A Few Days in Bratislava

It’s different from Prague. Most noticeable immediately is the size of the place. The main train station is none too large. Following Christmas, it’s practically deserted, and that makes it seem smaller still. Today that finally changed, with folks returning to work and the city waking up a bit.

The smile worn by the bus driver is nice. It makes the place feel warmer.

Prices are in Euros, which seems like a hopeful effort at tying Slovakia to greater Europe, while a few days of life here seem to suggest it’s got at least as much in common with Russia as the European Union. I say this because after two days of snow falling, there hasn’t been a single plow run along any of the city streets. “It’s never snowed at the end of December before,” says Jenia. “It took them by surprise. Just like Russia.” The sidewalks are slippery. The people aren’t outgoing and friendly. That’s not to say they’re rude, but they’re not what we fuzzy Americans would generally expect. Lots like Russia. And of course the Slavic languages have lots of similarities, too.

The downtown is pretty and there’s lots of cute cafes. The architecture is nice, though it doesn’t look half as old as Prague does.

So my impression is that this is Eastern Europe, and it is tangibly different than Western Europe. Not bad, but different.

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Merry Christmas from Prague!

Hello all! The holidays find us enjoying the nippy winter weather of the Czech Republic, in a neat little apartment in the Malestrana area of Prague. What a wonderful change from the pleasant but boring UAE December. The city is filled with Christmas cheer–there are stalls set up all around peddling mulled wine, trdelnik (a scrumptious not-too-sweet bread cooked over coals), and roasted chestnuts. There are concerts of Christmas music all around, and choirs performing on the old town square. Angels wrap gifts inside the windows of the Swarovski shop, and tourists bump into each other while sipping from steaming cups as they gawk at the astronomical clock. It’s a great place to be, steeped in European tradition. Happy holidays!

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Murder.

Murder.

The word hangs in the air. It settles like a heavy fog around you.

At least when it refers to a victim who is someone that you might easily have known, that friends of yours encountered, who lived in the same building as other acquaintances, and who was killed someplace that you’ve been.

Last week’s killing of Ibolya Ryan came as a surprise to us teachers, nay, us expats, here in Abu Dhabi because it occurred in a place so ordinary, so mundane, so average, that it was entirely unexpected.

There was no love triangle, no drunken stupor, no fit of rage or even a minor altercation. It would seem to be an act of cruelty by a deranged killer fixated on Americans.

The Emirati reaction has been sensational and swift. The Abu Dhabi police released videos on the subject, first showing security footage of the attacker fleeing the scene at the Boutik Mall, and then of the same person elsewhere, setting a primitive explosive device. Within 48 hours, police swept into a palatial villa and arrested the occupants—the woman, the prime suspect, was even removed from the property without being allowed to cover her hair. The videos are set to music, a puzzling choice, but they demonstrate efficiency and efficacy. That aside, the perpetrator turned out to be a woman who has to this point lived a life of evident luxury. That’s a point of interest, because most people who are well-taken care of aren’t prone to be extremists or likely to rock the boat which has always favored them.

The Gate Towers are just across the road from the Boutik Mall on Reem Island.

The Gate Towers are just across the road from the Boutik Mall on Reem Island.  Yup, been there.

It needs not be said that the Emirates is one of the very safest countries in the Middle East, and generally much safer than the States. It’s a country teeming with expatriates, one where the population predominantly hails from elsewhere. There are lots of Americans, and the number of Americans had been swelling since ADEC started recruiting heavily. Look on Teach Away’s website—there’s a picture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and a banner that says “Always Hiring.”

But what about this new development? What about murder in the midst of it all? What does this mean to recruitment of teachers in the future? What does it mean to us here, right now?

The Arc is one of the beautiful new places recently built on Reem Island.

The Arc is one of the beautiful new places recently built on Reem Island. There’s quite an expat population there, many of whom frequent the Boutik Mall next door.

Last week friends from the States were here when the whole thing went down. They were surprised to hear of it, and I was somewhat surprised that their friends back home hadn’t sent them the same barrage of “Stay safe! Be careful!” messages that many of us teachers received. When they did hear about the vicious attack, they weren’t put off of the Emirates, though. They recognized it as an isolated incident, and could tell you that the odds of a similar attack occurring at home might be just as high (or as low, depending upon your point of view) as here.

That’s how we look at it, too. That’s right, friends, don’t get your panties in a wad; don’t let the sensationalist news media reports which tie the US Embassy’s standard warnings about living abroad make you think this place is unsafe. It’s not. Abu Dhabi is safer by far than Atlanta. It’s safer than Detroit.

