Sunday, October 14, 2012

Prague first impressions

So I have been in Prague now for three weeks and I suppose I should share some of my thoughts on living and working in the Czech capital. It is one of the most picturesque cities in the world (I should probably start taking pictures) and I have been very lucky so far to have had great students. I am teaching adults and mostly those who are managers and the like so our lessons are quite interesting. At the moment I only have 1-1 lessons which has its pros and cons but at the moment it's quite good as the students are both engaging and engaged in the lessons. I don't work in the school per se as I work in-company and travel mainly from office to office on public transport.
Now this would come down as one of the negatives of work life here, public transportation in Prague is really great and it doesn't take too long to get anywhere in the city but I find I spend as much time on the metro as I do teaching which is slightly dispiriting. The other negative would of course be the salary coming from Saudi Arabia it is a bit of a shock to take home less than half of what I was making there and especially considering that I am actually teaching as opposed to babysitting but c'est la vie.
My other pet peeve is the tourists. They are everywhere here, following their guides with the umbrellas, they monopolize the most beautiful areas of Prague as they trudge through the central squares looking up at the building while grinding foot traffic to a near standstill. Locals avoid these areas at all costs because everyone knows the tourists will just get in the way, as well as drive up prices at the bars and restaurants. So that is a rather slight annoyance and with the winter coming I suppose there should finally be a little bit of peace and quiet in my beautiful new city.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Moving On

Well it's been a ridiculously long time since my last post but it's been a ridiculously busy summer. I left Saudi in July fully expecting to return to the Kingdom at the beginning of September to a fantastic new job. Well, Saudi has a way of laying waste to even the best of plans but suffice it to say I will not be returning to the desert at this time.
Over my extended summer vacation I spent an amazing time crossing Eastern and Central Europe. Saw some old friends and colleagues which was truly fantastic and satisfying in many ways. I also had the good fortune to meet lots of interesting new people and saw some amazing things as well.
Spent some time in Canada with the family and went to a wedding which was extremely memorable except for the parts which I don't remember and according to witnesses I probably don't want to remember.
Since then I have returned to Europe having a few days of rest and relaxation before finally after 3 months re-entering the workforce as an English teacher. I will be spending the next 10 months or so in Prague and am starting to get really excited about it. So unfortunately no more posts about the eccentricities of the Saudi people and instead a year of posts about Prague and its inhabitants. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Final Countdown

So it's been awhile since my last post as not too much has happened here. One gets used to the day to day and those things that at first seemed unusual and remarkable fade into the background and just get accepted for what they are.
Thoughts at work have shifted to next year and the annual uncertainty as to what will happen when contracts end. Who's going where and for what money. The rumour mill spins into overdrive as speculation is taken as fact and opinions are regarded as the gospel. I am luckily unaffected, as at this point in time have taken a new position for the coming year and I can spend my time dreaming about my summer vacation.
I have 13 more days here in the kingdom until my whirlwind tour of Europe begins. Six countries in six weeks, looking forward to seeing familiar faces and places with a healthy dose of new experiences and adventures. I am not sure if it's possible for the reality to live up to the fantasy I have already crafted but even if my trip is half as good as what my mind has envisioned I will be more than happy.
I can already taste the bacon omelet and an Irish coffee followed by copious amounts of beautiful blonde, amber, and dark beers.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


I spend a lot of my time on the blog complaining about life and work here in Saudi Arabia but recently I actually had a lovely time out. A colleague and I recently attended a Quiz Night organized monthly by a group of expats here in Jeddah. It was held on a compound next to the pool, there was a decent little sound system, and everyone brought some snacks a drinks. As we were on a compound free from the prying eyes of the Kingdom's religious police some homemade, adult beverages were passed around.
My friend and I were paired with an older couple who have somehow managed to live here in Saudi for 19 years. He has good job working for a white goods company and she was able to be a stay-at-home mom. They were a bit of an odd couple but I think it's normal for most expats to be slightly off. My first impression of him was that he was perhaps in the closet and the wife had all the markings of a bonafide boozer. They were however good fun and were very active in the expat community organizing two separate drama groups and generally having something going on every weekend.
The quiz itself was fun enough we came away as champions and I would like to think I was no small part in the victory (Q: Which country has the longest coastline in the world A: Canada!) and we won the top prize of a box of chocolates each.
Afterwards we got to meet some of the others, mostly Brits but also a couple of South Africans and we generally had a good time, the homemade rum was particularly good. While we were sitting there chatting, eating, and drinking next to a pool while some lovely music played in the background I thought what a little slice of paradise I had found. Nice weather, good people, a person could build a life around that. However, as the witching hour approached and we made our exit our literal and figurative oasis was replaced with the literal and figurative desert that is the Kingdom. Oh well, there is always next month's get together.   

