Learning French

My baby cousin was born in 1998. At this time I was in the 4th grade, and very excited. Being so much younger than her siblings and closest cousins, she was the only one to not reap the advantage of only speaking Arabic until she went to school. We foiled our parent’s plans and taught her English well before her time. One such lesson came when we went to Wal-Mart together when she was about two years old. Greeting customers stood an elderly man in a blue vest handing out yellow stickers decorated with the Wal-Mart smiley face.

I love walmart stickers

A mature 11, I did not want a sticker. My baby cousin, however, REALLY wanted a sticker. She tugged on our sleeves and expressed her aspirations to bestow the sticker upon her little hand. There was but one thing standing in her way: She couldn’t speak English.

Along with her older sister, I coached my little cousin in a huddle next to the corral of shopping carts. “You can do it!”, we assured her, “Repeat after me: I WANT A STICKER.”

Locking eyes with me, she recited deliberately, “I….want….sticker…”

“Very good! Again!” We had her repeat the phrase many times until she looked ready. “Alright, now walk over there and say exactly that.” Pattering over to the greeter, she confidently proclaimed, just as she’d practiced half a dozen times…. “I    WANT      STICKER”. I was so proud of my brave little cousin.

The man leaned down to her level, smiled and replied, “Whuudyoo saayy?”  I saw her confidence deflate when she turned to us, unprepared to say another statement to this  man, who apparently didn’t speak English either. “It’s okay, say it again” we instructed her from a safe distance. ……  “I      WANT     STICKER!”  She raised her voice…… Again, “Whuuudyoo saayy?” We nodded to signal her request again.  Even louder,  “I    WANT      STICKER!!!”………. No dice, “Whuuudyoo saayy?”

Someone had to intervene. “She wants a sticker!” My older cousin and I seemed to shout in unison.

“Oh! Here you go!”

This is how I feel trying to speak French in public. Learning a language informally as an adult can be tricky. I learn phrases as needed and practice saying them at strangers, who sometimes don’t quite understand me. Since most people do speak some English, I don’t usually require a translator’s supervision…usually.

Daily, I think about my little cousin learning how to ask the Wal-Mart greeter for a sticker. I not to get frustrated or scared when someone speaks French to me or worse, responds to me in French when I clearly don’t speak French; I just remember how adorable my little cousin was, grinning like a little fool with her yellow sticker.

Un Baguette

It’s dark inside our small flat. I live with Debbie; she is also in the same program at Colorado School of Mines and here in Paris with me. Each day we rise, reluctantly, gather our things and thoughts and proceed to commute to school via metro, train, and finally bus. Lately, we’ve been opting to walk rather than take the bus for the final leg of our journey to school. Our little flat is situated in Le Marais area of Paris. Our school is situated in Rueil Malmaison. They are not close, but so far I enjoy the stress free commute. We herd ourselves from one vessel to the next. That’s how I’d describe the commute…. herding. Of course, it’s always fun to see the posters and advertisements along the route. Here is Debbie and my favorite poster.


Le Marias area of Paris is bustling with activity. It’s apparently a historic part of Paris and is now rather “hip”. We live directly next to a bakery. I imagine everyone lives directly next to a bakery. After school, we walk in with a euro coin and say, “un baguette s’il vous plait”. We exchange the euro for a baguette. I’ve been attempting to cook. Debbie and I made a carrot soup together out of a home made chicken broth. So, we’ve been eating soup and chicken. We’re the thrifty girls who bring our lunch to school amid a gourmet cafeteria.

Yesterday, I took myself for a run to a nearby cemetery. Pere Lachaise Cemetery is an incredible historical site and hosts many famous grave sites. It’s lush with greenery and a labyrinth of stone walk ways.

Jan 9 run

This wall with a statue of a woman and faces in the stone behind her sits outside the entrance to Pere Lachaise.


Jim Morrison’s grave site was barricaded. The barrier was covered in stickers, writings in permanent marker, and mostly hair-ties. A bamboo screen, decorated with chewed gum and small notes, encircled the tree in front of the barrier. Though this grave is possibly the most famous in the cemetery, the park is really so much more than a popular tourist spot. It’s incredible.


