I meant to write this post at the marking of my ‘one year since I moved to Abu Dhabi’, but obviously time flies when you’re having fun (ha) and it was gradually pushed lower on my priority list (along with this whole blog site entirely, sorry). For the record, I am not required to wear any female traditional dress here – yes I can wear shorts and tank tops and have my hair out.
I am more dedicated to writing this post after my most recent trip home this summer. While of course it was nice to catch up with everyone from home, it was also a bit of a struggle to explain that I’m not tanned because I work 5 days a week and that while my life looks great on social media, I actually spend more time inside watching Netflix than on an airplane or at the beaches. So here’s the honest truth.
Like most other people on social media sites, the things you see on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat are the fun/cool/amazing things I’m doing like traveling or staying at bucket-list hotels. But there’s so much more going on behind those photos. I still have bad days, days where my job is challenging or days where I’m frustrated to the point of tears with the culture here. Without a doubt, living here has been a once in a lifetime experience and has allowed me to do some incredible travelling. I have been to and stayed at places I would have never even thought of going, or had never even heard of. Parts of Asia are only 3 hours away and Africa is only a 5 hour flight. But, remember, I work 40 hours a week like you do at home. I wake up early and work late, I still have to get groceries and pay bills. I am still struggling to find the balance between a life I consider “normal” and living the exciting/unique life of an expat in the Middle East. Even something as simple as a Sunday roast dinner can reset my mood. I also give huge credit to Sunday Skype nights which replaced the Mitchell Sunday Dinner – even 40 minutes of Skype with my family brings me back down to Earth.
When my year mark rolled around, it was exciting and scary. The first year went both so slow it felt like it was on rewind at times, and at the same time, so fast that it felt like I missed things. The first six months were the most difficult, I remember the six month mark, September, being the hardest month. I was extremely homesick, found myself more irritable and less patient than normal. I felt constantly negative, despite my life feeling like a vacation itself and going on a trip once a month. I was frustrated with my work, being in a job that was emotionally exhausting and mentally not stimulating. It was at this point I knew I wouldn’t be able to last the full year without a touch of reality – a trip home. I think once I had my flights to Calgary booked and something to truly look forward to, things picked up significantly.
The first six months was a big adjustment to life in the Middle East. The support I had from family and friends far and near was a big reason I was able to fight through the bad days. Although, I constantly tell people that life here is “so western” and “normal”, there are so many instances where things are so different from home. To name a few (some clearly less important than others):
- THE HEAT : Go to your oven, turn the setting onto bake @ 400 degrees, wait for it to preheat. Put your face as close to the door as you can, then open it. THAT’S HOW HOT IT IS HERE IN THE SUMMER. Walking outside is actually like stepping foot into what I imagine hell feels like. The humidity actually makes it hard to breath, you can’t see out of your glasses because they’ve fogged up and you begin to sweat in places you didn’t think was possible. It’s okay, it’s only unbearable for 4 months of the year :/
- “Spring” weather : I actually don’t know if I would classify the season as spring, it’s more of the season between loving life outdoors and hating it. This past year we had 18 straight days (yes I counted) of grey skies, with some rain. My sister will tell everyone the story about the time I cried in Belize because there was no sun for 5 days – imagine me without sun for EIGHTEEN DAYS!! (DIVA ALERT #1)
- The “Abu Dhabi Stone” : Comparable to the “Freshman Fifteen”, the Abu Dhabi stone refers to the 10-15 pound weight gain that comes with moving to the Middle East. With lots of drinking, most social activities involving eating out with huge meal portions, delivery any time and a lack of accessibility to simple things like taking the stairs or walking paths – there’s good evidence to support this horrible phenomenon.
- Milk in coffee : At home, you order your Americano at the coffee shop and get to put in as much milk as you’d like, or none at all if that’s your taste. Here, they put the milk in for you – hot or cold whichever you prefer. For someone like myself, very particular about my milk ratio, this was a difficult adjustment (DIVA ALERT #2).
- Blocked FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype etc : It was during my initial arrival to Abu Dhabi that I first discovered that FaceTime was blocked. Until recently, I always used Skype – now that is not working. There was also a period where WhatsApp was blocked. You cannot make video calls on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to find the best way to see your families face while talking to them. I will disclose my secret for this when I leave the country…
- Bagging groceries : I am used to bagging my own groceries at home and bagging them into my reusable bag is far from what happens here. Essentially one plastic bag per item (okay, maybe an exaggeration) and organized in no particular fashion – I actually miss going to Superstore self check outs and bagging my own groceries.
- Working hours : Basically, it’s impossible to get anything done usually before 10am and between the hours of 12-2pm and after 4pm. Offices close here very early and breaks are taken often. I always wondered why it took so long for my paperwork to be processed to come here – now I know why.
