Homeschooling for dummies

Do you have kids? Do you homeschool them during this global pandemic? If not, let me tell you what it is for us and for our friends around the world who have to do it. If yes, you had to go along with this last-minute homeschooling system, you might agree with me somewhere in this text.

We are deep in homeschooling season now, almost 3 months in. It’s the new normal. I had to drive to school to drop something, I got lost, I forgot which highway exit it was. Now school is in the comfort of your home, people will tell you. I will tell you, school is everywhere MOM is: bedroom, living room, kitchen, and even in the bathroom. There is no escape.

Let’s be honest, there are some advantages to this system. You don’t have to worry about uniform. Burn those greyish shirts and shorts from the 80’s, from now on school is in pajamas, bathing suit or princess dress. You also don’t have to run for school, you pretty much can organize the day how you want to. You’re done with the sandwich breakfast in the car while applying concealer on these eye bags. Pancakes and make up free mornings are the new norm. 

One major problem of this system is: forget to use your computer yourself. Sorry it’s their school device now, they have priority. They have to send back documents before 4 PM, THEY have work to do, do you get it? (You don’t really need it, right mom? You don’t have a life anyway, right mom?). In case of young children, you have to assist them, because yes, it’s their device now, but they have no clue how to use it. Schools probably forgot that part when saying “Homeschooling is making kids independent”. Trust me, they you can’t make them independent on a computer at 5. On Youtube, they can easily go from Dora the explorer to Dora the explorer but adult-without-clothes version (true story). If you don’t want that to happen, you have to stay next to them all the time. Our Homeschooling program is a mixture of videos, assignments to do and zoom meetings by the (paid) teacher (I’m the unpaid one). You will soon realize you have to be there for all parts. Cancel any other plan you had in your life.

The Zoom meetings. 

Do you have some? No, not with your BFF on Friday night to drink, I mean Did you ever have zoom meetings with more than 3 kids? Ok, let me explain it to you. Maybe it is what class does look like, but I never had any idea of it until now. When the teacher tries to teach six 5-year-olds at the same time on Zoom, it’s like an actual conversation of drunk people. Half the kids can’t focus on what is said and show their favorite toys or talk about what they ate for snacks, the other half is sleeping on the computer/climbing on the chair. School told us not to intervene in these meetings, well I find it very hard at least not to laugh. Some parents are shouting on their kids live, I particularly like those ones. They make me feel better. While other parents are fighting between them thinking we don’t hear: “Your kid (it’s always the kid of the other parent when they did something stupid, that’s universal) touched something and there is no video anymore, put it back quickly, I don’t know how this stupid Zoom works.” I feel you sister. 

In this mess, the teacher tries to explain something then asks each kid to answer a couple of questions to check if they got anything in. Five year olds are awesome at this part. They will scream the answer to help their friend, but they will also make sure the teacher took note they had no clue without their help. Full Honesty, no hard feelings, that’s very refreshing for adults.

My daughter had her worst zoom teacher meeting ever last week. She succeeded at the Zoom BINGO, as I told her. 

  1. She picked her nose on camera for 10 minutes (especially nowadays, it’s perfect)
  2. She said: “My mom said I couldn’t tell you but I’m going to see my friend Maya today.” Kids can’t keep secrets.
  3. When asked if the toy will sink or float on the water, she screamed “It STINKS”
  4. She said her dad kicks her with his elbow sometimes (and mimicked an elbow kick). Why on earth would she invent that?
  5. To the poor boy missing pool fun because of the lockdown she said: “I swim every day, because I have a pool in my garden.” Her Empathy App isn’t downloaded yet. 
  6. She asked “Is it over yet? Because I’m tired now, I will disconnect.” Honestly, I was glad.

Turns out, she lost the title of worst zoom meeting a few days later to a little girl who was supposed to show her rabbit, but said it wasn’t possible today because her sister had him DEAD. The moment of silence of the teacher that followed this sentence was priceless. 

Apart from these lovely Zoom classes, you, the mother (fathers will tell you they help, and they probably do, they might print the exercises) will have to teach proper school and concepts. Like water EVAPORATION for a 5-year-old. You will get assignements to fill in and send back. But in the end, you will end up doing half their work. because you’re not patient enough or because you don’t want to bother. I my case I precut everything she has to cut and paste because it takes her 3 hours to cut. But don’t worry, I cut it like a 5-year-old and nobody sees nothing (except if the teacher reads me now). Problem is now she turned lazy and she’s like “Mom, could you paste too?”. Well, this year we will learn how to cheat. 

Meanwhile you will see the “Moms of the year” posting on the Facebook page of the school the work their kids have done. While I’m desperately trying to teach my kids the difference between salt and sugar, some parents are building architectural marvels based on rice and lentils. They are digging their house to create rainbows with socks or numbers in toothpaste. Some kids are reciting full texts, dancing, making science experiments or doing yoga videos. First, there is NO WAY their kids did that by themselves. Second, why on earth do they have to post that? Aren’t we all struggling in this homeschooling thing? Am I alone in this? Is it to prove something to other mothers or reassure yourself you won’t screw over your kid’s education in 3 months? Come on people, it’s hard enough, have fun with your kids, don’t put pressure and have faith in teachers to get it all back in place in September for us. (Sorry, and good luck guys!) 

Meanwhile the schools and some brainwashed parents praise the homeschooling system: “It’s brilliant, it works so well! The bond between students and teacher is stronger than ever!” No, it is NOT. Zooms aren’t going to socialize kids. Mom isn’t an independent teacher. And we have one kid that has to be homeschooled. How do you manage if you have multiple kids? Do you cut your computers in two? Please stop telling it works. It will only reassure them to prolong this. Otherwise, why do we need teachers anyway? Might as well have a robot zooming with our kids forever.

Then came the time of evaluations. Without even giving us (new teachers without experience) any objectives or goals, suddenly school announces kids will be evaluated. I exploded. As if mothers didn’t have enough pressure on (put there by themselves), school added a layer of guilt. Because let’s face it, if the kids fail, who’s in question? The teacher she saw 3 times 20 min on Zoom or the parent teacher who was supposed to make her study? Isn’t it the actual teacher that should evaluate, meaning me? That’s when I remembered that I have to stay diplomatic. You can’t go to war with the system, you have to make the best out of it and try to navigate as well as possible in it. I did this pretty good, but with the news that schools might not reopen in September, I have to admit I lost it for a few days. But one thing at a time, let’s enjoy little victories, this week it’s holidays. We aren’t going anywhere but we don’t have to homeschool, and everyone agreed to say it is pretty dam good!

Meet The teacher.

Journal of the second month of lockdown

Here we are, May 4th is on the corner and so is our second month in lockdown. 60 days. Time for a little recap of what happened during this month. As you already know if you are a faithful reader of mine, this second month started on fire, literally. But nothing comes in vain and we learned to appreciate even more our boring daily routine during quarantine. 

Mornings are for homeschooling. I pay a fortune for a private school; they send me YouTube links from strangers and premade internet exercises, I have to provide material, work it off and teach my kid. Looks like I’m getting ripped off in this deal, but I guess everybody is taking hits these days. Some days, classes consist ONLY in YouTube video and cartoons. If this is considered as “teaching”, I’ve been proudly teaching my kids from 8 months old and haven’t been paid a dime, just saying. But don’t worry, school communication experts now say that’s even better for kids than going to school, that the bond between student and teacher is even stronger. Yeah, I wonder why we have started to go to school in the first place! Some people clearly have stepped up their drinking game (or worse). 

