Sunday, 12 February 2012

In Need of Sleep but Surrounded by Marble

So there I was, almost three hours since my feet had touched Saudi soil, with no sleep and no shower, at my new place of employment. It had been barely a ten minute drive from my new apartment to the office so I hadn’t had chance to recover much from my rushed preparations before the driver was leading me up a set of shimmering marble steps into a lobby better suited to a 5* hotel than a corporate head office.

Floors, surfaces, walls, all were carved, decorative marble adorned with art work, ornate sofas, glass doors and even some miniatures of different building projects. Overhead glittering chandeliers watched over me as I tried to keep pace with my guide whilst drink in the overwhelming surroundings. Given how tired I was I was half inclined to believe I’d fallen asleep instead of dashing into the waiting car and was now dreaming.

Two overly decorated flights of stairs and one access card protected entrance later and I was shanking hand with Nadia. Next to a the organised force of nature that was my only friend so far in this strange place, in her smart suit and clipped demeanour, I felt more than a little shabby in my jeans, wrap and sandals. If Nadia had any reservations about me based on the get up she didn’t show it.

Before I knew what was happening she’d shown me the second floor that would become my base of operation, where the Media Department and the Finance Department comfortably rubbed along pretending not to see each other.  Thankfully, in among the tirade of introductions and chitchat, there was a blessed cup of tea and assurances that I would by no means have to remember everyone’s name.

It didn’t take long before I was beginning to flag, but that was thought of too and without quite knowing from whence it came there was a pizza all for me whilst Nadia took care of some of her regular work. However, the respite was short lived. No sooner had the last slice disappeared Nadia was ready to set me to another task – it was time for the medical. Yes, another one. Just on the off chance I’d picked up tuberculosis between my Harley Street visit and now.

Back into the car I got and battled (not too successfully) to stay awake on the way to the hospital that was owned by the company I was in the process of been inducted into.  Clutching my paperwork I staggered into another atrium of marble, oversized chandeliers and even an aquarium full of vibrant fish. This was a hospital? I tumbled out of the elevator at the wrong floor twice, confused by sleep and the desire for the day to be done, before I found the right place to be and barely noticed as they sucked out blood samples and exposed me to x-rays.

Somehow I was back before Nadia’s oversized (marble, of course) desk. How had I gotten back here? Was I supposed to be there? It was 5.30pm, Nadia told me, almost the end of the day. Unbidden, an image materialized of the untouched queen sized bed waiting back in the apartment baring witness to my hurried unpacking. Could I really be curled up in there soon?

No, I couldn’t. Nadia switched from work mode to ‘I’m a mom mode’ and insisted I shouldn’t spend my first night in a strange country alone, we would swing by my place and grab a change of clothes and then I’d spend the weekend with her and her family. Too tired to care I accepted the offer. As it happens, I was really glad she offered. 

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Monday, 30 January 2012

Home Sweet Home

I didn’t have to wait too long before the compound manager came tripping over himself to greet me as I clambered out of the car as elegantly as one can when everything seems to have started to fall asleep. He refused to let me lift my cases out of the car and had the security guys move them into the lobby of the main building that housed his office and the office of his secretary. This guy was unbelievably eager to please, and he seemed to be nervous. For the life of me I couldn’t work out what the hell he had to be nervous about. I was the one who had just crossed god knows how much of the globe and left behind everything I had ever known. What was his problem? 

Anyway, I didn’t really complain too much. Partly because his nerves made him so helpful, but mostly because I was bloody exhausted. I don’t do well at all on a lack of sleep, and all I wanted to do was to be shown to my apartment and get my head down for an hour or two. No, I couldn’t do that straight away. There were forms, there was a tour of the main building and then there were more forms. I was pretty impressed with the main building though. Walking in the carved double doors into the air conditioned lobby you are greeted by cool marble floors, a bookshelf full of books and magazines, several plants and an overall feeling of comfort and welcome. Through the far door there was a games room with a pool table, table tennis and an air hockey table as well as an extensive DVD library where it was free to rent from so long as movies were returned within three days. Opposite this room was a squash court and on the next floor there was a cosy gym and a room holding computers with free Internet access. All in all, every whim was catered for once he showed me where the small store was. 

