Saturday, March 30, 2013

I have quiet days and weeks too!

I've been re-reading my regular emails I send to my family back home. Sometimes I am just exhausted after reading them. We've got a lot going on from school, piano lessons, piano teaching, parties, social events, as well as exploring Riyadh. All of it is stuff we love. But not all weeks are like that. Lest you think that my life is a never-ending whirlwind, I'm here to reassure you that I have slow weeks that aren't exciting at all.

So this week I:

taught several piano lessons
helped kids with homework
cooked several meals
made beds
cleaned up messes
went on walks with my toddler
took my toddler swimming
took my toddler to the park and indoor playground
swept floors
wiped off dirty counters
studied Arabic
washed laundry
put away laundry
brushed my daughter's hair

And this brings to an important point. I like living abroad with my kids. I even like traveling with my kids. I'm glad that we didn't delay these experiences because of our kids. Living abroad with my kids gives me built in structure. I can never ever say I'm bored because I am too busy making sure my household functions smoothly. Its hard to feel lonely when you've got five kids running around making a lot of noise and big messes. I wish I had more time to explore, but having my kids also opens doors that would otherwise be closed to me here. When I go out in Riyadh with my toddler who has blonde and blue eyes, people stop and talk to me. Saudi women admire my cute little boy and we can chat about mutual experiences of motherhood.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Tour of the Majlis Al-Shura Council

It is an oft-heard complaint that in Riyadh there is little to do. When the excitement of shopping dims, what are one’s options? I’ve found Haya Tours to offer some interesting tours for exploring the sites and culture of Riyadh. One of the more unusual tours I have taken is a trip to the Majlis Al-Shura Council, the consultative assembly in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is classified as an absolute monarchy which means that King Abdullah has the supreme authority over the country but must comply with Sharia law as well as the Qur’an.  The Majlis Al-Shura Councils operates as a consultative council to the king. For most expats, this form of government is very different from the governments of their home countries. I found it very enlightening to tour the Majlis Al-Shura Council and learn more how this council operates and functions within the government.

We went to the Al Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, a beautiful and lavishly decorated building where we were met by one of the women working in the building. She ushered us to a comfortable room where we watched a video about the Majlis Al-Shura Council. We were shown around the building, allowed to take pictures in some of the rooms, and even sat in the desks reserved for council members. I enjoyed a walk through a long corridor chronicling the history of the Majlis Al-Shura Council since its beginning in 1927. There were several interesting photographs spanning the 90 years of history, along with documents written in flowing Arabic. We toured a beautiful library filled with thousands of volumes of books devoted to law, science, and history. The last stop of the tour took us to glass-partitioned balcony where we watched a portion of the council proceedings and our presence was acknowledged by the council members. 

While the Majlis Al-Shura Council cannot pass laws it can and does suggest laws to the king, has the authority to interpret laws, and examines annual reports. King Abdullah appoints members to the council and chooses men from around Saudi Arabia who represent three major groups, business, religious, and bureaucracy.  Council members are well-educated and well-respected in their communities both inside and outside the Kingdom. Currently 70% of the 150 council members hold PhDs. When selected by the king council members must serve one term of four years and a maximum of three terms, with the option to decline further service after their first term. During their service on the council, members are expected to attend council sessions twice a week with additional meetings for any of the twelve committees on which they sit. Council members are paid half their salary from their outside employment while the government provides the other half.

A new term has begun and with it a big change. In 2011 King Abdullah announced that women may be included in the council. Thirty well-educated women have been called fill thirty council seats. This is an historic occasion worthy of note and thought. This presents an interesting development in Saudi Arabia’s history and will surely have an impact on the larger Saudi culture.

If you are looking for a unique Riyadh outing where you can actually witness the proceedings of a government very different from your own, then you should definitely consider going on a tour of Majlis Al-Shura Council. It definitely presents an interesting opportunity to learn more about Saudi government, which is a chance that few outsiders have the privilege of experiencing. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Kids' Life on a Compound

Living on a compound is a pretty sweet set-up for a kid. When my husband and I first toured our compound, we asked some kids who were getting a slurpee at the cafe what they thought about living on the compound and they said, "It's the best place to be. It is so much fun." Why so much fun? Read on to find out.

