The Magic Socket

The Magic Socket

The Magic Socket was located just beneath the water heater

We had a 7-hour power outage the other evening due to a bad storm, which is pretty unusual for Toronto.

In the late 90s in Baku power cuts were a regular event, usually lasting several hours and sometimes days.  Coupled with daily water cuts, it made life rather complicated, but you learned to cope.  We had several large rechargeable lanterns, a battery radio, a gas stove for cooking and a gas fireplace for heat.  But our real savior was the Magic Socket.

We discovered it soon after arriving.  Our washer and dryer were located in the bathroom of our apartment and mysteriously when the power went out the washing machine continued to work. Vitaly, the electrician, discovered a wire snaking its way out of the kitchen window and down the back of the building, and came to the conclusion that the socket was hot-wired to the street lights.  As the streetlights usually stayed on when our building lost power, we were golden.

From then on, whenever the power went out, we’d connect several extension cords in sequence and move this magical source of power around the apartment as and when needed.  In the morning it would be in the kitchen so we could run the coffee maker and then the toaster.  Then it would move to the bedroom so I could dry my hair.  When everyone had left for work and school, I fired up the computer to check my email.  Whenever it wasn’t in use elsewhere we’d plug in the freezer.  If you think several extension cords plugged together sounds like a dangerous arrangement, you’re right.  But we were already living with cars without seatbelts and a leaky gas stove; dodgy wiring didn’t seem so bad.

So the other night as we scrambled in the dark looking for candles and a flashlight with a working battery, I realized how unprepared we are for a power cuts here in Canada compared with when we lived in Baku.  And I missed my Magic Socket.

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These are the good old days

St Johns churchyard, York Mills, Toronto, Ontario

When we lived in Baku, on days when life proved particularly challenging, such as the water or power being off for longer than usual, when loneliness and culture shock overwhelmed us or we pined for foods from home (broccoli, lettuce, Kraft Dinner), we would end our moaning with a wry smile and say “One day, these will be the good old days.” We laughed then, but over time memory is kind, and sooner than expected we looked back fondly at our life there, even the things we struggled with the most.

By the time we got to Egypt I was getting wise to this, particularly as I had realized that these assignments were very unpredictable in duration. I knew I had to make the best of every day there. So like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter I started consciously storing up memories, both good and bad. While bemoaning the dusty, broken and often totally absent sidewalks in what must be one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities, I took time to notice the beauty of the jacaranda trees and take pleasure in exchanging a “sabah el nour” with the taxi drivers at the end of my street.

Later in Dubai, life was much more comfortable, but I still took care to pause and consciously note a special memory. Sometimes it would be something beautiful, like Tai Chi practice on the breakwater, under a new moon with the waves gently lapping below us, and sometimes it would be something mundane, like my daily trip to the grocery store in the late afternoon just as the heat was abating. Either way, I knew that at some point in the future I would look back on that moment and say, those were the good old days.

I’m aware that what I’m extolling is called seizing the day (carpe diem), living in the moment, and is something that we all should be doing, no matter where we are. But for expats it’s important, particularly for those who are highly mobile and know their days in that particularly place are limited. Many of us try to pack our time full of exotic trips and special experiences, but it’s also important to soak up the everyday events, the little things that piece by piece make up the jigsaw of our lives.

Right now I go out to work 4 days a week. Each morning I walk to the subway through a pleasant, leafy residential area and pass this very English looking churchyard pictured above. It’s a beautiful walk, made all the better by the changing seasons, something I missed very much while living in the Middle East. I’m very happy in my job and have no plans to leave, but I also know that nothing lasts forever and neither will this daily ritual. So each morning as I walk, think and listen to the birds sing, I remind myself that these too are the good old days. Some things don’t change, even for repatriates.

Do you have an expat escape plan?

Baku fire“Get out, the building’s on fire!”  What would you do?  What would you grab?  How many of us have given that serious thought, much less planned for it?

When we moved to Baku we were advised to always have a wad of cash on hand (in an easily convertible currency) in case we had to leave in a hurry.  This was 1996 and incoming BA flights diverted to avoid flying over Grozny, just the other side of the Caucus mountains and Azerbaijan itself had only relatively recently signed a truce with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

We called it our “running way money,” and we kept it under the ice cream in our chest freezer, the only place in the apartment with a lock and key.  One thousand dollars of cold hard cash (quite literally) in new bills.

