Medical discovery of the week: STRES

Scientists have discovered a new syndrome blighting the lives of a small but vocal minority: severe traumatic returning expat syndrome (STRES).  Sufferers of STRES may experience any combination of the following symptoms:

Dandruff

Even the hardiest of scalps may flake with the sudden change from desalinated to hard water. Similarly, extreme weather conditions, stress or fatigue can give rise to dandruff.  In a bid to hide the telltale flakes of skin on their scalps, sufferers may take to wearing hats inappropriate to their age, like beanies.

Hirsutism

Being out of the sun can have many unpleasant effects on mind and body, but one affecting both is the sudden rediscovery that your arms are really quite hairy. Years of living in short sleeves in a sunny land may have naturally bleached the hair on your arms, but give it three months in a country far from the equator and the colour, oh yes, it does return. Happily there are chemical alternatives for those who can be bothered or layer upon layer upon layer of long sleeves.

Blisters

No, not some bizarre hand, foot and mouth disease, but the unfortunate consequence of wearing closed-in shoes after several years of flip flops Although, happily, wearing socks around the house means less dry skin on the soles of your feet than tramping around barefoot most of the day in hotter climes and saves a fortune in pedicures.

Acid burns

Caused by the unaccustomed exposure of STRES sufferers to cleaning products. Tip: wear gloves and have a friend stand near you with directions to the nearest A&E when first attempting cleaning on your own.

Heat burns

Not to be confused with the above, but equally as common. This is caused by inexpert wielding of a cloth pressing device called an ‘iron’. Beware: these things are hot once plugged in and turned on. When ‘ironing’ for the first time, do go slowly and have cold water on hand for rapid plunging of scorched skin.

 

If you spot a sufferer, please help them. An infusion of tea might help, as will Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Then give them the number of a local cleaning lady and take the beanie off their head.

 

Autumnal hue and cry

England is ablaze with colour. The golds, the russet reds, the vibrant orange and the deep purples; my first autumn in eight years has really assailed my senses. You’ll have to forgive an ex-expat going all hyperbolic over the scenery at the moment in our part of the UK. I’d forgotten how you can see trees with only yellow or red leaves and not the lush greens I usually see in the summer or the bare branches of Christmas time

I try and instil this sense of marvel at nature’s changes on the drive to school in the morning only to be met with a grunted “yes, mum” and a request to turn up the volume on the radio. Don’t they get it? I mean the trees are all different colours, for Pete’s sake. These children had mangos and lemons growing in their front garden in Abu Dhabi, but look at how it’s raining down golden leaves! “Yeah, right, whatevs.”

That said, the children are settling in well to life in the UK. My son has recovered from his outrage at being woken up on a Friday morning to go to school, (“But it’s Friday!”) after I explained that the weekends were different in the UK and that as a bonus he could have a lie-in on a Sunday.

He’s also been immersed in intensive football training. After all, the language of seven-year-old boys in the UK does mainly revolve around a ball. It’s socially crippling not to be able to have a kick-about over here. He’s even decided on which team to support and proudly wears their strip.

My youngest daughter is having trouble with the clothing. Her reflex on coming home is to change into a skirt and T-shirt. She’ll throw on her crocs if we go out, but the cruel reality of 10 degrees outside with a wind-chill factor of -10 (OK, I exaggerate slightly but it’s a darn sight cooler than Abu Dhabi. Ever.) is taking some adjustment. Her older sister, however, seems to have genes from the North East and can wander around in a T-shirt whatever the weather. She loves not being hot and bothered but is missing her swimming as mummy can’t quite face the adjustment to Bushey Baths after the outdoor pools of the Abu Dhabi beach clubs.

That said, I am coping well and achieved the first milestone of repatriation yesterday. I went, with another ex-expat who could appreciate the thrill, and bought a pair of winter boots. No, not wellies, that would be far too prosaic, but really impractical stiletto-heeled suede ones. Ah me. Lovely to look at, but my clutch control isn’t what it was.

