My Expat Story: Mariam Ottimofiore
A Pakistani expat in Dubai
At Global Living Magazine we want to connect with our readers. We want to know what you’re all about, what you love, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. The best way to do this? Hear it straight from you!*
Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is an economist, writer and blogger currently based in Dubai, UAE. When she was 19 years old, she left her home in Karachi, Pakistan to go on an adventure. What started off with just her and one suitcase, has turned into a full blown expat adventure with a 40-foot container, an expat husband from the other corner of the world, 2 kids born in different countries and a very, very big collection of travel photos and books. Fifteen years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, this is her Expat Story.
What is your favorite part of expatriate life?
I love being outside of my comfort zone. When you live away from home, you learn so much about yourself – what’s important to you becomes clearer, things you only did or followed because it’s what everyone else did back home, fall away on the side – you become more confident about yourself and your abilities.
I also enjoy seeing the world and experiencing it through a different lens in each different country. I love how a place which meant absolutely nothing to me, suddenly becomes “home.” I have a theory that as expats we never really leave the places we call home, they become a part of us and we take them with us no matter where we go next in the world.
And I absolutely love the travel opportunities; probably the best part about living the expat life is being able to travel and explore new corners of the world.
What has been the hardest part?
The hardest part is leaving and saying goodbye to the lovely friends we have made in a place. After living in 7 countries, I’m still not good at saying goodbyes to the people or to the place – it’s the one part of expat life that just totally swallows me whole. I usually spend my last week in a place, just revisiting all my favorite hangout places, and spending time with my favorite people, soaking it all in as much as possible. In recent years, I’ve made an effort to stay in touch with all the lovely people I meet on our adventures, and social media has made it easier to stay connected with friends all around the world. Expat goodbyes are hard, but expat reunions are amazing!
I also think that learning foreign languages has been one of the hardest parts of this experience. Landing in a new country and feeling illiterate because I couldn’t communicate in the local language or read the newspaper has been a tough experience. I remember sitting on a bus in Berlin once, and the two young women next to me were smiling and laughing and telling stories and I wished I could understand what they were saying. Learning new foreign languages has been hard but so worth it, possibly the greatest gift one can enjoy as an expat, are the languages you learn along the way. Nobody can ever take that away from you!
Where have you lived around the world? Favorite places?
As a child, I grew up in Bahrain, New York City and Karachi. As an adult I have lived in the United States (Massachusetts and Texas), United Kingdom, Germany, Pakistan, Denmark, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. My favorite place is a close tie between so many places – but if I had to choose one, my surprise choice would be Copenhagen.
Denmark is frequently voted as the “happiest country in the world” to live in, and after living there for four years, I finally understand why. I love the Danish approach of maintaining a balance between work and family life and I’ve picked up a lot of Danish habits; simple things that help to lead a balanced lifestyle and feel good about myself. My love for interior design, especially Danish design was sparked in Copenhagen. I still light up candles (even in the eternal summer days in Dubai!) to create a “hygge” (a Danish term which means cozy and welcoming) atmosphere and I still go back to visit any chance I can get. I find I am happiest while roaming the quaint, cobbled streets of Copenhagen, on my way to get a Danish pastry!
Where would you want to move to eventually?
This is probably the toughest question to answer and after fifteen years, 7 countries and 3 continents, I still don’t know the answer. I find that being on the expat trail has meant constantly re-evaluating my impressions and prejudices regarding a certain place. Cities such as Singapore and Dubai which I had labeled as “air-conditioned bubbles” and declared I would never move to, have turned out to be my most enjoyable expat experiences of late.
I would love to live in South Africa, as I find it an extremely fascinating country, economy and society with its multicultural and multilingual background. Its beauty captivated my heart in 2009 on a visit and visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island has been one of my most favorite travel “a-ha” moments.
I would also love to live in Italy given our family is half Italian, my last name is Italian, my children are Italian and I have Italian citizenship, but have never actually lived there. My husband warns me that life in Italy is not all about wandering through piazzas with a gelato in my hand – but I still really want to experience it for myself and brush up on my Italian.
What’s your sense of ‘home’?
When I sit down today and look at a map of the world, I see many “homes”. I have learned to accept and embrace the feeling of multiple homes, scattered around the world.
While home is sitting in the garden at my grandmother’s house with my cousins, aunts and uncles eating mangoes in Pakistan, it is also walking to my favorite bakery in Copenhagen for a mouth-watering Danish pastry.