Finally, all the paperwork was complete and I could move into my one bedroom apartment. Earlier in my journals I mentioned that the woman who had recruited me hailed from the same small area of Staffordshire in the UK as I do. Since our phone interview we had been in regular contact, so I knew she had already been and viewed the apartment I would be taking. For that reason, I wasn’t remotely worried about how everything would look, but I did have a few expectations. I was ready to open the door into a small apartment with an open plan kitchen and living room, with a small bedroom and a tiny bathroom hidden away somewhere. 

That apartment, I would have been more than happy with. What was on the other side of the top floor door caught me off guard. To the left of the door was an ample sized kitchen area, already equipped with fridge, cooker, microwave, toaster, kettle, pots and pans, plates, cutlery and other odds and ends. Between the kitchen and the first armchair was a dining table with four chairs that did little to fill the space between fridge and lounge. The place was massive. From the door, over the table, two armchairs, huge sofa, wide screen TV, huge shelving unit and coffee table I could see out of the patio doors and over my balcony. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. The total floor space of the living area equals the whole downstairs of my mom’s house where I had been previously living. 

Then there was the bedroom; that was no pokey affair either, let me tell you! Prior to my move I was sleeping on a sofa bed in my mother’s lounge, my new bedroom was nearly twice as big as my mom’s master bedroom with a queen sized bed lost in the middle of it not far from massive wardrobes and a dressing table with a lovely mirror above. There was also a desk, a chest of drawers and two bedside tables. I had only been able to bring 20kg of luggage because of flight restrictions – it was going to take a serious amount of shopping to fill this baby!

Again, the bathroom surprised me by being a decent size and tastefully decorated. I had seriously gone up in the world!

However, my mind kept drifting back to the queen sized bed, complete with a set of sheets, as the compound manager was pointing out the iron and ironing board they had provided for me. I had arranged to meet my recruiter friend in the office later in the afternoon, and I desperately wanted to get my head down for an hour at least. Eventually he got the hint and said his goodbyes. Brilliant! Just a quick call home to let them know I’d made it whilst I unpacked the basics, and then I would close the curtains and pass out into blissful oblivion. 

The phone call wasn’t all that long, so I took a second to fill out the inventory I had been given; better to get it out of the way whilst I remembered. Ten minutes later I had located my toothbrush and just as I inserted it into my plaque filled mouth when the phone in my apartment blared into life and scared the crap out of me. 


“Hi Kirsty, it’s Nadia! I just wanted to check you arrived ok? How’s everything?”

“Oh, hi, yeah everything’s great thanks, I love the apartment! I’ve just started to unpack a bit to find a change of clothes for when I come in to the office.”

“Great! Well I thought it would be best if you came in at around noon as there will be a fair bit of paperwork and what-have-you to sort out. I’ve arranged a driver for you for then, how’s that sound?”

“Er, that’s fine by me.”

“Brilliant! See you in an hour then!”

Click, the receiver at the other end went down.

An hour?! Shit. So much for 40 winks! I scrambled into the bathroom and made do with a quick scrub of the smelliest parts at the sink and tried frantically to get my hair to do as it was told. Before I knew what was happening my shiny new apartment looked like a bombsite and the phone was ringing again. 

“Madam, there is a car here for you.”

“Great, I’ll be right down.”

Already?! Shit. Where was all the bloody paperwork I needed? Passport, medical, degree certificate, CV, offer letter, contract … was that everything? Well it would bloody well have to do. A quick squirt of perfume later and I was in the elevator and dashing to the awaiting car.

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Sunday, 29 January 2012

I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore Toto...

 I was on the connecting flight from Bahrain for a grand total of twenty minutes before the plane touched down on Saudi soil. I felt my insides squirm a tiny bit as all of my male companions stood and scrambled for belongings and the exit. I knew women were meant to wear an abaya, but I didn’t have one yet, so I’d made a point of covering all skin, but I was still nervous about being stopped. I’d heard about the nightmare of Saudi customs, and someone was meant to be meeting me to help with all of that, but I didn’t know whether he would be there from the word go, or if I had to jump through hoops by myself. I was actually here, and I couldn’t really believe it. 