To be honest, resettling into the UK is 50 per cent. an excuse to do a lot of shopping and 50 per cent. an extended indulgence of nostalgia. With a nod to my childhood memories, I’ve started to get milk delivered from the milkman. He pootles round in his battery-powered milk float before the sun comes up delivering pre-ordered milk to the doorstep.

Sadly, on the first day they got my order wrong and rather than delivering one carton of semi-skimmed milk and one of full-fat, I was awash with semi-skimmed. My sunny assistant on the helpline informed me that, so as not to leave me empty-handed, they reserve the right to substitute other products if the product I ordered is not available.

This substitution thing is common on the online supermarket shopping websites and can be a real boon when all you want is tomato puree and you don’t care whose. But, I asked incredulously of my sunny helpline assistant, what has the world come to if a milkman can’t guarantee to bring me full-fat milk? Is it really beyond the realms of possibility that he could find some full-fat somewhere? I don’t know, say, at the dairy where he gets all the other milk?

The thing is, it’s not just the nostalgia trip, I’m also trying to support local dairies. I’m now slightly concerned that all the Hertfordshire cows are doing the Dukan diet and only producing half-fat milk.

Which leads me to enlighten you on how we all live in rural England in 2011 and a long-winded way of getting some totty on my blog. Make yourself a cuppa and settle down to watch this marvellous video on YouTube. (click here )

 

Whose life is it anyway?

I don’t know who she is, but I hope she’s the understanding sort: I seem to have landed crash bang in the middle of someone else’s life.

This isn’t a midlife crisis, but I do seem to have, well, landed in a pretty good set-up and don’t quite know how it happened.

My semi-rural idyll.

That is, on a good day. I do hope this woman is forgiving by nature because I am making lots of cock-ups along the way. Say “hello” to “calamity mum”.

The woman who lives here would never arrive late to pick up her youngest daughter from her first day in Reception. She would never get the other children late to school on their second day so that they had to slope into assembly avoiding the headmaster’s eye. She would blanche at the thought of sending in the wrong kit for games or PE, and she would certainly never have arrived to a welcome coffee morning an hour and a half late.

As you can see, tardiness is something of a problem and one I am striving to overcome. But for the last one, the coffee morning, I had a very good excuse.

I borrowed a new friend’s sat nav and, not having used one before, she gave me a crash course. We entered the coffee morning address (in a little hamlet in Hertfordshire) and when the sat nav failed to respond my friend assured me that once I set off the satellite connection would re-establish itself and I would be fine. She then showed me how to get back to my house by entering in the return post code and I bravely set off along the country lanes.

It really is beautiful driving around here. I’m a townie girl born and bred, but where I live now is on the cusp of the countryside. Driving to school I pass farmers ploughing up their fields and have fabulous views of rolling English hills.

Back to the coffee morning: several wiggles, single-track-road-heart-stopping- and “Satellite connection lost” moments later, I found myself coming into my own town. Not good. I had slavishly followed the sat nav all the way home.

Refusing to be defeated by technology, I reprogrammed the bossy beast and arrived, eventually, at the coffee morning. Calamity mum lives, with a good ice-breaker to tell.

Of course, I would have found it easier to enter in the postcode if I hadn’t lost all sensation in my finger tips from the industrial amount of sewing I have had to do over the last few weeks.

Every item of each child’s uniform and kit has had to be labelled. They seem to have a different outfit for every activity. So they do look super smart apart from the bloodstains from where I inexpertly stabbed myself with the needle.

Keeping the children out of my hair whilst I fought with the cotton and name tapes was helped hugely by their new trampoline. It took two of us two hours in gale force winds to erect the thing, but it was worth it. I particularly love the warning in the instructions: “Trampolines are rebounding devices which propel the user to unaccustomed heights and into a variety of body movements.”

Much like moving country really.

 

Don’t burn up on re-entry

“The captain just said it is 18 degrees in London,” my daughter said incredulously, her eyebrows raised all the way up to her hairline. After all, this was July and that is pretty chilly by our standards. We had just left Abu Dhabi airport six hours before gently cooking in a temperature of 39 degrees.