1) You don't need your parents to set up most play-dates. This is a plus, because parents are busy people. Want to go play with a friend, just go knock on their door and bam! instant play-date without adult interference.

2) You get to swim a lot. The weather is warm enough most of the year for swimming.

3) You get to bike, in-line skate, and scooter as much as you want.

4) You can play soccer, tennis, basketball, and squash any time of day, except the hottest part of the day.

5) You can go to the cafe and get a mint lemonade or ice cream. When you have friends over, you can have lunch at the cafe without parents hovering over you.

6) You can pop over to the store and get a snack or treat.

7) You can play outside and enjoy the park and playground.

8) Don't forget about the awesome parties you can go to!

And for the parents, if your kids are happy, it sure makes a difference in your happiness.

(If you didn't catch my contest entry for, check out my entry: "Top 13 Ways for the Expat SAHM to Fight Boredom in Riyadh"    If you like it, feel free to click like or share it on Facebook. Prices are awarded to the essay with the most shares and likes. There are 79 other fantastic entries to enjoy. Take a look!)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Essay Contest! Vote!

My blog was recently added to the blog aggregate Expats Blog, a site which collects blogs from expats living all over the world. It's a fascinating site filled with really interesting blogs.

Expats Blog is currently hosting a Top List Essay contest with 80 entries from expats all over the world highlight the Top Hits of their Host Country.

The entries are so interesting. You can see the entire list here.

I submitted an essay on the Top Thirteen Ways for an Expat SAHM to Fight Boredom in Riyadh. Simply click on the link to read the essay. If you like it, pass it along by sharing it through Twitter and Facebook. If it is dismally boring, I'm sorry. However you feel, leave a comment. It is a contest with several different prizes being offered, so I do have an agenda in sharing this!

Be sure to check out the other entries. If you are planning on moving to a foreign country, you are sure to find something in this list that will be helpful and useful.

Happy reading!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Egypt Day 6: The Valley of the Kings

We woke up bright and early in Luxor for a long day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings. Cameras are not allowed after a certain point, I'm sorry to say. I wish I could show you the interior of the tombs because they were simply breathtaking. This is a view of the entrance of the Valley of the Kings from the parking lot.

I'm not going to bore you hear with all the details of the valley, its purpose, number of tombs, etc. You can read about the valley from National Geographic or read up on Wikipedia.

The tombs are cut into the cliffs and jig-jag all over each other, under and over. We visited three different tombs. I simply wasn't prepared for the breathtaking colors of the paint on the walls. Do an image search on google images and search for Valley of the Kings Tombs. So you have to understand that ruins in Egypt are thousands of years old and many things are in bad condition. So I expected the tombs to be in equally bad condition. The paintings and carvings aren't perfect. Things are missing but you almost don't notice in the stunning array of gorgeous, vivid colors and beautiful images.

My sons had been reading Rick Riordan's series The Kane Chronicles which explores Egyptian history through a very modern, fast-paced plot. Because of the books, they were able to really understand what they were seeing inside the tombs. My son was able to point out the different gods depicted on the walls and explain their functions and meaning. It was awesome.

We paid the extra money to go into Tutankhamen's tomb which was remarkably small. I knew it was small from reading about it, but actually seeing its small size really astounded me. I've seen the collection of items found in the tomb. Frankly, I can't believe they managed to stuff it all in. King Tutankhamen's body was displayed very respectfully and decently. He was wearing only the linen bandages and was covered with a sheet. I think it is nice they left his body in his tomb.

Going in those tombs was so amazing, a life-long dream. I just wish I had pictures to share! 

