Friday, 18 May 2018

The Simple truths about living in an expat compound.

A senior colleague stopped by my desk yesterday to ask me to be a Buddy for a new person about to join us. He said they thought I would be good for helping her settle in Qatar and the new firm. I of course, was happy to be asked. I must come across quite friendly and easygoing, I told myself. 

So isn’t it ironic, don't you think, as Alanis would say, that, the very same morning I ended up in a silly, pointless argument with one of the best friends in Doha? A kind of argument that originated seemingly out of nothing and thus was even more upsetting and confusing. However, it got me thinking once again about relationships in general, and expat ones in particular. 

Living in a compound is basically like living in a kommunalka- a Soviet era communal apartment. If you have no idea what those were, they were big flats with separate rooms occupied by various families, who shared one large kitchen facility and a couple of bathrooms. A very simple recipe for a spectacular disaster. The only difference is in a compound we have our own kitchens and bathrooms, and we have to co-exist with at least five other nationalities, all in one melting pot together, with all our wonderful cultural quirkiness, religious beliefs and understandings of what is acceptable by social etiquette. 

What I have to explain, before I go any further, is that we are very lucky with our compound. It is a friendly one, we party a lot, and we help each other out when extra babysitting or school trips are needed. But, of course, we are all very different. It is easy to forget about that, especially if you take into account the fact that most of us have been living here for over five years. In fact, as I pointed out to one of my neighbours the other day, our little daughters have lived almost all of their lives in entirety in Doha, and in this very compound. Think about that. So yes, we are all from different countries yet we do have an awful lot in common, living next door to each other for this long, away from our childhood friends and extended families, sharing same issues, same stresses and worries, and same joys for this long. 

And, with my birthday approaching (too quickly!) again this summer, I suddenly realised, looking at my guest list, that most of the people on it have been at my birthday parties for five years in a row. I struggle to think when in my life I would have had the same friends celebrating with me every year for that long.  

Even when I lived in Baku, where you could have said was my home and things should have been a lot more stable and consistent, the birthday crowd changed from year to year- beaus, colleagues and friends coming and going,  faces replacing faces, relatives passing away. Life cannot stay stagnant, wherever you live. 

Yet, I managed, I was lucky, to have the same core bunch still here, celebrating with me on my birthday, every year since I moved to Doha. And I managed not to fall out with any of them. Yet.

That surely, counts for something. But....There is always a but. Like I said, living in a compound is not easy for friendships. There are some truths that I have learnt and they are not sad or disappointing, they are just the reality; and I think once you realise this simple fact, you can accept many human behavioural issues more graciously and philosophically. 

So, here is my list of things you should be prepared for, should you ever choose to be an expat and live in a compound environment. 

Everybody fakes. 

I used to categorise people I met in life into Genuine and Fake. To be honest, I still do. However, I am more realistic and accepting these days about us, adults and the things we all have to pretend about at some point or the other. We smile at people we despise; we are polite when we want to bite someone’s head off and we say things we don’t mean. This occasional fake behaviour is a common universal trait we all share, let me assure you, no matter where we come from. It is just part of adult, human, survival-in-society tactic. 

Everyone gossips. 

There is endless gossip in a compound life, it is all around you, about you, from you, to you...who said what, who did what, who told someone a big secret and asked not to pass it on only for all of us to know almost immediately, of course… Someone asked me once not to tell something to a particular person because they thought that person was a big gossip. That’s quite funny, I thought, as I had already heard the news from someone else. You never know. You think you do, because some people are generally more open, like me, and talk a lot. But that could be where you fail to realise that you can’t predict who and why- that also is a very important element here- why they would pass some info on. Some gossip just for entertainment. Others deliberately pass on damaging, distorted things, things that they use to deliberately spoil your friendship with someone else. 

Miscommunication and misunderstandings happen. Often. 

I believe that most failed friendships here happen due to misunderstanding, and that is very sad and incredibly frustrating. I've always believed in clearing things up, should there be any misunderstanding between me and my friends. However, it doesn’t always work. You have to remember the cultural differences, too. People of some nationalities are surprisingly closed off, and it is impossible to get them to talk openly. That causes a lot of problems I never anticipated happening to me. I can talk about anything an everything, but that is not always welcome or helpful. 

