Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Break

Im at Bahrain Airport with the family, on our way back to the UK for Christmas. We can't wait to see family and friends again. I was last in the UK in September but Karen and the children haven't been there since July, so we're all looking forward to going back.

We'll be staying in rented accommodation and I don't know if there will be an internet connection there, so I may not blog again until we get back to Riyadh on Dec 29.

We have a very merry Christmas planned, and I hope you have one too.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Not the Riyadh Choral Society

Public gatherings for the purpose of music-making are banned here, so it is not allowed for a group of ex-pats who like to sing to get together and form a choral society.

Had such things been allowed, then I would have recently joined the Riyadh Choral Society and attended weekly rehearsals. Then we would have put on three performances of a Seasonal Concert at a secret location, which would have had a small orchestra accompanying the choir and would have included excerpts from Handel's Messiah, plus a variety of secular and church Christmas pieces, and a Carol requests slot.

These concerts would have been very popular, and attended by around 200 people each day. Those attending would have enjoyed an excellent selection of Christmas music, mince pies and mulled grape juice at half-time, and a good old carol singalong.

Shame we're not allowed... ;-)

It's Santa!

We really enjoyed our Family Christmas Party at the end of last week in the Residence garden. All the Embassy staff were there with their families, and we devoured an outdoor buffet lunch in the mild (yet verging on the nippy) weather, followed by a magic show, team games, and even a visit from Santa -- not sure how HE got a visa!

Some pictures...

Abigail with Alexandra

Another new experience: Filipino Magic!

He did a great job of keeping the children entertained

Karen and Andrew in the plank-walking race
(I don't think they won... I know Elliot and I didn't!)

Tug 'o' War

That's what we need -- some military organisation!

Bobbing for apples? In this weather?

Elliot trying to put the goalie off before taking his penalty (it worked).

At last! It's SANTA! Hang on, that "little helper" looks suspiciously like our driver!

Santa had to borrow some extra sacks from HM Govt.

Can't wait!

Pressie time!

Abigail just scraped in under the age bar

Karen, Santa, and Mel. Somehow I got the feeling they all knew each other...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Getting ready for Christmas

Advent is different this year. I'm used to Christmas lights in Regent St., crowds of Christmas shoppers, decorations visible through people's front windows (and sometimes plastered all over the outside of their houses too). In short, my Decembers are usually -- like most of yours -- full of public displays of anticipation for the festive season.

Not this year.

It goes without saying that Christmas is not celebrated in Saudi Arabia. This strictest of Islamic countries doesn't even allow the practice of any religion other than Islam. There are no churches, and people are not allowed to display any kind of religious symbol, so crucifixes have to remain under the clothes.
The shops are carrying on as normal here, but there is the occasional glimpse of festivity in shops who try to acknowledge the needs (and get the business) of the Christian ex-pat community. Some large supermarkets, for example, will have secular winter decorations such as large snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, and will also sell things like tinsel and tree baubles (but not trees). I'm told there is a black market here where you can get just about any Christmas item you could wish for, but I've seen no evidence of it.

Elliot & Abigail getting into the Christmas spirit

Nor have I looked to be honest, because we brought our old decorations out with us so have no need to scour Riyadh's backstreets looking for fairy lights. We put our decorations up last weekend, a little earlier than usually do, but then we're coming back to the UK for Christmas itself, so wanted to make the house look festive a little earlier. It's a good job we're coming back too, as our TV has decided to choose this time to break down.

Elliot & Abigail getting into the Christmas spirit

There are many Embassy families staying in Riyadh for Christmas, and it sounds like they have a great time planned. We also had our Embassy Family Christmas Party yesterday in the Residence gardens, complete with a visit from Santa himself! Full details in next posting.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Karen Marries Somebody Else!

What do you do if you're a Brit living in a strictly-Islamic country and you want to get married? You've met the love of your life and you want to tie the knot, but there are no churches, chapels, or cathedrals. In fact, there is no Christian representation in Saudi at all. You are also unable to turn to local civic services, since the only law here is Sharia Law, and therefore only Muslims can be married by the local authorities.