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Evening of Russian Musical Culture in the Desert

When I first moved to Riyadh a year ago, I didn’t really expect to attend any classical music concerts. I just didn’t picture Riyadh as the hot spot for traveling professional classical musicians. Fortunately, access to iTunes, complemented by my personal CD collection (outdated I know) has allowed me to get my classical music fix. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation to a piano concert held at the home of the French Ambassador.  

The setting of the Ambassador’s home was perfect for an intimate performance of passionate Russian music. About two hundred expats and Saudis sat on chairs around a beautiful baby grand piano. Galina Besner presented a beautiful program highlighting Russian composers.

Galina Besner was born in Russia and has studied piano since she was six years old. She has worked with a number of orchestras in Russia, Pekin, and France. Galina taught music at an international school in Pekin, China. She is a skilled accompanist as well as a talented concert pianist in her own right. This was Ms. Besner’s first performance in Riyadh.

Ms. Besner compiled a program of music from the Russian masters Rachmaninov, Tychaikovski, Alexandre Scriabine, and Chostakovitch. Rather than playing long piano pieces from each composer, she played extracts from a variety of pieces, displaying a breadth of knowledge and repertoire. Ms. Besner remarked on the contrast of playing Russian music in Saudi Arabia. Russia and Saudi Arabia are two very different countries in culture, weather, music, and history. I felt Ms. Besner presented the best of her home country with passion and sensitivity to the culture of Saudi Arabia.

One of Ms. Besner’s more unusual choices was to highlight selected works from the composer Alexandre Scriabine. Alexandre Scriabine was almost a revolutionary in the way he looked at music and the tonal scale. He was extremely innovative as well as very controversial. Scriabine eventually developed a musical system which was dissonant and tones were associated with colors. Scriabine was influenced by mysticism and attempted to use his music to articulate that.

Ms. Besner played her music with sensitivity and excellent technique. She ended the evening with a selection of Chostakovitch pieces, highlighting the humor and irony of Mr. Chostakovich’s compositions. It was nicely rounded performance, showing the power of music to convey ideas, emotions, and experiences.

Following the performances, guests enjoyed appetizers, bite-size desserts, and drinks. It was particularly enjoyable to be outside in the evening under the moon.  It was a lovely evening filled with beautiful music in an intimate setting. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Country Music in Riyadh

I must confess I'm a country girl at heart. Growing up in Wyoming without access to MTV pretty much guaranteed that my music tastes run along the lines of 80s power ballads and country music. I'm also a classically trained pianist and vocalist, meaning that I do love and actually understand classical music. Despite years of traveling and living abroad, other forms of music just don't really do it for me.

(Camels in the bed of a truck are a common sight in Riyadh.)

We don't generally listen to music in the car while driving in Riyadh. For one thing, it distracts my husband because he is hypersensitive to sounds while driving. Our radio gets poor reception and the few stations we pick up aren't really conducive to easy listening. Some of the wailing and undulating tones of Arabic music don't really appeal to my western musically trained ear. Occasionally, we get brief moments of an American military channel playing country music.

(My sisters and I at a George Strait concert. George Strait is the quintessential country/western artist.)

As I said, I like country music. However listening to country music while driving through Riyadh is a surreal experience. Popular country songs today sometimes feature an almost aggressively American arrogant attitude that is almost embarrassing to listen to while driving in one of the most conservative Muslim nations in the world.

Songs like Toby Keith's Angry American come to mind. And other songs unique to the genre celebrate small-town America. Listening to songs like "Small Town USA" by Justin Moore is really incongruous to my surroundings. I almost feel a little guilty listening to that kind of music because it almost directly at odds with my current environment. An environment of which I'm keenly sensitive to and understand.

Maybe I feel the incongruity in my life because sometimes I have a hard time reconciling all the pieces of my own life. I grew up in a small town, like the quintessential town Justin Moore sings about. I know people just like he describes. But I wanted a very different life and I've had it. I've lived in three different countries in a ten-year period of time. I call New York state home and visit NYC when I can. I have traveled to many different countries. Heck, I live in the Middle East. I also have a large family which is not something you expect to drag around the world.
(Bubba J pets Bill and Bob, a team of Percheron horses my dad owns. This was taken in Wyoming in January 2013.) 

