The New Normal

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


My dog, whom I find to be adorable.

Ergo, weird is also in the eye of the beholder.

Somebody else's dog, whom I find to be weird.

Somebody else’s dog, whom I find to be weird.

So I guess it’s simply a matter of what you’re used to being normal and what’s different being weird.

I’m confident that expats everywhere have moments where they catch themselves doing some formerly weird thing that’s become normal and say, “What’s happened to me?” There’s certainly no shortage of lists of things normal to me, but which foreigners find weird about the U.S. Things like “sales tax” and “Fahrenheit” and “free refills.” I’m sure every expat in America has at some point watched his own hand writing down an appropriate tip at the bottom of a restaurant receipt and said “When did this become normal?”

I just finished a normal Saturday in my Saudi life. Totally normal. And I also had one of those moments when I said, “When did this become normal?”

I’ll set it up like this: Saturday morning I went with a neighbor to a crafting workshop at another woman’s house. Let’s count the not-normal things in that normal-sounding sentence:

  1. Saturday morning: Second day of the weekend, totally normal. Having a Saturday empty of conflicts, household chores, yard work, or errands so that one can consider this a feature of Saturday, rather than a squeeze-in, is also normal.
  2. Went with a neighbor: Sharing a driver, still normal.
  3. Crafting workshop: I’m not given to crafting, and now have multiple craft projects in process in my home. And I’m planning more. What happened to how I spend my time?
  4. Another woman’s house: “House” = a villa inside a compound. Taking residency permits or passports with you when you go to somebody else’s house is…normal. As is handing them over when you get to the gate, having your car scanned, waiting for barricades to open, and having to call the friend inside if the non-English-speaking gate workers can’t find your name on the guest list because your alphabet is–yes–weird, as are your conventions for people’s names, and finding a person alphabetically is impossible.

My neighbor’s teenage son came along to the ladies’ crafting morning, as if that’s normal, because a bunch of school friends had figured out their mothers were all going to be there and they could see each other socially that way. Jackpot! You know, hanging out at somebody’s house. Like normal. Which is fairly abnormal for them here.

As for the adult conversation, we covered lots of totally normal topics, like which appliances we’ve blown up sorting out our 110 versus 220 outlets. Or how expensive it is to live in Paris. Or security. Or digging around in the souks for antique jewelry. Or a camel beauty pageant. You know, normal chit-chat. I think the teens made cookies and mostly ate the dough at the house where they hung out. Normal.

We had to leave before we were completely finished, which is pretty typical (at least for me) when it comes to crafting projects. But here it was because our drivers were coming, which is the way activities go here. Not a lot of flexibility. (Let’s be clear–no matter the reason, me having an unfinished craft project around the house is TOTALLY normal.)

My neighbor, her son, his friend, the friend’s mother, and I arranged for the friend’s father to meet us for lunch afterward. It was Saturday, and it seemed like the pleasantest way to get people redirected toward their own homes. Before leaving for the restaurant, we checked our prayer-time apps to make sure it would be open when we arrived. Standard operating procedure before any outing.

2014-12-06 12.52.24At the restaurant, we used the family entrance, because that’s where girls go in. The “singles” entrance is for men who have no females with them. Ate Chipotle-esque food (“esque” = no carnitas) in the middle of Saudi Arabia. Totally normal.

Afterward, we needed to drop my neighbor’s son at a classmate’s house to work on a school project. But the son didn’t have his friend’s phone number and we didn’t know where the house was. So very typical, until you understand that places here don’t have addresses. You get a street name, maybe a cross street, and work it out. (Bless you, Whatsapp, and your “send my location” option.) In our case, we had a street name, but no compound name. There were a couple of compounds on that street, so the driver just pulled into the first one, where the gate guard didn’t speak any available languages in the car. My neighbor had to send her son up to the guardhouse with his passport to work things out and hope we’d be leaving him in the middle of Saudi Arabia at the place where his friend actually, you know, lived.

