Ramadan Mubarak!

It was a lovely, leisurely lunch on Tuesday with my good friend, Judy, that got me thinking about the topic for this post.  Judy and I met in 2009 in London’s Heathrow airport, at the start of our epic journey to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I often get asked what made me move to Saudi Arabia at the age of 22.  The answer is quite simple.  Good money and no tax! 🙂
On a more serious note, I had left Poland and was at a bit of a loose end.  I was working in a clothes shop while I considered my options when I got a phone call from a lady called Margarita who worked for a recruitment company.  She told me she had seen my CV online and that I would be a perfect fit for a job available in Riyadh.  I kindly refused her offer, thanked her for her call and thought nothing more about it.  When I told my mum I had been offered the job, she told me to go for it.  I thought she was actually mental. My dad came home from work and my mum told him about my job offer.  My dad is a serious, sensible kind of person so I was quite sure he would agree with me rejecting the post.  However, to my utter surprise, he said, “What else are you doing with your life? Wasting your degree working in a clothes shop?” That gave me food for thought and I read the information pack Margarita had sent me after the call.

We all think we know what happens in Saudi- we’ve all seen the ladies who are completely covered from head-to-toe, the men who wear white robes, and we know it’s a strict country.  But no-one knows what it’s really like until they’ve lived there.

The following day, Margarita phoned me again and spent the best part of 2 hours trying to convince me to accept the job.  Eventually, I crumbled and agreed.  That was the Wednesday and on the Friday, I flew down to London’s Harley Street to have my pre-visa medical done.  It was my first ever medical and it was intense.  Some of the questions seemed bizarre, until I got to Saudi and understood why.  My passport was sent away for the visa along with all of the samples taken during the medical.

A matter of weeks later, I was packing to leave for Riyadh.  My flights had been booked for me, and I knew that several of the other women who were going to work for the same company, including Judy, would be on the same flights as me.  We agreed to meet up in Heathrow, where we would catch our flight to Frankfurt and connect there for the final flight to Riyadh.  It was surreal to see a group of Western women, all excited to be flying to the Middle East.  During the Lufthansa flight, the air stewardess asked me if I would like an alcoholic drink.  I was shocked, given that Saudi has a super strict policy of no alcohol in the whole country.  I meekly asked if I was allowed to drink… She looked at me with surprise written all over her face, and said, “Are you over 18?”  She then explained that I would be fine as long as I didn’t end up drunk.  I have never forgotten her telling me the golden rule of flying- one drink in the air is the same as two on the ground. 🙂

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

As we came into land at King Khalid International airport, I had to complete my first ever landing card.  The first thing that you see on the card is the Saudi emblem of the swords with a phrase similar to, “Drug traffickers will be executed”…
Now, having travelled a bit throughout Asia in recent years, I realise that this is nothing special.  Most countries who have strict drug laws have similar phrases on their landing cards.  22-year-old me nearly had a heart attack! Having reassured the air stewardess that I most certainly was not carrying drugs-  she seemed a little suspicious of my rather extreme reaction- I completed the card, gathered my belongings and headed out to see what this kingdom was all about.

It’s hard to describe Riyadh.  It’s like a neat grid of streets, filled with mansion-style houses and shopping malls.  And everything is a sandy-yellow colour.  The country is a desert, and that becomes more and more clear as soon as you leave the built-up city centre. Sand dunes and the occasional petrol station are all that can be found.  The difference in wealth amongst the local people is both fascinating and soul-destroying. The rich are frighteningly rich, the poor begging in the streets moving from car window to car window at traffic lights, looking for any money that they can get.

Gender segregation was the first thing I spotted when out and about on my adventures around Riyadh. There are two queues everywhere you go- one for single men, the other for women and families. In restaurants, eating in a booth behind a curtain is normal for single women. I found it quite nice to have the privacy, but I can understand why Western women might get frustrated.