While Agnès is doing her homework, my 2,5 yo son touched an Ipad for the first time. At the end of the month, he’s now able to change Apps, rate Netflix movies and reply with emojis to his father’s texts (might be problematic for the job as his favorite one is “crap”, we’ll see). He comes and kisses me just to whisper in my ear “Ipad Pleaz”. Jack is looking to memorize the code; he already has 2 numbers of the 6. For an almost mute kid, he’s incredibly clever when he wants to. 

We celebrated Easter, not that we did lent… We never stopped eating sugar, but the traditional Easter package from my mother in law filled with chocolates and games came on point this year. At this occasion, we “went” camping for the weekend. We put tents in the living room, kids loved the AC and bathroom version of camping, glamping is definitely their thing. My husband finally found a utility for his projector and made a cinema. The things we do to amuse our kids… we even played board games for the first time in 10 years. We didn’t even fight! Must be a miracle. Anyway, for my resolution to stay away from the news and to reduce my screen time, all these activities helped a lot. 

I finally started sports. After weeks of watching friends working out, I got my butt on this treadmill and fast walked 5 km per day. It really helped ease my mind and also took me to my next activity: Donut binging. Despite any common sense, I realized that they can be delivered to my door, contactless, cashless, in 22 minutes, still slightly hot from the oven. I stopped baking tasteless cookies for everyone’s sake. This wasn’t me, I’m NO baker, I’m a cake eater, time to find myself again.

I also started this stupid Split challenge. 30 days of stretching to get to the split. The App says, “Stretching not stressing”. What a promise! Well, like everything in life “if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t”. After 7 days, I pulled a muscle, so I stressed and I kind of stopped with stretching. I guess I won’t be that annoying housewife who says “I can do the split” while very drunk at a party and that’s maybe for the best. 

Talking about alcohol, let’s be real about it for a minute. Did you drink a lot during this lockdown? We joke about drunk moms every day, but the truth is I drank 2 glasses in 2 months. It’s not fun to drink alone. My husband is on a diet, he has stomach issues (I might get him a pill dispenser for our wedding anniversary this year) so he can’t drink with me. To me, it’s pretty sad to drink alone so I don’t do it. Looks like a lot of people might disagree with me because they authorized the home delivery of alcohol now, considered as essential, let me remind you that I live in a Muslim country… 

We went in the pool 4892 times. I know, we are super lucky to have a pool in our backyard, don’t say anything, jealous people already sent a memo. But hey, it’s getting hot out here, we are reaching 40 degrees and it won’t stop rising until October… We are bracing ourselves for the hardest period of the year. We take what we can while we can. My daughter turned into a mermaid. She now needs to be carried around the house. Lazy mythological creatures, those mermaids. Just good to have a flat stomach and perfect hair. She’s waiting for a prince to kiss and rescue. She asked how old exactly she needs to be in order to get married. We might stay locked in for a little longer than the rest of the world. 

Of course, we baked bread, it’s a must do during this period. You didn’t live the Covid-19 crisis fully if you did not make bread or, even better, sourdough bread. I’m wondering if bakers will still have a job after this. Just like those people giving “free-hugs”, they might be out of material and need to reallocate.

We tried the walkie-talkie with the neighbors, so kids can communicate pretty easily without having to use the iPad. Turns out we can get the compound security guards’ frequency. Too bad I don’t speak Urdu, I bet I would get the best gossips. 

It rained one day! So, we played “Belgium” with umbrellas. It’s a great experience to have; experiment rain in the desert. In my compound we all come from countries where it rains pretty often, but here, we are having only 3-5 rainy days (or hours) per year (the good ones). So, when rain starts falling, you can see everybody rushing outside to enjoy it! Also, because there is no sewer, this turns out quickly into a big mess really fancied by the kids. The smell of the rain on the hot ground, the noise of the drops in the pool, it’s amazing for our children who have forgotten about it. And for me, it reminds me of rain at the end of a hot summer day in Belgium, when you feel the heavy atmosphere, you worry for the thunder while enjoying the little breeze. This time, once again, everybody went outside, except we are all locked in, so I overheard our neighbours dancing and singing in the rain in their garden (yes, you Haidi) and it made me so happy. Covid-19, you kind of show me the importance of the little things, or at least, you give me time to appreciate them more. 

Lina and piou-piou, our bird friends, are getting fat. Kids understood they like cookies too. They lost their 3 babies, crashed dead on the floor. The heat, a fail attempt to fly or some cats I don’t really know what killed them, but I had to lie to the kids. We saw Piou-piou make the nest, we saw eggs and then heard little birdy noises, I couldn’t break the news to my kids. According to me, they have flown away to somewhere else in Abu Dhabi, with a mask, yes, don’t worry Agnès.

My gardener is blocked in Kerala (India), couldn’t come back to the UAE after the closing of the borders (like 29 000 UAE resident stuck abroad apparently). After texting me some nice pictures of his house and himself (why???), he appointed another guy to do my garden. He’s super nice but doesn’t understand nor speak one work of English, and, once again, I can’t speak Urdu or the language he’s speaking. Maybe I should start this next month…

This month, I was also supposed to take my second MOMcation ever. God knows any mom would need a vacation from kids and husband right now, but the Corona virus changed these plans too. Thanks to my friend, we kept on planning a trip, for whenever it will be possible. We dreamt about Paris’ little cafés and shops. We chose the hotel and the shooting spots. I’m fantasizing on pork charcuterie and floating island (my favorite dessert). We are ready whenever you are Paris. This made me dream a little and that’s a nice feeling I almost had forgotten. It’s hard to project yourself in the future when you have no idea what the future holds. But wait a minute, we NEVER have any idea of what the future holds, so why stop dreaming?

Finally, first month I took care of everybody, I called, I texted, I was always the one initiating the conversation. This month, I waited to see who would come to me first. I had surprises (both ways). This month, I learned a great deal. Who to value more and who not to. That’s not always easy. But it’s a weird period where everybody is a bit depressed and literally locked in their own world. If you don’t pay attention to it, social distancing could become not only physically but mentally too. We realize the difference in attitude toward a crisis like this and we judge. That’s all we have to do of our time anyway! All our friends and neighbors don’t have the same opinion about the situation and the things to do (or not to do) during this period. Here, some online form allows you to report anonymously people not following the rules of lockdown. Dubai even decided to post pictures and names of people not following the quarantine in the newspaper. Are we really like this? Do we want to teach that to our kids? Will we report our friends, our neighbors for biking 15 minutes outside with their kids although it’s forbidden? Apparently yes, some people are, because Police came to our compound for round checks. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m 100% following the rules of the country I’m in, even if they are very hard and drastically different from my birth country. I came here, I use their facilities, I can comply. BUT I don’t think I could report anyone, it’s just not me. It is hard to explain to the kids that yes, some other kids are outside, but it’s still forbidden, but they might as well realize now that everyone makes their own choices in life and have to live with the consequences, problem is in this case also others might bear the consequences… anyway, throwing eggs at people outside during curfew is SO much better than calling the police, no?

All this took me to my breaking point. I had a major down this month, I’m not going to lie. Not a down like you have every 5 minutes, a proper 2-3 days of darkness. I didn’t cry, but I was deeply depressed. Having NO perspective on when this lockdown will soften was very hard. Here you couldn’t go outside for a walk during the lockdown and so “until further notice”, horrible expression btw. And for the first time since arriving in Abu Dhabi, I started to be scared of the difference of governance here. It’s no secret that UAE is not a western democracy (with elections and balance of powers and all that) and from time to time they produce laws like kids produce wishes; often and pretty directly. Most of the time they have very good intentions and they are advised by the best consultants Petrol money can buy so they achieve good new laws. But you can still be afraid of that judicial power (even with diplomatic immunity if you ask, by international law we still must obey the local laws and we  do so. Not that every diplomat reacts like this, but that’s something else). Overnight, they decided to impose masks inside the car for everybody, even if you are alone in your car. People got fined 250$ the day after without even knowing it! Today they announced that wearing a mask in the car when you are alone is not necessary anymore (You’ve got to give them that, in case of wrongful law, it’s usually corrected within the month). The UAE probably is one of the only countries in the world who can afford to have the economy down for MONTHS and so can lock us in for months too. They don’t have a lot of Covid-19 cases; they have a huge healthcare system capacity and the population above 65 yo is only 2,5% of the total population. It’s the country who realized the most testing per inhabitant in the world by far. So why won’t they talk about what’s next? The exit strategy. Why did they decide to close school for the rest of the year already in March? All this was running in my head and installed a climate of fear. 

