21 June 2016

The EU Referendum and Why It Matters To Me

 The UK is going to the voting booths later this week in an historic referendum on whether or not to remain part of the EU.  The last time the British people had a vote on the matter I had not even been born and the vote was on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC).  Although politics is a large part of my life it is something that I rarely comment on in this blog.  Nevertheless this is a question that is so important that I think it is vital that as many people as possible explain their reasoning.

If we were living in the UK my vote would, very firmly, be going to the leave campaign.  Sadly as an Irish national I only have a vote in the UK when resident there.  My Father and Sister have a vote, I do not.  Of course as a UK national my husband also has a vote.  Nevertheless even though unable to cast my own vote the outcome of the referendum matters very deeply to me.  Our children are British and the referendum will effect their lives for decades to come and although we have not yet decided on retirement there is a very strong possibility that we will repatriate to the UK in later years.  I have stronger ties to the UK than I do to my birth country of the Netherlands or my own nation of Ireland where, as a part of the diaspora, I have never lived.

We all still have to live with each other and work together in the days following the referendum.  have friends in both camps and respect them all because they engage in reasoned debate.  There are some people (on both sides) that I have lost all respect for because of the manner in which they have approached the issue.  Neither camp in the referendum have covered themselves with glory, the scare stories and the ad-hominem attacks have been horrible to see.  In particular the debate on immigration has been divisive and unpleasant.  Of course immigration brings benefits, as either an expat or an immigrant in every country I have ever lived I could hardly think otherwise.  It is not, however, racist or closed minded to want to control the type of people who come to make sure that they are of benefit to the country.  Again, most countries I have lived in do this, it is not unusual or unreasonable.  Sadly there are some people in the leave camp who seem to think about nothing other than immigration and speak of immigrants in a very nasty and troubling way.  That does not mean that I disagree with them about the need for Britain to leave the EU but it does mean that I, and others like me, have a responsibility to call them out on their views.  I love Britain and I love the British, I also love Europe and Europeans but dislike the EU intensely.  My decision to vote leave is not due to any sense of adopted jingoism or misplaced pride it is, quite simply, a question of democratic deficit.

I know that many member states that were once vulnerable and escaped the iron grip of dictatorships see the EU as a guarantor of freedom and democracy.  That may be the case for them but it is manifestly not for Britain.  I understand that EU rules on work, holidays, leave, and minimum standards represent a vast improvement on what existed before in many countries but again Britain guaranteed many of these protections already and even if that were not the case the country would not abandon beneficial legislation on independence.

Access to the common market is valuable to Britain but Europe is not our only trading partner, indeed the EU's share of international trade has reduced in the years since we joined the EEC due to the growth in other world economies, ones we would have freer and easier access to outside of the EU.  We are being threatened by Eurocrats with protracted negotiations and impediments to access to trade in the event that we do leave but that is an empty threat.  As a trading nation our deficit with the EU is such that were they to cease trade with us out of spite they would suffer.  Finance ministers in Germany and Sweden have confirmed that they would still trade with Britain, the eurocrats may bluster but they would not follow through.  Those in favour of remaining in the EU often say that in order to trade we would have to apply the majority of EU legislation in any event but have no say in how it is crafted.  Norway is often used as an example of that, in Norway the pro EU parties use this argument to advance their cause.  The reality is that Norway applies approximately 10% of EU legislation, most of which has benefits to their international trade, if it did not they would not do it and, of course, if they do not like it they have, ultimately, the choice not to apply it, that is the nature of democracy.

Many economists have come down in favour of remaining in the EU.  These are the same people who encouraged us to join the Euro.  Thank goodness Britain listened to sense on that topic,  inability to respond to the recession caused problems across the Eurozone.   Greece and many of the southern states have had initial problems exacerbated by their inability to engage in individual quantitative easing.

