29 August 2016

To Hell in a Handcart or Better All The Time?

In recent months the world, as we know it, seems to be going to hell in a handcart.  This year has seen planes fall out of the sky, people attacked while at prayer, relaxation or dance and innocent civilians in Syria still caught in the middle of a morass of warring forces.  Of course there has been good news, the Brexit vote, so hotly contested, went the way I wanted it to and Britain can now look forward to a truly prosperous global future as opposed to being shackled to an outmoded anti-democratic, overly bureaucratic and economy stifling club of merely European nations. (I hope our future will continue to allow a rich trade with our European neighbours while opening the door to the rest of the world).  Even this high point has come at a cost.  Doom mongers are talking down the post Brexit economy so vehemently that they risk causing the very problems they talk about,  disgruntled remainers have spoken, quite openly, about their desire to set aside the democratic process and repeal the vote.  People who supported the vote to leave have been cast as racist, stupid and bullies.  Some people I know have been marginalised by their ‘friends’ simply because of how they voted.  Suddenly the understated yet powerful democracy of my adopted country of Britain, which I hold so dear seems to be very fragile.  Hopefully the process will be started soon and we can start to negotiate our new place in the world.

I have been thinking about these things quite a lot in recent days for a number of reasons.  Firstly because the older children are now starting to read and watch a lot more news and asking questions about what is going on (if any one can point me to a neutral analysis of the American elections aimed at under 10s I would be most grateful).  This lends an extra depth to the discussions Mr EE and I have.  Secondly it is around the time of our wedding anniversary and, while we don’t celebrate it as such it is a time of the year when, much like New Year, I reflect on what has gone and what is yet to come.  While we met 20 years ago we have only been married for 15 as we wanted to both finish our education and on the job training before getting married.  Our wedding was just one month before the September 11 attacks.  Watching a drama set in 1914 with an older relative he told me that he often remembers the celebration of our wedding the way the WW1 generation remembered the gilded summer of 1914, the last gasp of a vanishing era.

The last gasp of a glittering era?
I dismissed that at first but the more I think about it the more right I realise he is.  Mr EE and I remember the final years of the tangible nuclear threat (Mr EE a little more than I do, he remembers duck and cover, I know it only from stories).  More secure in my memories are the tri-partite summits, watching Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev find their way towards a peace our parents had worried would never exist.  I visited Russia (Leningrad and Moscow) just one year before the USSR disappeared forever (and little did we think, as children of the end of the Cold War that we would live in and be welcomed to the Kazakh Steppes).  We saw the wall come down, we saw the Good Friday Agreement set the stage for peace in Northern Ireland and the end of the Iran/Iraq war.  To be fair we also saw events unfold in Mogadishu and the First Iraq war which today seem to presage the awful state the world is in today, at the time they seemed, to us at least, distant in the case of the first and a one off in the case of the second.  We also saw, heartbreakingly, the return of concentration camps in Europe and Rwanda but awful as they were, the conflicts were small in geographic scale and were resolved, things were on the up around the world.  It seemed to us that we were starting out on our life’s adventure blessed with a world as at peace as it was ever going to be and things looked pretty golden.

That all changed on September 11.  Like everyone else we remember exactly where we were when the news broke; Mr EE was in school and spent the rest of that and subsequent days caring for a boarder who thought his mother was in the WTC at the time of the hit (thank God she was late for work that morning and we got news she was safe a few days later).   I was in my office, my second day as a qualified solicitor, I remember the staff from our Lloyds branch were evacuated to our building and, given my 1 ½ hour commute home on London’s creaky rail network, many colleagues kindly offered me accommodation for the night.  We all tried to be hard bitten City lawyers and continue with our work but minute by minute we stopped all but the most essential work and started to try to contact family and friends in the US, moving into each other’s rooms to watch the footage unfold, each scene more horrifying than the last.  As the days went by it became obvious that the attack was as pivotal as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, our world had lurched on its axis and nothing would ever be the same again.

