Sunday, December 30, 2007

Moving On

I had a great Christmas break, and I hope you did too (if you celebrate it). My favourite present was -- needless to say -- a gadget. The Slingbox is a smart little box that you connect up to form a link between your TV content (Satellite receiver, cable box etc.) and your broadband internet connection. This, in effect, "posts" your TV on the internet, enabling you to watch your own TV or recorded programmes from any internet-connected computer. Pretty cool for those who travel on business and have to endure hours of American TV in hotel rooms. Now instead, you can boot up your laptop and watch Coronation St, or the big Premiership match.

Anyway, time to get to the point. Since Christmas I've been thinking about what to do with the blog. It seems incongruous to me to continue with a blog called "Neal of Arabia: Life as a Diplomatic Spouse..." when I am no longer in Saudi, and actually no longer a Diplomatic Spouse either, since Karen's Diplomatic status is only in effect when she's serving overseas. All of which suggests that it's time to move on, blog-wise.

It is with mixed feelings, then, that I announce that I will soon be writing the end of NoA and starting a new blog. I don't yet know what it will be called or what it will be about, but it will be more general and, I hope, better written and funnier than before. I will of course post full details here once it's up and running, and I sincerely hope you will follow me. NoA will stay on-line in archive form, for anyone who wants to go back over old ground or catch up on entries they missed.

I'm really struggling not to sign off with "Watch this space!". New Year's resolution: stop using clich├ęs.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Parking

I'm not in the habit of paying to park my car. In Riyadh you could park pretty much anywhere you can find a space -- even it it meant blocking another car in sometimes -- and even the shopping mall's multi-storey car parks were free. Here I have received two parking tickets in as many visits. Last time when I got one outside Karen's Mum's house I appealed against it, and WON! Last week we went to Highgate to finalise the paperwork for our move next month, and I got a second ticket. This time it was for going over the paid-for time by five minutes. Five Minutes! Bit spiteful if you ask me. On the way home we listened to a news item on the radio that said it was well worth appealing against parking tickets, because you usually win. I think I'll be appealing the second one too.

Having an appeal succeed is satisfying, but whether you end up paying the ticket or not, you have still spent a considerable part of your life worrying/writing/waiting to hear, and that's time you can't get back. I'm not saying there shouldn't be parking rules in the UK, but a little more latitude for those re-orienting themselves to the UK way of life might be in order.

Riyadh/WindsorCam Back Online

Finally managed to sort out my two phone/email/camera dilemma, by accidentally dropping my old Blackberry, thus necessitating an upgrade to the new model, so now I have a single phone/email/camera device, and can once again snap away when I'm on my travels around town.

Can't call it RiyadhCam any more, and WindsorCam would be only temporary. Maybe I'll just call in NealCam, or maybe I'll just drop the whole name thing altogether.

Anyway here are a few snippets of what we've been up to in the run up to Christmas:

A typical family gathering

Abigail, jet-lagged from the trip from Hertfordshire!

Abigail, Lucas and Elliot at Langley train station, on the way to a Christmas Carol Singalong at the Albert Hall

Either Lucas is wearing his Santa hat at a funny angle or someone's just covered his head in shaving foam.

Ice rink at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

BP in his hospital room. He's over the worst of his MRSA infection now but will be staying in until the New Year.

No it's not a cookery lesson, we have to wear these aprons in the hospital so we don't take BP's bugs home with us.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Plumbing Problem

We've now been in the Windsor flat for three weeks, and have been without a working shower for the last six days. We noticed a few days before that the temperature of the water was temperamental, and then realised that the water coming from the head was getting colder because the hot water was leaking out of the cylinder fixed to the wall, and so not making it as far as the head at all. After that the leak got worse, to the point where water was gushing out of the cylinder even when the shower was turned off. We had no alternative but to shut the water off at the mains and call the managing agents.

They did send a plumber round within the hour, but he didn't have a replacement cylinder on him so he capped off the two now-bare pipes in the shower cubicle so that we could have the rest of the water on, and said he'd order a new cylinder. That was last Friday. It is now Thursday morning and we haven't seen him since. I did get a phone call yesterday from the managing agents to say the part was in and he was coming to install it, but that didn't happen.

So, we're having baths and I had to go to B&Q and spend £1.98 on a rubber shower head attachment for the bath taps so we can wash our hair. What I hate about situations like this is not that things sometimes take longer than originally promised, but that the person on whom you are relying to fix your problem just seems to disappear off the face of the earth, and you hear nothing unless you keep making phone calls to chase him up. Even when you do get hold of them they are unrepentant, always finding someone or something else to blame for their not having called you to explain what was going on.

In Riyadh this would not have happened. We would have put in a Works Request to the Embassy and the Technical Works Team would have sent somebody round same day. If they had needed to order a part we could always be sure that every effort would be taken to get in ordered and installed as quickly as possible, and we would have returned to normal shower operations within 24 hours typically. Now, I know things are different there, and not in a wholesome way: There is a clear class system with a distinct servant class, so the reason why the service is so good is that the workers know that they must do a good job in order to keep it. I am not comfortable with regarding others as servants or somehow inferior to me, and I believe in equality, but why is it that the price for this equality seems to be the will to provide good service? It's as if the plumber -- now my equal -- resents the dynamic between us: "I'm as good as him, so why should I rush around to make his life easier? He can wait for his shower to be fixed 'til I'm good and ready!" Of course he won't voice any of this, but will instead blame the parts department, the managing agents, or even the other plumber who installed the thing in the first place.

I'd like to find a way to inject tradesmen in the UK with the same service ethic I enjoyed in Riyadh, while maintaining social equality. This experience leaves me depressed at the prospect of dealing with the telephone/TV/electricity/gas companies when we move into the new flat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Greetings

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers, with best wishes from me and the rest of the family. Oh, did I tell you we're actually Elves?

Click the image


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Crimbo Limbo

This period feels a little odd. We've been back in the UK for just over two weeks now, and already the sights and sounds of Riyadh are beginning to fade into background memory, but the friends we left behind remain in our thoughts. The four of us are living in a flat made for two, but it's just for a few weeks then we move again. Some of our stuff (too much actually) is with us, making the flat look and feel even smaller, some of it is at Karen's Mum's, and the rest is bobbing along on an ocean somewhere, to be delivered to our new flat in the New Year.

So while we're settling into routines and picking up old habits, it doesn't really feel like home. The weather is wintry, which is bad because I'm cold, but it's also good for the same reason. This has always been my favourite time of year in England: I like the frost and the snow (when we can get it), the dark afternoons, and the need to wrap up in several additional layers before going out makes coming home again all the more comforting.

