Monday, 8 September 2014

Has it all worn thin by now?

An old friend of mine, a long-term expat himself, asked me the other day if it has all worn a bit thin by now.  He was referring to my expat life. ‘Tell the truth’, he said.

I was thinking whether it has, and the honest answer was no, not really.

I think it is too easy to forget, after a few years of expat life, about all the aspects of it that attracted you in the first place. Of course, it can be challenging. But adult life generally is, no matter where you chose to spend yours.

I still quite like it, and here is my personal list why.

  • I was reading a children’s book to my toddler while in England, about a woman who thought her house was too small. A wise old man told her to bring a chicken in, then a goat, then a cow…until she could hardly move inside her own home for all the craziness around. Then he told her to kick them all back outside. Wow, she thought, my house is humongous! I feel a bit like that every time when I go back to the UK. Living in Doha makes me appreciate things in the UK that I took for granted. Fire and Safety regulations. Fresh air. Pork products and vino you can buy everywhere, any time of the day, in even the smallest shabbiest shops on the corner. Non-Pilipino waitresses, just because it feels odd having a white chick take your order. Other small, unnoticeable normalities that you don’t know you are lucky to have until you don’t get them anymore.

On the other hand, some things are definitely soooo much better in Doha! Maids! HUGE houses. The pool-any time of the year. My car. (I hope no neighbours witnessed me talking to it affectionately the first morning after I had got back.) Because it is so easy to have fabulous cars in Qatar. No taxes. No waiting anywhere. No walking. The list goes on, but…

Without going back to the UK, I am sure I would easily forget about all these privileges we have as expats here and focus too much on the negative aspects. And this gentle reminder about various things that are better in one country or the other is only possible if you live abroad as an expat and keep going back.

  • Friends and Family. Alright, I appreciate it is not quite a separate item as such but a sub-item of the above, but because of the crucial importance of it, I am allocating it a separate category. You, people who live all your life next door to your elderly parents probably have no idea what it feels like to be far away from them. You are so lucky to have them live next door to you; but because you don’t have a friggin’ clue just how lucky you are, you probably spend most of the time (that you have left together while they are alive) trying to get away from them. The same applies to old friendships. You might get too complacent and stop appreciating your old friends who live nearby. You don’t think they are good enough, or nice enough to you, or call you often enough, or remember your children’s birthdays…But, having lived away from them for a couple of years and only being able to see them for a few days at the most every summer you realise how special they are. With all their annoying imperfections. They are your old friends, who know you better than anyone else, and they still like you and miss you, even when you change (and we, expats, inevitably all change) and become this peculiar person with permanent tan and weird stories. So, when we do get to spend some time with old friends or family, we really enjoy and appreciate it. More than we might have done before.  


  • It is exciting. Because it is new. And we all know that everything new can be exciting, even if it is not necessarily better than the old. Just ask my friend who changes girlfriends every two months. Even after almost three years in Doha, I find some things wonderfully weird and fascinating. And because I know that I will not be here forever, I can easily put up with them, filing them into a local folklore category and not letting them bother me.

  • Uncertainty of the future. I have absolutely no idea when and where we are going to next. My friends in the UK keep asking when we are planning to come back, and give me incredulous looks when I say I don’t know.  One thing that is certain is that we have no certainty and no concrete plan ahead of us. To most people that would be scary, and to me…actually, pretty terrifying. But I can easily see the exciting side of it, too. You know? How can I get bored if I don’t know where my home will be next year?  And to someone like me, who gets bored too easily, this is not a bad thing. 


So, there you are. A long answer to my friend’s short question. Expat life can be uncertain. It can be nostalgic and sad at times. It can be dangerous. Yet…the whole package is somehow pretty good. Does it make any sense? Probably not, until you try it.


Saturday, 30 August 2014

This, here, or about parallel lives of expats.


Well, we are back. From what originally seemed like a very long summer break in the UK.

I have to say we had a fantastic holiday. Truly great. And, somehow, surreal.

This is, I guess, what happens to expats when they go home for a few weeks. It is not simply a holiday but a quick step into a parallel universe, this parallel life of yours, which you left behind a while ago, but never completely, not really. It is like playing a yearly role in a reality TV show, with the same characters and at the same set. And what lovely characters, what beautiful set.

It is difficult to explain, almost impossible to digest yourself, just how surreal it feels. Is this, here home? Or is it back there? Is this the real life? Here, where your job and things are, and the routine is established after a few years? Or is it back there, where you have not been for a whole year and yet, everything seems comfortingly unchanged, the same faces in the same shops, the same music on your favourite radio channel, and the same taste of Pimm's and Lemonade in the local pub, just like you remembered it.

