Posted in i can't help but pull focus

where’s my crystal ball?

So, it's been over a year since we've moved to Saudi Arabia for Chris's new job, and it's becoming obvious that as much as this place runs on oil, it's powered just as much by rumours. Of course, one of those rumours is, "The company is going to send all of the expats home because look at the price of oil!" And, of course, so many other companies in the industry have cut their staffing levels. At least half of my friends who were overseas have been sent home. We can't help but feel like this company is going to announce something any minute, and this feeling has been lingering for at least the last four months!

Chris doesn't like living with this sort of uncertainty and copes a little by keeping an eye on real estate listings back in our hometown in Canada, just in case we have to buy a house in a hurry or whatnot. He also has a few notions of what he'd like to do, career-wise.

Sometimes he asks me what my plans are. 

Which is interesting, because for as long as I can remember now, I've slotted my volunteering/work/continuing education  into whatever space was left after he and the kids had their routines established. And if we move back to Canada this year, I'd face no such restrictions. I won't have the expectation of running the household on me alone, I won't have to worry about not having a work permit. I'm not used to imagining a version of my future after moving somewhere looking any different than it has all the other times, but this time it would be different, and it's taken me many weeks to shake that and figure out what I'd like to do with myself. But here they are, current as of today:

  • Start work on a MLIS and work in a library system. This has been on my radar screen for nearly a decade, and while I wasn't too comfortable about the future outlook back them, I'm okay with it now. Despite the growth of  digital media, this is an exciting time for the written word.
  • Yarn shop. I don't have to explain why this would be perfect!
  • Food prep for catering. The order and repetitiveness of churning out hundreds of identical hors d’oeuvres or tiny vessels of kale and kumquat sorbet actually fits into my definition of "fun" …
  • Editing, but I'm worried that there would be too many years back in post-secondary for me to pursue this to make it a practical choice. But I can still dream of playing with other peoples' words …
  • Interior design for retail spaces. Though I am already a whiz at putting together IKEA furniture, I need to read more about the necessary credentials. 
  • School-based social work
  • Garden centre. Maybe the spring weather and beds of petunias that are everywhere on the main compound have been brainwashing me a lot recently, but this type of work is really appealing right now.

I love photography, but I think I'll keep that firmly in the "hobby" category. 




Posted in ex-pat confidential, livin' in the kingdom

transportation woes (again!) and other stories

It didn't quite go like this:

Dear Family Who We Didn't House on the Special Compound

In order to give our employees and their dependents the best-ever bus service between where we've housed you and the place where you work and your children go to school, we're eliminating the bus services at 3 pm, effective the week of those afternoon parent/teacher conferences. To make this the most convenient for you.

K. Thx. Bai. 

But it's not too far from reality.

It really is the week of parent/teacher conferences, and the the bus at three that I had counted on when I scheduled my interviews at the elementary school and the middle school has been eliminated from the schedule. 

So that the kids and I aren't stranded at the elementary school – which is near nothing unless you happen to live in that part of the Dharma Compound (because then it's near your house!) – for three hours until the next bus appears, Chris is going to pick us up in our rental car. 

We have a rental car, and it's totally a big deal! Sure, it's one of those Toyota Fortuners that I came to loathe during our time in Thailand because ours lacked any sort of feature to make it compatible with my children's car seats and the lap-shoulder belt loved to cut into my neck in the most uncomfortable way, but it's also given us a lot more freedom to do things on the weekend that we didn't think that we missing out on before! We zoom on over the causeway to Bahrain, and have bacon with our breakfast, see movies at the cinema, and shop in stores that stay open all day. We drive to Tamimi on Friday mornings and bring home a trunk full of groceries instead of lugging them home on the bus. Even going into the compound to do whatever – check email, return library books, grab a burger at the eatery that is actually good (but otherwise inaccessible) – is so much easier when we can do it on our own schedule. 

You all know where this is heading, right?  

Yes. Ten months after arriving here in the Kingdom, we bought a car. Well, Chris did. It's a cute little Hyundai with cranberry-red leather seats. We should have actual possession of it sometime next week. 

We aren't exaggerating much when we say that we bought our last car, our Subaru, over the internet. Our experience buying our desert-mobile has been nothing like that. The drive out to the car dealerships has been a bit harrowing, even early on Saturday mornings when the traffic is "light". It seems that the best time of day to buy a car is at eight at night when the traffic is the heaviest. Chris took a GM Acadia out for a test drive one night a few weeks ago and passed a seven-car pile-up. The rule-of-thumb on the road here seems to be "if there's half a metre between your car and the car in front of you, you aren't following close enough." You can understand how things get dicey so fast here.  

After several false-starts and plenty of fretting, a winning model emerged, and Chris drove the rental car to the Hyundai dealership. How would he like to pay for the vehicle? Bank wire transfer. "Sir, can't you pay with your credit card?" 

