Sunday, 25 May 2014

Life in a warm climate.

This entry is aimed at my Expat Blog readers or anyone else thinking of making the move to work out here, where it can get warm from time to time.

I know from my own experience the conversations that you'll be having with your partner about whether it's a good idea to try expat life and if so, where do you want to go?  The Middle East is very tempting as it has quite a few opportunities for work, is sufficiently far away to make it intriguing and has a whole different culture to northern Europe.  But the question will arise about how you feel about living in a place where it is often 40C and higher for extended periods of time, especially if you have young children?  Certainly the first thing a lot of people said to us when we told them we were moving here was 'how are you going to cope with the heat?!'.

Most teachers who come to work here tend to arrive at the end of August, a warm time of year.  I can still remember leaving the airport having been in air-conditioned environments for all of that day (airport - aircraft - airport) and walking in to the sultry night air.  It was hot and humid and we were tired, not quite an in at the deep end experience but certainly enough of a difference to make you think!

The next day we wanted to go to the supermarket, a tempting three hundred meters away.  Not worth taking a taxi for that sort of trip, so as advised by the school we put on our hats & sun cream, took some water (overkill we thought - at the time) and off we went.  It is a cliché but opening the doors from the lobby to the outside can only be described as opening the doors to a very hot (very..) oven.  However instead of getting the heated draft on your arms you got it everywhere, and all at once.  Putting our best foot forward we walked round the building to head off for the mall.  So now someone had switched the fan on in the oven..  There was a wind which made the heat even more intense, no wind chill factor here, just a wind heat effect.  Suddenly the three hundred meters looked like three miles.  I had images of the three of us crawling up a sand dune in a Beau Geste moment to be confronted with a mirage depicting an oasis, or at least the refrigerated section of the supermarket.

At last, the shopping mall, but will they have Marmite...?

So you learn from your mistakes.  People have been living in this environment since time immemorial so clearly you can adapt, but if you've been bought up in a colder climate it takes a bit longer.  Suffice to say whoever invented air conditioning becomes your favourite inventor of all time, for me replacing the man/woman who invented the Bounty bar, now that was genius.  You become an a/c expert overnight, likewise you seek shade wherever you can, especially when parking the car.  Once you leave the vehicle you move like an enthusiastic frog, leaping from shady area to shady area until you can find the next artificially cooled environment.

There is an urban myth at work that someone once left some sunglasses in the specially designed cubby hole in her car, which unfortunately was above the interior mirror.  Upon returning after a day of graft, she found they had melted.  True or false no-one knows, but you'd easily believe it could happen.  You wouldn't believe how quickly cars get incredibly hot once the air conditioning is turned off, hence the habit of leaving the engine running while the vehicle is getting fueled up.  It's a bit unnerving the first time you see it happening but you get used to it and besides, the driver is on the phone so he could easily hang up and call the fire brigade if necessary..

'So how did they survive before electricity?' I hear you ask?  Well a visit to the Ras al Khaimah museum gives you all the answers you need (AED5 entry, open every day except Friday, I love museums..)  
See how the buildings have towers on the roof, which is in effect a big chimney, designed to catch the wind and circulate it in to the living quarters.  They use words like circulate and cool but trust me, there is not always much air to circulate and it ain't cool.  I'm sure these towers were better than nothing and I guess that's enough if it's all that's available.  The walls were also incredibly thick, a type of early cavity insulation, but without the cavity.

You do get used to the temperature and it does have it's benefits.  You don't have to worry about planning a trip to the beach next weekend and then see your plans ruined by inclement weather.  We've been here for nine months and I've only once worn a jumper or any other form of second layer, and that instance was in an evening on the golf course.  And there is virtually no danger of getting rickets.

So I think it's fair to say that the weather is not as big an issue as we maybe feared and the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.  Having written my blog for the week, we are now off to the pool, as if to prove the point..

Saturday, 17 May 2014

'Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?', 'Whadda you got?' - Marlon Brando, The Wild One, 1953

One of the things I realised while growing up in England was that every generation needs to rebel against something, normally the status quo, as represented by their parents and elders.  Although that may be a relatively recent phenomenon, starting perhaps after the second world war?  Certainly the iconic images of rebellious youngsters seem to be from that era,  Marlon Brando and James Dean from the silver screen and musicians such as Bill Hayley, Elvis and Cliff Richard (yes, he was considered dangerous at the time..) from the music scene. I put it down to the youth of the day wanting to make their own mark, maybe prove that they are individuals and not just replicas of their parents.  I'm not a social historian so can only apologise if this trait was going on before the 1950s.  It's just that I associate teenage rebellion with Marlon Brando and not someone from the Victorian or any other earlier age, although maybe there was a cohort of youngsters going out without top hats on to 'stick it to the man.'?

