The Magic Socket

The Magic Socket

The Magic Socket was located just beneath the water heater

We had a 7-hour power outage the other evening due to a bad storm, which is pretty unusual for Toronto.

In the late 90s in Baku power cuts were a regular event, usually lasting several hours and sometimes days.  Coupled with daily water cuts, it made life rather complicated, but you learned to cope.  We had several large rechargeable lanterns, a battery radio, a gas stove for cooking and a gas fireplace for heat.  But our real savior was the Magic Socket.

We discovered it soon after arriving.  Our washer and dryer were located in the bathroom of our apartment and mysteriously when the power went out the washing machine continued to work. Vitaly, the electrician, discovered a wire snaking its way out of the kitchen window and down the back of the building, and came to the conclusion that the socket was hot-wired to the street lights.  As the streetlights usually stayed on when our building lost power, we were golden.

From then on, whenever the power went out, we’d connect several extension cords in sequence and move this magical source of power around the apartment as and when needed.  In the morning it would be in the kitchen so we could run the coffee maker and then the toaster.  Then it would move to the bedroom so I could dry my hair.  When everyone had left for work and school, I fired up the computer to check my email.  Whenever it wasn’t in use elsewhere we’d plug in the freezer.  If you think several extension cords plugged together sounds like a dangerous arrangement, you’re right.  But we were already living with cars without seatbelts and a leaky gas stove; dodgy wiring didn’t seem so bad.

So the other night as we scrambled in the dark looking for candles and a flashlight with a working battery, I realized how unprepared we are for a power cuts here in Canada compared with when we lived in Baku.  And I missed my Magic Socket.

These are the good old days

St Johns churchyard, York Mills, Toronto, Ontario

When we lived in Baku, on days when life proved particularly challenging, such as the water or power being off for longer than usual, when loneliness and culture shock overwhelmed us or we pined for foods from home (broccoli, lettuce, Kraft Dinner), we would end our moaning with a wry smile and say “One day, these will be the good old days.” We laughed then, but over time memory is kind, and sooner than expected we looked back fondly at our life there, even the things we struggled with the most.

By the time we got to Egypt I was getting wise to this, particularly as I had realized that these assignments were very unpredictable in duration. I knew I had to make the best of every day there. So like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter I started consciously storing up memories, both good and bad. While bemoaning the dusty, broken and often totally absent sidewalks in what must be one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities, I took time to notice the beauty of the jacaranda trees and take pleasure in exchanging a “sabah el nour” with the taxi drivers at the end of my street.

Later in Dubai, life was much more comfortable, but I still took care to pause and consciously note a special memory. Sometimes it would be something beautiful, like Tai Chi practice on the breakwater, under a new moon with the waves gently lapping below us, and sometimes it would be something mundane, like my daily trip to the grocery store in the late afternoon just as the heat was abating. Either way, I knew that at some point in the future I would look back on that moment and say, those were the good old days.

I’m aware that what I’m extolling is called seizing the day (carpe diem), living in the moment, and is something that we all should be doing, no matter where we are. But for expats it’s important, particularly for those who are highly mobile and know their days in that particularly place are limited. Many of us try to pack our time full of exotic trips and special experiences, but it’s also important to soak up the everyday events, the little things that piece by piece make up the jigsaw of our lives.

Right now I go out to work 4 days a week. Each morning I walk to the subway through a pleasant, leafy residential area and pass this very English looking churchyard pictured above. It’s a beautiful walk, made all the better by the changing seasons, something I missed very much while living in the Middle East. I’m very happy in my job and have no plans to leave, but I also know that nothing lasts forever and neither will this daily ritual. So each morning as I walk, think and listen to the birds sing, I remind myself that these too are the good old days. Some things don’t change, even for repatriates.

Do you have an expat escape plan?

Baku fire“Get out, the building’s on fire!”  What would you do?  What would you grab?  How many of us have given that serious thought, much less planned for it?

When we moved to Baku we were advised to always have a wad of cash on hand (in an easily convertible currency) in case we had to leave in a hurry.  This was 1996 and incoming BA flights diverted to avoid flying over Grozny, just the other side of the Caucus mountains and Azerbaijan itself had only relatively recently signed a truce with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

We called it our “running way money,” and we kept it under the ice cream in our chest freezer, the only place in the apartment with a lock and key.  One thousand dollars of cold hard cash (quite literally) in new bills.

Fortunately we never had to evacuate for security reasons.  In fact Baku turned out to be a very safe place to live, but there was a morning when we did have to get out in a hurry.

At 6am one Tuesday morning we woke to a loud pounding on our door.  A quick glance through the peep hole revealed my American neighbour, clad in her nightgown.  “The building’s on fire, we need to get out.  Now!”  I could already see tendrils of smoke drifting up the stairwell and the alarm in her eyes told me this was serious.  I shook my son awake (he’d sleep through WW3).  My husband grabbed the passports and the running away money.  I grabbed my jewelry roll in the bedside drawer together with our coats and we headed out the door.

