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, around 90% of the population are non-native, approximately 200 languages are spoken, 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 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 ‘little’ things that tip you over the edge. 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 constant 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 list of 5 little delights which can ease the tension, calm the nerves, or simply put a smile back on my face when I’m missing Ireland. The food items on the list are often included in ‘Iftar’, the meal we have during Ramadan when the fasting hours finally come to an end and we break our fast. Maybe I should have included a cool glass of mineral water because for me, that is the biggest relief at Iftar. A simple little thing which so many of us take for granted and under appreciate the rest of the year.
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 week wouldn’t be complete without Friday’s ‘Weekend’ supplement or Saturday’s ‘Review’ section. The National had to be Number 1 on my list.
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 with them. When the cupboard’s bare, as long as you have dates in the house, you won’t go hungry.
3. 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 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.
4. Arabic Desserts
These tiny square, round, and triangular sweet treats 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, but 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 these desserts under my nose. And if you get them fresh and warm from the oven – to die for!
5. K. P. Namboodiri’s Toothpaste
You need a good toothpaste after that, right? This herbal product 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 like I’ve discovered some hidden recipes for contentment in my corner of the world. 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.
(This post is a modified version of my entry to the Ex Pat Blog Awards Competition last December)