17 September 2016

How to be an Expat in Saudi Arabia: All About Abayas and Other Clothes

One of the biggest worries many expats have before arriving for their first time in Saudi Arabia is the issue of clothing.  A lot of people assume that women have to cover up completely and that men can wear what the want.  This is not quite true.  The clothing rules are not quite as restrictive for women as many people think.

All women have to wear an abaya, this is close to a non negotiable. I have seen some women out and about in a long salwaar kameez but the only time I remove my abaya in public is when I get through passport control at the airport where the dress restrictions are more relaxed, even then I ensure that I am very covered.  

I bought some cheap abayas before leaving Malaysia and they have been honourably retired having done their job of getting me from the plane to the house and out to the abaya shop.  Made of cheap polyester they are hot beyond belief.  They were sold to me by a very fashionable young Malay lady who spent most of the time trying to persuade me to buy the neon pink and bright purple offerings instead of a black one and a navy blue one.  I resisted but I need not have been so conservative.  While hot pink might be pushing it a little the women here in KSA do not always wear black (at least in the costal cities, in Riyadh and other more conservative places black is, I understand, still the norm). 
Not only in black 

When you go to the abaya shop you will be faced with a bewildering array of options to choose from.  Here in Jeddah white and cream abayas are popular as are shades of blue and purples, many are decorated with floral or geometric patterns.  There are a huge range of different styles to choose from, open front, wrap, butterfly, cape, umbrella, the list is endless.    During the summer  light cottons, linens and georgettes are more popular than the heavier fabrics.  You can buy an abaya for no more than about $20-30 but the quality of the cheaper ones is poor and they tend to be made from very very hot material.  Designer offerings in silk are astronomically expensive but a good variety of mid-range stuff is available in cool fabrics and pretty designs.  Abayas are sized by length in inches from your shoulder to your ankle (or the floor).  Most shops stock 58 as standard but will order in a shorter one for you (or have it altered to your specification).  Being short I take a 53 so I tend to have to get them altered, this is generally done at no extra cost.

You can pick one up in a market shop for a reasonable price
but prepare to boil
Most of mine are ‘open front’ that close with popper buttons and a belt.  They look a little like a cross between the academic gown I wore at university and my dressing gown which is a strange thing to wander about in in public! Open abayas work well for malls and air conditioned places and seem to be the most popular with our local friends, that said I tend to prefer dresses to trousers so I have to make certain that Mini EE does not indulge in her favourite hobby of popper button opening when we are out and about. I have invested in a large volume of  replacement poppers as the dratted things come off  and roll away if you so much as look at them.   I have also bought some long dress like cotton abayas that I can wear on their own or with just light cotton trousers when walking out and about. 
Abayas are a way to showcase your sense of fashion when out and about
(NB the shops are shut for evening prayers hence the shutters)
A quick look at Saudi women shows that the extent to which they wear what westerners would perceive as a ‘traditional’ abaya varies quite a lot.  The colour issue aside some women’s abayas are not much more than a long, light coat in an array of colours and left completely open while others are completely covered in black from head to foot, even wearing gloves.  Many expat women dislike the abaya.  I don’t resent wearing it as such, (it means I am not going to get sunburn) but I do resent the fact that I have no say in the matter  (though I would probably wear an abaya or other similarly modest clothing as a matter of courtesy even if not required to).  That said everyone who comes to KSA knows the rules and accepts them when they arrive.  Even Saudi women have a love/hate relationship with their abayas, embracing what is good about the garment while struggling with the problems it can create (tripping over, catching in escalators, trailing sleeves, overheating etc). 

As soon as you are through a door and into a private space it is perfectly acceptable to remove your abaya as long as invited to do so by your hosts (be guided by them).  Most women here will choose to do so although some will prefer to retain their headcovering and/or their abaya, it is all a matter of personal preference.  It can be very strange to step through a door and remove it only to mingle in a large open space that is perfectly visible from the ‘street’.

Men also tend to dress conservatively and traditionally.
Head coverings are not obligatory for expats (Muslim or otherwise) unless approached to cover by the muttawa (religious police), I try to remember to always carry a scarf in my handbag so that I can cover up in the event that I am asked but I have never yet been approached to do so.  I know one long term expat whose husband was approached and told to get her to cover her head, once in the many years she has been here.  As soon as the people who approached her had gone some local women approached her, apologised and invited her to remove it if she so wished.  Saudi women wear a head covering, ranging from the full niqab to a light scarf pushed back on the head. 

Young children are not subject to any clothing restrictions and wear pretty much what they want.  Like women men are also required to dress ‘modestly’ but the interpretation of ‘modest’ is much more fluid.  The majority of Saudi men wear the traditional long white thobes together with headdresses (thrown up on the head or behind the neck when indoors and used to protect the face when out in the sun.  On special occasions the ensemble is topped with a light cloak known as a bisht with sumptuous gold embroidery along the edges.  Some Saudi men prefer to wear western clothes, particularly at the weekends and t shirts are not uncommon, shorts, however,  are not acceptable.  Expat men are fine to wear normal suits or typical leisure clothing.  Shorts are not considered acceptable, you do see the odd western expat (and, very rarely, a Saudi man) wearing them out of the house or compound but it is very much the exception.  

For more posts on life in Saudi Arabia please click on the picture below.

