“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land” (G. K. Chesterton)
That’s what it’s called, when you expatriate from a country and then return for a visit. Home Leave. Not a vacation. Broken down, it can be read as a destination followed by an immediate action. Home. Leave.
After six months of blinding white buildings and endless stretches of sand, I buried my feet in the greenest of grass. The weather, due to some vortices or another, settled at a pleasant 78 degrees with low humidity; nearly unheard of on the East Coast in July. I breathed in green and dirt, took pictures of the patterns of brick in the sidewalks, and realized how homesick I have been.
The strangest thing about home leave is that, after having been away for so long, you walk back in and find that the conversation has gone on without you. The newspaper box in the corner is still covered in the same baked-on, peeling stickers enticing sidewalk traffic to vote or eat vegan. The fair-labor picketers are still down in the Inner Harbor, sharing a narrow stretch of sidewalk with some 7th Day Adventist newcomers. The price of gas per gallon has gone up, but only marginally. The 5 o’clock news anchor is sporting cobalt blue this season, but her hair is exactly the same. The world has ticked on without you.
This morning, over the last smoked salmon bagel of the trip, my friend Jackal mentioned that someone asked him how long I’d been gone, and his response was: “Like a year or something?” Six months. It’s been six months, but it might as well have been “a year or something.” Maybe even ten years “or something.”
This period, for me at least, was not the honeymoon period. Whenever someone asked about Abu Dhabi or mentioned what a big adventure this all is, I felt a tightening of energy and an urge to let it snap.
Excited question: ”How is it?!”
Noncommittal response: “….different?”
It’s not that I hate it, or that I even dislike it. It’s that I moved somewhere that would never have been my first choice of destination. I moved for love and adventure, and I’ve certainly found both. But because of these circumstances, each day is a game of realigning expectations with reality. I truly had no concept of what living in Abu Dhabi would be like on the day-to-day, but somehow it’s different in that it doesn’t quite line up. With what, I’m not exactly sure.
Home leave led me to some serious thinking and serious truths. Having to tell and re-tell my stories again and again to people who wish the best for me allowed me to hear the complaints aloud for the first time. I had the chance to take a step back and converse openly about what was, in all honesty, a bit of a tough transition.
Here’s the truth, and the thing that I’ve found the most difficult to say. My first six months in this country felt like ill-fitting pants; too tight and too baggy in all the wrong places. No pockets. Itchy fabric. I’ve tried stretching and shrinking them, and even putting them on backwards but they still just feel…wrong. Uncomfortable. And they’re the type of uncomfortable pants that are super trendy, and everyone wants to wear them or at least try them on. And you don’t have the heart to tell them that as good as they might look, it’s a hair shirt in terms of experience.
Here’s where the pants metaphor ends (for a moment there, you didn’t think it would, did you?): A close friend who has had to deal with many uncomfortable pants situations in her life – chief among them actually being the Living In Abu Dhabi As An Expat Pants – suggested that perhaps, at this juncture of the expatriation process, it’s not the pants that are going to change. Maybe the pants just are what they are, and I’ve chosen to wear them, so it’s high time for what she delicately and lovingly termed an “attitude adjustment.”
She is the only person who is allowed to suggest this.
I moved to a Middle Eastern country where it’s five thousand degrees in summer and there are no microbreweries or coffeehouse-slash-wine bars or quaint, tree-lined cobbled streets. It’s not a road trip or train ride away from some of the biggest and best cities in the US (in my opinion), it’s not where my Book Club resides, and it’s not and never will be “home.” I didn’t have any of these expectations when I moved here, but somehow I’ve found myself listing all of the ways in which my new residence has failed to stack up against the old one.
I went home for home leave and walked past the row house where I used to live and remembered how frustrated and lonely I felt in the last year or so before I left. How trapped, how wanting to shed that city like something I’d outgrown. I had itchy feet, itchy hands, itchy brain and I wanted out. I couldn’t bear the thought of another weekend doing the same old thing. And while I enjoyed every moment of home leave, retracing steps and reliving favorite moments, I was enjoying it as a tourist, an outsider, someone whose time there was limited.
I can’t go back, and so the only choice here is to move forward. Put those itchy pants back on and figure out a way to make them work. Maybe they just need some more time. Or maybe the wearer has extra-sensitive skin.
I’m back in Abu Dhabi, my “new normal,” and while I still haven’t shed the thick, buzzing dryness of jet lag, I have managed to get my expectations in check a little bit. Abu Dhabi is what it is, and I am who I am, and somewhere here we’ve got to reach a compromise. Or, at least, I do – because much like how the city I left hasn’t stopped a beat since, so will this city keep on being itself. It’s me who has to be the one to change, to mourn the loss of familiarity and comfort and to start over a bit.
Because, you know, pants.
Much love for now and more later, Insha’Allah,
The New Glitterati