But yeah, that word murder really does cast a pall over things.

Yesterday I got my hair cut by a hairdresser who does a great job at this place in the mall.

“Look around,” he said. “At Starbucks–no whites, no westerners. Before, there were many in the morning, other times of day. The women, they are afraid. I cut my client’s hair yesterday at her house, because she wouldn’t come here. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to go to the mall. I don’t feel safe.’”

He spoke quietly. “This is a sensitive topic,” he said. “Business is affected. I think many Americans will go home soon because of it.”

I’m not sure why it’s sensitive. I’ve talked about it with my Arab coworkers, with my fellow teachers, and others. It’s something that does strike home, because that’s how random violence works. It makes random people afraid, because they know there’s no overlying logic, no definite targets, and no reason why it couldn’t have been one of us.

But what about that pall that’s cast? How do you deal with that? Even knowing the perpetrator has been apprehended, even knowing that, as the press says, the killer was a lone wolf?

The same way you deal with murder elsewhere. You feel. You grieve if you need to. You use common sense in daily life. And you try not to feed negative conceptions of what it means to be American.

There is no reason why Americans should be hated. We’re not a bad people. We’re not better than anyone else, either. We’re just people, and we have the same fears and joys in life as people all over the globe. So in the course of being a person, be one that is an ambassador of good will wherever you are, at home or abroad.

And that’s the only good takeaway I can offer.

Don’t fear for me or Jenia or little Turtle. We’re as safe as ever.

Jordan.

If you’re about my age, somewhere in your mid-30’s, I’ll bet you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  What a great movie!  Wasn’t the ending, set in that amazing building carved out of a red-hued canyon wall, just about the coolest thing you’d ever seen? And wasn’t it even cooler to discover that such a place, or, in fact that very place actually exists? Ever since the time I learned that the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra, I’ve longed to go there, longed to see the facades a thousand years old that ornament tombs and sacred places, longed to ride a horse though the Siq and into the sunset like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (and the other two guys).

Finally, it happened.  Most of it, anyway.  I didn’t ride a horse though the Siq, I’m sorry to say, but I did put my wife on a donkey and send her up to the Monastery that way.  So that’s sort of similar.

What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise.  It’s poor.  There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along.  Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose.  Cars are old and beat up.  A layer of dust covers most everything.  But the people are nice.  They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

At a cafe in Madaba, men relax and watch the cars roll slowly by.

Much of the waterways which once supplied Jordan with water have been diverted by other countries.  The Dead Sea’s levels are declining rapidly as various tributaries which feed into it have been dammed and co-opted for things like irrigation.

I work with several guys from Jordan.  Excited that we were planning a visit, they offered suggestions on where to go and what to do. Among the many places they listed, we managed to hit Karak (site of a dilapidated crusader castle), Madaba (home of a large Christian community and location of the oldest image of Palestine), Petra, Wadi Rum (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and where Lawrence himself once roamed), and the Dead Sea.

Any fan of history, including Biblical history, medieval history, Roman, etc., would find Jordan a stellar place to stroll around.  Walk where Moses died atop Mount Nebo, for example, or look over the valley below Karak from a castle window, or compare the architecture of the various facades in Petra to each other and spot the Nabatean style vs. the Roman style, and on and on and on. If ancient history isn’t your thing, perhaps modern history is: consider the guard towers along the shores of the Dead Sea as you hand your passport to the armed checkpoint guards along the road.  Talk to someone and find out that Jordan is one of the only countries in the region to officially recognize Israel as a state.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

Those are salt crystals on the buoys.

And if you say to yourself, “Screw history, I’m all about the present,” then enjoy a mediocre takeaway pizza you bought near the exit from Petra on your way back to the Bedouin camp you’re spending the next few nights in, wash it down with some hyper-sweet tea made over the open fire, and chat with the friendly fellow with bad teeth that owns the place.  Be surprised that he travels extensively, and that he’ll be in London next month. Climb the rocks and watch the sun slowly set, turning some blonde chicks hair to sparkling gold as they sit in front of you. Rub your hands along canyon walls as you walk the Siq and sing with your wife, glad you’re there at 7:15am, not 4:30pm when it’s packed, and you couldn’t hear your voices reverberate over the cacophony of the many. Enjoy the winding road from Petra to the Dead Sea, carefully drive along the detour where the road had fallen away into the sheer nothingness below, and let your ears pop as you descend 1,000 meters in no time.