Ersatz Expat

13 September 2016

Pet Nightmare

I have not written a post about our pets for a long time.  Bessie and Perdie the dogs and Kismet the cat had to stay in Ipoh, Malaysia when we moved to Jeddah and live with a friend, our vet, while we waited for import permits. 
Bessie, our oldest dog is a loved and loving member of the family.
We have missed her terribly.
A few weeks ago we got some excellent news, Bessie and Kismet would be able to join us at the start of September.  Perdie is still waiting for an import permit.  While we were a little sad that our reunion with Perdita would be delayed a while longer we were over the moon at the prospect of seeing Bessie and Kismet again.  Bessie because, at 15 years old we know she does not have much longer with us and Kismet because she was only 6 months old when we had to leave her and we were worried that she had forgotten us. 

Bessie before travelling to KL,
old but strong and healthy
 We had some problems with Bessie’s export clearance.  The government vet in KL reported that she had ticks and needed to be cleaned.  Given that she had left our vet’s care tick free she can only have got them at the very expensive and apparently recommended pet hotel in KL.  We thought nothing of it as the handling company said they would arrange treatment and it should not impact on her travel date.  The weekend before the pets were due to arrive was hectic, our daughters celebrate their birthdays on 1 and 2 September so I had two lots of cupcakes to bake for the girls to bring into class and then two cakes to bake for their joint birthday party.

After just a few days in KL, this is the photograph that gave us nightmares.
Tick fever was slowly killing our beloved dog.
During the party on the Saturday we got some very disturbing news, Bessie had become very sick with an infection and was being sent for blood tests.  They sent us a photo of an open and infected wound that had developed on a patch of dry skin on her elbow.  Stuck thousands of kilometres away from our pet we started to become very worried.  At this stage, however the handling company were still talking about her recovering and being well enough to fly with a few days delay, we thought they were being optimistic given the photographs but we did not think the condition was too serious.  By the following day, however, her condition had deteriorated very badly and the emergency vet said she would recommend that Bessie be put to sleep. Our older children were distraught, Bessie has been with them all their lives,  friend and confidante.  Mr EE and I were heartbroken, Bessie joined our family when we returned from honeymoon, our first ‘baby’.  I know owners are partial but she has always been a very special dog. People who are scared of dogs still want to pet her, with her fuzzy face she looks like the eponymous hero of the popular Hairy MacClary children’s books.  She has comforted us and our family members during the hardest times of our lives and given so many people so much joy.  She deserved much more than dying alone in a hospital in a strange city.

The so called luxury pet hotel ha allowed Bessie's
elbow to get wet and infected.  How long did they wait
before seeking treatment for a wound to get this bad?

Without another thought we booked a last minute flight to KL, I packed a carry on and went straight to the airport.  Given the time difference I would be landing late afternoon on Monday 5 September, the 15th anniversary of the day Bessie came to live with us.  I emailed the hospital to ask them to do all they could to keep her alive until I arrived.  Our vet in Ipoh said she would drive down to KL after work so she could also say goodbye to Bessie.  I spent the flight alternately watching rubbish to try to keep my mind off things and scrolling through photographs of Bessie praying that I would get there in time.  The flight was almost empty which was a good thing because I must have looked demented with tears streaming down my face the whole time.  Without luggage I was able to speed through immigration.  Not knowing where the hospital was and almost dropping with exhaustion I decided to get a taxi instead of a rental car.  The hospital gave him directions and told me that Bessie was still holding on.  They also offered to suspend their normal 15 minute visiting restrictions and allow me to spend as much time as I needed with Bess.

Bessie was very sick and struggling to respond
when I found her.
When I arrived she was hooked up to a drip in a ward kennel.  She was very sick but  made an effort to lift her head when she saw me, it crashed straight back down to the floor.  I crawled in there with her, stroking her head and holding her paw.  Her breathing was shallow and laboured and her heart hardly beat.  She snuffled at the old socks I had brought from Mr EE and the children, we wanted her to know that even though I was the only one there, the others had not forgotten her and when we called Jeddah  she stirred at the sound of the voices at the other end of the phone. 

After lots of cuddling (I lay in the cage with her)
She finally managed to take some water from her bowl.
I sat there for about 4 hours and in that time she seemed to perk up a little.  She was able to take water from my hand and made small movements to try to push closer to me.  It broke my heart, left for 8 months and she still wanted nothing more than to be with me.  By the time my own vet had arrived Bess was able to lift her head enough to take water from the bowl.  We looked through the medical tests, Bessie’s exposure to ticks had resulted in the infection which was causing her organs to shut down, alone in a strange place she had not had the will to fight.  Our vet thought that in more familiar surroundings Bess would perk up.  She offered to take her back to her own surgery and nurse her there,  I could visit until my return flight.  While she was sick the vet thought the move would not distress her any more than being alone and would give her a chance of recovery, if she did not get better we could put her to sleep in comfortable surroundings.  Mr EE and I discussed it over the phone and decided that if the vet thought it worth a try we would give it a go.  Suddenly a funeral trip had turned into a rescue mission.  We put Bessie on some towels in the back of the Drs car and she dropped me at a hotel before heading north.

