Saturday, 13 December 2014

Because everything is temporary.

How many people fell in this abyss,
     I fathom from afar!
     There will be time, and I will vanish too
     From earth's exterior…….
……..
For quickness of events as they come rushing,
     For truth, for play, say I -
     Please hear me! But do also please love me
     For this that I will die.

( Marina Tsvetayeva)


OK before I go any further, please forgive me, for this posting is written under continuous influence of pre-Christmas drinking. If it makes absolutely no sense it is because I have not been properly sober for what seems like a very long time. 


Today, at a yet another pre-Christmas party, two friends and I were discussing the transiency of Doha expat life. A mutual friend of ours just said goodbye to two close friends of hers who moved away. 'It has not happened to me yet', said one friend, and I thought that I, too, have been lucky so far. However, all of us, without exception, are only too aware of this simple truth- we are only here for a fragment of our lives. And, as we enter new friendships and begin building our lives here, we all think about that point, when we will have to move on or say goodbye.

But, to me, it has become much more than that. As I am becoming more and more used to the fact that everything here is temporary, I also am becoming more aware that it is not just my Doha life that is transient, but so is everything else. Of course, it is somewhat a statement of the obvious. Yet, I have never, in any of my previous lives, whether in Baku or in London, felt the transiency of everything so vividly, so tangibly.

But, before you assume this posting to be depressing, let me try and explain why it in fact, isn't.

This surreal, fragmented life we, expats, live here is like a rehearsal for the bigger play. And you have a choice, a very simple one. You can either get upset and worry about it all disappearing, or you can enjoy it more, precisely because you know it will disappear soon.

It is a complicated feeling. Let me give you an example. Husband wants a new truck. He does not really need it, of course. But he wants it. Can he justify having it? Well, no. Is it sensible? Stupid question. And yet, after thinking about it through my new everything-is-temporary prism, I told him to get it, if he really wants it.

See?

I love this new prism. It is pretty cool, really, once your mind accepts it. Just say to yourself that everything is transient: happiness and loss, money and worries, friends, houses and cars…And see how simple life becomes. And people. People are very transient, too. But that makes them more interesting. You meet new people in Doha, and it is exciting because you don't know how long you will actually know them for before one of you moves somewhere else. So go ahead and enjoy your new friends, their stories and backgrounds, their cultures-so different from yours, and how they enrich your life, before they, inevitably, will go.

You can apply this to everything, good of bad. Terrible boss? Not for long! Hate the traffic? Not your country, don't worry about it! Just put up with it for a short while. Not that happy with your house? It isn't yours, anyway.

So what I am trying to say is I am learning to love this transiency. I love my temporary friends, with their temporary lives becoming a fragmented part of my temporary life. Because who knows how long we are all here for. And of course, I am no longer just talking about Doha.







Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Cataclysmic scenario, or what if my Facebook friends ever met each other?

I have been thinking, looking at my friends, acquaintances and relatives on Facebook, that it would be a fascinating experience to have them all in one room for a day. And when I said fascinating, what I really meant was cataclysmic.

Let's imagine, just hypothetically, that I died. Or re-married. Or whatever else people do that requires most of their friends to attend in one big bunch for a few hours. Of course, if we are practical and realistic about it, nothing, neither my death or marriage or an alien invasion would ever gather all my Facebook friends in one room, face to face.  

And thank goodness for that.

It would be, let's be honest, a total and utter disaster.

Organizing a seating plan would be an impossible task.

Let's see….

I would have to seat the Jews away from the Palestinians.

I would have to make sure my friend who had a rather unpleasant experience involving her partner and a Russian girl in the past is not sat at the same table with any reasonably attractive Russian girls. Generalizing, I know, but hey…Just to be on the safe side.

The Liberals would hate to be anywhere near the Conservatives, so maybe stick them somewhere in the opposite corner of the room.

The atheists would probably be safer somewhere outside altogether.

And, of course, let's not forget all the Armenian people, journalists and social activists of some sort, whom I met via blogging, who probably would need to be hidden away from some of my old school friends who keep posting aggressive hatred messages these days.

You see how complicated it would get?

But then…Despite being so different from each other, to the point of me not being able to ever imagine them meeting in real life, all these people are part of my life.  Whether from the exotic Soviet past, or from the suburban life in the UK, or a mixed cultural pot of Doha, they are all characters in my story, they all have a right to be in my Facebook friends list. How is that even possible? Does it mean that I lack, you know, principles? Or am I too superficial?

Or does it mean that everyone on my list is actually someone that, for whatever reason, deserved to be there? All these people must have played a role, important or trivial, in my past or current life…they must have made me laugh, or think, or learn something. Made me love them or fancy them, or want to be their friend. Each and one of them, however different from each other (and me, for that matter)  must  have been cool or interesting enough to be accepted and added to that Friends category.

Now, this is the end of the post, and the moment when some sort of a point should, in theory, be made. But I have not really got a point. I just thought it would be amazing if a social platform like Facebook would somehow have the power to magically affect real life. To help all of us become more tolerant, more accepting, less judgemental. So that I could, hypothetically, imagine inviting all of my Facebook friends into one big room together. Because, remember? If you love me, you've got to love my dog. Who was, by the way, a Rottweiler. A breed most often hated for no other reason but sheer ignorance. But, as I said to anyone who wanted to visit my home and was not sure about him…You just have to trust me when I say he is good. And, he is part of who I am.

And so are my Facebook friends.




Thursday, 6 November 2014

Too much information?




I was talking about my blog with someone last night and explaining why I don't write as much as before. I can't really be myself, I said. I can't say anything I would really want to say for the fear of accidentally offending someone- either the locals, or the expats, or neighbours…the list goes on.