In Abu Dhabi in winter, the temperature may occasionally not so much “plunge” as “peter out” to a brisk 17 degrees, or less if you are out of the city. Definitely cardigan weather, on top of a couple of layers of t-shirts. Maybe even a chance to get out that lovely silk scarf, and to pop on the leather boots you’ve been dying to wear all year.

The Inuit have hundreds of words for snow, yet in the UAE, despite the fact the weather pretty much consists of varying degrees of hot, there are only two words in Arabic to describe it.

Until you’ve experienced the heat of an Abu Dhabi summer, you don’t realise just how hot “hot” can be. From the end of May, the heat slowly cranks up, then in July, the humidity starts and that’s it until the end of October.

When I get the children up and see the condensation on the windows, I know it’s going to be a sticky one. Glasses steam up as soon as you leave the house, even at 7.15 in the morning. Many’s the father who, taking the children to school wearing a suit, needs a change of shirt at the very least by the time he reaches the office.

You can tell the heat is on its way when the date palms lining the side of the road start to bear fruit. As the bunches of dates grow ever more pendulous and colour, so the heat rises, and tempers fray. Some days there will be a breeze, but the relief is marginal and it’s more like being blasted with a hair drier.

Most people learn to adapt their behaviour in the summer months. Water heaters are turned off and the cold-water tank on the roof is now heated sufficiently by the sun to run a hot bath from. Instead, the hot water tank is now cooled inside by the air-conditioning and runs cold.

Nothing can be left in the car. Certainly not lipsticks as I have learnt to my cost. And beware metal handles on gates. Ouch.

As a parent of young children, I’ve found the extreme heat to be more problematic than the extreme cold of a UK winter. At least in the winter you can wrap children up against the cold. But here, you can’t undress them enough to make the heat bearable. You just have to keep them inside in the air-conditioning. If the glass weren’t so hot, they’d have their little faces presses up against the window, desperate to be let out into the garden.

As the plane started its descent into London Heathrow, we moved down through layer upon layer of grey cloud. The knot in my stomach tightened as the reality of what we were doing hit me. Was I out of my mind? Leaving sunny and familiar Abu Dhabi to come to grey and overcast and complex UK? Would my children (and husband) ever forgive me when they realise quite how unromantic winter is with no snow, just darkness falling at 3 in the afternoon and cloud. A lot of cloud, punctuated by the odd week of rain. Ah me, was this the right thing to do at all???

But then, as we exited the cloud and I watched the rows of red brick houses beneath, something caught my eye: a bright blue swimming pool. Not a small one in some fortunate person’s back garden, but a huge Olympic-sized one. Then another and another. Then I spotted the bright green of tennis courts. So many of them! Dotted all over and I remembered, one of the marvellous things about returning to the UK is the opportunities that abound, the new experiences to be had and the resources that, for now at least, are available to the public.

Summer temperature in Abu Dhabi

As we flew over huge green swathes of public parks and nearby schools, I decided, yes, it would be all right. The children will have the chance of a different, if not a better, life in the UK. There will, I know, be a whole set of new problems to deal with, but also some solutions to problems we had in Abu Dhabi. A new start. Now I just have to get to Homebase to stock up on some UV light bulbs, before we all go bonkers with the lack of sunlight.

No sex please, we’re parents

It’s not often that you will hear me singing the praises of censorship, but as a mother, I have to say there are times I am glad of it.

Last month, Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mother’s Union, a Christian charity, published an independent review for the UK Government on the sexualisation of children: “Letting Children be Children”.

In the report, Bailey recommended, amongst other things, a reduction in the sexual imagery of billboard adverts, stronger enforcement of the 9pm watershed for TV programmes and that music videos be age-rated. The UK Government has endorsed these suggestions but they remain merely a consensual measure; there will be no consequences for those who ignore them.

Here in the UAE, there is some censorship intended to reflect and protect Muslim values. Certain websites will be blocked. Frustrating one time in fifty, such as when I was unable to download a Cagney and Lacey picture (what can I say? I’m a fan) but a particularly effective internet filter for anyone with young children.  And people who don’t like 80s’ police detective series.

