Just Abu Dhabi Do It: A Coffee Conversation with Michele Campbell

Michele Campbell

Michele Campbell, Diver into Adventures

There are some people who just know how to take a dive: Esther Williams, Greg Louganis, and Chevy Chase.

Me? I’ve always been more of an easer, with aspirations for diving. And one of the dives I’ve always wanted to take, despite being a pretty awful swimmer, is that of the ex-patriate, to be a cultural adventurer beyond just reading Henry James and Pablo Neruda and watching Planet Earth.

I’d like to ease comfortably into a job in France (like most people in France at the moment), buy vintage Chanel, marry 1966 John Lennon, and collect sea glass on the Mediterranean coast.    

But Michele Campbell is a diver. She’s the Esther Williams mermaid of ex-pats. After a year of planning, Michele is now living on the other side of the world in Abu Dhabi. And diving isn’t a new thing for her. She’s a schoolteacher and an improviser – way past water wings and wading. I recently had a chance to sit down with Michele (and by that I mean email her from my sofa), to talk to her about her move, her experiences in Abu Dhabi, and how she Yes Anded herself across the world.

Where is Roanna?
I am in Austin, Texas, in my condo that I have named Casita Bonita or El Condo Fantastico. I’m sitting on my red velvet sofa next to my sacked out white and black cat, Gilda Radner. It is finally starting to cool off here — but I probably shouldn’t say things like that to a woman who now lives in the UAE.

Where is Michele?
It’s 4:45 a.m. in my apartment in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I’m sitting in bed with my laptop and a cup of coffee, nestled under a big comforter with the AC cranked. I always name my place of residence Château Michèle, even though this particular chateau is on the second floor of a 5 story concrete building that looks just like all the 5 story concrete buildings around it.

Roanna: I’ve been reading about your adventures. Very Under the Tuscan Sun, though I think your sun is probably hotter and brighter. Does your apartment finally have all utilities set up?

Michele: I do have all my utilities set up, but aside from the phone and internet, I have absolutely no idea how to pay my bills. The gas man comes by when he feels like it – once every month “or so” – and the electricity is supposedly being billed to my employer because they own all the rental contracts in this building. It will be transferred to me “at some point” and then I will have to pay – I’ve got no idea how much. WEIRD.

Roanna: So when did you start working on becoming an ex-pat and how did you get started? (I find that daunting.)

Michele: I spent about a full year working on becoming an expat. I decided that I really needed to do something different with my life — that I had hit a wall with my creative and professional development, that the winters in MN and the accompanying SAD were too much to handle. In April 2011, I started thinking about where else I might want to live, and I did a ton of research and networking. I seriously considered moving to any of these cities: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi. I found expat discussion boards that covered a lot of pros and cons of each place, I emailed teachers who were friends of friends working in all of those places, and I did tons of reading about the kinds of International Schools out there. It’s a zoo, really – and there are a lot of differing opinions about which city is the best place to live. I knew I wanted sea and sunshine and that I had to make enough money to cover the expense of having purchased a house in Minneapolis in 2008 and needing to rent it out.

Roanna: Did you have something specifically that you wanted to learn in your experience as an ex-pat?

Michele: My main motivation for the ex-pat experience is to get out of my head and settle into a life that can challenge me, stimulate me, and force me to exit the comfort zone I’ve had for my entire adult life. I’d been teaching American high school students for 15 years and felt completely out of new ideas. My creative life was stagnant. My biggest desire here in Abu Dhabi is to have some new ideas – that will hopefully push me to react to life in new and more positive ways and make my creative output more interesting.

Roanna: What drew you to Abu Dhabi?

Michele: I came to Abu Dhabi because a former colleague of mine has been here for 10 years and loves it. She helped me find my current position – teaching English for Abu Dhabi Men’s College – and has given me a ton of assistance in getting settled. She convinced me that this city is easier to navigate than the bigger cities in Asia, and the pollution isn’t as bad. Plus: the money’s good and I don’t have to teach high school anymore. Yay college!

Roanna: What has been the biggest adjustment between Minneapolis and Abu Dhabi? I couldn’t think of two places further apart from one another other than perhaps Montgomery, Alabama and Paris, France.

