Monday, April 30, 2007

Neal of Everywhere-but-Arabia

I've been reviewing entries on this blog from the last few months, and I've realised that pretty much all I've been talking about is my various trips away from Saudi: BrainShare, Edinburgh, and before that Dubai, UK at Christmas. It's actually getting quite hard to find any recent information about Riyadh and Saudi Arabia itself. Now, I know early on when I first got here and started the blog that was pretty much all I talked about -- because it was all new and foremost in our thoughts I suppose. But now I have more readers, and new readers. People from all over the world are stumbling onto this site and must be thinking, "Why's it called Neal of Arabia when all he does is talk about other places?"
I think this is a situation I need to remedy. It's all very well documenting our holidays and my business trips and so on -- it's how I've been spending my time after all -- but if I want this to be more a record of life as a Diplomatic Spouse in Riyadh and less a simple diary then things have got to change.
Trouble is, I can't satisfy the new reader without going back to basics and talking about all the ways in which life in Saudi differs from life everywhere else, and that's going to bore the 'old timers' who have been with me from the beginning. Of course I could simply tell newbies to go through the archives and read some of the old stuff, but I have no way of knowing if they'd actually do it. What'd be really nice is if people sent me questions about life in Saudi so that I can answer them here and you'd get information you're actually interested in, but I don't expect that to happen either. I'd be fooling myself if I thought there were armies of readers out there brimming with burning questions about life as an expat and willing to take the time to write in with them; who am I trying to kid?
Let's leave it like this: I'll go off into a corner and try to come up with new ways of describing the unique living environment that is Expat's Riyadh, and you post a comment on this entry if there's something about it you've always wanted to know but I haven't yet covered. Don't worry if you read this weeks after I've posted it, don't think that it's not worth commenting anymore because it's an old entry. I get emailed every time someone leaves a comment so I'll know about it and I promise to answer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's Elvis!

Had a great night out last weekend at "Murder in Las Vegas": a murder mystery party. Over dinner our characters read out clues and asked each other questions to find out who committed this grisly crime. I guessed almost correctly, but the murderer's identity will remain secret (don't want any owners of the kit getting annoyed with me for giving it away). With character names like Chip Leader, Harry Houdidme and Candi Tassle you know you're in for a fun night. My own character was... Al Shukup.


You ain't nuthin' but a hound-dog!

Are you lonesome tonight?

It wasn't just me: everyone was dressed funny.

With the murderer exposed and the mystery solved, it was time for a knees-up. Looking at this picture you can almost hear the chorus to Dancing Queen...

Candi Tassle showed no interest in me until I swapped headgear with Sheikh A-Leg. She must have a thing about Arabs (or oil magnates)

"Knees up Muvver Brown, knees up Muvver Brown, under the table you must go, ee-i ee-i ee-i o!"

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Edinburgh Trip: Bus Tour

Our last full day in Scotland before returning to Berkshire for Easter, and we decided to get out of Edinburgh and see some sites further afield. By this time the novelty of the incessant tourist marketing was wearing off. It seemed like every other place of business on the Royal Mile and adjoining streets was either a whisky shop, a kiltmaker, a tacky souvenir shop, or a pub. There's even a boutique wittily called "Thistle Do Nicely"! It came as no surprise then, that the tour operator taking us on a coach trip to Loch Lomond on this day was called Rabbie's Trail Burners (after Rabbie Burns).

I began to understand what London must look like to foreign tourists. Thinking about it I've seen similarly tacky shops in the West End and in Westminster, but being a local I think I must've tuned them out.

Our "coach" was actually a fifteen-seater minibus, with fifteen passengers. Our driver for the day was Bob, one of whose first questions was, "Are there any English on the bus?" The Neals answered in the affirmative, to which Bob's response was, "Oh dear...". It soon became apparent that a large portion of his talk on the tour about Scottish history involved blaming the English for all their woes, and his task was made only slightly less enjoyable by having real live Sassenachs in the audience. The rest of the group -- mainly American but with a couple of Canadians and New Zealanders -- chuckled along to Bob's jokes at our expense but beyond that it was impossible to tell whether they agreed with him or were embarrassed for us. We did go up in Bob's estimation, however, when we told him we had left England for Saudi Arabia; he obviously has some internal league table, where a Sassenach who has abandoned England is marginally less repulsive than one who still lives there.

Don't know the name of this place. Just put the photo here to break up a big block of text.
Nice though, isn't it?