After a few deep breathes whilst I waited for the testosterone fuelled stampede to ease, I felt better, more confident, and ready to just suck it up and I was quite prepared for a long stay in customs. The book I had bought in London had been brilliantly, and candidly, informative and it had warned travellers of the lack of a system in customs at Saudi airports so I was ready to be shuffled from queue to queue. 

However, what I had not been prepared for was the way a woman alone in a room full of men was treated. I was immediately summoned to the front and was being helped with my forms when my extraditor arrived holding a piece of paper with my name on.  Ten minutes later I was through customs and an airport porter was collecting my luggage from the carousel for me and trundling it through the check points. 

Then things got really interesting.

I was more than a little sleepy after a long night in the air, and I was groggy, hungry and in need of a wash, so when I was taken out into the car park and saw my luggage being bundled into a completely unmarked car being driven by a guy in jeans and a t-shirt with no clearly visible identification the alarm bells that started to call out in the back of my mind were silenced by the need to arrive somewhere and get a wash.   

The car made its way out from the airport and into desert. There was nothing as far as the eye could see except for sand, tarmac and the odd dried out foliage of unidentifiable species. This made me wake up a little. There was no-one and nothing except the airport that was dwindling into the distance behind us. I remember reaching into my bag and grasping my passport and purse with one hand, and placing my other hand on the door handle; ready to make a dash for it if I had to. One half of my brain was telling me I was being ridiculous. The extraditor had had ID, and he had personally taken me to the car. The other half was busy playing my snippets of horror movies and true life stories from the news. Oddly though, I didn’t feel panicked. I was very calm and perfectly willing to just do what had to be done should I have to. Weird how adrenaline can work sometimes when it’s combined with the need for sleep and the unknown isn’t it?

Finally we reached an army check-point. My driver rolled his window down and asked for my passport. It reluctantly left my hand and surrendered itself into his possession. I heard him exchange a few words with the national guardsmen that were stationed at the post, among the gabbled Arabic I managed to make out the name of the company I had come to work for. Instantly my muscles relaxed and the grip on my purse loosened. ‘Told you so’, taunted the side of my brain that had been telling me to stop being so ridiculous.

Not long after I had been handed back my passport, the car reached the summit of a peak in the heat cracked road. One of the most bizarre sights was nestled there amid the rolling dunes of empty space. I don’t know exactly what I had been expecting, but I wasn’t ready for the sight of a huge, sprawling city that sat spread out in the middle of nowhere. There were no suburbs to speak of, no build up of little winding roads, just bang straight into the thick of it. A metropolis of buildings fought for space in the confines of the city of Al Khobar. They all seemed to be trying to squash inwards, their backs to the unkind desert. Before I could drink in the oasis of this view, it had swallowed me up and was carrying me to its belly via an oesophagus of highways, u-turns and traffic lights.

Some of those better traveled than me may be used to huge roads with a minimum of three lanes as the main path for cars to traverse upon, but as a Brit with very little travel experience this was completely alien to me. Sure, we have motorways with three lanes but they would be dwarfed by these highways. Motorways in the UK aren’t the main roads either; they’re for commuters and folk on long distance journeys. Everyday travel is conducted on single lane roads that bend and wind with the landscape, roads that you can turn left on. So it was entertaining for me to discover that to reach a street that involved turning left the driver would have to go past it to a point where he could make a u-turn and the travel back on himself to get to the turning. 

Whilst being amused by this, and taking the time to realise that my book had been right about the maniac drivers in Saudi, I was trying to get my bearings in terms of whether I was in a good neighbourhood or a bad one as we moved through the city. This is impossible to do. We would drive past a gorgeous villa that was clearly designed for a large family with a hell of a lot of money, and immediately next door to it there would be a dilapidated, ramshackle building that looked fit only for a vagabond gang of squatters. It was the same everywhere. The folk who had built up Al Khobar seemed to not be fussed by location, just so long as their houses could sprawl out as much as they liked. I liked this; it gave the city a charm and a unique quality that I had never seen in the UK and Europe.  

Just as I was wondering exactly how close to the belly of the beast my apartment was, the car turned a corner, passed through a security checkpoint and made its way into a gated compound. The driver told me to hold on whilst he found the compound manager and he got out of the car to go look for him.

So here I was. My new home. 

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Friday, 27 January 2012

Almost There...