People see everything through their own prism. 

And yes, as it happens with prisms, it will distort the events, but you can't help that. 
You can do something that is okay in your opinion and back where you came from, but it might cause a huge offence somewhere in Alaska. One friend of mine was once telling me she thought men from one particular European nationality were awfully rude and ill-mannered- when she walked into the room at some party, they didn't all jump up from their seats. I personally wouldn't have noticed. So, in most cases, I prefer to tell people if I am upset about something they have done, and for them to let me know. Sometimes you can talk about it, and you both go Oh! I see…But sometimes that cultural wall is simply too high. Like in that religious song my child loved to sing in our local church toddler group in England.  'It's too high to get over it, it’s too wide to get round it, it's too low to get under it… So my personal approach is…'gotta go through that door'. Try and break through the cultural misunderstanding wall, but be prepared to get a few bumps and bruises on the way. 

Final point.

Giving them a taste of own medicine never works. Because, and this is a very amusing ability of us, humans... we often don’t realise when we are being rude or unreasonable or hurt someone’s feelings. We simply don’t see it. We only notice when other people are mean to us. So we are outraged! And we complain and we take offence and we go to other friends and say such and such was so rude to me! When we have, very often, done the exact same thing to someone else before. 

But THE Final, final point to all this is...nobody is entirely good or bad, fake or genuine, a gossip or not. It is confusing, yet somehow true. 

One of my favourite movies was Crash. The stories of very different people: white and black, Hispanic and Persian, rich and poor...interweave during two days in Los Angeles, messing with all your assumptions and stereotypes of good and bad, showing you how someone you assumed to be a good person accidentally murdered someone, and someone you thought was a horrible racist saved a black woman from a burning car, risking his own life. 

Most of us are good-at least in our own minds, and at some point during the day. 

And we can all be assholes. Depends on our cultural prism, and the mood we are in, and the time of the month, and whether we get enough sleep or/and sex, and whether we are on some stupid detox diet, and....and..and....

the end. 


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Thailand Blog! About elephants and rats and Thai ladies.

I have a feeling that this blog is turning into a travel blog. Which is fine, only they reckon for a blogger to grow the audience and become successful, she needs to target her audience, you know. Be specific as to what you are blogging about. And when people ask me that, I sound like one of those old video rental places I used to visit very often in my younger days in Baku. Where, among all the categories the films were broken into, there was one with misspelled Russian word “jiznenniy”. Life-like

So yes, my blog is about life, to summarise it. It started off as a humorous blog about culture clash. But life itself is a major culture clash, isn’t it. Not always humorous one, either.

We talked about everything here, haven’t we? Some of you been visiting this blog for years. So you know we covered death, life, childbirth, romance, dating, politics, even The Eurovision. And of course, travel. 

Anyway, enough of that intro crap. I wanted to tell you about elephants.
I had seen elephants before, of course. But, on our recent visit to Thailand, I had a few hours of up-close and personal with elephants. We went to Patara Elephant Farm day out, up in Chiang Mai.

I mean, in theory, I should start by telling you about Thailand, where I had never been before, about Chiang Mai, which is a fascinating place to visit, even though not at all what I had expected. But I start with the elephants because, as I recall the overall impression from that 10-day trip…elephants over shadow everything else for me.  They are so so so…I am not American so I don’t use this word lightly, but they are so awesome. The whole experience was amazing. 

Their trunks are so wonderfully weird? I mean I can’t think of anything as cool and bizarre at the same time- besides penises, I guess?- that Mother Nature created. 

So yes, elephants and that particular type of a rescue farm where they look after them, buy the sick and abused ones from other parts of Asia, and nurse them better.. is an amazing place, and if you ever get a chance to visit Thailand, it is a must.

Now…back to the rest of it. 

I guess, even though I had never been to Thailand, in all my years on this planet I already had formed a certain stereotypical image of what it would be like. I imagined beautiful Thai ladies serving us tea, their waists as narrow as my ankles, big shy smiles on their pretty faces.
I imagined exotic beauty everywhere. 

Nope. None of that. 

