x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Life in the UAE: getting beyond recognition

Life in Abu Dhabi means no nameless, faceless life in the big city.

One of the most jarring changes in moving to the UAE from the West, for me, was the instant loss of anonymity. It's not the staring and honking I'm talking about, although that has always made me feel a little like a celebrity.

It's the way I can cross someone's path just once and they will remember me forever. No nameless, faceless "life in the big city" here.

It started at the laundry. No need for a receipt I would immediately lose. I simply relayed my apartment number, which was immediately written into all my clothes. This usually happened on the inner label, but sometimes on the outside too, with black being no obstacle, as the laundry owned a handy white crayon, but that's another story.

When I returned days later the laundry's staff immediately began gathering up my now permanently marked items.

A few months later I wandered in to the local shawarma shop, where they offered to drop my food off rather than have me wait for it because although I'd never been there before, they of course knew exactly where I lived.

Then at a car rental on the edge of the neighbourhood a few months later, as we were sorting out the details, the manager said: "So, what do you do at Abu Dhabi Media? You work there, I know."

Usually I like the recognition - the previous example excepted. In a far away, strange land, it's a comfort to walk into a Starbucks you haven't been to in six weeks to a chorus of "Ma'am - welcome back! You have not been here in so long! Grande skinny latte?"

As a result I have let couriered packages and tailored dresses languish for months at their various shops, confident that it would only take showing my face for the proprietors to locate my items. I have also formed such fast friendships - Madeline at the coffee shop, Tariq at Aramex - that I have even introduced parents to them.

Of course, the recognition goes awry. Just this week my roommate popped in to our local Lebanese shop for some takeaway. The staff seemed befuddled at her trim physique, which to them was apparently a dramatic transformation on the scale of The Biggest Loser. All they could say was "diet", "Ramadan" and "big", making gorilla-like motions with their arms. As she hadn't so much as lost a kilogram, nor fasted, it was clear they thought she was someone - a much larger someone - else.

As time wears on, these relationships, as so many do, have started to lose their lustre. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt, and that could be the reason for my latest exchange. I was browsing in a little shop in Abu Dhabi, looking at the lotions and potions, wondering if I should buy.

The staffer took one look at the giant Steve Madden bag slung over my shoulder and said:

"Hi ma'am. You shopping? [Pause]. Again?"