The blog has been silent for three solid weeks, and I apologize for that. It’s been a busy time. Four days after my last post, I left Missouri to travel back to Riyadh.
And in a lot of ways, it was very difficult.
I sobbed as I watched my house fade into the distance as my dad drove me, my mom, and Andy, my sweet Yorkshire Terrier, away, beginning our three-hour drive to the airport in St. Louis. I cried because I knew I would miss walking on grass, feeling the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, having my hands on a steering wheel, the tart/sweet taste of a lemon-berry slush from Sonic. And of course, just sitting in the same room as my friends and family. But at that moment, I cried because I was going to miss Parker, my adorable, lovable Labradoodle, who, of course, broke my heart with the confused look he gave me as I hugged him goodbye and kissed the top of his head, a look that clearly said, “Why does Andy get to go with you and I don’t?”
As I explained to my dad why I was crying, relating the story of Parker’s confused look and sharing what I was sure was going on in his brain as I said goodbye, Dad chuckled and said, “Sis, they’re not that smart.”
“Yes, they are,” I sobbed. “They can’t do math problems or correct grammar mistakes, but they understand things like this.”
He was quiet for a second. Then he said, “Don’t worry, sis. He probably thinks Andy is going to the vet, gonna get a shot or get his nails clipped. He’s probably feeling lucky he doesn’t have to go, too!”
That was the right thing to say, even if I knew it wasn’t true.
But despite my sadness, I was excited to be heading back to Riyadh. One, I was taking my mom back with me for two weeks, so she would have a chance to experience Riyadh for herself. And two, I was finally bringing Andy back with me.
Not having either of my dogs with me since I left the States was one of the most difficult adjustments for me. I was perhaps a bit obnoxiously emotional about it. But thankfully, we managed to get Andy’s paperwork in order (although the Saudi embassy in Washington refused to stamp it, causing us a lot of panic, but more on that later), bought him a new travel bag (and a bow tie), and he was ready to go on his newest big adventure.
We were worried that Andy wouldn’t take kindly to being closed in his traveling bag for so many hours, but with the help of a tiny sliver of a sedative pill given to us by the veterinarian before we left, he did great. The sedative didn’t make him sleep, but it did calm him down enough so that he didn’t bark. However, Andy was still Andy. He charmed every dog person we encountered on the trip (a few people asked to take pictures of him), and when he was out of his bag in the airports, he didn’t hesitate to stare accusingly at anyone he saw who was eating and dared to not share their food with him.
We flew from St. Louis to Chicago, and then we boarded our plane to Frankfurt, Germany. I have to admit that my first experiences in Frankfurt, when I flew to the States from Riyadh, were not pleasant, and thus I fell into the trap of assuming, based on one set of bad experiences, that Germany was all bad, and I was not looking forward to going back, especially with Andy, considering all the issues that could arise with transporting an animal across borders.
The first time I arrived in Frankfurt, I got a lot of stares because I was still in my abaya. My plan had been to head to the gate of my connecting flight and then de-abaya; I figured the gates couldn’t be that far apart, right? Wrong. I had to hike through winding terminals, take a train, take another hike, and then go through another round of security. So that whole time, I was abaya-clad, and I wasn’t entirely surprised by the stares.
What I was surprised by, though, was the rude man who checked my documents. Before entering the security line, I had to hand my passport and boarding pass to this man. My Saudi exit/entry visa was folded into my passport as well, as I wouldn’t be able to re-enter Saudi Arabia without it. When I handed the passport to him, he yanked the visa out of the passport, as though its mere presence was an irritation to him, and said, “I need to see just the important papers.”
“It’s my exit and entry visa,” I explained. “I can’t get back into my husband’s country without it. So I keep it in the passport.”
He placed the passport on the podium and picked up my visa in one hand and my boarding pass in the other. He waved the boarding pass in my face–literally, in my face–and said, “This is important.” He did the same thing with my visa and said, “This is not important.” He slammed all the paperwork into a messy stack and handed it back to me.
