Ex-expat, Louise Emma Clarke, reflects on what made her leave the city, and asks where is 'home' for expat families?
I followed my husband to Dubai in January 2011 - but I wasn’t ready to accept that this flashy city in the middle of the desert was my new home. A Londoner through and through, I hung a sign in our apartment that read ‘IF YOU’RE TIRED OF LONDON, YOU’RE TIRED OF LIFE’ - and I genuinely thought we’d be back there within a year. But we weren’t.
Instead we had a baby in the desert - and then another - and then another. And in what seemed like the blink of an eye, I’d been in Dubai for nearly seven years.
Being an expat mother seemed surreal at times - and I often caught myself wondering ‘how did this happen?” I never had wanderlust. I never travelled with a giant backpack after I finished university. I never wanted to live anywhere else in the world. So I was as surprised as anyone that I was bringing up my kids in a 45’C eternal summer and barely stepping out of my flip-flops in all those years.
I missed so many things about home. The scent of bonfires on November evenings, watching my breath dance in the air on frosty mornings, being surrounded by my entire family as we tucked into giant roast dinners with the crispiest roast potatoes, feeling the sun warm my skin on the first day of spring, and soaking up light summer evenings with the sound of balls thudding on tennis courts as Wimbledon played on a loop in the lounge.
At times, this homesickness was paralyzing - but I got better at putting it to the back of my mind. And it only took one trip to Kite Beach, watching the kids play on shores peppered with the palest pink shells, to remind me how lucky we were.
And most of the time, being in Dubai just felt normal. This was the only motherhood I knew - and on trips back to the UK, I felt woefully ignorant of things like booking doctor appointments, working out how to squeeze little fingers into gloves, and remembering that the shops shut their doors at 5pm. I often felt like a tourist in my own country - and arriving back in the UAE quickly started feeling like we’d returned home, complete with the comforting scent of oud as we strolled through the airport and the lights of Sheikh Zayed Road flashing past as we wound our way home.
I had fallen head over heels for the burnt desert dunes, the after-school dips in our community pool, and the friends that now felt closer than family. And at some point during one of many house moves, I delved into a box and pulled out that wooden sign about London - and decided not to bother putting it back up.
As far as I was concerned, Dubai was forever. But I guess at some point in all of this, I’d forgotten that it wasn’t just my decision to make.
My children’s smiles were never wider than when they were in their grandparent’s arms reading books or surrounded by their cousins at play - and as the months and years ticked on, my eldest found it harder and harder to say goodbye. I was still hopelessly in love with the desert, but I was starting to realise it couldn’t be forever. And after one particularly heartbreaking separation at London Gatwick Airport last year, my husband and I agreed that it would be better to do it sooner than we planned.
So we let a five-year old decide our fate. Not because he rules our family (although at times, it’s probably fair to say that he does), but because he made us realise that we needed to take a different course. For him. For his brother. For his sister. And I guess, for us.
Since being back in the UK I’ve soaked up every second of those big family roast lunches, the smell of bonfires in the air, and watching my breath dance in the cold. But Dubai hangs heavily in my heart, sucker-punching me with reverse homesickness several times every day.
I only have to announce we’re heading to their grandparents’ house for tea at school pick-up and wait for the shrieks of happiness - and that still feels like a bit of a dream.
Louise Emma Clark blogs at Mum of Boys and Mabel
This article was first published in December 2017