The summer the Earth moved (literally, three times)

When we made our summer plans to visit a US state prone to earthquakes, with a ‘Big One’ overdue, it never crossed my mind that we’d experience a 7.1-magnitude temblor. The earthquake that rattled Southern California on 5 July came one day after the strongest recorded quake there in 20 years – but we hadn’t felt a thing the day before. Not even a judder. And, I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. We were just getting on a bus in Beverly Hills when we received a WhatsApp from family. “Did you feel the earthquake?” my father in law asked.  “Not at all,” we messaged back, wondering what was going on. It crossed my mind that there might be another one, but no-one seemed particularly worried and we got on with our holiday. 
Earthquake at LA Dodger stadium
The LA Dodger stadium just before the earthquake
The next day, we went to a baseball game at Los Angeles’ Dodger stadium. I LOVE watching baseball games, and this one was living up to all my expectations – perfect weather, hotdogs, an ocean of people wearing home colours and baseball caps. We were sitting right at the TOP of the bleachers, with an amazing birds-eye view of the bright green field fanning out below. Our team was losing, but it didn’t matter – baseball is America’s game, a fascinating window on US culture, and I’ve learnt enough about it now to know that there are moments, when the ball is hurled at 90mph, and after a batter hits it with the massive force of a blunt object, where ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. Then, all of sudden, in the bottom of the fourth inning (British readers, that’s baseball lingo!), the stadium started swaying. And I mean, SERIOUSLY rocking. From our seats at the very top, it seemed like the whole stadium with its thousands of spectators might just topple right over. I grabbed DH’s arm as a few people around us calmly got up and left. But most people stayed in their seats, quietly waiting for the earthquake to finish. I noticed a couple of men who’d stood up silently motioning with their arms: Stay seated, stay in your seats, they seemed to be saying. I found it all eerily quiet actually. “This too shall pass,” I repeated over and over to myself, “this too shall pass.” I might also have told DH I was scared and I remember my thoughts going straight to the kids: “How do we get them out of here?” I inwardly panicked as the swaying gathered strength and I worried it might be the ‘Big One’. I’m a mom! It’s my job to think the worst. On the baseball diamond below, the players carried on – in true LA style.  Afterwards, we found out that rides at Disneyland were evacuated, as were movie theatres in Los Angeles. Near Palm Springs, pools sloshed water everywhere and chandeliers at a casino rocked. And in the Mojave Desert town of Ridgecrest, where the epicentre was, fires broke out, power was lost and grocery store shelves came crashing down. This clip of a news anchor reacting to the powerful earthquake (“I think we need to get under the desk”) went viral. Our LA earthquake experience seemed like quite enough drama for the summer. So you can imagine how utterly astonished I was when, a week later, I accompanied DH on a trip to Athens for my birthday, and on arriving I put my phone on and read:

 “Greek earthquake: Buildings collapse as powerful tremor shakes Athens”

You have got to be kidding? I thought. We didn’t see any damage, but a lady I spoke to, who’d been in the Acropolis museum when the 5.1 magnitude earthquake hit, told me she was terrified the antiquities hanging from the ceiling, and swaying violently, were going to fall on her head. “We all run outside,” she said. Surely that’s it? No more earthquakes this summer, okay Mother Nature! 

I used the self-checkout at M&S without assistance and they made me district manager!