In the past, my blog had always been my personal little world of free speech. An outlet to express my thoughts openly, to make an non-PC joke if I liked to, or use words that are no longer appropriate to use in the western society. Such as a retard. I can say it here, you see? I am such a retard. Yes, you might find it offensive, but so what, it is my blog, and I can do whatever I want here!

And I need this outlet. I need to be able to occasionally joke inappropriately, or be rude, or be silly, or be totally ridiculous. Because that is the real me.

I remember thinking about an old English friend of mine, that he was turning into a rude, bitter, intolerant old man. But, as I, myself, got a bit older, I realised that he had not changed as such. He just stopped caring about being proper, and started speaking out the thoughts he had probably always had but never expressed openly. He must have realised that life was too short to worry about always saying the right thing to be accepted by majority. Those who hate you for it will step aside, giving more space to those who accept you the way you are.

Last night, at my ladies only jewelry party, I relaxed for just a moment and said something that was, in hindsight, perhaps, somewhat inappropriate. But I had a drink (or two…) and I was with my girlfriends. One tends to relax a little in such situation. And so I made a joke about the reasons I had married my husband. Which involved a reference to him being able to cook really well and being good in bed.

And so a friend exclaimed  'No! No! Too much information!!!' and quickly redirected the conversation.

I paused and thought about it. To me, it was just a joke. Was it offensive? Not really. (Not to Husband, anyway.) I thought it was quite carefully phrased, really. I did not give any details of why or how he was good, which to me, would have been, indeed, too much information. For goodness sake, I thought. It was a joke! Amongst women only. Not only women, but friends, people I know for a while now. If I can't make a rude (ish?) joke with my girlfriends, then when and where can I be myself?

The incident made me think of the number of times I  judged people by something they joked about or said, momentarily slotting them into a 'Oh God, he is retarded!' or 'She is just a common tart' category. And, of course, I might have been correct. I usually am. And yes, I used the R word again.

Of course we can, and should, make assumptions about others from what they say. If only everyone was genuine! Wouldn't it be great to find out straight away that someone is racist or stupid or rude? If only were we allowed to say what we really wanted, how much easier would our relationships become? No guessing, no illusions, no disappointments later.

More importantly, it made me wonder how well I really know others around me. Because, with all these endless social restrictions placed upon us, can we ever be ourselves with each other?  As we grow older, the rules become more asphyxiating, more controlling. What topics are appropriate at this dinner party? What's okay to say in front of someone of that religion? What would someone from that country and that cultural background find offensive and what-funny?  Tiptoe very carefully around the politics until absolutely sure. Please, do be careful with disabilities! Don't even think of making any comment about those who claim to be depressed. Be very careful with vegetarians and pet lovers. And dwarfs.

Fine! Lets be polite, let's be proper. But surely, once we established that we are friends, once in a while, under the influence, you know? it might be okay to chill- just a little?, and relax and forget about the social rules and expectations.  And just share a joke or two, however inappropriate they might be. And expect not to be judged.



Friday, 17 October 2014

The language we speak deep inside.




Today, admiring one more utterly idiotic, overly enthusiastic posting from someone I know on Facebook, I once again felt my eternal gratitude for this fantastic social networking invention. Besides letting us quickly share jokes and photos and spy on our ex’s; Facebook can, in one quick stroke, paint a clear, fast picture of someone you might be just getting to know, and save you a lot of wasted time. Just something very simple that a person, unprovoked and unasked, shares online can give you a clear glimpse into their mind and, more often than not, warn you not to ever go there.

So many people, who seem completely normal face to face, suddenly become pretty weird on Facebook.  It truly is fascinating, don’t you find?

Anyway, what was I actually trying to talk about? Oh yes. About music.

The other afternoon, on the way from school, I tried to share my new favourite song with my big daughter. In my obsession with Aspire, I got into it at one of the classes, where we all, no matter where from, enjoy the stretching to this French tune. My child was not enthusiastic. ‘Nuh, I don’t like it’, she said before I even switched the song on. ‘I don’t like songs in other languages’, she added. ‘I don’t understand anything they are saying’.

‘Just try!’ I begged her. I explained to her that with music, it is simply magical. Listen to the singer’s voice, listen to the emotions, and you will enjoy it, I promise, I said. Don’t worry about the actual words, or what they mean.

And, despite being pretty determined against foreign songs, and for some peculiar reason, French ones in particular, as soon as the music stopped, she paused and said, reluctantly: ‘Again.’

It got me thinking about the amazing power the music has on all of us, no matter where we are right now, or where we come from. Just look at all those women in Aspire, I thought, from Arabic to Eastern European and Chinese, all of us affected by this one French song, asking the trainer at the end of the class to play ‘that song’. Again. Just like my 9 year old asked me. (I know you all are dying to hear it now, so here it is).

Not only has music always been my best coping mechanism for many situations in life, including long journeys- from the delayed tube commuting in London to traffic nightmares of Doha-it is also a useful tool, just like Facebook, in quickly determining whether you have anything in common with someone. Sitting in a hot Doha garden with my Spanish friend, sipping rum and coke on a Monday night- as you do…- I shared my French song with her. ‘Ver-ry nice!’ She exclaimed in her exquisite accent.

‘Have you heard of this Kizomba? Very big in Spain now!’ And she proceeded to show me a video that only a few days ago a Russian friend had sent me.


And at a party last night, admittedly drunk, she and I had a (probably rather pathetic) go at our Kizomba moves. One more amazing musical phenomenon, originated in Angola, taking Spain by storm, bringing my Russian friend and her American boyfriend together, and even making me and my Spanish friend stand up and embarrass ourselves in front of more sensible people. 

Because whatever language we all communicate in, music will always be the language we speak deep inside. The language of our emotions, the language of what we really are.  And a useful tool that helps us tune in and find those who are on the same wavelength (even if it is not so apparent at first, because of the cultural and language differences) and those who are….well, on an entirely different planet altogether. 