My wallet seems to be haemorr.... hemmmoorrrag... bleeding money. I think a recalibration of our Spend-O-Meter is definitely on the cards. But after Christmas, eh? The other thing that's a bit of a mess right now is that the more we re-install ourselves in the Rat Race, the more organizations want to know where we live. Lettings agents, motor insurance companies, websites, and so on, but which address to give? The FCO one's no good, because that mail would go to Riyadh. Don't really want to give out the address where we are at the moment because that's only valid for another four weeks, and we can't yet give out our new permanent address because we haven't signed the contract yet. There's always our previous UK address, of the house in Langley that we still own and are renting out (that's another story!). So of course I end up giving each company a different one, depending on what they need it for and whether I care if I get mail from them.

We saw the best and worst of England standing shoulder to shoulder last night. My Dad and the rest of the Royal Free Singers gave a concert of Christmas music in a church in Windsor. It was an enjoyable, civilised evening; we all had a good sing-along and a mince pie, and the choir performed a carol of my Dad's own composition, so that made the evening even more special for us. When we stepped out of the church afterwards our attention was immediately grabbed by the scene across the street. A large bar, whose young crowd had spilled noisily onto the street for a smoke. The lads with their shirts hanging out, and the girls wearing skirts that went higher than their bare legs, the only coats in sight worn by the dozen or so police officers standing watch by their white van, ready to cart troublemakers off to the cells if it "kicks off". We walked briskly past the crowd, trying to minimise the children's exposure to the f***ing expletive-peppered conversations they were all f***ing having.

We got home to a flat so warm my glasses steamed up in the hall, peeled off our scarves, gloves and coats, drew the curtains and bolted the door. Ah, that's better.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Busy

A quick update, because I'm busier than a one-armed paper hanger this week.

We've got the flat we wanted in London, should have contracts signed by end next week. Picking the children up from school this afternoon, then we've got them for the holidays. Monitoring the eBay auction of my Mum's car, which she's selling because she can no longer see well enough to drive. Going to the Novell Christmas Party tonight, and BP has got an evening pass out of the hospital to attend, which is good news.

Oh yes, and working.

Decided to abandon the horn upgrade plan. I went to a small garage but the mechanic there was saying it was about 3 hours' work (hard to believe), and in the end I chickened out of ordering such cosmetic surgery on what is still a nearly new car. So, I got a refund at Halfords for the horn and am learning to live with my mild-mannered motor.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Horn Upgrade

Been driving our new Polo for almost a week now, and I'm really pleased with it. My feet nuzzle luxuriously into the deep pile of the new mats, and the new Satellite Navigation system I bought feels right at home on the windscreen (more about SatNav another time). There are one or two niggling things wrong though: The VW logo plate is missing from the centre of one of the rear wheels (not sure if this was the case when I took delivery or if it disappeared subsequently), and one of the plastic collars that hold the pins of the rear headrests has broken away from its fixing inside the seat, with the result that when you adjust or remove said headrest, the collar comes with it, leaving an open wound of foam rubber on the top of the seat. However irritating these may be to me (and believe me: stuff like this really irritates me), they pale into insignificance next to the shame that is the horn. It sounds like Noddy's horn, and has about the same power to intimidate. I feel like sounding it on the open road is going to have one of two effects: either no-one will notice or the bigger cars and vans will turn and laugh, ridiculing the little runt that can't manage more than a whimper. I have a mental image of my car being pushed back and forth in a circle of big bully cars with evil grins, chanting "Weedy Horn! Weedy Horn!".

I'm used to better than this. The horn on my Prado in Riyadh used to blow the fur off stray cats at the roadside. So, I went out and bought a new horn. A loud, two-tone new horn. A horn to hide behind, a horn whose coat to hold in a fight. What peace of mind and new-found confidence It'll give me, and all for £15.99 from Halfords.

Next challenge: getting the new tough-guy horn fitted. I went along to the local VW dealer yesterday, thinking that I'd get them to fit the new horn, fix the headrest collar and wheel logo under warranty, and while I'm there I'll take advantage of their offer to upgrade the central locking system for £19.95. I think this is another make-small-car-feel-like-big-car ploy on my part, since the feature the upgrade adds is one that I've only seen on more expensive cars in the past. Once upgraded the central locking will engage automatically when you drive off, and unlock automatically when you remove the ignition key.

An hour and a half after handing over the keys I was given the following verdict:
  • Wheel logo plate: not covered under Warranty. New one can be ordered for £11
  • Headrest collar: not covered under Warranty. New one would cost £81 to order and fit.
  • Horn: they will not fit a 3rd-party product to the car, but can offer a VW horn upgrade for £320
  • Central Locking upgrade: done.
Eighty-one pounds for a plastic collar?? Three hundred and twenty to replace the horn?? No thanks! Back in Riyadh I could have simply instructed our driver to get it all fixed, and the car would have been delivered back to the house later the same day, washed and vacuumed inside and with all the work done for around £20.

I drove away wondering where else to turn to get my horn installed, and whether I can live with the knowledge of the broken headrest collar, then felt a bit better as the car passed the 5mph mark and the central locking engaged with a secure "clunk".

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Pimp My Ride

The last week has been pretty busy with various setting-up activities. We think we've found the place where we want to move to in the New Year: a lovely 3 bedroom flat in Highgate, North London. We'll be putting in an offer to rent it on Monday, and if successful we'll be moving into it in the second week of January.

We also bought our new car this week (the fifth of The Five): a VW Polo. The Polo was a bargain: a year old and with just 7000 miles on the clock, it's a small car but really fun to drive. We decided to get a smaller car than we're used to, to suit our new city lifestyles. It's easier to manoeuvre through the narrow streets of Highgate, easier to park, and cheaper to run than any car we've owned before. However there are two problems with it that require immediate customisation. The first is the floor, which needs protecting by a nice set of car mats. The second is the horn. Oh dear, the horn. This may be a common lament among small car owners (that's owners of small cars, not small owners of cars), but the horn on the Polo is the weediest, wimpiest thing I've ever heard. When you decide the situation calls for use of the horn you're likely to be either angry or scared, and in both cases you need your horn blast to quickly, efficiently, and emphatically to convey your desired message. This is most often one of the following:

  1. PAARP! Get out of the way you idiot!
  2. HONNNKKKK! More important person than you coming through!
  3. BBEEEEEPPPP! Watch out!
When trying to convey any of these messages in the Polo however, what actually comes across is:

peep "I say, sorry to bother you, but would you mind moving aside please, if it's not too much trouble. Thanks very much."

It's hard to adequately describe how pathetically weedy the horn sounds on our new car, so on Monday I'm going to finalise the pimping of my ride, and complement my killer set of car mats with a macho horn upgrade I can be proud of.

You know you're getting old when stuff like this gets you excited.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Five Cars in Five Days

Is it just me that stuff like this happens to?...

