Thursday, December 29, 2011

Where Am I?: City Living

Where Am I?: City Living: I recently got back from a rather amazing trip to Istanbul and it got me thinking about the aspects of a city that make it appealing. I have...

City Living

I recently got back from a rather amazing trip to Istanbul and it got me thinking about the aspects of a city that make it appealing. I have had the good fortune to see a number of interesting places all over the world and I would have to say my favourite three metropolises have been Edinburgh, Scotland; Prague, Czech Republic; and the aforementioned Istanbul in Turkey. I also think Vancouver is a fantastic city but I disqualified it as it is basically my hometown. (I am going to discount Odessa, Ukraine as well as a hometown because my Ukrainian friends will freak out if they are not included, but everyone should know that Odessa has the second best Opera house in the world)
I boiled the essence of a remarkable city down to three components:
1) It's all about the levels - the topography of the city must be varied. There should be some hills and some valleys. When the city is flat you can't appreciate the scope, one of the best parts of city life is thinking about the mass of humanity that has come together to share a small patch of earth.
Edinburgh, Prague, and Istanbul all have these amazing hills in the city where you get amazing sight lines and on the flip side when you are at the bottom looking up you get a real sense of awe.
2)Water - there needs to be some water to look at. There is something magical about watching waves crash against the shore or watching it flow along the banks with the cityscape as a backdrop. I could spend all day just sitting near a body of water watching the waves and the people around it is so relaxing.
3) Getting Around - there needs to be a way to get from point A to point B without wanting to gouge your own eye out with a spoon. Istanbul and Prague have pretty bad ass public transportation systems which get you where you need to be although 24 hour systems would be much appreciated by those who can't finish thier drinking by midnight. Edinburgh is so small that you can easily walk from anywhere to anywhere with the added bonus of finding little hidden pubs to stop off for a pint or two or three...
Bonus Round - having hundreds or thousands of years of history is a huge bonus. Standing on the same spot where a king, prince, or knight stood at some point in the past is an exhilarating feeling (at least if you are a history geek like myself). 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Old Age New Beginnings

I recently turned 30 which has symbolic value probably based upon its roundness. Like most birthdays it's a time to reflect upon the past and make plans for the future. Most people ask if I feel older and I can't say the turning has made me feel older but over the past year I do feel a certain new maturity and I can say at one point in the last year I did truly feel elderly.
I was getting ready for work and I tried to pick something up, nothing terribly heavy but it may as well have been a small elephant for when I bent over and tried to lift (not with the legs but with the back which of course means trouble). I felt something pop in my lower back and crumpled to the floor like that awful woman from the "I've fallen and can't get up commercials" I struggled my way to bed and was incapacitated for the next 2 days. Hobbling around and relying on the kindness of friends to come and shop and cook for me. I had never felt so old than over the course of those two weeks crouching over and shuffling my feet trying to get to work.
More generally I feel a shift in terms of my adulthood, I think people go through life stages childhood, teenage years, young adulthood, and so on. I feel like I have passed from young adulthood those first years of true independence and the ability to fulfill our selfish desires and moved into a period where responsibility and empathy for others takes on a greater role.
As a birthday gift to myself and as a happy coincidence my visa in Saudi Arabia recently expired so I treated myself to a visa run to Istanbul for a few days while I wait for my employment situation to be resolved. I had been to Turkey two years ago and enjoyed my time immensely so I was more than happy to return. After a few months in Riyadh, Istanbul is a veritable oasis. I am struck by the immense differences of these two leading Muslim countries. Turkey is officially a secular country filled with Muslims  religion is a private matter for each individual to concern themselves with.  The city is littered with some of the most spectacular mosques in the world that have housed believers for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years and the call to prayer is called 5 times per day  but life does not stop for the religion those individuals who wish to pray can pray and the rest of us can continue to eat and shop and enjoy the sights of the city. This seems to strike the right balance to me as opposed to the Kingdom's strict enforcement of all things religious. I will be back in Saudi in a few days albeit in a new city which will hopefully lead to better results.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Giving Thanks

