Friday, February 20, 2009

Further Further Update: Book Not Banned?

More from today's paper!

It appears that, after the legendary Margaret Atwood threatened not to show up at Dubai's upcoming International Festival of Literature, the National Media Council has "clarified its stance" regarding the supposedly banned book featuring a gay character. The media council stated:

"It is not our policy to ban any book unless it's crude pornography or it's contemptuous of religion-- whether it's Islam or any religion. Our country is known to be open. More than 70 percent of the population are [non-locals]. They're living freely and openly."

The media council asserted that the book has *not* been banned in the UAE; rather, the decision not to "feature" it in the upcoming festival was the decision of the festival organizer alone.

I'll let you know if Atwood shows up. I always liked that lady!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Further Update: An Israeli Gets In!

Mere hours after I hit "post" on my last blog entry about the Israeli tennis player, the following headline appeared on the front page of our morning paper: "UAE Grants Entry to Tennis Player Ram." The accompanying article said,

"Israeli tennis player Andy Ram has been granted entry permit to play in next week's ATP Dubai Tennis Championships. His compatriot Shahar Peer was on Sunday refused entry to play in the women's event.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement . . . : 'The relevant government department has issued a special entry permit to allow the tennis player Mr. Andy Ram to enter the country to take part in next week's international tennis tournament being held in Dubai.
The decision to issue the permit is in line with the UAE's commitment to a policy of permitting any individual to take part in international sports, cultural and economic events or activities being held in the country, without any limitation being placed on participation by citizens of any member country of the United Nations.
This is a well-established policy and has no political implications. Nor does this decision indicate any form of normalization of relations with countries with whom the UAE does not have diplomatic relations.'"

I won't ask the obvious questions. Just happy about this development. Baby steps. I get it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Genuine knockoffs," anyone?

So yesterday I made my second visit to the shopping district called Karama.  (No, I am not sure if that is the correct spelling.  In fact, I'm not even sure thats the correct name, since the only people who have spoken it to me are The German, Z-Man, and Alice, all of whom have not-insignificant accents.  But you get the gist.)

Anyway, Karama is known for it's high-quality knockoffs.  Handbags, suitcases, watches, sunglasses, clothes... pretty much anything that can hold a designer label has been ripped off there.  As you walk down the (slightly seedy) promenade, countless men on either side of you call out tempting advertisements: "Lady!  Lady!  Come look at these leather purses!" "Madam, step inside, look at what is new!" and our collective favorite: "Genuine imitations!  Genuine imitations!"  The fun of the place is not only haggling great prices for good-looking merchandise and souvenirs, but also trying to correctly guess which storefronts have "secret rooms" in the back or upstairs.  The secret rooms hide away the knockoffs for which there are particularly strict penalties due to aggressive brand protection.  It's a thrill to receive an invitation to "see more upstairs," as much because of the potential treasures that await you as because of the teeny rush of adrenaline you get when the hidden door in the wall opens, you step inside, and don't feel *entirely* certain that you will ever be heard from again.

What prompted yesterday's visit was a slightly unexpected but entirely enjoyable visit by none other than the original Supernanny!  Airfare was low and her schedule free and, to the extent it is possible to take an impromptu visit to the other side of the planet, a few keystrokes on Expedia later and Supernanny was on our front doorstep.  Of course I cried upon greeting her-- the children have been running me so ragged with all the tantrums and sleep strikes (I swear they adhere to some written rotating schedule of misbehavior; how the two older rugrats consistently get a 9-month-old baby to do her part on her designated day will always be a mystery to me) that it was an unspeakable gift to be able to hand them over, albeit temporarily, to the ultimate childcare professional.

The best part of my quick Karama run with Supernanny was not the handbag guy or the woodwork guy (imagine my dismay when I got home only to find that the antique wooden telephone I had purchased has no ring feature, hmmm)-- but the too-good-to-be-true bootleg DVD guy!  It seems I just can't stay away from illegal movies even if I tried!  We were just strolling along, minding our own business, when amidst the proud, articulate announcements of the storefront salesmen, there was a low, almost imperceptible siren song: "movies... movies... movies..."  I turned to see a dark man skulking along beside us, seemingly impersonating a New York City drug dealer.  My first instinct was to shoo him away with my reflexive, "No thank you," but moments later, I found myself tracking him back down like the addict I truly am.  After all, with only 22 movies left to watch, I obviously needed more!  

