It’s snowing on my blog! It’s freezing in my house! The wind is wuthering and banging things and howling down the chimney! And yet I continue to write about my recent trip to the wilds of the Sahara desert.

I’ve been having a lot of fun telling my Iraqi friends about our trip to Oudane and showing them the picture of the toilet. They are amazed beyond. They laugh hysterically as I describe the uneven stairs, but when I explain about balancing on the rafters, they are horrified. “What if you fall in?” I’ve been asked several times. They are shocked to hear of how poor many Mauritanians are, and can’t believe I survived even 3 days in the tiny village. One woman told me of a time she and her family had fled Baghdad during the war to a neighbouring village, and how they didn’t even spend the night because of the primitive toilet. I laugh. “I lived in Oudane for a month once, with little kids, and the whole family had giardia,” I tell her.

This time, we arrived in Oudane on a Monday afternoon. In the morning, we met our driver outside our friend’s business. This friend, Mo, is doing tremendously well in business and is very generous to boot, and he arranged a car to take us the 600 kilometers from Nouakchott to Oudane. I don’t know what he paid but it was a lovely thing for him to do.

We climbed in and the driver took off at a tremendous rate while I bounced around in the back. The sun beat down as we drove through the desert and I kept waiting for it to get pretty. It does, right around Tergit, where the baked plains that surround the city begin to rise into shale plateaus. I sat in the back, wishing the AC could be cranked, bored for hours and hours and hours. We stopped only at police checkpoints, of which there were many. At each they took our passports and laboriously copied down the information. And the day was long and hot and boring, but it was one of those times where I honestly didn’t mind, because I liked that security was tight and that someone pretty much always knew where we are, or could easily find out. The only negative was that the driver only stopped for police checkpoints, where you don’t want to pop out with your camera unless you’re the type of person who enjoys getting yelled at and possibly losing your camera. So I don’t have any pictures of the pretty part.

We only stopped once, just past Atar, for the driver to make tea in the bed of the pickup truck, out of the wind. I snapped a few photos, carefully making sure the nearby policemen could see I wasn’t pointing my camera at them.

teaWe drank the tea, ate some apples we’d brought, and took off again, beginning the climb up the steep, crenelated plateaus. The road is paved intermittently, so sometimes you bump along on gravel, staring down the side of a cliff without a guard rail, but it’s really not bad and we were soon at the top.

roadNear the beginning of the climb; a blind corner with mirror. Pic taken from moving car

We arrived in Oudane about 4, and met Yahyia walking down the street towards us. He was our first Arabic teacher, and the reason for our visit. We hadn’t seen him in 8 years.

Oudane is not a big place. The population is 2500 or so, and the way of life there has changed very little in the centuries since it was founded as a center for Islamic learning in the area. Ways of the desert die hard. The first time we visited, complete strangers took us into their home, sat us down and fed us, and offered to host us for a week.

 We spent that first evening sitting round the courtyard, meeting Y’s wife and 4 kids, being fed 2 meals since we hadn’t had lunch and couldn’t convince them we weren’t hungry, and wandering round the old city of Oudane, which is gorgeous. It’s a UNESCO site, one of the 4 ancient cities of Mauritania, and finally “they” are getting around to restoring it. Y tells us that various NGOs have participated, making sure the stones are again reset using only the traditional manner. We walk down to the oasis and then wander up along the Route of 40 Scholars to the top, where the modern city begins.

IMG_2800Gateway to ancient city

 IMG_0091Yes, Donn took this one, thanks so much for knowing that right away

As usual I’m getting into too much detail. “Skip a bit,” Donn urges. I will, next time.

During the summer of either 2002 or 2003, Donn and I took our 3 children to the village of Oudane for a month. We had visited this village during the month of February, when the moon was so bright that you didn’t need a flashlight to cross the rocky courtyard at night. Oudane is one of Mauritania’s historic cities. Built in the 1200s by 40 scholars, who lived in a madressa and left each morning to teach others the ways of Islam, it is situated on a rocky plateau that rises above the desert plain. At the foot is a large oasis of date palms, divided off by palm leaf fences to keep out the goats and where small plots of mint, carrots and potatoes are tenderly cared for.

IMG_2834

Oudane (aside: this is the frenchified spelling; in English it would probably be Wadan with 2 short a-sounds, emphasis on the 2nd syllable) is a beautiful place, but it is in the middle of the Sahara, 400 miles northeast of Nouakchott. Our goal in spending July 2002 (or poss 2003, but definitely not 2004) there was to really make progress in Hassaniya, far away from the city of Nouakchott where most people speak French. What we didn’t bank on was the fact that Oudane in July is a furnace. Exposed to the winds of heaven, which scour it daily, the village is an oven under a brazen sky with daily sandstorms. On top of that the entire family got intestinal parasites. I have written extensively of the experience, although I didn’t post it here since I had the idea of selling it to a magazine. (No one’s interested, even though the article starts, “I knew I had become accustomed to the desert when we tied the live goat to the top of our car…” which I quietly think is a great hook.)

