It’s been a long while since I have had the muse to write… why? It took a while longer to get back on my emotional feet and although the head knows that change is inevitable and when one door closes another opens, the heart takes a while to follow.

Everything changes and my new job is finally putting me on the road again. I am still in Dubai, still in Events and marketing, new company, another multinational and this time my ‘area’ stretches from the Middle East to Turkey, to Russia and includes Africa.

So my first trip led me to South Africa, a place I had planned several events before but never actually visited. In fact, until I moved to Dubai, my exposure to South Africa and South Africans had been very limited. Yes, I had met the occasional colleague but during an event there’s usually not enough time to really get to know someone. When I moved here, one of the first people who took pity on me and showed me the ropes was a wonderful South African lady and one of my best friends to date. Through her I met other South Africans and always enjoy their open and hospitable ways, their lust for outdoor life. My South African friends love a good get together, mostly with a BBQ = Braai, help each other out and are true family people. When life hit me with all it had, I spend entire weekends on my friends couch, crying my eyes out, feeling taken care of and loved.

But what did I know about South Africa? Not a lot to be honest apart from the usual tourist information, historical and political info and the fact that every single one of my friends who’d travelled there absolutely loved it.

So I was quite chuffed to be travelling there finally. As an added bonus I learned I would be working with a former colleague who had switched companies two years previously. Of course, our travel security system sent me all kinds of warnings about Johannesburg, to be careful and don’t go out at night, not to jump into any taxis but always use hotel cars or car services and generally be aware of my surroundings. Not an issue.

Upon arrival all I saw was the bright lights of a city and a hotel close to famous Mandela Square. My former and new colleagues welcomed me with open arms and proceeded to show me as much as possible during an ongoing event, from famous South African steak houses, to shopping in Mandela square and evenings with yummy wine and food. I got to spend the weekend with my colleague’s family and we spend a wonderful Sunday at a food and wine festival, sitting in the warm autumn sunshine, drinking sparkling wine and snacking on Mediterranean delicacies. Lovely.

My preconceived notions about the friendliness and hospitality of South Africans confirmed, I vowed to come back for a private trip – one HAS to see Cape Town and the vineyards – and flew back to Dubai, the memory of wine and laughter still in my head.

I will certainly be back – and in the meantime I get to enjoy South African friends in Dubai!

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A couple of months ago I injured my knee during training. One minute I was boxing the crap out of something, the next something went “snap” and my knee gave way under me… luckily after about 10 minutes I was able to get up and hobble out of the gym. I promised my trainer that I would have it looked at. And thus my nightmare began.

Although Dubai has a LOT of hospitals – private and government – it is not easy to find qualified medical advice. Working in the medical industry I know this, know about the challenges of finding qualified experts and the gap in care. Since I know too much,  first thing I did was to get a couple of recommendations. Called the first one: next appointment in 10 days. Second call: Doctor is out of the country, 1 month; would I like to see another doctor? Third call: No we don’t accept your insurance, but you can pay with credit care. Eh, no!

A couple of calls later I found out that there is a certain type of doctor who is always available, those from countries that are not known for their great medical training, where my trust factor is 0. The other type, from countries where medical knowledge has evolved beyond the 20th century are either fully booked, or out of the country. No wonder healthcare plays such an important role. The concept of an acute injury, unless life threatening does not seem to apply.

Anyway – I ended up seeing my general practitioner who prescribed some painkillers, Voltaren and urged me to get a knee brace. Easier said than done. There are not knee braces for people with big thighs. So I rested the leg, put Voltaren on and lo and behold, after 2 weeks it was better. Back to training with special focus on strengthening the muscles around my knee. Gotta love a good personal trainer.

Three weeks ago – at an event in Riyadh – it happened again. I stepped onto the 8cm platform of the stand, my knee gave out under me and down I went. This time the pain was excruciating and although I iced my knee immediately, I couldn’t walk for the rest of the day and the pain stayed bad and for the rest of the trip I my gait was about as graceful as that of the hunchback of Notre Dame. Back in Dubai – only 3 days until next business trip – I called the hospital again. Doctor not available, come to emergency room. By then I had googled and found out that most likely the crucial (cross) ligaments in my knee were torn or at least severely damaged. Fine… I went to A&E at one of the best private hospitals. Nice welcome, not too full. After the usual blood pressure measuring and question I was seen by a nurse who told me I had to have an x-Ray, which is totally useless if one doesn’t have a bone injury but fine… I went and had an x-Ray. Back to waiting room where no one was sure what to do with me. Finally, the nurse from before found me, back to examination room. Then, ten minutes later a young doctor arrived. Upon my question whether she was an orthopedic specialist, only some mumbling. A perfunctory glance at my knee, no touch OR performance of the triage movements necessary, only told me that x-Ray was fine – what a surprise! – and that I needed MRI but only orthopedic surgeon can order and besides, my knee was too swollen. She handed me a prescription for pain killers and some sort of gel to decrease the swelling. Oh yeah, and I should wear a brace but they don’t have in my size. Frustrated I left, declining an appointment with another doctor 1 week later as I had to travel. Confused about the swelling I called a radiographer friend who confirmed that this was absolute BS and that an MRI is always possible, the hospital can just make more money if scheduled and not considered an emergency. I was pissed off, but could not do a lot because I had to travel 2 days later.