Movie Guy led us into a shop populated mostly by handbags and sunglasses, and headed towards a dilapidated staircase in the back.  Oooh, secret room time!  But this was unlike any of the secret rooms I had visited while previously shopping with The German: those rooms were comically low-ceilinged (let's just say the dimensions bothered some of us more than others) but at least clean.  This room, on the other hand, was utter disaster (see middle photo; take particular pause at the broke-down sofa where we were expected to do our DVD perusing). I snapped the picture while Movie Guy was leaning down to retrieve the ubiquitous duffle bag of pirated films, though by the time Supernanny had fished her camera out of her purse, he was already hissing, "No photos!  No photos!"  You can tell that the fear of being busted by the police is very real for these peddlers, and everyone is suspect.  (I, meanwhile, vow to do my conspiratorial part to make sure that their illegal business prospers for a long, long time.)

As we were silently and intently rifling through the piles of films (no talking! this is serious business!), I heard a door close.  In my peripheral vision, the figure of a man appeared.  I instantly resigned myself to being sold into prostitution.  I mean, being there just the two of us was knowingly a little bit nuts: I'd been reading about how prevalent human trafficking is in this part of the world, and how young women can be lured into the hands of their captors under the most innocent of false pretenses (DVD sales?!) before simply disappearing off the face of the earth.  So I held my breath and kept my eyes down and awaited the inevitable bad news... only to be *massively* relieved when the guy sat down in the rickety chair next to us and accepted his own stack of DVDs.  Ah, a fellow sinner.  Whew!  I felt an instant, shamed kinship with him not unlike what I imagine people feel towards each other in an AA meeting:  Welcome, my brother.  Do you need a copy of "Rachel Getting Married"?

So Karama was great and today Supernanny is taking a skiing lesson at Ski Dubai (where better to put on skis for the first time than in the desert?) and tonight I think I will take her to Global Village (might as well see it one last time before it closes down next week).  Her visit proves that, aside from the jetlag, it's remarkably feasible to pop over for a hello.  So if you are even remotely considering visiting us, please do! 

What else is news...

Well, we are all more than a little disappointed by the recent news story about the UAE denying a visa to that Israeli woman who was supposed to compete in a tennis tournament here... jeez, it's one thing to privately dislike the News but it's another to make a public demonstration out of turning them away.  We were similarly discouraged when my buddy Seacrest just forwarded an article describing how an author was disqualified from showcasing her novel at an upcoming Dubai literary festival, simply because her book included a gay character.  Talk about steps in the wrong direction.  In fact, the longer I'm here, the more I am starting to see some cracks in the facade... Dubai puts on a great show of inclusivity and progressive policy, but it's becoming clear that a latent but insidious intolerance-- and even willful ignorance-- still remains entrenched in the social fabric here.  (For example, a friend suggested to me that the reason domestic violence statistics are so low for this region is because no one has ever invested the resources necessary to gather accurate statistical data regarding the scope of the problem.)  Bummer.

What else.  Well, I got my car, hooray!  We bid a happy farewell to that awful white minivan that we'd been renting for the past three months, and gleefully stepped inside my brand new (!!!) family car of choice: the super zzzzzexy Chevy Uplander!  (Yes, the same car I had back in the States; yes, the same one that had me being frequently mistaken for the cable repair guy upon arrival anywhere).  It is gold, it is shiny, it has a DVD player, it is heaven.