You buy a ticket and get ready and then, just like in the scene of His Dark Materials, you cut a small hole in the air around you and suddenly, you are somewhere utterly different from your current home, only it is also your home and you soak in every familiar detail.

And then, there are those familiar faces. Friends who, after not having seen you for a whole year accept you right back in, and you are sitting there amongst them, like it is totally the norm for you to be there, and it feels like this, here, is your real life...but then, of course it is! And it feels like you have got forever yet- weeks!- but, suddenly you are packing again and you step back into that hole in the air and you are in your other, parallel life, leaving everything over there behind once again. And you sit in your home- your current home, with your current things around you, and you look at those pictures on Facebook and you can't help but think-Hold on a minute?! Did that actually happen? Recently? Only like, a week ago? You try and remember what it felt like to be back, the smile on your child's face when she saw her best friends, the amazing taste of food and the sound of the rain at night. But it takes just a few flying hours for it all to disappear and get shelved, once again, somewhere in your memory, as you quickly get settled into your This, Here life again. Until next summer then, my Over There parallel life. See you then, and please, please, please! Just try and keep everything unchanged for me once again.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Would you be my weekend friend?


Last Friday night I drunk alone. I never really do that, but this time was an exception. Having had my kids throwing up with a tummy bug for two days meant that I was stuck in the house, mainly sitting on the sofa for 48 hours. To give you a better idea of what that was like, let me just tell you that I watched 9, and that is NINE episodes of True Blood, back to back on Friday. My Spanish friend told me it had good sex in it, so I figured I should give it a go, you know? But, to be honest…the main actress, however hard I tried not to focus on that fact, was pretty ugly and had a very annoying mouth, which was rather difficult to ignore when she was an active participant in all the "good sex" scenes. The sex was a bit silly, especially the scene at the cemetery, where the vampire boyfriend (who was taking a nap in a grave)  grabbed her by the ankle and pulled himself out to the surface; and, straight away, as soon as she realised it was him, they got down to business. I just don't know if that was supposed to be exciting. I thought it was pretty creepy, but maybe I am just getting old for good vampire sex.

Anyway, you get the idea.

We did have a nice weekend planned, and that night, there was a birthday dinner we were supposed to go to. Obviously, with the poorly children, I had to stay at home, and since it was Husband's friend's party, I kindly ( I am like that, you see. ) suggested that he should go alone. And that is how, on a Friday night, I ended up stuck at home, by myself. Bored to death, exhausted by vampire sex, I felt like a drink. 'No problem', I thought to myself, 'I will call one of my compound girlfriends. Someone is surely at home, maybe also bored and wants a glass of wine'. But, of course, that was not the case. People have lives, but most importantly, families have lives. So every single friend I fancied a quick chat and a drink with that night was out with their husbands, at various social engagements. It was, after all, a Friday night.

So, having had three no's I decided to give up, and poured myself a large glass of wine. With a sigh, I returned to watching True Blood. That's pretty much the end of the story as far as my Friday night is concerned. However, it made me think about stuff. I was thinking how difficult it must be if, for whatever reason, your middle-aged life does not quite fit in, does not quite match the rest of them-the others, those people with husbands and children, happily (or not) married, attending events organised by other married people.

I thought of a few of my girlfriends who, at the age over 40, are still single. It is easy to be single when you are young and everyone else you know is mostly single. But at 40? Who do they hang out with on weekends? When everyone they know is busy with family stuff?

I thought of a lovely friend of mine who chose to have two children alone, without a husband. What does she do on Friday nights?

I thought of some other of my friends who recently got divorced. With most of their social circle made up of married couples they'd met whilst still being smugly married, what would they do on weekends?

It is not something that ever occurred to me. How different life would be right now, if I was without the other half. What would I be doing, who would I be arranging to see on weekend nights?

Something that I take for granted on the daily basis- healthy children, an annoying at times yet a pretty nice husband, a bunch of friends with their own children and (annoying at times?) husbands….is actually all part of being lucky. As most of you know, of course, I am not a religious person, so I cannot justify using words such as blessed or grateful for. But, I guess..I felt that night that I should be grateful. I thought of the day when Husband ended up in a hospital, and for a few hours I did not know what was the diagnosis, what would happen next. Just like that, in a minute of your normal routine day, things can change. Someone can leave, or die, or get horribly sick, and this typical social cell you had created can suddenly collapse spectacularly around you. And then, when that happens, do you have people around you who would still want to be your friend? Not during the week, when their husbands are off to work and they can spare an hour before school run to share a quick coffee. But on weekends. Would they be your weekend friends, even if things change? Would you have someone to have a glass of wine with on Friday nights?

I guess for those cases when the answer is 'maybe not'…. there is always True Blood.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

A wasted life?