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

50 Shades of Aspire Ladies Club, or about my addiction.






This, of course, isn't me. I borrowed this lovely picture from Husband's favorite Facebook page- Fit Girls. 


I wanted freedom
Bound and restricted
I tried to give you up
But I'm addicted


(from Time is Running Out by Muse, who, by the way, are still and always will be, the best.)


OK. I have a confession to make. I am an addict.

I never really have been a type who is easily addicted. I used to smoke…well, quite a lot actually, but then decided to quit and I did, pretty easily. Nowadays, I can have an occasional cigarette with a glass of wine and move on without another one for months. You see what I mean? Easy!

So I did not really even see it coming.

And, as addictions often happen, it started pretty innocently. After almost a year of trying to convince me to join Aspire, the local ladies' sports club, my friend finally managed to drag me there.

At first, I could not see the point. Why would I wait for ages to register and then pay and drive somewhere early in the mornings, when I had a free gym in the compound? It seemed too much of an effort. Isn't it too busy? I did not like the idea of too many sweaty women jumping around too close to me. Just give it a try, the friend responded. You will love it.

At first, I went to one class a week. I enjoyed it. I went to two or three, and thought I was doing pretty well. I look back at that previous life of mine as the life of a free person. Someone who was allowed to do nothing if she wanted to. Sleep... Or read a book perhaps? Or blog, for that matter. Or even get a job!!

In those days, I had no idea what would become of me. There were women of all sorts of shapes, ages and level of fitness. I would look at some hardcore ones who would emerge out of one particularly exhausting class, staggering, dripping with sweat and barely breathing and go straight into another, and would think to myself secretly What lunatics, seriously!? What are they like? Have they no lives besides this place? Why are they killing themselves?

And I used to stand at the back, attempting to catch up on the routines, embarrassed of how silly and awkward I must look…and getting annoyed by the fanatics in the front row. They would stretch and jump at the start of the class, shouting out in ecstasy as the instructors took to the stage.

How little did I know.

Now, I am one of them. And I can't stop. I am not sure when or how it happened. It has been a journey. At some point I realized that my previous goal, which was to lose some weight was no longer adequate.  I wanted to get fitter.  I wanted to be able to follow and do what the trainers were showing us. From going three times a week, I moved on to four and then five.

And then you suddenly feel that you don't want to miss out on the weights class just because you did a cardio…and the addiction kicks in. Your worst nightmare is to fall sick and not be able to attend a class.

Your gym buddies become your best friends and you cancel coffee dates with everyone else, as those people don't understand why you absolutely, under no circumstances, could not meet them before 11 am. Everything else becomes secondary. No time for anyone else. Not much different to one old friend of mine's obsession with marihuana. Only mine is healthier. Unless, of course, it kills me. Which looks more and more possible as the addiction grows stronger.  I cannot stop.

And then…there are the instructors. They are not just instructors. They are Goddesses. 

Each with her own unique style but all beautiful; of different nationalities, but equally cool and funny, they are making us work harder than I ever remember working in any gym or class in my entire (admittedly, lazy) life. We are in love with them. We watch their every move, we follow every word. We pray that they never leave us. We love them and admire them.

Clearly, I must enjoy pain. Because, pushing my body this far feels great. And, as endorphins get released, I am not as stressed - even as I maneuver in the crazy Doha traffic. I used to want to kill other drivers really badly, by ripping their stupid throats out, but now? Now I just smile and wave.

It makes me happy. I know it is because I am drugged with the endless exercise, delirious and not able to think straight. Because, surely, I should be aspiring to achieve something in my life?

Yet, listening to a couple of mums at the school pick up discuss how desperate they were to find a job so they would not be so bored…I felt happy. I am not bored. I have no time or energy  to feel bored or dissatisfied with my life.

So, okay, you are probably thinking, this is all great, but what's the catch? Well, I wish I could be more relaxed about it. On the morning of my baby girl's first day at big school, I was not going to take her. I figured it was okay for daddy to take her. So I could attend my classes, you see?

And it was only when a friend of mine said to me 'I love you, but you have shit for brains! You ARE going to your daughter's first day at school!!! ' that I realized just how crazy my obsession became. I had to tell myself that some (not many) things still matter more than my new drug.

Life, I thought to myself melancholically, always gets in the way of a good addiction, doesn't it.








Monday, 8 September 2014

Has it all worn thin by now?

An old friend of mine, a long-term expat himself, asked me the other day if it has all worn a bit thin by now.  He was referring to my expat life. ‘Tell the truth’, he said.

I was thinking whether it has, and the honest answer was no, not really.

I think it is too easy to forget, after a few years of expat life, about all the aspects of it that attracted you in the first place. Of course, it can be challenging. But adult life generally is, no matter where you chose to spend yours.

I still quite like it, and here is my personal list why.

  • I was reading a children’s book to my toddler while in England, about a woman who thought her house was too small. A wise old man told her to bring a chicken in, then a goat, then a cow…until she could hardly move inside her own home for all the craziness around. Then he told her to kick them all back outside. Wow, she thought, my house is humongous! I feel a bit like that every time when I go back to the UK. Living in Doha makes me appreciate things in the UK that I took for granted. Fire and Safety regulations. Fresh air. Pork products and vino you can buy everywhere, any time of the day, in even the smallest shabbiest shops on the corner. Non-Pilipino waitresses, just because it feels odd having a white chick take your order. Other small, unnoticeable normalities that you don’t know you are lucky to have until you don’t get them anymore.

On the other hand, some things are definitely soooo much better in Doha! Maids! HUGE houses. The pool-any time of the year. My car. (I hope no neighbours witnessed me talking to it affectionately the first morning after I had got back.) Because it is so easy to have fabulous cars in Qatar. No taxes. No waiting anywhere. No walking. The list goes on, but…

Without going back to the UK, I am sure I would easily forget about all these privileges we have as expats here and focus too much on the negative aspects. And this gentle reminder about various things that are better in one country or the other is only possible if you live abroad as an expat and keep going back.