I'm sure much of what he said about the history of the Scots and the English was true, but most of it happened hundreds of years ago: talk about bearing grudges!
He later told how the name 'Scotland' came from the Irish Scotti people who invaded in the 6th century. I asked him why they didn't resent the Irish too for being early invaders. He just smiled and said he didn't know.

His catchphrase was, "It's true because Bob told you". Listening to him recount portions of Scotland's history as drove along to Stirling Castle was a bit like playing the children's game Simon Says. He would recount on interesting fact after another, then when a particularly unusual fact came along he would follow it with, "...and you know that's true. Why?", and we were supposed to go, "Because Bob told us!". But actually what happened was we all stayed silent, so he had to deliver his own punchline most of the time.

First stop was Stirling Castle, the most important castle in Scotland, because Stirling lies at the boundary between the Lowlands and the Highlands and hence holds a strategic position.

Can't remember whom this is a statue of. Anyone? (Note the William Wallace monument int he distance).

I'm useless at history and not particularly interested in it, so please don't expect these blog entries to be a hundred per cent factually accurate, but this is one fact I did retain after the tour. Stirling is also Braveheart territory, and there is a monument to William Wallace on a neighbouring hilltop.

Medieval iPods were crap: only 32Mb of storage!

Another of Bob's 'value-adds'. He insisted on taking group photos for you so everyone could be in it. This was more of a challenge for him with my camera, because it's, "one 'o those wi' a peephole" and not, "one wi' a wee telly on the back".

I used to think all castles were pretty much the same, but that's not true at all. Some give you the digital audio headset thingies for free, while others make a small additional charge. At Stirling Castle you not only have to pay to get in, but they you have to pay again to listen to the commentary. We only had one hour here, so the audio tour was quite rushed and we ended up jogging from location 18 to location 19 for the next chapter. But this minor disappointment was more than made up for when I found that you could buy Hot Chocolate with Whisky in the coffee shop.

Next stop on our itinerary of Southern Scotland's tourist attractions was Hamish the Highland Cow, or 'Heeland Coo' as they're called by the locals.


I kid you not: this was a field containing a single cow, but it had been made into a tourist attraction complete with gift shop, where you could buy T-shirts, scarves, coffee mugs and tea towels with Hamish's face on them, and a Costa Coffee. We stopped here for about ten minutes, which was more than long enough to get all the photos you could ever want of a ginger cow.


"C'mon you Sassenachs, leave that Coo be and get back on the bus!"

We stopped for lunch in a village whose name escapes me, but we had an excellent pub lunch (that escaped me too, eventually!)
Then in the afternoon we parked up by the bonnie shores of Loch Lomond and trekked up a medium-sized hill to take in the views across the Loch.

This was Take Two. In Take One I had a tree growing out of my head.

All together now: "On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Loooo-mond."

We even had nice weather!

A beautiful place, and a lovely day too, in the afternoon. We spent a good thirty minutes up here just gazing out over the water, then it was time to walk back down to the bus and snooze all the way back to Edinburgh.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Royal Yacht Britannia

Staying just a twenty minute bus ride away from the Royal Yacht Britannia was a pleasant surprise. We only found out when we got to Edinburgh that the vessel's new permanent home was in Leith Harbour on the Firth of Forth, and just a few miles from the city centre. Now de-commissioned, Britannia is open to the public as a floating Royal exhibition.

Britannia was launched in 1953 and commissioned in 1954, and in her fourty years' career until decommissioning in 1997 she carried the Queen and other members of the Royal Family on hundreds of overseas missions and engagements. She was also designed to be converted into a hospital ship in time of war, although this never became necessary. Another of her designed roles was as a mobile sanctuary for the Royal Family in the event of a nuclear war with the then Soviet Union.

Her being berthed in Leith Docks coincided with a regeneration of the area, and there is a new Terence Conran-designed shopping centre right next to Britannia, called Ocean Terminal. The centre has all the usual shops, restaurants, cinema etc., and also houses the Britannia Visitor Centre where you start your tour. You get the now familiar audio headset tour guide and make your way up an enclosed tower that connects the building with the yacht, to board Britannia and start your tour on the top deck at the bridge. As you complete each deck you return to this tower beside the boat and go down to the next level before rejoining the tour.

It was a foggy early morning.

My family on the Poop Deck. Now it's been turned into an exhibition all the poop's been cleared up.

The Queen's and Duke's sleeping quarters were very tastefully decorated but surprisingly small. Both had single beds in fact, and the audio tour explained that Her Majesty's sheets were specially tailored because she favours an extra deep foldback. Don't know how I've lived so long without knowing that! I don't mean any disrespect, but the painstaking details to which every tiny thing was subjected did get a bit silly after a while.

