 

What does adventure really mean?

Life is strange here and so different. In some ways it is much harder than New York, surprisingly. But I think that’s due to our circumstances: living in temporary housing without our personal “stuff” (e.g. kids’ toys), no school for the kids, no one to help when the hubs and I need a break (although most of the time it’s just me that needs the break since husband is working 24/7). Shit is hard. And then, of course, there’s the logistics of moving to a foreign country that we have to circumnavigate daily—the new bank accounts, the visas that are still in process, the cars we need to buy, the new cell phone and what to do with our old cell phones. Blah, blah blah. The list feels endless. And I find myself in these moments feeling bogged down by it all, on the brink of despair, having to remind myself, “but you’re living in a foreign country! It’s so exciting!” Like I’m having a conversation with my 38 year old self, the one living back in Brooklyn that was craving a life of adventure and would’ve given anything to experience the daily thrill of something besides kids, work, and more kids.

Why am I struggling? I constantly ask myself. Is it because living 6K miles away feels hard and strange and lonely? Perhaps. Or am I struggling because the reality I’m living is profoundly different than the one I expected. A part of me (yes, the naïve part) expected to arrive here and feel instantly energized and thrilled by living abroad. That merely being in such an exotic locale would somehow transcend the daily drudgery of raising of two kids. But the reality is that raising kids abroad is filled with the same dejections and hardships as it is in raising kids in New York. No matter how exotic it sounds, living in Dubai means there are still lunches that need to be packed, dishes to clean, mouths to wipe, laundry to fold, and tantrums to be quelled. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I had convinced myself that those things wouldn’t loom so large in the face of “adventure”, but what I’m finding is that not only they do, but they dominate the adventure itself. There will be no adventure without the drudgery, I have learned. The two are inescapable. So perhaps the adventure lies within the banal—finding new ways in which to live within the same boundaries, seeking new perspectives on performing the same tasks, and doing it in a way that is irrefutably different than how we did it in Brooklyn.

Since I arrived in Dubai there have been many days where I thought to myself, “perhaps I’m just not built for adventure anymore.” But maybe I’m not looking at it the right way. Our time here will be defined not by what we did differently, or what we could experience here that we wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere in the US (trips around the region that will fill plenty of scrapbooks) but by how we lived the familiar in the most unfamiliar way possible. How we taught Will to ride a bike on a desert road, how Gavin learned to swim in the Persian Gulf, how the boys attended a school where 22 different languages were spoken. That is how we’ll remember our time here. And so I better change my own perspective or I’ll miss the real “joy” of raising kids abroad.

Welcome to Dubai. Now go to sleep.

Where do I begin? It has probably been one of the most chaotic, stressful yet spectacular three weeks of my life. We landed in Dubai late on a Monday evening and spent a week trying to absorb the city—and the timezone—into our blood. It was a brutal first week. We spent the days driving tiredly around the city, forcing ourselves to pay attention to an exhaustive list of potential schools or homes we were touring. We’d arrive home in the late afternoon exhausted and needing to feed two very unhappy toddlers, one of which still refused to forgive us for taking him out of his beloved Brooklyn (hell, his beloved United States). And the other just mad that we hadn’t transported all of his creaturley comforts. We, ourselves, were rueing the fact that we didn’t pack an extra dozen or so pacifiers or subway trains or Elephant and Piggy books (where was that bag of books? I could’ve sworn I packed it??!!) Everyone was tired. No one was happy.

We hit the pillows hard and early that first week, unable to keep ourselves awake any longer. Laying in bed, we’d stare out across the desert from our perch on the 37th floor, wrapped snugly in our cocoon of steel and glass and awestruck by our new home. But then, once the moon came out and the lights of the jagged skyline seeped through our windows, we’d rise restlessly from our beds and wander the apartment like vampires, hungry and wild eyed. Hours into the night we’d remain awake, wishing we could fall back asleep, wishing our children would fall back asleep (get the melatonin drops!) until finally we were so tired and our eyelids so heavy that we’d drift off until the merciless desert sun forced us out from under the covers and we had to get up and do it all over again.

It all feels like a fog now, the days blended together. We did, however, recover enough by the weekend to take a trip out to the desert with one of Justin’s colleagues. He invited us to a picnic hosted by the Australia and New Zealand Business Council, which turned out to be a great time. It was at a residence about an hour outside the city and resembled a summer home in the wine country—long, gravel road leading up to the house with willow trees lining the path, an expansive lawn with swimming pool, and plenty of room to roam. The kids had fun running around, although I think we all were still not quite adjusted to the heat. The highlight was meeting other families and making new connections. We felt lucky to experience it.

Sunday is the new Monday.

Getting used to the change in the work week here is like getting used to a new scar. It feels bumpy and awkward at first and doesn’t sit right on your skin. The first week we arrived the days really blended together and I was too jet lagged to notice any significant difference. It felt more like vacation when you finally settle into your new relaxed state you quite forget what day of the week it is. But now in our third week in Dubai I really start to notice the strangeness of a new week. For example, I wake up on Saturday mornings with a lazy-end-of-weekend feeling until I realize it’s Saturday and then my heart palpitates thinking about my endless list of errands and how we haven’t booked a babysitter for dinner. No wait, it’s actually Sunday, I remind myself and then go and pour a second cup of coffee.

Same with Thursdays. Somehow the weeks have felt unusually long and by the time Thursday rolls around I am begging for the weekend and giving myself pep talks on how to survive another two days. And then, surprise! I go pick up the kids and watch the hideous traffic pile up outside my window and remember cheerfully, it’s the weekend! (Yes, even SAH moms still get excited about the weekend). This week I actually managed to remember in advance (like on Tuesday) that the weekend would be coming ‘early.’ I even sent a few emails proclaiming “TGIT!”, although something about that felt odd and slightly fraudulent. But the change in week is definitely something to get used to here and with a few more months I’m sure I will have it down. Until some local holiday throws us out of whack (which are rumored to be plentiful).