Saturday, December 3, 2011

Eating out in Riyadh

Our dining experiences in Riyadh were pretty tame. For the most part, we ate food from the hotel restaurant. I am pretty adventurous, but I was sick when I got to Riyadh and my stomach was doing all sorts of crazy things the whole time we were in Riyadh, so I steered clear of adventurous and stuck with bland. Boring, yes. But I don't have any stories to relate about vomiting all day, so that was good.

The last night I was there, we thought we would try Tony Romas. Saudis LOVE food and the LOVE American food in particular. I suppose its all the junk and crap we put into our food that makes it so appealing. Tony Romas was pretty close to our hotel. We were about to go eat when we heard the call to prayer. After waiting 20 minutes (more about the prayer thing) we went to the restaurant. It was completely empty, with the wait staff lounging around. It wasn't early, around 8 p.m. so I was surprised to see how empty it was. The waiter assured us the restaurant was open and seated us.

Brent and I looked through our menus. I started asking about different foods and the waiter responded to virtually every question with this response, "We don't have that item today." Finally, I asked him what they DID have. He pointed to the steaks. I happen to like steak and so ordered a steak, medium rare.

The food was okay, nothing spectacular. The restaurant was reasonably clean. The waiters were helpful, if not overly attentive.

When we were paying the bill, I asked the staff when the crowds would come. I was so surprised when they said that between the time between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. would be their busiest time of the day. Really????? Wow! I asked if families with children came to eat during that time and he said, "of course", like it was completely normal for children to go eat at restaurants at 1 a.m. I have a lot to learn!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thoughts on Wearing an Abaya

Wearing an abaya in public is one thing that really screams culture shock for me in Saudi Arabia. To be fair, I've tried to go into this situation with an open mind. I don't fully understand Islam or its practices. I don't understand how the Saudis interpret their religion and how it translates in cultural practices. It's easy to condemn what we don't know or understand. My impression of many of the native women I encountered in SA was that they are comfortable with the symbol and practice of wearing an abaya. I don't think it is a good practice generally for westerners or Americans to place their cultural values on a society and then judge that society which happens to follow different values. I learned this lesson in Sweden and have thought a lot about it and how it applies to any foreign experience.

However, since I'm relating my experiences in Saudi Arabia, it would dishonest to disregard the feelings I had about wearing an abaya. So what is an abaya? An abaya is a long, black, loose robe that covers a woman from her neck to her ankles. The sleeves are long, going to the wrist and the length should extend to the ankles at the very least. Saudi women do cover their hair with scarves or with the hijab. (Must look up the proper spelling for hijab). They are not required to veil their faces, but many do. Some wear the veil covering their mouths and noses with only their eyes visible, while others wear the veil covering their entire faces. (Which leaves me wondering how they manage to eat.) As a foreigner, I'm required to wear the abaya in public, but I do not have to wear a scarf over my hair. Ex-pat women have told me that it is a good practice to keep the scarf around your neck in case the religious police bother you.

As far as wearing the abaya goes, one should wear it in public, but is not required to wear it at home, in the presence of relatives. I think the question gets dicey when dealing with men who are not relatives. Women do not need to cover their clothes when they are together and inside a home.

So I first put on the abaya on the airplane when we landed in Riyadh. The material isn't heavy, but it settled on my shoulders like a slight burden. Stepping onto foreign soil and wearing an abaya is like no other experience I have ever had. Nothing screams things are different here than seeing women dressed like Hogwarts students while the men mill around in thobes and regular clothing. I am most definitely not in Kansas anymore!

To me, wearing the abaya is a stark reminder that the gender rules are different here. The cultural rules governing male/female interactions are strange and unfathomable. At first, I felt the bewildering sense of fear that I would look at a man the wrong way and be carted off to jail to await lashing or some other terrible punishment. The fear eased after five days in the country. I am well aware how important it is to understand those cultural rules which dictate interactions with one another. In Sweden, if I made a mistake, I risked a small degree of social alienation. A mistake here in SA could have serious consequences. So I am treading along, trying to figure it out, without making too many missteps.

I guess the abaya also symbolizes how different my life as a woman will be in SA. The independence that I have in the U.S. to drive, vote, make decisions and conduct my life without an escort are all gone. While I understand and accept the differences intellectually, the reality plays different on my emotions and sense of self.

Having related all this, I must tell you that I didn't have any problems at all in my interactions with Saudis. I had two very long, in-depth conversations with Saudi men where I was treated with dignity and respect. Whether or not that is the general feeling of Saudi men toward women, I don't know. I also suspect that my status as a married woman with children and married to a man that both of these men respected helped in the conversations.

I intend to really try and understand the cultural rules here regarding men and women. I hope that my fear was not justified and that I will come away having a better understanding of Saudi culture.