Other things.  Sushi has an interview next week for one of the schools she is applying to next fall.... Baby has learned how to clap, and wave (kinda: she bobs her closed hand up and down at you, which we interpret to be a precocious and politically savvy nod to the Obama fist bump).... and Screamer is putting the finishing touches on her version of the banshee temper tantrum, despite my hopeful (and ultimately erroneous) protestations that it simply wasn't in her DNA to embrace the terrible two's.  PopPop and I finally made it back to Abu Dhabi to obtain our UAE drivers' licenses.... I am still semi-seriously hunting for a second maid.... and Alice and Z-Man continue to wage a subtle but unmistakable war on each other's credibility and reputation (I'm considering selling "Team Alice" and "Team Z-Man" shirts; pre-order yours now).

Ok, gotta go... BTW Daddy leaves next week for a 1o-day business trip... wish us luck holding down the fort in his absence... Talk soon!

UPDATE: I was able to locate the complete statement issued by the "organizers" of the Dubai Tennis Championship regarding the UAE's refusal to issue a visa to Israeli athlete Shahar Peer (it seems that only excerpts were released by the U.S. media?).  The statement reads:

     "The tournament is a long-standing and loyal supporter of women's tennis and the WTA Tour and respects the rules and regulations of the Tour.
     The tournament also respects Shahar Peer as a professional tennis player on the Tour and understands her disappointment.  There were several elements to be considered concerning her participation:
     Public sentiment remains high in the Middle East and it is believed that Ms. Peer's presence would have antagonized our fans who have watched live television coverage of the recent attacks in Gaza.
     Ms. Peer personally witnessed protests against her at another tournament in New Zealand only a few weeks ago.
     Concern was raised about her well-being and her presence triggering similar protests. Given public sentiment, the entire tournament could have been boycotted by protesters.
     We do not wish to politicize sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE."

What do you think?  Copout?  Or is there some validity to the closing paragraph of an op-ed piece I recently read which said, 

     "Personally I would have no problem with Shahar Peer . . . playing tennis in Dubai if at the same time Israel allowed Palestinians to compete in their sporting events without interference and humiliation.  Generally being treated like human beings would also be appreciated.  The ball is in your court."  

Does that really happen at Israeli sporting events?  I don't know.  I can't help feeling like my opinions are, once again, being impaired by a not-unbiased media and an overall lack of complete information... aargh.  As the much-maligned and vastly misunderstood talking Barbie would say, "Math class is tough."  I hear ya, Barbs.  I hear ya.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Better Late Than Never... (Obama edition)

I know that these images are about 3 months and 1 month late, respectively, but it occurred to me the other day that I might want to preserve for posterity these two front pages of the Dubai daily newspaper: the first is from the morning after Obama's election, and the second commemorates his inauguration. Assuming you can't make out the text in the first picture, the excerpt from Obama's victory speech that the editors chose to showcase for their Middle Eastern readers is this:

"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America . . . And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world-- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.  To those who would tear this world down-- we will defeat you.  To those who seek peace and security-- we support you.  And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright-- tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

And under the headline in the second picture it says, "New US President Acknowledges Challenges and Pledges to Look For a Way Forward with Muslim World."

Pretty neat.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"We Are the World, We Are the Children..."

Allowed the girls to play hooky today so that we could attend "International Day" at The German's kids' school.  The event featured countless booths of traditional foods, as well as an Olympics-Opening-Ceremony-type procession on the soccer field, where the more than 50 countries from which the school has current students were individually acknowledged (act surprised: no Israel contingent!) (meanwhile, the crowd *roared* when Palestine was announced).  We cheered loudly for the U.S.A. and waved our Internet-printout-made American flags. Someone even asked if she could take a picture with Sushi and Screamer, who were decked out in their patriotic red, white, and blue-- proving once and for all that we Americans truly are a rarity around here!

These photos reflect some of the kids that I thought really embraced the spirit of the day (of course I am particularly fascinated by all the Palestine stuff).  I have to admit that when they broadcast "We Are the World" over the loudspeaker at the end of the parade-- see video clip above-- I maybe kinda got a little bit emotional.  I feel like I'm evolving from the kind of ex-pat whose instinct is to surround herself and her children with people of a familiar nationality to the kind of ex-pat who can actually appreciate this extreme melting pot for the unique opportunity that it is.... 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Salvation! (kinda)

Hi again-- I realized as I was getting ready for bed last night that I forgot to tell you about something *very* important: my newfound (and admittedly far inferior) Tivo substitute!