During that trip the pain became so bad I had to buy a walking stick just to keep upright, good thing I was at a medical trade show and they sold pretty posh ones for only ten dollars. Meanwhile, a helpful colleague had scheduled and MRI for me at another hospital where she knew the CEO. Fine… I went right after my trip and had the MRI (argh, uncomfortable and on a competition machine) but unfortunately the Orthopedic Surgeon had to attend to an emergency. Fair enough, two days later then. That morning: a call, Doctor is sick himself, come Sunday. Fine. It’s been almost 4 weeks; I can still not walk but what the heck. This morning another call, Doctor still sick and then he will back to his home country for vacation. Could I come next Sunday? No… I am on vacation myself, and I will then simply have to live with the pain. No no, Ma’am, I call you back. New appointment today at 2 with another doctor. Let’s see what he says but after almost four weeks since the injury I do not hold any hope for miracles, OR for a proper knee brace.

I will have to spend my own vacation hobbling along with a walking stick, secure in the knowledge that all my prejudices against medical care in this country have been confirmed. Hurray! Rant over.

Posted by: Novelist | March 9, 2014

Strange encounters in hotels or… seriously?

I have NOT been posting anything for a long time and that is due to many factors mainly my very bad last year with personal and professional disappointments and new beginnings. That said – I have a new job now, that will allow me to travel again so expect some new posts coming as I explore new countries.

Last weekend I went away with a girlfriend to celebrate my birthday. Our first plan was to go to Bangkok together for a long weekend but circumstances prevented us from doing that. Yet I really had my heart set on being away for my birthday this year so we decided to stay in the Gulf region, but treat ourselves to a really nice hotel. Five stars, spa, beach – the works. And all on a booking.com special… Fab.

I love hotels and at one point I even contemplated a career in the hospitality industry and ever since I started organizing events I have been involved in choosing the right hotel for the teams at trade shows and congresses all over Europe and the Middle East. Dubai of course offering a whole new world of possibilities. I have started appreciating five-star hotels, where the staff is friendly, the beds are heaven and the recreational facilities are plenty. Finding a nice hotel in Europe is becoming harder and harder especially when a congress or trade show is in town and the prices skyrocket to about 300% of what they usually are – a phenomenon that is sadly repeating itself here in Dubai. Bed-bug infested third-class establishments suddenly think they are the Burj Al Arab just because they’re in walking distance to the Congress Center… don’t get me wrong, I don’t need a mint-chocolate on my pillow every night but as soon as the hotel slips from lower standard to lower standard and dingy/dirty – I am out of there. I am too old for crappy hotel rooms, where I constantly have to hunt for my own flip-flops so as not event to touch a toe to the worn carpet.

I cannot help but wonder what goes on in the minds of the hotel staff as they are confronted with the endless stream of tourists, local and foreign, coming through their doors. What room service staff encounters upon delivering meals and what other service staff has to deal with when refreshing or remaking rooms. After all – hotels seem to bring out something previously unknown in people, like messing up a room or having meals in bed or illicit encounters which they would probably not have in their own beds. Or countries. Trust me, I’ve seen it all during my 13 years managing events and travelling.

I salute the friendly hotels staff at any upscale hotel in dealing with the inevitable package-deal tourists, who enter a 5-Star-Establishment but have absolutely no idea how to behave in this strange new environment. In a country where local women are covered, these tourists will wear only scraps of clothing on their badly sunburnt bodies or behave atrociously during meals… in fact both my friend and I were shocked when we sat down on the beautifully decorated dinner terrace at 8pm of our weekend retreat, only to be confronted with drunk Russian next to us, who slurred into the air, possibly addressing us or the hotel staff but most likely the fairies swirling around his alcohol-addled brain. Even when his family joined him, they did not seem to mind or care whereas the maitre was worried about our comfort and that of all other diners as the family became louder and louder. Luckily about an hour later that guy was too far gone and staggered off the terrace with his brood.

Later on we decided to check out the lounge of the hotel which proofed a bit of an anticlimax as the beautifully appointed bar lacked guests, despite the dance floor and relatively good music. When we entered three young-ish locals clocked my tall, blonde and blue-eyed friend and cheered something along the lines of “Bring it on…” in Arabic and once again I was secretly glad to be dark-haired as this happens to blonde, light-skinned women more often and despite the fact that it might be flattering coming from the right guy, it is usually just annoying especially since it is usual the wrong guy, showing interest.

Ignoring these three we chatted on, had a final Bailey’s at the club and decided to all it a night at around 2am, looking forward to the fabulous mattress in our elegantly appointed room. Upon descending from the bar towards lobby level the elevator stopped and a guy got on, short, bald, clearly local and wearing only a fluffy hotel robe and from the way he sort of kept his hands on his crown jewels, not much more. He gave us both a quick once over, a gleam in his eyes as he rested on my friends tall form. We both rolled our eyes at each other but I could not help but wonder just WHAT this guy was doing at 2am in the morning, when he walked up to reception, exchanged a few words with the manager on duty and disappeared back into the elevator. After all, these rooms hold about three telephones all with a big “FRONT DESK” direct dial button?

