Saturday, 21 December 2013

Where are you, creative, intelligent people? Sadly, not here.

I have realized something, after having lived in Qatar for almost two years now. Quite sadly for Qatar, for whatever reason, it seems to attract a lot of very stupid people. 

I am not sure what that reason is. I have been wondering whether Qataris, despite the notorious generosity, are not particularly keen on spending more on professionals of a higher calibre; opting for cheaper people instead. But then, of course, you get what you pay for. And you end up with a lot of useless, stupid people working for you.

At first, I thought everyone around me was lovely, especially the smiling Philippinos. When we just moved to Doha, I was shocked when a British mum from school, visiting us for a play date with her daughters, got openly annoyed with the waiter in our clubhouse restaurant. She ordered three ice-creams, and was irritated when it arrived in one bowl.

'We have three', she said slowly and loudly, pointing at the girls, 'TH-REE children! I ordered THREE ice-creams! Why do you think I would want all three ice-cream scoops in one bloody bowl???'

Oh, how shocked I was! How quick to judge the woman and label her as a racist, arrogant bitch!
Those poor guys, what if their English was not that good? It was such an innocent mistake to make!

But now I understand. I know how she felt. I know, how every day, from the second you step out of your door and until you return home, you will, undoubtely, deal with a huge number of idiots at every corner, wherever you go. It starts on the roads where stupid people drive in the most moronic ways imaginable, and it continues in shops, pharmacies and hospitals. It is everywhere. And it is exhausting.

At a pharmacy, I was looking for a Vitamin D supplement. I am not a medically trained person; however, having looked quickly on Google, I knew roughly what I should be taking. A pharmacist in the UK is often as good as a GP when it comes to giving you an advice on medicine. But is a different story. 'Here, ma'am' said the pharmacist picking up a 50,000 i.u. dose per capsule bottle.

'That is not a daily doze', I said, thinking that I could still buy it and use weekly…But he kept insisting. 'No, ma'am is ok. Ma'am take daily, is ok.'

Come on, I said, pointing to a line written on the bottle. It read, very clearly, in black print Not for daily intake. How hard is it, if this actually is your job, to read the printed instructions on the bottle? I am not even asking for him to go online.

Next stop- an ELC shop. Would you like it wrapped, ma'am? Big smile, kind eyes. Yeah, sure, I say. You have christmassy paper? Yes, ma'am. Oh, great. We look, we choose the pattern. OK, I say. I am going to do the groceries shopping now, and will pick it up on the way back, ok?

OK ma'am.

On my way back I stop to get the parcel. It is unwrapped. 'I thought...' I say very politely, 'You were going to wrap it?'

-You want it wrapped, ma'am?

-Yes. I. Want. It. Wrapped. Please.

Or there was a day when I was in another shop, looking to buy a bike they had on display, only in pink. One assistant asks another as he is going to the store, to check if they have any more pink bikes left. He comes back.
-Did you check if there were any pink bikes like this left in the store?
-We have?
The guys stare at each other. The end of the conversation. No bike brought to the shop floor.
He checked, you see? But he never brought it to the shop. Why, nobody asked him to bring it. He was only asked to check if they had any left, and he did.

If only we had to deal with silly little episodes in shops or pharmacies, it would not be such a big deal! However, it is not just the servicing personnel, shopping assistants and pharmacists that are so useless. It is professional expats, too. In our search for a good doctor or a dentist or a specialist at any level, we go through dozens of people, looking, trying, discussing on local forums, with a hope to find the best. The best teacher, the best school, the best pediatrician. And, after two years here, you realize. It is not the best you are looking for. It is semi-decent. Someone more or less professional. Someone you can hopefully trust.

I laugh as I remember the email I had received from someone who was helping me make up my mind about moving to Doha. 'It is becoming a very exciting place to live', he claimed. 'Because it attracts some very creative, intelligent people'.

Ha-ha! Are you kidding me? Intelligent? Creative?? Where are you, intelligent, creative, knowledgeable professionals that are supposed to be attracted to this exotic country?

Perhaps, Qatar is not alone in this unfortunate position. Maybe this is just the overall quality of the expatriates all over the world these days. I am looking back at my years working for BP back in Azerbaijan in early 90s and think- were the expats better? More professional? More creative? More interesting? Or was it me, younger and less experienced, thinking that everyone with western education was smart? Was it that my own standards were a lot lower, or did we actually get much better people working for us back then? But, if the latter is the case, what the hell happened since then? Are the overseas packages no longer that attractive to bring in better specialists? And, due to the Financial crisis so many western countries are in, there are more desperate people who would agree to come and work abroad for a lot less? Desperate but not actually any good?

And so, this is the mix of expats you get here. Uneducated Indian labour and drivers, silly giggly Phillipino shopping assistants and some professionals, like that useless Egyptian ophthalmologist to whom my husband had to patiently explain what stem cells were…Mixed beautifully with the worst expats ever-The westerners, who are also often stupid, boring and quite common, yet convinced of their superiority and importance over everybody else. Creative, intelligent expats? Ha and ha again.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Azeris abroad, just like me?

Husband introduced me to his new colleague the other day, a very nice guy from Belgium.

I am getting to realize that expats, some nationalities more than others, tend to gravitate toward and stick with their fellow countrymen. I had seen examples of that before, in the UK, and it always amazed me when people did that; a friend from New Zealand in London used to throw parties where out of 20 people 19.9 would be from New Zealand.

So, assuming the new guy would like to know more Belgian people, I asked my compound neighbour if there were many Belgian activities and societies, perhaps, for this guy to join. Oh yes, she replied helpfully. But is he a Flemish Belgian or a French one?

Wow, I thought. Being Belgian is not enough! For some nationalities, there are not just groups but also sub-groups they divide into. Still, for the Flemish Belgian guy things will be quite simple, once his belonging to the Flemish side is successfully confirmed.

But then there are some of us, who simply do not fit in any group or sub-group this easily.