What do you think of the practice of wearing an abaya?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Shopping in the Kindgom

No blog about Saudi Arabia would be complete without at least one entry about the shopping. As in, shopping in the Kingdom is a BIG deal. There are malls everywhere. And the malls aren't just regular malls. They are filled with designer stores. For a small-time girl like myself, it is surprising to see stores like Prada, Louis Vuitton, or Bulgaria in a mall. I'm used to seeing those stores on 5th Avenue in New York City, but not in a mall. Isn't the mall where you go to the Gap or Aeropostale?

I'm not a big mall girl. Designer or discount stores don't really excite me. Unless the mall includes a good bookstore or craft store, I find myself bored and uncomfortable. And since I don't have a lot of money, nor the desire to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on one dress or pair of shoes, malls really aren't the place for me.

Nevertheless, you still have to visit a mall in the Kingdom. I went to a couple of different malls. I don't remember their names-though I probably will in the future. There are few features to these malls that are unique, other than the designer label stores. First, there is a sort of mini-mosque for prayer-time. During the different times of prayer, the mall is pretty empty. Some stores close during this time, while others stay open. Regardless if the store is open, you still can't make a purchase during prayer time. Secondly, there are no female clerks in the stores and no changing rooms. There are all kinds of really fancy dresses displayed in the windows. Which begs the question: where the heck are the women wearing these dresses???? I've heard some stories, but I'll write about that later. So if you want to buy a dress, you have to guess the size, buy it and then try it on at home. Third, there are floors that are women only. I think you can actually take off the abaya on this floor. I haven't visited a women-only floor so I can't tell you more. Lastly, there are different eating rooms and lines at the food court. Each little eatery has two lines: family/women and men. And then they have two different rooms for eating: women/families and men. The women/families room is screened off from view.

Talk about cultural differences!

And finally, I just want to say that getting on an escalator wearing an abaya is a little nerve-wracking. I was afraid that my robe would catch in the stairs and I would get in a terrible escalator accident. (But maybe I was over-reacting! I'm always a little nervous on an escalator anyhow!)

Stuck in Paris

On the way to Riyadh, we spent an excessively long time in the plane on the ground in New York. This delayed our arrival to Paris by about two hours, effectively causing us to completely miss our connecting flight to Riyadh. So we were stuck in Paris for about 24 hours.
After I got over the disappointment of not getting to Riyadh quickly (sarcasm!), we made our way to our hotel. I took a quick nap and then Brent and I decided to take the train into the city.

I am pleased to say that I can still navigate a train system. I was worried that after four years of not using public transportation daily that I would be rusty, but I suppose it is like riding a bicycle, you never quite lose the ability to manage. Our destination was the Musee D'Orsay. I love Impressionist paintings. Monet and Van Gogh are my favorite painters. Brent and I enjoyed the train ride. I love seeing places from the window of a train. I think Paris is a beautiful city, but seeing it from the window of train revealed the grittier parts of the city--graffiti and a harder urban edge with factories and utilitarian buildings. I like the contrast of the gritty with the pretty. It made Paris feel more real instead of a fairy-tale city.

We were so disappointed when we got to the museum because it was closed due to a strike. Evidently we weren't the only ones out of the loop. Other tourists milled around, expressing disappointment. Fortunately, there were some cool statues to enjoy. We walked around the museum admiring the statues and then crossed the street to the River Seine and enjoyed the view and the lights.

I was anxious to get some local color so we headed back toward the buildings and just strolled. At a local pharmacy, we browsed the selection (weird, I know, but I love visiting pharmacies in other countries). I found some pretty French lipstick and bought it.

It was so fun to walk around, holding my husband's hand, soaking up the atmosphere of Paris. Evidently we looked like normal people, instead of tourists, because we got stopped by a couple of people asking us for directions. I love blending in!

We saw quite a few scooters on the roads as people were driving home. I saw people carrying bouquets of flowers. I wondered if they were going out to dinner with friends. Brent and I imagined how funny it would be if I were to take up driving in a scooter with our five children. Just the thought of squeezing them all in a sidecar had us laughing so hard, we had to stop walking.

After wandering around for some time, we caught the next train back to our hotel where we enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant. It was such a lovely peaceful evening.

And really, who can complain about being stuck in Paris??

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Some views of Riyadh

Riyadh looks like a maze of beige, hence the title of my blog. It sort of reminds me of Las Vegas without the casinos and excess vegetation. Between the sand, sandy colored housing, and sandy sky, beige pretty much covers the color spectrum. I took these two pictures from my hotel room.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why choose to live in a compound?

I am sure some of you are wondering why we would choose to live on a western compound. It's a good question. After all, I've held the opinion that you tend to do better if you live and work among the locals and try to learn their language. When we lived in Sweden, we lived among a really nice mix of foreign student families and local students. It really was ideal.