Sometimes I think we want to put each other into boxes or categories and for things to fit neatly withing those parameters. But I've got ragged edges, overlapping circles, and all sorts of parts of me that don't fit neatly anywhere. I don't think I'm the only person who doesn't fit all the categories defining people. I've stopped trying to fit into something I'm not because I don't want to be limited to one piece of me. Who I am is pretty amazing and I'm not afraid of owning it.

(My sister and I soaking up the Christmas atmosphere in NYC in December 2011.)

What parts of you feel incongruous to other aspects of your life? Do you feel like you are being categorized narrowly?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Maintenance Perks

So let's say your dishwasher breaks down, leaking water all over underneath your sink. If you own your house, you are probably cursing as you try and figure out if you'll attempt fixing it yourself or if you will call a plumber to fix it for you. If you have a landlord, you call them and hope they'll get it sorted out before dinner, which usually doesn't happen.

If my dishwasher breaks down, I make a phone call to maintenance and by the end of the day, someone usually comes over to fix it. Simple and easy. If my light bulbs burn out, I call the maintenance guys to change the bulbs. That's right, I don't even change my own light bulbs.

Last week, my dryer broke. After a phone call, the maintenance crew came around, took a look at the dryer and brought me back a new one. It's a very nice luxury to have an on-call maintenance crew. Granted, maintenance isn't always perfect. My fellow compound residents do have some stories of things not getting fixed properly or having to sit in the house for days to get things working properly.

We have a crew that keeps the trees trimmed, the grass clipped, and things generally neat outdoors. Of course, all these perks are covered by the high yearly rent that is paid once a year in one enormous lump sum.

Regardless of the hiccups, maintenance still makes my life immeasurably easier. I'm really, really going to miss them when I move back to New York.

(Pictures courtesy of my 3-year old son. Please excuse the little fingers in the frame.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

An Afternoon at a Saudi Farm

I write a monthly article for the WSB newsletter. The Women's Skills Bureau is an organization designed to help women expats within Riyadh. It is a great organization and one that I am proud to be a part of as well as  to contribute to. Our sponsor is a Saudi prince who owns a farm on the outskirts of Riyadh. Recently, the WSB gathered all those who are associated with it for a day of fun at the farm of our sponsor. My family and I attended the event and had great time networking and socializing with other families.

It was really interesting to walk around the farm and see the farming methods. The site was originally occupied by Turkish forces to oversee Arab Bedouins. They had a quarry. The quarry is now a beautiful plot of land cultivating organic vegetables.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The International Festival

My kids attend a private international school which boasts a wide and diverse student body. Luckily our school embraces that diversity with many events throughout the year. One of our favorite events is the international festival where families from the school make booths highlighting special aspects of their country. It is quite literally a feast both for the eyes and stomachs.

We had loads of fun exploring the booths, eating the food, and learning about Germany, Iraq, Bosnia, Australia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.
 Lebanon has such delicious food. We love their fresh salads. It also has a very ancient culture.

 The young men here are performing a traditional dance from the Philippines. It was very energetic and fun.
 These beautiful ladies hail from Korea. They made some wonderful food and I tried kimchi for the first time.
 The German International School sent a troop of performers over to sing and give us a teaser of a circus they are preparing. The kids were amazing. They walked on these big balls, rode unicycles, and did tricks.
 The Saudis set up a gorgeous desert tent and served traditional Saudi food. I love Saudi food.
 This group of young women come from Palestine and performed a traditional Palestinian dance. They wore the most beautiful dresses and danced with loads of energy.
 Miss B got a henna tattoo in the Saudi tent.
 I got to ride a camel again. We watched the camel and horse go through security which made me giggle. How does a camel or horse pass a screening test? You can't open their trunks!
 My daughter and son rode this pretty horse.
At the American Idol booth, my husband and I dazzled the crowd (ha!) with a country number.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bubba J Helps the Guys!