Michele: First biggest adjustment: Getting used to sweaty eyelids. I haven’t lived in intense heat like this before, and it took me about 3 weeks to adjust. Next big thing: it’s crowded here! Minneapolis rarely felt crowded to me. Then: Everyone here speaks some amount of English, so ostensibly it should be really easy to navigate. You’d think everyone here speaks Arabic, but they don’t. The Emirati do, as do the other people from the Middle East – but that’s a small portion of the population.  The majority of the working/service class are from all over the place. So: the native speakers of Urdu (from Pakistan), the native speakers of Tagalog (from the Philippines), the native speakers of Hindi (from India) all have different accents when they speak English. Trying to get things cleaned, repaired, delivered, or even just purchased in a shop at the mall can include a lot of, “Excuse me? What? I’m sorry?” back and forth. That’s when my white colonial guilt kicks in.

Sweaty eyelids only lasted until mid-Sept, but the heat was so amazingly intense! I was sweating off my makeup and sunscreen, dripping in my clothes, and my glasses fogged up every time I went outside. UGH. It’s much nicer now.

[And in the back and forth of our interview, there was a hurricane…]

Roanna: What was it like being out of the country and watching/hearing about Hurricane Sandy?

Michele: It was horrible watching the Sandy coverage – I felt so powerless, really wishing to be able to help. Of course, had I been in Minnesota, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything for NYC either, aside from donate to the Red Cross. Not knowing who I could talk with about what was going on, being the last to hear news from my East Coast family and friends – that was really tough. I was weepy for a few days over it. Another thing that was hard – not being in the US during the election. I did an absentee ballot in September, but really wanted to be with other Americans as the results came in. I felt very lonely.

Roanna: Do you have any creative projects or explorations in mind during your stay in Abu Dhabi? What do you hope to explore?

Michele: I want to do ALL of the street photography and start a video interview blog series of ex-pats talking about their experience. I’m also writing a few literary essays and lots of letters home to friends and family. Those are creative, right?

Roanna: Absolutely! What was the first thing you can remember creating or performing where you felt: “Oh! I want to do/be this!” It can be a super early memory, or it can be something that happened last week.

Michele: Oh jeez, I have always been a writer and performer. My mom had an old suitcase of costumes that we got to play dress up with all the time, and my friends and I were always writing plays to show our parents. I’m sure there were a lot of princesses being stranded on mountaintops, because it was California and there were mountains we could see from home. Stranded on a mountaintop is way more interesting than stranded in a shopping mall, don’t you think?

I loved that I could be someone else, and that I had an excuse to use my loud voice all I wanted. Princesses in distress are allowed to scream and cry for help. Obedient white girls in Catholic school uniforms are not. Performing gave me a chance to use my voice and express all the feelings I didn’t know what to do with.

Roanna: How did you get started in improv?

Michele: A really good friend of mine, Elisa Korenne, did a show in the 2009 MN Fringe festival. She’s a singer/songwriter who was doing songs and stories about life, etc. When I saw her doing her show, it reminded me a lot of the personal essay stuff I’d written during my MFA program. Plus: She got clapping at the end of telling her stories. I decided I wanted to enter the lottery for the 2010 Fringe, but had not done any performing since flapping a fan in The Pirates of Penzance when I was a junior in high school. At 36 years old, I signed up for an improv class because I knew I needed practice being on stage and there weren’t any classes for someone who decided to do a solo show and hadn’t ever really performed before. God bless Mike Fotis and The Brave New Workshop! Nobody there ever told me that doing Fringe was a bad idea, and I got to use my loud voice all I wanted.

Roanna: What is it about improv that attracted/interests you?

Michele: First off, I found that I laughed harder during my improv classes than I had in years. That felt amazingly good – to hang out in the land of misfit toys with and laugh my ass off at how many rules we could break at once. I wrote a blog post after my fourth week of class about everything I noticed:

http://voixdemichele.com/improv/10-reasons-you-should-take-an-improv-class-right-now/

I took all the classes BNW had to offer over the course of a year and was on a student team for Six Ring Circus for about six months. As I learned more and started performing outside of the classroom environment, I was very interested in how improv threw me against all of my prejudices and demanded that I get rid of them. All of the “You can’t say that!” and “Well I never!” became issues that I had to learn to get over in a nano-second or be the crappy performer on the stage. I love that improv demands a mental malleability and physical readiness that I’d never thought to develop before.