We moved from Mauritania in July 2007 and the country kind of fell apart shortly afterward (no I don’t think these 2 things are related), with several Westerners killed, a suicide bomber just outside the French school, and many Western aid workers kidnapped and held for ransom. Last year, our first visit back, the capital felt different, unsafe in ways it hadn’t before. We had no way of knowing if this was our imagination or not, but it wasn’t helped by Mauritanian friends telling us to be careful and avoid certain areas, and official warnings not to travel outside the city.

This year, Nouakchott felt back to normal–dusty, bustling, busy, safe. I was happy about this. I wish my former home all the best and want it to succeed, and terrorism kills growth, along with so much else. The official warnings had been moved too. Now it was considered safe to go as far east as Chinguetti. Oudane is located about 30 km northwest of Chinguetti. And so, we decided to return to visit our friend Yahiya.

Since this is your introduction to a Mauritanian village, let’s take a moment to look at the houses of Oudane. First a wall is built around a rocky courtyard. On one side are 2 or 3 rooms, bare concrete with low windows, which makes sense for people sitting on the floor. (There are no couches or chairs here, just a thin rug over a concrete floor and a hard cushion for your elbow) The windows are simply holes in the wall with wooden shutters, painted a bright green and sandblasted to that country chic look so popular a few years ago.

oudane room

The side of the yard nearest the street has 3 tiny rooms. The kitchen is an unadorned square with a dirt floor; the shower is a tiny room with a slanted cement floor and a hole through the wall that drains into the street outside. Upon shutting the door, the room becomes pitch black until your eyes adjust to the small streaks of light leaking through whatever cracks there are. Usually there’s a bucket of water there. To shower, you dip cups in and pour it over your body in the dim, dank twilight.

courtyard

The third room is the toilet and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Holes in the ground are common in Mauritania, but Oudane is built on a large rock plateau, and the ground is too hard for digging. Instead, you mount uneven rock stairs and come out on the roof, in full view of the village children, who wave and call to each other to come look at you, until you duck behind the low wall. Below you is an empty room. You balance yourself over it on rafters made of split palm logs, which creak and bend alarmingly, and relieve yourself into the dank below. When things get too smelly, someone dumps charcoal ash over the growing mound. When the rooms get halfway full, it is someone’s uneneviable task to open a door into the wall and shovel it out. I don’t know where it is then deposited, but my guess is that it is dumped into the desert somewhere, or possibly used to fertilize those tiny patches of mint. We were pleased to discover on this trip that the flexible palm trunks have been replaced in the newer homes by rafters made of rock. Much firmer.

tower potty

Would Oudane have changed in the 8 years since we’d been there? We’d heard they had electricity and cell phones now, which would be a welcome change from before. But, given the almost primative nature of a Mauritanian village, it was hard to imagine huge changes.

…to be continued

 

If you had told my grandmother, born around 1900, that her grand-daughter would circumnavigate half of the globe not in 80 days, not in 80 hours, but in 28 hours, she would have been amazed. So I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that really, this is kind of cool. But at the same time, it is rather hard on the body.

I’m typing this in my Portland living room. The place is a wreck–obviously the twins’ definition of “cleaning the house” differs more radically from my own than I had realized. (They did great overall but I will share with you that about a week ago, when we said, “What are you going to do today?” they replied “Dishes.”) Add to their peculiar sense of what is implied by “organized” our 4 cases spewing their contents onto the floor, and you can imagine the state of affairs. I am in a daze of jet-lag and travel exhaustion so I’m working at it slowly, with frequent breaks. So far I’ve cleaned out the fridge, gotten the kitchen to the point where one can see the countertops, and started the mountain of laundry. As the Mauritanian proverb goes, “Guttruh, guttruh, i-seel i-waad.” (Drop by drop, the valley fills with water.)

IMG_2819Door in ancient Mauritanian city of Oudane. I have so much to tell you!

