The ex ex­pat

Thrown in at the deep end on the home front, do­mes­ti­cally chal­lenged Kate Birch dis­cov­ers house­work has its perks

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The perks that come with house­hould chores soften the blow for do­mes­ti­cally chal­lenged Kate Birch.

If some­one had told me be­fore

leav­ing Dubai I would spend 18 hours of my week do­ing house­work, I would have, well, sim­ply stayed put. Yes, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey, women in the UK spend an av­er­age of 2.6 hours a day on chores. Phew!

If that seems a lot, that’s be­cause it is. As I dis­cov­ered re­cently, the laun­dry list of odd jobs is never-end­ing. And while many Brits I know seem to take such re­lent­less and thank­less do­mes­tic drudgery in their stride, af­ter six months of UK life, this par­tic­u­lar Brit has found it a bit of a chore.

The fact is, at the grand old age of 40, and hav­ing been an ex­pat all my adult life, I’m clue­less about clean­ing.

When, last year, a Dubai col­league shared a story about her brother who, hav­ing left Dubai for a UK univer­sity, didn’t wash his du­vet cover for an en­tire year as he didn’t know it needed chang­ing, I feigned ut­ter shock – gri­mac­ing and vol­ubly retch­ing for max­i­mum im­pact.

The truth is, I didn’t know a du­vet cover needed to be changed ei­ther un­til I was well into my 20s and never ac­tu­ally changed one un­til, erm, well quite re­cently ac­tu­ally.

OK, OK, it’s time to come to­tally clean. Un­til this year, I thought bleach was some­thing for hair or teeth, rub­ber gloves were the lat­est cat­walk trend and scour­ing pads was some­thing you did when look­ing for a new villa.

I had no idea what a skirt­ing board was, let alone the fact that I had to dust it. I was shocked to dis­cover that a ket­tle needed descal­ing and a hoover needed emp­ty­ing; and I had to have lessons – cour­tesy of smug moth­erin-law, no less – on loading a wash­ing ma­chine, de­frost­ing a freezer and op­er­at­ing an oven.

Oh, the te­dium. It’s enough to drive you back to Dubai and into the arms of peo­ple who fold your toi­let pa­per into points, your plas­tic bags into balls and your per­fectly ironed knick­ers into di­a­mond shapes.

It’s not just the bore­dom, though. There’s the to­tal lack of recog­ni­tion (no­body praises you pol­ish­ing the sil­ver); the hours and hours of wasted time (you could prob­a­bly learn Man­darin in 18 hours a week); the nasty filth and grotty grime (re­mov­ing clogged hair from the bath is my neme­sis); and the quite un­ex­pected phys­i­cal pain (back­ache from hoover­ing and cuts from peel­ing veg­gies).

I’ve even sus­tained two quite se­ri­ous house­work in­juries, one of which re­quired a trip to ca­su­alty and stitches.

But the bore­dom, the wasted time and the hos­pi­tal visits are noth­ing com­pared to the silent but deadly judg­ments meted out by neigh­bour­hood mums, who have

I re­signed to my do­mes­tic des­tiny, try­ing ev­ery­thing to make it eas­ier, en­joy­able or even en­ter­tain­ing

judged me on my deft­ness with a duster and my skill with a scrub­bing brush. Be­cause while my do­mes­tic habits, or lack thereof, might leave a lot to be de­sired (I refuse to hoover or dust where I can­not see), other Brits seem to take great plea­sure in the process.

And these ‘house snobs’, as I’ve la­belled them – sub­ur­ban women who scrub, scour and shine their show houses to within an inch of their lux­u­ri­ous lives – love noth­ing more than com­ing round to my less-than-spot­less abode to point, to judge, to gloat.

Yes, for a spell I be­came the laugh­ing stock of my Sur­rey neigh­bour­hood – I would have had com­plete strangers in­spect­ing my lack of house­work hand­i­work had my win­dows not been too filthy to peer in.

And so shamed into shower head pol­ish­ing, I soon found my­self re­signed to my do­mes­tic des­tiny (I can nei­ther af­ford nor jus­tify hired help here), try­ing ev­ery­thing to make it eas­ier, en­joy­able or even en­ter­tain­ing.

The dis­trac­tion tech­nique – lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio while cook­ing, watch­ing TV while iron­ing – helped a lit­tle, while the short­cut tech­nique – in­vest­ing in smart stuff to help you lighten the load – gave some light re­lief. But it was the of­fload­ing tech­nique – dis­tribut­ing do­mes­tic du­ties to hus­band, son and even vis­it­ing mother, aunt and best friend – that proved par­tic­u­larly help­ful.

Iron­i­cally though, the tech­nique that fi­nally turned me from do­mes­tic dis­as­ter into clean­ing queen, re­ward­ing me with the Sur­rey mums’ seal of ap­proval, was the one fear I have that is greater than my fear of house­work – my very big fear of be­ing fat.

Yes, it was a study (put on my pil­low by my too-clever-for-his-own-pinny hus­band) re­veal­ing how the rise in women’s weight world­wide has much to do with the de­cline of house­work, which fi­nally al­lowed me to re­spect and em­brace my in­ner do­mes­tic de­ity.

It was Dr Gary O’Dono­van’s, (a lec­turer in sport and ex­er­cise medicine at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter) words that ul­ti­mately did it though. “To pre­vent weight gain, most adults need to ex­pend around 400 calo­ries per day in phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, which is equiv­a­lent to around two hours of dust­ing and clean­ing or 82 min­utes of vac­u­um­ing and mop­ping.”

They say life be­gins at 40 and I guess in some ways it has.

And while these days you’re more likely to find me dust­ing my du­vet as op­posed to hit­ting the town, I’m rather smugly do­ing it in my size-eight apron.

Over­worked, over­whelmed and over there... long-term Dubai ex­pat Kate Birch misses

her maid, strug­gles with small talk and is des­per­ate for some­one

to pack her shop­ping

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