Enter the Consular section of the British Embassy, which exists to look after the interests of British citizens, wherever they live in the world. This includes providing help and support in emergency situations where British ex-pats are in distress, such as last week's bus crash in Jeddah in which two British Hajj pilgrims were killed, but it also includes the duties normally performed by a Notary Public in the UK, and those normally carried out by a Registrar with regard to Births, Marriages, and Deaths.

Her Majesty's Consul performs around ten such ex-pat marriages per year in his house here in Riyadh, and when the Consul is away -- as he is at the moment -- that authority passes to the acting Consul, which at the moment is Karen. So it was that, at 3pm this Wednesday afternoon, Karen performed the marriage ceremony for Kevin and Zaida in our house in the Diplomatic Quarter.

I had spent the morning tidying the lounge and Gina, our housekeeper, had cleaned it from top to bottom, in time for Karen and her colleague Sue to arrive at 2pm to get everything ready.

Our dining table was transformed with a Union Jack flag and laid out with marriage certificates, two registers (one for the Embassy's permanent records, and another to be sent to the General Records Office in London at the end of the year), and of course a bouquet of fresh flowers. Other essentials included the Embassy's digital camera, a CD of suitable background music, and two bottles of Champagne in the fridge.

The wedding party consisted of five people; the bride arrived first (unusually) with two friends, and they hid in the kitchen while we waited for the groom and best man to find their way to the house. Once they too had arrived the ceremony was ready to begin, just a couple of minutes late. Just at that moment Elliot and Abigail returned home from school, and snuck quietly into the hall to watch through the open doorway.

Karen had just got her first sentence out when Elliot's mobile phone went off!, so he had to run outside to turn it off. I think Karen was just as nervous as the happy couple, given the importance of the occasion in the couple's lives, and that this was her first wedding as Marriage Officer, but she did splendidly well and her nerves didn't show at all as she led them through the brief ceremony. It started off with the legal stuff about how they're both eligible to be married and over 18 etc., then came the "if anybody knows of any legal impediment why these two should not be joined in marriage" bit. We are required to leave the gate and front door wide open during these ceremonies, so as not to bar the way for anyone wishing to object to the marriage. No such objector appeared though, and Karen then went on to the marriage vows, with the bride and groom repeating them after her.

There were two rings, and after they had been exchanged Karen uttered the final phrase, "I now declare you Man & Wife. You may kiss the bride.", and we all applauded.

The next formality was the signing of the registers, during which I carried out MY official duty: opening the bubbly! We then had some more photos,

and chatted about the reception that was to follow and their planned honeymoon (in the New Year) for a few minutes as we drank our Champagne. Finally it was time for the bridal party to leave and for Karen and Sue to pack up all the "equipment" and take it back to the Embassy.

Yet another special and unique memory of our time here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"It's not Nuremberg, it's Nuernberg!"

My friend and colleague Bernd sent me the photos that I took with his camera of the Christkindlmarkt, so if you re-read the last posting you'll see some nice new piccies there.

I gave Bernd the url for the story: BIG MISTAKE! He went and read it, and spotted all my German language errors. It's quite funny actually: he's always sending me stuff in English and I correct it, so now I know how he must feel when I "mark" his work.

Anyway, those errors in full:-
If you are using an English keyboard you can't type special German characters, like umlauts and those double-S things that look like capital B's, so you have to modify the spelling to make it phonetically correct.

Nuremberg should be written Nuernberg (the 'e' is added after the 'u' to give the correct pronunciation of the 'u', which really should have an umlaut). And so on...
The restaurant is called Landbierparadies
The pork dish I had was Schaeuferle
The potato dumplings with it were called Kloesse
Christkindlmarkt instead of Christkindlesmarkt
It's Gluehwein instead of Gluhwein
he's so picky!

I particularly liked the photo of all the wooden toys; very Christmassey! I have it as my desktop wallpaper and it makes me feel all festive each morning when I boot up my laptop. If you would like to do the same, here it is again, only this time in full size.

