Sometimes, It's the Little Things that Mean the Most
By: Safia MooreSometimes, It’s the Little Things That Mean the Most
There are pros and cons to life as an ex-pat. The most cited advantages usually relate to the ‘big’ things in life – enhanced opportunities for promotion, higher wages, a better quality of life for children, and the chance to experience another culture. In the case of The Gulf region, the high percentage of residents from many different shores means that the experience is a multi-cultural one. In the UAE, this is the case – around 90% of the population are non-native, approximately 200 languages are spoken here, and you only have to stroll through your favourite mall to discover the diverse ethnicities represented here. Such a demographic profile offers exciting chances to learn a new language, taste exotic food, sample new cultural activities, and generally feel a global connection which is not always possible ‘back home’. These pluses tend to soothe most people’s homesickness. In my definition, this is missing family and old friends whilst often feeling adrift – surely a sense of belonging is only ever felt soul-deep in our homeland.
Sometimes, when you get the ex-pat blues, it’s the ‘small’ things that tip you over the edge and turn you into a nit-picking, fault-finding, short-tempered type of ex-pat who mutters ‘typical of this place!’ rather more often than is polite. Maybe you can’t find your favourite brand of mayonnaise, you’ve given up searching for an English-speaking radio station that doesn’t air techno-beat music 24/7; or perhaps the drone of the air conditioner in summer has you fumbling in a zombie-like state at 3 am for a set of Etihad Airways earplugs that you know you put in a safe place for this very moment. On the other hand, there are some small discoveries I’ve made in the UAE which can make my day and remind me that occasionally, it’s the little things which mean the most.
Here is my Magnificent Seven list of little delights which either ease the tension, calm the nerves, or simply put a smile back on my face when I’m having one of those ‘typical’ ex-pat days:
1. The National Newspaper: I have no idea how I kept my sanity before this daily from Abu Dhabi went into print. Having given up television seven years ago, a good newspaper is an essential for me and The National is a quality publication. I’ve learned so much about the UAE, its culture and traditions since I started my subscription, but it is also packed with international news and the standard of reporting is first-rate. My weekend wouldn’t be complete without Friday’s ‘Weekend’ supplement or Saturday’s ‘Review’ section. What’s more, it’s delivered to our door (well shoved under our gate) and costs just 300 dirhams (around £60 sterling or $80 US dollars for a yearly subscription). The National had to be Number 1 on my list.
2. Dates: When I was growing up in Ireland, my dad occasionally bought one of those small, long boxes of dates from Morocco with the skinny plastic stick for eating them one at a time. I think he and I were the only two in our family who liked them, so it was a rare treat. How wonderful it was to discover the different varieties of dried, honeyed, and of course, fresh dates when in season. They may be high in sugar and carbohydrates, but good quality dates are a fantastic pick-me up snack to be enjoyed at any time of the day. We always start the day with some and break our fast during Ramadan and at other times with them. When the cupboard’s bare, as long as you have dates in the house, you will not go hungry. On one of her visits my mum even tried my husband’s speciality – date sandwich with Tahini – yummy and mum agreed.
3. Mosquito Plug-ins: Just when you thought it was safe to go into the garden, when the summer sun has done its worst and the more temperate winter months are welcomed by all, some anti-social insects gatecrash the barbecue. The bane of the ex-pat’s life in winter is the mosquito. Tricky little fellows who sneak in at dusk, hide in the least obvious places, and then, when you’re nodding off for a well-earned night’s slumber, buzz past your ear! We have the mosquito nets on every window, the handheld ‘zapper’ that looks like a tennis racquet, but the most effective ‘must-have’ is the electric plug-in. Place one in each bedroom an hour or so before you retire and you’ll outwit those pesky varmits.
4. Parachute Cooling Oil: There’s no such thing as total mosquito obliteration however. When they strike on Irish skin, the aftermath is not a pretty sight. Those bright red bumps itch like hell too, so you need something effective and quick acting. I don’t know how I came across this Indian-made Ayurvedic product with 21 herbs, but I’m very grateful that I did. It’s a blue oil with the scent of Camphor, comes in a small blue plastic bottle and immediately soothes inflamed skin and cures itchiness. The blurb on the back makes the following claims: ‘Relief from headaches, long lasting stress relief, ensuring sound sleep, nourishing hair.’ I haven’t tried it on my hair, but when I slap it on my mosquito bites, the other 3 benefits follow.