Bubba J received a yellow toolbox full of handy tools from his oldest brother for Christmas. It was his favorite present and he promptly forgot about his mountain of unopened presents and lost himself in the magical wonder of realistic tools. Bubba J carries around his toolbox religiously, eager to fix things that are broken and even things that aren't broken.

Whenever our maintenance guys come around, Bubba J grabs his toolbox and works with "the guys"-as he calls them, until they are finished. This week our dryer was replaced. Bubba J was on hand to lend his expertise and to make sure things were done right.

I really enjoy life with a little boy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

An Evening at the Ambassador's Home

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were surprised to receive an invitation from the U.S. Ambassador inviting us to attend a party on March 11 in honor of National Day at his home in Riyadh. Of course we wanted to attend. Who turns down an ambassador?

My husband and I prettied ourselves up for the big night. I think we clean up pretty well, what do you think? (Incidentally, I'm wearing the Evelyn dress from Mikarose. I bought it in January when I was in Utah. I was in the store and it called my name. Really, it said, Tiffany, you must buy this dress because you will look fabulous in it and it is a great dress to wear at nice events.)

This was the first time I've gone out for a really nice event or dinner that I didn't have to wear my abaya over pretty clothes. We drove to the Ambassador's home in the Diplomatic Quarter. The lines were busy getting through security, but I didn't mind. I'd rather be safe than sorry.

We walked into the courtyard of the Quincy House and saw three beautiful American sports cars gleaming in all their prettiness. I'm very partial to red mustangs. Once we stepped inside we followed a line of people through a hallway lined with beautiful photographs showing some lovely places in the United States like Glacier National Park in Montana, a field of flowers in Texas, a covered wagon in Nebraska, the Snake River in Idaho, a farm in Vermont. Seeing the pictures from my home country made me feel proud that I come from a beautiful place.

We went through the greeting line, shaking the hands of Ambassador Smith and his wife, Dr. Smith, as well as other members of the diplomatic corp. Then we stepped outside to enjoy the party. One of the staff showed us the way commenting with a teasing lilt in his voice that they had brought American's finest cuisine to the event. I'm sure many of the guests were delighted with MacDonald's, Pizza Hut, Dominoes, and Dairy Queen. I wasn't really impressed. Fortunately, they also offered a buffet of regional American favorites. I enjoyed the New England table with its offerings of clam chowder, crab cakes, and fish. They also had tiny whoopie pies.

While we ate, we mingled with the crowd. There were Saudi men dressed in their white thobes, with fancy formal robes thrown over the thobes. I didn't see any Saudi women with their husbands. I loved seeing the Indian couples with the women dressed in gorgeous saris. Quite a few military men were there, stiff and formal in their uniforms.

It is practically obligatory that when you start a conversation with someone new, you end up trading business cards. My husband had several made up in Arabic and English when we moved to Riyadh. I asked him what he does with all the cards he receives and he replied, "I just put them in a drawer." It made me laugh. But the cards are useful and I've used them several times.

There was a brief ceremony with Marines presenting the colors. A Miss Carter sang the National Anthem and did the best job I have heard in forever. She has a gorgeous voice and actually lets the melody and her voice do the work instead of trying to vocal gymnastics to impress the crowd. We also heard the Saudi National Anthem. Then Ambassador Smith gave a speech about building bridges between Saudi Arabia and the United States. He talked about the role that businesses play in helping create those bridges. The governor of Riyadh was there and the Ambassador joked that the governor, who used to fly fighter jets was now upgraded to the important task of solving Riyadh's traffic problems!

The rest of the Riyadh was fun. I met some really interesting people including the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs who takes pictures of food that he likes rather than eating it and getting fat. I'm not sure the Minister of Foreign Affairs would appreciate being called adorable, but he was really adorable. We loved the bluegrass band and the jazz duo.