Exactly three years to ago today...

Ever since I was a nipper I’ve always known what was right for me. It may seem weird, but I have always made decisions depending upon my gut instinct and initial reaction to a suggestion or idea. For instance, when I was trying to decide which universities to apply for I attended copious open days and meet-and-greets to help me gather as much information as possible before I made my choices. I like to have as many resources at my fingertips before I make any kind of decision. My mom joined me on most of them, partly because she was nosey and wanted a few days out, but mostly because she knew me better than anyone so was the most logical person to tag along and help. We had been to Chester, to Nottingham, to Sheffield and there was one more on my list of favorites that we had left to see. Mom had arranged the day off and I was all excited. 

Until we got on the train. All of a sudden I was utterly convinced that Sheffield Hallam was the university for me (I had been leaning towards it for a long time) and so it was absolutely pointless going to the Birmingham open day. My mom didn’t know whether to be angry or to laugh at me, but whatever she thought of me, we had a great day in Birmingham and my uni choice was most definitely the right one. 

So, it came as no real surprise to me that I was perfectly calm and happy as my friend’s car whizzed along the motorway to London Heathrow Airport. Aside from my usual travel paranoia of checking my tickets, passport and money every five seconds to see that they are still where I last left them, I was genuinely just excited to be embarking on such a huge adventure. I had made the decision, wholly and completely and all that remained was to put things in motion; the hard, nerve-wracking part was done. My mom and the friend who was kindly driving us there continuously kept up inane babble that was inevitably intended to keep me calm, but they were just making themselves, and each other, more nervous and emotional.

Needless to say I was pretty excited when we arrived at Heathrow. My mom was trying not to be emotional, my friend was playing it cool and after a slight hiccough getting currency that made my heart flutter for a second, I said a calm, gentle goodbye to my beloved mother. That was a little tough, I’ll admit. I’ve relied on her for so much and this would be our first real separation where I couldn’t just call her up and say ‘how do I do this’, or ‘I don’t feel well, can I come home for the weekend?’ It was a complete, clean break and there would be no easy going back. Even that didn’t cause me to pause and question my decision to move to Saudi. I knew absolutely in every atom of my being that this was the right choice for me. 

As I turned my back on the last vestiges of familiarity and faced my future via duty free, I had no idea how right I was.

Then, a little over six hours in the air, there was Saudi Arabia. Regimented amber spots of street lights lined up to attention in the black land below us, just counting down the minutes till the impending dawn that would welcome me in to the arms of its neighbour, Bahrain. I could see the bridge causeway that connected the island Bahrain to Saudi Arabia pass beneath us as we circled in landing, whilst the sun yawned and stretched slowly over the horizon of calm waters. 

It hadn’t been a brilliantly comfortable flight. I don’t sleep all that well on any form of transport, but on a plane where the temperature continually rose and fell and that experienced a couple of rough patches of turbulence I didn’t stand a chance. On the plus side, it was a relatively empty plane so we all got to spread ourselves out and enjoy the personal space that so often seems to be unattainable on a plane! During the first hour or two, I was barely able to keep myself in my seat with excitement. Should I look out of the window and wave goodbye to England and the Atlantic? Should I watch the movie? Should I read one of the two books I’d packed in my hand luggage? Should I sit still and eat my meal? 

The food calmed me down a bit; it was a very nice lamb curry of some description with some kind of apple dessert that was very appetizing and rather enjoyable. So much for food on a plane being bad! It’s the first time I’d ever eaten on a plane, and all the bad press I’d heard was rather unwarranted. I’d only been on a plane twice before. Once on a family trip to Spain that my mom, sister and I took with my aunt and uncle, their children, and my aunt’s sister and her family. The second time was on a girly trip to Zante where we became nocturnal, drank an inordinate amount of alcohol and where I nearly broke my ankle – you don’t need the story! 

I’d traveled to Germany and Holland several times with school for language trips and musical tours of old people’s homes and institutes for the mentally challenged. I have no idea why our swing band (of which I was a part with my tenor saxophone) and our Irish band had to go all the way to Holland for these tours, but we were quite well known on the small musical circuit. Besides, what did I care? It meant seven to ten days away from my parents, in a foreign country where I could get away with blue murder. 