Finally we come to the question of democracy.  The EU has a track record of ignoring the wishes of member states.  The French and Dutch voted no to a European constitution, the EU simply recrafted this as the Lisbon Treaty, when Ireland voted no to that it was forced back to another referendum of ratification when the first one gave the 'wrong' result.  Denmark was treated in a similar way over Maastricht.  The Greek referendum of 2015 was ignored as was the Dutch 2016 referendum on the Ukraine. The EU is ruled by an unelected elite that preside over a bloated bureaucracy.

Don't get me wrong, while I think  the  motives of the current EU chiefs are misguided I don't think they are malicious but the problem with unelected rulers is that you are dependant on their own moral compass and sense of benevolence.  The power of democracy is the ability to say no, to throw out those who have done a bad job or who no longer represent your will.  We simply can't do this in Europe.  My grandparents lived in a country under occupation in the second world war.  They suffered under a dictatorship that they were powerless to remove.  When their country won its independence it was hard won, not just by them and their compatriots but by their allies. My other grandparents lived in a country that had struggled for years for independence from its previous masters.   Voting leave will put us in an uncertain future but it will be our future to do with as we want and that is something I dearly hope my children have.

17 June 2016

Paradise and the Snake

Life as an expat is a fantastic opportunity.  It has allowed me, and subsequently Mr EE and the children, to experience so much, to see things we would otherwise not have done. 

Years ago (far too many years ago when I think about it) I lived for a few years in the city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey.  It was not an easy posting as the tensions between the Turkish state and the PKK (and other groups) would regularly explode into terrorist violence.  Car bombings and Molotov cocktails were a regular occurrence and while, thank goodness, we were never caught in a directblast, we were too close on a number of occasions.  Although peaceful for a while the situation in Diyarbakir has started to deteriorate once again, so much so that the family of a friend of mine, who have lived there for many many years, are now debating whether or not to move to another city. 

The fact that the city has been in the news so much in recent weeks has brought my time there back into sharp relief.  It was a truly beautiful city situated along the banks of the Tigris river.  An old stop on one of the silk roads it long black basalt walls are still intact, ancient caravanserais continue to serve refreshments, carpet shops line the street and, perhaps my favourite of all, spice stalls, redolent with exotic fragrance, tempt you in.  Sadly the security situation deteriorated so badly during our time there that I only ever went into the beautiful and beguiling old town on about 3 or 4 occasions confining the rest of the trips into town to the more modern business district.

Garden on a bend of the Tigris.  The city of Diyarbakir is to the left.
This site is reputed to be one of the possible locations of
The Garden Of Eden
Back in 1993 (gulp) underneath the walls and inside a loop made by a bend in the river,  was a garden/plantation that looked rather unkempt and unloved.  I am not sure what it looks like now (I should ask my friend).  We were told, proudly, that legend says that it was the site of the Garden of Eden.  Nothing could have looked less like the mythical paradise and I think I would have been rather pleased to have been evicted from a life there.

While the thought of eternity in that location was none too tempting I have been lucky enough to see some real life paradises, places where I would be happy to reside in perpetual bliss.  Indeed while the first is the type of place I would love (were heath care and safety to be practical which it sadly is not) to retire, the second is the place where I imagine I will wake up after the long dark tunnel, strolling along the warm sands as family, friends and pets that have gone before walk out of the sunlit horizon to welcome me.  The final one is a place I will do all I can to return to as often as possible before that final moment.

A real life paradise garden - Umutu in Nigeria circa 1988
So where are these wonderful places?  The first is a place called Umutu a few hours drive away from our home in Warri, Nigeria.  The company owned two houses set in a few acres of garden and they could be booked for a weekend.  It was not luxurious by western standards, two bungalows set far apart, each with a few bedrooms and basic bathroom and cooking facilities.  The furniture was spartan and not all rooms had AC but it was heartachingly beautiful.  We went a few times, sometimes just the family and sometimes with some friends thrown in the mix.  It was an idyllic retreat, a perfect place to enjoy a swim in the river, read quietly or run in the gardens and get away from the never ending goldfish bowl experience of living in the company camp.    As I mentioned earlier if it was not for the parlous state of medical and other care in that region it would be the perfect place to retire.  We did have the occasional run in with the less welcoming wildlife, the odd snake (swimming in the river was out of bounds one visit because a large snake had been seen swimming near the jetty and not yet cleared out) and scorpions, memorably, on one visit, in the loos. 