In the Middle East, it’s possible to outsource every task you could conceivably think of – from the ironing to banging a nail into a wall to assembling Ikea furniture and changing a lightbulb. When grocery shopping, you’ll find a team of men lying in wait for you in the car park with mobile car washing units. There’s usually so many of them that at least one or two will helpfully direct you to a car parking spot and watch as you attempt to park. Then when you’re done shopping, it’s not unusual to be asked if you need help carrying the bags to the car. Bags, incidentally, that have been packed by a nice man whose responsibility it is to ensure that each bag is not filled to capacity – so if you buy three avocados, some mincemeat and a tube of toothpaste, you’ll walk out with the avocados in one bag, the meat in another and the toothpaste in a third if you don’t intervene. At malls that charge for parking, there’s a person standing at the exit barrier whose job it is to take your parking ticket from you and put it in the machine for you. No matter if you’ve pulled up just slightly too far from the machine and have a short arm – all you have to do is open your window. I’m not sure where we’d be without this man – probably still stuck in a queue trying to get out of the mall. Then, when you get home, if you discover you’ve forgotten something, it’s really no problem. You can just whip your phone out, tap the InstaShop app, and an hour later a man turns up on a motorbike to deliver your groceries. You might also choose to have your petrol delivered straight to your car by a fantastic new app-based service called Cafu. After ordering and unlocking your petrol cap, a gentleman arrives outside your garage in a small, grey tanker lorry and fills your car up.  It’s a genius idea, especially as the queues at UAE gas stations can be long. It’s really only when you get back to the UK that you realise how utterly useless you’ve become at things Brits do on a daily basis. A case in point – self-checkouts, which since I was last in the UK seem to have taken over at every single store I shop at.
I approach self-checkouts feeling decidedly wary, and also a little bit cross that stores expect customers to do all their own scanning, rescanning and scanning a third time with gritted teeth when it STILL doesn’t work. I’m not a store employee, nor do I want to be one for free. (And how on earth are they stopping shoplifting by self-scanning thieves? I wonder.) What’s to stop me ringing my large lemons up as medium-sized? I rebelliously think. But my first thought on seeing a bank of self checkouts is, “Where’s the man/woman?” (Please don’t judge! I’ve lived in Dubai for eleven years!). Then I realise that the attendant is either:
  • Not there
  • Staring at me the whole time
  • Rolling his/her eyes that I’m such a hapless customer who hasn’t got a clue.
Anyway, I’ve just about got it now – helped by a nice member of staff who took pity on me after I told her I lived overseas. But it’s certainly not seamless. My ‘foreign’ credit card requires a signature if I don’t ‘tap’, and so a message flashes up: ‘Attendant has been notified to assist you.’ I’m so glad they haven’t all been fired. 

Q&A: Behind the book

Where did the idea for Distracted Housewife in Dubai – Diary come from? I absolutely love all the Bridget Jones books (and movies), and thought it would be fun to create an expat version (Brittany Blum) – with kids and living in a sandpit. Like Bridget, Brittany starts the year resolving to turn her life around, and spends the next twelve months struggling with her lack of job, weight, kids and failed marriage. She takes it all on with good humour, and with the support of four very different friends: Adrianne, Natasha, her first ‘ex’ and a bottle of Prosecco.   So Distracted Housewife in Dubai is not a true story then? Well, no. But it’s certainly true-to-life, and some scenes are based on my own experiences in Dubai. I’ve lived in the emirate for eleven years, and during that time I’ve gathered LOTS of quirky stories and memories of our wonderful city. I’ve written a blog for about eight years now, in an attempt to chronicle some of the hilarious, ‘only in Dubai’ moments (so much fodder!). Inevitably, some of these have made it into the book. I’m just not going to reveal which bits actually happened, and which didn’t! Are any of the characters real? No, they’re all totally made up – but, of course, over my time in Dubai I’ve met so many different characters here who might have crept into elements of my fictional characters. Brittany’s friends, Natasha and Adrianne, are mash-ups of all sorts of people that I’ve met here. I wish they were real as I’d love to have them in my life! Over the past decade, I’ve had some amazing friends here who have now left – and that’s hard. I really enjoyed having my fictional characters in my head, as they weren’t allowed to pack up and leave!
Dubai is described in vivid detail in the book – was this a challenge? Being able to describe some of Dubai’s most well-known locations and events, from the New Year’s Eve fireworks to a trip up the Burj Khalifa at sunset and afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab, was an absolute joy. I hope that people who know and love Dubai will enjoy reading these parts of the book, and that people who have never been to Dubai will finish the book wanting to visit. I tried to weave plenty of cultural information into the narrative so I also hope that readers who know nothing about the UAE will learn something about the country, and let go of any preconceived notions.    You mention in the book that white lies on social media are quite common in Dubai. Why is this? I do think expats in Dubai are in pole position to win a Twitter or Facebook boast-off. Apparently, according to a survey, three out of five adults in the UAE have lied on social media websites to sound smarter. About the same number confessed to tampering with photos to make themselves look more attractive. I’m sure people do this all round the world (and who wouldn’t want their eyebags airbrushed, their fine lines smoothed?), but in this corner of the globe, there is a lot of pressure to stage manage your online presence. Even if someone is having a difficult time transitioning to life in the UAE, and questioning the reasons they moved here, they’ll still fill their Facebook feed with photos of blues skies, beaches and Dubai’s iconic sights, rather than admit on social media that they’re homesick.   What’s next for Brittany? I’ve mentioned in the ‘blurb’ that this is her first diary, leaving it open for a follow-up diary, if she captures readers’ imaginations as she did mine. But I’ve also got a few more ideas for other books set in Dubai. Watch this space!

