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.

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.

Laugh out loud: Diplomatic Incidents by Cherry Denman

That middle-aged women snorting on the subway this past week was me.  No, I’m not going senile, or at least not yet, I was reading Cherry Denman’s hilarious “Diplomatic Incidents,” billed as the memoir of an (un)diplomatic wife.  Yes, it is a little over-the-top in places, but let’s face it, the life of the average expat, is pretty unbelievable at the best of times.

Although she’s lived in Libya, Cyprus, Hong Kong and China, Cherry opens her story by confessing that she’s not an enthusiastic traveller.

“Abroad means dodgy lavatories and pillows dribbled on by other people.  It means taxi drivers in string vests and baby-faced policemen with guns.  It’s hard work, and it’s sweaty and uncomfortable.”

Cherry takes us in orderly fashion from arrivals and departures, through transport, entertaining, maids, children, health, visitors, home leave and celebrating holidays away from.  If you’ve lived overseas you’ll be familiar with many of the situations she describes, pedantic bureaucracy, unsuitable accommodation, crazy driving and the continual search for familiar foods from home.

And which expat woman would deny the truth in this?

What keep me going are the crowds of slightly lost, homesick, wonderful women I have found wherever I have ended up.  Each one is creating her own small version of her homeland around her and wearing it like a protective snail-shell, tying to make the puzzles of everyday a little easer to cope with.  The simple cry of “Does anyone know where to buy loo paper?” can bond a group of women in a matter of seconds. 

If you like the British style of sarcastic and self-deprecating humour, you’ll find it impossible not to laugh out-loud.  This is definitely not a book to read in a quiet doctor’s waiting room.

Expatriate Time Travel

I didn’t expect to travel through time as well as space when we first moved overseas.  Yet that’s exactly what happened when I gave up my job moved overseas to Azerbaijan with my husband and 9-year-old son.  Not only did I move almost 6,000 miles I also travelled back 30-odd years to a time when mothers stayed home, cooked from scratch and met their friends for coffee mornings and afternoon tea.

According to the oft-quoted Permits Foundation survey, of the women who follow their men overseas 90% work before they leave, but only 35% work while they’re on assignment.  I willingly gave up working because at the time I was close to burn-out.  My husband travelled internationally frequently and often for weeks at a time, I had a child who was usually the last to be picked up from daycare yet had reached an age when he needed a parent to support him with homework, I had a house and a large garden to care for and no extended family for support.  So the chance for some time out was just as good an opportunity for me as the career move was for my husband.

I found myself in a place where convenience food didn’t exist, where people still shopped at the markets on a daily basis and no-one had heard of 24/7.  In other words, I became my mother, circa 1960.  It was a huge culture shock, quite apart from the fact that I was in another country.  Thank goodness I had the sense to bring my mother’s edition of “Cookery Illustrated and Household Management “ 1936 edition.  Although I’d often laughed at those instructions that began  “Draw, singe and truss a medium-sized turkey . . . “ I now welcomed the detailed instructions for home-made soups, stews and baked goods.

So what did I learn other than sage & onion stuffing and macaroni and cheese don’t have to come from a box?  Well I instantly noticed an improved quality of life for all 3 of us.  My son went from reading at a grade 2 level to a grade 4 level in less than 6 months.  My husband could enjoy 2 full days of relaxation at the weekends instead of running around with me doing chores.  And I caught up on 9 years of sleep deprivation, worked out on a regular basis, had time to explore my new surroundings and developed a wide circle of  friends.

Looking back, I can see that the volunteer work I threw myself into was an attempt to satisfy the professional working woman in me and I always cringed whenever I faced a form with the box every expatriate spouse dreads:  “Occupation.”  Yet it took a surprisingly long time for coffee mornings to wear thin and a genuine desire to return to the working world to surface.

I’ve just started a new job (my 3rd since repatriating 2 years ago).   Since returning home I’ve travelled forward in time to a place where many of my contemporaries hold high level, professional positions and my struggle to find a niche in the working world has not been easy.  My new position is part-time and not particularly well-paid or high status and yet I’m happy with it, for me, for now because it gives me the best of both worlds I’ve lived in.  I’m very fortunate that living overseas and “time travel” gave me the opportunity  to try out another way of living and the wherewithal to continue to do so now that I’m back.

Repatriation – One Year On

Most trailing spouses suffer from an identity crisis when they first move overseas.  But for me the crisis came when I repatriated.

At the time we left Canada to move to Azerbaijan 15 years ago, I was happy to toss away my old identity.  I had a career which occupied me 50 hours a week, my son was always last to be picked up from daycare and I had a house and large garden to look after.  With a husband who travelled 50% of the time I used to joke that I was a single mom without dating privileges.  Giving up all that stress and hard work to stay home and bake cookies was bliss.  I spent 10 years catching up on my sleep deficit alone!  Finally I had time to spend time with girlfriends – other trailing spouses – indulge in hobbies and see new and exciting places.  What wasn’t to like about my new identity as a trailing spouse?

But my lack of a career did eventually start to gnaw away at me.  It bothered me that I had no answer to the question on forms which asked for “occupation.”  When my son left for university I found some part-time work and then a full-time job supporting other expatriate women.  I was confident, happy and knew exactly, who I was.  And then came repatriation.

Suddenly I wasn’t an expat anymore.  I wasn’t even a trailing spouse.  I had no job.  I was invisible.  I didn’t know who I was anymore.  It was intensely frustrating, humiliating even that a 14 hour plane ride could erase my identity so completely.  I threw myself into job-hunting and  took a job I knew was wrong for me from the get-go, thinking it would help me find my feet.  But if anything it made things worse and took my self-esteem to a new low.  The urge to stay home and curl up in a corner with a blanket over my head was overwhelming.

Only now, more than a year after returning home, can I say I’m gradually putting my life back together again.  Through volunteering, finding a new job and finally, finally getting out and meeting people, I’m starting to discover a new “me.”

I’d like to offer some sage advice on how to get through it, but to be honest, despite having read a lot on the subject, for me it’s all been trial and error.  The main cure for re-entry shock, in my opinion, is TIME coupled with a lot of introspection. If you’re still struggling, hang in there, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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The Repairman Cometh

On Saturday I realized my refrigerator wasn’t working.  I called a maintenance service and they sheduled an appointment on Monday.  Slightly ahead of the appointed time the repairman arrived and quickly diagnosed the problem.  He had the required part in his van and within half an hour the fridge was working again – no fuss, no muss.

I couldn’t help but imagine how this would have played out in Baku, Cairo or Dubai.  To begin with, the repairman wouldn’t have shown up on Monday.  After staying home until Wednesday I would have finally risked a quick dash to the grocery store, at which point the repairman would call and tell me he was standing on my doorstep.  There wouldn’t have been just one repairman either.  They always come in twos or threes.  An “engineer” to decide what to do, another guy to do the work and a third one to carry the tools – a plastic shopping bag containing a screwdriver, a hammer and a tube of silicone sealant.  After disassembling my fridge, the engineer would have told me “Fridge not working, madam”  and at that point they would probably have insisted on taking it away to their workshop for a week or more, or at best left for several days while hunting down a replacement part somewhere in the local souq.  When the fridge was finally fixed it would be covered in black fingermarks and there’d be a crack in the tiles on the kitchen floor but I’d be so grateful to have it working again I wouldn’t dream of complaining.

Maybe repatriating isn’t so bad after all.

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