Yesterday, he returned to Hyundai once again to fill out more paperwork, and one of the employees led him to a place he called "Auto Chapeau" so that Chris could hand-pick out the window-tinting for his new car. First question, "Would you like legal or illegal?" For serious.

If we'd known that buying a car here in KSA was going to be such an amusing experience, we would have done it months ago!


Posted in livin' in the kingdom

lamentations on photography

The "Memory" feature on Facebook popped up yesterday with a gorgeous photo of my bigger kid that I'd taken three years ago. We were in Ho Chi Minh City, and my photography group was shooting at a park at twilight to play with the gentle lighting. My photography group is probably the thing that I miss the most about my time in Vietnam – our outings to markets and temples and the tiny side streets were an excellent opportunity to experiment with perspective, texture, lighting, patterns, etc. 

FullSizeRenderI haven't been able to indulge my interest in street photography here in KSA. Wandering around the streets of Al Khobar with a dSLR isn't really encouraged, and even on the compound, photography outside of selfies, snapshots of your kids, and special events may be viewed as poor manners and at the extreme, highly suspicious. It feels like a complicated spectrum.

But there are Saudis and foreigners who make their living as photographers here (this gentleman's blog is abandoned but full of useful info, particularly this); I've learned that while Khobar's favourite look is "Flat and Sand Beige", this country has some stunning landscapes and urban character.

I took this photo over here on the left with my phone yesterday (funky filter also courtesy of my phone); I was returning a book to the library before going to a meeting and turned left one block too soon on when I was back on my way to the venue. I walked for about five minutes before I realized that I recognized none of my surroundings, and inwardly groaned at having to backtrack in the intense heat, but then I saw this interesting little pathway with the tunnel of trees, connecting the road that I was lost on with the road that I really wanted to be on. It was shady and cool inside the archway, and also just delightful to stumble upon something that was worth recording. This also made me wistful for a little piece of my former life, you know?  

Posted in #yyc, repatriation rant

Calgaryversary and that very brief repatriation

I have to confess something: When I listen to the radio, I'm listening to the livestream from CBC Radio One in Calgary. I know there is something ridiculous about listening to the Calgary Eye-Opener morning news and traffic reports when I'm fixing dinner for my family in Al Khobar, but I'm fond of the program hosts and it feels good to keep up with Canadian and Alberta news. 

Yesterday evening, I made pizza from scratch; layering pineapple and turkey (none of that haram ham in this place, of course) over my pressed-out dough and sauce while listening to the hosts talk about how it was two years ago that the Bow and Elbow rivers overflowed and parts of Calgary flooded. And the flood of 2013 is an anniversary day for us; two years ago we came back to Canada from Vietnam. 

That was only two years ago. And – good grief – we're not even there anymore!

Sure, there were a lot of days in the last two years when I really wanted out of Calgary. I'd be quite angry over how no one de-iced their sidewalk on the way to school in the winter, how kindergarten was even less than half-day, how it felt like I was always busy in a car going somewhere (even when I wasn't). But we landed at the airport two years ago thinking that we were home for three or four years, at least. We bought a car that I love, we lived out of suitcases for six months while our house underwent both repair and renovation and turned into something structurally sound and aesthetically ours , and I fell in love with the local elementary school. We were able to be a normal Canadian family for eighteen months, and even though I missed the slower pace of my former life, there was something comfortable about slipping on my Canadian coat (ahem … goose-down parka) again. It was good to see my kids doing the things that kids in Canada do. It was good to live a life less temporary and just more ordinary.

In all the important ways, I'm happy that we came to live in Saudi Arabia, but I also feel that we were a little bit robbed of our time in Canada. We meant to enjoy our house a little longer, and the same goes for the public schools, the farmers' markets we'd frequent, camping trips in the prairies, and our barbeques and roasted marshmallows in our backyard.

I think it's okay to miss the Calgary future that we thought we'd have, but actually don't. 



Posted in livin' in the kingdom

ramadan and the rookies

It's that time of year, so my inbox and social media feeds are (helpfully) filling up with guidelines and helpful tips for the holy month here in the kingdom. I had the bare basics down already, but I've been reading most of the emails and articles and trying to memorize what business on the Dharma compound are open at the usual time and which ones are closed until sunset. 

One sentence that I read yesterday while googling was, "Ramadan is a poor month for planning birthday celebrations," and you know what? That was actually was I on the computer researching. 

Madeline turns eleven years old in a little more than one week. Since her birthday usually falls after school is finished for the year and most of her schoolmates have left for their summer holidays, parties aren't the most practical plan, but we have a pretty established tradition of going to the movie theatre for her birthday to see the latest Disney or Pixar summer release. It's lovely, and there's popcorn. 

