Urban Vignettes

Observations of Urban Life in the City



Nov '13 - Dec '18

  • Back from La-La Land –and Other Urban Adventures

    By bragabond
    Dec 4, '18 3:27 PM EST

    Marhaba! So, back to Saudi Arabia I went, another job offer too good to pass, and another experience in solitude, isolation, loneliness, frustration and patience. A lot of patience…

    Just like my first job in the Kingdom, this time working for a European firm which was more organized; I was advised on my first day that since my iqama -Saudi work resident card- was not yet issued, I should just make sure to tell whomever asked that I was a Za’ir (a “visitor”).

    I later found out that luckily my new employer treated their employees best of the bunch of foreign firms involved in our project and acted more professionally towards us expat employees; when you are stranded (even if by choice and prospects of an attractive salary) in a country that does not have the rules of urbanity and behaviour that we take for granted in the Western world, it's a relief if your employer does provide you with a minimum of creature comforts, no?

    But I digress; a new job and a new set of rules, client’s caprices, and colleagues –engineers mostly, not a very creative bunch and a not so creative environment, a great job with the budget to match. I was in charge of design review (but under a client that made decisions on a whim, serious decisions made purely by emotion, likes or dislikes…not a very conducive nor a professionally-though out process…). Ass-kissing is required to survive their business ways, specially working with “authorities” such as our client, and I am not good at that; ah, C’est la vie!  The Saudi way, they say. Needles to say, this proved to be a problem over and over...

    So, I found myself working in a large campus and with no proper facilities, certainly not a decent restaurant nearby, only a “cafeteria” where we took our lunch. I hated that place; the food, the environment that resembled a military canteen and which I came to realize was a repetition of a high school lunch room; who do you sat at lunch with, which table you were a regular of told volumes about your standing in the project, as I found out. Oddly enough I ended up in a most coveted table; two colleagues and I were summoned by our boss to join him and march to have lunch together most days, forcing us by default to sit together -even if we saw someone else we would have enjoyed having lunch with- then, our boss would proceed to tell stories, demand everyone’s attention and gossip about colleagues at other tables. If any of us dared to tell a story of our own he would jump and demand “What? Who? When? Oh, I knew that”, etc. “Mean Girls” comes to mind…. I mostly tried to avoid it, getting a vending machine sandwich, buying lunch if I went to do a site visit in the morning or even brought my own lunch sometimes which allowed me to excuse myself (“Oh, you’re such an American, a sandwich for lunch? Imagine…!”). So, I’d try to eat at my desk, and catch up with work -prompting some people to inquire “what happened? I didn’t see you at your lunch table today…?”. Cue to roll my eyes…

    I did meet some nice people; colleagues that I genuinely respected and enjoyed working with, but had to deal with a lot bull… during our very long workdays. When the weekend finally came, you're reminded have nothing, nothing at all to do or places to go… Thank God for my gym and the time I spent there running, swimming, boxing; “got to get that frustration out, mate!” re-sounding in my mind. 

    This time tough I actually made a friend –and someone I didn’t work with thankfully. 

    Embassy events and parties are not only popular but coveted events, so one must be in one’s embassy list, or better yet on especially popular embassies such as the French, British, German, Dutch or Belgium embassies which host concerts, parties and during a Football World Cup season, game nights with food and drinks. Drinks! Some of these are paid events and thus sell out fast as remember: alcoholic drinks and (for straight men) the opportunity to meet and mingle with the opposite sex are very, very, very, very rare. 

    Unfortunately for us Americans, our embassy sucks at that; they don’t have any interesting events during the year (except for a Town Hall event where only coffee and cake is served). Not even when an American president visits do they have a reception for the socially-starved American community.

    So it was at one such event that I met another guy who, like me was in need of some intellectual stimulation and conversation. We met by Uber. Or rather, by my Uber driver not showing up to pick me up (that in itself is material for a whole new blog entry!), so we were both standing outside the French embassy waiting, his Careem driver (another local app service) did arrive and seeing me frustrated standing there by myself he asked me where was I going and, would I share his ride? I delightedly accepted, we rode together, chatted, found out we lived in the same general area, went to the same gym, and we were both starved for social and cultural interaction. We exchange business cards and mobile numbers.

    I am grateful for this new friendship; we did actually hit-it-off and went out regularly for a coffee, or dinner after a workout and a swim. A European expat, he is a very decent man full of curiosity, a trait I share and respect; we discovered we have other things in common: an interest in books, travel, the outdoors, sustainability and the environment. 

    Now, I had a playmate. It sounds funny for a grownup man to say that, but when you live and work in an environment that is not conducive to any proper healthy, social interaction you need to create outlets to keep your sanity. Making a friend in this frustrating place gave me a little sense of normalcy I so needed, not being able to have my own mate -my husband!- with me nor even for a visit was painful enough (homosexuality in Saudi being forbidden meant that even though we are married, my husband couldn’t visit me) and of course, I was officially not gay by default -as the issue is never discussed, or asked of you; as my employers said: "we have no problem with your being gay, but do not tell anyone because if you do then we cannot be responsible for your safety." And so, when you don’t take your family with you, you are regarded as another bachelor. Nobody asks questions. 

    Our friendship helped to make my life more normal and we had some fun at times while trying to navigate this crazy city. Which of course meant that as Westerners we ran into frustrating and limiting laws constantly: during Ramadan we went to the National Museum one afternoon just to find it closed. It only opens at 9PM (??) AND, only for families not bachelors we were told...oy, vey! At least they let us walk around the gardens surrounding the museum and -this being Ramadan- secretly taking sips of our hidden water bottles. 

    I found out through a (married) colleague that there was a large park in the middle of the city we have not heard of, you can go and have a picnic or just walk around I was told. So I checked their website; "250,000 m2 of park (how could have we missed that? Answer: the park surrounded by a huge, tall wall…) and for a breath of fresh air or a stroll visit Salam Park” continued the website; “a large green space surrounding a huge man-made lake”.  So, the following weekend we went down there excited about a walk in the park, carrying books and looking forward to an outdoors relaxing time… Got to the park’s gate and the security guards jumped; “sorry, no men allowed” they said. Excuse me, I said? I checked your website and it says “All are welcomed”? Just families’ sir, was the answer. No bachelors allowed…. 

    Frustrated we left and as consolation prize took a short walk to check the architecture of the Courts Plaza complex, which ironically is near the infamous “Chop-Chop Square", a name that makes reference to the beheadings that apparently still take place there when say, a man is found to be a criminal, a thief or homosexual...  

    Za’ir back in La-la Land I was.


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  • Marhaba!

    By bragabond
    Nov 21, '18 8:45 AM EST

    Well, back from KSA (and this time I trust for good).Will be updating shortly and share here my experiences... View full entry

  • Living in La-La-Land...or Escape from the (un) Magic Kingdom

    By bragabond
    Jul 29, '14 12:31 PM EST

    Nothing I was told or that I've research could've prepare me for a real taste of Saudi Arabia. But, hey I am an adventurous urbanist, a curious observer,  I've left my dear New York craziness for a great job in the outskirts of Washington, DC which was already very daring for a New Yorker, then... View full entry

  • Lisbon, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins

    By bragabond
    Nov 20, '13 7:03 AM EST

    Lisbon, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins By Lennie Araujo. Sometimes nicknamed Rainha do Mar (Queen of the Sea), Lisbon is intrinsically connected to water. It lies in the western Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and Río Tejo (Tagus River). Its location on the river provided... View full entry

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