The source of the smoke was an electrical fire in a single storey garage attached to the back of the building.  Hardly surprising given the poor state of the wiring (click on the photo to enlarge it and you’ll what I mean).  In fact it’s amazing we didn’t have fires every day.  You’ll be glad to hear it was extinguished before it did any damage to the main building and soon we were able to return to our apartment and get on with our day.

But this episode highlighted for me the importance of always knowing a) how to exit my home quickly and b) exactly what to grab and take with me.  We started keeping everything in one place (passports, money, important documents), together with a bag we could quickly scoop it all into.

While this is good policy for anyone, it’s particularly important for expats.  Passports usually contain your residence visas and important documents issued in your home country may be impossible to replace without showing up in person.

Present day technology, including cloud storage and mobile devices has given us many more options for keeping things safe.  Documents can be scanned, photos, music, videos and even books can be digital and stored online.  My mission in 2012 was to make my life as paperless as possible and I’ll be sharing some of my favourite tools and experiences in upcoming posts.

A Middle Eastern Christmas

IMG_0345They say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and that certainly seems to be true in our household this Christmas.

Christmases overseas were spent pursuing the British traditions of my childhood – a decorated tree with gifts piled beneath it and dinner of turkey with stuffing, brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes and of course mince pies and Christmas cake in abundance.  None of which was an easy achievement when living in Muslim countries and often involved shopping for vital ingredients and supplies while on summer vacation (Christmas crackers and mincemeat in August?  Hmmm).  It also involved learning to cook a lot of things from scratch, as there were no microwave stuffing mixes or pre-basted turkeys in Baku in 1998.

When we first returned to Canada I enjoyed the convenience of having everything to hand just when I needed it, but this year, having cooked a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, the thought of doing it all again so soon seemed, well, blah.  A foodie friend (who will also be my guest on Christmas Day) suggested a lamb tagine and the idea caught my imagination.  Why not a Middle Eastern themed Christmas Dinner?  After all, Mary & Joseph wouldn’t have been tucking into turkey and cranberry sauce all those years ago, more like hummus and tabouleh.

So now here I am again tracking down elusive ingredients like tahini paste, sumach and rose water as I prepare for the big day next week.  I’ve pulled out the cook book which friends in Dubai gave me as a leaving present and I’m chopping and blending as I cook from scratch, just as I did in my days in Baku.

Seems no matter where I am, I’m thinking of someplace else.

There’s a special place in hell for expats …

… who don’t help other expats.*

When I first moved to Azerbaijan in 1996, the online world was in its infancy, and although the company provided us with practical help (housing, school, shipping, etc) there was no orientation or cultural training. I was on my own. The first expat women I met were wives of my husband’s colleagues working for his company. Another mother of two of the western children at my son’s school was working at her embassy. I frequented the handful of stores catering to westerners and never saw another western woman. In the end I assumed there probably weren’t many non-working expat women like me. Many afternoons were spent staring out of my apartment window, happy my husband had a good job, happy my son was settling in school, happy to be having the adventure of a lifetime, but desperately lonely.

When I learned that an expat neighbour (also working) belonged to an international women’s club I asked her how to join. She said she’d enquire but came back and told me they weren’t accepting new members at that time. I was devastated. Later I learned that the club had a byelaw about maintaining a balance between local vs expatriate members  and that for a while they suspended taking new members. To this day I don’t know which is worse, that a club for expats should ever close its doors to new members, or that my neighbour didn’t at least offer to introduce me to some of the women outside of club meetings.

Five years and two countries later, I found myself in Egypt. By then, I was a much more experienced and self-confident expat wife.  I thought I knew the ropes.  I joined a thriving expat community centre, took language classes, joined craft and bridge groups, volunteered at my son’s school, did everything to put myself out there and meet people. And while I certainly met lots of people and had a busy life, in the year I was there I never found a group I really wanted to hang out with, or someone I could truthfully call a friend.

Four months after arriving in Azerbaijan a new child arrived at the tiny international school. His mom, a veteran expat wife, quickly sussed out where the other women were getting together and soon I had a circle of not just expat but also local friends, some of whom remain friends to this day.

After a year in Egypt we were transferred to the UAE and a kind company wife immediately phoned and invited me to join a craft group, which became a springboard to all kinds of friendships and opportunities. I never looked back.

These experiences, good and bad have left me forever aware of the importance of support for expat spouses. It needn’t be complex or expensive and sometimes it’s best left to the spouses themselves.  Back home now in Canada and working, I have less time to devote to real-world expat groups and yet I’m finding new ways to connect online. Next example of successful online support groups, coming up ….

*Adapted from Madeleine K. Albright’s quote “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

English As She Is Spoke*

When I first arrived in Canada it came as quite a surprise to me to discover I spoke a different language, despite having emigrated here from an English speaking country (the UK).  Aisha, a more recent arrival, wrote a great blog post listing the new words she’s had to learn and I made the following comment.

