• Originally from London, Kirsten Fairfield moved to Dubai in 2006. Co-owner of online children’s store Bubs Boutique, she’s mum to Jessica, aged two, and her second baby is due in October. She lives in The Lakes.
• Jacqueline Conroy is the newbie in town. She arrived in Dubai 12 months ago from Houston, Texas, but is originally from Scotland. The former teacher lives in Umm Suqiem and is a stay-at-home mum to her six-year-old daughter, Zoe.
• Lesley Cully moved to Dubai from Surrey four years ago and has two daughters, Lydia, six, and Esme, three. She runs the ‘Buckle up in Dubai’ car safety campaign in her spare time and lives in Al Safa.
• Originally from Australia, Samantha Davidson is a sports lawyer and lives in The Meadows with her family. She has two children, Zara, aged seven, and Toby, six. She arrived in Dubai in 2006.
What got us talking…
Did you jump right into the social whirl, make friends for life in your first week, and never look back? Or have you found it difficult to settle in a city where numerous cultures co-exist and reams of government red tape threaten to swallow you up? Living in Dubai certainly has advantages, but moving here and getting used to the place also has its challenges. We chat to four mums, some long-termers, some new kids on the block, over lattes at the LivingRooms games café in Dubai Festival City.
How long does it take, on average, to feel at home in Dubai?
Jacqueline: It takes about a year before one really feels at home in a new place. Because this is our fourth expat placement, I suppose I’m quite practised at it and so hit my stride about six months in. There is so much going on here – and that really helps. There are lots of opportunities to get out there and meet new people and make friends.
Kirsten: I found it quite easy to settle down because I knew someone here. This friend of a friend pointed us in the right direction for all sorts of things. All those questions you have when you first move somewhere, like ‘where do you go for this?’ and ‘where do I find that?’ were answered. If we hadn’t known anyone, it would have been quite difficult.
Lesley: It took me a year. My first six months were like; ‘Wow! Look at me! I’m in Dubai – isn’t it fantastic!’ You get a bit over-awed by the place. And then after that, you have to settle down to reality and I found that very hard. I got homesick, I missed my family, I wanted to see my mum and dad. So we went back and I loved seeing everyone, but I realised that everything was just the same, people were still moaning about everything, it was raining… After that, I was fine. I got back to Dubai and started enjoying it. Now I love it! I like to go back home, but I look forward to coming back to Dubai afterwards.
Samantha: That’s the acid test really, I think. When you can go home but still look forward to coming ‘home’ to Dubai.
Is Dubai a friendly and accepting place? Or can it be difficult to break into certain social groups?
Kirsten: I think it’s quite cliquey, and the expat coffee mornings for women can be quite intimidating. I found that mothers’ groups and activity classes really helped. You’d join one, and go along not knowing anyone, but there isn’t the same pressure to talk to people, because you’re there for the kids, or you’re there for the class. You suddenly have so much more in common, because you’re new parents, away from home and family, and you’re in this class together and it’s all common ground. I met some great friends that way.
Jacqueline: I agree. The expat coffee mornings didn’t work for me either. The people there just weren’t in the same situation as me. Their children were older and heading off to university, which was why they had the time to meet up, whereas I was at a different stage in life. For me, the social lifeline was Zoe’s school. I met other mums there who I became friends with.
Lesley: I know exactly what you mean. There’s nothing worse than turning up to a coffee morning with young kids in tow and feeling the hostility because you’ve brought children along. I felt so awkward once because I had Lydia with me, and even though she’s so well behaved, I could feel the other ladies bristling. These women were there to chat about golf and have coffee. It wasn’t an event for children.
Samantha: I have to say I’ve found everyone here so welcoming. We left London, literally bounced into Brisbane, had child number two, and bounced into Dubai. But I found Australia so cliquey. After the warmth of London, going back home and being back in the suburbs was extremely hard. But Dubai is so open and welcoming to new people because, I guess, it’s an expat city where people come and go. Friendships are made quickly and you are welcomed aboard. In other places, people have their established sets of friends, and they’re not so open to making more.
Name some of the challenges you faced as a newbie on the block.
Samantha: Ultimately, it was the culture shock. That’s the hardest thing I dealt with. Suddenly you realise that you’re in this place filled to bursting with so many different nationalities, cultures and traditions, and you struggle a bit to find your place in that. For example, when you ask for something at home, generally, you get it. But here, you have to traipse around government offices with the kids and your husband, just to get anything done.