We left our friends’ house in Rabat at 4, driven 100 kilometres to Casablanca by Annie, who went far above and beyond the normal requirements of friendship and hospitality. She dropped us off at the airport, and we were in ample time to commiserate with some traveling Canadians about the Moroccans cutting the line, and buy bottles of water for our flight. We had 2 layovers; one in Paris and one in New York. Both layovers were short–the one at JFK short enough to be stressful, although we made our gate with 5 minutes to spare. The flights were long and boring, enlivened only by seatmates who were also expats. On our last flight, Donn sat next to a woman who’d been in Mauritania for 2 years in the mid-80s with Peace Corps. Truly it is a small world. (I’ll pause while tiny voices start shrieking in your head “…after all! It’s a small world after all!!” You’re welcome)

We arrived in Portland just before 10 local time, which is of course nearly 6 a.m. Moroccan time. We came home starving, as that last 6 hour flight had given us nothing more than tiny packets of pretzels or peanuts. We stayed up another 2 hours chatting with the twins and ravenously scarfing down the dinner Ilsa had made us (all together now: awwwww) and cruelly giving them only half of their presents, because it’s so close to Christmas.

I’m at the point where someone can speak to me in English and I’ll answer in French or vice versa, but this won’t last. We slept 7 hours and then couldn’t, although I lay in bed another hour with my eyes glued shut with tiredness, my mind restlessly lashing back and forth with strange memories of cramped medinas and haggling shopkeepers and open desert skies. I’m off to take a nap soon but thought I’d say hi, and warn you of many more posts lurking in my head.

 IMG_2947Random medina alleyway, with cat. Meknes

In Mauritania, there are probably 4 main dishes; chebojan (fish, vegetables and rice), yassa poulet (chicken cooked in a mustard-onion sauce, with rice), mafe (beef or chicken in a peanut-tomato sauce, with rice) and poulet-frites (chicken served with fries and onion sauce, eaten with bread). Out of these, my favorite is probably the yassa, and last year it seemed that everywhere we went, people served us yassa or poulet-frites. It was really good. But we only ate chebojan once, and I missed it. This year, it’s the opposite. I’ve eaten chebojan at least 3 or 4 times already, and I’m longing for some yassa.

Fish is the theme of the week, definitely. We went to visit H. She was out of the country last year when we visited, and came to greet us joyously. “Can I hug Donn?” she asked me. “Sure,” I said, but she didn’t–it would be wildly inappropriate in this culture. She took us to the permanent tent her family has set up in the courtyard–the frame of the tent is metal and the sides are wire mesh to keep out animals, but open to the breezes and strewn with rugs, matlas and cushions. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. We recline on the matlas and are served bissum (deep bright red, slightly tart, made from hisbiscus) and tajzhma:a (I don’t know what it is but it’s tasty; made from some dried pods or something. Debbie, help me out in comments) and zrig (milk, sugar and water). Her mother came to greet us. H’s brother is a very close friend of Donn’s, and this family has known us for many years. Their big disappointment was that our kids weren’t with us. I showed pictures of how big they all are now, like I do everywhere we go. Her mother said I had to be Mauritanian, and gave me a purple muluffa, which they draped round me.

Lunch was served in the tent. Large platters of food were brought, along with a muksul–a plastic bucket with a lid and a teapot on top, to wash your hands. Their nanny brought it, and poured the water over my hands while I soaped up and rinsed, then moved on to give everyone the opportunity to wash up. We tore pieces off a long baguette and ate with our hands, an entire fish served on a bed of french fries, and chunks of beef on the bone, also served over fries. “I decided to do fish instead of salad,” said H. “Don’t eat too much–there’s chebojan coming too.” We protested, so she agreed to wait a couple of hours before serving the chebojan.

muksulThis badly-framed picture shows the chebojan and the muksul, so I thought you’d at least appreciate that.

After eating a lot of bread and fries, I felt sleepy in the afternoon heat. The nanny brought round the muksul again, then served us each a large class of Coke, then the guard brought the requisite 3 rounds of sweet mint tea. We lay back on the matlas–that is, Donn lay back and I lay on my side or stomach, because it’s rude in this culture for a woman to lie on her back in public. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of other things but I remember that one). After a while, Donn left, but I stayed for the afternoon, reclining in my purple muluffa, enjoying the light breezes and chatting about anything and everything with my friend, so happy to see her again. Soon enough the muksul reappeared and then the chebojan, and although I wasn’t hungry yet, I ate some to be polite. Later that evening Donn and I went for dinner and I couldn’t eat a thing, just ordered a ginger drink.

When we lived here, I asked my Mauritanian househelper to teach me how to make chebojan. It’s very complicated, and I never did really learn, but I vividly remember her showing me the amount of oil she used. She took a small Coke bottle and filled it full, dumped that in, and then added another half bottle. (In American measurements this would prob be close to 2 cups of oil) I suspect that H’s cook, and Aicha’s too, are using similar amounts. It’s not surprising that I go through my days with my stomach feeling slightly upset.