“I will always remember my first day of working in Canada in 1979. I was sent downstairs to the coffee shop to buy coffee and muffins. I looked high and low for “muffins” but all I could find were “buns”   Returning without them, a patient but amused colleague had to take me back down again and explain what “muffins” were in Canada.”

Like many immigrants I was determined to pick up the lingo as soon as possible in order to become “Canadian,” and I quickly learned to say “tomayto” and “garbage” instead of “tomahhto” and “rubbish.”

While this was my first encounter with another form of the English language, it certainly wasn’t the last.  In Baku I discovered a surprising number of locals were fluent in English, even though they’d never met a native English speaker.  All their studying had been done from textbooks written in the 1950s and long playing gramophone records of similar vintage from the BBC.  As a result they all spoke like the Queen ;)  You can imagine their confusion when they encountered English speaking oil workers from Aberdeen and Houston.

I frequently found myself playing the role of interpreter between the English speaking expats.  “I’m going for ma messages, hen” (I’m going shopping, dear) would baffle the Texans, while any American reference to “fanny packs” would turn the Scots pink with embarrassment.

Amaliya, my Russian teacher, once asked me how to pronounce “ask.”  Was it a long “a” as in “park” or a short one as in “pack?”  She wasn’t happy with my answer that both were correct.  In fact even within the UK both are correct, depending on which part of the country you’re from, and don’t even get me started on my Louisiana friend who would say “Can I aks you a question?”

In Dubai there were South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders with their breezy slang, “no worries, mate” and “come for a Barbie” as well as the Indian tailor who made me “a trouser” (pair of pants), the Pakistani taxi driver who picked me up from the “backside” (rear) of my building, and my young Filipino friends who went “malling” (shopping) at the weekend.  This funny blog post lampooning “Dubai English” which it describes as a cheerful combination of Arabic, English, Hindi/Urdu and Tagalog spoken with a sing-song accent will make you smile if you’re familiar with any of those cultures.

I love the fact that so many people have taken English and changed it to suit their circumstances, whether as a first, second, third language.  Not only does it make life much easier for me, lol (my attempts to learn other languages haven’t met with much success) but it also makes for a bubbling hot pot of words and phrases that tickle my senses.

Now that I’m back in Canada I’m doing my best to speak “Canadian” again, but find I’m reluctant to give up all the fun vocabulary I’ve picked up along the way.  Perhaps I’ll settle for speaking a bit of everything; it suits my new hybrid identity.

*”English As She Is Spoke” is the title of a 19th century book intended as a Portuguese/English phrase book, notorious for its dreadful but humorous translations.

Expat Kitchens – the good, the bad and the ugly

Miss Footloose’s post on her bizarre new kitchen (and bathroom) in Moldova, got me thinking about the sheer number and variety of kitchens I’ve lived with while we were overseas.

The first one in Azerbaijan had a magnificent floor, and the cupboards weren’t bad, but the oven didn’t work and the fridge wouldn’t get colder than 13C in summer.  And let’s not talk about the cockroaches and those ghastly pink wall tiles which were covered with layers of grease when we arrived.

Kitchen number 2 in Azerbaijan was a huge improvement.  It was literally the apartment above the old one, so essentially the same layout, but soooo much nicer and with brand new appliances that actually worked!

Kitchen number 1 in Dubai was in villa and certainly was large enough.  But which bright spark decided on the white floor tiles?  With a constant trickle of sand blowing in under the ill-fitting door, all it took was a few drops of water to turn it into mud.  That floor was never clean for longer than 5 minutes (during which this photo was taken).

Our kitchen in Cairo was as lovely as it looks . . . apart from the complete lack of air conditioning.  The landlord told us we were supposed to have a maid to cook for us, hence no need for air conditioning in this room.  Unfortunately it was me who was literally sweating over a hot stove.

Dubai kitchen number 2 was the largest kitchen I’ve ever had.  It was so big that I never did fill all the cupboards and so some were given over to spare bedding and hobby supplies.  It had a great view facing west with some fabulous sunsets.

Dubai kitchen number 3 was a lot smaller, but open plan to the living and dining room, which I liked.  I hate being shut away in another room when I’m cooking as I like to be able to chat and socialize while I chop and stir.

Last one – kitchen number 4 in Dubai (yes, we moved a lot).  This was the smallest of all.  So small in fact that there were more appliances than cupboards.  It’s a good job the supermarket was only a 5 minute walk away as I really couldn’t store more than a day or two’s food at a time.

Interestingly, whether well or poorly equipped, large or small, I still managed to turn out pretty much the same meals without too much difficulty.  A valuable lesson learned, now that we’re contemplating renovating our kitchen in Canada because now I know that spending thousands on fancy layouts and equipment will do nothing to improve my cooking skills!