The life of an ex pat
A month ago, our French Mistress bid farewell to France for a new life in the Gulf
So, we said au revoir to our lovely farmhouse in the Languedoc (we’re still trying to let it out) and the family arrived safely in Abu Dhabi, thanks be to God, or Alhamdulillah as we say on the Corniche.
I had never been to the Middle East, but my expectations had been lowered by an expat I met on the internet – it’s where expats meet these days. “It’s a bit like living in an oven,” he told me. Only less comfortable.” I can confirm that it is as hot as an oven, but much nicer. For a start, there are vast shopping malls, the roads are lined with palm trees and there is a beach.
After eight years in the idyllic French countryside, my husband, Rupert, and I decided it was time for a change. We wanted a taste of city life and a new experience for the children before they turned totally French. So, when we were offered work on a newspaper in Abu Dhabi, we accepted.
I begin every day on the beach. And so do the children: Olivia, 9, Bea, 7, and Leo, 5. They go to a kids’ club where they are entertained with everything from swimming to tennis to (unbelievably) ice-skating. By nine o’clock, it is already hot and sunny. So, after a visit to the gym, my husband and I go for a swim. We head out into the Persian Gulf from the beach at the British Club (where else?). The water is as warm as a bath, only saltier. Then we go to work. It’s not a bad way to start the day. Unless we find somewhere to live, it may all come to a premature end.
Abu Dhabi today is very different to the place the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger encountered on a camel in 1948. But he did at least have the foresight to bring a tent with him, which is something we should have done. Unlike our move to France, which was prompted by finding a six-bed property surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, we moved here with the promise of a month in a hotel, courtesy of the company.
We were warned that finding somewhere to live would be tricky, but of course assumed we would be different, that we’d get lucky or that everyone was exaggerating. After all, people do live here, don’t they?
Househunting has not been pleasant. There only seem to be about four available properties. The quality of accommodation is variable, and they all cost a fortune to rent. We’re talking London prices. The only acceptable place we have viewed (great location: next to the city’s only Marks & Spencer) is the size of our sitting room and kitchen back in France. It has a tiny view of the sea if you crane your neck, a sitting room, kitchen, two bathrooms and three bedrooms. Olivia declares it “too small” and demands that we move our farmhouse out here.
After days of seeing nothing remotely suitable, I suggest we take the flat next to M&S. Then at least I can drown my sorrows by shopping for blueberries, matching underwear and organic shortbread. And it is a lot better than where we are at the moment, with the children sleeping on the floor. I offer to pay the deposit with my credit card. “Oh no, madam,” the property manager tells me. “We need the whole annual rent up front before you can move in. That will be £50,000, please.”
I think briefly about calling Visa, then my husband tells me to get a grip. We’re here to make money, not spend it,” he hisses, as he leads me back to the hotel. I sit in our room, wondering what on earth we have done. “We can’t stay here,” says Bea. “We must go and see a sheikh and ask him for somewhere to live.”
We have yet to gain an audience with a sheikh, but have now moved to a better hotel and have a friendly taxi driver from Sri Lanka who looks after us. The children all have beds, as do we, for another nine days. After that, I just don’t know. + Get Helena’s take on French life: More More France Please (Gibson Square £9.99) and Two Lipsticks and a Lover (Arrow Books £7.99); www.helenafrithpowell.com
Heavenly or horrible? Tell us your tales of expat life
Over the past year, more than 200,000 Britons have left to start a new life overseas. Are you among them? Or have you lived abroad for years? Whether you’ve plumped for a farmhouse in France, a fincain Spain, a riadin Morocco or something even more exotic, we want to hear your stories of the ups and downs of expat life and any useful tips for readers who want to follow in your footsteps. Who knows – it might even lead to a flit-lit book deal.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019