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Yesterday, November 28, was Mauritanian Independence Day. The country is celebrating its 46th year as a sovereign country; 46 years since France drew some random lines on a map and united various desert tribes into a nation. Before that, the capital of the entire region was St. Louis, just across the Senegal River, but it was decided to make the river the border between the two lands, so a new city was founded—Nouakchott. I’ve heard various reasons for this choice to put a city here on the windblown salt flats in the middle of nowhere, but put it here they did, and they named it “Place of Winds” or possibly “Well of the She Camel,” depending on which book you read. Either name is appropriate.

Of course it was a holiday. There were various commemorative events, none of which were really announced. So we missed the parade, which started at 7 instead of 9, but we made it to the races, which started at 5 instead of 4.

Camel races are held 17 kilometres south of town. You drive past the first police check on your way to Rosso and then turn left. There is an edifice which for lack of a better term we will call a grandstand, consisting of 3 steep concrete bleachers and a shaded platform lined with chairs, a couch in the center for the dignitaries, and a table full of bottled water and juices, also for the dignitaries.liz00.JPG

We arrive on time for the reported 4:00 start and there’s hardly anyone there, so we take our places on the top concrete step. The grandstand faces east into the desert and is mercifully in shade. It’s one of those rare perfect desert days—not too hot, sky blue and streaked with white clouds, pleasant breeze. We strike up a conversation with the casually-dressed American man sitting next to us and he turns out to be the interim US ambassador! Classy people go to the camel races.

There are 4 or 5 camels about 20 yards away from us, and a group of camel drivers sitting in the sand, shoes kicked off, drinking tea. Donn takes their pictures. Usually Mauritanians are resistant to being photographed, but this is a special occasion. Mauritania TV (MTV) is even there, and our kids will be on the evening’s news, just a quick pan across the crowd.

Eventually, the camel drivers get up and go to their camels. They line them up, then force them back down to their knees so that they can mount easily at the proper time. There are 7 of them now, their drivers standing proudly beside them. liz01.JPGAn officially-dressed man finds a mike, announces something. Time drags on.

Suddenly, with no signal that I’m aware of, the drivers leap into their saddles, their camels lurch up and they are off! They gallop wildly, swerving all over. We watch as they recede into the distance, tiny little dots moving across the face of the desert.liz02.JPG

Again, time drags on. We stand up and peer north, down the track which the winner will come. The high-pitched trill, or ululation, of the women standing down by the tracks announces the first camel has been spotted. A rider appears in the distance. He rides in triumph down the last stretch, visible over the heads of the crowd. As he passes what I suppose must be the finish line, he makes a complete turn in the saddle, which is a great feat of balance.liz03.JPG

Camels are such strange beasts. It’s fun to see them up close, although I am much less comfortable with them than Mauritanians are. liz04.JPGThey are almost serpent-like, with their flexible necks and double-jointed legs. And they are as ill-tempered in person as in legend. They hiss and spit and try to bite their driver’s legs.

The first four camels win prizes. Their drivers shuffle up to receive them and then retrieve their shoes and put them back on as they lead their camels away. We, too, gather up children and water bottles and odds and ends, and return to the city, mellow in the late-afternoon light.

We have a new addition to the family this week–a furry twitchy baby rabbit, named Cocoa if it turns out to be a boy and Coco if it turns out to be a girl. Given the amount the twins are feeding it, it’s already developed a nice round firm tummy. (So much for vegetables keeping you thin—why yes, I will have some more chocolate, thanks.) ilsa-cocoa.jpg

I hope this one lives. Since our move to Mauritania, we’ve had the worst luck with pets. We’ve had, at various times, 3 hedgehogs (including the incredibly-named Legolas Gimli Jones), 2 puppies, 1 turtle and 4 rabbits. All have died except the turtle, whom I assume is still alive somewhere in our garden. I haven’t seen him since spring. He was very tiny and cute last time I saw him. However his kind typically lives 100+ years and gets enormous. In hope of that, I named him Methuselah, although Ilsa had already named him Timmy Turtle and wanted to keep him in her Barbie house.