Marlon Brando, this was in his later bus driving days judging by the hat..

The obvious manifestation of independence for teenagers is in their clothing.  In my day they would wear anything but the same clothes as their parents, often influenced by the fashion in popular musicians at the time.  For my generation it was the like of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, followed by punk I guess.  I still remember when an older lad came to school with a Bowie-esque lightening strike across his face and another drawn in chalk across the back of his blazer.  You knew he was going to get in a lot of bother for these statements but you also had to acknowledge his chutzpah in expressing his rebelliousness.

No such demonstrations here.  We had a 'dress down' day last week in support of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, a worthy cause if there ever was one.  As always with these special days, some students throw themselves in to the theme, which is to wear red in this case, while others prefer not to participate, as is their right.  But there is a also a large contingent who take the opportunity to wear the clothes of their choice, neither school uniform nor the advised dress down alternative.  For boys it is the traditional white kandora (also available in other colours, notably cream and grey) and maybe a keffiya on their head to finish off the traditional attire.  For girls it's the abaya black robe and shayla on their head, again very traditional.  

As you're gathering, they like to dress the same as their parents, so to the untrained eye it looks like a crowd of diminutive adults coming in to school rather than teenagers.  Being a positive sort of bloke I put this down to them respecting their elders and wanting to carry on the traditions of the past, but can you imagine the same thing happening in the UK on Comic Relief day, 'dress down for £1'?  You'd have the boys rocking up sporting jeans from M&S and a nice comfortable cardigan, the girls in some leggings from Peacocks and an ill fitting fleece with a border collie motif.  Please note these images are from the last time I was in the UK and had time to observe fellow Brits, maybe the parental fashion has changed in the last year?

The closest I came to having an image of any sort was when my friends and I rode motorbikes.  We were all leather jackets and black leather boots on machines with exhaust systems that would make windows fall out at a hundred yards, no consideration for anyone else, just the desire to make your bike sound quicker than it was.  During the late 70's early 80's there was a mod revival, no doubt encouraged by The Jam and other two tone bands.  They were mods and where you have mods you have to have rockers, it's a yin & yang thing.  By default we were rockers, only because we rode motorbikes and not scooters and wore leather rather than parkas.  I couldn't have picked Gene Vincent out of a police line up if my leather jacket had depended on it.

For future reference, this is Gene Vincent.
In those days we went to the cinema a lot, there was no multi channel TV or internet, so you went out with your mates instead, everyone under the age of thirty is now confused, 'what do you mean, no internet.?!'.  I think I'm right in saying the three screen cinema in Worthing, The Odeon,  was knocked down to make way for Laura Ashley, not the Laura Ashley you understand but one of her shops.  We were left with the Dome Picturedrome, a fabulous building dating back to the dawn of moving pictures.  So one weekend my mate and I went to see the film of the week, apparently all about mods and rockers, Quadrophenia.  We arrived late so the Pearl and Dean adverts had already started, the place was dark, we took our seats and removed our leather jackets.

It transpires the film was all about the mods, the only time rockers made an appearance was in a mass fight on Brighton beach.  After it finished the lights went up and we prepared to leave.  However it now appeared that we were the only 'rockers' in the place, everyone else was wearing Fred Perry attire and a parka, oh dear..  We sensibly stayed seated until everyone else had left then put on our leather jackets and left, as inconspicuously as we could.
Mods, looking well moody as they say in London.
Whilst writing this my attention has been drawn to the mini-heatwave that the UK is about to experience, with, and I quote 'a sweltering 24C'.  I have no wish to be a pedant, and I do not want to upset my journalist niece, but I do think the press are once again using hyperbole to exaggerate a modest rise in temperature.  In the Cambridge Dictionary swelter is: 'to feel very hot'.  Now I'm not sure 24C is that hot?!  I guess the headline 'Britain to get a bit warmer for a short time' is simply not eye catching enough, but out here nothing under 50C gets a mention and even then it would need to be a slow news day.  So good luck everyone with your mini heatwave, don't forget your suncream, and it's probably OK to take off the cardigans and border collie motif fleeces, at least around mid-day.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Hit the road Jack.

