From here to Dubai

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The Vazelakis family—Dad Dimitri, sisters Marie and Helena, mom Elise, and brothers Alex and Nic—poses for a photo in the middle of a Dubai desert in March. Photo by Amanda Minnie

Life for the Vazelakis family, who have spent their entire lives in Malibu, was turned upside down when they moved to the Middle East.

By Catalina Wrye / Special to The Malibu Times

What is the most dreaded thing a teenager can hear from their parents? You’re grounded? You can’t go to the Lady Gaga concert? We’re penniless?

Not even close. Here’s a hint. It involves packing up your belongings, leaving your childhood home, saying goodbye to friends and starting over. Yes, that dreaded phrase no teenager ever wants to hear is … “We’re moving.”

In the fall of 2010 that is exactly what lifelong Malibu residents Helena, Marie, Nic and Alex Vazelakis heard from their parents, Elise and Dimitri. The Vazelakis family has spent their entire life in Malibu. The four children attended local schools, participated in sports and have been active members of the community. But in the summer of 2010 when their father was offered a job not so close to home, all bets at a normal teenage life in Malibu were off.

The question was, where were they moving? Westlake Village? Burbank? Out of state? Not even close. Their dad’s job was taking them across the world, to a place called Dubai.

 “It was first brought up as a hypothetical question so we didn’t think much of it,” 15-year-old Helena Vazelakis said.

The thought of abandoning their entire Malibu life didn’t seem real until the final decision was made several months later, she said. 

Unlike other teens who would have done anything to stay home, from running away to hiding in the neighbor’s closets, the Vazelakis clan took the move in stride.

When asked how they were convinced to go, Marie rolled her eyes, and said,  “Like we had a choice.”

Nic, who had just completed his junior year at Malibu High School, was the most upset.

“I wasn’t too happy, not so much because of Dubai, [but] more because I was leaving the place where I grew up,” he said.

Older brother Alex could breathe a sigh of relief since he was in the middle of his junior year at UCLA.

Dubai is far,  both in distance and culture-8,330 miles and 16 hours by plane. Dubai is one of the seven emirates, also known as United Arab Emirates, and is located south of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. It is about as far as you can get from the Malibu lifestyle. 

The Vazelakis family came home this summer to visit friends and family.

Both Helena and Marie said one of the things they miss most about Malibu is the cool weather.  The temperatures in Dubai are in the 90s to 100s Fahrenheit, with 80 percent to 95 percent humidity. But weather is only a part of what they had to get used to.

“It was a shock,” Marie said. “It was all desert, nothing green at all.” 

Helena recalled the same “isolating, desert-y” feeling until, she said, “We got into the city and the skyscrapers were so overwhelming they really caught my attention. But I felt a little more at home when I saw Pizza Hut and TGI Fridays.”

They spent the first couple of weeks exploring their new home. They took boat trips in the marina, discovered local farmers’ markets, and rode dune buggies through the desert. Marie and Helena say they remember it as feeling like they were on vacation, and that they would eventually head home-that is until school began. Even though the school campus in Dubai was brand new and beautiful they felt isolated, as if they had landed on another planet. As for friends, the children said their classmates are “from all over the place: Canada, India, France, America, Pakistan, Iran, just everywhere.”

Their brother Nic said a typical night in Dubai is just a little different from Malibu.

“There’s no hanging out, everything has to be planned, but it ends up oddly similar,” he said. “We usually go to the mall or see a movie.”

There are things to do, like “Ski Dubai,” a ski mountain located inside the Mall of the Emirates that has a total of five runs. Nic said,  “It’s no Mammoth, but it’s a nice break from the heat.” 

Moving to an Islamic country was a culture shock for the Vazelakis family. Although Dubai is a sophisticated country, with ex-patriots from many other countries, the cultural differences between Malibu and Dubai are glaringly apparent in daily life the family said. Nic recalled one day when he and his brother Alex were riding in a cab. Suddenly, without warning, the cab driver blasted a prayer station as if Allah himself was calling down from the heavens.

“It was so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves talk,” Nic said.

Mom Elise had a similar experience with her cell phone. At 5 p.m. on her first evening after arriving in Dubai, her phone pinged. Expecting a text she discovered the ping was a daily call to prayer.  

“I knew I wasn’t in Malibu anymore,” Elise said. 

The transition was going to be a challenge, but a challenge the Vazelakis’ were ready to face head-on. Throughout the next couple of months they realized the move had its perks, like going into the middle of the desert and riding camels. Also, Dubai is near some of the most interesting places in the world. So far they have made the trek to Turkey and plan to visit Cairo in the fall, and Italy is just a short plane ride away. 

 “Actually, our first  few months there have been pretty adventurous and life-changing,” Marie said.

Even though their stay in the Middle East is for a relatively short time, (Nic will come back in one year, and Marie and Helena in two years to attend college in Southern California), it is a stay they say they know will impact their lives and is something they will never forget.