About a month ago, I had a particularly miserable day and nobody around me knew why. Husband probably assumed it was something he had done, my visiting in-laws might have worried they over-stayed their welcome, and my maid stayed out of the way just in case. In reality, it was simply the fact that on that day, my dad would have turned 70. I was not really in the mood to try and explain that to anyone.

Thinking about his big birthday, I realised that I was not simply feeling sad because I was missing him, or felt sorry for him not having had a chance to live long enough to celebrate his big birthday. I also felt sad for his wasted life. That's the thought that kept coming into my head. Wasted.

His life, with small misfortunes and failures, attempts to get rich and endless women, gambling and thousands of cigarettes a day does not build a particularly impressive picture. Yet, my father could, should have, had a better life. He was born in a good family, he had brains, he was very sporty, he was artistic, he was talented. He did everything well. He sang beautifully and played a guitar. He had a fantastic sense of humour. With so many talents, what did he achieve at the end of his journey? I kept thinking, driving around Doha on that typical dusty hot day. Nothing, really.

Just like my aunt, who also left way too early, he seems to have wasted all those talents, shamelessly killing himself with bad habits and lazy attitude in life. And I just could not shake off the feeling of frustration and pity about that. Why, I kept thinking. Why did he waste his life so badly?

But then I remembered other things. I remembered how much he loved playing backgammon with friends on summer nights. How much fun he must have had in the younger days when he was part of the famous Baku KVN team. How much he loved women! And how eagerly they loved him back. How much he enjoyed making shashliks and smoking after dinner. How much he loved me and his other little girl, my half-sister. Hold on, I thought to myself. Was it a wasted life? What standards am I applying when trying to measure whether my father had a good life? Am I judging his successes by how much money he left behind? How many countries he travelled to? How many lives he influenced?  How many goals, whatever they were, he reached?

But what if none of that actually matters? What if what matters is how much you enjoyed little pleasures in life? What if what my dad actually really liked was womanising and smoking and playing basketball and singing to his guitar? And maybe if I could ask him now, he would say it was OK, honestly. Don't worry about my life. I smoked a lot, and read a lot of books, and slept around, and watched my children play in the sun. I had good friends, I fell in love, I loved good jokes and good music. I had fun.

Who am I to judge my father for not having looked after his health better? For not having done more with the talents he was lucky to have had, for the missed opportunities and wrong decisions? In the end,  his life, whatever I thought of it, must have been quite a nice one, actually. Not a very long one, not a very impressive one…yet, undoubtedly, full of happy moments, celebrations, naughty habits and guilty pleasures. And maybe that is okay.




Saturday, 19 April 2014

Lost in translation?

I am learning quite a lot from this experience of having a maid. The biggest discovery, really, has been that we can co-exist and understand each other surprisingly well, despite having come from two completely different ends of the world. I expected things to be much harder at the beginning, to be honest, having listened to so many funny and bizarre stories.  Like that story about a maid from Sri Lanka who tried to make sir's car shiny by rubbing olive oil on it. Or another one about a maid who was proposed a marriage by a young arabic male and asked to meet him on Cornish on Saturday morning. Only to then hear from him that he was not really planning to marry her, however for 10 riyals he would settle for a blow job right there and then. You might think this is the end of the shocking story, however the best part is of course, yet to come. She agreed, and asked my friend's maid to watch over her while she earned her tenner.

Compared to the above examples, my girl, who arrived only a month before she started with us, is pleasantly normal. The most weird thing I ever caught her doing was using a pan scourer on my non-stick frying pans. Really, is not a big deal, if you ask me.

She is a smart, quick learner and is incredibly observant.  Her English, which was really quite poor at first, is improving every day. Yet, it is not good enough for me to explain some things to her that we might do, that might, as I suddenly realised, make her think we are pretty weird.

The other day, for example, we went for lunch at the Pearl and my poor husband sat on a chewing gum some naughty little prat left on a chair in the cafe. Having a chewing gum smeared all over your backside is not a pleasant experience. We had to rush to a nearby shop and get him a new pair of shorts, as of course, he could not even sit back in the car in the old ones anymore.

Parents in law, who are visiting at the moment, had some experience in removing chewing gum from clothes though. Do not despair, they announced. We know what to do. We have to put the shorts in the freezer for a couple of days and then take it off with vinegar.

Now, I of course, was aware of the plan. Yet, when I opened the freezer the next morning and saw a pair of shorts sticking out, I was somehow unprepared for just how weird it looked. And so I wondered what my poor little maid might think when she finds sir's dirty shorts in the freezer. She might then proceed to do her chores only to discover an old metal clock my father in law placed in the fridge.

He wanted to check if it was accurate, you see. But to my maid, this behaviour might of course, mean something completely different. Disturbing even, perhaps. Maybe in her home country placing dirty shorts in the freezer is a first step in the virgin sacrificing ritual.