The perfect place to relax after weeks and weeks of goldfish bowl living
There is always a snake, always something that poisons the experience of paradise.  There was a small village just the other side of the river from the gardens.  Like everywhere we went at the time children would swarm around to see the oyibo (white) visitors, often running their fingers through my long hair (my mother and sister kept theirs much shorter) so different from their own.  As always in the Nigeria of the 80s there was an element of guilt, the simplest life we lived would always be so very luxurious, compared to the day to day life of the villagers.  Many of them were horrendously poor, a situation that is criminal given the wealth of the country itself.  It was a small comfort that the place we visited gave employment opportunities.  Our paradise was their grinding normality, our idyllic retreat in the midst of their land a luxury they could never hope to attain.

A new year's swim in the river with my sister and her school friend
My other paradise is one I have written about before, a beach in Borneo not far from our home in Miri.  Pantai Bungai is slated for development and indeed there was work underway on more facilities when we were visiting in 2014/15.  This will bring a benefit to the local communities who can capitalise on their spectacular location.  Already there are people offering adventure tours in the local area, guest houses, restaurants etc.  While I would never begrudge the benefits the influx of people will bring to those in the hospitality industry I do hope that this jewel of a location is not ruined by the increase in visitor numbers.

Long, golden sandy beaches in Borneo
At the moment at least the location is a many kilometres long, unspoiled beach on the South China Sea.  Small fishing villages dot the shore and you often see people from the larger towns nearby come to fish or simply enjoy the water.  Our two dogs used to love running along the shore, dipping in and out of the water to cool their paws.  Luckily they have good recall, many Malaysians are Muslim and therefore unable to touch dogs so we would always make sure to call the dogs back to us whenever other people came close, not that that happened often. 

The perfect place for a walk
So what was the snake, the downside to this spectacular location, possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my entire life?  Just kilometres away from this beautiful place the land was devastated, all natural vegetation ripped away to clear land for palm oil plantations.  I am not anti progress or indeed anti human industry or activity for the sake of it.  Indeed I think that industry is capable of bringing great improvement to people’s lives.  This, however, was something else.  To see the land destroyed to this extent, with no regard for long term sustainability was and is a travesty, one that brings benefit only to a select few for a very short term.

Some of the most beautiful scenery in the world

Sadly devastation is only a short drive away
The final location is much less exotic but no less beautiful for that.  About 9 years ago Mr EE and I took a baby Master EE on a 5 week long drive through Europe.  It was a chance to decompress and relax after what had been the most upsetting and hardest few months of our lives to date and we enjoyed every moment.  Following  a day in Lipica (Slovenia) we had been meaning to drive to Lake Bled and find a guest house to overnight there but fate intervened and a wrong turn put us on a back road to the nearby Lake Bohinj instead.  We overnighted in a friendly guesthouse where the owner plied us with schnitzel and wine and took Master EE of our hands for cuddles.  We made our way down to the lake the following day.

Lake Bohinj, my European idyll
We fell in love pretty much at first sight.  The clear water and alpine scenery spoke to our hearts.  We were limited for time, having obligations further north a few days later and so had to get back on the road but we swore that we would be back.  A few years later, this time with Miss EE in tow as well, we spent 10 days exploring the area.  We had meant to go back in 2012 but holdups in visa processing at the Kazakh embassy in London meant that our passports were tied up and we could not go.  We will almost certainly go back again, perhaps for a winter holiday this time.

