Dust storm leaves sand all over the furniture

My parents are visiting at the moment, mainly to see the grandchildren, but also because it’s cold in the UK and they fancied a week of sunshine.

Okay, no laughing at the back!

We ventured out at the weekend, into the giant dust-ball that’s engulfed the country – otherwise known as a sandstorm. It billowed and swirled for two days straight, chucking sand everywhere, and filling the sky with a thick, fog-like dust; all weekend the daylight was tinged with yellow and stretched long and thin.

Hitting the UAE from Saudi Arabia, the sandstorm settled in like slow blindness, sucking the colour from the sky, the sun (you could even look straight at it) and the cars on the road. Driving became hazardous as the visibility dropped, and stepping outside meant sand blowing into your hair, mouth, eyes and ears – the blustery conditions really did give a new meaning to the term ‘yukky weather’, with more sand yet to come.

I was having visions of being swallowed up by the desert, while innocently on our way to watch Shaun the Sheep, and could see the headline in my mind: ‘Expats vanish in Barsha triangle’.

And, it’s when these sandstorms hit that you realise just how poorly sealed our houses are. This photo was taken by my lovely neighbour B, inside her villa! Good luck with the clean-up everyone. :-)

My desk where I blog is by the window and was also covered in a thin layer of sand!

My desk where I blog is by the window and was also covered in a thin layer of sand … clogged up sinuses, anyone?

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So You Want to Write a Blog?

“First, if you could ask the person next to you what they’d never blog about, what they’d love to blog about, and what they hope to learn today – then we’ll go round the room and everyone can introduce their neighbour.”

A ripple of nervousness spread from the overhead projector and all the way round the tables. “Now you know how we feel,” said a smiling Kirsty Rice, co-founder of Blogging ME, the first blogging agency of its kind in the Middle East.

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Kirsty shares her blogging wisdom

I was attending Blogging ME’s inaugural conference in Doha, Qatar, and found myself among a receptive audience of writers, bloggers and wannabe bloggers, gathered at the city’s fabulous Four Seasons hotel.

As we introduced ourselves, little did we know that later that afternoon we’d all don personalised, white dressing gowns – gifted to us by the hotel – and jump into bed together. Not just any old bed, but the very bed that David Beckham recently slept in when he stayed at the Four Seasons, in one of their regally furnished, villa-sized state suites.

Kirsty, the writer behind the spectacularly successful expat blog 4 Kids, 20 Suitcases and a Beagle, and co-host Sarah Derrig, the author of the lovely Lady Sadie’s Emporium, needn’t have felt nervous. Everyone was keen to hear what they had to say, and the rest was taken care of by the Four Seasons, which laid on an amazing spread of food, followed by a sundown reception with champagne and chefs at live cooking stations. Bubbles and bloggers, it turns out, are a great combination.

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The Four Seasons had thought of everything

“A new blog is started every minute,” Kirsty told us. “From the online diaries of the 90s to the political blogs of the 2000s and the launch of wordpress in 2003, people have been sharing online for two-and-a-half decades.

“Now, there are personal blogs, business blogs and blogs covering fashion, food and photography, to name just a few. There are also niches within niches, such as children fleeing the nest. After about two years, I found that expat life was my niche.”

Informative sessions on all aspects of blogging followed, from choosing a platform (wordpress, Blogger or Squarespace?) to blog stats and widgets. “From Google Analytics, I know that there’s a lady in Russia who reads my blog every single day,” said Sarah.

Blogging ME: Coming soon to Dubai, Kuwait and Oman!

Blogging ME: Coming soon to Dubai, Kuwait and Oman!

We learnt about logos, fonts and colours (choose wisely: red is aggressive; orange less so; blue denotes authority; and green is associated with wellness). It hadn’t occurred to me before, but the wrong font is apparently a buzz-kill. Sarah then revealed her photography tricks, including how to do pretty – while we all got busy instagraming under the table. The prize for the best picture – a weekend at the Four Seasons!

There was tonnes more I could write about, but I don’t want to give too much away about the wonderful afternoon – as the exciting news for any Middle East bloggers reading this is that Blogging ME has plans to expand into Dubai, Oman and Kuwait. I highly recommend subscribing here to receive Blogging ME’s regular updates!

Over to Kirsty for the last word: “Just 20 minutes of creative writing a day is wonderfully therapeutic. As I told my teen, if you get it out on the page, how you feel becomes much clearer.”

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ACBON Day (and a hot-under-the collar mum)

Yesterday was ACBON Day. Not my favourite day in Dubai: Air conditioning back on day. And it seems to have arrived earlier this year.

It also coincided with what must surely be the best day in the school year: International Day, the day when everyone is proud to share their culture and traditions with their friends, and mums turn up in bosom-revealing costumes (the European ones, at least).

