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.

The 6 months test

Today, December 30th marks the 6 months of my blog. Why did I do it? I won’t lie to you, I did it mainly to justify myself. To explain to the people in my homeland what I was really going through. To open eyes on our position. To break some walls. I had no clue where it would go, and I had no plan about what to post and when. I knew I wouldn’t post as often as I should and that the quality of the posts wouldn’t always be the same. But I just knew I loved to write. I’ve always loved to write but somehow, I was convinced (or told) that I couldn’t be a good writer because I don’t read enough books. It could look like a paradox, I don’t like to read but I would love to write a book, obviously not for people like me.

The blog was an idea at the back of my head for a year now and I asked my husband about it after a friendly reminder of my dearest Sophie that I should start doing something with my brain (you have to love the Dutch honesty). He told me “Just do it. Give it 6 months and then you’ll be able to assess whether you want to keep going or stop it”. Here we are, 6 months later. Time for the test. 

I decided that the topic implied my blog to be written in English. You can’t really talk about being an expat only in French. Oh, wait, yes you could, the French do it. But I’m not French, I’m Belgian, and I basically wanted to meet anything but my community. It was a little bit scary at first: can you really be yourself in another language? Will my humor transpire in English? But in a way it protects me. Not all of my family and friends understand English, so they just don’t read the blog and in consequence I have more freedom, hooray! 

I had NO idea this would turn out like this. While some of my Belgian friends supported me but didn’t really understand why I put time and energy in something that’s not making me any money, I got huge support from the expat community. Obviously, my American friends were a great support in my idea. You have to give them that, they know how to cheer you on. Much more than any other nation in the world, I think, they seem to embed the values of initiative and innovation. They support you in creating your own business. Where in Belgium, we are afraid of the new. Don’t get me wrong, we have good reasons to be afraid. In Belgium, if you have an idea, not really mainstream, brace yourself, the way will be long and full of ambushes and if you fail, they won’t tell you to go at it again. But that’s another story. 

Through this blog and the Instagram account linked to it, I met so many people. I was able to connect to different kind of diplomats, expats, trailing spouses (Gosh I hate this term, it pictures us like a caravan the husband is carrying around). We were able to exchange life stories. The differences, the similarities, the frustrations and the happiness. It helped me. First because writing is very therapeutic. Second because meeting people in the same situation always helps! I received dozens of emails of people from all over the world and exchanging with each one of them was a real pleasure.

To talk purely about numbers, because for the economist I am, any test means factual numbers. In 6 months, I wrote 19 posts who have been read by 2000 people from 64 countries. I made almost 1000 friends on Instagram. It may seem small, but for me it’s huge. I had no idea it would lead to that. Though I started without any clear objectives I consider it to be a success that exceeded my expectations.

If you write, want to write, hesitate about sharing your story, go ahead! It will be a nice experience whatever the outcome is. We are so lucky to be expats living in the internet world. We are not alone anymore. And it’s the same on every topic. I remember when I had my first baby, the internet was the only helping hand telling the truth about how hard it is while some friends and acquaintances kept telling their bullshit “it’s only happiness and the best time of your life”. Expat friends play a different ball game, they rather speak the harsh truth, there’s no time for fairytales. Also, for us nomads, it’s so useful to communicate and see how life is in other postings! Yes, remember, in 2 years I’ll be leaving Abu Dhabi. I would love to speak to someone living in our future possible destinations before drawing up the wish list and even more so before going there. Because living in a place has nothing in common with going on vacation to that place. We face different challenges that only the people living there know about. The fanciest vacation spots are sometimes the worst places for an expat with young kids to live and some of the countries that are culturally closest to us are real isolation traps. And we are all so different, adapting each in their own way. 

Dear blog, you passed the 6 months test. Congratulations, you’ll see 2020 and the craziness this year will bring. 

Dear follower, dear occasional reader, thank you for your time. I hope you enjoyed reading my posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. I hope it helped or at least made you smile on a bad day. I hope your idea about “this Arab country” changed along the reading. I also hope you will think twice before judging a housewife, a trailing spouse, a diplomatic partner. We are not so desperate, and the common fight between the working moms and the stay at home moms shouldn’t exist. May we help and value each other in what is good for each individual in a particular period. Life is definitely a cycle, and nothing is permanent, definitely not opinions.

Turns out it’s also the end of a decade, so it’s time for me to wish you the best for this new year. 2020, sounds like a year to remember, make it count!

Petit Papa Noël

Seeing my daughter write her letter to Santa made me think about who I would write and what I would ask if I had the chance. In my situation, very realistically speaking, Santa, is my husband’s employer. He’s the almighty. He decides WHEN we go, WHERE we go, if they approve our choice of house we’ll live in, if I’m allowed to work or not, and how much money we’ll get. We probably shouldn’t put all this responsibility on one institution, but it’s like that in our job. I won’t send my letter officially, I don’t want to be the crazy wife everyone talks about at the department (don’t say I’m already that one), but I know they are always watching over us, so here is my letter to them:

Dear Ministry of Foreign affairs, 

I’ve been good this year, very good. I’ve gone to almost a hundred of receptions to represent Belgium. I’ve smiled all the way even the bad days. I’ve made a lot of connections and spread the word about lovely innovative Belgium all over the Emirates. I praised our chocolates, beers, construction skills and medical innovations. I even made some little white lies when I had to… to cover our flaws (like why we haven’t had a government for almost a year now). 

I’ve also been a good wife. I let my diplomat (over)work all year round. I didn’t call him during the day not to distract him and wasn’t too mad all the times he missed diner, kids bath time or basically seeing us. I’ve accepted the job and done my best to help him with my social, organization and cooking skills, not to forget my diplomatically correct jokes. 

In consequence, I have a couple of requests that would be nice to fulfill. 

First, I’d like to access my husband’s agenda. How simple is that? Apparently not because you already denied my request. But you don’t get it! Here meetings and receptions are decided very last minute (if you’re lucky two days before the event). Add to that the fact that my diplo is very busy, easily distracted, forgets to mention things sometimes (often). As a result, we arrange the planning for the week and then he comes back home Sunday night with a “We have to leave in 30 min. We have an event in Dubai”. We have two kids and they are flexible but still enjoy some planning. And me too. 