Some days I feel like there are only 2 food groups; carbs and oil. Of course that’s not true. I’ve visited my Palestinian friends twice now and they give me food much more like the Iraqi food I eat in Portland, complete with lovely salads. Last night, her father was at the beach when I arrived, and he soon came with armfuls of freshly-caught fish which they grilled and served with bread and salad. There’s nothing like eating a fish that was alive less than an hour earlier, and it was delicious. But spending my days eating carbs and oil, then lying back on matlas and relaxing, is not doing my waistline any favors. It’s too hot and dusty to walk much, and besides we’re busy. When we get home, we are both going to need to go on a strict diet. I’m kind of looking forward to it.

fish hHere’s our first round of lunch. Yes these pictures were taken with my phone. You can tell by the high quality, right?

 

The jet lag, it is wicked. Pervasive. Illogical.

How can jet lag be a thing? How can I lie in bed with my eyes glued shut, feeling like my body is metal and there’s a magnet under the bed holding it down, pulling it fast, and yet not sleep? How can I crave sleep with all of my soul and yet find it so elusive?

We left Tuesday but didn’t get to Nouakchott until Thursday at midnight. Friday, we were up till 3, then we got up about 11, which seemed right. We’re staying at a guesthouse and we’re the only ones here so there’s nothing to wake us and no one else to worry about. We’ve been having slow mornings, with coffee and pain au chocolat.

guesthouseoutside the guesthouse

Saturday, we decided to really fight it. In the early evening we went to the beach with some other expatriates, and has that experience changed! When we lived here, a large group of us would head out every Saturday, to a location about 15 kilometres north of town. We’d bring a large tent and set it up for shade, and everyone would gather underneath it and share snacks, hang out, and chat while a large group of kids boogie-boarded and chased each other through the dunes. We were always the only ones there, except for the rare occasion when a fisherman passed by or an SUV drove down the beach.

Now there are businesses there, about 10 kilometres out, and that’s where everybody goes. There are little straw huts, open-air restaurants, and strangest of all, local people. In an extremely modest culture where locals are covered head to toe even at the beach, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to be running around even in a modest maillot. Regardless, we had a lovely time, catching up with people, swimming in the warm, salty Atlantic, and eating fresh grilled fish at the little restaurant.

We got home about 9 p.m. and arranged to meet a Mauritanian friend called Mohammed for coffee. He picked us up and we drove around, finally settling on a place that was here when we lived here. They used to be the only place in the city you could get whole wheat bread. We ordered coffee and sat and chatted for a while. Then he had a suggestion. Did we want to join him and his friends to drink tea on the dunes? We would leave around midnight. Sure, we said. After all, we weren’t sleeping till 3 anyway. And who’s going to pass up a chance like that?

We had a lovely time. Nouakchott is very hot this year–temps have been around 104 every day, with a dry hot wind, and my hair looks like straw by noon. But the nights are lovely, with temps around 80 and pleasant breezes. We walked a short distance through the sand and sat on a rug spread with cushions and met several faceless people, all of whom seemed really nice. It was very dark. I watched in some bemusement as one of the women built a small fire on the sand and starting fanning it with a bit of cardboard. “This is going to take forever,” I thought. That is a thought I often have in Mauritania, where life moves more slowly. I remember arriving for lunch once and watching the men take away a goat to slaughter for our meal.

It didn’t take forever, but it wasn’t fast either. That was good. It was pleasant to sit under the stars, enjoying the breeze and listening to the women chatter, joining in occasionally. I hadn’t met any of them before but they were really welcoming.There were about 12 of us there, and I was amazed at how much tea the woman was able to produce from the tiny pot. As is typical here, we stayed for 3 rounds of sweet, minty green tea served in small glasses.  We got back to our guesthouse at about 2 a.m. I was tired, but didn’t sleep till 4.

tea on the dunesThis high quality photo was taken with my phone (the camera sucks) in the dark, with a flashlight from another phone shining on it. I really shouldn’t even post it, but I’m going to anyway. I wanted you to see that tiny teapot on the fire on the sand. The cushion is to block the wind, and you can see a blurry hand waving cardboard at the tiny fire.

And somehow, this has become a habit. Every night, we meet Moh for coffee. Last night it was Turkish coffee at 12:30. Tonight was early–espresso and steamed milk at 10:45. It’s barely past midnight and we’re home.

turkish coffeeThis was the Turkish coffee at the Turkish restaurant. I am coveting these cups. The little lid! The cool design!

And so I think we’ve got the jet lag licked. The caffeine addiction/wakefulness? Not so much. Of course, who can tell the difference?