But coach trips across Europe with hormonal teenage peers, trotting on family holidays or tripping to Zane to get wasted are a tad far removed from moving to the Middle East as a young, single woman alone. I don’t think I was afraid though. A lot of my journey here is permanently etched in fine tuned colour on my memory, and nothing short of severe dementia will erase it; but the small bits, like the emotions I felt other than excitement and anticipation seemed to have been tuned out. 

I do remember sitting in Bahrain airport among the multitude of Indian, Pakistani and Filipino men and feeling a sense of vastness, of the size of what I was doing. I remember looking back over the last year of my life and taking stock of how far I’d come with what seemed to be relatively little effort on my part. I felt lucky, blessed not to be one of my friends who were marooned back in our small hometown after three years of university freedom. I remember feeling confident and expectant, ready to take on whatever challenges were ahead of me. 

I’m positive there was fear, sheer terror at casting myself so far adrift from everything I had ever known and sending myself to a place where I knew absolutely no one except the woman who had recruited me, who happened to be from the same neck of the woods as me.  For the life of me though, I don’t remember those physical feelings. Whilst I waited for my connection I opened my brand new journal, a birthday gift from a dear friend, and began to document my Saudi Adventures. After all, what better day to use a birthday gift that your birthday? 

On the 28th of January 2009, my 22nd birthday, I boarded a connection from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia full of excitement, ideals, and a willingness to be the best I could possibly be.  

To be continued … 

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Finding an Emotion in a Haystack of Confusion

There it was, all shiny and pretty and bilingual. I’d torn the envelope open and flicked through the pages at high speed, stopping at the center spread. It lay there now, on the table, its pages akimbo showing me the gorgeous face embedded in the text. It was the most real thing I had ever seen, there next to the Arabic contract, the offer letter and the e-mailed flight tickets.

My visa had arrived in the first week of January. I was really going.


As I stared at the middle of my passport I could feel all of my insides squirming in confusion; should they be excited squirmy, or nervous squirmy, or shit scared squirmy? In the absence of any clear emotion that I could single out and grab hold of in my desperation to know exactly what I thought now it was all real, I did the first thing that came into my head – I hit the January sales.

Shopping really is one of the things I do best in times of crisis and it clears my head. There’s a feeling of control and organization I get amidst the anarchy of sale shopping that puts my head back on the right way and cancels out any other confusions. If I have big decisions to make I always shop. Don’t expect me to reason this to you because I can’t, hell, it makes no sense to me so how can I explain it to other people?! Besides which, I needed new work clothes.

Up until this point I had only worked in shops, bars or my aunt’s office. The latter of these required only a comfy pair of jeans as there were just the two of us in there, and the previous two job categories are the type that come with uniform provided. So, regardless of the fact I was going to Saudi Arabia and working in an office that required a certain dress code, I had zip to wear in a professional office environment anyway. It turned out to be one of the most traumatic shopping experiences of my life.

Let me tell you a bit about the Saudi female dress code. Women in public have to wear an abaya at all times – no exceptions. An abaya is akin to a floor length black robe that you wear over your clothes. Personally I see the abaya as a blessing not a curse. I could go out in my damn PJ’s and no one would know the difference. Do your hair, a bit of rouge on the old cheeks, a nice pair of shoes and you look a million dollars; minimum effort, maximum results. Not to mention the fact that some of the abayas you can get out here are beautiful. You can make a real fashion statement with some of the designs you see around the malls.

Anyway, back to my shopping trip. Day-to-day wear was taken care of as I knew I could wear shorts and a T-Shirt and no-one would be any the wiser, but work posed a different set of problems all together. To get to and from the office I would be in my abaya, but I was working in a female only office and most of the guys that milled around were western or Lebanese anyway so it would be ok to take the abaya off. So long as I was smart and covered that is.

Easy peasy you would think, especially in the winter sale in the UK; all you are going to get is long sleeves and trousers. Yeah, they’re all well and good, but I was going to Saudi, a HOT country; I was pretty sure that I would not want to be going to work in a huge wool knit jumper that was thermal lined combined with heavy wool trousers. Any shirts I found either pulled unattractively across the bosom area and revealed the brazier beneath or they were vaguely sheer. I mean, how sheer was too sheer? Could I wear a v-neck sweater? How reliable was the AC? What kind of smart-level are we talking here? Did I need a suit?