Much like everything else in Paris, its grande. It’s a piece of art than you become a part of as you walk through and loose yourself among the edifices of tombs.


Along the walkway I entered from, this tomb above stands easily 12 feet tall. Not only is it a historical site, its an active cemetery, with many graves I walked past dating 2015. Curious, I did some research about this site. I wanted to know what is the tallest tombstone there, oldest? Here are some facts I found out.

  • The cemetery is Paris’s largest cemetery and largest park. It’s 110 acres.
  • To be buried there you must have lived in Paris or died in Paris.
  • The first person to be buried there was a five year old girl who was the daughter of a door-bell man in 1804.
  • Initially, the site was not a popular place to be buried. To attract more interest and funerals to the site, the cemetery administrators had famous remains moved there and grave sites constructed.

I plan to make this a recurring trip, as there’s millions of people buried in Pere Lachaise. I have many more tombs to see. I’ll leave you with this last one- that I deem “The Batmobile” of grave sites.


Culture Shock

As I gradually announced to my friends and family that I’d be returning to the US, several colleagues warned me of the “reverse culture shock” I should anticipate. For the first day or so, I experienced no such thing. Everything was as I remembered- the people were friendly, my bed was comfortable, and my closet was full of boxes.

However, as promised, the reverse culture shock happened. It is real, folks. You can be alien to your home. Allow me to highlight the symptoms of reverse culture shock, in order that I’m experiencing them.


1- Drinking water from the kitchen faucet.   After nearly two years of drinking ONLY bottled water or water coming from a water cooler, I turned my nose up at the thought of filling up a cup from the kitchen faucet. In Doha, restaurants do not serve tap water, but rather pour it from glass bottles with the same presentation and care as a bottle of fine wine. In America- water is free and we’ll even drink it from the kitchen faucet. I cautiously filled an orange plastic cup from the kitchen faucet at my sister’s. I hesitated before drinking it. I had no idea I’d become so accustomed to how I drank water.

2. Driving. This one is sensitive for me to address. As one of my best friends put it to me while driving around this weekend, “What happened to you? You used to be such a confident driver!!?”  Driving in America is terrifying! The highways are huge and everyone drives fast. There are different rules for city driving, but in general, everyone is moving so quickly. I’ve run over curbs in neighborhoods while making a right turn. I made an 8-point turn the other day. Driving is hard! Last week, my sister and I drove out to East Texas to visit my grandpa. We sang to the radio and I enjoyed the green scenery as the miles went by. Suddenly, a full grown deer carcass appeared in front of me. A tan mass of dead animal surly looked as though I could not run over it smoothly with my Rav 4.In a split second, I swerved violently to the right to avoid hitting it. The car skid off to the right, and I proceeded to swerve back and forth- right to left, as the tires burned the road leaving skid marks and the anti-lock break system pulsed. After nearly three oscillations across the highway, the car came off road and spun to be perpendicular to the road. This placed the front two tires into a small ditch. The woman who had been driving the car in front of us and *successfully dodged the deer pulled over to the road to see if we were okay. Within a few seconds, a wide brimmed state trooper hat emerged from another vehicle. They were concerned because of how my car had landed. My front two tires had become…..

3. Stuck in the mud. For several weeks now, Texas has gotten a lot of rain and even snow. As a result, all the grassy areas are muddy. My Rav 4 had become stuck in the mud, and my sister and I called my uncle to help pull us out. My car is now covered in mud. I forgot about rain. I forgot about mud.


4. Food is not on demand. Over the weekend, I spent a few nights at my sisters. At roughly 2 am, I became rather hungry. Desiring snacks, I asked her if we could order tacos to the house. We couldn’t. In Doha, if you’re lazy, food will come to you. In Dallas, just go to sleep and eat tacos tomorrow. For the record, I DID eat tacos the next day.

Rocks in Cans

Having just finished a hitch in the desert, I’m riding shot gun next to Snoopy in his flatbed trailer back to Doha. I ask him to turn on the radio. We sway to the songs and bounce along the road in the dark. Moments like this, I love that this is part of my job.