People, allow me to introduce you to the esteemed Philips DVDR3570H.  I purchased it thinking that it was merely a DVD recorder, hoping that it would provide me at least a small reprieve in that I might be able to transmit onto a DVD the occasional interesting program as opposed to having to make an actual appointment to sit myself down in front of the tv (a charmingly retro plan that Baby, with her finely tuned sixth sense, would be certain to thwart).  What I failed to notice as I was plopping down the sizable fee of US $300 at the checkout, however, was the far too modestly advertised feature of, "Pause Live TV: lets you take a break without missing a thing."  What does that mean, you ask?  Well let me put it simply: it's a DIGITAL VIDEO RECORDER, baby!  Ya-hoooooooooooooo!

My friend the DVDR3570H automatically DIGITALLY records onto its hard drive the past 6 hours of whatever channel you have been watching... meaning that you can pause it, come back to it hours later, or move forward or backward in the 6-hour time block (what DVDR3570H affectionately likes to refer to as, "time shifting").  What it also means is that I WILL NEVER BE SUBJECTED TO ANOTHER COMMERCIAL AGAIN.  Good lord, in no way will I miss the past three months of having my television shows interrupted so that I could be told, often in a foreign language, all about the upcoming specials being broadcast on OTHER CHANNELS (not sure I even understand that logic).  Nay, now I can once again PAUSE so I can tend to a crying child without missing out on Simon's scathing review; REWIND so my kids can find out how the grayed-out "Mystery Mouseketools" were already used; and FAST FORWARD through boring award show acceptance speeches!  MY POWERS HAVE BEEN RESTORED!!

(Note: It's not *all* rose petals and symphonies with the DVDR3570H.  Bitch can't even figure out how to change the channel on my cable box by itself, meaning that I have to make sure that the tv has been left on the channel with the desired upcoming recording. But that is one HECK of a small price to pay when the reward is the return of my sanity. TELEVISION, I AM BACK, JUST AS I PROMISED!  I MISSED YOU!  Now if you could please just consider airing something that I would actually WANT to digitally record....)

In other news, while I have you, here are some more updates that I inadvertently left out of my last post:

BABY - Broke through the First Tooth sound barrier with such force (and urgency! the other girls were a full month older when their first teeth arrived) that she is already well on the road to Tooth #2.  And 9-month birthday is still a week away.  Has also graduated from Cheetos to chicken nuggets, fried fish sticks, and chocolate chip cookies.  (What, is that bad?) Has been caught, on tape, squealing both "mama" and "dada" sounds.

SCREAMER - Has officially become The Kid Who Climbs Out of Her Crib When She Doesn't Want to Sleep.  This is not a happy development (though I must say I'm proud of her for learning how to do it without a single injury).  When I asked her this morning how she accomplishes such a feat, she explained, "I put my leg over the top, and cry, and cry..." We are left to assume that she is then elevated up and out of the crib on an ocean of teardrops.  Now the question is: do we (a) ignore it and hope that the novelty wears off; (b) accept defeat and move her to a bed earlier than planned; or (c) trap her like the weasel she is with one of those crib-top tents?  (Which, you can be assured, are not available here, meaning I'd have to order one from the US... aargh.)

SUSHI - Seems to be stuck in some kind of purgatory betwixt baby and child.  Alternates between staggering insight and maturity (she practically knocked over Screamer's nursery school teacher the other day when she spotted the lady helping Screamer climb the stairs; Sushi grabbed the teacher's shirt and breathlessly exclaimed, "Please do not do that!-- my sister has dislocated that elbow twice!-- and you really need to be careful with that arm!") and shockingly infantile temper tantrums over the *most* ridiculous things (i.e., getting a cookie with a crack in it).  Can turn on you in an instant.  PopPop appropriately calls her "Eve." 

