I was the kid sitting cross-legged, my face pinched, my arms crossed, in a sea of giddy children while a large sweaty man twisted balloons into animal shapes. Naturally, zeroing in on my look of disdain, he called me up to be his helper. It wasn’t my birthday party so I couldn’t very well go screaming into the night, or pale Canadian afternoon in my case (something I tended to do at my own failing birthday parties). Locked in my fate, I watched as the party performer filled an endless stream of skinny balloons with his rancid breath all the while keeping up a running dialogue about how pretty girls like me should smile when nice men gave them presents. When his act finally came to a close, and I was left holding an armful of poodles, giraffes, and his personal favorite, “the wiener dog,” he leaned down, took me by the earlobe and whispered. “Look you little brat, this is fun, Goddamnit.”
When my husband and I first moved to Abu Dhabi in the spirit of getting to know the place I put aside my natural suspicion when good times are being foisted on me and, well, joined the fun. In those first weeks, we kayaked in the mangrove swamps. Ok, that’s all we did. It was very cool but having done it once and without a naturalist there to point out all the stuff my untrained eye couldn’t see, I’ll wait until guests come to visit before paddling about again hoping for at least a glimpse of a sea snake.
Everything else just seemed like too much work. I don’t want to hang glide, windsurf, disco dance, watch stunt planes execute pinpoint turns and stomach churning dives. I don’t want to run 5k or 10k. No k’s of any kind. I don’t want to bicycle along the edge of a highway where cars regularly speed past at a 140 mph.
My attitude is being noticed. This place is fun goddamnit. Fun is flung in your face at every turn. While we may not have fake ski slopes with real penguins waddling around like in Dubai, we have worlds. Waterworld, wet, wet, wet! Ferrari World, fast, fast. fast! We have malls, and if you don’t think going to the mall is a blast, then you're just a spoilsport. One nifty thing to do at my local mall is to dress up as a paramilitary trooper, enter the battle zone where you can stalk your opponent in a CQB (close quarter battle). Afterwards, the vanquished and victors can sup at the Kalashnikov Cafe, an interesting nod to our Russian friends. All good fun which makes a nice change from the paramilitary guys in countries all around us who have the bad taste to use real bullets.
Movies are a big thing here. Friday nights are a riot. Cinemas are busting at the seams, everybody talking, texting, chatting on the phone, eating vast tubs of popcorn and sometimes checking into the flickering images up on the screen. But you have to be quick. Part of keeping us entertained is to not letting things get too stale. Wednesday night you have to start planning what you must see before it’s too late. Recently, we dashed out to see “Allied,” not so much for the movie but to feast our eyes on the sex scene between Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, one so steamy, I had read, that it was rumored to have helped hasten the end of the juggernaut Jolie/Pitt marriage. But fun, apparently, doesn’t include sex, at least not in Dolby sound and cinemascope. The scene was cut. To my great sadness, Pitt’s backside will have to wait for a place where sensibilities aren’t so tender.
When I was packing up my things in New York — or rather throwing most of my stuff out, nothing points out how run down a life has become more than wondering if the bald pillow in my hand is worth packing and shipping seven thousand miles — I vowed I’d use this life change to make myself better. A new me. Arriving here and meeting all the other trailing spouses, most often paddling around the pool, there was a near feeding frenzy of possible ways to improve, distract and entertain ourselves. Photography clubs. Writing clubs. Looking at the stars and figuring out where the hell we are clubs. I felt very much like I did in my first year at high school where I had this overwhelming urge to join everything even though I had never played chess in my life or debated anything. My mode of argument was to whine and stamp my foot. Amazing how often merely being annoying does the trick. By senior year, however, I didn’t give a damn about debating whether Anatoly Karpov was the greatest chess champion the world had ever seen. This time I cut to the chase, as romantic as it sounded to photograph blood red sunsets with a group of Nikon wielding strangers (sand in the air = great sunsets) I knew it would just remind me that I was trying to be something I’m not.
The truth, at least for me, is that living in a city like New York or London, Paris or Rome the things you do seem to just organically grow out of one’s interests and days. But more importantly, even if you don’t feel like doing a damn thing, just walking to the store feeds your imagination, your soul, if I may be so hackneyed.
I certainly understand the impulse to create so many diversions. This is a new city, awash in cash but sometimes I feel like a guest in a big brand new house where the host is showing me each up-to-date marvel. “And here is my new dining room where meals are delivered by roller coaster!”
Naturally, you politely nod but half of you wonders, is this really necessary?
Do I sound unhappy?
That could be a problem. Every year a list is published naming the happiest countries in the world. Denmark is a perennial and so is Iceland. I can only imagine the powers that be, blessed with endless amounts of oil and all the riches that bestows, thinking, “Iceland? Are you kidding me? It’s dark six months of the years and colder than a witch’s tit. We gotta beat that puny little iceberg!” Last year, with great fanfare, a Minister of Happiness was appointed to find out how. At the time I thought, with all due respect, how Orwellian, but since then the criminals who are now in charge in Washington have surpassed anything being conjured up here.
Happiness? What the hell is that? Is it having lots of money? A great spouse? The mere act of waking to a new day? Is it a bigger thing, like, believing in God, which, if that’s the case, I’m screwed.
Recently, the Ministry of Happiness rolled out a huge initiative, a survey, to find out what makes people sing. Up to 14,000 people from kids, as young as ten, to tourists, to residents will be asked a barrage of questions about their health, their education, what place they would like to hold in society. The U.A.E. is a truly diverse country but it is also one where many, many of the guest workers live in pretty appalling conditions. I would love to be the fly on an as-yet-to-be-built-wall at a construction site as one of the legions of anonymous workers laboring in 120-degree heat for barely-there wages is asked what makes him happy. No doubt, he’ll answer building this beautiful city so all the other happy people can share in his happiness.
But questions don’t end with the official survey. My toes aren’t painted, my bikini line isn’t waxed, my cable isn’t repaired, my phone isn’t upgraded, my dinner isn’t eaten, my groceries aren’t whisked by the scanner without some sort of litmus test of how pleasing the whole experience was.
Usually, I’ve forgotten my glasses when the questionnaire comes around, but I get the gist and I diligently check the boxes marked Good, Very Good, Exceptional, Beyond Compare. And I have to admit, at times, a little voice in my head keens, “This is fun, Goddamnit.”