It’s dark and it’s windy, stirring the sand into the air. The grains tap the window like rain and create a sandy fog in the air. Snoopy clears the windshield twice. In the middle of an actual desert  storm, it feels like a rainy winter night.

I’m trying to place more emphasis on enjoying the small daily occurrences which can get the better of my nerves if I let them. Everyone communicates in their own way. I like to talk with my hands. At McDonald’s the other day, I placed my order of “a little double cheeseburger and a giant coke”, surly indicating the height of my drink between my hands. The McDonald’s worker promptly filled a normal sized cup with Diet Coke. Realizing that “giant” can sound like “diet” and no one describes their drinks as giant, I had to laugh. Touchè McDonald’s…


The last job I did, I worked the night shift with a Pakistani engineer. Discussing accents, he so perfectly summarized how some Indians speak…. “It’s as if you put some rocks in a can. And then shake the can”


Stick Stuck

I’ve been offshore for the last week or so, on the Chinese rig again. It’s a rather large job, with many runs. I’m working shifts with another engineer and am already experiencing the effects of working the “night” shift.

All the supervisors on this rig are Chinese, as mentioned in a previous post the last time I was out here. Some speak English better than others. The man who watches everything I do doesn’t seem to know English hardly at all. His name is Mr. Yew. Mr. Yew likes to sit as close to me as possible. He touches my computer screen, uses my mouse to browse things he wants to see, takes my calculator from in front of me, and is constantly saying “You give me data!” (though its really pronounced more like, deyterr). Mr. Yew and I have become more comfortable with each other, as I’ve asked him to allow me to move the mouse around if there are things he wants to see, and he always gets his deyterr in time.

After one run, I gave Mr. Yew and his colleague, Mr. Chew the geologist, a field print of the log data. On the wellsite, they like to correct any mistakes in the field print, such as typos or comments. After delivering this print, I was summoned with some very important questions.

“Here, it says tool sticking. And here…..*Scrolling through document*…. It says stuck tool. What is the difference? Is the tool stuck or is it stick?”

Usually, I go into these sessions prepared to face harsh scrutiny and take serious notes on what to fix so that the next draft is near perfection. At this question, I eased my guard and explained that stick and stuck , for their purposes mean the same thing. Different forms of the same verb. Everyone laughed, and Mr. Yew and Mr. Chew practiced saying “stick….stuck. Same word!!” Their amusement pointed out to me the subtleties in languages. In Chinese, the pronunciation difference between stick and stuck would make those words have totally different meanings.

When offshore, everyone on the rig is reporting to someone “in town”. It’s very much like a royal We situation, as whenever you’re not sure of something or need to make a decision, you can simply say, “I’ll check with Town” or “That would have to be up to the guys in Town.” Aside from decision making, the guys in Town need to be briefed and updated on the operations offshore, so that they can all have meetings together. Mr. Yew refers to his guy in town as “my Leader”. This leads to him saying phrases like, “I will call to my Leader” and “I give deyterr to my Leader”. His phrasing makes me giggle inside, as all I can think is take me to your Leader. Like an alien.

All the Kings Horses

Immediately after writing my dramatically boring post, I received news that I would be leaving the rig the following morning. And so, I fled the rig, returning from whence I came. That is, first I took a boat to a neighboring rig to catch the chopper from there. Instead of being lifted to that rig via the personnel basket, the boat just backed up to a grated platform with some stairs leading to what is called a “jacket”.


I jumped from the boat to the platform, climbed all the stairs to the jacket, took another set of very precariously placed stairs suspended above the water and beneath the rig floor from the jacket to the rig and trekked across the deck and up another four flight of stairs to the helicopter briefing room.


It felt like I should be receiving some sort of participants trophy, but I suppose the weekend in town is reward enough.

I made it into Doha just in time to go to dinner with friends, and to Dukhan the next day for more jobs. I finished a job in Dukhan in just in time to go back to Doha for dinner and offshore the next day.

When joining a group of people who have been stranded offshore, it is customary to come baring gifts. The crew requested cigarettes. I went to the gas station to buy an assortment of cigarettes. Whilst in line to pay for my assortment, a man approached me,

Man, in Arabic- “Do you speak Arabic”

Me- …..sure?