The next major thing I noticed was the Muttawa.  They are the religious police who patrol shopping malls and public spaces, and whose slogan is “For the protection of virtue and prevention of vice”.  I’m pretty sure that every foreign woman in Saudi Arabia has had, or knows someone who has had, an issue with these men. Their methods are often ones that are intended to bring shame upon the woman in question.  One particular incident sticks in my mind. I was in the Tamimi supermarket with my friend Becca when she nipped off to get something she needed, leaving me to decide which shampoo to choose. I could hear a very angry man shouting in Arabic, but thought nothing more of it… Until the shouting got closer and closer, and ended up right next to me! I turned to find a very angry Muttawa, alternately shouting at me in Arabic and English that I had to cover my hair with my headscarf, that I had no shame, that I was bringing shame upon myself…. I stood, watching his very red face get redder and redder, looking at the people around us, until I could take no more.  I clearly stated that I would not cover my hair, that I was neither legally nor morally obliged to do so as a non-Muslim woman and eventually he walked off, calling me every name under the sun. I have heard of women having these scary ecounters over the length of their abaya (the black gown worn by every woman in Saudi, regardless of religion and nationality), their use of eye make-up and for speaking to security guards in a shopping mall.

I could write for years about everything I saw and did in Riyadh- from my first amber alert lockdown on a housing compound due to bomb threats, to my roadtrip to Bahrain when our driver informed us he could not stop to let us pee in case Al-Qaeda kidnapped us.

Let me know if you’d like me to post again on this topic.  🙂  Until then, ramadan mubarak everyone!



That Sunday-night feeling…

Clammy palms… That sinking feeling in the tummy… Trying to stay up late to eke out the last few hours of the weekend… The dread of going to bed knowing that tomorrow, it’s back to school…

And that’s not the kids- that’s me! The teacher. Hahaha! 🙂

For the past few months, I’ve been feeling a bit lost. A bit unsure about the future.  Unsure as to whether I want to teach anymore.
I was never supposed to be a teacher.  It all happened by accident- by all means, a generally happy accident, but an accident nonetheless.  Let me explain…

Growing up, I was a geek at school.  A proper wee nerd who always did her homework, always paid attention in class, a right teacher’s pet. By the time I got to high school, I was like an old lady trapped in a teenaged body. I hung about with the “cool” kids- the ones who smoked, drank vodka in the park at 13 and progressed onto weed- but I never did any of those things. I hung out, chatted and then ran all the way home so I wouldn’t be late for my curfew. There was mutual respect between my friends, my parents and I. My parents trusted me not to do any of that and I was honest with them about what my friends were doing. My mates never pressured me to take part in anything and I respected their teenage curiosity to break the rules and the social norms.
At school, I studied hard, excelled in languages and failed dismally at anything science-based or Maths. By the time it came to choosing universities and courses, it was pretty clear that I had to pursue some sort of future in languages.

Living where I did, the obvious university choices were Dundee and Abertay.  Both are excellent universities but are most famous for courses to do with forensics and engineering.  Languages weren’t readily available at either back then, the only option being a joint degree in Psychology with Spanish at Dundee. That was when I decided to look further afield.  Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, with its modern languages department and its interpreting labs, then become my dream. After a tense phone call on exam results day, I found out I had been accepted through clearing.

Back then, walking through the doors of the Henry Prais building on the first day of first year, I decided that I was going to make my dream of becoming Head Interpreter for the United Nations a reality.  I studied reasonably hard, as hard as one can in the first year of uni and living away from home for the first time, and got through to second year.
Which was when my dream was smashed to smithereens.
I got my timetable for second year and, upon studying it closely with my good friend Andrew, found a strangely-accronymed module on it.

“What is this module here?” I asked, thinking there had been a typing error.

“TESOL? That’s your teaching module!” Andrew replied.

TEACHING? But what was I going to teach? And who? And where? But most importantly, whyyyyy? I had applied to do interpreting and translating, and yet, here I was being told I was in fact studying to be a teacher. A teacher of English as a Second or Other Language.
I can’t lie, it took me a while to get used to that idea.  I had never considered being a teacher and had absolutely no desire to be one.  I thought back to all the teachers I’d ever had and I just couldn’t see myself being one.  Anyway, to cut an extreeeeemeeeeely long story short (I can literally hear my boyfriend saying, “Nadine, please, get to the point” as he often does when I get excited about a story, then drag it out and go off on tangents 🙂 ), I completed my second year which included some observed teaching practice.  Those classes were the ESOL classes run by the university to help some of the foreign exchange students improve their general English.  They were nerve-wrecking but fun, and always done in a tag-team with another TESOL student so the pressure wasn’t too much.

The big test was when third year began… This was my teaching assistant placement, and I was placed in a secondary school in the Andalusian city of Malaga.  By that time, I’d been studying Spanish for 5 years and thought I was the dog’s bollocks. My lecturers told me my Spanish was great and I had some Spanish friends from Madrid who I loved chatting to.  Nobody told me about the south of Spain.

