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This is a surfer at Surfer’s Point.

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This is a little barn in the California hills, surrounded by somewhat incongruous palm trees:

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An ocean view:

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Sunset at San Simeon:

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All good things must come to an end, but we’ve decided to prolong our vacation as long as we can. We are en route back up to Portland, but instead of booking along the soul-less I-5, we are taking our time, driving up Route 1, which hugs the curves and cliffs of the coast and offers glimpses of the deep blue Pacific.

We left Hemet at around 10 on Tuesday morning (see previous post), and drove across to the coast. We had an errand to run in Beverly Hills (doesn’t that sound exotic? It really wasn’t), and then we drove down the Santa Monica Blvd, fringed with palm trees, to the ocean. We headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway, through Malibu and Ventura. We stopped at Surfer’s Point in Ventura, where Donn surfed and the rest of us hung out on the beach in the late afternoon light. The twins collected rocks, Elliot dozed in the sun, and Donn caught a few rides in the small, rough waves.  We watched kite-boarders float high in the air, and carve plumes through the ocean; we saw brown pelicans diving for fish. That first day, we went as far as Santa Barbara, where we planned to stay 2 nights with our friends Jeff and Bonnie. (They’re friends of Donn’s from when he was in high school. Isn’t he amazing?) We spent that evening barbecuing hamburgers, hanging out around their fire pit making s’mores, and relaxing in their jacuzzi under a brilliant moon.

In the morning, we got up to Dutch Babies (a kind of grotesquely-named oven-baked pancake) with fresh berries and maple syrup. We headed out as a group to hike Cold Springs, approximately 3 miles, half of which is uphill, and half of which is down. (Guess which part we liked?) Last year, we did part of this same hike, and I remember being amazed at the beauty of the area. The hills behind Santa Barbara offer an amazing variety of foliage, mixed with multimillion-dollar homes. (Oprah lives in the area; do you know she has not called me once? And this despite a nice conversation I had with her guard last year) Cypress and eucalyptus mix with palm trees and bougainvillea, and the dusty switchbacks of the trail open up to vistas of blue ocean and distant views of the Channel Islands. The kids clambered on rocks and crossed clear brown streams on pale fallen logs.

In the afternoon, we went to the beach. The water was icy to our Saharan skins, but we braved it anyway, swimming desperately in an attempt to warm up. When I got out of the water, I felt hot, and my skin was tingly and lobster-red. We braved kelp beds, and the kids stuck their fingers into the open mouths (orifices?) of shell-encrusted sea urchins to feel them slurp closed—eww! We walked under ridged sea cliffs, and the kids explored smuggler’s caves (“Mom, look! A Starbucks cup!”) and climbed as far up the crumbly rock as they could make it. We saw dead lobsters and lots of seaweed, in all shades of green and purple, including some that looked exactly like lettuce.  A pod of dolphins passed by, their grey skins (hides?) shiny in the sun as they flipped and dove under the bottle-green waves.

Today, Donn got up early and went surfing with Jeff, while Bonnie and I took the kids on another walk. Then I drove up to meet him, and we headed on up the coast, through San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay and Cambria, to San Simeon, where we are staying. We rolled down our windows to smell the eucalyptus trees’ spicy, vaguely medicinal smell; we drove through groves of cypress and incense cedar and Ponderosa pines. (And there’ll be a lot more of this tomorrow!)

We stopped at a fruit stand to buy 3 generously-stuffed baskets of fresh, just-picked strawberries. California strawberries are not as sweet as Oregon ones, she said loyally, but these were good: enormous, jewel-bright, plentiful and cheap. We gorged ourselves as we drove along, knowing that they wouldn’t keep and needed to be eaten up immediately.

San Simeon isn’t much more than a wide spot full of hotels along a small coastal highway, but it has its own charm—especially in its beach. We‘re approaching one of the prettiest parts of the coast—not to mention a part made famous by, and famous for, its photographers. We didn’t want to miss it in the dark, so we stopped early tonight. We swam in the hotel pool, walked along the beach at sunset, then drove into nearby Cambria for pizza. Cambria is a charming little town, and has several espresso stores—I’m sure we’ll be back for breakfast tomorrow, before heading on up the coast towards Big Sur, Carmel, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and then the Redwoods.

