Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bratislava (Part 1 of our trip)

An overview of the city, taken from the castle

Michael's Gate, The Old Town

I love first impressions of a place. It's one of my favourite parts of travel. You can read a guidebook, plan your route, look at photos, but first impressions will always surprise. Like when we spent a week in London en route to Canada this summer. The smell of blooming lilacs astonished our desert-weary senses at every stop the train made. And our first morning, my eyes pricked with tears when we were greeted with the lovely sounds of an operatic street performance as we entered Camden Market. The senses simply take these experiences in, leaving lasting impressions.

But Bratislava was different. The surprise did not come in the form of a startling first impression. Instead, the surprise came in how the city welcomed me, enveloping me in a warmth I did not expect, in a strong sense of home. I simply felt that I belonged. It did not matter that I hadn't been for twenty years... that the streets and buildings were barely recognizable to me. Everything was familiar and inviting. It simply made sense. When I entered restaurants, I knew exactly what I wanted to order. And bakeries were the same. Yes, I will have that poppy seed cake. Why would I want to order anything else? And the beer... the Slovak beer very clearly spoke my name.

There was a peace and a calm I felt in the streets. Every day all I wanted to do was walk the same streets again and again, mingling with street cars and people who felt familiar. Just walk the streets my parents used to, all those years ago.

Jeff had a special fondness for the street cars.

I loved the food, the people whose sense of fashion I could not understand, the tree-lined streets and pedestrian zones. There was a quiet to this capital city that surprised me. On our last day, I stole away an hour by myself and walked down our street, Obchodna, the same street my father used to walk on his way home from work. I was filled with melancholy as I wondered what life was like for my parents back then, and what life would have been like for me if they had stayed. I sat on a bench and listened as a lone violinist played tunes I grew up listening to. And I felt sadness at having to go, even though I knew it was not my place to stay.

Quiet morning on Obchodna, standing near the entrance to our apartment, with Michael's Gate in the distance.

Obchodna at night. Shops & restaurants galore!

The Slovak Pub on Obchodna. Great traditional food. Highly recommended.

The main square in the Old Town

Since returning, friends have asked if I would recommend traveling to Slovakia. I start by warning them I am incredibly biased, but then I say a loud, resounding, "YES!" But truly, it is a beautiful country. And Bratislava is a beautiful capital. I recommend staying by the Old Town, where you are surrounded by gorgeous buildings and cobblestone streets, with the Danube just a short walk away. In fact, stay where we stayed... in one of Monika's apartments. Obchodna is a fantastic location, just 100 metres or so away from Michael's Gate, and with every kind of shop/cafe/restaurant you may need just outside your door. Oh, and make sure you get to my cousin Ivan's pub, Zbrojnos. It is literally right next to Michael's gate. Say hi to Ivan ... and have a Zlaty Bazant for me!

Ivan's pub

Kaiya helping Ivan set up for a concert

The building is over 700 years old!

Bratislava also has plenty of modern luxuries. There are two large shopping malls that were walking distance from where we were staying. I recommend Eurovea, which is beautifully situated on the Danube. Skip the shopping and hang out at one of the restaurants overlooking the river. Or just walk along the river and enjoy the massive playground. That's what we did! Aupark is another, older, shopping mall. It also has a massive outdoor playground and borders Sad Janka Krala, Central Europe's oldest public park.

While there is more I could say (ya, haven't even mentioned the castle), I'll let Jeff's photos say the rest. We're a team that way. ;)

Plenty of statues for everyone to pose with

St. Martin's cathedral

The food was a big hit

As were the fall leaves

And the parks

Walking to the castle our first morning

Castles are even more fun when they come with playgrounds!

And fun places to pose

At night, standing guard over the city

The opera house

In the main square

And Michael's gate, one last time

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Aaaaaaand... We're Back

"How many stars can you see in the sky?"
"I see one over there. Oh, there's another..... and there's one more."
Three. We counted three stars in the hazy, light-polluted night sky.
"Okay, girls. Your cheeks are flushing too much. We're going to have to get out of the pool soon. We'll be able to swim longer in a few weeks, when the temperatures start cooling down."