Then, like in an oriental fairy tale, the day before Ramadan starts came the news that they are consulting on progressive reopening. I felt a huge relief, that was all I wanted to know, even if it’s for later, at least it was in their mind too. Problem is, they rushed a bit in the Emirate of Dubai and reopened everything already which caused some pretty indecent lines in front of bars on the first day of Ramadan and the inevitable fear of a second wave, higher than the first one. 

So, what’s next? What do we do now? When they will reopen everything, do we rush outside, or will we keep some fear? Do we stay put and waist this opportunity to go out although people will go outside and might risk dragging us through a second lockdown period?  Me, myself and I haven’t agreed yet on what to do. One minute I want to see my friends, the other minute I’m still afraid, and seems like my husband has always the opposite feelings so we are not ready to start life as usual again. It’s probably for best because I think we are on for months of surprises and unknown territory… 

Stay safe friends!

Much love,

Cécile

See what he is about to do?

The poo-poo story

Last week, I was answering an interview for a podcast and they asked me the funniest story of my expat life. Two stories came into my mind; the move (already told here: https://desperatediplowife.com/2019/07/26/sort-it-pack-it-load-it-ship-it-break-it-move-it-open-it-leave-it/) and the poo-poo story. I think now is a good time to make you smile and tell you about our second funniest experience while arriving in Abu Dhabi, 20 months ago.

After we chose our house, I asked Fred to get some different color paint for the walls. Rooms were huge, and we didn’t have much furniture to fill the void, a bit of color would totally help. First attempt to get wall paint was going to a very clean and expensive shop in the center with 3 billion colors to choose from. After 40 minutes of screaming and running around kids, I finally came to a decision: coral for Agnès’ bedroom, teal for Jack’s, sand for our bedroom, grey-blue for the living room. When I asked the guy of the shop, he just told me “We don’t have any paint madam.” Apparently, all the catalogues were there to fill the shop, but they haven’t sold paint in years, they prefer to sell outdoor furniture, more profitable. After a mini adult-tantrum (and 2 huge kid’s fights), he gave me a tip: “I know a place for paint, super cheap, best quality ever, you won’t be disappointed. It’s Jotun, in Musaffah.”

We had been in Abu Dhabi for 2 weeks only. We had never stepped into that neighborhood of the city called “Musaffah”. We were used only to stay in the bling-bling center of Abu Dhabi, the golden Corniche or to venture a bit further in the luxurious island of Yas. Compared to those neighborhoods, Musaffah is another country. Wikipedia will tell you:

Musaffah is an industrial district to the southwest of Abu Dhabi. Also known as Muṣaffah Aṣ-Ṣanāʿiyah (Arabic: مُصّفَّح ٱلصّنَاعِيَة‎), it is one of the most important economic areas of the United Arab Emirates and has been designated a special economic zone, with numerous factories and port.

Coming from Abu Dhabi island, you have to cross the Musaffah bridge to get there. The minute you’re on that bridge, the driving gets different. Forget the almost clean, American way of driving that is used in the center (at least before dark), here it’s Beirut style (or Delhi). There might be 4 lanes drown on the floor, but people will create one or two new one(s) in between. You may have priority while in a roundabout according to the rules, but it doesn’t apply here. In Musaffah, the only rule is “Who dares, wins”. Fun thing is, Abu Dhabi driving school is located in Musaffah. Their moto is “If you can drive here, you can drive anywhere in the world.” True story. I cried the first time I had to drive there. And the second, and the third. Now, I’m ok. You just have to drive with the mindset of a drunk Belgian.

Musaffah looks like a typical middle eastern city in the head of Europeans. I can’t go there and take nice pictures of it now, but you can picture it with small buildings, lots of dust, people sitting on the floor for lunch, barricaded shops selling we don’t really know what, old trucks and cranes, no real sidewalks or parking, you park and walk on the street,… It’s also the Indians an Pakistanis neighborhood. They work there, and they live there, in dormitories buildings. They don’t see often a (European) woman (I have to tell that in the UAE only 28% of the population is female, and they don’t have the profile to work in Musaffah), so it’s the only neighbourhood in Abu Dhabi where I would recommend to dress wisely. A naked shoulder could start a traffic jam.

With time, I came to learn that Musaffah is in fact a gold mine. You can find anything there if you know where to dig. If they don’t sell it, they can make it, and it will always be the cheapest thing you have ever seen. I was very impressed by the chrome plated metal badge shaped like the UAE eagle on what I thought was the official’s car of UAE government people, until I realized that anybody can order one in Musaffah for 30 AED (7,5 euros). I want one, but according to my husband, a diplomatic car cannot have any propaganda sign on… once again, we have to stay neutral which is NOT one of my talents. I still really want to ask Musaffah to make a sticker “Desperate Diplo Wife” for my car. It’s in discussion with my husband. You may try to convince him, please. 

To come back to the initial paint story, we finally found a Jotun shop in Musaffah. We parked our rental car in what was more of a construction field than a parking. It was 2 pm, Fred, the kids and me, found a closed shop, completely dark. As we were about to turn around, I saw a guy sleeping on the desk of the shop. He suddenly got up, put the light of the shop on and waved at me to come in. Our mistake, it was nap time. Google didn’t know about this unofficial break in their opening hours (7 am- 9 pm). I apologized for waking them up, but the Pakistani manager, Ahmed, was very happy to welcome us. The shop was probably 40 sq meters and 30 were filled with paint pots. I could barely enter our pushchair (Jack was only 13 months) and Agnès (3 years old at the time) was already climbing on the pots and playing drum. After I chose the colors, another guy at the back of the shop started the machine to make them. When Fred wanted to pay, Ahmed mentioned that cash was the only option. The bill was so low, 500 dirhams for paint for 5 rooms, we probably should have bargained but in Belgium we would have paid 5 times this amount, so we didn’t ask. Fine, Fred will leave us there for a minute and go withdraw some cash. Ahmed explained him where the closest bank was, and Fred left.

I was then alone with my 2 kids with 2 Pakistani guys in this very small shop. No worries, it’s fine, it’s only for a minute. Until Agnès screamed “I have to poop NOW”. If you have a 3-year-old kid, you know what can happen right after this sentence, you feel my fear. I tried to make her wait telling her there is no toilet in this shop, but impossible, she said it was coming now. So, I asked Ahmed if by any chance, he had toilets available there… His face changed, like I asked him to show his books to the Finance Ministry, he turned grey. He started talking in an unidentified language to the other guy, then ran outside for 5 minutes without telling me one thing. He came back from a back door and very religiously said “Follow-me”. He took me to a staircase, I couldn’t bring the stroller, looks like toilets were just upstairs and the other guy was playing with jack, so I left Jack with the guy. 

