Happy Day Off!

Canada Day 2013

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Today is Canada Day and so we have a long weekend here in Canada.  It’s another thing I enjoy about repatriating, knowing exactly when the holidays will be and that we will get time off from work (actually that’s 2 things).

We spent 8 years in the Middle East where many of the public holidays are religious ones.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year the holidays move forward about 11 or 12 days.  Many Muslim countries rely on their scientists to tell them when the holidays will fall and the dates are fixed well in advance, but the UAE still relies on a “Moon Sighting Committee” to go out into the desert (to get away from the bright city lights) and literally look for the new moon before these important events are proclaimed.  It’s a charming tradition, but not only does it mean the dates are often different in the UAE than elsewhere, it also means they’re unknown until the night before the holiday starts.

For expats this creates a bit of a problem if you’re planning a short getaway.  When you’re booking time off work you have to play Russian roulette with your vacation days, as they may or may not get used depending on when exactly the holiday falls.

To make things even more complicated there is no requirement for companies to give you a day off in lieu if the holiday falls on a weekend, and many choose not to do so, even western ones.  With Eid holidays lasting 2 or 3 days twice a year, it seemed you’d always ‘lose’ at least a day or two.

And on the topic of weekends, that too can cause problems.  When we first moved to Dubai the local weekend was Thursday and Friday.  All government offices were closed, and because the Ministry of Education was closed, all schools, even international ones, had to close too.  Many companies that did business outside of the Middle East chose to take a Friday-Saturday weekend, to avoid being out of touch for 4 days of the week.

As a result expat families with children ended up with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend-ish, which was really neither one thing nor the other.  It worked well for those who liked a day exclusively with the children and a day exclusively with their spouse (with Friday as the true family day sandwiched in between), but I found it a difficult adjustment to make.

Fortunately by the time we returned to Dubai for our second stint, they had switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, but it still took me many years to get my head around Sunday being a workday.

Here in Canada our holidays are either firm dates on the calendar (like July 1) or tied to a long weekend (like Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October).  In the years we were away they even added a new holiday – Family Day  – on the 3rd Monday in February.  In a country with a long cold winter it’s a welcome respite during the long slog between Christmas and Easter.  But enough words, it’s sunny and warm outside and the barbeque is calling . . .

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.

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.”

Expat support groups: Forums

(Sorry if you’re receiving this by email for a second time.  I goofed and hit the Publish button before I was ready and then for some reason the post disappeared altogether on the blog.  That’ll teach me to talk to my husband and blog at the same time *sigh*)

If a measure of success is longevity, then the ExpatWoman forum has to high on the list of online support groups for expats. When I moved to the Dubai for the second time, Jane Drury had just launched her website http://www.expatwoman.com (not to be confused with Andrea Martin’s successful website http://www.expatwomen.com).

Jane was a trailing spouse who following her arrival in Dubai had collated a huge amount of information, for fellow corporate spouses and then realized this information was too valuable not to share with the wider world. She launched the website in 2001 and soon found herself overwhelmed with emailed questions about life in the rapidly growing Gulf state. A forum was added to the website and I was one of the early participants, soon answering as many questions as I asked.

In time the website and forum covered the whole Gulf region and these days there are almost 10,000 active members usually with 150-200 people online at any one time and posting every few seconds. Topics vary from the mundane – where to buy grocery items – to the poignant – how to deal with a failing marriage – and everything in between. Although the language of the forum is English, many nationalities are represented and it’s THE source for information for those planning a move to the region as well as those already living there.

Unlike many expat support groups, ExpatWoman is a commercial business. However it has the feel of a volunteer organization and definitely takes its service role seriously. It makes its money from advertising on the website and limited sponsorship of its real world events. As the business has grown so has its staff, predominantly women, and many of them working part-time. I started working for EW just 2 hours a week in 2005 and gradually worked my way up to a full-time position as Events Manager, but as with all small businesses I turned my hand to many tasks, including moderation of the forum.

So what has made this online forum so successful?