Paddling with Master EE

And enjoying the view from above.
I have a dream of buying a retirement home there when Mr EE and I have had enough of the itinerant life but we are old and wise enough to know that the impression you get of a place on holiday is very different from daily life.  There is always a snake, we would not want to move without knowing what it is.  Perhaps we will spend some extended holidays there getting to know the region even better and see if that dream has any chance of becoming a reality or if it is completely inadvisable. 

Have you found your paradise yet?  Where is it and what does it mean to you?

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13 June 2016

Compound Cats Looking For Love

We have had good news on the pet front, our permits for the cat and one dog are approved.  We are just waiting to hear if the other dog will be approved soon and therefore if we can ship them all together or if we should get the two out now and bring Perdie along a little later.  I don't want Perdie to see her 'sisters' leave and go through the trauma of being on her own (although our vet is spoiling her, she seems to have put on some weight) but equally I would like Bessie home as soon as possible given her age.

It is very common for people to take responsibility for the care and feeding of local strays then struggle to find someone to continue to care for the animal when they leave. They just go and hope that others will take over the responsibility.   In recent weeks a local charity has been posting a number of updates asking if people are able to foster or adopt dogs.  I would love to but we really can't, three pets is more than enough.

A lot of the people we have spoken to recently have been surprised that we are brining our cat over. The conversation goes the same way every time 'but why, there are lots of cats here, just leave the other one and get a stray here'.  I have to restrain myself from speaking my mind, Kismet may not be a dog but that does not mean that she is disposable.  When we adopted her we made a commitment to be responsible for her until her dying day.  If, at any stage we cannot fulfil that responsibility (ie a move where the pet is not allowed) we will do everything we can to have her adopted to a good home even paying for her continuing care if necessary.   The only circumstance I can imagine abandoning any of my pets is an emergency evacuation. I must admit to being worried, however, that Kismet will not remember us or want to be part of our family any longer, she has been away from us a long time now.  Nevertheless we will stand by our commitment to her and she can choose to stay or go when she is here, I dearly hope she stays.

The kitten who wanted to go to creche 
This morning, when I brought Mini EE to creche, a little kitten managed to get into the room.  I picked her up and brought her back outside and the poor little scrap sat purring in my arms for a while.  She obviously craves human attention and affection and would make someone a beautiful little pet.  I found out that she and her sister are being cared for by someone on the school compound.  They feed them but don't want them as pets and are looking for a home for them, as there are more than 25 cats on the compound I doubt that they will find someone.  I can't help but feel that the people who brought them in without wanting to give them a full home have not been as kind as they think they are being.  Little Millie has had just enough exposure to humans to know she wants to be a house cat but will never have the opportunity to be one, far better just to leave food out and not hold out false hope of a family.  Some of the teachers at school have raised enough money to pay for food for the foreseeable future and a vet has offered to sterilise them on a TNR (trap neuter release) basis, hopefully that will hold the number of cats stable.

I would dearly love to give little Millie a home but I can't do that.  As I said three pets really is enough.  Even though we could afford the care of another animal, financially we can't commit to the cost of moving another pet and I can only imagine how upset our three would be to arrive here to find a new pet in residence.
Faux touting for pets outside the grammar school
On my way back I ran into Faux, Faux is a big ginger cat who simply loves people.  He belongs to someone on the residential compound but has worked out that if he goes to the school in the mornings he will have lots of children to make a fuss of him. As soon as he sees his mark he pads over and if you sit on a bench he leaps into your lap looking for cuddles.  He doesn't have an audible purr but I can feel his purr muscles moving. I spent a good 5 minutes chatting to him after the children went into lessons.  If Millie does not get a family then I hope, like Faux, she will learn to get her affection fix from a range of people.