Moreover, sometimes I get very stressed because I have to contact my husband and he’s out of reach! While I’m imagining he was rolled over by a Nissan Patrol, or electrocuted at the office (embassies are not safe anymore, or maybe just not the Belgian one, but yes, they will move, eventually). In fact, he just had a last-minute meeting with one of these embassies or institutions where they take his phone away for multiple purposes. I know the diplomat’s agenda is pretty secret and have to be encrypted and everything, but hey, I’m kind of sleeping with your diplomat for almost 10 years now, I’m pretty sure this gives me the right clearance level.

Secondly, I would like to stay in Abu Dhabi for 4 years in total. I know the plan was to send us to Qatar for one year after 3 years here (for the World Cup 2022) but seriously have you thought about it? UAE and Qatar aren’t exactly best friends anymore. In fact, you can’t even go directly there from here, you have to stop somewhere else first (although it’s very close). Same for our whole container! Everything has to be packed here, shipped to Oman, unpacked, repacked without any UAE label and shipped to Qatar. Timewise it’s probably equivalent to sending our stuff to Australia but with double “the breaking things” rate. 

Also, it seems harsh to send someone out just for one year. I have nothing against Qatar but in one year, you just start to settle. I wonder if it’s even possible to make friends if I say, “I’ll leave in 6 months”.  Anyway, I’m sure that if you can’t change that one my husband will be over the moon to be a part of the World Cup and so will be his friends. Me, less. I may have to take a leave of absence on this one.

And finally, although we don’t have an official national dress in Belgium, I think we can promote our designers. I might look pregnant (according to some ugly cow) but I think I’ll do justice to a nice Diane Von Furstenberg dress with a Delvaux bag. Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Elvis Pompilio, Martin Margiela, … could we give them justice for the love of these fashion gods? We could promote Belgium with something else than chocolate and beer (the best of the world by the way)! We have much more to offer and our creativity should be valued. Every national day reception I see all these women in their gorgeous national dresses, the Fins, the Indians, the Filipinos, the Koreans, they show up for their country. Belgium, nothing. I’m pretty sure designers would be up for a discount knowing you’re having a tough time financially speaking. It’s 2020 and influencers are the new advertising gurus! The brands know it better than you. Do you think the German Ambassadors drive a non-German car? In the world, your ambassadors, your diplomats, their partners are the best influencers Belgian designers can have! They usually meet with people with influence, wealthy people, people who can afford those designer pieces. Diplomats and spouses can promote or taint the image of Belgium! You don’t want to be the country known for its badly dressed diplomats and partners, right? Don’t get me wrong, we do our best, but why is my husband dressed in an overpriced Italian suit and I in an overpriced dress from UK when we have such designer wealth? Worst case, diplomats are cheap on clothes and you’ll end up with representatives being dressed as 80’s hipsters. Think about it for a minute, don’t reject the idea so quickly. Especially here. The market is huge! I’m pretty sure if I have a nice Delvaux bag I can influence at least 20 women per year to buy one. I’ll be a good saleswoman in another life. I’m not asking for diamonds, although every single person I meet mention we are famous for them… next year maybe.

Thanks for reading my requests. If you do this for me, if you do a little bit more for all of us partners of diplomats, I assure you we’ll be grateful all year long. We work in the shadow. We live suspended to your decisions (like a Ministerial visit during a weekend which results in kids never getting to see their parents… it didn’t even cross your mind, right?). And could you please, please, please explain to your brave minions in Brussels, weekend falls on a Friday and Saturday here!

We are seen by others either like “followers” or “lazy opportunists”. We deserve a little bit of consideration and help in the job that is ours too in the end. You are a good Ministry compared to many other in the world, you really started to consider us and we know you try your best. But there is always room for improvement. I didn’t marry a diplomat. But he became one along the way. I’m happy with this amazing life, but please my dear Brussels, stop thinking we live a permanent dream and don’t deserve anything more than what we already have. Please don’t neglect our requests, most of us are easily satisfied. If we’re happy, you’ll have a bigger chance to manage a flock of hard-working diplomats. Our job’s not that easy, come and get a look by yourself.

I’m not threatening you to start being undiplomatic next year if I don’t get what I asked, I’ll never do that. But hey, it’s worth a try, right?

Yours truly,

Happy desperate diplo wife 

And so this is Christmas…

In case you haven’t (over) heard about it, Christmas is coming. When you are an expat, this period can be tricky. In a warm climate country, even more. You are far from your family and all you can see in the (very fake) advertisements is a happy reunited family laughing in the snow. Then a choice comes to you. Do you spend a fortune, flights are crazy expensive in this period, to go back “home” for those exhausting carb overloaded family reunions? Or do you choose to stay and spend Christmas at your new home with your new friendmily? (it’s not a mistake, it’s actually a term that the young people use now, google it, stay cool)

Last year I have to admit staying in Abu Dhabi wasn’t fun. We were here since the end of September and in less than 3 months we hadn’t met that many friends. We weren’t settled in our house yet either. But there is a basic rule when you expatriate: “If you want to settle quickly in your new country, do not go back home the first 6 months”. So, we didn’t. Last year, the Christmas feeling never came to me and I thought it was because of the warm climate. Moreover, your family starts to forget about you. I mean not really forget, but you’re not included in any plans now, you are “the one who left” (and “on purpose” on top of it…) So, chew on that lonely Christmas, you’re in the sun anyway so why would you complain?

But this year is different. First, I have that cold winter Christmas feeling. You are going to laugh but I’m actually cold. It’s only 26 degrees during the day and 19 at night. I’m super cold. I can wear a jacket and a warm Christmas PJ. I’m drinking hot chocolate or tea while sitting outside by the pool with a blanket. I’m not wearing boots yet, but I guess we are acclimated by now and anything below 30 feels freezing. My daughter told me the other morning “Mom it’s so cold, I’m pretty sure it’s going to snow”. It was 19 degrees. Don’t laugh, I thought it was not going to happen to ME, the girl from cold cold Belgium, but it did. Here, another reason why I can never go back to my country now, I’m hypersensitive to cold. If we are posted in Russia in 2,5 years, we will die. 