After the stairs, Agnès and I arrived on a back street filled with guys sitting on the floor. They clearly hadn’t showered in days and the 38 humid degrees of September brought an unbearable smell. Old deconstructed sofas and desks were piling up, some straight cats on them. Abandoned car wrecks and garbage’s on the side. All the sudden, we had stepped in a magic “anywhere door” and arrived in post-war Bagdad. I felt like Carrie Mathisson in Homeland, but without the scarf and the assurance. He made us walk down the “street”, and everyone was looking at us, they clearly hadn’t seen a woman in months and the vision of this little blond girl with blue eyes was a mirage for them. I started to wonder what the heck I was doing there, and Agnès too… Ahmed finally went inside a house down the street. For a minute I stopped and asked myself “Is it really a good idea to follow an unknown man in a foreign country inside a house you don’t know?”. All my alarms were going on. My husband didn’t even know where I was, I had left my boy with a stranger, I dragged my little girl in this shady alley, I was the worst mother ever. I should not go inside that house, but I asked for toilets, so what now? And where the F*** is Fred???

Ahmed came back outside and realized my fear, I think. He told me “There is a bathroom inside this house, we just had it cleaned for your daughter”. And indeed, I saw a guy coming out of the house with a mop. I felt so bad, I imagined the worst, while he was doing everything he could to give us the full service, to please us. In my still very European mind at the time, it wasn’t even possible to be this kind. 

We decided to go check these toilets. The bathroom was on the second level of an abandoned house. The furniture of the house was covered in plastic, for a minute I thought it might be an interrogation/execution house, but no, I’m not Carrie in Homeland after-all. The Bathroom had just been cleaned, and I cannot imagine how it was before the cleaning because I can tell you, even after this guy mopped, it was still worse than any music festival toilets I’ve been to. Agnès in all her splendor then of course chose this particular minute to say: “I don’t want to poop anymore, it’s too dirty” KIDS!!! I could have killed her. But instead I flushed (the guy was waiting outside, and I couldn’t tell him what she said in French without being offensive) and I RAN outside this house, up the street and back to the shop through the back door. 

I found Fred, carrying Jack and trying – with difficulty and all stressed out – to communicate with the guy (who clearly wasn’t understanding any English word). What happened is while I what on my Bagdad wee-wee tour, Fred came back to the shop and found his son playing with a guy and his wife and daughter missing. The guy couldn’t explain anything to him. His still very European mind did the math; Ahmed had probably kidnapped his girls. I ran to him and told him in French to calm down, they were super helpful, but your daughter is a little devil. 

Fred paid cash, Ahmed and the other guy carried the paint pots in the trunk of our car, and even gave the kids some tangerines they had in their bag, probably their only snacks for the day. 5 Star service, we tipped them and swore to come back. We never did. We were too ashamed of what we both had thought of them for a minute. Very strange to be confronted with your own subconscious prejudices so abruptly. This has taught me how Abu Dhabi also is. It’s not always bright and beautiful, but it is always warm and kind. It has been almost 2 years now and I can tell you that I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in this city. There is diversity in a way I had never experimented in Europe. You meet all nationalities of the world you hear all languages, somehow you get lost. And more important: you lose your prejudices along the way. Anyway, I find it nice sometimes to get lost. It helps me to know myself and makes nice stories to tell! 

The second Fred started the car, we started laughing out loud for at least 30 minutes. Part of stress, part of real funny situation reaction. Whilst, of course, Agnès confessed she still had to poop. A comfy Mc Donald grey and yellow bathroom came to her rescue and everybody enjoyed an ice-cream after. What would I do without my kids?

The roof is on fire

When you’re in lockdown and can’t go outside, your house becomes your seemingly eternal safe haven. You’re making it comfy and cozy, so you feel secure. But I’ve learned that in quarantine, everyday can bring a surprise. 

Yesterday morning, I woke up and went downstairs to get my breakfast. While my kids were having Honey pops in front of the TV whole-grain pancakes with fruits, I started to smell smoke. I ran through all the rooms downstairs and realized some deep blue smoke was coming from the AC in our living room.  As I yelled for my husband still upstairs, I took the kids to the front door then I stopped abruptly: wait, we CANNOT go outside, we are in quarantine! Yes, I’m so deep into this lifestyle that my mind stopped me from leaving the house during a fire. Stupid, well maybe, but I quickly realized that we have a garden, with a pool and an exit directly on the street at the back of it but also things for the kids to play and stay, so it might be the safest place for the kids. I took them around the pool and kept on screaming for my husband. Suddenly I was in fear that the smoke came from an upstairs fire that might already have knocked him out, so I sent the nanny to check on him while I was watching the kids. He finally heard screaming, got out of the shower and ran over the nanny completely naked. This had to happen. I can see she’s a bit traumatized now. 

Anyway, I quickly realized that it was an AC fire because I just started the AC when the smoke appeared, so I turned it down and called security and maintenance… My hands were shaking, I couldn’t keep calm and when the new security guy told me he couldn’t help, I might have told him to go F… himself. Stress makes me really not diplomatic. Our maintenance’s boss was luckily more helpful. God knows I wasn’t a fan of him when we moved in this compound. This very tall Indian guy who always tells you “yes madam’, but who doesn’t do the job. This guy told me for every job he had to do in our house that he’ll talk to “Sir”, like I’m too stupid to understand how to replace a plug… He’s forgiven for everything now. He sent me an emergency team super-fast with masks and gloves, 2020’s must have. 

I couldn’t see any real flames and I knew it had happened to our neighbors in the past so I didn’t know if I should call the fireman or not. But also, I had NO idea what the fireman number was here in the UAE!!! In my diplomatic spouse training before leaving on posting, I was taught by the Ministry many things, from table setting and wine serving to the correct response to carjacking, gun or knife attack (The classic ambivalence of our jobs). One rule caught my attention because I’m super organized and I knew this was a great idea for me:

When moving in another country, make a piece of paper with the number of the ambulance, police, fireman, your husband and the embassy and ALWAYS have it on you (tattoo can be an option). Because let’s face it, we don’t learn numbers by heart anymore, especially when you change your own every 3-4 years. Also, you might have all your belongings stolen, it’s nice to be able to tell the police or the person on the street who found you, which number to call… Truth is, here in the UAE, they know everything. If something happens to me, police is here within 4 minutes thanks to CCTV camera. With my fingerprint or my eye scan, they know my husband’s number, where he works and probably which road I took the last 2 years, how many times I eat cheesecake and my size of pants (but these two are linked). So why would I bother with writing numbers? FOR THIS KIND OF EMERGENCY. I got too comfortable, my mistake.

Turns out, in case of real emergency I have all the wrong reactions. My father was a part-time fireman, I KNOW what to do in these situations and I did not do ONE thing he taught me. I didn’t take my extinguisher, I didn’t cover my mouth, I couldn’t remember if I should open or close the doors, nothing, just shaking.  But when my husband is there, he’s the one who is super-efficient in real dangerous situations. He’s panicking for small things (he might even have bought some toilet paper rolls too many, don’t tell anyone), but when it comes to the big threats, he’s the calmer of all, super rational yoda-like. So, I usually let him take the lead. This time he did it naked. Like Alan said in The hangover“Pants at a time like this?”.

The maintenance team went on the roof to get rid of the fire, they removed the burned AC unit components and replaced them. By 8:30 am this was all fixed and behind us apart for the burned rubber smell. I felt a year older. The weight of the stress, the kids. My husband asked me what I would save first if this would have really gotten out of hand. He already had a list in his head. I just thought about the kids, nothing else mattered. 

And as any major event in your life when you are an expat, you can’t share this with your family and friends in the homeland. They don’t know, they will never know if you don’t tell them and most important, they can’t help you. They might worry for nothing, so why even bother and tell them? Sometimes I hide stuff like this because there is no point to worry them after all. Indeed, most of them will learn this story by reading these lines (or a google-translate version of them). Hence, I got support from my friends here, a lot of them suggested to break their quarantine to help if needed (maybe because they were looking for an excuse to leave or to have visitors, fair enough). I got support also from my “online friends”. This community of expats living around the world, knowing what it is, sharing the highs and the lows, understanding the feelings. And I talked to my birds, Piou-Piou and Lena, they ALWAYS tweet me. 

