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.

Evernote for Expats

evernote_twitter_profile2I’m a scheduler and an organizer.  I’m one of those people who has to have not just a Plan B, but Plans C through Z.  They’re my security blanket.  Once I know I have all my bases covered I’m willing to take all kinds of leaps of faith, including moving halfway across the world to place I can’t even find on the map.

I’m also a bit of a geek, and looking back I’m amazed at how I managed so many moves without the aid of the tools I take for granted today.  One which I’ve fallen in love with over the past few months is Evernote.  It’s cloud based (although you can download it to your computer if you have the paid, upgraded version) and is a way to store information so you can access it on any type of computer, tablet or smartphone.

I registered about a year ago, took a quick look, but couldn’t see an immediate use for it, so left it alone.  Perhaps you did too.  But recently I started using it at work and quickly realized that this could be a powerful tool for expats.

Evernote’s tagline is “Remember everthing” and that truly is what it’s about.  It’s strengths are the many types of information you can store in it (text, emails, pdfs, photos, web pages, bits of web pages, photos, sound files, videos…) coupled with the ease of putting that information into Evernote and finding it again when you need it.  Let me give you some examples.

I’m going to the Families in Global Transition Conference next month and no doubt will be meeting lots of new people and picking up a lot of business cards.  As soon as I get home I throw them in a desk drawer, along with all the other cards I’ve been meaning to enter into my contact list.  Three months later I’d like to contact someone.  But what was her name?  She worked for a relocation company in New York didn’t she?  Where are those cards?  Frantic rummaging ensues.

Using Evernote I just whip out my smartphone, open the Evernote app, take a quick photo of her card and hand it back to her.  Three months later I open Evernote search for “New York” or “relocation” and Evernote searches for those key words – including the text on her card as well as anything I may have hand written on the card and I’ve found it.  Instantly.

Another example.  Imagine I’m apartment hunting in Dubai.  I have 2 days of appointments set up with several different real estate agents.  I set off in 450 heat, armed with a notebook and camera (I’m organized, remember).  At the end of the second day I sit down with my damp and crumpled notebook, filled with notes like “#1505 blue, no “unreadable scribble”, laundry, Bella, 130K”.  The photos would be helpful if only I knew which apartment was which.  Did that great view go with the one with the hideous bathroom or the one with the dark kitchen?  And who the hell was Bella?  What did I do with her card?

Using Evernote I could leave the notebook and camera at home.  All I need is my tablet or smartphone.  My only preparation is to create a “notebook” (file folder) in Evernote for each property I plan to see.  For each one I

  • snap a photo of the agent’s card
  • snap a photo of the building from the outside and the number on the apartment door
  • take photos inside the unit and of the view
  • make a short voice recording of my impressions of each property and the answers to any questions I ask the agent

At the end of the 2 days I’ve got all my information automatically organized into individual notebooks and am ready to make a decision.  Better yet, I can instantly share those notebooks with my spouse who (of course) is out of the country on a business trip.

Imagine how great this would be for school visits.  In addition to photos and audio notes,  I could prepare by clipping bits of the school website and putting them straight into Evernote from my browser.  The email they sent confirming my appointment I could forward straight into the relevant Evernote notebook.  The pdf attachment?  That’s there too.  All in one spot, easy to access anywhere I’ve got internet access.

Copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, academic certificates?  Scanned and stored in Evernote, ready to print out or email whenever and wherever I need them.

Starting a shopping list for the next home visit?  Photos, clipped web pages, or even just hand written notes, all stored in one “Home Visit” notebook and tagged (yes you can tag notes, just like blog posts) with, say “drug store” or “grocery store” for example.  Everything will be there on your phone, just when you need it.

Now are you starting to see why I’m a fan? And no, I don’t work for Evernote or benefit from promoting it.  I just think it’s really useful, particularly for expats.

Do you have an expat escape plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

A Year in Destination Services

Working as a destination services consultant was an interesting year for me.  Although I knew my home city of Toronto well before I began, I learned a great deal more, particularly about the practicalities of renting a home and obtaining a variety of government documents (social insurance number, health card, driver’s licence, etc).  Never having received destination services during any of our international moves, it was an insight into the kinds of services on offer and how they work.

Most companies offer a menu of services, but they essentially break down into:

  • General Orientation
  • Finding a home
  • Finding a school
  • Government paperwork
  • A few offer spousal support

Before I started the job, I assumed most of my clients would be senior executives, married and with children.  But looking back now over a year’s worth of clients almost 70% of them were in the 25-35 year old bracket, 50% were single and only 25% had children.  Bear in mind, this is a small sample, from one city and one destination services company, so can’t be construed as indicative of the industry as a whole.

By far the most popular service asked for was help in finding a home; rental searches were 80% of my business.   Orientation (usually helping people to narrow down neighbourhoods prior to a rental search) and obtaining government documents were the next most common, comprising about a third of assignments.  One other point to note is that 25% of my clients were domestic relocations and of the remaining international relocations, more than half were moving from the US.