I was relieved to see Kismet had not
suffered from her time in the hotel.
The next morning I found a hire car company and headed to the handling company offices.  Kismet was there ahead of her flight and given the condition Bessie had been in I wanted to check that she was ok, luckily she was fine and remembered me.  The visit also gave me a chance to go through a timeline of events and work out exactly what had happened as I want, eventually to put in a complaint about the pet hotel.
Bessie still sick bu looking brighter for being with loved ones
By the time I got up to Ipoh Bess really was a lot brighter, able to twitch her tail and take some liquid food.  After spending some time with her the vet took me to her home to visit Perdie, she had been a little down since Bessie (who she sees as a mother) and Kismet left but gave me the most rapturous of welcomes.  She climbed in my lap, licked my face and feet and pressed and leaned against me as though she never wanted to let me go.  If the hotel had allowed dogs I would have taken her with me.  
Perdie was over the moon to see me again
The following morning at the vets and Bessie looked like a different dog.  She had crawled off her bed in the night to do her business which was the first time we had seen her interested in self care.  She had taken her cannula out and was licking the paw it had been in.  Seeing her looking so much better we decided to try her on solid food and gave her a meal of steamed chicken and rice.  She was clearly hungry and I felt rather mean limiting her to a few bites so as not to upset her stomach.  Perdie was also happy to see me and we spent a happy few hours playing and throwing balls and I spoiled her with the biggest bone I could find.  

Wednesday morning, moving around and with
some light in her eyes.
Perdie still happy to see me.
When I got back to Bessie she was well enough to lick my hand and actively snuggle in to me.  What a difference a few days and some love can make.  We don’t know yet whether she will recover enough to be able to fly but if she does not our vet (who loves her almost as much as we do) will keep her for us for as long as she lives.  Hopefully being in a loving environment and having Perdie around will work wonders.  If she does fly, and when Perdie does, we will pay to have the pets transported to and from Ipoh to KL for vet checks and for the final flight, there is no way they will ever go to that pet hotel again and I will put in a formal complaint to the Malaysian authorities, the vet, who sits on several animal cruelty advisory boards will help me. My pet may be 15 years old but she is still loved and her life still has value, they neglected her until she became sick all the time charging me money for their ‘care’. 

Brighter by the minute
I almost did not want to leave on Thursday as I could see how much my presence meant to Bessie but I had to leave to get my flight.  Just before I left she stood up and was able to take a short walk outside to do her business.  An improvement beyond anything we could have hoped for.  We are not stupid, we know that at 15 Bessie could go at any time but we want her to be with people who love her and to give her every chance.  We are beyond grateful to the vet and so thankful that this happened in a country we could get to without visa problems.  Had this happened in Saudi, for example, or Kazakhstan we would never have been able to get to the dog.  I am also so proud of Master EE who, without prompting or rancour, gave up is chance to join his school trip to New York, so that I could fly to Malaysia to be with Bessie.  

Saying goodbye to Perdie
Just a few days after we thought she
would need to be put to sleep Bessie can stand!
The house in Jeddah is lovely and we are turning it into a home but it has always felt as though it is missing something.  Being with the dogs again made me realise that we are missing them, we have always had dogs and I don’t think any of us feel that a house can really be a home without a pet in it.  They clearly feel the same way about us.  That feeling was somewhat tempered when I walked through the door to see Kismet playing with the children, she makes the house a happier place by her presence and we hope one or both of our dogs can join us soon.

For more information and stories on expat pets please click the picture below.

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets

Posted as part of the Animal Tales blog link up.


29 August 2016

To Hell in a Handcart or Better All The Time?

In recent months the world, as we know it, seems to be going to hell in a handcart.  This year has seen planes fall out of the sky, people attacked while at prayer, relaxation or dance and innocent civilians in Syria still caught in the middle of a morass of warring forces.  Of course there has been good news, the Brexit vote, so hotly contested, went the way I wanted it to and Britain can now look forward to a truly prosperous global future as opposed to being shackled to an outmoded anti-democratic, overly bureaucratic and economy stifling club of merely European nations. (I hope our future will continue to allow a rich trade with our European neighbours while opening the door to the rest of the world).  Even this high point has come at a cost.  Doom mongers are talking down the post Brexit economy so vehemently that they risk causing the very problems they talk about,  disgruntled remainers have spoken, quite openly, about their desire to set aside the democratic process and repeal the vote.  People who supported the vote to leave have been cast as racist, stupid and bullies.  Some people I know have been marginalised by their ‘friends’ simply because of how they voted.  Suddenly the understated yet powerful democracy of my adopted country of Britain, which I hold so dear seems to be very fragile.  Hopefully the process will be started soon and we can start to negotiate our new place in the world.

I have been thinking about these things quite a lot in recent days for a number of reasons.  Firstly because the older children are now starting to read and watch a lot more news and asking questions about what is going on (if any one can point me to a neutral analysis of the American elections aimed at under 10s I would be most grateful).  This lends an extra depth to the discussions Mr EE and I have.  Secondly it is around the time of our wedding anniversary and, while we don’t celebrate it as such it is a time of the year when, much like New Year, I reflect on what has gone and what is yet to come.  While we met 20 years ago we have only been married for 15 as we wanted to both finish our education and on the job training before getting married.  Our wedding was just one month before the September 11 attacks.  Watching a drama set in 1914 with an older relative he told me that he often remembers the celebration of our wedding the way the WW1 generation remembered the gilded summer of 1914, the last gasp of a vanishing era.