Eventually all the problem solving I had to do with regards my wardrobe did the trick. I calmed down, I rationalized and I came to a conclusion. If I was this worried about my wardrobe I had to be happy with my decision and be ready to move. There, in one moment of clarity, surrounded by shopping bags and new suitcases, I had an epiphany as I glanced yet again at my new visa.

I was embarking on a life.

I wasn’t just going for a job, or to save money, or to travel, or to get away from my mother’s sofa bed; I was going to begin my own independent living. My feet were already on their own path and I could feel them on the warm yellow bricks, itching and tingling to take monumental steps.

That’s when my insides stopped squirming all together. I was excited of course, I was nervous and I was unbelievably shit scared, but there was no squirming and no gulping. I was calm and ready to face my own future.

With a smile on my face I began to take my purchases out of their bags and fold them neatly into my frameless, purple suitcases.

To be continued…

Image the property of Kirsty McMahon

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Trains, Bookshops and Oxford Street

Where was I? Ah yes, I remember, on my way to merry old London for a medical. I had been roused at ridiculous o’clock by the squall of my alarm and had made it to the station despite being half asleep still. My medical wasn’t until two in the afternoon, but to get to London for anywhere near a reasonable price I had to travel ‘off-peak’, which in London terms means before 8am and after 7pm. I had a long day ahead of me.

Fifty minutes later, I jumped of my rickety local connection and landed on the platform at Birmingham New Street Station still picking amber sleep from the corners of my eyes. I am not a morning person. However, once I was swept into the arms of my beloved New Street I began to feel the day dawning and made my way quite merrily to Starbucks. I have to limit my coffee intake as too much caffeine results in crippling migraines, and I generally prefer a good mug of English Rosie Lee (that’s tea for those of you who are not acquainted with cockney rhyming slang) but I do like Starbucks coffee. So, as it was a special day, I treated myself to the usual tall, skinny latte which I complimented nicely with a humungous cinnamon bun that cancelled out the skinny part of my latte. 

I have to take a minute to tell you about how much I love New Street train station in England’s second city. During my three years at university in Sheffield, I was a two hour train ride from my home town, which is 50 minutes by train from Birmingham, and I made regular trips home. Part of the reason for my trips was because every now and again I would be attacked by home sickness, but it was also because I enjoyed the journey. As much as I would bemoan not having a car and getting stuck waiting for, or on, delayed and broken trains I loved the drama, the reading time and the people watching. I think trains are my favorite way to travel, and no matter where I have traveled to or from, to get home I have to catch the connection from Birmingham – it is the only train that stops in my home town. 

Out of all the places that I adore in Birmingham, I love the station the best. I have spent so much time there that I know how to navigate all of its quirks and I know the best seat to get comfy in at Starbucks to watch the masses pass me by; all of them fodder for my next creative project. The buzz of people, the closeness to home, the feel of home within itself – to me there are few things that are better in this world than to immerse yourself in society and yet remain utterly detached, and just watch from my own bubble of criticism and entertainment. 

On this particular stopover, I stayed only 30 minutes before boarding the Virgin Voyager train that would carry me to London Euston. I had dressed relatively smartly for my journey into the cosmopolitan, primordial soup that is England’s capital; I was going to Harley Street after all! For a visit to the most notoriously expensive, and well known address in medicine, one cannot simple drop in wearing a pair of torn jeans, worn out trainers and a university hoody; no matter how comfy they are and how long your day is going to be! I had on skinny jeans, tucked nicely into knee high, brown boots which laced up the front, a fetching brown polo neck jumper with a long, cream shirt over and my nicest coat with matching scarf and gloves. I have to say I looked pretty good. 

By the time it was 10am I was surfing the tube system in the direction of the Saudi Arabian Embassy. I had to make a stop at my new employer’s London office to hand over some paperwork and my passport so my visa could be applied for once my medical was in order. Once I had accomplished this task in a huge room covered in marble, wood paneling, and very deep carpets I was winging my way to the Bakerloo line to position myself in the general area of Harley Street ready for two o’clock. 