At a party this weekend, I met a lively Polish lady who recently arrived to Doha. We stood there chatting, when an Irish neighbour asked her a natural question: So, have you found other Polish people here yet? The Polish lady thought about it for a while before answering, but I knew what she was thinking straight away. You see, this Polish lady was only technically Polish. However, she lived most of her adult life in Italy. I asked if she, just like I do, finds it hard to hang out with her fellow country men now. Yes, she said. They often asked her awkward, rude questions. Rude to her, but perhaps, to majority of Polish people quite normal. Like how much her salary is, or how come she managed to secure such a great job.

And there are, thankfully, people like this Polish/Italian, or Australian/Malaysian, or Lebanese/Australian/British friends of mine, or other people I know who happened to be either married to a different nationality, or influenced by a culture different to their own due to other circumstances in their much that they would struggle to be friends with others based on nationality. I am grateful these people exist in an expat world, because, frankly, with the national categorization I see every day, I would be quite lonely.

Of course, I also occasionally try to find a friend from back home.  I have to, right? Everybody else does. There must be certain comfort in it. When you are not quite British, you will never be easily accepted by the proper Brits. Neither are you properly Azeri, not anymore. Neither Russian, despite the Soviet childhood and the language I speak. But I keep hoping that one day, I would find an Azeri abroad who is more like me. Someone I would automatically click with, because we have so much in common.

So, when I accidentally found out there was an Azeri neighbour who moved in a compound next door, I walked over to introduce myself. In theory, we had a huge amount in common. Not only was she Azeri, but she also lived abroad a long time. She was also married to an English guy. She must belong, I thought, to my tiny sub-group. There she is, right next door! And the girl was nice. She was friendly and chatty, and it was quite pleasant to be talking to someone from back home, there is no doubt about that. However, in a few minutes of the conversation, she reminded me of the reasons I don't spend all my time hanging out with my fellow countrymen.

Why, I thought, why? Why are so many Azeris like this? Even those who are married into a different culture, even those who lived abroad for a long time? It happens almost immediately.

Oh, she said, so you live in that compound? We went to look at it before we moved  here, and I really hated it. It is so dark! 

OK, I thought, never mind. Tactless, but let's just move on. We talked about living abroad, we talked about Baku. 'Look, her mother, who was very excited to meet us, pointed out. 'If you lived in Baku right now, would you ever be seen in public looking like this?' She waved her hand in the general direction of my head, leaving me confused whether it was my tied up hair , or the lack of make-up that she found so offensive.

And then there were more comments. 'How old is your husband? Oh, funny. Same age as mine, but he looks a lot older!'

See what I mean?

I walked back home, thinking that the girl was quite nice, really. But…She was not like me. She was really not like me. Not my group, not my sub-group, not the kind of group that any of my friends belong to- wherever they happened to be born, wherever they happened to have lived before, whoever they were married to. Yet, they are all my friends, and we are a group. We are just a diverse group of people who happen to like each other. And maybe I should just realize that some of us don't easily fit anywhere, but that is okay. Because, all around me, there are people who are like me. Just not necessarily Azeri.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A new, slightly spooky, theory on life.

I have been busy thinking about life recently. You see, as you get older, you slowly realize that life is not simply unfair, or a bitch and then you marry one as you used to flippantly drop in a conversation, but actually pretty scary and depressing. The longer you live, the more people around you die, lose their families, have some horrendous things happen to them. And when you are young, those people are only some random strangers you see on TV. As you get older, those people are your people. Your family, your friends. And then it becomes more difficult to stay flippant.

A friend of mine lost a child to cancer. Another friend found out her husband was dying (and another one that her husband was a complete asshole, you decide which one you would rather have). A few Phillipino workers on our compound lost members of families and homes in Typhoon.  A bunch of people get killed on Doha roads every day- through no fault of their own, like the young woman with a child in her car, falling victim to two idiots racing each other. And the Villagio victims…still hurts, even now, to think about. Real people, real pain.

And of course, you get affected, whether you want to or not. You feel that pain, you measure it up against yourself; you imagine what it must be like. But. And here is my new theory on life, which seems to be completely true and works every single time. It has some good and some hmm…not so good bits in it, but hey, such is life, right?

The good part is that, I can assure you that whatever you are worried about will most probably not happen. Because, and here is the bad part- something else will happen to you. Something you have no idea is coming.

You will say I am being pessimistic or negative- I have heard that before, trust me. But, I say this is a realistic and quite a positive outlook on life.

I am not crazy, but I am a mother. And, talking to other mothers, we all occasionally have flashes of scary images in our hectic brains.  Like when I was carrying my baby on a very tall escalator in a shopping mall in Watford, I suddenly realized that, should I trip, she might just slip off my shoulder. Or when I am driving in Doha, there are plenty of thoughts that I am trying to block out.  But now that I have my new theory, I can reassure myself that the horror I am afraid of at that particular moment will most probably not actually happen. Comforting, right? Yes, but.

Whatever you believe in, whatever you call it...God, spirits or some cosmic power, or nothing at all…You just need to realize that this life has its ways of, just like Alanis Morissette correctly pointed out, sneaking up on you. If you spend all your life checking every single mole and obsessively worrying about dying of cancer, you probably will die of a stroke. If you think you are safe because you are rich and  healthy, then some nasty surprise will get you just around the corner. Something stupid, like an idiot in a fast car. If you think you know what might happen, trust me, you most probably don’t. There are some diseases I am hearing about these days that I never even had the slightest clue existed, for goodness sake. 

A university friend of mine had her own theory, which was totally opposite of this one of mine. She said to me that she felt that every person was going to die of a thing they most worried about. For her it was cancer. For me at the time, it appeared to be sharks.  I was only 18 at the time, and felt pretty safe, living in Baku and knowing for a fact there were no sharks around at least for a while. However, when the university dancing troop I was in started getting ready to visit California, I got somewhat concerned.

