Ever wonder what you are really made of? Go on vacation with a loved one. Even better, rent your house to a large family from a foreign country where few speak your language and you are living in very close quarters. That is what I did last week. Complicate things with adding a very practicing Muslim family with a menopausal feminist Spiritualist and there could not have been two more polar opposite families on the planet. It was like a scene right out of “Wife Swap”.
I always attempts to speak my mind, albeit with discretion and compassion but you have me host a burka wearing Muslim matriarch, two daughters with her four male counterparts all in shorts and contemporary wear and all my fears and social injustices surface. You can’t even imagine the mismatch with me traipsing around in my shorts and skimpy tops in this 30+ stifling hot, summer days. Please understand that what I write will initially seem politically incorrect but there is a happy ending.
The B&B booking started off rocky. I advertise my whole house rental and in large print, that “I LIVE THERE”. When any groups asks if I can go somewhere else and leave my home, my hackles rise because I don’t have another place to stay at and for insurance purposes, I am only covered if I sleep there. I assure them that I can fade into the woodwork and give them their privacy and always, when we meet, they relax but they have put the doubt into my mind and I feel unwelcome. The stage has been set and it’s on wobbly supports.
The next concern was if I was married or had a boyfriend or family as their women could not be alone with another man. Sadly, this would not be a problem. Sigh. To add insult to injury, a week ago I injured my shoulder and it had become a useless wing until it healed. I pride myself on always making a full breakfast for all my guests including the Airbnb crowd who don't expect it but I was afraid I would have to disappoint for the first time ever in two years and for 5 full nights!
The first 24 hours were rough. You know how it is when you are not in a good frame of mind and the season has been so long and so busy so I am weary running this place all alone and then small little things happen. Six out of the 7 don’t close the exterior doors and we are having a heat wave so all my a/c is gone and flies are swarming in my house. I hate flies, and I’m menopausal so the heat is making me crusty and crazy. All the cork bathroom plank floors are coated in water and I worry about them swelling and having to be replaced. What on earth is going on here?
On a more tension releasing note, I recently put on my door, Please Remove Your Shoes. When they arrived, I saw seven large adult all barefooted. They entered and I quickly went outside to bring in their shoes, asking what they would do if it started raining. Guess the sign needs more work.
Only two of the seven seem to speak English so being in a room with all the others is very isolating. There's now a big one foot scrape on my cork floor from one of the chairs they were sitting in. My fault yes I know- I should have fixed the felt but it’s been added to the crabby list.
They refused to eat any of my food saying, “let us take care of you. Canadian food is boring and we like very spicy we will cook you traditional meals.” I finally decided okay I will not cook for them because my arm hurts too much and this will be a real treat. So I had a morning snack and waited and waited and waited. The parents get up around 4 or 5 to pray but all five of their grown children sleep in till noon or 1:00pm. At this point I'm ravenous. They were all starting to look like pork chops. I ended up cooking breakfast for seven but only two breakfasts were eaten. That okay- they did warn me. Just before they go away to sightsee for the day, the dad says we might only stay here for a couple of days okay? Airbnb has taken all their money and I know it can be done easily and with all of my being I'm thinking yes just go. I don't have Arabic TV or radio so it's total silence when they are on the main floor. I have 5 days of this. I can't wait till it's over with. And the worst of it they are a wonderful family. It's so weird not being happy with the booking when you really can't pinpoint exactly why but it just didn’t feel like a good fit. Rant over with. Was I ever off base!
After the first 24 hours, everybody relaxed and I learned their lifestyle challenged all of my most deeply engrained thoughts from self-care to socializing, faith and bringing up kids. I found out that four of the seven actually spoke English and on the final day, the mom even said a few words in English. She was holding out on me that sneaky devil. My greatest relief was when the mother and daughters took over cutting up everything I provided so that my arm would not hurt. They were a very delightful family who stopped leaving doors open for the flies, and were very respectful. Guess I jumped the gun as I often do. They decided to stay the full five day and I was happy.
