x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A bit like attending college: departing expat looks back on his UAE experience

An American journalist bids farewell to his friends in the UAE.

For an expat, part of the Abu Dhabi experience can be a bit like attending a major university. You meet interesting people from across the globe, from Saudi engineers to South African architects, from Uzbek air hostesses to American lawyers. If you don't make your friends at the adult version of class - work - you tend to encounter them on the social scene at night.

The vast majority of people you meet here have another place to call home, just as they did when on a college campus. Saying farewell, then, is as common as seeing chicken biryani on a restaurant menu.

For those of us born before the age of email, Facebook, text messaging and Skype, the sting of separation does not necessarily last as long as it did when we waited for a letter or postcard from a person who took our hearts with them when they left.

But the parting can still be the same "sweet sorrow" it was in Shakespeare's time.

If the sweet does not come from the hope for the next meeting a la Romeo and Juliet, it arises from the memories of the good times and friendships in a place where so many people arrive as strangers.

These thoughts have crossed my mind as I prepare to join the exodus from Abu Dhabi after five years. A job offer in Hong Kong and a chance to explore another part of the world were too tempting to resist. Life's worst regrets are about not doing something, not taking a chance when opportunity comes knocking. It is by taking a risk that most people arrived in the UAE to begin with. Few among us did not ask: Would we like it here? Would we make friends easily? Would we miss home too much?

The only doubt I had was about leaving friends. I had hit the jackpot in the friendship department.

My closest friend for four years was a Russian-American. Because he spoke Russian and was a master of the charm offensive, I met and became friends with Ukranians, Uzbeks, Belarusians and Russians. He left a year ago and my life changed, but not for the worse.

An Irish colleague who had been reporting from Kuwait returned to the UAE and brought with him his Memphis partner. Nights out listening to a table full of Russian speakers, not having a clue as to what they were saying but enjoying myself immensely, were replaced by outdoor barbecues at his house, trips to Al Maya Island and long conversations as we and some of his fellow Irish and other friends wandered the town.

I also became friends with Nicolas Heard, whose parents, a petroleum engineer and a historian, have been in the UAE for more than 45 years and were instrumental in making the country what it is today and preserving its past. From Nicolas, I learnt things about the UAE and its people that too few expats get a chance to learn. In Nicolas, who runs the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, I also encountered one of the most fundamentally decent people I have ever known. A class act if there ever was one.

Not long ago, I tried to get three of my most treasured friends together - Nicolas, Racha, a Lebanese translator at work, and Vika, a Ukranian piano player, because I knew Nicolas would not be able to make the farewell parties. He was going to be at a much more important function - with his wife in London as she delivered their first child. Another Heard bound to make his mark on the UAE.

In saying goodbye to the three of them and others these days I am reminded of the line: "How lucky I am to have known someone who was so hard to say goodbye to."

It is in those words that what is without a doubt the best part of the UAE experience resonates.

rpretorius@thenational.ae