Whether my friend’s theory was right, or mine, I am telling you: Relax and enjoy what you have left, because... life, or God, or whatever you want to call it, has something stored up for you that you can’t possibly imagine. You might as well stop trying to predict. Like an impatient child asking for hints before her birthday, you keep trying to second-guess what (nasty?) surprises life has for you, but you are just going to have to learn to be patient. Wait and you will see, as I tell my daughter. And just hope that most of your usual nightmares are not going to come true.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Two red apples, or about perception vs reality.

People, I am no longer a camping virgin.

For many years, Husband tried, unsuccessfully, to convince me that camping is fun. But I explained, patiently every time, that I have perhaps an irrational, yet very real fear of rapists, serial killers, child kidnappers as well as (now in Qatar) scorpions and Horned Viper snakes lurking in the dark just waiting for us to arrive and stay overnight.

But this camping trip was different. Friends of ours organized a small group of people to join them on a so-called glamping, or glamorous camping, with showers and toilets and everything organized and taken care of for us- from the moment we got picked up in 4 very properly Qatari Land Cruisers, to the dinner and breakfast the morning after.

I have to admit, I am still, even having had a fantastic time, not the camping type. And perhaps, I will never change. I can't get the flying cockroach and slithering snake probabilities out of my head to fully relax and enjoy sleeping in a tent, I am cold and uncomfortable, and at some point, however nice the facilities are, just want to go back home at night.

But, what an experience!

To start with, the drivers were all dressed in Qatari thobes. I guess that was part of the show we paid for- a truly authentic experience. I have to admit, in their attire, along with the white Land Cruisers, they really looked the part. And, I could tell from the way Husband spoke to our driver, that he got fooled into thinking the guy was a Qatari and not a Pakistani. Of course having thought about that for a minute, we quickly realized how silly we were -why on Earth would any respectable Qatari have a job of driving curious expats around the desert?

Our driver was cool though. He took his (acting) job very seriously, and, without even checking with me or my mother at the very back of the car, took us on some serious dune-bashing on the way to the camp. I guess, the time to worry was when one of the cars in our convoy turned around and disappeared.

'Where are those guys going then?' I asked, and got told they did not want to ride up and down the dunes and headed straight to the camp.

We then proceeded to climb some pretty vertical dunes and sliding down them in a sickening slow motion. And you know, I enjoyed it, to be honest. Maybe all of it, except for the sideways sliding down, which was-for me- a bit too scary.

But what amused me the most on this glamping trip, was not the unique feeling of hanging upside down at the edge of a dune, and not the beautiful sun rise in the desert…but the realization of just how different the reality can be from perception.

At some point in the middle of the desert, (which by the way, is busier than a local market on a Friday afternoon, with dine buggies and land cruisers flying back and forth all around you), a dark old Patrol was approaching our car at a great speed, coming dangerously close, almost hitting us, blocking our way. My first thoughts were that our driver pissed the other guy off somehow. Maybe he was driving too fast in front of him, or went down his personal dune- who knows? The guy was shouting something to our driver and our driver slowed down and pulled the window down.

'Oh no!', I thought, 'don't do that! Don't get in the fight, with me and my two small kids in the back of your car! '

Suddenly, having shouted a few very fierce-sounding sentences at our driver, the man in the other car leaned out and passed over two red apples and what looked like a box of Paracetamol.

What was that??- I dared to finally ask, as our driver smiled and drove off, storing the apples safely away in the cold box of the car.

'Oh', he replied, 'his brother stays in our camp, too. He just asked me to pass this on to him'.

Two red apples and some painkillers for his brother. And I thought we were about to be dismembered and buried in the desert, amongst all the litter of random car parts.

That experience got me in a somewhat thoughtful and philosophical mood for the evening. As I sat in our Bedouin camp, sipping sweet tea and trying not to notice something suspiciously large flying around my head, (which if you ask me, could easily have been a roach but let's just not go there), I was thinking of how wrong we can be assuming things about other people, simply because they belong to a different culture and speak the language we don't understand. We think we know, we think we can tell by their facial expressions or the intonation. But nope. Not that easy, you see? Sometimes when you think someone is very angry, he just wants to send his brother a couple of apples.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

It is where she is coming from.

So, my dear friends back home, in Azerbaijan…I have some sad news for you. You know how you have been struggling for decades to simply be allowed in and out of your country? Starting from the Soviet times when you could not get out; and ending recent days, when theoretically, you can but then you have nowhere to go, as any decent European country refuses to let you in? You know how you struggle to get a visa constantly, and have to then take revenge by spreading gossip about certain embassy staff asking for huge bribes to give you a visa? (Like the Schengen one...)  Well, now it seems like Qatar does not really want you here, either.

I remember the feeling I had when I finally got my British passport. It was such a relief! No more humiliating begging to let me visit a country! I could fly practically anywhere in the world and be welcome! It is like officially being accepted in the white guys' club. (Only never entirely, of course. Once, in the JK airport, I got held for a bit, as they quickly noticed that, despite having a trustworthy British passport, I was still BORN in the dodgy place. That was obviously suspicious, and had to be checked. I could see the dilemma the immigration dude was facing there. He really did not want to let an Azeri in the country. He was given a list and in that list, Azerbaijan was BAD. But, I was a British passport holder. And Great Britain was GOOD. Hmm...A difficult one, really. In the end, he had to let me go though.)

What I did not realize back then, was how hard it was going to be for my mother to visit me. Surely, I thought, a mother is the closest family, someone who will always be allowed, no questions asked, to visit someone who is a proper citizen now! But some of you might remember my problems with the British Embassy back in Baku. I don't think we will ever forget this one particular 40-minute interrogation, during which the official was asking my mother how come my husband, who was a management consultant, could not afford to pay for tickets to fly us all to Baku every time we wanted to see her, rather than flying her to London. 

Just a wee example of how unprofessional and abusive of their power some guys can get! But hey, no hard feelings. I realize where you are coming from. I appreciate you are there to guard your lovely country from the third world citizens like my poor mother. I realize it is your job to protect the NHS, and whatever other resources you suspect she might be abusing while visiting her daughter and grandchildren.

