26 October 2016

How to Learn Arabic In Jeddah

Some expat postings are easy in terms of languages, some are more challenging.  In four of my postings  I have been lucky to speak a language that is either the national language or extremely widely spoken.  Others have required me to learn to communicate in another tongue. 

I tend to approach languages by getting an introductory ‘teach yourself’ book or app and then, when I have enough basic information, just start to converse.  In Venezuela my parents gave me a language book to read then told me I had ‘volunteered’ to translate to and from Spanish  for the English, German and Dutch children at company summer camp.  It was a real ‘in at the deep end’ moment but it did work, by the end of the week I had some basic facility in the language, albeit with a very strong local accent!  In fact I have always made the best progress in a language when living somewhere where people do not speak English (nowhere else really speaks Dutch!) as it forces me to learn.  I adopt a pragmatic approach.  I don’t need to speak a language perfectly but I do need to be able to communicate.  Once I can do that I can start to improve and find that people are generally happy to help.  One fruit stall holder at a market in Astana used to reward me with a piece of fruit if I had improved since she had last seen me.

Arabic has not been so easy to learn, partly because on a day to day basis most people we come in contact with speak perfect English.  Colleagues, all parents at school and most residents of our compound do, most shop keepers, Expat or Saudi, do too.  I have tried to learn using apps but the dialect here is very different to the language used in them and because of the way the letters of the alphabet change depending on their position in a word it has been almost impossible for me to self teach.
Confusing is not the word!
I was over the moon, therefore, when I found a language course offered by a local institute (The Jeddah Cultural Exchange Centre).  The course is broken into parts and I was able to register for the beginners’ sessions.  The aim of these was to gain familiarity with the alphabet and learn some basic vocabulary.  The course was quite intensive, three nights a week for four weeks.  The course was taught in English which was perfect for me although I have a huge amount of respect for the pupils for whom English is a second language!  Our teacher, a Syrian lady now living in Jeddah, started by teaching us the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and how to recognise them, not just as a stand-alone letter but when we saw them at the beginning, middle and end of a word.

I thought Cyrillic, with its multiple letters for Y, was challenging but for someone used to the Latin Alphabet Arabic is a whole new level of difficult.  There are 4 or 5  different forms of the letter T, some are distinct but others are impossible for my ear to distinguish from each other, the two Ks are equally confusing.  The 2 (or 3) Ds are, at least distinct (in written if not in spoken form) as are the three forms of S, the two As and the two different H’s.  Yet more letters do double duty.  The Y can stand for Y or E and the W for W and O.  There are even more letters that are only used at the ends of words.  Short vowels (A, I and U)  are modifiers used above or below the word to change the pronunciation of a letter ie Ba, Bi, Bu, but these are not typically written so you just have to ‘know’ which vowel is used where.  A lot of the letters look suspiciously similar when written; a misplaced dot can mean the difference between a J and a K or a Z and an R and whether or not a loop is coloured in can change a GH to an F. 

It was enough to give me a headache, gradually, however, things started to make sense.  I have started to be able to read simple words (I was over the moon to read Balsamic on the vinegar bottle and Cocoa on the cocoa tin).  The course has been a success because it does not concentrate on the written form of the language to the exclusion of everything else (a common aspect of language courses here).  Our teacher has also worked hard to make sure that we are able to communicate.  The other day I clarified a measurement  length of an Abaya in Arabic and I felt ridiculously pleased.  The lady in the shop did too and gave me a huge grin. 

The course has a secondary benefit as well and that is the chance to get to know other people in Jeddah.  Participants registered on the course are from all over the world, India, South Africa, UK, Philippines, Turkey, US and Malaysia.  We have all come to Jeddah for very different reasons but it is lovely to get to know each other. 

There is a long way to go, building vocabulary (and retaining it) is challenging because I do not have to use the language every day.  I have registered for the second level course to try to keep the momentum in my studies.

