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.

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.

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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