In ESL class the other day, the topic was Halloween. This was because Massi, who came from the Middle East this summer and is mystified by much that she sees in American culture, asked if we could talk about it. I asked her what she thought it was. “Americans believe it’s a day when ghosts come back and walk the earth,” she told me. Well, no, not exactly, I told her. But she was adamant. She was sure someone had told her that.

I tried to explain how people like to be scared, how they pretend to believe scary stuff but really don’t. I had prepared a lesson that included some of the history of Halloween, questions that asked if they believed in ghosts or witches, and references to the Salem Witch Trials.

We were talking about that, and it suddenly occurred to me that what’s happening with the Ebola scare is, in many ways, a modern day version of the same paranoia and fear of something that’s just not well understood, something that happens to this group of people there who need to be kept away from our group of people here. I tried to explain this, although I think I lost most of my class. They are doing very well but this was just too theoretical!

Ebola is perfect for Halloween. It’s really scary but in many ways it doesn’t seem quite real, occurring as it does only on our televisions (unless you live in Dallas or, of course, in West Africa).

Donn and I are on our way to Mauritania again (literally. I’m typing at 36,000 feet, although it won’t post till later) and it’s been fascinating to me how many people have asked us about Ebola. No, it isn’t in Mauritania or Morocco. Senegal had one case but contained it and is now considered Ebola-free. Our risk is virtually non-existent. Africa is a very large continent, not a country.

I had mostly given up on this blog. I never even finished writing about our last trip to these 2 countries, and I was saving the best, funniest stories for last. Maybe I’ll still write one last post about the ’13 trip, but it seems unlikely at this point. In spite of previous failures, I’m going to try again. I started an instagram (planetnomad) and I’m hoping to at least post lots of photos, but I want to write. I brought a laptop this time. We’ll see how it goes.

And, when we landed in Nouakchott, they checked our temps. Donn joked that, had he known that would happen, he would have kept a mouthful of food and pretended to vomit. I asked why he’d want to get quarantined here? He’s crazy.

The airport here is changing; we got the most modern, up-to-date visa I’ve ever seen, and they even took my fingerprints. We have wicked jet-lag. The airport personnel in the Casa airport lived up to their reputation and rifled through our bags, helping themselves to some of the gifts we’d brought people.We had a 36-hour layover in Casa, where we stayed with friends and spent an afternoon wandering round the Grand Mosque and the Corniche, and I found a mall filled with American stores…Starbucks, Payless Shoes, H&M, all high-end and gleaming here, stores for the Very Rich. 

I’ll write again soon.

photoBoarding our last flight to NKC

I’m sitting here wondering when, if ever, this cake will be done. I was supposed to be at Noor’s an hour ago, the cake was supposed to be finished 38 minutes ago, and the center is still soggy and the pick inserted is most definitely not clean, if somewhat delicious to lick. I suppose it’s my own fault for making one giant cake, to be carefully cut into two layers, instead of using two pans as the recipe instructed. It just seemed easier at the time.

Today is Elliot’s 3rd birthday celebration this year alone, which ought to tell you how thoroughly he is spoiled. He turned 19 last Friday, and I got up and went berry-picking and made him a breakfast of French toast (pain perdu, for my overseas readers) with blueberries and marionberries, maple syrup, bacon, and lashings of hot coffee even though it was approximately 185 degrees outside.

photo 1

Then he had to go to work. He has a very good summer job at Fred Meyer’s, which is a local store sort of like…well I think they’re sort of unique. They are first and foremost a grocery store but they also have apparel and home goods and garden centers and they sell nearly everything, for good prices, and they have great customer service and manage to treat their employees well too. I am a loyal customer. He worked till 10 that night, so we did his birthday supper (carne asada and home-made guac) the following night.

Tonight, Wed, he is having some friends over to conquer the world. I should have known, when we got him started with LOTR Risk at the age of 10, where this would end up. Axis and Allies is a super-boring game, with instructions that fill a literal book, and it takes up my entire dining room table, but it makes him happy. So tonight is cake and homemade pizza and frankly, I could not have picked a worse day to have my oven on for extended periods of time.

photo 4

We are having an unusually hot summer, in case I haven’t made that clear already. Today it’s about 93, which is unusual for the Portland area. I took one of those quizzes on Facebook about what kind of career is ideal for me, and surprisingly it didn’t mention “person who complain incessantly about the heat.” I know you are thinking that I lived in the Sahara Desert for nearly 6 years, so surely I can handle a little oppressive sun and windless air. And you’re right–I certainly have a different perspective than I used to–but I also still manage to get off a few “It’s SOOO hot!”s in every hour or so.