- Receipts : What quickly became one of my BIGGEST pet peeves here, getting my receipt handed to me with my debit card or change. Rather than handing me my card or money and then placing the receipt in the bag, they come together. On a scale of 0-10 on how much I can relate to this meme, it’s an 11.
- Food delivery : Any time, any place : I remember a friend from home telling me what I thought was a myth about Abu Dhabi, that I could get Subway delivered!? Well it’s true, I can get Subway delivered, AND I can also get coffee delivered, ICE CREAM!! McDonalds and you name it – basically no reason to leave my apartment, ever. One time I saw a person get delivery to their apartment from the sushi restaurant that was RIGHT BELOW their building, smdh.
- Valet parking : Basically, to valet park is no big deal. Literally you can valet at every restaurant, hotel and mall. Even valet at work. Spend 30 dirhams (around $10) to have your car valeted – definitely. Especially when the weather is unbearable, valet is so much easier than parking and walking. (DIVA ALERT #3)
- Smoking inside : In Canada, smoking indoors has been illegal since 2010. When I was home this summer I was shocked at watching people forced outside into “smoking areas”. Here, you are allowed to smoke indoors. At bars, restaurants it is okay to light up. There is nothing worse than coming home from your night out and your clothes reeking of cigarette smoke, but what’s worse is that it usually takes a good 3 shampoos to get the smell out of my hair – never mind how my lungs feel the next day! There has been times I’ve had to leave the bar because my eyes are burning from the smoke – dramatic, I know.
- Brunches : PURE GLUTTONY. I mean the fact that I even wrote “plate 1” on this picture explains enough. Usually only on a Friday afternoon or Friday evening, you pay a set price for any package of : soft drinks, house wine, spirits or bubbly. Accompanied by all you can eat buffets – foods from salads and sushi to on the spot made pasta or freshly sliced roast. It’s this amazing phenomenon, one which I only allow myself to indulge in on special occasions.
- The word “toilet” : Maybe I’m a prude, but there’s just something about the word toilet that absolutely grosses me out. The signage for washrooms and even people asking or telling you where it is, just seems so aggressive. Perhaps it’s coming from a country where the word bathroom or washroom is said. I mean, I know you’re going to use the toilet, but it doesn’t mean you have to be so descriptive.
- Water around the toilet : Speaking of toilets, next to the toilet is a hose. If you’re a traveller this is likely not a foreign concept. But in a place that’s more advanced than other countries, the hose was a little surprising. This survey proved that expats actually had no idea what the hose was for. In muslim countries, the hose is used in place of toilet paper aka a “bum gun”. Besides the fact that this is gross, it is also extremely annoying when you go into the bathroom basically swimming because of all of the water on the floor. Relatable: BUM GUN
- Driving : Only a short two months after arriving to Abu Dhabi, I transferred my Alberta licence to Abu Dhabi driving license and got a shared rental car with Tammy. Lucky for me, the steering wheel and the traffic is on the same side as it is at home. Driving is so similar here to home, except for all of the speed bumps (called humps here) and traffic circles – which by the way, no one knows how to use. There is a grace allowance of 20km/h speeding and the speed limit on the highway is 140km/h. It’s like Fast & the Furious: Middle East here.
- Labourers : This is the side of Abu Dhabi and Dubai that they don’t want you to see. It’s the part of living here that I actually hate the most. There are hundreds of thousands of unskilled labor workers mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. This article explains it better than I can.
- White cars : EVERY CAR HERE IS WHITE!!! People say it’s because it’s so hot here and dark colours just make the vehicle hotter – but honestly I think it’s just because they think white looks more expensive. It also makes finding our car in a parkade very difficult.
- Ramadan : Without a doubt, the second year was harder than the first. The first Ramadan was exciting because it was new. The second time around it was just plain old inconvenient.
- Call to prayer : When I first arrived here the weather was mild so I would often have my window open, I would hear the first call to prayer in the morning when I woke and one in the evening while I was cooking dinner. I used to always notice it, now I’m so used to it I barely notice it come from the mosque that’s right next to the pool while I’m laying out.
- Pork : I actually thought that it was going to be a lot harder than it is to buy pork here. And I will say that although it’s just as easy as it is at home, I rarely eat bacon. Segregated “non-Muslim” sections that sell pork-products are, in my opinion, pointless. You collect your “goods” and take them (uncovered) to the same checkout everyone else uses.
- Language : I initially had thought that I would be in for a huge culture shock in regards to the language. Fortunately, at work we have interpreters to do the translation for us. To my surprise I would say the majority of the population here can speak English (obviously excluding the near 85% that are expats). I’ve tried to pick up a few Arabic words here and there.
- “Inshallah” : When I first got here, my manager told me that the one word I will hear over and over again is Inshallah. Which means, if Allah wills it. It’s essentially a polite way of saying maybe or possibly. This gets a little frustrating when you’re waiting for your phone to be connected “inshallah tomorrow”, or waiting for your bank card “inshallah, it is in the mail”. To tell the truth I’ve started saying it, “inshallah the doctor will see you soon”.
