So the excitement that accompanied a winter break spent in Istanbul, Belgrade, Thessaloniki
and Bulgaria is now in the past and it’s back to “normal” in Erbil. Normal, of course, is relative.
Our relative is a stress level that always ebbs at a noticeable, albeit not unhealthy level, coupled
with frequent school-related upheavals. One way or another there was sure to be a few budding
crises as we began the 2015 segment of the school year, and so it was little surprise when they
almost immediately materialized.
It’s been a very real sense of the phrase ‘expect the unexpected’.
One of our brand new teachers, a fellow expat brought in to help primarily with upper grade
English courses like myself, left without notice over the holiday break. Without the slightest
warning at all. It’s one of the employers’ inherent risks in this situation; bringing in us expat
teachers requires round trip flights and a pair of holidays flights as a perk to sweeten the deal.
What helps attract people to the job in the first place is often a leaping point for making a clean
breakaway. It wasn’t until the first morning bus ride back from vacation that anyone of us knew.
She simply just failed to be at her pick up spot, and none of us thought twice about why that
That, in many ways, is indicative of life here for the handful of others like me, as there is little
sense of permanence for outsiders coming in. In my brief time here already, I’ve come to realize
that most don’t stay long. Those that do extend their stay tend to be outliers. Business
possibilities and the sky- high potential of oil and entrepreneurial gains bring in a constant flow
of foreigners, but most apparently don’t stay too long, and those that do escape for vacations as
frequently as they can.
In many ways it is a harsh culture to adjust to, one that often presents a lovely veneer of
westernism, but a veneer that disintegrates quickly upon closer examination. Poor prioritization
and fundamental design flaws seem to creep through too many things. For instance I sit here
now on the couch of my tiled-floor second story apartment. However electricity is often patchy,
and I’ve been advised many, many times not to drink the tap water (I really shouldn’t but I still
Glassy high rises dot the city, iconoclasts compared to the rusty tin and cinder block shacks that
they often tower over. The roads are filled with expensive foreign models that collect dents and
dings on their bumpers and undercarriages while driving over main thoroughfares that are little
more than dust bowls with massive potholes. There’s much work to be done, and most of it is
not as glorious as the strides Erbil has yet made. Progress comes across as disorganized and
disconnected. So unfortunately, it’s been no real surprise when these same characteristics
seem to be all too prevalent at work.
The unexpected making itself the expected has been the true normal these past ten days back
on the job. We’ve been scrambling to clean up the messes left by teachers that have
unexpectedly left, teachers who’ve failed to cover their own lessons properly, and what
sometimes seems like directionless management. This job has never pretended to be
straightforward or easy by any measure, and it doesn’t look to be so at any point in the near
future. Sometimes it frustrates me to no end.
And through all of that, I love it. It has been a wonderful experience so far. Rewarding beyond
measure even with every little distraction and diversion that appears. Each one of them
indicative of a new quirk that somehow shows a little more odd charm in this job and truly once-
in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don’t hesitate to remind myself that despite often mounting
frustrations I am part of a very select crowd. One lucky enough to witness a culture that feels
like an international refugee slowly close the gap of its own autonomy with that of our slowly
growing world view.
Vacation was long, and a great change for fourteen days. It was just long enough a time away
to distract myself completely from any lingering problems in Erbil. Long enough for me to come
back with a fresh and clean mind, ready for 2015. And of course all of those new frustrations.