Fortunately we never had to evacuate for security reasons.  In fact Baku turned out to be a very safe place to live, but there was a morning when we did have to get out in a hurry.

At 6am one Tuesday morning we woke to a loud pounding on our door.  A quick glance through the peep hole revealed my American neighbour, clad in her nightgown.  “The building’s on fire, we need to get out.  Now!”  I could already see tendrils of smoke drifting up the stairwell and the alarm in her eyes told me this was serious.  I shook my son awake (he’d sleep through WW3).  My husband grabbed the passports and the running away money.  I grabbed my jewelry roll in the bedside drawer together with our coats and we headed out the door.

The source of the smoke was an electrical fire in a single storey garage attached to the back of the building.  Hardly surprising given the poor state of the wiring (click on the photo to enlarge it and you’ll what I mean).  In fact it’s amazing we didn’t have fires every day.  You’ll be glad to hear it was extinguished before it did any damage to the main building and soon we were able to return to our apartment and get on with our day.

But this episode highlighted for me the importance of always knowing a) how to exit my home quickly and b) exactly what to grab and take with me.  We started keeping everything in one place (passports, money, important documents), together with a bag we could quickly scoop it all into.

While this is good policy for anyone, it’s particularly important for expats.  Passports usually contain your residence visas and important documents issued in your home country may be impossible to replace without showing up in person.

Present day technology, including cloud storage and mobile devices has given us many more options for keeping things safe.  Documents can be scanned, photos, music, videos and even books can be digital and stored online.  My mission in 2012 was to make my life as paperless as possible and I’ll be sharing some of my favourite tools and experiences in upcoming posts.

A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

“Great, let’s do it!” was my reaction when my husband phoned to tell me about a job he’d been offered in Azerbaijan. As soon as I’d hung up, I reached for the atlas to see where on earth I’d committed to go. I knew Azerbaijan was a former Soviet republic and had a vague idea about its location but that was all. My next step was a trip to the local library, where I found 2 books about Azerbaijan, both looking something like this. I didn’t expect they’d tell me much about my future life there as the spouse of a western expat, and I was right.

Please note, I’m talking about atlases, books and libraries. This was 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy. These days a Google search on Azerbaijan returns 298 MILLION results; Amazon over 2,300 results in books alone. I would have loved to have that information if it had been available at the time, all those blogs, websites and forums.

I’m planning to write a series of posts about successful online self-help communities for expats.  On my own admission I’m a computer/internet/social media junkie but before I begin, I want to issue a warning.

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the availability of online information has been a boon to the average expat family but it can be a double-edged sword. Too much information is a very real problem these days, as is over-thinking your decisions. At some point you must take a leap of faith combined with a positive attitude.

Secondly, spending too much time in the virtual world rather than the physical one can hinder your integration. I know, I’ve been there, having spent far too much time holed up at home with my laptop when I first repatriated.  Connecting online can help you make new friendships and foster old ones, but while it may facilitate, it can’t replace face-to-face, real world relationships.

I’ll leave you for now with this TED Talk by psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, who expresses far better than I the positive and negative impact the internet has had upon our lives.

Please remove your shoes

Are you a slipper person?  Do you remove your shoes when entering someone else’s home?  It seems to be quite a sensitive topic and one you need to pay attention to when moving to a new country.

We wore slippers at home when I was a child in England, but it was definitely a comfort thing, like changing out of your school uniform or work clothes into something loose and comfortable.  Wearing slippers or taking off your shoes in someone else’s home would have been very presumptuous, like helping yourself from the fridge and almost bordering on an insult.

When I first arrived in Canada it was mid-winter, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw plastic boot trays inside the door of every Canadian home.  In fact I thought “What a great idea!” given the slushy and salty streets of Toronto.  But as summer rolled around and the boot trays disappeared the habit of removing shoes did not and I quickly realized it was a huge faux-pas to keep your shoes on in a Canadian home.  Walking around in stocking feet or barefoot was the accepted norm for visitors.

When we moved to Azerbaijan I found they also had the shoes by the door habit.  But they took it to the next level and provided a selection of slippers for guests to wear.  My cleaning lady looked at me in horror when she realized I didn’t have any for her to change into.  Although we couldn’t communicate verbally I definitely got the message and quickly rushed off to the local bazaar to buy a supply of cheap cloth slippers in a variety of sizes.  The students who came to me each week to practise their English had their favourite pairs and would even argue if someone took “theirs.”

