I’m beginning to think that everyone should be plucked from everything and everyone they know and dropped in a new location at least once in their lives. The disruption really makes you think about who you are and what makes you tick. Exchanging predictable outcomes for a life lived in the moment is challenging but like most things worth doing, the more you put into it, the greater the gain.
Despite the high numbers of expats all wanting to meet others in the same situation, making friends in Dubai is not as easy as you might think. As a freelancer working from home I do not have co-workers to get to know. If you have children – or walk a dog – making contact with other parents and pet owners may be more straightforward, although I can see from my own neighbourhood that child minding and dog walking duties are often farmed out to other people. In those cases it is the nannies and carers that tend to form friendships as far as I can tell.
We live in a residential complex with hundreds of apartments. We have been here for over two months. For the first time last week we exchanged pleasantries with our Australian neighbour in the lift. On our floor there are many nationalities but it is not appropriate in every culture to knock on the door and introduce yourself, so people generally don’t.
Even before this dawned on me I had decided that the only way to meet like-minded people would be to plunge right in and get involved in the activities I enjoy doing. As soon as I did, I found that the people I wanted to connect with were on my doorstep!
It all sounds obvious but if you haven’t had to go out of your way to make new friends for a long time, it can feel a little daunting to suddenly thrust yourself into an established social scene, in a different country.
Expat society in Dubai also tends to be transitory which can explain why people seem a little less committed to maintaining friendships in the way they might in their home country. Many, like ourselves, are here for a defined amount of time. You cannot stay in Dubai without employment, unless you are sponsored by a spouse who is employed. Even those who come for a few years and decide to remain will have to leave before retirement. That explains why there are no oldies. They are not allowed!
Inevitably, there are cliques in certain parts of town where ostentatious spending and pampering passes the time but forming empty ‘desperate housewife’ style friendships was never going to be my scene.
I am an avid reader and now have more time to contribute to a book group so I thought this might be a good place to start. The MeetUp system is great for this and the site indicated there was a book group right in my part of town, plus I had read and enjoyed the book they would be discussing at their next meeting.
I looked at the list of members’ photos, picked two that looked friendly and decided to email them ahead of the meeting and introduce myself.
Emails swiftly translated to coffees, lunches, evenings out and invites to homes. By an amazing stroke of luck one of my new friends is a qualified Pilates instructor in her spare time. An earlier post (Stressful route to relaxation) charted my disastrous search for an exercise class. Now I enjoy early morning Pilates in the Park where my encouraging teacher tells me I am making good progress. Another new friend is a chef so lots in common there, with Dubai’s vibrant dining out scene to discover and a mutual interest in cooking and eating great food. What else am I passionate about that requires participation? Theatre.
I recently discovered the Dubai International Writers Centre, a relatively new addition to the local arts scene, located in an interesting heritage area of town. The website revealed they were looking for volunteer actors to take part in script-in-hand readings of plays written by the students of a playwriting course, based at the Centre. I could do that. I would LOVE to do that. I emailed the organiser and received a positive response within the hour. Rehearsals on Saturday from 1pm, performances from 6pm-9pm.
Would I still be able to channel my inner drama queen? What if I made a complete fool of myself? Luckily, I didn’t give myself much time to ponder on these issues or I might have pulled out. I’m so glad I didn’t.
The plays covered a lot of fertile dramatic ground, from family secrets, mental health issues to abusive relationships and magical realism. In an atmospheric courtyard setting, a scratch company, comprising teachers, a financial journalist, students of all ages, as well as writing and acting professionals put on a show for an invited audience. The idea was to give the playwrights a sense of how their work would translate to the stage.
I was fortunate to be cast in the only comedy, an amusing story charting the hapless employees of a newly established international school, in the aptly named Empty Quarter. This is an area where new arrivals usually go to experience the desert and much of what the trusty camel has to offer.
Four years at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama were poured into bringing Lucinda, the jobsworth school secretary, with a crush on the head teacher, off the page. A more subtle challenge, thrown down by the youngest playwright, aged 12, was the role of Dewey, a rabbit that relies on the powers of a golden acorn to maintain her intelligence! All great fun and lots of contacts made which will hopefully lead to more participation.
If you had told me three months ago that Dubai offered this kind of opportunity I would never have believed you. Dubai’s all about business and shopping isn’t it? Maybe it needs to shout more loudly about its exciting artistic and cultural side too. Good to know someone important is behind that mission.