31 March 2016

Our New Posting...

When we left Malaysia on 8 December last year we knew that we would have a hiatus of sorts before we were able to move on to our new posting.  We were told to expect a wait of about 8 weeks before my husband could get his working visa and a further 3 weeks for dependant passes.  We had a best case scenario of us moving out there in February half term and a worst case of my birthday (early April).  Well we have not quite made it to my birthday but after 16 weeks in the UK we have cut it pretty fine.

People have been asking me for some time about our new posting but, in an excess of superstition I did not want to say anything until all the paperwork was in order.  However I can now say, without worry, that we will be living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  We received the visas today, after many months of waiting in the UK and after a whirlwind of packing we will be flying tomorrow, 31 March.

KSA is my 11th or 12th (I am not really sure, there have been so many over the years) posting and the 9th country I will have the privilege to live in.  It is very different to all the other countries I have called home in the past and there are aspects that leave me a little apprehensive, it was certainly not a posting that was ever on my radar before now but it will be an adventure and we are all looking forward to it.

Of course the next few weeks will be filled with the typical expat relocation challenges, settling into our new home, finding help, getting the shipment, getting the pets, finding our feet but the important thing for us is that we will be exploring our new home together.  

Ersatz Expat

16 March 2016

Malaysia - a retrospective

Every time we leave a posting I try to make a list of the things I will miss and the things I really can’t wait to leave behind.  My list for Kazakhstan is here and when I look back it turns out to have been spot on.

We have been away from Malaysia for about three months now and while we are waiting for dependent visas on the new posting (a few weeks now I am told) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on life in our previous posting. 

Here are a few of the things I will miss:
  • The child-friendliness: Malaysia is an extremely friendly country.  People here love children and love having them with them.  There are very few ‘child free’ events.  It is not unusual for babies to be entertained or even fed by waiting staff in a restaurant  while we eat our meals.  All children here get cooed over but Mini EE with her blonde hair and horrendously pale skin (Malaysians are intrigued by pale skin) gets a lot of extra attention.  It is not just friendliness to children – people bend over backwards to try to help when needed (for example when we burst a tyre on the motorway) and it is very common to be invited to celebrate other people’s key religious events at an ‘open house’. 
  • The ease of day to day life:  Of course there are cultural differences, there are differences between life in European countries that are just next door to each other but Malaysia is an easy country for day to day life.  All the amenities of life in Europe are here, the supermarkets are well stocked, the roads are well maintained, the infrastructure works (probably better than the UK), it is easy to get your car maintained so culture aside my day to day life is not really any different to life in the UK or the Netherlands. 
  • Drive Through Coffee:  This makes my (horrendous) afternoon school run somewhat more bearable.  In Venezuela we had drive through Pizza Huts but here in Malaysia we have drive through Starbucks and you get a discount for using your own car mug! 
  • Dim Sum:  Who doesn’t like these little tastes of perfection.  My personal favourite are Xiao Long Bao – Shanghainese soup and pork dumplings.  Our local restaurant serves some of the best around. 
  • Our Miri house and our Ipoh neighbourhood:  Our house in Miri was one of the very best we have ever had.  It was a perfect match for us and we loved living there.  The neighbourhood was, however, not ideal for walking the dogs.  In Ipoh we have the opposite situation, the house is not really ideal and the living areas are open plan and cramped with never quite enough space to put stuff away.  The local area is, however, absolutely wonderful.  Beautifully maintained and teeming with wildlife.  If we could have had our Miri house in this location it would have been a match made in heaven.
Our Ipoh neighbourhood - one of the most beautiful
places we have ever lived
  • The tailor and fabric shop:  I can get the most beautiful array of fabric here and the tailors will make it up for me.  I can ask for a pattern or they will copy a dress I already have.  They even scale things down as we had a number of copies of Mr EEs favourite casual shirt made and smaller versions for Master EE (not to be worn simultaneously I might add).
  • Car Park Machines:  I can see that this might puzzle people but I have never yet come across a car park where the ticket machines do not work.  They accept a full range of notes and some coins and the notes can be inserted into the machine any way around and it does not matter if they are a little creased.  Anyone who has had to try to buy a parking ticket from a Network Southeast Railway Station or an NCP carpark in the UK will sympathise with my admiration of this simple efficiency.
  • Dreams fulfilled:  Malaysia has some amazing locations, some of which such as Mulu and Niah Caves or the town of Melaka Mr EE and I had wanted to see for many, many years.  Our time in Malaysia gave us the privilege to explore these sites at our leisure.
Gunung Mulu National Park
  • Pantai Bungai: this beach in Borneo is a piece of paradise on Earth.  I hope when my time comes to travel through the tunnel of light that I will step out somewhere like this beach to see all my dogs running towards me in welcome, the family members who pre-deceased me walking slowly behind with smiles on their faces.
Paradise does exist
  • Massage and foot rubs:  I have some particularly nasty problems with my back which means that my muscles are in a constant state of tension, I have not been able to relax them fully in about 13 years. I find that having a massage every now and then helps to ease the pain a little and gives me a greater degree of movement.  I also happen to really love foot rubs so the large number of reflexology shops with their chairs and footstools all in a row are an affordable and regular luxury. 

