Thursday 31 July 2014

It just needs to stop

For the past few weeks, each time I pick up the paper that's delivered to my door each morning the first thing I see is the number. The number climbs higher each day and my heart sinks a little more.

Living in the Middle East means that the regional news splashed across the front page is often full of blood, conflict and horror. Bombings, executions, rockets. It's odd and hard to accept that my life here is so different from the people who live so close. For relief I click onto to top news stories to find out what celebrity is doing something shocking and 14 Things I Never Knew About Where's Wally.

Since we arrived here the civil war in Syria has been constant headline news, as the bloody situation has worsened and hope faded I was surprised to return to Australia last year and meet so many people who had no clue that anything was happening. No inkling that there was refugee crisis in the surrounding countries as millions of Syrians fled. As Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd argued about the few piddly boats headed for Australia last year, millions of people made homes in tent cities that sprung from nowhere and are now permanent cities and ranking as some of the largest in countries like Jordan and Lebanon. Children forced to abandon school and grow up in less than ideal environments.

In recent weeks, the news in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been pushed further back in the paper to make way for the devastation in Gaza. The news there has really affected me. Statistics such as 44% of inhabitable space in Gaza has now been destroyed, along with hospitals, mosques and schools. The only power plant destroyed meaning no electricity or water. Thousands of people dead, including many children. These are people who are poor. These are many, many people who live is a tiny area - one of the most densely populated places on earth. These are people who cannot leave. They are forced to stay and let rockets rain down on them.

How can the children who are living in Gaza today and experiencing the undescribable terror ever supposed to grow up and live lives without trauma and without hate?

Last night, I tucked in my kids - leaving a light on so the boogie man doesn't get them. I went to bed to read my detective novel, but I ended up looking at Twitter and reading a young girl tweeting out of Gaza. She talked about terrifying explosions and flashes of light outside her window. About the possibility of not surviving the night. Of having nowhere safe to go. This all during Eid, which is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration. A time as precious to Muslims as Christmas is to Christians.

I lay in bed and thought about the families in Gaza. How they coped with no real way of knowing if they could keep their family safe that night or the next or the next. If only it was so easy as to just leave a light on.

I am not a supporter of Hamas, and I think many people in Australia would probably be surprised to know that much of the Middle East doesn't support Hamas. Whatever wrongs have been done, this obliteration of a whole community of people can't keep going. Innocent people with no way of escaping can't be left to have the crap bombed out of them. People seeking refuge in a UN school were killed today - this is the second time this week a UN school sheltering people has been hit. This is no solution.

The children who are having their lives destroyed, are living in terror and seeing their families killed in front of them, how can that breed anything but hate and bitterness. How many of them will want to seek revenge for what they will rightly and understandably see as unjust. And the circle of violence continues.

What is happening needs to stop. It just needs to stop.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Eid Mubarak!

On Sunday night, the new crescent moon was sighted (known as the Shawwal moon - the 10th month of the Islamic year) which signalled the end of Ramadan. On Monday, Eid al Fitr commenced. While Ramadan is a time of reflection, Eid al Fitr is a time of celebration. Muslim families get together to celebrate the end of the holy month with big feasts. Children receive new clothes and money from friends and relatives.

For us, it meant that Skip got an extra long weekend and we could eat in public during the day again. It is a lovely time of celebration in Dubai though. There are fireworks, feasts and celebrations across the city. Many people take holidays and travel. Everyone takes time off work to relax and celebrate. Friends and colleagues greet each other with "Eid Mubarak!"

In a couple of months time we'll celebrate the second Eid of the year, or Eid al Adha.

We've been spending this time off relaxing at home, swimming (of course) and going out for lunch. We've taken drives to Sharjah and Ajman (nearby Emirates) and swum some more. Enjoying quiet Dubai before it starts to fill up again and the year gets busy again.

Eid Mubarak!

Monday 28 July 2014

The long, hot summer

The days and the weeks are stretching out faaaaaaaar in front of me. As far as I can see at the moment. Endless sand dunes that all look pretty much the same, the sky blue and the sun beating down, making any movement slow.

Every morning, after breakfast I say: "OK, kids. Get your swimmers on, let's go to the pool." As the weeks have progressed, they've moved from "Yay!" to shooting me looks like I've just said: "Let's go to the dentist and get fillings." I hurry them on before it gets too hot to go to the pool. While the water in the pool is chilled, the air when any part of your body is out of the water makes the whole mission almost pointless.

Then there are the middle hours of the day. What to do, what to do. We could go to the mall. We could look at the toy shops. For the past couple of weeks it's been Ramadan - so no lunch excursions or excuses for morning or afternoon tea or even a milkshake.

All our friends are away, so no playdates to fill in the long hours.

I flick through lists of 'Things to do with kids in summer' on the net. We've ticked off all of them. Kidzania, Magic Planet, Fun City, Fun Square, Fun Corner. There's kids shows at the mall but they all seem to be on at times which aren't Aussie kid-friendly (7.30pm and 9pm).

We've baked cakes and cookies. Made homemade burgers and pizzas. We've drawn and coloured and glued and cut. We've made cubby houses. We've built cities. They've sung and danced performances. They've played cards, iPads and computers. Did I mention we've swum?

In the afternoon, I suggest another swim. "NOOOOOO!" they cry. We head down to the park and attempt to kick a ball. Everyone is tomato-red and dripping in sweat after 15 minutes.

The longest, hottest summer in history! Five-and-a-half weeks to go...

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. 

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