The basics of international schools

When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, 9 months ago, the first thing I wrote about was the international schools. Maybe because we arrived a Thursday and the following Sunday, I was already in front of the French Lycée (we are in an Arab country, the week starts on Sunday) waiting for my 3-years-old daughter. Of course, I was waaaaay too early (plus way too nervous) and all there was for me to do was hide and observe what happens there. 

The French school is in a neighborhood where you will only find private international schools: British, American, Japanese, German. You’ve got lots of choices here in Abu Dhabi! Diplomats, just like the professional expats (those who go from expat posting to expat posting), have to choose wisely. In this town, this school might be good but what about the next posting? Will the curriculum be followed?

Anyway, all those private schools shape the elite of the future. I mean the kids, because when you see the parents, you have a serious doubt about it. I was picturing very serious business men, diplomats in suits, pilots in uniform. It was nothing like that. Flipflops and Hawaiian skirts. Moms in yoga pants and baseball caps. I know, it’s already 38 degrees at 7 am, but still…

One thing that made me feel right at home is the MESS at drop off and pick up time in front of the school. Looks like this is universal in every country. Moms lose their minds (or else… but I’ll stay polite) and start cursing in front of their kids just to get 10 meters closer to the school entrance. Phew, I thought cursing was forbidden in this country, and day 4 I’m realizing it depends on the neighborhood. In this particular one, cursing in French is allowed so I felt immediately better. Because who doesn’t like cursing behind the wheel???

Then there is this timing thing. Pretty military compared to the Belgian school system. Drop off in between 7.50 an 8am and pick up between 12.50 and 1pm. Yes, those are insanely short school hours… they get through everything on the school program during these hours, but I assure you that I CANNOT do everything that’s on MY program during that period. Anyway, if you miss this 10 min opening window, entrance is closed, and you have to take the walk of shame of the late moms to another gated entrance and explain to the guard (nice guy named Jimmy, he likes cookies) what happened. 

I have to say I don’t HAVE to be there. In this country, I have another option: paying for a school bus who will pick up my daughter at home in the morning and drop her off in the afternoon. Pretty basic for a lot of people in the world but not usually the go-to option most Europeans. But more experienced diplo wives advised me before I came here “go pick up your kid at school, that’s how you’ll meet people”. So that’s what I did. I went for pick up every single day. First day felt like a ride of “it’s a small world” attraction in Disneyland. I had no idea this country was so multicultural, and I had even less idea that my daughter was going to be one of the only French speaking kids in her class at the French school! I was anticipating all the jokes about “the Belgian” that the French people can make… our accent, our strange way to say goodbye, etc. But in the end, the teacher needed my daughter to help teach French to the class!

At first, I didn’t understand. The American school is literally on the other side of the street (we often fight over parking spots), why do so many English-speaking people come to the French lycée?? These kids haven’t heard a word of French in their lives. And then I realized, in the world of private international schools, the French Lycée is the cheapest. You get a great deal. Great discipline for an amazing price. Security is excellent, the program is very good and stays the same in every country of the world. Good, here we are stuck with the rich poor and the rich tightfisted. If you want to know where I stand, I’ll just tell you that I don’t pay for school. 

So, at pick up, you will find a mixture of nannies, drivers and parents. More often the moms in this country. Dads work. Somebody has to pay for the school. Among the moms, I could clearly identify different categories: 

  • the wife of business man: very “BCBG” (“bon chic, bon genre” it’s a French expression, kind of impossible to translate, it’s like classic-bourgeoisie. Oh, again some French, can’t help it, sorry) but will make it to school totally casual in her Pilate class outfit 90% of the time. She will be delighted to speak French with you because she thinks it’s such a lovely language. But she will make lots of mistakes. You won’t say a thing. You want to be her friend. Good thing she LOVES diplomats, and she notices your diplomatic license plate, so you’re busted. 
  • The wife of the footballer or other sports guy: very well shaped, like you don’t want to stay too close of her to avoid any body comparison. She’ll talk Italian, Spanish, or English from Russia. You kind of want to be her friend too. But you’re going to have to work on this one. Enter a gym or meet with a surgeon.
  • The Arab moms: they come from all the Arab countries, from Lebanon to Morocco. They speak French and Arabic. They look like they already know each other. They park together and Chit Chat in their car before pickup. You will feel like this is going to be a hard group to enter. They will even scare you a little. They are the best contenders in the parking fight.
  • The cool loner moms: you’ll put yourself in this category, although you are totally biased. But some other moms will be there too. Looking like they don’ know what they are doing either. Some Americans, other diplo wives, some cool Frenchie’s. You will first aim for these women. They might even become your besties. 

You have less than 10 min a day to befriended them. Good luck. It took me a couple of months, but I made it. With ALL the categories.

But in the end, what’s really important about this school is that my daughter is happy there. The first week, she told me she never wanted to go back to the school in Belgium. She’s BFF with a Hungarian/American girl and a Canadian/British girl, so she learned English, like in a month (my little pony videos obviously helped a lot). She, who was the “strange kid” in Belgium because she was raised in two languages at home (Dutch and French) finally felt at home in this cultural mess. And I tend to think the same of myself… but that’s a story for another post!

Meet my daughter, Agnès. She is 4. She is sweet and very opinionated at the same time. She likes purple like Twilight Sparkles (for those without a little girl, it’s a little pony) . She is scared of geckos because she thinks they are baby dinosaurs. She speaks French, Dutch, English, some Arabic and Filipino. She is cleverer than me but luckily she is an amazing teacher.

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