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!


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.

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.