this american life.

November 19, 2013

Okay, so we’ve been back here in the States for a few weeks now, and I have to say that there are some ways that American life really blows Saudi life out of the water, things that I definitely did not fully appreciate–or even know to appreciate–before I made the move.

1. Driving. I cannot describe how freaking glorious it is to drive again. If you are an American woman (or, for that matter, a woman from any other country, since Saudi Arabia is the only remaining country in the world that does not allow women to drive) planning a move to Saudi Arabia, please don’t say to me, “Oh, I won’t miss driving. I don’t like driving that much, anyway.” That may very well be true, but I said the same thing before I moved, and here I am telling you that you will miss it. When you have to drive, it can turn into drudgery. But when you can’t drive after being able to, you realize…it’s freedom.

It’s not the physical act of having your hands on the steering wheel, shifting gears, pressing pedals…although all of those actions are things you savor once you get back in the driver’s seat after a long time out of it (especially in my trusty Volkswagen Beetle…oh, the joy of clutching and shifting again! Again, to women who may be planning a move to Saudi Arabia, I highly recommend that you learn to drive a manual transmission before you move to Saudi Arabia, if you haven’t already. Nothing lets you savor the act of driving like a stick shift). It’s about being able to control where you go and when you go.

Mr. Mostafa has been very much enjoying his time as a homebody. When he wants McDonald’s in the morning for breakfast, I hop in the car and run get it. I go meet my friends and family for lunch while he hangs out at home. I go grocery shopping by myself. And he enjoys all of it just as much as I do.

2. Online shopping…and online selling. I know that online shopping can be done in Saudi Arabia, as well, but I haven’t really figured out an efficient way to do it yet. As of now, if we use the Saudi post, our mail comes to a post office box on the other side of Riyadh. Saudi homes don’t really have addresses, and there’s no direct mail service to houses/apartments, so if I order something online, either I have to send Saleh to the post office to pick it up from the notoriously unreliable Saudi Post (I’ve heard good and bad stories about the Saudi Post, but the bad stories are really, really bad) or I have to use Aramex’s Shop & Ship service, which costs a pretty penny, although the quality of the service is outstanding (I mean, I bought Saleh a guitar for his birthday last year, and it arrived to in Riyadh from the States in absolutely perfect condition), as long as you don’t accidentally ship anything that is prohibited (I also once shipped a package that included a couple bottles of shellac nail polish, and the package got stranded somewhere in the Aramex warehouse in New York, and it took days for me to get an actual person on the phone to instruct them to return the package to Missouri).

Anyway, of course, it’s a different story here. Click-click-click, and an item is on my doorstep in a few days. Furthermore, I got on eBay and unloaded a camera lens that I never use and some long-abandoned yarn from my craft supply stash. This sort of efficient online selling is just not (currently) possible in Riyadh.

3. Having a dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer. I’ve written at length about our adventures with our laundry machine in our apartment in Riyadh. I’ve also briefly mentioned our setup for washing dishes. We really have nothing to complain about; our clothes get clean with minimal effort, and so do our dishes (because let’s face it, although it’s time consuming and not an altogether pleasurable task, washing dishes is not that hard). But it sure is nice to be able to rinse a plate, stick it in the dishwasher, and done. And don’t even get me started on how intoxicating it is to pull a toasty warm, bone dry, fresh-smelling item of clothing out of the dryer. Bliss.

Dishwashers are common in Saudi Arabia, so that is something that’s not really an American advantage, but merely an advantage of my house in Missouri. Separate machines for washing and drying clothes, however, are not common in Saudi Arabia. Most homes in Riyadh have some sort of laundry machine that washes and dries, like we do. So yeah…America beats Saudi Arabia there.

4. Getting a glass of water from the kitchen sink faucet. If you ever move to Saudi Arabia, one of the first things you will be told is don’t drink the water. No one drinks the water. At least, don’t drink the water directly from the kitchen sink faucet. Instead, Saudis drink and cook with purified water from 5-gallon drums that fit into water dispensers. Or they buy gallon jugs of water from the grocery store. Or they buy bottles of water for drinking. At any rate, the water that Saudis drink generally does not come from the faucet.