As I mentioned before, we arrived at Heathrow on Thursday evening and stayed in a nearby hotel. Next morning I take a taxi (not counted as one of the five cars) to the Hertz depot to pick up my rental car. This journey -- while enjoyed in the luxurious sumptuousness of a Mercedes limo -- was only about two miles, and set me back £15. I could've rented a car and driver for a whole day for that in Riyadh.

Sorry, I digress:

Picked up a nice new Ford Mondeo at Hertz and drove it back to the hotel to pick up Karen and the luggage: four very large, very heavy suitcases and three smaller bags. I got out and pressed the Lock button on the key... nothing. Tried again... still nothing. In a bit of a hurry (and cold, and it was drizzling), I did the only other thing I could and locked the car the old fashioned way by putting the key in the door lock and turning it. Came out with Karen and a porter wheeling the luggage, and tried the key's Unlock button... nothing. So I opened the door with the key. The alarm went off. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! and so on. Of course pressing the buttons on the key had no effect, so all we could do was get in, start the engine, and wait for the alarm's preset timeout to elapse. This was probably set at thirty seconds but it felt like an hour.

Got back to Hertz and it was too difficult for them to change the battery in the key, so instead they gave me a different new Ford Mondeo. Which would have been fine, except now I had to unload all the bags, put the rear seats back up and attach the parcel shelf in the old car, remove the parcel shelf in the new car and put the rear seats down, then load all the suitcases in to Car #2.

Car #2 was quite good in that it lasted us two whole days, and more importantly got us to the school to pick up the children, and got them back to school again without incident. However, Hertz rental is not all that cheap. We were intending to rent a car for about a week until we find one we want to buy, so after a couple of days in this second Hertz car I wanted to find a better deal. We're staying in Windsor, and a friend at the Embassy before we left told us about Baldocks of Windsor, who do cheap car rental. The reason it's less expensive is that the cars they use are a little older; in fact she told me they were "four or five years old" usually. So yesterday we went to Baldocks and exchanged our brand new Ford Mondeo for another Ford Mondeo that turned out to be older than Abigail. True, it had leather seats. True, It ran very well for a car of that age, but still -- £25 per day for a twelve-year-old car?? By this time I'd committed so I tried to make the best of it. Baldocks is a dingy old garage built under the railway arches on Alma Rd., and I met the Father of this Father/Son family business: a weather-worn man in his sixties wearing a cloth cap, blue overalls, and oil on his hands. I explained that I just wanted it for a couple of days because we're going car shopping.

He said, "Wot car you after then?"
"Oh, something small and nippy (and cheap to run). Renault Clio, that sort of thing."
"Not good cars, them. Problems."
"Oh? I've read some good reports."
"Well I don't know the new ones do I?"
This conversation was taking place as we sat on oily chairs by an oily desk, filling in grimy forms in a dark and dank brick railway arch, lit only by a couple of fluorescent tubes on each wall and filled with broken automobile carcasses. Karen was waiting in the warmth and comparative safety of the Hertz Mondeo we were about to return.

The deal finally done, we set off in convoy in Cars #2 and #3 back to Hertz. Once there we handed it back and Karen (who had of course been driving the newer car) jumped in to the passenger seat of our old banger and made a face. I had just started moving off when I saw the Hertz woman gesticulating wildly in my wing mirror. We had forgotten to remove the apartment keys from the keyring.

Now in Car #3 we set off in search of a new car to call our own. First stop, the Renault dealership in Slough. We walked up and down the forecourt for about ten minutes...

"This one looks quite nice"
"I'm freezing."
"How about this one? It's got a CD player?"
"I'm hungry."
"Three door or five?"
"I can't tell you how cold and hungry I am."
(I'll let you work out who is saying what).

...before finally giving up waiting for some help and going into the showroom. Well, I went into the showroom. Karen went to the Marks and Spencers next door to get something to eat. The "salesman" -- and I use the term loosely -- took us for a spin in a five-door Clio, but I found the 1.2 litre engine underpowered: one of those cars where you put your foot to the floor and still rock yourself forward and back in the seat to try and push it along. He couldn't find us anything better so we made our excuses and left. Karen put the key in the driver's door of the old Mondeo (this one was so old it didn't even have Lock and Unlock buttons on the key), and there was a funny noise, and the driver's door of the old Mondeo never opened again. We could lock and unlock the car from the passenger side but the driver's door had clearly decided to take early retirement. So, in I get on the passenger side and climb over to the driver's seat.

Our next stop is at Trade Sales, just down the road. We pull up in the customer car park and I am spotted climbing over and getting out of the car the same side as Karen by two of their salespeople.

"Doesn't it work?"
"Yes of course it works. I'm just choosing to get out the other side because I'm an idiot."
(That's what I wanted to say. In reality I just said, "No" with a sheepish, embarrassed smile.)

At this point the salesman could see he was onto a sure thing and latched onto us like a limpet. We wandered around their two forecourts (one either side of a main road. No wonder they wear those bright yellow coats, crossing traffic a hundred times a day) looking for Clios and anything else similar that might catch our eye. Karen continued moaning about the cold. I offered her my scarf but she said she wanted her pashmina. Where's the logic in that? True, a pashmina might look more stylish than a man's scarf purchased from Debenhams in Riyadh, but it's cold now, and the pashmina's at home. I put my scarf around her neck and tightened it, gently.

Karen's outlook on the whole car buying process was in direct proportion to how cold and/or hungry she was. Before at the Renault garage she said she was worried we were being railroaded into buying the underpowered Clio we had just test driven, and that we shouldn't rush into anything. Here, a half hour of being cold later, she spotted a black VW Polo, got in, and when I got in next to her, said, "Let's get this one." I asked for a test drive. They don't do test drives at Trade Sales. I asked for a discount. They don't do discount. I said we'd take it.

While we were in the office doing the paperwork I was on the phone to Baldocks to complain about the jammed driver's door in Car #3. They offered me a replacement. We left a deposit on Car #5 and set off back to Baldocks to swap Car #3 for Car #4: a seven-year-old Fiat Punto which makes a kind of Wonka's Chocolate factory "gloop gloop" noise when running, that makes me think it runs on bubbles instead of petrol.

Wish us luck. I just hope Car #4 gets us around town and back to pick up Car #5 before it runs out of bubbles.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Still Adjusting

Had a nice -- but wet -- weekend with the children. We spent most of Saturday visiting family and on Sunday went to London to do some clothes shopping, and got caught in a torrential downpour. Lunch was at The Argyll Arms in Argyll St., just off Oxford St. The food was good and our dripping clothes and damp smell didn't seem to offend the other diners too much. Funnily enough they all seemed to be much drier than we; either the rain was targetting us specifically out of spite, or we're a bit rusty (sorry!) on how to handle this kind of weather. Needless to say the four umbrellas we own (and took to Riyadh with us but never used) are in a container somewhere in the Arabian Gulf.