The last gasp of a glittering era?
I dismissed that at first but the more I think about it the more right I realise he is.  Mr EE and I remember the final years of the tangible nuclear threat (Mr EE a little more than I do, he remembers duck and cover, I know it only from stories).  More secure in my memories are the tri-partite summits, watching Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev find their way towards a peace our parents had worried would never exist.  I visited Russia (Leningrad and Moscow) just one year before the USSR disappeared forever (and little did we think, as children of the end of the Cold War that we would live in and be welcomed to the Kazakh Steppes).  We saw the wall come down, we saw the Good Friday Agreement set the stage for peace in Northern Ireland and the end of the Iran/Iraq war.  To be fair we also saw events unfold in Mogadishu and the First Iraq war which today seem to presage the awful state the world is in today, at the time they seemed, to us at least, distant in the case of the first and a one off in the case of the second.  We also saw, heartbreakingly, the return of concentration camps in Europe and Rwanda but awful as they were, the conflicts were small in geographic scale and were resolved, things were on the up around the world.  It seemed to us that we were starting out on our life’s adventure blessed with a world as at peace as it was ever going to be and things looked pretty golden.

That all changed on September 11.  Like everyone else we remember exactly where we were when the news broke; Mr EE was in school and spent the rest of that and subsequent days caring for a boarder who thought his mother was in the WTC at the time of the hit (thank God she was late for work that morning and we got news she was safe a few days later).   I was in my office, my second day as a qualified solicitor, I remember the staff from our Lloyds branch were evacuated to our building and, given my 1 ½ hour commute home on London’s creaky rail network, many colleagues kindly offered me accommodation for the night.  We all tried to be hard bitten City lawyers and continue with our work but minute by minute we stopped all but the most essential work and started to try to contact family and friends in the US, moving into each other’s rooms to watch the footage unfold, each scene more horrifying than the last.  As the days went by it became obvious that the attack was as pivotal as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, our world had lurched on its axis and nothing would ever be the same again.

Instead of the better world we all took for granted on the day of our wedding, instead of the single, definable, bogeyman of our parent’s generation we now have to bring our children up in a real life version of a Hitchcock thriller.  We can’t see or plan for the threat, it just materialises.  Nowhere is safe, not a shopping centre in Germany a restaurant in Dhaka, a street in Almaty,  a promenade in Nice, the streets of Kabul (ok they are not safe at any time but recent events were a whole magnitude of  awful more), not the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah or a church in Normandy. It is not just extremist violence we need to be concerned about either, Zika, Ebola, extremist politics on both the left and right in many stable democracies and interest rates edging towards 0 or even negative. Everywhere we look the news seems resolutely depressing.

Because of our connections to multiple countries expats are far more exposed to events than others.  I keep an eye on the news from all the countries I have lived in.  When I see footage of shootings in Almaty I know the streets, when I hear of Venezuelans reduced to such straits by the happenings in their country that they are forced to eat zoo animals, those people were my neighbours.  The families caught in the bombings in south east Turkey were my family and friends 20 years ago.  When MH17 was shot down there were people from our community, including a parent from my husband's school on board. I am not unusual, many expats feel this way and there are days when the news hurts.  Our children are more exposed as well and it is important to teach them skills to cope with the awful news stories they will see or hear.

Things are bad, there are many evil people in the world but in many ways things are so much better and getting better all the time.  Polio is almost eradicated, a second victory for humanity in its fight against disease.  True there has been an outbreak in Nigeria in recent weeks but the authorities seem to be working valiantly isolate it, the system works!  When I lived in Nigeria in the 1980s polio sufferers were a common sight, particularly in orphanages.  To know that soon people will no longer suffer that disease is cause for celebration.  We may be struggling with Zika but just recently the world helped some of the poorest countries to deal with a potentially devastating Ebola outbreak.  The lessons learned will ensure that when the disease breaks out again, it can be contained more efficiently.

Today more people have access to clean water than ever before (although that is not to say that things could not improve).  More people can read, thanks to GMOs we are looking at being in a position where more and more countries will be able to guarantee a stable food supply.  The rights of minorities (and of women) are more entrenched and more protected in more places than when I was a child. When a depraved man drove a bus into a crowd of innocent people there were others, people who woke up never thinking they could be or would be called to be heroic, who did not hesitate to try to stop him.  When an earthquake hit an Italian village late at night a young girl used her body to shield her sister, to give her sibling a chance at life a the cost of her own.  The news may not make it seem that way but there is more peace and more stability in the world than at just about any other time in human history.

So we live our lives, different lives to the ones we expected 15 years ago, but nevertheless lucky, happy, enjoyable lives.  The world may be going to hell in a handcart but it is our world and there is still more good in it than bad, more heroism than cowardice and more opportunity than not.  As the year turns we will hold on to that.

For more posts on expat life click on the picture below.

Ersatz Expat

11 August 2016

How to hire household help.

