Sunday, 20 July 2014

Ramadan in the UAE

As you may, or may not, know, it's Ramadan at the moment. Ramadan is the Islamic holy month where Muslims are required to fast, reflect, spend time with family and give to charity and help others. It is one of the five pillars of Islam that Muslims are required to observe. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and it officially begins when the crescent moon can be seen the naked eye.

So, what does Ramadan mean if you live in the UAE (and much of the Arab world), especially if you are an expat like myself? The first big thing is that Muslims are require to fast during daylight hours - so from sunrise until sunset they can not eat, drink or smoke.

In the UAE, it is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours, so restaurants, cafes and food outlets are closed. There are a small handful of restaurants in Dubai that have been given permission to serve food to non-Muslims, but these restaurants must put up heavy curtains so passers-by can't see in. There are still a few food outlets that will serve food and drinks for takeaway and offer delivery as well.

Most offices and work places will allocate a room where non-Muslims can consume food and drink. Fasting workers (and some non-fasting workers) work shorter hours during Ramadan, usually from 8am-2pm.

Music is generally not allowed during Ramadan and shops and restaurants are not allowed to play loud music. Dubai at present is quite literally very quiet. The nightclubs are shut and the malls are quiet. There are also very few people out and about. People go about their normal day but then spend time with family and friends.

The evenings are a different story. As the sun sets, the streets are empty as people go to prayer and then get ready to break the fast. The breaking of the fast is known as Iftar and it's tradition to break the fast with dates, as Muhammad did. Muslims gather with their friends and family to celebrate this special meal and non-Muslims also partake as the restaurants and hotels offer special Iftar buffets, even fast food outlets offer special Iftar meals. Iftars are a lively celebration. The meal before the sunrise is known as Suhoor.

It is very hot in Dubai at the moment (in the low to mid-40s), it's the long summer school holidays and with the restrictions of Ramadan many expats flee Dubai for their home country. For me, I wanted to experience Ramadan in Dubai. We arrived in Dubai for the last couple of days of Ramadan, but I wanted to experience while living here while it was happening. Yes, it can be a little tricky with the kids and trying to entertain them and yes, the city is extremely quiet. This can also nice. There is definitely a different feel in the city and it's nice to be a part of. Hearing the longer calls to prayer and the Quran readings in the evening. It reinforces the feeling that we live in the Middle East, which can be easy to forget at times.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Secret Slovenia

Just a month ago, we decided to get away for a couple weeks. That seems to be our MO in the ME (see what I did there?). Organising holidays at a moment's notice.

We were guided by flight costs, which during summer are sky high. Anyhoo, we decided some time in Italy would be pretty darn nice, mainly because I found a cheap flight to Milan via Istanbul. After a few changes, a bit more research and chatting to an Italian friend I thought I had everything set. We'd even throw in a few days in Paris and Amsterdam at either end - busy, but exciting.

Then I discovered super cheap flights with Air Serbia and suddenly Croatia and Slovenia came into the picture as we said goodbye to Paris and Amsterdam. I'd heard lots of great things about Croatia, especially the Adriatic coast, but the coast of Croatia wasn't really on the way from Belgrade to Italy. Then I discovered this little tiny country called Slovenia. My mum had been and said it was lovely. Another good friend had said the same thing.

So after a little research I booked in two nights on the way to Italy in Piran. We were floored at how lovely and relaxed and wonderful this little seaside town was. Pure magic. How could Italy compare after this little gem?

Then after we left our wonderful Tuscan abode, we drove to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. Again we were blown away at just how lovely this city is. It's a small capital city with a population of around just 250,000 people. The centre of the city is all pedestrian access only so it's super easy to meander around the picturesque streets, and picturesque they are. Every corner of this city is pretty, there's not one grimy, yucky, grungy part. Every corner you turn is another postcard view. Best of all it's so relaxed. Everyone just meanders and stops for a coffee or a beer or a plate of something. The most laid-back capital I've ever been to.

We spent the few days we had here doing exactly that. Stopping for Slovene sausage or a plate of calamari. Wandering along the river soaking in the pretty. Then stopping again for a coffee. We took a boat ride up the river and felt the chilly summer air on our faces - "It's like winter in Dubai," Lil-lil said.

Skip declared that it was the most beautiful city he'd been to and I had to agree.