To set this as wallpaper on your computer, click the picture and the full-size image will be shown (it may take a minute or two to load). Once it's loaded, right-click and click Save As... to save a copy to your computer. Then, set as wallpaper in the normal way for your operating system (If you've got any sense you'll be using Mac OS or Linux, and can email me if you want further instructions. If you use Windows then you're on your own).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nuremberg Trip

Sorry, I forgot to tell you I was going away again. There you are, sitting there checking my blog every day and wondering why I'm not writing anything (what a complete fantasy world I live in!), and all the time I'm away on a business trip.

Nuremberg is in the northern part of Bavaria known as Franconia, and the city is well-known for many things. Let's get the unsavoury one out of the way first: the Nazi war crimes tribunals were held here after World War II, and the city bears the scars of extensive bomb damage. Of course, everything has been rebuilt long ago, but the modern, boxey, post-war structures are a poor substitute for what was there before. Looking at the untouched old buildings it's easy to imagine the whole city looking like that, and it's a nicer picture than what is there today. Other claims to fame are that the city is home to the giant toy maker (that's a large company, not a huge bloke with a wooden train in one hand and a screwdriver in the other) Playmobil, the area has some 3,000 breweries (Yay!), it is home to the Christkindlesmarkt: one of the most famous Christmas markets in the world. And, last but not least, it is home to SUSE, the Linux company that Novell acquired three years ago, hence the reason for my visit.

Nuremberg is a long way from Riyadh, too long for a two-day trip, some might think. Ordinarily I'd agree with you, but I'm a seasoned traveller now and take this kind of journey in my stride, plus when you live in Riyadh you think very carefully before turning down an opportunity to go somewhere else, even for a short while.
Riyadh to Zurich with Swissair was an overnight flight, leaving at 2am and getting in around 0615, during the six-hour flight I got about 90 minutes' sleep. Then two hours later the second leg to Nuremberg was only one hour's flying time. These short regional flights use very small aircraft: the one I took was a De Havilland Dash 8-300: a twin prop with only fourteen rows of four seats.

My Star Alliance frequent flyer profile has my seat preference as Aisle, as near the front as possible, so naturally I was in a window seat in the back row for this flight. The interesting thing about having a seat like this on a plane like this (with the wings at the top of the fuselage), is that you can see the landing gear in full, so I could watch the starboard wheel spinning madly away, and continuing to spin all the time from leaving the ground to being tucked away in it's compartment under the engine. And when we landed I saw the wheel hit the tarmac -- the expected small puff of burnt rubber on impact being replaced by a catherine wheel of spray from the wet runway.

I met up with two teammates, BP from the UK and Bernd, who is a local and our host for the two days. Bernd is a Goth, with long black hair, tattoos, always dressed in black and with a taste for Black Metal music. Rather disconcertingly he doesn't look at all out of place among his SUSE co-workers; one developer I bumped into was wearing 70's-style black punk trousers with a strap joining the knees, and -- forgive my ignorance of the proper name -- Ninja shoes, with a gap between the big toe and the others. That's what you get for trespassing in the domain of the Linux hacker. Slightly scary appearance aside Bernd is a very nice, normal guy, happily married and with a three-year-old daughter.
The work side of things was very productive and worthwhile, as were our evening activities. Bernd was a very good host and guide; obviously very proud of his home city and taking care to point out its interesting features and history as we travel around. The first night he took us to Landbierparadis, which roughly translates as Local Brew Heaven, so you can guess what kind of night we had in store. The interior was typically German: basic, plain, but functional, and most tables were occupied when we arrived by locals dressed for the winter; thick woolly jumpers and hats everywhere you looked. One half-page of the four page menu listed food dishes, the rest -- I kid you not -- was dedicated to beer; there must've been over thirty different kinds on offer. We took Bernd's advice on both beer and food choices, and I was treated to a stein (stone beer mug) of Schwarze Anna, a dark, frothy and very tasty beer. My food arrived along with a second mug of Schwarze Anna (you signified to the waitress that you were ready for another beer by laying your stein on its side); Bernd had ordered for me a local Franconian speciality, I think it was called Schaufehle. Well, that name will do as a placeholder for now and I'll correct it once I check with Bernd tomorrow, but I know I'm close. Anyway, Schaufehle is shoulder of Pork, first boiled and then roasted, and it was the most tender, delicious piece of Pork I have ever tasted. The meat just fell off the bone and melted in the mouth, it had a lovely crunchy blackened top, and of course a thick, crispy strip of crackling crowned the creation. This was served with Klose, which are balls of potato that have been mashed when raw, then squashed into balls about the size of snooker balls, along with some other ingredients, then boiled. The result was a potato "dumpling" that was as springy to cut into as a suet dumpling. I had two of these on the plate next to my majestic serving of Pork, all swimming in gravy -- lovely. I couldn't eat it all.