  • Friends and Family. Alright, I appreciate it is not quite a separate item as such but a sub-item of the above, but because of the crucial importance of it, I am allocating it a separate category. You, people who live all your life next door to your elderly parents probably have no idea what it feels like to be far away from them. You are so lucky to have them live next door to you; but because you don’t have a friggin’ clue just how lucky you are, you probably spend most of the time (that you have left together while they are alive) trying to get away from them. The same applies to old friendships. You might get too complacent and stop appreciating your old friends who live nearby. You don’t think they are good enough, or nice enough to you, or call you often enough, or remember your children’s birthdays…But, having lived away from them for a couple of years and only being able to see them for a few days at the most every summer you realise how special they are. With all their annoying imperfections. They are your old friends, who know you better than anyone else, and they still like you and miss you, even when you change (and we, expats, inevitably all change) and become this peculiar person with permanent tan and weird stories. So, when we do get to spend some time with old friends or family, we really enjoy and appreciate it. More than we might have done before.  


  • It is exciting. Because it is new. And we all know that everything new can be exciting, even if it is not necessarily better than the old. Just ask my friend who changes girlfriends every two months. Even after almost three years in Doha, I find some things wonderfully weird and fascinating. And because I know that I will not be here forever, I can easily put up with them, filing them into a local folklore category and not letting them bother me.

  • Uncertainty of the future. I have absolutely no idea when and where we are going to next. My friends in the UK keep asking when we are planning to come back, and give me incredulous looks when I say I don’t know.  One thing that is certain is that we have no certainty and no concrete plan ahead of us. To most people that would be scary, and to me…actually, pretty terrifying. But I can easily see the exciting side of it, too. You know? How can I get bored if I don’t know where my home will be next year?  And to someone like me, who gets bored too easily, this is not a bad thing. 


So, there you are. A long answer to my friend’s short question. Expat life can be uncertain. It can be nostalgic and sad at times. It can be dangerous. Yet…the whole package is somehow pretty good. Does it make any sense? Probably not, until you try it.


Saturday, 30 August 2014

This, here, or about parallel lives of expats.


Well, we are back. From what originally seemed like a very long summer break in the UK.

I have to say we had a fantastic holiday. Truly great. And, somehow, surreal.

This is, I guess, what happens to expats when they go home for a few weeks. It is not simply a holiday but a quick step into a parallel universe, this parallel life of yours, which you left behind a while ago, but never completely, not really. It is like playing a yearly role in a reality TV show, with the same characters and at the same set. And what lovely characters, what beautiful set.

It is difficult to explain, almost impossible to digest yourself, just how surreal it feels. Is this, here home? Or is it back there? Is this the real life? Here, where your job and things are, and the routine is established after a few years? Or is it back there, where you have not been for a whole year and yet, everything seems comfortingly unchanged, the same faces in the same shops, the same music on your favourite radio channel, and the same taste of Pimm's and Lemonade in the local pub, just like you remembered it.

You buy a ticket and get ready and then, just like in the scene of His Dark Materials, you cut a small hole in the air around you and suddenly, you are somewhere utterly different from your current home, only it is also your home and you soak in every familiar detail.

And then, there are those familiar faces. Friends who, after not having seen you for a whole year accept you right back in, and you are sitting there amongst them, like it is totally the norm for you to be there, and it feels like this, here, is your real life...but then, of course it is! And it feels like you have got forever yet- weeks!- but, suddenly you are packing again and you step back into that hole in the air and you are in your other, parallel life, leaving everything over there behind once again. And you sit in your home- your current home, with your current things around you, and you look at those pictures on Facebook and you can't help but think-Hold on a minute?! Did that actually happen? Recently? Only like, a week ago? You try and remember what it felt like to be back, the smile on your child's face when she saw her best friends, the amazing taste of food and the sound of the rain at night. But it takes just a few flying hours for it all to disappear and get shelved, once again, somewhere in your memory, as you quickly get settled into your This, Here life again. Until next summer then, my Over There parallel life. See you then, and please, please, please! Just try and keep everything unchanged for me once again.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Would you be my weekend friend?


Last Friday night I drunk alone. I never really do that, but this time was an exception. Having had my kids throwing up with a tummy bug for two days meant that I was stuck in the house, mainly sitting on the sofa for 48 hours. To give you a better idea of what that was like, let me just tell you that I watched 9, and that is NINE episodes of True Blood, back to back on Friday. My Spanish friend told me it had good sex in it, so I figured I should give it a go, you know? But, to be honest…the main actress, however hard I tried not to focus on that fact, was pretty ugly and had a very annoying mouth, which was rather difficult to ignore when she was an active participant in all the "good sex" scenes. The sex was a bit silly, especially the scene at the cemetery, where the vampire boyfriend (who was taking a nap in a grave)  grabbed her by the ankle and pulled himself out to the surface; and, straight away, as soon as she realised it was him, they got down to business. I just don't know if that was supposed to be exciting. I thought it was pretty creepy, but maybe I am just getting old for good vampire sex.

Anyway, you get the idea.

We did have a nice weekend planned, and that night, there was a birthday dinner we were supposed to go to. Obviously, with the poorly children, I had to stay at home, and since it was Husband's friend's party, I kindly ( I am like that, you see. ) suggested that he should go alone. And that is how, on a Friday night, I ended up stuck at home, by myself. Bored to death, exhausted by vampire sex, I felt like a drink. 'No problem', I thought to myself, 'I will call one of my compound girlfriends. Someone is surely at home, maybe also bored and wants a glass of wine'. But, of course, that was not the case. People have lives, but most importantly, families have lives. So every single friend I fancied a quick chat and a drink with that night was out with their husbands, at various social engagements. It was, after all, a Friday night.

