A woman I knew a few years ago returned from a year of living abroad. Awesome. Great experience. Good for you. But I’m not doing myself any favors if I paper over the fact that she had instantly become INSUFFERABLE. She could say nothing without prefacing it with “Well, in China…” Nothing, I promise. To entertain myself, I secretly started testing her. Couldn’t help it. Whether the topic was finding a good veterinarian, a recipe for lasagne, what time American Idol was on, she NEVER missed.
Living in Saudi Arabia means making a lot of adjustments, but most of the people you know there are in the journey with you and enjoy talking about it. The same is not true in reverse, and if I’m going to avoid being somebody else’s entertainment now in the U.S. I’m going to have to watch myself. So I’ve done a lot of self-talk about how I need to behave and I think I’ve boiled it down to a list of 10 essentials I need to keep in mind. I’m going to paste it to the bathroom mirror as soon as I have a bathroom again, and until then sit cross-legged and chant it every morning.
1. Stop carrying toilet paper in your purse. Sure, from time to time it might come in handy, but in general you don’t need it and you come across as some weird Mary Poppins doomsday prepper if you’re walking around at that level of preparedness on a daily basis. Got any spare socks in there, too? Floral wire? Butterfly closures?
2. Get dressed. You can’t just throw an abaya on over your t-shirt and gym shorts and go out to dinner. Knowing that the abaya is always the way the getting-dressed story ends makes it hard to put a lot of effort into the beginning. Time to make some changes.
3. That’s miles per hour, not kilometers. 120 is not an acceptable highway speed. And along those same lines…
4. Remember: police are real. You don’t have the luxury of a ramp-up period on this one. American police will pull you over for 80% of what you see on a daily basis on Saudi roads. You will be required to pay expensive fines. Here, when their lights are flashing they’re not just pushing through traffic the same way as the guy who’s tailgating you. Somebody’s in trouble, and if the lights follow as you move over, it’s you. So no more swerving around police cars just because you think the driver is texting. And further along the same lines…
5. Take your hand off the horn. (This one goes out to the Beloved, who actually drove in Riyadh. I just made a capella noises.) It’s a cost-benefit thing, like the toilet paper. Sure, you need the horn from time to time, but being ready to use it all the time is no longer necessary and you risk actually making yourself neurotic.
6. Don’t say a word about fuel and utility prices. This is a super-boring topic, right up there with some dream you can’t even exactly remember right (“And THEN…wait, well first there was this buffalo…”) Yes, gas is cheap in Saudi Arabia. So was the bill for our summer air conditioning. Big woop. Let it go.
7. Use the front door. Don’t worry about being in the men’s area in a restaurant, bank, or anywhere at all, come to think of it. You, a human female, have as much right to be there as any human male, no matter what. March in. Sit where you want. And walk from one place of business to another. (Two-fer! You can work on those extra Saudi pounds while you’re exercising your freedom.) So don’t be timid, and for heaven’s sake don’t act all amazed when you just sit down at a patio cafe. It’s a normal thing for everybody else in the world to do. Just do it. (But it’s okay to never stop appreciating it.)
8. Business happens during the day. The hours between noon and 4:00 are a thing. The hours between 8:00 and midnight are not. Don’t plan on playing with your girlfriends all day and then going to the dentist at 9:30 after everything else is done. An after-work appointment is a rarity, not a basic. And if you go out on errands in the morning, don’t give up at noon. You can KEEP GOING!!
9. Activity requiring human effort costs money. Pay it. The minimally enforced minimum wage in Saudi Arabia is about $380 a month, and people not only live on it but send money home to their families. In the U.S., no business has a pool of low-wage workers available to deliver something that’s inconvenient for you to carry for free; no one is going to pump your gas, wash your car, or plant your flower pots. If you want something done, gratefully pay a living wage or do it your bad self.
10. Shut up. Nobody wants to hear about it. Yes, some people will be curious about life in Saudi Arabia. They will ask. And even they don’t want to hear about EVERYTHING. So answer what’s asked, don’t volunteer what isn’t, and try to just join the flow of what’s going on around you. Veterans’ halls exist for a purpose: The only people who will ever fully understand your war stories are your fellow soldiers. Love them, miss them, keep in close contact with them, and start building a new set of shared experiences with the people around you now. If there’s anything the experience of living abroad teaches it’s that those people, whoever they are at the moment you are wherever you are, are the most precious thing you’ve got. Capitalize on every blessed minute.
Because you have been magnificently blessed.