Kirsten: I think one of the problems here is that nobody wants to take responsibility for anything that might be slightly ‘out of their experience’. For example, I needed a driving licence. My company was in Abu Dhabi, but I lived in Dubai and had a Dubai registered car. For some reason, this seemed to flummox them. I went all round the houses, was sent on a wild goose chase, from office to office just to be told ‘you need more photocopies, you need at least 20 passport photos, you need three letters transcribed into Arabic’ etc. I found all that very difficult.
Lesley: I found being a woman in the Middle East very hard. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that I needed my husband’s permission for everything. But it has its upsides too. Being brought to the front of the queue because you’re a woman, now that’s a beautiful thing. But I’m still trying to get used to the fact that queuing doesn’t exist in the English sense, and that my husband, bless him, literally has to handle everything.
Jacqueline: I’m still struggling with that, too. It’s a real challenge for me to totally rely on my husband for all the official procedures. I was mentally prepared for it because I lived in Muscat years ago, so I knew what I was coming back to. It was one of the aspects I wasn’t thrilled about either.
Does learning a bit of the local lingo help?
Lesley: Oh for sure. My husband is of Burmese origin, so he often gets mistaken for a Filipino. And because of that, he can get ignored at government counters. It isn’t until he’s opened his mouth and they’ve heard his London accent, that they actually take him seriously, which is pretty sad really. But now he’s got the Arabic greetings and handshakes down to a tee and it’s really helped him in that respect.
Samantha: I agree. It makes a huge difference. We’ve got the routine sorted now. When we go to Immigration, we put the two little blonde children up on the counter, and we say; ‘Salam Alikum!’ with great big smiles, and suddenly everything is so much easier. Learning a little bit of Arabic really helps. I’ve made the effort to learn the language, but my husband knows about five words which he uses with great enthusiasm. We’ll walk in and he’ll point to me and the kids and say in Arabic; ‘This is my bint, and this is my bin’ and usually they fall about laughing.
Jacqueline: Sense of humour goes a very long way, and that’s something you should always try to maintain here. A friend of mine was telling me about when she first got here, and she walked into a pharmacy – in a major mall – and asked for change. She was told, ‘Sorry ma’am, we don’t have any change today. But you can have some gum.’ And that’s exactly how it can be here sometimes.
Kirsten: I agree. I used to get frustrated whenever we did deliveries, because finding the right location – and asking the simplest questions to get there – can sometimes get you nowhere. But you just have to laugh and realise this happens, it’s part of life and the character of Dubai. It’s like the driving. You can’t change it. You just have to roll with it.
Do you have any ‘just got to Dubai’ disaster stories?
Jacqueline: Driving was a total nightmare. I’m a Sunday driver anyway. I just like to tootle along, so driving on the Sheikh Zayed Road was completely terrifying. Moving into our house was another big challenge. Our shipment was a month late arriving, and when it finally did get to Dubai, it was delivered to the house in boxes and just left. Then my husband had forgotten to re-book our hotel room and it had been booked out to someone else. So that first night, we moved into a house where everything was packed up and there were no curtains. Thankfully, we had black bin liners and tape, which did that first night!
Samantha: We moved into our house after having lived in a hotel for three months. And the next day, my daughter came to me and said; ‘Mummy, I can’t brush my teeth. There’s no water in the taps.’ I went to check and found that there was no electricity either. Unfortunately, the previous tenant had an outstanding DEWA bill of Dhs17,000, so we’d been cut off! I was horrified, and spent all morning trying to sort it out. Thankfully, the person came and paid the bill, but I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t been honest about it.
Kirsten: We’d only been in Dubai for three weeks and were staying in this grotty hotel, and we couldn’t wait to get into our new house, even though it was absolutely filthy. The landlord told us not to worry, that he’d send in a cleaning company. Well, when we got there, we found one poor little chap with a filthy rag and a bucket of water, who was attempting to clean the entire house – with no running water or electricity! In the end, we just did it ourselves once the DEWA was on because it was easier.
Jacqueline: We’re lucky. On the compound where we live, we have excellent maintenance. And one day, the AC wasn’t working in one of the bathrooms. But instead of just sending one guy to look into the unit and find out what was wrong, I walked into my house to find six guys – in a very small bathroom – one of them inspecting the AC unit – and the five others squatting on the floor watching him.
Lesley: Bless em! You’ve got to laugh! There are so many things to get used to. It’s taken me four years – but I’ve got there!