The children go to school wearing the national colours or traditional dress of their home country, then in the afternoon there’s a huge and colourful, cosmopolitan fair on the playing field.

Hello world!

Hello world!

Some 50 countries were represented out of the 85+ nationalities at the school, and browsing the stalls is always a culinary adventure: yesterday you could nibble on kimchi (from South Korea), Brazilian BBQ meat, a Victoria sponge cake (British), German Halal beer, Spanish paella and so much more, while admiring the Kiwi Haka dance and other performances from all around the world. There was a parade too, and the children had all painted flags that were strung up as décor.

It’s a wonderful afternoon – and you’d think all the parents would agree.

Apparently not so.

She was the first woman I met at the start of my stint selling coupons, for drinks and rides (and by rides, I mean the bouncy castle and slide. The amazing food was all provided by the mums, and was free).

“I want a dirham back,” she demanded. A shadow darkened her face. I couldn’t quite understand why she was so annoyed. Her forehead furrowed, and her eyebrows had hooded over eyes that blazed with anger.

Then her friend came over and wanted 20dhs back (the exchange rate, for those not in the UAE, makes a dirham worth about 18p and 20dhs about £3.50).

Ladies, let it go, I’m thinking. A dirham, really? The whole point of the fair is it’s a fund-raiser for the school, which presumably your children attend.

I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt (in Dubai, if you don’t understand someone’s behaviour, it’s always worth reminding yourself that their background is probably very different from your own – ie, they could be from war-torn Syria, or, if it’s a workman botching something in your home, he’s probably from a poverty-stricken village in rural Bangladesh).

But, no, it didn’t work. Their bling suggested otherwise, and they weren’t polite at all.

I’m looking around at all the hard, hard work so many parents had put into the afternoon – the cooking, baking, decorating, signage, assembling stalls, manning stalls for four hours.

While my co-coupon seller disappeared to ask if we could give refunds, I found myself bristling, then saying, “You know, everyone’s just volunteering here – the money all goes to the school.”

YOUR CHILD … YOUR CHILDREN … WILL BENEFIT, from things like iPads in the classrooms, and playground equipment. Except I didn’t actually say that.

“Aha,” she snapped back. “It goes to the parents.”

And I presume she meant the parents’ committee who’d organised everything – and I wondered, what on earth does she think they’re going to do with the funds?

Spend it all on gin?

Posted in Children, Dubai, Expat, Family, Parenting, School, UAE | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Roll up! Roll up! To the Grand Tombola

“You don’t know what a tombola is, do you?” I was perhaps being a little unfair when I told DH about the crazily popular stall I’d been assigned to for the school’s Spring Fair. DH is American, and a tombola is a type of raffle well known in the UK.

“A Stromboli?” He raised an eyebrow at me.

I shook my head and raised an eyebrow back. His computer screen was reflected in the window behind him and I could see he was googling it.

“Ah, a tombola!” he said, cracking an even wider smile as he stopped thinking about pizza turnovers and started imagining glamour girls drawing tickets from a revolving drum. Even the boys were suddenly interested, if only because it dawned on them that if mummy was helping on the stall, they might actually win something.

Our stall reminded me of the conveyor belt of prizes in The Generation Game

Our stall reminded me of the conveyor belt of prizes in The Generation Game

As it turned out, everyone who bought a ticket won a prize. Not that I can remember exactly what the gifts were – they were literally flying from the shelves behind us, into the braying crowd of parents and kids waving cash at us and literally clamouring for a turn.

And it’s amazing how funny people can be when there are decent prizes like power tools, cameras and household goods up for grabs. Among the sea of expectant faces was the woman who looked me in the eye and said in a hushed tone, “I really don’t want that prize – can I draw again?” And the boy who asked for a refund when I handed him a Costa Coffee mug (poor kid, his face did drop; it was his fourth go and there were some great toys).

My frenetic but fun stint on the Grand Tombola was passing, quite literally, in a blur of money and prize exchanges, when suddenly I looked up and my own sons were eagerly proffering 20 dirham notes DH had given them. I feared they’d win the pink pencil case. Or cry if they didn’t get the helicopter, robot, or bow and arrow set.

First go … a voucher for a cup of coffee.

Second go … another white envelope. I gave it to DH to open. I knew there was a voucher of some kind inside.

I could feel the suspense mounting.

“Vitamins!” announced DH. “A hundred dirhams of vitamins!”

Better luck next time, boys! All for a good cause.

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The childless 20-something with no clue about motherhood

We all know her (and many of us, including myself, used to be a bit like her). I came across her last week, sitting at a table right by me in a small café.