Posted to the weekly Animal Tales Linky


9 June 2016

Date Night At The Afghan Souk

I wrote a post, a few weeks ago, about a trip I made to ‘downtown’ with the express intention of looking for carpets only to be side-tracked by other places of interest nearby.   The other day our compound bus was scheduled to go back to the area in the evening so Mr EE and I decided to get a babysitter and go carpet hunting.  We had been due an evening out together as we very rarely get an opportunity to be ‘off work’.  In the UK, Kazakhstan and Miri we went out, just for ourselves, at least once a week and often more.  In Ipoh a lack of babysitters meant that we only ever went out alone together if it was absolutely necessary, ie for work.  Here we have easy access to a babysitter and we are out quite a lot.  Other than one meal out with friends, however, all of our evenings have been connected with Mr EEs work so we were looking forward to an evening together for some time.

This shop advertises the souk pretty well...
In case you have not guessed from our decision to spend our evening together in carpet shops, we LOVE carpets.  I can happily spend hours sipping tea with the owner looking at various colours, qualities and designs.  I am, sadly, no expert on carpets (although I would love to take a course), but I have spent a considerable amount of time  in carpet shops, first with my parents and later with Mr EE and/or my sister, all of whom share my passion, feasting our eyes on all the many beautiful pieces on sale.  Of course, like everyone, I am very partial to Persian silk carpets.  A few years ago my family had a nasty experience with an incontinent elderly dog on a very beautiful Persian rug (picked up by my Father 20 years ago on a business trip to Tehran), so given Bessie’s age any silk carpets we do buy will not be used on the floor!  That said now that we have a cat I wonder whether she will see wall mounted carpets as climbing material… Wool carpets have their place and can be very beautiful and practical.  My parents had two made to measure and design when we lived in Turkey, they are so dense that any spillages just bead on the top and can be soaked away without staining the wool.  Both of our older children walked for the first time on those carpets (there was something about the feel of them on their feet) and all three of them have enjoyed pretending to ‘pick’ the flowers of the pattern.  Kelims are cheaper, cheerful and hardwearing making them perfect for high traffic areas or children’s bedrooms! 


A number of sellers, normally based in beautiful high end shops, come to display their wares at the compound every so often and I have seen some stunning top quality carpets there (for top drawer prices as well, one that I have my eye on has been quoted to me for the price of a second hand car although I have not started to bargain on that one yet).  The shops on the souk are an altogether more earthy experience, they don’t tend to have anything approaching the high quality of the really good places, indeed most of what is on sale is cheap acrylic floor coverings and plasticky blankets but there are one or two which have some decent products for sale, if you ask to see them.  

Searching for food
The traffic in Jeddah can be appalling and the bus took about an hour to make the 20 minute journey downtown.  By the time we got close to the area we were in danger of running into prayer time so we hopped out and walked down to get some food.  While I love a lot of the recipes and flavours of street food sold here I am always very careful about what we buy.  Nothing with meat in as we have no guarantee how long it has been lying about, nothing with raw salad or vegetables as they might not have been cleaned.  Apart from that as long as it has been cooked as we watch I am generally ok with it.  We picked up some onion baajhi with a curry dip and a few cans of soda and wandered around until prayers were over.  This gave us a good opportunity to look in through the windows and decide which shops to look at in more detail once prayers were over. 

Wools, silks (some with less traditional designs) and kelims.
Our Indigo and Saffron purchase is bottom right
We found a few that looked promising and started browsing.  Our house has a tiled living room and we have been wanting to get a good sized wool carpet to warm it up a little.  Settling on a colour scheme (dark in case of spills) we spent a happy half hour looking at carpets of various qualities from the very basic at a bargain price to some surprisingly good carpets.  While I truly loved some of the rugs we saw we were constrained by the size of our room.  In the end we found a lovely Turkmen carpet, deep red with a repeating pattern of octagons known as gul or ‘elephant feet’ and a decent but not spectacular knot count.