So, having had three no's I decided to give up, and poured myself a large glass of wine. With a sigh, I returned to watching True Blood. That's pretty much the end of the story as far as my Friday night is concerned. However, it made me think about stuff. I was thinking how difficult it must be if, for whatever reason, your middle-aged life does not quite fit in, does not quite match the rest of them-the others, those people with husbands and children, happily (or not) married, attending events organised by other married people.

I thought of a few of my girlfriends who, at the age over 40, are still single. It is easy to be single when you are young and everyone else you know is mostly single. But at 40? Who do they hang out with on weekends? When everyone they know is busy with family stuff?

I thought of a lovely friend of mine who chose to have two children alone, without a husband. What does she do on Friday nights?

I thought of some other of my friends who recently got divorced. With most of their social circle made up of married couples they'd met whilst still being smugly married, what would they do on weekends?

It is not something that ever occurred to me. How different life would be right now, if I was without the other half. What would I be doing, who would I be arranging to see on weekend nights?

Something that I take for granted on the daily basis- healthy children, an annoying at times yet a pretty nice husband, a bunch of friends with their own children and (annoying at times?) husbands….is actually all part of being lucky. As most of you know, of course, I am not a religious person, so I cannot justify using words such as blessed or grateful for. But, I guess..I felt that night that I should be grateful. I thought of the day when Husband ended up in a hospital, and for a few hours I did not know what was the diagnosis, what would happen next. Just like that, in a minute of your normal routine day, things can change. Someone can leave, or die, or get horribly sick, and this typical social cell you had created can suddenly collapse spectacularly around you. And then, when that happens, do you have people around you who would still want to be your friend? Not during the week, when their husbands are off to work and they can spare an hour before school run to share a quick coffee. But on weekends. Would they be your weekend friends, even if things change? Would you have someone to have a glass of wine with on Friday nights?

I guess for those cases when the answer is 'maybe not'…. there is always True Blood.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

A wasted life?

About a month ago, I had a particularly miserable day and nobody around me knew why. Husband probably assumed it was something he had done, my visiting in-laws might have worried they over-stayed their welcome, and my maid stayed out of the way just in case. In reality, it was simply the fact that on that day, my dad would have turned 70. I was not really in the mood to try and explain that to anyone.

Thinking about his big birthday, I realised that I was not simply feeling sad because I was missing him, or felt sorry for him not having had a chance to live long enough to celebrate his big birthday. I also felt sad for his wasted life. That's the thought that kept coming into my head. Wasted.

His life, with small misfortunes and failures, attempts to get rich and endless women, gambling and thousands of cigarettes a day does not build a particularly impressive picture. Yet, my father could, should have, had a better life. He was born in a good family, he had brains, he was very sporty, he was artistic, he was talented. He did everything well. He sang beautifully and played a guitar. He had a fantastic sense of humour. With so many talents, what did he achieve at the end of his journey? I kept thinking, driving around Doha on that typical dusty hot day. Nothing, really.

Just like my aunt, who also left way too early, he seems to have wasted all those talents, shamelessly killing himself with bad habits and lazy attitude in life. And I just could not shake off the feeling of frustration and pity about that. Why, I kept thinking. Why did he waste his life so badly?

But then I remembered other things. I remembered how much he loved playing backgammon with friends on summer nights. How much fun he must have had in the younger days when he was part of the famous Baku KVN team. How much he loved women! And how eagerly they loved him back. How much he enjoyed making shashliks and smoking after dinner. How much he loved me and his other little girl, my half-sister. Hold on, I thought to myself. Was it a wasted life? What standards am I applying when trying to measure whether my father had a good life? Am I judging his successes by how much money he left behind? How many countries he travelled to? How many lives he influenced?  How many goals, whatever they were, he reached?

But what if none of that actually matters? What if what matters is how much you enjoyed little pleasures in life? What if what my dad actually really liked was womanising and smoking and playing basketball and singing to his guitar? And maybe if I could ask him now, he would say it was OK, honestly. Don't worry about my life. I smoked a lot, and read a lot of books, and slept around, and watched my children play in the sun. I had good friends, I fell in love, I loved good jokes and good music. I had fun.

Who am I to judge my father for not having looked after his health better? For not having done more with the talents he was lucky to have had, for the missed opportunities and wrong decisions? In the end,  his life, whatever I thought of it, must have been quite a nice one, actually. Not a very long one, not a very impressive one…yet, undoubtedly, full of happy moments, celebrations, naughty habits and guilty pleasures. And maybe that is okay.




Saturday, 19 April 2014

Lost in translation?

I am learning quite a lot from this experience of having a maid. The biggest discovery, really, has been that we can co-exist and understand each other surprisingly well, despite having come from two completely different ends of the world. I expected things to be much harder at the beginning, to be honest, having listened to so many funny and bizarre stories.  Like that story about a maid from Sri Lanka who tried to make sir's car shiny by rubbing olive oil on it. Or another one about a maid who was proposed a marriage by a young arabic male and asked to meet him on Cornish on Saturday morning. Only to then hear from him that he was not really planning to marry her, however for 10 riyals he would settle for a blow job right there and then. You might think this is the end of the shocking story, however the best part is of course, yet to come. She agreed, and asked my friend's maid to watch over her while she earned her tenner.

Compared to the above examples, my girl, who arrived only a month before she started with us, is pleasantly normal. The most weird thing I ever caught her doing was using a pan scourer on my non-stick frying pans. Really, is not a big deal, if you ask me.

She is a smart, quick learner and is incredibly observant.  Her English, which was really quite poor at first, is improving every day. Yet, it is not good enough for me to explain some things to her that we might do, that might, as I suddenly realised, make her think we are pretty weird.