Still haven't made up my mind how to feel about living back in the UK. Of course it's great to be close to friends and family, but Riyadh was our home for two years and we have friends there too, so we feel a bit in Limbo. Things currently occupying our time are flat-hunting, car-shopping, and generally paying through the nose for things that we're used to getting either for free or cheap. On our first night here we fancied a late snack, so ordered two drinks and a plate of nachos in the hotel bar: £25 !! I could've filled the petrol tank on my Prado three times over for that!

The other thing that feels a bit alien at the moment is my loss of RiyadhCam. When in Saudi I had two mobiles: the Saudi number from the Embassy (RiyadhCam) and my Blackberry (work). Now I have only my UK number, and really need to keep the Blackberry for work, so my Samsung phone that also did such sterling work as RiyadhCam lies switched off, cardless, and unused in the bottom of my bag. This can only be bad for the blog, because without pictures all you've got is my writing, and we can't have that, can we? I enquired about having two SIM cards on the same number but apparently that doesn't support data services, so would break my Blackberry email.

I wonder if I can use the camera on my phone without having a SIM card in it? Ooh that's a possibility. Where's me bag?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Rushing around

I don't have time to blog properly right now but I wanted to post something just to show that I haven't forgotten about you!

We got back to UK on Thursday night, and since then we've hardly stopped loading/unloading suitcases: big, heavy suitcases. Renting cars, changing rental cars because the first one didn't work (and unloading/loading four big, heavy suitcases again), shopping, paying (PAYING!) to park the car, and all the while trying to dodge raindrops.

While en route back I received an email telling me that BP -- a friend of mine from work and the one who got the speeding ticket in Nevada back in September -- had been infected by the MRSA Superbug, and this took hold following a routine operation on a knee injury. He was taken seriously ill with breathing and heart problems, and transferred immediately to the Coronary Care Unit of a larger hospital. I went to visit him yesterday and he's out of danger now, but it was a close call and it'll take a while for him to fully recover.

This morning (Saturday) we're driving up to the school to collect the children for the weekend. Really looking forward to seeing them again.

Not sure yet how I feel about being back here, and not in Saudi anymore. We made some great friends there and I want to thank them all for their fond farewells and kind wishes.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ma' asalama

I've probably misspelled that, but it's Arabic for goodbye.

Today is our last full day in Saudi and although it's sunny and the sky is blue it's only 18 Celsius, which for Saudi is flippin' cold. Still, helps us prepare for returning to the UK. Karen is at work and I am sitting in an empty house crossing things off my to-do list. I still have to return borrowed DVDs to the library, close the bank accounts, sign some forms to do with the house, and hand the car over to Karen's successor. Tonight there is a party at the Wadi Club, where we will say our last goodbyes to everyone, and we depart for pastures cold and grey tomorrow morning.

I feel like I should be writing a retrospective about the last two years: the highs and lows, things I will always remember and things I want to forget, but I can't find the words for that today. My mind is still buzzing about leaving logistics and packing (I was wide awake at 3am this morning). So, here's the plan. This will be my last posting from Riyadh but I will continue with NoA for a while once we get back to UK. That will give me time to properly summarise a remarkable and memorable two years, and to give you my first impressions of returning to life in England. It will take another few weeks for Karen's next job to be finalised too, so I'm going to give myself that time to "finish" this blog (for want of a better word), then decide on my blogging future once we know what our working future will be.

So for now, it's Ma' asalama and I will write again once we're settled in cold, dark Berkshire.

RiyadhCam: The Final Episode (Really)

Had to share this. I went out shopping this morning for the final time, just to get some Paracetamol and Antacid tablets from the pharmacy. When I asked the pharmacist for some Rennie this is what he gave me:

The Rennie Gift Pack

Two jumbo pack of 48 Rennie tablets, in a gift box, complete with free cutlery set. And all for 17 Riyals (£2).

Back of box

Only in Saudi!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Neal Of Arabia

Yes, the time has finally come to reveal the true Son of the Desert. Little did you know it, but all the while you've been thinking of me as a blundering ex-pat looking quizzically at life in Saudi, whereas in reality I'm a true native and have been wearing a thobe and ghutrah for the last two years. I can hold the steering wheel with my knees, and drink coffee, smoke, and text while driving with the best of them. I have a different-coloured set of prayer beads for each day of the week and I like nothing better on a Friday afternoon than picnicking with my family on the wild fringe of the Dammam Highway, sat cross-legged on the dusty ground in the lee of our 4x4.

All of which is my twisted way of trying to tell you how I felt when I donned a thobe for the very first time the other day. I selected one of Riyadh's hundreds of traditional clothing stores almost at random: I'd been given advice as to which part of the city to go to, but from then on it was all my own work.

"Thobe-U-Like"

I told the two Pakistani assistants that I wanted the full kit, and before I knew it one of them had whipped his tape measure out and was taking my vital statistics. He measured my height shoulder to ankle, followed by my waist. They must keep the "fatty" sizes out the back because he immediately walked past a wall filled floor to ceiling with boxed thobes and through a curtain to get one from the store room. There are several collar styles, with the main two being a high, round collar and the other a more conventional shirt collar. The accepted norm here seems to be that the round collar is preferred by the Young Bucks, while the older men wear the regular one. I chose the round one, however, partly because I didn't want to be lumped into the Old Man category and partly because I think it looks better. Besides, the Young Bucks leave theirs unbuttoned, so as long as I button mine up I'll look respectable and not mutton dressed as lamb -- at least, it's a theory.

Hmm, which to choose?

The next dilemma was choosing a ghutrah. With hundreds on display and all subtle variations of a single standard pattern, there wasn't much of a choice to be made, so I just said, "I want a ghutrah" and accepted the first one, presented in a nice box, that they offered me. To that I added an iqal -- the black ring that goes above the headdress, and a skull cap that goes on the head and helps stop the ghutrah from slipping. Also in the pile were white undertrousers and T-shirt. I was quite impressed with the packaging. Although shopping very much at the budget end of the market, the ghutrah, iqal and thobe each came nicely presented in their own, substantial boxes.

"I'll take it!"

The whole lot came to just over 200 Riyals, which is about £26. I could have spent a lot more and had a thobe tailor-made, but I'm running short of time and will probably only wear it once in a blue moon anyway.

I made my way home expecting none of it to fit. I hadn't tried anything on and the chaps in the shop had made some pretty snap assessments of my size, but I should have known better than to worry. When I got home and tried it on it fitted perfectly; they know their stuff alright. The only thing that felt a bit odd was the iqal, which felt too small, but then I don't know how one should feel so it might be normal. Not worth worrying about and I don't have time to go back and exchange it.

I toyed with the idea of having it on when Karen came home from work as a surprise, but thought she might have a heart attack and press the panic button on being confronted by a Saudi in the house, so I waited for her to return and then gave her the fashion show. She managed to keep a straight face too as she snapped these photos in our back garden. Do I look like a natural Arab or a fool with no self respect?