However, the culture and customs of Saudi Arabia are so vastly different that we felt that we would do better in a compound. Originally, compounds were built and approved by the Saudis as places where westerners could comfortably live their western lifestyles without censure or clashes with Saudi culture or religious beliefs. I think this trend has only strengthened as the years have gone by, especially as Riyadh has trended to the more conservative in recent years. One doesn't have to live on a compound, but there are certainly advantages.

For us, the biggest advantages of compound living directly affect me, my children to a lesser extent, and really don't apply to my husband at all. The rules relating to women are different and challenging.

First, as a woman in Saudi Arabia, I cannot drive (though I wouldn't want to--a post about the crazy driving to follow). This means I must hire transportation--either through a limo service or taxi service, for everything: grocery shopping, taking children to school, visiting friends, etc. There isn't a public transportation system in place, so my freedom will be pretty curtailed. However, on a compound, I can walk or bike within the area and thus will be able to visit friends. There are shopping buses two times a day. The compound usually has a taxi or limo service available so that hiring one is relatively easy. Finally, the compound usually provides school buses, so I won't have to get the kids to school myself.

Second, the wearing of the abaya, a long black robe, is also a tricky point. From what I understand, a woman cannot take off the abaya unless in her home or in the presence of family. But on a compound, western dress is encouraged and wearing of the abaya is discouraged. So I can walk around the compound at least, relatively unimpeded.

Third, being on a compound gives us opportunities to socialize and a safe place for my kids to play. Everything I've read suggests that Saudis are notoriously private about their families and aren't usually inclined to invited westerners to their homes to socialize. I would personally find it really difficult to live in a neighborhood where I didn't interact at all with my neighbors or where my kids aren't comfortable running out to play. The compound naturally invites social opportunities. While on the various compounds, I observed lots of children playing with friends and running around outside.

Finally, the variety of activities offered on a compound are enticing to me and my family. With pools, bowling alleys, game rooms, cafes, restaurants, libraries, etc. there is something for everyone. We won't be restricted to family days to use any of the facilities, which is another problem we would face off-compound.

What do you think? If you were in a similar situation, would you live outside of a compound, or on a compound?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

House Hunting

After months of anticipation and transition, I am finally in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with my husband on a house-hunting trip. The journey itself was unremarkable, air travel without children is painless. And now that I have my Kindle. . . well, the entertainment was constant!

We arrived in the Kingdom rather late, so my first view of the city was rather enchanting with lots of lights, wide streets, and light traffic. In fact, the scene smacked of Las Vegas, minus the casinos, but with all the shopping. Our hotel is very nice, comfortable and quiet.

We started our house-hunting the next morning. I've read as much as I could about western-style compounds in Riyadh. The main idea behind the compound is to keep clashes between the Western and Saudi culture to a minimum. Westerners are able to live a western lifestyle without offending the Saudis. On the compound, women do not wear abayas or scarves, but are free to wear their regular clothes. Segregation of the sexes isn't enforced on the compound. There are a variety of activities and programs planned for children and usually several swimming pools to use.

Security on the compounds has become an issue since a few compounds were bombed in the early part of this century. Several compounds stepped up security and our visits reflected the increased/improved security. I was startled by this fact when we visited the first compound. I could hardly tell that we were approaching a compound as the area all around seemed to be in the midst of a construction project. There were fences with barbed wire and then a long corridor of barricades with speed bumps strategically placed so one must drive very slowly and carefully through the corridor to the first gate. At the first gate, you must stop your car and let them inspect it. Then they give you permission to drive through, again through a second corridor of barriers and speed bumps. At the second gate, you must present identification and usually confirm your appointment with a resident or staff member. Sometimes this process is easy, other times, it can be tense.

Once you've made it through the second gate, you are inside the compound. Usually the manager's office is connected or close to the recreation facilities. The facilities can include: restaurants, coffee shops, exercise gym, rooms for exercise and activity classes, game room, bowling alley, meeting rooms, a nursery school, lending library, mini-market, tailoring shop, dry cleaner, gift shop, squash courts, indoor tennis courts, etc. The main pool is usually outside the recreation center with satellite pools dotting the compound. One pool we looked at had a wonderful water slide and then featured a wave pool every 30 minutes. Most places also had a covered kiddy pool, which will be a very good thing, if I can convince my toddler to play in the water. Outside, there are tennis courts, basketball courts, and soccer pitches.

The homes in the various compounds run the gamut of styles. Some are strictly functional and very utilitaritan, while others are elaborate and almost seem like echo chambers. Most houses were furnished (which is a bonus). There were only a couple of places which struck a good balance between cozy and cavernous. We want a decent amount of space, but functionality and form are also important!

We liked the following places:

The challenge we are facing now is availability and price. Right now the demand for housing exceeds the actual availability. As a result, the prices are skyrocketing. At one compound, the manager named prices that had doubled since he listed prices in April. There were a few available units, but we have to speak for them right now and then pay a deposit (refundable).

So today we've spent a lot of time emailing and phoning people to arrange for a deposit.