Friday, November 25, 2011

This Little Piggy Went to Market

I hate Tuesdays.  In our world, Tuesday is Hump Day, as the work week is Sunday through Thursday.  Tuesdays have been hard to get through for us since moving to Doha.  Every Tuesday, the kids are dismissed from school at precisely 12:30, instead of the usual 3:00 pm.  Oh yes, half days.  It conjures up images of children romping through the compound, blissfully relieved of their arduous schedule, an afternoon off at their disposal.  However, on Tuesdays, they don't get a lunch break, and by the time they get home from school at about 1:15, they are cranky, tired, and ravenous.  Every Tuesday, I try to circumvent this as best I can by making sure that they get a really good breakfast—usually eggs, toast, sometimes some beef bacon on the side.  Yes, beef bacon.  After a year of living in Doha, turkey bacon has worn out its welcome in this house, and at the very least, beef comes from a mammal, so bears some resemblance to the country's forbidden meat, pork.

Tuesday this week started like any other:  My alarm went off at 6:15.  I dragged myself out of bed and brushed my teeth.  Threw a sweater over my pajamas and walked out to the office where my iPhone sat on the desk.  I picked it up and browsed through the emails before waking the kids up.  I quickly logged onto Facebook just to see how everyone's day went back home and saw that my friend Inge, who moved to Houston a couple of weeks ago, had posted on my wall just minutes before.

"Donna...are you eating pork right now??"

Ha ha, very funny.  "No, are you??"

She cyber-laughed, and asked, hadn't I heard?  She had discovered, through the magic of Facebook, that pork was now being sold at QDC (aka The Only Liquor Store in the Country), starting yesterday.

I beg your pardon?

My two favourite animals:
pork chops and bacon
Surely she had to be mistaken.  Talk of the possibility of pork being sold in this country has been going on for like...ever.  Why hadn't there been a swirl of rumours leading up to this?  Why hadn't someone told me?  And, why, for the love of God, wasn't I sitting in a lawn chair outside QDC right at that moment waiting for it to open, with a camping stove, a dozen eggs, and a cast iron frying pan?

Sounds silly, I know, but I actually felt giddy.  To be denied a main staple of our Canadian diet for the last year, and then to have it suddenly reintroduced, without warning, left me, well, elated.  I think I wept a little.  Terrible Tuesday just got a whole lot better, and it wasn't even 6:30 am.

I glided around the kitchen making breakfast, humming a tune from Babe, with the kids looking at me quizzically.  This was not Evil Tuesday Morning Mom.  This was Bacon-Crazed Mary Poppins/Fairy Godmother Mom.

If only I could put into words how un-Doha-like this is.  After you’ve lived here for awhile, you get used to nothing getting done.  Promises are made, deadlines pass, and hopes are dashed.  Inshallah, and all that.  I can only imagine that for those pork lovers who have lived here for years, the shock of the news must have nearly put them into cardiac arrest.  And it turns out that it was actually news, not just rumours.  When I got to the bus stop, my friend Heather told me that she had been at QDC the day before, and had seen with her very own eyes the emptied-out former Cold Beer room, resplendent in its new-found purpose, with shiny freezers and a permanent “Pork Products” sign etched on the window.  Who needs cold beer when you can have a bacon double cheeseburger?

But it gets better.  We have it on good authority that in the next week, Parma ham and salami will be here, and in another month, pork chops.  And there's even the possibility of ham by Christmas.  I must be dreaming. Somebody pinch me.

The only wrinkle is that you need a QDC permit to enter the store, whether to buy alcohol or pork.  Dan has one; I never bothered.  But I will persevere.  Now that I'll be buying "groceries" from QDC, I think it warrants me having one.  In the meantime, I've got a pound of bacon in my freezer (from an undisclosed source to whom I am eternally grateful), awaiting the day when the five of us are here for breakfast.  Or lunch, for BLTs.  Or bacon-wrapped whatevers for appetizers.  And then we'll drizzle bacon grease on the light bulbs to fill the house with the scent of progress.  Ah, pork.  The one I love.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Holiday in Jordan

The Eid Al-Adha holiday fell in the first week of November this year, and both Dan and the kids got the week off.  As for me, it’s hard to differentiate between “off” and “on”, but I was allowed to join them on their trip to Jordan nonetheless.  We had a driver for the week (Essam) who shuttled us around the country in his very comfortable van.  We wanted this trip to have a good balance of hanging out by the pool and sight-seeing.  With so much to see, we prepped the kids as best we could.  In the words of the great Scott Feschuk, "OK kids, time to walk slowly past old stuff."  In the case of Jordan, REALLY old stuff.

Indiana Jones 1, 2 and 3
 at the Treasury, Petra
Petra is  nothing short of spectacular.  We rode horses for the first short part of the tour through the ancient city, and then walked the rest of the way, making it to the Treasury, and continuing on all the way to the Monastery. In the first nine months of this year, the site saw about 500,000 visitors less compared to the same time frame last year, and the people who make a living off of tourism are really hurting.  Boy, were they happy to see us.  Because there were less of us, their numbers seemed amplified, and we were targets of the men offering donkey rides, and the women and kids hawking silver jewellery, postcards, rugs, etc.  Nicholas and I got a good work-out practicing our "no thank-yous", but we did come away with a few souvenirs.  It was a very full, physical day, but a once in a lifetime experience.

The Drive to the Dead Sea
The Promised Land
We left a cold and foggy Petra to travel the 200 kilometers and 1200 meter elevation drop to the Dead Sea, with a lot of points of interest along the way.  We stopped at Ain Musa (Moses' Spring), Montreal Castle (built in 1115 during the Crusades), Wadi Mujib (Jordan's Grand Canyon), Byzantine ruins at Um Rasas (including St. Steven's Church), and the Greek Orthodox Basilica of St. George in the city of Madaba.  We made a stop at the Madaba Art and Handicraft Center, where we bought a beautiful (read:  expensive) mosaic table.  We were as surprised as anyone that we needed one, but with a little luck it will eventually be delivered to our house.  Our final stop was at Mount Nebo for a view of The Promised Land, where Dan quipped:  "I guess if  you spent 40 years in the desert it might look like the Land of Milk and Honey!"

The Dead Sea
And whose idea was it to have a little vacation within a vacation?  Mine, that's whose.  Brilliant, too, I might add.  After a couple of fun but long days on our feet and on the road, it was great to sit back for a few days in the warm weather at the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on Earth, with an elevation of 420 meters below sea level.

The Three Buoys
We spent most of our time in or near one of the pools, and ventured out into the sea several times.  The beach is made up of salt encrusted rocks, so we had to be careful walking in.  The ground drops off a few feet from shore, giving way to deep water very quickly, and we were told that going in backwards was the best way to approach it.

Dan, floating...
Sunset at the Dead Sea

Amman and Points North
After three days at the Dead Sea, Essam drove us back to Amman, the capital of Jordan.  We wanted to try something local for dinner, so we went to Reem Bawadi, a restaurant serving Middle Eastern fare and housed in a large, high-ceilinged hall.  The cab ride was an adventure, with the five of us crammed into a Honda Civic with the driver.  We discovered that Jordanians drive a bit like Qataris, only with older, smaller cars.  Since it was the last day of Eid, the restaurant was quite busy, with lots of families sitting on cushioned benches at the low tables.  We told the waiter to bring us what he thought we should try, and had a great meal of grilled lamb, chicken, fish, and beef, stuffed grape leaves, falafel and various salads.  (One day I'm going to write a whole post on dealing with a sesame allergy in this part of the world!)

Corinthian column heads in Jerash
The next day we went to the old Roman city of Jerash, and Ajlun Castle, a Muslim castle built by Saladin during the Crusades.  Between these two stops, Essam assembled lunch for us by pulling over at a small shop, and coming out with a bag of falafel.  He drove a few blocks further, rolled down the window and said a few words in Arabic to some men on the street, and then made his way to another shop where he picked up two large, flat warm breads and handed them to Dan.  "Put the falafel in the bread and roll it up - the Jordanian Hamburger!"

On our last day in Jordan, we caught a cab and went on a self-guided tour of the Citadel in the heart of Amman, featuring a collection of ruins from Roman and medieval Islamic periods, and offering fantastic views of the surrounding city.  Then it was back to the hotel for a great lunch (with the manager and three waiters serving us, the only guests in the restaurant), and then on to the airport for our late afternoon flight.

There is easily another week's worth of places to visit and things to do in Jordan, so who knows?  We may have to make another visit someday.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Hand That Feeds Them

There was a time in our lives when Dan and I were responsible parents, trying to raise responsible, independent kids.  We recognized that our job was not to coddle, or to protect from adversity, or to wait on, hand and foot, but was instead to comfort, to find learning moments in conflict, and to teach the finer points of being able to take care of one's own basic needs.  Then we moved overseas, and it all went to hell.

Well, "all" is a bit of a stretch.  We're still OK on the first couple of points, but on the latter we've really let things slide.  Long before we moved, back when the kids were learning to read, count to 100, and visit the loo sans Mom, they were also learning to be pretty good little helpers.  They did get an allowance, which wasn't tied to chores; they got money because they needed to learn how to use it wisely.  Chores were all part of being a member of the family: everyone was important, and had something to contribute.  The boys set the table, loaded the dishwasher, washed the dishes, made their own beds, and even—wait for it—cleaned the bathroom.  As the only "sitter" in the family, I had reached the point where I wanted to, for once, sit on a pee-free toilet seat; hence, I turned the job over to them, and I have to say, they learned to do a pretty good job.

Since moving to Doha, though, chores have become a bit of a, well, chore.  The kids have a longer day at school here, their activities often start too close to, or too soon after dinner, and really, sometimes it's just nice to have a conversation with one's spouse while doing the dishes together.  So, we pick up where they leave off, and do all things for them that they were so capable of doing themselves a few short years ago.  The persistent culture of service here doesn't help either; there is always someone to whom you can pay a ridiculously little amount of money to do almost any job.  Or you can depend on Mom and Dad to do it for free.

Last Wednesday was an afternoon like any other:  Nick and Dan had hockey practice right after dinner, so as usual, in my solitary efforts to have everything ready on time, to make it easy for everybody, I made a trip to the clubhouse store to buy milk.  I stopped at A.G.'s house to borrow a small bottle of fish sauce for the green curry chicken I was planning to make.  A.G. lives about a block away from me, and about half way home the toe of my flip-flop caught on the pavement.  I stumbled forward, dropping the bottle, and then fell hands-down into the broken glass.

Now, I handle the sight of blood with about as much grace as I handle flying, and when I do cut myself I'm usually convinced that I've severed an artery and that I will surely bleed to death before I get someone to help me.  Lucky for me I've got friends who are much more sane about these things, and after I hauled myself and my dripping hand to A.G.'s, she took me to the hospital and Mary stayed behind to clean up the scene of the crime.

Ben making a cake, 2002
Four stitches to the palm of my hand, a scraped knee, and a bruised ego later, I arrived home to a chorus of "poor Mom" and a lot of hugs.  Their concern was genuine, but you could see, crossing their faces as they looked at my heavily bandaged hand, the dawning realization that that's the hand that does the dishes, makes our lunches, and folds our laundry.  Dan and Nick were leaving for a hockey tournament in Abu Dhabi the next day, so Ben and Jacob were given instructions to help me out as much as possible.

The three of us got through the weekend, and at least I thought it was kind of fun.  Ben and Jacob made dinner both nights—and not just something frozen and heated up:  chicken breasts one night, and homemade pizza the next.  And every dish got washed, but not by me.  I don't think it's hyperbole to say that they were both invigorated to rediscover what they had long been capable of.

I'll get my stitches out on Saturday, and I guess things will return to normal.  Yesterday, when I went to the hospital for a dressing change, the nurse asked me if I wanted a big bandage around my hand and wrist again, or just the water-proof bandage that covered my stitches.  I said a big bandage, reasoning that that would stop me from getting it wet, or getting it all dirty.  And then I thought of all we had regained with that one little bandage:  a little step forward for independence for the kids, and a reminder of what my job as a parent really is.  I might just wear one of these bandages for a little longer than necessary.  I wonder how long it will take the kids to figure out that I take it off as soon as the school buses pull away.

Friday, September 30, 2011


I have a confession to make:  I've developed an addiction since moving to Doha.  Which is strange, because this isn't the kind of place where you find a lot of vices.  But I get restless when I haven't done it in awhile, and if I set my mind on that particular thing, it takes up all of my attention until I get my fix.  The feeling of making the score is beyond ecstasy.  I admit it:  I can't stop shopping.

photo:  Steve Mohundro
Granted, we expat wives have an unfair reputation.  We're known as high-maintenance, mani-pedied, fake-tanned divas who have our massage therapists on speed-dial and are never more than an arm's length away from our Margarita blenders.  That stereotype is mostly a myth and I'm sure would make great fodder for a future post.  But boy, can we shop.

There's a reason our husbands drive the cars and we get the SUVs, and it's not just because we often have to transport a bus-load of kids from point A to point B.  We're also the couriers of cargo.  I've never tried it, but I'm sure it would be hard to fit a set of lanterns and an armoire in the trunk of Dan's sedan.  If Lexus or Porsche ever make a cube van, there'll be a stampede of us climbing those running-boards to get behind the wheel.

If you check out the links at the bottom of this post, you'll see what I'm up against.  Doha is not exactly a hotbed of mainstream shopping, but there is a plethora of shops that carry some really cool stuff to outfit your villa.  And after you've been here awhile, there's a certain panic that sets in, the result of realizing that you can't get these kinds of things anywhere else.  Picture traditional lanterns, mosaic lamps, Arabic clocks, Persian rugs, and imported, hand-made furniture.  Now picture 100,000 women after that one unique piece.  Shopping isn't just an addiction with me; it's a full-contact sport.

I've compiled a pre-shopping check-list for those of you new to the Doha retail experience:

1.  Tell no one but your closest allies of your intentions.  If word gets around, you may find yourself in a slow-motion race across the showroom floor with your next-door neighbour, and having to tackle her inches from that coveted sofa table.

2.  There is too great a risk of your husband receiving a text from the bank when you debit your account for the big purchase.  Remove the battery from his mobile phone.  Utter soothing phrases while he frantically looks for it before work.  Feign ignorance.

3.  If you see something you like, sort of like, or harbour the possibility of kind of maybe feeling indifferent to someday, buy it.  It might not be there tomorrow.  Or even three minutes from now.

4.  When you do decide to buy an item, RUN, don't walk, to the nearest sales associate and state your intentions (see 3).  Act fast or one of you might change your mind.  I find it helpful to have a friend waiting outside in a get-away car.  Tell her to keep the engine running.

5.  Don't be afraid to explore your creative side.  Get crafty.  Like many of you, I suffer from "dimentia". [dimentia:  noun; origin: Desert Mama; def.: a condition which disables one's spatial memory, so that while standing in a store and having forgotten to bring the actual dimensions of the space one is trying to fill, one thinks, Oh, it looks like it'll fit.]  It won't.  You'll need a hack-saw and a rudimentary knowledge of how to re-wrap wicker.

This week, hot on the heels of a successful previous week of shopping for things for our new villa, I set out on a quest for a bar.  And, like any purchase driven by addiction, the whole transaction took about three minutes.  I didn't just buy a bar; I bought the bar I've envisioned for the last six months, my Holy Grail of bars, if you will.  I went through the whole gamut of emotions:  disbelief at finding it, panic to purchase it, followed by elation, and sheer joy on the drive home.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery.

Dan arrives home tonight from a week in Houston, and I hope he likes my latest find.  Now I'm off to look for Margarita mix.  I think I remember seeing one last bottle on a store shelf the other day.  Ladies, start your engines.

Click on the links below to see a couple of my favourite Doha stores:

Darriche - imported and antique furniture

Artifacts of Arabia (David Mowby)

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Home is Where You Unpack Your Boxes

Blogger has a new interface, just in time for a new season of Letters from Doha. Sort of like a fresh start. And convenient for me, as I've suffered from procrastination, avoidance, lack of inspiration, jet-lag and move exhaustion when it comes to writing anything lately.  I've been getting used to this new system - I can now cite "technically incompetent" as my official excuse for not writing.

After arriving in Doha on August 11, we had three full nights' sleep in our own beds (or maybe not sleep, but whatever that thing is that you get when trying to get over an eight-hour time difference).  On the fourth morning, the movers arrived to pack up our belongings and transfer them over to our new home: a brand-new villa in a brand-new compound.

The scheduling gods weren't on my side when it came to having Dan take care of the move while we were in Canada.  But there are some benefits to moving after such a long trip.  For example, I didn't put a lot of unnecessary planning into the move, as I was preoccupied with last-minute shopping, visiting, and eating bacon.  Our old house was relatively organized when we arrived home because Dan had been there for five weeks on his own after we left, and he had taken care of a lot of pre-move issues.  And, if you're going to be tired and cranky from jet-lag anyway, you might as well add the stress of moving to that, instead of being tired and cranky for a whole week on two separate occasions.

Our villa
After two and a half days, all of our things were moved over to the new house.  A week after that, we were mostly unpacked.  Like our old house, this one is fully furnished, but of course there are some differences and there are still some things we need to get to fill in the gaps.  When we weren't unpacking, the kids and I spent most of that first week shopping for things like bedding, rugs and lamps.

Front entrance

We're nicely settled now and every day I find another reason to like this new place.  We are now a seven-minute drive to MegaMart (joy!), and just over 10 minutes to Villaggio Mall, where the boys play hockey.  And, the kids no longer have to get up at 6:00 am to catch their school bus.  It's a luxury to sleep until 6:30!

Back patio

Here are some pics from before we had our pictures hung up today.  Sorry for the screwy lay-out - still trying to figure out this new interface!

Dining room

Breakfast nook

Master bedroom balcony
Master bedroom

J's room

B's room
Second floor family room

N's room
N's room
(complete with air hockey table
and balcony)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Greener on the Other Side

I must be Home.

I can say this with some confidence because in the last 24 hours since arriving back in Doha after eight weeks in Canada, I rediscovered how much I like my own bed, my own dishes, and my own car.  Basically, my own stuff, in its own place.  As Ben put it this morning, "I'm just happy that I don't have to try to keep track of all my clothes anymore."

Funny, that.  On arriving here for the first time last August, it was hard to resist the temptation to contrast everything with "home":  It's too hot.  The drivers are insane.  Everything tastes funny.  But after a few months, we all reached a really sweet groove, and for me, the thought of going "home" had me a little worried.  Would we find fault with every little thing about Canada?  Or would we remember just how great our birth country is and have a difficult time coming back to Qatar?

I needn't have worried.  When the kids and I landed at YYZ, our entry point into Canada, you would have been hard-pressed to wipe the grins off our faces.  And that was Toronto, for Pete's sake.  I joked that I had kissed the Immigration Agent who had said "Welcome to Canada" to us.  Full on the lips and everything.  I'm surprised she didn't deport me.  And while it's difficult to be homeless for two months, our friends and relatives, both immediate and slightly removed, showed us outstanding hospitality, changing God-knows how many of their own plans, not to mention umpteen beds, to accommodate us visiting nomads.

It's easy to think that the grass is greener (or the sand is beige-er) on the other side of the fence.  But surely there are some things that really are going to be better in one place over the other.  I've done a tally - here's a random sampling of things in our everyday life, and their respective scores:

Running:  I was able to run outside in Doha from about December through March.  Of course, this was at 7:00 in the morning, and it was cool enough to wear society-sanctioned exercise wear, and it hardly ever rained, and it was at sea-level.  In Calgary, I spent the first week back avoiding going for a run, or going outside for any other reason.  Dr. Seuss probably would have described Calgary as Too rainy, Too chilly, Too windy, Too hilly.  But after a couple of weeks in three provinces, with actual scenery and topography, I think I know which one I prefer.  And yes, I may or may not have been pursued by an angry black bear and mosquitos the size of the Airbus 330, but it was more interesting.  And I got to wear shorts and a sports bra outside without being deported (sorry for that visual, my friends).  Point:  Canada.

Sunlight hours:  After living in Doha for a year, we’ve gotten used to nighttime being dark, and daytime being light.  But then we returned to roughly twice the latitude in the middle of June.  At 4:30 on the morning of June 21, Summer Solstice, I desperately tried to locate my eye-cover thingy.  You know what I’m talking about:  that eye patch deal you get in the zippered case when flying Business Class on your maiden voyage to your new assignment, that conveniently comes with earplugs, socks and a toothbrush.  The thing you pack in your carry-on and guard jealously on all subsequent flights in Cattle Car Class.  Failing to find it on that particular morning, the longest day of the year, I had to make do with what I had on hand.  In case you’re wondering, those weren’t the dark circles of just lack of sleep under my eyes; they were underwire imprints.  And while it's great to go to an evening soccer game without the need for lights, I know the flip side:  in the winter, it's no fun walking your kids to school at the crack of dawn (i.e. 8:30) and turning your headlights on at 4:15 in the afternoon.  Point:  Doha.

Scenery:  Don't be fooled:  Doha is not as pretty as the artist's rendition you so often see of The Pearl, or the skyline.  You have to drive for about 45 minutes out of the city before leaving behind the gravelly sand and reaching a dune of any significance.  Canada, on the other hand, has the best vistas in the world.  I visited three provinces across 2000 kilometres, and even though I wasn't able to see even one of Canada’s three spectacular coasts, I experienced the Rocky Mountains (on Canada Day, no less), the Alberta Foothills, one of the Great Lakes, a hundred smaller lakes on the tremendous Canadian Shield, and the beautiful yellow canola flowers on the rolling Prairies.  Point:  Hands-down Canada. 

Food:  Well, this one’s a no-brainer.  Canada has baby back ribs.  And beer in restaurants.  Sometimes baby back ribs and beer together in restaurants.  Point:  Canada.

Weather:  At first blush, this category hardly seems fair, as Canada is the only competitor with actual weather.  But I can tell you that I’ve lived for a whole year in a place where the sun shines every single day and I never wear a jacket.  And I don’t recall ever having to shovel anything white and cold.  Point:  Doha.

Traffic/Driving:  I have to admit that this one makes me a little uncomfortable.  I've spent the better part of the last year making derogatory references to drivers in Doha.  Then I went back to Canada and got behind the wheel.  And while I was no longer being tailgated by what I'm sure would be a kindly gentleman in a thobe and a Landcruiser going 140 km/h (him, not me), I still encountered scads of people who drove just as recklessly.  Speeders, tailgaters, not-paying-attentioners.  Some people blatantly texting in a 80 km/h zone, going 60.  And that was Alberta.  Then I visited Winnipeg, which I'm sure is the jay-walking capital of the world.  "Hit-the-Pedestrian" could be a more interactive and much more lethal version of Wack-a-Mole.  In Ontario, if I saw someone on the corner waiting to cross the street, I'd stop and wait for them to cross, smiling like a mad fool at them while they looked at me like I was nuts.  Turns out, after a little research on my part, that that province is the only jurisdiction in North America where the pedestrian does not have the right-of-way.  News to me.  Regardless, this all makes me think of two traffic rules that are standard the world over:  1) everyone going faster than you is a maniac; and 2) everyone going slower than you is a moron.  Point:  'Fraid this one's a draw.

Home:  My good friend Inge, who moved here with her family at the same time as us, is sadly moving to Houston next month.  Clearly she's not following through on our agreement to stick together for our time in Doha 'til the bitter end (or three years, whichever comes first).  Inge and her husband have been expats for 11 years, living in many different locations.  She has a painting in her house that I absolutely love, entitled "Home is Where You Take It", by Laura Amiss (see picture to the right).  That title pretty much sums it up, don't you think?  There are many places that we can call home:  our place of birth, the place where our children were born, the town where our parents live.  But right now, for the five of us, Doha is home.  Point:  Doha.

Looks like a tie to me.  I guess it’s true what they say:  the grass really is greener on the other side.  It just depends on which side of the fence you’re standing.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Unaccompanied Whiner

It’s no secret to anyone who has boarded a plane with me that I'm a terrible flyer.  I get really nervous on take-off, and any little bit of turbulence has me convinced that one, if not two, of the wings will snap off in mid-flight, sending us plunging to our imminent death.  In actual fact, it’s not so much the flying I’m afraid of; it’s the crashing.

Over the years flying has become more tolerable to deal with as I nurse a glass of wine or three, or alternatively, take the meds for anxiety that my doctor prescribed specifically for air travel.  Everything’s cool as long as I’m not responsible for anyone else, nor expected to function at peak capacity, once I land at my destination.

The only thing that makes me more anxious than flying with my family is flying with my children alone.  I like to think that Dan and I are a fairly equitable couple:  we share the ironing, the dishwashing, and the "I'll drive #1 to soccer if you help #3 with his homework".  But over the course of our marriage, we’ve both gravitated to some of the tasks that we’re more comfortable with, and probably better at, than the other person.  So, he does the banking, reads the manuals to all the electronics that come into the house, and lights the barbeque.  He is also responsible for, when we travel, carrying all the passports, checking us in online, and getting all of our boarding passes.  Basically, he's the Take Charge Guy at the airport.  Me?  I…you know…do other stuff that’s equally as hard.  I’m sure I’ll think of something in a minute.

I'm grateful that our kids are great travellers, and at their ages, we've had several years of sheer parental bliss on airplanes.  We pretty much just pay for their ticket and get them to the right gate.  But obviously our presence is still required for their peace of mind; they like to know that someone who knows what they're doing is looking out for them.

You would think that maybe a person with my phobia would seriously question the viability of moving a third of the way around the world.  Certainly, at some point, I would have to get on a plane.  And because Dan doesn't get three months holidays a year, sooner or later I'd be travelling as an Unaccompanied Parent.

Of course, it happened.  Our long, three-month summer vacation was laid out before us, pristine with uncharted possibilities, our yet unbooked flights to Canada awaiting our decision.  By April, I had to act, or we'd be as good as grounded.  So, I booked our trip, purchasing outbound tickets for me and the kids alone, with plans for Dan to join us in July and fly back with us in August.

For a couple of months I lived in oblivion, pretending that I was not going to be getting on a plane in June, unable to partake in any of my sky-high vices, with three kids for a four-legged trip from DOH to FRA to YYZ to YWG to YYC.  About a week before departure, I got Dan to walk me through all the scenarios from check-in in Doha to getting through Customs in Toronto.  I didn't want to have to think about any of this once I got on the plane.  I knew I'd be concentrating on more important tasks, like keeping my vision fixed on the wing flaps to ensure that they hadn't iced over mid-flight, while simultaneously trying to tear my eyes away from the episode of Discovery Channel's Mayday that the person in the seat in front of my had so thoughtfully tuned into on the inflight TV.

But the day came, and I did get on the (correct) plane.  An eerie, unmedicated calm came over me as I watched my kids independently walk through security and collect their backpacks and jackets on the other side of the X-ray machine.  I found our gate, and cleaned up the fruit salad and juice that one of the kids had spilled on the two of us.  I did my best to ignore the rattling and creaking inside the fuselage as we took off (there goes the first wing!).  And when we got to Frankfurt, I adeptly got the boarding passes for the next two flights, and then sent a text to Dan reporting that now it was official:  only one of our children had never puked in an international airport.

From about that point on, I was too tired to even care if there was anyone actually flying the plane.  Don't get me wrong - I'm not cured by any means.  But I may have stumbled upon a suitable antidote:  being delirious with exhaustion.  Maybe that's been the ticket all along.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Heartbreak City

Dear Doha,

I think we need to see other people.  It's not you.  It's me.  Well, maybe it's a little bit you.  OK, actually it's all you.

We've been together now for almost a year, and I do feel as though our relationship has really evolved.  I'm much more comfortable with you and all your crazy moments.  But there was so much excitement at the beginning:  you took me to different places and introduced me to all your friends.  Even learning about your culture was fascinating to me.  Now, not so much.

It's been great hanging out with you - you're such an important guy in your family of Qatar - but I need to get back to a country that really knows me.  A country that's known me my whole life, and gets my jokes.  A country that doesn't criticize what I eat, or what I wear.  A country that has actual weather.  A country that's not seventeen shades of beige.

Sure, it's been fun sometimes.  You brought me to concerts, fancy restaurants, and long walks along the waterfront.  You bought me clothes and knock-off designer handbags.  You even took me out to the desert and drove like crazy through the dunes, and we rode camels together.

But you kind of have a mean streak, especially when you're driving.  Every time I get behind the wheel with you, I feel like I'm taking my life in my hands.  And, as generous as you are, you're not alway the best provider; when I say I want Cheerios that taste like real Cheerios, why do you make me pay $13 a box?

When I first met you, a friend of yours told me that if I started a relationship with you I would be given two buckets.  One would be for money, the other for BS; when one or the other was full, it would be time for me to go.  One of mine almost needs to be emptied.  If you have to ask which one, then maybe you never really knew me at all.

So, I'm going to go home for awhile.  I'm going to wear sleeveless dresses, drink wine in public, and eat bacon for breakfast every day.  But I'll be back in a couple of months, and I hope you'll wait for me.  Me, and the rest of your expat wives...I can't get through this alone.

With affection,
Desert Mama

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Congratulations! You've Just Won a Brand New House!

When Dan moved here last June, ahead of us by a couple of months, he moved directly into our company-provided villa, and then spent about a month getting it ready for our arrival.  We've called it home ever since.  Secretly, I occasionally have other names for it, but I try to keep those to myself.

When we lived in Calgary, we used to say things like:  "We're a one-vehicle family.  We choose to live inner-city.  And yes, our house may be smaller than our friends' in the suburbs, but we're willing to make that sacrifice so our kids can walk to school, and Dan can take a short public transit trip to work.  We don't want to spend our lives in the car."  You should've heard us.  We were adorable.

Then we sold our house and moved to Doha.  It's amazing what 11,000 kilometres and a couple of weeks will do to help you shrug off your principles and become a two-vehicle, SUV-driving, non-recycling family with an impressive 200 tonne carbon footprint.  The distance to school from our house is roughly equivalent to that between Mercury and the sun, except the drive to school is not quite as pleasant.  My kids now spend so much time on the bus that just yesterday, when Jacob got home, it looked like he needed a shave.

But other than location, our villa is actually quite nice.  If I have one tiny, little complaint about the house itself, it would be the kitchen.  In realtor parlance, the description would go something like: "1980's style, uninspired design, with shallow sink, four drawers for storage and a grand total of three square inches of counter space.  Dishwasher prone to provoke swearing.  Seller motivated!"  I'm sometimes seen balancing a baking sheet on one knee while scooping from a bowl of cookie dough precariously perched on the top corner of the microwave.  Those yoga classes are starting to pay off.

And then, a few weeks ago, Bob Barker knocked on my door and offered me a brand new house.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Archaic references to The Price is Right aside (seriously, when was the last time I watched a game show?), the company Housing Committee sent out a note that sounded like a potential windfall.  They were looking for volunteers to move into a new compound this summer.  Given the choice, I'd rather ram a hot poker into my eye while gargling Tabasco than move, but with the location of our current house, we thought we should at least check it out.

Friends of ours, who just recently moved into the new place, pointed out that the drive to school for them was seven minutes.  Right now it takes me about seven minutes just to work up the motivation to get in the car.  By the time we went for a tour of the show home, I was sold.  I threw myself onto the six-foot granite-topped breakfast nook, weeping.  Mr. Housing Committee Chair, you had me at the kitchen.

Last Saturday, the Housing Committee held a lottery for choosing villas in the new compound.  We were among the twenty-odd families to draw our new addresses out of a hat.  Barring any moving company delays, which is a distinct possibility in this town, we should move into our new house sometime this summer.  Or, I should say Dan will be moving us into our new house while the kids and I are in Canada.  It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hot Enough For Ya?

Before moving to Doha, we knew it was going to be hot.  How bad can it be? I thought.  After all, I had lived through Canadian summers across three provinces and one territory with temperatures sometimes approaching 40C.  I thought it would be refreshing to have consistent temperatures.  I thought it would be manageable.  Actually, I thought it would be kind of nice.

I thought wrong.

Admittedly, the winter here was quite pleasant, and temperatures stayed in the high 20's and low 30's through March and April.  Mercifully, we've so far been spared the 87% humidity that greeted us when we got off the plane in August and stayed with us until November.  But in the last couple of weeks, with the mercury hitting 45C, I thought it was time to give a brief presentation on the basics of heat endurance.  Here is Surviving a Qatar Summer:  A Primer:

If 170F is the temperature at which to safely keep cooked meat to prevent food poisoning, then it’s a safe bet you can put those cooked burgers in your parked car while waiting for your dinner guests to arrive.  But, if you’ve simply parked at the mall for an hour and are hoping to head home, you need to follow a few basic steps.  If you’ve parked in the shade, place one butt cheek gingerly on the driver’s seat, reach around the steering wheel and turn the key in the ignition.  You’ll need to leave the door open for a few minutes while the air conditioning brings the internal temperature down to roughly 60C, at which point you’ll be able to touch the steering wheel with one finger to navigate home.  If, on the other hand, you’ve parked in full sun…may Allah have mercy on your soul.

Walking Outside
You’ve decided to walk to the compound clubhouse, let’s say to buy milk, or to go to the gym.  One block in and you’re committed, so you continue on to the clubhouse with its promise of shade and air-conditioning.  This is the point when you need to ask yourself one question:  Do I continue to walk slowly to conserve energy, but run the risk of my hair spontaneously combusting, OR do I break into a sprint in order to get there faster, but run the risk of all my bodily fluids evaporating before I reach my destination, leaving nothing but the shriveled husk of my former self as carrion for the circling vultures?  Answer carefully.

Never before has shopping for groceries been such an adventure, and a lesson in thermodynamics all rolled into one.  If you’re planning to buy milk, it’s always a good idea to bring a cooler, otherwise that purchase of sour cream was redundant.  If ice cream is on your list, you can also buy frozen butter to help keep it cold, and pack them together in your cooler and hope that it survives the trip.  On second thought, it’s probably safer to pack five spoons and the whole family and just eat it in line at the check-out.

Tap Water
Most villas have water tanks on the roof, which is great for water pressure, but brutal for water temperature.  From about November through March, you can count on lukewarm water coming out of the cold tap.  The rest of the time, the two taps are distinguished by their new temperatures:  hot and scalding.  Laundry at this time of year becomes a challenge, with all loads now being washed in hot water.  So long, black bikini underwear.  Hello, grayish thong.

Picture a sunny clime and one immediately thinks of sundresses, tank tops and shorts.  Not so here.  Out of respect for local culture and religion, women should cover their shoulders and knees.  So, depending on what I'm wearing around the compound, I'll change before going out, often into something more, well, more.  Which usually translates into warmer.  But yeah, I totally get it.  These middle-aged knees of mine can be quite beguiling in a certain light.  However, there is something to be said for wearing a cardigan when it's 47 degrees C outside and entering a mall where the air-conditioning hovers just above freezing.  Maybe they're onto something.

And there you have it, a little advice and some insight into climate in the Gulf.  We're just going to hang out here and wait for this dry spell to pass.  After all, it's not the heat that'll get's the humidity.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Playing It in the Key of Eh

My house is never quiet.  Looking back, I can point the finger of blame squarely at Avril Lavigne.

It was the summer of 2003 and Dan and I had just purchased Lavigne's first album, by then about a year old.  We packed Avril up along with our collection of preschoolers and toddlers and drove them across the Prairies to visit the grandparents.  We heard a lot from Avril on that drive as we had only taken about 15 CDs for the 38-hour round-trip.  By the time we got to Swift Current on the way back, we were desperately trying to find a radio station that would fill the silence.  The CD player in our van had declared an embargo on anything it had played more than 17 times in the previous two weeks.

Later that year, I heard Ben plunking around on the little battery-operated piano he had received for Christmas.  I said, "Hey, that tune sounds familiar - what is it?"

"Avril Lavigne," he said.  "Number four on her CD."

Alrighty then.

Thus began our career with Ben on the Party Circuit.  "OK, now Ben, play that Chantal Kreviazuk song for the nice lady!"  You might think we were getting carried away, but we were only reacting to our shock at this family development.  Any musical talent our kids might have is surreptitious, or at least curious in its origin - Dan and I both have a healthy smattering of very talented relatives in that regard, but neither of us share their company on that list.

Let me be clear:  we weren't the kind of parents to ensure that our children listened to classical music in utero, nor did we thrust "Baby Mozart" CDs at them in the hopes of developing them musically.  Rather, our kids were fed a steady diet of what some might call musical junk-food:  lots of pop, alternative and rock...basically what we listened to.  (Cue the collective cringe of music teachers the world over.)  I recall vividly when, at the tender age of four, Ben earnestly told Dan's aunt that he liked to listen to Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales, and that his favourite song on that CD was "the one where Sting loses his face".*

At the time of Ben's Eureka moment, I may have harboured notions of concert halls for my three-year-old.  But I resisted the urge to become the Mrs. Lindros of the piano world and decided instead to start asking around about music lessons.  After a couple of years of Orff Music for Ben, I enrolled him and Nicholas in piano lessons, and did the same for Jacob a few years later.

The boys brought what they learned and we brought our piano from Canada, and they continue to take lessons here.  In the last week, both Nick and Ben performed in talent shows at the Middle School and the Upper Elementary School, respectively.  Nick played "Surf Board" by N & R Faber, and Ben played his own arrangement of the theme from the movie Inception.  Click on the links below to see the video clips of their performances:

Nick - ASD's Got Talent 2011

Ben - Upper Elementary Talent Show 2011

Thanks, Avril.  I owe you one.

*If I Ever Lose My Faith in You, Sting, 1993

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rabbit, Interrupted

Spoiler alert:  If you're under nine-years-old, stop reading now.  In fact, just to be on the safe side, let's make it 10.

Now that we've established that you're old enough to read this, I can state the cold, hard truth:  The Easter Bunny Doesn't Exist.

He especially doesn't exist here in the Gulf, where Easter Sunday is just a regular work day.  Happily, Dan took a holiday day, and the kids had a day off school.  In Doha, in keeping with all its glorious weirdness and contradictions, there are a million choices for purchasing chocolate Easter eggs, baskets, and quacking ducks, so there was no problem getting prepared for Easter morning.  Buy the stuff, but keep your Eastery-Easterness out of my face, is the message I get.

I have to admit that we did have the weirdest Easter to date:  church on a regular business day, bike shopping at the souqs, lunch at a Lebanese restaurant - even hung out at the pool with the kids while the turkey was in the oven.

But getting back to the EB:  I've been lying about him for going on 13 years.  Not just lying, but completely making stuff up.  I've had an explanation for every seed of doubt, every chocolate purchase receipt that's been left out, and every chocolate egg I've been able to find that has escaped the kids' sight.  Sure, Nick and Ben are a little old for that stuff, but they have been silent accomplices to my fabrications.  They've been operating under the motto of "You've gotta believe to receive".  My objective has always been to keep Jacob a believer well into his thirties.

This is not the first time we've spent Easter away from "home" in a warm location.  Last year, we went to Disneyland over the break with my parents, and rented a house in Anaheim.  We arrived late on the Saturday before Easter, so I planned ahead and brought things to fill the kids' baskets (as did Grandma, as it turns out), and chocolate eggs to hide.  In each of their baskets they received, among other things, a coupon booklet for five free Slurpees from 7-Eleven.

Fast-forward to July 2010.  It was finally warm enough to even consider getting a Slurpee, so the kids and I piled into the van and headed out to Sev.  I parked in front of the store and the three of them went in with their coupons.  A few minutes later they came out with their drinks, and as they were getting back in the van I asked Jacob if he had any problem using his coupon.  He said no, in fact the man behind the counter commented that they were great coupons, and he would really like to find out where to get one.

"I wonder why he would ask you that," I said.  "This is the location I bought them at."

What did she just say?

A time-warp had descended over our van.  Everyone stopped moving for a few seconds - Jacob in mid-sit, Nick in mid-buckle, and Ben in mid-door-closing.  As for me, I was frantically trying to figure out a way to pull the thread of my comment back into my mouth.

Then Jacob asked, with a look of incredulity, "You're the Easter Bunny???"

Busted.  After more than a decade of constructing the myth, of providing perpetual fairy tales for every question of suspicion, blithely deflecting my kids' misgivings with made-up, on-the-spot answers, I had blown it.  Not only that, but I had single-handedly set the charges and pressed the button for its implosion.  There was no way to unspeak the two fateful sentences that would fell this house of cards and bring to an end this chapter in my children's lives.

We haven't spoken about it since, so I was a little worried about how to handle it this year.  One night last week at dinner I said to the kids, "So, about Easter this year..."

They all looked at me and smiled.  And then Ben leaned over and whispered, "Just hide the eggs anyway, Mom."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Parenting Under the Influence

Thursday is the beginning of the weekend here, and is the New Friday for us Western expats.  As I've become fond of saying, "TAIT!"

With Nick approaching teenage-hood (teenage-dom?), he’s pretty eager to get out there with his friends sans chaperone.  So, the few times that he’s asked to go with his friends to the mall, we thought we’d let out a few notches on his leash and give him a bit of freedom.  Last Thursday night, he made arrangements to go to the mall right after school to have dinner, see a movie, and maybe go to the amusement park.  After we confirmed with two other moms that driving arrangements were in place, Dan and I were off the hook to let loose like the crazy party-animals we’re known for…which meant staying in and watching a movie with Ben and Jacob.

Just to set the stage, the mall that Nick was at is not in our neighbourhood; in fact, it is clear across the city, the same mall that the kids play hockey at.  In the back of my mind, there was that niggling, paranoid parent voice saying, “It’s a little far…what if something happened?”

Anyway, it being Thursday and all, Dan and I started in on the cocktails when he got home from work.  Nothing major:  a glass of wine when he got home, and beer with dinner.  With the blood alcohol limit for driving being 0.0%, this pretty much sealed the deal as far as staying home for the evening went.  I made chicken wings and the four us settled in to watch “Get Smart”.  That’s when our phone rang.

No one ever calls on our home phone.

“Hi, this is Nick’s friend.  Nick fell on the escalator and cut his leg really badly.  We think he needs stitches.  Can you come and get him?”

Damn.  I spoke to Nick and he was calm, and not lying in a pool of his own blood at the bottom of the escalator as I'd envisioned.  Now Dan and I had to settle two burning questions:  which one of us will go, and how will he get there?  Dan Rock-Paper-Scissored his way out of staying home, and I set about trying to get a taxi.  This is no small feat on a Thursday evening.  Finally, we tracked down a driver that I had used previously, and he managed to get Dan there, but it took just over an hour.

Meanwhile, Nick’s fantastic group of friends had already sprung into action.  As soon as he got hurt, they tried to find a security guard to help them.  Failing to locate one, they took matters into their own hands.  The kids went to the food court and got some napkins to stem the bleeding, while two of them ran down to the pharmacy and got alcohol, gauze and medical tape.  The Boy Scout in the group bandaged up Nick’s leg.  Had I not intervened to tell them that Dan was on his way, they were prepared to CARRY him over to the sports hospital next door!

After Dan picked Nick up, he brought him to a hospital in a different part of the city and kept his driver on retainer for the return trip home.  Two inches of stitches to a cut near his ankle, bandages to his banged up knee, and a tetanus shot later, Nick hobbled in at about 11:00 pm.

I'm sure there's a lesson in all of this, but I'm having a hard time pinning down just one.  Bubble wrap your kids until they're 40?  Don't run up escalators unless you're bubble-wrapped?  Or, while we're living here at least, make sure one parent remains stone-cold sober at all times?  Maybe a combination of these.  But it's Thursday today...I'll have to think about it over a cold beer.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

La Dolce Vita

Ahhh, spring break in Italy!  Check out the pictures on the slideshow to the right.  Here are the highlights:

Are We There Yet?
From Doha to Rome, the only direct flight (and the only one that didn't have us making a stop-over in Riyadh or Damascus) departed at 1:50 am.  We steeled ourselves for a lethal combination of over-tired kids and cranky parents, but were pleasantly surprised at how well everyone did after six hours on the plane and not much sleep.  Once we landed in Rome, we had the whole day ahead of us!

Our Homa in Roma
We rented a fabulous flat right at the Pantheon.  The recently renovated apartment was the top floor of a palace belonging to a Cardinal in the 16th century.  It had exposed beams, a loft, a hammock, a swing, bunk beds, and a dark red bathroom (!).  My favourite feature was the view of the Pantheon, which was about 100 metres away.  We could sit with the shutters open in the evening and listen to the musical entertainment in the piazza.  By some weird twist of fate, it was here that both Nick and Ben discovered that the Italian Tooth Fairy does exist, and pays out in Euros and/or Pringles potato chips.

Pay Attention, Boys, There'll Be a Quiz Later
We walked everywhere in Rome, and spent our first full day exploring the narrow streets and discovering little shops and restaurants.  Dan found a beautiful park, Villa Borghese, where we had cappuccino at an outdoor cafe, and rented a big five-person bike for us all to ride.

The next three days were spent touring with our wonderful guide, Cinzia.  We visited Ancient Rome, which included the Forum and the Colosseum; we toured Centro Storico, which was the area surrounding our flat, and included the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain.  Finally, we had a tour of the Vatican.  The kids admitted they were a bit surprised by the Sistine Chapel, saying they thought it would be bigger!  Evidently, they are true Lemoings, and not easily impressed.

There are 400 churches in Rome and Dan seemed intent on visiting every one of them.  After awhile, the boys balked and set their own PDCL (Personal Daily Church Limit) to two.  Happily, we were able to bribe them into a couple more with the promise of gelato and a game of Angry Birds.

Salami is the New Bacon
If you don't like Italian food, you might want to skip this section.  You might also want to ask yourself, what the heck is wrong with me?

Interestingly, with all the people walking around Rome, we didn't once see anyone sipping coffee out of a cardboard cup or travel mug.  This is because it's just simply not done.  When you order a coffee, you sit down and drink it, out of a real cup, and enjoy it.  People of Rome, I like the way you think.

We ate breakfast every morning at the apartment, with bread, salami, cheese, fruit and yogurt purchased from the neighbourhood grocery store.  We had our other meals out, at whichever restaurant in the area caught our eye (or our nose).  I don't want to bore you with the details, so here's a summary:

Bruschetta, pizza, gnocchi, risotto, ravioli, lasagna, salami, spaghetti, prosciutto, porchetta, linguine, pesto, olives, artichokes, gelato, cappuccino, tortellini, canneloni.  'Nuff said.

Wine, wine, wine, it's all I ever do...
Shocking, yet true:  we had wine with every meal except breakfast.  Unless you count the glass of Prosecco I had in the morning at our hotel in Sorrento.  It was just sitting there on the drink table at the breakfast buffet.  What's a girl to do?

Fasten Yer Seat Belts
After five glorious days in Rome, we rented a car and drove to Pompei.  Our guide, Lucia, showed us around these very cool ruins in an afternoon.  From there, we took the winding road to Sorrento, where we stayed overnight at a beautiful hotel right on the Mediterranean.

We made our return trip back to Rome the next day via the Amalfi Coast, along the Sorrentine Peninsula.  I think "Amalfi" must be the Italian word for "breathtakingly beautiful".  If you look at the pictures, you'll see that the houses are all built up the side of the cliffs, and the roads are extremely twisty.  Dan was at the wheel, while I provided what I thought was a critical yet helpful assessment of his driving.  His sage advice to future travellers:  get the extra insurance on the car rental - it'll pay off!

Arrivederci  Roma (did you seriously expect me close with any other line?)
Sadly, our trip had to come to an end, but I could have stayed forever.  Although I kept telling the kids that I was really going to miss them when they went back to Doha, they managed to wrangle me onto the plane and strap me into my seatbelt, despite my protests.  I hope the coins we threw in the Trevi Fountain ensure our return back some day soon!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Road Warrior

Things have been going quite smoothly lately, and frankly I've been feeling a bit too comfortable.  So I decided to embark on a new Doha challenge:  Vehicle Registration.

While many of you are holding vigil at the bedside of Old Man Winter, hanging on his dying coughs, and wishing you could trade places (for weather-related reasons) with us, I would encourage you to dig deep and really try to appreciate how good you have it in the simple and non-chaotic Western world.

Case in point:  You know every year when you're happily cruising along the highway of life, busy with school projects, the flu, Pilates class, Q2 reporting, piano exams and birthday parties, and then suddenly, out of the blue, with no warning whatsoever, you get a REMINDER IN THE MAIL THAT YOUR CAR REGISTRATION NEEDS TO BE RENEWED?  And then, to make matters worse, you've only got about TWO MONTHS to procrastinate and/or keep forgetting to go the registry office which is right by your house, so then you have to resort to renewing online the day before it's due?  Well, let me tell you, it's exactly like that here:  Once a year, you have to renew your registration.  Except without the reminder in the mail.  Or the ability to renew online.  Or getting the whole process done without driving to another planet.

About a month ago Dan said, "I'll take care of it...but don't let me forget that your car's registration is up on March 13."  So on March 16 (ahem) I enlisted the help of my friend Lynn, who also needed to go, and we took our cars together.

The process is simple if your vehicle is less than three years old.  My MRV, however, is not.  All cars over three years old need to be inspected before the registration can be renewed.  There is one place where inspections are done, and it's in what is affectionately and accurately referred to as The Industrial Area.  This aptly named area in the far southwest part of Doha is best described as the movie set from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, only with more buildings and nicer cars.  Picture the right lane of the roads filled with bumper-to-bumper big trucks, and the left lane filled with the rest of us.  Potholes abound.  Construction persists.  Congruously, on a map, this part of the city is depicted in complete grey.  Its saving grace from a travelling perspective is that it's on a grid, so in theory things are easy to find.  To make our trip even more authentic, we made sure we went on a day when the wind was howling at 50 km/h, so that sand was blowing across the road in blizzard-like fashion.

By some miracle and great navigation by Lynn, we made it to our location.  I was quite happy that my car passed the Technical inspection, but a little freaked-out that it failed the Legal.  Upon receiving this news, I went to the information desk where a friendly Qatari man with impeccable English (who apparently studied in Minnesota and called me "young lady" - I now have a new best friend) told me that this was no problem at all.  My vehicle had previously been registered as a five-passenger, while it actually seats eight.  Mr. Minnesota wrote something in Arabic on a sticky note and directed me to take my car next door for registration and insurance.

The deed is done, and now I can rest easy for another year.  I could always hire a "runner" to take my car for registration next year, but why deprive myself of another road adventure and an opportunity to take better photos of The Industrial Area?  Stay tuned for the results of next year's decision.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Warriors Reunite

For the past several years, the sport of hockey has dominated our household.  With Dan playing on two recreational teams in Calgary, and the three boys in minor hockey, it seemed inevitable that any kind of international move would seriously cramp our style.  But, with all the criteria that I put forth to my husband on condition of a move, hockey was one on which he was unexpectedly able to deliver.

Doha has a small but well-run minor hockey program.  In each age division there are two reasonably evenly-matched teams that play each other.  When we learned that Dubai was hosting a U9 tournament, we quickly booked our flights, knowing that it would give Jacob an opportunity to play against a different group of kids.  However, there weren't enough families interested in travel for this particular age group, so we decided to go ahead and have Jacob play with one of the other participating teams.

The real driver behind our desire to go to Dubai was to visit with the family of one of Jacob's former classmates and fellow Westwood Warrior.  We were excited at the prospect of having Sam and Jacob play against each other in either of our current locations.  But when the numbers shook out, and all the extra kids were placed on teams, Jacob played for Al Ain (one of the Emirates in the UAE), and Sam graciously decided to forego playing with his own Dubai team to join Jacob.

The tournament was held at Al Nasr arena, which is disturbingly similar to West Hillhurst Arena in Calgary.  It was actually a little surreal to sit beside Jennifer and Guy and watch our boys on the ice!  The boys played great all weekend, with Sam getting a two-point game on his first outing and Jacob playing a solid defensive game.  After five games, Al Ain got the third place medal in this five-team tournament, and the boys wore their medals proudly.

All told, it was a great weekend.  Despite spending two and a half hours at Passport Control in Dubai getting our visas and eye-scans* (after a mere 45-minute flight), we made it to the restaurant Thursday night in time to join our friends for ribs and beer.  Guy and Jennifer hosted us to a wonderful dinner on Friday, and Jacob to a sleepover.  Can't wait until it's our turn to host a tournament in Doha!

*Blogger's note:  Perhaps I'll write more on the visa issue for Canadians travelling to the UAE another time.  Meantime, if you could all contact your local MP and have him/her pass on a message to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, we would really appreciate it!  We need him to sooth the bruised egos of Emirati officials who are a little miffed at Canada.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Born to Run

When Nick was little (back when we knew him as “Nicholas”), he often sought out solitary activities that didn’t involve either of his brothers.  Invariably, this led him to the basement where he would spend countless hours throwing a bouncy ball against the fireplace tiles and catching it on return.  His hand-eye coordination became remarkable at a young age.  So when the opportunity arose this past November for Nick to become a ball-boy for the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open tennis tournament, I remarked to Dan, “He’s been training for this his whole life!”

Training began at the beginning of November, with 145 kids attending the first practices.  There was an international mix of ball kids, hailing from Qatar, India, Egypt, the U.S., France, and our solitary Canadian.  They all worked pretty hard during these somewhat repetitive practices, which lasted about two and a half hours.  Over time, Nick learned that the role of a ball-boy was one of service, and that he was to be an invisible, unobtrusive pylon who frequently had to move during a match.

By Jan. 1, participation had trickled down to about 80 kids.  All of the kids were given a complete uniform, including shoes.  Teams were set, but only the most experienced ball-kids got to work Center Court, the big stadium at the grounds where most spectators watch.  Nick and all his other freshman friends were relegated to work games at the smaller courts, which was still pretty exciting.  However, on the second-last day of the tournament, he got to work the Doubles Semi-Final, which was played on one of the smaller courts, and featured none other than Rafael Nadal.

Even though I'm sure that mine were the only two eyes on my kid (apparently there was a game going on, or something), it was   almost as nerve-wracking as watching your young hockey netminder make his debut between the pipes.  And I couldn't help thinking about that Seinfeld episode where Kramer is a tennis ball-man, and crashes into and knocks out Monica Seles.  I wonder if Nadal's mom was there, and if she felt the same way?

Thankfully, everything turned out just fine.  Nick did his job well and, after eight long ten-hour days at the stadium, came away with some new friendships, a sense of opportunity seized, and some great shots of himself and his new buddy, Rafa.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Richard and Roly's Excellent Adventure

When we found out that Dan's parents were coming to visit us for a couple of weeks over Christmas, our first thought was, Yay!  Our second thought was, Better find out what there is to do in this country besides minor hockey and (major) shopping!

You are more likely to find these two grandparents teaching the kids the finer points of blackjack and zip-lining than knitting or playing checkers.  So it was with determination that we set out to show them all the sights of Doha while at the same time tiring them out so extensively that they would want to go to bed before us.  But since only half of the couple seemed to be suffering from jet-lag, this was difficult to do.  We gave it an honest try:

Boxing Day Madness at the Souq Waqif - Well, not really, but we did go on December 26th.  We spent a couple of hours in the morning strolling through the souqs, and we all made some small souvenir purchases.  Richard was the bravest, settling on a ghutra and ogaal, the head attire that you will see most Qatari men wearing in public.  After a very good yet simple lunch at a Lebanese restaurant in the souqs, we headed to...

The Singing Sand Dunes - Seriously.  About an hour's drive outside of the city, we explored these dunes on foot on a very windy afternoon.  We discovered that the dunes don't actually sing, but make a distinct vibration as you run down the slopes.  Future visitors can expect to have Jacob introduce them to "The Farting Sand Dunes".

The Inland Sea - We hired two drivers with a tour company to drive us (in their Landcruisers - we felt so, well, National!) to the Inland Sea.  When we ran out of highway at Sealine Resort, we stopped to ride the camels-for-hire.  Our journey continued for about another hour through the dunes until we reached the Inland Sea.  From this point, we could see the mountains of Saudi Arabia across the sea, one of which looks eerily like the Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay.  We continued back to the tour company's camp, where we spent a relaxing day and had a nice lunch of kebab, rice and dal keema prepared for us.

Dhow Cruise - No visit to Doha would be complete without a boating excursion on the Gulf.  We made arrangements for a dinner cruise on a traditional dhow boat.  Four other families joined us, all friends that  moved to Doha in August as well.  We set anchor just off Al Safliya Island, and the kids (and some of the adults) dove off the boat for a swim.  Following a dinner at sunset, we cruised back to Doha with a view of the nighttime skyline.

Al Khor and the Mangrove Forest - We took a morning drive to Al Thakira, where we went to see a mangrove forest.  In doing so, we found a great spot for future kayaking.  We then continued back to the community of Al Khor, where we had a pleasurable lunch by the pool.

The Pearl - This area is a series of manmade islands in the Gulf, about a five minute drive from our house.  It is a neighbourhood of wealth, and in amongst its waterfront condos are some very high-end retail locations, the Ferrari dealship and the Giorgio Armani store among them.  On New Year's Eve, we took a stroll at The Pearl, passing the private yachts on our way to The Chocolate Bar for ice cream.

Turkish Cuisine - In our continuing efforts to make Richard and Roly experience food from every country in the Eastern Hemisphere, we chose a great Turkish restaurant, Harput, to go for Dan's birthday.  Thankfully, I had been there previously with my good friend A.G., who is originally from Turkey, so I could point to items on the menu with reasonable confidence when it came time to order.

And They're Off! - We saved our much anticipated drive out to the camel racetrack, about 30 minutes outside of Doha, for our visitors.  There were no races on the morning we went, but the camels and their riders were training, which was probably even more fun.  The track itself is a 10 kilometer oval (who knew that camels are middle-distance runners?), and we were able to drive inside the inner oval and watch the groups run by.  We could never have imagined seeing so many camels in one place - there were literally hundreds of them.  Evidently the riders have had their pictures taken once or twice, as they smiled and waved every time they saw a camera pointed in their direction.  I'm sure I even saw a couple of camels flash their pearly whites.  When we had seen enough of the camels (and really, can you ever?), we headed to...

Zekreet - This little sojourn brought us close to the west coast of the peninsula of Qatar, and took about another half hour more, where our goal was to find Film City.  This location is a former film set for a TV series, which was left intact.  Unfortunately, we had to give up our search, but after some more research when we got home, we now know how to get there for our next visitors.

Professional Tennis - The ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open began January 3, so we headed down to stadium to take in the action.  It was especially exciting for us to watch as Nick was a ball-boy for the tournament, and his grandparents got to see him work a couple of games that night.  (More on Nick's experience in a future entry.)

Roly and Richard also got a tour of the hockey rink, the kids' school and the Museum of Islamic Art.  We took some time to hang out by the pool, explore the compound by foot and bike, and play daily games of Settlers of Catan or The Farming Game.

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