In the UAE which was much more multicultural, many people didn’t even keep their shoes inside – they’d be relegated to the porch or hallway if it were an apartment building.  And the steps of the mosques would be a jumble of hastily doffed footwear 5 times a day.  How frequently did someone end up with the wrong pair, I wondered?  Was it always a genuine mistake?

This weekend I saw an online discussion on the topic.  It was interesting to see different nationalities line up on each side of the debate.  Strangely both the shoes-off and shoes-on supporters argued that their custom was more clean and hygienic.  Are bare, sweaty (and sometimes dirty, bleurgh) feet preferable to shoes worn in the street?  Is it insulting to ask someone from a shoes-on society to remove their shoes in a shoes-off home?  As someone who quickly adapted to the shoes-off rule, I was surprised at the strong resistance many had to it.  Should you adopt local customs, or is it OK to keep your own when it comes to your personal living space?  Is there a happy medium?  I’m not sure I have an answer.

My Halloween Howlers

Candy?  Check.  Pumpkin?  Check.  I’m all ready for Halloween.  As a new immigrant to Canada 30-odd years ago, determined to “become Canadian,” I embraced this new and exotic celebration but didn’t always get it quite right.
Soon after arriving I was invited to attend a Halloween party.  What fun!  I looked in my closet to see what I could use as the basis for a costume and my eyes immediately fell on my traditional English duffel coat.  Perfect.  I would be Paddington Bear.  But what I’d overlooked was that this classic British children’s story was almost unknown this side of the pond.  I spent most of the evening explaining who I was to everyone I met.

You really would’ve thought I’d learn from this experience.  But no, a few years later I did it again, this time dressing up as Noddy.  “Are you an elf?” the children who came to the door asked.  I was crushed.  What kind of deprived upbringing had these poor Canadian children had?

When we moved to Azerbaijan, I was determined to share this important part of North American culture with the local students who visited me once a week to practice their conversational English.  All went well as I described the dressing up, candy and pumpkins.  My mistake was to try and explain some of the ancient beliefs behind the celebration.  As I started to talk about spirits rising and walking the earth I could see them eyeing each other nervously and shifting in their seats.  What kind of voodoo was this crazy Kanadka promoting?

Despite my best efforts it seems I really haven’t MASTERED Halloween.  How well have you adapted to celebrations in your new country?

Expat Kitchens – the good, the bad and the ugly

Miss Footloose’s post on her bizarre new kitchen (and bathroom) in Moldova, got me thinking about the sheer number and variety of kitchens I’ve lived with while we were overseas.

The first one in Azerbaijan had a magnificent floor, and the cupboards weren’t bad, but the oven didn’t work and the fridge wouldn’t get colder than 13C in summer.  And let’s not talk about the cockroaches and those ghastly pink wall tiles which were covered with layers of grease when we arrived.

Kitchen number 2 in Azerbaijan was a huge improvement.  It was literally the apartment above the old one, so essentially the same layout, but soooo much nicer and with brand new appliances that actually worked!

Kitchen number 1 in Dubai was in villa and certainly was large enough.  But which bright spark decided on the white floor tiles?  With a constant trickle of sand blowing in under the ill-fitting door, all it took was a few drops of water to turn it into mud.  That floor was never clean for longer than 5 minutes (during which this photo was taken).

Our kitchen in Cairo was as lovely as it looks . . . apart from the complete lack of air conditioning.  The landlord told us we were supposed to have a maid to cook for us, hence no need for air conditioning in this room.  Unfortunately it was me who was literally sweating over a hot stove.

Dubai kitchen number 2 was the largest kitchen I’ve ever had.  It was so big that I never did fill all the cupboards and so some were given over to spare bedding and hobby supplies.  It had a great view facing west with some fabulous sunsets.

Dubai kitchen number 3 was a lot smaller, but open plan to the living and dining room, which I liked.  I hate being shut away in another room when I’m cooking as I like to be able to chat and socialize while I chop and stir.

Last one – kitchen number 4 in Dubai (yes, we moved a lot).  This was the smallest of all.  So small in fact that there were more appliances than cupboards.  It’s a good job the supermarket was only a 5 minute walk away as I really couldn’t store more than a day or two’s food at a time.

Interestingly, whether well or poorly equipped, large or small, I still managed to turn out pretty much the same meals without too much difficulty.  A valuable lesson learned, now that we’re contemplating renovating our kitchen in Canada because now I know that spending thousands on fancy layouts and equipment will do nothing to improve my cooking skills!