I’m going to post this tonight, but Donn’s already snoring. Check back later, when I’ll have added photos and erased this sentence!

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Southern California, where my husband grew up, went to high school, and still knows people. (Do you still know anyone from high school? I don’t. I’m okay with this, except I’d like to find Marilyn again someday) Ever since we were dating, we have come down to SoCal at fairly regular intervals.

There’s lots to mock about LA, especially for a girl who calls Oregon home. There’s the concrete rivers, the enormous parking lots, the tendency in general to cover every single little bit of land with asphalt—even when you drive into the enormous hills west of town, you’ll see little dribbles of concrete spilled down their uninhabitable barren sides, as if the locals just couldn’t stand to see all that actual ground! The freeways and the traffic and the smog are famously detestable. We went to Mauritania in 2001, and came back for the first time in 2004. In that time, Humvees had become popular, and I was stunned (and judgmental) as I watched these enormous vehicles whiz by on perfectly smooth, paved roads, as in my mind I could see the streets of Mauritania, full of ancient Mercedes sedans bumping along through sand and dirt. There’s also the focus on superficials, although that’s not limited to Southern California.

But I’m working on being a nicer person; being all sweetness and light about the place, as it were. And so, I’m going to tell you about the nice part.

First of all, palm trees. Palm trees are great. Palm trees are fun. Palm trees look like they were copied from a Dr. Seuss drawing. Add a blue sky as backdrop, a few blown clouds, a sea breeze—life doesn’t get much better than this.

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Second of all, the Pacific. It’s a gorgeous ocean.

We spent a day at Huntington Beach. Donn surfed; the kids and I swam; Abel even made a new friend who loaned him a boogie-board. The water temperature was perfect. The air temperature was perfect–not too hot, a little cloud cover.

 

Brown pelicans flew overhead and plunged down into the surf, rocking on the waves as they gobbled their catch. Lifeguards roamed the beach in Jeeps, surfboards strapped on top for them to grab at first sign of trouble in the swells offshore. A pod of dolphins came through, frolicking in the water, flipping their tails up, doing flips, riding the waves with the few surfers. They stayed a while, no doubt enjoying the admiration—no one can be blasé about dolphins.

Afterwards, we wandered the streets. HB is a little surf town on the California coast; as such, expect to see a lot of people in swimsuits, with great tans, and sun-streaked blonde hair—whether the sun did it or not. These people are not all beautiful, but they have a certain expectation of what is beautiful. You will see a lot of skin. If you have just spent a lot of time in a Muslim country, you might not want to go to HB right away. Just a little thought. Cuz your eyes will hurt. On the other hand, it helps us get to know what’s in style in California at least—it’s very different from what’s in style on the streets of Nouakchott.

We cruised the sidewalk sales. I went into several women’s stores, and quickly realized that I wouldn’t fit any of those cute styles. At least, I wouldn’t feel comfortable—maybe I should put it that way, since I saw many women much larger than myself who obviously felt they fit into those cute little styles.

We got the boys some new t-shirts at a huge sidewalk sale. The sun shone; the sea breeze blew. I ate a huge salad at a sidewalk café; we watched the world walk by. A beautiful day, livin’ the life on the beach.

Disclaimer: The photo is in Hemet, not HB; do you KNOW what sand can do to cameras?

My henna is basically gone now; my natural skin colour emerging startlingly pink after all this orange and brown so deep that it’s nearly purple. My nails have already grown out enough that it’s starting to look a little funny to American eyes; the top half of my nails are orangy-red, but the bottom half, the new growth, is white. It’s the opposite of when nail polish comes off, and it’s starting to earn me some odd looks if people notice.

This half-nail colour is normal for Mauritanian women. When they travel, they usually henna their hands. All my friends, when they heard we were leaving, told me to call them for a henna once we’d bought our tickets. Henna is a part of their culture. They henna their hands for weddings, births, feast days, whenever they want to look pretty, or if their husband is returning from a trip.

Henna exists in many cultures, Arab and Indian, but there are differences in patterns and designs. Traditional Mauritanian henna is patterned with strips of tape (medical tape) laid down in intricate designs; henna paste is then daubed on and when everything is removed, the beautiful shapes are apparent. This is the kind they do for brides. It takes hours and hours. I’ve had a traditional henna done but a fairly simple one, not the bridal kind.

Now there’s a quicker, more modern way that Mauritanians call “Moroccan style.” The henna women mix the henna powder into a paste and put it into a little plastic bag; then they snip a tiny corner off and draw designs freehand onto outstretched fingers and palms. They work quickly, and it only takes about 30-45 minutes to cover your hands in lacy outlines. Then, they wrap kleenex round the individual fingers and palms, and cover the whole thing in a plastic bag tied round your wrist. You then must wait for 3 hours without using your hands while it “sets.”

On our last day in Mauritania, Ilsa and I went with Aicha (another Aicha; it’s a very common name. This one is Amina’s sister, for those long-term readers who are keeping track, if you even exist). She went in the morning to have a traditional one; she arrived at 10:30 and finished at 7:30. Ilsa and I, what with one thing and another (late thesis students, for example) made it to Aicha’s house at 4. Her driver took us to a market I’d never seen before, down past Marché Capitale, between Capitale and the Moroccan Mosque. Then he led us at a terrific pace through a sort of tiny alleyway that wound through stalls selling boubous and kids’ clothes and past men dumping bowls of leftover food out into the walkway. We suddenly swerved into a tiny bare room, with mats on the ground, which opened up onto a little space. It was L-shaped, so the women sprawled on the ground having their hennas done were not in view of passerbys.

Ilsa and I joined Aicha in sitting on the cement floor leaning up against some old, ratty cushions. Immediately two women each took one of my hands in theirs and began to work, kneading the henna paste between their fingers, and beginning to expertly draw patterns on my outstretched palms. Ilsa dug out my camera and took pictures, but I can’t get them off my camera so you will have to make do with photos of the finished work.

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Having your hands done is easy; having your feet done a bit more complicated. I lay awkwardly on my side, trying to allow both women access to my heels while still keeping both hands (already wrapped in plastic) from touching anything. My skirt hiked up and I looked in disgust at my fat white calves, then had that minute of dissonance as I realized that those around me probably envied me what I despised.

After both Ilsa and I were sitting with our hands wrapped in plastic bags, and my feet as well, it was time for Aicha to get her’s removed, a process that involved razor blades scraped over the skin to remove all those bits of tape. We sat and sat, and by this time it was nearly 7. “We need to go,” said Aicha, “but don’t worry—you can walk on the bottom of your feet.” And so it was that I found myself walking on the ground of an African market with only kleenex and a thin layer of plastic on my feet. It felt very strange, but Aicha assured me that it was normal, that every night women come out like this. I am skeptical of this—it seemed I got a lot of attention, although I supposed it was just because I stood out anyway. I avoided the damp spots where earlier trash had been emptied as best I could. Aicha got me a taxi and I arrived home to deal with another 2 hours of plastic bags—and  this on a night when people were stopping by non-stop to say goodbye! Two of my students came by, with gifts for Donn and I (jewelry for me; a keychain for him) and shy smiles of pirde when we effused our thanks. We took pictures together, me trying to hide the fact that my extremeties are covered in plastic. I had to eat a sandwich with only my fingertips, through the kleenex and plastic. It was extremely difficult and a little worrisome, as I didn’t want to smear the patterns before they’d really set.

Finally it was time to remove the bags, peel off the disintegrating kleenex, and scrape off the henna. The henna “develops” over time; although I took the bags off at about 9 p.m., the henna looked its best, darkest and crispest, the next afternoon.

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I know that henna exists in America, so I assumed that most people would at least be familiar with it. But the reactions I got ranged from enthusiatic to appalled.

Many, many people asked me if it was permanent. Others backed away in alarm as I went to hug them, afraid of my nearly-black fingertips. As it started to fade, people assumed I’d been berry picking or finger-painting. Many people assumed it would wear off onto their clothing, and were alarmed that I was wearing a cream-coloured Moroccan tunic, sure I would get rust-coloured stains all over it. But no, none of these things were true.