We had been back in Qatar for just a few days. Less than a week earlier, we had been staying at my sister's in Canada, where each night we would sit outside in front of a campfire, leaning back, craning our necks to see hundreds, thousands of stars, even shooting stars. And the pool? It had been a cool summer, and the pool was far too cold for wimps like me. Instead of flushed cheeks, we had been watching for goose-bumpy skin and blue lips. "Time to get out... you need to get yourself warmed up."

The contrasts between our two homes never fail to amaze me.

And yet, for the first time, I don't feel the lump in my throat and the pit in my stomach as we return to our lives here in Qatar. Year 4. Yes, we had another fantastic, fun-filled summer back in Canada, but for the first time, a part of me felt eager to get back to home. Home's a funny concept when you're an expat. Where are you from? Where do you live? Where are you headed? This summer I longed for home, unsure exactly of where that was. But for now it's here, and yes, strangely, I am very glad to be back.

We are full of optimism this year. Gone is the awkward stage of settling in. Our systems are in place. Kaiya is in her third year at Compass, Izzy is taken care of by our nanny. We know our way around town, the places to avoid during high times of traffic, the places of escape when we need to escape. We have cars, a home full of homey-ness, friends to call on when we're in need.

Gone too is the long, ugly stage of culture shock we endured. A stage that was made trickier with the addition of post-partum and heavy back-to-work blues last year. Anxiety here was far too high for far too long.

We feel relaxed, clear, focused on our goals. Incredibly thankful for the friends we have made here; friends who help make life feel so full. It's been so great to reconnect.

Year 4. I don't consider myself a "long-timer," especially when compared to folks I know from the college who have been working here far, far longer than I, but often now when I meet fresh-faced newbies, they grow wide-eyed when I tell them it's year 4. "Wow... you've been here so long...." I promise you folks, all of you dealing with the many headaches, frustrations, and anxieties that come with living abroad, and that particularly come with living here... it does get better. Meet good people, be honest in the struggle, keep your goals in mind, and get regular breaks. At some point you too will "cross that line" and it will somehow, magically become better.

But if it doesn't.... be honest in the struggle and know when to cut and run! It ain't for everyone. And while I may sound like a super-chilled Pollyanna, let's just say that it's much easier to be in Year 4 of a five-year plan than it was to be in Year 3. Somethin' about that hump year....

And so here we go! I am hoping to write a little more often again, but I'm a full-time working momma... who is also planning on taking an online course this year. The intentions are good, but the actual results may be a bit wanting. :p

Here's to a good year!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thank you.

In another hour, we'll be off. Jeff is sealing up the last bag, baby is napping, elder sister is watching the first of many hours of TV. Soon we'll be embarking on our 24-or-so hours of travel. Thankfully, we all slept well last night. Here's hoping we all catch a few zzzs on the plane, too.

It was a different summer this time around. Many of our conversations revolved around next steps, even if those steps might yet be two years away. I found it harder to settle in this summer and found myself a little more anxious and a little less excited. Tired of the transient nature of our lives.

And yet, it was still another fabulous summer full of good conversation, lots of loving, and gorgeous expanses of sweet nature. And any remaining angst I may have been carrying slipped away during our last two weeks spent here:

Days spent jumping on the trampoline, walking through the green, green grass, and lounging under the trees while the kids sat in the swing and sandbox. And evenings spent in the hot tub and around the fire, talking about everything and nothing with those we love. We return to Qatar with clothes smelling like smokey campfire... one of my favourite summer smells!

Thank you to family and friends who made the summer memorable. It's never long enough, is it? But I think we made it good. We'll see you in ten months.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Souq Waqif through Photos

I haven't got a lot in me tonight. For various reasons, I've come a bit to the end of myself, and I'm looking very much forward to a week of lessened work, followed by a week off. A week in which a good friend from Canada will be visiting, and we'll be spoiled with treats and love from home.

This past week, in celebration of Jeff's week off and my last day of winter term classes, we took a night to ourselves at the souq. So while I may be short on words tonight, I'll more than make up for it with Jeff's beautiful photos.
Food being sold near the carpark

Always so many bright and colourful dresses and fabrics

A hamali carting away someone's goods


Policemen on their horses

A glimpse of the main drag

A construction working renovating one of the main restaurants

We meandered around, looking for the Italian restaurant.