After my coffee, I told Agnès to prepare for homeschooling. Her answer was: “Mom, the house was on fire, I think we should have a day off”. Yeah, maybe… we could use a couple of weeks off, but I have to admit I’m VERY pleased we are in quarantine now. We were supposed to be in Australia and our Nanny in the Philippines… Our house would have been empty and probably half burned before someone noticed and called the fireman… They say it all happens for a reason, in this case, maybe for the first time (or actually the second after the cancelation of all diplomatic receptions), I’ll thank you Covid-19 lockdown, for making me stay home. 

Journal of one month in lockdown

I never had a writer’s block. But I have to admit it’s harder to write these days… This situation is so heavy, I find it hard to laugh about anything or to step back and look what we are living, but let’s try it anyway. I thought it could be fun to share a piece of my life as a diplomatic spouse, mom of 2 under 5 in lockdown in the UAE. 

This Saturday will mark the one month anniversary since my daughter has been for the last time to school. And they’ve just announced she won’t go back until September, so 1 month down; 5 more to go. WOOP WOOP! She and her brother haven’t left the house for 4 weeks. One day at a time psychologists say. Cheers!

My husband is… well, where is he? Busy seems a small word. Imagine the amount of work for 30h per day and you’ll be close. It’s impossible to do it all even if he’s dam good at it. Belgium has small budgets and they are only 3 diplomats here, imagine the workload. Hence, he brings a lot of stress back to the house and this doesn’t disappear with hand sanitizer. He still has to go to the embassy located in a gloomy tower in the city center and he has to monitor a lot of very stressful information. It’s not exactly a fun period at Embassies. He also has to deal with the people… those Belgians blocked here after the closing of borders, those people who often decided to go on holiday abroad against all advice given and that now are crying (or mostly yelling) for help. On top of it, he’s a man, you know… the kind of human who is afraid of any sort of flu, especially man flu. The kind of human who really thinks he is dying from a stomachache. Don’t laugh, I’ve driven him to the ER once, in the middle of the night because he was having (according to him) a heart attack and was dying (at 27 years old). I drove as fast as I have ever had, faster than an ambulance. Turns out, after 4 hours of waiting on an ER bench in my nightgown (no time to change, I told you, he said he was DYING), he only had stomach burns. Meanwhile, my brand new car was smacked on the ER parking. We were together for 5 months, I learned a new side of him that I think many men have. I cried a bit, for my car. So now, you can imagine what is going through his mind when there is a pandemic outside and he starts coughing (after a dust storm…).

So slowly, to occupy my mind and fill the void, I became all the jobs we miss during this lockdown. 

Week1

I became a hairdresser. I ordered all the instruments and cut my husband’s hair. Great success! I apparently missed my vocation (which was my initial choice of career, but my parent refused). Everybody told him he had a better haircut than ever. I cut my son’s hair with less success… this little guy can’t stay still. It’s ok, we won’t take any family pictures soon anyway.

Week 2

I missed my morning cappuccino outside so much that I became a barista. I ordered a special machine for the milk, some special coffees and syrups. I succeeded in making the perfect caramel cappuccino but I still can’t do a proper heart or a tulip on top of it. I tried to do a 3D foam milk panda but according to my daughter it looks like a bat, and it’s not a good time to eat bats. 

Week 3

I missed going to the restaurant so much that I started to cook and bake. I ordered all the different kitchen appliances missing in my life, all those things that I would NEVER buy in ordinary times because they take a lot of space… I will definitely not be able to put them in my belgian micro-kitchen, whatever, who knows if we will ever see Belgium again anyway? So, I cooked world food and daily dessert. We did some themed days “Chinese” “Greek” “Mexican” “Arabic” “Belgian”, at least our stomachs travelled a lot. 

Week 4

Oh, wait, what’s that fat on my side? After a hour (read a day or more) of depression, I ordered a treadmill. Yes, I know, I order a lot but by the look of amazon’s stock level, I am NOT the only one 😉 I also joined this group of chicks working out everyday and posting videos of it… I watched, fat is still there, I kept on baking. 

And of course, from day 1, on top of being a nursery teacher for my son Jack, I became a KG teacher for my almost 5 year old daughter. Me, the least patient mother of them all, ended up doing 3h a day of teaching (luckily the French program isn’t heavy for now). I’m lucky I have only one child of school age and she’s only 5, I still can understand the material (except Arabic, I dropped that, sorry but inshAllah). But still, I immediately understood what the teacher told me a couple of months ago (even if at that time I made fun of her). She told me: “Agnes is a perfectionist; she is afraid of failure.” So, yes, even if she’s 5, every new thing is a fight and a negotiation to get her to try and take the risk of not doing it perfectly (Wonder where she got it from…). At the beginning I didn’t have the right fighting techniques. One day I was so pissed that my husband said “I’ll do it tomorrow” and he did, with his computer and his phone on the side. As a result my daughter came and asked me “Mom, what does it mean to be stuck in transit? Does this mean dad is taking care of people who can’t poop?” From that day I decided I’ll be the only teacher in the house. I sharpened my techniques and took some liberties with the school program. Songs for example, they have to learn one song per week, why does it have to be a boring fish song? I know hundreds of French classics (that I like better than this stupid fish swimming). From now on, she’s learning Patrick Bruel, Jacques Brel and Annie Cordy (“Chaud ka kao” or “tata yoyo”, you have to google it, it’s Belgian surrealism). I don’t care, She’s never going back to that teacher anyway! And you know what’s the best part of it??? I don’t have to buy the teacher a end of school year present 🥳.Pressure is high on that aspect here, some moms get them diamond necklaces with home made cookies… I’m not joking! Last year I gave them wine. Trust me, French teachers in a Muslim country, that’s ALL they really want.

We are beginning of week 5 and I’m looking for a new job to learn, let’s make this time, or at least my 39 min of free daily time that I have, useful. If you have any ideas, please send me a message! 

Although I started to be a mover and interior designer. My daughter decided she needed a “holiday in a hotel” feeling, so she moved in our guest bedroom. It’s fine, between the virus and my last blog post, I’m sure we won’t get visitors anytime soon. 

Stay safe and… put the goddam phone down, it is full of bacteria and toxic info.

Virtual hug

Cécile 

Ps: I made 2 new friends, bird friends to be precise. I feel like Snow-White because they really communicate and sing along with me. It’s probably the craziness anchoring. They are called piou-piou and Lina. I miss Liza, my UAE-summer-locked-inside lizard friend, but birds are way more chatty and easier to feed. 

Quand je vois Fernande

— I had written this text before we heard about the Covid-19. I wrote it for me, for her too. In the light of the recent events, thinking about our senior family members, what we owe them and why we have to protect them made me want to publish it. Also this society of groceries trucks, why it stopped and how we need it now more than ever might be food for our thoughts.

The other day I said out loud something I had in the back of my mind for a while “I wish my grandma could be here and see this”. I don’t have too many family members; one dad, one aunt, one cousin, and one grandma, that’s it. I won’t nag about it, it shaped me pretty hard, it can be useful in life. 

My grandma wasn’t even my grandma by blood. She was the last girlfriend of my grandpa who already had 2 wives but this one didn’t want to get married so made an exception to the French saying “never 2 without 3”. My grandpa died when I was 18 months. His girlfriend had no kids or grandkids, I had no grandparent left and a crazy mother; we matched. She saved me so many times by taking me to her house, she was the sunshine of my childhood. 