Second, we have friends here. Real friendmily. You know the kind of friend that takes care of you. Bring you mac and cheese when you are sick and pick up your kid at school if you have a problem. Basically, what your family (should) do for you at home. Most of them chose to stay in the UAE for Christmas, enjoy the perfect Abu Dhabi weather in this period and avoid their own dramatic dysfunctional families (or maybe I am projecting myself on this last one). We decided to spend the holidays together. Like my neighbor told me “A Christmas for the Christmas orphans” or something like that. We decorated our Christmas trees together. Kids had a blast. I had to buy a new one by the way. My Belgian Christmas tree was 1.2-meter-tall, in my house with high ceilings it looked like a bonsai tree. We bought a 3 meters high one which is the perfect incarnation of Emirati extravaganza. I guess I’ll sell it in 3 years and go back to my bonsai. Or I’ll be in a country where I can actually buy and smell a REAL Christmas tree under 200 euros.

Even if we can now gather in the desert to sing Christmas carols (google map : “Carols in the deserts”, they actually did a special location in the middle of the desert just for that, they are amazingly organized and the organizational freak that I am loves that) it’s not going to be the same Christmas as back home! It’ll be a mix of traditions. We are not going to eat what we are used to in Belgium (I can’t find grey shrimps here anyway). But sharing a Christmas dinner with Hungarians, Americans, Syrians, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Belgians, Dutch, Filipinos, it’s pretty awesome from my perspective. Isn’t that the whole idea of Christmas? Celebrating together, sharing, be open and tolerant? 

2019 was the year of tolerance in the UAE. This Muslim country opened its doors to Pope Francis, allowing him to officiate an open-air mass for 150.000 people (including lucky me). They are building new churches, synagogues, Hindu temples right next to mosques. Have your own faith and believe (or don’t) but let your neighbors have theirs too and try not to judge. Try to learn from them. What comes first to the eye is the difference but try to take a look instead on what we have in common. More than we think! And all along the year of tolerance, the UAE opened my eyes on my own values. How I thought I knew the world. How I never really thought about the concept of tolerance. How I thought I was well travelled. But how little I knew about half of the world! It made me humble. And I think I needed it. Living in the center of Europe, the heart of Europe, Brussels, you’re raised to think you are part of the center of the world. Guess what? You’re not. 

In my opinion Europe is gliding towards the opposite concept of the UAE’s year of tolerance. Closing borders, trying to isolate themselves, all these independence movements, judging our neighbors, sometimes even those very close to us. I’ve never seen so many posts on social media that judge and label others. And most often not in a positive way! “Those migrants are the problem” “Brexit asap” “People shopping on Black Friday are stupid and ignorant” “How can you live with yourself using non-reusable diapers” not even talking about religion… 

Live and let live. Share. Learn. Smile. 

That is going to be my Christmas moto (Eat pray love is so 2010). I don’t say it’s always easy, I judge people too, more often that I should. But the older I get, the less I do it. I’ve learned that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some people never travelled a day in their lives but know all about foreign cultures, while some very well-travelled people know nothing because they just stayed in their 5 star hotels and didn’t go out and meet the locals. These parents using non-reusable diapers might have a compost, buy all their stuff in small local stores, have their roof full of solar panels and no car at all, while the parents with reusable diapers have 2 huge 10 year old SUVs, a stack of low-cost clothes and take 6 flights a year. So live and let live. Share. Learn. Smile. (And smack me in the face – figuratively speaking please – when I’m judging someone again.)

All of this to say, we wish you a lovely Christmas holiday time! We hope for peace and safety. We pray for good health and some fun. We hope your Christmas celebration will be full of what makes YOU happy. For me, I’ll be watching, with some hot chocolate full of marshmallows, Home Alone, especially the second one, with my family. Agnès loves the idea of taking another flight than us, with a bag full of money to spend by herself in NYC. She is my daughter after all.

Much love from the UAE, Cécile.

About the hard times…

I’ve been pretty optimistic in all my posts. Some people have told me I wasn’t telling the full story about the life of a diplo wife. And it’s probably true. I tell you how I feel when I feel it. But I don’t write when I’m down. Because that’s not funny and people tend to hate whiners. But it happens! It happens to all of us. Whatever your position, your city, your character! You have bad days, terrible ones sometimes! 

“You only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low.” Passenger

I live in a gorgeous city, Abu Dhabi. I chose to come here, so like I say, « I can’t complain about it ». Every spouse can’t say the same. Sometimes you have to go to a place you didn’t want to go! It’s part of the job! Acceptance isn’t easy for some characters and it turns out to be a real challenge. 

Abu Dhabi is classified in the Belgian system as hardship 2 (on a scale of 7), so it’s a pretty easy posting. Although I recently talked with a diplomatic spouse who did Abu Dhabi and higher hardship postings and she made me realize, Abu Dhabi also has a form of hardship, higher than what we think at first. I love this city, but honeymoon is over, and I’ve come to see and accept her weaknesses. 

The weather is one problem. We have to live inside all summer and even more, the heat combined with humidity is unbearable. Try to explain to kids they can’t go outside although the sun is shining! I experimented insane temperatures, 52 degrees Celsius in the shade, all day long, for months. Car batteries die pretty much every year because of these temperatures. All year long we live with the AC on, filled with dust, mold, dead rats, and bacteria, crazy expensive to clean properly every year. The air outside is extremely polluted some days. 

About the expenses I should probably mention that we are in the desert, electricity and water are very expensive here. Like around 700-1000€ per month during summer (yes, we pay that). And I was complaining in Belgium for 185€… So are the groceries by the way. When a pack of waffles costs you 10€, you can imagine how much we spend on groceries. Almost everything is imported so the price is very high. They grow cucumbers, those are cheap, but I should warn you they have a pretty relax policy on pesticides compared to Europe (a couple of years ago they used 4 times the average amounts of pesticides in Europe).

