Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Goodbye Foreverrrrrr!!!

Well well well. It's been four years since my first brush with Riyadh, and over a year since I refused to go back to last visited Saudi.  My husband and I still live in a place with palm trees and lots of sunshine, except this time it's somewhere people actually visit for fun.  Now that our ties are severed from the sandbox, it's time to give my weird travel experience a proper funeral!

We are gathered here today to say goodbye to Saudi Life. When I first met Saudi, I was excited and anxious to explore this exotic relationship. She was veiled in mystery, ancient traditions, filled with bizarre rules, and every day I saw a quirk or some notable event that made me giggle, or annoyed, sometimes both. I lounged by pools, attended parties in the diplomatic quarter, met people from around the world, and loved our honeymoon period together.  It ended in about 4 months.

And then I grew to dislike...nay! to despise Saudi Life, because not only was she mean, capricious, strict, unreasonable, overbearing, extreme, (etc etc), but she carried the one deadly characteristic that almost drove me to an early grave: she was boring. Nope, it wasn't tripping over the oven-like abayas, it wasn't the eternal wait for drivers that were never on time, the countless logistical gaps, the human rights violations, nah... I could live with all that, but the one thing I couldn't stand was feeling mind numbingly bored.  She was a cruel master. Take it from me Saudi, sealing off half your available workforce, wrapping them in black fabric, and largely relegating them to mom duties under the guise of piety is totally third world.  Stop the insanity, just give them the car keys already. 

In truth, Saudi Life left me with some great experiences, some horrible experiences, wonderful friends, expanded horizons, and all round general mixed feelings...mixed to negative...ok negative. I can't lie it's my last blog entry. Some cultural gaps are just too large to fill with hot air about embracing new things and all that kumbaya nonsense.  But one solid good thing that came out of surviving Saudi was that it made me grateful for everything I have right now, and had before but didn't appreciate at the time.  To all of you still making it work day by day in Saudi, I wish you bottomless patience and superhuman mental willpower.  And seriously...a real bottle of scotch ;) 

RIP Saudi Life

Monday, January 3, 2011

His Cheatin' Heart

Expat wives who have husbands moving to Saudi for work fall into two camps - one that hears preemptive warnings against leaving your husband alone in Riyadh, and the other that hears this when they arrive. Sooner or later every woman hears about the 17 year marriage that fell apart when the husband moved to Saudi Arabia and cheated on his wife.

Why you ask? Why would a faithful loving husband suddenly throw away his long term marriage for some romp in the sack with a hussy homewrecking nurse? Well there are a lot of factors but the number one cause from your anonymous internet expert is loneliness. There is really no kind of isolation quite like the Riyadh variety, and with the culture shock and work stress, a man can really disintegrate at an alarming rate into a blubbering mess in dire need of intimacy, cuddling, and...we'll call it "coochicoo"

Of course there are a few additional factors that I think are unique to this environment that make expat men especially prone to cheating in Saudi.

There is a kind of "macho culture" in Riyadh - men generally associate with the men from their offices or compounds and there are just not enough women around to keep them gentlemen. Not that this occurs in every office, but the lack of women in the workplace can lead to some men talking smack and convincing each other stupid ideas are actually good ones. There are a lot of security contractors out here, and when a group of macho guys gets together for a party... let's just say they are not painting their nails and giggling about Gossip Girl all night.

You know how Catholic students are always famous for being oversexed and repressed? Riyadh is Catholic school on a grand scale. The segregation of sexes and resulting lack of visual and social contact between men and women adds to the pressure cooker that boils over when certain parties provide opportunities for both genders to let loose.

Let's not blame it all on the guys and the parties because there are some nothing-to-lose women on the prowl in Riyadh too, and they are just as lonely and desperate for coochicoo as any man is. Single women in Riyadh? Yes! There are plenty, and they are usually either nurses or teachers.

To be fair, it's not all because of the Saudi environment, there are of course the universal factors such as long distance being difficult in general, and many relationships having deep cracks in them to begin with. If a couple has trust issues or faithfulness issues or I-settled-when-I-married-you issues, Riyadh is probably not a great idea no matter how good the money is.

I write all this because my hubster is a two timing cheatin' liar and I'm going to Bobbitt him later tonight. I jest. We are trucking along as we always have partly because I'm married to Jesus. I suppose I don't have any real motivation for posting on this topic other than hearing one too many stories of coupledom crumbling. It's probably more therapeutic to put on a Pixar movie than to blog about it, but heck I'm in a mood. And now you're in one. You're welcome ;)

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I'm posting a random thought because I'm back in the Kingdom for a visit and thought I was overdue for a blurb.