Inside the Souq Waqif Art Center

By far my favourite photo of the night

An artist working just outside the Souq Waqif Art Center

A woman applying traditional henna

A man repairing watches

Women selling all manner of goods

And finally, a tip: if you want a taste of amazing, authentic Italian food, head straight over to La Dolce Vita. It's run by an Italian family, and we had the pleasure of meeting the mom and pop who run the place this visit. You'll have to look for it, as it's tucked in behind the Souq Waqif Art Gallery. It's more than worth it. Make sure you save room for some gelato for dessert. We tried the chocolate and sour cherry, and they were both amazing.

That's all for tonight. Good night and good weekend to you all!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Singing Sand Dunes ... Al Kharrara

A couple of weeks ago, when we were at the QF clubhouse, a woman from New Zealand approached me and excitedly told me she had found our blog while looking into moving to Qatar about a year and a half ago. She even had a favourite post. And she even had passed on our blog to a friend of hers, who was also now living in Qatar. For 5 minutes I felt like a rock star. And I told myself I would write more often, because -YAY - there are people (other than my family) out there reading, and I might actually be making a difference, or informing them... or something.

And then I just went on with my week.

Because life's been like that for the past few months. We've just had our heads down. We've just been working. And what precious little energy we have had left has been going into our girls, and the occasional email home. Because work and children are a lot more do-able when you go to bed every night at 9. Not very exciting or glamorous, no, but definitely less headache-inducing.

But there comes a time to get out of the rut and - most definitely - to get out of Doha. So this weekend, we found ourselves going back to a favourite place... the Singing Sand Dunes.

Each time we go, we are offered a new experience. This time our friend Liz came along with us (and took many of these wonderful pictures). At first, we were disappointed to find our usual spot strewn with litter. So we decided to check out the dune "next door"... much higher than our usual spot. It ended up being a good choice. While us girls started the steep climb up, Jeff decided to check out the sand down below, deciding whether he would dare to drive up part way.

We watched as he tested the sand with the Pathfinder, circling on and then off, on and then off again. I started to think he wasn't going to do it when I noticed this Landcruiser on the dune above us. It looked as though father and son were watching Jeff, and we waited, wondering what they might do. Sure enough, after a few minutes they drove down to Jeff, hopping out of their vehicle to speak with him, thumping their fists on his tires to guess at their pressure. "Twenty, good. Thirty, okay." He knelt down to release some pressure from the back tires. And then, with hand gestures indicating that Jeff should follow, father and son hopped back into the Landcruiser, and gunned it up the dune, with Jeff close behind. At the top, the father hopped back out, indicating to Jeff that he should park facing down the dune, to avoid getting stuck later.

Our first dune-bashing lesson, Qatari-style. Love it.

The family got out of their Landcruiser and we all said "Salaam," with the children handing us bags of chips and drinks. Without knowing it, this family was guiding me through my latest bout of culture shock, helping me remember the kindness and desert hospitality of the Qatari people.

We picnicked in the shade of our truck. And we hiked up the rest of the dune, huffing and puffing, and yes, sliding all the way down just to walk back up. We watched our desert "hosts" as they too enjoyed the dune, driving up and down, and getting out to admire the view and run down, too.

Baby Izzy was not fond of the sand and was happiest either on daddy's shoulders...

... or sitting on the mat playing and eating.

Kaiya, however, was once again fully in her element. One giant sandbox, I tell you. And she loved showing off the dunes to our guest, Simon, her class' teddy bear.

Funny enough, at one point, our hosts got their own Landcruiser stuck, giving us another chance to see desert culture in action. Within a few minutes, three men from another party far off at another dune had joined Jeff to help the family extract their vehicle. They used the wood we had planned to use for our fire to dig out all four wheels. And then they all pushed and lifted, till the vehicle was free. The picture below is Jeff in the aftermath. You could say he was a little tired. Liz likes to call this picture "Jeff of Arabia."

We stayed till sunset, enjoying the gorgeous views, and the way the sand gained a pinkish glow in the setting sun. Then, realizing we were the last ones left, we gunned it back down the dune, all of us nervously praying we wouldn't get stuck while Izzy squealed and flapped her arms in joy.

I'm still carrying the happiness of that desert encounter with me today. Truly, to know this country and its people, you really do have to get the heck out of Doha and head for the dunes. I'm glad we did.