Once again I doff my cap to Tim Berners-Lee, thanks to whom we can read the abridged internet version of what was our local paper in the UK, the Littlehampton Gazette.  Amongst the usual headlines of 'multiple electric shopper cart pile up in high street' and 'cat found in take away freezer', it was refreshing to see that local politicians are once again lobbying the government to find a solution to the A27 between Worthing and Arundel.  Whilst I admit that at first glance this will be of no interest to anyone who doesn't live or pass through West Sussex, bear with me, I have more international offerings later and I do believe that the traffic problems there are the same as those everywhere else, it's the solutions that change.

So look at the map.  Worthing hugs the South-East coast of England twixt Brighton and Portsmouth, but not quite making it on to this cartography.  Motorways in that region tend to service the needs of London and everywhere else has to put up with it.  So you arrive at Dover and want to get to Brighton.  Head along the coast hugging A259 obviously, past Hastings, Eastbourne and on to Brighton.  That's a good plan, just so long as you have a couple of days to do the 80 miles or so, due to the mix of single and dual carriageway.  Plan B is to take the motorways, the first heading towards London, the second heading away from it towards Brighton, a longer but ultimately quicker route.  Having arrived through one circuitous route, you now want to continue West to Portsmouth, bonne chance.

Again no motorway connects Brighton and all points West.  So you have a mixture of dual and single carriageway, which works like a series of bottlenecks, speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down.  Then in rush hours, Saturdays, bank holidays, summer time periods, speed up, stop, repeat until exasperated.  When we first moved to Worthing in '72, that's 1972 not 1872 they were talking about building bypasses to make the whole route dual carriageway, and they are still talking, and talking, and talking...

As always there are two options, the route through the town and the route through the countryside.  The former means compulsory purchase of properties and re-routing of urban throughways, the countryside route involves digging up the green and pleasant land, including voles, butterflies, rabid and tuberculosis ridden Badgers etc.  Naturally there are people who object to one or the other, or both.  A mantra and truism of the anti countryside route campaign is that once a by-pass is built, the green bit in-between the new road and the town is then infilled by houses and supermarkets.  This does give the impression that planners do a squiggle then colour in the gaps in Tesco blue or Asda green, which is what children used to consider entertaining before the ipad came along.  See, I told you four years of doing a degree in planning was unnecessary.

The last plans for the A27 were ditched following a government review of road projects, but rest assured millions, in fact many millions of pounds had been spent over the forty years or so of thinking about it, probably enough to build a few miles of road.  But it seems that the scheme is being resurrected, and I am sure it will be thoroughly researched, then consigned to the file marked 'bin'.  In the meantime the traffic queues, fuel is burned, tempers fray and the environment suffers.  But even now I hear locals saying 'but if you sort out Worthing and Arundel, what happens when you get to Chichester', you get stuck again is the answer..

No such problem in the Middle East, where the space vs people ratio favours a speedy decision.  Take a ruler (the drawing type, not a monarch), draw a line, build the road.  Need three lanes?  Not a problem, build seven so we have some spare capacity.  Which is why when you drive to Abu Dhabi from Dubai on the 611 you are often the only car on the road, for mile, after mile, after mile, and that's during the day.  Sure there is congestion down town but forty years ago, when the A27 was being considered for expansion, Dubai was a small town, 'Baby take a look at me now'..  Is our problem at home caused by politicians who make every decision with an eye on the ballot box?  If so there is not much danger in one being made before the next election, methinks?

I have a new addition to my list of 'Things I wished I'd been told beforehand as it would have avoided me getting stressed', I must think of a punchier title..  We needed to send a passport to the UK for renewal however the old one had a residence visa in it.  Now, losing official paperwork like that is a real headache so suffice to say I was on tenterhooks for the whole time it was in transit lest it got lost.  We also put in a special request saying we needed the old one back as it contained the visa, surely a common situation?

Six nail biting weeks later, the new one arrives, all on it's lonesome, where is the old one with the visa?!  Naturally we both looked at each other and sighed, envisioning numerous phone calls.  You see calling a local rate number from the UK is not a big deal, doing it from a mobile out here is slightly more expensive, especially when you're on hold for long periods.  Then we were told by numerous people 'oh don't worry, they always send them back separately, it'll turn up', and it did, woo hoo!  But why don't the Passport Office tell you that on their website?  I searched it again today and there is no reference to the practice at all?  So you heard it here first, 'don't panic Captain Manwaring'..