After a successful reconnaissance mission to determine the exact location of my appointment, I turned about-face and hunted for somewhere that would placate my grumbling tummy.  I have many friends that hate going into a café or restaurant and eating by themselves, am I alone in being quite comfortable watching the world go by with a (seriously over priced) Panini and a good book? When I had paid my bill, I meandered along the street looking into shop windows and trying to avoid being dragged in by the siren calls of the shop mannequins. I was doing pretty well too until I passed a Tudor style, olde worldy book shop. 
Could you walk by?

My heart skipped a beat, as it always does when I cross the threshold into a book shop, and my breathing became shallower. Every surface of this unique store was laden with a hodge-podge of books, contrived to create the appearance of disarray. I didn’t care what section I found myself in, I was lost among deep wood shelves and over-sized arm chairs. Deeper and deeper I wandered, picking up colourful, interesting examples of literature as I went. In the second-hand books section I stopped to inhale the well-read pages of a battered copy of Jane Ayre, in the children’s section I paused to read the opening of The Witches, and in the fantasy section I ran my fingers along the spines of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was in heaven. 

At the very back of the shop there was a tiny, uneven door with a sign above it that read “Travel Books”. I’d looked everywhere for a good book about Saudi Arabia and had been utterly unsuccessful; it was as if the country didn’t exist. ‘What the hell’, I thought, ‘why not check here too?’ So, I ducked my head and passed under the dark beam and entered. I’d expected to have to squeeze myself into a tiny broom cupboard of a room rammed to bursting with too many books for the space, so it was a shock when I straightened up on a spindly gallery that overlooked an open room with a stained glass, domed roof. It took me all of five minutes to find the rather large Arabian section, where I was confronted with choice. 

After about half an hour sitting at a little round table, flicking through books I realized I had to make a decision or I would miss my medical. I selected an informative volume that had an honest sense of humour about Saudi that led me to believe the author had actually been there and paid the woman at the till. 

The store wasn’t far from my destination so it was only minutes before I was heaving open a black door that was as thick as my arm and as tall as my house. From the outside, all of these adjacent surgeries looked like oversized, period town houses but inside they’d go for a modern, minimalistic look with a black, glass reception desk and bizarre art on the walls. I was greeted by a very friendly Scottish receptionist who took my name and directed me to a waiting room. Literally two minutes later she calls me out and apologises to me for my wait. She said the delay was caused because they hadn’t been expecting me, but that was all cleared up and I could see the doctor now. Well, needless to say I was impressed. 

In roughly an hour I had been examined, had blood taken,had a chest x-ray and had been given the low down about Saudi by my Saudi Arabian doctor. I started to seriously consider taking out a loan to pay for private medical treatment, but luckily I remembered that medical cover was included by my new employers. That would have been an interesting trip to the bank! 

Three thirty and I’m back on the streets and not quite sure what to do with myself between now and my departure time of seven thirty. Four whole hours to kill in London, two weeks before Christmas…

I nearly missed my train; I was enjoying the Oxford Street shopping experience so much! 

To be continued…

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GP - Great at Procrastinating

So it was decided, I was going to go and work in Saudi Arabia. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me and I would tell anyone who would listen for more than two minutes about this fantastic opportunity that was going to change my life. My friends started to get sick of me, my family avoided me as much as they could and I’m surprised I wasn’t barred from Tesco’s for harassing staff at the check out and holding up the line. 

I became addicted to Google, searching for tidbits of information about my promised homeland; bits of information like where Saudi Arabia actually was… Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total ignoramus, I had a vague idea that it was near Dubai but the precise location wasn’t something I had ever paid attention to. The only thing you ever read in the press about Saudi relates to oil, so in terms of day to day exposure to Middle Eastern geography and culture I knew a tonne about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan etc but practically nothing about Saudi. 

What other kinds of things did I learn about Saudi Arabia, in particular Al-Khobar, the city I would be living in? I learnt that women had to cover with an abaya at all times, I learnt that women could not drive, I learnt that it was illegal to be in the presence of an unmarried man without being chaperoned by a married couple, and I learnt that there had been a major terrorist attack on a western compound belonging to the company I was going to work for in 2004.

Life was not going to be as easy as I had it in the UK, but I relished the challenge. I was chomping on the bit and raring to go. 