She came from a family of 16 kids. Yes, you read it right, 16. She was one of the last, her mom had one contraction while mopping the floor and my grandma came. She fell right from her mom’s uterus on the floor, a cold morning of December 1929, banging her head. Her mom went lying down right after that and the postman heard crying and found her still on the floor. I have no idea if the story she  told me is true but she always joked this was the reason she was so easily distracted, traumatized from birth. 

After a couple of fails in factory jobs, she eventually became a fruits and veggies dealer. She started with a simple cart and a dog to help pulling it, it was 1945, right after World War II, she was 16. She carried everything by herself on her “tour” in a blue collar neighborhood of our city, whatever the weather was like. It was very hard work. So hard, she lost the only child she bared at 5 months of pregnancy. She said to me one day that she wasn’t meant to be a mother, wouldn’t be a good one because she doesn’t know how to properly show love. I felt the contrary but never told her. She showed me more love than my own mother.

Then she got enough money to buy an old truck. Of course I don’t remember the first one (I wasn’t even born), but Iremember the one which was an old fisherman truck. It had a huge fish on the side. She planned for years to turn it into a banana but never found the right sticker. No matter, everybody on her tour knew her and knew she wasn’t selling fish, it became her trademark. This truck was more often broken than repaired and we were living with the constant talk about repairing bills. It could be opened on the side and offered a real little shop inside. We used to go in her garage on Friday night and I would play the fruits and veggies merchant while she would play customer. She only had an old balance with weights, and a book where she wrote every sale by hand. I used to do her accounting every Saturday from 7 years old and on, as she decided I was better in math than she was (which was kind of true). She paid me in strawberries. She had the coolest job ever. Except it started at 4 am at the market and she was the only woman doing it! She was very respected in this sector for that. She was a young widow but she stayed very Independent. She was the strongest person I know. 

It was from a era where everything would come to your house or street: the drinks truck, the bakery truck, the (real) fisherman truck, the butcher truck, the milk and cheese man,… they honked and stopped infront of your house to let you do your grocery shopping. Fresh products, small talk, no traffic, What a time!

Eventually, women started to work, nobody was in the house when trucks came and the attraction of the supermarket did the rest. She had to stop her tour in the 90’s. Funny enough now I order my fruit and veggies online and it’s almost the same kind of truck that delivers, except it has a big cherry on it. Something makes me think that if my grandma was born here, she would have invented Kibsons (for those not living in the UAE, Kibsons is an online supermarket focused on fresh products like fruits veggies or meat). That’s the version of what she was 50 years ago. Trendy, fresh, quality and efficient. 

She was humble but loved the nice things. She was saving money to buy silverware, jewelry etc. She’s the one who taught me the appreciation of good things, especially shoes. She had this closet full of shoes still in the box, each marked with a sticker saying what kind of shoes were in the box. All of them had spelling mistakes, she had never learned to write proper French. She spoke “Walloon” a dialect of my region, for her, French was for fancy people. 

One of her sister married a US soldier after World War II and left Belgium to make a family of her own in California. My “low class” worker grandma travelled every year to California to visit her sister. She came back with tales of a new world, full of promises, sparkling eyes and new shoes for me. 

She had a fantastic health. I don’t recall seeing her sick once. She had other weaknesses. She lost her glasses probably 200 times, and she had more car accidents than 50 people together. Let’s say driving wasn’t her thing, she was distracted like she said. Turns out she buried all her 15 siblings, her husband, her 4 boyfriends, her parents, and all of her friends. 

Then her mind left the building. That’s the saddest thing I’ve seen. She, who signed for no reanimation because she didn’t want to turn into a veggie, is now stuck in her old healthy body but doesn’t remember who she is. Last time I visited her was when my daughter was still a baby and I could see it really upset her not to know who I was. Up to a point I decided not to visit anymore. When you become the reason for stress, it’s not worth it. 

Ok, this text isn’t much fun, it’s even kind of sad you think. Yes an no. Because while I live here I often think she would love this country even more sparkly than the US in the 60’s. She would have visited me every winter and would dress up in her most fancy outfit. Maybe she would even have found a sheikh boyfriend. I think I live the life she dreamed of and that makes me smile. And I talk about her a lot, to make her live again thanks to our memories. She might not have had any child but I intend to make her story pass the years by telling it to my kids and to you too. So from time to time I’ll mention her, my amazing grandma with a crazy life and now you know a bit more who she was. 

My daughter asked me the other day “what was the name of your grandma?” I answered “Ferdinande, but everybody called her Fernande” then she said “I love that name, it’s so pretty” it made me happy because my grandma hated her name. ❤️

March 2020, COVID-19

It’s very hard to write about what is happening right now but I wanted to write what is on my mind, on March 14th 2020 (because nowadays a week appart is a world away). I’m a Belgian mom of 2 who lives in the United Arab Emirates. I’m married to a diplomat, so in a way I’m used to emergencies and very tense briefings. I have access to a lot of information all the time and I talk to relatives and friends living all over the world on a daily basis. I absorb world problems usually pretty easily. But this time, we live an unprecedented crisis and I feel dizzy. All the breaking news this last 2 months and the analysts and comments made me sick (but with no fever don’t worry). The dramatics, the minimalists, the « I know better» and the conspiracy theorists. I was the first fan of social media back in the days but today I kind of hate it. I see crazy unexplainable selfish behavior and remarks all over the world and those in my country make me even more ashamed.


I’m an expat. I don’t have my friends and family here with me but I have friendmily here now. Turns out, expats seem to show more solidarity. We are used to being alone in deep shit, so we help each other. We share food, drinks (especially drinks), we take turns for the kids, we take care of each other, we protect each other. We built a community.


I know we are supposed to stay away of each other and it’s hard for some. A good hug, a concert, would make all these bad feelings go away. But it’s 2020, we have Whatsapp and why don’t we use social media for a GOOD purpose this time? Why don’t we stop sharing angry messages about the government or people (hey… we are all overwhelmed anyway), and start taking care and entertaining each other? It’s time to reach out to others in a GOOD way. Like do you have everything you need? How do you feel? How do you occupy your kids? Did you read a nice book? How do I look in this dress I found at the back of my closet? What is your best recipe of pasta sauce? There are worse things in life than staying in a cozy house filled with love and Netflix, no?


Yes, we hurt. We already worry for our eldest family members and it could get worse. Everybody will lose money in this crisis and it’s worrisome. It’s unprecedented, it was likely unpredictable and it’s life. humanity tends to forgot that we are not almighty and this virus came to remind it to us. Maybe we pushed it a little bit too far. Maybe we took things for granted. Anyway, it will never be the same again. May we act during the crisis in a way that makes us (and our kids) proud when this is all over.


Much love, but no kiss


Cécile

About the visitors

If there is one weird topic that only expats can understand, it’s the mixed feelings you get when you have visitors.

Depending on where you expatriate, you will get more or less attraction of people to come and visit. We were doing pretty ok when we left. A vast majority of people hated the idea of traveling in the Middle East and told us about it. “I’m not racist BUT…” I read somewhere that nothing that comes before the but counts, sorry. They had no clue where Abu Dhabi was in Saudi Arabia – is there another country over there? – Then I started to post about the UAE and the long gloomy Belgian winter made some change their minds. No more remarks on human rights or Sharia law, but lots of questions about the weather and the pool. Suddenly you have many “friends”, or aquintances or just people with whom you shared a dance class when you were 7, willing to visit you and staying at your house, because, you know, it’s easier to catch up… and cheaper but that’s not playing a part at all. Funny enough, when you are back in your country, none of them will lodge you, drive you around, or even see you. I guess it’s one of the expat privileges, we are rich, we can rent a car and a home. Bullshit. 