Laughing and shaking our heads we walked over the elevator in “our” wing we noticed the sound of sandals flip-flopping behind us as a middle-aged local man dressed in the full trimmings struggled to catch up with us and thus catching the elevator. Friendly as we both are we waited for him to step in, and as soon as the doors closed his eyes tried to focus on my friend. I am saying tried as this guy was terribly cross-eyed so one could not be sure where he was looking. He mumbled a “good evening” and when we replied – still just being friendly – he really concentrated on my friend telling her she was very beautiful and if she would give him his number and the chance to spend “time together” – like right now. While I had to control an oncoming fit of giggles, she told him thanks but no thanks only for him to repeat his request, a disappointed look on his face. The arrival on our floor saved her and I believe only the fact that there were two of us and I dismissed him with a friendly “good night” in curt Arabic kept him from following her / us off the elevator. While she lamented the fact that apparently only middle-aged ugly men where interested in her I wondered what on earth would possess a guy to think that hitting on a woman in an elevator at 2 am is actually going to get him the shag he so desperately wanted. Getting to know each other, yeah right!

I try to be convinced that this would not have happened in an elevator at work…

Now for anyone fearing I will go into a philosophic rant – don’t… this is merely going to be an observation on the cause and effect of a topic that is close to everyone’s heart here in Dubai and probably elsewhere – customer service or the lack thereof.

A friend of mine regularly gets annoyed and bad service over the phone – and so do I incidentally – and she always suggests she’d like to open either her own call center, which I find too limiting or a training agency that trains people on how to give good service. Wow – wouldn’t that be lovely and about at least 95% of the companies Dubai would definitely benefit from it.

Service in Dubai only knows extremes – it is either fantastic or random/non-existent. There’s hardly a golden middle way. Example: a large furniture store offers home delivery and installation service. They arrive; they are on time or have called to say they are in a traffic jam, they are friendly, don’t smell and motivated to build that couch/shelf/table/bed. A whole pack of accessories to do said job is missing. They are lost, don’t know what to do. OK – we call the store ourselves and are told that oh, these parts were forgotten and are actually NOT available right now. Vital parts of said couch/shelf/ table/bed. Why send your installation team then? You have now wasted my time, their time, the gas to get there, the parts of the piece ordered are strewn all about the living room and we have to wait a minimum of two days to get this fixed. But only after a dozen phone calls during which we grow more and more impatient. The fact that the person on the phone has trouble articulating themselves in English does not help. We live in a multi-cultural society where English is our common language and not everyone is at the same level. Fine. Accepted but can’t you put people in service who actually have mastered English as a second language? After all it is all about communication. So cause: bad service, no English, effect: ticked off customer who still does not have the luxury of sitting on her new couch/putting books on her shelf etc. And will tell her friends about it.

Other example – a positive one this time. I called a large luxury hotel chain to book a table for their champagne brunch. They have a reservation line. No switching me from call center to reception to the restaurant etc. The lady on the phone is clearly not a native speaker – neither am I btw – but her English is excellent. She gives her name, is friendly, professional, even asks a couple of marketing questions and makes sure she’s written down my first and family name correctly, asks for my email and mobile number and repeats those back to me. She asks if anyone in my party is allergic to something or if we have any children with us requiring a child seat. Wow. She ends the call with a professional “Is there anything else I can do for you?” and I hang up happy. So cause: good service, effect: Happy customer who will speak positively of this experience. And tell their friends.