SO FAR, I’m just bopping along with the flow on an ordinary Saturday. Not thinking anything of it. But as we pulled away from the compound, where we just left a teenage boy in the middle of Saudi Arabia in the care of who-knows-who with no phone, and I contemplated the hour drive ahead to get home, which is a normal part of getting kids together for the totally normal act of working on a group project together because it’s normal for students at international schools to be spread all over the city, I thought, “When did this become NORMAL?”

Mcdonalds Arabic Sign_MCare to double down? I had a lot of soda with lunch. Like, a LOT. That hour drive home was going to be too much. Mercifully, we’d seen a McDonald’s nearby on our way in. But on the way out, what do you think I saw there? A guy at the door, locking up for prayer. And he, of course, was at the MEN’s door. I found the family door already locked, so I went around and begged mercy, and (hey, this is different) he was totally fine letting me in (to the proper door) as soon as he found out I only wanted to use the toilet for free and would not be doing any business. Take a note, Paris McDonald’s with your after-purchase-only toilet code.

Can every American quote for me the phrase you see on EVERY door in a public space?

door signThere’s a reason, there, folks. Being locked in is not cool. When I came downstairs (from the family dining area) feeling much better, the door that had been unlocked to let me in was locked again. The person who finally saw me at the counter (the restaurant’s closed, after all) said he’d get the manager to get the keys, and it would be “a few minutes.” So I stood there, in the hallway, looking at that locked door and thinking, “What if there was a fire?”

Things were, you know, pretty much normal from there. I saw a man pull over to the side of the road, stop his car, get out and walk across an empty lot to give something to a beggar. That never stops touching me, but is pretty normal. The rest of the drive home included a lot of weird merges and exits and general lawlessness, but we made it without an accident, which is always a plus. We did come close, though, when we were driving in the second-to-left lane (our lane, one more to the left, then a wall at the median without a shoulder). We were pushed over from the left by a car being passed on the left. A long trip with a lot of sketchy moments and one close call? Pretty normal. (More on driving in Saudi Arabia here.)

When I got home I checked email, news, Facebook. As is fairly normal, I found a new friend request from a man I don’t know. I always try to learn a little about the local strangers who want to get to know me better, and the main thing I got from Walid was that he’s been trying on different profile pictures:


Good on you, my man. Keep up the fight. I’m taken, but I’m sure there’s another infidel grandmother out there for you. (For a truly L’ingOL collection of the local single-man desperados, check my friend’s blog here.)

desert designs

Desert Designs, al Khobar

Then I emailed a shop on the other side of the country where I’d gotten a small item weeks before that I couldn’t find in my bags. Yes, they had it, they were inexpressibly sorry to have inconvenienced me, and they would give it to my friend who would be there in yet another couple of weeks. No tough-luck, no where’s-your-receipt, no not-my-problem. This is completely normal. If they were in Riyadh, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear them offer to deliver it. I know another shop sitting on an item somebody purchased two years ago that has never been picked up. They won’t sell it, won’t give up. It belongs to somebody, and they’ll keep it forever for him. Jewelry merchants from whom I have never bought anything will recall what I looked at and show it to me again when I pass by months later. A man from whom I bought a textile will bring more for me to see at a market next week. This is normal. Take that, Best Buy, and a pox upon you, Walmart. I’ll take Arab-Palestinian-Syrian-Lebanese-Afghan-Pakistani merchants like these any day. This is how normal should be.

As my Saturday ended, I sat with my patio door open, in December, listening to birds sing. This was very weird for me last year. This year, it felt kinda…normal. Then at some point the call to prayer started, first from the mosque to the south with the muezzin I like best, then a few more distant ones, then the one just over my fence to the east, who’s always the last to the party and, honestly, sounds like the guy you’d expect to be last to every party. Pretty weird, when I step back and think about it. But nowadays, totally, happily normal.

2 thoughts on “The New Normal

    • margocatts says:

      I’m afraid not. I’ve been in a house where I’ve seen outlets in the same panel labeled 110, 220, and 127. Wha?!? There are compounds or buildings originally built by American companies with 110 outlets, others with 220, and villas and flats around the city with mixed voltage like my friend’s. It’s the mysteries that get you!


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