The other day, for example, we went for lunch at the Pearl and my poor husband sat on a chewing gum some naughty little prat left on a chair in the cafe. Having a chewing gum smeared all over your backside is not a pleasant experience. We had to rush to a nearby shop and get him a new pair of shorts, as of course, he could not even sit back in the car in the old ones anymore.

Parents in law, who are visiting at the moment, had some experience in removing chewing gum from clothes though. Do not despair, they announced. We know what to do. We have to put the shorts in the freezer for a couple of days and then take it off with vinegar.

Now, I of course, was aware of the plan. Yet, when I opened the freezer the next morning and saw a pair of shorts sticking out, I was somehow unprepared for just how weird it looked. And so I wondered what my poor little maid might think when she finds sir's dirty shorts in the freezer. She might then proceed to do her chores only to discover an old metal clock my father in law placed in the fridge.

He wanted to check if it was accurate, you see. But to my maid, this behaviour might of course, mean something completely different. Disturbing even, perhaps. Maybe in her home country placing dirty shorts in the freezer is a first step in the virgin sacrificing ritual.

Oh, crap, I thought. I hope she does not run away from us. How to I explain to her that all this madness has, in fact, some logic behind it?

And it is not just maids vs expat families that face such bizarre misunderstandings. I remember my mother trying to sear the chicken on my then new in-laws' halogen hob. Or my mother in law getting in trouble with me for putting kitchen and dog towers in one washing load. (That just did not work for me, sorry.)

So really, it is surprising how, despite such crazy differences, we all still manage to live together. My mother grasped what was appropriate for an English family, just like my mother in law learnt what I considered weird ( No, thanks, I do not want to save the chips from my fish & chips dinner to thicken the soup the next day. ) And my Ethiopian girl will hopefully ( fingers crossed) trust me when I attempt to explain that none of the above methods are dangerous signs of us belonging to some spooky cult. We are all really pretty normal. Well, according to our own standards, of course.




Saturday, 29 March 2014

What makes a good event?



The weather in Doha right now, my friends, is simply beautiful. After bizarre rainstorm a couple of days ago (which once again flooded through our skylights upstairs, causing Husband and I to jump up in the middle of the night to arrange bath towels all over the landing floors…) it is all clear and sunny again. But not too hot. Just perfect.

And, sitting around the pool today, watching my visiting in-laws play with the kids in the blue water, I reminded myself that life in Qatar is pretty good. Really. What is crucial is not to forget how good things are, overall. Because, there will always be small things. And the small things in Doha are just very different. 

I was thinking about it last night at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup Finals we attended. You see, this is exactly the kind of stuff that I love about living here. When would I, let alone my in-laws (coming from North Wales, where all they really get to see is sheep shagging and an odd bunny getting snatched by a eagle on a good day) would get to attend such an unusual event? Not only that, but it was also absolutely for free, which is important to note, as that is a crucial part of the story.

So imagine how impressed my in-laws were, when I took them to watch all those muscular tiny girls and boys jump around for free, on their wedding anniversary, on the first day in Doha? Very. What a wonderful treat! they exclaimed. What a gorgeous venue! And you get to go for free! Wow, isn't this a wonderful country?

We parked easily and walked for a short while in a pleasant weather, past the Torch, towards the Dome. It is pretty cool venue, you have to admit. We were meeting some school friends, and one of them was holding premium seats for us- in the front row, right in front of the balancing beam that was due to start at 6pm. We could not believe the fun we were about to have! Free water bottles sat nearby in a case, and kids excitedly drew on the little individual marking boards they got given to put their own scores on. How much better could this get?

Suddenly, something happened that reminded me that we were in Doha. A media man climbed through and stood in front of me. 'I am going to have to put my camera here!' He said in a aggressive way, obviously expecting us to object. I glanced back. All the other seats behind us were already taken. My girlfriend, who specifically came early to secure the best seats, looked at us and smiled- 'Well, this was not really what I planned, sorry!' I was not quite sure what he expected us to do. There was nowhere to go, and we had small children with us, not to mention elderly in-laws.

Sorry, he threw casually, dragging an enormous stand and an even more enormous camera which he proceeded to install literally on top of me. I tried to fight back. 'I am not moving!' I said and made myself comfortable in the seat, but he just shrugged his shoulders and turned his back to me.

I quickly realized that I had no chances to win in that situation. And so, I had to move. Following my in-laws, I sat on the stone steps, trying not to get too annoyed by what happened.

I reminded myself that I, fortunately for all the parties involved, did not pay a penny for our tickets. Should I have paid, I would probably be prepared to fight the cameraman until the police arrived.

What's the point of this story you may ask. Well, this is just what life here is like. Everything can be perfect. Here is this beautiful venue. Here are all the free tickets, balloons, prize giving at the end and great entertainment. And then there is someone like this camera man who can come and f*** it all up, just because nothing is thought through properly. Nothing is actually professionally arranged in advance. If only!!!! There was some logic in this guy's actions...Would a media professional not know in advance, having a schedule in his hand, that he would be filming a balancing beam performance at 6pm? Would it then be so difficult-I have to ask!?- to put some notice around the front row, perhaps a tape or a sign to secure that area for the media? Rather than, five minutes before the competition was due to start, dragging a heavy camera over the heads of small children and kicking us out?

And in the end, we had a good time anyway. I reminded myself, after glaring at the guy for a few minutes, that he just had no idea how things would be done in the professional world. He was only doing his job- however well he could. Maybe he had to deal with other unprofessional people already a few times that day. Maybe he was told last minute what to film, and where to go. Maybe it was all a big surprise to him.

But, to me, this is what makes a good event. Not just a vast empty space with nice trees and the lit up Torch. Not the amazing venue and free tickets. But professionalism of people involved. The planning. The details. The respect for customers.  I guess that is just something that will have to develop with time.