We use the faucet water to bathe, clean, wash dishes, wash food, and even brush our teeth…but not for drinking or cooking. I’m honestly curious to know what’s in the water that makes it so unsuitable for those purposes. I’ve thought about picking up one of those home water testing kits from Lowe’s or Home Depot or something so I can bring it back to Riyadh and do my own investigation. We’ll see. At any rate, I’ve had to re-train myself to get water from the faucet here when I want a drink. And that water is delicious…not least of all because it’s so darn convenient.

5. Flushing used toilet paper down the toilet. If you’re unaware as to why this is a great thing, read this. And that’s all I have to say about that. (I should also point out that yet again, this is a quirk unique to my own apartment in Saudi Arabia, not Saudi Arabia in general.)

6. Taking baths. For some reason, bathtubs are kind of a rarity in Saudi homes. They’re just not that common nowadays…maybe they’re just out of fashion now. But all I know is that there are zero bathtubs in my house, and I used to live for baths. Almost every night, from the time I was old enough to bathe myself, I used to fill up the bathtub with hot water and bubbles and settle into it with a snack and a book and/or a stack of magazines (as a teenager, my preferred publications were Seventeen, Shutterbug, and the now defunct Mary Beth’s Beanie World. Yes, I was a rabid Beanie Baby collector, and I haven’t gotten rid of a single one. And to this day, I check eBay regularly for Beanie Babies that I could only dream of owning in high school, but can now afford because the prices have dropped so sharply since the glory days of Beanie Baby collecting). I would spend hours in the bathtub, reading and eating. And it was wonderful.

In our house in the States, we, blessedly, have a bathtub. I have resumed by bathtime routine, and Mr. Mostafa respects this by taking over sole Lavender duty each night while I take my relaxing time.

7. Happy Hour at Sonic. For those of you not from the South/Midwest area, Sonic is…well, it’s America’s Drive-In, man. They’re a fast food burger chain, but mostly what they’re famous for is their soft drinks. You can add flavors (cherry, vanilla, etc.) to any type of soda…plus they have amazing slushes. (I think it’s safe to say that my husband and I kind of fell in love over a shared lemon-berry slush from Sonic.) And every weekday, from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock in the afternoon, all drinks at Sonic are half price. This, friends, is Happy Hour.

I know I’ve expressed my love for Sonic (and Happy Hour) elsewhere on the blog (multiple times), but it bears repeating because I’ve discovered that now drinks at Sonic are also half price from 6 until 10 in the morning. Four more hours of cheap Sonic drink goodness! Needless to say, any time I pick up McDonald’s breakfast, I make a second stop at Sonic for drinks to go with it.

8. Baked doughnuts and pies. I appreciate that McDonald’s pies in America are baked. (Not that I should be eating McDonald’s pies, but I can’t resist the pumpkin pies around Thanksgiving time.) In Saudi Arabia, they’re fried. And they taste weird to me…greasy. And I appreciate that some doughnuts are baked…and the ones that aren’t don’t really taste like they’re fried. Perhaps this is because Americans have perfected the art of the doughnut…we tend to gravitate toward the culinary cultivation of sweet, fatty foods with zero nutritional value. But in any case, I’ve bought doughnuts at Safeway and a few other places in Riyadh, only to discover that I’m basically biting into a ring of pure grease. The exceptions to this rule that I’ve found so far are the original glazed doughnuts from Krispy Kreme and the blueberry doughnuts from Dunkin’ Donuts. But it’s hit or miss.

9. Changing tables in public restrooms. There are no changing tables in Saudi Arabia. Anywhere. At least there are enclosed spaces in restaurants and stuff (see here), and in every mall, there are female-only praying areas that are good to duck into for a quick diaper change if necessary. But still, it feels pretty gross to mop up a baby butt in the same enclosed space where your chicken tikka and naan is getting cold on the table. All I can think about while I’m doing it is that oft-shared little factoid about how in your bathroom, you should keep your toothbrush at least six feet away from your toilet because when you flush, microscopic poop particles are launched through the air.

In the States, pretty much every women’s restroom has a changing table. This is exceedingly sexist–I mean, believe it or not, my (Saudi) husband changes diapers. (And yes, I realize the irony of being in a situation where I complain about sexism once I’ve left the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive cars.) Still, there is always an appropriate space for me to deal with Lavender’s dirty diapers. Sure, sometimes I can’t stop myself from attacking the diaper changing station with antibacterial wet wipes before I put down the plastic changing pad I always carry and then put the baby on top of that. But I can deal with that if it means not having to get up and leave the dinner table in search of a discreet trash can in which I can dispose of the tightly wrapped poopy diaper hidden in my abaya sleeve.

