Sunday, May 27, 2007

Trimming the Date Palm Trees

Petunias are a winter flower in Abu Dhabi.
About a month ago, they began to wilt and fade as the days grew warmer. Now they've been pulled up by armies of workers, who spend long days tending the lawns, shrubs and flowers that Abu Dhabi is famous for. Today I saw brilliant red and pink and yellow zinnias, on strong, three-foot stems, drying up and giving in to the heat of oncoming summer. Hibiscus and oleander are having a field day.

The workers are also trimming the date palm trees around the city. This is a good thing: the palm fronds have grown so long that they whip the windshield of my car when I drive in the left lane.

As the days grow hotter - it was 105 degrees yesterday - we are more and more inside the house. It is the reverse of winter in New Hampshire, which would gradually confine us to the indoors on the short, frigid, snowy days from December through March.

As the heat comes on and school winds to a close, people are beginning to pack their bags for a summer spent elsewhere. Many families we know leave the day school ends; basically anyone who has the wherewithall leaves Abu Dhabi for at least part of the summer. It is simply too hot to do much here during July and August. Even the beautiful, aquarmarine Arabian Gulf feels like a bathtub.

Two exceptions are my friends from Lebanon, who are unsure what they'll do because of recent violence in their home country.

"If there are no bombs for a week I'll buy the tickets," one friend said. Last summer she enrolled her nine-year-old son in a wonderful camp in Lebanon. But then she and her husband and son had to be evacuated when war broke out with Israel.

"I can take it, I am so used to it, but it really bothers (my son) Danny," she said.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi

Recently M and I were invited by a couple next door, our dear friends, to a concert by the opera singer Jose Carreras at the magnificent Emirates Palace Hotel. (It was the culmination of the fourth annual Abu Dhabi Classical Musical Festival.)

A swank affair, it was black tie, invitation only. As the mother of six children, I am always looking for an opportunity to escape the kitchen and my apron.

I pulled out a long skirt and the highest heels I own. Unlike New Hampshire, people dress up in this town. Really dress up. This was going to be fun.

When we arrived at the Emirates Palace (built in 2005 for $3 billion, with 12,000 workers), we were disappointed to see a very long line ahead of us. My neighbor muttered something about this being "unacceptable," and headed for the manager.

"I am (his name) and I am here," he announced rather boldly. "What are you going to do about it?"

Evidently this is the way you get results in Abu Dhabi.

Seconds later we were shown in and we found great seats. Slowly the auditorium filled. When a sheikh from Abu Dhabi's ruling family walked in, everyone stood up. There were also members of a European royal family and several ambassadors present. The concert started about 40 minutes late - typical, I understand, in the UAE - and it was magnificent.

Afterwards the elegant crowd moved en masse towards the esplanade behind the Palace. Palace employees attempted to collect tickets for the VVIP reception, but they were completely ignored. People simply put their noses in the air and proceeded to the cocktail party.

Long tables in white linen hosted beautiful hors d'oeurves. Waiters walked around with trays of soda, beer and wine, the latter being in scarce supply and scooped up immediately. Soon 20 or 30 tuxedoed men hovered over the kitchen entrance, hoping to catch the next few glasses of wine.

The exterior of the Emirates Palace is like a marvelous, jewel-encrusted box. Purple, pink, yellow, and white flood lights highlighted the Palace's palm trees, fountains, marble temple and marble columns around the esplanade. A mild breeze wafted through the air. At least five different languages could be heard. People in national (Emirati) dress and others in western formal attire mingled. It was superb.

(The photo here is of me beside a giant gold coffee part, the symbol of hospitality in the UAE.)

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Quick Change for a Flat Tire

The other day while driving near Port Zayed in Abu Dhabi, I heard that awful wub, wub, wub that can only mean one thing: the left rear tire was as flat as a pita bread.

What to do? I called M at his office. He said he'd come help.

"Bring a spare tire," I told him, because within minutes a nearby security guard and three Port workers in jumpsuits were dismantling my fairly-new Toyota minivan, trying to find the spare tire to replace the flat one.

"For this car you need a map," one of the workers, from Egypt, said in frustration.

He and the others were unscrewing every bolt, lifting every piece of plastic - even the permanent ones - and peeling back every inch of carpeting they could, to find the spare. They located a jack about as thick as a pencil. The manual let us down - the spare wasn't in the stated location. But they jacked up the car, undeterred.

"It's okay. My husband is coming," I said, getting a little nervous. The car seemed to be shaking even as a man had his head under it. They carried on, as if I hadn't said a word.

I put in another call to M. He had a spare but was stuck in traffic. It was about 100 degrees.

Eight-year-old Hugh, who'd just come from a birthday party, sensed this was going to be a long session. He found shade under a date palm tree a few feet away. More passersby stopped to consult (in Arabic) et voila! the spare was found under the middle of the car!

The car survived its strip search just fine by my eyes.

I pulled out all the cash I had - these men had worked incredibly hard - and gave it to them with gratitude, and Hugh and I were off.