- Movie releases : When it’s the middle of summer and there is nothing else do to – you go to the mall and you go to the movies. Except the movies that show here are only about 10% watchable. And if a good film does come here they are often cut down due to nudity or profanity.
- Men : Or lack thereof. When I arrived, we were told the statistics of Abu Dhabi, including the 3:1 men to women ratio. AMAZING, I thought… wrong. If we break it down to actual eligible men the ratio probably drops to 0.25 men to 1 woman.
- Converting Dirham to Dollar : Probably for the first 2-3 months I was constantly using the converter app on my phone to change everything from dirham to Canadian dollar. I could not grasp the idea of a dirham. Funny enough, now when I go home I find myself doing the opposite and converting every dollar to dirham.
- No tap water : I remember going to London after being here for 3 months and the idea of drinking tap water was actually strange. Even when I was home, I looked for the water cooler before I realized that I could drink the tap water. Apparently you CAN drink the water here, but I think it’s full of chemicals and quite salty – so bottled water it is.
On more positive notes:
- Halloumi cheese : Need I say more???
- Coats and Sweaters : I suppose it’s more of a lack of. . . I never have to worry about wearing or bringing a jacket if I’m going out – unless it’s to an indoor restaurant. I need a coat more for indoors (air conditioning) that outside more often than not.
- Visitors : It is actually a lot of fun to have people come and visit you in a place you call your new home. A stay-cation for myself and a vacation for others.
- Travel : As I mentioned above, I’m literally in the Middle of the East, so it is easy to jet set off to places that would take full days to get to from home.
- Fuel : THE COST OF GAS IS SO CHEAP. It costs me the same amount in dirham as dollar to fill my car. I.e. 60dh (which is actually $20) vs. $60!!
- Ladies nights : Another incredible phenomenon here in the UAE : LADIES NIGHT AKA LADIES DRINK FREE. Imagine going out and getting your drinks entirely free. Most bars or restaurants give out tokens (maximum 4) to redeem for free drinks (often wine or spirits). And they aren’t only on weekends, they are on every day of the week at many different places. Women:1; Men:0 (actually probably Men:2; think of all the women out on these nights).
- Safety : Abu Dhabi was recently named the safest city to live in. While I do feel safe here, I also don’t 100% agree with this survey.
- Tax free : Ah yes, the tax free income (not for long!). Here’s the truth : it’s tax free, meaning no income tax deductions, also nothing like CPP or EI deductions. There is also no taxes on material items, meaning that if your milk is 6.99dh, that is how much you pay. The same for restaurants (unless hotel service fee is added) and clothing etc. Sounds great right? No, the tax is actually just included in the price – so in my opinion things here are actually much more expensive.
- No ATM fees : One very small but huge victory for me is no ATM bank fees. You can you use any ATM anywhere and wont be charged a processing fee – amazing.
- Pool/beaches : Likely, never in my life again will I live in a place where every weekend I can go to the complex pool or decide to go to the beach and swim in the ocean. Coming from Calgary, we don’t have the luxury of ocean beaches, and there are only a handful of days where would be able to fully enjoy an outdoor pool. I’ve spent days on the weekend on islands off of Abu Dhabi
While the majority of this post seems to be me complaining about life here, it’s not all bad. I see posts like this, and can find the humour in the fact that life here is so different from home. I do enjoy it here. And although bad days are especially bad because at home you have your family and your friends to vent to. And while I do have close friends here, it is just different. In some ways, I think living here has made me a bit… snobby?? (If you couldn’t tell from the above points). I remember going to Sri Lanka and eating a buffet lunch in a hotel and being absolutely shocked at the service and the quality of the food. I think had I have come from home to there it likely would’ve been okay, not great, but tolerable. I find that certain things here are normal for me – yes, like answering your phone in the movie theatre, or gold flaked coffee, going on yachts on the weekend or eating at 5* restaurants casually. I have become friends with a great group of people, where I think we all keep each other in reality check. We maintain normal things we would do at home and we celebrate holidays how we would at home as well.
I’ve come to miss and appreciate the small things in life that I had at home, like sleeping with my window open (the smell of fresh air), taking the stairs (impossible to find accessible stairs here), and watching HGTV – to name a few.
At the moment, I don’t have any definite plans to come home. I know it will be soon, I can feel myself becoming complacent in the life here. Or perhaps it’s just the summer-time cabin fever taking a toll on me. In the past 17 months I have traveled to 11 countries, I have finally mastered the math of figuring out the time difference between here and Calgary, I have learned things about nursing and myself as a nurse working abroad, I have made friendships with people that will last a lifetime, I have done something I had always dreamed of doing, and I am still surviving.
p.s. To come : Egypt, Kenya & Zanzibar and summer at home.