We also had a stray cat give birth to three miniature black-and-white copies of herself in the corner of our gazebo. Each child named one; Aragorn (Elliot), Obi-Wan Henry (Abel Henry), and Joanna Louise (Ilsa, who always names animals after her friends). The kittens were quite domesticated but went wild while we were gone this summer, and disappeared, joining the ranks of feral cats who roam the neighbourhood and cry in the nights.

Keeping pets is a strange concept in this land, where the choice is often real between feeding animals and feeding people. In general, Mauritanians don’t have pets. Animals provide something—food, wealth, skins, protection, transportation, etc. Why would you want another mouth to feed if it doesn’t do anything to earn its keep?

On top of the mystery of “WHY pets” is added a religious element—Islam frowns on dogs in the house. They are considered unclean. The result, here at least, is that Mauritanians are afraid of dogs. And I don’t blame them—they let their dogs roam wild, and don’t discourage children from throwing rocks at them. Quite frankly, most of the dogs around here scare me too. They roam the streets in packs, snarling and barking and impregnating each other—sometimes all at the same time.

When we got our first puppy, a friend counseled us on how to raise a dog. “Pen him in a corner of the yard and never go near him—just throw him food sometimes,” he said. “He’ll grow up to be really mean. He will be a good guard dog.” Uh, yeah.

That dog didn’t make it. He was taken from his mother, and given, unasked, to the twins as a surprise 6th birthday present, when he was only a few days old. I explained that puppies need to stay longer with their mothers, but it was already too late.

When our last rabbit, a white one named Alice, died of heat exposure last summer while we were gone, our guard tossed the carcass off in a side lot. When we returned, for some reason he felt compelled to show the kids the bits of fur and bones that were left. They were unfazed (“Weird,” commented Elliot), but I was mystified. Why would he think they would want to see their dead pet? Certainly not for closure. Perhaps he was worried we would suspect him of having eaten the rabbit.

Animals are viewed as definitely different from people—no one would ever refer to a dog as their “child” or have an animal be part of a wedding ceremony, for example. Here we have donkey carts plodding down the streets endangering traffic, and all the drivers (ages 5 to 70) beat their donkeys. Many have open sores. When you are having a party or a lot of the extended family over, you slaughter a sheep—just out in the street. It’s common for me to walk out my front door and find a sheep in its death throes, still moving a bit, lying in a pool of blood. Did I mention this post might not be kid-appropriate? And yet which is the odd society here? For millennia, mankind has differentiated between animals and people and slaughtered sheep in front of children, and it’s only in our ultra-hygienic hyper-sensitive age that we think meat comes wrapped in plastic on disposable styrofoam trays. And, after living here nearly 2 years, I read an account in Newsweek of a dog’s birthday party in Seattle, of a bakery catering to canines, and my sense of disassociation was painful. I could no longer imagine such a place. I felt that I truly was living on a different planet now, and I wasn’t sure which one was home.

Did you realize that Thanksgiving is this week? Well you probably did but it’s sort of snuck up on me.

Thanksgiving is one of the few uniquely American holidays. It’s not celebrated in France, or England, and certainly not in Mauritania. This morning in my Advanced Conversation class at Oasis, I gave them a little history of the holiday, which means that they now know more than most Americans. (Bet you don’t know when it became an official holiday. And who moved it to the 4th Thursday of November?) This is typical—they probably know more grammar than you do, too. Why? Because they care. Don’t worry—your pronunciation is better and you have a sound grasp of idioms, so you are unlikely to call someone on the phone and say, “How are you fine?” or write “I was sitting on the water tower sleeping like a log.”

Someone asked me about Halloween here. It doesn’t exist, although the dragonflies swarm in the heat, and at sunset the sky fills with torn-winged bats, as it does most nights throughout the year. The embassy hosts a party, only $6 per person and that includes a hamburger.

Thanksgiving doesn’t exist. Christmas doesn’t exist. None of these days are holidays—stores and businesses are open, you can go to Mauritel and pay your bill (just for fun) or buy bread at the bakery or do any of your normal, everyday activities. The days are hot and bright, if not exactly merry. The university is open.

