To My Grandmother -

I read somewhere once that to fully enjoy and celebrate the highs in our lives, we also had to open ourselves to experience the lows, the sadder, more painful moments. And only by experiencing all that life has to offer can we truly live life to the fullest. With that in mind, I write this post.

I actually wrote this piece on November 18, 2008 on a plane. I keep a small black notebook with me where ever I go to jot down interesting observations, any ideas that my suddenly creep into my brain or record any pressing thoughts. On the night of the 18th, I was on an Air Canada flight flying from Toronto back home to Los Angeles. I had spent the previous four days, sitting by my grandmother's bedside in a very gloomy hospital. My grandmother had fallen very ill and was now hooked up to a respirator - without which she could not breath. I was returning back to Los Angeles to deal with some personal affairs with the intention of returning to Toronto when they turned the respirator off. Fortunately for me and my family, my grandmother's fierce love of life persevered and when the respirator was turned off, she continued to breath on her own. My grandmother is alive weeks after doctors gave up hope, but is still weak and frail. Never have I been more aware of the intense gift of life and its fragility. Compelled at the time to express what I was feeling for her, I wrote this:

November 18, 2008
My grandmother is hooked up to a ventilator right now and for the past few days, I watched her chest rise and fall, as oxygen struggled to get past her scarred and damaged lungs into the rest of her body. There are so many tubes and pins going in and out of her, it pains me to see her like this. My grandmother. Her frail and delicate body is overwhelmed by the sterile machinery that surrounds her.

I am her first grandchild and with the novelty of being the first I was showered with so much love. And until my sister was born, I monopolized her all attention and affection. Now while she has ten grandchildren in all, she will always have been my grandmother first.

With each passing day, I fear she is drifting further away from me. And the language barrier we share (she only speaks Chinese and I barely make do) is now magnified by this physical toll. I watch her with her eyes closed in the hospital bed and I want to embrace her and thrust us both into a time warp to those days when she would burst with excitement when I would call her on the telephone to tell her I was back in Toronto and would be visiting her soon. I long to see her smile and laugh with robustness and tease my aunts and uncles. But instead she is quiet.

I don't know how much longer I have my grandmother on this earth with me, but I wanted the world, the universe to know that I love her and that I hope she forgives my long periods of absence and that my world is blessed and brighter because I know her and because I am loved by her.


Life of an Expat - Part II

A couple months ago, I posted a write-up from a family friend on her experiences as an expatriate in Dubai. Here is her update.

September 2008, Dubai
A young boy performs his Eid prayers in Dubai*

September 1st marked the first day of Ramadan, where for one month, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and break their fast with iftar, an evening meal, often a massive feast in Dubai. Most restaurants feature huge all-you-can-eat buffets and all sorts of dinner deals even at fast food places (waistlines beware!). During Ramadan, it is actually a criminal offense in Dubai to eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public. Fortunately, Ramadan also means that we work two less hours a day as mandated by labour law - so we get off at 3:30pm or 4pm. Hurrah! Of course, as lawyers, this only sometimes applies, given the enslavement nature of our profession, but we get to leave early at least half of the time.

Real Estate Woes
Some of you may have heard about the ridiculous nature of rent and housing here in Dubai. Prices have been steadily escalating. Some reports indicate a 27% appreciation in the past year, although it is predicted that this will slow down next year - perhaps sooner with the Wall Street meltdown. From our searches, we've seen properties going up in value every few weeks. Until recently, there was no such thing as rent regulation. Even with it, rent prices are sky high. We had to dish out CDN$3600 (Gulp! My heart still aches) per month to rent a one bedroom, one bath apartment, and had to pay six months in advance as most landlords ask for a six or twelve month advance payment! This is why employers provide a housing advance allowance and why a lot of people live in the neighbouring emirate Sharjah and do the 1.5 hour commute or share rooms in villas.

Even with the crazy rents which are further exacerbated by the realtor fee paid by tenants at 5% of the yearly rent and the municipality tax of 5% of the monthly rent (one of the few taxes here, although there is a VAT proposed for the near future), rental apartments in the Marina area are so popular they are rented within a couple days of being listed.
Dubai Marina

Will our property ever close?
We are STILL in the process of closing the purchase of our apartment which is excruciatingly painful with the 3495824905683492634689656809 documents to complete and execute and then re-complete due to the realtor's 492853490268 mistakes. We have to constantly follow up and remind the realtor to do his job. It is the most brutally awful, tedious and arduous process. We also have to agree to the most unconscionable terms in the loan agreement (akin to signing the rights away for your first born). They include writing undated cheques to the bank for over a million dollars in the event we default on our mortgage (writing NSF cheques is a criminal offence here so having three bounced cheques permits them to charge us if we default). We are constantly arguing fervently with people to ensure they do their jobs so we don't lose our 10% deposit. Physical attendance at the land registration department is mandatory; as is the hand delivery of documents. This is all combined with new real estate laws and procedures that spring up all the time. We desperately hope that all our pain and suffering in undertaking this gargantuan task will someday pay off.