A lot of people asked me the significance of it. It’s rather like an American woman getting a manicure, I explained. You do it to look nice, to celebrate, to dress up, for decoration.

Now, it’s basically gone, and I’m regretting that decision to do a typical style. I’ve had many hennas done over the years, but that first time, I got so sick of watching my big toe-nails grow out that I stopped having them do my finger and toe tips. But it was my last day in a country that had been home for 6 years; I wanted to be typical, I wanted to remember. So, in a fit of sentimentality and excess emotion, I let the henna women do it.

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It’s okay, and I’ll cover it with polish. But I’ll have orange on my thumb nails till about Thanksgiving, and on my toe nails till about March.

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 Ilsa had her hands done too, but not her feet.

The problem with writing about a family travel trip is deciding how much to write a travel article and how much to write the saga of the people involved. For example, maybe you don’t want to know that we didn’t leave Portland till 10 because of having to run an errand for Donn (and in fairness to him if I tell you that, I have to include that I myself was somewhat sluggish that morning, as I am, frankly, every single morning of my life. Shouldn’t he be used to that by now?) On the other hand, you might want to know when we left, in case you yourself are planning to drive down I-5 and you want to get an idea of distance and time involved. Where is the balance?

It was nearly 10 when we left Portland on Tuesday, icy Starbucks cups in hand, and headed south on the open road. That is actually a good time to leave, I pointed out to Donn, because we had cleverly avoided all morning traffic. We tuned the radio to NPR and drove through the trees lining the freeway just south of town. We drove past fields of flowers and past big signs announcing U-Pick Loganberries and Blackberries, and Farm Fresh Peaches. It was a gorgeous summer day, the sky a sun-drenched blue, the trees outlined and glowing in the light. I was reading “The Sky Fisherman” by Craig Lesley, a book set in small-town Eastern Oregon, perfect for our surroundings (and a great read too).  We drove through imaginatively named places like Drain and Goshen, past large tractors raising dust in dirt-clod fields, and began our climb into the Siskiyou Range.

We stopped for an early lunch at the southern-most Burgerville in…Albany…I’m pretty sure. Burgerville is a NW fast-food chain and the only one I’ll eat at without protest. For about $3.50, you can get a turkey-bacon club on 9-grain bread that doesn’t leave you feeling sick, although I think no one really needs that much mayo on a sandwich. They offer gardenburgers and local produce in season and use real ice-cream in their shakes, which are delicious. The kids love it, of course, so we try to go there at least once. Other than that, we hate fast food and avoid it as much as possible.

Oregon is a beautiful state, and even bland freeway-side construction can’t spoil it. The road began to rise and wind through the mountains, offering views of sparkling rivers in curved valleys that skirted forested hills. We drove on through the afternoon, over the Siskiyou Pass and past Mt. Shasta, which is the southernmost mountain in the Cascade Range, a range which has huge mountains strung down the West Coast, unusual in that its peaks only occur every couple of hundred miles.

The area around Mt. Shasta is beautiful, and all the more poignant because it is the last real beauty on I-5, or, if you are headed north, the first. After that, the land flattens out, and you drive and drive and DRIVE through heat-shimmery space. I suppose I should mention that this is fertile country; California is properly called the Fruit and Nut State and they’re not just talking about the people. We did drive through orchards of almonds and olive trees which sounds nicer than it felt. Donn was driving, so I was sitting in the sun, shifting, getting grumpy.

We stopped for supper at sunset in a town called Woodland, which is nearly to Sacramento. There wasn’t much; we found a Teriyaki fast-food place where we had chicken and rice. It was tasty enough but nothing to write up in a blog or anything. Then we kept going. We drove 715 miles total that first day, stopping in one of those tiny towns that line the freeway that consist mostly of motel chains and gas stations. Earlier, we had picked up a publication of coupons for these businesses along the freeway; they are to be found at gas stations and restaurants, and are worth looking at. We stayed at the Ramada Inn; 4 people could stay for $68 and we paid an extra $5 for the extra person. This included a hot breakfast, which we wished we had skipped. It was pretty gross to be honest; 2 pancakes, those fake scrambled eggs, and 2 sausages. The kids’ version was one big Mickey-Mouse pancake, one sausage, and the eggs. We ate it because we are cheap and it was free, and were rewarded by that rock-in-stomach feeling that at least kept us going till lunch.