I was doing some work. She was chatting to her friend, leaning towards her like a flower bent by a breeze. She was lovely: Jasper Conran top, satin skirt and soft leather boots. She had clear, peachy skin, glossy auburn hair and thin, crescent-shaped eyebrows.

When, just say, she discovers that having a baby is like starting a demanding new job, beginning a passionate love affair and suddenly mixing with people who speak a different language – all at the same time – she might change her tune!

When, just say, she discovers that having a baby is like starting a demanding new job, beginning a passionate love affair and suddenly mixing with people who speak a different language – all at the same time – she might change her tune!

As she talked, she lifted her coffee up with a freshly manicured hand; she had red nails and I could imagine her in a bar, tapping a cigarette over an ashtray, then pursing her pouty lips around it.

I really didn’t want to hear their conversation, but they had a lot to say to each other, loudly. They’d barely finished one sentence before they were tumbling over the next.

They were talking about mothers.

“If you have children, you should look after them yourself,” she said. Fair dues. They’d covered trips to Sri Lanka, plans for the weekend, a new line of makeup; and after exhausting these topics were conspiratorially discussing a mother they’d met who had hired help.

It was the tone that caught my attention: a little bit sneering. I could see the word LAZY captured in a bubble above her head. Why can’t mothers do it ALL themselves?

I was tempted to give her a look (and maybe I did!), but realised that in her childless state, she’d have no clue what it’s like to find yourself far from home, with a new baby barnacled to your boob, a job to go back to, 20km school runs, half as much sleep as you used to get, a household to manage and someone judging whether it’s right or wrong to hire a nanny.

One day, she’ll find out!

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Wordless Wednesday: The class party

Waiting outside school, for the children in Year 5! Only on the Dubai schoolrun

Waiting outside school, for the children in Year 5 … Only on the Dubai school run!

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Get on yer bike – and feed the ducks! Who knew?

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 16.33.34The UAE is not a place you’d associate with cycle paths and Boris Bikes. After all, it’s scary enough on the roads in a great big car, let alone on a bicycle (other than the odd suicidal cyclist, you don’t see people biking to work).

But there’s a cycling community here in Dubai that’s alive and … pedaling furiously, their muscly legs pumping, saddles fitted to their bums, backs arched like a bridge and pointy heads thrust forward as they sail along the emirate’s fantastic car-free cycle tracks (Click here for locations).

Last weekend the Circles family joined them – and when I say join them, we had the boys in tow, so our ride was more about taking in the scenery on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, rather than eating up the miles at speed like the finely-honed biking aficionados do.

(Counting one or two of these fitness fanatics among my friends, I can tell you that they go out at 6 in the morning during the hotter months, when apparently there’s a breeze that makes cycling in summer possible.)

Cycle Safe organises rides on Friday mornings for beginners and advanced cyclists. There's also the popular Bab Al Shams coffee run on Saturday mornings

Cycle Safe organises rides on Friday mornings for beginners and advanced cyclists. There’s also the popular Bab Al Shams coffee run on Saturday mornings

The backstory behind the Al Qudra cycle path is that the Sheikh one day drove past a pack of cycling enthusiasts making their way up Al Qudra road – riding in a peloton to slipstream each other and, I should imagine, keep safe from the crazy motorists. Within a few weeks, work had started on two purpose-built, cycle paths.

Entered under a huge bicycle-themed circular structure, the first track stretches 18km, and the second is a loop of about 50km, passing through sand dunes and by the Bab Al Shams Hotel, where you can always stop for a coffee. If you’re lucky you’ll spot the Arabian Oryx now brave enough to get close to the track.

I’d been wanting to go for a ride for ages, but kept falling at the first hurdle: getting the kids’ bikes in the car. Then, with DH home last weekend, I tentatively suggested he do all the heavy lifting, and off we went, hiring bikes for ourselves at the Trek store, about 20 minutes beyond Arabian Ranches (calling to book is advised).

As I said, we weren’t in it for the long-distance training, so we just pootled along happily. Well, mostly. There was whining (what would a cycle ride with the kids be without it?); and Son1 grumpily announced ‘mission quit’ on the way back, preferring to walk. But it’s really enjoyable out there – the track is smooth, the shifting dunes are beautiful, and, above all, the expansive desert is incredibly tranquil.

Just beware if you take children along. You could almost liken the track to the cycling world’s version of Germany’s autobahn: a cleverly engineered surface; highly efficient, streamlined carbon-light bikes; and no speed limit. I must have yelled myself hoarse telling my zig-zagging youngest to keep to the right.

Near the bike store, you’ll also find this … a duck pond! Filled with all kinds of bird life, from mallards to black swans. Perhaps the UAE desert’s best-kept and most surprising secret. Rumour has it that it’s the start of a safari park.

How, or why, I have no idea, but I love this spot!

How, or why, I have no idea, but I love this spot!

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