So about Petra–about Indiana Jones, the Siq, and that donkey.  We spent an entire day there, from sunup until approaching sundown. We carried the little one most of the way.  Fortunately he decided to nap in that amazing Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, so he didn’t feel the need to be down and running around the entire day, or we’d have never gotten anywhere. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it.  The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher.  We climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice, and descended to the Great Temple, an area that Brown University has been excavating since 1993. Midday by then, we were feeling tired, so I hired a donkey to take Jenia up to the Monastery, and by the time I stopped to rest in shade kindly offered by an aged merchant lady, drink some water, and let the toddler get out of the carrier, I was wishing I’d gotten a donkey ride myself.  But, being the manly man I am, I sucked it up and took the baby in hand (actually, I put him on my shoulders) and climbed the remaining 4,000,000 steps (exaggeration, yup, but it felt like a lot).

Being totally worn out does have a way of stealing some of the majesty of any experience, but seeing the Monastery was still pretty awesome.  It’s big, y’all.  There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there.  Jenia made the descent on her ass, and I on foot. The way down was easier.

Treasury

The Treasury, shown when being approached through the Siq (which means “shaft”). The man in front of it gives some idea of scale.

In Petra

A musician playing in Petra.

What tarnishes Petra?  Could be the myriad stalls set up haphazardly selling trinkets. Could be the tons of guys hawking horseback rides, donkeys for steeds (“This one his name Michael Jackson”), or kids trying to get you to buy postcards with images probably better than the ones you’ll take. Could be nothing tarnishes it, if you’re expecting the clatter of generators powering snack shops in the canyons.

Wadi Rum was another highlight–and someone asked me “Why?” the other day.  Er, it’s just one of those places that’s worth visiting to experience for yourself, that’s why.  We thought it was cool to spend the day on camels and in a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park there.  We found the scenery amazing.  And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night.  The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence's House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

Seen from the so-called Lawrence’s House area (because he may or may not have actually been posted there), a bit of the Wadi Rum desert.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

The way to the Dead Sea twists and turns like crazy.

Karak

Jenia and el nino at Karak Castle. He wanted to walk around a lot, but the area was a bit unsafe for him with precipices galore.

The Dead Sea is the last thing I’ll write about. Yeah, it’s pretty dang cool to find yourself standing in shoulder-deep water, and when, the instant a gentle wave hits you, suddenly you’re floating, your feet sticking into the air, suddenly bobbing about because gravity doesn’t seem to function like it does in every other body of water you’ve ever been in. But it’s not cool to scare your toddler by putting that famous black mud on your face.  Although the skin does feel might refreshed when you go rinse the mud off a few minutes later.

So, in a nutshell, Jordan. Indiana Jones didn’t lead me wrong–it’s a great place to visit. Go there.  Your view of the Middle East will be altered still further than it was by your visit to the UAE.

Richer Than Me, They All Will Be.

So, why work hard if that’s what’s in store anyway?

One of my new buddies who is also a teacher here in the Emirates wrote a great blog post 2 days ago. I say it’s great because he’s got a distinctive style which is fun to read, and also because he’s right on point with each observation.  I suggest you click over and read it if you’re interested in why students are so darned difficult to corral in these parts.

Generation Money.

It explains a lot. Also, I challenge you to tell me truthfully that you’d have acted differently if you were a teenager in the same situation. Okay, catch you on the flip side.

-Shon

The Useful Facebook

I am yet to get used to people we meet at random places around town suddenly saying, “Waaait… Are you those folks with a blog? We read it!” And it completely blows my mind when they said they found it useful, too. I get all mushy and warm inside (Shon just feels encouraged to keep on writing.)

All this to say that during one of my most recent encounters, I mentioned the local Facebook groups I found useful, and it occurred to me I should post a list here, as well.

Now, some of these are closed/private, and you will have to ask to be added.

Buying, selling, swapping, free cycling:

Freecycle Al Ain – my personal favorite. Only free stuff.

Al Ain Swap and Shop – buy and sell everything from furniture to clothespins.

UAE Swap and Shop – same as above but on a bigger scale.

Al Ain Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – everything for the kids, buy & sell.

Abu Dhabi Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – same as above but on the Emirate level.

Lifestyle, survival, general info:

UAE Natural Family Living Network – if you have crunchy tendencies or simply want to find some organic food.

Grow Your Own (Al Ain) – if life in the desert leaves you yearning for something green.

Al Ain Book Club – duh.