The Queen's cabin

The Duke of Edinburgh's cabin

The only double bed on the yacht is in the Honeymoon Suite, and was added when Charles and Diana were married and had their honeymoon aboard.

Karen spotted this commemorative print of a Royal tour to Arabia in 1979 hanging on the wall. Can't get away from the place can we?

The Duke's study

...and this is the Queen's

There were several bars on board, or "messes", indicating how heirarchical the environment was. The Officer's Mess was grander than the NCO's Mess, which was grander still than the regular men's Mess. Still, at least they all had a place to go to unwind after a hard day's poop-scooping.

The Officers' Mess

NCO's Mess (Non-Commissioned Officers)

Mess whose name escapes me, but it's the next one down in the pecking order.

Let's now take a look at the sumptuous surroundings of the Grand Drawing Room and Dining Room, where Her Majesty entertained heads of state and other important guests.

The Drawing Room. Naval regulations prohibited the lighting of the fire, so HM had to make do with an electric one.

The Dining Room

Presidents Clinton and Reagan, General Norman Schwarzkopf, and Nelson Mandela all dined at this table (but not on the same night). The food is prepared to the same lofty standard as any other Royal residence, and now you too can experience the dinner of a lifetime. Yes, Britannia is available for corporate hire and events. What more impressive way to woo an important client. You could even have your wedding reception on here (you'd have to win the lottery first).

The Galley

Pantry? Servery? Can't remember!

Now let's look at what went on behind the scenes:

Crew sleeping quarters

Note all the different uniforms. Crew members often had to change uniforms eight or nine times per day, depending on the duty they had. All of which needs...

A heavy duty laundry on board.

The Sick Bay includes a fully-equipped operating theatre.

The Royal Barge, which was used to take HM and party ashore.

There is even a garage containing one of the Royal Rolls Royces, although this was not used in Britannia's latter years, as they were able to find suitable transport at their destination.

The Engine Room

Finally there was the Engine Room, which apparently looked as sparkling clean as this throughout Britannia's active service. Stormin' Norman was quoted as saying, "Well I've seen the museum piece... now, where's the REAL engine?"

Looking around Britannia is a treat and gives you a real sense of history. You can almost see the famous figures strolling up and down the decks and imagine the important functions that she hosted. However it also underlined how detached the Royal Family is from what you and I would call normality, and I got the same feeling of their being woefully out of touch as I wandered around on board, that I got from the recent film, The Queen.

Still, she's a beautiful vessel and if I had the money I'd throw a big party there and you'd all be invited!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Edinburgh Trip: The City

Our trip to the UK was in two parts: to spend Easter with family and before that, to spend six days on holiday in Edinburgh.

Why Edinburgh?

Well, actually we chose the destination based on which places we could fly to using my airmiles, and Edinburgh was the favourite on that list. Readers of Bloody Marvellous! will know what I think of frequent flyer schemes, and bmi didn't fail to disappoint again, by severely limiting where they would allow me to go with my 300,000 saved up miles. In fact, there were NO bmi flights that would let me buy tickets with my miles, to anywhere, so I had to turn to other Star Alliance airlines Swiss and Lufthansa.

It turns out that Edinburgh was actually a great choice. It's a beautiful, interesting city with a long and chequered history; one that you could easily spend two weeks in and around without getting bored.

It's a very hilly city, and while we were there chilly and windy too. It was nice to be somewhere where you need to wear jumpers and coats for a change. Towering above the city is Edinburgh Castle, which sits on top of a large hill, and the main thoroughfare from it -- The Royal Mile -- goes in more or less a straight line for a mile down to ground level, and the palace of Holyrood House. The flat we'd rented was situated right on the Royal Mile, so couldn't have been in a better location.

On Day One we trudged up the Royal Mile in the wind, to the Castle Esplanade, where you can get a great view of the city's New Town.

New Town and Princes St., from the top of Edinburgh Castle

Abigail meets Braveheart.

The Royal Mile and the Castle are in the Old Town, with its medieval architecture and the New Town is all Georgian architecture, with the two being seperated by Princes St Gardens. The gardens used to be Nor Loch before it was drained to become the public gardens you see there today. also in the gardens is Edinburgh's Waverley train station. After looking in a few shops we stopped for lunch at Deacon Brodie's, which is a pub on the ground floor and has a restaurant on the first floor.

Deacon Brodie's

We had a great lunch of traditional food -- I had Haggis, Neeps and Tatties -- and good local beer Belhaven Best (we didn't all have beer; that was just me). Then after lunch we walked down the hill and across the gardens, past the National Gallery to Princes St., Edinburgh's main shopping street.