I found out all about their faith by asking the dad questions and it was fascinating. I knew they prayed a lot but it’s only when you are around it day by day that you get to question all the intricacies of their faith. The men pray together 5x a day and the women separately, on their own time. When the men bend over and are on the ground, they are getting a small exercise routine as they do everything 3-5x per session five times a day. Something odd happens with their shorts… they pull them down to cover their knees while on the floor because their knees to just above the belly button must be covered but its ok if they show their underwear to strange women- me! Woohoo! (I hope that's not blasphemy). Even stranger still, they just spontaneously break off into almost silent prayer no matter who is around so I had a front row experience, without the popcorn. One will start and like a silent radar frequency, that only the men can hear, they start to congregate. The first time it happened, the eldest boy was in the living room and bent over as if to find something. His brother came in and started looking to. When the next two came in, I almost asked what they were looking for and then I realized, they weren’t looking for anything. Glad I held my tongue for a change.
Women have to have their arms and legs covered to the ankle and wrist for their solitary worship. I was frustrated by our lack of a shared language with the mom who wears a black burka back home but her husband told her not to here as it scares Canadians. He might be right. She always had to cover up her entire body and face to get something from the car. I almost gasped when she returned the first time because all I saw was a nose.
I solved the puzzle of the wet bathroom floors. On an unrelated note, it seems many overseas people don’t know they can flush the toilet paper but they do now. In their home country, they use bum guns to clean their posteriors. It’s a version of the bidet with a sprayer, hand held. I now remember how messy the Thailand bathrooms were, always soaked so here was too. In Canada, they had equipped each bathroom with a small water bottle and it worked but it was not a perfect fix. I used a lot of towels to soak up the floors. I won’t miss that.
I always ask my guests what music they like to listen to but Galaxy doesn’t seem to have their tunes. The house is ungodly quiet as I don’t have any Saudi language TV or radio. I loudly jokingly said at one dinner preparation time, I sure wish I could hear Saudi music and they all started to talk at once. It was the mom speaking that made me think I could understood Saudi. What was I thinking I could understand, and assumed she was saying they don’t like her music, (yes, I was projecting, and I nodded and agreed and smiled. My kids hate my music too). What she had said was that day was a Muslim holy day and music is forbidden. Oh my, I was so embarrassed. I was able to hear some on the final morning, on the cell phone, but it was “church chanting”, not exactly the lively dance music I was hoping for.
Meals were a trial. I did not get the memo that they eat breakfast late and supper even later like everyone else on the planet already seem to know. I serve the traditional NA meal at a mutually agreed time and if they say 8am, I get up 1½ hours earlier and pull it all together. They say they eat everything but that is just a conceptual thing. On the first morning, they told me to do NOTHING and that was agony. They all had their mini espresso style coffees together in the back yard so I brought out a plate of pineapple, then watermelon, and other finger food and they were like locusts, esp the three twenty something boys. That set the stage for me thinking, I know better, I should serve proper meals. That night, I made an egg pizza and put it in the fridge. They came home and saw it and dad almost convinced them that they had to be polite and eat it as a late night snack until mom said “don’t you dare touch it”. Moms are so smart. Imagine my horror when I would realize there was no breakfast the next day. Wouldn’t have mattered… only two ate it. What was I doing wrong?
On the final two days, they said they were in charge of breakfast and then I saw the error of my ways. Store bought hummus, but not my homemade stuff, pita bread, two kinds of olives, boiled eggs, BUT NEVER PEELED eggs or they won’t touch it, and some garden fresh tomatoes I had ready. That’s it, that’s all. I can’t survive on that but that is what they eat every single day. I would feel like such a failure of a B&B owner if I only ever served just that.