All the clients assigned to me worked for large corporations or organizations and for the most part my relocation company worked in partnership with a relocation company at the departure point.  My assignments came to me via my office, so I had almost no direct contact with either my client’s company or their primary relocation provider.  My point of contact was the transferee themselves and although I could suggest or recommend additional services, for the most part I was told which services to provide and the billable time available.

Some other personal observations:-

  • Most destination services consultants work from home, sometimes (as I did) 100% of the time.
  • Workload fluctuates; for me it was either feast or famine and quite unpredictable.
  • Weekend work is involved, particularly for rental searches, as most clients weren’t able or didn’t want to take time off from their new jobs.
  • Phone calls and emails arrive 24/7 and need to be monitored and answered promptly.
  • Pre and post client contact can be considerable, depending on the client and their circumstances, typically I would put in an additional ½ -1 day of work for each day I spent out with them face-to-face.
  • All the clients I dealt with were polite and pleasant.  Although sometimes things didn’t go to plan I never had a client be rude or angry with me.

If you’re going to succeed and enjoy the work you need to be:-

  • Friendly, communicative and a have genuine desire to help.
  • Very organized as you’ll have to keep track of multiple ongoing files.
  • Detail oriented, particularly when helping clients with government paperwork.
  • Able to think on your feet and deal with last-minute changes of plan.

It was interesting and fun because I like working with people and I had a lot of empathy for my clients’ situations.  I found it challenging and I was always learning, both plus factors for me.  What made me decide to quit and pursue something different was a combination of issues.  Although I knew going in that the workload would vary and involve weekend work, in practice I found that more inconvenient than I expected.  Probably if I had young children, I’d have appreciated the flexibility more and that would have balanced it out.  But what surprised me was how isolated I felt working remotely all the time.  Although I’ve worked part-time from home in the past I’ve always spent some of my week the office.  So another thing this job taught me is how much I value in-person interaction with colleagues.

When I started, I described destination services as “A great job for a trailing spouse” and I stick by that claim.  It just wasn’t the right job for THIS trailing spouse but I’m still really glad I had a chance to try it out.

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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Walking to Work

When choosing a place to live in a new country, we always made “walkability” a priority.  In all our expat home-from-homes I was able to do most of my day-to-day activities and shopping on foot.  It was a huge advantage and it’s now something I recommend to any newly-arrived transferee as I help them transition to life in Toronto.  It helped me to:

  • Keep fit
  • Stay safe in cities with some pretty wild driving!
  • Reduce stress
  • Save money

And also

  • Instantly feel independent
  • Get my bearings quickly and easily
  • Meet neighbours and local business owners
  • Feel “at home” much more quickly

The first list may be the most obvious, but it was the second list that had the most impact on me. There’s something about seeing a new place as a pedestrian (rather than insulated inside a car) that makes you feel more connected, less intimidated and generally empowered.  Now when I arrive in a new place, even as a tourist, the first thing I want to do is get out and pound the pavement.

I recently realized that since repatriating I’m not walking as much as I used to, even though I still live in a very walkable neighbourhood here in Toronto.  It’s not just because I have my own car but also because I now do a weekly grocery shop at the local mall and no longer need to step out every day to buy something for dinner.

The weather has suddenly turned from humid to crisp and sunny, vacations are over and everyone is back at work, so September seems a great time to be making a new resolution.  Mine is to walk to work.

As I work from home the idea of walking to work may sound a little strange, but I figure the easiest way to incorporate a daily walk into my routine is to walk around the block every day before I get down to business.  I’m also hoping it will serve as a valuable transition and stop me from spending half the morning doing household chores before I sit down to work. (Hmmm, it remains to be seen how effective THAT will be!)

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Finding a Place to Live

Finding a place to live is always at the top of the agenda when you move to a new location.  Through my own experiences as an expat and now working a destination consultant I know it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.  That rootless in-between limbo when you’re living out of suitcases in a hotel or temporary apartment is not much fun, but before you make a hasty decision, consider. . .

Budget

What can you afford?  If you’re being transferred for work it’s essential that you research accommodation costs before you accept the new job offer.  If your employer is offering to provide accommodation, find out exactly what’s being offered and where.

Flexibility

Don’t get fixated on reproducing your last home in the new location.  If you’re moving from a small community to a bustling metropolis, or from a modern city to an ancient one, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find the same type of home or neighbourhood.  So keep an open mind, try a new lifestyle, you might surprise yourself and enjoy it.

Where does everybody else live?

I’m not suggesting you try and keep up with the Jones or live in an expat ghetto, but do check out where other people in your company or others in similar expat jobs are living.  They may have a lot of useful information and experiences to share with you and may help you avoid costly mistakes.

Travel time

No one likes a long commute to work or school.  We always said, “Where’s the office?” “Where’s school?” and then tried to find accommodation as close a possible to both.  Why spend time in traffic when there are so many more interesting ways to spend your free time, exploring your new location and making friends?

Rent, don’t buy

If you do make a mistake and don’t like where you live, it’s usually much easier and less costly to move if you’re renting.  Some corporate transferees are encouraged to sell their homes and buy in the new location, but consider investing your money and taking your time to make such an important decision.  What would happen if your job came to an end; could you legally stay without work?  Rent for the first few months, or even the first year, if you can.

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