The Repairman Cometh (again)

Ma'adi ApartmentI’ve written about repairmen before, but reminiscing with someone about our life in Cairo reminded me of my year–long struggle with air conditioning which, as the summer here in Toronto draws to a close, seems like a fitting topic for a blog post.

We were fortunate to live in a brand new apartment building for the year we spent in Cairo.  It sounded great until we got possession and I realized all the construction debris had been left behind for us to deal with … but that’s another story.

While in Azerbaijan we had the old-style window air conditioners and in Dubai full-on central air, in Cairo we had ‘split’ air conditioners, which means there’s a unit on the wall inside and the compressor sits outside, mounted on brackets.  There was one unit for each room, except the kitchen.  Why no a/c in the kitchen, I wailed?  I was told that the maid didn’t need a/c.  Unfortunately, in our case, the maid was me.  No, we didn’t live on salad for a year, but I was sorely tempted.

We arrived in January when the weather was still cool, but as the thermometer rose we decided it would be a good idea to get the compressors cleaned before firing them up.  Anyone who’s visited Cairo will know that everything, and I mean everything, is covered in dust.  You might think it’s the sand blowing in from the Western Desert, or the mummies’ tombs, but the most likely suspects are the cement factories just to the south of the city.

The Engineer arrived with his young assistant (everyone has an assistant in Egypt, sometimes the assistant has an assistant) equipped with a dustpan and brush.  To my horror he was instructed to climb out the window and perch on top of the compressor outside and brush it clean.  We were on the 8th floor – refer to my photo above to appreciate my full horror.  I felt like someone out of a Dickens novel sending a small boy up the chimney.

Fast-forward a couple of months into full-blown summer and a large puddle developed in my son’s room.  The a/c was deemed to be at fault and the Engineer was summoned again.  This time a condensate drain was needed, which required a hole to be drilled in the wall.  The assistant brought in a fearsome looking drill for this purpose, which for some strange reason had no plug on it, just bare wires sticking out the end of the cord.  The assistant’s job was to stuff the bare wires into the electrical socket while the Engineer drilled the hole (obvious serious work, if the Engineer himself did it).  Every couple of minutes the wires would fall out of the socket, and the assistant would duly stuff them back in again.  Why?  Why?  I asked myself.

All this time we had yet to receive an electricity bill.  Our neighbours, fellow Canadians working for British Gas, assured us that it would take a while because it was a new account, but as the months ticked by we grew increasingly concerned about how large the bill would be when it finally came.  I carefully socked money away in the lockable drawer in our bedroom, crossing my fingers it would be enough.  We exhorted our son to  “Turn that damn a/c down, it’s like the Arctic in here!”

Finally as September rolled around and we were told another move was on the cards, I decided something had to be done.  I kidnapped OH’s assistant from the office one morning and we headed off to the electricity company in search of a bill. We trailed from room to room, from one disinterested clerk to another.  Huge ledgers were consulted (no sign of computers here) and finally we were told that the bill was paid.  How could that be?  Who had paid the bill?  Further consultations revealed that our benefactor was British Gas.  Aha, a lightbulb moment!  There were several British Gas families in our building, including our neighbours, obviously our bill was being paid in error.  Back to the office and OH got on the phone to the accountant at British Gas.  Long and short of it, he completely denied they were paying our bill.  No amount of argument would persuade him otherwise.  But by then we were getting wise to bureaucratic incompetence and denial.  To this day we suspect he just didn’t want to admit a mistake had been made.

As we started to pack up for yet another international move, the bedroom drawer offered up a cash bonus to mitigate our disappointment at leaving Cairo so soon.

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.

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.

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?

Memories of Cairo

I have a particular affection for Egypt, having lived in Cairo for a year with my family.  On Monday my husband said “I wish we were there,” as we watched the massive and inspiring demonstrations in Tahrir Square, but since then things have turned violent and the outcome is still uncertain, so I suspect that like many others by now we’d be queuing at the airport.

Although the political ramifications are huge, what I think about most is the fate of the average Egyptian, the kind of people we knew on a day-to-day basis.