Man, still in Arabic- “Where are you from?”


Man- You said you were Arab?

Me- ..*Annoyed, ‘leave me to buy all these cancer sticks in peace’ face*…

Man- What’s you’re name?

Me- Laila

Man- That’s an Arabic name.

Me- Yes, it is.

Man- And you have a very Arabic face.

Me- Yes, I do.  *exit gas station*

Oddly, and much to my extreme annoyance and frustration, these conversations have become routine in my life. No one asked you to approach me. Furthermore, I have NO problem talking to strangers (I love meeting strangers), but why argue with a stranger over a personal question you asked them uninvited and clearly unwelcomed? The answer is INCONCLUSIVE as to WHAT is the obsession with where you’re from and whether or not you are Arab.

Alas, I am back on the rig, Al-Zubarah, having bypassed all the standby time.

Black Eyed Beans

The bag of peanuts almost got stuck in the vending machine. We had been waiting in the heliport for over two hours now and I was hungry. Today, I flew offshore to a Chinese rig. The oil company is Chinese, as is the drilling company. I’d heard many stories from my colleagues who previously visited this rig. From trainee engineers to veterans, the feedback seemed the same, “That rig is a mess.”

I haven’t been this curious or excited to make an offshore job in a while. Some of my preconceived ideas before I got here were…

  • What if they joke about America’s debt? I don’t think I’d know how to handle that…
  • Everything will be crappy and break.
  • Maybe I will see a robot.
  • I should be on the look-out for knock-off safety gear.
  • I hope the rig is colored red.
  • There’s going to be authentic Chinese food!

Some myth busters about the peculiar Chinese rig…

  • No one gives a shit that I’m American. And they certainly do not ‘joke’
  • The Chinese are SO nice.
  • One’s level of English can be noted by how hard he does or does not squint while listening to you. Speak to the poker faces.
  • No robots.
  • What they call “Fish” is ACTUALLY “Calamari”
  • The menu item “Black Eyed Beans” is neither black eyed peas nor black beans, but rather peas and carrots.
  • The drilling company wears red. The oil company wears yellow.

The daily supervisors meeting takes place in the evenings after dinner. The meeting room looks more or less like this:

ChineseMeetingBut instead of Mr Obama, Madam Clinton and friends on the left, there are a bunch of oilfield service hands. On the right, it pretty much looks the same except they are wearing yellow. We go through the room one by one, with each person addressing their upcoming activities and needs or concerns with anyone else on the rig. Once it comes time for the client supervisors to speak, they all turn and talk to each other in Mandarin. After a few minutes, the meeting is dismissed. They know all our concerns, yet we know none of theirs. Everyone smiles and stands, thanking each other as they walk out of the room.

Galley Wars: Unless the Chef’s Special is a Burrito….

As mentioned, I get special treatment on this rig. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and most notably, very unprofessional. The  real segregation between laypeople and VIP’s takes place in the galley. It is the after school play ground, where the rules don’t apply and you can be as mean and racist as you please. No teachers, no professional courtesy, no humanity. 


This rig is small.The galley contains three long tables, and three small square tables. One of the long tables has a place mat and silverware laid out already at each chair. The commoners must get their own napkins and forks. I don’t sit at the VIP table, but opt to sit with my crew at the Filipino table. Each table is unofficially divided by race. The Filipinos have a table. The Indians have another table, and the Arabs have their own table.  The galley has a set menu for each meal. They lay out the food and everyone serves themselves. Except for one special dish, which they keep in the back and only offer to the VIP’s. I had no idea this is what was happening. I assumed that there was not enough space for all the food, and one dish is just kept in the back and was offered to everyone.

Usually, I come into the galley and go through the line. After I have served myself, one of the galley hands will lean over to me and say “We have Arabic chicken, ma’am”. I look down at my plate which is already full of food. “Uh, no thanks.” This keeps happening… “We have Arabic duck. ma’am”…. “We have grilled fish, ma’am.” Occasionally I take some if it sounds appetizing. I never turn down “Arabic spaghetti, ma’am”  Most of the VIP food is described by the little Indian cook as “Arabic”, though the foods are not specifically Arabic. For example, spaghetti is in no way an Arabic food. It’s just normal spaghetti! I realize one day, that not everyone gets to eat these special foods, and I am in the VIP category. I also realize, most of the VIPs are Arab, and of course the one token Scottish man.