More silk rugs, the two on display top right were particularly fine.
While we were looking at the functional carpets we could also not resist looking at some of the silk carpets for sale.  Many were poor quality with a long pile and small knot count but there were a few that were really worth looking at.  I fell in love with a silk carpet in deep blue and gold, while not of the highest quality something about it spoke to us.  I think it may have been made as a training piece because although the knot count is high there are some places where the knots face a different direction and there are obvious variations in dye lots.  The price was, accordingly, very reasonable meaning we could afford to purchase it on a whim.  It is by no means a statement piece, the type of carpet we would save up for for a few years (like the carpet I have seen on display in a particular carpet shop in Turkey for years and have coveted that whole time) but it is beautiful and something we will enjoy for years to come. 

Spectacular table tops and some interesting, and
not so interesting knick knacks.
The shop has some furniture as well, many modern pieces masquerading as antiques and some beautiful doors.  A popular thing to do here in Jeddah is to take old wooden doors (many of which are very ornate) and turn them into a table by laying them flat and topping with glass.  Much like a very high quality silk carpet this is something we would like but given the expenses, not only of purchase but also onward transport in the future it is definitely something to be seen as an investment rather than a purchase on a whim.  We did pick up some footstools for the children to sit on when watching tv.  They look ‘antique’ but are almost certainly modern made with old wood and bits of old kelim to simulate an old fashioned look and probably beaten with chains and buried in the garden for a few weeks for good measure!  I can never get too het up about this sort of thing, while I would love some genuinely old pieces with a story to them (and we snap them up when we can) there is no harm in something not quite ‘authentically antique’ as long as you know what you are buying and are not hoping to take them along to an Antiques Road Show to be told you have bought something worth thousands for a bargain price!

Our new carpet and footstools help to warm the place up
Anyway our ‘date’ night ended with us carting what looked like a dead body (carpet wrapped in plastic) back home where we spent the rest of the evening beating out the dust and running over the carpet with the vacuum.  Who says romance is dead!

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8 June 2016

Travel At Home 8

Welcome to Travel At Home number 8!  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.  

The posts on other blogs that I enjoy reading most of all talk about places.  It could be the blogger's home country; it could be their host city.  It does not really matter, reading about locations is a wonderful way to visit and see through another person’s eyes, even if just for a few minutes.  I wanted to see if it was possible to draw them all together into one place and that is where the idea of this link up was born.

Last month we travelled to various places in Scandinavia including Copenhagen, Bergen (which sounds much nicer these days then I remember it from my childhood) and a castle in Sweden.  We also went to China, Devon in the UK, Japan and Saudi.  My favourite was probably Trekking Becky's post on Japan, mostly because I would love to take the children there and this gives some great ideas of places to see.

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 under the Travel At Home page for reference.  Thank you in advance for linking up and participating, I look forward to enjoying some vicarious visits in the next few days.

Ersatz Expat

Once Upon An Expat

For those of you who like to read stories of expat life look no further than the new book Once Upon An Expat.  An anthology contributed to by many wonderful expats it is the brainchild of Lisa Webb at CanExpatMom.  Not only did she pull together the posts of many expats, disparate in style, experience and location but she did that in the middle of a move from Borneo (the Indonesian part, sadly I never ran into her during my time there) to the Congo.

I make a contribution of a story from our time in Kazakhstan but the book is stuffed to the brims with excellent chapters from just about everywhere you can think of.  From the amusing chapters such as the awkward experience of a naked manicure (Americans and Brits seem to get really embarrassed by having to get naked) or getting an old Christmas Tree to the dump in Australia (harder than it sounds) to the searingly emotional chapters coping with death and distance as an expat this book has something for everyone.

I found it fascinating to read the stories that were set in countries that I had lived in (or near to).  The simultaneous differences and similarities of the experiences coming through loud and clear.

I won't say much more as I don't want to spoil the book but if you are looking for a good read this summer (or at any time) download a copy of Once Upon An Expat.  All proceeds go to the charity Books Abroad which helps to support schools with much needed literary resources.