Things have been going incredibly well for our family, in many facets of our life here.
Perhaps I’ve been loathe to post about it out of fear of coming off as boastful or not grateful enough, or perhaps the superstitious part of me is afraid of a jinx. Or the wrong eyes. Or something. Anyway, it has been good–really good–since we moved into our tiny (compared to the Dubai villa) apartment in Abu Dhabi.
First, the weather. I would say it has been magically not too hot since we arrived, but truly the temperatures have been a function of the purest timing; we arrived the final week of what they call “pretty warm” here, and we’re already well into the period when seasoned expats here declare the Gulf water too cold for swimming. I am a total baby about water temp, so I rather agree, but that doesn’t keep us indoors. The temperatures hover daily in the high 70s to low 80s F, perfect weather for walking, cycling the bike path, beachcombing, and playing in the various parks and gardens along the Corniche. There has also been fishing, checking out restaurant options in the neighborhood, and just hanging out on the stoop of our apartment building with the stray cat who lives here.
We have more or less caught up on schoolwork–Meryem more, Noah less, of course–and so our studies have slowed from the frantic, catch-up pace to a more leisurely half-the-day lifestyle. We do lessons upon waking, which leaves the fine afternoon for outdoors and exercise. We’re getting our vitamin D.
Another wonder is that we’re finally beginning to approach the vision I’d hoped for when we first left the farm. On the farm, of course we enjoyed raising our own livestock, growing gardens, and doing all the good things that went with that. We froze and canned and pickled and dehydrated. We made yogurt and cheese, baked breads and cooked big stews. We killed and cut our own meat. Our chickens laid and hatched eggs. It was close to the land and its creatures and goodness and hardship. We shoveled snow and raked an acre of leaves and delivered lambs in the middle of the night and tried to rescue goat kids that sometimes couldn’t be saved. I’d successfully set bones on days-old babies and handed over a ewe with tetanus for a neighbor to mercy-kill her. Yep, done that.
That kind of living felt like a distillation of a dream of my deepest-held identity, and I miss it every day and many nights. I still have weeping dreams of beloved Nubians, running toward me and wailing their goat-songs. I see photos of honeybees and stroke the silky little winged teddy bears with a wistful finger.
When we moved off the farm, I’d wanted to try living with a smaller footprint than the typical Western expat in UAE. But we weren’t ready for a small apartment, after five years on ten acres. And I don’t think the rest of the family was ready to embrace the vision as a mission for our lifestyle. The kids were enrolled in the American school, because they had been in school and we are American, after all. A car was bought, and almost two, but I did manage to wave off that suggestion (over and over). The three-bedroom villa had so much space, we didn’t own enough to make it appear lived-in–to the point where handymen would comment on how “neat” it looked, unlike other villas, which apparently had more furniture than a dining table and a couch.
But Dubai, for all its entertainment opportunities, didn’t have what it takes to sustain a smaller-footprint life that’s still big on experience. First off, the prices attached to everything nickel-and-dimed us. We lived next to a free beach, but the price we paid was to walk back home (or two miles down the beach) to use a bathroom. The beach park was next door, for a price. Another big park was a kilometer from the house, also for a price. The Metro offered cheap access to points across town, but getting to the Metro station cost nearly as much as the day pass itself.
Our villa’s garden had been paved by a previous owner, and since we knew as soon as we moved in that we’d not be staying more than the year of the lease, we couldn’t see spending the thousands it would cost to tear up paving block and replace with greenery–not to mention the price of watering and maintaining such greenery in the desert. The kids’ ride to school was an hour each way, which meant their school day cost, in terms of time, 9 hours plus homework. And those two hours on the bus were enough to bring both kids to tears of frustration and anger over bullying and disrespect toward adults (built on a foundation of bigotry and ethnicity-based entitlement). I won’t say the cost of tuition, uniforms and transportation for the year were a complete waste. The kids did learn some things–some very big lessons that I pray will never leave them–and their eyes were peeled wide open in a hundred ways.
So by the end of that first year, I’d been laid low. I was overwhelmed at the thought of battling heat and blowing sand just to hail a cab to go somewhere, that I rarely went anywhere but the free beach. Just thinking about the way drivers treat each other in the parking lot of the co-op was enough to keep me from grocery shopping, sometimes for days past the need. Everything smelled like cat pee to me. I didn’t want to return in the fall, afraid that for us, within the limitations of budget and work requirements and school-aged kids, this was all there was for us. And I suppose if that were true, I would not have returned–or I’d be back home again by now.