Even if it’s your close family, the same problems appear for each visit: they are on vacation while you are NOT. But they don’t think about it, well at least not for the spouse. They’ll understand THE diplomat is busy, but the wife… she is free to play driver and tour guide, right? She has nothing else to do anyway! Gosh, she must be bored all the time when we aren’t visiting! Oh, and we don’t speak English so she’ll have to translate for us. And while you’re speaking English with the cashier, you can also pay our entry tickets or the restaurant bill. 

Don’t get me wrong I love to show my city to the people I like. Hence, I’ve visited 9 times the Grand mosque last year, I kind of don’t marvel at it anymore, it’s better to do it on your own and at your own pace (36 pictures every 10 meters) and without me. Pakistani taxi drivers are amazing, they are like you, they don’t speak English, even with your strongest French accent, tell them “MOSQUÉE” and they’ll drive you there. Coming back? I’ll pick you up… tonight.

Because they know you live there, they feel dispensed of reading any info on the country before coming. No need for a lonely planet guide (save 15$), Cécile will explain everything to us. So you get all the same stupid questions, to which I would love to answer by my favorite Sentence these days “I’m not google”. But you feel like you have to make them love your new country so… you help!

Yes, it’s safe. 

Yes, the mosque is free. (Not that you’re cheap to ask) 

Yes, you have to cover. 

Yes, they will lend you an abaya. 

Yes, for free (you start to look kind of cheap)

No, it won’t be pretty. 

Yes, there is a Cinnabon at the entrance.  – Oh no wait, that last one was from my husband so it doesn’t count. –

You feel super stressed out. You have to make a planning for them , what to visit and where to eat! You ask them “what do you like?” “Oh whatever you want…” NO, don’t say that! Just say that you don’t like Lebanese cuisine or I’ll fill you up with hummus. Say that you prefer Ferrari world to visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I don’t know you, remember, we only shared a few dancing classes when we were 7.

They come here without any idea of the time difference, the culture, the electrical plugs. Because we are european they think we live in a european household, on Brussel timeline and weekend, with Belgian plugs (won’t buy an adaptor, save 7$) and a fritkot down the street probably. We can’t fix everything but we cut ourselves in half to make them happy. Traveling is adapting and I’m very sorry if the Fanta doesn’t taste the same here, I’ll see what I can do.

The thing is when you expatriate, some people who would have never travelled this “far”, will visit you. They will do it for you, or at least they’ll tell themselves that, but sort of against themselves. It’s an amazing step to take for someone but they will be heavy work for you (remember nothing before the BUT counts). 

Why do we want them to love the place we live in and don’t accept any critic? I mean I love my new country, why do I need them to love it too? I could let them comment but something in me (and outside) fights every single remark! I turn out pretty aggressive even went I hear remarks. I don’t get really why, probably because this country is a part of me now and because them commenting without knowing is irritating.

And here starts the big fight. You, expat, say something bad about your home country, they, visitors, take it against them and reply by a nasty comment on your new country which makes you angry… why should this be a fight? Why can’t we both acknowledge the weaknesses and strengths of our countries? Probably because some family members hate your new country which has “taking you away”. And you left for a reason, so you try to make your point. Those viewpoints are nearly impossible to match, try to speak about something else. Like the Iran conflict. Bad example they have no clue what it is, let’s talk about the new concert hall back home and what type of beer you can get there… there, that’s better.

For blogging purposes, I’m exaggerating here! Don’t take it on you if you’ve visited us, we loved it. I’m synthesizing experiences from all my expat friends here. Between the wife stuck with the in-laws for 3 weeks with the husband working hard (him,…) and on an unexpected abroad business trip (it’s ok, HE is busy, they get it), and the last-minute ex colleagues in transit in Dubai airport willing to be picked up (how did you get my number?). The best neighbor Story I’ve heard yet is People flying in Dubai to come in Abu Dhabi because it’s cheaper, but YOU have to go pick them up in Dubai and drive back to your house. Yeah, I get it, I’ll fly back to Amsterdam instead of Brussels next time and you can come pick me up there. No worries.

With my expat friends, neighbors, when we look at the agenda to plan something there is always this sentence “that weekend, we have visitors”. The tune of this is always dual, part excitement, part of boredom. We get it, no need to explain.

You should see the posts on this Facebook group over restaurants in Abu Dhabi. Dozens of posts say something like “My parents are in town next week and I’m looking for a brunch but not too lavish Emirati style, do you know any?” Like you are gonna take your parents to a low class brunch and make it look like it’s your week end tradition here? Although you are used to go to the Emirates palace brunch every Friday and drink champagne in golden flutes. We get you man, it’s hard to assume your posh side, they might think you’re a crazy expat now. Oh wait, they already do, and you kind of are! 

I won’t complain, we had some lovely visitors, baring the products you miss the most from Belgium, caring for you and your kids, preparing you diner, inviting you to restaurant, making their way through the city themselves,… those are the ones who will be able to visit next posting! 

Then there are the people I really wanted to visit but never came. The money, the time, the husband, the step-wife, the health, many excuses that I understand but still it’s painful not to have them here and show them our new life. Someday, maybe. And by then, I’ll have the perfect itinerary for them!

Your beloved guide, Cécile.
(Please tip the guide)

Tower of Babel

In my country, language is a touchy topic. We officially have 3: Dutch, French and German. But it’s not like in Luxembourg or Switzerland, we don’t have to learn them all. As a result, even if we are a super tiny country (30.000 sq meters, but diplomats will say “a country of modest size”), there is a sort of frontier, a fence due to language. We don’t communicate too much and thus cleavages and misunderstandings happen. It’s sad and I really hope our administration would address more this issue instead of cutting or polarising the country even more.

This being said, I’m far from a good example. I’m French speaking. I Took English as first extra language at school, then Spanish at university. I did all my 22 years of studies without any encounter with the other official languages of my country. High five! How is that possible??? Then I had to go work in the capital, Brussels. Suddenly my boss was Dutch speaking, as was 3/4 of the department. All the meetings were under the principle «everyone speaks his own language », a very good including principle. But I didn’t understand a word of Dutch and I could as well be in China in a renewable energy meeting, I had no clue.

How did I arrive there you will ask? Funny story. The Belgian law forbids to do a job interview for most civil servants in another language then the one of the applicants. The law is very good to protect yourself from having to learn something new. I got into my interview in French, they asked if Dutch was a problem, I replied « Not at all » meaning literally I don’t have a problem with the language. Ok, I might have played a bit on words on that one. They thought I could speak Dutch, and I got the job. So here I was on my first day at the office in this meeting all in Dutch. Just like in my actual diplo-wife life, I had to smile a lot and look like I understood everything. But smiling only kept me afloat for a couple of weeks, I had to learn Dutch. Turns out, there was a young Dutch guy working in the same department who was – strongly – inclined to help me learn, by marrying me. 

We ended up having 2 children. We decided to take advantage of our differences and to raise them in both languages. 30 years ago, people were reluctant to do so. And even doctors were saying we shouldn’t raise kids in a bilingual way because it will cause slower minds. 

Times have changed and we live in a globalized world where you cannot speak only one language. Nope, not even you Americans! 

Raising kids in a home of multiple languages isn’t easy. But it is funny. I speak French to the kids, my husband Dutch, they watch TV and communicate with the world in English, learn Arabic at school and Tagalog with their nanny. They certainly spoke later than the rest of the kids. I remember back in Belgium; people were implicitly telling me Agnès had a problem for not speaking yet. Nevertheless, I knew it would come later but in both languages! If you decide to do it, first rule is “DO NOT LISTEN TO OTHERS” and don’t let yourself be discouraged. Kids are real sponges; they will sort it out. It’s probably the same about all education topics anyway, but your bilingual kids are having quite specific challenges. They are learning completely different sounds. Bilingual kids hear double the vocabulary and half often (did you get it?). For Agnès it was still easy she only was in a bilingual home where the dominant environment was French, but Jack has the same challenge in a house with 4-5 languages. He’s still struggling with it at 2,5 years, but we are going in the right direction.