DADDY - Is in desperate need of an assistant.  Has been working until closer and closer to midnight each day.  Often leaves the house in a suit and tie, in stark contrast to the t-shirt and shorts uniform strictly adhered to by the remainder of this family unit.  But is having great early success here, hooray.  And *loves* his new car/armored vehicle.  On Saturday is picking up his first custom-made suit!-- a sure sign that the man has ARRIVED.

POPPOP - At my incessant nagging that he make a concerted effort to make friends here, has stumbled onto a couple of social networking sites based out of Dubai.  Posted a profile picture of himself shirtless, dripping wet at the water park, with what appears to be a chiseled six-pack of abs.  Wonders why he is receiving a barrage of emails from interested women in the 28 TO 30 YEAR OLD AGE RANGE, all of whose profiles indicate that they are looking for "Love or Serious Relationship."  One of his most aggressive suitors refers to herself only by the handle, "Virgin Michelle."  I told him that his appeal to the original 90210 demographic might have *something* to do with the fact that, in his online profile, he has shaved SEVENTEEN YEARS OFF HIS ACTUAL AGE.  Which would make me 10 years old.  He seemed unconvinced that this could be a problem, however, and padded back up the two flights of stairs to check his inbox.

HARRY - Has managed to scratch something on his neck until it bled.  Looks rather nasty. I considered taking him to a vet to have it checked out, but then I contemplated the nightmarish logistics involved (putting shoes on, walking to the car, following driving directions, parking the car, getting out of the car, etc., etc., etc.) and decided that he'll be fine.  He's a fighter, that Harry.

ALICE - Revealed to me yesterday that she is one of TWELVE children in her family; she has SEVEN sisters (one of whom *must* be looking for a second-position housemaid job; can we start cycling them through for interviews or what??).  Was raised on a farm, doing work in the field in order to help pay for her education (this explains her enormous biceps, which I believe are, at least in part, what inspire PopPop to hit the gym every single day).  Mentioned that she wants to have a third child; said she needs to have a girl, "otherwise there will be no one to clean the house."  Does that strike anyone else as funny, coming from a housemaid?  I replied excitedly, "Yes, you should definitely have another child!" and then added quietly, "just not on my watch." Note to self: No visits home to the Philippines for Alice.

Z-MAN - Is so sweet: while out shopping with Daddy last week, asked for permission to make a quick stop at the wig store (he is balding at the back of his head).  Might also have a little bit of a mischievous side, as tattled on by Alice (the two of them have this hilarious competitive sibling dynamic going on, wherein each lovingly tries to make the other look bad in front of Daddy and me: she condescendingly refers to him as "the driver" and he condescendingly refers to her as "the maid"); she told me that she knows where he hangs out on his day off, and that there is "drinking going on there!"  She then sweetly asked me, dripping with faux ignorance, "And isn't he supposed to be a Muslimmmm?"  (He, in turn, never passes up the opportunity to suggest to Daddy that Alice should absolutely *not* be allowed to sleep over at her cousin's house on her night off, suggesting that a maid's rightful place is at her sponsor's house!)

MOMMY - Drove to the mall-- alone-- yesterday, and did not get lost.  The sun was shining and the car windows were down and the radio was blaring.  Maybe it was the Starbucks coffee I'd just gulped down, maybe it was the unusually long stretch of sleep I'd gotten the night before (6 straight hours!), but I caught myself feeling really, really good.  For the first time in a really, really long while.  Hey, Dubai's not so bad after all.

Miss you.  Talk soon.

Global Village (and other such things)

I know, I know, I've been neglecting you.  And at such an unfortunate juncture: last I wrote, I'd just taken my medical test, and had mentioned that the results were due back the following day.  Those of you who are paranoid neurotic hypochondriacs like I am had probably assumed that my failure to post was due to an acute onset of the very TB that they were testing for.  I'm sorry for worrying you, fellow paranoid neurotic hypochondriacs.  I'm fine!  Just unmotivated.  But it doesn't mean I wasn't thinking about you every day.  I was!  