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What can we expect?

Unfortunately, I spend most of this blog complaining about the students and general environment of Saudi Arabia which does deserve the ridicule it receives. However, a few episodes yesterday did show perhaps we as teachers are not completely blameless.
Most of the teachers live in a single apartment complex and we trudge off to work together taking a company provided mini-bus. As can be expected people tend to sit in the same place and with the same people from day to day with some slight variations as there are a few seats which are less comfortable the last people on the bus are forced to sit there. Yesterday, a recently hired teacher was apparently unaware that certain other teachers believe they have a birthright to their particular seats. So while there were some lovely seats still available and roughly a quarter of the teachers still waiting to get on the bus this teacher decided to throw a tantrum and complained bitterly that his seat had been stolen, it was his seat, he sits there EVERYDAY! Impressively the new teacher didn't back down and remained in his claimed territory, a victory for egalitarianism then. As those teachers both inside and outside grew impatient and the catcalls for the teacher to sit down he finally gave up on HIS seat and sat elsewhere.
I am not immune to acts of immaturity either as it was a Wednesday (the last day of the work week) I had very little enthusiasm for teaching my final hour so I struck a deal with my students they could leave and I would mark them present as long as they remained quiet in the halls and didn't rat me out to the administration. When I triumphantly returned to my office looking to bask in an extra hour of free time I saw a team leader was already in the office speaking to a colleague I beat a hasty retreat and hid in the bathroom until he had moved along.
Now I am not sure how much of our own personal failings, unseriousness, and general immaturity rubs off on our students. Personally I don't see the connection between my letting students go early and another student thinking it's appropriate to start singing in Arabic while we are doing a reading lesson but perhaps he has just decided to let his inner-child to come more often than I.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Slow Week

Not much happening here, just the routine but last week something a little different happened and got me to thinking. I have never been one to be star struck or to chase down autographs of celebrities and I think I have only seen a couple of rock stars and professional athletes in my life. However, for some reason I have now met and shaken hands with two billionaires.
The first one was in 2007 when I met George Soros who is the patron of Central European University, my alma mater. I did not know much about the man before I studied there and I believed his vision for CEU was a generally positive one. A place where students from all over the world, particularly those coming out of the soviet sphere, could interact and study in an open challenging environment. I later found Mr. Soros has a somewhat controversial past and remains a lightning rod for controversy. He made his fortune in the financial sector and some believe much of his wealth was ill-got. He has recently been attacked by Glen Beck as a liberal puppet-master orchestrating the downfall of the US. I am in no position to comment on any of this, he seemed like a nice old man when I crossed dais and shook his hand.
Last week I was called in to work as our college had some very special VIPs coming to tour the institute. As I am a linchpin of the entire operation it was necessary I attend, or it could be because I am the whitest of the foreign teachers. I like to believe it was the former.
We arrived to find that the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Education, and a special adviser to the king would be coming to inspect our little facility. Also in attendance was the president of a large company which is the largest sponsor of the college, Bakr Bin Laden of the Bin Laden Group. He is Osama's brother and a pretty big deal in Saudi Arabia. One thing that impressed me about him was despite his age, he's quite old, he drove himself to the college. Also, his Mercedes is ridiculously nice. Again because of his brother and the general issues surrounding the politics and religiosity in the Kingdom Bakr is a somewhat controversial figure. I cannot comment on this as I met him for about 3 seconds.
Other than a chance to name drop these episodes made me think of the difficulties of being in a position of power and wealth. Perhaps it's impossible to climb to the top of a particular mountain without bending the rules and stepping on and over others. Or perhaps it's the jealousies of others that cast these shadows on the high and mighty. I remember sitting at a bar once and wealthy man bought a round for everyone at the bar and as soon as he left the knives came out. So when I finally ascend into the upper echelons of power and influence please try to keep your envy in check. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Agony and the Ecstasy...and the Agony

A colleague was taking his spring break a little early so he invited me round last night for some tea and it turned into a bit of a late night. Didn't make it to bed until about 1AM and I knew that 5.30 wake up call was going to be a major burden. Somehow I managed to drag myself out of bed at the crack of dawn and slowly prepared myself for the day ahead. I trudged downstairs to join my fellow proles on our journey to work when lo a beautiful message was given to us, first in whispers, then with greater confidence as the information was confirmed: No Work! A sandstorm had caused all schools, colleges, and universities to be closed. My burden lifted I returned to my room with a song in my heart and rediscovered the sweet embrace of my bed.
The perfect antidote to a hectic week; an unexpected day off to recuperate. Alas, it was not to be an hour later the shrieking wail of the telephone ripped me from my dreams and I entered the living nightmare of being called back to work.
All the teachers were asked to get on the bus and come to work. Our lovely students had received an SMS last night informing them not to attend classes as a result, perhaps they received a second telling them to come but as you can imagine they decided to listen to the former and ignore the latter. So, us teachers are in the unenviable position of coming to an empty school and braving the elements for no discernible reason. There's a lesson in there somewhere but I am not sure what it is.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

She's nice but...

Today was exam day which is one of my favourite days of all! Two hours of review in the morning which means I get to sit at my desk and catch up on emails and do a little reading while panicked students attempt to cram mountains of vocabulary into somewhat underdeveloped brains.
Exam day also brings a great deal of mirth in terms of student mistakes in their 'creative' answers. For example a student was asked to complete the sentence I live they wrote I live water we also got I don't like to father in the car  as well as Jeddah butter good Riyadh. However, these students do create magic sometimes and one of them wrote something that really made me think, this Socratic fellow came up with this when completing the sentence She's nice but:
She's nice but, she isn't
This young man whose experience with the opposite sex is quite limited by the culture in which he lives still managed to get at the essence of the fairer sex She's nice but she isn't.
I think most of us would have answered the question differently and approached the whole task with a different frame of mind perhaps She's nice but she smells funny, She's nice but a bit overweight, perhaps a comparison She's nice but her friend is nicer, She's nice but I like her sister more. An almost infinite list of possibilities emerges and therein lies the problem with teaching a language. All the best laid plans of us teachers to force students to say what we want them to say are thrown off by the immensity of options open to speakers of the language. How were we teachers and exam crafters to know that this young man would have, in his short time on this planet, been hoodwinked by a cunning vixen who convinced this unsuspecting lad that she was nice when she wasn't.
She's nice but she isn't
A difficult lesson to be learned by one so young I hope the check mark I placed on his exam is some small consolation for the hurt that woman in fact is not nice inflicted upon him.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


A student called me a 'Fucking asshole!' last week, this was rather surprising as I haven't been sworn at in anger in quite some time, I would say at least 7 or 8 years so to be insulted by an 18 year-old with attitude came as a bit of a shock. The following day when he came to class and acted as if nothing had happened was also a bit surprising and when I informed him he was not going to be attending any lessons which I was teaching he told me, 'You don't kick me out; I kick you out.' As it turns out I did in fact kick him out and I wrote my report and the administrators wrung their hands and promised that this would not stand. A few days later I saw this student had been transferred to another class and while I only saw him and didn't speak to him he didn't seem all that contrite, in fact, he maintained that same cocksure disposition as before and it struck me then that I am not part of an educational institution; I am involved in an incredibly inefficient welfare scheme.

As you may have noticed on the news and through other forms of media that the Middle East and North Africa is experiencing a wee bit of a distraction and it is generally being led by youths dissatisfied with the status quo. Understandably the powers that be, who have managed to hold on to power, are somewhat concerned with these developments and as such are taking measures to keep their particular systems running. Qatar last year increased the pay of their military and police personnel by 100%, the leaders of Dubai and Abu Dhabi increased salaries for different sectors of the economy. In the Kingdom there are a number of technical colleges and universities, mine being one of them, that pay their students to attend. In theory these young minds are to help the Saudization of the economy but in reality I believe they are here to keep them off the streets. These so-called students lack any of the requisite skills to be successful but as long as they are in the classroom shouting at each other and being bored to tears by uninspired teachers, like myself, they aren't out throwing rocks and torching cars. I guess it makes sense but for me being in the middle of this charade it does make for a number of long days. But on the bright side I do get to be a well compensated babysitter. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mo' Studnets, Mo' Problems

So I have moved to Jeddah from Riyadh and it's been about a little over a month. Jeddah is much nicer then Riyadh, a little more relaxed, great weather, nice restaurants, the sea, all good. Of course moving to a new city meant moving to a new school. I went from the Preparatory Year at one of the Kingdom's top universities to a recently created public-private technical college. The college was created like most things with the best of intentions; to give middle and lower class Saudis the chance to learn a trade that could provide them gainful employment in the petro-chemical or construction industry. All to the good. Being the optimistic type that I am I assumed these young Saudi men would relish the chance to study hard and get themselves a good job. Not only is the college free they are all paid a stipend to attend this institution of higher learning.

Unfortunately, I have been rather disappointed with the quality of the students. I was lucky enough to be given the evening shift working from 3-10 each evening. All the students that study in the evening have something in common, they all failed their courses in the first semester, they are the repeaters. They get to take the first three levels of English a second time. You might imagine that doing the EXACT same course with the EXACT same books would be fairly easy. This is what I imagined unfortunately, I was mistaken the language remains indecipherable to this crack group of young minds. Now some of the problem may lie in the fact that while I have 28 students on my roster I have never seen more than 22 at any one time and that was on an exam day. I have an overall attendance rate in my class of around 24%, this makes learning the language rather difficult as, if one is not in the classroom one has difficulty doing the required work. And those that do deign to come for one or two hours a day they are a true cast of characters. One of my favourites is a rather large young Saudi with a big ol' Afro, he like to wear his sunglasses during the lesson and forgetting his book in the car is also one of his favourite activities. Last week he came to the third period (he missed the first two because he was busy), and he complained that he didn't understand the exercise, I tried to explain that we had gone through the explanations over the first two hours that he had missed. This really flummoxed him and he showed such great resolve that when his phone rang he decided it was a good time to answer the phone and carry on a short conversation. The tenacity of my group is impressive. Another gem that decides to come occasionally also enjoys wearing his sunglasses at night, and believes that the answers to all his English problems can be found in his Blackberry. The look of shock on his face when he hears that he has failed every single quiz and exam is quite priceless, and the sincerity in his voice when he asks me to maybe help him, aka give him extra marks, is rather stunning. In this group clods, dolts, and malcontents there are some really good kids who do try their best and it seems to me language just isn't there thing. I have 1 student out of 28 passing the course but who knows maybe for the rest the third time will be the charm. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

White's Alright

For the second time in my life I am a visible minority. It is a bizarre feeling to be obviously foreign, to be obviously alien. Lucky for me my complexion is of the paler variety and for whatever reason these societies love whitey. I really started thinking about this recently and realized how truly strange it is to be given respect, or beneficial treatment based solely on the colour of my skin. I can't really complain I'm not sure if it's racism when I get to jump the queue. At the gym I frequent here in Jeddah there is a Pakistani janitor/maintenance man whose face completely lights up when he sees me. It's as if we are long lost brothers suddenly reunited, the immensity of his smile frightens me I can not imagine the sight of a stranger bringing me such joy. I am somewhat overwhelmed  by the attention and this sort of reaction is a fairly regular occurrence. The Filipinos who do all the work in this country always pay just a bit more attention to me and are just a bit more courteous to me than the those of the non-Caucasian variety.
This preference for white people is not confined to the Arab world I had very similar experiences in South Korea. On my first day of work as I was taking the elevator up to the school I was joined by a middle-aged man who looked at me and said, "You so handsome...ahhh you so handsome" (in a ridiculously offensive Korean accent), "You teacher here, I very happy." I would frequent a chicken restaurant there primarily because their menu had pictures and there was a cute little Korean girl who worked there. One night the owner came out and greeted me again I was informed that I was handsome and he was very appreciative of my business and that the meal was on him. Now of course I am a fairly handsome devil but these occurrences did not happen just to me other pale skinned people got the same treatment this pro-racism is apparently endemic. I heard similar stories from people who have traveled around Africa.
All of this just does my head in. White people have basically spent the past 500 years raping and pillaging the coloured lands around the world. Apparently the constant pounding of our chest telling all who would listen that we are the best in the world and I guess everyone else just sort of agreed. It's a mad, mad world I guess I'm just glad I'm living in it with the right pigmentation.