But, forget the UK. I thought, naively, that having moved to Qatar, I would at least, improve this aspect of my life. Don't quite know why I thought that.  And, just in time for our relocating here, QA started direct flights! I saw that as a good omen.

So, imagine how I felt when my mother's visa, after a few weeks or requests for one paper or another, got rejected. Oh, no. I thought. Not again!

There are certain similarities between the cultures of Azeris and Qataris. And that often helps in my understanding of how things work here. But, there also is one major difference which makes things hard to comprehend. When the officials cause problems with your paperwork back in Azerbaijan, it usually means one thing- they want money. Very simple!

Here, that is clearly not the case. So, when I went to the immigration to try and ask for help, nobody was expecting me to bribe them. Neither were they enjoying and abusing their power like the British Embassy dude back in Baku.

So if not money, what would help my case, I wondered.

I remember my friend warning me when I tried to get my mother to visit us in the UK, just after the new baby was born. 'Do NOT mention the baby!' she exclaimed. 'Never mention the baby, or they will not let your mother in the country!'

Such an alien concept to an Azeri person. Surely, that would help our case? But not for the UK officials. To them, you having a new baby and asking for your mother to visit means you are not going to hire an expensive nanny and pay more taxes. See how it works? No emotions. Just bureaucracy and rules. But here, it is different.

'If you have the baby, bring her with you to the immigration!' I was told by almost everybody.

Because, and this is where another cultural similarity becomes apparent, for Qataris, just like for Azeris, family is of a crucial importance. And, as soon as I mentioned it was my mother I was trying to get to visit us, I could see it in their eyes. Understanding.

So, in the end, I managed to get my mother a visa. But, who knows what caused the problem with it in the first place, and how long this situation will now last?

'Is it her age?' I asked (as someone on Twitter suggested that the age might have caused the problem with the visa). No, the official said. It is where she is coming from. 

So, yes….It is where she is coming from, guys. Sucks, doesn't it?

Not sure if the Azeri authorities are planning to do anything to make travel easier for Azerbaijanis in future. So far their strategy seems to be 'Oh, so you are making it difficult for our people to visit your country? OK then, I will make it almost impossible for yours to visit ours! There! Get that!'

Interestingly, that sophisticated strategy has not worked very well so far. And Azeris are still as unwelcome everywhere in the world as they have always been. Sadly.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Privileged. Seriously, for real?

I was having a chat with my sister in law during summer break. Perhaps, I sounded a bit whiny, complaining too much, as I do, about difficulties of expat life in Doha. To which she pointed out, that I needed to appreciate just how privileged I was.

And I thought afterwards that maybe, this is what it looks like from the outside, peeping into this Facebook enhanced window of glamorous expat life. Privileged. 

Well, let me tell you about this week I have had.

It started quite well, actually. I was driving from Souq Waqif with a nice friend and my toddler, having had a pleasant lunch, to a shopping mall to find a gift for my husband's birthday. And then, just like that, everything went wrong. Husband's colleague called me out of the blue. I should have suspected something bad happened as he never really calls me. Don't worry he said, but your husband is in Hamad emergency. Of course, why would I worry. I was stuck in a horrendous traffic somewhere in the Middle East, with my husband badly unwell somewhere in a local emergency hospital, and there is at least three hours of driving between us. I could, of course, panic. Fortunately, having children to take care of pulls you back together pretty quick. I had to get my older child from school, I had to take them all home, and only then could I go see what was wrong with Husband.

I drove to school, I sat in traffic, I drove back home, I sat in more traffic. I almost hit people, people almost drove into me...Every second of driving in Doha feels like it shortens your life by months. I spent the whole day driving, while worrying about what might happen.

Fortunately, Husband got home the next day. However, the suspicious symptoms needed more tests. More than the local hospital suggested. Husband was impressed with Hamad team. 'You can't really fault them', he said. Fine, I thought. But. I would still like a second opinion. Now, in our compound, there is a friend, who knows a good specialist in a big private hospital. A doctor with a ten-week waiting list, who, as a favour to my compound friend, agreed to see Husband the next morning. Of course, in our privileged expat life, we have a health insurance that covers cases like this. But of course, when I looked at the insurance card, it stated- very clearly- that the hospital network excluded this particular private hospital the good specialist works at. We, therefore, had to pay for the expensive tests ourselves, with the hope that we could, one day, claim back. That situation, let me assure you, does not feel particularly privileged. But, never mind that.

Having a sick husband means doing everything by yourself. Including drop offs in the mornings, which are normally done by Husband. Getting up at 5am and leaving the house at 6am with a 7 year old and a toddler, who, just to add to the fun, developed a nasty tummy bug and had to be changed three times before getting in the car, was a challenge.

Thinking of everything stressful going on made me want my mother to visit sooner rather than later.

Hmm, I thought. Where is this visa we have applied for weeks ago? I have chased up the guy who helps me with the paperwork and visa stuff. Oh, he said. The immigration sent the request back asking for your birth certificate to be attested by either an Azeri Embassy in Qatar, or the Qatar embassy in Azerbaijan.

This is when I thought to myself, paraphrasing a page i often read on Facebook. Seriously, for real?

Oh, yes. But she has visited three times before without this particular piece of paperwork? Yes, but the rules now changed. OK, I thought. OK. I can do this. I phoned the Azeri embassy where a pleasant young man assured me he could help. Just come over, he said.

I tried.

The Google Maps on my iPhone knew the embassy was somewhere right there, in the midst of all the other west bay embassies. But I could not find it. I drove around. I called people who knew where it was. I spent ONE HOUR AND FIFTEEN MINUTES trying to find it. I could not find it. There was no obvious address that Goggle maps would recognise. There was no map on their website, no directions. By 12:45pm I realised that I had to give up, otherwise I could never make it back in time to pick up my child from school. Which, theoretically, is less than five minute drive from the mysterious Bermuda triangle that is the embassy zone in Doha. However, with the crazy traffic, it would take five times as long.