Buy Distracted Housewife in Dubai from Amazon here


Book launch: Distracted Housewife in Dubai – Diary

Buy it on Amazon here
Meet Brittany Blum, a mother of three living far from home who is certain she’d nail life in the desert if she could: 
a. Lose the Dubai stone 
b. Set parental controls on her kids’ devices 
c. Stop valet parking 
d. Figure out what to do with herself now she’s followed her husband to the Middle East and lost him to another woman At the start of the year, Brittany decides it’s time to get back on her feet. As she struggles through the ups and downs of her newly single life in the sandpit and tries to shrug off the ‘trailing spouse’ label she hated anyway, she turns for support to four very different friends: Adrianne, Natasha, her first ‘ex’ and a bottle of Prosecco.  Welcome to Brittany’s first diary: a year of trail-blazing – with the occasional crash and burn – rediscovery.  Click here to view the book on Amazon.
“An uplifting and candid novella about one of the most difficult decisions any mother has to make. A truly funny, insightful and beautifully written slice of parenting life” – Cupcakes & Heels: I don’t know how she does it abroad “A great book full of entertaining and gripping stories of life in Dubai” – Circles in the Sand: Stories about Life in the Big D “I have met all of these characters in my day-to-day life” – Circles in the Sand: Stories about Life in the Big D

A week too far of themed days?

Last week it felt like every day had some kind of deeper meaning attached to it. My personal favourite was International Women’s Day. I got to gawp at the achievements of trailblazing women, but the best thing about the day, if I’m totally honest, was that the men at work bought all the women cake.

Hot on the heels of all this cake came Happiness Day. An email from school explained that this day would be celebrated by allowing the children to wear a colour to represent their mood, rather than uniform. A helpful mood chart was included with various bright colours on it.

I decided not to show my kids the chart. They could wear something colourful from their wardrobe. Easy peasy. What overburdened mum doesn’t love a themed day that requires no preparation?

Then Son1 saw the mood poster and decided (at 9.30pm the night before) that he wanted to wear purple.

“But you don’t have ANYTHING purple in your wardrobe,” I protested.

He looked at me like I had two heads. “Purple means creative Mum!” Determination flashed in his eyes.

“Yes,” I replied, trying to remain patient. “You are very creative, that’s true. But …” I continued through gritted teeth, “you don’t have anything purple!”

There was no changing his mind, so we ended up looking through both mine and DH’s wardrobe, hunting for purple attire long past bedtime.

Son1 in my yoga pants

Son1 sorted, I then had Son2 to deal with. “Mum, I want to wear purple,” he told me in no uncertain terms.

“Noooo. You can’t,” I said immediately. For the love of God.

“Why not?”

“Because, you have nothing purple!”

“Why not?”

Let’s just say I wasn’t feeling very charitable or creative by now – how on earth were you meant to relish Happiness Day when the initiative was causing such discord and mutiny among my kids?

“Alright Mum,” Son2 eventually conceded. “I’ll wear my red T-shirt.”

“Great,” I sighed with relief. It was what I’d suggested more than an hour before, and now they could finally get to bed. “Red is a very happy colour,” I said brightly.

Son2 practically bared his teeth at me. He too glared in my direction as if I’d sprouted a second head, and had told him the red t-shirt was covered in poo.

“Red is not for happiness,” he huffed. “It’s for ANGER!”