Since arriving in Jeddah I have been searching for a housekeeper.  While everyone here seems to have one it is becoming more and more difficult to find someone to help.  In years gone by most of the household help was comprised of Umrah or Hajj overstayers.  The government has recently started to crack down on this.  In reality this is a good thing, those working here illegally were vulnerable to abuse in many forms and the truth of the matter is, as an expat, I would not want to employ someone illegal as it would put our status in the country in jeopardy.  This has, however, created a pinch point for household help meaning we need to find someone wanting a job share, someone whose work is coming to an end and  whose visa we can take over as sponsors or apply to an agency and bring someone in from abroad.  There are pitfalls to all of those, happily it looks like a solution is on the horizon and I will have help at home again.

I don’t need someone, of course, having household help is a privilege I do not have when in a European posting so I am perfectly capable (if reluctant) of doing my own cleaning.  Nevertheless I don’t like doing it.  I hate mopping floors, I loathe ironing (but can’t bring myself to wear or let anyone in the family wear un-ironed clothes), bathrooms are odious work and hanging the laundry up is disproportionately aggravating, don’t even get me started on changing bedclothes.  All the children have full size doubles and we have something so large it is called an ‘Emperor’ size bed.  All very lovely until you have to wrestle with sheets and duvet covers.  For this reason I jump at having someone to help wherever possible. 

I hate housework - who doesn't...
I do know some expats who dislike the ‘maid culture’ that exists in some postings.  I see some of it here, parents who leave their children solely in the care of the maid, friends who, when we visit, never put anything away.  Children who treat their maid and driver like dirt.  One seemingly lovely lady on our compound came round to say she was moving on and her maid was looking for new work.  The girl in question wanted a live in position during the week, her husband could not pick her up and drop her off  for work and would not allow her in a taxi.  When I pointed out that we wanted a live out (but that I would pay for a private and trusted taxi service) the previous employer told me that I had plenty of space, she could sleep in  the baby’s room or even the cupboard under the stairs.  Visions of Harry Potter flew through my mind  and I just said the position would not work for us.  This attitude is not unusual, our house in Ipoh (Malaysia) had a maid’s quarter, 1/3 the size of the children’s bedrooms it had no air-conditioning.  It did have a bathroom but no hot water.  The schedule for the previous occupant’s maid was still up on the wall.  Her duties started at 5.30 and did not finish until after 9pm.  It broke my heart.

All this aside I don’t feel guilty having help in the house because we don’t treat people like that.  In one posting where my mother was required to host gatherings for up to 60 people sometimes multiple times a week  my parents had 4 people they employed directly to help us out and we had a driver provided by the company.  My mother would not allow us to take advantage of this situation, however.  We still had to keep our rooms tidy, make our beds, put clothing away, keep our bathroom sanitary.  We had to help the cook with his work for big events and woe betide any visiting friend who spoke to people with disrespect.  In another posting with a similarly large number of people helping us out we all sat down for coffee every morning and had a ‘conversation break’.  This way we learned the local language (Spanish) quickly and effectively,  albeit with a strong local accent and patois. 

It is too easy for children to become accustomed to having everything done for them.  Like my mother, Mr EE and I insist that the children are polite and helpful.  They are expected to keep their rooms neat and tidy so they can be cleaned.  If there is any mess on the floor they have to tidy it up, and they must put clothes away neatly.  Anything that has been beautifully ironed then thrown in a crumpled heap in a cupboard earns a pocket money deduction.  They have to help whoever is doing it to change their sheets and clean their bathroom, They also have to help around the house.  Part of this is self-preservation (I am responsible for all this when we are in Europe so I don’t want to make my life harder), part to make sure that they learn valuable life skills for when they have their own households (I am teaching them to cook and when they are older will expect them to be responsible for a family meal a week each), part is a simple measure of respect for the person who is helping them.  This may seem like a normal basic minimum but you would be shocked at how many people this is not normal for.  

All this is by way of saying that expats should not feel bad about hiring help in the home, as long as they treat people the way they would hope their own children would be treated in a similar job (as an Au Pair for example).  Most people who work as household help take pride in their job and the fact that they are supporting their family.  My top tips are as follows:
  • Not every person is a fit, as with all jobs think about a probationary period to make sure you work well together. 
  • Check references, equally give a fair reference when you leave. 
  • Discuss what duties are expected and set out any extras (ie Babysitting) that is paid extra.
  • Don’t be afraid to say if you don’t like the way something is done but do explain how you would prefer it.
  • Make sure that you pay a fair salary, check what the market rate is but if you think it is too low for the work done then pay more. 
  • Consider a bonus for New Year or at key religious festivals, save up an end of term lump sum so that they have funds to tide them over while they find another position.
  • Give time off generously, particularly for bereavement and medical issues.
  • If someone is live out consider providing a transport allowance so that the people working for you are not taking dangerous routes home.    
  • Think about what you are asking people to do, would you be happy to do it? 
  • Help out where appropriate, ie big end of posting spring cleans.
  • Ensure that people have adequate breaks during the day and make food, hot drinks and water fully and freely available.
  • Make sure your children do not become entitled. 
A final note of warning, make sure that while bending over backwards to ensure that you are not an unscrupulous employer, that you are not saddled with an employee that is taking advantage.  Ask for evidence of medical treatment  (or other support) you have agreed to pay for (a kind hearted friend in Kazakhstan was stung for a lot of money this way).

For more posts on Expat Life please click the button below.