Determined to find the Azeri embassy or have a heart attack, I picked up the child from school, and drove back now aiming from the completely opposite direction- the only way the embassy guy could explain to me. Finally, I saw the familiar flag. Never in my life was I more pleased to see it.

The guys were kind and friendly. They looked at my gray face and offered me to sit down in a cool waiting room. Finally, yet another stamp was placed on my frayed birth certificate. I felt somewhat relieved but not for long. 'Here, the embassy guy said, handing out a small piece of paper to me with the Azerbaijan Embassy account number printer on it. 'Go to this bank tonight and pay this, please". Then, when you can- No rush!- please bring the receipt back here.'

Seriously? For real?

Where am I, I thought, as I sat in the endless traffic on my way back. Where am I that I have to physically go to a bank to pay 50 bucks for an unnecessary stamp, and then drive back to the lost-on- the-map embassy zone to give back a receipt? What was I again? Oh yes. Privileged.

I then drove another hour to meet the guy with paperwork. 'Oh, nothing will really get done now until after Eid', he casually mentioned as I stood there clutching my birth certificate. 'And they might ask for another attestation, actually. From the ministry of International Affairs....'

I just want my mother to come.  I don't feel privileged. I feel absolutely and utterly exhausted. And, just to complete all of the above, I received a yet another hatred message from a patriotic Azeri girl telling me how mean I am to the whole nation.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Summer school with lessons on families.

Well, I am back.  Back to Doha, back to what these days is my normal life, my reality. Even if it feels far from normal. Because, that is what my holiday in the UK felt like, more than anything. It felt normal. And, this feeling of getting back to everything normal felt wonderful. Normal shops, with normal stuff, normal food, normal way to dress, (shoulders and knees shamelessly exposed for everyone to see), being able to walk to places, being able to buy a drink in any pub or shop...being able to watch the English TV...and, most importantly, eat an obscene amount of pork-related products.

I had an opportunity to catch up with some good friends, and spent a long time with in-laws in Wales. Which was all pretty good fun, really.


There were some things that happened that made me realise what it actually means to be in a family with siblings. You see, as the only child, I always heard that we (the kids with no siblings) are spoilt or dysfunctional. Or probably, both. That we are terribly selfish, blah blah. I, of course, never considered myself any of the above. But, as I was watching family relationships and little dramas happen around me to friends and relatives, I thought, that, the reason I often don't get something or unintentionally offend people, is possibly due to me being the only child. Because, in a way, I am, indeed, spoilt.

Take this one unfortunate episode that occurred during our visit to the village we used to live in. A friend of mine and I agreed to get our kids, who were best buddies since baby times, one last time together for a play, since we only were there for a week.  She mentioned briefly that it would have to happen in the afternoon, as in the evening,  her brother's family (with this girl's cousins) were coming for the weekend to stay over. I went shopping in the morning, since it was the only day i could fit it in. Unfortunately, due to a few reasons, we got delayed. It was more like a late afternoon by the time we got back. And this is where my judgement, being the only child, failed me. I assumed that seeing her cousins would not be as important as seeing the friend she only has one last chance to see in maybe another whole year. Especially since they would stay overnight and be there the next day. I assumed that the girl would stay for a picnic in the garden and have some pizza for dinner. However, my friend got very upset. To her, her family and the cousins and having a family dinner together was extremely important. And now, in hindsight, after having spent a few weeks with my in laws and sister in law, where family priorities often had to replace my own...I was able to see the events in a different light.

I realised that bigger families, with brothers, sisters, parents and other relatives, live in this constant state of compromise and commitments, and special times together that can not be amended, and arrangements that have to be kept. And I felt like calling my good friend back, and apologising all over again. And explaining that, being the only child, I failed to see. For me, my friends are my extended family. Because I don't have siblings, I never had to worry about their feelings. And, I never had to choose family over friends.

Also, I never had to share my parents' love. Because I had no siblings, my children now do not have to share my mother's devotion.

And this is another interesting lesson that I have learnt during the extended stay with my husband's family this summer. My mother only has my children to love. However, my in laws have two more! The ones they feel closer to, the ones they raised, babysat and saw grow up years before mine were even born! And that is not always easy to accept.

Having spoken to my Doha friends about their family relationships, and their summer breaks, a very similar picture was painted. We all felt that perhaps, because we live so far away, our children will never be as close to their grandparents as the other grandchildren who live next door. And that is just one more reality of the expat life. We are terribly missed and loved-of course!- but we all feel like we still miss out. We, and our kids miss out on family celebrations, times with grandparents, regularity and   normality of family life; hugs and kisses, and simply being a big part of our parents', aunties' and cousins' every day lives. We can Skype and Facetime, yet...we will never be as close as we wish we could be. And, coming back for a few weeks in summer will never make up for the lost minutes, days and months of all the grandparents' love and family stuff we are naturally entitled to.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

When virtual technology fails real people.

I often ask myself why I bother with blogging at all. For a while at the beginning if felt like some new, exciting, creative project. But not anymore. I don't check how many hits it gets every day, like I used to-how sad was I?! I don't check if anyone left any comments for sometimes, days-oh, where are my usual trolls? They got bored with me since I stopped insulting the glorious nation of Azerbaijan.
And I don't have much to say these days-since most of what I could say could be misinterpreted and misunderstood with potentially dodgy consequences. Even the mumsy forum I joined since we moved to Doha-Doha Mums, is heavily moderated and controlled to a ridiculous, boring extent. Not entirely due to the owner's wishes, but also because of the cultural constrains and the lack of understanding of satire across many nationalities present at the forum. Never mind, swiftly moving on...

To the recent discovery of mine. Blog related.