(And oh, just so I don't leave you hanging-- my medical result came back: "FIT."  Fit, like, as a fiddle!  I wonder if the alternative is simply, "UNFIT"?  Regardless, this was great news because not ONLY did it put to rest any lingering suspicion I may have had that TB was quietly ravaging my insides, but it also meant that my residence visa could finally be processed, which it was!  Cue the UAE national anthem.  If there is one.  Thank goodness I don't have to take a citizenship test, too.)

Ok, so two nights ago, I ditched the rugrats and went to check out Global Village.  Or more specifically, I was there on a date-- The German invited me to go with her! (also present was her friend The Russian, but I'm going to rewrite history and eliminate that pesky third wheel).  I'd been hearing lots of rumblings about Global Village but wasn't sure what to expect: was it an amusement park? a shopping outlet? an Epcot knockoff?

Well of course it is all of those things.  At around 8pm Zia delivered The German and me to what appeared to be the entrance to a carnival, complete with looming ferris wheel and garish neon lights.  I'd been told that many countries were "represented" there, and upon entry I quickly assessed that each country had been given a designated facade, behind which were flea-market-esque booths overflowing with traditional foods, souvenirs, and even talent (I had not previously associated plates-spinning-on-sticks-balanced-on-noses with China, but now I know).  Here are some other fun facts about Global Village, per its website:

- Global Village is open in Dubai from mid-November through mid-February.

- Last year, it was visited by 4.5 MILLION people over the same time period.

- It boasts pavilions representing the following: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, United Arab Emirates (REPRESENT!), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, East and West Africa, Senegal, Rwanda.*


The website brags that Global Village is "probably the only place in the world where you can buy an intricately woven Indian pashmina shawl, a Japanese bonsai, and fresh Canadian maple syrup all from the same place"-- though I would like to point out that there was neither a Japanese pavilion *nor* a Canadian pavilion.  Which leaves me wondering where I might have gone for that fresh Canadian maple syrup.  But that is neither here nor there.

In addition to the above pavilions and the myriad carnival rides (which we stayed far away from; after all, we were two women out on the town with NO CHILDREN PRESENT and there was serious shopping to attend to!), there was supposedly a "Guinness World Records Pavilion" where you could show up and attempt to break one of 14 world records. This pavilion would have served a purpose in the event that the kiddies *had* tagged along: they could have channeled all of their horrible tantrum energy toward breaking the "World's Loudest Scream" record, while we moms could have been serious contenders at the "World's Fastest Text Message" challenge (both real categories, who knew).  (Side note: do you get the feeling that Guinness is making a desperate attempt to remain relevant?  I mean, come on, fastest text?  What's next, The Guinness World Record for Most Contemporaneous Facebook Status Update?).

I ended up purchasing some beaded picture frames from India, some lawn pinwheels from China (again, the Chinese might join me in feeling a little confused by their Global Village characterization?), and some chocolate ice cream from Palestine (don't ask) (and yes, it felt a little weird, but DUDE I was craving some ice cream).

The best part of the night, though, had nothing to do with Global Village per se: I was just so happy-- purely happy!-- to be out, with a friend, doing something mindless and silly and eating ice cream and not having to be yelling at anyone for making a mean face.  It was such a treat, and I am so grateful that The German lives right next door.  

Ok, what else is news?  Here are a few more things:

First, we're in the middle of the Dubai Shopping Festival.  Before it began I thought that the shopping festival was a designated activity, like a street fair-- but actually it's the name given to the month-long period of time in which MOST stores in MOST venues have MOST of items on some sort of sale.  Cool, no?  I have been *forcing* myself to go to the mall more than usual (oh, the humanity) because the items on sale keep changing and the discounts keep increasing.  And with no Target here in Dubai, my bargain shopping addiction has been going tragically unfed.  So you can imagine my relief at purchasing a (only slightly disfigured) top at H&M today for a mere US $5.  Yay.

Second, Daddy did, in fact, buy a car.  For reals!  It's a giant piece of black metal that takes up most of the garage and might suggest to laypeople that we are harboring a military tank in our home.  But whatevs, it's got a cool function where you can watch the DVD player in the back with headphones while the radio keeps playing in the front, a key feature if you happen traveling with people for whom "Barney's Big Adventure" is the height of cinematic achievement.  I think it's a GNC Yukon.  Or a GMC Yukon.  One of those is our car and one of those is PopPop's health food store.  I trust you can sort it out, I'm too tired.