Well the cake is finally out, although it’s rather alarmingly cracked on the top. I will frost it with ganache and candied orange slices, and it’s Elliot’s very favorite cake because it’s really rich and tastes a bit like one of those Lindt dark chocolate-orange bars, also his favorite. I’m off to Noor’s.

I’m not really all that old, but the way time has been acting lately–speeding along so rapidly–is making me feel that way. Like seriously, how can it be the end of June already? Wasn’t it May 30th just last week, and we were so happy that ESL class had finished for the year? Now gather round, kiddies, and let grandma tell you all about rationing after the war.

And don’t get me started on how old my children are.

But today we are here to talk about books, specifically, books I read this last month (which is JUNE, remember, not May). I haven’t done a nightstand in months and months. Heck, I haven’t even written anything on this blog in months and months. See above: re ESL class. It kicked my butt this year. Maybe I’ll write a post about it later.

This month, I read lots, including:

And Then There Were None: I’d read this one before, but Book Club Girl is doing a summer of Christie and I thought, “What fun!” I finished it last night. It’s one of the creepier of her novels, and I’d completely forgotten who’d dunnit (there are advantages to having such a bad memory!) and it was so disturbing! All those people on the island, dying one by one, that terrible nursery rhyme! Perfect! And, if you want to, it’s not too late to join in on the read-along. Please do! And please let me know over at this post.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: This one wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was hugely enjoyable. This is a perfect summer read–long enough to last you a plane ride or car trip, but gripping enough to keep your attention. It’s a great mystery, filled with wonderful characters, stinking with red herrings, and I just loved it.

All Day and a Night: Suspense/drama. When a woman is murdered and her body found in a manner reminiscent of a serial killer who’s been behind bars for 20 years, he demands a retrial and says this proves he was wrongfully convicted. Ellie Hatcher and JJ Rogan (NYPD detectives in a series) are assigned as a “fresh look” team to determine the truth. Meanwhile, young defense attorney Carrie Blank, whose half-sister was one of the original victims, finds herself working for the killer’s defense team. The truth lies in the past. Gripping and well-written.

Small Plates: The nice thing about not doing a Nightstand post for months is that you can talk about books you read months ago. I read this book in April but the review posted this month. It’s a delightful collection of short stories, many of whom feature Faith Fairchild, a minister’s wife who also runs a catering business. It has the feel of classic mysteries (i.e. by Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh) but it’s current, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have a new author like this (new to me that is. Apparently she’s been around for ages). Click on the link to read my review and enter to win a giveaway!

Death of Lucy Kyte: I’ve been reading mostly mysteries, haven’t I? Well it is summer. Author Nicola Upson has taken the real-life author Josephine Tey and re-invented her as a fictional character (which messes with my mind and makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable, frankly, but it works). Josephine has inherited a cottage near a barn where a famous murder took place decades earlier, and she finds herself working to solve both contemporary and ancient mysteries. Set in the 30s, and very fun to read. Creepy!

Invisible Girls: A memoir, not a mystery! Really good. Sarah’s dealt with very aggressive cancer, and she moves across the country to Portland where she ends up meeting a family of Somali refugees who are worse-off than she is. It sounds very cliche distilled into a single sentence, but it’s actually a great, very moving, absolutely non-cliche book. Highly recommended.

READING:

A Magnificent Crime (Agency of Burglary & Theft): I really enjoyed the first one in this series. From the publisher: Cat Montgomery is a natural-born thief with a special talent for stealth–or at least she thought so. Years ago, she stole from the diamond-hording businessman Albert Faulkner III, but he somehow figured out she was responsible. Now he wants revenge, and dares her to swipe the elusive Hope Diamond. If she fails the mission, he’ll wreak bloody havoc on her loved ones. But the stakes are raised even higher when Cat discovers that stealing the Hope is not only an impossible task, it’s a cursed one. . .

TO READ:

The Queen of the Tearling Supposed to be a telling of the story of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Looks fun.

Elizabeth Is Missing: Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.

The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession A mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s search through time and the works of Shakespeare for his lost love.

 

What about you? What have you read and loved lately?

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lost wedding rings.

She was happily married so it wasn’t a reflection on her secret view of her husband or anything psychologically revealing like that.  And she wasn’t an especially careless woman. True, she was organizationally-challenged, but she managed to hold onto  most things. And yet, by her 23rd year of marriage, she had gone through 4 rings.

The first ring wasn’t lost. Bought on a college student budget for a thin young woman, it was a circlet of gold topped with a small twinkling diamond. 5 years later, pregnant with her first, she found the ring no longer fit her and decided to wear her husband’s.