The difference here is that I am surrounded by parents who are all in the same situation. I don’t know one 4 year old who isn’t speaking 3 languages here. So apart from one Einstein baby, which you of course get to meet, doing full sentences at 12 months in two languages, all toddlers are fighting with words like Jack. Which is kind of reassuring as a parent. 

As they grow old, these kids mess up sentences. Agnès usually puts a bit of English in her French sentences, and she can’t properly tell the difference between Dutch and English. It’s completely normal and it will fade away. Just tell them which word belongs to which language so they can do a proper “box” for each language. 

Also, we had one rule: Everyone speaks his own language, kids adapt and reply in the same language addressed to them. It worked fine. But somewhere in the way, the French school explained to Agnès that her American friends will never speak French if she doesn’t talk to them in French (turns out the French school is full of English and Arab speaking kids and according to my daughter they are cooler than the French, so she hangs out with them). Don’t get me wrong, they are right. But it’s funny how they won’t apply their principle to them learning English, but that’s another debate. Thanks to them, now she decided I should speak French to everyone so they can learn. Clever kid. But I can see our Indian gardener is quite lost.

From the first day I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I wondered which language they would speak between them. My husband and I speak French (and no more escaping to English if we don’t want the kids to understand), so I assumed it might be French as it is the dominant language. No. Turns out now, they speak a mix of English, French and Dutch (in that order). For some reason the Dutch is quite popular when it comes to candy (snoepje) and ice-cream (ijsje) (probably linked to my husband’s way of dealing with kids).

What is really great with this languages journey is that I’ve lost one of the biggest misconceptions that I had: “You are not the same person in another language”. As If you couldn’t be the real you in another language. I had this feeling with my husband in the beginning. He was so sweet when speaking French and when I heard him in Dutch, he sounded like an aggressive prison guard. Of course, some languages sound sweeter than others. And according to your own ears, you’ll be attracted to one more than another. But this is the key factor: your ears! Sounds you heard as a child will help you consider some languages as comforting and others as an attack because it sounds oddly unfamiliar. I grew up with a bit of Italian and a lot of Americans around. This made me mellow for Italian (and Italians but don’t tell my husband) and fascinated by the American accent. It has been proven that you physically can’t even hear some sounds in other languages if you have never been confronted with them before. You then have to properly train your ears, like a muscle, to hear these sounds. I relied a lot on that principle for my journey of learning Dutch saying that my ears weren’t ready yet, however, after two kids being raised half in Dutch, I’m fine now (except for the dreadful dialect my father-in-law is speaking of which, 10 years later, I still have no clue and I don’t think I ever will).

I’m quite happy to think that thanks to this crazy life we live now, the ears of my children are on an Olympic level. They’ll be open to hear everyone and try to communicate with everyone. They are called the Third culture kids. They’ll have issues, like everyone, and probably issues linked to their lack of fixed roots but at least they won’t have issues about languages or dislike someone for speaking another language!

The one with the fish

One day my PhD mentor told me one of the most important things in my life. I was a bit lost and had no idea how I got there (into an empirical economic PhD program to be precise) and where I wanted to go next. He said:

“Cécile, you have to decide if you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in the ocean. The ocean is wild, harsh but marvelous. The pound is comfy and more easily tamed, making a name is duck soup. None of them is better than the other, only you know which fits you best.”

The rebel that I was at the time didn’t want to think about the metaphor. But after a while, it came back to my mind and pretty instinctively I knew I hated the pond. The ocean attracted me. Meeting the different and getting the anonymity. It’s comforting in a way, fascinating in another. So, I quit my job, the PhD program, met this Dutch speaking guy in Brussels, and you know the rest. 

When I got here, I felt like a little fish in the ocean. There are not many predators in the UAE for a fish like me, so I wasn’t afraid, but I was lost. Weirdly it felt so GOOD. Energy consuming but with a level of adrenaline I never knew before. 

Seventeen months later, I wonder if Abu Dhabi hasn’t turned into my pond and me into a “big (fat) fish”. 

“Abu Dhabi is a village”: weird sentence the chit-chatting mums state at school pick up when they realize they have common friends. Usually they’ll fake laugh at the end of the sentence, I recommend you follow if you’re looking for acceptance.


I have to admit IT IS a village. At our level at least. I don’t know the Indian community of Mussafah (yet) or the Filipinos downtown but I’ve met the school moms, the diplowives, some random friends, turns out they all know each other from a sports club, kids’ activities, neighborhood, birthday party, … A friend of mine was thinking about putting her son in a tennis club, I said I have friends there, she already knew who it was without even finishing my sentence. Well, ok she might have followed me or bugged my phone… oh sorry I’m paranoid in the morning, typical middle eastern move. 

And for the “big fish” part, turns out, you can’t really stay discrete in a posting like this. Or yes you could, but first it’s not in my character and second you wouldn’t make the most of it. If you expatriate yourself, go talk to people! You didn’t leave your homeland to stay hidden at home and make no new friends. Nobody will come to you if you don’t make a move first. And if they do pop up at your door out of nothing… be careful, might be something fishy. So, I did, a lot, and now I know a lot of people. And some days it just pisses me off. 

I loved the anonymity, the ability to leave the house in my favorite juicy couture sweatpants, reminiscences of my Belgians roots (just kidding, it’s in fact the opposite, in Belgium I never left the house in sweatpants without make up, go figure) or without doing my hair to go pick up my kid at school. Guess what? it is over! I didn’t do my hair this week and got a billion remarks about it. Good for me, they liked my wild bird nest, but still, they noticed. I didn’t want to be noticed, not that day at least (women are complicated).

 
I went to the mall for my coffee morning and run into my friend while I was zoning like a shopping addict in need. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. It’s just like Belgium, when you meet your neighbor at the Spa and you’re super happy it is NOT a naked sauna.


On the weekend I don’t go to the common pool in our compound because I know everyone there and for now I’m just not in the mood for small talks or exchanging between non-bikini-ready bodies (this might be delayed for 2021).

So me, who wishes to live in the ocean, I really wonder if it’s possible at all! After a while everyplace probably turns into your pound. And at first, I have to admit it is comfortable. The coffee guy knows my name, the security guard knows my kids, the delivery guy from Kibsons knows the perfect timing to deliver. I know where to go or who to ask for everything.


It’s scary to me. I come from a town where everyone talks to each other. There is no such thing as being a stranger. You don’t know them? Yes, you do, there are from Liège, and everybody is a friend there. It’s ok, they’ll be confident enough to speak their mind to you as a friend. They’ll come and tell you that your car is making a weird noise (I know thanks, but I can’t afford to repair it), or that your kids cough is bad (I know thanks, we’ve been to the doctor), or that you came back early from work the last 3 days (I had a VERY curious postman). By the time the baker asked me when I planned to conceive another child, I knew I HAD to leave the place. 

I guess the solution would be to leave Abu Dhabi now. But I don’t really want to. In the end don’t you just go from pond to pond in our kind of life. What exactly is living in the ocean anyway? Moving every month? Is it even possible? Or are there cities in the world so big that you would really feel like a little fish in the ocean? Like NYC for example. I love this city feeling as a tourist but living there, do you end up in a pond too? 

I wonder, on Tuesday morning with my coffee, especially because this fish can’t even swim.