Special issue

Me, the Corona Nomad

Dr Carole Nakhle

CEO of Crystol Energy and President of Access for Women in Energy

Black Forest, Germany

My turn has come. For months, I have approached colleagues to share their experience during COVID-19 – the good, the bad and the ugly – as part of an Access for Women in Energy initiative. I enjoyed reading each one of them, and many more are yet to come!

I kept mine on hold for a while as I was hoping to write about the ‘grand finale’ when the page is finally turned on the crisis and we all celebrate BIG time. People are talking about the economy (and even oil demand) ‘roaring back with a vengeance’, as soon as the pandemic is brought under control; I can easily sympathise with that. My day-dreaming these days has entailed first and foremost getting a decent haircut then meeting friends for lunch and comparing shopping bargains, rushing to the airport for an overnight flight and catching up on the latest movies on board, checking in a hotel to freshen up then heading to meeting clients and finishing the day enjoying a light bite at a packed jazz bar in a busy, noisy city.

While the end of the COVID-19 nightmare seems to be more in sight today than only a few months ago, the plain sad fact is that we are not there yet. So, let me share some high- and lowlights of my own experience before my memory fails me if I wait any longer.

It all started in December 2019, when my husband and I decided to spend a couple of months in Abu Dhabi to give our then 9 months old a break from the European dark and cold winter. We also invited family members, including my mother to spend Christmas and New Year with us there. As March was supposed to be bloated with back-to-back business trips, I asked my mother to stay a bit longer with us. Little did I know that first, my mother would end up being stranded with us as she couldn’t fly back home, and then that we would all end up being stuck in the UAE until July 2020, living out of two suitcases (mostly beach clothes), as airports were closed, planes grounded and curfews announced.

Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced during that period was spending long days and nights in a rented apartment with both my mother and husband. Apart from the love-hate relationship those two share, to make things worse they don’t speak the same language – literally.

When July finally came and my mother could return home, we decided to have a stopover first in Germany, to spend the summer in the majestic Black Forest and recharge our batteries before heading back to London by early Autumn. That was the original plan! However, here we are, almost Spring 2021 and we are still in Germany because of travel restrictions and an unclear virus path. And we continue to live out of two suitcases, though online shopping is picking up. I just hope that my clothes don’t shrink and my high heels don’t tighten as they desperately wait for me in my flat in London.  

Heading to the office

How has that impacted my work? I have to say that I personally, and Crystol Energy in general, have been very busy. Massive market volatility, huge uncertainty in government policies, and drastic changes to strategic priorities across the energy industry have been some of the main notable features of the COVID-19 crisis. These are also some of the key areas that we focus on. So, we did ‘enjoy’ some pent up demand.

Digitalisation has tremendously helped. I cannot recall how many webinars, TV and radio interviews, and online lectures I have given; I truly lost count. However, going digital was not a major shock to my system. I have long gained experience with, for instance, online events and delivering training, especially in recent years (albeit for different reasons – from meeting client’s tight budget to matching busy schedules to a self-imposed moratorium on traveling during pregnancy). The difficulty this time was to find a suitable background in an ancient holiday property, which does not have even a tiny corner looking professionally.

In Germany, the big challenge has been to build the infrastructure needed to smoothly carry on with working in a remote place and a crumbling old house. We had to start from scratch including installing a reliable internet connection and upgrading all the lighting system. However, as visitors, we don’t have access to many of the same facilities as residents do (for example childcare). And in lockdowns, even service access became more scarce. The experience has sometimes made me wonder whether I made the right career choice: there is no shortage of economists but surely a worrisome lack of plumbers and electricians (we once called an electrician in September and he promised to come to see us and fix the problem before the end of the year – he is yet to show up!). This made me also look at ‘full employment’ – the darling target of established institutions such as the US Federal Reserve – in a different way. Back in Lebanon, where I come from, the plumber or electrician rings your doorbell a few seconds after you hang up the phone with them.

For the first two weeks in Germany, my little one struggled to adjust despite her half genes. On one occasion, she simply didn’t want to let go of me and I almost cancelled an important webinar with a substantial number of registrations. Luckily, at the very, very last minute, she calmed down and I rushed to my computer, without notes, dressed up casually and delivered my presentation with a smile on my face though my heart was racing super fast. As Freddie Mercury once said, “the show must go on”.

My ‘home office’ has been an insulated outdoor space which is also my little one’s playground. As days passed, we have reached a tacit agreement of sharing the area as long as we don’t infringe on each other’s boundaries – though she occasionally overlooks the terms.

4 January 2021: Back to work…
…and one hour later

Did I discover any new hidden talent or skill? Definitely not cooking or baking. I can cook but I find it utterly inefficient (just calculate the time to cook and time to eat ratio!). The lockdown left me no other choice but to cook on a regular basis to the continuously hungry mouths in the house (and I am not talking about my little one only). However, this new routine has led me to make one promise: I will NEVER, EVER complain about my mother’s cooking anymore. I now humbly appreciate the effort it takes and the passion it requires to prepare a decent meal.

I experimented a couple of times with baking – a banana cake as it is the simplest apparently, but each attempt was flatter than the other and after the third attempt I decided to head to the bakery.

Instead, I have redirected my attention to something I greatly enjoy – that is writing. Here too, I don’t recall how many articles, reports, and studies I have written since the pandemic started, something that was significantly curtailed when I was jumping from one plane to the other.

Other things benefited too. Our brilliant web designer and brand manager finally got me more engaged; Crystol Energy’s ‘new look’ is one outcome and a clear testament of his talent. I have also explored new avenues, including collaborating with a fashion magazine – the prestigious Marie Claire – to prepare a special edition on women in energy. Thanks to Zoom, we finally managed to get almost a full-house meeting with our amazing Advisory Board, to whom I am immensely grateful for their valuable support. And many more.

COVID-19 has surely brought mammoth challenges to everyone around the world. And I am no exception. But as Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” So, wherever the caravan takes me next, I will adjust (though the embargo on baking will continue to apply).

Marie Claire Arabia January 2021