Monday, February 23, 2009

The late night, transatlantic call: for friendship reasons, purely

When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi, coming up on a year ago now, I was prone to going out a lot, and very late. After spending hours in one of the city's finer hotels, we might converge at someone's hotel room and for awhile, at a friend's pool, to the increasing chagrin of his neighbours. I heard the dawn prayer call more times than I'd like to admit. It was nutty and I can't believe I sustained the pace. (We talk about it now and figure we were all fuelled by a strange relocation-related adrenaline)

Anyway for some reason, even at those astonishing late hours, sleep proved elusive. So I would call one of two friends back in Ottawa, and they would laugh at me on the phone but listen while I talked about all the fun I was having, and also how much this place freaked me out. Then they would tell me stuff I wouldn't remember, and we would have to go over it all again the next time we chatted.

The calls - and ridiculously frequent and late outings - died off. But two nights ago, one of the first I spent sleeping at my new staff apartment, after a birthday celebration for a friend, I found myself amid unpacking chaos, a bit lonely, at loose ends and with itchy dialing fingers. I called the first friend, who was partway through his work day hours behind back in Canada. The other has moved to Australia, and when I caught her, she was well ahead of me already having breakfast, just back from teaching a (very) early yoga class hours.

Finally, as I should have when I walked in the apartment in the first place, I went to bed. My friend in Canada has just told me he loves those calls. Like a booty call, but with the only motive is to hear the voice of a friend, he has dubbed them "frooty" calls.

A few words from a British colleague

Harried and apologetic as she takes another cigarette from a colleague:

"I mean, basically I need 15 fags to do this job."

Friday, February 20, 2009

The week in review: I wouldn't eat it either, Mr President, it is just not worth the mid-afternoon post-sugar energy slump

1. Margaret Attwood pulled out of Dubai's upcoming Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature, after learning Geraldine Bedell's The Gulf Between Us - featuring a gay character - was going to be excluded from the festival. She may appear via satellite for a debate on censorship in her role as vice-president of PEN International. I know this is all very serious and important, but I can't help thinking about that special tool the notoriously cranky writer adopted a couple of years ago enabling her to sign her books remotely so as to avoid actual encounters with the fans who love and buy them.

2. Saudi Arabia moves ahead, albeit at a glacial pace, appointing Norah al Fayez as deputy education minister. It is the highest government post ever attained by a woman. Letting women drive and putting an end to the guardianship system that keeps them under the control of men? Well, that might take awhile.

3. As the economic downturn continues to hit home in the UAE, the Government passes a law dictating companies cannot make Emiratis redundant, one that will also make it much harder to sack them for other reasons. Feddah Lootah, the director-general of the National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority, explains: "We are not saying Emiratis cannot be sacked, but to sack an Emirati giving the financial crisis as an excuse is not an option." The rest of us, however, can go at any time.

4. I longed to be back in Ottawa in February, which I never thought I would say. But Obama visited the capital and had I not left, I would most likely have been covering the visit in some manner. Regrets, I have a few. Someone even gave him a Beaver Tail - he must have been in the Byward Market – which the president politely said he would have it later. I call him out for lying, as everyone knows there is nothing less appetising than a cold beaver tail. The visit also prompted one of the best Facebook updates I have seen in awhile from a friend who works for the prime minister, who wrote that he "completely understands the brouhaha around the Ottawa airport this morning. It's not every day I go to Iqaluit".

5. I got back out from behind the desk, and I have to say, it feels pretty good.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tiger Balm, but better

A friend read my tender post about Tiger Balm a couple of weeks ago and brought me back the best present from Thailand today. It's White Monkey Holding Peach Balm. It appears to be a similar product: camphor menthol, eucalyptus oil etc. (Before I becoming ill with this terrible cold I used to smell of Dolce & Gabbana's The One; what a long fall - now it is methysalicylate)

Why it is called White Monkey Holding Peach Balm, I am not sure. But the best part is that the box, as you can see, actually features a picture of a monkey holding a peach (and a woman in a rice paddy with a bull, and two kids playing soccer, and three random insects).