I have not celebrated a Canadian Thanksgiving since I left six years ago; nearly every year I intend to go out and do the necessary shopping and find all the ingredients to make a big feast for my friends and every year I forget when our Thanksgiving is. Maybe because I don't see the constant advertisements for it on TV or the decorations in all the stores but for one reason or another it slips my mind and the year passes without any giving of thanks.  However, in the past 4 years on 2 occasions my American brethren have invited me to their version of Thanksgiving; of course theirs is quite strange coming late in November and on a Thursday but I digress.  The first US Thanksgiving I went to abroad was in Prague with my fellow TEFLers and it was a truly fantastic night for me. Adam both cooked his amazing creamy, bacon, chicken balls and provided the entertainment with a very impressive martial arts display, Justin provided some amazing dishes, my lovely roommate Karen impressed all with her drinking abilities (Irish car bombs), and Danielle was able to serenade us with her shockingly good Cher impression. It was a great evening for me and something to look back on with fondness.
Last night was my second American Turkey Day and while it didn't live up to the first it was still the best night I have had in the kingdom. It was nice to be surrounded by a good group of people who have all come together from all the place to get together and share stories while sharing a meal. On days like that it's easy to let the day to day problems and headaches melt away. Of course we miss our family and friends back home and the places we have left behind but with a new group of friends around us we somehow maintain our connection to the past.
I would like to thank everyone who has helped me out over the past year, which has been rather difficult and life-changing, thanks to all those that read the blog and offer their support, and to all those that keep in touch and remind me how lucky I am.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


A few observations from my first 10 weeks in the Kingdom:
-there are quite a few little photo studios in Riyadh and it is generally frowned upon for people to display pictures of themselves however, apparently it is OK to have pictures of the king and other members of the royal family plastered all over the place. I can't really imagine going into a studio to get a portrait done and looking around to see Stephen Harper in a number of different poses.
-Alcohol is banned but there are more varieties of non-alcoholic beer on sale here than I have ever seen before; pomegranate near beer? mango 0% beer? Also no real bacon as the pig is a dirty, dirty animal but please enjoy this club sandwich made with beef bacon. No if it didn't come from a pig it is not bacon.
-A woman was recently caught driving and was sentenced to 10 lashes the king commuted the sentence making him look very progressive, not sure why they don't just outlaw the lashing of women that might be a bit more progressive
-Pretty sure I walked by some guy parked on the side of the road with his pants down rubbing one out, not sure that was necessary at 4 in the afternoon

And some comments from my students who are generally a good group of kids but:
On Saddam Hussein:
Student A: I have to say I liked Saddam because he at least attacked Israel
Student B: But he also attacked Saudi Arabia
Student A: Yeah that was bad, but still
On Crime in Riyadh:
I don't want to sound racist but there are some black areas in the shouldn't go there
On Men Crying:
Teacher: Why was the guy crying?
Student: Cuz he's gay
On Evolution:
My grandparents weren't monkeys
On Islam:
Student A: If being a Muslim didn't make me feel good inside I would quit being a Muslim
Student B: If you quit being a Muslim we'd have to kill you
(unfortunately true as any Muslim who renounces his faith should be executed)
On Steve Jobs:
Steve Jobs was a really great man, even though he wasn't a Muslim
On the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him:
He was the greatest person ever there were a lot of haters but he won in the end
On Dating and Marriage:
In the west you can have like 10 girlfriends in your life and here we can have 4 wives so it's basically the same thing

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Happy Medium

Happiness and contentment are the same for me and I basically spend my waking hours searching for them usually without much success. This is not to say I am depressed or a perennial sad-sack but I can't say that my feelings of genuine happiness last for very long. This is of course at odds with our expectations from childhood and the constant media barrage informing us that we can be happy all the time, we deserve to be happy all the time. And of course when we are not happy at all times and we see all those happy people on TV living those wonderful fulfilling lives we look at ourselves and think 'What did I do wrong? Why aren't I that happy?' Well, unfortunately I believe that we have been lied to by our parents, teachers, and Hollywood; even if you work hard, study hard, do all the right things happiness is not going to be your constant companion. Denis Leary has a great bit about people who complain about not being happy, 'You're not happy? Join the fucking club pal...happiness comes in small doses, it's a cigarette, or chocolate chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm, that's it. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, go to sleep and go to work the next day, end of fucking story.' So when I have those moments when I think why am I not floating on cloud 9 I take a moment and think about the things I've accomplished, the things I've seen, the people I've met and the things I can still do with my life and it generally puts a little hop in my step and I can once more step into the breach.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I mentioned previously that Saudi Arabia has a variety of foreign compounds. When I hear the word compound I immediately think of those crazy religious groups in the US that segregate themselves from society. The compounds here are not quite the same they are place to live if you've got the money. Unfortunately my housing allowance does not quite cover such extravagance, poor me.  Generally you can not just walk into a compound and hang out there, you need an invitation from someone living inside. There are some exceptions as one compound will allow you to visit there cafe and restaurant. The compounds are spread out throughout Riyadh the one I have been to is near the downtown. It is completely surrounded by 10 ft walls topped by barbed wire. You enter through a small door at the side where two very official looking men sit in uniforms in exchange for your passport you are given a laminated visitor card. After passing through a second set of doors you are greeted by a guard sitting in a pillbox with 50 caliber machine-gun.  All of this makes one feel very welcome. After the security checkpoint things improve markedly there is a park and sports area. Families walk around, women can wear western clothing; it's a bizarre little community within Riyadh - strange only it's normalcy. There is a city ordinance in Riyadh that there be no water-pipes in public spaces, which is extremely strange because there are plenty of shops selling pipes and paraphernalia, I suppose it is something like the situation in Vancouver and marijuana technically illegal but plenty of places selling the necessary equipment. Regardless, the foreign compounds are somehow exempt from the water-pipe law and it is one of the places you can go and relax, smoke flavoured tobacco and have a coffee while chatting with friends. Sometimes there are even women inside! But the ratio is usually not very favourable last time there were two ladies and about 50 gentlemen.   

Friday, November 4, 2011

It's the 1920s

Outside of being known for Islam and oil the one other thing people know Saudi Arabia for is the prohibition of alcohol.  In Islam alcohol is haraam and Saudi Arabia styles itself as the defender of the faith so while most Muslim countries permit drinking and leave it to the individual to decide whether or not to sin, in the Kingdom it is officially outlawed. It is an extremely strange sensation, especially after Ukraine, to live in a place with no beer, wine, or spirits. It is only so weird because the locals don't realize how strange it is and it's easy to understand why they don't notice the lack of alcohol.  There are no commercials advertising beer, none of the local soccer clubs are sponsored by a brewery, celebrations aren't marked by the clinking of champagne glasses. So the only people to worry about the lack of alcohol are the expats and where there is demand supply will eventually surface.

Last week I went to my first speakeasy, it was nothing like those seen in the movies.  It was on a foreign compound (I will talk about compounds later) in their restaurant.  This restaurant was simply sad. Ostensibly an Indian restaurant it looked like it hadn't been renovated in about 30 years and the formal attire of the waiters, bow ties and dinner jackets, did not quite mesh. I went with a friend to this little oasis in our dry country and besides there was one other couple eating dessert. We would not be deterred my friend was rather anxious to have a beverage. In this nearly empty, dirty, little restaurant we had to maintain the air of secrecy; asking the waiter for two 'special cokes' he nodded and eventually returned with two red wines not in glasses but in coffee mugs so that no one else could see what we were drinking.  It was fairly surreal and rather disappointing I had been expecting a more festive atmosphere, more people, more talking, but instead we found a refuge for people desperate for a drink. In the end I didn't even drink my drink giving it to my friend instead. I was told I didn't miss much in all likely this vintage of wine was probably just boxed grape juice allowed to ferment in a bucket or something.

As there is little to do here people love to gossip and the current rumour is that some of the teachers are developing their own stills at home. With all their free time and their extra cash some are taking it fairly seriously adding flavourings and triple distilling. Brewing and distilling are a little cottage industry spurred by boredom and I think the natural inclination of people doing things they have been told not to do. Like I said previously it's strange to not have alcohol constantly being shoved down your throat by advertisers and friends alike I can't say I am in favour of prohibition but I can't say I'm completely against either.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Animal Planet

When I first moved to Odessa the thing that struck me almost immediately was the number of stray dogs.  We arrived by train and there was like 6 dogs just chilling at the station. Went for a walk in the evening and there was a literal pack of stray dogs wandering the boulevard. For me it was a bit of a shock as I am not a dog lover at the best of times but having a dozen scraggly strays barking at you is not pleasant.  I was also surprised at the debate which ranged over the strays, not how best to solve the problem of packs of wild dogs roaming the streets but whether or not it truly was a problem. I couldn't understand this and I was dumbfounded that anyone could look at mad mangy mongrels loping around as a positive then I would see sweet little old ladies patiently tossing scraps of meat and bits of bread to these mutts.  My students couldn't understand my disbelief ; for the most part they were standing in solidarity with the pooches, apparently these dogs were public pets, an artifact of the communist period perhaps where everyone shared in everything.

Saudi Arabia is quite the opposite. The dog is little loved here; it is commonly known that the pig is haraam (prohibited by the word of God) as apparently Porky is inherently dirty.  While the dog is not officially on the list as sinful it is looked at by many as being a rather filthy little beast.  This means no mutts roaming the streets as well as no dogs on leashes with owners trailing behind carrying their mess. In general there is a lack of animals here very occasionally I will see a stray cat rooting around in the garbage but, the cats are not normal alley cats they are small with very little fur. No squirrels or any other rodents to speak of either.  It was 4 weeks before I saw a bird. I guess the heat and lack of water keeps them away but it is a little disconcerting to be living in a place where nature dare not enter.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Not all the Saudis fault

Suffice it to say the past 8 weeks here in Riyadh have not been ideal. I was fully aware of some of the difficulties to be expected and in those things I have generally managed alright.  I knew there was no alcohol in the Kingdom and I was worried a little bit about this as 4 years in Ukraine had led to a certain level of imbibing which was probably a little unhealthy but since I've arrived here no real desire for a drink. I think it's because we aren't inundated with ads everywhere and it isn't in any of the shops and there are no bars it's completely out of sight out of mind. Women was another area where I knew the situation beforehand and it hasn't been a problem st least so far I guess we are only 8 weeks in I suppose it could be a different story after 18 weeks.  With regards to females it's not the amorous part I am missing it's the little conversations with random women. There are no waitresses acting a little flirty trying to get a tip, no lady asking for directions, no idle chatter in the supermarket.  Bacon has been replaced by Fakon (Bacon made from beef, no it is not the same I try to avoid it at all costs).  So these potential trouble spots have been fairly easily managed; it's not a perfect situation but I can do without those things. Even my students have been better than I expected, I mean they are pretty horrible students, but they are good kids.  One student an 18 year old young man has yet to bring a pen or paper to a lesson yet but for the past two weeks he has managed to bring his textbooks, baby steps, we are taking baby steps. Despite this, he makes me laugh with his ridiculous comments so the classroom is generally not the war zone I had been expecting.

The majority of my frustration is borne from my fellow teachers. One thing I had been really looking forward to was being surrounded by a collection of like-minded professionals and in this I have been let down.  Working in Odessa 99% of the native speaking English teachers were great to talk to there just wasn't that many of them. When I did my teacher training my fellow trainees were one of the best groups of people I had ever had the chance to work with.  I assumed coming here with 200 other teachers that the workplace environment and corresponding social life would be fantastic and it hasn't been. There are some teachers who have entered the profession late in life and are working here only as a means to pad their retirement a sentiment I can appreciate but this group tend to be some of the most negative soul-sucking complainers I have ever come across, the literally suck the joy out of everything they come near. A great part of this job for me, probably the best part, is the travelling and meeting new people and getting to know a new culture. However, a large segment of the teachers here seem to despise all the people and places they have taught in. Lunchtime conversations inevitably turn to how awful the Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Saudis, or whoever are. I do enjoy picking apart the idiosyncrasies of different locales but the bitterness expressed by some stuns me - why are you teaching? The money is not that good in this profession, go home get a real job.

Of course I am generalizing there are a number of really good teachers here who I enjoy hanging out with and who have not been beaten down by their chosen profession.  Anyways I am sure I will find my niche and all will be well once I settle in a little bit more.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's Raining Men

Obviously Saudi Arabia is radically different from most countries but it's the little things that sort of stick in the back of your mind.  One of the most difficult things to get used to so far is the weekends here.  They are Thursdays and Fridays, the work week starts every Saturday morning for me and it blows my mind every week. In Islam Friday is the holy day when everyone should go to mosque and pray and listen to a short sermon much like Christianity's Sunday, they take it a bit more seriously than most Christians though.
But perhaps a more subtle difference I have noticed is the lack of females working especially in those professions where females generally dominate. Cashiers - men, sanitation workers - men, clothing stores - men, fast food employees - men, lingerie stores all staffed by men.  Women have been removed from the workforce to a large extent.  Women are allowed to work but only in places where they will only be dealing with other women. Banks have a male section and a female and never the twain shall meet.  It is surprisingly odd to watch a woman in her abaya (black robe) shopping and dealing with the male clerk and looking and around and seeing a sea of beards and mustaches manning the cash registers.
Hope is on the way I was told today. Medical studies have been integrated and so far the entire civilization has not collapsed; rumours are swirling that within the next 5-10 years the other disciplines could be integrated as well and then it would be easy to imagine a time when I can go to the grocery store and have my   eggs, milk, and kunafa rung up by a member of the opposite sex.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sometimes I feel like a woman

Riyadh is not known for its social life even within Saudi Arabia it is infamous for its conservatism and lack of extracurricular activities.  The locals say its because the imams (religious leaders) hold sway here and that free time is better spent studying the Koran than out doing something which may lead to something unIslamic.  There are no cinemas here or theaters, music in public is not condoned, of course there are no pubs or bars to be found as alcohol is a no-no.  Shisha, or water-pipe, is not permitted in Riyadh though other cities allow it.  There are coffee shops which serve as something reminiscent of a pub as the locals gather round to watch soccer on big screens while they sip tea and coffee. Apparently there are bowling alleys and pool halls though I have yet to spot either in my time here.  All in all it is pretty slim pickings for evenings and weekends except one activity that all people can partake!
There are more malls here than in any other place I have been there are two very large malls within 100 meters of one another with a third smaller one just across the road.  They are open late and they are generally packed with people of all ages.  So far I have been here 7 weeks and every single weekend I have gone to one shopping center or another.  I have fallen under the advertisers spell as I continue to convince myself that I need new things, must have something new.  Mostly this desire comes out of my sheer boredom; going to the mall is an easy way to kill 2 or 3 hours but going without buying something seems like a waste of time so I continue to get things I don't really need. For the first time in quite awhile I have a bit of disposable income and I can afford to waste a bit of cash on the unnecessary things in life but it does rather defeat the purpose of coming here to save money.
I blame it on the rather shrewd Saudi government they have created the world's first economy centered on boredom.  They attract foreigners with promises of high-paying jobs tax-free and then they remove all the elements of fun thus leading those foreigners to go shopping spending their hard earned money back into the local market it's brilliant.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Only 316 Days Left!

So this is the third attempt I have made at maintaining a blog supposedly it's the charm.  What I really think will help me maintain this blog will be the fact I am in Saudi Arabia and the social life is less than bustling.  It's been 7 weeks and so far I have been out on the weekend the same drink tea.  Not quite the city that never sleeps.
I am an English teacher which generally gives me the opportunity to meet and interact with lots of individuals and hear their stories and Riyadh has been no different. I teach university students and the difference between my expectations, the administration's warnings and the reality of what these kids are thinking and saying has been huge.  Of course we think of the Kingdom as a supremely conservative place and officially it is no alcohol, no women uncovered, everything closed for prayer, and of course the worst part of it all NO BACON! The management at the university warned us not to speak about religion, politics, or the opposite sex with these impressionable youths.  And what do these young want to discuss - religion, politics, women, and of course alcohol. It could be a long year.