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.