.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

What do I do all day? Absolutely nothing.


I saw a very famous quote on Facebook just now. A question smart people should never ask a housewife:

'What do you do all day?'

Well, I said to two friends this morning, leaning into a soft big armchair with my cup of coffee, I can happily announce that these days, I do absolutely nothing. Sweet f*** all, to be precise.

And guess what? I am loving it.

The thing is, guys…I finally did it. I got myself a maid.

When we were just discussing coming to Qatar, one of the most commonly heard jokes in our household was the one about a potential maid. 'Oh, don't pick up those dishes!' Husband would exclaim ' Let Manuella do that!' Yep. Our imaginary maid had a name.

But, after the initial month or two of asking everyone if they knew the best way to get a maid, some uncertainty kicked in. I was not convinced I could do it, after all. Having a stranger living with us, folding my knickers and listening to my every conversation was just a bizarre concept to start with. And then, there was the confusion about the way to go about it. Do we use an agency? How much do we pay? Do we wait until we get lucky and someone leaves and we could take over the sponsorship of their by then trained and experienced maid? Do we have a live-in or live-out? What nationality should we chose? (And you have to chose, by the way, as your permit is only valid for a specific country your maid is from.)

Having waited for way too long, and interviewed a few potential candidates, I sort of gave up on the idea. My baby turned into a toddler, and things started getting somewhat easier. Sleepless nights (almost) disappeared into the past, I found babysitters I could trust, and a cleaner to help me once or twice a week. I can cope, I said to myself. The worst time has passed now. I have some me time while the kids are at school, and I do not actually need anyone. Because, not only do you risk getting someone you might not like, you are also bound to be facing some sort of issues. And trust me, I have enough issues as it is, without having to deal with yet one more person in my house, with her own sicknesses, crazy relatives and money demands.

But, everyone else had a maid. That can be pretty annoying.  Even the very new guys who only just moved in, seemed to be quickly getting a maid each. What's wrong with me? I asked myself. Do I not deserve a bit of a break? Do I not want to have some help with these most hated house chores?

And one day, Husband got fed up. Come on, he said. Just try. If it does not work out, what's the worst that could happen? You ask her to leave. Go on, he said. Try!

My girl is the complete opposite for what I originally thought I was looking for. To start with, she is the prettiest and very possibly the youngest housemaid  in the compound. That was never my intention. I am not stupid, I kept telling my friends, only half-jokingly, to be getting a young and pretty maid! Nope. I will get someone older, more like a granny type.

Her English is….well, there is none. Her experience does not quite exist either, from what I could tell. But, you know what? I love her. Some days, I even have this feeling that I could actually love her more than I love my husband.

In the space of the month that she has been here, I already am a much nicer person. From a flustered, tired and constantly irritable mother, driver and a maid, I am slowly turning into a calm, relaxed, kind woman.

I used to want to kill my family on the daily basis. Every time someone spilt juice on the floor, every time I opened my older girl's wardrobe to find the inside of it looking like a hamster's nest- again and again…I would be on the edge of loosing it. I would snap at my kids, and I would tell Husband off for not tidying up after himself. I am not your maid! was a very commonly used expression in my house. But now…Now I can do whatever I want. I can have my hair done. I can go to the gym. I can sleep. If my little girl asks me to come outside and blow some bubbles for her, I can actually do that, without thinking that I should really be inside changing my bedding or re-loading the dishwasher. I noticed that I pay more attention to what my friends are telling me now. I actually listen. I have the time to. I even!!! started reading the news again. I am slowly turning into a normal human being.

But this, my friends, created, as my new Spanish girlfriend would say, a terrible situation.  Now that I discovered that having a stranger fold my knickers is very easy to get used to ( hmm…actually, have to tell her to stop rolling them into tight balls…) I simply cannot imagine life without a maid. How on Earth did I cope before she came into my life? How did I do all this? She works all day long doing all this crap I hated doing and had to do... and she does not have two children and the driving around Doha, and the shopping, and the socializing, and the working out, and the cooking, and the painting of the school play backdrop…How did I ever do it all??? And most importantly…how the hell am I ever going to do it again?

It really is great.

Hell…I might even try and get a job!

Nuh.

Maybe not just yet. Let me just enjoy this miracle while it lasts.






Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Thank God for Australia Day, or about the January Krisa syndrome.


One of my favourite slang Russian words these days is Krisitsya. It is a verb, based on a krisa, which is a  Russkiy word for a rat. Thus, to krisitsya means to start acting like a rat. ( Slightly different meaning to what it  means in English.) My cousin taught me that one years ago, when we were discussing his shunning away from something he had promised to do. 'Sorry', he said, justifying his behaviour, 'Ya skrisilsya v poslednee vremya'. ( I have skrisilsya recently for some reason).

Since then, the word has become my favourite.

And why am I bringing this word up now? Well, I have realised why most of us dislike January so much. You keep hearing it is the most depressing month, mainly due to the weather, the anti-climax after the partying in December, and the lack of money due to the over-spending during the holidays.  Those are all, of course, pretty rational reasons. However, I can add one more reason to hate January- because I, and not just I but most of the people I know, start krisitsya during this month.

One of the things I hate doing is when I promise someone something and then do not deliver. I know most of us throw comments this way and that way, just being nice, you know. Such as "Oh, it was lovely to see you, we must catch up sometime!" or " Oh, let's have a coffee one morning soon!" and we smile and we agree that would be nice, and then don't see that person for another year or so. That happens to us all, more often as we grow older. However, if I promise to have someone for lunch or dinner soon, I usually actually mean it. But….not in January.