Firstly, I guess Chiang Mai is a completely different planet altogether from perhaps, more touristy beach destinations. It is very poor. It is dirty. I am talking rats rummaging right outside the grocery shop in the central part of town. I am talking roaches everywhere, of course, and ugly, shabby buildings. 

Yet of course, certain charm is still there. If you enjoy backpacking poverty and getting fed up looking for your soul in India, Chiang Mai is your next destination.
The food…is amazing and cheap. Really amazing. And really quite cheap. 

Back to the Thai ladies. They don’t smile. At least not in Chiang Mai. Really, they made me feel quite at home, it is as if you go up in the mountains somewhere in Azerbaijan and try and get a smile off local ladies. Same kind of stare back, no smile, no words. Nothing. 

I understood from discussing this bizarre situation with the villa manager, that the four ladies who worked in the house were from a very small village somewhere up north and were simply very shy

To me they didn’t appear shy. More like hostile. I was convinced that should I dare to ask them to bring me another coffee, they would add some elephant urine to it.

The villa where we stayed with our Spanish friends was indeed, as photos promised, stunning. But what I of course, should have realised from the start, we were in the jungle.

Did you know? That gecko is called that because the creature actually says the word? It sits there, clearly somewhere very near you, maybe even in your bedroom, and announces loudly, at around 2:30am every night that it is a ge-cko.

Besides geckos who really are quite cute, there were some crickets or cicadas or whatever the hell they were, who were making an incredibly annoying, shrilling, loud noise. They would start all together, every day at around 1pm, then stop abruptly as if someone conducted them. Then again later in the afternoon, and so on. After those, and some rat tails hanging through ceiling boards in our bathroom, enormous spiders and a few cockroaches…I decided I didn’t particularly want to ever visit jungle again. I even am seriously reconsidering my retirement in Spain plan now, that my friends laughed and pointed out to me that there is a lot of wild life all around in Spain too. We have roaches flying on the streets, they announced happily, and all sorts of insects. Hmm, I thought. Perhaps, I could buy a little house in Finland instead. 

But, to summarize…go. Go to Chiang Mai. I do recommend it. I mean, I appreciate that it is a jungle and jungle has creatures living in it who have a right to exist there; and I was only visiting and sharing their living environment temporarily. The environment where things were killing other things at 3am, slowly and painfully, or things were getting born maybe? or whatever else those horrible noises were. And I survived that. I didn’t really sleep much at nights, but I survived. 

And I appreciate that I am terribly urban. Nature and I are not friends, like I pointed out before. So you, a more normal person, might enjoy the jungle. And the rats.

So, do go. And go to Patara. It is amazing. 

Do the zip-line! Do the rivers. Do visit the magnificent temples and see the monks pray. The monks are almost as amazing as the elephants. There is something incredibly cool about them, don’t ask me what, I cant figure it out.

Thailand is a great place to visit. Just bring a lot of mosquito repellent. I mean A LOT of it.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

A Beauty and the Beasts

I have to confess that the story I am about to share with you was meant to be written last summer, after my trip to Azerbaijan. I just never got round to it, really. 

No, there is another reason. It is maybe a little critical of my home country. And I have stopped being critical about it, as some of you might have noticed, for a while now. Not because I am afraid of all those aggressive nationalists attacking me- as they always do. And not for any other reason, but for the fact that I have been feeling quite positive about Baku and Azerbaijan in the recent years. I simply enjoyed going back every summer, and had very little negative to say.

Especially, about Illisu, which is a beautiful, lovely place. I wrote about it before here

So, because of my overall very positive experience in the region, I deliberately missed this one particular experience out .

While we stayed in Illisu, we of course, visited surrounding places of interest. Mainly waterfalls and pretty, you know, lakes and mountains. The trips were organised by the owner of the small resort we were staying at. However, there was one place which, for some reason, not many other residents were keen on going to. It was a little more expensive than the other organised trips, and when I enquired why, I was told that the place is located so high and deep into the mountains that only an uazik could get there. Don't you love Russian terms of endearment? Uazik is filled with affection as opposed to just calling it UAZ.

Now, I have not been in an UAZ since forever, if ever. Wow, I thought. So you're telling me there is some hidden sulphuric baths place deep in the mountains where no vehicles can reach except for a military soviet jeep? I am SO going there! 