Oh, crap, I thought. I hope she does not run away from us. How to I explain to her that all this madness has, in fact, some logic behind it?

And it is not just maids vs expat families that face such bizarre misunderstandings. I remember my mother trying to sear the chicken on my then new in-laws' halogen hob. Or my mother in law getting in trouble with me for putting kitchen and dog towers in one washing load. (That just did not work for me, sorry.)

So really, it is surprising how, despite such crazy differences, we all still manage to live together. My mother grasped what was appropriate for an English family, just like my mother in law learnt what I considered weird ( No, thanks, I do not want to save the chips from my fish & chips dinner to thicken the soup the next day. ) And my Ethiopian girl will hopefully ( fingers crossed) trust me when I attempt to explain that none of the above methods are dangerous signs of us belonging to some spooky cult. We are all really pretty normal. Well, according to our own standards, of course.




Saturday, 29 March 2014

What makes a good event?



The weather in Doha right now, my friends, is simply beautiful. After bizarre rainstorm a couple of days ago (which once again flooded through our skylights upstairs, causing Husband and I to jump up in the middle of the night to arrange bath towels all over the landing floors…) it is all clear and sunny again. But not too hot. Just perfect.

And, sitting around the pool today, watching my visiting in-laws play with the kids in the blue water, I reminded myself that life in Qatar is pretty good. Really. What is crucial is not to forget how good things are, overall. Because, there will always be small things. And the small things in Doha are just very different. 

I was thinking about it last night at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup Finals we attended. You see, this is exactly the kind of stuff that I love about living here. When would I, let alone my in-laws (coming from North Wales, where all they really get to see is sheep shagging and an odd bunny getting snatched by a eagle on a good day) would get to attend such an unusual event? Not only that, but it was also absolutely for free, which is important to note, as that is a crucial part of the story.

So imagine how impressed my in-laws were, when I took them to watch all those muscular tiny girls and boys jump around for free, on their wedding anniversary, on the first day in Doha? Very. What a wonderful treat! they exclaimed. What a gorgeous venue! And you get to go for free! Wow, isn't this a wonderful country?

We parked easily and walked for a short while in a pleasant weather, past the Torch, towards the Dome. It is pretty cool venue, you have to admit. We were meeting some school friends, and one of them was holding premium seats for us- in the front row, right in front of the balancing beam that was due to start at 6pm. We could not believe the fun we were about to have! Free water bottles sat nearby in a case, and kids excitedly drew on the little individual marking boards they got given to put their own scores on. How much better could this get?

Suddenly, something happened that reminded me that we were in Doha. A media man climbed through and stood in front of me. 'I am going to have to put my camera here!' He said in a aggressive way, obviously expecting us to object. I glanced back. All the other seats behind us were already taken. My girlfriend, who specifically came early to secure the best seats, looked at us and smiled- 'Well, this was not really what I planned, sorry!' I was not quite sure what he expected us to do. There was nowhere to go, and we had small children with us, not to mention elderly in-laws.

Sorry, he threw casually, dragging an enormous stand and an even more enormous camera which he proceeded to install literally on top of me. I tried to fight back. 'I am not moving!' I said and made myself comfortable in the seat, but he just shrugged his shoulders and turned his back to me.

I quickly realized that I had no chances to win in that situation. And so, I had to move. Following my in-laws, I sat on the stone steps, trying not to get too annoyed by what happened.

I reminded myself that I, fortunately for all the parties involved, did not pay a penny for our tickets. Should I have paid, I would probably be prepared to fight the cameraman until the police arrived.

What's the point of this story you may ask. Well, this is just what life here is like. Everything can be perfect. Here is this beautiful venue. Here are all the free tickets, balloons, prize giving at the end and great entertainment. And then there is someone like this camera man who can come and f*** it all up, just because nothing is thought through properly. Nothing is actually professionally arranged in advance. If only!!!! There was some logic in this guy's actions...Would a media professional not know in advance, having a schedule in his hand, that he would be filming a balancing beam performance at 6pm? Would it then be so difficult-I have to ask!?- to put some notice around the front row, perhaps a tape or a sign to secure that area for the media? Rather than, five minutes before the competition was due to start, dragging a heavy camera over the heads of small children and kicking us out?

And in the end, we had a good time anyway. I reminded myself, after glaring at the guy for a few minutes, that he just had no idea how things would be done in the professional world. He was only doing his job- however well he could. Maybe he had to deal with other unprofessional people already a few times that day. Maybe he was told last minute what to film, and where to go. Maybe it was all a big surprise to him.

But, to me, this is what makes a good event. Not just a vast empty space with nice trees and the lit up Torch. Not the amazing venue and free tickets. But professionalism of people involved. The planning. The details. The respect for customers.  I guess that is just something that will have to develop with time.

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