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.


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!

Frederick Moments

Expat life gives us lots of magical memories that you cherish always.  In our family we call them Frederick moments.  “Frederick” is the title of a classic children’s book by Leo Lionni, one of those books that children think is funny, but make parents reach for the Kleenex.  I can’t explain the story better than the summary on

While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the dreamer and poet, whose endless store of supplies warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Frederick moments are times like these:-

A picnic on the beach in Azerbaijan with my ESL student friends.  Typical western woman, I’d spent hours making salads and sandwiches which they looked at in amazement. For them a picnic meant everyone piling in a ramshackle car, a quick stop at the bazaar to pick up fresh fruit, cheese, bread and some soft drinks, and then a day spent alternately swimming, playing and chatting.  So relaxed and easy.

Telegraph Island, Oman.  On a weekend trip from Dubai, we took a Dhow (traditional wooden boat) trip off the coast of the Mussandam Peninsula, where the Arabian Gulf narrows down to the Straits of Hormuz.  It’s the site of an old telegraph station (hence the name) and supposedly sparking the phrase “going round the bend” for the poor souls posted to this desolate spot in 1865.

My friend, Helga (pictured here), seems to attract Frederick moments with her inquisitive nature and disarmingly simple charm.  Here we were exploring the summer Majilis of the old ruler of Dubai.  Cool and calm, it was an oasis in the hustle and bustle of that modern metropolis.

I now make a mental note of Frederick moments, bookmark and file them in a special place in my mental hard drive.  There are many which I don’t have photos for, and yet they are just as clear, if not clearer in my mind than those shown here. Everyone has these “stop and smell the roses” moments, but some of my expatriate ones are the sweetest.

Memories of Cairo

I have a particular affection for Egypt, having lived in Cairo for a year with my family.  On Monday my husband said “I wish we were there,” as we watched the massive and inspiring demonstrations in Tahrir Square, but since then things have turned violent and the outcome is still uncertain, so I suspect that like many others by now we’d be queuing at the airport.

Although the political ramifications are huge, what I think about most is the fate of the average Egyptian, the kind of people we knew on a day-to-day basis.

What has happened to Mr Salah, my husband’s driver?  We quickly learned from him that Egyptians like to be addressed in what, to us, seemed a more formal style, so he was always “Mr” Salah.  His English was shaky (although far better than my Arabic) and he often got words confused.  When driving us past the Egyptian Museum (in Tahrir Square) he proudly waved his arm at what he called “The Egyptian Limousine.”  🙂

What has happened to Magdi, the taxi driver who worked from the taxi stand at the end of our street?  Once a week he’d ferry my husband and son to their RC car club meeting, my husband hanging on to the passenger door for dear life, so it wouldn’t swing open as they went round corners.

And Magdi’s colleague, Mr Adel?  The first time he picked me up from the supermarket he told me I didn’t need to give him directions because he already knew where I lived, and I should tell my son it was alright for him to answer when he said good morning to him on his way to school .  It was only then that I realized what a small “village” I lived in and that all the locals already knew all about the new family in Digla.

Has Dr Ghaly’s family medicine practice been affected?  Do the expatriates still gape with amazement as he summons his assistant with a bell to bring him a pen so he can write a prescription?

Does the unlikely Engineer Mohammed still own the knitting wool shop in Horia Square, where I used to buy supplies for my craft group?

And does Engineer Gamal still bring his apprentice to clean the air conditioning units, perching on top of them with a dust pan and brush, 9 floors up, much to my horror and amazement?

We lived in Cairo through 2001 and after that dreadful day in September, the biggest worry for all these people was the effect it would have on the Egyptian economy.  Their reaction may at first seem heartless, but the reality is they live a precarious hand-to-mouth existence and are very dependent on the expatriate and tourist trade.  Fortunately in 2001 Egypt remained peaceful and there were no evacuations, but how are they coping now?

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How Travel Can Change Your Life

Do you ever stumble around the internet, finding one great site after another?  I just did this morning and want to share a couple of websites I’ve found which demonstrate how being an expat can dramatically change your outlook and your life.

The first one is quite lighthearted, Where The Hell Is Matt? (which I came at through the website of a fellow Canadian expat, Susan Macaulay, Amazing Women Rock).  I had seen Matt’s “Dancing” video before but never read the full story.  He was a video game designer, working in Los Angeles who got an opportunity to move to Australia for his job.  Living there inspired him to start travelling and he took videos of himself dancing in various far flung spots as gag souvenirs of the places he’d visited.  When he posted them on his blog, they went viral and since then he’s been travelling all over the globe making more videos.  He’s an accomplished public speaker and who knows what kind of a career he’ll make from it.

The second, more serious one, is Greg Mortenson’s website, which I came across through reading his book Three Cups of  Tea.  He’s an Adult MK (Missionary Kid) who spent months living in a small village in Pakistan after a failed attempt to climb K2. In order to repay the help and friendship offered him he vowed to return and build a school.  Since then he’s built 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute.  His book is a combination of adventure story, travelogue and inspiration, I couldn’t put it down, and his second one, Stones Into Schools, is on my wish list.

These are very different stories but in both the experience of living in another country fundamentally changed not only the lives of these two people and but no doubt the lives of many others they have touched.

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Thank Goodness It’s Thursday

It’s Thursday but it feels like a Friday, or rather what I mean to say is, it feels like the start of the weekend.  That’s because in Dubai, Thursday IS the start of their Friday/Saturday weekend.  It took a long time, many years, to adjust to Sunday being the start of the working week and I never did figure out whether mid-week was Tuesday or Wednesday.

To make matters worse, when we first moved to Dubai in 2000, the official, government weekend was Thursday/ Friday, which meant the schools were closed on those days.  However many companies, including the one where my husband worked, took a Friday/Saturday weekend so as not to be out of touch with the rest of the world for too long.  Confused yet?  I sure was.  It was tough for families because it meant the weekend really lasted three days, but yet we only had one day all together.

Fortunately the government eventually changed their weekend so everyone was on the same schedule, but it still took me a long time to adjust.  Even now in the Middle East there are many people who work a 6 day week, or even a 6 ½ day week, taking only Friday morning as time off for religious obligations.  The idea of a weekend is still a relatively new concept.    

I did finally felt comfortable with the Islamic week but now I’m back in Canada it’s taking me a long time to adjust back.  So, for now, TGIT !  🙂

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Spring Cleaning your Life

It’s Novruz, the Spring festival, a time for new beginnings.  It’s also #Follow Friday on Twitter.  So I’m giving a quick WOOT! to three expat women who have announced this week that they’re trying something different, taking a new direction.

@Global_Girlonln aka @ExpatArc aka Danie Barkhouse who’s just launched a new website for women on the move

@expatexpert aka Robin Pascoe who has traded in her suitcase for a computer and has officially embarked upon the “Third Act” of her life.


@chompermom aka Leighann Garber, perhaps the most adventurous of all, who is embarking on a repatriation to the US to try and establish a new life for her family, single handed.  Read the full story here . . .

Anyone else out there who’s spring cleaning their life and would like a mention?

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