So how do we celebrate? On Thursday, the kids have morning school but don’t go back after lunch, so the afternoon is free. (Up until about 1 ½ years ago, the weekend was Friday-Saturday and the kids had afternoon school on Thursday. We used to have them skip it.) A group of Americans gather in someone’s house. Everyone brings something; no one has to do too much. We usually eat chicken, potatoes, green beans—a lot of the usual fare. Our pumpkin pies are made from scratch and we only have cranberries if someone happens to have brought a can from the States the previous summer. One year we had grilled fish, another year rabbit. Both were excellent.

Christmas is usually better. The afternoons may still be hot, but by then the nights are usually cool and starry. I stand out on the balcony in the fresh breeze and think how the architecture around me is like old Christmas-card drawings of Bethlehem, with the flat-roofed houses and rounded doors. The kids are off school. A small group goes caroling round the other expatriate houses, garnering stares of amazement or amusement from neighbourhood children out kicking soccer balls, and each other, in the dust. On the last day of school, a skinny, dark-skinned Santa Claus arrives by donkey cart.

I bought a potiron this week, cut it in pieces and boiled and mashed it, and spent far too much time online trying to find my old pumpkin cookie recipe, which I got out of a Sesame Street Parent’s Magazine about 8 years ago. I finally found it, but of course only had about half the ingredients. I took the cookies and coffee for my Conversation class, and after we’d discussed the elections and Thanksgiving, we had a little party. Everyone was amazed at the thought of pumpkin (potiron) in cookies or pies. Really it is odd, but we’ve long grown used to it. (I’m still not used to the thought of it in coffee though. That’s just weird. What is Starbucks thinking?) Afterwards we went around and said what we were thankful for. It was a new concept. People weren’t sure what to say. I said, “Oh things like family, good health, that the elections went calmly and well, that it’s finally starting to cool down at night, that we’re all here together.” “That’s it,” they all said. “All of those things. That’s what we’re thankful for.”

Once in while, life here is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania echoes life in the United States of America. And so it is this month. In the US, there were elections; here, there are elections. In the US, they were mid-term; here, they are also electing new senators, and also mayors of the various “townships” or quartiers that make up the city of Nouakchott.

Campaigning started about 2 weeks ago. Suddenly, tents sprang like mushrooms out of the sandy stretches that line the main (paved) roads of this capital city. These tents were decorated with pictures of the candidate and enormous loudspeakers. The sand was spread with colourful mats, and all around the sides thick, cushy matlas and armchairs were placed, to welcome guests. The tents were fitted out with fluorescent lights, wires flapping out behind and connected to electrical poles or strung up to car batteries. Some strung coloured lights along the tied-back flaps of the opening—one even has a heart that flashes on and off.politents.jpg

At first the music was only heard in the nights. Beginning at around 8 or 9 p.m., we would hear the wailing sounds of Mauritanian music wafting through the still night air. Soon, though, you could hear it at any time, day or night. Trucks fitted out with loudspeakers drove slowly along the streets, snarling the traffic which needed no help in further tangling itself, blaring songs appealing for support. Various people, to show their support of their candidate, plastered the windows of their cars with photos of their candidate. The kid next door even has a picture on his bike.

The candidates’ photos reflect the fact that printing is still an undeveloped industry here. They are soft, blurry, enlarged far beyond the capability of the camera which took them. Colours are washed-out pastels. The candidates themselves, rather than smiling the huge fake smiles we associate with politicians, are often somber, sometimes almost cross. One woman looks like she was caught in a snapshot walking along the street, with sunglasses on and her purse tucked under her arm. Another woman frowns blearily like she was just rudely awakened from a nice little cat-nap and she’s not happy about it.

Around town there are billboards, too. One of my favorites shows a current picture of Nouakchott—sand, goats, small dusty buildings—juxtaposed with a large picture of Dubai or some such huge, modern place. “The Nouakchott of tomorrow?” reads the caption. “Why not?” Superimposed over both cities is the candidate in his blue boubou (robe), eyebrows and chin up, shrugging a why-not? On another billboard the same candidate is wearing a blue suit over a striped, multi-colour polo shirt. This shows his modern side, but is none-the-less a definite fashion mistake!  But my friend says he is likely to win and I’m not surprised—his face is everywhere.

