Tuesday, 4 December 2018

This too, shall pass.

I always loved that fable. One version claims it originated in Persia, and tells a story of a king who had asked wise men for a ring to make him happy whenever he was feeling sad. The ring they produced for him had simple words: This too, will pass. It however, became a curse too, whenever he was happy. Because it reminded him that all the good times end, too. I also heard before the ring belonged to King Solomon. Whoever it belonged to, it summarises life pretty perfectly, I think.

A good friend will probably have to leave Qatar soon. One of those heartbreaking expat moments.

'Well…that’s just the nature of the expat life, and your particular local circumstances?..' a friend back home pointed out. "You guys knew what it was going to be like when you signed up for it".

That helps. We are well aware of that, thank you. Like you are probably aware that you and everyone you ever loved will die. Doesn’t make it easier does it. Still hurts when it happens, however hard you try to mentally prepare for it.

We have a saying back home…time heals everything. I remember my mother saying that to me every time i was in love and things didn't work out. I thought i was going to kill her for repeating that useless phrase to me over and over again. 'You will recover from this', she would say. Of course the last thing i wanted at the time was to recover from loving someone. 

But is true, nevertheless. We humans, tend to move on. We have to, otherwise we wouldn’t survive as species, would simply die out from a heartbreak epidemic. Everything that once made you stressed or very upset will eventually lose the intensity, the sharpness of the pain will become duller and duller until, hopefully,  if not disappear entirely then at least will lie low and quietly somewhere at the very back of your memory bank. And that is good, of course.

But, just like the philosophical sentiment in Solomon’s ring implies…it is also terribly sad, isn’t it.

Because, it isn’t just the sad moments in life that we have to move on from. Everything good that happens to us also ends. And however hard you cling to the good memories, they will fade too. And you have to move on.

I know that even though right now it feels terrible to imagine that in a few months’ time I might  not have this friend in Doha, won’t be able to pop over for a chat, share a laugh and a glass of  wine,  I will eventually get used to just checking her status updates on Facebook. It happened so many times before, so I know the drill. So yes, of course I know I will be fine. And she will be fine. Everyone will be fine. But that doesn’t mean it is a good thing. It doesn’t mean I am happy to move on. Acceptance isn’t a choice. Acceptance isn’t happiness. I might accept that this friend will join a chain of virtual friends  on Facebook. And I am aware of the nature of expat life. I accept it. But I still hate it.

So what is the solution? you say. Well, there isn’t one. I saw a funny Russian postcard which must be based on Solomon’s ring, only it says "Fuck it! We shall survive this, too"  Perhaps, I should get that engraved on a ring and wear it all the time.

Another option is to be stupid. Stupidity, as I am beginning to realise, is a very easy way to be happy. Stupidity makes you hope for things you otherwise would know are impossible. It makes you naive and enthusiastic. It keeps you hopeful and contented. So yes, either be stupid , or get the ring. Or drink a lot more wine.

So I am going to try all of the above. I am going to tell myself this friend might not leave. It isn’t for sure yet, right? I am also going to tell myself even if she leaves, we might meet again- maybe by chance, who knows right? Maybe on holiday in Spain or something. I am also going to buy a ring and stick the Russian version on it. And I definitely need more wine.

This too, shall pass. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

A beautiful sh**hole.

Scary, isnt it, how fast time goes?

Only yesterday it was Sunday and already almost the weekend again. 

I meant to write about this particular experience I had in Azerbaijan in summer, and now, by the time I actually got round to doing it, it is almost winter. Next thing I know, it will be summer again, and time to maybe visit Azerbaijan... But let me assure you, I am never ever again going back to that resort in Lankaran.

I have always been curious about that region. For two reasons:

  • My first boyfriend was from Lankaran and always went on about how amazing that area was.I was very young, in love, and had fantasies about us lying in a beautiful meadow, like in Twilight.
  • Lankaran is in some funky geographical zone, so I was told, subtropics I think, or something like that. And they have both mountains and the sea. Amazing, basically. Plus, i heard their food was superb.
So, one day, when I saw one of my friend’s photos from a resort in Lerik, and the photos looked so good…I thought great! We will go explore this end of the country now!
The night on the train was as scary as my previous experience, going to Illisu, then, early in the morning, an old car picked us up for what seemed like an eternal journey on very bad roads. My mother felt sad for Lankaran. Why are your roads so bad? She kept questioning the poor driver. The driver had no answers.