Things I will not miss
  • The ease of day to day life:  Now I sound like a hypocrite but as well as being one of the key benefits of life in Malaysia it is also something that drives me that little bit wild.  We became expats to have an adventure and to see something more of life.  While it is nice that life is easy it has become that little bit dull and lacking in challenge.
  • The urban landscape:  With a few notable exceptions the urban landscape of Malaysia is fairly dull.  Many towns (and suburbs of towns) look exactly the same and this gets rather depressing.
The urban landscape is not inspiring
  • The rain:  The timings of rain showers seem to be rather more erratic than their equivalents in Nigeria which you could set your clock by.  Here you are never quite sure when it will rain, it could be any time of the day and the showers last a long time.
A light shower
  • The profusion of shop assistants:  Malaysia has a fantastic service culture and people are only too pleased to help you.  This can go too far, however.  Go into any shop or department store other than a supermarket and pick something up to look at it and an assistant will materialise out of thin air partly to offer assistance and partly to make sure that you don’t take anything.  It all gets a little claustrophobic to be honest with people taking things off you to put behind the desk for when you are ready to pay.  It makes it quite hard to see how things work together and you have to be quite firm about holding on to your purchases if you want to do that.
  • Children’s Shoes:  I have a bee in my bonnet about the problems of finding proper shoes for children here.  It is almost impossible which is bizarre as just about everything else you could ever hope to need is here to buy.
  • Never mind:  This is a popular Malaysian phrase, used as an equivalent to ‘don’t worry’ (which also winds me up).  It doesn’t quite serve the same purpose, however.  When we moved in to Ipoh the landlord had failed to deliver on a promise of a proper oven and we spent quite a few days haggling about it.  Being told ‘never mind’ really made me want to say ‘but I do mind, a very great deal’ in rather more trenchant terms than I just wrote.  Of course I didn’t but oh how I wanted to.  I did get an oven of sorts in the end but it is another thing I really won’t miss.
  • Parking:  Malaysians are incredibly selfish when it comes to parking.  People here seem to be obsessed with walking the shortest distance possible and so spaces close to the shops/cinema/restaurant are at a premium.  People think nothing of double parking, parking in the road, parking in the sightlines of turns etc.  We always park that little bit further away.  Not only is it easier but it lessens the risk of returning to your car and finding someone has blocked you in.
People park everywhere - getting through can be a nightmare
  • Driving: Malaysian roads are a pleasure to drive on, beautifully maintained and well managed.  The standards of driving, however, are dire.  People speed, tailgate, drive annoyingly, passively, slowly, undertake, cut in, pull out on hills when their engines can’t handle the acceleration and generally make extremely poor choices. 
  • Haze: the haze during our time in Malaysia was some of the worst on record.  It made life miserable for some time and our town was not even that badly affected.
A day of light haze, at times we could not see even the trees
  • Pavements:  Pavements here are high, very high and quite difficult to lift a pushchair up on to.  They are also poorly maintained, often narrow and have many breaks for side roads.  The covered 5 footway of the shophouses should be an easy place to walk but they are usually crowded with shop displays and goods for sale.  Walking anywhere in town is near to impossible if you are on your own with a pushchair.
  • In shop displays:  For some unknown reason shops seem to delight in setting up extra little display shelves at the end of most of the aisles (chemists are particularly bad for this).  They are always positioned in just such a way to make it impossible to actually get into the aisle you need.
  • The Ringgit’s value:  The Ringgit has tumbled in value in the 18 months since we arrived and we have noticed a concomitant rise in costs of living.  It has also meant that many of the trips we were hoping to make, to Indonesia, to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, were not possible.  This combined with only a small number of holiday days has meant that, other than a few trips to Brunei or business trips for Mr EE we have not left Malaysia in the 18 months since we arrived.  We are long overdue a good holiday!
  • Our house in Ipoh: the area might be lovely but the house is awful.  Before I sound like a spoiled expat I do acknowledge that we lived in one of the best areas in Ipoh in a house that many would dream to own.  It was, however, very poorly maintained with leaks in the roof, mould in the bathrooms and a host of other problems that meant we were paying a high amount for low quality. The kitchen was almost designed to minimise shelf space (all the time giving the illusion of masses of storage), the hob had only one working ring and the oven was dire.  Our bedroom had vinyl wall paper!  I have lived in some truly dire expat pads but this is approaching one of the worst.  
  • Poor quality meat:  The meat in Malaysia is absolutely dire.  It is often very fatty and poor quality.  When we do find decent meat it is sold in small packets and is very expensive indeed.

