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?