What has happened to Mr Salah, my husband’s driver?  We quickly learned from him that Egyptians like to be addressed in what, to us, seemed a more formal style, so he was always “Mr” Salah.  His English was shaky (although far better than my Arabic) and he often got words confused.  When driving us past the Egyptian Museum (in Tahrir Square) he proudly waved his arm at what he called “The Egyptian Limousine.”  :)

What has happened to Magdi, the taxi driver who worked from the taxi stand at the end of our street?  Once a week he’d ferry my husband and son to their RC car club meeting, my husband hanging on to the passenger door for dear life, so it wouldn’t swing open as they went round corners.

And Magdi’s colleague, Mr Adel?  The first time he picked me up from the supermarket he told me I didn’t need to give him directions because he already knew where I lived, and I should tell my son it was alright for him to answer when he said good morning to him on his way to school .  It was only then that I realized what a small “village” I lived in and that all the locals already knew all about the new family in Digla.

Has Dr Ghaly’s family medicine practice been affected?  Do the expatriates still gape with amazement as he summons his assistant with a bell to bring him a pen so he can write a prescription?

Does the unlikely Engineer Mohammed still own the knitting wool shop in Horia Square, where I used to buy supplies for my craft group?

And does Engineer Gamal still bring his apprentice to clean the air conditioning units, perching on top of them with a dust pan and brush, 9 floors up, much to my horror and amazement?

We lived in Cairo through 2001 and after that dreadful day in September, the biggest worry for all these people was the effect it would have on the Egyptian economy.  Their reaction may at first seem heartless, but the reality is they live a precarious hand-to-mouth existence and are very dependent on the expatriate and tourist trade.  Fortunately in 2001 Egypt remained peaceful and there were no evacuations, but how are they coping now?

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Meet Father Frost

I first met Father Frost (Ded Moroz – Дед Мороз) in the early 1990’s.  My husband brought him home from one of his many business trips to what was then called the FSU (Former Soviet Union).   I was enchanted; I loved his “orthodox” outfit and typically Soviet naivety.  Of the many gifts my husband was given during his travels (which ranged from exquisite china to a shovel built for a midget) he was my favourite.

Although the roots of Father Frost go back to pagan beliefs, over the years he adopted traits from Saint Nicholas and latterly has essentially become the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus.  The main differences are that he brings gifts at New Year, rather than Christmas and is accompanied by Snow Maiden, his grand-daughter.  All this was explained to me several years later when we moved to Azerbaijan.  A group of university students used to visit me once a week to practise their conversational English and from them I learned a lot about Azerbaijan and Soviet Union traditions.

The first two years we were in Baku we travelled to spend Christmas with family.  But the last year we decided to celebrate “at home.”  It was a bit of a challenge as all our Christmas decorations were in storage in Canada and there was nothing in the local stores.  Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and even the few Russians living there who were Christian would not be celebrating until January 7, the Orthodox Christmas.  Fortunately a departing expat gave me a small table-top tree, but I think my students realized that I was missing many of the traditions from home.

The few expats who were in town got together on Christmas Day for a pot-luck dinner at a friend’s apartment.  Afterwards we lit candles, dimmed the lights and sang carols. It was a simple yet memorable evening.  But the icing on the cake that year was a knock on my apartment door on New Year’s Eve.  Yes!  Who should it be but Father Frost himself and Snow Maiden.  Bahruz, one of my students and his girlfriend had travelled across town, carefully donning their outfits in the stairwell of my apartment building.  We laughed and hugged as I let them in.  I was so impressed that they had gone to all that trouble to surprise me.

Every year as I unpack my Christmas decorations they bring back happy memories – the tarnished baubles from my childhood, the beautiful blown glass ornaments I bought in Egypt, the clumsily sewn decorations I made at Stitch ‘N Bitch in Dubai – yet the one that makes me smile the most is Father Frost.

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Help at home

Ask any expat about household help while living overseas and they’ll have a story to tell you, often not a good one.  For many westerners, going overseas is the first time they employ a maid, a gardener or a driver and our inexperience shows.  We’re uncomfortable with strangers poking through our physical and psychological dirty laundry and usually end up expecting less and paying more than the going rate, making ourselves unpopular with the locals. But every once in a while there’s a happy story . . .

Tania was my cleaning lady in Baku.  After a disastrous first attempt with a woman sent from my husband’s company, I smartened up and asked my new expat friends for a referral.  Tania cleaned for the American family upstairs and already knew we westerners liked hot water, lots of detergent and different cloths for the toilet and sink – hurrah!   She was hired.

