x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Home is where the 'but' is for expatriates

Glad to be here, but ... It can be fun guessing what comes next when chatting to Abu Dhabi newcomers.

I love meeting people who are new to the capital. They provide me with the opportunity to play a secret little game with myself.

First, I assess them mentally and guess which of these categories they'll fall into. Are they the ones who arrived here with a wide-eyed vision of exotic Arabia, expecting the air to be heavy with the aroma of spices and the women enigmatic and mysterious in flowing silk robes and eyes rimmed with kohl? Are they the ones who are secretly convinced that the Middle East is a cauldron of barbarians, and compare the littlest detail with how "things are done back home"? Are they sulking to be in Abu Dhabi, longing for the vibrancy of Dubai? Or do they love Abu Dhabi's homey feel, and describe Dubai as high on caffeine and sometimes a little fake? Have they passed the point of wonder at the difference around them and become jaded and knee-deep in the monotony of a place that has lost its lustre? Or are they the upbeat types who will make the most of it, whether they live here for one year or five?

Once I've decided for myself what their response will be, I ask them what they think so far of their temporary home, and the answer rarely varies: "I love it, it's great," they all mostly say - they are newly arrived, after all, and eager to seem optimistic - and then, after a slight pause, "but ..."

But … we miss the cosy feel of a pavement cafe or popping into a neighbourhood pub, say the Europeans. We miss Tim Hortons, green foliage and going out for a run around the neighbourhood, say the Canadians, who may even become nostalgic enough to mumble about missing snow.

We miss Target and walking everywhere, say the Americans, and we miss punctuality and great barbecues, say the Australians, and we miss living in a city that's accessible and easy to explore, say the British.

We miss Beirut's joie de vivre, say the Lebanese, and we miss Amman's balmy evenings, say the Jordanians, and we miss the street vendors of Damascus, say the Syrians.

There's always a "but", no matter how much they appreciate the lifestyle afforded them by living in the UAE, no matter how much they genuinely like the city and enjoy the time they are spending in it.

It's natural, of course; an Emirati living as an expatriate anywhere in the world would most likely have a long list of things he or she misses about home.

Which is why my next approach to those newly arrived in the UAE is to ask them what they love about living in Abu Dhabi. What would they miss if they were not here?

That list is just as varied, just as long. Eyes light up, hands wave and gesture, heads tilt and bob.

Or at least, it's certainly that way for me. Despite everything I might miss about my home (Jordan), I still have a long list of things I love about the UAE, not least the fact that I fell in love and got married just metres from Abu Dhabi's waters. Which is how I usually begin my story when I'm asked how I like it here.