I asked the rest of the family what they thought.  Mr EE broadly agreed with my analysis.  Master EE said he would miss the scenery and exploring the wild.  Miss EE said she would miss learning Chinese and exploring temples.  They both said they would not miss the rain, the mosquitoes and the long flight back to the UK.

We would not have missed the chance to meet this little chap for all the world
So a fairly even split between positives and negatives!  Malaysia has not been a bad posting, it is a pretty easy place to live but I think we might have come to it too early in life.  At the current stage of our lives and given the age of our children we have been craving something that little bit more interesting and adventurous.  I think Malaysia as a destination would suit us far more in about 15-20 years’ time.  We will, however, certainly bear it in mind as a possible holiday destination to see some of the places we have not managed to get to.

3 March 2016

Travel At Home 5

Welcome to Travel At Home 5.  Wherever you are in the world there are probably so many wonderful and fascinating things to see.  If you are anything like my family it becomes all too easy to ignore the sites close to home, falling prey to the belief that they will 'always be there'.  Familiarity breeds contempt and we hanker after the exotic.  But the truth is home for one person is exotic to many others.  As an expat family we get to be at home in a wide range of different places and we try to make sure that we make the most of any place we are living right now, getting out and exploring as much as possible.  

Travel at Home is the linky for people who want to write about their home (or host) location and all the places that don't make it into a guide book (but really should).  You don't have to be an expat to participate, just someone with a passion for their local area.  The link will be open for a week so there is plenty of time to add your post (or posts).  This is all very new to me at the moment so if you notice that something does not work as it should or you think I could improve something please do let me know. Last month saw stories about local travel in Denmark, France, Dubai, Turkey, Greece and the Czech Republic.  My favourite post was the one on the war memorials of Calvados by Eco Gites of Lenault because I think it is so important to remember the sacrifices that were made and ensure that they remain known to our younger generations.  I also now really want to see the Dubai miracle garden!

There are just a few rules:
  • Share your post - it can be a new post or an old one you want to share with a new audience.
  • You can write about anywhere you have a strong connection, home country, current host or former host.
  • Add the link up button and code to your post so that people can navigate back easily
  • Comment on some of the other posts on the link up (the more the merrier)
  • Tweet/share your link.  If you include me (@ErsatzExpat) and the hashtag #TravelAtHome in your tweet I will retweet.
  • Add your post to the Travel At Home Pinterest Board contact me via Pinterest and I will add you to the board.
  • Spread the word - the more the merrier and everyone is welcome.
Monthly link ups will go in the main feed but will then be linked under the travel at home tab for reference.  Thank you in advance for linking up and participating in this new venture.  I look forward to enjoying some vicarious visits in the next few days.   

Ersatz Expat

A Walk Through Time

My #TravelAtHome this month is a combination of another retrospective (at least in part) and a bang up to date experience.

When I was 8 years old I went to live in the UK for the first time in my life.  At that time I did not know that it was to become a very important country to me.  Before that time my only experience of the UK was through period dramas (the BBC 1980s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility amongst others) on the Norwegian television.  While the English people I knew in Norway seemed normal (or perhaps, when I considered my teacher, cruel heartless individuals out of Jane Eyre and not really normal at all) I thought people in the country itself wore period fashions and drove coaches and horses.  I was convinced in this belief by the fact that, age 7, during a lay over in Heathrow early one morning I walked past the Sherlock Holmes Appreciation society lining up for a flight to Switzerland, all dressed in period costume!

King John's Castle at Odiham
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when we got out of the airport and straight into a normal car!  When we got to our house it was not a grand estate but an ordinary detached house in a commuter town and we had no maid or butler!  I was gutted.  My little sister, on the other hand was fascinated by the fact that she could understand everyone and spent a few days listening to every conversation she heard on the street with wonder.

The children enjoyed exploring our childhood haunts with their aunt.
We had a very happy two years living as expats in the UK before I stayed on to move to boarding school and the rest of my family relocated to Nigeria.  One of our favourite activities during those two years was to go on long rambling walks across the local countryside.  We did not have any pets of our own at the time as my parents knew their posting to the UK was short but we did look after a lot of friends’ dogs when their owners were on holiday so we almost always had a canine companion or two in the house. 