The country restrictions are the other problem. We live in the most secured city in the world. I love the UAE for the security it provides to my family. But this also has a cost: Privacy. “CCTV”; I didn’t even hear about it before arriving here. While in Belgium they fight against a couple of cameras in the streets, here cameras are everywhere. I normally don’t really think about it but once you do… I have nothing to hide so I’m fine, but I can tell you that from the little coffee place I’m writing you, I can see 8 cameras watching me. The richest mom at school is the wife of a CEO of a security and camera company. Her car comes straight from an episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and they retired at 40, logical. 

They can listen to my phone, they track where I go, probably who I see too. They block facetime, Skype, WhatsApp video,… It’s not North Korea but it can be bugging that they bugged you. In exchange, I feel safe. Safer than in Brussels. So, I accepted this. 

All this to say, Abu Dhabi might look perfect on picture but don’t be fooled, it has bad sides like any city in the world I think, I just learned to accept them. It’s easier when you know you don’t have to live your whole life here, you kind of take the best of it and leave the rest. 

Us, diplomatic spouses, we chose to follow our husbands. We change city every 3/4 years. We abandon our career as what people think of it, and we start again. Or not, because in a lot of postings we can’t work. “Do you have an MoU?” the magic word for us partners, trendy topic in my diplo wives group, meaning Memorandum of Understanding. If our country doesn’t have a MoU on the employment of diplomatic spouses with the host country, it means we are not allowed to work outside an international organization or other Embassy (if they themselves allow for it)… Unless we renounce the diplomatic immunity we have and need. The decision is yours to take, the consequences will be yours too. Think twice.

So, we reinvent ourselves. With more or less success. It’s very hard to decide what you want to be when all options are on the table BUT you also have to fulfill your diplomatic obligations (and in my case your motherhood obligations). You don’t have your family  present to help you in case of problems with the kids. And the husband job will always prevail. It’s normal, it’s the reason we are here! More than in any other expat job, the notion of Duty is always around. This job has to be vocational, because it’s hard and it requires commitment to an whole new level. It’s a part of your marriage, of your family. There is no “I don’t want to go to this meeting” or “I’m on holiday, I’ll turn my phone off” or “it’s the weekend”. Diplomats are always on call (at least the good ones). You have to accept it or leave it. But don’t complain about it. This comes with the privileges we get. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The ministry says they want us to develop a portable career. Very clever for nomads like us. Although it won’t be an ascending one like we would have had if we stayed in the same place. Because you move, of course you take your experience with you, but it’s hard to climb the hierarchy! It’s not a vertical career, it’s a different one (not any less good but different, and people don’t like different). You will always have to start over, almost from scratch. And it might feel bitter to see your ex colleagues going up while your rowing through this new life. I liked the challenge this time, but I’m young, very busy with my kids and open minded. I didn’t expect things. It might change with the years and I might get frustrated, we’ll see. 

While our husbands go from trainee to diplomats, to deputy to maybe ambassador one day, our freedom of work vanishes progressively. The more responsibility they get, the more time we have to give to help the job. It’s not fully clear if you are allowed to work as an ambassador’s spouse, depending on your country, but it’s quite clear to me that it becomes almost impossible in that position. You have to organize the diners, the visits, the residence. Your presence is required at a lot of events. And we don’t get all the help we should (at least in some postings) so, a huge help is required from the partner. Let’s be honest, this doesn’t really leave any room for a personal « standard » career. 

From where I stand, I’m still fine. I just have to organize a couple of small diners per month, do some receptions every week, but I’m pretty free. Although I have to take care of the children, but that would be the same in Belgium except for the subsidized day care (oh God I miss this one, and the fries, the Belgian fries). 

The worst is when I think about what would happen if my husband died. Let’s be clear, as a spouse, you are fully dependent on your husband and if something happens (sickness, or worse… we all think about it) your diplomatic visa will melt as fast as your savings. A plane ticket back to somewhere you don’t want to go filled with people thinking « I told her so ». A small tragedy, always at the back of my mind. Life is a risk.

All of this to say, yes, we do have bad days where all these problems and the distance with our family and friends are heavy on us. I’m super lucky to be able to talk to diplomatic spouses from all around the world now thanks to my Instagram account and we are aware to be very lucky but also very brave. It takes courage and confidence. It’s not a position for every personality. You have to be social, open, but also understanding, resourceful and rational. You also have to have some manners, most of which can be learned, basic respect for other people, cultures, traditions… is a must. The rest, I think, comes with who you are and how life has shaped you. We get kicked and it’s not a pool in the garden or a free champagne night that will help us forget it. The key is to look at the glass half full. I don’t envy others, I’m happy with who I am, and I wish everybody to be happy too. So, I just wanted to make a big shout-out to all diplomatic spouses around the world. With or without kids, working or not working, in a hard posting or in a dreamy one, you rock. Do not doubt it for one single second.

A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.

Henry Kissinger

It’s a secret.

This won’t be a shock to you, diplomats have to keep secrets. By extension, their wives have to do too (or they are supposed to). They are dealing with a lot of info that mustn’t be revealed to the wrong person. Yes, even a small country like Belgium has intel. From the real diplomatic files to the place where this guy meets for lunch with another diplomat. We’ve been taught that everything could be used as valuable information, so we have to be extremely cautious. 

But if you know me, you already know this; I’m terrible at keeping secrets. I mean, I could keep a secret pretty easily IF I could share it with some good friends… which basically isn’t keeping a secret, I think. I’m too honest, naïve some may say. I should make sure my brain Is running before I put my mouth in gear. 

So, my husband has been coaching me for two years. It worked so well… I really got better at keeping secrets, hiding stuff, … then I decided to open a blog and an open Instagram account and be quite transparent about this life. To his great despair.

I thought, because I wasn’t using my real name, that this blog thing would stay hidden forever. My husband told me from the beginning “Everybody will know in about two months”. I laughed; he has always been a little dramatic. Literally one month after opening this blog, I got an email from my Ministry of foreign affairs of my home country about it… How did they know? I still have no idea. But I’m lucky, they liked it and wanted me to write an article for their newspaper. So, we’re good. For now. (Hello to them reading these lines btw).