The reason images are so desperately in need of being policed is that there is no nuance to a photo of a half-naked woman; no easy way to explain pornographic pictures to a nine-year-old. Images are immediate and not easily forgotten.

Sexual images in advertising are predominantly of women. So not only are children being exposed to sex, but they are being brought up to see women in a purely sexual way and that society, permitting such images to be shown in public places, thinks this is OK.

Any even vaguely sexual images of women, whether they are in lads’ mags or broadsheet UK newspapers, are blotted out with a marker pen here in the UAE. Some may seem unnecessary to a western-sensibility, such as the bewildering addition of green camisoles to all the women in the Desigual clothing catalogue and having the bikini-clad woman on the Special K box covered up with black sticky paper, but the general lack of posters on the roadside showing scantily-dressed women advertising cars or yoghurts is something I appreciate both as a woman and a mother.

You don’t have to agree with the cultural requirement that Muslim women should be covered head to toe in black, but there is a pleasing lack of sex and sexual images in the malls and around town. I may not be able to kiss my husband “hello” in public when we meet after work for dinner, but neither do we fall over copulating couples in the doorways of shops of an evening.

Unfortunately some major retail-chains’ bewildering sense of what is appropriate clothing and shoes for children has reached these shores. I wrote a piece on this for The National back in February last year click here . I fully support the campaign launched last year by Mumsnet, “Let Girls be Girls” (see www.mumsnet.com), which is trying to force retailers to stop producing and selling sexualised products for children.

As co-founder Justine Roberts states on the Mumsnet website: “This is not about prudishness or hankering after some rose-tinted picture of childhood. It’s about millions of parents – and many who aren’t parents – knowing in their bones that there is something wrong with a society that tries to sell seven-year-old girls 4 inch heels, or t shirts emblazoned with “future porn star”.”

Enshrining the recommendations of the Bailey Report in law would not lead to the creation of a nanny state, but it is the duty of government to protect those more vulnerable in society from the relentless march of commercialisation. To do so would reflect and enforce society’s values that just as sexual abuse of children is illegal, so should the sexualisation of children be illegal. It would serve as a stern reminder to retailers, advertisers, and TV schedulers that there is a time and a place for everything.

Abu Dhabi is a great place to bring up children. Censored, perhaps, but protected from those aspects of life that young children really don’t need to be exposed to. I hope that the UK Government steps up to the challenge of helping us preserve our children’s innocence.

 

Cry me a river

This is a week of lasts. Last time we go to The Club, last drop off at school, last throwing together of lunchboxes. I’m riding the days on a knife-edge of emotion.

It’s amazing what you can get mawkishly sentimental about when you are about to leave. Even attending a child’s party at the main hall of the British Club had me nearly crying at the weekend. It’s a great venue, but let’s be frank, it’s a big old hall that hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years, has A/C permanently set to ‘Arctic’ and smells vaguely odd.

But the times I’ve spent there! Early Abu Dhabi Mums’ events, being slightly intimidated by the seasoned expats around me and the vast array of Danish pastries. The birthday parties of friends’ children long since gone from Abu Dhabi.

Leaving the school is gut-wrenchingly huge. Each day this week, I have to bite my lip as I enter the school gates. I’ve only known one school for my children as they’ve all been here since nursery. It’s a fabulous school and it has become very much part of my life through them and my work with the Board.

Still, I know that, come September, it will open its doors again and everyone will pour in and life will go on. Three new children will take my children’s places and a new mother will start saying hello to the security guards on the gates.

Meanwhile, I will be there at the gates of my new school in the shires. Will the mothers be nice to me? Will playdates for children and for adults be arranged waiting for the bell to ring as they are here?

Saying goodbye to Abu Dhabi is also setting the seal on a stage in my life. I was pregnant here, had babies here, was a housewife here. I’ve moved on now; I am working again, and my children are older and can, mostly, wipe their own bottoms.

As the summer heat cranks up and schools finish, the city is emptying out. Driving the quiet roads, it’s hard to know what the things are that I will miss most once I have left.

