October 31, 2009

Mmmmm, French Fries

I splurged on dinner tonight.

Usually, I try to make something to bring in to work, but I'm not often successful. Paul eats sandwiches, but the lunch meat here is a bit, uh, processed for me. The turkey is smoked and of course there's no ham. In the lobby of our office building is a Gloria Jean's coffee kiosk. They also sell salads and I get one about every other day. The lettuce in the grocery is very sad looking, and I figure it's a good way to get vegetables with some regularity. So that takes care of lunch, but by dinner time I'm hungry again and have usually gone through my supply of "healthy" snacks: a yogurt or some grapes or some pretzels.

Everyone knows that newspaper editors eat badly at work -- it's the nature of the beast. When you work from 2-10 -- spanning lunch and dinner without a break -- your options are few.

Here at the paper someone often will place a take-out order, and Chinese seems to be especially popular. This surprises me. In a typical week I've seen people here order Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese. I can't understand why they're skipping all the good stuff! I was very happy last week when someone opted for Indian at my not-so-subtle suggestion: "Is there a good Indian place around here?"

Tonight I went to the tiny falafel shop about a hundred yards away. It has one tiny table and a guy behind the counter. There are schwarma spits in an adjacent window. It's a zillion degrees in the little place, and the kitchen is in the storefront next door. The counter guy opens a little pass door to communicate with them. He puts a bowl in and they put stuff in the bowl.

I'd been there before, and there was a bit of deja vu to Hong Kong when I looked at the menu. Seventeen items on the English side and 34 on the Arabic side. I've seen enough middle eastern food to know that "not for you" is probably not gonna be a problem. And I wonder what those extras are. (It can't be the chicken livers, which I swear I will get one time, because those are on the English menu).

I ordered an Arabic mix falafel. The regular falafel is mashed into a split pita, with some tahini and a bit of cucumber/tomato mix. It costs 3 dirhams, or 82 cents. Mine was much fancier and costs a whopping 9 dirhams -- $2.45. To make an Arabic mix falafel, you use half a pita, smash in some falafel, put on some eggplant slices, four french fries, the tahini and cucumber and what looks like coleslaw. Then you wrap the whole thing in some sort of thin Arabic bread like a burrito and put it on the panini grill so it melds together.

Back to the french fries, though. I love french fries. Especially French ones but also the kind I get at the mid-east style kabob places in Paris. I don't know why they're so good -- I know they aren't cooked in bacon grease, which isn't halal. But why would they be so much better than U.S. french fries? Anyway, french fries. I wanted some. So I asked the guy behind the counter, who really doesn't speak English, for french fries. Do you have french fries I said. Soda, he asked? French fries, I said. Falafel he asked? French fries. Then another guy popped his head in and said French! to the guy behind the counter, who still didn't get it. I gave up. I saw the guy put them on my sandwich, so I'm pretty sure they have them. If they were on the menu list (or at least the English menu list) I could point to them. But for now, no french fries.

Instead, the guy picked up a Kleenex, used it to grab a falafel ball, and handed it to me while I waited. It was warm and tasty. I appreciated the gesture.

And now I'm trying to find out how to say "french fries" in Arabic.

October 29, 2009

All of Life is Logistics

It took me 40 minutes to get to work today, and I live just 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the office: 20 minutes to get a taxi and 20 minutes more to negotiate through traffic.

We are trying to decide where to live, and this certainly is a factor.
On Tuesday evening, I went to look at two different villas -- my first foray into house hunting. They both were large and appealing and relatively affordable, traits I'm led to believe are rare here. But they were also just off the island of Abu Dhabi, in an area imaginatively called "Between the Bridges." Between the bridges also means "pretty darn far from anything."

What makes that particular area appealing for most expatriates is its residential feeling. The neighborhoods are desert suburbs, with three-story villas lining each brand-new road. But you have to have a car to live here, and that's something Paul and I agree on: Neither of us wants to drive in this city or even in this country.

Every day is like Mr Toad's Wild Ride, and I can't figure out why people are such bad drivers here. Traffic-related deaths in the UAE are behind only Afghanistan and Iraq, and alongside Niger and Angola. That is, it is probably the most-developed country with the worst traffic accidents.

Living in the "suburbs" can make for a nice quality of life, but as in California, if you spend all your time on the road, then that quality is already diminished. The agent said we could arrange for a regular driver to take us to work, but what about groceries and errands? Even walking a few hundred meters (which I find to be a conservative guess) is not an option in this heat.