There is no real problem to have this blog, I think, because I never talk about politics here or on Instagram. I’m free to say where we are, mention some meetings and receptions. Probably because we’re in a safe posting. I wouldn’t do it in a posting where you risk being attacked or mugged if your location is out in the open. I remember meeting this Latin-American woman at a diplo night (I can’t tell you which country exactly and I can’t tell you which party either). She told me (after probably one too many wines) “In my country, honey, you would have been raped or killed.” Delightful women. 

Although I recently read a book resulting from a blog held by an ambassador’s wife posted in Pakistan. It is possible to do it, even in high risk postings. Let’s be clear for the Ministry people reading me: I’m NOT saying this as a wish for our next posting. But dealing with this border of sharing information is very interesting wherever you are posted. Share enough to tell a true interesting story, but don’t share the full picture with names, locations and what was behind those meetings. This creates a distortion of the reality. We can’t always tell our friends and families what we are living. First, they probably wouldn’t understand it (they don’t know half the system here or the things going on), and second they might worry for nothing. That’s why I try to write the stories I can and to write them with as much as I can without stepping on some long or short feet. Except for this diplomat who called me pregnant… 

Us, diplomatic spouses, we are no spy or anything like this, but our husbands have hands on some info they sometimes cannot or prefer not to share with us. I mean, it’s his job, I don’t need to know everything, and I don’t want to. I don’t see him that much, he is working like crazy, so when we are together, we are not talking about work all the time! But from time to time diplomats talk at a diner, some national day reception, a meeting at home, whilst the diplo partners are there. In our diplo wives club, we know there are some grey zones about what we can share to each other about our husband’s job, so we try to stick to the basics and avoid getting into too much details and that’s it. Some trips, some meetings, better left untold. There’s too much “non-work” things to talk about anyway! (Yes, you know me, also some gossiping.)

But this is often what people fantasize about. “They are diplo’s, they know things and people.” For the Game of thrones fans only, if there are any left after that last season, I should probably say: “That’s what I do, I drink and I know things”, people think diplo’s are some kind of Tyrion Lannister, yes.  Some people will even befriend you ONLY for that. I learned it the hard way. Now, I’m more cautious. I never tell what my husband is doing for a living unless I’m really asked. The problem is the diplomatic license plate. With these, you can’t really hide. Your neighbors know what you do and so does everyone at school pick up. Talking to new people from time to time I wonder why they tell me this and that. Some days I might even be a bit paranoid. We’re Belgium after all, we tend to be quite ok and on friendly terms with everyone… most of the time. And in any case, it’s fine, we live in a decade where everybody has a mental problem, some strange disorder, allergy or intolerance and kind of “brags” about it. I probably have several, I’m kind of a collector.

However, in this job, you have to GET information too. From time to time well hidden, from time to time hiding in plain sight or in need of a more profound look. Not only you have to keep some of your secrets, but you have to get theirs! The diplomats do it every day (the “share and you shall receive game”, but what do you share?), but us, the wives, we have our role too! And this is where I found myself quite good at. They are mainly working in this country. We are actually living in this country. Talking to parents at school, having a lunch or coffee with other diplo partners or, what afterwards, appears to be the partner of a CEO of some big company. People in general trust me with some of their experiences, worries or secrets and I end up being full of information on this country. I don’t really know why people trust me quite quickly. Probably because of my honesty. Or because I talk a lot. Or because I look so young and naïve (to not say stupid or drunk). Either way, it’s ok with me and trust is a two-way street. I have the time to create a huge network (I’m “only” a mom of 2). I meet new faces every day, and I have to quickly identify which ones I have to be careful with, which ones I actually like, or have to at least be on good terms with for the network or might come to trust and care about. I’m very social and it helps for sure but It’s a new job for me and I have to adapt to it. Best way to do it is to practice! So, if you wish to share a secret with me, go ahead and I’ll do my best to keep it!

Want to know a little secret? I suffer from severe endometriosis, I wasn’t even supposed to have these 2 little miracles.

The Economist

It is time I tell you a little bit about who I was before this move. Because I haven’t been a diplomatic housewife all my life. I used to have a job, probably like you, except I kind of hated it.

It all started when I was about 8 years old. I was convinced that in order to be happy, one needs to be rich, and in order to accomplish that, I would either marry a prince or become the CEO of a bank. The first option became more tricky by the day as I was really bad at faking feelings (I’m still not good at this) and all the princes I “knew” weren’t that attractive. So, at 10 years old I decided to go for the bank CEO option. 

Then teenage hit me. I had a revelation, I wanted to be a hairdresser. Express my creativity and be close to people. My parents were coming from a period with high unemployment rates. They didn’t think hairdresser was going to do it. To them, a university degree equals employment. They basically told me to choose any university degree I wanted but to forgot about the styling. And thus, I took the most open degree that I could find, the only one that could get me into all fields of work and maybe even to the bank CEO option: Economics. 

I ended up getting my degree with the highest distinction. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, I was good at it, it all seemed quite easy to me and it scored good on the effort-result scale so my lazy-me was ok with it. 

Immediately after my graduation, I was hired at the University to work there and do a PHD on the side. 2 years, and a lot of fun, later, I realized this was not my cup of tea and I quit. This is when I became a real economist. 

Well, first, economist means nothing and everything at the same time. This is one of the job titles everybody can tag himself without any degree needed. (Just like consultant…) And it can mean anything. In particular where I used to work. I did project management, statistical analysis, event manager, policy maker, hostess, writer, mover, social counsellor, cheerleader …

I worked there for almost 10 years. I’m not going to lie; some moments were more than great fun, and this is where I met my husband and some really good friends (I miss you Sophie and Gauthier) so I got some good things out of it. But in general, this wasn’t the environment I blossomed in.

I was working in a very modern governmental entity. Maybe a little bit too modern for its own people. We didn’t record our working hours. We could work from home because we had no fixed office, just a locker with our stuff and empty desks in – off course – an open office with some fishbowls for those wanting a quieter environment. Not enough desks for everyone by the way, which really encourages you to work from home. We had the freedom to organize our work the way we wanted. They even pushed the system until the point where you could choose someone to evaluate you, ANYONE. 