1. It’s complemented by a comprehensive website. Anyone looking to learn about life in Dubai (as opposed to tourism) will find their way to this website. Over time it has become an authoritative source of practical information.
2. It’s also complemented by real world events, although it’s important to note that many forum participants never attend events and many who attend the events don’t participate on the forum.
3. The real key to its success, in my opinion, has been a moderation policy which ensures a friendly and helpful tone. As someone who has worked behind the scenes I am well aware of the time this involves. For EW it’s a team effort as the online world runs 24/7. Posters on the west coast of the USA are just starting to post their questions as would-be expat Aussies are hitting the sack.
Maintaining the right tone involves much more than deleting rude comments and spam. It involves creating a safe place where there are no “stupid” questions. Many forum users are not just first time expats, they are also new to the online world, and tart responses, text-speak and “in” jokes can easily intimidate.

What particular benefits does a forum offer over other online communication?

1. Anonymity. The number and regularity of sensitive topics discussed shows that anonymity has its advantages. Posting questions about marital abuse, troubled teens, job loss or even just the embarrassment of loneliness are all good reasons not to want to use your real name.
2. A large volume of posting doesn’t present a problem.
3. Forums usually have a search facility and separate boards can be set up for popular topics to further clarify and define discussions.
4. Moderation can be done easily and precisely. Conversation threads can be precisely edited rather than entire discussions removed and all information lost.
5. A lot of website platforms have a forum option or if you’re willing to tolerate advertising there are many free stand-alone forums out there which require no hosting at all.

In the online world ten years is a lifetime and these days forums are generally considered “old hat.” However the fact that this one continues not just to prosper but to grow demonstrates that they still have much to offer.

Can you recommend any other expat forums?  I’m very slowly working on a project to upgrade the Resources section of the Families in Global Transition website and would love to add your links.

Please remove your shoes

Are you a slipper person?  Do you remove your shoes when entering someone else’s home?  It seems to be quite a sensitive topic and one you need to pay attention to when moving to a new country.

We wore slippers at home when I was a child in England, but it was definitely a comfort thing, like changing out of your school uniform or work clothes into something loose and comfortable.  Wearing slippers or taking off your shoes in someone else’s home would have been very presumptuous, like helping yourself from the fridge and almost bordering on an insult.

When I first arrived in Canada it was mid-winter, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw plastic boot trays inside the door of every Canadian home.  In fact I thought “What a great idea!” given the slushy and salty streets of Toronto.  But as summer rolled around and the boot trays disappeared the habit of removing shoes did not and I quickly realized it was a huge faux-pas to keep your shoes on in a Canadian home.  Walking around in stocking feet or barefoot was the accepted norm for visitors.

When we moved to Azerbaijan I found they also had the shoes by the door habit.  But they took it to the next level and provided a selection of slippers for guests to wear.  My cleaning lady looked at me in horror when she realized I didn’t have any for her to change into.  Although we couldn’t communicate verbally I definitely got the message and quickly rushed off to the local bazaar to buy a supply of cheap cloth slippers in a variety of sizes.  The students who came to me each week to practise their English had their favourite pairs and would even argue if someone took “theirs.”

In the UAE which was much more multicultural, many people didn’t even keep their shoes inside – they’d be relegated to the porch or hallway if it were an apartment building.  And the steps of the mosques would be a jumble of hastily doffed footwear 5 times a day.  How frequently did someone end up with the wrong pair, I wondered?  Was it always a genuine mistake?

This weekend I saw an online discussion on the topic.  It was interesting to see different nationalities line up on each side of the debate.  Strangely both the shoes-off and shoes-on supporters argued that their custom was more clean and hygienic.  Are bare, sweaty (and sometimes dirty, bleurgh) feet preferable to shoes worn in the street?  Is it insulting to ask someone from a shoes-on society to remove their shoes in a shoes-off home?  As someone who quickly adapted to the shoes-off rule, I was surprised at the strong resistance many had to it.  Should you adopt local customs, or is it OK to keep your own when it comes to your personal living space?  Is there a happy medium?  I’m not sure I have an answer.