10. Daytime routine. Saudi Arabia is a nocturnal place, perhaps because it can get so darn hot during the day. At any rate, life moves at a different pace, and it seems that pace is conducive to sleeping all day and staying up all night. In Riyadh, Lavender tends to stay awake until maybe 1 in the morning, and then she sleeps until around 11 the next morning. (Which, of course, means that her mommy and daddy don’t get to go to bed until around 1 in the morning, either.) Here in the States, she has magically transitioned to a more daylight-friendly sleeping schedule–she falls asleep around 10 p.m. and wakes up around 7 a.m. Curiously, it’s like she shuts down and is up and at ’em again on the same schedule as pretty much every restaurant, grocery store, gas station, etc. in our tiny town. Seems like she’s adjusting to small-town Ozarks life just fine.

All that being said, I can distinctly identify things that I miss about Saudi Arabia. I am grateful for these things, because they will make it a little bit easier when I eventually have to say goodbye (for now) to my mom, my dad, my niece and nephew, my brother and sister-in-law, my cousins, my friends…my family.

1. Gahwa. I should have brought some with me. Didn’t think about it, though. The taste of gahwa has become incredibly comforting for me. Now there is such a thing as instant gahwa, and I’d like to give it a try when I get back to Riyadh, if I can find it. If I can (and if it’s good), I know I’ll be bringing a few packs with me on my next trip to the States.

2. Kabsa. Actually, I miss all of my mother-in-law’s cooking. One thing I can say about Saudi life is that when I eat my mother-in-law’s cooking, I feel like I’m really being physically nourished. Meals in my mother-in-law’s kitchen are delicious and made from real ingredients…I mean, unless we get the food from McDonald’s or Hardee’s or KFC or something. But Saudi home cooking is the real thing. Here in the States, home cooking, while surely filling the comfort food niche and thus satisfying my need for emotional nourishment, often comes from boxes and packets and and jars. Saudi home cooking is different. You’ll see a Saudi family grocery shopping, and they’ll have their carts piled high with big boxes of vegetables, huge bunches of fresh garlic cloves, bursting bags of limes or lemons. Granted, part of that is because Saudi families tend to be larger than American families, so more cooking is required. But still…I never see Americans stocking up on fresh ingredients at Walmart the way Saudis do at Panda (or Othaim, or wherever).

3. Our big bed. We are a co-sleeping family, and not shockingly, our king-size bed in Riyadh works a lot better for this. With our queen-size bed, both Saleh and I are perpetually on the verge of falling out of the bed, because let’s face it, Lavender may be tiny, but when it comes to bed space, she’s large and in charge…especially since her favorite sleeping position is on her back with her arms stretched out from her sides.

4. Being able to wear jalabiyas and abayas, pieces of clothing that don’t constantly remind me that I need to lose weight. In the States, I wear jeans. As any mother knows, jeans are wholly unforgiving when it comes to baby weight. Abayas and jalabiyas, on the other hand, are loose and flowing, and can let you temporarily trick yourself into believing that your waistline hasn’t changed a bit since April of 2009 (somewhere around there was the thinnest I’ve ever been). Make no mistake, I love jeans…but my time here in the States has made it abundantly clear to me that I have some serious work to do before I appear in them in public again.

5. Night owl routine. Yeah, it’s convenient to be out of the night owl routine, but there are also perks to it. Before I moved to Saudi Arabia, I was totally a night owl; I could easily stay up all night and sleep all day if that were necessary. I think I work best at night. So I miss that.

No matter where I go or what I do, I’m missing someone or something. It’s the story of my life at this point. But I’m always grateful that I have places, people, and experiences that I love enough to miss.


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  • Stephanie

    I love kabsa! I randomly and bizarrely ended up having a Saudi housemate for a few months and he used to cook and serve me kabsa quite often – til he decided he didn’t like me anymore (for some weird reason, i could speculate) and no more kabsa : (
    Seems simple enough though, I had actually forgotten about that til I read this post. I should Google a recipe and try it one of these days