For more posts on life in Saudi please click on the photo below

Ersatz Expat

13 October 2016

Revisiting Past (Expat) Lives: A Wrenching Echo or a Beautiful Swansong

Some postings are ones that you get to return to again and again, even after you leave.  Others you expect, for one reason or another never to see again.  Warri (Nigeria) and Maracaibo (Venezuela) are hardly tourist destinations to bring the family to for example.

Nigeria was beautiful but not the easiest posting to return to.
My many postings fall into a variety of those two categories.  I go back to the town we lived in when we were last in the UK an awful lot because, by a complete co-incidence, we ended up living 5 minutes from where my parents had bought a house many years before and where they chose to retire.  These days, going back to visit my father and step-mother is strange, I was a local councillor there for 6 years so relatively well known to a number of people through my party and through campaigning.  I often run into old colleagues of my husbands or old pupils of his.  It is home (the children and I stayed there for a significant part of the 4 months we were waiting for Saudi visas), and yet it is not.  My mother loved the town, she was not English but it was where she chose to settle and live out her days.  This town was the place she returned to every year from around 1992 when my parents bought the house and we spent most of our short half term holidays there from around that time to leaving school.  It is more home to me than any other place on earth ... and yet....  I see her ghost everywhere I walk and it is incredibly painful; harder now to go back than it was to live there after her death.  I love seeing my father and my step-mother and the children adore their visits there but I find it very, very sad.  I wonder if people who have lived in the same place all their life have a similar response post bereavement, do they suddenly want to move away or is it just my complete and utter lack of true ties to any place? 

Our beautiful old home town in England
I had a similar feeling when, following a visit to my Uncle and Aunt in their home town in the Netherlands, I drove to show Mr EE and the older children the place where Oma & Opa had lived.  I spent a lot of time with them as a child, living with them for long periods and often visiting them for short holidays when I was first in boarding school.  I was ok in the town, it was rather fun to walk in my old steps, but when we went to the building their flat had been in I broke down, racked with sobs.  I still don’t really know why (I don’t have the same reaction when I see my other grandparents’ house in Dublin or when I wander around Den Haag, the town where I was born and where I lived 4 times in my life), perhaps it was a realisation that a place that had been so pivotal, so important to me, now has no connection to me at all other than an ageing uncle and aunt. The ripples my life had made on the surface of the Assen pond have almost disappeared for ever.

Revisiting past pleasures in Ipoh
Other than that, by and large when I leave a posting I leave, I put it to bed in my mind and look forward to the next one.  I rarely hanker after the life that has been. I have been back to some of the other countries I have lived but never to my old homes (except on Google Maps) or even cities until last month.  When I had to rush back to Malaysia to see our very sick dog I ended up in our old town.  It was a strange visit because it has not been long since we were there, Ipoh was our home until December last year.  In between seeing to the dogs I revisited old hunting grounds, traces of our life there were everywhere.  My hair needed colouring so I went to my old hairdresser, I was still on record.  On the two evenings I was there I ate at two of our favourite restaurants.  I was welcomed back to both by name and asked if I wanted ‘my usual’, when I parked at the mall (I treated myself to a cinema trip, something we can’t do in Saudi) the mark made when our power steering fluid suffered a catastrophic leak in August last year could still be seen in our favoured spot.

Our old home had the most amazing view.

On a whim I went back to our old home.  We lived in a gated development with some beautiful park land and the guard, remembering me, waved me through with a big smile.  Our old house was occupied by a new family but I parked nearby and walked around the running track where we had walked the dogs every day (the plan had been to scatter Bessie’s ashes there if she had had to be put down).  The fish, the monkeys, the monitor lizards were all still there.  Sadly there is a lot of development going on at the theme park across the lake and I can see that we were lucky in our time there.  Unlike the feelings of sadness I have when visiting my old home in the Netherlands or the UK I felt a feeling of closure that I have never sought and had not expected to want or need. Our ripples are still there, though fading fast, they will be gone before long but, unlike Assen, I feel no sense of sadness about that.

