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Lay of the Land: Puddles a small price to pay for Paddy paradise


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The party is over, this grey January. The sky is overcast and it's drizzling. Yet a local in this country town, who recently returned from nearly two years working abroad in sizzling temperatures - a beach across the road from her cushy temporary residence - is literally soaking it all in with a blissful smile.

For she found the reality of life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, "like living in an uptight version of that movie The Truman Show, everything clinical and unreal". She especially missed seasons. While the only 40 shades she saw was at a St Patrick's Day gathering last year: "Lots of Saudi men wearing bits of green stuck to them." It was hot all the time in a landscape that seemed to consist of "sand, sandstone, sand, palm tree, sand".

There was no escape at her local cafe, a franchise of a Canadian chain that was air-conned, snazzy and streamlined. For there was nothing chilled about it, with no sounds beyond that of robed men clicking on their laptops. Because music, "like anything else that was basically fun", was banned.

Though "the nicest and biggest surprise" in this Islamic country that operates under Sharia Law (the Department of Foreign Affairs advises Irish citizens to be sensitive to local customs) were the well-informed Saudis she encountered. "They were the way religious people should be: kind and funny and friendly."

Perhaps this helped her draw parallels with "Ireland two generations ago, when Catholicism was in the Irish Constitution."

There were funny sides to the censorship: "They would blip out any reference to pork on Masterchef. It was surreal."

Likewise, it amused her that there was no word for cleavage, though "women are really crude when they talk among themselves about body parts and functions". She believes it is a matriarchal society. "The family is the main social unit and within that the mother is queen."

Never did she witness any violence. "They say violence is not in the Koran. What loony kings do is another thing."

On that note, "the whole atmosphere changed" after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered last October. A Saudi colleague agreed with her decision to leave - until "someone passed behind him and a look of absolute terror crossed his face. Because there are secret police everywhere".

Which is why one of the things she is enjoying about home is being able to sit in a cafe that is playing background music and criticise any politician who she feels deserves it. She smiles out at the drizzle and recalls watching men in yellow ponchos rushing about with sweeping brushes when it rained. "It happened so rarely that there was no drainage system, so they sort of sloshed the water around."

"Which reminds me," she laughs. She buttons up her jacket and waves; off to splash her way through puddles for a catch-up pint with pals in the pub.

Sunday Independent