Without friends and the sense of community that friends provide, can we feel rooted anywhere?
Life for expatriates has unfinished stories and loose ends
I have a new coffee table. Big and square, it's exactly the right height to rest my feet on while I sit on the couch.
I have a new dining table, too. And in the kitchen cabinet, there's a new mixer - one of those fancy standing mixers with an attachment for mixing bread dough. In the two years I've lived in Abu Dhabi, I've made bread exactly three times, so why I need this mixer, I'm not sure, but I bought it anyway.
Actually, the mixer is a memento of sorts: I bought it from friends who are leaving Abu Dhabi permanently. They're going back to the United States after eight years abroad and the mixer won't work on a US electrical circuit. The dining table and coffee table are also mementos, purchased from another set of friends moving back to the US - and to a furnished house - just as we were moving from a furnished flat to an unfurnished villa. We got furniture; they were saved the aggravation of posting to the classified listings on Dubizzle.com.
Most major metropolitan areas have expatriate communities, whether the expatriates are the high-end corner office types or the unskilled workers who clean those offices. But in Abu Dhabi, as we all know, the population seems more fluid than it is in other places. Sometimes, in fact, living here seems a little like living in the magical world of Oz, where people come and go like Glinda's soap bubbles: one day you're nodding and smiling at the nice couple with the little dog who live in the flat down the hall, and then two weeks have passed and you realise their flat has been vacant for days; they've disappeared.
Where did they go with that little dog? Across town? Across the globe? Back "home", wherever that might be? Did someone get sick, lose a job, get a job, have a baby, split up? It's as if we live in a city comprised almost entirely of unfinished stories and loose ends. Sometimes, if you're lucky, as we were with our friends, you get the full story; you say goodbye and all those other farewell things that you mean when you say them: "come visit," and "we'll visit," and "there's always Facebook". But more often than not, people just disappear; we momentarily note the absence and life swirls on.
I suppose on the one hand, the optimistic view of these transient relationships would be to see a web of friendships spreading across the globe and to imagine that children who grow up in expatriate cultures will always have a friend's couch to sleep on, no matter where they find themselves. And in Abu Dhabi, given the high percentage of far-flung expatriates, I think even the people who are from here end up with that same network, as children's friends become family friends who, when they move, leave behind open invitations for a visit anytime.
But on the pessimistic other hand, this fluid community creates a kind of tentativeness: why invest in a new friendship if that friendship will soon become long distance instead of down the street? This question seems particularly pressing at my age, which is to say no longer precisely in the first bloom (or even the second bloom) of youth: I'm middle-aged, frequently crabby, often tired, all of which combine so that making friends becomes difficult. All that small talk and getting-to-know-you chitchat? Really, who has time?
Except, of course, as the French philosopher, Simone Weil, once said "being rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul". Without friends and the sense of community that friends provide, can we feel rooted anywhere? Or in the process of adapting to expatriate life, do we learn to carry our roots with us, like trees at a garden store, each with its root-ball tenderly wrapped in burlap to make it easier to transport - and transplant?
We have moved into a new house in Abu Dhabi with every expectation of putting down our own roots, as it were. As if to literalise the metaphor, there's a little garden at the back of the house and come September, I'm imagining frangipani and jasmine, maybe a pot of herbs in a shady corner. I will cook for new friends in the neighbourhood and try not to be crabby. Maybe I'll even bake bread for these as yet unmet friends.
After all, I have a mixer with just the right attachment.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi