Sunday, 2 August 2015

Those lucky, lucky bears.

Holidays always make me feel a bit strange. There is something disturbing in how fast you can transfer from one completely different environment into another, get settled and used to it; and then come back to your home, where everything suddenly looks new and unfamiliar- for just the first few minutes after arrival. And then, it feels as if nothing actually even happened. Have I just been to Canada and back?

And speaking of Canada… what can I say? 

It was not love at first sight. 

But, I don't even believe in love at first sight, anyhow. A proper attraction demands time to develop. 

I think my very first impression was that it was unexpectedly different. Different from anything I had been to or seen before. Okay, Middle East was different, when we first came to Qatar. But I expected it to be different.

Canada, and Calgary in particular, however, took me by surprise. I could sense those little subtle differences in everything around; and at first, I could not quite understand whether they were good or bad different? Like Calgary airport, with a huge statue of horses and golden framed photographs at the baggage carousel. 

Or the Bas Pro shop. It is like a miniature planet of its own. Pluto on Earth. 
(the front entrance of Bas pro shop)                                                
So, what is that country like? Well, it would be safe to assume that they adore their bears. Bears are everywhere you look. Stuffed bears, painted bears, hand-carved and watercoloured, in all possible poses and sizes and combinations you can imagine. 

It is all about bears, moose and cowboys. 
  (inside Bas Pro shop)


Canadians are very friendly. Every sales assistant or a waiter I met, in a shop or a cafe, wanted to know where I was from, and once heard something unusual like Azerbaijan or Qatar, they seemed genuinely interested to find out where that was, how I ended up there and where is next. (Like I even know?) Thus, every purchase took approximately fifteen minutes. After two weeks, I was prepared to fake the accent just to get away faster. 

They are also incredibly law-obedient. It was particularly noticeable to someone like me, Azeri AND ex-Soviet. I come from the people who say the rules exist only while police are watching. We are genetically predisposed to bend the rules at any opportunity. Not only that, but I also live in Qatar, where laws seem to be very strict, yet a little flexible.

Let me give you an example. We drove to a beautiful spot on a lake. I noticed a sign with a list of rules of using the camping areas. You were to come in a group no bigger than X, in a car convoy of no larger than Y…and you were to pay a certain amount per night. I looked around but could see no one in sight. Not a booth with a security guard collecting fees, not a fence to stop you driving in…nobody. How do they control it all then, I asked. Well, I was told, you just drive in and follow the rules, and put the money in that box provided. 

Really? And everyone just does that? Everyone

Lastly, it is a very dangerous country. I am not talking about their bears. I am talking about their carbs.

Like your dream escort, they are beautiful, perverted and sophisticated at the same time. Imagine that, but also easily affordable and available anywhere you go?

You see, there are carbs in other countries I have lived in that are so obviously bad for you, and so OTT sugary that you find it quite easy to say ‘no’ to those.

However, in Canada? They don't just have a few varieties of crispy breads. They get you with some gentle hint of lime and herb, or a dried fig and rosemary combination…stuff that a normal person cannot even imagine existed. And then they have a shop like Bulk Barn. ‘You might want to leave the kids to wait outside…’ my friend suggested. Oh. My. God. And three more words: Chocolate covered pretzels. Would you prefer dark or milk chocolate? What about s'mores popcorn? Coffee beans covered in chocolate, I guess I know about those…But no, that was not quite imaginative enough, what about chocolate covered coffee bean blend? Or perhaps madam would fancy chocolate covered sponge toffee? 

The Carb Heaven

Get me out of here, I thought. Now, now! Before it is too late.

Also, the technology. Not just compared to Qatar, but England too (no offence meant to either) these Canadians, they live very comfortably. Everything is there to help you. The tools and equipment they use at home on the day-to-day basis are beyond anything I ever experienced. I am (proudly) not the type who would get excited about a drying machine. However, my friends’ drier that quickly determines how long it has to dry something for… And the speed and the size of it? I have to say I never enjoyed doing laundry so much in my whole life. And don’t even get me started on that super intelligent floor mop.

And then, there is the nature.

I am a complete convert. British Columbia, with its magical ( and there simply is no other word for it) beauty did something to me that I never thought was possible. When I was given a choice of either staying at the lake house or returning to Calgary to shop for a few days without the children, I shocked myself by my decision to stay at the lake. Me? Really? Someone who always chose a city break in any online questionnaire about a dream holiday? To say ‘no, thanks’ to a few childless days of shopping, in favour of a quiet time at the lake, just sitting there gazing at the mountains, paddle boarding on that glass-like water, and going on nature walks? Me?

The beauty of the nature all around that area is stunning. Indescribable. Bewitching. 

And that’s how I, step by step, with my brain intoxicated with carbs, Caesars and the lingering smell of pine trees, surrendered to the love for Canada. Yes, I thought. Good different. So beautiful, so natural.  In a very relaxed and laid back way.

Those lucky, lucky bears.  

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Ramadan experience. Quite pleasant, actually.

A few days before Ramadan, I was having a coffee with a Muslim friend. She asked if I was freaking out about Ramadan. 'I wonder', she said, 'how difficult it is for you guys, if you are not fasting? It seems to me that all non-Muslim expats are dreading Ramadan?'

I just shrugged my shoulders. I had no proper Ramadan experience yet, in the three years of living in Doha, simply because I was never here when it started. As soon as the school was finished, we would be on the plane and out of here. Not just because of Ramadan but because everyone else was away, and the heat was killing us.

However, this year, Ramadan started almost two weeks before the end of school year. And you know what? It is actually, bizarrely, unexpectedly...not that bad!

  • Firstly, the heat…I don't know what it is, but I guess, I have acclimatized to it. A lot. Yes, it is hot, but I do not feel like I am going to collapse and die anymore. I thought about that today, as I was walking from my car to school, wearing jeans. I mean, I never! wore any type of trousers in summer in Qatar before. Ever. The fact that I can walk from the car to school at 12pm wearing jeans is simply staggering. 
  • Instead of avoiding the heat altogether, I still go to the pool. Even last summer, it might have seemed insane to me, but this morning, I spent a whole hour reading a magazine and enjoying a swim; and the best part was, I was completely alone. Because everyone else has buggered off. I used to think it would be eerie and unpleasant in the compound with mostly everyone away. But, in reality, I am so rarely alone, that I really enjoyed it. I forgot how important, how therapeutic it feels to be by yourself sometimes. No music, no Internet, no people. Definitely no children. It was just me and an occasional pigeon. 
  • The traffic is great. That might not mean much to you if you don't live in Doha and drive here on a normal day. Every morning, on my way to school, I think just how peaceful the streets are. Mostly everyone is either asleep or away, and those who are on the roads, even the really bad drivers, seem to drive in this relaxed slow motion. So you have more time to react to their dangerous moves when they attempt them. 
  • As for the cafes and coffee shops being closed, after the initial shock to the system, you start seeing clear advantages. Temptation removed, I don't stop almost every day for latte or Paul bread, which of course is not only great for my finances but also for my diet. 
  • And, speaking of coffee and other hmm…beverages that of course we, non-fasting expats still consume in the daylight, there is something really nice about the fact that, should you want to see a friend, you just have to invite them to your home. You remember? That old-fashioned, sitting in your kitchen with a cup of tea way? At the moment, we spend a lot more time BBQ'ing and having drinks inside the houses, which makes the whole experience a lot more personal, somehow. 
  • During Ramadan, you make new friends, or see more of the friends that you might not see as often during the year. Yesterday, a friend who lives and works in West Bay, dropped by after work. Ha, I told her. I know why you are here, all the way in suburban compound, far away from your glamorous West Bay! All your other friends are gone for the summer, aren't they. But, the truth is, in the busier times, with family, school and work commitments, she might not have been able to sneak out and simply sit in my garden, chatting for a few hours. 
  • Finally, Iftar. A bunch of us, the hardcore who are still here, are planning to go to the evening buffet next week. Somewhere nice, you know. Feel a bit naughty, as we are not fasting, and still are going to eat a lot in the evening, but will justify it by telling myself it is an important cultural experience for the children. In reality of course, I just love eating in fancy restaurants. And eating at night is my favourite.

So there you go. Ramadan has not been that bad for me. But, I am, of course, excited about my summer break, which by the way is somewhat different this year. We are not going back to the UK, but visiting family friends in Canada. And then, after long six years, I am taking my girls to Baku! ( If you are reading this, Azerbaijani secret services, please don't arrest me. I am NOT a political blogger, as you can clearly see here.)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Check it out. Scary Azeri making an attempt at inspirational posting.

                                                          Scary Azeri as a toddler.

I started off wanting to write about ugly people.

You see, I had a fascinating thought (well, I thought it was fascinating but according to Husband it was a mean idea and he stopped me discussing it in front of our children, not to raise them into shallow individuals like myself) about ugly people finding partners to match themselves. I mean, just because you might be ugly yourself, does not automatically make you find other ugly people attractive, right? Or does it? And, if it does, then isn't it beautiful, how nature has its ways of achieving this perfect balance in the universe? And people always have hope to find love, even if they are... well, very very very unfortunate looking? Just a thought, really.

But, hey…Husband's recommendation was such that I should not really so openly demonstrate my shallowness to the world. So instead, I will tell you something else today. Something more inspirational.  ( Even though, I still maintain that ugly people having hope of finding love with other ugly people, and being given a chance to reproduce and make ugly babies together... is a beautiful AND inspirational thought. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing shallow about that, is there?)

I was thinking the other day, as I was getting ready to go out and applying make up, that I am not uncomfortable in my hmm….mature body. I, in fact, quite like it. I am trying to improve it as much as I can, but I am quite grateful for what I have. As I just celebrated my 42nd birthday, I thought that right now, at this moment in life, I probably feel the most comfortable in my skin. I am the fittest I have been in years, I know how to dress to show the best bits and hide the worst, and I know how to apply make up better than ever.

But it was not always this easy.

In fact, I used to be ugly. My mother told me many times how, when she brought me, the newborn baby girl, home from the hospital, my grandmother looked at me, and kindly announced that they had never had such an ugly baby in their family. My mother cried for hours.

So we established that I was never a pretty baby to start with. As a toddler I got away with my looks due to a cute personality and blond curly hair. However, again…Nobody would have called me pretty.

And then...the turning into a young woman started. And it was a painful journey.

I still remember, clearly having been badly scarred, comments and remarks some people made about my looks that made me feel uncomfortable about the way I looked. And, the most ironic part of this is that the very body parts they criticised turned out to be my favourite parts as I became older.

Once at school, I must have been what? thirteen perhaps, when a boy in my class made a comment about the shape of my lips being ugly. You won't believe how ashamed I was of them since then, for years to come! How I avoided bright coloured lipsticks, and how I was worried sick that no boys would want to kiss me. (Ha!)

On another memorable occasion, I was walking up the stairs with a friend, wearing a short skirt when a ( very unattractive!) guy behind me shouted that if I had not had such awfully skinny legs, he would try and pick me up.

Trust me when I say now that skinny legs is not a bad thing when you are 42.

As we girls get older, we always worry so much about ageing, there is so much concern about wrinkles and saggy bits, so many discussions with girlfriends about microdermabrasions, fillers and Botox…that I never really stopped and thought how I feel now about my body, compared to when I was very young.

And when I did think about it, I was pleasantly surprised to realise that, despite getting older, despite at times wondering about investing in fillers and bigger boobs…I am actually much more comfortable in my skin right now than I was years ago.  I love my legs! And my lips. And I don't care if someone does not, which I guess is the most important part.

So maybe, thinking of ugly people…Maybe they are not really ugly. My legs are pretty fucking great. But, to that Azeri guy who preferred his girls curvier and meatier, they were too skinny.

I guess the answer to my shallow question above is…None of us will appear ugly or beautiful to every single person. And sometimes, it is how we feel about ourselves that makes the biggest difference. I just wish I realised that when I was 16. It would have spared me a lot of unhappy moments.

How's that for inspirational writing? Not my style, but I wanted to try it.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Do you speak…. Italian?

I was chatting to a friend this morning and she was telling me a story that, under typical circumstances, would not be worth remembering. It was your normal kind of conversation we girls often have, about skipping the gym too many times, about possibly feeling fatter than usual…She described the horror she felt as she stood in front of a full length mirror the night before. 'I told my husband', she said, 'Just look at this!'

The husband tried to comfort her. "Amore…"

'Don't you amore me!' she replied. 'I am getting fat!'

Now, what made the whole story entertaining, of course, was that my friend's husband is Italian. How cool, I thought, when your husband refers to you as amore? Mine usually calls me wifey.

I told my other friend, who speaks English with her husband, just like I do, that we made a huge mistake. We should have chosen more wisely. Look, I said. I already spoke English when I met Husband. I had a job where I talked in English all day long, I sent emails and watched movies…It sort of became my second language pretty quickly. So it was not really something very exotic anymore. Also, let's be honest, what's so exciting about English language? Not much. Now, thinking about it in hindsight, would it not have been cool to have married someone who spoke some other, more you know, romantic language? Like Italian. Or French? Oui. Definitely French. You know how they say…if you haven't dated French, you have not dated.

In that case, would all the mundane situations become so much more exciting? Imagine…

Your Spanish husband says to you Sacar la basura...

You go all googly eyes, but really all he said was Take the rubbish out. ( Not that any husband would ever say that, in any language.)

Or he might come home and ask Que hay de cenar esposa?

Should he ask you that in English, i.e. What's for dinner? it might not turn out to be such a good evening for him; but in Spanish it suddenly sounds so much better.

And, of course, thinking about marrying into different cultures made me wonder what it would have been like should I have married someone from my own country. Not someone very traditional, like my first boyfriend was; as that would have been a fiasco from the very beginning. But someone more like myself. But then, I cannot even imagine that situation, somehow. I don't think I'd ever even seriously considered that option, to be honest.

I asked Husband. Surely, I said, you must have thought about this? What would it have been like if you were married to someone English?

Husband (who, come to think of it, had girlfriends from all over the world), shook his head. 'Nope, he said. 'Pretty dull'.

'But have you thought about it?' I pestered.

'No, not really', he replied. 'But I do often wonder what it would have been like to have married money'.

Hmm. Not sure he isn't Azeri after all.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Love me, forgive me for having a dog. Even if you don't have one yourself.

I have had a little falling out with an old friend recently. Oh, we will be fine. It happened before and it will happen again, and this time, it was not even a real falling out. Just a teeny disagreement. I would not even call it a disagreement, as I chose to say nothing and go silent on her for a while, until she decides to be nice again.

However, it got me thinking about how your lifestyle and changes in circumstances can affect old friendships.

A while ago, husband was not sure why this one friend seemed to distance himself.

 'I had not said or done anything', he claimed, and I had to admit that, in that particular case,  he had not. However, coincidentally, I came across a very good article, which listed a few reasons other people might hate you. When you have not done anything wrong. And one of the examples they used was of two guys discussing their weekends at work. As far as Guy No 1 was concerned, he was having a friendly chat with his nice colleague. However, after that, he noticed the Guy No 2 started avoiding him.

So what happened? well, Guy No 1 was telling his friend about his crappy weekend. What a horrible time I had! My car broke down on the way to the seaside, and then the girlfriend was a bitch and fell out with me over that…Or something like that. Now, what's wrong with that story? Absolutely nothing. If you told Guy No 1 that he had annoyed Guy No 2 and made him feel jealous, he would be incredulous. What is there to be jealous about? My car broke down, my girlfriend was a bitch…

However. The Guy No 2 lives with his disabled father. He does not make enough money to have a car, and he definitely has no girlfriend, either bitchy or not. So to him, all he heard was Look at me! I have a car! and I have a girlfriend! 

The result? Guy No 2 hates Guy No 1. Was it Guy No 1's fault? No. Was he showing off? Nope. Yet, the result is the same.

I told Husband that story. 'So you see, following that logic...When you talked about your work problems, to this (ex) friend of yours,  it was a reminder that he was unemployed for years.'

'But that's ridiculous!', Husband responded. Yes, it is. But that's how it works.

Now, I repeated that mistake with this old friend. Divorced, with two small children, and two jobs she has to juggle, she takes my problems and issues I sometimes share with her as insignificant. To her, I have absolutely nothing to ever complain about, and technically, she is of course, right. She told me off, and maybe, I deserved it. I should have been more tactful. I should have been careful not to mention that aspect of my life…or this…or this. My goodness, definitely not that. But, in the end, that is what my life is at the moment.

So, I guess, my question is…Can we remain friends with people if our lives become so significantly different from each others? Can we still share our problems with them, however pathetic, spoilt and annoying we might sound?

All you do all day is drink wine and go to the gym, she said. What do you know about real problems?

And I felt like replying. I felt like pointing out where I live. I felt like reminding her that she has a career, and a social security, possibly the best medicine in the world, and a home. And parents who live close by. And friends who are not going to suddenly relocate elsewhere. And she knows which country she will live in 10 years' time. All those simple, normal things that seem like luxuries to me.

But I did not say anything. What's the point? She is, after all, right. I do drink quite a lot of wine. And I do go to the gym. And she really should be okay with that.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

When change will come, whether invited or not.

The world is split into two types of people: Those who fill the sink to wash up and those who wash their dishes under the running water. 

I am the latter. 

Husband said I did not like change. A very illogical statement, if you ask me, since he knows perfectly well that I thrive on change. I mean, come on. I am a Gemini, I wither down to nothing without change. But, since neither of us believes in horoscopes, I could not use that argument very effectively. However, changing home countries twice works. I left Azerbaijan and made England my home. I then left England and….well, Qatar isn't really a  home, but hey, I live here. For an unpredictable number of years.

I also fancied a girl recently. Now, that's a change.

But back to changing homes. The reason we had an interesting week here, in our household, at the end of which the above illogical conclusion was drawn by Husband, was that he, i.e. Husband, decided we should move to a different compound, closer to school.

Do you have any idea how far a school can be in Doha?  In our case, it takes us approximately 45 minutes to reach it. It can drive anyone crazy after a while. I have been pretty unconcerned about it, but only because, due to my careful carpool planning and intricate manipulations, I found myself not doing any mornings, and only driving perhaps two to three afternoons a week. Husband, however, woke up one day and realised that he was the one doing most of the driving. It was bound to happen sooner or later, of course. I saw no point arguing. He has been doing an awful lot of school runs for over three years now.

So we started a discussion about a possibility of moving to a compound nearer to the school. The more I thought about that, the more it made sense. I liked the compound, I already had a few friends from school living there... It was new, it was clean, the houses were modern. Really quite nice houses, to be honest. Light and bright, with no enormous brass chandeliers or/and golden curtains. I quite fancied living in one of those. I drove there one more time. I walked around noting the behaviour of children playing outside. I looked in my friend's house, all over, glancing inside the cupboards and bathrooms. I waked over to the swimming pool and gazed into it for a while. In the end I said yes. Let's do it, I said. Let's move!

Emails got sent, dates of relocating have been set. Friends were told. I measured my big brown leather sofa and tried to space plan it in the new room. ( I used to get paid to do this) So, it was all going well.


The next morning, I woke up and something was wrong. I did not want to move.

I talked already here about the nature of expat life and about everything being very temporary. I reminded myself of that when I felt sad leaving my compound friends and moving to a new place. I know of course, that any of them can move away at any given moment, to a different house or a different country. But, to me, this very nature of transiency of our lives here is the reason that could be both for and against the move. The reality is such, that whether you are the kind of person who likes it or fears it, if you decided to be an expat, you have no choice but to live with a constant change. And in Doha, change springs up on you all of a sudden, without any foreplay and you have to relax and try to enjoy it. You find a beauty salon near you and a nice lady does your eye brows.  You return in three weeks for your regular treatment and the doors are locked, the signage removed and  nothing, not even a notice on the door indicates that any beauty salon had ever existed in the building before. Small things like that….Or, your neighbour could be choosing a maid one minute and packing her suitcases the other, as her husband got told he no longer had a job.  Somewhat bigger things.

And maybe precisely because of that, because everything is already constantly unstable enough here, in Doha, that I refused to move. It is because of the things that make me feel somewhat settled here. My network of friends and neighbours, some of which I have known for all the years I have lived in Qatar. My hairdresser and the cheap Thai massage place. My favourite Aspire club minutes away. The dodgy Indian restaurant where I can pop to for a greasy fried prawn dish if I feel like it. The plants market I always mean to visit more often but never do. The dangerous proximity of the only alcohol shop in town. The slightly cocky compound gardener.  It is my comfort zone, the set of things that I built around me to make me feel remotely at home. And should one of the components suddenly collapse and disappear from that set, I would still feel safe and comfortable in my comfort zone. And that is what I need, I guess, to survive happily here, as an expat.

So, I said to Husband, I am sorry. I know I was excited about the idea. I know I said yes. But you know what is another famous character trait for Gemini, don't you. We are notorious for changing our minds without much notice. And maybe he is right. Maybe I don't like change, after all. Because I know it will come anyway, whether invited or not.