While home is sharing a breakfast of freshly baked bread and cheese and jam with my in-laws in Germany, it is also driving alone through the streets of Houston in rush hour to get to work.
While home is walking through my favorite streets in Berlin, where the history of the past speaks to you and is all around you just like the remnants of the Berlin Wall, it is also going to my favorite coffee place in South Hadley, Massachusetts with my best friends from college.
While home is taking the bus to the Singapore Botanic Gardens to join my outdoor exercise class, it is also settling in on a Thursday night in Dubai with my family of four, ready to start my weekend by ordering in delicious Lebanese and Middle Eastern food.
Home keeps changing, from the Scandinavian north, to a tropical island on the equator, to our current oasis in the Arabian Desert. What remains the same is that feeling I get when I go back to visit – when the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and when time seems to stand still – I know I’m in a place I call home.
What advice would you give to first-time expats?
Never say “never”: Don’t judge a place and say you’ll never move there, without ever having lived there. Some of my best experiences have resulted from moving to locations, I had said “never” to.
Say yes: Yes to coffee mornings, casual get-togethers, neighborhood BBQ’s, mother and baby groups, to any invitation or opportunity that comes your way. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! Build an expat network and this is how you will find friends and like-minded people.
Approach your expat adventure with a realistic attitude: You will have good days and bad. You will have highs and lows. You will be crazy happy and unbelievably homesick all in the same day. You will laugh a little and cry a little most days. Appreciate the local customs and traditions of a place – they will enrich you and challenge you to think differently. A healthy dose of curiosity, optimism, resourcefulness and some self-deprecating wit and humor to laugh at yourself and your mistakes along the way, is essential and will get you through the rough days (and make for good stories to tell the folks back home!).
What has been the most helpful thing in adapting to your home abroad?
I try to be a tourist in those first few days in a new country. In between finding a place to live and opening up a bank account and touring schools I visit museums, take cultural sightseeing tours and speak to the locals, the taxi-drivers, the waiters, anyone, just to try and get a sense of this new city and place I’m in. It gives me enormous perspective from day one.
I remember landing in Dubai and conversing with my Pakistani taxi-driver – within a 25-minute drive from the airport to the hotel, I understood how expensive life was for the average worker in Dubai, and how he sent all his wages home to support his family. And there I was, whining that our international shipment had been delayed and we’d have to spend an extra week in the hotel/temporary housing the company was putting us up in. Perspective! The knowledge that we are lucky and blessed to be in a new country, experiencing a new different way of life, has helped me in adapting to my new home abroad each time.
Share anything else about your expat life that you’d like us to hear!
For the past few years, my husband and I have unknowingly and totally unconsciously started a new tradition: each time we moved as expats, we combined our international move with an international pregnancy. As a result I kept starting a pregnancy in one country and giving birth in another.
I have been pregnant and received pre-natal care in 3 different countries – Denmark, Singapore and in the UAE. Having a baby while living away from home as an expat has been a learning experience as well. I’ve learned how different cultures approach pregnancy so differently and how medical protocol and standards vary so widely around the world. I’ve learned the importance of a good healthcare system, and how much I took this for granted in the past. I’ve learned how hard it is to have a baby and raise children away from home and the support of family, and have learned to accept offers of help in my new country. It has also led to the formation of some amazing friendships – expat ladies who I had only just met, have thrown a baby shower for me in Dubai, and a neighborhood mom and baby coffee meet-up has led to the formation of a fitness boot camp class, and a book club!
You just never know what will happen when you say yes to meeting new people and new experiences, and this is the thrill that expat life has brought home for me. If we only open ourselves to new beginnings and new adventures, life has some unexpected and wonderful surprises in store for us.
–> Connect with Mariam by following her on her personal blog ‘And Then We Moved To’ (www.andthenwemovedto.com), her Facebook page (www.facebook.com/andthenwemovedto) and on Instagram @andthenwemovedto. She writes about life as an expat, trying to raise her multilingual and multicultural children in her East-meets-West marriage and of traveling the world.
[Image courtesy of Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore]
*If you’d like to be featured on our ‘My Expat Story’ section, send an email to Alison at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about your experience as an expatriate by answering the above questions.
Don’t forget to include a picture of yourself, your website/blog information, and/or Twitter handle so we can help you connect with other expats from around the world!