a crucial character-building phase

complex pool
A return to the working world has meant my separation from this – the pool in our complex, where I plowed through four books in my first month here.

Dear Friend,

My apologies for the lack of communication over the past few weeks. Or, perhaps you were reveling in my silence because these letters are long and annoying to read? If that’s the case, then “you’re welcome” and “sorry, I’m back!”

The reasons for my quiet were both good and bad: I started a new job, which I really like, and then I got sick, which I really did not like.

This nasty sickness crept up on me and took me down for almost two weeks. In the past, “being sick” meant – AT MOST – a day or two of slowing down, maybe an afternoon of napping and an early bedtime. DayQuil-Nyquil on rotate, tea with honey/lemon/ginger (and a splash of vodka if prior to bedtime), and then snapping back within 24-48 hours. No problem. But this time, what began as a simple scratchy throat turned into a bronchial infection that would not. Go. Away.

The scratchy throat, in retrospect, should have been read less as “My, it’s dusty today…” and more as ” the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are scraping their fiery hooves down my esophagus.” A touch of fatigue that day, but nothing more – until I woke up the next morning unable to move. Hot flashes, cold flashes, iron-heavy aches, the works. This fun phase lasted for about two days – during my second week at my new job, mind you. After weeks of funemployment, The Sickness took me down during a crucial character-building phase.

And then, in all of its diabolical glory, The Sickness abated for a couple of days. Some residual fatigue and congestion, but mostly on its way out, so I assumed. I went to work, came home and slept, caught up on the last of Downtown Abbey (which – by the way – total snorefest this season) And then – the cough began.

What must have been going on in my chest-lung area should have been narrated by David Attenborough. I’m pretty sure I had a rainforest growing in there, with huge beasts locking horns and tiny poisonous slippery things sneaking around. I had the kind of cough that makes people say, “You know what? You go ahead and take this elevator, I’ll wait for the next one.”

I spent another week being extremely tired all of the time – the cough kept me from sleeping at night, no matter what I took for it – before The Gentleman went out and mysteriously came back with Amoxicillan. While you cannot find heavy-duty cold meds anywhere in the country, you can get antibiotics readily without a prescription. Go figure. It took four days and twelve pills before I finally started to feel human again.

I’m told that this is the time of year when everyone gets sick and, indeed, it seems as though people all around are hacking and coughing and taking up elevators all by themselves. The weather is beginning to creep into the 90’s and even brushing up against triple digits on some afternoons, and the winds are picking up and bringing in huge clouds of dust, sand, and gritty rain.

A view of a sandstorm from our flat…not much to see, really. Just clouds and clouds of sand.

By the way, it has rained nearly every week since I got here, and this is unprecedented. It did not rain in this country for nearly three years a few years ago, and some disturbance in the atmosphere is now bringing sand storms and rain clouds in far greater frequency. Some blame this on “cloud seeding,” which I had to Google because I didn’t believe that such a thing existed outside of a sci fi movie or something animated about giant food and spunky little children attempting to save whole towns from freakish weather patterns. Apparently it’s a real thing, and apparently the UAE spent $11 million back in 2010 to aid some pretty severe drought. The last seeding was, I believe, sometime in 2013 and it’s an ardently-held belief among some here that such radical human intervention in nature is having longer-term effects than previously thought. I’m still stuck on: $11 million. That’s USD, mind you, not dirhams. 11 million big ones to alter weather patterns. Must have been a pretty horrific drought.

I don’t mind the rain, however – the gray and rain remind me of home especially during this time of year. I also know that – very soon – the oppressive heat will be here and rain will be scarce. But the country, on the whole, is not equipped to deal with this kind of weather. A few inches of rain floods everything, closes streets, and cancels events. It muddies pools and leaks into buildings made to withstand wind and baking sun but not water. It snarls traffic and causes cars to smash into one another. In short – it’s akin to a few inches of snow in Baltimore.

Jessica's Paddleboard
I do mind the rain when I want to go stand-up paddling. Stand-up paddling is nothing like kayaking, which I am used to, and is requiring a great deal more practice. Happily, the Gulf is fairly flat most days, and as long as you can stay out of the wake from million dollar boats it’s usually pretty smooth riding. Also, this is my friend Jessica’s paddleboard, which I must credit because I miss her. In a crazy, roundabout, mismatched upset she is currently living in Baltimore while her husband is here in Abu Dhabi. I miss her terribly, but I get to borrow her paddleboard. That’s basically the only upside of this situation.