On the second evening Bernd took us to the Christkindlesmarkt in the town square, where we had a lovely time strolling up and down the lanes of market stalls after dark with thousands of other people, all wrapped up warm against the cold, their breath visible in the air as they browsed the stalls.

Both BP and I had neglected to bring our cameras on the trip, so Bernd kindly lent me his so I could get some shots of the brightly coloured and festively decorated stalls. Christmas decorations, toys, music boxes, hats, gloves, Lebkuchen, Bratwurst rolls

"1/2 metre of Bratwurst, anyone?"

and, most importantly, Gluhwein. Gluhwein is hot, mulled wine and was being served in commemorative boot-shaped cups. You paid 2.50 Euro deposit for the cup on top of the price of the drink (or more accurately, Bernd paid), then you could choose to return it for a refund or just keep it as a souvenir.

My favourite person in the Christkindlmarkt: the Gluehwein Lady

I kept my cup as a souvenir!

Hand-made wooden toys. See if you can spot Pinocchio

A village of lantern houses

One of my purchases. You put a candle inside this cute little ceramic hotel and all the windows light up.

"Not sure which one's Donner and which Blitzen. No, wait... they were reindeer weren't they?"

After the market we walked around town a bit and did some more shopping, before going through the market once more on our way back to the car, and I stopped to buy a few bits to take home. Once back at the car Bernd took us to nearby Erlangen, a university town with a very good Sushi restaurant called Haru.

My journey home began with waking at 5am to shower, pack, check out, and get to the airport for a 0730 flight to Frankfurt. My return route is Nuremberg -- Frankfurt -- Beirut -- Riyadh, and each connection was less than one hour, so I couldn't afford any delays. I'd packed a small suitcase so was able to carry on board with me, which helped a lot. Although only a 30 minute flight, the Frankfurt leg was delayed by 30 minutes, which meant we touched down just as my next flight (to Beirut) was starting to board. Two circumstances enabled me to catch the next flight: there were at least ten others on the plane who needed to make the same connection, and the connecting flight was taking off from the other side of the airport. These two things together led the airline to decide to help us all catch it rather than taking off without us, which they would undoubtedly have done had there only been two of three of us in the situation.
As it was, there was a man in a dayglo jacket holding a sign saying, "Beirut" at the bottom of the stairs, and he led the twelve of us to a waiting bus, which then drove us to the other side of the airport, then the steward led us up a flight of stairs, into the terminal, up another floor in a lift, to the gate to have our boarding cards checked, then down two flights of stairs and into another waiting bus, which then took us directly to the plane. All of this carrying two heavy bags too! I was almost starting to "glow" a bit. The Frankfurt -- Beirut leg was three and a half hours, on a modern plane which, unusually, had no entertainment infrastructure of any kind. There were no seatback screens, no ceiling-mounted screens, in fact no screens at all. There wasn't even a headphone socket in the armrest. I've never been on such an aircraft before and wish I'd made a note of the make and model (don't know why, guess I'm just sad that way).
Again, on landing at Beirut airport (my first visit to Lebanon but it doesn't really count as such) I just had time to walk briskly from one plane to another via the transit check-in desk, then it was off again on the last, two-hour leg to Riyadh.