"Salaam Alaykum. Is that KFC Delivery?"

The mobile phone is the ideal accessory for posing like a Saudi. The image would have been complete with a cigarette in the other hand.

Thobes are really comfortable. It's like being able to wear your pyjamas outdoors!

So if you're in Royal Windsor anytime in the next couple of months and you see a Saudi walking down Peascod St. wearing light blue Crocs, come and say Hi, because I expect everyone else will be giving me a wide berth.

Monday, November 26, 2007

RiyadhCam: Final Edition

Time to unload the latest -- and last -- collection of pictures from my mobile phone. RiyadhCam has been invaluable to me as I wander around this place; small and light enough to use anywhere, allowing me to capture images of Riyadh that would otherwise be very hard to get in a city where photography is strictly prohibited in some places, and merely frowned upon in others.

Anyway, here's the final batch:

Granada Mall at prayer time.

Doesn't have quite the same ring as New York or Milan.

Examples of the finery Saudi women wear to parties and weddings. Their unveiled form is for relatives' eyes only.

...and again. Some malls have dozens of shops like this all in a row.

By the cash desk in Debenhams.

Of course Christmas is not allowed to be celebrated publicly, but that doesn't stop expat-friendly supermarkets from displaying certain provisions in a certain arrangement.

And finally, the famous sign at the entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter. Spot the typo.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Neal Soon-to-be-no-longer Of Arabia

Things are really busy at present, what with packing, arranging the sale of the car, making arrangements in the UK and so on, but there is one thing overarching all of that. One thing that is keeping me awake at night (not really). And that is... what am I going to do with this blog once I cease being Neal of Arabia? We could go somewhere else exotic or we could be heading for two years plus in London. Who wants to read about life in London? I'm starting to worry that being Neal of Arabia is all that makes me interesting to my thousands (well, dozens) of readers.

I will certainly continue blogging -- it's so much a part of my life now that I can't imagine not doing it anymore, but what to blog about, and what to call it? Should I change the name, or put NoA into hibernation and start up something new? Will my loyal fans follow me on this new venture? Would anyone care if I were to swap RiyadhCam for RuislipCam?

Looking at the prospect of setting up home again in UK the thing I'm least looking forward to is having to deal with all those call centres: Sky, BT, car insurance, gas, electricity, water board. Why is it that, whatever time of the day or night I choose to phone a call centre (ANY call centre), I get, "You have called at a busy time." How inconsiderate of me, and how nice of them to put me in a queue until the next agent becomes available. I'm so lucky that they have deigned to allow me to use their services. Right, last-minute check: bill, account number, password, mother's maiden name... don't want to get caught out when my turn finally comes.

As you can see, call centres are a pet hate of mine and the mere thought of having to deal with them all again is making my blood pressure rise. Perhaps a Call Centre blog is just the ticket: a place where I can blow off steam and so hold on to my sanity. It's you, the poor reader, I feel sorry for. Maybe I'll rethink and create a new blog about nice things. Something you can visit every day and get a little ray of sunshine to put that spring in your step as you head off to work. Of course in reality it'll probably end up being a bit of both, and just like NoA except without the "A" stuff.

PS I bought my Arabian outfit this morning: thobe, undergarments, iqal, and ghutra. Trouble is I haven't had time to try it on. I did try on the iqal (the black fanbelt-thing that goes on the head) but it feels too small. Have to swap it tomorrow for an XXL one. Anyway, pictures to follow some time between now and Thursday.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Karen on TV

As mentioned in an earlier post, Karen recently appeared on Saudi breakfast news TV talking about the new Visa Application Centre that she helped to open in central Riyadh. I managed to get hold of a copy of the recording, so here it is for your viewing pleasure. Karen answered questions for several minutes but in the final clip they only used a few seconds. The TV world is so fickle...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Refund

I went to the Riyadh offices of Gulf Air this morning, with three objectives:
  1. Change our exit flight to an earlier time
  2. Book the (included) Chauffeur Drive option at Heathrow
  3. Get a refund for two of our tickets back from Dubai the other week being downgraded.
1 & 2 took about ten minutes. 3 took fifty minutes.

There were two rows of double-parked cars, as usual, outside the Gulf Air office, so I copied everyone else and blocked someone else's car in. After a wait of around ten minutes it was my turn to be seen, but no sooner had I sat down than an Arab asked me to move my car so he could get out. I let him out then parked in the space he'd vacated, then returned to the agent's desk.

When we returned from Dubai a few weeks ago Elliot and I had to come back in Economy, because Gulf Air had oversold Business Class and had only two of our four seats available. I was told at the time to keep the ticket stubs and obtain a refund from my local office. On hearing this the agent's first gambit was to say he needed to email the head office in Bahrain to enquire if a refund is in order, then he would phone me when the answer came back. This was totally out of order and I told him so. It was they who had oversold the flight, I had proof of purchase for four Business Class tickets and two Economy stubs for the same flight in my hand. Of course a refund was in order. I told him I was not prepared to come back again to get my money and that I wanted him to sort it out now, while I waited.

He went off to speak to someone, taking all my paperwork with him, then returned a few minutes later carrying three thick, carbon-papered receipt books. He asked for my Iqama (I.D. card), which he gave to a little man in overalls. The little man disappeared and came back a couple of minutes later with my Iqama and a photocopy of same. The agent then told the little man to collect his computer printouts from the printer on the other side of the office, which he did, then he disappeared again. Two minutes later I saw the same little man walking out from the back office carrying a cup of coffee, which he took into another office and put on the desk. This chap is apparently the Office Gopher, although his dark blue overalls make him look more like a cleaner. Back at the desk there is much tapping of keys and stapling of paper, then the agent starts filling in a (detailed) form, in one of the books, in triplicate. Then he gets me to sign and date it, and leads me to the cashier's office to get my money.

I didn't know it at the time but the refund in question was SR88 per ticket, about £12, so I'd hung around for fifty minutes and witnessed a mess of paperwork, all to get less than £25 back.

I finally got out about an hour later to find my car had been blocked in, so I had to go back in and find the right driver to let me out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mush For Brains

I'm back from my trip to sunny (and partly rainy) Orlando, and I'm sitting here with a somewhat mushy outlook on life. I put this down to three things:

1. Jet lag.
2. Trying to re-train my brain to speak English again instead of American.
3. Ten days to go before leaving Riyadh for ever.


1.
I left Orlando at 2pm local time on Sunday, which is 10pm Riyadh time. A two hour flight to Washington Dulles Airport (horrible place, what I saw of it), a two-hour layover, then a seven hour overnight flight to Heathrow (bought a Business Class upgrade with my miles: Thank you United! Bmi won't let you do that), then a five-hour layover, then another seven hour flight to Riyadh, arriving at 9pm local time on Monday. So a twenty-three hour trip airport to airport, more like twenty-five door-to-door. I took a sleeping pill and went to bed at around 11.30 last night, and woke up at 9am. Better than I'd hoped, but let's see how I feel come sunset.


