The life of an ex pat in Abu Dhabi
Three months after moving from France to Abu Dhabi, our expat is still living in a hotel and desperate to find an affordable family home.
When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers. After three months in a hotel room, I was desperate for a home. We moved to Abu Dhabi from France in August, to start jobs on a new paper over here called The National. My husband works on the business and finance desk; I write for the magazine.
The hotel was pleasant enough, but I was fed up with trying to create a family home in two rooms. It really wasn’t helping the children (or us) to settle in. Especially poor Leo, our five-year-old son, who was sleeping in an annexe between the two rooms. It was either that or share with his two sisters – which he wisely decided against. Then there were the logistical issues; try making packed lunches for three children with only the contents of a minibar fridge, or organising breakfast when there is no time (or money) for the hotel buffet.
The housing situation, however, remained impossible. I had lots of contacts, mainly through the French Mistress column I used to write for The Sunday Times from my former home in the Languedoc. They were lovely, helpful people – some even had local influence, or wasta, as they call it – but nothing came to anything. We had our hopes raised several times, only to end up back at the hotel, gloomier than ever.
Tantalising flats with sea views on the sought-after Corniche were dangled in front of us, only to be snatched away as we were outbid by people with proper jobs – bankers or lawyers. It seemed impossible, and not a tad unfair, that while the rest of the world languished in a credit crunch, rental prices in Abu Dhabi could double in an afternoon.
And it wasn’t as if we were asking for much. In France, we lived in a six-bedroom farmhouse. In Abu Dhabi, we knew we could afford only a three-bedroom flat – and were desperate for one. One day a couple of weeks ago, my phone rang. “I’m in an apartment up on 25th Street,” said David, an estate agent I had been dealing with. “It’s not too bad. You should see it.” We dropped everything and rushed over. It was in a suburban part of town, so not the groovy downtown we wanted, but the agent was right. It wasn’t bad.
At least, it was vaguely affordable by local standards – “only” about £55,000 a year – and not too shabby. “What about that villa across the road?” I asked, pointing at a “For rent” sign hanging from its balcony. “That’s beyond your budget,” David replied. “It’s about £65,000.”
“Everything is beyond our budget,” my husband retorted. “Let’s take a look.” We walked over. The villa was beautiful, and almost as big as our house in the Languedoc, with a vast roof terrace and three kitchens. The rooms were light and spacious. It was the only place I’d seen since arriving that I could imagine living in. “The landlady could get a lot more for it, but she is insisting on a family,” David told us. “If you want it, you will have to meet her this evening. Bring the children.”
We returned to the office. We had been on a waiting list for a company flat with only two bedrooms, which would be much cheaper to rent than the villa. It was due to be ready in December. But could we really live in two bedrooms? And what if it wasn’t ready by then? Could I create Christmas dinner from the minibar fridge?
We took the children to meet the landlady. She loved us. The place was ours if we wanted it. We did the maths, which wasn’t pretty, but what option did we have? Whatever we found would have cost us a fortune. So why not pay a little bit more than a fortune and end up somewhere we will be happy?
Now we have a proper fridge – but will we be able to afford anything to put in it?
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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