One thing that expats pick up in abundance in Saudi are stereotypes. It's a natural consequence of being thrown into compounds and work with people from all over the world. It's in human nature I think to look for social patterns so that we feel we have more control and understanding in our interactions, and that can be difficult to keep sorted out with so many nationalities around.

Say for example you want to invite someone over for a party. After living here you begin to take a log of your interactions with various cultures and can predict with some accuracy how different people will respond. If you invite an American, they'll probably enthusiastically agree to it, talk about how great it's going to be all week, and then 80% of the time they'll show up as long as no better party crops up. If you ask a German and they say yes, they will be there without fail and at exactly the time you tell them. If you ask a Brit, they'll give a tentative answer and take some time to deconstruct how much they actually like you, and if they don't like you, how important you are and then give you a formal decision a few days before the party. If you ask a Saudi and they say "inshallah" it means they are not coming. If you ask a Saudi and they say they will be there, then they will come an hour later than everyone else or at 9:00pm, whichever is later. If you ask your Indian driver, fifty percent of the time they will nod their heads and agree but will not show up because they didn't understand you, and the other half of the time they will decline because they know they will feel out of place and uncomfortable. If you ask a Philipino to come, they will ask if they can bring a friend, then show up with ten friends, some rice, fish and a karaoke machine. If you ask a French-from-Paris to come, they'll turn you down because you didn't ask in French, and because you are clearly not French. If you ask any other Frenchman, they will show up with amazing home made food that will put your selection to shame.

Canadians are somewhere in between the American and the British response and because Canadians are often made up of different ethnicities that will play into it as well. But as a sidenote let me give you a tip. If you invite a Canadian to your party and start loudly making fun of the way they say "about" for a protracted period of time, they will laugh politely at your joke pretending that wasn't the millionth time they've heard it, and then they'll mark a huge mental X beside your name under the category "Hate You Forever Pigface Heathen" This hostility stems from an underlying desire every Canadian has to "blend in" and also from the intractable frustration of not being able to hear the difference between an American "about" and a Canadian one.

Of course I am generalizing...there will always be exceptions, and not only that, there are class distinctions and geographical considerations as well. New Yorkers are very different from Californians, not that you'll ever meet a Californian in Riyadh. There are massive differences between upper class Saudis, lower class Saudis, old fashioned super religious Saudis, and younger (often educated-abroad) progressive Saudis. Then there are Brits who went to London private schools, and working class Brits. Etc etc. I could go on forever but...I'll spare you the pain, and now you and I can both go do something more interesting.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Riyadh is undoubtedly a place of transition for most Westerners. It's generally not a place where people end up staying forever because essentially people run out of patience for the restrictive way of life or they go batty or they get depressed or their marriages collapse or their wild/outrageous secrets are aired and they get fired dramatically. Fortunately, my reasons for leaving are mainly tied to number one. Yes, you've read me right - my time in Saudi is officially over, though I will still be visiting occasionally. I knew one day that the light at the end of the tunnel would finally be within reach, and now that I am basking in the glow of freedom again, I can confirm beyond a shred of doubt, that freedom tastes like bacon covered brandy filled chocolates fed to you by a lesbian bikini-clad couple to the singing stylings of Journey.

Whether it's two years or twenty, everyone reaches a tipping point in Riyadh when they just know their time is up. There's a common saying that circulates in different forms in the expat community - that you come to Saudi with two suitcases: one for money and the other for "crap" (there are many variations on how to describe the contents of this second suitcase), and when one of them fills up that's when you know it's time to leave. Somehow our suitcase for money seems to have a hole in it, and our suitcase with the other stuff...well we've filled about five of them. But a double dip recession threatens to leave us with no suitcases at all if we leave without a plan in place. So basically hubster is staying, while I prepare the nest ahead of him. If we weren't so disgustingly in love, I would be worried...

I feel very flattered that some of you are still checking in here and there for updates from me, and so I must apologize for the long delay. Gee this is where I suppose I should write something articulate expressing my gratitude to all you faithful readers out there, but I just can't seem to come up with something wry and witty. So let me just say thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and thanks for giving me a reason to get out of bed in the mornings (ok it was afternoons) and to sneak pictures at malls. Thrill of a lifetime, I tell ya, sneaking around with that camera.

So this is my sayonara for now. I'm sure I'll be back with other observations next time I'm local again, so hopefully I'll hear from you all again sometime soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

abaya free zones

hello hello! Well I am back from a trip and want to thank any of you who were worried that I stopped blogging because I had killed myself. Besides. My preferred method involves a car and a closed garage, neither of which I have access to at the moment.