The thing I don't understand is how no-one seems to know just how nice this place is. Slovenia is definitely the secret gem of Europe and I'm so happy we got to discover it. We're hoping to get back again soon and discover the northern parts of the country.

Our last morning in Ljubljana the rain poured down and dampened my plans of taking the kids to play outside in the park for the last time for the next few months, the scorching Dubai weather making park play impossible. Instead we packed up the car, sad to be ending our Summer Europe adventure. Before it ended though we had to drive across Slovenia, Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia to catch our midnight flight home. It was my birthday so not too much celebrating, but the previous two weeks made up for it.

We're now back in sweaty old Dubai. Stinking hot and humid and set to hit 48 by the week's end. So for now, I'll look at these lovely picture and remember that cool summer breeze.

All the pretty and all the colours!

The gorgeous centre of Ljubljana.

On the river!

Look! Ducks!

The pedestrian-only streets make everywhere a top place to play. 

What you find on your phone after a five-hour drive.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Ciao, Italia!

We're home now after our European vacation, but I want to reminisce because it really was such a good time.

After falling ill in the Slovenian seaside town of Piran, the girls and I soldiered on. We still ate at the seaside restaurants, walked the tiny lanes and climbed the hill. Before we knew it, it was time to hit the road again. Sadly, we left this gem of a village, hoping we'd return again one day. Slovenia is such an amazing country, I don't understand why it's not more popular.

We drove to Italy, our first stop - Bologna. Why Bologna? Well, the kids love spaghetti Bolognese and the area where Bologna is is famous for its food - balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, parmesan - it all comes Emilia Romagna. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in Bologna the girls and I were really unwell. My face was swollen, my eyes were bright red - every time I looked in the mirror I scared myself, I looked like a vampire. The girls didn't look much better, I was scared that we frighten everyone.

Still, we soldiered on and walked through the centre of Bologna and it's beautiful terraces. We stopped into a trattoria and ordered tagliatelle al ragu (or as we know it, spaghetti bolognese) and a glass of Sangiovese for the adults. We were served by a stereotypical Italian man who made the kids laugh despite their illness. Feeling slightly revived we stumbled back to our hotel for another night of chills and fever.

The next morning we set of for TUSCANY! We rented an apartment in a tiny hilltop village in Chianti. Rolling hills covered in vineyards. Sunlight that kissed the green hills with a certain magic. Every window had an amazing view. As Skip said: "It's just a hill with trees. I've seen lots of hills with trees, but there's something so beautiful about this." The sunlight has to the magic ingredient.

We spent the next six days exploring the hillside towns in Chianti, visiting Florence, Siena, Pisa and San Gimignano and soaking up every minute of Tuscany. We drank Chianti Classico, we ate pasta and prosciutto and honey and olives. Everything tasted so good. Slowly the girls and I got a little better and could enjoy it all a little more. It think the gelato that we indulged in regularly definitely helped with our recovery. We visited villages and castles and marvelled at their beauty and their age. We were amazed at how friendly everyone was.

Those six days in Italy were really magical. It's so different to where we live in Dubai. We made sure that we soaked in every single moment. Our last day we visited San Gimignano again, the guide books laugh at this Tuscan town for being 'touristy' but it's such an exquisitely beautiful spot. The stone towers and the panoramic views were the perfect spot to end our Tuscan visit.

To be continued….

Staring at the view in San Gimignano.

Prosciutto everywhere!

A shop full of delicious things in Greve in Chianti,
with the standard wild boar perched out the front.

Walking the streets of Greve in Chianti under the Tuscan sun. 

The gorgeous view from our apartment, the lights of Florence appeared
every night like magic in the distance. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Knocked for six

I have a very annoying track record, one that really frustrates me. That is getting sick on holiday.

It feels like almost any time I go on holiday I get sick. And not just a little sick, but a lot sick.

There was the time we went to Disney World in Florida and I got measles. Then there was time I went to Expo 88 in Brisbane and got pneumonia. Good times!

I'm now in the most idyllic seaside town you can imagine, with glands swollen to the size of golf balls on my neck. Shivers and chills. Feeling like I've been hit by a bus.

Last night we ate at a little seafood restaurant. Calamari, sardines, prawns the size of my hands. Carafes of good wine and all I wanted to do was slide under the table. Sitting on the Adriatic, never imagining I'd get the chance to have such a simply good meal. Annoying to say the least.

