x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Observing life: Such sweet sorrow

Becoming an ex-expatriate involves a mixture of emotions.

Expats nearing the end of their time in the UAE inevitably find themselves compiling mental lists of what they'll miss from the experience and what they won't. With my masalama moment upon me - by the time you read this I'll be eating horsemeat in Tajikistan - I've found myself doing this tally and being surprised by the dramatic imbalance between the two lists. Despite the popular image of whingeing expatriates who are overpaid and overentitled, the list of things I'll miss about the place is the oversubscribed one.

I don't think I have suddenly donned the rose-tinted glasses that imminent departure can bring (often to people have managed to find fault with the place every day since their arrival). There are some significant things I certainly will not miss. No pair of rose-tinted glasses could ever be enough to offset the unbridled misery of anyone who has the trifecta of car ownership, living in the Tourist Club area without a designated car park and having to negotiate Salam Street twice a day.

Any outdoor-loving Kiwi struggles with having to live in aircon 24/7 for five months a year, and with the fact that anything green has a HDPE pipe leading to its base. Many of the relationships are similarly artificial: I've made friends here that I know will be lifelong, but not a single person around has known me - nor I any of them - for more than 20 months. Almost nobody has their extended family around them.

But the things I will miss are many and profound. Kiwi friends who went from Abu Dhabi back to suburban Christchurch derogatorily called it Pleasantville because of the unrelentingly boring sameness compared with the unconstrained multiculturalism of the UAE. My reactions have become soft from living in an environment so free from property crimes, fostering theories about whether it's because of the harsh penalties or - my preferred view - that this is what happens with full employment and where everyone feels like they have a stake in society.

I would never go into the middle of town at home after 10pm on a weekend because everyone around me would be drunk, some belligerently so. Here, it's fine. I love the certainty that if you happen to meet strangers at times when food is involved, an invitation to join them will inevitably follow. To work for The National, where there are still the resources to do the job properly, rather than the all-too-common churnalism that passes for modern journalism on many newspapers, is a luxury that I remind myself of every day.

A friend here has just started a Facebook event called Abu Dhabi 2020. On April 1, 2020, a bunch of us temporary residents have vowed to come back and see Abu Dhabi once the grand dreams now under way reach fruition. I'll have to decide whether to drive up Salam Street or travel by Metro.