We were happy to leave Ipoh, it had only ever been a temporary posting and had we remained in Malaysia we would have been in KL by now but we left with a short turn round, with Mr EE being asked to start his new job very quickly (6 months notice is more normal in education).  Whenever we relocate we try to spend as much time as possible fixing memories of our posting, memories that will last us a life time.  We do our favourite things and make the most of our remaining time there.  In Ipoh the time we had to do this was very short.  The little swansong visit was, in many ways, the perfect way to put that posting to bed.  

Have you ever returned to a previous posting?  How did it make you feel?

For more posts on Expat Life please click the photo below.

Ersatz Expat

Posted to the Expat Family Linky hosted by Seychelles Mama

Seychelles Mama

6 October 2016

Jeddah Corniche

Jeddah is a coastal city and, as such, has an extensive waterfront.  The corniche is divided up into a number of discrete sections, all slightly different in character and all equally charming and enjoyable.  One of our favourite parts is the Middle Corniche Park.  This is quite some way from our home and can take up to half an hour to get there but it is worth it. 

Enjoying the scenery at the Corniche Park
Nestled at the end of Falastin (Palestine) street, this park is home to some quite tracts of grass, a walk way, some play grounds, sculpture and views over the King Fahd fountain.  We like to go down towards evening time, aiming to get to the park about 15 minutes before sunset prayers.  This gives us time to get a bottle of water or an ice cream from a snack vendor before they close up.

There are plenty of vendors selling treats for children
and picnic essentials like cushions and carpets.
As non Muslims we are, of course, not required to do anything other than not disturb those at their devotions.  All shops close down by law and restaurants close their doors to new customers.  In the park roll out carpets are available for those who wish to pray.  We tend to take the opportunity to walk quietly through the park, enjoying the scenery and the sunset.  The gardens are well maintained and full of sculptures although to my untutored eye they do not  appear to be the best quality.

The park is quiet during prayer time
But full of life at other times.
As prayers come to an end families break out picnics and barbeques on the lawns, children cycle or roller-skate down the path, married couples stroll hand in hand and hopeful young men cast their fishing lines.  In the cooler weather you see people out for a run, men in their sports wear and sometimes even the odd woman in her abaya (although given the difficulty of running in one women tend more towards power walking).

The park is a pleasant place for a romantic stroll

Strange sculptures abound

We are not even sure what these are!
Sunsets in Jeddah are often less than spectacular; we don’t get enough cloud cover for the really striking skies that I loved in Brighton, another seaside town I called home for many years.  Nevertheless it is the best time to enjoy the spectacle that is the King Fahd fountain.  Built in the 1980s it is the tallest fountain in the world, shooting seawater up to around 300m high.  It is so imposing that can be seen from the aircraft as they come in to land at the airport and it can be seen at the other end of town (if you are high enough).

Children play in the many well equipped parks

People gather to enjoy convivial evenings
This section of the corniche is only a few kilometres long so once we have walked to the end and back we just have time to nip into a restaurant on Falastin before they close the doors for the night time prayers.

Sunset is the best time to enjoy views of the fountain
It dominates this part of town

This park is, for us, a perfect example of how life here is like and yet unlike anywhere else.  People enjoy the seafront in seaside towns around the world.  Watching children eat cotton candy and learn to roller-skate on promenades (as I did in Brighton all those years ago) and seeing couples stroll and families barbeque it could be the seaside in Miri, the riverside in Astana; and yet… it is quintessentially Arabia.

Posted as part of the Travel at Home Blog Link Up

Ersatz Expat

For more posts on life as an Expat in Saudi Arabia please click on the photo below

Ersatz Expat

Travel At Home 9

Welcome back to Travel At Home.  The linky has been absent for a few months, firstly I was away, then I had internet problems and then I had to make a last minute dash to Malaysia to visit my dog. The linky is now back up and running and looking forward to your stories.

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).  If you notice that something does not work as it should or you think I could improve something please do let me know.

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) 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 to a tab (see above) for reference.  Thank you in advance for linking up and participating in this venture.  I look forward to enjoying some vicarious visits in the next few days.   

Ersatz Expat