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.

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 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!

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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