Ersatz Expat

31 July 2016

Expat Summer/Expat Hobbies

I have only now realised how long it has been since my last post, positively ages.  As with most expat families we have engaged in the exodus home, although in our case it was only for two weeks.  Initially we had planned for Mini EE and I to stay at home in Jeddah in order to welcome the dogs when they arrived while Mr EE and the older children were to go to the UK.  Sadly we heard there had been yet more delays to the pet import applications so there was no point in me staying here alone.  We booked last minute flights and went to the UK with the rest of the family.

A last minute trip to experience
English 'Summer'
Because I was going to be here alone Mr EE had booked for only two weeks, just enough time to spend with our families but not to go on the driving holiday we had hoped for in Europe.  Nevertheless it has proved a good decision.  Having moved to our ‘proper’ home just before we flew spending a bit more time here has allowed us to sort the house out that little more quickly.  After a frenzied and disruptive start to the year the downtime has been invaluable.  Mr EE has been able to keep on top of work bits and bobs without stressing about an internet connection and I have been able to get on with a large freelance project I was awarded just before the start of the holidays.  Most expats  (and Jeddawis) are away so the place is lovely and quiet albeit almost oppressively humid and with the odd dust storm.  The pets are still held up so we are going to visit Dubai for a few days to get a change of scene.  It is a place that we have never been and the children, having heard so much about it from their friends, are desperate to have a look around.

The break has also given me a chance to catch up with my hobby – embroidery.  I like to have a cross stitch and a piece of more specialist work on the go and spend an hour or two in the evenings stitching in front of the TV.  It is something that is put on hold when the children are babies needing cuddles and bottles throughout the night.  Mini EE is now, however, moving beyond that.  Her room in the new house came with a double bed and she took one look at that and decided she no longer wanted her cot.  The space seems to suit her well and she is finally getting into a sleep pattern after 6 months disrupted by sofa surfing, travel cots and constant moves.  I have my evenings, and needle time back again.  I even took a day course at the Royal School of Needlework during our time in the UK.  This is something I have wanted to do for a long time but have never been there at the right time.  Hopefully I will be able to do more.

My fun foxy embroidery course...
Hobbies are so important for mental health and well being and perhaps for expats even more so than for people who live a normal life.  Doing something you love helps to put the day into context and gives you time to decompress.  I also find that doing something with my hands helps give my brain a mental break.  I love cooking and baking but the demands of family catering means that the line between enjoyment and work can be crossed too easily.  The embroidery is something completely different, something just for me.  I have even found a shop nearby that supplies basic threads and materials (although I have to order in specialist silks and beads).  It also has the huge benefit of being compact and portable.  My father’s hobby of model aircraft building and flying which had the benefit of being spectacular to look at, but rather less compact than embroidery.  His planes and materials followed us around the world and one bedroom of each house was set aside as a specialist hobby room. 

Given the health benefits of enjoying a hobby we are trying to encourage our three (or at the least the older two) to develop their interests.  Of course they read but sometimes something else is required to resist the siren call of the TV and iPad.  Our children are not so enamoured of my hobby as I was of my father’s, Miss EE has started a small tapestry but it does not really appeal to her, she prefers to help me cook and, as she is now approaching 8 I am allowing her to cook a few simple things on the stove as well as mix.  Master EE draws, anything and everything.  He also likes to write and is about 12,000 words through his first ‘book’ which has done wonders for his typing skills.  He has ideas for another 10 stories at least and it is fascinating to hear him talk through them.  It is not all indoors by any means.  We have a pool and swim a few times a week at least and, now that the bicycles have arrived the older two can take themselves off for rides around the compound and school.  

Do you have a hobby that you have taken with you when you expatriated?  Does it work better in some countries than others and do your children share your passion or enjoy something completely different?  

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21 June 2016

The EU Referendum and Why It Matters To Me

 The UK is going to the voting booths later this week in an historic referendum on whether or not to remain part of the EU.  The last time the British people had a vote on the matter I had not even been born and the vote was on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC).  Although politics is a large part of my life it is something that I rarely comment on in this blog.  Nevertheless this is a question that is so important that I think it is vital that as many people as possible explain their reasoning.

If we were living in the UK my vote would, very firmly, be going to the leave campaign.  Sadly as an Irish national I only have a vote in the UK when resident there.  My Father and Sister have a vote, I do not.  Of course as a UK national my husband also has a vote.  Nevertheless even though unable to cast my own vote the outcome of the referendum matters very deeply to me.  Our children are British and the referendum will effect their lives for decades to come and although we have not yet decided on retirement there is a very strong possibility that we will repatriate to the UK in later years.  I have stronger ties to the UK than I do to my birth country of the Netherlands or my own nation of Ireland where, as a part of the diaspora, I have never lived.

We all still have to live with each other and work together in the days following the referendum.  have friends in both camps and respect them all because they engage in reasoned debate.  There are some people (on both sides) that I have lost all respect for because of the manner in which they have approached the issue.  Neither camp in the referendum have covered themselves with glory, the scare stories and the ad-hominem attacks have been horrible to see.  In particular the debate on immigration has been divisive and unpleasant.  Of course immigration brings benefits, as either an expat or an immigrant in every country I have ever lived I could hardly think otherwise.  It is not, however, racist or closed minded to want to control the type of people who come to make sure that they are of benefit to the country.  Again, most countries I have lived in do this, it is not unusual or unreasonable.  Sadly there are some people in the leave camp who seem to think about nothing other than immigration and speak of immigrants in a very nasty and troubling way.  That does not mean that I disagree with them about the need for Britain to leave the EU but it does mean that I, and others like me, have a responsibility to call them out on their views.  I love Britain and I love the British, I also love Europe and Europeans but dislike the EU intensely.  My decision to vote leave is not due to any sense of adopted jingoism or misplaced pride it is, quite simply, a question of democratic deficit.