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!

Frederick Moments

Expat life gives us lots of magical memories that you cherish always.  In our family we call them Frederick moments.  “Frederick” is the title of a classic children’s book by Leo Lionni, one of those books that children think is funny, but make parents reach for the Kleenex.  I can’t explain the story better than the summary on Amazon.ca:

While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the dreamer and poet, whose endless store of supplies warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Frederick moments are times like these:-

A picnic on the beach in Azerbaijan with my ESL student friends.  Typical western woman, I’d spent hours making salads and sandwiches which they looked at in amazement. For them a picnic meant everyone piling in a ramshackle car, a quick stop at the bazaar to pick up fresh fruit, cheese, bread and some soft drinks, and then a day spent alternately swimming, playing and chatting.  So relaxed and easy.


Telegraph Island, Oman.  On a weekend trip from Dubai, we took a Dhow (traditional wooden boat) trip off the coast of the Mussandam Peninsula, where the Arabian Gulf narrows down to the Straits of Hormuz.  It’s the site of an old telegraph station (hence the name) and supposedly sparking the phrase “going round the bend” for the poor souls posted to this desolate spot in 1865.

My friend, Helga (pictured here), seems to attract Frederick moments with her inquisitive nature and disarmingly simple charm.  Here we were exploring the summer Majilis of the old ruler of Dubai.  Cool and calm, it was an oasis in the hustle and bustle of that modern metropolis.

I now make a mental note of Frederick moments, bookmark and file them in a special place in my mental hard drive.  There are many which I don’t have photos for, and yet they are just as clear, if not clearer in my mind than those shown here. Everyone has these “stop and smell the roses” moments, but some of my expatriate ones are the sweetest.

How expat living changed the way I cook

I wouldn’t say that I love to cook, but I do love to eat.  Last night I hauled out a recipe book which was an expat leaving gift.  As I chopped, stirred and simmered I thought about how expat life has influenced the way I cook.

Variety:  Although everyone eats more internationally these days than they used to, I’m sure that living overseas has broadened my tastes.  It’s not just been the cuisine of the countries we lived in, but also that of the many expat friends we made who have introduced us to their favourite recipes in restaurants and in their homes.

Cleanliness:  For a number of years we lived in countries where the tap water wasn’t safe to drink and food handling was questionable.  I quickly learned to sterilize fruit and vegetables by adding a baby bottle sterilising tablet (or a teaspoon of bleach) to a sink full of water and soaking for 20 minutes.  One of the joys of repatriation is not having to do that any more, but I do continue to wash things a lot more carefully than I used to.

Cooking from scratch:  Living without North American convenience foods was a blessing in that it forced me to learn how to cook many things from scratch.  Now I know how, and also how much better the food tastes, I’m reluctant to go back to bottled sauces, packet mixes and take-out.  Cooking “properly” does take more time, so I’m so grateful I can work part-time and indulge my passion for fresh vegetables and home-made dishes.

Substitution:  Although it wasn’t much of a problem in Dubai, chasing down ingredients in Azerbaijan and Egypt was almost a full-time occupation; the “hunter-gatherer” approach to shopping a friend once called it.  As a result I became a master of the art of substitution and must admit I use it still when I can’t face trekking all over town for an unusual spice, or find I’ve run out of something half way through fixing dinner.  Here’s a list I made for myself of some of the more common ones.

Eating less meat:  In 2004 my husband was being pursued for a job in Kazakhstan.  After 3 years in Azerbaijan I suspected the meat there would be equally problematic – of dubious provenance and tough as old boots – so I decided to add a few vegetarian recipes to my repertoire on the assumption that dried beans, lentils and legumes seem to be available most places.  In the end he didn’t take the job, but by then we found we enjoyed eating lighter, healthier, meatless meals.   We’re by no means vegetarian, but do eat a lot less meat than we used to.

Of course, I was very much influenced by the particular countries I lived in, so I’m interested to know if people who lived in different countries also found their cooking style changed.   How did living overseas change the way you eat?