I was also told it required a lot of hiking across rivers and rocks, and is really quite far.
That didn’t really turn me off either. Let’s go!I said to my mother. Yalla! We must! 

It was, in fact, a fascinating, amazing experience. First of all, when they said "off-road" they meant OFF ROAD.  

Uazik was old. It was made during Soviet times and has since lived a good, active life. The seats were worn out, and the roads were rough. We then reached the river. The river was fast! Well, I thought, we probably are going along it. But no, Uazik plunged happily in like an overenthusiastic submarine. Children screamed. This is exactly that kind of a moment when you appreciate the argument for legalisation of marijuana.

I tried to focus on the gorgeous scenery. The height of that grass! The flowers everywhere!

Finally, after probably forty minutes or so of Uazik's swimming and climbing rocks, we stopped. 'From here, we walk.' Our skinny, toothless driver announced. Fortunately, he volunteered to go with us. 

When I saw the first bridge I realised once again this was a proper adventure. An adventure akin to the one in Annihilation. The kind you know you might not return from.

But, again…the scenery. The scenery kept me going. As we made our way climbing on rocks, crossing flimsy handmade bridges, I kept my mind on the final destination. Somehow, having lived abroad for too long, I expected…. I honestly don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to find what I found. I guess what I assumed was that, a place as cool as that, with some miraculously therapeutic sulphur water that cures many diseases- to the extent of, according to the local legends, turning you almost immortal or, at the very least, restoring long lost virginity... would have been set up as some sort of cool resort, you know? I mean, if I had the money, I would have bought that place and set it up  with private pools, changing rooms and some cafe selling kale and wheat grass juices, for some fat rich foreigners and locals to waste their money on. And maybe you will argue now that untouched beautiful nature places are the best? Ha! This place, sadly, was not entirely untouched, that is the problem. Just touched by ignorant idiots determined to ruin something beautiful their country had to offer.

The mountains were everywhere, right there; you could touch them on both sides. The further up we climbed, the darker it got, as the mountains kept closing in on us from all sides. The pathway was getting narrower and narrower; the air was getting cooler and damper as if we were in the cave. A dream home for Shelob, I thought.

And then I started noticing signs of other humans. Thank goodness, I thought at first. But then, I wasn’t so sure. What is happening here? I asked our guide. There were people cooking and washing their underwear next to some shacks made out of cupboard boxes. Do these people camp here? Then I saw a used nappy someone chucked on one of those beautiful rocks. There were paper cups, chicken bones and pieces of bread littering the place. The closer we came to the actual sulphur baths, the dirtier it was getting. There was also more and more people everywhere. And they were all staring.
Don’t care what you think of me for what I am about to say, but those people were scary. They were as scary as cannibal aborigines or the walking dead. As we finally reached the final destination I realised this was not a tourist place at all. It was a mountain with a hole in it. With two separate entrances of course, for men and women. There were a couple of old geezers guarding the holes. I tried to figure out what was going on. Everybody stopped talking at the sight of me in my ripped knee-length denim shorts and two blond western looking children. Dead silence followed. Excuse me, my mother asked in Azeri. What is the system here? How do we get to bath here?



Finally, our guide discovered there was some not very obvious yet a waiting line there, and should we choose to wait, we could be number 98. 

As the old babushkas, both Georgian and Azeri ( the place is right on the border with Georgia) in what appeared as three or four cardigans each with holes in them started coming closer to look at my children and touch their hair, I decided I had to escape while still possible. My mother was not as easily intimidated. 'Come on!', she said. "We made it all this way! I have to at least glance inside the cave!"

Inside looked gross. You couldn't see much for the steamy darkness that smelled of rotten eggs. It was a small cave with a dark murky stinky water where- wait for it- a group of 8 people were allowed a turn, to sit in- absolutely naked- for twenty minutes. I have no idea but I hope!!! the water somehow was running through, and that those people were not stewing in the same stagnant sulphur yuckiness that the previous groups of 8 sat. Naked. 

We are leaving, I said to my excited mother. Now.

We made our way through the staring zombies down and back to our UAZ. 

Here I could have paused to tell you another story about a couple of local men running to the river to watch us swim in our bikinis, and me telling them to eff off in my limited, polite Azeri…But let's not. Enough said.