I know that many member states that were once vulnerable and escaped the iron grip of dictatorships see the EU as a guarantor of freedom and democracy.  That may be the case for them but it is manifestly not for Britain.  I understand that EU rules on work, holidays, leave, and minimum standards represent a vast improvement on what existed before in many countries but again Britain guaranteed many of these protections already and even if that were not the case the country would not abandon beneficial legislation on independence.

Access to the common market is valuable to Britain but Europe is not our only trading partner, indeed the EU's share of international trade has reduced in the years since we joined the EEC due to the growth in other world economies, ones we would have freer and easier access to outside of the EU.  We are being threatened by Eurocrats with protracted negotiations and impediments to access to trade in the event that we do leave but that is an empty threat.  As a trading nation our deficit with the EU is such that were they to cease trade with us out of spite they would suffer.  Finance ministers in Germany and Sweden have confirmed that they would still trade with Britain, the eurocrats may bluster but they would not follow through.  Those in favour of remaining in the EU often say that in order to trade we would have to apply the majority of EU legislation in any event but have no say in how it is crafted.  Norway is often used as an example of that, in Norway the pro EU parties use this argument to advance their cause.  The reality is that Norway applies approximately 10% of EU legislation, most of which has benefits to their international trade, if it did not they would not do it and, of course, if they do not like it they have, ultimately, the choice not to apply it, that is the nature of democracy.

Many economists have come down in favour of remaining in the EU.  These are the same people who encouraged us to join the Euro.  Thank goodness Britain listened to sense on that topic,  inability to respond to the recession caused problems across the Eurozone.   Greece and many of the southern states have had initial problems exacerbated by their inability to engage in individual quantitative easing.

Finally we come to the question of democracy.  The EU has a track record of ignoring the wishes of member states.  The French and Dutch voted no to a European constitution, the EU simply recrafted this as the Lisbon Treaty, when Ireland voted no to that it was forced back to another referendum of ratification when the first one gave the 'wrong' result.  Denmark was treated in a similar way over Maastricht.  The Greek referendum of 2015 was ignored as was the Dutch 2016 referendum on the Ukraine. The EU is ruled by an unelected elite that preside over a bloated bureaucracy.

Don't get me wrong, while I think  the  motives of the current EU chiefs are misguided I don't think they are malicious but the problem with unelected rulers is that you are dependant on their own moral compass and sense of benevolence.  The power of democracy is the ability to say no, to throw out those who have done a bad job or who no longer represent your will.  We simply can't do this in Europe.  My grandparents lived in a country under occupation in the second world war.  They suffered under a dictatorship that they were powerless to remove.  When their country won its independence it was hard won, not just by them and their compatriots but by their allies. My other grandparents lived in a country that had struggled for years for independence from its previous masters.   Voting leave will put us in an uncertain future but it will be our future to do with as we want and that is something I dearly hope my children have.

17 June 2016

Paradise and the Snake

Life as an expat is a fantastic opportunity.  It has allowed me, and subsequently Mr EE and the children, to experience so much, to see things we would otherwise not have done. 

Years ago (far too many years ago when I think about it) I lived for a few years in the city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey.  It was not an easy posting as the tensions between the Turkish state and the PKK (and other groups) would regularly explode into terrorist violence.  Car bombings and Molotov cocktails were a regular occurrence and while, thank goodness, we were never caught in a directblast, we were too close on a number of occasions.  Although peaceful for a while the situation in Diyarbakir has started to deteriorate once again, so much so that the family of a friend of mine, who have lived there for many many years, are now debating whether or not to move to another city. 

The fact that the city has been in the news so much in recent weeks has brought my time there back into sharp relief.  It was a truly beautiful city situated along the banks of the Tigris river.  An old stop on one of the silk roads it long black basalt walls are still intact, ancient caravanserais continue to serve refreshments, carpet shops line the street and, perhaps my favourite of all, spice stalls, redolent with exotic fragrance, tempt you in.  Sadly the security situation deteriorated so badly during our time there that I only ever went into the beautiful and beguiling old town on about 3 or 4 occasions confining the rest of the trips into town to the more modern business district.

Garden on a bend of the Tigris.  The city of Diyarbakir is to the left.
This site is reputed to be one of the possible locations of
The Garden Of Eden
Back in 1993 (gulp) underneath the walls and inside a loop made by a bend in the river,  was a garden/plantation that looked rather unkempt and unloved.  I am not sure what it looks like now (I should ask my friend).  We were told, proudly, that legend says that it was the site of the Garden of Eden.  Nothing could have looked less like the mythical paradise and I think I would have been rather pleased to have been evicted from a life there.