...okay ANYWAY. I've been meaning to post about this for a while because for me any time I get to take my abaya off, it makes me feel that much more at home. When I first showed up I thought that I had to wear it any time I was outside the compound walls. And actually even this was a little matter of confusion for me: what exactly constitutes "outside the compound"??? Compounds typically have an outer gate and an inner gate, and "outside the compound" generally means "outside the inner gate" - and if you choose to disrobe or fling your buttons open (you hussy!!) between the outer gate and inner gate, you may have to prepare yourself for some confrontation with the guards.

Out in public, it may surprise you to learn that you are free to take off your abayas at restaurants, albeit you have to be inside a booth in the family section with the curtains drawn. Although A/C is usually so powerful in this country that you may want to keep it on. One unwritten rule is that in certain ritzy hotels and their restaurants, you may be able to take your abaya off, but the safest thing to do is ask management first, though I would recommend keeping your shoulders and knees covered. For international departures and arrivals, there is also leniency. And if you are a golfer, you are also expected to leave your abaya in the car. Please don't quote me on these things as hard and fast rules, but these are just general guidelines, and if a muttawa shows up and asks you to cover yourself, I have a hunch that he will not be interested in hearing what you read on the internet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

so THAT'S why they don't fly Saudia...

I finally made a trip to the main Saudi Arabian Airlines office in Riyadh. The reason being that the flight I requested was not available as an electronic ticket, so I had to get a paper one. Lemme give you a piece of advice. If you find out you can't get an electronic ticket, do not bother with Saudia, because for the money you will save with the cheap flight, you will be paying out emotionally and with your time instead.

After being informed by the booking assistance Saudia guy on the phone that I needed to go to a travel agent or saudia office to get my ticket, I asked my husband's office runner to help make a booking. In the evening I proceeded to Saudia head office (the big one off King Fahad near Panda Supermarket). If you have never seen a typical Saudia travel agent work, let me paint the scene for you: a Saudia employee sits expressionless and motionless staring blankly at a computer screen while you approach the counter - he types so slow you have to double check whether you are in real time or whether you have slipped into a slow motion wormhole - he gives you a number that reads 87 while the electronic counter behind him reads 70 - ten minutes later he is still in the exact same position serving the exact same customer - you realize you could be there all night. The office was just stuffed with people, a total mess, and the men's section was a million times worse. After hearing that a friend had waited six hours at that very office, I decided to leave and tackle the task the next day.

The next morning, due to a lack of consensus on where I could pick up my ticket, I visited three different travel agencies and a Saudia office near the airbase, only to be sent right back to the Saudi head office. Finally I resigned myself to the fate of sitting in the pile and took a number from the front desk. Once I got to the counter, it took another twenty minutes to get my precious paper ticket.

My advice if you still decide you want to risk visiting this office is: 1)get the lady in your life to go 2)make sure you have your passport 3)make sure you get a number directly from the employee as they have stopped distributing them from the dispensers 4)go in the morning 5)bring a book or something to stab yourself with, anything to relieve the boredom!

I have heard really mixed things about Saudi Arabian Airlines. On the one hand, some people say the flights are on time and have good leg room. On the other hand, I've heard that VIP's and HRH's that show up last minute are given priority over proper ticket holders who get bumped off their flights, and the planes seem to have more unsoothed toddlers on them wreaking havoc. And now I have witnessed the abomination that is their head office...hmmm....

Saturday, July 10, 2010

You speak english?

So I think one of the good things about Saudi Arabia that isn't mentioned enough is how much English is spoken here. Many of the major road signs and signs in the malls are written in both English and Arabic. Even your trip to the grocery store is aided by bilingual signs and bilingual labels on products. You can bank in English, get your internet set up in English, basically live your life in Riyadh in English. My Riyadh readers must think I am a little insane suggesting this, but actually I feel quite grateful that enough people speak my native tongue here that I can get by in my day to day life without having too much difficulty with language barriers.

Don't get me wrong, it can definitely try your patience when you have a communication breakdown with your driver. Questions that you know for a fact cannot be answered with 'yes' or 'no' (e.g. 'where the hell are we?') can and will be answered with 'yes' in the car when a driver doesn't understand you. As far as I am concerned, this is the international test of English: ask a question that begins with who, what, where, when, or why. If the person answers 'yes', it means they do NOT speak English and though they may look nice, they will NOT be able to help you!

But on the whole I find it astounding how many people in this country are bilingual or trilingual. I am most ashamedly monolingual despite having two official languages in Canada. The truth is that we are only truly bilingual in pockets and the vast majority of us are English-speaking with an elementary school sprinkling of French stored somewhere in the back of our brains. Here is a random sampling of my French: je ne sais pas mon ami, mais ou est le gateau? Le fromage est dans la salle de bain avec le croque monsieur chateau frontenac louis riel decoupage cuisinart.