Al Ain Expats Parents Group – don’t be fooled by the name. This is a good location for general questions.

Parenting, pregnancy, nursing:

Al Ain Nursing Mamas – if you need help, encouragement, or just an ear.

Breastfeeding Q&A Dubai & UAE – self-explanatory.

Al Ain Bumps and Babes – all things pregnancy and babies.

Abu Dhabi/Al Ain EMT Parents/Spouses – everything parenting-related.

Afternoon Baby & Children Music Classes – the most popular music classes in town. From 4 months and up.

Al Ain Under 6’s Crafting Group – weekly get-together to encourage the kids’ artsy side. 12 months and up.

These are only the groups I am actually a member of. There are more out there, but I can’t personally recommend them.

Besides this, many housing communities have their own groups as well (Muwaiji Village has one, Hili has one, the Village has one), but they are only open to residents.

Most of the people in these groups are happy to help, so do not hesitate to join. It is likely to make your life easier and more interesting from the very first days in this country.

When to Stay and When to Go

“You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…”  -Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

“Should I stay or should I go?” -The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I go

“I don’t want to end up cynical like everyone I know who has been here for three years or more.” -Krista

“I’m way more cynical than I was when I came here.” -Chris

Each year we’re here (and we’re in year three, if you forgot) we see more of our friends and fellow 2012 English teachers depart. For us the question of staying and renewing my teaching contract for another year resolved itself when the 2013 school year ended up being much easier than the 2012 one, and also because I couldn’t find anything that seemed like a better offer for me and my family. We’ve determined this will be our last year in the Emirates, as I think we’ve mentioned before. We aim to head somewhere else in next fall, in the way-futuristic-sounding year of 2015.

But why? The package here is good–tax free salary, housing that is provided, good friends who are as close as family, and we’re accustomed to the peculiarities of the area. Jenia has a nice little thing going with her photography, the little one has play groups and other things he goes to. For all practical purposes, this is home now.

So again, why leave?

See the quotes above. It seems a good time to go. We have had, overall, a positive experience. We want to see more of the world, to continue our expat explorations abroad before returning to the USA for a while (notice I didn’t say forever).

Chris has been here 4 years now, and he doesn’t bother with the bright side. He is resigned, in a manner of speaking, to the, er, structure of the work environment, but that doesn’t stop him from complaining about it.

Krista accepted a new job after 2 years because she didn’t want to be like Chris in that way. Now she’s teaching in another Asian country and by the looks of it having a blast.  She left before she could grow cynical.

This year I have to fight to repress snarky comments, the roll of the eyes, the ever-more-snide comments when things go exactly as frustratingly as they typically do at work. At the moment, I’ve managed to look at the bright side of that battle, and say, “Hey, why should I expect anything different? Why be annoyed?”

One of the Arabic Medium Teachers (AMTs) that I work with is from Tunisia.  He’s an English teacher, too. “When we go back to Tunisia to work after teaching here in the UAE or the Gulf we have to undergo rehabilitation,” he said.

I chuckled.

“They observe us and make sure that we can still teach.  They enroll us in a program where we go for training, much more than any other teachers.”

“Wait,” I said, “You’re serious.”

“Yes, I’m serious.”

“Oh. Crap!”

“Yes.”

My teaching skills haven’t been ruined.  Like my colleague, whose school found him perfectly able to conduct classes when he returned to Tunisia for a while before coming back to the UAE, I’ll not need a rehab program. One of the good things about having a bunch of hooligans for students is that my classroom management skills are now second to none.  I mean, I can see a kid’s mobile phone before he even knows he’s gotten it out of his pocket.  I can separate and rearrange a classroom on the fly so quickly the trouble makers are located in different sectors before they can make a peep.

Even so, three years seems like enough. It’ll be hard to find another package that has benefits as plentiful as this one, but in terms of workplace satisfaction, the factor that makes many folks grow cold and hard inside in this place (because you gotta deal with frustration somehow), one would think that might be higher in another location.

“You gotta know when to walk away,” as ol’ Kenny sang. We’re planning to walk away in July with tons of amazing memories that we could never have generated anywhere else, and one day we’ll return with our son and be amazed at how different the UAE has become.  The Clash sang “If I stay there will be trouble, if I leave it will be double.”  I can’t apply that verse.  If I stay I there might be some trouble with my psyche, but not the knock-down-drag-out kind of fightin’ that the song suggests.  Until July rolls around, I’m aiming to stay optimistic and enjoy all the good things here, because there are plenty of them.