Losing the Beer Belly
Incidentally, in spite of eating a lot of food and the fact that many people gain weight in Dubai, my husband has lost 25 pounds in our first three months. This is even before we started working out regularly. He attributes this to NOT drinking beer. (He was accustomed to drinking some almost every night back home). Only restaurants in hotels can serve alcohol (there is a law about having rooms available when serving alcohol which is why bars, clubs and fine dining tend to be attached to hotels). So we generally can't have liquor when casually dining.
Chameleon Bar at the Shangri-La Hotel

In addition, licenses are required in order to purchase alcohol or to even possess alcohol in one's own residence. We also just realized that we can't get a license until my husband has a job, since married women are supposed to rely on their husbands to buy alcohol. Since he doesn't have one yet, he can't apply for a license. We can get around this somehow, but the thought of going through another application process which will require my employer issuing and signing a No Objection Certificate - is disincentive enough. Perhaps we will wait until Ramadan is over and do the one hour booze run to the "hole in the wall" in another emirate call Ajman where they don't have the 30% liquor tax Dubai imposes.

We are heading to Cyprus at the end of September for six days! Hurrah! We have two days off for Eid al-Fitr which celebrates the end of Ramadan and I'm taking a couple additional days. We chose Cyprus as it is less than a four hour flight and we wanted to avoid a Muslim country which would be busy during the religious holidays. Plus Cyprus has mountains, milder temperatures and greenery - which we miss.

*The image of the boy saying his Eid prayers was taken from news.bbc.co.uk.


Bohemian Paris - Le Marais

A friend's wedding in Athens a few weeks ago, gave me the perfect excuse to spend a few days in Paris on my way home to Los Angeles. This time, with no meetings planned, I was able to spend a lazy day wandering through the streets of Le Marais. While I did do a little shopping, much of it was curtailed by the strength of the euro, instead I spent the majority of my time sitting at cafes, bistros and a library/wine bar watching Parisian life bustle past me.

Once an actual marsh (which is where it gets its name), Le Marais started to take shape in the 12th century. The rich character of the neighborhood is a result of diverse layering of cultural influences that have settled here over time. Now Hasidic Jews intermingle with Paris' gay population. Young and edgy designers and up and coming artists display their work in small funky boutiques and chic yet edgy galleries.

There were a few places that I particularly enjoyed visiting - incidentally, they were either all on the same street, adjacent to each other or just around the corner.

We had brunch at les philosophes, located on 30, rue Vieille du Temple. (See left for meal and bistro). It was a great spot to watch people start their day. (Make sure you check out their existential bathrooms).

For a book or a glass of wine after a day of shopping, or a glass of wine while reading a book, La Belle Hortense is a wonderfully charming and cozy bookstore/wine bar. They have an interesting collection of books which range in topics from colorful and animated children's stories to architecture and travel to the weighty pontification of French philosophers. We got their at 5PM, just when they opened, before the evening rush and plunked ourselves in the back on their comfortable black leather sofas.

For an odd and unusual yet creative collection of clothing, furniture, accessories and other paraphernalia, check out DOM- Christian Koban (www.dom-ck.com) at 21, rue Ste. Croix de la Bretonnerie. (When I first walked by with its blaring music and black interiors, I thought it was a trendy bar or restaurant). Downstairs they have some rather smart pieces of furniture. (See above for the boat shelf). They also have stores all over Germany.

I bought two small paintings by a Cypriot artist at CARRE D'ARTISTES (www.carredartistes.com) - an art gallery that features the work of 30 artists from various backgrounds from around the world. New artists are profiled each week. The raison d'etre of this gallery is to introduce new artists, provide them a respectable venue to promote themselves and sell their work and at the same time, allow people from all socio-economic backgrounds to acquire original pieces of art. I think it is a very smart concept. They have a few locations in Paris and in other cities throughout France. The gallery I visited was located on 29, rue Vieille du Temple.