The room was fine. The hotel is older, but the room was spacious and clean and the amenities in the bathroom were nice. That particular Ramada is in an old Spanish mission but we stayed in a more recent part. I would definitely stay there again; I’d just skip that breakfast and head directly to the Starbucks, also at that same freeway stop.

It was again nearly 10 when we set off, and I honestly don’t know why Donn even tries to get us going earlier because it is ALWAYS nearly 10 when we set off. See? It was hot already, and, to be honest, the landscape was not that interesting. Still, the iced espresso was good and we made good time.

Now we were driving past the California hills; golden brown, molded. We turned off I-5 to head towards Hemet, which is east of LA in the California desert. We stopped for some good, cheap Mexican food, which is basically one of the main points of Southern California’s existence as far as I can tell. (That and palm trees. I like palm trees) We hit traffic around Riverside but it wasn’t too bad, and we made it to the in-laws’ about 4:30 and the pool at about 4:45.

I didn’t take any pictures, which is just as well because we are having no luck getting my camera’s card reader to work.

We’re here. I have been working on a post in my head for two days now, in between frying in the heat and feeling grumpy about it all and not winning Mother-of-the-Year. I was going to post from the Ramada Inn (Santa Nella) last night but I didn’t, mostly because it was midnight and some family members were feeling a little testy. We’d driven 715 miles by that point though, and made quite good time.

Some similarities between our I-5 road trip and our Nouakchott-Dakar road trips; we STILL don’t have AC! In Mauritania, we didn’t have it because there wasn’t a mechanic in the entire country who could fix it. Here, we don’t have it because it’s a borrowed car. Maybe we’ll get it fixed? I hope so. You’d think after 5 ½ years in the desert, I wouldn’t mind the sun beating down on me, but in fact it’s had the opposite effect—I feel I’ve already fulfilled my lifetime total of glare.

We made very good time, whistling through the Grapevine (hills near LA), whizzing down I-5. The smog started early, almost as early as the palm trees. Tomorrow I will write all about it, get out those phrases that are rattling through my head. But tonight, I’m too tired, and besides we’re going to watch a movie. Just wanted to say: we’re here, the pool is good, and I hate road trips. No really.

So here’s another photo from the Marrakesh market. This really has nothing to do with I-5, but I have them on my computer and I’m so happy to have a good connection so I can post pictures. Is this not the most boring post ever?

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These great glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice were just 40 cents each.

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This is the medina in Rabat.

I recently read WackyMommy on road trips and I realized, anew, what a strict, old-fashioned mother I am. Tomorrow, we set out to drive the 1200 or so miles from Portland, Oregon, to Hemet, California. Hemet is where my in-laws live. We’re doing this without DVD players, fun little special toys, or anything other than grumpy parents saying, “NO we’re nowhere near there yet.”  This takes a certain amount of courage.

Every time we come to America, we do this drive. We always intend to drive us the coast and we usually end up spending every minute possible in Oregon and then booking down I-5 as fast as possible (while still officially keeping within the posted speed limit, of course!). I-5 is a highway that runs down the West Coast from Canada to Mexico. Towns and businesses have sprung up along it like trees along a riverbank; it has spawned its own little subculture, as highways tend to do, towns that appear bland at 55 mph (and no higher!), full of grey concrete buildings, sometimes more picturesque and intriguing in the manner of lives glimpsed, but often just places to drive through on your way someplace else.

Usually we do these drives in a mini-van, but this time we’re driving a borrowed Dodge Intrepid. We told the kids, “This is not an airplane; you don’t each get a carry-on.” They are sharing an overstuffed backpack, full of books and card games. I do have a bag full of snacks; I’m not totally evil. The car has a radio and…ready?…a tape deck. We don’t own any tapes.