The journey lasted -- having left the hotel at 6am and arriving home at 8pm with a two-hour time difference -- twelve hours. A lot of faffing about it's true, but well worth it.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sad news

In my last post I talked about how the rain leads to an increase in traffic accidents. We heard a couple of days ago that a girl from Elliot & Abigail's school was killed when the bus she was travelling to school in was involved in a collision. She was in Year 5, so would have been nine or ten years old. Twelve other children on the same bus -- including her triplet brother and sister -- escaped with minor injuries. The story seems to be that she wasn't wearing her seatbelt and so was thrown from the bus. Although they were not close friends Abigail knew her, because she was on the swim team.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Winter draw(er)s on!

Winter has come to Riyadh.

Whenever I think of Saudi Arabia -- both before I moved here and since -- I think of desert, and sun, and heat. The summer was hard to bear, with temperatures regularly above 50 degrees centigrade, and not falling below 30 degrees at night. The guards at the entrance of the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ) had to have water mist sprayers installed at the checkpoint to keep them cool, but they left it a bit late; the sprinkler poles didn't get turned on until early September, and now, just a few short weeks later, winter has set in and they've been switched off until things start to heat up again.

We're never likely to get snow here, but we do get rain. Boy, do we get rain. It has rained almost daily for the last three weeks now, and the temperature has dropped to around 12 -15 degress during the day -- a little cooler at night. We have turned off the air-conditioning in the house for the first time in months.
Although rain is a fairly regular occurrence here every Winter, it is short-lived and the Saudis are not geared up for it at all. You know what it's like in the UK when there's a decent snowfall? All transport grinds to a halt due to "the wrong kind of snow", etc.? Well it's the same in Riyadh when it rains. Rain causes lots of new things to happen...

The roads have very bad drainage (because it is so seldom needed), so when we get heavy rain the roads tend to flood. You've heard me talk before about how bad Saudi drivers are; well, they don't get any better on wet roads, they just find it harder to steer and stop, so the traffic accident rate spikes when it's wet too. There is even a story going around which I find hard to believe but which locals who have been here a while SWEAR is true, and that is that motorists drown in underpasses during heavy rain, because the underpasses fill with water, and unwitting motorists speed on down them only to submerse their vehicle in several feet of water. I'm still not sure I believe this has happened, but I can testify that you can plainly spot escape ladders leading up from underpasses to the bridge overhead, so maybe there's something in it after all.
We arrived home to the dreaded King Khalid International Airport last week to be picked up by our driver, who had to navigate out of the airport in the dark because the rain had taken out all the streetlights.
Closer to home, our up 'n' over garage door stops working when it rains, because water gets into the control unit. I say it stops working... what I actually mean is that it works even when you don't want it to, because the water triggers the door to open all by itself.

Then there's Dougie the rabbit. If you recall, Dougie lives in one of our two atria; his atrium being about six foot square and open to the sky. It's great when it's dry, because he has an area he can run around safely and we can watch him playing through the patio doors. But because of the heat here we haven't bought him a hutch -- he usually sleeps under a large rubber plant -- so when it rains, Dougie gets wet. The other day I went to the local pet shop, Life and Nature (worthy of a blog posting all of its own!) to buy him an inexpensive hutch, but they didn't have any. All they could offer me were either a plastic dog kennel (too large and expensive), or a pet transporter -- the plastic cage-type thing you'd take your cat to the vets in. Since this was all they had I bought one of the transporters and some wood shavings to line the bottom with.

Dougie stubbornly refusing to use the new box I bought him for a rain shelter.

I thought this would make a nice cosy refuge from the rain for poor little Dougie, but I was sorely mistaken. He took one look at it, sniffed around a bit, hopped in for about ten seconds, and hasn't set foot inside since. I don't know what it is about it he doesn't like, but there's clearly something.

Oh well, I've done my bit. I've bought him a dry place to sleep; if he choosed not to use it, that's his problem.