I am awfully ashamed and embarrassed. For a very long time, all my scary azeri emails got automatically forwarded on to my normal, personal email account. Not sure why I ever set it up, perhaps I was just lazy to log into a yet another account. And it all worked so well for so long that I even forgot there was ever a need to maintain the scary azeri email. And when for quite a few months recently I had no emails, I just assumed that, just like comments on the blog dried slowly out, so did the emails. Nobody loves me, I thought and... well, moved on with real life.

However, the problem with scary azeri account became apparent recently, when I realised that I had missed a few important emails from someone who commissioned me to write an article, and-even more worrying!-from the accounts guy, who was supposed to pay me for it!

And so last night, a dim light bulb went on in my otherwise spaced out head. Hold on, I thought. This is odd. These guys are nice and professional. They would not just ignore me like this. They never did
before? I tried logging into the scary azeri account directly, failed a few times due to forgotten password and, finally, a window opened with hundreds of emails. As I stared in shock, I realised that not only have I been rude to the agent who commissioned me, I have also been rude to my readers. Who, to my delight, are still out there!

I had the usual spam, of course, and random Twitter notifications, and biznez proposals from China....but also, some very personal, some emotional, some hopeful and some helpful messages.

A email from an American mother, who is secretly suspicious of a 20-year old Azeri student who, having dated her daughter for six months, suddenly proposed. Is he after her passport, she wanted to ask. She emailed me for advice, but sadly, I ignored her. Considering the speed the young Azeri Majnun  was moving with towards his goal, I am afraid I might be too late with any advice. The young couple are probably (happily?) married by now.

I had a few emails asking whether an obvious spam was a true love letter from a good Azeri girl...

And yet another bizarre request for help from House Hunters International....

And a letter that I really wished I knew was sitting there since April.

Dear Scary Azeri,
It's been over two weeks now since we left Baku and returned to our home. 3 long, happy and, at times, not so happy years of being on an international assignment in Azerbaijan, living an "expat" life.....

... I read your blog in "A-Z Magazine" "religiously", always starting from the "Scary Azeri" page. I loved every bit of it!

So, we are back to the Western world now. And today I couldn't sleep. I just got bad news from home. My dad passed away this morning following a diagnosis of a serious illness and giving up the battle for life after two months. As I was sleepless and utterly sad, I sat down at the computer hoping for a distraction, but honestly there was nothing I 
really wanted to read... Then I suddenly remembered your blog and opened it up. Your latest post. I started reading... I couldn't believe my eyes: on the same day that I lost my parent, you wrote about remembering your father too. I was shaking. It was touching so I got all emotional. Thank you for the words that made me realize that someone else, someone who, may I say, I nearly knew through her blog, was and still is going through the same difficult feelings of a loss.

What can I say??

I am so sorry. At the moment when you felt lonely and lost, and sad, and probably found it difficult to express how much pain you felt...and wrote such an emotional email to me, you got no response. For months. And I feel really bad about that.

I also apologise to those of you guys who kindly responded to my (Facebook) request for some information for the latest article about Baku. I did not even know so many of you offered help! Thank you for reading, thank you for responding, thank you for sharing your concerns and emotional moments...All of a sudden, after months of not even thinking about my blog and what it means, I got overwhelmed by all the attention I never knew it had. I guess it plays its' role in the virtual world after all. Because, even though it is virtual, the people out there are still real.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Please don't tell me what to think.

Every now and again, some story keeps popping up wherever I look, and recently (besides, of course, the obsession with the Royal baby), there were two stories that got repeatedly shoved in my face on Twitter and Facebook.

A) The rape allegation by the Norwegian expat in Dubai.
B) The poor black child murdered in daylight by someone for apparently just wearing a hoodie.

If I were to simply look at the messages spread by Facebook, Twitter and links people shared everywhere I looked, this is what I could learn. A woman went on a business trip to Dubai. She got raped by her colleague and faced jail for it, because this is how unfair UAE system is towards women.
And as for the black guy murdered, the impression I got at first, before I even knew what happened, was that he was just an innocent boy who was killed because he must have just looked suspicious in his hoodie and being black.  I was led to believe that was the case from the numerous photos all over Facebook, like the one with some young medical students posing in hooded tops asking do we look dangerous to you? 

I don't know. Maybe it is just me. But I am getting somewhat annoyed at the way social media seems to dictate what I should be thinking or feeling, dragging me into campaigns, cases and petitions before I even get a chance to find out more about what actually did happen.

The rape story got big straight away, especially for those of us living in Qatar, and judging from the comments left under the Doha News article, most people started to blame Dubai and UAE, and the way women get mistreated there.

But hold on a minute. These cases happen all over the world. Especially in countries where ladies love to drink heavily. And, according to some sources, like this article here that I have found straight away as I tried to look into this subject, things might be changing in the West, but it was not always the case. It is extremely complicated to prove sex was not consensual if the victim was so drunk. Anywhere in the world. 

Also, let's just get the whole picture, or whatever we can get. A young pretty lady goes on a business trip to Dubai. She gets so drunk that, at 3am she asks her colleague to walk her to her hotel room. Now, from personal experience, i believe that most men are pretty delusional when it comes to their sex appeal. They truly believe that they are irresistible, even when sober. I am not justifying what this man did! But I am also not entirely convinced that the woman herself should not have been acting more responsibly.  I have some doubts that this colleague of Dalelv was planning to take her by force that night. He had a job I assume he would have liked to keep, and children and a wife. But that night in Dubai, a place where (despite the no-drinking-without-license rule I never heard about) expats famously tend to party hard....he probably got carried away. He was drunk, she was (sounds like very) drunk, they were possibly flirting all night-that is possible, right? Or maybe, she was not flirting. Maybe, she was just friendly, in this Western kind of way. But he misunderstood. He probably thought that her asking him to walk her to her room was more like an invitation to walk her to her room (wink-wink, you know). Easy mistake, if you think about it.

Was it a rape? Maybe. I don't know, and really, neither does anyone else. Was it that shocking that the police in Dubai would make the wrong assumptions? Not really.