Finally, something really nice happened relating to our beloved housemaid, Raquel.  (Another side note: my friend Seacrest has expressed repeated concern that Raquel and Zia don't have aliases here.  To which I say, A-ha! How do you know that "Raquel" and "Zia" *aren't* aliases?  But in case you're not buying that, I don't know how to explain it other than it seemed too horrible to follow the model of "Mommy" and "Baby" and refer to them as "Driver" and "Housemaid."  Perhaps from this point onward I will call them "Z-Man" and "Alice" and hope that any potential malcontents are too lazy to read old entries. Or this one, for that matter.)  

Anyway, we knew that ALICE's 30th birthday was rapidly approaching, and I was determined to make a fuss over her.  After all, 30 is a big birthday, and she is away from her husband and kids, and she wasn't going to see her friends until the weekend, and I figured that she might be feeling a little lonely that day.  So I asked and I asked her for some gift suggestions, but she is too polite and would give me no hints.  This left me in a bit of a bind, particularly because, on the only other occasion that I had attempted to surprise her with a gift, she practically LEAPT out of character to tell me No thank you, Madame, I don't want those (pretty! purple! flowery!) canvas pictures, they "don't match my room."  Don't match?!!  Your room is all white!  I was horrified by the rebuttal and my feelings were rather hurt.  (I come from an upbringing of "Act enthusiastically gracious, no matter what you think of the gift," whereas The German told me that Filipina housemaids are notorious for their brutal honesty.)  So I was more than a little gunshy this second time around.

Thankfully, the day before her birthday, she mentioned in passing that her DVD player was not working, so POOF! I was off in a puff of smoke to the electronics store.  While Alice slept that night, I wrapped her presents (I'd cobbled together the DVD player, some movie money, a Hello Kitty phone case, a personalized bracelet, and a couple of cute fabric ponytail holders-- gifts can be practical as well as fun!), filled out a card (in which I told her that we already can't imagine life in Dubai without her, which is true), and hung a Winnie the Pooh HAPPY BIRTHDAY sign across from her bedroom door.  It was intentional that I left the presents out for her to discover on her own: I knew that she would not want to be put on the spot to have the right reaction in front of us.  

But when we came downstairs on birthday morning, the presents were still unopened at Alice's door... and she was standing there in the kitchen with TEARS in her eyes!  She said, in her broken English (repaired herein for the sake of not portraying myself as a total jerk), "You have made me so happy.  This is only the second present I have ever received in Dubai.  Thank you so much."  Of course the kids then bound into her room uninvited to "assist" with the gift opening... and amidst the sound of wrapping paper crinkling and children falling all over each other demanding, "What'd you get?", Daddy and I could hear the sound of Alice *weeping*.  Which inspired Sushi to come bounding back out of the room to proudly announce, "Alice is so happy that she is crying!"  I was genuinely moved and said quietly to Daddy, "I get the feeling that these housemaids just aren't treated so well here."  Then we silently congratulated ourselves for being such good people.  Which probably makes us less good people, but hopefully only slightly.

Alice's day went on to be a wholly celebratory one: both kids made birthday cards for her at school; we baked her a cake (WHAT is UP with these Betty Crocker concoctions that FALL APART when you commit the dire offense of trying put some frosting on them??  My cake ended up looking like someone had regurgitated the top layer, sheesh!); and the birthday culminated with a little party here at the house where 7 of Alice's housemaid friends came out in full effect.  PopPop even insisted on picking up the tab for the party's food delivery order, all US $100+ dollars of it (causing Alice to get choked up all over again).  I closed out the event by loudly declaring, in front of the bevy of wide-eyed housemaids, "Now Alice, you stay seated.... Tonight, *I* do all the cleaning up!  I don't want to see you lift a finger!"  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one housemaid fall off her chair.  Consider my status as World's Coolest Madame locked up, baby.  

Hey, call Guinness!  

More soon....