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Liz Totton, Abu Dhabi

Who are you?

My name is Liz Totton. My blog is called Lizzy of Arabia. I am originally from New Jersey, but we were most recently in the Seattle, WA area. We now live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. If I were asked to define myself in the present, I would say that I am an artist and a wanna-be writer.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

We were supposed to come here 5 years’ ago, but then the economy took a nose dive here in the Middle East and, well everywhere I guess, and the project that my husband was supposed to take was put on hold.To say that I was waiting by the phone for another shot at coming here is an understatement. I felt more than a little desperate for travel and wanted more than anything for my daughters to live abroad for a while. Abu Dhabi is a very easy place to settle into. Almost everyone speaks English (if that is indeed your language).

What challenges did you face during the move?

The move was challenging. It was easy leaving the states, but very hard to grasp how to begin your life here. There were no guidebooks. We received no help from the company that brought us over here, so we asked around, read a lot of blogs and relied on the advice of complete strangers. In the
end, it all worked out. I think life is often like that.

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How did you find somewhere to live?

This was perhaps the most frustrating part of beginning our new life in Abu Dhabi. I would say that just about every rental Estate agent in Abu Dhabi is earning a commission for doing absolutely nothing. I would LOVE to stand corrected on this one. We are forced to use and pay for their services, but
it seems that they work primarily on this basis of misinformation.

Prospective renters are then forced to do all the research, labor and correction of this aforementioned misinformation we were given by them and then pay them. Joy! I think there has to be a better way, but I will leave that to someone far smarter and maybe more patient than I. In short, the
process of renting a home in Abu Dhabi has to be the most convoluted and absurd way to start your life here. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to buy. God help those that go down this route. When you do finally land your
dream rental, the properties are varied and lovely. You will probably be very glad to stay so you never, ever have to go through the process again.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Yes, there are tons! In most of the complexes here, you will find expats from all over the world. It will not take you long to find one from your home country, if that is what you seek.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

I have met a few, but I would love to meet more and develop a genuine friendship with one. In my experience, that is what travel and life abroad is all about: getting to experience a day in the life of someone from your host country. I feel as though I have experienced days in the lives of too many countries to count through new friends here in the UAE but, as of yet, I
have not had this experience with an Emirati. I do hope to meet and make a connection with one soon.

What do you like about life where you are?

I love that we have friends from all over the world. I have always believed that the mere act of speaking to people about their homelands conjures similar sentiments to the actual act of traveling. I also have many American friends here, but we all have two things in common: a sense of adventure and a desire to see more of the world. I also love how safe it is here in the United Arab Emirates. At this time in my life with two soon-to-be teenage daughters, I’d gladly trade the many freedoms of the west for the security of the Middle East.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

There are days when I just wish I could take some simple aspect of life here and make it more like home, something that could work so much better from my perspective. This is a very new country; the UAE is only 42 years’ old. Sometimes I want to jump behind a desk and just do something for the helpful clerk, but I know I should not. What makes sense to me,
might seem ridiculous to another. We go to other countries to experience how they live, not to bring our country to them. I have to remind myself of this almost every day.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

I honestly experienced very little in the way of culture shock, though this country is radically different to the United States. I came to this region for the differences, not the similarities.

Everyone’s different though. You could live in this country in very much the same manner you did in your home country. American chain food and retail stores abound. We don’t frequent them, but they are there. I think the hardest thing for me to get used to was the summer heat—it’s extremely oppressive. I do not enjoy being inside in a controlled climate. I disliked winter at home for the same reason.

Nowhere is perfect all year round. The other seven months here though are pretty close to perfect.

How does shopping (for food/clothes/household items etc.) differ compared to back home?

I have blogged about this a lot! Shopping here in Abu Dhabi is very different in good and bad ways from the US. I think Americans tend to be more wasteful in the way we stockpile and shop in bulk. If I were to overanalyze it, I would say my countrymen are a bit on the careless side with food and water and that obviously comes from many years of overabundance.

I think I shop here more frequently for fresh items. The
produce doesn’t keep very long here compared to the US, which is probably a good thing—less preservatives perhaps? I will say learning to shop here has been an experience. What you find one week in one store, you may never see again in that same store in that same aisle; I have absolutely no idea why. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt every shopping Friday.

What do you think of the food in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?

I relish the myriad choices here in the UAE—there is honestly every cuisine in the world here to sample. I am a big fan of street food and Indian food in particular. The Indian community comprises over 30% of the expat population in the UAE so there are more Indian offerings than anything else. It is the most reliable vegetarian food you can find, if you are a some time vegetarian like me. I dislike the lack of good Mexican food. It is my second favorite cuisine. It is very hard to find even reasonably good Mexican food outside of a very small part of North America but, of course, we didn’t come to the Middle East for the Mexican food. I like the native food a lot. I am a big fan of meze and tapas, and there is no end to the Arabian Meze here.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

I would tell them NOT to bring the entire contents of your home like we did. While it’s nice to have your things, all that stuff is dually an albatross around your neck. Case is point, the antique, heavy piano that we brought from home. It was just not feasible to bring it into a small apartment on the
8th floor, but how could we have known what type of residence might appeal to us here? I would add that finding a blogger who lives in the city to which you are thinking about relocating is a great idea.Please do not rely on anyone, with self-interest in your taking a position or not, for information about the city. Some will, of course, be very honest. But others may not. The latter was our experience. Please do your research before you make the move abroad. You won’t regret it!

I would also advise a person considering a move to Abu Dhabi in particular to bring a sense of humor. Many aspects of life can be very frustrating in the beginning. If you are able to laugh about it, you will stay much saner.

What are your plans for the future?

I like to keep my plans for the future simple and not too structured. I have found that most things I have planned for myself have not worked out the way I would have planned them and generally for the better. I would have never imagined myself living here in the Middle East—a stone’s throw from Iran—and having the time of my life. I could never have known that in this unlikeliest of places I would be raising teen and pre-teen daughters with very little anxiety. I guess I would advise people to not rule out options that don’t seem on the surface to be well suited to you. You never know what
lies around every corner or what waits for you on the other side of a door.

Turn the corner and open the door! You might find unexpected greatness, as we did.

Liz shares more information through her blog Lizzy or Arabia ,on Twitter @LizzyofArabia and on Facebook.