2.

  • Restroom = Toilet
  • "Can I get...?" = "Could I have...?"
  • Check = Bill
  • Candy = Chocolate
  • Fillet ("Filay") = Fillet ("Fillet")
  • Appetizer = Starter
  • Entree = Main Course
  • "Let's go ahead and get started" = "If I could have your attention please"
  • "Wahder" = "Water"
  • Trash = Rubbish


3.
We leave Riyadh on Nov 29, in nine days' time, and before that we have to pack up all our possessions and get them collected by the right people at the right time, to be sent to the right place. Apparently (I didn't know this before) there are two different companies shipping our UAF (Unattended Air Freight) and our Heavy Baggage, and the survey that was done before I went to the U.S. was just for the UAF. The guy must've thought it was his birthday as I made him list out everything we own. But no. Apparently there's another company moving the Heavy Baggage and there survey is happening on Tuesday at 10am. Hang on... today is Tuesday, and it's now 1040... Where are they?

I'm a bit worried about all our things getting to us at our new location (wherever that may be). We're going to UK for six weeks to spend Christmas and New Year with the children and family, and for Karen to finalise her next posting. During that time we only need our UAF and don't want to see the Heavy Baggage until we have a new permanent address. I'm also fretting about being able to transfer money out of our Saudi bank account and into a UK one, about canceling the broadband internet connection late enough that we can still use it but early enough so we don't pay a month's fee for nothing.

Oh yes, and I have a load of follow-up work from our Kickoff meeting in Orlando. ...think I'll just drink my coffee and continue staring into space for another ten minutes, then I'll "go ahead and get started".

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Counting Down

It's almost time for us to pack up our things and leave Riyadh for good. Tomorrow I fly to the U.S. on a business trip for eight days, so when I get back we will have only ten more days in the Kingdom, with our final day being on November 29.

We've had the Garage Sale and now we are starting to run down the grocery stocks by consuming whatever we happen to have left in the cupboard/fridge/freezer rather than buying more food. Should make for some interesting meal times: what could you conjure up with tinned tuna, frozen peas, baked beans, fish sauce, four half-empty packets of pasta, and a nearly full family tub of Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream?

We're also starting to plan the packing, and this morning I had the local DHL agent round to do a survey of our belongings, which leave post in three consignments. First there's the luggage we take with us, enough for around three to four weeks. Then there is a larger consignment called Unattended Air Freight or UAF for short. This will contain the remainder of our clothes and some other items that we will need in the first couple of months. The last, and largest, consignment is the Heavy Baggage. The HB contains all the rest of our effects, including computers, TV/Hi-fi equipment, kitchen crockery, pans, utensils, framed pictures, CDs/DVDs, board games, Karen's craft gear and so on. This will take two to three months to follow us because it goes by ocean container. Showing the DHL guy round the house with his clipboard and tape measure reminded me of the last time we did it, back in our house in Berkshire, and I'm not looking forward to receiving/unpacking at the other end either, as my report of the baggage arriving here will attest.

So now I'm off to pack my suitcase, then tonight is my last Poker game with the gang, then I leave for the airport at Midnight for the overnight flight to London and then on to the U.S. I doubt that I'll have time to blog while I'm away, but you never know. It's quite usual for the jet lag to leave me wide awake in the middle of the night, in which case you may get some wee-small-hours ramblings, but if you're lucky there won't be anything more until I get back to Saudi.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

15 Minutes of Fame

Have you ever been on TV? If not, you may know someone who has. Well now you know a few more.

The Embassy is going through a major change programme at the moment, to do with the visa application process. Part of the process -- the bit where the applicant comes in, submits their application and documents, pays for, and later collect their visa -- has this week moved to a brand new Visa Application Centre (VAC) in the centre of town, run by a commercial partner. The completed application forms are then sent to the Embassy and Karen and colleagues process them, with the resulting issued visas being delivered back to the VAC for next-day pickup. This move is being done in conjunction with a biometrics initiative, so applicants now also have their fingerprints and a photo recorded, for security reasons.

These changes are not unique to Saudi Arabia. The British Government is rolling these two changes out worldwide, and this week it just happens to be Saudi's turn. If you want to know more about the project check the UK Visas and British Embassy Riyadh websites. As part of this new VAC going live, we have had several visitors this week from UK Visas in London, to deliver training to the new staff on Visa applications, and to new and Embassy staff on taking biometrics information from customers.

I expect you're wondering what the heck this has to do with the title: "15 Minutes of Fame". Well I'll tell you, now that you have the background. Karen has been performing the role of Change Agent for this project, and has been fully involved all the way along. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the VAC last Monday she was interviewed by the local Saudi TV news station, who had also come to see Riyadh's answer to David Beckham: recruited to lend the proceedings a celebrity air by being photographed giving his biometric details. There was a Reception for the visitors from London the following evening (Go-Live Day for the VAC), and after dinner the conversation turned to TV appearances. Karen, naturally, recounted her experience from earlier, and I told the group about my winning appearance on the game show Bob's Full House in the mid-1980s. It seems like a lifetime ago but it's a nice piece of ammo to have in your arsenal for occasions such as this.

Bob's Full House

For the benefit of my non-UK readers, Bob's Full House was an 80's game show hosted by comedian Bob Monkhouse and based on the game of Bingo. Each time a contestant got a question right they could cross off a number on their bingo card, and the rounds were: completing the four corners, middle line, and finally the full house. It sounds really naff as I write about it, but at the time it was very popular.

Bob Monkhouse

Anyway I won a holiday, which became our honeymoon, as the show recording took place a few months before Karen and I were married. I have the show on video tape, so if you want to know what I looked like at 25 years of age and wearing 80's clothes you would have to a) be invited round for dinner, and b) get me very drunk. Upon hearing this, one of the trainers from UK Visas revealed that he had appeared on The Crystal Maze back in the late 80's too. I won't bore you with an explanation of the show's format but it was a bit of a cult hit in the UK.

The Crystal Maze


Mark's show was in the original, golden, Richard O'Brien years and not in the later series that were hosted by Ed Tudor Pole. Richard O'Brien is the thin, bald, totally cool character who wrote The Rocky Horror Show, and starred in the movie version (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the butler Riff Raff.

Richard O'Brien as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

His presence as the Crystal Maze's host gave the show the same kooky, spooky, spaced-out air, and we used to watch it more for Richard's performance than for the puzzles themselves. Mark boasted that he had won a crystal, but refused to be drawn by my question: "So did you get locked in?" I took that to mean he had but didn't like to talk about it. Karen was a big fan of TCM, so her eyes lit up at this revelation and she wouldn't stop asking him questions about it.