Me? I don’t get carsick, so I’m taking 6 books which should last me 2 days no problem. I’m hoping to be like all those cool bloggers out there and post from the road! We’ll see. Road trips down I-5 are a little different than road trips from Nouakchott to Dakar.

In the meantime, I leave you with this image from the market in Marrakesh; these are tea glasses for sale.

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Around the time we were leaving Mauritania, when we’d already left our house and were staying at a house without internet, I was given 3 different awards by some of my favorite bloggers. I never had a chance to acknowledge them, because of travel and continuing to live without internet. Ironically, one of them is an award for schmoozing—for being someone that responds to comments and chats with her readers. Yeah. Well I do have a good excuse.

I am also a Rockin’ Girl Blogger and I have a pink button to prove it! Yippee! I always wanted to be rockin’, and I think people tend to think of me as softer and gentler. It’s not my fault—I’m short, plump, and have curly blonde hair—when you look like this, people stereotype you. Admit it; the picture of a preschool teacher in a fuzzy pink sweatshirt with kittens is forming in your head, isn’t it? I NEVER wear pink sweatshirts OR kittens!! In fact, I dress mostly in black. And I hate children. (Ok, I’ll qualify that. Large groups of them scare me. Is that better?)

I always wanted flashing dark eyes and long thin legs; I think people take you more seriously. Have you ever noticed that in literature, all the heroines tend to be dark (Jo March, Harriet Vane, Laura Ingalls, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Catherine Linton to name a few), and their insipid rivals, those soul-less girls who look down on our interesting and intellectual heros, are blonde? Really the only literary blonde I can think of offhand is Alice in Wonderland, who is hardly a good role model. (Also a male author; coincidence?) No wonder Ilsa keeps asking me if she can dye her hair either black or copper-penny red. Also, as many of my fav bloggers post self-pictures, I’m noticing that once again, all the interesting people are dark. Except Tina!! Tina, please come to Oregon soon and we’ll go out and toast the power of blondes to rock.

But I digress. (One more digression: did you picture Jane Austen looking like Anne Hathaway? Me neither. Sigh…) I wanted to tell you all that I have received the following awards:

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Wackymommy (she and I used to work together at our college newspaper) said that, to her, I’m a Rockin’ Girl Blogger. Woo-hoo! WM, I think you rock too! And I pass on the award to several people who probably already have one (but I don’t know! I haven’t read blogs regularly in over a month). Meredith, for making me want to move to France all over again (oh wait; I didn’t need her blog to experience that emotion…); Kristi, who always makes me laugh; Veronica, for managing to write thoughtful and thought-provoking posts while nursing a tiny one and dealing with 2 preschoolers (that totally rocks!); Denise, even though she tagged me with an impossible meme, for being the kind of mom my own daughter would love to have (i.e. someone who does not fear fabric stores/sewing needles/etc); Kit, whose blog about life and food in South Africa always makes me hungry. Ladies, you rock.

Karen, at AuthorMomwithDogs (which basically sums it up), awarded me both the Thoughtful Blogger and the Schmoozing Blogger awards. She herself is someone who excels at both these things; she very kindly answered all my many many questions when we got landed with a puppy who was far too young to leave his mother. (She rocks, too, but I happen to know she already got that award)

I feel I don’t deserve these awards; I’m terrible at commenting because my connection is often so bad, and I’m terrible at answering questions from readers because I forget to, even though I always mean to. But I’ll accept them because I’m shameless, but also because I hope to do better with a better connection.

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It’s an award for “those who answer blog comments, emails, and make their visitors feel at home on their blogs. For the people who take others’ feelings into consideration before speaking out and who are kind and courteous. Also for those bloggers who spend so much of their time helping other bloggers design, improve, and fix their sites. This award is for those generous bloggers who think of others.”

The Power of Schmooze.

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It’s an award for those who have the natural ability “to effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello – all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship.”

Hmmm…I really do feel a bit guilty accepting these and maybe you are choking a bit on your iced coffee and thinking how I really don’t deserve them. But what can you do? Nothing. And it’s funny; for me, the word “schmooze” has always had a sort of negative connotation; it has the idea of someone insincere in their friendliness, someone looking for what they can gain from you. But this is a very nice award.