I responded, a bit snarkily, “I keep all of the important paperwork together so I don’t lose any of it.”
Then I stomped over to the security line, where it got even more fun. The lady who was overseeing the line for the bag scanning machine pulled my bag toward her as I placed it on the counter before the conveyor belt and said, “Do you have any computers in here?”
Now, in the States, only laptops have to be taken out of bags when going through security. Kindles, iPads, etc. can stay in the bag. But I knew that security rules differ from country to country, so I said, “No laptop, just an iPad.”
This woman looked at me like I was the biggest idiot she’d ever seen and said in a singsong voice, “Is an iPad a computer?”
And here’s where I’m sure I did look like an idiot, because gave her a deer-in-the-headlights look and then replied, “Uhhhh…” How was I supposed to answer that? Yes, I suppose if you want to get technical about it, an iPad is a computer…but so is a calculator. Before I could formulate some kind of logical response to her question, she pawed through my bag, yanked out the iPad, waved it at me (I got a lot of things waved at me on this trip), and announced, “The iPad is a computer, too!” The people behind me snickered. Then she shoved my things onto the conveyor belt and I walked through the metal detector.
When I finally got to my gate, I decided to ask the desk attendant for some information about bringing a pet through the Frankfurt airport. Since I would be returning in a few weeks with Andy in tow, I wanted to know if there was some sort of pet relief area within the terminal so that I wouldn’t have to go through customs and security, or get some information about the process to take Andy through customs so he could relieve himself outside the airport.
I approached the desk; a lady was there. No one else was in line to speak to her, so it wasn’t like she was being bombarded with nagging passenger questions. I said, “Hello, ma’am, I wanted to ask you about–”
I was cut off as she said, “I am booting up my computer here; it will take about seven minutes. I can’t answer any questions for seven minutes, so you can come back then.”
I started to tell her that my question wasn’t about seating or standby or anything else she needed her computer for; I just needed a bit of general information, if she had it. I managed to say, “Oh, I don’t need–”
Then she cut me off again and said, irritated, “Ma’am, I will talk to you in seven minutes.”
By the time I got on the plane, I was pretty sure I would have punched someone if I had to spend seven more minutes in Frankfurt.
So when Mom, Andy, and I boarded a plane bound for Frankfurt on our way back to Riyadh, I was expecting the worst. I warned mom that the staff at the Frankfurt airport were not friendly. We steeled ourselves for a bad experience, especially when, before takeoff, we watched a flight attendant berate a guy sitting in front of us, bombarding him with trick questions about the size of his carry-on luggage, similar to the way the lady at security had quizzed me about my iPad (is this a German thing? I found myself wondering if German teachers commonly questioned their kids this way, and I thought about how if I were a kid who showed up in a German school, my teachers would probably think I was incredibly stupid because I would respond to the majority of their questions with, “Uhhhh…”). He had placed his suitcase in an overhead bin but hadn’t closed the bin, and when the flight attendant tried to close it, it couldn’t close with his suitcase in it. The flight attendant grabbed the bag and said, “Whose is this?” When the man spoke up, she asked him, “Do you think this fits here?”
I felt his pain as he said, “Uhhhh…” Obviously, he thought it would fit; otherwise he wouldn’t have put it there in the first place.
She asked again, “Do you think this fits here?”
More uncomfortable silence.
Finally, she gave him the answer. “It doesn’t fit here. Take it out.”
Thankfully, after that, the eight-hour flight was pretty uneventful. Andy stayed peacefully in his bag, stowed next to my feet under the seat in front of me, napping and gnawing on treats. As we descended into Frankfurt, Mom and I looked excitedly out the window. It had been in the very early morning hours the first time I flew into Frankfurt, so I hadn’t gotten a good view. But this time it was a little later in the morning, so I was happy to really see bits of Germany.