“Como ehta, iha?” was what greeted me when I hopped in the taxi at Malaga airport. Ummm, sorry?! Who was this taxi driver and what was he trying to ask me? After repeating a million times in Spanish that I didn’t understand, he finally said to me, “Como estas, hija?”, asking me how I was, in an accent that I could grasp! But that was just the beginning… Cue 2 months of phone calls home where I cried every day, telling my parents that I couldn’t understand anyone and didn’t like anything.  Not to mention the classes…

As an assistant, I was supposed to help the English teachers during class with general aspects of English along with cultural elements.  Unfortunately, no-one seemed to have told my teachers that as they often left me to teach the whole class by myself while they popped down the street or to the school’s cafeteria to have breakfast! Haha!
That year was madness, absolute madness. From the kids in Bachillerato who were the same age as me but who thought I was Einstein because I was already in 3rd year of uni (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was only because I started school at 4.5 years old), to the 4th of ESO class that housed Angel, the son of a Colombian drug lord, you absolutely could not make that shit up!  I also got to meet a lot of blind children through a charity organisation called la ONCE who helped me to gain some insight into the provisions available for blind children in Malaga, which became the topic of my Spanish dissertation.

It was then that I realised that maybe teaching wasn’t such a bad idea for me.  I realised quickly that I love helping people, that moment when you see someone understand something for the first time, that gave me an amazing feeling of achievement inside.
My stint in Malaga was followed by my final year at uni, and I walked away with a MA (Hons) in Foreign Languages with the Teaching of English as a Second Language (FL-TESOL).
My CV has seen me teaching in Poland, where the students were convinced that my dad was Donald Tusk (the then- Prime Minister of Poland), a year teaching the first preparatory year programme for women at Princess Nourah bint AbdulRahman University in Riyadh, 6 years of teaching back in Spain, and now this contract here in Singapore.

I guess that lately, I’ve become a little disillusioned with life as a teacher.  I feel like maybe I’m not making as much of a difference here as I have in other places, and that upsets me.  The job of a teacher is to make an impact on their students- to make them enjoy learning, to make them want to learn, and most importantly to teach them everything they need to know to succeed.  That’s the job of a real teacher.
I’ve met a lot of people in the past ten years of teaching who are in it for all the wrong reasons.  They study for a couple of weeks or months, get a TEFL or CELTA qualification (or in Singapore, have no teaching qualification at all), and then decide to use that as an excuse to travel the world.

Now, I am not judging in anyway- everyone has the right to choose how to live their life-, nor am I saying that those qualifications aren’t good.  Much the opposite is true in fact.  What I have a problem with is those people who aren’t really interested in the kids, their learning or the futures that we, as teachers, should be helping to shape.

I think that’s what has got me thinking about my future in teaching lately.  If I’m not making a difference anymore, then what’s the point?  It’s something I definitely have to consider carefully over the next wee while… At least until I win the lottery and can open the cake shop of my current dreams! 😉




“Run, Forrest, Run!”

8th December, 2018.

7 months and 1 week until the people of Singapore feel a mini-earthquake between the hours of 4.30 a.m. and (if I’m lucky!) 8 a.m.

That’s right.  I, Little Miss Chubby, have signed up to run a half-marathon.  21.1km of cold, hard, tarmac stands between me and the finish line.  Alriiiight, maybe not “cold” given that the average daily temperature here is around 29 degrees! Haha!

How did this hugely massive decision come about?  That is a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I typed my credit card details into the registration page.  Let me explain…

A few years ago, while living in Almeria, a lovely wee coastal city in the south-east of Spain, I met a wonderful girl called Natalie.  A South-African who came to work at the language school I was working in, she quickly became a good friend of mine.  Straight-talking, funny and super into her fitness, she and I became gym buddies, usually frequenting the Body Combat and Booiaka classes where we vented our frustrations at life and learnt amazing dance moves.

Natalie is into running and takes part in races and, after seeing her out running along the paseo maritimo (the promenade by the beach) for the millionth time, I decided that I also wanted to get into running.  It looked so liberating and invigorating, and the people I saw made it look so easy.

Oh, how wrong was I?!