So we changed everything. It started by moving to Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the UAE. Her character is a bit different from Dubai–she’s certainly more conservative. It’s seen in clothing, in behavior, in the older-school presence of the shisha cafes and smoking sections in the malls. At the same time, there’s the government here, and the older hotels, the embassies, the art museums. UAE traffic is UAE traffic, but there is something nice about not having to navigate (and pay to use) Shaykh Zayed Road to go…well, just about anywhere past the grocery store. Abu Dhabi has bustle, but there are pockets of smallness within.
We chose a small apartment–too small, but only because we’re not quite outfitted for it, and I’m sure the folks at apartment therapy could do wonders with it. I mean, the rooms are big, the layout makes it feel sort of like a house, and there’s a Gulf-facing balcony with views of water. I can watch giant sailboats from where I hang my laundry.
So, we have this smaller space for living. We have actual bike access to some of the places we go, and we use our bicycles at least three or four times a week, as a family. We share one car, though truthfully the husband uses it daily for work and the kids and I mostly do without it, and mostly don’t mind. We use parks that don’t charge entry. We have access to a free beach with showers and toilets. We feed the building’s cat. We meet up with friends, who have pointed our way to even more low-cost opportunities for learning and doing.
And there’s a lot more that I am not doing. I am not cooking nearly as much as I used to, nor am I grocery shopping as much. That’s not to say we’re indulging in a lot more restaurant food; no, we’re just eating simpler, and as the kids get older, they are learning to fashion their own breakfasts and lunches of salads or sandwiches or small meals of eggs or leftovers. Since I spend five to six hours a day working on lessons with them, this is only fair, and it’s good for them to learn a little self-sufficiency anyway.
So, I cook dinner daily. No school uniforms means no ironing. A smaller apartment means less sweeping, vacuuming, and mopping. A bath and a half means one less toilet and bidet to clean. No gardens means no cat poop to sift out of sand, no turf to dissatisfyingly water, and less dust and sand making its way into our rooms.
Walking to the grocery store means (for me) buying only what I can carry. It feels a little like being a bird in a nest, carrying our food back to the house. But I am fairly certain this way of cooking and shopping for food is good for the budget. I decide what I will cook, usually based on the type of meat I pull from the chest freezer (because we buy whole animals direct from butchers at the port, saving major money and getting better meat). I assess the produce on hand and trot down to the grocery around the corner for whatever’s missing. It takes a little time, but it adds up to a little movement and a lot less waste.
The kids and I sometimes take a cab to get around town, if we need to be somewhere while the car is at work with the husband. I feel okay about this for a few reasons: first, these men are making their livings and usually supporting families back home in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, etc. (you can ask, and most drivers are happy to share their stories); second, we are almost always three to a cab; and third, these cabs are smaller than the SUV we would likely be driving (and parking and insuring and filling), had we fallen into the typical choices. Not terrible.
There are other things we do to live smaller. We walk to the mosque on Fridays. We talk leisure walks for fun. We spend enough time on labs, literature, artwork for school and enjoying the process of cooking, that we aren’t constantly looking to fill our downtime with entertainment. There isn’t a definite line between work/learning time and “fun” time. We borrow digital books using the Kindle. We’ve begun Arabic lessons–and I am learning the value of academically challenging the kids. Last year, boredom led to a “need” for costly extracurriculars, as well as extra spending on “stuff” to pass the time–DVDs, more toys, whatever. Now that school is at home (or wherever we are), we’re cobbling together science labs and art projects from found and household items. There is always French or Arabic waiting to be studied.
An amazing switch has been flipped and the kids are transforming from passive to active learners. From learning during designated periods to being driven by their own curiosity. More questions can be fatiguing for me, so I am looking for ways to institute and enforce a daily Quiet Period, especially for Meryem. Writing this post alone has taken hours, trying to recapture my line of thinking and catch up in between questions–about Albrecht Duerer, states of matter, Balboa and the Isthmus of Panama. We’re sketching a rhinoceros, boiling water, tracing paths on maps. Noah’s calculating taxes and tips (especially funny, living in the UAE, where people don’t pay taxes and are generally negligent in tipping).
Anyway, here we are. It’s good. It’s not home and could never be, but for what it is, it is good.