I need to pass this on to Shannon, at Rocks in my Dryer, because when I first discovered blogs she was very kind and encouraging. Also WM herself, for the same reason. Without these two women, I wouldn’t be blogging today. I also tag Beck because she always comments, which encourages me that it did actually post and that someone out there actually read it, and Robin, for the same reason. Last but not least, WhyMommy deserves this and so much more; she is battling a very aggressive form of breast cancer, had to wean her baby to begin treatment, and yet in the middle of this she manages to leave me comments. She’s a courageous woman; if you don’t already read her, stop by her site to learn more about this disease and to be moved and inspired by her battle. Pray for her and encourage her if you can.

I’m feeling very smug right now, like such a responsible blogger, because I’m terrible at this part of blogging; passing on awards (I always feel worried about the people I’m leaving out; I have a terrible time choosing), doing memes, etc. Ok technically I haven’t done my memes yet but I’m planning to; that counts, right?

We still haven’t found a house, but we might have. We did get a phone. For a while, I was an adult American without phone number or keys. That felt weird. I still don’t really have keys; the place where we’re staying has one key, so we share it. My cool Moroccan sandal keychain remains empty.

We have the loan of a car for the year—YIPPEE!!

We don’t have time to go berry-picking properly, but we did stop by a fruit stand and stock up on peaches and blueberries. Also, since the house where we’re staying abounds in wild blackberries, I send the kids out at regular intervals to fetch me some. Yesterday I made two blackberry-apple pies, and we ate one of them with vanilla ice-cream.

This is how I make pie, in case you want to know:

First, make a crust. I use real butter, not Crisco, because I think Crisco is gross, but you do what you want. Please do not tell me if you use the ready-made kind you buy at a store.

Then, peel 2 or 3 or 4 (depends on size of pie pan) Granny Smith apples. (Yes, use another kind if you prefer, certainly, but I like this kind). Save the peels for Ilsa to eat or she will fuss at you. Slice thinly into bowl.

Dump in a lot of berries; however many you like.

Add some sugar, flour, cinnamon and lemon juice. Stir. Taste for accuracy.

Add all this to your pie crust. Dot with butter. Put on top crust. Cut slits, etc. and decorate if you like. Bake as normal.

Eat while still slightly warm with a good quality vanilla ice cream and strong coffee (decaf, if necessary because you are old now).

If you are so inclined, you may eat the cold leftover pie for breakfast. I’m not so inclined, but Donn is. I suppose it’s not much worse than cereal.

I thought I was doing well with my culture shock, but the last few days have felt strange. I’m not sure how much to write about this for public consumption; I’m afraid of sounding judgmental when what I feel is just confusion. I know I don’t need more stuff; but I sort of do, especially since I don’t even own any shoes that aren’t sandals, much less any furniture. I know I both want more and don’t want more at the same time.

In Mauritania, I am considered rich. I am someone who owns so much that it’s immediately apparent to anyone that there’s no way I could possibly need, use, or keep track of all that STUFF. This is sometimes why Americans are robbed by their househelp; they won’t even notice, goes the reasoning.

I narrowed that stuff down recently, fit everything into either a friend’s garage or 8 suitcases. A lot of what’s in the suitcases is junk; stuff the kids were attached to even though I knew once we were here they would get so much new stuff that they wouldn’t even look twice at their old stuff. We sold our car; I gave up the key. We left our house; I gave up my keys. I gave away my cell phone. There’s something very freeing, scary with that swoopy feeling of flying like on a roller coaster, about being an adult with no keys, no phone, no address, and hardly any stuff.

Already, two weeks later, I have a phone and a key.

