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.