I experienced another example of non-existent and bad service just very recently. The windshield of my car go hit by a stone while driving behind a truck and the screen cracked. Not too big a crack, about 5 cm wide but it can’t be repaired. The windshield has to be exchanged. It’s on the passenger side, not all the way through so I called my car dealer’s garage a few weeks later for a service appointment. Now there you cannot book immediately, they call you back. It took two days. The person on the phone was bored – my service request probably interrupted a nice game of solitaire or a chat with the BF – not very good at English and when I tried to explain that apart from regular service my windshield needed to be looked at. No luck. I ended up giving up and just booking the service appointment. At the garage the guys are actually nice and professional but of course I am already slightly ticked off. Apart from the slightly condescending tone these people seem to get when talking to a woman about cars the conversation is fine until I show the guy the windshield. Oh no no no, we can’t do that here, you need to take the car to our other garage – which is at the other end of Dubai, about 35km away. I ask him if they can’t do that for me? No. And I will need to leave the car there overnight for sure.  And no, they do not provide a rental car. That is only and option in a different service contract – a contract that I have never been offered. Yes – I could take cabs back and forth or brave the public transport system but after almost three years here I expect the dude to do better. All that is too time consuming and complicated. If he was smart he’d just say “yes Ma’am” order the part, have the windshield fixed in this location, which is about ten minutes away from where I live/work and have a happy customer. I end up doing the service and NOT fixing the windshield. Needless to say  – due to other circumstances – the windshield did not get fixed. Then the next service was due and of course I’ll not repeat the above. I send an email to another garage. Yes they also fix windshields and yes all in one location. Fab! Yay. I call. The person on the phone this time hardly understands me and I make her repeat what I need. General service. Windshield exchange. A document for renewing my vehicle license. She repeats all and I ask her if I need to leave the car there overnight – planning purposes. No, ma’am, one day only. Are you sure? Yes, ma’am. Okay, happy I take the car there first thing; find the place – in Dubai’s biggest industrial zone that is a maze – right away. Upon entering the workshop the receptionist, who does not seem pleased I interrupted a BBM session, finds my name but I can see in the book she hasn’t written down anything we discussed before the weekend. Sigh. I repeat everything again and it is painful. She does not understand and gets a mechanic to come outside with me to look at my windshield. He says it has to be exchanged. I knew that already. Fine, we go back inside, she writes everything down, tells me they will call me if they find any faults on the car – nice – and then she tells me 1 or 2 days. I am speechless. I have NOT planned for this and have about a thousand things to do this week before I travel to Europe. I argue, she calls her boss, who says no, cannot be done in one day. As I have no other option I leave the car but I am NOT happy. I take a cab back to the office and tell my friend there. She goes into another rant about bad service we agree. She offers me her car, which is super sweet. I decline – don’t know why I was that stupid and ask my other colleague to drop me off at the mall on his way home, please as there’s as grocery store in said mall. He says no problem. He’d be happy to. I get a call in the afternoon that something else needs to be fixed, will I consent to the cost. Yes of course, it’s apparently a vital part.

My colleague, who is also in a bad mood, drops me at the mall. I am in heels; I am carrying my laptop bag and purse. Fine. I will manage. It is not even 6pm and most of the shelves seem to not have been restocked and the place is full. As my fridge is completely empty I need to shop some things and decide for the sake of my sanity to start with the basic things. Having gotten those I check for something specific. They are out. I ask one of the dudes, how does not understand me and he says “sorry ma’am, we don’t have” (standard sentence in Dubai) – I ask him if he can check, he does not understand me. Fine. I can substitute one for the other. Back to vegetables for another standard, but vital ingredient. Not there. I ask a guy, wearing a nametag, who just points to another guy, who shrugs and says – yes “sorry ma’am, we don’t have”. Almost at the end of my patience I ask him to check, he runs off comes back too quickly and says “not available” – the item is onions? Hello??? At this point, and because my headache is coming back, I just leave the semi-filled cart where it is and leave. Outside there are no cabs. The attendant who is supposed to get you a cab guides two people who came after me but have his nationality to the next cabs while I still wait, along with three other people who are NOT of that nationality. I take the guys name and promise him I will complain, knowing full well that this will accomplish nothing. Finally there’s a cab, which I just grab, ignoring the guy and telling my fellow sufferers to be careful they actually get a cab. This taxi driver is at least nice, agrees to take me home so I can drop my laptop and change shoes, to wait, then drive me to a bigger supermarket where I actually get such exotic ingredients as onions and bread. After shopping I find another nice taxi guy who actually helps me with my shopping to the entrance of my building. Nice touch, I give him more tip.

So sum up this long rant – cause: terrible service all around, effect: one exhausted and pissed of Expat. And sadly – most of this could be solved by just putting people in front of customers who speak the language and have a just a love for the human race and their job!

And – to become a bit philosophical at the end – Karma is a biatch people, it might bite you in the “you-know-what”!

 

 

 

Posted by: Novelist | August 21, 2013

And what have you been up to this summer?

While my muse still seems to be on vacation I am attempting this post without her… she’s been extremely lazy so my creativity has been non-existent.

August is almost over and for us here in Dubai that means the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan has come and gone yet again. For those who don’t know about Ramadan – this is the month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for a month every year. Ramadan ends with a two day holiday called EID Al Fitr, where one visits family and close friends, giving gifts of candy and sweets. Also this is the time when you buy new clothes for the family. While this is not Saudi Arabia, Ramadan is nevertheless taken rather seriously here in Dubai. Restaurants will be closed during the day – but as a concession to the Expat community they deliver, one should not eat or drink or smoke in public and working ours are reduced to six per day.  At our offices we can eat and drink in our cafeteria, which was nice and frankly in forty degree weather I could not have done without water all day.

While a lot of Expats go home during Ramadan – especially if it falls in high summer – I decided to stay this year and take a language course. Arabic. Finally after almost three years. A local language institute was offering a “Super Intensive Summer Course”, which meant four hours of studying every day after work – thank god for Ramadan hours. Let me tell you, learning at new language at my age ain’t no picnic, especially when it involves learning a whole new alphabet. One actually goes back to being a five year old learning to write her first words and read them back. However I am lucky as I have enough nice, native speaker colleagues around me who help me with my homework. So for three weeks I became a stranger to my friends and cat but hey, it also kept me off the streets.

Lots of people tell me “but everyone in Dubai speaks English” which is true but for me this is the chance of learning a language and hopefully also practicing it which I would probably not attempt in my home country. In addition, summer in Dubai is really too hot to do anything during the day so this was a great opportunity to use my brain again.