In Mauritania, there aren’t really any stores. Oh there are—when you are there, you think that. You can go to Orca, and buy plates and furniture and cheap toys and towels. You can go to Ecomarche, and buy European coffee and ice-cream and once, this spring, Honey Nut Cheerios and Starbucks bottled Frappucino, with all-English labels so we knew someone had gotten in a shipment from America. Once the things were gone, they didn’t reappear on the shelves. The boucherie (butcher) there is the cleanest in town; sometimes, in a fridge with blackened doors so that only the initiated know to look, you can find pork products brought down from Spain, chorizo sausage and thin-sliced bacon and Danish salami. (Remember that Muslims don’t eat pork)

Then you come to America, to your home culture. You walk into Safeway, just a neighbourhood normally-sized one, and it’s 8 times the size of Ecomarche, and everything looks so good and fun and different and colourful and clean and you just want it all. And then you don’t. It’s confusing, this push-pull reaction, this attraction and revulsion at the same time. I don’t know what to do with it, but one thing I do know: I don’t want to get to the point where I think I need it all.

It ‘s different, being home for an extended stay instead of a flying, 2 month visit where every evening is filled with friends and family and food, and we spend the entire time living out of suitcases in Heather and Paul’s basement. Then we sort of skim along on the surface, buying up stuff to take back; Christmas presents, make-up to last the year, Pirate napkins for birthday parties, books, a couple pounds of coffee, etc. But now, we need beds and tables, cleaning supplies, winter clothes; we bought fun mustard and chutney on sale; we’re overwhelmed with the stuff that makes up everyday life. Excuse my spluttering; I’m relearning how to swim.

“In America, if there are those white lines in the street that’s where you’re supposed to cross. You should still look, but most people will actually stop for you.”

 

“In America, new batteries last longer than a couple of hours. They will last days or even weeks and sometimes months.”

 

“In America, if a store says it’s open till 7, then it will be open till 7. He’s closing 10 minutes early tonight, but that’s unusual. People tend to be very time-conscious.”

 

The other night, we went downtown and wandered round. It was fun introducing my kids again to NW culture. We went into Powell’s, which for you poor people that don’t live in the NW is just about the best bookstore in the world. It’s a place I dream about when I’m overseas; an entire city block, 3 stories high, crammed full of books of every kind on every topic by every author. I love Powell’s because they combine both new and used books. Elliot found some books he wanted, and I taught him my trick—you quickly skim through all the copies of the book you want and find the cheapest. Never just take the top one. We found 2 like-new-but-technically-used copies of the books for $2.95 each instead of the regular $7.99 price. I also got a few books for myself (insert dreamy sigh here). This is combined with a visit to my friend Tiffany, who is in many ways better than Powell’s because every time I go there, she loads my arms with books that she gives me! I’m blessed in my friends. Right now I’m reading “Inheritance of Loss” from her; she also gave me 12 others. I’m gorging myself on reading. (I’m also going to start doing book reviews in the blatant goal of getting people to send me free books. I have no shame. Watch this space, as they say in the biz.)

The children’s section of Powell’s is housed in the “Rose Room” and it’s huge—as big as many entire bookstores, bigger than many Oasis Books put together. The kids had no idea there were so many books, and who could choose? It was a complicated time for me. I had the sense that I should know where each child was at any given minute but that was hard as all of us were constantly sidetracked, our eyes caught by an enticing cover, title, alleyway between shelves. We’re still in a bit of culture shock, still doing a bit of that deer-in-headlights that this mall culture of excess choice does to the uninitiated.

I would find one child, say firmly “Now you stay right here” and then go to look in the next aisle for another child, get sidetracked by a sale book on Victorian history for children (fascinating!), go back, find that the first child had disappeared, find another child, and repeat from the top. This took some time. I thought things would get better once I put my foot down and insisted that it was time to go to MY section now, but it didn’t—kids are fascinated by grownup books too. Then we tracked Donn down in the Photography section (he joined us late) and went off for Vincente’s pizza, which is probably the best pizza in Portland. Abel told the waiter that, in his opinion, it’s the best pizza in the world! He may very well be right. It’s located on 20th and Hawthorne, for those of you who care.

It was nearly 9, but the kids were clamouring for a movie, claiming they weren’t even a bit tired. And what is summer vacation for? We took them to see Spiderman 3 at the Avalon on Belmont, where all tickets are $2.50 and all arcade games are a nickel and all floors are as sticky as a stereotype of cheap movie theatres. It was a great night. The kids loved the movie, loved the games, loved the whole evening. Sometimes it’s nice to be home.

August 2007
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