“Look! That must be the River Rhine!” Mom said, pointing. “And look, honey!” she said, pointing to a red train winding through the countryside. “That must be the Frankfurt Special!” (Okay, so the train probably wasn’t full of cute American soldiers singing, the way we imagined, but hey, who says you can’t learn anything from Elvis movies? Long live G.I. Blues!)
When we landed, we were thrilled to find that everyone in Frankfurt was super helpful. And if we thought that Americans were charmed by Andy, they were nothing compared to the Germans. People were constantly approaching him as he sat on my lap and speaking to him in rapid-fire German as they petted him. When they noticed that I wasn’t understanding a word they said, they would switch to English, requesting to see and hold him, baby-talking to him. And those kind Germans obligingly fed him bits of their sandwiches and croissants when he gave them sad eyes as they ate. Andy loved the Germans and the Germans loved Andy.
Finally, we were on the last flight of our journey, the one from Frankfurt to Riyadh. When we landed, Mom was nervous and so was I. She’d never gone through passport control in Riyadh, and we were both especially nervous about bringing Andy through customs. I had visions in my head of Andy being torn from my arms and put in a six-month quarantine, especially since Andy’s paperwork was incomplete.
See, technically, to bring a pet into Saudi Arabia, you have to get a permit from the Agricultural Directorate in Riyadh. Then, within thirty days of your scheduled entry into Saudi Arabia, you have to get a health certificate from your vet, as well as a letter from the vet stating that the pet is in good health. Then you have to send the vet paperwork to be notarized by your state’s USDA office. Then you have to send said paperwork to be notarized by the Department of State in Washington, D.C., and then you have to send it to be notarized by the Saudi embassy, also in Washington. (Yes, this all has to be done within thirty days, and if you call the embassy to ask questions about the process, you will be transferred from person to person without ever getting your questions answered. I tried in English, Saleh tried in Arabic, and the outcome was always the same. My best advice to keep tabs on your paperwork is send everything with tracking numbers.)
So we did all that. Except at the time, we didn’t realize that we had to send the paperwork to the U.S. Department of State after we sent it to the USDA. So when the paperwork came back from the embassy two days before our scheduled departure without the required notarization but with a sheet of paper informing us that the embassy would not notarize the paperwork without the Department of State notarization, Mom and I panicked. We were certain that we would have to leave Andy behind.
After attempting to calm the two of us down, Saleh called the airport and spoke to the veterinarian there, the person in charge of making sure animals clear customs. The vet told Saleh that yes, the embassy notarization was technically necessary, but they wouldn’t be looking for it at customs. According to him, as long as we had the import permit, the health certificate, and the letter from the local veterinarian, we would be good to go.
So when we landed in Riyadh, we were nervous. We hoped that our information was good, and that we really would be able to get Andy through customs without the embassy stamp. If they wouldn’t let him in, we planned to just send Mom right back to the States with Andy, as there was no way we were going to hand him over for any sort of quarantine.
Would you hand your kid over to be quarantined? I know pets aren’t children, but mine are the closest I have to children so far, and there is no way I would let one of them out of my sight with someone I didn’t know or trust.
So…back to landing in Riyadh. We got off the plane, and headed for passport control. Initially, the security guard directing the lines was going to let me go through the line for Saudi citizens, but when he saw that my mom was with me and that her visa was new, he said that we couldn’t go through the citizen line, but he opened a brand new line for us!
Mom and I were impressed…and relieved, as those other lines were really freaking long. We were also pleased to find that the guard stamping our passports was friendly; he joked with us, quizzed us on our Arabic, and then as he handed Mom’s stamped passport back to her, he said, “Bye-bye, Emma!”
So that was a relief. I was grateful that Mom had a pleasant welcome to Saudi Arabia. We collected our luggage and headed through customs. I took Andy out of his carrier and sent the bag through the x-ray machine with the rest of the luggage. I walked through customs with Andy in my arms and handed his paperwork to the guard on duty.
He flipped through the pages, said, “Okay, thank you,” and that was that.