Instead of the better world we all took for granted on the day of our wedding, instead of the single, definable, bogeyman of our parent’s generation we now have to bring our children up in a real life version of a Hitchcock thriller.  We can’t see or plan for the threat, it just materialises.  Nowhere is safe, not a shopping centre in Germany a restaurant in Dhaka, a street in Almaty,  a promenade in Nice, the streets of Kabul (ok they are not safe at any time but recent events were a whole magnitude of  awful more), not the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah or a church in Normandy. It is not just extremist violence we need to be concerned about either, Zika, Ebola, extremist politics on both the left and right in many stable democracies and interest rates edging towards 0 or even negative. Everywhere we look the news seems resolutely depressing.

Because of our connections to multiple countries expats are far more exposed to events than others.  I keep an eye on the news from all the countries I have lived in.  When I see footage of shootings in Almaty I know the streets, when I hear of Venezuelans reduced to such straits by the happenings in their country that they are forced to eat zoo animals, those people were my neighbours.  The families caught in the bombings in south east Turkey were my family and friends 20 years ago.  When MH17 was shot down there were people from our community, including a parent from my husband's school on board. I am not unusual, many expats feel this way and there are days when the news hurts.  Our children are more exposed as well and it is important to teach them skills to cope with the awful news stories they will see or hear.

Things are bad, there are many evil people in the world but in many ways things are so much better and getting better all the time.  Polio is almost eradicated, a second victory for humanity in its fight against disease.  True there has been an outbreak in Nigeria in recent weeks but the authorities seem to be working valiantly isolate it, the system works!  When I lived in Nigeria in the 1980s polio sufferers were a common sight, particularly in orphanages.  To know that soon people will no longer suffer that disease is cause for celebration.  We may be struggling with Zika but just recently the world helped some of the poorest countries to deal with a potentially devastating Ebola outbreak.  The lessons learned will ensure that when the disease breaks out again, it can be contained more efficiently.

Today more people have access to clean water than ever before (although that is not to say that things could not improve).  More people can read, thanks to GMOs we are looking at being in a position where more and more countries will be able to guarantee a stable food supply.  The rights of minorities (and of women) are more entrenched and more protected in more places than when I was a child. When a depraved man drove a bus into a crowd of innocent people there were others, people who woke up never thinking they could be or would be called to be heroic, who did not hesitate to try to stop him.  When an earthquake hit an Italian village late at night a young girl used her body to shield her sister, to give her sibling a chance at life a the cost of her own.  The news may not make it seem that way but there is more peace and more stability in the world than at just about any other time in human history.

So we live our lives, different lives to the ones we expected 15 years ago, but nevertheless lucky, happy, enjoyable lives.  The world may be going to hell in a handcart but it is our world and there is still more good in it than bad, more heroism than cowardice and more opportunity than not.  As the year turns we will hold on to that.

For more posts on expat life click on the picture below.

Ersatz Expat

11 August 2016

How to hire household help.

Since arriving in Jeddah I have been searching for a housekeeper.  While everyone here seems to have one it is becoming more and more difficult to find someone to help.  In years gone by most of the household help was comprised of Umrah or Hajj overstayers.  The government has recently started to crack down on this.  In reality this is a good thing, those working here illegally were vulnerable to abuse in many forms and the truth of the matter is, as an expat, I would not want to employ someone illegal as it would put our status in the country in jeopardy.  This has, however, created a pinch point for household help meaning we need to find someone wanting a job share, someone whose work is coming to an end and  whose visa we can take over as sponsors or apply to an agency and bring someone in from abroad.  There are pitfalls to all of those, happily it looks like a solution is on the horizon and I will have help at home again.

I don’t need someone, of course, having household help is a privilege I do not have when in a European posting so I am perfectly capable (if reluctant) of doing my own cleaning.  Nevertheless I don’t like doing it.  I hate mopping floors, I loathe ironing (but can’t bring myself to wear or let anyone in the family wear un-ironed clothes), bathrooms are odious work and hanging the laundry up is disproportionately aggravating, don’t even get me started on changing bedclothes.  All the children have full size doubles and we have something so large it is called an ‘Emperor’ size bed.  All very lovely until you have to wrestle with sheets and duvet covers.  For this reason I jump at having someone to help wherever possible. 