I ask one of my students at Oasis to translate the song we hear through the windows during class. He listens. “This person is from a good background,” he says. “He is devout and religious. He is generous and honest.” All of the songs say the same things about their candidates. Here in the nicer area of town, they say the person is from a poor background—in other words, he has not profited from corruption. I don’t know if the poorer areas say the same thing.

Dimi, the most popular singer in Mauritanian, wrote songs in support of at least four different candidates. Dimi is what’s known as a griot, although she has risen far above the ranks of most of her kind. Griots are usually present at weddings and baby-naming ceremonies. Their practice is to pick out a rich-looking person, squat in front of him or her, and sing praises. “Lots of people eat at X’s house,” they warble. “X is generous and kind, devout and honest.” They will not stop until you give them money. If you don’t give them money, they will sing insults about your stinginess. The practice of singing songs about the candidates has its roots in this tradition.

A very popular singer even put on a concert for the polo-shirt-and-suit-combo candidate. It was held at the Stadium, the biggest venue available. The place was packed. “This man is devout and honest,” sang the vocalist. “He is generous—lots of people eat at his house.”

Many many many people are running. Voters might choose from 40 names or more for one position! One friend sighs that it is random who will win, as many people are illiterate, or will simply vote for the person from their tribe. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the party atmosphere on the streets, and the refreshing lack of negative campaigning that you see in America.

Of course we can’t vote. But if we could? I’d vote for the one who is generous and from a good background, honest and devout. In fact, it turns out that not only do I know one of the candidates, but I’ve even eaten at his house. Perfect! 

In Nouakchott, it’s pretty much always hot, but there are definite seasons if one pays attention. For example there’s the rainy season, when it might rain as much as 6 or 8 times in a good year. This is also known as the humid season for those of us along the coast, and it lasts from July to October. In the interior and especially to the south, along the Senegal River, the desert flushes with pale green grass. It’s the locals’ favorite time of year—lechrive. The animals get fat (sort of—this is a desert) and give more milk. Many people have told me that basically the best that life has to offer is to travel to the desert during this time, sit under a big tent, and drink fresh milk from a large wooden bowl. Mmm-mmm. They are always surprised when they sense that I don’t agree. Ignorant Americans!

After lechrive (to pronounce this properly you must say the “ch” like the Scottish do with loch…a sort of guttural snarl. LeCCCCCCCHHHHreev. Like that. Good. Try not to wrinkle your nose so much), a hot, dry wind blows across 3000 miles of sand, gathering strength as it crosses the bleak arid stretches. It bleaches the grass to a straw-like colour and consistency. It bleaches your hair to a straw-like consistency too, and keeps it looking like you haven’t washed it in, oh a week now, even when it is theoretically still wet from the shower. This time is called tiviski (tiviskee). This is what’s going on now.

It’s been hot, but dry, so at least we’re not dripping. You know it’s hot when you go outside in the dark at 9 p.m. and it is still 93 degrees, which is how it was last night. Yep. This year tiviski seems unusually hot because the nights have brought no relief. The wind dies at sunset; the air stays warm. Clothes hung on the line dry in about 20 minutes.

The last few weeks at the beach, the current has been strong and the waves have been rough. Swimming has been next to impossible—you are basically just fighting the waves to stay upright. Sometimes you win; sometimes you get tumbled. Last week was great for boogie-boarding though; I got some fantastic rides.

This week, for a change, was dead calm. The wind off the desert meant that the waves had good shape, but they were tiny—two feet tall and breaking about 10-20 feet offshore. A perfect day for beginners to practice. Donn’s a surfer, and at various times the kids have shown some interest, but it’s been sporadic at best. (Although for several years, Ilsa’s career goals included “princess surfer.”) But yesterday Abel really took off! Um, literally, I guess. He showed great form and got really good rides! Much better than the ones I managed to capture, because this camera has some sort of annoying delay.

abel-surferdog.jpg

Donn would help by pushing him off into the wave, but by the end of the day Abel was surfing on his own. Eventually, Elliot tried it too and also did well.elliotsurf.jpg

That’s Abel behind him on a boogie-board, waving. He’s not really about to decapitate his other friends–it just looks that way!