Friday, February 13, 2009

I am obsessed with: Cranford

A British friend loaned me this 2007 British miniseries shortly after I arrived and it languished on the table in my hotel for months. He asked several times if I'd watched it yet, arguing that I should because "it's just so good". I am not sure why it took so long; maybe it was all the bonnets on the DVD case that put me off. And I am not really much for period pieces. But one night last week I popped it in and was hooked about 15 minutes later.

This is just an incredibly well-done, intricate series of stories, subtle, deftly weaved, featuring a lot of Britain's top talent. I was particularly taken with Imelda Staunton's dried-up Miss Pole and developed a strange crush on Dr Morgan, a small part played by John Bowe. (Maybe it was the sideburns)

I laughed - there are some great lines and incredibly dry wit in there - and I cried, no exaggeration. It was worth every minute of the five hours I spent watching it. And in honour of Valentine's Day, it is also filled with all sorts of lovely romance. Order. Watch. You won't be sorry.

It never fails to unnerve me, a little

It's almost 1pm here on Friday, and that means I am hearing the Friday prayer, or Jumu'ah, blasted over loudspeakers from about four different mosques near my hotel. It is, as a colleague said shortly after I arrived, quite "full on". I really wish I could tell what was being said, because the sermon tackles some interesting subjects. Things like marital discord, wasting ones time... it's all pretty compelling stuff.

Last Friday I was out walking around when the call to prayer came. It's hard to describe, but basically hundreds of men start streaming out onto the streets and into and around mosques. I should like to see it from the top floor of a hotel some time. And I couldn't believe all the men and their sons spilling out onto sidewalks and streets, around parked cars, their sandles off, kneeling on their prayer mats on the pavement in the hot sun.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mini-stalked, twice in 12 hours

It occurred to me this morning that men in Ottawa and Abu Dhabi might greatly improve their chances of hooking up with women if they sorted their tactics and met somewhere in the middle. Canada's capital is a lovely but staid government town, and its single women are prone to lamenting a lack of forwardness from the male half. I can vouch for this; it always shocked me a bit whenever I left, even for Toronto or my hometown of London, where men are not afraid to look a woman in the eye and smile. You know, because it doesn't mean anything.

Then again, a boyfriend of mine, while we were still together and I could be sure he was not referring to me, liked to lament Ottawa had offered him "a lot of low fruit". Who is to say, right?

Men in Abu Dhabi (and I am talking about men from the region here) think nothing of stopping to talk to a woman they like. If that doesn't work, they'll follow her. I've been boxed in with a shopping cart at the fruit counter, tailed at Abu Dhabi Mall and shadowed home from a store near my hotel, until I yelled "GO AWAY". Even then the guy didn't look convinced I wasn't interested. Last fall, a friend of mine made the ill-advised move of giving her phone number to a normal-seeming, fun man from Oman a group of us met in a bar. (He also met her boyfriend, and knew it was her boyfriend). He bombarded her with calls and texts the next day. He has only just stopped. Another friend was looking through a rack in Mango when she felt she was being watched; she peered through the clothes to find a man staring at her from the other side. He asked her to go for a coffee.

Working late the other night, I went out to hail a cab. I heard a car pull in behind me – just a couple of metres away – and I turned to look. There was a man, his tinted windows rolled down, staring at me. "Hello" he said. "Do you speak Arabic?"

I ignored him, and turned back to get the cab. Hoping really hard one would come. "No cabs," he said. "Big problem."
He wanted to give me a ride, asking over and over. I said "no thank you", several times. A few minutes passed, him imploring, me ignoring, and finally a cab stopped. I was very relieved when I was inside. Five minutes later, as we waited to make a U-turn at a traffic light so I could be dropped off right in front of my hotel, I had a strange sensation. I turned to look out the window, and there he was in his car in the next lane, tinted window rolled down to expose just his eyes. Staring right at me. Eeeek! I asked the driver to step on it and we did some manouvres and managed to lose him.

The next morning, after a visit to the doctor, outside a hospital, as I again tried to hail a cab, a man in a suit in a Mercedes whistled, yelled and honked at me to get in his car. Why I felt embarrassed to be ignoring him I will never know, but I again felt extreme relief when a cab stopped and I was inside.

Every woman in this office has a similar story, I reckon. And on second thought, those shy Ottawa guys don't seem so bad after all.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Snap caption: I really would not stand under that sign if I were you. I suspect it won't be dry or clean.

This is so sad: the forest fires in Australia

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

HE WAS about 10, with the bluest of blue eyes.

They are eyes that Mark, a firefighter from Flowerdale, will never forget.

The boy was found near a ute, doomed, like so many other vehicles fleeing the inferno. Along the road lay the bodies of a woman and another boy, believed to have been his mother and brother.

Click here for the rest.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Guess which name this US chicken chain goes by in the UAE?

Sigh: 62 pounds, down the drain

I signed up for an Aramex account a couple of months ago. This ingenious little service gives me a post office box in the US and the UK, enabling me to receive mail and packages that otherwise would disappear this side of the Atlantic in regular post.

It's not cheap - 10 bucks for a couple of magazines, usually - but when I open up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, I don't care. (You can get magazines here, but they are obscenely expensive, so it is still cheaper)

The other day I went a little overboard when, ordering a special large round-barrel hairbrush from a UK website (I have searched high and low here in Abu Dhabi for one) I spotted Aveda products, which I also have not yet found in the UAE and am almost out of. I snapped up several tubes of Madder Root conditioner, which smells amazing and partially restores my hair to a gorgeous shade of red I did not appreciate in my teen years. I checked the banned list. Sure, tea tree oil and Christmas crackers are not allowed, sex toys and porn, obviously, untreated animal skins and oven cleaner, sulphuric acid and gold bullion, human remains, swords and animals (alive or dead), all banned. The list said nothing about shampoo and conditioner.

And then this:

On Hold - Unacceptable Material --- 9029376392 ---- Ann Marie McQueen

Dear Valued Customer,

Good day…

Thank you for choosing ARAMEX as your transportation solutions service partner. We would like to inform you that your shipment of AWB Number 9029376392 (shampoo & conditioner) was put on hold due to containing prohibited item which is not allowed to be ship by law.

ARAMEX needs your consent to either:

Destroy the Package

Return the Package to the supplier with shipping charges

If you choose to have the package returned to the supplier, we will charge you a return fee of $25. Some suppliers may refund you the price of the item returned depending to their return policy.

We apologize for any inconvenience caused. For future orders, please refer to the for a general list of materials that are strictly prohibited to ship.

Should you need any further information or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.

At ARAMEX we are here to serve you.

Thank you,

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sometimes it feels like the sky is falling and there is nowhere to go

I don't like to do things because I am scared. Operating from a place of fear... it just never works for me. I think it screws up the decisions that you make. For example, 10 years ago I decided that I didn't want to be married yet. The biggest thing holding me back from changing my life back then was the fear that if I did I might never get married or have kids. It was powerful; so powerful that it almost kept me from changing my life. So I made a sharp turn, and it's been lonely at times and hard, real hard, at others. But also incredible and exciting and although I still worry, a lot, that my biggest fears will come true, I have never regretted it, or thought for a second it was not the right thing to do.

So every time I start to feel scared and like I want to cling to the things I know, even if it seems like they are not very stable or I might not even want them, I think about that decision, the one that changed everything. Back home it played out time and again: people who clung to their journalism jobs, who counted down the years to retirement and organised unions and kvetched about management, who either left or were forced out and found better work that made them happier. Freed them. Right now there is a lot of fear in the UAE, similar to what there is the rest of the world. It's a little bit scarier, I'd reckon. There is no unemployment insurance, no severance package. Our employers control everything. Layoffs mean getting out of the country. But to where?

People in the rest of the world seem to delight that things are going south here too; I was emailed a Times article today about Dubai. Police have found more than 3,000 cars outside the airport (CORR: in all of last year, double the number of the year before, not in recent weeks) people who just drove up and left them there, many with the keys in the ignition, some with notes of apology and maxed-out credit cards in the glove box.

I was annoyed. I could be reading too much into it, but why would you send me, someone who works in the media, and does it in the UAE, such an article? I work for a newspaper; I am well aware of the situation in the country where I live.

It woke me up in the middle of the night last night, like a big, bad dream, that fear; it's left me feeing uneasy all day. So here I am staring it in the face. Naming it; knowing I have no idea - never do, actually - what comes next. Taking a big old deep breath, trying not to engage in conjecture and rumour-mongering and nasty, negative bashing, saving my dirhams and tucking in for awhile to find out.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Wouldn't it be nice if the courts everywhere would be this helpful?

The Dubai Courts' "marriage guidance" section, concerned about the rising rate of divorce among Emiratis, issued an unusual warning yesterday.

The message is that absolute honesty in a marriage, particularly when it comes to a husband delving around in what his wife was up to before they got married (not having known her at all), is really not the best policy.

A family counsellor with the Family Guidance and Reformation section said it would be counterproductive for a wife to tell her husband about any previous relationships. Doing so could sow seeds of doubt it could take him years to get over, he said.

“Such questions as ‘who did you love before me?’, ‘to whom were you engaged?’ or ‘with whom did you go out?’ only serve to increase divisions between a couple and are a warning sign of the imminent end of the relationship,” he said.

Funny how people can know in their heart – because you do, at least if you are over 30 – that conversations between two people having a current relationship about the details of any of their previous relationships can come to no good, and do it anyway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ummmm, why exactly?

I took this picture at the Gaza protest a couple of weeks ago, some days after I was rattling on to a friend about men who carry their girlfriend's or wives purses for them. This is like the 'suit jacket over the summer dress in the evening chill at a wedding' gesture - one of my all-time favourites, actually - gone horribly wrong. I am not talking about holding a purse while we rummage, or readjust, or something. Full on carrying: unless both the woman's arms have just fallen off, I say there is no excuse.

Who are these men? More importantly, what is up with their girlfriends?

The dark side

I was zipping down an alley by the Corniche on my way to catch a cab to work when I saw him. A worker, in a tired, dirty royal blue suit. I was wrapped up in my own thoughts, having just been to the dentist, and almost didn't notice that he was moving his hand by his mouth. He was hungry and wanted money.

In Ottawa I passed by guys like this every day; my place was just across the road from a shelter. Once the mayor, Larry O'Brien, called them pigeons. You know, don't feed them and they'll go away. He installed "kindness metres", which were actually refurbished parking metres painted white, instead. I saw a girl donating to one once in a blizzard; there was a homeless guy in a blanket about two metres away. Although her cash would surely go to a good cause, the whole thing never seemed very kind to me. If I walked uptown from the Byward Market to Elgin St, I could pass a dozen panhandlers in 20 minutes. The Homeless Poet lived outside Chapters on Sussex St, just a few blocks away. Winter and summer, there he was, selling his poems written on cardboard in magic marker for whatever you wanted to give.

Here, letting a stranger know you are hungry is such a risk you just don't see it, so it's easy not to think about.

As the global downturn hits home in the UAE things seem to be getting worse and worse for workers, although not so much in Abu Dhabi, where demand still exceeds supply in almost everything. They work six days a week, make nothing and cram together in rooms and labour camps already; now apparently some aren't even getting those meagre wages. We had a story the other day about a man up north who hadn't been paid in three months when he was laid off. His boss told him to cool his jets, so he did. Then he learned his boss had left the country. He had to move out of his accommodation, it was too expensive. So he paid a friend Dh300 ($100Cdn) a month to share his bed and looks for work every day. Going back to India is not an option; he supports his family there.

And this, an ad pasted to a bus shelter near my hotel, that has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the way things are:

Monday, February 2, 2009

Canadian tax breakfast not actually that boring

I have not seen 630am since... well, I guess since I happily rose to take in Petra almost one month ago. Vacations are different though - getting up early when you are tired never seems like the tragedy it does when the alarm goes off and the first thing one thinks is "Canadian tax breakfast? Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy". (Cue audio clip of the US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan when that thug-for-hire whacked her on the knee with an iron bar before the 1994 Olympics)

Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to attend a breakfast seminar on the subject of Canadian tax for expatriates. And fitting, since this time last year I basically thought of little else. (In hindsight, not being able to focus on the great unknown that was my mad move to Abu Dhabi, I instead laser-focused my immense capacity for anxiety on the tax issue.)

I am not going to go into it here - not likely to get much sympathy from people back home forking it over every pay, I imagine - but let's just say Revenue Canada has succeeded in making the issue of working in a tax-free country an entirely grey area. Meaning you might do every single last thing right, and by now, I pretty much have, and someone will still look at your departure return or your NR73, which I learned, just in time, not to mail away, and say "ummm, not so fast". It's a question without an answer and, well, I don't have to tell anyone how frustrating those can be.

Anyway, this breakfast was just the way I remember this sort of businessy thing to be when I was back in Ottawa (except with excellent bread and cheese). I am just rubbish at networking - at one point scrawling my gmail address onto a crumpled receipt from Al Falah Plaza and walking away like a distracted toddler when I saw someone I knew, without so much as a "nice to meet you". I asked a guy from Calgary what kind of work he does here, and he seemed sort of like he was talking to a slow person when he replied "oil and gas".

A woman I like to call "the world's rudest Canadian", who I had a brief but untirely unpleasant encounter with at the post office before Christmas, was also at the breakfast. Suffice to say, I did not try networking with her. Although on second thought, perhaps I should have.

Clearly there are people with bigger tax issues than I, however, because the speaker was throwing around terms like "when you go back to Canada with between $1 million and $5 million" and "you could save yourself a couple of hundred grand". Oh reeeaaally. And I get just as cranky when they open up questions to the floor and people insist on asking extremely specific questions, and followup questions, that could only possible pertain to them, as if the rest of us had all the time and interest in the world. For example, the woman who wanted to know if she could come back to Canada before her husband, and when the tax guy said no, you should come together otherwise he could be taxed on his last paycheque when you were there and he was here, and she followed up by asking "could I fly back and meet him in London? It's such a long flight!" I was so annoyed by then I developed a tiny crush on the tax guy when he said "you can meet him wherever you want, just not in Canada". There is a first time for everything, I guess. I was also flummoxed to learn if I give up my drivers' license and return after five years, I may be subject to graduated licensing. That will be awesome. I can just imagine the conversation.

ME: Hey, friend, want to come to work with me?
FRIEND: Not really.
ME: Oh, come on, it will be fun!
FRIEND: Well, okay.
ME: Want to drive over to my house first, so you can sit in the passenger seat and supervise me on the way there?

I did learn that my tax situation would be much, much improved if I were to marry a man from outside the country. So I am considering adding that to my list of New Year's Resolutions (and they were: 1) Buy a kettle 2) wear heels more often so I can learn to walk in them 3) read more important non-fiction - okay some important non-fiction 4) tackle that hummus issue and 5) Figure out this &%$# tax situation!).

I found myself in a bizarre scrum after the presentation, where I waited impatiently in the middle of a sort of strange debate between fellow countrymen over what ID to take when going back for a visit. (??) All I wanted to ask was "can I make a lump sum RRSP contribution as 2008 was my departure year"?

For the record, yes I can.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A random thing I feel the need to semi-publicly confess

I may have let my list of Facebook friends get a little too unwieldy.

Tiger Balm is good for all sorts of things, apparently

For some reason my first boyfriend introduced me to the merits of Tiger Balm. I can't remember why - he probably used it for sore muscles, like most people. But I was in the supermarket the other day and saw some. Feeling suddenly nostalgic, I picked it up. The next day I had a headache and rubbed some on my neck - I felt better in about a minute. And my colleague said "is that Tiger Balm I smell? I love that stuff!"

That night I read the description on the jar: "Fast effective relief for headaches, stuffy nose, insect bites, itchiness, muscular aches and pains, sprains and flatulence."

That's right, flatulence. Ummm, how, exactly?

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...