I hate housework - who doesn't...
I do know some expats who dislike the ‘maid culture’ that exists in some postings.  I see some of it here, parents who leave their children solely in the care of the maid, friends who, when we visit, never put anything away.  Children who treat their maid and driver like dirt.  One seemingly lovely lady on our compound came round to say she was moving on and her maid was looking for new work.  The girl in question wanted a live in position during the week, her husband could not pick her up and drop her off  for work and would not allow her in a taxi.  When I pointed out that we wanted a live out (but that I would pay for a private and trusted taxi service) the previous employer told me that I had plenty of space, she could sleep in  the baby’s room or even the cupboard under the stairs.  Visions of Harry Potter flew through my mind  and I just said the position would not work for us.  This attitude is not unusual, our house in Ipoh (Malaysia) had a maid’s quarter, 1/3 the size of the children’s bedrooms it had no air-conditioning.  It did have a bathroom but no hot water.  The schedule for the previous occupant’s maid was still up on the wall.  Her duties started at 5.30 and did not finish until after 9pm.  It broke my heart.

All this aside I don’t feel guilty having help in the house because we don’t treat people like that.  In one posting where my mother was required to host gatherings for up to 60 people sometimes multiple times a week  my parents had 4 people they employed directly to help us out and we had a driver provided by the company.  My mother would not allow us to take advantage of this situation, however.  We still had to keep our rooms tidy, make our beds, put clothing away, keep our bathroom sanitary.  We had to help the cook with his work for big events and woe betide any visiting friend who spoke to people with disrespect.  In another posting with a similarly large number of people helping us out we all sat down for coffee every morning and had a ‘conversation break’.  This way we learned the local language (Spanish) quickly and effectively,  albeit with a strong local accent and patois. 

It is too easy for children to become accustomed to having everything done for them.  Like my mother, Mr EE and I insist that the children are polite and helpful.  They are expected to keep their rooms neat and tidy so they can be cleaned.  If there is any mess on the floor they have to tidy it up, and they must put clothes away neatly.  Anything that has been beautifully ironed then thrown in a crumpled heap in a cupboard earns a pocket money deduction.  They have to help whoever is doing it to change their sheets and clean their bathroom, They also have to help around the house.  Part of this is self-preservation (I am responsible for all this when we are in Europe so I don’t want to make my life harder), part to make sure that they learn valuable life skills for when they have their own households (I am teaching them to cook and when they are older will expect them to be responsible for a family meal a week each), part is a simple measure of respect for the person who is helping them.  This may seem like a normal basic minimum but you would be shocked at how many people this is not normal for.  

All this is by way of saying that expats should not feel bad about hiring help in the home, as long as they treat people the way they would hope their own children would be treated in a similar job (as an Au Pair for example).  Most people who work as household help take pride in their job and the fact that they are supporting their family.  My top tips are as follows:
  • Not every person is a fit, as with all jobs think about a probationary period to make sure you work well together. 
  • Check references, equally give a fair reference when you leave. 
  • Discuss what duties are expected and set out any extras (ie Babysitting) that is paid extra.
  • Don’t be afraid to say if you don’t like the way something is done but do explain how you would prefer it.
  • Make sure that you pay a fair salary, check what the market rate is but if you think it is too low for the work done then pay more. 
  • Consider a bonus for New Year or at key religious festivals, save up an end of term lump sum so that they have funds to tide them over while they find another position.
  • Give time off generously, particularly for bereavement and medical issues.
  • If someone is live out consider providing a transport allowance so that the people working for you are not taking dangerous routes home.    
  • Think about what you are asking people to do, would you be happy to do it? 
  • Help out where appropriate, ie big end of posting spring cleans.
  • Ensure that people have adequate breaks during the day and make food, hot drinks and water fully and freely available.
  • Make sure your children do not become entitled. 
A final note of warning, make sure that while bending over backwards to ensure that you are not an unscrupulous employer, that you are not saddled with an employee that is taking advantage.  Ask for evidence of medical treatment  (or other support) you have agreed to pay for (a kind hearted friend in Kazakhstan was stung for a lot of money this way).

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

Ersatz Expat