On the last day, they went sightseeing so before they left, I heckled the dad saying, “Well, Canadian food is all I’ve ever tasted. Sigh.” They left and when it poured all day, I just knew they would be coming home early and cooking me supper. Woohoo, I was right. They made a critical couple of errors though. They all went to the store hungry, and mom and dad went to do some other shopping and left the five grown kids to buy the meats. OMG hilarious! Upon returning, he asked me seriously if I thought we would have enough meat to BBQ. I could not stop laughing. There are 8 of us. They bought 8 huge steaks plus 2 extra-large packages of round steak. And some wanted chicken so they bought two large club pack trays of chicken breasts, about 16 -20 in total and someone threw in a large bag of shrimp. The meat alone was over the top hilarious. Because they eat late, they stave off their hunger with a huge bowl of regular strength ice cream; no lite or low fat for them. Supper was great but the first night we ate at 11:45 pfreakinm. Who does that? Have they never been to a Weight Watchers meeting who tell them to stop eating after 6? I went to bed and collapsed 15 minutes later with mounds of half desiccated food festering in my belly. You can be sure I didn’t weigh myself the next day or the day after. And for the record, their food is quite bland but there is not a fattie among them. The last night, we ate at a respectable hour, according to them, at 10:30 pm.
Now let’s discuss how they bring up their kids. One of my “fondest” memories of my teenagers was the phone call at work with the younger crying hysterically into the phone for me to return home because the older one had a butcher knife and was threatening to kill her. Of course I couldn’t leave so I was a train wreck. While these Saudi kids/adults may have a bad habit of sleeping till most of the day is gone, as soon as they get up, they kiss dad, then mom and then every sister younger than them, as a sign of respect. Wow! They are well educated. Their father is very close to the kids, especially the boys and constantly coaches them on how to be good citizens.
Alcohol is a huge issue in my culture, both when I grew up and now that my girls are adults. Saudi kids don’t drink, at least until they go away from home to America and then they might drink responsibly. The boys all attend universities in the states and then return home. They like North American women and will date them but realize that they will only marry Saudi women because it would complicate their lives with different cultures, languages and faiths. Smart boys. If the parents only knew the conversations I had with the eldest one and making sure he used condoms if he was going out to prowl.
The day before they left, they invited me to the beach. We took separate cars as they left earlier. What they did was get there before me and run like maniacs to the furthest part of the island under a grouping of trees so I would never be able to find them. I did and the boys all went wandering, then the girls to use the bathroom and that left mom and I….awkward! We spoke not a word and I waded ankle deep in the water in my shorts and sleeveless shirt while she was completely covered again.
I was never able to connect with the young teenaged girls and mom and I struggled with to communicate.
After many talks, the dad jokingly suggested I become an honourary Muslim and I could dress like them. We both chuckled. Dad was quite progressive and did say he felt badly that the women wore burkas and knew the clothing was hot. He also told me that men can have up to seven wives. Now that initially really irritated me. He explained that with all the war, quite often, the widows had no one to take care of them so the men would marry more to keep them safe and fed. That kind of made sense but I did not become his second wife. He assured me that his current wife would not like it one bit if he remarried BUT, she would be the cherished one, no matter how many he had. Nope, still not interested in sharing.
On the last day, moments before departure, I told them I had changed my mind and asked if it would be rude of me to ask their mom to wrap me up in their burka attire and they agreed. I ran to get my wraps and she began. She wrapped the shawl many, many times around me until I started to get claustrophobic and panicky. How do they breathe like that? I saw her eyes and nose but only a small wet spot where she was breathing thru the cloth. I asked if they could take a picture of us and she started speaking and gesturing to my arms. I know, I know so I put on another shawl to cover the trampy arms. Then she gestured to my legs and tore another strip off of my dignity as a harlot. I know, I know, they can take the picture above my knees. She put her glasses on and there we were, two Muslim ladies; one comfortable and one wanting to scream, “Get me out of this”. They were very kind to allow me this. In “our” old country, I would have to wear sunglasses too.
I knew I would not survive converting mostly because of the heavy clothes so suddenly, running the bed and breakfast alone did not seem like such a burden and I will be grateful for what I have. I feel so privileged to have spent this week with them, sharing cultures and faiths.