Friends, obviously. The school, definitely. My colleagues, for sure. But what of the more nebulous things that will only come to me as I struggle back from Sainsbury’s in driving wind and rain?

I’ll think about the school run in Abu Dhabi: dealing with others on the road for whom lane demarcations are apparently merely a suggestion; the beautiful white cranes that fly in for the more temperate winter and love to congregate on the roundabouts; seeing the sun coming up through the palm trees as I drive through Helipad Park.

I’m soon, sob, going on my last trip to Spinneys. Driving round the carpark three times before finding a parking space. Ah, how I will miss this place.

 

Store cupboard cuisine

One of the more bizarre things about Abu Dhabi life has been the unreliability of finding certain imported groceries in the supermarkets week after week.

Inexplicably, Weetabix will disappear from the shelves. Another week it may be Fairy Non-bio, leading us to suspect the Weetabix boat has been stormed by hungry pirates or that the Fairy detergent boat has sunk on the way here in a sea of frothy, but gentle on the skin, waves.

There are always alternatives, but to head-off feelings of supermarket rage I’ve altered my shopping habits and tend to stockpile those favourite items we simply can’t do without.

Stockpiling comes naturally to someone like me who harbours definite hoarder tendencies. I would have thrived in wartime. Rationing wouldn’t have fazed me. I have bags of cut-off bits of wrapping paper that might just be the right size for a gift one day. If the Waitrose organic maple syrup supply has been a little haphazard, I will have a good two or three month’s worth tucked away in my cupboards.

This is all very well in normal daily life, but when you are preparing to pack up the entire contents of your house to fit in a container, it poses some challenges. I am determined that there shall be no waste. Not here.

This morning I managed to use up three bottles of nearly empty shower gel. I smell a bit funny, but the sense of achievement is palpable.

Tonight I will start on a cooking regime that will make Nigella blush that she ever had the audacity to suggest she knew about store cupboard cuisine.

I’ve gone long on mango chutney, so dinner will be a chicken bake with mango chutney, 200 ml of passata and some zest of lime. It’s a real recipe, actually, so we’re starting out strong.

I also seem to have cornered the market in Arborio rice. I spotted the De Cecco rice in Lulus some time ago and was so excited to have proper Italian Italian rice that I bought a kilo of it. Shortly after this we started a no-carbs diet so it has languished in the cupboard goading me with starchy looks for months now. This will go beautifully with the bags of frozen wild mushrooms I bought in Carrefour. Mushroom risotto it is and the diet will just have to wait.

The children will be having a seafood extravaganza with a handful of scampi, a couple of fishfingers, a breaded cod fillet and 17 Smiley Faces. Plus peas sautéed with wild mushrooms.

The frozen pastry is setting us a challenge, both for our waistlines and imaginations. We’ve had a steak pie, apple tart and now I think I will have to go all “Ready, Steady, Cook” and conjure up a rather special quiche. I have lots of curry paste, some goat’s cheese, a jar of lemon grass, and, well, wild mushrooms.

There was a lot of self-raising flour left so I bought some caster sugar and eggs to do some baking. Now I have used up the flour and eggs but still have half a kilo of caster sugar.  I also have a very nice box of pappardelle unopened, some semolina, a bag of frozen flageolet beans, a bottle of French’s American Mustard and two months supply of Waitrose organic maple syrup. Suggestions on a postcard please.

 

Four litres of love

One of the hardest things about leaving, and there are several, will be finding a new home for my beloved car.

I do love my car, and I don’t mean in a male kind of “I like to spend hours polishing her bonnet” physical extension sort of way. We’re like old chums; I am very emotionally attached to her. I mean, “it”.

We’ve grown up together, the two of us. When we met I was a timid newby whose only real experience of driving, ignoring a brief fling with a Ford Mondeo, was behind the wheel of a VW Golf in suburban London.

She was a brand-spanking-new, top-of-the-range, no-expense-spared Toyota Prado 4×4. Our company car. Part of the relocation package as we said goodbye to everything familiar and came to a new life in the UAE.