Many people were at the beach yesterday. It was a strange day. Usually the wind is off the desert, therefore hot, in the morning, and mid-afternoon shifts to the north and cools down. But all day, discouragingly, the wind stayed off the sand. In sharp contrast, the water was actually cold—oh joy! It was very strange to stand waist-deep and be icy, even going numb, in your lower half while your upper half was practically sweating in the hot wind. The water was so cold you had to keep swimming or you started to go blue, and some people (Abel) went blue anyway about the lips from staying in so long. There was a school of fish in very close, right around us, flipping up the silvery waves then just as suddenly disappearing and reappearing again. Several times, we saw large fish just a little further out leaping and diving.

Of course, those of us with, shall we say, active imaginations began to think about sharks. Sharks are attracted to schools of fish, and cautious people say you shouldn’t swim where they are. Someone even said, “We’ll get sharks or dolphins.” I knew which one to vote for right away! I kept a sharp eye out for fins cresting the waves, and made sure to always have others near me—experts say this cuts your chances of shark attack in half. Of course I wouldn’t abandon my friends to their fates (what horribly suspicious minds you’ve got!), but we could all yell and thrash about together when the sharks came, and alert stronger swimmers.

The water was filled with strange stinging things, technically known as “oowies” (not owies, say oo). They don’t actually hurt, but they are annoying. No one knows what they are. Some say they are the drifting tentacles of summer’s dead jellyfish. Others suggest sea fleas, or stinging seaweed. I don’t know what they are, but oowies are not uncommon in November, when the water is first cold.

I’d come out of the water and was standing on the beach when I finally saw the shark. It was dead, about two feet long, and in the hands of a 7 year-old boy. shark-shark.jpgI don’t mind them this size, but I’m hoping it’s full grown. What if it’s just a baby shark? I mean, look at those teeth—don’t they look like baby teeth?dead-shark.jpg

When we first arrived at the beach, we noticed a horrible smell—like burnt toast only more in your nose and not so homey, coming from our exhaust. We turned off the car and went swimming, noticing that we could still smell it, although we thought about how still the air must be for it to linger so. We came out of the water and ate lunch and could still smell it. This didn’t worry me, but Donn was inclined to fuss so he went to look.our-car.jpg

Our engine was on fire, and had been smoldering away the entire time! We doused it with a fire extinguisher but it went on smoldering for quite a while. Hours later when it was time to go, Donn wanted to start it but I was afraid it would explode. We all stood well back. It started ok though and we managed to get the car home, although it really stunk. Donn thinks it needs a new clutch. It certainly needs a new something!

I think it’s the weather.

It’s been a fun week in the Planet Nomad household; me decimated by a nasty cold, the computer freaking out and sometimes shutting down and refusing to come back, ignoring pleas and tears and offerings of rice or flowers left gently round the monitor and the votive candle burning next to the hard drive. (Just kidding; you knew that)

And yes, I know I misused the word decimated, which means killing every 10th person not just wiped out, but I don’t care. As my college linguistics prof loved to say, English is a live language. It’s better than writing to the woman you want to be your thesis supervisor that you hope she will respond “at a rate of knots.” I got such a request last week. I still don’t know what it means. Ideas, anyone?

Tuesday night the internet was down, but we thought it was just a temporary glitch. When it still didn’t come back on Wednesday, Donn went to Mauritel. It turned out they had done a pre-emptive strike—although our bill was not due till the 14th, they had gone ahead and cut our line anyway. He paid it, but it took 3 visits to work it out.

Now the internet is back and, at the moment, the computer is working. I feel I need to post something quickly!!

…I spoke truer than I knew. The computer just went off again. Humdudillah (Praise God), it came back on, but for how long? And, as far as I know, no one in town knows how to fix computers. There was one guy but he moved back to Idaho.