Footnote:  although when the roads are empty, it does encourage 'creative' driving...

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Moi, je ne regrette rien..

We are now in our third and final term of the academic year so there is a lot of planning going on for the next one, and reflection of what we newbies have been through in the 8 months since we arrived.  When we first announced our intentions of working abroad, my brother said I should write a blog for two reasons:  so we could reflect on what we had been through - you forget so much, and to help other people going through the same experience.  I know the first aspect has been very valuable, other people need to decide on the second.

I recently went back to Dubai airport for the first time since last August and it was a strange feeling, deja vue in a way.  I have memories of coming through to the arrival 'meet and greet' area after our eleven hour journey, during which the whole experience seemed surreal.  We had rented our house out, got rid of the majority of our worldly goods, given up our jobs, sold our cars, burnt a lot of bridges, but on the flight you are in limbo.  If you turned back you had a huge headache of what to do next, but by carrying on you had a job offer and the opportunity of a real adventure.  We know of only one couple who went with the first option.  They arrived and within 24 hours they were on their way back.

If you're thinking of working abroad in the education sector, there are certain concepts that you have to get used to.  When you're buying a home or changing job in your own country you have time to research the market, check out locations, see what the schools are like, make an informed decision.  This can take months or years.  But when you decide to come overseas you often don't have the opportunity to do that level of investigation.  A lot of international job offers give you only 24 hours to decide on acceptance or refusal and if you're looking in a general area i.e. the Middle East, you probably haven't visited every country or city.  If you go to a recruitment fair it's the same, you could be interviewed by three schools in three different parts of the world, and if they offer you a position you have to let them know the following day.

So thank you Tim Berners-Lee, the modest and unassuming inventor of the internet!  You get an offer, spend about 12 hours through the night researching the place, then make a decision, that's it!  Before you know it you're on a flight thinking:  what's the flat going to be like? Am I going to get on with my colleagues?  Can I cope with the change of lifestyle?  If you have a child you're multiplying these questions by a factor of 10!  We had never visited the Middle East at all so the unknown was far greater than the known for us.  But thems the breaks, if you want to make the omelet, you have to break the eggs.

I started to think about a pro & pro list, things that I like about here and things that I miss about England/France. 

1.  If you shop here when you shopped at home the supermarkets and malls are virtually empty.  

This picture was taken at our local Spinneys (think Waitrose) at mid-day on a Friday, our equivalent of a European Saturday.  The shop was similarly empty as was Marks & Spencer, where we were the only customers in the entire shop.  Compare and contrast with 10pm on a Friday night when these places are absolutely heaving, comparable to the last weekend before Christmas at home, when you can't get in the car park!  I'm also pretty used to having someone put fuel in the car for me and pack my bags at the supermarket.

2.  We miss being able to easily buy things off the internet, especially Tesco direct! 

We were used to having our friendly Tesco delivery team rock up at the door with our groceries, having to go and get them each week is a chore!  That's the price you pay for not having an address!

3.  Come to the UAE, meet the world!

In my opinion, when you travel you meet amazing people from all over the world.  When you live and work amongst a wide variety of people it definitely broadens your horizons and gives you an insight in to how the other half live, without all the negativity you see on the news.  I also think this is a marvelous opportunity for our daughter to grow up with an understanding and appreciation of different cultures rather than with preconceptions and mistrust.

4.  Home thoughts from abroad.

Naturally there are times when you miss the family and friends that you've left behind, but Skype is a fantastic thing!  We've been fortunate to have several visitors since we've been here and our return tickets are booked for a trip in the summer break.

5.  If you don't like the scenery, change it..

One of the reasons we came here was for the adventure, to see new places and try different things.  The desert is a magical place, quiet and mystical with camels and scrub trees dotted on an otherwise featureless landscape.  The mountains are magnificent, rugged and stratified, telling the story of how they were formed.  But we do miss the greenery of home!  You end up watching Downton Abbey just to remind you what the countryside looks like!

6.  You are what you eat..

Let's face it supermarkets are pretty much the same the world over and most food is available anywhere.  However I do miss:  fish and chips, a good roast and a hand drawn pint of beer, not all at the same time though..