It was great. But very quickly, the flaws of the system appeared. It seemed like 30% gradually started working less and less, gradually not even showing up anymore half of the time, 20% arrived really early so they could hide in the fishbowls all day. From the motivated colleagues half started to get very demotivated by the first two categories and the rest unleashed their motivation on another job on the side (since this first job in any case didn’t monitor hours or work presence). Some jobs on the side with a clear conflict of interest btw. I didn’t, I told you, I’m lazy time effective. One job was more than enough for me. 

On a home working day, I called a colleague of mine for an urgent question and her daughter took the call, “Mom is riding our horse, …. No, no, she’s not working today, it’s HOME working.” You have to love children’s honesty. 

We could choose our evaluator, our boss. I choose my friend, it worked. I never got better evaluations. My previous boss was great too, extremely funny, but he brought his Kalashnikov to work (don’t know if I can explain that story once…), so I would say he had some issues too and in any case, he unfortunately retired and, being the more experienced, motivated, always spitting new ideas fun guy, he left the young guard in distress. The balance between the younger and older generation was gone. Progressively this modern system was pushed towards some extremes and left to die by the middle-management. The great minds behind these ideas left the place (promoted) and it seemed like “the revenge of the 80’s managers” without them.

Then the day came, I realized I HAD to leave too. We had a colleague, let’s name him Georges. Georges has been an alcoholic all his life and now needed a liver transplant. In order to get it, Georges quit drinking, we celebrated it with him. Because we could choose our desk, Georges worked next to me from time to time. And one day I realized he carried everyday a full 2 liters water bottle filled with what appeared to be some sort of juice. The young guard thought that is was some kind of superfood treatment. With all his health problems you know. He started drinking his juice at 8am and by 3pm, the bottle was empty. But then we noticed that around 3pm Georges was always… sleepy. I decided to look what was in his bottle while he was in the bathroom. It was no vitamin water or detox mixture. It was cheap wine. I’m not easily shocked, but I felt so bad for Georges and his liver that I told my (middle-)manager. Her answer was “Yes, I know, but he will be retired in one year, so it’s ok”. And she added “If he doesn’t behave badly and can still stand up, I’ll close my eyes until his retirement.” I was in shock. What kind of management is that??? I was even more pissed to discover he was probably behind the disappearance of my mulled wine stock for the Christmas party I used to organize every year at the office. Who drinks cold mulled wine anyway? 

Then my husband got the news he was hired as a diplomat and that we would leave the country in one year. So, I informed my direction and started drinking at work with Georges. No, I’m just kidding. I don’t drink cheap wine! But Georges and I, we shared this year like a prison sentence. Looking everyday how many days were left. Although in the end, Georges wanted to stay a little longer at work. He realised he was REALLY well paid for doing 3 emails a day. Pass 10 am he couldn’t write anything in any language I know… he did try one time. Some colleagues of a very serious working group received an email from Georges saying he peed in his bed while being with a woman who was clearly in another business than us… True story, yes. I told you we had fun stories.

That’s how I made the most controversial choice for a woman: following my husband and be “just” a housewife. This is worth a post by itself, but I can already tell you people were thinking I lost my mind; I was locking myself in the lower position. But it’s quite the opposite. I felt so lucky. For the first time in my life, I felt I could make a real choice. I can finally do what I want to do and not what I HAVE to do. What a luxury. I can take care of my children who during the week I used to see 30 minutes per day only! Yes, because this insane job kept me out of the house from 5:30 am until 6pm. I remember this nurse at daycare telling me at pick up: “Are you going to make a third one?”. Without letting me the option of answering, her colleague said, “You need to take care of them first, it’s not having babies for having babies…” Was she right in all her impoliteness??? Still, I could, and should, have kicked her in the face, for the sake of all working moms.

As I was now given the gift of choice, I first needed to figure out what it was that I wanted to do. Do I still want to be a hairdresser? Because now, it is possible. No, that is not what I want anymore. People are way to nasty and rainbow hair disgust me. What do I like? Writing, social media, pictures and talking with people.

After one year, I decided to go back to University. Yes, me who hated studying, I choose to study again. Because I think learning is enriching and although the first year I learned tons of things just by moving abroad, this second year I feel like I need the adrenaline provided by the new experience. It might be a total disaster, but I started some writing classes, some social media marketing classes and I’m this close to buy a new camera to get back to photography (I’m open to any sponsoring, Belgian diplomats are poor). I have no fun colleague at the moment and I kind of miss Georges and the others but I’m sure I’ll get some other funny stories to tell! Wish me luck!

Santé!

Superwoman Cloak in black please.

This is me, in a black Abaya, the traditional attire for women in the UAE. (and Belgian heels)

I’m not going to lie. I came here with some misconceptions of Islam. Like a lot of Europeans, I think, the face of Islam that I usually saw [and was presented with] in my country wasn’t always lovely. Walking to work I was sometimes confronted with Islamic men and women that made remarks for the way I was dressed. I took the train 10 minutes before the Brussels terror attacks on March 22th 2016 claimed by ISIS. So, like a lot of others, I was shocked and confused. Imagine my face when I arrive here and at 5:30 I got woken up by an “Allahu Akbar!”. Of course, I had no idea what a call for prayer was and that explained why we chose a hotel next to two mosques without worrying a bit. My kids loved it. They thought it was a nice music to wake up for the day. Me too, but I have to admit 5am was a bit early for me. And this is how my long learning process started. It’s still on by the way. 

The UAE is a very open country. Visually speaking it’s a lot like the USA, except for the mosques and the Abayas and Dishdashas. Arriving here and being exposed to their traditional costumes was very impressive for me with my European background. In Europe, Muslim women are covered but not men. I quickly had some nice encounters that opened my mind. Let me share them with you. Wherever you are in the world, it might change your idea too. 

The first weeks, as other expats know, we have to do all administrative formalities. New driving license, new ID (the one of the host country), etc. Until this point, I did all formalities with my husband. He’s a diplomat (work wise and quality wise), he knows a lot of stuff, so it was very convenient for me to let him do the work. But here in the UAE, administrations are often separated for men and women (kids can accompany both mom or dad). In order to request my ID (and those of our kids), I had to go alone, in a “women only” office.