She lost it gardening. Cleaning out flower beds in Portland, OR, involves a lot of heavy clumps of clayish soil snaked throughout with a dense mat of grass roots, and after a strenuous afternoon, she was pretty sure the ring was somewhere in the middle of a large yard debris container.

No worries. Her mother had recently passed on to her a ring that had belonged to her great-grandmother. It was thick Welsh gold, 22-caret, and she loved it. It was a little big at times but seemed to fit just fine at others, so she didn’t worry about it and wore it happily. One fine crisp autumn day, she took her 3 children (Elliot, then about 3, and the twins in their stroller) to a nearby park, where she and Elliot had a leaf fight, scooping up handfuls of bright colourful leaves and dumping them over each others heads, shrieking. When she got home, she realized her ring was gone.

Her husband had just gotten home, and he asked her to describe where exactly the leaf fight took place. She told him (near the swings, there’s this little concrete area and it’s to the side of that). He went back in the failing light and, miraculously, managed to find her ring.

Amazing! She was very grateful, not to mention pretty darn ecstatic to have not lost a family heirloom.

A few years later, the family moved to Mauritania. It’s a hot desert country with not a lot to do, and family quickly got into the habit of driving about 15 km north of town and going to the beach on Saturdays. The woman was always very careful to remove her ring before going swimming, as she knew it would float right off. She enjoyed swimming, even though the current was rough, and then drying off and eating snacks under the large Mauritanian tent they set up for shade.

One week, she had finished swimming, dried off, put her ring back on, and was relaxing with a book, when her husband came in from surfing. “Come try surfing,” he begged her. She said no, but eventually he persuaded her. And, fatally, she forgot to take her ring off. It was lost to the pale green waters of the Atlantic.

This time there was no other ring to be had, and it wasn’t like the family just had extra cash to buy one. She went years without a wedding ring until, one Christmas, her husband surprised her with a gorgeous gold band with 3 diamonds that he’d bought and had someone else bring across the seas. It was such a pretty ring that she frequently got compliments on it, especially as the diamonds were unusually sparkly.

This ring lasted the longest (so far!) of all the wedding rings. She got it Christmas 2005 and, although it frequently fell off when she was doing laundry or sometimes if she gestured strongly, she always noticed and found it straight away.

Last Tuesday, she took advantage of Oregon’s lovely summer weather and excellent berry options and took an Iraqi friend of hers strawberry picking. They ranged far and wide, filling their boxes with the smaller sweet Hood variety as well as the bigger juicier Bentons. As is customary when picking berries, our heroine stooped over the small plants, lifting the stems with her left hand to find the ripe red berries hiding underneath.

After they’d finished, the 5 year-old Iraqi child wanted to play in the play area, so she and her friend sat on a picnic bench and relaxed. They fed the baby berries until her little face was red with smushed fruit and smiling happily. At one point, the woman went to wash her hands at the handy little sink provided by the berry farm, and there she noticed…her ring was gone.

She went back to search the fields but she knew it was pointless. She wasn’t even sure what rows she had picked on. Her friend felt terrible, but the baby was tired and sunburned, and the woman knew it was time to go home. She told the people up front.

“I don’t think Donn will buy me any more wedding rings,” she told her friend as they drove home from the berry farm. “And really, he shouldn’t. Perhaps I could have wedding earrings or a wedding bracelet instead!” Although that wouldn’t work. For one, you can’t sleep with jewelry. For two, you’d have to explain to people, and you wouldn’t bother. It’s not a universally-recognized symbol.

Later that afternoon, her husband and she went back to look, and they both agreed–it was hopeless. There was no way to find that ring! Her only chance was for someone honest to find it and turn it in. Days passed without a phone call though.

The following Saturday, she went again with the same friend to pick more berries. This was because the friend’s son, age 7, had been heartbroken that he didn’t get to go to the farm with his Aunty Elizabeth and pick berries, even though he categorically refuses to eat berries or pretty much any fruit or vegetable. She promised, so back they went on Saturday. “Please don’t wear ANY jewelry,” her friend told her. And later, “Maybe we will find it today!” “Maybe,” the woman agreed, but she really had no hope.

As they were leaving, she asked the guy behind the counter, “Any chance anyone turned in a wedding ring?” eyeing the discarded sunglasses and pacifiers lined up behind the cash register. “I don’t think so,” he said, and then…”Wait! Is this it?”

It was.

So…how long do you think she’ll be able to hold onto it this time?

berries

 

 

 

 

 

Why yes, I’m still working on telling you all about a trip I took last fall. Hang in there. Only a few more posts, and then I’ll go  back to posting once every three months.