So after sixty hours of intensive course I’ve gone ahead and booked another course – only 4 hours per week – so I will hopefully be able to form some coherent sentences and read a bit as well – inshallah!

Happy Summer all!

Posted by: Novelist | April 23, 2013

A day in the life of… insect freak out…

I live in a hot climate. In the melting pot of cultures and lifestyles that is Dubai. As the city recovered from the 2009 crash more and more people start coming back to this lively metropolis. More high-rise buildings go up, more hotels are built to accommodate all the tourists that seem to be here year-round now. While these tourists and newcomers bring in the cash, they also bring in unwelcomed guests – or I guess these little pests exist in this climate anyway. I am talking about bugs, insects, creepy crawlers.

My last apartment block became the YMCA to a host of cockroaches within about two months after a bunch of people from a more grubby part of town moved in, bringing the buggers in their furniture. Since that place had no maintenance so to speak off, the cockroaches happily infested their floor then spread. YUCK! Yes I know, cockroaches are actually very clean little insects, washing themselves after a human hand has touched them yadda yadda… they still gross me out.

Then there’s the even more horrible variant – the bed bug. Bed bugs, almost extinct in the 1940s have made huge comeback – worldwide, not only in Dubai. No no these things terrorize hotels and residences worldwide, from hovel to 5-Star establishment. I had a less than wonderful first encounter with bed bugs about five years ago in a popular hotel here in Dubai. Of course at the time I had not idea why the bites on my arm itched like hell, having suffered from allergic reactions so mundane mosquitos all my life. I had also dismissed the one bug I’d squashed in my bathroom at the time as “unknown”. I only learned WHAT exactly had noshed on me about two months later at another event in Europe when a colleague from Lebanon asked me how on earth I’d gotten those horrible scars on my arm (the bites had just about finished healing). Innocently I replied that mosquitos in Dubai had bitten me during Arab Health. His look – a mixture of pity and incredulousness – told me that my worst fears had come true and I’d been viciously attacked by bed bugs. Horror! Since then I am panicked that I will bring them into my home on a trip and meticulously search my luggage after each trip and wash its entire content immediately after arrival.

I haven’t travelled in almost eight months and my last trip was to Germany. I have a new bedframe and mattress in my new apartment (I am the first tenant). My building also houses a hotel so maintenance here is great and they do a pest control treatment each month. And I have been having the worst attack of hives on my arms and legs in my entire life (why is a story all to itself, but needless to say the mold in my old place and cats are involved). The dermatologist confirmed that I suffer from hives not bites, cause I thought they were mosquito bites. She looked at them with a magnifying glass and not bite marks. BUT when one of my friends suggested that her bed bug bites looked similar than at least some of my marks my imagination went into overdrive. I called the dermatologist again, asking specifically for bug bites, she said no. I started obsessively researching bed bugs on the internet.

Then on Sunday afternoon, I saw a suspicious looking bug crawl out from the air-conditioning vent and this sent me into a panicked frenzy. More bug research on Google revealed that this could indeed be a bed bug as they travel through air-conditioning and even plumbing. Wargh!!! I found another one slap bang in the middle of the room and killed that one too.

So I dragged my mattress off the bed – no easy feat with a 1,80 x 2,00m mattress – and inspected every inch of it. No telltale signs. I emptied the drawers of the bed base, took all the bed linen and stuff stored there out onto the balcony. Found one bug casing – shudder – and some dodgy looking stuff on the slats of the bed. But no bug. Alive or dead. Shaken and grossed out, I decided to drive to Ikea for new slats for my bed, just to be on the safe side. On the way called about a dozen shops to find out if I could find a bed bug safe mattress protector as one site on Google had informed me that such a protector would not only protect my new mattress but also keep any bed bugs trapped (although that thought is also horrible). Found that store which luckily is on the way as Ikea is at the other side of town. Once there I decided to buy new curtains as well just in case the exterminator which our maintenance is sending just in case finds some bugs living in my nice curtains. Oh and my local supermarket stored some insect killing powder apparently good for “all crawling insects” including bed bugs as these sneaky little crawlers are immune to pure cockroach poison. Once home I dragged the heavy old slats off my bed, hurt my knee in the process and managed to half drag, half carry them to the garbage shoot. The bedside rugs went too.  After a cleaning frenzy with Clorox and scrub brush I dusted the inside of my bed with powdered poison (safe for humans, not pets though) and almost killed myself putting the full mattress protector around my full size mattress. I even put on white, freshly washed bed sheets so as to spot my own blood better should I get bitten.

I haven’t seen a bug since. I have no new bites masquerading as hives. My right knee hurts like hell from the 9kg slat. I haven’t found or killed another bug, but the exterminator is coming in on Monday anyway – apparently it is really hard to find those bed bugs… oh yeah and the new curtains are still packed and all my bed linen is either at the cleaners or outside in the full sun in a bag. I do wake up about five times per night checking my white linen for bugs or my own blood.

