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January 6th, 2011 - Deborah Williams

Thursday, the end of the first week back to school after the winter holidays and we still aren’t in the swing of the morning routine: neither kid can find his shoes, boots, mittens, hats, homework. Why did I think “keeping my temper” was a reasonable New Year’s resolution? My husband and I march out of the apartment, jaws clenched. He will take the fifteen-minute walk with the fifth-grader to his school; I get the first-grader and the joy of the jam-packed 14D bus. That’s the bus that lumbers all the way across 14th street in Manhattan and during rush hour, people cram onto that bus as if it’s the last one in the world.

My son’s sweaty starfish hand clenched in mine, we shove our way through the crowd and fling ourselves into the last available seats. The scrum of bodies and the full-bore bus heater combine to steam the windows; my son amuses himself drawing pictures in the condensation and then begins to whine that he’s hot. When he yanks off his hat, his hair is damp with sweat. I put the hat in my bag and pull out the Magic Treehouse book that has been occupying our morning commute. My elbow accidentally jabs into the thigh of the woman standing in the aisle, pressed against our seat. She shoots me a dirty look. I ignore her and fuss with the book, finding where we left off yesterday. We take turns reading to each other and today it’s his turn.

As his little-boy voice lilts through the latest Treehouse adventure, I wonder how he will react to the real-life adventure that is slowly taking shape. We haven’t told the boys yet, but my husband and I are considering a move to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, sometime after the school year ends. When I get home later that morning, in fact, I have to answer an email from the woman in Abu Dhabi who will be coordinating our move…if we give her the go-ahead.

When we get out at our stop, the cold air is a shock after the sweaty bus. I walk my son into the schoolyard, where he gives me a kiss good-bye, requests a “good snack” when I pick him up in the afternoon, and races off with his friends.

I walk back to our apartment, which is sometimes faster than taking the bus, and has the added advantage of letting me stop at Sigmund’s Pretzels for a morning pretzel and coffee. I will stop there again on my way back to the school in the afternoon for the first-grader’s “good snack:” a warm pretzel topped with a thin layer of crispy cheese.

My feet crunch on the snow as I walk, pounding out the same question I’ve been asking myself for months: can we really move half-way around the world? Will it be good for our kids? Will it be good for us? Both kids had spots at a “talented and gifted” public school, which for ordinary New Yorkers is a bit like finding the grail. So much so, in fact, that when we finally decide on adventure rather than familiarity, some parents ask me how we could give up two spots, their voices quivering in disbelief. I answer them with a confidence I don’t always feel, extolling the virtues of living internationally—even though I wondered what the hell we were doing, yanking our kids out of lives they love, all for some theoretical global adventure.

But we went. For a year. Nine time zones away from our regularly scheduled lives.

That first year was hard. So hard that as it drew to a close, we realized that we’d only just started to adjust, so we signed on for another year and then another and another….and we’re still here.

It’s hard to say, now, what seems the most unbelievable about those mornings on the 14D: that I lived knee-deep in winter for months on end, or that the little boy who happily kissed me good-bye is now sixteen and flinches if I even pat him on the hand.

Or maybe—now that we’re almost a year into a pandemic—what’s most unbelievable is that we all used to crowd into those sweaty wheeled boxes and just, you know, breathe, on one another.

Sitting on that bus, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d become a long-term expat, but I guess I couldn’t have imagined a pandemic, either. And now these two unimaginable things have merged: the pandemic has made expats of us all. Familiar sights seem strange, we communicate with loved ones from afar, we miss out on the rituals—birthdays, weddings, funerals. I didn’t know that being an expat involved so many good-byes, so much transience. It has been, in a sense, good training for this paradoxical pandemic, in which mobility is so limited and yet we have said so many farewells.


Deborah Williams lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and no-longer-small children. She is a writer and literature professor whose work has appeared in The Common, Brevity Blog, Motherwell, Inside Higher Ed, and The Rumpus. Follow her on Twitter and IG @mannahattamamma

Deborah would like you to donate food, time, or money to your local food bank.


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