We have also ruled out Dubai. The neighboring emirate has a lot going for it. It has a thriving nightlife and lots of activities. Its beaches are lovely and the rents are much more affordable. But it's a 90-minute drive away. No dice.

So I'm starting my search. I don't know exactly what I'm looking for, only what I'm not. I would like to be near work and near a taxi stand. I would like a clean neighborhood without too much traffic. I would love a nearby park. An ocean view is probably out of my price range, but I did see an ad that looked too good to be true: 1 bedroom, 900 sq feet, with a sea view, near a good mall and affordable. I can only guess what's wrong with it. I'll surely call and see.

I had thought we had plenty of time to look since our temporary housing (a one-bedroom hotel room of about 650 sq feet) is good for two months. But others have suggested it will take nearly a month to do the paperwork, and if getting a bank account has been any indication (yes, non sequitur) they are all right. So I've looked a bit online, and made some notes. Colleagues are passing along tips about neighborhoods ad agents.

Let the search begin.

October 28, 2009

Two Weeks In ...

So I'm here in the middle of the desert, trying to get a handle on this place. A poor man's Las Vegas? Not really, because we're sitting on a ton of oil. A less-polished Las Vegas? In many ways yes, although the hotels here are gorgeous and the quality of the restaurants there is good. There is definitely not the same aspect of excess and the sin part of it isn't as obvious. We who drink alcohol, for example, are hidden away in the Westernized hotels or private homes. The conspicuous consumption exists; but it's hidden away behind tall walls and black abayas.

It is difficult to describe a city that is at once both cosmopolitan and nearly third world. There are lovely buildings and gardens, there is a sense of business in the air. But there are also men -- workers -- loitering everywhere, laying on the grass, trying to find some shade. Internet access is expensive and difficult to get. The police are well-hidden in a police state.

There is no overt censorship, for example, but self-censorship works nearly as well. The concept of writing a blog while working for the paper is a touchy one. I know we are not supposed to have them without prior approval. Because I am read almost entirely by close friends and family, whose numbers likely do not reach triple digits, I am continuing to post. If I get banned, I'll simply send out mass e-mails to those who are interested. But in the meanwhile, I am careful about what I write and I do not post from work.

I don't love it here; but I don't hate it either. After two weeks -- admittedly a very short time -- I'm at best ambivalent. I like my job and I like the people I work with. I'm keen to earn a good salary. But I feel constrained by the climate and the culture. I dress more modestly than I ever have, yet I'm constantly aware of being stared at. It isn't just warm here, it's hot. Still-in-the-90s hot. Hot as in "I'll just stay inside until it's time to go to work, thank you" hot. As a result, I'm bored. No Internet at home yet (we need residence visas); bad cable; almost caught up on books, which I am rationing. On workdays, it's less of an issue. I work 2-10 and I sleep late. The idea of even venturing a few blocks to try to find a yoga class is daunting. It's not easy to walk here or to drive here. Cabs are cheap, but not always plentiful (like around prayer time; many cabs are driven by devout Pakistanis). Nothing quite like standing in the hot sun with long sleeves or a sweater hoping to catch a taxi so i can go somewhere to walk.

I haven't seen the gulf/sea/bay -- whatever it is -- in daylight hours. It's been too hot to go anywhere and take pictures. We have had some lovely night-time adventures. We went for drinks last week at The Brauhaus, a German (obviously) bar in the luxury Beach Rotana hotel that was celebrating Oktoberfest. We went with colleagues and sat on the outdoor patio. There was a light breeze which mad the 80-plus degree temperatures feel quite pleasant. Paul remarked that it felt like a Club Med: Lots of well-to-do foreigners in an exotic location. I believe the feeling passed fairly quickly.

We had a fabulous meal at the same hotel, in a restaurant called Finz that stood on stilts in the water. We had a table overlooking the sand and water, and the food was very good. We started with rolls shaped like starfish and made with seaweed, and more made with squid ink and sea salt. They came with three dips: butter, crab butter and seaweed-labnah. (And speaking of butter, we had a mustard-butter mix at The Brauhaus that was really interesting).

My rambling point, and I do have one, is that I am neither content nor discontent here. But I do feel a bit in exile. I suppose that's to be expected. "They" say it takes a year to get comfortable. A year!! And in the recesses of my bad memory, I forget how I struggled to adapt in Paris, which now seems like a second home. (And my mother points out I struggled to adapt in Santa Barbara and Missouri ...) The trick is to find our niche here. To make a home as best we can and to work around the tricky things rather than trying to fight through them.

Wish us luck.