So, go away illness and, please, do not strike anyone else in this family!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Where am I again?

Phew! We've arrived. It's been quite a big day and a half!

It started at 4am, Saturday - we woke and drove to Abu Dhabi (about an hour away from Dubai) for our flight to Belgrade, Serbia. Darbs manage to knock over a whole shelf of products in the Abu Dhabi Duty Free which wasn't the best start to the day. We flew Air Serbia and I have to say I was a little concerned. It was a dirt cheap flight (about half of every other airline) and the reviews online weren't particularly good, in fact a lot of them were downright bad. So, I was pleasantly surprised our flight was so good - the best airline stewardesses I've come across, friendly and nothing was too much bother. The food was good and the plane was comfortable. The only downside was no inflight entertainment, I was a bit fearful when I stepped on the plane and noticed there wasn't a single screen. The kids were fine though and the five-hour flight was fairly painless.

We arrived in Belgrade to more friendly people and were off on the road to Zagred in our hire car in no time at all. The greenery! After two years in the desert, I forget sometimes that nature can be so green! After four hours on the road and our middle girl getting sicker by the moment we arrived in Zagreb. We easily found our cosy little apartment in the centre of town. I suddenly realised that we'd ticked off four cities in three countries. (Waking in Dubai, flying out of Abu Dhabi in Belgrade and climbing into bed in Zagreb, Croatia).

By morning we had not one, but two sick girls. Sadly we had to cancel our planned lunch in Llubjana (Slovenia - another country ticked off) with my brother and his family and head straight for the seaside town of Piran. This tiny seaside town is just magic. Tiny roads, old buildings all around a small harbour. The perfect stop to spend a couple of days - wandering around the old streets, eating seafood, drinking wine and beer. Hopefully the girls are feeling better.

Right now, I'm relaxing with a drink and watching this view while the girls sleep off their illness. Could be a lot worse.

Happy holidays!

Venice is off there in the distance, somewhere. 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Get lost

We're getting ready to depart on our summer holiday. We're lucky to be heading on a last-minute trip to Europe, it's been a lot of rushed co-ordination - finding accommodation, planning where we're going and what we're going to do. Most of it is a stab in the dark, with our fingers crossed that we'll enjoy it. The way that things work for us here is that we don't often get the luxury of planning trips off in the distance, finding the perfect location and best accommodation. It generally happens like this - we've got time off in two weeks, quick where should we go, where can we afford flights to? And off we go.

It's fun and I feel so fortunate we're able to do things like this, a surprise trip to Europe is an amazing luxury - 4 countries in two weeks. From Australia, flying anywhere with 3 kids is prohibitively expensive and it just wouldn't happen for us.

I am feeling nervous, mainly because we will be driving more than 2000km in our journey. It's not the driving that worries me, it's getting lost. I have such a fear of getting lost, making wrong turns and not knowing where I'm going. Give me a map and I'm pretty good navigator, but I start worrying straight away that I'll misjudge the route.

There's  no better feeling than being on the right track and knowing exactly where you are. I'm not one of those people who go "wow, we're lost but this place we've found is amazing" I'll be secretly fretting about finding my way back to the right road.

I'm going to try and not worry this trip, instead I'm going to enjoy the scenery and soak up where where we are,  but I'm guessing I'll still have sweaty palms each time we head off in the car.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

In the blink of an eye

It's my girls' last day of school for the year today. For whatever reason, I'm filled to the brim with emotions.

Maybe it's because this year has just gone by so fast. In the blink of an eye, the girls are another year older and so much more wiser and mature and grown up.

Maybe it's because I'm feeling sentimental and nostalgic and I don't want these precious early years to go by so fast.

Maybe it's because I'll have to say goodbye to my closest Dubai friend today.

Maybe it's because I've got 10 weeks of school holidays stretching out ahead of me. Yes, 10!

Maybe it's because I over indulged last night while watching the Soceroos. Oops.

Maybe it's all of that.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with end-of-school year productions, assemblies, concerts, ceremonies and they've all been just lovely. I'm so proud of my girls.

By tomorrow, I'll have shaken it off and moved onto the next phase – how to  entertain 3 kids in 45 degree heat. But today, I'll soak in a little of that emotion.

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