When we first moved to Mauritania, I was amazed at the driving. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We’d lived there only a few months when 3 kids racing horses down the street flew around a corner and smashed a horse up onto our car, leaving the horse screaming in agony with a broken leg (they didn’t put it down either; the poor thing lived another week). They claimed it was our fault, and the police agreed after a rapid discussion in Arabic in which some money may or may not have changed hands.

Driving in Mauritania was never ever relaxing. Stopping for a red light was like a jeopardy game. You know how the contestants wait with their hands on the buzzer, and the instant the question flashes they hit that buzzer, only to sometimes realize they don’t know the answer? That was what it was like. The instant the light changed–literally before you had time to move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal–the honking started.

Some events remain green in my memory. The woman in the pink muluffa driving 5 km down one of the main streets with her eyes closed, muttering prayers as her car drifted dangerously near mine. The donkey cart in the right lane suddenly swerving in front of me to turn left. Me jamming on the brakes and shouting and gesturing a bit (not rudely, just exasperatedly) and the children being so embarrassed. The habit drivers had of simply stopping their cars in the middle of the street and getting out and going into the school/shop/wherever. The pointless traffic jams where each car claims each inch of space it can, resulting in a full intersection of angry people and no one going anywhere.

IMG_1115This is my attempt to show you a pointless traffic jam. This is a normal intersection. In America, there would be one lane of traffic going each way. We are headed towards those buildings. The picture is taken through the windshield of Aicha’s car and you can see the hood and the direction we’re pointing. I’m not sure this picture does it justice, but I knew no one there would want to be photographed.

As bad as Mauritania was, Morocco was worse. The driving was the same, except there were more cars going faster, since streets were paved, and there were high curbs and sidewalks, which took away your getaway. (In Mauritania, even paved streets have wide sandy shoulders filled with children and handicapped people that you can swerve into if necessary.) Morocco was insane. If Mauritania was hell on wheels, Morocco was the 9th circle. But I learned to love the challenge. There was one road that I always felt would be instrumental in teaching fractions. It was divided in half (one half for each direction) as normal, but the entire road was also divided in thirds. This meant 1 1/2 lanes for each direction. Naturally Moroccan drivers were able to turn this into 3 lanes for each direction. I found it just as effective as anything else to simply close my eyes and use the force to steer.

When we first came back to the US, I found the driving tame and insipid. I tend to express my feelings vocally while driving, and I would sit at the green light muttering “GO!” at the car in front of me while Ilsa chirped, “Use the horn, Mom!” from the back seat. Seriously, she could not understand why her parents were suddenly so mealy-mouthed, so to speak. I tend to be a really impatient driver with a bit of a heavy foot on the gas pedal. I swerve (politely) in and out of traffic, making up time so I’m not too late, usually going ever-so-slightly above the speed limit, until I notice I’m 15 10 miles over and slow down. And this is on surface streets.

I assumed I still had what it took to be on the streets of North Africa, so it came as a shock to find that I have become timid. I’d be sitting in a taxi watching a bus coming straight towards me, about to T-bone us, and I would find myself tense, gasping, bracing for the inevitable collision as our taxi moved with less than a second to spare. When we lived there, things like this didn’t bother me. I rather liked the excitement of the near miss. But on this trip I spent a lot of our time in taxis tensing up and feebly fumbling for something to hold on to–the edge of the seat, the door handle if available, anything. My heart pounded. Pitiful.

Morocco has spent the last 3 years attempting to re-do its driving. Right about the time we were leaving, they were introducing a system of “points” where you could lose points for various infractions, although how on earth this would be enforced remained unclear. Foreigners had to get a Moroccan driver’s license, whether or not they really spoke French or Arabic. Supposedly this would make everything calmer, more civilized. I had visions of intersections with drivers saying, “No, you go first. Please” instead of charging ahead, guns blazing, so to speak. On this trip, there came a moment when we were in a taxi heading downtown and I realized that everyone was waiting in his or her own proper lane. There were supposed to be 3 lanes–there were 3 lanes, instead of the normal 5 or 6. “Wow, it’s really working,” I thought.

The traffic light changed, everyone surged forward, and within 2 seconds I realized that actually nothing had changed. Battles were still being fought over inches of pavement space. The only difference was my stress level and, apparently, gullibility.

By the time we got to Mauritania, I’d pretty much adjusted back. Donn’s friend Mohammed, who is doing really well for himself, loaned us a car for a few days. It was just like old times, driving around town, getting stuck in pointless traffic jams where the only way out is to join in and fight for those inches of progress, singing “Anarchy in the UK” (Sample lyrics: I know what I want and I know how to get it) as we wove our way in and out of oncoming traffic. It was Oregon that was once again the shock.

December 2014
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