My understanding is that movie theatres don't actually exist in KSA with the exception of ones on housing compounds, but the cinema at the City Centre Mall in Bahrain is a mere sixty-minutes-or-less drive away. We'd kind of been planning to take Madeline to see Inside Out in Bahrain. We could have a nice dinner and a swim there, too. This idea began to percolate a couple of months ago, definitely before I started to get those Ramadan: What You Need to Know emails. 

So, now what I know is that there is a good chance that the movie theatres in Bahrain might not be operating on Madeline's birthday until after sunset. Actually, for that matter, neither Chris nor I are totally certain that they're going to be open at all. That's fine … but I'm just not sure that our contingency plan for celebrating my kid's trip around the sun should be!

I'd feel kind of bad if her birthday is just another day of hanging around the apartment, you know? Even if I bake awesome brownies. 

Stay turned.

Posted in elementary, dear madeline, livin' in the kingdom

it’s the little things

This morning when Madeline pressed "0" on the elevator panel (it's the kind where a person has to select the floor they want to go to instead of pressing the arrows for up and down), instead of telling us to wait by elevators A, B, C, or D, the output screen showed the much-feared "XX". It meant that the system was down. Again. 

We live on the fifteenth floor, so taking the stairs to the ground floor is a reasonable undertaking and preferable to missing the bus to school, so the three of us headed to the stairwell to begin our descent. Madeline's fast on the stairs, and as I watched her figure round the flights well ahead of me and her little sister, it occurred to me that she was also carrying a backpack full of twenty pounds of stuff with her. 

The schools on the Dharma compound are running out of classroom space (just as the compound has run out of housing for families like mine), so fifth grade has been moved to the middle school and currently housed in an office building that was vacant and available. The students have to carry their backpacks everywhere with them. Madeline's has her lunch, water bottle, a large binder, a crazy amount of school supplies, and anywhere between 4 – 8 notebooks of various sizes. 

A few weeks back, I asked her what she was looking forward to about sixth grade. Her response came fast: "A locker!"

Posted in ex-pat confidential

armchair realtors

For two people who've been living in rental accommodations for most of the last decade and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, Chris and I spend a lot of time looking at real estate listings. It used to be something we'd do to keep in touch with the home prices in our neighbourhood of Acadia in southeast Calgary, but now we're looking for a place to unload all of the furniture and artwork that we couldn't bring with us to Saudi Arabia. It's not necessarily logical, but it hurt me to leave those things behind; the Vietnamese lacquer painting of the little boy and a water buffalo, the pink dollhouse bookcase, and oh my goodness, all those books.

The solution that Chris came up with sometime last summer, when I was pretty heartbroken about having to leave things behind and live in furnished accommodation, was something along the lines of, "We'll buy a condo in Edmonton and you can spend the entire summer every year surrounded by our familiar stuff!" and it sounded fantastic. Edmonton's my hometown, it's where my mom still lives, and my head began to fill with images of spending July and August in a condo by the University of Alberta. My kids would ride their scooters along the pathways on campus on their way to STEM-centric girl-empowerment summer camps, and on Saturdays we could saunter down to Old Strathcona to buy veggies at the farmer's market. This scenario kept me going for many, many weeks. I figured that I could manage to live in an isolated apartment in a country where I don't have freedom of movement for ten months if I could pop back into my Canada Life for the other two. 

This bubble burst just after Halloween, if I remember correctly. Canadian Non-Residents technically can own property in Canada, confirmed our non-resident tax advisor, but we'd have to be able to convince the Revenue Canada folks that Edmonton is actually a vacation hot-spot akin to  Ontario cottage country or Whistler or else be potentially subject to tax penalties. So … scratch that idea.  If we step foot in Edmonton during the school summer holidays, it will once again involve exceeding the recommended occupancy limit of my mom's house. 

Thus, Chris and I have to look elsewhere for our home-away-from-home-away-from-home, and he was interested in hearing what spot outside of Canada's borders I'd be content to spend pretty much every summer and winter holiday. It wasn't hard at all to suggest London. We've spend a lot of time there, I can speak the language, and the public transportation is awesome. I had to stop championing the London vacation home concept when it became clear from my real estate searches that flat prices weren't dropping at the same speed as the kilometres outside of the city centre were increasing. Sigh.

The second-most popular location for Chris's real estate searches is Edmonton. The very same Edmonton mentioned and dismissed a couple of paragraphs ago. His reasoning is that the company he works for here has gone a bit overboard hiring ex-pats and just might decide to send them all home, so we might as well continue checking out what kinds of homes are on the market. (He found a cute one with a mudroom (!) last night).

The MLS listings that Chris peruses the most are for Austin, Texas. He spent a week there last fall, and became quite infatuated with the place. We're now thinking of spending our winter holidays there to see if maybe the kids and I can also fall a little in love with Austin. It's funny – Texas is one of those places I've said that I'm not really interested seeing. I said that about Asia. I said that about the Middle East. It's a good thing that I don't really mind being proven wrong.