It was in her calm protective interior that two of my babies made that long journey from the maternity hospital to home. Visiting family have been taken around most of the Emirates of the UAE, and several times to Oman, in this car, marvelling on the way at her inbuilt drinks coolbox.

And now, I am older and wiser with “laughter lines” and the odd grey hair. She has a light smattering of nicks from other people’s car doors being opened without care and the garage roof collapsing on her last year.

We fit nicely when I sit behind the wheel. Unless of course that unfeasibly short mechanic who does her services at the garage has adjusted the seat… Pootling along the roads of Abu Dhabi, should evasive tactics be required I only have to press gently on the accelerator to hear her four-litre engine go from “purr” to “roar” as we leap out of harm’s way.

Lots of people in Abu Dhabi drive 4x4s. Many more than do even in the shires of England. Citing “defensive driving” as an excuse, we brush aside environmental guilt about the amount of petrol these cars consume, even if it does only cost Dhs 130 (£21) to fill up the tank.

If you’ve ever experienced the terror of checking the rear view mirror to see a huge Landcruiser (big brother to the Prado) bearing down on you at great speed, headlights flashing, in the outside lane on the road to Dubai, you will take some comfort in the thought that you are in something slightly bigger than your average saloon car.

Enjoying the view in Oman

These cars, despite being one of the smaller four wheel drive models out here, look huge on the roads of the UK and parking it on a UK high street is a whole other challenge. Not to mention the second mortgage I’d need to cover the petrol. There’s no way I could justify driving one back home. So, my beloved car and my 4×4 driving days (and yes, I do know how to engage the gears) are numbered.

So, if you answer an advert on the Spinney’s notice board selling a silver Prado, don’t be put off by the one, sobbing, careful lady owner being forcibly removed from the driver’s seat.  You’ll have yourself more than a car there: Silver to my Lone Ranger, Trigger to my Roy Rogers, Black Beauty to my Elizabeth Taylor. I will never forget you, my trusty steed.

To blog or not to blog

Careers have been made and reputations lost in the Blogosphere, yet despite, and maybe a little because of, this, welcome to my first blog.

This is a time of transition in the Wadham household as we prepare to leave the United Arab Emirates which has been our home for nearly eight years.

When we arrived here, Abu Dhabi was a very different place. HH Sheikh Zayed, God rest his soul, the President of the UAE since its creation, was still alive and Abu Dhabi was a low-key, low-rise city.

As we prepare to leave, the 2030 plan is underway and construction cranes are dotted all over the horizon. Snoop Dog has just performed up at Yas Island and tickets are already on sale for this November’s Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

In a few more years, Abu Dhabi will be virtually unrecognisable when the developments planned for Saadiyat Island are complete and we come back to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim.

At the same time, the UK is a vastly different place from when we left. In the summer of 2003, we were sweating through a record-breaking heatwave and Tony Blair was still Prime Minister. People were worried that if the SARS virus didn’t get them, another terrorist attack would.

Times are hard in the UK: austerity measures are in place, public services are being cut back and unemployment is rising. Add in the unpredictable nature of the weather and income tax and no wonder some people look at me with incredulity when I tell them we are heading back.

But, for all its faults, the UK is home. To be truly able to call themselves British, there are some things my children can only learn on the ground. How can you have a good moan about the weather when nearly every day is sunny and the only complaint is the summers are too hot?

How can you grasp that sense of entitlement to criticize every policy of Government without understanding the proud history of a parliamentary democracy and that your parents have a say in who runs the country every election time. (Sort of.)

As they grow up, they will need those crucial cultural reference points to break the ice at parties. I come from a generation forever bonded by shared memories of  Zammo from ‘Grange Hill’ and  Jones the Steam from ‘Ivor the Engine’. (Yes, kids, that’s why mummy sniggers at going to Jones the Grocer for coffee.)

These blogs will be part-diary, part-soap box, and part-therapy session, but, here’s the legal bit, all my own thoughts and opinions and not those of whatever publication I may write for. They will chronicle our departure from the Gulf and our re-integration into the UK and I hope you enjoy them.

Abu Dhabi Corniche from Lulu Island