While sitting with my crew, the head cook comes up to my table. “Hello. Where are you from?”


“Oh, I thought you were Egyptian with Mexican Nationality. But you’re American nationality.” This explains why he tried to speak to me in Spanish earlier…. “Anyway, I’m the chef. If you want anything special, just let me know and I will make it for you. Do you like the food? I have special beef in the back.”

I say “no thanks” the the special beef and ask for chocolate milk. I hustle him for a 6 pack, which I later polish off in 20 minutes in my bed while watching Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, because that’s what VIP’s do! 



Back to the story…. What am I eating instead of the chef’s special beef?

Today the menu had “Chicken Mexican”. It hardly resembles fajita slices with some salsa, black beans and bell peppers, but I try to eat it anyway. In the corner of the galley behind the Indian’s table, there is a little rice cooker used to keep the naan warm. I feel like I’m crossing their turf as I squeeze by the man who chooses to sit directly in front of it. Rig naan is not like actual naan. It stays warm and soft for only a minute, and is rather flat. It actually resembles more closely a tortilla. I add some corn and onion from the salad bar, soft cheese from the fridge, and some spicy pickled Indian spread to the Chicken Mexican and create a burrito. My Filipino crew watches intently as the burrito is assembled. 

“Laila…… what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to make this ‘Chicken Mexican’ into a respectable Mexican meal!”

“Ohhh.” They turn to each other “It’s a modification!”  (In our line of work, different tools or equipment often call for technical ‘modifications’)

It’s no certified VIP meal, but a makeshift burrito beats the hell out of any chef’s special. …. unless the chef’s special is also a burrito.

Stranded in the Living Room

My stay on thus far Al-Doha has been uneventful, as standby time can often be. I am blessed with a television in my accommodations, as well as a private bathroom. I try to use it sparingly, as the aroma suggests the walls may be plague-ridden.

I mentioned the company man in the previous post, Acid in the Body. After our initial introductory meeting, I got settled on the rig and returned to see him in the evening to ask more questions about the upcoming job. He sat in his evening galabaya, which I basically will describe as a nightgown, drinking tea with cloves.
King in Nightgown

He began to speak of some of my co workers with very high praise. I’ve always thought you can tell a lot from a person by the way they speak about other people. He asked the office boy to bring another glass with tea and cloves. I sat with the company man drinking tea and chatting.
“Did Jacob tell you about me? That you’d come to the rig and find the company man drinking tea in a galabaya?”
“No. He didn’t say anything.”
“Write down his phone number. We’re going to call him. But you don’t say anything at first.”
The company man proceeded to prank call my co worker on speaker phone.
Following the phone call, he asked me about my family. Where in Egypt they were from, and how long they’ve been in the United States.
“And your father, what does he do for a living?”
“He coaches soccer.”
“He must be a Zamalek fan, then.”
This comment took my by surprise, because my father IS a Zamalek fan, but I always got the impression he was the only one. “He is, actually. How did you know!!?”
“Anyone who knows anything about soccer is a Zamalek supporter. Write down his phone number.”
“He’s in the USA. Can this phone dial out?”
The company man grinned mischievously, “I will bill you when you leave.” I wrote down my dad’s number on the paper, and just as the first phone call, the company man dialed, looked at me and said, “You stay quiet at first.”

I was no longer in the company man’s office, but maybe the living room of a family friend. The company man called my dad, told him I was on the rig and would be there for about a week. They talked about soccer together and players they admired. Then the company man handed the phone to me. After the phone call, I thanked the company man. “For what?” he replied, “We’re going to call him again! This is a son of the land.” (This expression is similar to ‘salt of the earth’ in English. I really am not sure how to directly translate its meaning, but land would be referring to Egypt, or the common land they are from.) The company man proceeded to walk me around the rig and introduce me to the OIM, Driller, Radio Operator, etc. He would say “This is Laila. She is my/our daughter. She is from Egypt.”