I digress. The bronchial Desert Plague, as many expats not-so-fondly refer to this sort of general nondescript infection, is finally subsiding. I did have a few good days in there, when my stash of DayQuil kicked in or when I was bound and determined to get out of the flat.

Also, in the midst of starting a new job and being hellaciously ill, my shipment from Baltimore arrived! Have you ever traveled especially far from home and, upon zippering open your suitcase, been greeted by the smell of home? Maybe you looked down at your carefully folded shirts and shoes tucked into the corners of your suitcase and felt a rush of remembering packing the suitcase, and perhaps wondered what your things had been through while you were separated – you at the gate waiting for the plane, and your earthly belongings being pushed through tunnels and tossed about in the bowels of the airport? Or is that just me, thinking about things too much as usual?

But imagine that moment… and then imagine it multiplied by 40 suitcases. As with any trip, things were unpacked that I wonder what I was thinking when I decided it was a crucial item to bring overseas, and things that I had forgotten about until the moment I saw them and was delighted to be reunited with. And, suddenly, my house feels more like a home because I have Post It notes and the old breadknife and the wooden cutting boards my grandfather made for me. When The Gentleman says things like, “I really need a silver Sharpie” or “Do they sell black duct tape here?” I can say, “Top drawer on the left,” or “I don’t know, but I have a whole roll of it and it’s with the screwdrivers.” Of course I could have bought those things here, but part of the point of shipping household goods, I’ve found, is because it takes part of a lifetime to amass the tiny conveniences that make life better (rubber bands, COLD MEDICINE, a really good paring knife) and I could have spent the entirety of my time abroad making tiny little purchases if I hadn’t had these things packed up and sent to me. Every box unpacked familiar treasures and suddenly I can breathe a little more easily because I know that we have things like scissors and tongs at the ready.

dream plateIn other wonders, I did also make it to a friend’s fabulous birthday brunch at Pearls and Caviar. If the name doesn’t imply opulence, let me clarify – it’s ridiculous. Brunch in the United Arab Emirates is not bagels and lox and a Bloody Mary. This is a four- to five-hour long affair with lavish buffet stations, bottomless champagne (or sparkling wine, if you opt for the “cheaper” package), sushi on just dessertsblocks of ice, pigs rotating on spits, cheese tables, carving stations, and dessert set-ups that Wonka himself could not dream up. I sat there happily with my plate of cheese and sushi and decided that for all of the annoying things about living here (Starbucks doesn’t have breakfast sandwiches, I had to go to 3 different grocery stores to find Fage yogurt, traffic is horrendous in a terrifying sort of way…) brunch is one of the things that makes all of that all better in an immediately gratifying sort of way.

But, I cannot eat gold leaf without thinking of the David Cross stand-up routine. This happens more than you’d think out here. I have eaten gold – “tasteless, odorless gold” on several occasions, and every single time I think of this routine. I have these moments, not strictly tied to gold-eating, where I find myself measuring pure opulence against the poverty that I know exists and finding myself caught inextricably in a guilty balance. I am no longer a bleeding heart liberal – how could I be, after that time spent working in a “rewarding field” that left me feeling jaded and sympathetic to poor Sisyphus whose boulder may well have been the progress towards alleviating poverty rolling up the endless hill of politics – but I am not inhuman and I am not immune or unaware. Neither do I have the answer to how to handle these things. Mostly I just feel like I am here, right now, to learn. To absorb. To rethink the boundaries I drew in previous lives, to reassess the truths I used to cling so steadfastly to, and to understand that I am 31 years old and suddenly in a place where I cannot buy extra strength cold medicine but I can get gold on top of my food.

I am still new here, only two months in, and there is still so much to absorb. For now, I am finally able to breathe again – due to clear lungs and a well-stocked kitchen – and this alone is enough to celebrate. Perhaps it’s time for another brunch….

Much love for now and more later, Insh’Allah,

The New Glitterati

gold dessert
Gold leaf atop a white chocolate cup with coffee mousse.