A McBusker

They have all the big chain shops you could want here, and even their own traditional department store, Jenners.

...and I thought Elliot was getting tall!

That evening we went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, where we first learned of something that was to mar our visit to Edinburgh slightly: their licensing laws are very family-unfriendly. The Hard Rock shocked us by saying that they didn't admit under 14's after 8pm because they didn't have a licence. We've been to Hard Rock Cafe's all over, but have never encountered this restrictive practice before. Turned away from there, we went to TGI Friday's which was just around the corner, but they were full and had a 45-minute wait for a table, so we moved on into Rose St. and tried a pub/restaurant called Dirty Dick's. They would admit us but were also full, but they directed us further down the street to the Bad Ass Bistro: another pub owned by the same company, and we have a really nice dinner there in a cosy informal atmosphere. I looked it up later on the internet, and apparently only one in fifty-two of Edinburgh's pubs admit children, a policy that make less sense for a couple of well-behaved teenagers than for very small children. We wanted to eat local food on the trip instead of Indian, Chinese etc., so the pub/restaurant style places were pretty much our only option, and this policy really limited our choices. The ones we did use were very good indeed, but there were many more that we couldn't go into as a family. It wasn't a disaster but nevertheless it was irritating.

On Day Two we turned left out of the flat and walked downhill to the bottom of the Royal Mile, where two buildings, old and new, stand more or less facing each other. Holyrood House Palace is the official residence of the Queen, and across the road is the new Scottish Parliament building. Built in the mid-90's and designed by a firm of architects from Barcelona, the new building is pretty unpopular with the locals as they feel it doesn't go with the much older buildings in the Old Town. My own first impression agreed with them, but once we went inside I began to feel differently. I don't know if was good Feng Shui or what, but the more time I spent i there the more calm and at peace I felt. We looked around the reception area with its exhibits and displays, then went upstairs to the Public Gallery of the Debating Chamber. A light, airy room which seemed to me to be the perfect place for all those important decisions and votes.

Part of the Scottish Parliament Building

The Debating Chamber. Each identical desk has laptop power, a microphone, and an electronic voting computer that MSPs login to using their ID badge.

We left the Parliament building and did a tour of Holyrood House next. They give you a cool headset thing containing an audio tour guide. It was really easy to use and very effective; just go to the next location and press Play.

Holyrood House Palace

Lunch was at Clever Dick's on the Royal Mile, Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, and another couple of pints of Belhaven Best, yummy! That afternoon we walked past St. Giles' Cathedral and saw an advert for a night-time Ghouls and Ghosts Tour.

St. Giles' Cathedral

When we turned up at eight pm however, the tour was already full so we had to think of something else to do. I know, dinner! (we'll come back and do the tour another night). Dinner was at Maxie's Bistro just off the Royal Mile. During dinner at Maxie's we started talking about where we would have lunch the next day, then suddenly realised that our whole days seemed to be being arranged around mealtimes. No sooner did we sit down to eat than we were starting to plan our next meal!

On Day Three we had a little trip out to Leith to tour round the Royal Yacht Britannia, but I'll cover that in full in the next posting.

Day Four morning was spent touring Edinburgh Castle, again with an audio tour. The castle and all the buildings and tenements of the Old Town look like they're made of the same rock of which the hill is made, giving the impression that they have been chipped out of solid rock by a giant sculptor. I was reminded several times of the city of Minas Tirith from the Lord Of The Rings, there were so many tall buildings of rock, pedestrian alleyways, steep stone stairs, and winding streets all built on top of each other.

We spent the afternoon buying souvenirs,

then chilled out at the flat for a bit before heading out again, this time to the Edinburgh Playhouse to see Cole Porter's High Society, starring Wayne Sleep. In case you don't know it, it's the musical that gave us songs like Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire? and What A Swell Party This Is. Very good show with some really slick dance numbers.

After the show we got a taxi to the top of the Royal Mile for a Theatre Supper at The Witchery, one of Edinburgh's best restaurants. Quite a good idea: they do a fixed price supper for theatregoers. Good for us because it's an affordable way to eat at a very expensive restaurant, and good for them because they get another cover on an otherwise empty table at the end of the evening. The food was simply superb and the atmosphere delightful. If you ever go to Edinburgh, save up some extra spending money and have dinner at The Witchery.

Our final full day was spent on a bus tour to Stirling Castle and Loch Lomond. I'll cover that in a separate posting in a day or two.