Whew! All that worrying for nothing. It was really so incredibly easy!
It took Andy a few days to get his bearings; every time we left him in the apartment alone, he would bark. And bark. And bark. And drive everyone else in the house crazy. But we did our best to help him adjust, and now that he knows where he is, and knows that we always come back, he’s barely barked at all. He’s back to being our regular snugglebug wiggleworm Andy, and we are so glad to have him back with us.
Meanwhile, while Andy was doing his adjusting, Mom was really enjoying her visit to Riyadh. As we drove her home from the airport, she exclaimed, “I don’t know what you guys were talking about when you said there isn’t any green. There’s green! It looks just like Las Vegas…without the casinos!” She kept telling people that while she was here, that Riyadh looks just like Las Vegas…and that got a lot of laughs, let me tell you.
We managed to do a lot during her visit, although not as much as we originally planned. We went shopping at the Souq Al Zel, which is the oldest souq in Saudi Arabia and is the best place I’ve ever seen for buying Arabic trinkets and souvenirs (and I even found some fun, yet out-of-place vintage treasures…but more on that in a later post).
We went out to eat at Najd Village, which serves traditional Riyadh food and is eaten in the traditional Riyadh way; on the floor!
We went “camping” in the desert with my wonderful in-laws, who gave my mom such a terrific welcome to Saudi Arabia. Now, when I say “camping,” it was not like camping in the States, where you freeze your butt off in a drippy tent that you managed to set up with some cloth and wire. It was…well, very different. In this version of camping, we went out into the desert and sat in a giant, well-constructed tent (I mean, it had chandeliers in it!) with a fire pit built right in the middle. It also had a TV, complete with satellite.
We ate a huge meal (this picture doesn’t even show all the food–I had to crop it to cut out faces), and then we just relaxed in the tent and drank warm milk with ginger while the cousins rode four-wheelers in the desert outside.
We went home around two in the morning. It was a great time, and I can’t wait to go “camping” again, even if the next time we go we don’t have a tent with chandeliers in it.
A few days later, it was Thanksgiving Day, so Mom and I cooked a good ol’ American Thanksgiving dinner for my in-laws.
We made turkey, of course, along with stuffing (which turned out horrible because the beef sausage we got for it was no good), as well as baked brown sugar sweet potatoes, creamed corn, dinner rolls, green bean casserole, twice-baked mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, Mom’s special cranberry relish (thank God we were finally able to track down cranberries–we found them at Lulu Market), apple pie, and pumpkin pie.
We honestly expected to have a huge amount of leftovers. Much to our surprise, by the end of the dinner, the only leftovers we had were two small slices of pumpkin pie. We were shocked but thrilled that everyone seemed to love our cooking so much!
Overall, Mom had an amazing visit and I can’t wait for her to come back in May. I love that she now knows exactly where I am, where I go to sleep at night, where I do my grocery shopping. She was happy to find that Saudi Arabia is not the brutal, terrifying place it is so often made out to be (one evening, as she, Saleh, and I sat at an outdoor table on Tahlia Street enjoying cups of frozen yogurt, she asked, “Where are the religious police? I’m still waiting to see the religious police!” Although we took her all over Riyadh, she never did see the religious police on this trip).
I miss her so much. On her last day here, I did pretty much nothing except mope around the house and occasionally burst into tears. We said goodbye in the family lounge section at the airport, and we were both sobbing so heavily that Saleh had to take her down to customs while I waited. My mom is my best friend, my travel buddy, my advocate when I don’t even realize I need one. I am grateful that even though we’re continents apart, we have Skype, MagicJack, and WhatsApp. And I’m grateful that she’s coming back in May.
Even though Mom is back in Missouri, things are going well here. Now that Andy’s here with us, he is back in his routine of curling up in bed right next to my side. I get to fall asleep with Saleh snoring on one side of me and Andy snoring (and sometimes sleep-barking) on the other.
There is no better lullaby.