I want to end this story on a positive note, somehow. I am sure that one day- I probably won't live to see it- my Azeri countrymen will realise what a stunning, amazing place they are sitting on. A Klondike of natural beauty, with tones of potential. Something like that sulphur baths place, anywhere in the world would have been privatised long ago, and made into a fancy expensive resort where no locals could ever afford to go. Instead, they have this amazing chance to enjoy it all for free. Absolutely, entirely for free. And, instead of feeling grateful, they come and rape it, leaving behind shitty nappies and dirty plastic bags. Absolutely disgusting.

The end. 

Monday, 12 March 2018

Happiness is...

A friend of mine was giving me an advice the other day. We were talking about my total inability to save any money. I spend it all, always! I said to her and she listed a bunch of things that I often talk about me doing, which she finds a total waste of money. Like having a party and inviting people over. Look, she said. You keep telling me you end up inviting people more often than they ever invite you! And you know why, right. Is because they are smart and saving for their future, while you are like, you know, that stupid butterfly. 

The butterfly reference (for those of you without soviet background) is from a very famous old fable by Krilov, “A dragonfly and an ant”. It basically tells a story about a dragonfly (actually, a butterfly makes so much more sense here, no idea why he never thought to use it instead of a dragonfly. Never liked Krilov, to be honest.) who spent all summer flying around, not worrying about future only to be dying from freezing cold weather in winter. She crawled to the ant, who had spent all summer working hard building himself a warm place, and asked for shelter. The ant, miserable bastard, looked at her, gleefully, and pointed out that she should have not been partying all summer.  “So, why don’t you go do some dancing now, eh? “He said (asshole). 

OK, so this friend of mine… she is often blunt-it is a Soviet/Russian thing in all of us-but she does have a point, of course.

However! (My favourite word)

I do have a logical (to me, anyway) explanation for my dragonfly behaviour. I tend to do things that make me happy, now.  It is all about experiences. And sharing food and drink with friends is one of those pleasures in life that I really enjoy.

The reason I have been discussing and thinking about savings vs enjoying life at the moment is because I just had a fantastic experience. I was sitting at home one afternoon, texting my mother on Whats App, when she mentioned a nice Georgian restaurant she was planning to have her birthday dinner at, just her and my cousin with her daughter. As I imagined the three of them celebrating together I had this overwhelming urge to be there too. You wouldn’t even believe how little time it took between the second that thought slipped into my mind and me booking my ticket. I looked and Qatar Airways had some special deal on. I also remembered I had air miles. And there we were- the plan was formed, time off from work and tickets booked, and the fun began. 

I managed to keep my upcoming 4-day visit a total secret, even from the cousin in Baku. “Record her reaction!” all my friends said, but I wanted to be mindful about it, or simply speaking, focus on experiencing it, rather than messing about with the phone.

I really was enjoying my little surprise plan! I created a cover story of a Russian friend visiting Baku and bring a gift from me, so I kept the story going till the very end, texting my poor mother from the airport asking whether the friend had called yet??!!

 “No? How bloody rude! She promised to be there by 12!”

When I finally reached the apartment, I was giddy and impatient.

I rang the doorbell and hid from the view. Who is it? She asked and I used a fake silly voice to confuse her once again. 

The shock and delight on her face when she saw me! I should have recorded that.

There was some silly jumping up and down from me, while shouting I was there for the whole 4 days! as well as tears from my mother, still unable to believe I was suddenly standing there.

To me, life should be about moments like that. Being able to surprise someone you love. Being able to spend four days with your mother, especially when you live away from home, and busy with your own children. Being able to treat you favourite cousin, who doesn't have a job at the moment, to a few dinners and drinks out. 

Now, could I afford that trip, together with all the dining out- pretty much non-stop? Well, it depends on who and how looks at life and finances. To me, it was important and special and totally worth it. To someone else perhaps it would be an extravagant thing to do. But what makes you- and people you love happy today is just as important, if not more than some hypothetical happiness in the future you may never reach.

A good Canadian friend of ours likes to say that he feels he is rich enough if he can afford a round of beers. I maybe suck at saving money but I am happy that i can invite friends for dinner, and fly home for my mother's birthday. Because those are the moments that matter.