How’s that for paranoia?

bug

About a year ago a couple of colleagues who are all into music played a set for us in our monthly office birthday celebration. After the set one guy stayed behind just strumming his 12-string guitar and when I came back into the breakout area he said to me that I looked like I enjoyed singing and so we just jammed for a while. I hadn’t sung in years and it was so much fun but with work, life and what-not we soon forgot about it until our General Manager approached said colleague if he wanted to play at our year end celebration. He said yes but stipulated that he needed me, another female voice and another guitar player to do so. Within roughly ten days we chose a set of songs, practiced and – amidst lots of cheering – performed in front of our colleagues for the year end party, earning the usual “wow – I did not know you can sing/play the guitar/bass.”

Although this had been super fun – at least for me – the other two soon dropped out and my friend and I continued playing at our desert BBQs, just for fun, just for our friends.

Then the other day I discovered that a new place had opened in my building – a Jazz@PizzaExpress. Live music every night and an open stage jamming session each Tuesday for any artist – professional or otherwise – to attend. Needless to say we were intrigued but it took us another three dinners to decide we’d join that jamming session. More practicing, setting up some sound equipment in my living room and a week ago we took the plunge. I think it went well but to be very honest – the stage fright almost gave me a heart attack. We’d brought along an entourage of almost ten people to cheer us on and they liked it but once we’d finished our small set of two songs, staff and patrons congratulated us and at the end of the night and asked us to return. Yay – could not have been too bad then.

We did just that last night, dragging along a girlfriend who’s visiting from Europe at the moment. Apart from us we noticed the usual suspects hanging about, a skinny guy in glasses who loves to perform ten-minute versions of Al Jarreau songs – he does so very well though – a couple of musicians on drums, bass, saxx, two female Jazz singers and a fourteen year old girl with angelic voice, playing the piano and performing her own song! And us of course – I think we are the only musicians there who have a day-job. All others are professionals waiting to break into the Dubai music scene.

The place was packed last night but after a couple of hours of drinking tea I was sure we would not perform when yet another person but us got up to sing. A huge African American dude took the piano and another one, also very tall, wearing a baseball cap hops on the stage to sing with Al Jarreau then by himself.

As he takes the microphone from Al, he’s like “Who knows me here…”– cheering and smartphone-picture snapping-from the front row, shoulder shrugging on our table. “For those who don’t know me… I sing slow songs.” Still – big question marks on our faces, well at least on my friends, his buddy’s and mine. My girlfriend is like “uhhh I know this song….” as the guy starts some R’n’B number I personally have never heard of, which is quite unsurprising as I completely blocked out R’n’B and Rap, just as my musician friend has lost about 15 years of music when retreating from playing himself. As the song goes along – we notice that the guy has a GREAT voice but we have absolutely NO idea who he is, even when he gets off the stage again and the musical director of the place thanks him profusely amidst clapping and cheering. As we argue the merits of R’n’B music amongst ourselves, my friend suddenly says, “That was Keith Sweat!!! Holy cow he used to be famous in the nineties!!”

Blank stares all around the table and she’s like “Don’t you know him? He’s had lots of hits.” Judging from the clapping and video-ing in the house this guy is apparently famous! Wow – seems like JLT is really happening and famous people actually join the jamming sessions! Which of course jumbled the program around and some of the regulars did not get to perform and left in frustration. We did not get to perform in front of a big audience either but contrary to the professionals we took the stage at the end of the evening – if just to get my stage fright settled and make the remaining staff, house musicians and our friends happy.

Oh and we discovered later that Keith’s presence in Dubai caused a lot of uproar in the local fan community… the things we ignore… ts ts ts…

OK so this is not really a travel related topic but an Expat related one… Valentine’s Day is fast approaching – the international day of romance is basically knocking on your door, dearly beloved…

Here in Dubai it’s not as big a deal as in the USA or in Europe but pretty big and most hotels, restaurants, bars and even shops have some sort of Valentine’s special on. One of the big jewelry retailers actually goes all out with a radio clip depicting a girl who’s stopped believing in elves, fairies and happy endings and with a new piece of jewelry her beloved could be in the unique position of giving that dreamy innocence back to her. Okay. Sure.

This morning on my way to work I was listening to my favorite English speaking local radio station. They’ve been having a sort of Valentine’s Day countdown for the past two weeks and both presenters – a guy and a girl – agree that Valentine’s day is important for a relationship BUT that one should say “I love you” or show their love more than once a year. So they’ve been giving tips, listened to stories, have people leave a love message online and all of that.

So this morning, these two were discussing some recent study that said that after about 3,5 years, married couples were taking each other for granted. And listed the twenty signs of taking each other for granted. Admittedly, many of them I did recognize. Basically all say “I don’t really care about you anymore”. So then the radio Audience was asked to send in a song that fit this topic – the Topical Tune. Bored while in a traffic jam, I texted in “It must have been love” by Roxette – and WON! Wohoo! I was on the radio and all… all cheering aside; does anyone remember the lyrics to this song?

“It must have been love, but it’s over now, it was all that I wanted, now I am living without.”