It’s a good reminder—SAVE YOUR WORK FREQUENTLY! If not, you may find yourself using nautical idioms incorrectly in public yourself.

Speaking of nautical idioms, we’ve got some going in the Planet Nomad household, where the kids and I are reading the first Swallows and Amazons book. (Do your own Amazon search…if you think I’m going to try and do a link now, you’re crazy! I’m writing for my life!) It’s a great book although it was written in the 20s so some of the names are a little unfortunate. I loved it when I was a kid. It’s a fun story about some kids who let their imaginations run wild and play pirates while sailing all over the Lake District of northern England. But it’s having an unfortunate effect on my own little savages, who are well known for giving their imaginations free reign, also known as living in their own world. For days now, they’ve been “stirring their stumps” instead of hurrying and calling the lemonade “grog” and “Jamaican rum” and, every time they take a drink of water, raising their cups and shouting “Swallows and Amazons forever and death to Captain Flint!” So avast there, me hearties, and I’ll write again when I can–right now I’ve got to rescue my cloth napkins, which have been conscripted for use as sails.

It’s been hot this week, the heat and light crashing down on you like heavy golden bars whenever you step outside, the nights cooler but not enough.

Wednesday evening, I got home late and we decided to go out to eat. We went to our old stand-by, the Prince restaurant. Located on a dusty intersection in the heart of downtown Nouakchott, the Prince is known for cheap food and large portions.

Here, going out for fast food involves going to the restaurant, ordering your food, and waiting for them to cook it. Then you take it home and eat it, or sit at a little table outside in the dusty space next to the road. Fast food means sandwiches or hamburgers—in other words not a proper meal. It is rarely what we would call fast, unless you are comparing it to a 2-hour 3-course dinner. The most popular sandwich (pronounce it with a French accent—sandwheej) is a schwarma, which is made of meat shaved off a huge spit of seasoned lamb, succulent and aromatic. The young man behind the counter takes a round of pain Arabe (Arabic or pita bread) in his hand. He piles it high with shaved meat, then adds french fries and tomatoes and a squirt of mayonnaise, wraps it up burrito-style in the bread and then in paper, and hands it to you. It is a huge, two-handed sandwich (in other words, you need to use both hands to eat it), and it costs 500UM—about $2. I can’t even finish a whole one.

Since I’m not a huge carnivore (unlike my husband and my daughter), I often opt for a hamburger. Hamburgers are a small circle of meat, spiced with cinnamon and cumin, an egg, ketchup and fries—all piled into a huge bun. Yes they put the fries INSIDE the hamburger. Yes I think that’s weird, and I always take mine out. The only place in town that doesn’t put their fries inside their hamburgers coincidentally has an owner who used to live about 6 blocks from where we used to live in Portland. We’ll take the it’s-a-small-world bromide as read. Of course, his place charges extra for fries, since they don’t come as part of the hamburger. He also puts cheese and pickles on his burgers.

On Wednesday night while I was sitting in the car waiting for Donn to collect our hamburgers and schwarmas, I went window-shopping—in other words, goods for sale were paraded in front of my window. Any street in town is full of people trying to get you to give them something. Sometimes you get something in return (a pair of boys’ shorts with a zipper that turns out to be broken, for example), and sometimes you are supposed to just be rewarded in paradise, such as when the Talibe boys with their red cans and huge puppy-dog brown eyes beg you for money for the mosque.

The variety of goods for sale is staggering. Just in that short time, I turned down opportunities to purchase genuine French perfume (it says right on the box “Made in French.” How could I resist?), an electric iron, a set of knives, a new muluffa, music cassettes or CDs, a newspaper, and a phone card giving me credit on my cell phone. This is typical. I’ve been offered hat-racks, mug racks, live monkeys and turtles, hideously-coloured children’s clothes made in China and decorated in pink and yellow ducks (for an 8 year-old boy), dolls, necklaces and much more. These very very persistent young men are everywhere in West Africa. Once we were camping in the middle of the desert, and three young Senegalese carrying cases of jewelry walked through our camp, tried to get us to buy something, then went on to the next village.