Around 7:30PM, after having spent about eight and a half hours wandering the neighborhood, we headed back to the hotel. But as far as new experiences go, my time at Le Marais was as close to perfect as they come....



Unionville: The Beauty behind the Beast

While Toronto, Canada does not possess the grandeur and beauty of a city like Paris or London, it does have numerous neighborhoods downtown that are distinctive and vibrant with culture diversity, character and charm. The suburbs of Toronto however, are a very different story. Like many North American cities that have kowtowed to the culture of the car and urban sprawl, the suburbs are remarkably unremarkable - heinous rows of condominiums, parking lots, strip malls and cookie cutter homes.

There is however, a little gem located just north of Toronto - hidden behind a speeding eight lane highway lined with endless mind-numbing strip malls, bland chain stores and generic restaurants. Surprisingly, once you turn the street corner into the town of Unionville, the sounds of traffic become a distant memory. Get out of your car and walk around Main Street - you won't find a chain store here. Main Street is dotted with galleries, fun stores and restaurants, gazebos and picturesque little parks. The town is not very large and it will not take you very long to stroll from one end to the other, but you will find yourself much calmer and happier when you do.

If you get a chance to venture up to Unionville, there are two stores in particular I enjoyed visiting. Noteworthy is elegant store tucked below a staircase off Main Street. They sell beautiful and ornate paper products, unusual hand-made cards, organizers, etc. Distinct Living is a home store with chic and unique home decorations, and kitchenware that you won't find easily anywhere else.

161 Main Street
Unionville, ON

209 Main Street
Unionville, ON

For information on Unionville, visit the following websites:
Unionville Tourism


Life of an Expat in Dubai

A few months ago, a close friend of my sister from law school, shortly after getting married, packed up her life in Toronto, Canada and moved with her husband clear across the planet to Dubai in search of new experiences and her pot of gold. She had never been there before, and up until then had minimal if any exposure to the Middle East. Her first trip to Dubai was to meet her new colleagues and sign her employment contract as an attorney for a luxury goods company. Since her big move, she has been, on occasion, sending fascinating descriptions of her experiences as an expatriate in Dubai. With her permission, I am sharing some of it on my blog. Her write-ups provide an interesting perspective on a city, that we have been hearing so much about but really know so little; and the common struggles of settling in a foreign environment.

July 2008

It is hot out here!!! With temperatures soaring over 40 degrees Celsius regularly, we are hardly ever outside and for the few minutes that we walk from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building, it is positively sweltering and our skin prickles from the scorching sun. Apparently, some temperature records have been broken, when we hit over 47 degrees and a few people have died from sunstroke/heat exhaustion, although these are predominantly construction workers who have to toil in this heat. Not sure how those poor guys work in inferno-like conditions, even with the laws forbidding construction from 12-3 pm in the summer, the rest of the day and even the nights feel like being in an oven.

The summer months in Dubai are known to be very quiet (even with the big summer sales) with a mass exodus of expats to their home country, leaving from a month to the whole summer, as a return ticket home yearly is usually part of the compensation package. This is also in line with the Labour Laws that permit our vacations to be broken up into a maximum of two parts only, which is totally contrary to what I had expected.

After 1.5 months in the hotel apartment, we moved to a friends’ villa a few weeks ago when they went home to Canada. The villa we stayed at for almost 3 weeks was HUGE!!! with 4 bedrooms, a lounge and 3 bathrooms upstairs in addition to the regular downstairs rooms and also had a large maid’s quarters (anything over a 2 bedroom here comes with maid’s quarters, even some apartments, as it is virtually unthinkable to do one’s own chores here). The backyard was a lovely oasis with 2 little pools and trees, but with the scorching heat, it was very much like a hot bath so we only used the pool for 5 minutes once. We did, however, make much use of the BBQ and had some friends over for dinner a few times.

The Social Scene
We’ve been meeting lots of new people through friends’ introductions, networking events, and I’ve joined a women's social club called Bridget, after Bridget Jones, originally for singletons, till they realized that not all married women here fit the stereotypical profile of Expat Wives (the parent organization of Bridget) whose daily lives consisted of spa appointments, lunch, and shopping, but that some of us were independent career women as well. The club hosts monthly brunch buffets (one of the key Dubai hallmarks is the all-you-can-eat and drink Friday, the first day of our weekend, brunches), drinks nights and other events.

I’ve made a few friends from there and have been meeting up with them regularly already, and have also signed up for a Dinner Club as well so there are lots of opportunities to go out and mingle. Thus far, the friends we’ve made are from the Netherlands (via Nigeria for 6 years), Ireland (viaEngland for a few years), Germany (via London for 10 years), a few from Canada and the United States - a reflection of the very diverse nature of Dubai.