I used to confidently cross the road at the pedestrian crossings, even if the approaching cars were going a bit fast. And Husband would always tell me off for being so reckless. 'Were you going to wait and see if the car stops first?!'
'But it is my right of way!' I would reply.
'Yes, it is but what good would that do to you when you lie there dead?'

And that is exactly what i thought while reading about Dalelv. Maybe, as a Western woman, she was raised believing that it was her right to get so drunk that she did not even remember what happened in that room until it was too late.  The fact remains is that she put herself in  a situation that made her vulnerable, in a country where things are very different and viewed very differently.

What, I guess, I am talking about is that we seem to get influenced by the social media enormously. We get shown a photo with a murdered boy smiling at us and we believe he was the innocent victim. And the more I look at images and shared links on Facebook, the more I feel guilty for thinking quietly to myself "hmm, I am not sure? maybe he was not so innocent". In fact, we know he was not. So how come I still see articles and photos trying to convince me otherwise? We are told a western woman was raped and accused of extramarital sex, and we follow the predicable route- we shout about the injustice, about the women's rights in Arabic countries, we rush to discuss what a terrible country Dubai must be, and we are not allowed to stop for a second and ask any questions, whatsoever. Because, that just does not fit into the popular Facebook point of view, does it.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Back to the civilised world.

I was very much looking forward to coming back to the UK this summer. Not only was I excited to see all my friends back home (Let's face it, Azerbaijan is not really home anymore. After so many years, England feels like home now.) but also I was looking forward to a normal life. Life where you know what to expect, where to find things in shops or whom to call when you need something. Life where things happen as expected.

It is about simple pleasures. Things I never appreciated before. Like people you deal with on the daily basis that are not all Filipino. And no, I am not being racist. I don't really have a problem with Filipino people. It is just something you notice when you have lived in Doha for a while, and then come out of it. You realise that there are actually all sorts of other nationalities who can be waitresses, hairdressers and shopping assistants. You might even!!! sometimes get  English people in servicing positions. Let me tell you it is very refreshing.

The very first amazing thing happened to me even before I arrived to Heathrow. I made a call from Doha to a mini cab company in my home village in Herts. The English woman on the phone understood everything I said straight away. She asked useful, direct, relevant questions. Like the ages of my kids and the number of suitcases. It was all so professional and quick that I thought to myself something would go wrong. But nope. As i came out and walked over to the information desk, there he was, my man, holding a little white board, with my name spelled correctly. Waiting for me. Not late, not lost, not waiting somewhere else. Wow, I thought to myself. How great is it to be back!  To the land of people who understand you, where everything works and gets done!

After a week of catching up with dearest friends and eating an awful lot of salami and other wonderful pork related products,  I was ready to take a train to North Wales, to stay with my in laws.

 I called the same mini cab company and booked my car.

And then it started. Since i was determined to catch my train, and the cab was late, I decided, as I struggled to squeeze my two year old toddler into what was supposed to be a rear-facing baby seat, that there was no time to argue with the clueless driver that I had specifically requested a car seat for an older child.

The traffic was as bad as in Doha, and I started to feel the old, familiar stress of living in the UK slowly creeping back on me. Yet, I continued clinging to my illusion of the civilised world i returned to.

Surprisingly, we got to Euston in plenty of time and, remembering being told at my previous summer trip that there was nobody available at the train station to help unless I were disabled, I looked for, and managed to find myself a trolley. Pleased with my quick thinking, I made my way towards the station entrance, which as it soon transpired, was upstairs. I stared at the escalator and the steps. It is okay, I thought, glancing around. There will be a lift. What about the disabled
persons? I am in London after all, everything is about the disabled persons here.

But not this time. The lifts were, of course, there but, OUT OF ORDER. There was no point getting angry, as there was nobody there to get angry with. Nobody I could ask how the hell I was supposed to get the trolley up to the station now. Not even a bloody telephone.

And that is when, right there, standing at the bottom of the long steep staircase with two small children, a pushchair, two large heavy suitcases, a Khaleeji family toddler backpack,  and no working lifts, I felt properly at home. That is when I got reminded of the civilised ways in which this country used to drive me crazy.

Yet, the best experience was my conversation with the O2 customer service. We cant talk to you, the young girl explained in her perfect English. You are not the account holder. Yes, I know, I said. But we have always had both mobile phones registered in my husband's name. By always, I mean about
twelve years. I know the password, I said. I have been through this before. I am sorry, the rules have changed, the girl said. I can only speak to the account holder now. But he is abroad! You do realise, I said, that I have been doing this for years? I pay you every month from my bank account. You can easily check that. Moreover, your enhanced security system is stupid. You can only tell I am not my husband over the phone. But, what if I used the online chat you so badly want everyone to use instead of calling you? With all the passwords and all the details, I could easily be Mr T. Thank you, Mrs B. she said angrily. I will now make a note on your file that you are planning to do this!!!
I am not planning to do anything, I thought. I just wish I could stick your head in a public toilet.

Fuming, my face red with frustration, I hung up after half an hour of pointless arguements. I guess, the time has come to say goodbye to O2 now. It is one thing to deal with annoying things in the country you live in now, but to deal with stupidity in two countries is just way too much. Thankfully, my father in law was waiting for me in the living room with a tall glass of G&T. I took a sip and looked out to the green trees outside. Oh, it is good to be back. And to O2 customer service- FUCK YOU. And you, Euston station.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Baku 24 hours for Qatar Airways

My latest piece for Oryx in-flight magazine is finally out. Heavily edited, but still...

Sunday, 16 June 2013

"A year full of raw honey and friends who show up"

So, guess who is turning 40 on Tuesday? Yep. I am this old. (But, I have put up this photo to demonstrate that, in the right light and in the right outfit, still looking okay.)

I think what you do on your 40th and whether you bother doing anything special is a very personal thing. Maybe somewhat cultural, too. I have been told recently by a few Russians that it was a bad luck to have a celebration of any sort. But I, despite having lived this long, have never heard of such bullshit excuse not to have a party, thus was not going to pay any attention.