Should some of these young men pass by you, DO NOT EVEN LOOK at what they are carrying, except for the most cursory of glances, or you will never get rid of them. They give a new deep meaning to the word persistent. They remind me of Sam-I-am from Green Eggs & Ham. They don’t give up!

I resisted everything, however, and soon we are headed home with our food. It only took about 25 minutes. Fast food indeed.

The other morning, I learned that I was having extra people for lunch on a day I was cooking myself. I went to the one bakery in town that makes little rolls (also the only place to get whole wheat bread) but they were either out or didn’t make them that day. You have to get there early if you want whole wheat bread, in big round loaves that you can slice and use for toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s always a mystery to me why they don’t make more. Surely, I think, they can see that they’ve got a market—I’ve stood in a line of people asking for “pain complet.” But no. You snooze; you lose. If you don’t get there by 9 or so for the rounds or the little rolls or even the baguettes complet, you will just have to have white baguettes like everybody else in the entire town!

I had planned roast chicken and this great salad I had this summer at a friend’s, where you roast potatoes, blanche green beans till they’re crisp-tender, mix in red onion and kalamata olives with a rosemary vinaigrette—it’s yummy. But would it be enough with extra people? I decided to make another salad.

You can’t always find trustworthy lettuce here. Lettuce can have problems that can’t necessarily be solved by a little judicious bleaching to kill bugs, both visible and non-visible. Because it’s water-based, the leaf itself can hold germs from the water used in its formative state. Sometimes local lettuce is watered with sewer water, which makes driving by the gardens a real olfactory treat. Even bleaching this lettuce will not help—you will still get sick. Donn is especially cautious about lettuce, being more sensitive in his tummy than I am. Sometimes, when its available, we buy imported-from-Europe lettuce for a change, but usually we just make other kinds of salads.

So I chopped tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber, opened tins of corn (added starch! Filling!) and beetroot, and mix it all together. Usually with this sort of salad, I would put on a vinaigerette. But I was already putting a vinaigrette on the potato salad. Hmm…

So I mixed mayonnaise and a little milk, then added celery salt and one of those spice mix things that has garlic and black pepper and who knows what else in it (no msg though. They are very clear about that). And it was really good, simple and easy. I was ridiculously proud of the fact that I figured this out all by myself.

This is an advantage of life overseas. You learn to make all sorts of things you never made back home. I make my own salsa, I’ve tried tortillas and given up and use Arabic bread (pita bread) instead, I make hummus, I make salad dressing, I make taco-spice seasoning. I never used mixes much even in the States, but now I never do—except for falafel, which you can buy in a box here.

 

In other news, Michelle has found an apartment! She was taken to this apartment building (with about 8 units) several times by different realtors, but no one ever had the keys so she couldn’t see inside. Finally they found someone with the keys last week, and she signed the contract next day. That was on a Thursday afternoon though, and Friday people only work in the morning. She visited the electric company on Friday morning, and was told to come back Monday at 9:00. Accordingly, Monday at 9:00 found her at the office required. They told her to come back at 2:00. She went back at 2:00, and was told—you got it!—to come back at 4:30. At 4:30, they said tomorrow. Tuesday morning they said, “Be at the apartment between 4 and 6; if we don’t come then, be there from 9 to 1 tomorrow morning.”

But she knew how to beat them. She went prepared—with her laptop, a book, water bottle, snacks, and her cell phone. Sure enough, they showed up at 4:05. This has actually gone quite smoothly. Everyone knows it will take at least 5 visits to get your electricity and water turned on; it often takes more.

Today she is there with an electrician and a plumber, fixing a broken pipe, various outlets, etc. All minor things. Tomorrow she’ll clean, and then she’ll move in. She’s very excited—she’s been with me 6 weeks now. Time to be in her own place, unpack her own stuff. She’s not going to be far away though—still close enough for a phone call. “Michelle? Are you going out early in the morning? Would you mind picking me up some of those round loaves?

November 2006
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