Happiness Day could surely only get better … (and just for the record was followed by Enterprise Day at school and St Patrick’s Day).

“Seems there’s a day for everything now,” commented my mum, who’s staying with us and from a generation that didn’t have daily vision statements force fed to them with their cornflakes. “Do they do any real work at school?”


The shelfie: Adventures in extreme reading

It’s Book Week at school and what better way to celebrate than with a shelfie competition, where the kids submit selfies of themselves reading in weird and wonderful positions. Son2 managed to hang in the doorway just long enough for me to get this snap – DH, who handed him the book, is hiding just to the right, but you can’t see him! Don’t try this at home kids! Oh, wait, we were at home …

The week started with a huge bang at the Emirates LitFest with a fantastic performance from Jeff Kinney, the US author of the massively popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. There are 13 books currently and he delighted the audience by revealing he planned to write 20 in total. The series has also spawned four movies, which my boys love.

Kinney received a rock-star welcome from at least 800 fans, and enthralled everyone with an interactive, pun-filled “show”. “I used to do the normal, hour-long talk about my books, and sent everyone to sleep, so I decided to make it more fun,” he said. The new format was a winner, and I’m quite sure I embarrassed my sons by cheering loudly along too. Several brave mums even ended up on stage in a dance-off that was judged by Kinney’s mother.

Afterwards we queued for an hour and a half to get a book signed, which was well worth the wait to see how excited Son2 was to meet the creator of Wimpy Kid.

Next task is thinking up a costume for the dress-up day on Thursday. I think last year’s Wimpy Kid masks might just see the light of day again.


The best day of the school year

Today was my favourite day of the school year: International Day, when the parents hold a massive celebration of all the nationalities that make up Dubai’s cosmopolitan society*. The kids go to school wearing their national colours or traditional dress, and all morning there’s a huge and colourful food fair with delicious dishes from all around the world.

So much effort goes into the preparation and I always take my hat off to the mums who must spend days, if not weeks, organising the décor for their stands, and cooking and baking. (There was a rumour that Embassy help can be enlisted, with the Canadian Embassy apparently renting out a massive Mountie for such occasions – if you book it far enough in advance.)

International Day, Kent College Dubai

I helped out on the US stand and a fellow mom told me she’s on the look out all year round for America-themed paraphernalia (stickers, flags, posters), and bulk buys on July 5th – the day after July 4th, when everything is discounted. To my amazement, this year the US moms were operating a proper, cinema-style popcorn machine and had even handmade a human-size voting box that you could walk into, complete with a curtain and stars-and-stripes on the walls.

What I’m trying to say is International Day is truly a very special occasion, and actually a microcosm of Dubai itself – a city that enjoys its differences and multiple religious and ethnic backgrounds. Today, our US stand was right next to Russia, and across the way Greece and Cyprus were jollying along next to each other with the most wonderful Mediterranean mezze. Think tzatziki dip, feta, olives, stuffed vine leaves. YUM.

“Really, you’re going back to Greece for the fourth time?” I laughed as my DH said he was off for more. He gets particularly excited by International Day, and was happy I even brought him takeaway later – the Thai ladies, with their lovely smiles and exotic clothes, brought deliveries to all the stands, which were very much appreciated by all.

The younger years (foundation stage and years one-two) were the first to attend the food fair. They were herded around by teachers and assistants, and were so sweet with their shyness and hesitancy, and the way they held their International Day passports out to collect stamps. Then came the older years who were more inclined to grab but also appeared to be loving the culinary adventure, or at least the fact they were missing lessons. Finally, my sons (now 10 and 13) showed up, who pretty much helped hoover up (and I don’t mean the floor).

I was, however, rumbled right at the end. You’ll know that I’m an honourary American (with a US husband and kids), and I’d dressed up in red, white and blue, brought Oreo cookies, and was patriotically handing out flags. But it’s a bit hard to hide my English accent, and I was hot footing it to the British stand for refills of tea.

A child, who I’d just given some stickers to, looked at me squarely, his eyes filled with suspicion. “But are you actually American?” he asked and waited for my answer knowing already he’d well and truly got me on that one.

*Dubai is home to 2.4 million people, of whom 83 per cent are foreign born.