The next morning one of the PR chaps at the Embassy came into Karen's office to say her TV interview had been showing every hour on the Riyadh equivalent of GMTV, and that he had recorded the latest bulletin. Karen and the London visitors ran upstairs to watch the recorded news item, and cheered each time they saw one of their number standing in the background. When Karen came on, speaking through an interpreter, there was an even bigger cheer, and part-way through Mark leaned close to her and whispered, "This doesn't beat The Crystal Maze!"

I haven't seen the clip yet, but I'm going to ask if it's possible to get a digitized copy, and if successful I'll post it here.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Halloween Party

When we lived in the UK the thing that scared me most about Halloween was not the ghosts, ghouls and goblins that might be out and about but the hoodies, yobs and chavs prowling residential streets, armed with eggs and demanding treats with menaces. No Trick Or Treat in Riyadh (at least, not that I am aware of), so this year we had to look elsewhere for our spooky thrills.

Three things I like about Linda are: that she's a great laugh, she organised a fancy dress Halloween Party last Wednesday, and she lives only two doors down the road. So, we had a great Halloween night, in good company, and had only twenty yards to stagger home afterwards -- what more could you ask for?

There are probably several shops in Riyadh from which we could have got fancy dress costumes -- you can buy pretty much anything here if you're willing to look hard enough -- but we decided to play it safe by ordering Halloween costumes from a UK company on the internet. I had my "Scream" outfit and Karen's Gothic Vamp dress delivered to Karen's sister Laura, so that the children could bring them out in their suitcases when they came for half term. However when the package arrived Laura found it was five foot long. In my enthusiasm I'd ordered a plastic Grim Reaper Scythe and a Devil's Trident without really thinking it through from a packaging perspective.


"Grrrrr!"
"Where's me scythe?"

Laura did what anyone faced with such a conundrum would do: she cut them in half and put them in the suitcases in bits, to be re-assembled at the other end of the journey. We didn't use them in the end, mainly because to repair them looked too much like hard work to me. Anyone want to buy a two-foot scythe? Damn, we should've put them in the Garage Sale. Filipino children look angelic to me, but I'm sure they must have their demonic side too.

Anyway, here is the party in pictures. Plenty to be scared of here, I think you'll agree!

Here's "Carrie" with a limp-wristed zombie.

Mr. & Mrs. G. Reaper

Gordon's always been a bit of a Hellraiser.

"Give us a kiss luv!"
"Not likely! Look what happened when you gave me a Love Bite!"

I've got more photos, but Blogger won't let me upload them. They've got a bug somewhere :-(

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Garage Sale

Our Garage Sale on Friday was a success. I had created a poster and the Embassy emailed it to all the families, drivers, domestic staff and so on to help get the word out. Karen and I had been sorting stuff to sell all week and we had huge piles of it all around the living room.


The Build-up


Apologies to any Family members who might spot an old Christmas present or two.

We borrowed some tables from the Embassy and early Friday morning set up our stalls in the yard outside, ably assisted by our maid Gina and her husband Rick.

Before


Gina and Rick also helped bring in the punters -- most of the Filipinos who turned up seemed to be their friends. I had been concerned that no-one would come and that we'd have to pack all the stuff away again, but I needn't have worried. A busy two hours followed, during which we sold about three quarters of the goods. We had bikes, clothes, books, CDs, DVDs, board games, shoes, camping equipment, ornaments, crockery, even my old rollerblades went. My iPod and speakers were playing on a table behind the counter to create some atmosphere, and I almost fight them off from wanting to buy that too. How could I sell my beloved iPod, especially as it had proven its durability in The Gym Incident ?

The two tents we had for sale didn't attract any interest, and neither did the books nor my unwanted CDs: I guess our musical tastes must be incompatible. There's me trying to sell a Killswitch Engage album and they're asking for Julio Iglesias. Oh well.

After

After the customers had gone we gave Rick and Gina their pick of what was left as a thankyou for helping us, and by 12 noon the yard was completely clear again. You'd never know such a bustling market had been there not an hour before.

Karen counted up the dosh and we made around SR2,500, which is just over £300. Not a bad haul but the trouble was it was mostly in small denomination notes: SR1 is about 14p, and we had a huge pile of 1 Riyal and 5 Riyasl notes on the dining room table. In the evening we decided to go out to dinner to celebrate, and I thought it'd be an opportunity to get rid of some of these small notes, so I put a big pile together and handed them to Karen to put in her handbag. She thought it was too much and peeled about a third off the pile, stuffing the rest -- still a wad the size of a housebrick -- into her bag, dinner bill for payment thereof.

I wanted to try Tokyo, a Japanese restaurant that had been recommended, but when we got there it was closed (doesn't open on Fridays). Now in the mood for Oriental I consulted my trusty GPS and it led us to the Radisson Hotel and it's Shogun Teppanyaki restaurant. I was a bit underdressed for this place (wrinkled shirt, jeans, Crocs), but then a high-class joint like this hadn't been part of the plan when we'd left the house. The staff took my appearance in good humour though, and we were admitted without a punch-up.

The meal was OK but no better, and when the bill came Karen delved into her bag for the Small Note Mountain she'd brought. The bill was SR411, and after about five minutes of counting we concluded that our pile of small bills came to precisely SR409. DOH! Can I just say at this point that it was I who had assembled a larger pile and it was Karen who had skimmed some off? Just for the record. I paid the bill with a SR500 note (got even more change) and Karen refilled her handbag with the pile.

Only slightly embarrassing.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hazardous Occupations #23: Optician

A funny thing happened today.

I've been visiting quite a few Riyadh opticians recently. The reason is I have a pair of fancy folding wraparound sunglasses with rubber sleeves on the arms, and through various instances of misuse (most involving a swimming pool) these rubber sleeves have become torn and frayed at the edge. So, being designer glasses 'n' all I've been scouting around for replacement sleeves. Boring so far I know, but the scene needed setting....

At the weekend I went into Magrabi Optical in Hayat Mall on Old Airport Rd. This was around Optician's Number Ten on my quest, so by now I was used to negative responses. I was greeted by a young male (they all are) Receptionist and the eventual answer was indeed negative, again, but what struck me about this young man was that he had a very odd bruise on his forehead. It was like a horizontal stripe of a bruise, about three-to-four inches long, right in the middle of his forehead. I found it hard not to look at it, but refrained from asking him how he'd got it. They didn't carry spare Carrera rubber thingies in stock, but he suggested I try their branch in Sahara Plaza mall, because that's where their workshop is so they'd be likely to have a larger stock of spares.

I finally got around to this next stage of the quest this morning, and when I entered the shop I found that it was indeed several times larger than the first branch. Any thought of actually getting my spare parts disappeard in a puff of smoke, however, when I saw the young man sat at Reception. He had the same kind of bruise on his forehead! I know what you're thinking, and NO -- it wasn't the same bloke on a temporary transfer, but a completely different young male bruised Receptionist.