On the way, we stopped at some old lady’s shed to pick up hot bread. That is an important detail, because, after the sleepless night on a dodgy train, and a long journey on very bad roads, (and, most importantly, before three days at the resort we expected to be nice…) that moment of eating a whole big flat chorek was arguably, the best thing that happened to us during the entire trip.

The nature around us was, indeed, spectacular. That part of my expectation came true- Lankaran is just stunningly beautiful. We kept going further and further up the mountains and I couldn’t wait to see the place we were booked to stay at. And the name of it…Relax was promising. That was exactly what I was looking for- to relax. 

The first impression as the Relax hotel appeared in between the trees, set in a beautiful valley below, was just great. Mummy, look at their swimming pools!!! My little girl exclaimed, jumping in her seat. 

Little did we know.

The receptionist in the resort sent the first signal of the things to come when he glanced at my children, and swiftly removed the bowl of cheap local candy off the counter. That alone should have been enough to predict the level of service we were to expect. But, I was beyond caring about that. Whatever, I thought, who wants those cheap sweets, let’s just get to our cottage. 

We checked in, paid in advance (I now realize that was a trick to make you stay and not run away), and got escorted to a little buggy to take us up to our house. 

Yet again, we were too tired to notice that the drive up to the cottage took forever. Being new customers, you almost guaranteed to be given the worst accommodation, the one nobody else would want- I know that from experience in Azerbaijan provinces before, I should have known better. 

The house looked nice. Everything around looked nice, too. That was the most peculiar and misleading thing about Relax. It all looked nice. But, once you tried to use anything, nothing worked.
You know, I said to my mother, what this place reminds me of? The old Russian Winnie the Pooh cartoon. When he described the honey as such an odd thing…it is sort of there, but then?.. it is not.

The Relax hotel managed, in just two days, to do the exact opposite of its’ name to all four of us. 

Everything seemed to be there, and looked great…but then, like in some zombie blockbuster, nothing was actually aliveIt was as if things were once working and looked after and then just died. A dead water slide, with green stagnant water at the bottom. A dead bowling alley, with nobody there. A dead games arcade. A dead bar with no customers, and no proper drinks available, despite a display of the pretty bottles on shelves. Occasionally, a member of staff would appear and look at us with doubt, and genuine surprise-Really? You want to play a game of bowling? You mean like...Here? Like,...right now?

The only reason I knew the ducks in the little pond outside the restaurant were real was because I realised that, were they mechanical, they would also be broken and dead.

I felt sad for this beautiful shithole. 

Local customers, oblivious to the level of service they should be expecting, aimlessly strolled around the premises, dressed in their best clothes. At breakfast, chewing on local bread, with over-boiled eggs, I admired the mountains around- so stunning! And felt sad. Poor Lankaran, I thought. Is it true, that because of the Talysh population and their alleged rebellious attitude, the government is not investing in your roads or tourism? Is it true that despite this stunning natural beauty, you are way behind every other region in the country- poor, abandoned, forgotten for political reasons?
Or is it simply that your people just don’t actually care? 

Because, people in Lankaran seemed that tiny bit different

I was trying to remember if my first boyfriend was such a smooth liar. Because one bizarre, yet common characteristics I noticed in the resort was that they all lied. Will you please send someone to fix this shower as it lets all the water out and the whole bathroom is flooded? Of course! This afternoon! 

Will you please move us to another cottage, as my mother can’t possibly walk so much every day that her new Fitbit keeps sending her fireworks for reaching the recommended daily steps every couple of hours? Sure, of course! We will move you tomorrow morning! 

Why do you lie? I asked the pool staff when they, for the second time, advised me that the aqua park was going to re-open soon. The young local guys laughed.

Maybe, it was not a lie. Maybe, just like I heard about Japanese people, the Lerik guys just don’t like to say no to your face. So they pretend they will do something, just to be polite. In the end, that resort somehow not only doesn’t relax you but makes you want to kill them all, slowly and painfully, and burn the place down. Instead, you pack your bags, pay for a private car even though you had train booked in two more days, and get the f**k out of there. Please mummy, my big daughter said, I just want to go back to Baku. 

So….Goodbye, Relax, you gorgeous shithole. I am sorry. It is not you, it is me. And, like every time someone says it, you know I lied. It is you.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

As if it never happened.

A friend of mine was telling me she joined Fitness First. Wow, I said, that was my favourite gym when I lived in London! Years ago, it was just a few minutes away from the office, and I used to sneak out at lunch break for a quick class. Maybe I should shake up my workout routine a little, get rid of my annoying Filipino personal trainer who keeps asking me if I fancy Brad Pitt, and join that gym for a change?

I got even more excited when she said it was in Villagio. So close, easy to get to…

Where exactly in Villagio is it then? I asked enthusiastically. She explained but then added that walking up and down those corridors made her feel a little uneasy. It is the same feeling, she said…as if you walking through that corridor. I didn’t need to ask what corridor. I was also here, in Doha, back in 2012. 

For me, the most painful image, the one that will forever be imprinted in my mind is a particular photo of a fireman carrying out a dead toddler in his arms. Those little feet in short socks. I remember feeling paralyzed by that image, and then telling myself that maybe? the child in the photo wasn’t dead. Maybe just unconscious. But deep inside, my mind already knew. She is dead, it replied, mercilessly. Of course, she was dead. 

And all the memories flooded right back in. All that horror, the smoke, the twitter feed going manic, awful, unimaginable gossip-which later turned out to be true; the dead children who looked like they were just asleep…the endless stories of all those poor families who were all friends of the friends of the friends…

We live in a very cold, cruel world and you have to somehow try and distance yourself emotionally from getting too affected by every tragedy you hear about or see online. There is too much nasty stuff going on every day in this world. So much that images get more and more graphic as the media tries to break through our compassion fatigue. I never know what might suddenly get through my own protective filter and affect me on some deep level. But the Villagio fire was- still is- one of those special tragedies that got to me. The tragedy I cried over. That, and Maddeleine Maccan

That night, I had a dream. I joined the Fitness First gym and was walking around the facilities. Big open spaces, lots of great equipment. And then, the gym instructor showed me the nursery part. Look she said, we also have an arrangement for you to leave your babies here, while you work out. She led me down a narrow corridor into small stuffy rooms with low ceilings, and there were children sleeping in plastic cots, the ones you can see in hospital baby units… all very young, all asleep. Some cots had two in them. I kept walking from room to room and there were children sleeping everywhere. I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep again.
A friend of mine who lost a son to cancer, once explained to me that one of the hardest things for her was that people expected her to move on. Everyone is very sympathetic, she said, when it just happens. Everyone wants to help. People visit you, bring you food and flowers, people call you , cry with you. But then time passes and they move on and they expect that at some point- preferably soon, you will move on too. And become your old self, as if nothing happened.
But of course, you never do. 

And so life goes on, business as usual… and now, just over six years after that awful, unspeakable, criminal tragedy where 19 lives got lost… Most of us, of course, moved on. We walk around Villagio, eat and drink coffee, laugh and buy groceries and clothes, exercise on shiny new equipment. As if nothing ever happened.  It is something nobody really talks about anymore, a friend of mine said. The topic is unmentionable. There isn’t even a plaque in Villagio, to commemorate the lives lost. But, the reality is…A plaque or no plaque, something like that does not just go away.  And every now and then, a narrow corridor or a sleeping child in someone’s arms, or whatever that unexpected, unrelated image might be, will trigger the pain and the horror that we all stored safely away under many mental locks inside our busy minds.
It did happen.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Simple truths about living in an expat compound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody fakes. 

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

Everyone gossips. 

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

Miscommunication and misunderstandings happen. Often. 

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

People see everything through their own prism. 

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

Final point.

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

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

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

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

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

the end. 


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Thailand Blog! About elephants and rats and Thai ladies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now…back to the rest of it. 

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

Nope. None of that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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