I absolutely loathe this feeling of shame, when I know I owe people an invitation, but simply cannot bring myself to do it. And, typically, I am more than happy to have people over, I swear I am! But…In January, something happens. I lose interest in hosting. I lose interest in seeing people, and  I even!!! lose interest in talking, and that, if you know me at all, is pretty serious.

And of course, I have my excuses. My mother has been visiting us for a long time, I had friends over for Christmas dinner, following by other friends staying with us for a week over New Year. I thoroughly enjoyed having my house full, but as a result...I have officially over-hosted, over-socialised and over-spent. And so now, being perfectly aware that I had said to a few people it was my turn to host them, that I would invite them over…. I have drawn my curtains, locked the doors, switched off the phone and been lying low in my burrow.

And trust me, I am not the only one. Many of my friends disappeared for a month without a phone call, even the usually generous types. So imagine my shock when Husband announced we were invited to a BBQ party this Friday night.

My mind went lazily around everyone I know. I could not think who- in January?-would bring themselves to hosting a party. 'Seriously?' I asked. 'Whose place?'

It turns out we are going to an Aussie barbie dinner at our Australian friends' house, to celebrate the Australia Day.

Cool, I thought, my lack of desire to socialise instantly disappearing at the thought of BBQ meat and drinks. Thank God for Australia Day, I say, sheilas and blokes! My social calendar is slowly returning to normal. I am ready to say goodbye to the mean and lazy krisa January, and welcome February, when we have more friends arriving from the UK. I will be ready to socialize again then. I promise.



Friday, 17 January 2014

Parenting style as a calculator for weirdness



I went to a friend's birthday coffee the other day at a posh hotel. It was very nice, indeed. Very civilized, you know. A bunch of western expat ladies, sipping tea and coffee, exchanging pleasantries.  At first glance, we all had a lot in common, despite being quite a mixed bunch (There were a couple of Americans, a few Brits, a couple of South Africans and an Australian or two…And of course, as you know, one Azeri.) However, we were all married expat women, all in Doha, most with the kids going to the same school…Lots to discuss, lots to agree on. And yet, I witnessed a major clash of personalities, right there. A girl next to me, who I had briefly met before, was a young American mother of a small baby she brought along with her. She was a certain type, you know…A type that I would label as an environmentalist. (Note: See my old posting for a classification of the British suburban ladies here.)
As the beautiful birthday cake was cut and passed around the table, and the baby squealed in excitement, the South African mum across the table smiled and suggested that the child was probably after a slice.

No, said the American mother. She is not allowed any carbs until 12 months of age.

Having met this lady before, I was not that surprised. But the SA lady looked shocked. What do you mean? she asked with an intense sort of smile, tilting her head to one side. Why? Based on what??

The environmentalist mother proceeded to explain how, according to a recent research, babies' stomachs were not ready to digest carbs very well until they were a year old. Encouraged by the obvious interest, she added that she was going to try feeding the baby raw liver next. (She read somewhere that many generations of native Mauritians let their babies suck on the raw cow's liver. Not sure why she decided it was therefore a good idea? Perhaps she read that Mauritians tend to live longer, or are known for superb brain development. I did not want to ask. I felt that asking that question would sound like I was trying to challenge her.)

She found liver from an Indian water buffalo, which feeds on green grass only, and therefore is quite safe.

At that precise moment, I am sure I noticed the SA's mother jerk compulsively in the direction of the baby, as if following an impulse to grab her and run for the door.

It is amazing, isn't it, how aggressive and judgemental we all get when it comes to parenting? Parenting approach, to me, is one of the most dangerous topics, in many ways not unlike a religion, something mothers from all sorts of cultures can get incredibly passionate about, if challenged by someone else. Yet, it is something we all, without fail, seem to consider ourselves experts in. Even when we pretend, like I did that morning (hopefully successfully) as I nodded and smiled, listening to the Mauritian raw liver theory, to understand and respect a very different approach to what we are used to, we still secretly think to ourselves 'jeez... what a nutcase!'

Just like in this quote of George Calin where anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you a maniac, we tend to judge other parents for their inability to handle a tantrum, their bizarre sleeping rituals or crazy feeding routines.

It was easy for me, to be honest, raising my first child in England. I, having had very little interest in parenting or babies before I actually had one myself, submerged myself happily and entirely, without questioning what was actually right or wrong, into the way things were done in the UK at the time. Besides the division between most of the mums I knew back in the UK between those who followed Gina Ford's routine, or those who believed in a softer, Baby Whisperer approach, there were not many other major differences to get excited about. Most of our babies were weaned on the same foods, no raw liver or other unorthodox products involved, went to bed around 7pm and played with similar toys.

However, living in Doha, I see that there are so many more different approaches to everything I used to do back in the UK! Not all parents put their kids to bed at 7, some small children stay up as late as 11pm, running around the compound while I could already be on my second dream about Clive Owen. Some mums are a lot more earth-motherly than I'd ever met before, with washable nappies and co-sleeping, some are stiffly strict about no-sugar diet, and some don't believe in vaccinations. It is unsurprising, really, how different we all are and why shouldn't we be? In the end, all the babies (hopefully even the one fed on the raw liver ) survive.

It is okay to have such different parenting approaches. In fact, it can be quite useful. Parenting styles are brilliant tools for being able to judge the extent of craziness in some people. You might want to use this tool if you are otherwise unsure or unable to tell if your new acquaintance is cool, alright, a bit wacky in a charming sort of way, or a total nutcase. And we all have our own threshold of how much madness we are happy to deal with. I always try and understand. I honestly do. And sometimes, I even take something back from other approaches, having compared them to mine, and having perhaps realized where I could improve what I am doing. But then there are some cases where I just know, very quickly, that the person is soooo different that she or he lives on a different planet, somewhere in the galaxy far, far away, so far that no translation into any Earth language would ever be possible. In such cases, I just smile and wave. Smile and wave.