After the tour, I sat in his office while he called all the other Arab service hands into his office. A little congregation, we sat talking casually about the oilfield and our experiences or ideas about oil rigs in other places in the world. I told them about the drillships in the Gulf of Mexico. They were curious to know how large the rig was, how much it costs, and how deep the well is. Truthfully, these drillships float in water deeper than most wells.
“In America, do they like the Chinese?” The company man asked this heavy hitting question with the utmost casualty, as if he had asked how often does it rain. I laughed at the absurdity of the question, but recognized its political and cultural significance and tried to answer as honestly and correctly as possible.
“In America, its not allowed to not like a particular nationality or group of people. But the Chinese have been in America for a while, so we’re used to them. It’s the recent immigrant groups that may have a harder time. But we like the Chinese.”
“Yeah, they have China-town in every city!” The Algerian hand from Weatherford added in his perspective.

Acid in the Body

The rigs have been frenzied with activity. The desert has been frenzied with hooligans starting fires in the sand. After completing a job and driving back home, we passed two Land Cruisers parked on the wrong side of the road. A handful of young men stood outside. As we passed, they ran into their cars and drove away, leaving behind this little fire. We pulled over and put it out with sand.


Today, I am offshore on Al Doha, a QP rig. I wasn’t looking forward to coming out here, but suppose its time to just bite the bullet and get back to work. Sitting waiting for the helicopter, I wrapped myself in a concentrated getaway daydream and fell asleep with my chin on my chest. What I would do to escape this place… What is the worst that could happen if I just left to go home? Left my crew and my job, no warning, no excuse… When I was in college, I used to drive between Dallas and Phoenix on summer and winter breaks. Once or twice a year, I would get into my car, and spend 1200 quality miles and 16 unruffled hours alone with the I-10/ I-20. Always before leaving, I felt the compulsion to go. It would wake me at night, the restlessness dragging me out of the door and onto the road sometimes before 4 am. It felt like a migration. How do birds know when to fly? They just do. They get restless and the compulsion makes them know they have to fly away on that particular day. I feel a similar urge. I just want to leave. Suppressing this impulse, I sleep as often as I can. I sleep at 7 pm, I nap in the heliport… I dream about flying away….


I went to see the company man upon arriving. He sat facing his computer, with the back of his chair shielding his body from me. A man informed him, “The Whataberger engineer is here to see you.” Without turning in his chair, he called out to me, “How are you, Miss Laila?” I could tell from his voice he was an older man. “I am well. How are you?” I replied. “Very good. You are Egyptian?” He asked.

Here we go again, I thought to myself. Lately, company men pry about my ethnic background. They insist we speak in Arabic, and they insist we speak about politics. This has resulted in me talking as little as possible, mean mugging every person I see on a rig, refusing to speak in Arabic, and straight up leaving the room when someone begins to talk politics. At their best, these exchanges make me uncomfortable. At their worst, they are insulting and completely unprofessional. They ask about your religion, they ask how much you pray, they ask why your parents allow you to work in the oilfield, they ask a lot of things….. I’ve started ignoring these men. On one occasion- I looked at one and said, “What are you trying to accomplish by this conversation? This just seems completely pointless, If you need me for something relevant, I’ll be outside working.” I digress…

“Yes, I am originally from Egypt, but was born and raised in the States.” This can never be overstated. If I could, I would erase any feature of my name or face which makes everyone ask if I am Egyptian. It is a point of pride, but has also become a point of contention. Someone will notice I am Egyptian before they will notice anything else about me. It’s misleading. 

“I see. Welcome. We’re glad to have you on board. Do you like your room?” The chair turns to reveal an old man with glasses. He stands and shakes my hand. “Just give me five minutes, dear. Have you eaten?”

“I ate before I came. I suppose I can eat again. Shall I eat and come back?”

“That will be perfect. If anyone bothers you, you just let me know.” The company man seemed very nice, a clear veteran of the oilfield.

I returned and he talked to me about my job and my co workers he knows. He described Mighty Mouse as an unripened mango.