As far as I always knew, 40 was a big deal. And the time to celebrate. However you fancy, or can afford to, really. But in any case, it had to be special.

A friend of mine in New York had his on a private boat and took a huge offence when I did not attend it. To him, the 40th party was big enough of a deal for me to spend a fortune jumping on an air plane and flying London-New York to be there. I wished I could have gone, but it might have been a little too extravagant for me at the time.

Another friend hired a restaurant in London and hosted a beautiful dinner party for about 20 friends. But, most of my friends who turned 40 before me went for a big party option.

So, after some deliberation (which included other options for a smaller group of friends only) I went for the big party, too. Thankfully, our villa in Doha is enormous, and there would be no issue with space. You see, one of my reasons to have it at home was  that I did not then have to restrict the numbers. I could invite people I liked but perhaps did not see that often, for whatever reasons. I felt like I should make some effort for my 40th, you know? Spend money, treat my friends, throw them a fun party!

What I know now (and I can't believe that it took me this long, i.e. till I am middle aged, to learn this) is that, if you want to know what people really think of you, invite them to your 40th party and see who shows up. 

The people who did not bother showing up split into two categories:

Category No. 1 waited till the actual day to tell me their plans have changed and they now had something more important on. Some of them had pretty good excuses, some- really lame ones. That also showed if they cared enough to come up with a decent excuse. Like someone who told me they had a car crush on their way to our house. I mean, that could have actually happened! In fact, I believe it did, because, throughout my 40 years of experience in the lying and bullshit area, I have not heard this one yet. (Also, we are in Doha and car crushes are pretty common) And even if it did not happen, I respect the guy for making up such a cool story. I mean, that shows a certain ( tiny) degree of respect, right?

Category No. 2 however, I was quite shocked with. Those were the people who said they were definitely coming only to then not show up. Without as much as a text message to apologise. "Oh, this is just so Doha!" Someone told me. "You invite 20 and can expect either 10 or 50 on the night. People will not tell you if they are not coming, neither will they tell you if they are bringing 5 friends along.'

In the end though, it was a good party, even with only 30 guests instead of the 45 I actually catered for. With a shisha man at the front of the house and a shawarma man at the back yard and some cool cake pops that I agonised over for a week or so.  And I loved my 40th party. I loved the fact that enough people cared to come. I loved the fact that they got me some lovely, thoughtful gifts. I loved the fact that they all said it was a fab party. And the icing on the cake is that now, after the party, I know who thinks what of me. You can tell that not just from what they give you for a gift (because, just like in dating a man, that is always a good clue to see if they value the relationship!) but also from whether they bothered to show up! What an easy test, really.

On the twitter, when I expressed my frustration at people not showing up at my party, a fellow blogger in Qatar wished me a "year full of raw honey and friends who show up". I guess the key word in that sentence is friends. Friends will always show up.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

'Things have just taken a turn'

At some point last year, a new neighbour moved into our compound. Right next door to me. She knocked on my door the night she moved in, looking a bit frazzled. ‘Can I use your microwave to heat up this baby food?’ she asked, speaking fast and urgently. ‘Oh, by the way hi, I am from Australia, we’ve just moved to this compound! Bye!’

Before I could even tell whether I liked her or not, she disappeared. And that what is has been like with L, for a long time. She was always there, and I knew that, should I suddenly need an onion, or a quick advice how to find something in Doha (she has been living in Qatar for many more years than I have) I could always find her there, right next door.

I did not see a lot of her, and I never pushed for a friendship, assuming- maybe reasonably, maybe not- that having lived in Doha for so long, she already had a set of friends.

But with time, slowly, I was getting to see more of her. And I was beginning to like what I saw.

So, when she asked me a few days ago, whether I would like to talk about possibly sharing a new maid she was about to hire, I said ‘oh, pop round for a coffee and we shall talk!’ I was just coming out of the shower when I got a text message. ‘Sorry, can’t come!’, she said. ‘Things have just taken a turn, will explain later!’

I could not think of what might have happened.  Was someone sick? Did someone die? Did someone have a car crush? All sorts of thoughts came rushing into my head. Finally, a text came, clarifying everything straight away. ‘My husband just lost his job’, she said. ‘We are now going home in less than 4 weeks.’

What? How? Why? 

And I should not have been so surprised. I heard about people losing their jobs in Doha in this sudden, unexpected manner. No explanations given, no hints that it might be coming…Nothing. No longer required. Thanks very much for the last seven years. Bye.

‘Come on!’ my mother in law said, when I complained about the lack of stability here. ‘It is not any better in the UK these days, either! Nowhere is safe, nowhere is stable right now’.

Well yes, that is true. However, should your husband lose a job in the UK, you don’t have to uproot in the matter of weeks and leave the country in a rush. You don’t have to pull your child out of school, sell your car, your toys and your furniture, leave your new friends and maybe even your own job…leave everything and run. Run away, as if you did something illegal. You just don’t do that in the normal life. 

And I realized- this is the kind of stuff that never even crossed my mind when we made a decision to try this expat life. It is not something you learn from travel books or some I-heart-the- country websites, advertising the joys of life in a hot climate with a pool and maids. This is the reality, and a mean one, too.

Tomorrow someone else will be asked to leave. Just like this, out of the blue. It might be our close friends. Or it might be someone we wish we were closer friends with. Or…it might be us. And it is not necessarily a bad thing, but something that happens when we least expect it, not on our terms or in accordance with our plans. And we just have to live our lives in this suspended, who-knows-where-we-will-be-tomorrow? Kind of mode.

And when a friend wrote to me the other day, asking if they could visit us sometime between Christmas and New Year, I did not know how to explain to her that I could not plan my life this far in advance anymore.

I said…We should be here. Inshallah, as they say in Qatar.  But what I meant to say was…Who the….knows?  Definitely not us.