From One Temporary Abode to Another....

Because of the ridiculously high rent, e.g. US$5000 per month for anything less than one-year lease and US$3500 per month for a one-year lease (12 month rent to be paid in advance – which is why employers will give us cash advance for housing), we had been hoping to buy an apartment relatively quickly. As most banks require presence in the UAE for 6 months, we had limited options although one bank was willing to consider us, but had to wait for my 2nd paycheque to be deposited and then of course, the waiting game began.

The top of our list of frustrations is how long everything takes here, the red tape (e.g. buying a mobile requires showing of passport), and how inconsistent things can be depending on who you ask and what mood they’re in etc. However, my husband did benefit from such haphazard application of rules as he managed to have me, a mere woman, sponsor him for residency. Rules are changing all the time, but last time we had checked only female doctors and engineers could sponsor their husbands. However, given my position and package, they considered me eligible to sponsor him, even though they didn’t ask for our marriage certificate (which we had to have notarized in Canada, attested by the UAE Embassy in Canada, the Foreign Affairs Department of Canada, and the UAE consulate in Dubai).

After many searches and disappointments, we finally made an offer on an apartment on Tuesday, which was accepted yesterday. The apartment we bought, a one bedroom (approx. 900 sqft) has a partial marina view (full marina views only come with 2 bedrooms) and while it is a little smaller than what we were originally hoping for, the price for this area is quite good and is with our preferred developer. (Can't trust the other lesser known developers here since there are horror stories due to the lack of regulation. Everything can be quite sketchy). The great thing is that it is right next door to the Marina Promenade, with shops and restaurants and the other retail outlets close by.

Marina - Jumeirah

Local and Cultural News

Nothing can be depended on here nor can you hope that people can actually do their jobs properly. The phrase “Inshallah” meaning “God willing” is one of my favourite ones, as people will promise you something prefaced with “Inshallah”, which we usually take for, “maybe we’ll try, but don’t hold your breath that it will actually happen”. All of these incompetencies and delays just make me want to yell “Khallas!” (“enough!”) already. Of course, the never-ending traffic jams and horrendous driving will induce one to cry out “Yalla!” (“hurry up” or “come on”). That coupled with the very confusing roads and endless construction, which means getting lost and doing lots of U-turns, do not make commuting a very pleasant experience here.

Some of you may have heard that the US and UK embassies issued terrorist alerts for the UAE in June, but that turned out to be a conversation overheard by two blokes at a pub that joked about bombs, so no worries so far on that front for us over here.

Other interesting news that may have hit the international news waves is the two Britons who were caught having sex on the beach here. The pair who just met was quite liquored from the all-you-can-drink/eat Friday brunch and got all frisky on the beach in broad daylight. The police officer who happened upon them gave them a warning and then returned to find them at it again. He proceeded to arrest them and was then verbally abused and assaulted by the woman with her shoe. The pair are facing up to 6 years in prison and have apparently gotten married to reduce the sex before marriage offense. They have denied the offense (DNA test results are still pending!), although one would have thought that they should have realized that assaulting an officer would have been the bigger offense. This will likely cause problems for other expats as there have already been recent complaints by local Emiratis about the immoral nature of expats in terms of public displays of affection and scantily clad women. A lot of expats fail to realize that we are still in a Muslim country with conservative values in spite of the fact that they permit alcohol and Western cultural norms. These expats are expecting to party like it is Ibiza or Cancun. Hopefully, they won’t cause the authorities to really clamp down and tighten up the restraints and make life difficult on the rest of us.