I started my quest to be a runner by running the 5km-long paseo maritimo and about 5 minutes into my first session, I felt like my lungs were going to burst out of my chest! How on Earth did these people look so comfortable gliding along the pathway? Natalie was brilliant- she encouraged me all the time to go out and do as much as I could and together with a couple of others, we joined a running group.

“Los BeerRunners” are a group of people who meet at weekends to run varying distances at their own paces.  The idea is that you start off together as a group and then you reconvene at the end and go for some beers and, of course, some tapas.  It is Spain, after all!  I had read about the merits of drinking beer after doing exercise and was surprised to see that beer is full of antioxidents and vitamin B which helps bones.  Apparently, it can also help recovery time because of the carbohydrates found in that golden nectar.
This all sounds fabulous, I’m sure, but there was one problem… I don’t like the taste of beer.  Hmm… I needn’t have worried though, the BeerRunners welcomed me with open arms regardless of my alcoholic-beverage preferences!  Soon, I was adorned with a fluorescent orange running shirt, was joining the runners for regular sessions and had soon signed up for my first competitive race.  I decided to run the annual 5km paseo race as I was very familiar with the route and it was being hosted by ARGAR, an amazing organisation that helps children with cancer and one that my close friend Blanca worked for.

On the day of the race, I was super nervous but I can clearly remember being half-way through and realising that I was really enjoying myself! People were lining the race route, cheering us on, music was being played over loudspeakers and the general atmosphere was amazing! I did the race in 35 minutes and felt immensely proud of myself.  This race was followed by a Colour Run, which was such fun! Taking place in the late evening, runners have fluorescent powdered paint thrown at them throughout the run and my running gear ended up a wonderful palette of orange, purple, yellow and green paint.
The last race I did in Spain took place along the winding coastal roads of Almeria, overlooking the sea.  It was 8km of rock-lined roads, with beautiful views of the blue-green Mediterranean sea.  8km was, and still is, the furthest I have ever run and although it was the most difficult exercise-related test I had endured, my amazing playlist of Daddy Yankee, Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys got me through it.  As I approached the finish line, feeling rather emotional, I was ecstatic to see the crowds suddenly start cheering enthusiastically, waving their arms and hollering.  Little did I know, they were actually cheering the winner of the much longer race who had lapped me about 10 times! Haha! I graciously tried to avoid the cameras which were snapping away trying to get the first finish photo of him, although I did end up appearing in the local newspapers! 🙂

Fast forward two years and I now live in the tropical wonderland that is Singapore.  Hot, humid, sometimes rainy, sometimes stormy, always unpredictable.  When I first arrived, I thought I would try and keep my running fitness up so one morning at around 8.45a.m. I left my apartment to go for a light run.  As soon as I stepped outside, I realised this was not going to be as easy as Almeria.  The biggest weather-related issue for me in Almeria was the wind.  It would be hurricane-like, whipping my hair into my face when I was running and making me feel like I was running in quicksand… Putting in so much effort but not getting anywhere.  Here, however, the biggest problems for me are the strength of the sun and the humidity.  It’s like stepping into a sauna fully-clothed at times.  Anyway, I pushed on and managed about 30 minutes.  It was so difficult for me that I never tried again! I’ve tried in the gym but for me, the best part of running is being outdoors and seeing nature, not sweaty, puffing bodies next to me.

So, one day last month, my boyfriend told me that he was signing up for the half-marathon again.  He ran it last year and did amazingly well.  He’s a real inspiration for me, and so when he suggested that I do the newly-introduced 10km race this year, I started to think about it.  My argument was that I don’t need 7 months to train for 10km, I figure that it’s all about muscle memory and that as soon as I start training again, my muscles will remember the previous runs I’ve done and so I should be able to get back into it quickly.  And so, one Sunday afternoon, I made the executive decision to do the half-marathon as well!

One 4km training session in and I have already hurt my knee! Haha! With a bit more stretching and strength and conditioning training, I should be in better physical shape. I’ll be sure to post updates on my progress.  Keep your fingers and toes crosssed for me! 🙂




Ready? Then let me begin…

First of all, welcome to my blog!

This is the first time that I’ve ever done anything like this, so you may have to bear with me until I get used to it!

Having lived abroad for the last 10 years, I’ve had lots of weird and wonderful experiences and have decided that now is the time for me to share some of them with you.  I hope you enjoy reading my posts and feel free to give me any feedback or share your own experiences.

“Life is about creating and living experiences that are worth sharing.”  Steve Jobs.

Lots of love xxx

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