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 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, livin' in the kingdom

little miss cheerful

It's been brought to my attention by a handful of the very lovely ladies who live in my building that for a newcomer to Saudi Arabia, I seem way too upbeat about living here. I have to admit that I'm not sure how to react to that accusation, so I usually shrug and say, "Well, this isn't the hardest place that I've lived." 

I am guilty of declaring that my abaya is awesome after realizing that I don't have to dress up at all to go out (sidenote: you might have to come here to understand why; I'm not slovenly, I promise). I think that it's cool that my kids can choose any fancy beverage from a restaurant menu to have with their lunch instead of having to hunt for the non-alcoholic offerings. I am quite happy to read a book while in rush hour traffic rather than navigate through it. 

My family is in a minority here because this isn't our first overseas assignment. We are also unique because we've repatriated once and then moved across the ocean again (albeit a different ocean). I know to expect that many of my frustrations about KSA won't go away, but that I'm going to find that many of the things that I love are going to outweigh them. And I know not to idealize life in my home country (thank you very much, repatriation reality-check). That last point is probably the hardest thing to let go of. 

When we first left Canada and moved to Thailand, I know that it took me months – at least nine – before I emerged from my deep funk enough to even realize that I had been in one. Maybe this is why I don't know what to say when my friends and acquaintances tell me that I seem bizarrely happy with life here; I could be fooling everyone right now without the self-awareness to realize it!

Posted in livin' in the kingdom

i think we all learned something

Shortly after we arrived in the kingdom, we noticed that one of the swimming pools on the compound appeared to have a pair of colourful water slides, and Chris took Sadie there yesterday to test them out.

Their afternoon at the pool got off to a bit of a rough start. You see, one of the main themes here in the kingdom is gender segregation. On the compound, people have more degrees of  freedom to mingle according to their comfort level, but apparently there is no lee-way for the change rooms at the pool – even for small children. If Sadie wanted to swim, she had go in the main entrance to the female change room by herself, shimmy into her swim clothes, pick up her street clothes, and find the door that led to the pool area. All this on her own, and she can't read signs yet. 
She gave it a great try. Sadie did change and carry all of her street clothes. Chris didn't find her waiting beside the pool after he'd gotten ready; instead, he backtracked through the recreation building and found his very upset child outside of the main entrance to the female change room. I joined them awhile later and found both of my favourite people floating in the pool, so Sadie must have been persuaded to go back into the female change room and try again to find the exit to the pool area, and it turned out that the second time was the charm. 
In retrospect, we should have thought to have her wear her swim apparel under her dress 🙂
Posted in livin' in the kingdom

every canadian needs an emergency bottle of maple syrup, right?

So, yesterday we had just walked into our apartment after school when Madeline announced, "So, that international luncheon at school that I mentioned a few weeks ago? It's actually tomorrow and they only told us today. Can you make some of those yummy things?"

The "yummy things" that she was referring to were tarte au sucre bars, which I'd attempted for the first time ever a couple of weeks ago for a cultural event put on by our building's residents' association. (They didn't entirely turn out – my crust was too thin and my butter was probably cubed too coarsely). 

I had none of the ingredients on hand. Cue disappointed expression on my ten year-old. 

What Canadian-esque consumable did I have in our kitchen cupboards? "I have a bottle of maple syrup!" I told Madeline. 

Today, my kid hopped on the school bus with a bottle of maple syrup in her backpack, and plate of pancakes in her arms.