So the song fits the topic but it’s also kinda sad? Don’t you agree? Three and a half years? That is NOT a long time. And “taking for granted” just implies so much. How can we go from “OMG – I cannot live without you/I must have you/forever.” to “I cannot even be bothered to put on make-up or spend 1:1 time with each other in just 3,5 years” – mind this is a statistic but I know a lot of couples who are just “together” – no ups or downs, no fun, no passion, no fighting either. I should know, I used to be one half of such a couple.

Now I am not saying the honeymoon period can last forever, but lust should turn to love, deep love, the kind of love that really says “I cannot and do not want to live without you”  – and it doesn’t have to be defined by the number of times you have sex with each other per day. We all know that “life” just gets in the way sometimes.

I cannot help but wonder if we NEED days like Valentine’s Day to remind us that the person with us is the person we just had to have beside us, but how could we forget in the first place?  That the man/woman we married or live with is the one person we might have risked everything for, the person we pursued and wooed and did anything for. The person we gifted with out heart. Unconditionally. At one time.

Or maybe we are just so distracted by “life” that we’re simply too distracted by responsibilities and superficial wishes to keep in mind why we wanted to be with this one person to begin with. Maybe our hearts have been broken too many times, disappointment shadows good times, and we give up easily. I am not sure, really.

All I can say is that to me the little things matter. The smile in the morning. Date nights. Weekends away (without the kids, maybe). Dressing up for each other. A playlist created especially for me. Leaving little notes and saying “I love you”.

Happy Valentine’s Day Dubai!

Lipstick heart

Dubai is becoming the place to be again after the crisis of 2009. Companies are hiring, the building boom is no longer a boom but stuff is being built again – here and especially in Abu Dhabi and new people are coming into the country.

When I moved here two years ago the property and rental market was still pretty much in shock but upon inquiring about finding a place to live I was directed to a few “trustworthy” real estate agents and a couple of websites to try and find a place to live.

Now – the whole process of finding and renting an apartment in my home country can take months. In Dubai? Not so much, you pretty much view an apartment, like it, make down payment (preferably in cash) and move in two weeks later. The tenancy contract is simple only in its complete lack of respect for the tenant. Only for one year so the landlord can always be sure to keep his/her tenant on their toes. One year only? The astonished European might ask? Yes, then with the property market being as volatile as it is, the landlord wants to make sure he can press more money out of their tenant the next year. Sure – the Land Department has put some measures in place, like a rental index per area, where one can check if their apartment is appropriately priced. But what if not? And yes, the landlord is not allowed to raise the rent after the first year but if they want to and you don’t agree they kick you out. They’ll find a reason.

I’ve been here 2 years and 4 months and have moved twice already. My first apartment was small, but lovely. In a nice area, fully developed with parks and green and easy access to the mail roads. The finishing of the apartment was almost European, stylish and modern and apart from my Russian neighbors whose life seemed one never-ending party I loved the place. Halfway through my contract my landlord announces he is selling the place but I should not worry, the place would be sold “with me in it.” Hmmm. It was clear quite quickly that the people interested in my place were definitely looking at the place not as an investment but their new place to live. I started putting out feelers but that is no use in Dubai, as one has to be able/willing to move within two weeks.

Normally, a rental contract can be cancelled from both sides three months before it is up. When nothing happened I started to relax. But then three WEEKS before my contract was up I got a call from my old landlord, informing me that he had indeed sold the place to a local and the new landlord wanted it for his daughter. That is the only way to get a tenant out.

Panic! Shock! I had to find something and quickly and as these things go, not an apartment in sight. Friends of mine were living in a new development in – well the middle of nowhere really – so I thought why not, when something came up. And – just to let you know – the reputable real estate agents do absolutely nothing for you unless you’ve already chosen a property off their website. So I viewed this place, it was large and spacious in a brand new building and yes, it was in the middle of nowhere but the real estate agent assured me that was no problem. So I moved, and my old landlord vanished into space or somewhere far far away cause he never gave me back my deposit.

Broke and desperate I moved in to the new place. Little did I know that I moved into the house of horrors. Cockroaches, crumbling pool area, gym that was never open, maintenance that never responded (not once in 12 months), taxis that didn’t find me there, no delivery company and an air-conditioning that stank of garbage. After three months, the walls started crumbling and mold was settling into one wall in the living room. I called maintenance, they ignored me, I called the landlord. He didn’t care. And there’s really nothing you can do.

After about eight months I had enough and started looking again. Same game, the real estate agencies could not have cared less, and – ARGH – the prices in the nice areas of Dubai had gone up. My former neighborhood had become so expensive I couldn’t have paid for a broom closet there, the Marina is overly expensive anyway and another area that I liked was simply too far out and when I looked they didn’t have any nice apartments on offer. So on to a new area. One area that I looked at two years ago but had dismissed as a “construction” site. Situated across from the Marina it offers easy access to both road and beach and a LOT of work has gone into it. My dream tower was quickly found. But how to get an apartment there? First viewing – I enter, I say hi to the real estate agent, I look around and before I can even ask the agent anything, a big Eastern European man slaps deposit and six months rent down and says “apartment is mine.” Fine. I tell the agent I am interested in the same type of 1-bedroom and leave. Time is ticking; I have cancelled my contract in the House of Horrors and nothing. No reply. I half-heartedly looked and some horrible apartments – dirty, badly built and smelling weirdly – when the agent calls. He’s found a place for me, exactly what I want.