A walk along the Canal with my sister 30 years ago.
A popular local walk was along the Basingstoke Canal at Odiham in Hampshire.  We would park the car and then walk for miles along the canal, enjoying the views over the beautiful English countryside, the picturesque towns and the animals in the fields.  I remember that one field in particular always had Hereford bulls in, they are still there today, probably many times great grandsons of the ones I first met 30 years ago.

And with my sister and her husband in 2016
My parents settled for their retirement just round the corner from the Canal and my sister also lives close by.  The children and I are staying with my father for a few weeks (months!) while we wait for our new visas and a few weeks ago we met up with my sister, her husband and Archie the dog to walk the canal again.  It is, as is the nature of canals, unchanged from the experiences of my childhood.  Watching the children walk along in front of us I could be watching an image of the two of us 30 years ago.

We walked down to the ruins of an old Norman Motte and Bailey castle built by King John for use as a hunting lodge in or around 1207.  It was from this castle that he rode to Runnymede (now a scant 45 minutes away by car) to sign the Magna Carta.  His daughter, Eleanor, lived in it for a while with her husband Simon de Montfort but it passed to Edward I following Simon’s rebellion.  The castle passed through the ownership of the Plantagenet Edwardian kings and Edward III gifted it to his wife Philippa who once again used it as a hunting lodge.  It is possible, if you look carefully, to see the remains of the fireplace on the main floor.  It is quite something to imagine John, Eleanor and Philippa sitting in front of it for warmth and riding out over the countryside. 
Philippa, Eleanor and John's fireplace
Odiham continued to play an important role in English history and was the site of battles during the Civil War and, many centuries later, home to one of the Battle of Britain Airfields.  RAF Odiham is the home to the RAF Chinooks which can be seen flying overhead most days of the year.

As a nomadic expat I have very few chances to share experiences of my childhood with my own children.  They do not ski to school across the Norwegian mountains, go on trips down the Niger or live on the banks of the Tigris.  A walk along the Basingstoke Canal at Odiham allows them to do and enjoy something that I did at their age and I cherish that opportunity.

Posted as part of the Travel At Home link up.

Ersatz Expat

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2 March 2016

Jimmy the Nigerian Dog

I love all my pets but some hold a very special place in my heart.  Jimmy, the dog we rescued from servitude as our guard dog in Lagos is one of those.

When we met our blonde beauty he was so filthy we thought he was black.  He spent his evenings patrolling our garden perimeter with his handler and his daytimes locked in a wire cage.  During a census in the 1990s he was required to stay over during the day as no unnecessary movement was permitted on the streets.  My mother approached him and, finding he was a friendly dog, washed him, only then realising that he was not black.

When movement was permitted again he went back to his employer's cage.  The following evening my parents were furious to see the dog turn up black with filth once more.  They refused to allow him to return and purchased him from the guard dog company.  Closer examination showed that none of his front teeth were whole, they had been kicked to stubs, his ribs had been broken and reset many times and his tear ducts never stopped weeping due to some damage a blow had done to his eyes.

Jimmy in Nigeria
It can be almost impossible to turn an abused working dog into a pet but Jimmy settled in as part of the family from day 1.  He learned to love us and to love his new life and when we left Nigeria he came with us, to the Netherlands, Turkey, the Netherlands again and finally Venezuela.  Jimmy was endlessly loyal.  One time, during a security training exercise when he thought my father was in danger he made a noise fit to wake the dead (he never, ever, barked unless there was trouble) and we found he had almost chewed through a thick leather training lead.  How he managed to do this with the worn stumps of teeth we will never know but we could not get him to settle until he saw my father was safe. He had an unerring nose for cannabis, his 'trainers' had often beaten him when high and he had very negative associations with the smell of the drug.  It made for some interesting encounters with teenage American tourists in the Netherlands.

He was one of the most intelligent dogs I have ever met, he hated injections and would limp theatrically for hours after visits to the vets.  His mental powers never, however, were enough to allow him to remember which side he had received the injection in and his 'bad' leg changed every few minutes.  Often allowed to accompany the family on trips to 'the field' he would sulk for hours if my father left the house in safety gear and did not take him in the car and he developed a love of fruit juice which he would steal from our glasses at any opportunity.

Jimmy gave us so much pleasure over the years but he never really recovered from the abuse he received in his early life.  He started to decline badly in 1999, rallying slightly when my parents adopted a little street dog puppy they found outside their house but fading ever more quickly as the year went on.  My parents made the heartbreaking final decision in early December that year and he was buried in the garden of our home in Maracaibo.

I have been scanning old pictures recently and those of Jimmy were some of the first I copied.  His picture now sits in my 'phone alongside Bessie, Perdie and Kismet.  Our beautiful, loyal, clever Nigerian dog.

Posted as part of Animal Tales!


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