5. Falafel Sandwich: Recipes vary, but falafel is basically a chick-pea fritter that’s served throughout the Middle East as a snack. The round falafel are usually wrapped in Arabic bread with a dressing of either Tahini (sesame paste). I don’t know why but my local falafel joint in Ras Al Khaimah uses a sort of Thousand Island dressing and adds some salad as well as including a vacuum-pack of pickled vegetables on the side. I’m not a lover of pickles but the sandwich is delicious and Abu Naeem who runs the shop always throws in a couple of extra falafel on their own. They are crisp and dry, never oily although deep-fried and totally satisfying for breakfast on the run or a much-needed fill up at any time of the day. A UAE business called ‘Just Falafel’ has gone global, but I’m happy to stick with Abu Naeem.
6. Arabic Desserts: This may be a bit of a cheat because the tiny square, round, and triangular sweet treats I mean probably originated in Turkey and spread to the Middle Eastern region with the Ottoman Empire. I think Turkish Baclava, the filo pastry, pistachio filled and honeyed, syrup drenched delight is hard to beat, but the Syrians, the Lebanese, and my local bakeries employing a multitude of different nationalities do a pretty good job too. I haven’t got a favourite – I’ll eat any of them. Basboosa (made from semolina) and Konafa (shredded pastry with a creamy white cheese filling) would be my first choices if someone wafted a platter full of so-called Arabic desserts under my nose. And if you get them fresh and warm from the oven – to die for!
7. K. P. Namboodiri’s Toothpaste: You need a good toothpaste after that, right? This herbal product, again from India, is so refreshing and stimulating in the mouth that I’ve even taken it home to Ireland as gifts for family and friends. They may have looked bemused when I handed it over, but those who tried it praised it to the highest. I love the silver box with the Namboodiri circular logo complete with the inventor’s portrait and the words, ‘From the House of K. P. Namboodiri’s’ (established 1925). Here are the key ingredients: ginger, black pepper, long pepper, harra, amla, liquorice, karpoor, clove. What’s not to love about a secret recipe ‘discovered in ancient texts by a royal physician in an erstwhile princely state in Kerala’?
Reading back over my list, I feel a little like I’ve discovered some hidden recipes for contentment in my little corner of the world too. One thing’s for sure, I’d never have been open to such diversity if I’d stayed in Ireland instead of moving to the UAE in 2007. I’ve now lived in 3 different Emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Ras Al Khaimah. Although I still look upon certain products, foods, and habits as novelties, I’m aware too that for my daughter, who has spent her entire 5 years’ of life here, these things are simply part of the everyday norm. When we go on our yearly summer holidays to Ireland, it’s her turn to make discoveries and I enjoy introducing her to the ‘little things’ that meant the most to me at that age.
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Contest Comments » There are 23 comments
What a lovely list Safia. I chuckled when reading it, as I can relate to so many of the things you talk about, especially those pesky mosquitoes. I will have to look for and try the toothpaste!
Interesting toothpaste with all those ingredients, it must taste really different. Can't see it pin the local supermarket mind. The National Newspaper sounds a great find, a paper in English but having world affairs and local features is a great combination for any expat to keep up with home but get immersed in local life too. Thanks Safia, John MM
Very entertaining post Safia. As a prime mosquito target, it's the Parachute cooling oil I would like to get my hands on! I can't imagine living in a place with so many nationalities that has only 10 per cent native population. Usually it is the native majority that establishes what the 'norms' of the culture are and the 'outsiders' have to try to fit in. This comes with its own problems and resentments, as seen in Switzerland these days. I suppose it must be quite liberating for the expats in the UAE.
I love falafel too and the sweets/halawa, but I liked the description of the toothpaste best. There are many people from Kerala here in the UAE and I work with quite a lot of those guys, so I guess it sells lots here. Enjoyed reading this - good one.