And yes – it is my dream apartment. I make a deposit – this time I have my chequebook and the agent assures me everything will be ok. Two days later I sign the contract. The landlord does not sign. He changes it, limiting it to one year with NO possibility of extension. This is not what I want. Fine, we change it again. I arrange the movers; fill out the forms for moving in to the new apartment. One week to go. After the weekend, the contract is still not back. Another change, this time the contract is in the name of the wife. Fine. I sign again, change the cheque, and cancel the other cheque. They don’t sign. Instead they call and tell me that they now want 5k AED more than initially because they need to pay off the investment company they got it from or some such bull and couldn’t I move in later. I was going to be homeless in 3 days. The agent promises he will fix it. In the meantime, a colleague tells me she knows a real-estate agent who also has apartments in my building. I call that guy tell him if he finds me a place then he’ll be my hero forever. One hour later my current agent has gotten nowhere, and my new agent has the same apartment for me on a higher floor. Yay! But only three days to go. After an ordeal of re-arranging movers, finding a new slot for the transport elevator, extending my vacation, taking my cats to my friend’s house and basically losing my mind I am finally in my dream apartment! My new landlord seems very nice, the building is fab and maintenance actually shows up fifteen minutes after you’ve called them. The security staff and concierge know me by name. My view includes a small glimpse of the ocean and twinkling lights of Dubai at night. I have a balcony. And a freestanding bathtub I love it. It takes me not even ten minutes to get to work and five minutes to see my best friends. And I don’t have to live in constant panic of missing my flights cause the taxi is lost in the desert somewhere to get to me. I can have take-out delivered again. Bliss!

Could it be that I’ve finally come home after two years? And I pray that my landlord doesn’t change his mind next year!

Sunset View

Lots has happened in the past few months, life changing events that have left me drained, confused and sad. A time when I didn’t want to be alone with my negative thoughts. A time when I needed someone to save me from my self. It’s made me become withdrawn and pensive. It’s made me miss my family at home.

It is my believe, that most Expats face one common problem – they are far away from their loved ones. Even if you’re away from home with a partner and kids, that still leaves friends and relatives behind in ones home country.

In the case of the “unattached” we have don’t have the safety net of the familiar and unless we spend every holiday or vacation in our home country we have to find our own “family” abroad. People to catch us when we fall, to pull us up from the floor or simply sit down with us until we find the strength to get up again ourselves. People to laugh with, to cry with, to be silly with a sometimes to just “be” with.

I consider myself lucky, after two years, I have found a family of non-relatives here in Dubai. Not right from the start but eventually. The colleague who took me under her wing during my first weeks at work, letting me wash my clothes at her house and taking me for manicures when I was fresh off the boat and feeling lost and lonely. The guy that was introduced to me on Facebook, who is now my closest friend – and his roommate who incidentally comes from a town about 30km away from my hometown back in Germany. We share memories of places visited at roughly the same time and cook for each other at least once per week.

The new friend who I met selling off my couch, the ex-colleague who gives the best hugs in the world and the new group of friends with whom jammin’ in the desert has become a favorite pastime. And new friends from abroad, who come to Dubai once or twice per year but are kindred spirits nevertheless.

Then there’s friends, or should I say loved ones, who have been in my life for over 22 years (and counting) and who have always lived far away from me… we’ve always been on two continents but have been closer than family. To find people like that is extremely rare and I am lucky to have found a whole second family AND lovely friends on another continent.

Then of course there are the friends who only travel with you for a while. Here and at home I’ve met people who stayed with me for only part of the journey, then disappear again, for various reasons. Some of them, cause they were never real friends to begin with. One because I did not live MY life according to her expectations of me. Some because their priorities have changed and all of a sudden a trip all the way to Dubai seems like a trip around the world and with a few our lives simply didn’t continue on the same path anymore. The hardest part is losing a friend because their relationships don’t leave any room for anything but that relationship anymore and having a friend is just a pit-stop for whenever the woman or man their currently seeing is not around. And women especially do that. The friends are everything until the next guy turns up – and I am not talking about the first few month of any new relationship when the newfound love is and should be everything. I am talking about losing a friend for whichever guy is on the horizon, when friends are being kept on the back-burner and are only “needed” if said interest doesn’t appear. That sounds harsh and bitter – I’m not any of these things… It is simply an observation. One that makes me slightly sad.

To me, friendship is mega important – even more so than relationships. After all – as I’ve just found out myself – relationships end suddenly and unexpectedly but friendships, true friendships can last a lifetime. And for both relationships and friendships two things are true. Each party has to invest time and effort in it and be willing to stay for the duration of the journey. Oh and another one – honesty. Whatever happens, friends should always be able to tell each other what is on their mind.

At least that is my opinion. My new friends have become an addition to the family and friends I’ve left behind.

“Rare as is true love, true friendship is rare.” Jean de La Fontaine.

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