Dilemmas: We're home but we feel like foreigners

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The Independent Culture
40-year-old Alan has returned after 20 years in the Middle East, where he and his wife were waited on hand and foot. Back in this country, he is finding it hard to live on his salary, his wife can't cook, he feels depressed by the state of Britain, and his UK friends have changed. How can they adjust?


It must be terrible to have to grow up at 40, and terrible to be a foreigner in your own country. To experience both at the same time is asking a lot of a chap.

Alan and his wife went to the Middle East when they were 20. It's unlikely that either of them had to take any responsibility at all for living. He did his job and she did her clothes-shopping and her charity work, but all those ghastly things such as dealing with the rent, taking the car to be serviced, fixing the loo when it went wrong, mowing the lawn and so on, were done for them by other people.

I remember staying in Dubai and, after I'd finished the breakfast that had been brought to me in bed, I took the tray and put it on a table outside. The action was greeted with dismay and anxiety by the live-in couple who were more slaves than servants. They felt angry and threatened. I was doing their job.

So, far from growing up while they were away, Alan and his wife probably became more infantilised. And I think that one of the first things they ought to do is ask some friends or relations to take them to the supermarket, show them how to organise a filing system for life in Britain, and give them as many little tips as possible about how to manage.

As far as old friends go, they won't get invitations. Everyone will be waiting for Alan and his wife to "settle in". If they want to get back into the swing they must do the inviting round - and they shouldn't expect their friends to want the grand dinner parties that they gave in the Middle East at the click of a finger. Alan's wife should really invest in a cookery course, or get a friend to teach her four simple starters, main courses and puddings, so she's always got something to fall back on. If old friends are thin on the ground, Alan must have thousands of business cards from chance encounters abroad. Now's the time to take advantage of them.

And when they do socialise, Alan absolutely must keep his mouth shut about a) what a great life they had abroad and b) what a tip he thinks Britain is now. I have British friends who've emigrated to America and when they come over talking of Britain as a banana republic and jeering because waiters don't put iced water on the table I feel like punching them on the nose.

Finally, Alan and his wife should ask themselves what they used to feel homesick for when they were away. Big breakfasts with lots of pork sausages and crispy bacon? Perhaps walking in green fields in the rain?

They should drive to Scotland for greenness and drizzle and the best breakfasts you can find in the world.

Alan will find it far easier if he thinks of himself as the foreigner he has become, rather than the Briton he really is. It'll make it easier for him to ask for help. And he may have to resign himself to mixing here only with other ex-pats and perhaps other Arabs living in Britain, because in the last few years he's become an ex-pat, and when you've been an ex- pat you can never really become a pat again. Not anywhere. But that doesn't mean he can't be happy. As my art teacher used to say, mysteriously: "The spaces between the objects are just as important as the objects themselves."


Enjoy your new freedom

I don't understand Alan's complaints. Where I lived in the Middle East there were no trains, and women weren't allowed to board the buses or drive. We weren't supposed to walk in the street alone or take taxis, either, so coming back to Britain and having the freedom to go anywhere we liked by ourselves was one of the most wonderful things for me and my women friends. And for our husbands, who had got thoroughly fed up with having to escort us.

But the most wonderful thing was to live in a society where women, and those of other political and religious beliefs than the official ones, were not oppressed. And it was bliss to walk alone down the street, or enter a public building, without being stared at or groped, or hearing men muttering angrily about my presence.


Look on Britain as `abroad'

My advice to Alan is to look upon Britain as a new country - fortunately, one where you can speak the language.

I lived out of the UK for most of the last 40 years. I agree that public transport is pretty depressing, but shopping has never been easier than it is now, with a supermarket within easy reach of most people.

Presumably, with your previously lucrative job, you can afford to buy electrical equipment for the kitchen, a vacuum cleaner, a washer and a dryer. Anyone who can read should be able to learn to cook - there are many cookery books for the beginner - or attend a cookery class.

Yes, your old friends will be different. They have been living in the world that 99 per cent of us live in, doing the cooking, the housework and the laundry and bringing up the children, while you have been living in luxury.

And, all right, people drink on the streets. So what? There is garbage everywhere? Complain to your council, or organise the neighbours for an annual clear-out. It rains a lot? It was my decision to return to my country, and I vowed I would not complain about the weather. If there are things that can be changed, do what you can; for me, it is wonderful to be back in Britain and I am making the most of it.



Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I've been married for six years and love my wife dearly, but if w have a fight, she goes into a sulk that may last a week. She won't say a word, moves into the spare room, and refuses to eat the meals I prepare. I've tried to get her to talk about it, but she believes her attitude's normal. We've got three lovely kids and a good standard of living, but these mood swings are starting to drive us apart. Sometimes I stay at work till she's gone to bed. How do other people handle sulky partners?

Yours sincerely, Ian

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@ independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet