Monday, November 30, 2009

The show must go on

My fabulous sister Julia asked: What type of "cultural arts" are present for the public? I'm mainly thinking of concerts, recitals (music, dance, poetry, etc), and museums but I know there are many more examples. Also, what is the difference between what a "local" would attend vs a tourism show?

Julia's question sent me, without any intended malice on her part, into a tailspin. At university I studied cultural anthropology, so when we start talking "culture" and "differences" I get uptight about definitions of terms and exhibit a Pavlovian desire to cite sources every other sentence. I consider myself a tourist in my own life, respectively, and while we are expats, we're not locals. So there I make the distinction. When I say locals I mean Emeratis. It's very possible I have only been privy to tourist things, and that's OK. We're doing our best.

I jacked up on caffeine and wrote as quickly as possible. Otherwise this post will say, over and over again, how I am unqualified to answer this...which isn't really the point. So, with a disclaimer that the University of Washington should not be held accountable for any of my answers, here we go, based solely on my experience.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi remind me of squabbling siblings in that they are constantly trying to outdo one another. Dubai excels at the glitz and glamour, the flashy sister who gets most of the attention. Abu Dhabi works hard at being the cultural arts center of the UAE, intellectual and sensitive. But then they eye each other and try to have what the other one has too, and the rest of us tend to benefit from that. Abu Dhabi's grandest plan, I think, is the Louvre Abu Dhabi project which will be created in conjunction with the Louvre in Paris. It is to be designed by Jean Nouvel (but of course, 'e is ze very famous French architect) and will borrow works from the Louvre (!) in a 30-year unprecidented agreement between the two countries.

We went to Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace to see the Islam: Faith and Worship exhibit, though we were not allowed to take photographs. Dang. No surprise though.

The pieces had been borrowed from Turkish museums, many never having been displayed before, and they were both ancient and exquisite. Each artifact was beautifully displayed and labeled, from extremely old Qu'rans to golden filials and intricately embroidered pieces of tapistries, and many, many examples of the calligraphy of the Qu'ran. Bethy enjoyed the stories about the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) regardless, as I read them to her from huge enlarged pages of the Qu'ran, lit up like stained glass windows.

The difference beween that exhibit and one we might see in the USA was there was no interpretation for the viewer. Why were the pieces significant? What did they mean? I had heard that Muslims attending had been moved to tears; we were without the background to have more than general appreciation.

We felt a bit like that when we were at the Mall of the Emirates and stumbled upon an Arabic presention of Shakespeare. We watched, unknowing which play it was. There was a beautiful girl, (which I was surprised to see an actress with her head and face uncovered) a young man consumed by serious passion of some kind, a fight between him and another man...

After I went and asked which play it was. Shakespeare, I was told. Yes, yes, which Shakespeare?

The actor went and got someone else who spoke more English and finally I made myself understood and got an answer. Aha! It was Romeo and Juliet.

Good play, that. The thing is, public displays of affection are an absolute no-no between the sexes here. Therefore there was no touching, and certainly no kissing, between Romeo and his beloved. I know if I buy a movie here that has been censored there will be plenty of violence (the more the better if it to sell here, actually,) and plenty of swearing (you betcha!) but scenes sometimes jump a bit because there is NO kissing. Whack it goes onto the cutting floor.

I buy noncensored ones. They are, of course, a bit more expensive.

Interesting in a society where men are openly affectionate to one another, holding hands, rubbing noses (not to be misinterpreted as homosexual behavior, which is really not popular here!) singing and spouting poetry, wearing expensive men's perfumes and being careful about one's appearance.

There are plenty of art galleries, which are for selling the art, in Dubai, and our Sheikh Mohammad is a noted poet and has his own book of verse about the desert. We have seen Arabic dance, which is the men with small canes singing and dancing in unison, symbolically reenacting famous battles or hunting expeditions, while the women dance by freeing their long dark hair and swinging it in time to the music. No belly dancing there, and that would be a big difference between the tourist shows and an actual celebration. If you go out into the desert for a show you can expect the belly dancer along with your shisha smoking and henna painting by the campfire.

The expats, of course, make their own dancing scene, from clubbing to tango lessons, and the little darlings in their pink tutus must be rushed off to ballet class on a weekly basis.

Julia, being a classical cellist, will be interested in the orchestral scene. There is only one full-sized orchestra here, the UAE Philharmonic. Made up of expats, it is based out of Dubai but Abu Dhabi is doing their darndest to claim it. The popular and Arabic music scene is very much hopping in Dubai, rock stars being courted to come out here on a regular basic, and we usually get movies in the theatre a few weeks after they are released in the USA. The popcorn favored by the populace is caramel, rather than butter, though.

We have been to comedy shows and children's plays at the theatre at Souk Madinat, very much a Western thing. I had to translate the thick UK accents during the early parts of both the performances to Mike and Bethy, respectively. Very much on our list of "must-do's" is the Dubai Museum, and I'm embarassed Bethy is the only one of us to have gone so far. One of those things.

Considering the buildings alone, the beautiful forms and detailing, there is without a doubt a real appreciation of the aesthetic in the everyday of Dubai.

Our entertainment, however, usually looks mostly like this:

extreme Thomas smishing (yes, he's in there)

and our fine arts look like this:

So there is my report, such as it was, on the Arts scene here in the UAE. We are never without something to do!

Thanks for the question, Sis.

Along the lines of celebrations, a very, very happy birthday to my Grandma, who was born in 1912, today. Sorry we can't call you, being out to sea in the Staits of Malacca somewhere, but sending love to our Gaga.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun

McDonalds. Talk about the best of times, the worst of times, to plagarise from Dickens. The McDonalds siren call is irresistable to our kids. They could be full to bursting, but no matter what the country, see those golden arches and it's all over: they only want McDonalds.

Kind of like us grown-ups and Starbucks.

This Pavlovian response probably comes as no surprise to anyone, nor that I generally object to eating McDonalds more than once when we're abroad on vacation. I have softened my stance and concurred that once is OK, because you can learn about the place you're in by going to the McDonalds. Did you know they had Taro pies in Hawaii? (They are purple filled and yummy---duh. It's pie! Well, sort of...)

In Amsterdam they had the McKroket which was chunks of meat with, I believe cheese, breaded, deep fried and on a bun. Smack in the middle of plane travel, though...not something I wanted to eat just then, so I admired it from a safe distance.

We live here in Dubai, though, so it's a little harder to not go to the Big M. The McDonalds here in the United Arab Emirates are also noticably different from those in the USA, beyond the customers and the menu in Arabic and English, I mean.

For one thing, for fast food, the food isn't all While I have noticed they do get it to you more quickly than when we first arrived in Dubai, it still isn't instant gratification I ordered my food 45 seconds ago where the heck is it I need my salt and cholesterol c'mon already? Especially in the drive-thru, this took some time to get used to. Pun intended. I kind of like that part, if you want to know the truth. It makes me less likely to go there, or to any fast food drive-through for that matter.

This can't be a bad thing. Except for those camels that want to hide behind me. But enough of that...

Another difference is that the food is all Halal. Halal to Muslims is what Kosher is to Jews; things permissable under Islamic law, and especially food. This means that if the meal contains meat the animal died in a certain way, that's all. (I am not going to belabor the details of animal slaughter for the sake of vegetarian and gentle readers. You can check it out or wikipedia of you're curious: ) Also there must not be any sort of pork or alcohol, which are both forbidden (haraam).

All well and good. The cheeseburgers and fries taste exactly the same, which, after all, is the beauty of McDonalds. You get exactly what you expect, every single time. Thank you, chain restaurants.

What you might not expect is how darned happy the employees are. I mean, they are practically singing like munchkins. You never saw such pride and joy at being allowed to serve folks burgers and wear a uniform. I really, really love that part of it.

It's true you have to think about the flipside---that the employees are happy because working at McDonalds is a really good job. Knowing the alternatives: for the men, how hard and sometimes dangerous it can be to work outside, and for the women, seeing how poorly some maids are treated and the standard of living for even what are considered well-treated ones. For either gender, trying to find a job back in the Phillipines, I can believe it. These folks leave their homes and families behind for a reason, and at McDonalds they get a pretty good deal. Is it fair that life is like that? Nope. Unfortunately, it's also a fact. This is the best they will probably ever get. No reason why they shouldn't love and be proud of their jobs, nor that I shouldn't feel happy for them.

I suppose, when you think about it, my job is to clean up toileting accidents and to attempt to get a decent meal on the table by 6 pm for my hard-working man. I'm better at that first one, more's the pity. Anyone feel bad for me?

I didn't think so.

And yes, not a day goes by when, in some small way, I don't feel thankful for the choices I have been allowed by fate, far more than the ones I have earned.

Speaking of not having dinner ready on time and having to punt, let's get back to McDonalds.

The McDonalds we go to is staffed by Fillipinos. I should say here that it is pretty consistant everywhere in Dubai that the various and nationalities work with those from their same nationality and are often selected for the job dependant on their native country. No Equal Opportunity Employer rules here; the newspaper lists jobs like "attractive single Fillipina between ages 20-25 needed for secretarial position". I suppose in some ways it cuts down on applicants who wouldn't get the job anyway.

As I understand it, most employers hire from the same ethnic group to reduce conflict within the workplace. Also as I understand it, the few places which have moved past this idea are doing just fine with a variety of backgrounds among their employees. Good for them.

People are very open about being what amounts to racist here: even the most educated folk make generalisations based on nationality when they hire or interact with someone, ourselves included. Few question that. We try. Sometimes we do OK.

Anyway, back to my happy McDonalds story. Whenever we go we are waited upon by the most courteous, thoughful, and genuinely helpful McDonalds employees you have ever seen. It's like being served by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, minus Grumpy. Seriously. Radiant smiles, especially if I do my one-trick pony deal and use a little Tagalog to greet and thank them.

I really should learn how to say more. Hold on, the order for the kids would be, according to Google language tools: Chicken tipak masaya pagkain na may matamis at maasim sarsa at kahel dyus at isang lalaki at isang babae laruan at dalawang yelo creams mangyaring.

Oh dear. I suppose I could remember the "yelo cream" bit for ice cream, that fabulous deal at 1 dirham for a cone. Fabulous except that it melts really, really fast. My kids are going to learn to be the fastest soft serve ice cream cone eaters in history by the time we come back to the states. The orange juice (kahel dyus, apparently) is fresh squeezed and absolutely delicious, and the apple juice tastes like real apple, and is pulpy.

The Arab States have the best juices. No question. I'll drool about them to you another day.

During Ramadan the McDonalds are decorated with what we would call Christmas lights. I suppose here they would be Ramadan, or maybe celebration lights. (The houses are lavishly decorated with them for weddings as well.) Always with white bulbs. Last year during Ramadan seeing the McDonalds, all a -glow with the lights, Bethy said, much to our amusement, "Look! The McDonalds is happy because it's after sundown and we can eat there now!"

Another difference would be that there are no outdoor playspaces that I've seen at the McDonalds. Sometimes there are indoor ones, and there is a special room in many of the restaurant for the kids to go sit and eat their Happy Meals with TVs that play Tom and Jerry cartoons relentlessly. Tom and Jerry is very big here.

I hate Tom and Jerry.

Happily for me, our kids have somehow not discovered the TV room yet. Probably because we rarely dine in, doing more guerilla drive-by kind of feedings. But if we did, that is the cleanest McDonalds you could ever hope to be in. One day I managed to bus my own tray and the cleaning man was mortified. At the very least he will take the tray from you and put it in the garbage, and if he feels brave he will ask if you enjoyed your meal. The manager always asks if you are there more than 10 minutes or walk past him even as he juggles the orders with a smile.

I read a great article on Lonely about how in some places in the Middle East there really are no other Western restaurants, how people save up money and dress in their best to go dine there for a special occasion, perhaps once or twice a year. I remember feeling that McDonalds was a special treat when I was little, and a birthday party there for some lucky kid, ooh and whoo-hoo! Now when we eat there I feel that nutritionally, we're slumming. I suppose if we ate there much less it could become a special treat, instead of snarling that assertion at the kids when they're acting up in line.

Hard for an expat. Often we are craving home, and craving salt, and craving comfort food. If that doesn't add up to McDonalds french fries, I don't know what does.

The special menu item here is the McArabia, which cracks me up. With more calories than a Big Mac, it's kind of fattening for even a McDonalds run. I tried it exactly once. Pretty good. Two grilled patties of chicken or kofta (spiced beef, very similar to a gyro) served with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and some oh-dear-that-is-tasty garlic mayonnaise, all wrapped in arabic flatbread. About the same, calorie and fat-wise, as two cheeseburgers. Sheesh, skip the fries. And who wants to do that?

Or better yet, do like I do and steal some of the kids' fries to go with your Diet Coke -a new and bad habit I picked up during Ramadan -the drink, not the snitching from kids bit, I've done that forever.

I had to laugh the other day when a well-travelled British friend of mine was giving recommendations for hotels in Singapore. One hotel's particular appeal was "it's close to McDonalds!"

I do believe he was making a comment on us being Americans. Or at least Americans with kids.

A comment we undoubtedly deserve.

I'll make sure to put a little x on the map...just in case.

(footnote from on the road...we found the Chiang Mai Thailand McDonalds---shocker, I know, and the pie flavors were broccoli or corn. Well, that's different!)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

We are the champions of the world

Sariya posted: As for a question, what do I ask you since I'm living here, too? Alas, I don't get out much at all and am longing for someone to visit from the U.S. I haven't been to the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Park, or even Madinat Jumeirah since I've arrived back in January! So my question/request is: What are the top 10 activities/things to see in Dubai?

Interestingly, Aaron, the author of the extremely well-known blog An Englishman In Dubai had a post on this just the other day: feel I need at least 2 lists, and here they are. I also have a list lurking of things we haven't done here yet that we want to do, but I feel it would be cheating to put any of those up until we actually go do them!

Top 10 Things to do in Dubai with Kids

1. Go to Ibn Battuta, keep them away from Paris Hilton's handbag store (gag), walk around with them until their little legs are worn out, then let them jump on the trampoline by Magrudy's Book Store, then eat an ice cream cone from McDonalds for 1 AED

Yes, when Ms Hilton came through Dubai she left something behind. Pooper scooper, anyone? No, my disdain is not based on anything solid...she and her ilk evoke that same taste I get in my mouth when I see Brat Dolls. Not in MY house, Missy!
2. Find shells on the north end of the Umm Sequim beach with the amazing view of the Burj Al Arab and Atlantis.
Watch for the big blue jellyfish.
3. Ride a camel. Any camel. Closest ones are out on the south end of JBR. Then come back to JBR and let them play in the percussion fountains. Bring a towel.

4. Gawk at one of the local aquariums: Sharjah, Atlantis, or Dubai Mall

5. Hit up the monthly Dubai Flea Market. Treasures for little ones galore!

6. No one will agree with me on this next one: the Dubai Zoo. It's small, it's stinky, but it costs 2 dirhams and it's the right size for their attention spans. Plus, where else will you see a raccoon or a baby giraffe?

7. The Spice and Gold Souks and ride an Abra across Dubai Creek, preferably in the morning when it's not so crowded.

8. Dune Bashing. Why not? Have a picnic in the dunes. Expect to eat sand during both activities. Why is this fun? Go find out.

9. Watch the snowboarders at Ski Dubai. Promise the kids they actually can go in there someday.

10. Get their names written in a bottle of sand. This is a big hit for some reason. They seal it with a dollop of camel's milk. How THAT works I have no idea...but it does.

Top 10 things to do in Dubai with, without or pseudo-without Kids:

1. An evening out at the Meat Company and Souk Madinat Jumeirah. If it's cool enough, eat outside with a view of the Burj Al Arab at night, enjoy a beautiful South African steak and wine. Another great option is to nosh on thick golden french fries in a paper cone with mussels and dark beer at Belgium Cafe at Festival City, inside in the wonderful old European decor or outside overlooking Dubai Creek at night.

2. Have tea at the Burj Al Arab with a special girlfriend. Lacking that, go for drinks after sundown with a guy.

3. And while we're on the topic, go for drinks at the Barasti Bar. Wiggle your toes in the sand. Don't fall into the pool.

4. For crazies only: Run with the Dubai Creek Striders and get a close up of the city in the morning. All the sights, sounds, and smells, guaranteed.

5. Follow someone who knows the way to the Antique Museum in Al Quoz...the staff there will kind of sort of watch your kids while you dig your way through the dusty mountains of fascinating stuff.
Thomas in what all kids call "The SCARY Room" at Antique Museum, a dark, narrow passage full of metal figurines of all kinds. Also framed scorpions, a skull with glowing eyes, and so forth. Yes, this is the same place you can go to to get beautiful pashminas and from where I have made all my best finds.

6. Drop them off at MyGym and go get a coffee at Central Perk or Cake Bar. Total Mommy sanity time.

7. Again, dune bashing, this time without the kids. Go even a little crazier. Preferably with someone else's car. Take lots of photos. Possibly for insurance purposes.

8.Spend hours and hours perusing the shelves at Kinokuniya, the biggest book (and very welcome!) store in Dubai, without someone pulling on your shirt and going "Moooooohm!" or "Daaaaaahd!". Chase this up at the wine bar if you're feeling truly decadent. Admire the Burj Dubai (It IS the world's tallest building, after all!) and the Dubai Fountain as you wander over for your pressed and fermented grapes.

9. Get a massage. There are so many beautiful spas and services here, and some of us parents don't get our share. (The other ones are guiltlessly hogging them, too, darn them!)

10. And now I have to add the Birds of Prey Show to must-do's. Thomas played in the sand for most of the presentation, once he'd been buzzed several times by the gorgeous raptors, and I got to relax and enjoy myself for pretty much the whole time. Bonus!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This way could be my book of days

The libraries and getting books in general in the UAE is Gerry's second question. A very important one, I might add, for a book-lovin' family like ours. When we moved out to Dubai, one of the very hardest things I had to do was to pare down the three stuffed-full boxes of books (one for us, two full of favorites for the kids) down to just one box. I mean, choose between The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham? The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Grouchy Ladybug? I did it, but it was exceedingly painful.

Once in Dubai, we quickly discovered how expensive books here are. They cost sometimes 3-5 times what they do in the USA. With my frugal little bargain hunting heart, I hunted down a used book store. With all the expats not only moving in but also moving out of the country all the time I shouldn't have been surprised that there was one. It's called House of Prose, a tiny shop, hard to find but packed with books. Mostly paperbacks, very limited children's books but fun to search through.

I no longer buy magazines, except for local ones, because they are ridiculously expensive, and hey, I can get my Real Simple fix online. Children's books, however, still gave me an pang. Kids need to be able to go to and browse the shelves and get what they want and not worry that what they want is a big fat expensive beautifully illustrated hardback.

After months here, someone mentioned offhandedly that there is a library at the Mall of the Emirates. Mike had taken to musing aloud about how soon I would fall into seizures from lack of library time (an almost-daily occurance back home) so now I was on a new quest to find it.

Here was the odd bit, though. (I mean besides that the library is at the mall...I get groceries at the mall too. Dubai is like that.) "Library" wasn't on any of the mall directories. The Mall of the Emirates isn't exactly small, so it took some doing, but finally after several attempts I found it outside on the second floor, which is called the first floor here (don't get me started) next to the community center. Probably the smallest library I have ever been in, entirely staffed by volunteers. For 150 AED a year you become a member of Dubai's Old Library and check out 8 books at a time.

So that's what we do. In addition, we still have online access to the excellent King County Library System so we upload books to the cute little Sony Reader I picked up this summer while we were back home, and that suffices just fine.

In the last year book stores have been cropping up here and there; there's Borders Books, and Kinokuniya, a huge bookstore, opened at the Dubai Mall late last year. Magrudy's is good, and joy of joys, an inviting new children's book store called Book Worm opened not two blocks from us. So, we are selective with our purchases, but pretty much set.

There are other libraries in Dubai, to be sure, but I'm content with what we've tracked down. Now, where is that nice hot cuppa and my book...? All set for quality time.

Thanks for the question Gerry!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fly like an eagle

Jean's question was: Do you ever see falcons being flown for sport when you are out in the desert, running up sand dunes?

First of all, a total disclaimer: I rarely run up the dunes, and let me tell you, that's one of the hardest exercises you can do. Most of the time I'm pounding asphalt. Not as romantic, I give you.

The falcon is the national bird of the UAE, and absolutely beloved by the Arabs. The symbol of the falcon is everywhere (not unlike the Bald Eagle in the USA), and while I had seen one falcon at Souk Madinat, with whom you could get your photos taken, I have never seen a bird of prey of any kind out in the wild. Flamingoes, mynas, ravens, partridges, doves, even ravens can be seen in our neighborhood. But not falcons.

In the days of yore, Bedouins used to catch a falcon in the early fall, train her, hunt with her during the winter to suppliment their diets with meat, and also for the enjoyment of the sport, then let her go in the spring. As the birds became rarer and much more expensive to purchase, (in the thousands of dollars today), falconers began to keep their birds.

Concerned about the health of the species, the late leader of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed, who was an avid falconer himself, began a program to encourage the registration and release of falcons back into the wild. He also wrote Hunting with Falcons, which I hear is considered the definive work on falconry.

The truth is, I have never seen an Arab out flying his falcon, or any wild raptors. Hawk and eagle spotting was one of my favorite sports back in the Pacific Northwest, (Mike was entirely sure I was going to crash the car craning my neck to admire one of the beautiful birds along the road, yelling "Look kids! A Redtail!!") so when I heard about a local Birds of Prey show on the outskirts of Dubai, we had to go.

Eagle Owl. This photo does no justice to its stunning orange eyes.

It was the best. There was a small audience in a lovely outdoor setting,finally pleasantly cool now that it is November, and the birds were right there. Their trainer Zoli flew them very closely over our heads with a silent swish of feathers, (Thomas would scream with delight, loudly,) enthusiastically teaching us (in a charming Hungarian accent) all about each of the kinds of birds as he showed them.

The falcon was unbelievably fast. I can see how anyone, watching them hunt, would covet that kind of firepower. The Arabs hunt with Perigrine falcons, like the one above, and also the Saker, and Gyr falcons, and are issued their very own passports to be transported abroad.

We were introduced to owls, falcons, eagles, vultures, and even my favorite, the tiny Kestrel. The husband and wife duo do a fantastic job with real pride. I really, really recommend this program to anyone, kids or no. At 50 AED for adults and 25 for kids it was a steal. I also picked up a beautiful little leather falcon hood for 25 AED. ($6.80).

Interesting, fun, and we got to get very up close and personal with these beautiful creatures. Not only were we allowed to stroke the feathers of most of the birds, but we were encouraged to don the leather gloves and actually hold them.

How cool is that?

Now I literally can't wait another second to show you the photos:

My idea of bliss

Thomas and Natalie and a falcon

Bethy and Spooky, the Black Barn Owl. So gentle and soft.

Thomas and Otto the Kestrel. I was totally in love with Otto.

Bethy holding a 4 month old Snowy Owl and feeling very Harry Potter

Very heavy, slightly intimidating Golden Eagle.

I was geeking out. You can tell.

Thanks Jean for your great question! Additional thanks to Sariya for finding the way there and taking great photos of us.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

This is our lives on holiday

Gerry, our favorite storytime neighborhood bicycle-riding, guitar playing children's librarian gets her crack at the blog Q&A next. I apologise for my answers being out of has to do with whether I have photos to go with and the level of research I need to do, so Jean, Jan, I've not forgotten you, not by a long shot.
Gerry 's questions (which will result in two blog postings) were:

1. How do you carry on American customs in Dubai? And you began to answer it with Halloween. I'd like to hear about the other holidays or customs.

2. I'd like to know if there are "public" things like libraries? And how hard is it to find books in English

Holidays first. Holidays are the time to be with people, and we, like most here, find solace in our fellow expat families and do our best. Everyone either travels on holidays or gets together with groups of friends and makes the best of it. It can feel lonely. It's an adjustment.

Christmas is, of course, the biggest one for us. Nicely, we had the company party this weekend:

The party is early, by design, because so many travel during the holidays here.

Santa, food and wine, gifts, too-loud music, staying at a lavish hotel, and basically a good time for all. Bethy assured Thomas before we went that this is the "REAL Santa, not just some guy dressed up in a costume, you know, like one of his helpers."

This is the same kid who doesn't believe in unicorns or ghosts. Go figure.

Santa has consistantly excellent taste in gifts for our kids which may help Bethy's belief-o-meter: Thomas got a Thomas the Tank Engine with a screwdriver to take it apart and put it back together again and has played with it nonstop. Bethy got a Pinky Pie My Little Pony...the large size one with barrettes and combs for styling. Santa is good.

Bethy and I both got to enjoy a little Henna painting, this time by a Pakistani woman. This henna was green and smelled funny, left a yellow-orangish stain beneath that deepened to a brown overnight. Bethy claimed it burned and washed it off as soon as she could. Not exactly typical USA Christmas party fare, but great here.

They also had salmon for us to eat...mmm...

I had my own personal Santa. Friends of ours back in the states from the company were transferred out her a few days ago with their family. Karen, the mom and wife in this scenario, remembered reading how much I love Boehms chocolates and brought me some.

Sometimes there are just not enough words to say "thank you".

I opened them, admired them, smelled them, put the lid back on...

and after a suitable waiting period (part of the afternoon) devoured them within 12 hours. Sheer gluttony, total bliss.

If you want Western holiday products you must expect to PAY for them. Even birthday wrapping is put it into perspective, I bought Mike two insulated lidded travel coffee cups the other day. I also bought a small paper gift bag. The two cups together or one bag cost exactly the same.

I actually brought tissue paper back out with me last trip.

A UK friend of mine was telling me how a show has taken off back there called Peppa Pig, and the kids there are crazy for it. The characters are gentle and cute and snort a lot. Her daughter developed a deep love for Peppa Pig, Peppa's brother George, and his toy Mr Dinosaur and of course, that's all she wanted for Christmas. Now, being a pig, Peppa is not terribly welcome in the UAE, where pork is haram. So those infidel parents had things shipped here, including the Peppa Pig Princess Palace.

The Dad says next year they will have one or the other spouse go back to London with an empty suitcase, shop, fill it with gifts, get a visit in with the family, and come back. It'll cost about the same.

We could, but don't, get a tree. The expense...well, let's just say unless the very costly imported trees go down in price like the pumpkins did, and then some, we are having a Christmas stick again this year.

I like my Christmas stick, which I found out in the desert and painted silver and sprinkled with suitably irridescent glitter. I thought it very creative, and suffered much abuse gladly for its sake.

I brought meaningful ornaments with us, and the kids made some. I found more at Starbucks, which is great, and then I have improvised and put other things like little camels on shiny strings, stuff like that.

Getting gifts home to relatives is tricky...I am doing mail order online though US companies this year, and as my sister and her husband are coming out over Christmas (about which I am very excited!) we plan to squeeze a few things in their luggage to haul back. Just for fun.

They may or may not mule a chocolate-per-day advent calendar across the border for our kids. We don't know if customs will let that through or not. Worst case scenario they take it away, but I don't think so. You never know.

Thanksgiving...well, this year we'll be in Singapore. Maybe we'll get a turkey...though duck sounds awfully good. I'll bet they can cook a mean duck in Singapore. Either way I have once again eluded cooking, hoorah! Calls home on holidays like that are important, and we are going to try hard on that front.

What else...Easter, well, I messed that one us last year, with differences in countries' and Christian sect calendars. This year we plan on hiding eggs and baskets, of course. They definitely will sell us (overpriced) chocolate bunnies, and the Cadbury eggs are UK made, so they are the true tasty ones, not the US recipe.

Is it just me, or is this blog posting harping on chocolate?

You can have an over-the-top romantic dinner any evening, so Valentine's Day is all taken care of. St Patrick's Day is our anniversary, and you go party with the Irish in Irish Village and pray to St Pat after for a taxi, good luck with that. We spent the 4th of July home in the USA this year, but had we been here we would have had a get-together with other expat friends.

Bethy's American "costume" for United Nations Day.

There are holidays like Mother's Day that in the UK are on different days than ours. The UAE tends to defer to the UK calendar. We defer to the US one. Labor Day and Columbus Day and MLK Day, well, they sneak past us most of the time. Bethy and I usually do something fun on Groundhog Day, since it's the single day between our two birthdays. There are other days like Guy Fawkes Day and Boxing Day, and then the Indian holidays, which seem to be endless. I don't know how they get any work done there with all the celebrations.

This year will be great with Bethy being in an American school---they do the crafts and celebrations "just like" back home, with the additional ones from other countries, to a point, and then even more days like UN day. There are students from over 70 nationalities so she gets to keep in touch with her cultural roots and meet kids from all over. A fantastic compromise for us.

For UN Day Bethy dressed up, as did all the little kids from the various countries, in an outfit we felt was representative. When you're from a place as diverse as the USA you have quite the task before you as to what is "representative". We went with a cowgirl hat, red and white gingham with blue denim collar, and stars painted on her cheeks.

Each of the 70 flags was carried across the stage by a child representing their country. Little guys in dishdashes, sweet tiny girls in kimonos, the cutest Austrian kid I have ever seen sporting his lederhosen, Dutch girls in their white hats and wooden shoes, a little guy from Mexico proudly wearing a soccer outfit and the Canadian, not to be outdone, with his maple leaf jersey and hockey stick. Israel, not being acknowledged by most Arab nations, was not represented. Some countries I had to find later on the map, like Eritrea and Malawi. Last came Old Glory, and darned if I didn't choke up over the stars and stripes.

Thomas and the flags

Holidays here are more and less special, a link to home, a reminder we aren't there, a time to appreciate where we are. A time to be family, when the definition of family is whatever it needs to be in the moment. And that's OK.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Feel the burn...

An "everyday details" post in the Q&A series with thanks to Paula

I broke down and joined a gym here. I hadn't gone in the past, much as I enjoy the gym, because I didn't have anyone to watch Thomas and he wasn't quite ready to be left in a childcare group. Now he is ready---more than. Me too. I took him to our local gym, called "Hayya!" Not as in "how're ya doin there sport?" But as in "this is what I yell at my camel to make it move its, um, feet. Move it! Let's go!"

Hayya hayya hayya. It has a certain ring to it, don't you think? We also hear it in a more dignified circumstance during the muezzin, the call to prayer. The fourth line of the call says "Hayya 'ala-salah" hasten (to come) to worship.

The gym itself is one of a chain of three, all in Emirates Hills, our hood. Two are within walking distance and the other is within running distance. The last would be assuming I wanted to take my life into my own hands like that and brave the ongoing and seemingly endless construction between here and there. Which I don't.

I was a bit taken aback at the price of membership. An annual one costs 5,050 AED. ($1,375 USD). Mike was quite wiley and bought me a lifetime membership to Bally's back in the states which, once purchased for about $1000 costs me all of $50 a year. Still less than 6 months at Hayya. But, where else can you go to work out? They know they have you.

The thing is, I actually want a gym, not caring so much about the pretty background to pose against. You know, machines, weights, a place to stretch. Jacuzzi and sweat rooms are great, and the pools are lovely, but mostly I'm there to cause myself pain and exert myself to sweat a lot.

I also like classes. Of course, those are not included and may be purchased at an additional cost.

Yup. They really know they have you.

Childcare is additional too. This I expected, and I had told Thomas that he was going to get to go play with some friends. Big mistake. Not only were there no morning places available in the nursery, it cost again the amount of membership for him to go twice a week in the afternoons.

Excuse me? No wonder women opt for plastic surgery at the drop of a hat here. Apparently it's cheaper than actually getting fit!

Obviously I am a penny pincher, and in that spirit began to look for an alternative form of childcare. Voila! The maid next door, Ethel, was looking for extra work (she being "bored", according to her sir) and look at that, I have a babysitter I don't have to go fetch and bring back in the car for the bargain price of 25 AED ($6.80) an hour. Much, much better.

See? Even in Dubai you don't have to go crazy and spend all the family's hard earned expat funds.

Babysitter securely in place, kid happy, I went to the gym for the first time. First thing I noticed was the prominant sign in the Ladies Changing Room: Do Not Change in the Ladies Changing Room.

Riiiight. Further investigation revealed that you are to change behind locked door in the private stalls. Modesty prevails in the Middle East, even in the changing room.

There is the a general workout room and a smaller "Ladies Only" workout room. Choices, choices. Work out in the smaller Ladies Only gym where the music overwhelms the small space and there are not as many machines or in the bigger general room, with the grunters? Would they question my modesty? Would I be a trollop American sweating with the boys?

Apparently it was fine, no one paid attention to anything but themselves in there. Worked for me. Not the amount of gym I hoped for, at the price, but adequate. Mike came back from working out the other day and said how disappointing it is how much we pay for such a small gym. He really has it worse than I a man he doesn't have the choice between the workout areas.

At the main branch of Hayya there is a lap pool in addition to the decorative ones for lovely mummy and the kidlets to lounge in. They are all outside, thus, after suffering through one workout where I was half blinded by the sunglare, a new purchase of 100% UV blocking goggles.

I was sorry to note that once again I will miss the km swim around the Burj al Arab (that favorite Dubai icon of ours that looks like a saiboat out on its own island---man-made, of course) since we'll be out of the country. Darn I want that T-shirt, and I could use the motivation. Well, maybe we'll end up staying 3 years instead of 2.

It could happen.

Also on that same day when we won't be here is the Mirdif Milers 10 mile race. Darn again. That's a cool has a camel on it. At least I already have one of those.

You may have noticed, I kinda sorta like camels.

OK, so I love camels. Am obsessed. Will probably need a 12-step camel program. Maybe a quit camels patch?

Back to medals: I have gotten more medals here than in my previous 8 years of running in the states. It's not my running prowess, and it's certainly not due to an easier group to compete with. Hardly---there are world class runners training alongside me, though not for very long, mind you...I eat a lot of sand dust and am A-OK with that!

It's amazing to see them go off to cities all over the world to compete and often bring back real medals, some with Olympic rings on them. My medals are a little more humble to say the least; with almost all the races being 10k or longer, a medal is part of finishing. My collection. Yay.

I feel a little out of place in the gym. On the road everyone is equal. The road is as long for all of us, and the differences are only in gender and effort. In the gym I feel less confident. On the other hand, there is cold water, A/C, and there is little danger of getting run over by some crazy driver, so it's not all bad, that's for sure.

So now you know where I go to move my, um, donkey. Hayya!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Well you done done me and you bet I felt it...

I'm stoked about this: the first installment in my Q&A blog entry fest: I opened up the blog to questions from you in the comments section. These resultant posts will be then, by design, a little more personal. I hope that works for you. Here we go.

First, Abid and Paula, you will, like the rest of us, have to wait for our vacation to get the SIML photos report on SE Asia. I know, dang. We are leaving in a couple of weeks, and will be there for three more, so I apologise, it'll be awhile. I am researching like crazy and we are all super excited about going.

Can I throw a question out to everyone? If we took our kids to go see, pet, and photograph the uncaged tigers at the Tiger Temple in Thailand, offspring of poached animals, raised by monks, and one of the kids got mauled or eaten, would you all say "duh, what did you think would happen you idiot?"

Yeah, I'm still on the fence on that one.

Paula, I will never run out of the joy and wonder of the everyday. More to come, promise.

Assuming I don't get eaten by a tiger.

Abid, I am waiting to see what you come up with for me! Please, like I tell everybody, you are serously under no obligation to read the whole blog...I can get awfully wordy, and have been writing this for, what, 16 months? I'm happy you come and visit, period. If you ask a question I "already answered" that is A-OK. I bet others will be interested in the answer too. in line wih their question is my old friend Anonymous. In this case, Anonymous who is obsessed with whether Thomas, being three, is out of diapers yet.

I said I would post, and I will.

Now, depending on what sort of person Anonymous is, this answer will either give them the total evil joy of schadenfreude or they will be disappointed.

Thomas is not out of diapers. We are at about 50-50. He likes his undies, asks for them on a regular basis, and is motivated to be "all the time potty trained" so he can go to school.

We are currently holding Halloweeen candy hostage, released one piece at a time for successful trips to the potty. Also held hostage are the favorite "caterpillar" diapers which he may earn in the same fashion.

Both kids are still wearing pull-ups to bed. (Oh, the horror.) I would very much like to see Bethy out of them in particular.

Every Filipina who picks Thomas up comments "why you have nappies, you are big boy! No nappies for you!" I think his toilet training is going well, if not perfectly. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have to clean piddle out of Persian carpets. If I hear "uh-oh" I pretty much know that will be my next activity for the day. He helps clean up too, of course.

Both kids can now use the regular and squat potties. The squat bit is good for the upcoming trip, as I get the feeling we'll be seeing a lot of those there. A squat potty is flush with the ground. No sitting; there is a place on either side for your feet, often ridged to give you traction on what is usually a wet floor. Generally there is either a personal sprayer or a bucket of water for washing nether reigons which you then use to dump additional water into the toilet to wash it out into the pipes. TP is rare, and if provided goes into a waste basket, not into the drain.

Back to Thomas. We are at that delightful stage of learning where he makes comments and asks questions, at little boy volume, generally waiting in line at the grocery store where there is no graceful escape, about body parts and functions.

Curse the day I taught him the word "nipple." That's all I can say about that.

I'm not too proud...anyone have advice about potty training (or anything else for that matter?) they'd like to levy at us? There may be perfect parents out there but we are most definitely not them.

Actually, I think most of those folks I might be tempted to term "perfect parents" are grandparents.

So there, with perhaps a bit of wincing, is answer #1.

Thank you Anonymous!