When I told Karen the story this afternoon (she already knew about bruised Receptionist #1) she made me laugh by suggesting that they'd got them from that eye testing machine where you have to rest your head against a padded bar to look into the patients' eyes. How we laughed, speculating that perhaps you were relegated to Reception if you had performed clumsily in your Skillful Use Of Eye Test Machine test. Or perhaps, when it's quiet in the shop, like it is most mornings, they relieve the boredom by having eye test machine races to see who can sit-look-run around-sit-look-from-the-other-side the fastest.

We'll never know.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Last Trip To Dubai

Now that we've gotten the embarrassment of The Gym Incident out of the way, I can relax and tell you about the trip itself.

Since this was to be our last visit to Dubai for the foreseeable future we wanted to do it in style, so booked two rooms at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. This strikingly-original 5 star deluxe hotel is part of the large beach-front Jumeirah complex that also houses the 7 star Burj Al Arab hotel, the Wild Wadi, two more hotels, and the Madinat Jumeirah -- itself a complex of dozens of bars and restaurants all sited around an indoor/outdoor "souk" or market, and surrounded by a network of waterways, on which you can travel around the resort by powered gondola. The Jumeirah Beach is expensive at the best of times, and, being October half-term, this was the worst of times. The bank balance is still recovering but we had a ball.

The wave-like Jumeirah Beach Hotel from the Marina

The hotel building looks like a giant wave with its slanting walls and curved design. Our rooms were on the 17th floor out of 25, and every room has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the beach, marina, and ocean.


Great for views like this:

Yes, this was taken through our hotel room window!

...but not so great when the window cleaners come to call!

I don't think they could see in... at least I hope not!

The room level we had also gave us access to The Executive Pool: an exclusive pool and beach area for the JB's favourite guests, and guests of the Burj Al Arab.




With that kind of exclusivity you'd expect to get a better class of sun worshipper wouldn't you? Not a bit of it. Every morning when we went down, most of the sun loungers had been "reserved" by guests coming down with their towels before breakfast, and they were English, not German! This kind of thing really annoys me. It never actually inconvenienced us because there were still other loungers "available", but a few times I saw large families swanning in late morning and getting annoyed because their "reserved" loungers had been taken by someone else. "Serves you right" say I. I hate this kind of selfishness. Then, to cap it all, we saw a woman come in with her own airbed, already inflated, and with the name and room number written on it in marker pen. I might as well be at Butlins (sorry if that doesn't mean anything to my non-English readers). All of these uncouth shenanigans were oddly contrasted by our surroundings, with the majestic Burj in the background, and high-rolling guests arriving and departing by helicopter throughout the day.

Another Helipad departure. Unfortunately it wasn't LiLo Woman.

Right, rant over now, and we did have a great time by the pool despite the "great unwashed" and their cheeky ways.

"Alright, who had baked beans for breakfast?"


Ibn Battuta Mall & Cinema
Dubai's two best-known shopping malls are The Mall Of The Emirates and Ibn Battuta Mall. MOTE is very close to the hotel and also home to Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort with real snow. The mall is huge, and great but usually very busy, so for a change we got a ride further out of town to Ibn Battuta Mall. If you ever go to Dubai I recommend a visit here. The mall is (again) huge and has several sections or "courts", each one themed after different parts of Middle East and Asia.

Egypt Court

Starbucks in Persia Court

Can't Remember Court

There's China Court, India Court, Persia Court... you get the idea. This makes for a very pleasant shopping experience, as all the big name shops you want are there, but in a very pretty setting.

The cinema in China Court

While Karen and Abigail got their nails done Elliot and I finally saw The Kingdom -- the new action movie set in Riyadh and starring Jamie Foxx. Although a 15 certificate in UK, here it is an 18 Plus, so Elliot had to stand up straight and put on his deepest voice to get past the ticket counter.

I went in with very low expectations of this movie. I had read several reviews and they were all bad, but all in Middle Eastern papers. The other thing that had made me cynical was my knowledge that, set in Riyadh or not, there ain't no way any part of this film was actually shot in Saudi Arabia, the authorities would never allow it. Most of the city shots were actually of Abu Dhabi in the U.A.E., with the Kingdom Tower "Photoshopped in". Despite this I have to say I enjoyed the film a lot. They captured the compound atmosphere quite well, and some of the city shots were similar to Riyadh's nicer parts. The story was pretty far-fetched but action-packed, and overall the film had more integrity than I was expecting.


The Kingdom Trailer

Stomp!
On Monday night we went to see a live show called Stomp!, in the Madinat Theatre close to the hotel. Stomp! has been in London's West End and on Broadway too. It's basically a percussive dance show, with the eight performers dressed in scruffy overalls and beating out catchy rhythms in a combination of tap dancing, clapping, and drumming with a variety of things you might find in an alley: brooms, dustbins, old newspapers etc. A really good show with great performances, it had humour, audience participation, and made you want to stomp your feet. My only criticism was that -- at an hour and a half with no interval -- it was about 15 minutes too long, and towards the end I was starting to get a headache from the boom boom booms.

Abigail showing off her new phone and handbag at dinner.

Burj Al Arab
No visit to this part of Dubai is complete without a nosey around the inside of the Burj Al Arab: the world's only seven star hotel. Designed to look like a billowing sail, the Burj is over 320 metres tall and very luxurious. Every room is a duplex suite and the public areas are glamorously decorated, with really impressive dancing fountains, and gold everywhere. It's actually a little too brash and borders on the vulgar, but I guess it's OK in a "if you've got it (wealth), flaunt it" way. Here's a shot of the Burj at sunset, taken from the JB's Marina:

The sticky-out bit at the top (not the Helipad, the other bit) is the Sky Bar and Restaurant on the 27th floor.

As Jumeirah Beach Guests we were allowed into the hotel, which can only normally be accessed either by helicopter or private road with security checkpoint. We looked around the reception area and shops for a while, and then went up to the Sky Bar on the 27th floor to check out the view. We couldn't stay here for a drink because it's over-21's only, so we got a couple of photos and went back down to the Lobby Bar.

Our hotel from the Burj Sky Bar.
It doesn't look this high from the ground!


I didn't think I'd get away with ordering one Coke and four straws, so I splashed out on a drink each, but after one look at the prices on the menu I whipped it out of the childrens' hands and said, "Coke or Lemonade?". My Good Lady Wife, of course, could have whatever her heart desired (as long as it wasn't expensive).

So that's Goodbye to Dubai. An odd but interesting place: in many ways still Middle Eastern but in others just like Las Vegas. It's growing at a phenomenal rate and gets tackier as it gets bigger, but you won't find anywhere else like it.