Roanna: Writer to writer, do you feel that improv has helped or supported your writing? (I found it to be a great cure for writer’s block.)

Michele: Yes. It definitely helped me write my show! Unfortunately, I haven’t done any performing for the last year and a half – seasonal depression and surgery and preparing for my move shut down my artist side and I’m just now waking back up again.

Roanna: Is your background and career as a teacher (talk about improv skills!) and your experience performing improv helping you adjust to your new home and culture? In what ways?

Michele: Absolutely. Teaching is half preparedness and half improvising – and I’ve been a classroom teacher for 15 years now. I think that teaching helped me be a better improviser, actually – because it has given me a lot of time to practice being in the moment with demands that come from 30 directions at once. I wrote about that, too –

http://minnesotaplaylist.com/magazine/article/teaching-performance-art

As far as how it has helped me adapt to my new home, it’s hard to say. I haven’t been all that overwhelmed by how different it is here, because Abu Dhabi is a really modern city. There are taxis and air conditioning and shopping malls. It just happens to have a lot more languages being spoken and a bunch of rules that are slightly mysterious and need decoding. I moved here expecting everything to be different – that is what I wanted – and much to my surprise, many more things are the same. I have a comfy bed to sleep in and food in my fridge and I go to work every day knowing what is expected of me.

Because of improv, I know how to say yes and not be overwhelmed when the thing I expected to happen didn’t happen. But I can’t think of any stories at the moment – I’ll chew on it for a while.

Roanna: I understand from your site that there is IMPROV in Abu Dhabi (!). Have you had a chance to see any performed? What is the scene like?

Michele: The amazing Jill Bernard got me connected to Dubo Comedy Arts and they did an improv/stand up class in Abu Dhabi in mid-September. I was still too overwhelmed by everything to attend, so boo. Didn’t make that. They are based in Dubai, about an hour and a half drive from me, so I haven’t seen any of their shows yet. I hear they’re good, though! It’s on the to-do list.

Roanna: What inspires you most? When you feel creatively at an impasse, how do you get yourself moving again?

Michele: Personal storytelling inspires the hell out of me. I’m a sucker for a hero’s journey – even if it’s about getting the strawberry ice cream stains out of the table cloth. As a teacher, I love watching people learn how to get past their own barriers and also – I get awfully proud of myself when I overcome my own. (You have no idea how many gold stars I’ve given myself for actually managing to get a job overseas, sell all my stuff, and move here! I have ALL THE STARS!)

It might seem cliché, but “Person – barrier – hard work – scary feelings – do it anyway – SUCCESS” is my favorite story. It doesn’t matter to me what the barrier is, as long as someone can be entertaining when they tell the story of getting past it.

When I get stuck, I re-read my favorites: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird By Bird – Annie Lamott, and Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. I also love listening to This American Life and The Moth.

Roanna: I call this question “I Hate You (You’re Awesome)” which is my funny way of tagging/thinking about creative envy/jealousy. There are always going to be people who are doing more things than you are or who are going a certain way. Have you experienced that? How do you feel about it? Have you had to deal with it and do you find that it inspires or inhibits you? You don’t have to name names.

Michele: Oh heck yeah, I get jealous. All of the improvisers who push past the “oh man, I’m really not good at this and I have to keep going” make me jealous. All the writers who do the same and send their work out and get published instead of letting piles of notebooks gather dust in the cabinet, all of the everyone who does art and persists with one thing until they’re successful and then keeps persisting make me jealous. I envy artists who can pick one thing and stick with it. In my head, I compare myself to them and feel bad and then go find a bag of potato chips and a beer. Then I get sick of myself and try to write something and then take a nap and carry on. I get really frustrated – and then I realize that my work is my work. However the monkeys in my head judge me, I can only do what my voice wants me to do – and if I choose to be lazy and let the gears get rusty, it’s no one’s fault but my own. External validation will come or it won’t, in the end it’s just me and the effort. I greatly admire people who know how to carry on.

You can read more about Michele and her experiences in Abu Dhabi at http://voixdemichele.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @voixdemichele.

Roanna (With Coffee)

Roanna Flowers, Easer into The Unknown

You can follow Roanna Flowers on Twitter @LegsMagee.

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