Jumeirah Mosque


The Silk Road 2023

Another brand spanking new 'city' is being designed and built on desert sands of the Persian Gulf and this will be the new location of the world's tallest building. This time, this city will not be located in the United Arab Emirates but in Kuwait. This new city will be built in the northern desert of Kuwait, in Subiya and will be connected to Kuwait city by bridge. It will be called Madinat al-Hareer or the City of Silk. In the center of this new city which will be similar in size to Edinburgh, Scotland, will be the future tallest skyscraper in the world - Burj Mubarak al-Kabir. This building will essentially be 7 neighborhoods stacked on top of each other. At the highest point it will be twice the height of Taipei 101 (1,670 ft). My interest in this project however, is not in this insanely tall building or the new media, finance, health, sport zones, or the new airport or port - but in the new very ambitious railway system that spans the historic Silk Road.
The historic Silk Route/ Silk Road (image from Wikipedia)
The Silk Road was the historic path of traders and merchants that connected China and India to Europe through the Middle East. What the tiny country of Kuwait plans to create is a rail network that will connect Kuwait to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Israel and China. And while this goal may seem rather lofty, the government of Kuwait has apparently been in discussion with these countries since 1998 and the funding for this endeavor is already all in place. The first part of this rail project will be the inner-city metro of Kuwait City that will connect to the larger railway system to the other GCC countries which include Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
When I first read about this development, I immediately had images of the luxury and excess of the Orient Express, and the comfort and speed of the Japanese Bullet trains dancing in my head; and I was reminded of the sense of freedom and joy I experienced with my Eurorail pass traveling to country after country in Europe during my college days. For me, trains have always had an aura of romance and mystery that have escaped air travel, especially these days with horrid lines at airports and the dire lack of service from airlines, not to mention rising costs. Of course it will be quite some time before this railway system is operational, the designers anticipate 2023 - and who knows what transportation will look like then. Oh, the possibilities!


The Happiest Place on Earth - and It Ain't Disneyland

But it does start with a "D." It's Denmark.

Two separate studies on both sides of the pond have concluded that the happiest people on earth live in Denmark. The first study which formed the "Happiness Index" was a part of the World Values Survey headed by University of Michigan's political scientist Ronald Inglehart. The second study was done out of the University of Leicester. Adrian White, the lead researcher on the project and his team created the first ever World Map of Happiness. This result may surprise many but over the past thirty years, Denmark has consistently scored higher than any western country on life satisfaction. Trying to make sense of this conclusion, Danish researchers suggested that the Danes were happier because they had low expectations of their own country. While I suppose it is a blessing to be content with what you have, that analysis sounded rather dismal to me. There had to be more. The researchers on the World Map of Happiness did also conclude that a nation's happiness levels had much to do with a country's health levels, prosperity and education.
Image by Bob Krist (www.nationalgeographic.com)

The Danish secret however, may have been uncovered by Monocle Magazine in their survey of the World's Most Livable City. In addition to evaluating a city's airport, transportation links, crime rates and neighborhoods, this year they also investigated cultural venues and ease of opening small businesses amongst other requirements. And what city ranked number one? Copenhagen. In large part because it provided urban dwellers most what they look for - a mix of shops and services, green space, independent businesses, restaurants, cafes, street-life, security and a comfortable dose of grit and surprise.

I visited Copenhagen some years ago and while I do not remember an immediate and overwhelming sense of joy or happiness, (granted I had just left Sweden, the land of extraordinarily beautiful people), I do remember being captivated by good design.... (I wonder how much of a role design plays in the state of wellbeing...). Perhaps, one has to live in Copenhagen to reap the full emotional benefits. The older brother of a dear friend of mine is moving to Copenhagen from New York. I guess, I will check in with him in a few months and see how he is doing....


Why Another Blog?

Welcome to my new blog! Why another - you may ask?

Well this is my new brainchild after ten years of searching. Sounds very profound - but it really isn't. Being an avid reader, researcher, writer, traveler and consumer of the good life, I started to notice many years ago, while working on my graduate research on the effects of globalization on culture, identity and architecture, that there was just a dire lack of material out there that addressed people like me- global inhabitants, travelers, people of mixed heritage, culturally diverse; people who sit comfortably at the intersection of cultures and humanity merging. Instead I found that a lot of printed materials 'targeting' global nomads were often rather superficial and overly commercial.

As a result, I would often have to sift through mounds of literature to find a small singular sporadic item that would be directly relevant to me, my lifestyle. And aside from the occasional article in the Financial Times weekend issue, or the odd book, or an unorganized, haphazard group on a social networking site there really isn't much out there that gives us a voice. I have looked.

It is not that I find myself so interesting or unique. The numbers of people whom make their homes in multiple cities globally, or are of mixed heritage continue to grow, as do the numbers of people who are migrating and traveling worldwide. According to Richard Florida, in his book Who's Your City, he estimates that approximately 200 million people (1 in 35 people worldwide) live outside the country they were born. So my hope and intent for this blog was to take a more varied and deeper look at our global lives, identities, cultures, interests, travels, hobbies, etc.

If you have ideas as to what you would like me to research or focus on or write about in this blog - send me an email or make a comment on this blog. My email address can be found under my profile. (If interested you can also check out my other blog: www.borderlessculture.com ). I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you!
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