While the thought of eternity in that location was none too tempting I have been lucky enough to see some real life paradises, places where I would be happy to reside in perpetual bliss.  Indeed while the first is the type of place I would love (were heath care and safety to be practical which it sadly is not) to retire, the second is the place where I imagine I will wake up after the long dark tunnel, strolling along the warm sands as family, friends and pets that have gone before walk out of the sunlit horizon to welcome me.  The final one is a place I will do all I can to return to as often as possible before that final moment.

A real life paradise garden - Umutu in Nigeria circa 1988
So where are these wonderful places?  The first is a place called Umutu a few hours drive away from our home in Warri, Nigeria.  The company owned two houses set in a few acres of garden and they could be booked for a weekend.  It was not luxurious by western standards, two bungalows set far apart, each with a few bedrooms and basic bathroom and cooking facilities.  The furniture was spartan and not all rooms had AC but it was heartachingly beautiful.  We went a few times, sometimes just the family and sometimes with some friends thrown in the mix.  It was an idyllic retreat, a perfect place to enjoy a swim in the river, read quietly or run in the gardens and get away from the never ending goldfish bowl experience of living in the company camp.    As I mentioned earlier if it was not for the parlous state of medical and other care in that region it would be the perfect place to retire.  We did have the occasional run in with the less welcoming wildlife, the odd snake (swimming in the river was out of bounds one visit because a large snake had been seen swimming near the jetty and not yet cleared out) and scorpions, memorably, on one visit, in the loos. 

The perfect place to relax after weeks and weeks of goldfish bowl living
There is always a snake, always something that poisons the experience of paradise.  There was a small village just the other side of the river from the gardens.  Like everywhere we went at the time children would swarm around to see the oyibo (white) visitors, often running their fingers through my long hair (my mother and sister kept theirs much shorter) so different from their own.  As always in the Nigeria of the 80s there was an element of guilt, the simplest life we lived would always be so very luxurious, compared to the day to day life of the villagers.  Many of them were horrendously poor, a situation that is criminal given the wealth of the country itself.  It was a small comfort that the place we visited gave employment opportunities.  Our paradise was their grinding normality, our idyllic retreat in the midst of their land a luxury they could never hope to attain.

A new year's swim in the river with my sister and her school friend
My other paradise is one I have written about before, a beach in Borneo not far from our home in Miri.  Pantai Bungai is slated for development and indeed there was work underway on more facilities when we were visiting in 2014/15.  This will bring a benefit to the local communities who can capitalise on their spectacular location.  Already there are people offering adventure tours in the local area, guest houses, restaurants etc.  While I would never begrudge the benefits the influx of people will bring to those in the hospitality industry I do hope that this jewel of a location is not ruined by the increase in visitor numbers.

Long, golden sandy beaches in Borneo
At the moment at least the location is a many kilometres long, unspoiled beach on the South China Sea.  Small fishing villages dot the shore and you often see people from the larger towns nearby come to fish or simply enjoy the water.  Our two dogs used to love running along the shore, dipping in and out of the water to cool their paws.  Luckily they have good recall, many Malaysians are Muslim and therefore unable to touch dogs so we would always make sure to call the dogs back to us whenever other people came close, not that that happened often. 

The perfect place for a walk
So what was the snake, the downside to this spectacular location, possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my entire life?  Just kilometres away from this beautiful place the land was devastated, all natural vegetation ripped away to clear land for palm oil plantations.  I am not anti progress or indeed anti human industry or activity for the sake of it.  Indeed I think that industry is capable of bringing great improvement to people’s lives.  This, however, was something else.  To see the land destroyed to this extent, with no regard for long term sustainability was and is a travesty, one that brings benefit only to a select few for a very short term.

Some of the most beautiful scenery in the world

Sadly devastation is only a short drive away
The final location is much less exotic but no less beautiful for that.  About 9 years ago Mr EE and I took a baby Master EE on a 5 week long drive through Europe.  It was a chance to decompress and relax after what had been the most upsetting and hardest few months of our lives to date and we enjoyed every moment.  Following  a day in Lipica (Slovenia) we had been meaning to drive to Lake Bled and find a guest house to overnight there but fate intervened and a wrong turn put us on a back road to the nearby Lake Bohinj instead.  We overnighted in a friendly guesthouse where the owner plied us with schnitzel and wine and took Master EE of our hands for cuddles.  We made our way down to the lake the following day.

Lake Bohinj, my European idyll
We fell in love pretty much at first sight.  The clear water and alpine scenery spoke to our hearts.  We were limited for time, having obligations further north a few days later and so had to get back on the road but we swore that we would be back.  A few years later, this time with Miss EE in tow as well, we spent 10 days exploring the area.  We had meant to go back in 2012 but holdups in visa processing at the Kazakh embassy in London meant that our passports were tied up and we could not go.  We will almost certainly go back again, perhaps for a winter holiday this time.

Paddling with Master EE

And enjoying the view from above.
I have a dream of buying a retirement home there when Mr EE and I have had enough of the itinerant life but we are old and wise enough to know that the impression you get of a place on holiday is very different from daily life.  There is always a snake, we would not want to move without knowing what it is.  Perhaps we will spend some extended holidays there getting to know the region even better and see if that dream has any chance of becoming a reality or if it is completely inadvisable. 

Have you found your paradise yet?  Where is it and what does it mean to you?

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