I have experienced mosquitos at their worst and agree the plug ins are great, though vinegar is recommended to ease the itching, I've been to the UAE and loved the culture and food, especially loved the Lebanese food, although Dubai was amazing, I found Abu Dhabi more to my taste, I especially loved being there to visit my beloved ex pat family, enjoy ur life there, I love your description of everything, and you are not missing anything back in your homeland apart from grey skies and cold weather
No matter if you're an expat, living in the place you were born or somewhere in between you need to have things you enjoy about the place where you are spending your time. I know a person who isn't a born and bred Queenslander, who was a transplant but now returned unwillingly south to their home state of NSW... and oh, but everything is better in Queensland... they cannot find a single redeeming thing about NSW. I'm the opposite, I can always find something to make wherever I am feel like home. Even on holidays, I'm known to say "I could live here". I like that you've chosen everyday things, especially the toothpaste. I'm partial to that sort of sharing about things I love amongst family and friends, and this year did just that for Christmas gifts, shopped at my favourite local places for a selection of goodies. As I often do I have a quote. I think of it if I'm inclined to feel dissatisfied... "If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no indifferent place." -- Rainer Maria Rilke
Enjoyed reading this on the bus after Googling "the little things mean the most". An unexpected insight into some of the delights of my adopted country that I've missed. Must try the falefal sarnie instead of my usual McD Royale! :-)
Wow! Safia, yes, all you post took me back again to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I can feel the very hot air outside and brightness that is so much needed for holidaymakers to be lifted and happy. The white sunshine of Emirates I would be including in my list of favourites. I also remember the National. It was delivered free to out door in Al Raha Gardens as they just started and promoted the paper but Joshua was too small then to allow me to read anything, I could only glance very quickly through the titles and as for mosquitos I kept electric plugs on all the time but it probably wasn't the best think to do. I suggest that you should be writing more about things that make you greed the day with smile and brightness and lightness.
I find it hard to follow blogs but as an expat myself, a Kiwi in the UK, this is a seriously good and helpful blog. Carry on Safia, kia kaha (be strong).
Having lived in Africa, I can relate to a few of these, like the pesky mosquitos, and the great little invention of plug ins. Before that we had the mosquito coils that you lit with a match, a bit stronger smelling but effective nonetheless. I look forward to trying the different foods you mention sometime when I visit that part of the world again.
Perfect Safia - a different world eloquently uncovered in seven paragraphs. And now you have me searching for K. P. Namboodiri’s toothpaste in the UK...and much to my delight it is available! Now.......where can I find Parachute Cooling Oil :-)
Safia, I'm so intrigued by the toothpaste, as well. Sounds amazing.
Nice picture of small things that would seem to be valuable in many places around the world! The blue oil, I wonder, does it work against midges? And the toothpaste sounds a killer! Thanks.
Every time I read something by you on the UAE I want to pack my bags, purchase a plane ticket, and head on over. Maybe I will one day inshallah. Very enjoyable read.
I think if you can truly appreciate the little things, it means you must be pretty content with the big things! Also, I really like the idea of putting dates in sandwiches...that may be my next cooking adventure :)
Safia - another amazing description of life in the UAE! Your writing style has always made life in the UAE accessible to to others and encourages the reader to connect their life experiences with yours. I enjoy all that your write and blog about. What a beautiful idea for a list - things that mean the most. This topic is especially important to ex-pats who seem to only focus on what they are missing from back home instead of focusing on what makes life rich in the country where they are. I love that your included dates - I never ate dates before coming to the UAE and now they have become part of my diet! I can't get enough!
Hi Safia, I've been an ex-pat (in Japan, bit I'm originally from Australia) and know the homesickness you're talking about. I've also lived in different parts of Australia (I'm originally from Sydney) but strangely have felt more of an expat in my own country than I did in Japan when I liked in the Northern Territory in the middle of Australia (literally) in that vast, hot, unwelcoming desert where every second person was Aboriginal or a beer swilling miner. Some days are easier to cope with than others and if the weather is being unkind its very alienating. And its true, you find comfort in all sorts of rituals and pleasures, but I found them mainly in certain people that I met. I'd like you to tell us more about all those odd little things (and people) as what would we know about the Emirates? I'm sure many people would be interested.
A really well written and insightful look into the life of an ex-pat. I think we can all identify with this article....well done and a nice mix of humour1
Lovely piece, had me grinning from ear to ear as I read it. A great way to cheer me up, especially at this time of year and missing family at home at Christmas. Keep it coming Safia....
What a great piece, very well written and beautifully sums up the feelings of many of us ex pats......would love to read more from Safia in the future...
Thanks for an interesting and entertaining read. We used to eat cheese and date sandwiches when I was growing up in England – the dates came squashed into a block and were nothing like the juicy fruits you'll be eating over there. years ago, I tried bringing a bag of dates home from a trip to Egypt; however, as the flight was delayed they'd gone bad by the time I got home and had to be consigned to the compost heap. Although I'm a stay at home girl now, I love the idea of an expats blog, so thanks for the link
Great insight into living as an expat in the UAE. Living in Abu Dhabi myself and writing a blog I can identity with your article ;-)
Hi Safia Very insightful post and as a child of expats I totally agree with sentiments. Lillian