At first I thought it was a disadvantage that she didn’t speak a word of English, particularly as my Russian was non-existent at the time, but we managed with lots smiles and pantomime.  However as my language skills slowly improved with lessons, I began to see the benefits.  You see Tania loved to talk.  She came to me in the afternoons, and as I knew she’d been working all morning, I’d sit her down for a few minutes in my tiny kitchen, we’d have a cup of tea and a slice of cake and she’d chat away to me.

She talked to me in very basic Russian, like a mother talking to a toddler.  Soon I began to understand at least some of what she was saying.  She’d tell me about her family, her husband who couldn’t get a job and her son who she wanted to go to university so he could avoid military service (she was worried about the prevalence of TB in the army barracks, a not unwarranted concern).  She’d tell me about her church, their services and Sunday outings.  She was a born-again-Christian and her conversation was peppered with “Слава Богу” (praise God).  But best of all she’d tell me the gossip about all the other western families she cleaned for, who was untidy, who spoiled their children, who treated their driver badly and what new purchases they’d made.

Fortunately I didn’t have many skeletons to hide and was happy to answer her many questions about what I was cooking for dinner, my house in Canada and what to her seemed like an apartment full of wonderful gadgets.  All this was a considerable linguistic challenge and we were constantly running to my Russian dictionary, but it was a great boost to my growing vocabulary and fluency.

Convinced we weren’t eating properly she’d sometimes bring me huge cauldrons of borscht, enough to feed an army.  In return I loaned her videos of Mr Bean.  She taught me the local tradition of keeping a row of cheap slippers, just inside my front door, for the benefit of visitors. When I threw out my son’s socks because they had holes in, she humbled me by retrieving them from the bin so should darn them and give them to children in her building.

Her eyesight was weak, but vanity (and perhaps economy) held her back from wearing glasses.  As a result her cleaning wasn’t always top notch.  But no matter, she had a big heart and as a teacher of language and local culture, her value to me was without price.

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Water, water everywhere . . .

“The only reason there isn’t more bacteria in the tap water is because you can’t fit any more in it” said the doctor in the only western medical practice in Baku when we first arrived.  Water, the lack of it and the cleanliness of it, dominated our lives when we first arrived in Azerbaijan.  At that time (1996) bottled water wasn’t available so my husband’s company provided us with a small distiller, which produced about 3 or 4 gallons a day if we ran it 24/7.  It was just enough for drinking, coffee, tea and mixing up the powdered milk we used.

Bath water was a whole other issue.  We faced daily water cuts, often in the evenings, so we’d scramble to get dinner cooked, eaten, dishes washed and everyone clean and into their pjs as quickly as we could.  We didn’t always make it and sharing one tub of bathwater between three of us became a common occurrence. We lived with buckets of water (just in case) standing around the apartment and if a friend called to cancel a trip out because “the water just came back on” we quite understood.

When we moved to Cairo 4 years later bottled water was easily available but we struggled with the water pressure in the taps because we lived on the 8th floor.  A shout of  “mafeesh may-ya” (no water) down the intercom to the bahwab (doorman) would usually result in him kicking the pump into action, but still the shower oscillated between freezing cold and scalding hot every few seconds, invigorating but not very enjoyable.

We arrived in Dubai at the height of summer, with temperatures in the high 40s.  “There’s something very wrong with the plumbing,” I announced to my husband, as I emerged from the shower looking like a boiled lobster, eyeing the steam rising from the toilet bowl with suspicion, “I think they’ve got it all hooked up backwards.”  Later I discovered that most buildings had water storage tanks on the roof and in the summer the temperature of the “cold” water supply was hot enough to boil an egg.  Expats already in the know explained I needed to turn off the hot water tank inside my apartment, let the water cool to the air conditioned indoor temperature and then simply reverse the taps I used; use the hot tap for cold water and vice versa.

Today is World Blog Action Day and the topic is Water.  One thing I learned from living overseas is that water is a precious resource and one we take too much for granted in the developed world.  Not only should we conserve it but we should work towards providing everyone with a clean and easy accessible supply of it.  We’re not there yet.  If you check out the Blog Action Day page there are various ways you can support the UN’s efforts to bring clean, safe water to millions globally.

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