Maybe all those months imprisoned in a small town where the only entertainment was throwing rocks at chavs had driven me a little bit insane crazy, but I didn’t see covering up and not driving as an inconvenience. I could deal with it all, and I’ll tell you why. I had signed a two year contract where I would be earning a pretty damn good salary for an entry level job, even if the exchange rate was crappy, my housing was provided by and paid for by my new company and my job would be varied enough to set me up with enviable experience when it came to moving on. I could save money, I could start my career, and I could grow as a person. What more does a 21-year-old graduate want?

However, I couldn’t just hop on a plane and start unpacking in my new apartment. I was going to a country that is not as easy to welcome immigrants as the UK. To enter Saudi I needed a work visa from the embassy in London, and to get a visa I had to have a full medical that showed I was fit for work and not bringing any nasties into the country. I don’t see what all the fuss is about to be honest; what’s a dose of syphilis among friends? I called my GP and explained what I needed, I said I had the form which I would drop in prior to my appointment as they requested and I made my appointment. 

A week later I trot along and manually announce my arrival on the nifty touch screen check in, take a seat and select an outdated copy of Woman’s Own from the table in the center of the muffled waiting room full of coughers. I spent only fifteen minutes embalmed in the scent of TCP before being called through. My GP is so disorganized I have previously waited 90 minutes to be told that there was nothing more they could do for my migraine and I should just go home and sleep it off … 

“What can I do for you today?” The doctor asks as I try to get comfy of the cold, plastic seat. 

“Er, you should have a medical form that needs completing? I dropped it in 5 days ago.”
“Ah. Bear with me just a moment.” 

I watch her scurry out of the room and I can feel it start. I hate disorganized people, and it is even worse when you have been told to go out of your way to do something and the other party makes no effort to keep their end of the bargain. The little angry monster that lives in the pit of my stomach stirs slightly as things inside begin to heat up. 

She returns with the form in hand. 

“I’m sorry Miss McMahon, your form wasn’t passed on to me. Give me sec and I’ll go through it now.” 

Great, she’s either passing the buck or I need to be cocking the rifle in the direction of reception.

“Oh, I’m sorry but I don’t think I can help you.” She says eventually, looking at me from beneath a perfectly topiaried fringe.

“I beg your pardon?” I don’t even try to disguise the frustration. I’m not good at tact, especially when people are messing me around and wasting my time. Only I’m allowed to waste my time.

“Well, these blood tests, the ex-ray and some of the things they want us to look for we don’t do on the NHS. You’d have to pay.”

“Ok then, I’ll pay. It’s kind of important.”

“Oh, well you’ll have to make appointments at the hospital and there’s a waiting list of course.”

“You call the hospital now and make the appointments then please.”

“I can’t do that I’m afraid, I can only do that if there is reason to suspect there is something medically wrong with you.”

“Excuse me, but are you deliberately being unhelpful?”

She looks at me, taken aback that anyone dare challenge the lore of a doctor.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the problem?” the false, sweet smile paints itself on completing the blank expression.

“I brought this damn form in 5 days ago. It would have taken you all of ten minutes to call me and explain this. You could try and be helpful now by calling the hospital to make up for the fact that you and the rest of your staff have been pathetically lazy and borderline negligent in their work. Do you ignore important test results that arrive here from the hospital as well?”

“Er, um, er…”

“Forget it, I’d like to speak to whoever runs this place.”

“I can’t do that, they’re very busy and…”

“Just get them, now.”

Off she scuttles. I may have been slightly more rude than the situation called for, but not once did I raise my voice. I never do. Shouting gets you no-where. I made a formal complaint to the ‘whoever-it-was’ that ran the place and I left. 

The company I was heading to have a London office, and they had a guy there handling my visa application. Let me tell you, this guy was an angel. Nothing was too much trouble and when I called him to explain that monkeys could do a better job at providing medical care than my GP’s office he told me to leave it with him.

A couple of hours later he called me and informed me that he had made me an appointment with a Harley Street private clinic in London for the following week, all my tests would be done on the same day, and the company was paying. All I had to do was get myself there. 

A day in London, just before Christmas, and a private Harley Street clinic? I think I could manage to get myself there! 

To be continued…

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