By Sarah Swain, Australia.
There’s a picture of me taken in September 2012 outside Humberside Airport. I have that bright eyed, expectant smile look of somebody about to board a plane.
But I could never have expected the rollercoaster ride the next 18 months would hold. The Big One at Blackpool has nothing on this.
I’d given up my job of more than five years on a daily paper in Glasgow, where I wrote about everything from sick kids to visiting celebs, to move to the Middle Eastern city to work for a company which produced magazines for hotels and banks.
I thought it sounded perfect, and I remember my old news editor remarking I could “do it with my eyes shut”. I knew I was giving up a lot, but the desire to live abroad had always been strong, and with its English magazines and newspapers, beaches, bars, sun and mega-malls (all my fave things), Dubai seemed the perfect place.
From my first day in the job there was something wrong. I’d come from a place where I was praised. I won awards, and got thank you emails from the editor. I was good.
But here, it was just the wrong fit. It was a Paul Smith suit, whereas I’m more of a vintage dress with Louboutins (incidentally Dubai must have the highest number of the red-soled wonders per person in the world. People wear them for work).
I cried. And I left, opting to look for a job which better suited me.
A few days later, an email fall-out with a friend from home escalated to nuclear proportions, and resulted in me receiving possibly the most foul email every written. I cried. I wasn’t entirely innocent. But I didn’t deserve something so absolutely horrendous.
Luckily I’d just made a new friend, a girl who’d rented me a room in her apartment, and her three beautiful cats cheered me up as I job hunted and dried my tears. Until 1.45am one morning.
I thought I was dreaming at first when the fire alarm blasted out. It was so loud I actually screamed. I jumped out of bed and pulled on a hoodie over my pyjamas and my Birkenstocks onto my feet.
I met my new room mate in the hall. We were sure it was a false alarm – it didn’t even cross my mind it wasn’t – so we didn’t even consider bringing the cats. We started our decent down 14 flights.
And it didn’t take long before we smelled smoke. We started to run. My legs shook. My heart raced. The World Trade Center crossed my mind, and I remembered thinking; ‘I hope the fire isn’t below us.’
But it wasn’t, and we got outside pretty quickly. Relieved? Just a bit. I saw a car ablaze close to the entrance of the building and thought that’s what must have set off the fire alarm… until I looked up and saw flames quietly licking the very top of the building, in two spots.
But both blazes looked small and I thought fire crews put them out, and me and the hundreds of other residents now outside would all go back to bed.
But they were too high. Too far away from the ladders, the hoses. Soon the cladding of the building was burning, peeling off and falling, setting fire to other parts of the structure, as well as more cars on the ground. It became, quite literally, a towering inferno. (ironically, my old newspaper ran a picture of it on their World News page, and I was later interviewed by my hometown paper).
And the cats were inside.
Watching the fire burn around to my friend’s apartments side of the building, and trying to work out which was her balcony, is something I never want to remember. The blaze was not put out until 8am. We’d spent the whole night watching, waiting.
Luckily, the cats were rescued unharmed, though I hear some animals, though no people were killed. I also got all my stuff back too, though stinking of smoke.
Of course not only was I now jobless and terrified of fires (still am), I was also homeless. And soon to become friendless it seemed.
Despite getting on brilliantly before (like a house on fire?), after I asked for a portion of my advance rent money back, money that I’d insisted on giving her despite her protests, and money that I now desperately needed, I never heard from her again, despite caring for her cats a few weeks later as I’d previously promised. I left the key at the reception of her new place, and moved on, hurt.
I rented a room from a friend-of-a-friend who’d offered to help, and landed a job on a magazine. Things improved, and my new room mate and her boyfriend said I could stay as long as I wanted. Until three weeks later when she texted me suggesting I move out.
I flexed my mum’s credit card on a serviced apartment. Bitter and confused, no longer was I relying on the kindness of others.
Things improved again, for a time. I got my own apartment on the 29th floor of the world’s tallest residential tower (in Dubai you can’t do this until you have a job as you need to pay by cheque, and you can’t open a bank account without a visa, which you can’t get until a few weeks after you’ve started working. Easy.)
Work was good. The events were amazing. Though I’d been to some exciting ‘dos’ in Glasgow, this was on another scale.
Private bash at Tamara Eccleston’s villa? Bit dull so left early. Breakfast interview with Richard Branson atop the world’s tallest building? Good, but he strangely avoided eye contact. Private soiree with John Travolta? His hair’s very strange indeed. Dinner with Roberto Cavalli and Dynamo? Simply bizarre.
There were free shoes. Free handbags. And most of all, free Bollinger (seriously). There was a man to spray your face by the luxury hotel pool when you got too hot. There was another man to deliver you a hangover McDonalds on a moped. And another from the local shop who’d bring you a bar of Dairy Milk when you didn’t feel like taking the lift downstairs.
I stayed at a luxury hotel almost every weekend to do reviews (Al Maha Desert Resort’s the best. Google it). I went on local TV, and local radio to talk about entertainment. This part, I loved.
But have you seen The Devil Wears Prada? For various reasons, office life became pretty similar to that, from the fallouts to the long hours. I cried. A lot.
And that wasn’t all. I was dumped, too. Regularly. One guy even ditched me half an hour into our first date and went off with somebody else at the bar. (I cried.)
And did I also mention my money-grabbing landlord who tried to flout Dubai’s rental increase laws? Cried about that too.
I made it to January 2014, and then two things happened. The first was an email from Australia landing in my inbox, saying the visa I’d applied for to work there five years before, had been granted.
The second was a meeting, the day after I got that email, in which I was told I was being made redundant – my section of the magazine was no longer required, they said. (I checked the other day. It’s still running).
I cried, though a little less this time. I drank some free champagne. I started packing for Oz.
But Dubai was to throw me one more dose of bad luck. It seemed like a great idea at the time, to walk home on my own from an 80s festival after sinking two bottles of wine.
The wonky path and my wedge trainers didn’t agree. The bright red plaster cast I sported for a month really hampered my outfits, not that I needed any as I was prescribed bed rest to help my torn tendons heel.
On March 17 I left the United Arab Emirates, and am now slowly making my new life in Sydney.
I have a job at a newspaper, and though there are no celebrities, no parties and no free clothes, I’m working on it.
What’s most surprising to me is that I really miss Dubai.
Badly. I miss the oven-hot weather. I miss bobbing on the abras across Dubai Creek. I miss the selfies with the regular influx of Hollywood stars. I miss the dangerous driving of the overworked Indian taxi drivers. I miss the 12 lanes of cars on Sheikh Zayed Road, not to mention the traffic jams where spotting a red Porsche, neon orange Lamborghini and silver Bentley one after the other was a common occurrence. I miss the dedicated ladies I met who feed the abundance of the city’s poor stray cats, and indeed I miss the ladies’ nights, on which free drinks are handed out to girls. I miss the immaculate traditional dress of the locals. I miss the handful of life-long friends I made.
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