I was stressed. For diplomats it’s a special process, they might get annoyed by me. I can tell you that in my country, most of our admin stuff was accompanied by sighs, remarks, or even worst, fake news and laws. Like this administrative lady in Belgium with whom I had to run through some administrative changes the city needed to do. I patiently explained that we were going to leave the country because my husband is a diplomat and he was posted in the UAE, and provided her with the necessary explanations we received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With basically half the work already done for her, she just told me “No, you can’t go with him, he has to go there alone for 4 years and you have to stay in Belgium. Sorry, that’s the law madam”. I was so stunned that I laughed. She didn’t take that well… That’s pretty much the idea I was left with about administrations for diplomats. So here I was in the women only office, asking for diplomatic ID for me and the kids. First, I immediately noticed that Emiratis working for government are paid slightly differently than the Belgians. Each civil servant had a – very nice ! – designer bag. They were all in black abayas. Some ladies were totally covered, including their faces, all I could see was their hands, full of jewels and henna tattoos, and their feet, garnished with designer high heels. Go to the administration in Belgium, it’s NOT like that. I felt super naked in my little white dress. And cold. Although it was 40 degrees outside, they clearly put the AC at an Abaya wise level. I was kind of embarrassed, but the second they talked to me, I felt at home. It was like a coffee at a friend’s house. Eight women left their office and came to help me. They offered me tea, cookies and dates. They started to rhapsodize on the picture of my kids and asked about them and then started talking about theirs. Being a mom definitely helped. It’s like they know it’s the hardest job in the world and they value it (where in Europe, being “just” a mother isn’t a job). In general, the family is hugely important in this country, for men and women, but that’s for another story. Then one fully covered lady came to me and told me “you are very beautiful”. I was truly moved but, in the meantime, I had no idea what to answer. She was fully covered, I couldn’t say “you too”. So, I touched her arm and just said “Thank you”. This was the first real encounter I had with Emirati women, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. 

Whilst I adapted with small steps to life in a Muslim country, our kids just barged into this new culture. You know kids, they have no filter, they say exactly what comes to their mind. So very quickly, Agnès, 3 years old, started to ask about the abaya. At first, she had no problem with it. But when Halloween came, she got super scared of a ghost guy in a candy store (very useful to keep my daughter out of the candy store). For a while she was confusing women in abayas with the Halloween ghosts, coming at her to scare her. She was super impressed, pointed at them screaming “FANTÔME” (GHOST in French and hide every time she saw one close to her. Embarrassed is an understatement for how we felt. Until one day, we went in an elevator my husband, my kids and I, with an Emirati couple. The wife was all covered up in black, even her face was covered, very impressive for Agnès standing next to her. Agnès freaked out and started crying very very hard, pointing at her. We didn’t know what to do. But very quickly, this nice lady removed her vail, kneeled down next to Agnès, took her hand and smiled to her. With her husband gently smiling to my daughter, she went against her believes to help my little girl. When we left the elevator, she put her veil on again. From that day on, Agnès has never been scared of any covered women. I was so thankful for what she did (though Agnès also lost her fear from the candy store…). She showed me a face of Islam so kind and loving. She could have been upset by my daughter’s reaction. We are in their country as guests and us should adapt to their customs and traditions. Instead of that, she made one step towards us, trying her best to make Agnès understand her culture. 

As for my son… I remember a day, like two or three weeks after our arrival. I was extremely tired. My son, Jack, woke up 3 or 4 times every night, refused to nap at the hotel where we were. We were waiting for our container that was lost somewhere in the port of Jebel Ali. We had found a house, but some administrative papers blocked us from getting it. I didn’t have a car at this point, so I was blocked in this crappy hotel while Fred had to work. I wasn’t acclimated to the heat yet and I was suffering from staying all day in this tiny hotel room. I went for a walk at the mall close to our hotel with my kids. Jack, super sensitive, chose this moment to throw a huge tantrum in the middle of this very Emirati mall. I couldn’t calm him down, I was so stressed out and almost in tears, when an old Emirati man came to me. He gave Jack a toy, smiled to him, played with him. He was so calm and peaceful; he was actually able to calm him down. His inner peace fascinated me. He had a traditional white Emirati Dishdasha and a white Guthra on his head. I was very impressed. Then he looked at me and said:“You have one boy and one girl; you’re blessed by God. You are the luckiest. This one – showing Jack –will be harder, but he will be your great reward.” He smiled at me so deeply, it made me feel happy. I don’t know how to explain his face, but once again, this face of Islam was amazing. 

I have lots of stories like that. In general, our feeling is that most Emirati people keep their customs and traditions but are so tolerant and pragmatic about them. “The Family” seems to be the higher power. Not very European if you think about it. Muslims here are welcoming and very kind. Women are proud and have such a big place in the society. They are valued. Even covered, they don’t hide, it’s quite the opposite in fact, they stand out. So that’s why I bought an Abaya. When I get to wear it, I feel stronger, it’s like my superwoman cloak. I know for many Europeans it’s completely crazy. In fact, when I first posted a picture of me in an Abaya, almost none of my friends liked it! But I guess you have to experiment it by yourself… The only regret I have is that the designer bag and shoes didn’t come with the abaya! 

All these amazing pictures are from my friend the talented photographer Kelly Acs. She followed me in my crazy photo shoot idea even if it was 45 degrees with 70% of humidity. It probably got her sick. She IS a friend.
Beautiful Abu Dhabi

The first come back

You have to forgive me. I haven’t written in over a month. I went back to my country. Well, not really though… I guess now the UAE is my country. I mean I went back to Belgium. People were thinking I was going back home, but it was more of a holiday in a country I know very well. My son Jack was so terrible on our last trip abroad, we decided to go back to Belgium for 2 weeks, enjoy the fresh clean air, see friends and family, and let him be awful in a country we don’t really care about what people think. 

But the closer we were to going back, the more nervous I was. Ghosts from the past, plus unrealistic expectations; The recipe of my old life. But I have to admit it now, it turned out way better than I expected! 

First, my son Jack was perfect (at just 2 years old). No screaming on the plane, slept immediately through the night, even enjoyed himself. I guess we were in a good phase. He discovered a country he had absolutely no memories of. He was one when we left. The baby boy everybody knew had become a little boy very afraid of all these new faces. My daughter is more of an open book. She says what she thinks. She immediately said, “This is a lovely country, I’ve never been here”. And so, began the talk about where she was born and where she used to go as a baby. She was super interested by what was her life back then. She wanted to try every dish she used to like as a baby, go every place she ever went. But she also had no memories of Belgium. Not of any place, not of anyone except from some pictures. It was hard for people, they didn’t understand. But Agnès kept on telling them “I don’t know you, but you seem pretty nice, we can be friends if you’d like”. Kids don’t really have memories before 3, true story.

It was funny to see them rediscover what a European country is like. The first day we arrived, it was 16 degrees in Brussels, compared to 42 in Abu Dhabi. Every Belgian was in a T-shirt, we were wearing 2 sweaters and a jacket. The first reaction of my daughter was to ask me “Mom could you please turn off the AC, I’m cold”. There is no AC here darling, it’s Belgium, it’s cold. So, I turned on the heating system in the house. System she had absolutely no recollection of because she asked me “Mom, why is there some strange boxes in every room of the house, what is it for?”. She had already forgotten about the radiators. How quickly did they adapt! 

When we went to the grocery store, we had to self-scan and pack the articles we bought (the cost of labor is extremely high in Belgium, so they cut all services). As a little girl raised in the UAE, it was impossible to imagine. “Mom, you’re not going to do that yourself right? Someone is going to help you”. And, somewhere deep inside me, a little voice was telling me the same! I hadn’t fill up my gas tank myself in a year… but, hey, a little reminder that not being entirely normal every now and then is quite necessary and a blessing. The first time I went back to the grocery store in the UAE, I packed my things myself as an old habit. The Indian guy in charge of packing was super upset, thinking I was snubbing him. I tried to explain but, he ended up carrying all the things in the trunk of my car for me to compensate. Not normal, still pretty awesome.

Second, Belgium wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I probably made it a little darker in my mind than what it is to be able to fall in love more quickly with my new country. The survivor strategy. Anyway, it’s not a hellhole like Trump said. It has some benefits; the soft green of the lawns and forest, the fresh air, the water, the social security, the food! Being able to drink the tap water and not feeling your hair completely damaged after every shower with the chemical water of the UAE was so pleasant. We went completely crazy with the food… Prices are on average 3 times cheaper in Belgium than in UAE. We went nuts on chocolate, wine, and meat. Up to a point after 10 days that our livers were seriously complaining.

We enjoyed all these things but not without missing all the things we love in the UAE; the opening hours of the shops (Need something in Belgium after 6pm or on Sunday? Too bad…), the sun and the smile (these two go in pair, I think), the service, the cleanliness, the size of the roads, … 

When I arrived in the UAE, I was impressed by the traffic and very scared. Going back to Belgium made me realize why. In the UAE, there are lots of cars, but the traffic is very fluid. You never stop and they drive very fast (80km/h in the city center). In Belgium it’s a permanent start and stop. It drove us crazy. We took 2h to do 80km to go visit Brussels. This country has a serious congestion problem, and it seems to get worse every year.

I couldn’t help to notice that the mindset of people was different. In Europe, it’s almost a tradition, you go sit on a terrace (with some cheese and beer) and you watch people coming by. You criticize them. It’s almost a sport. People stare at you. I immediately felt uncomfortable. This is completely inexistent in the UAE, where nobody watches you. You can literally go pick up your daughter in your pajama pants, nobody will notice (yes, I might have done it, for experimental purposes). Except maybe in my compound, where you will be judged, but it’s full of Europeans, so it doesn’t count. 

Third, as I was meeting friends and family, I realized nothing had really changed and we talked like we met the week before. Years go by so quickly; everybody is busy and me not being there wasn’t such a big issue. Nobody really changed. Not even me, I guess. Although I’m a little bit more open to telling the truth since I’m living so far away, or I thought so… my best friend reminded me I had always a tendency to say whatever I want. She’s right. But I was prepared to all types of questions, even rude ones. But in the end, they didn’t ask (m)any questions. First because I posted a lot, so they knew about our life here, second because we are happy, people are often uncomfortable with happiness, and third because expats are specimens not really understandable. And this might be the trickiest thing when you live abroad. Your whole world is overturned, and you have the feeling you live 10 years’ experiences in one. People back home, they stay on track, and they don’t really understand or care about what you live. And it’s ok. That’s life. We follow different paths. 

In the end, we were happy to go back but it was far from a holiday. We saw around 140 people in 15 days, went all over the (tiny) country. We also did what expats do when they go back… dentist, administration, work meetings (the ministry does like it when you pop over once in a while)… it was a real pleasure. Besides, we had the excellent idea to take a week off here in Abu Dhabi, to enjoy the amusements parks, the sun and the family time by the pool. 

What about next time you’ll ask me? Well, I don’t know, I try not to plan too much in advance. Agnès, she’s 4 and already pointing at life’s limitations. She recently told me, out of the blue, « Mom, your dad must be sad that you live so far from him and never go visit. I mean, you would be pretty sad too if I didn’t live with you. But don’t worry I’ll never leave you, even when I get boobs » I laughed but I also had to tell her already that life is what you make of it. That she’ll take decisions in her life later on that will lead her to be happy (I hope). And if it means not living in my country, I’ll deal with that even if I’ll be sad from time to time, I’ll be happy if she’s happy. I’ll probably spend all my money on plane tickets, but I’ll be happy for her, or at least I’ll try to. 

Expat life isn’t always easy. You see the exotics, the change, the money. We see the challenge of starting a life from scratch. You don’t know anything or anybody. This is the life we choose, and I love it, so I won’t complain. But it does not fit everyone and even if you like it, it doesn’t mean everything is easy. Now we are back among the expat animals, sharing our stories about this summer. Complaining around a pool about how tired we are from vacations. Oh, home sweet home!