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The following took place the other day in the car:
Ilsa: Look Dad! You’d like that store. It’s called Guitar Center only the Q is shaped like a guitar.
Me: Uh…there’s no Q in Guitar Center.
Abel: I think she means K.
Yes, this is why I probably shouldn’t be homeschooling.
Can I link to Youtube? Here’s a great example of Mauritanian music. To really experience this, crank it as loud as you possible can, get it as close to your ears as you can, and then pretend it’s 10 times louder. Now, close your eyes and imagine it’s 1 a.m. and your neighbours are celebrating a wedding and this music is going off in your ear. Get up, slam the windows close, grump a lot. That’s the best way to do it.
Note: I wrote this last month but didn’t have a chance to publish it till now.
“YOU went to Disneyland?” said my friend Debbie, her disbelief evident in her voice. “However did they talk you into that?”
I was a little surprised. My mental self-image tends to be subtle, someone that keeps her opinions to herself because they are so nuanced and well-thought-out that I can’t just blurt them out at random. (I have other delusions too) And while it’s true that I haven’t been what you’d call a big fan of Disneyland, I still end up going there all the time because I am completely outnumbered by my kids, my husband and my in-laws.
But I’ve made my peace with the Big Mouse. And I’m going to tell you about it. But first, my issues.
I didn’t grow up with Disney. 8 ½ years younger than my next sibling, I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies. We didn’t have a TV. I spent most of my time lying on my bed reading reading reading. I grew up on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. I read and re-read the Grimm brothers and the Little House books. And so I was unprepared for life in our current American culture.
I did not respond well to my first introduction to “adapted” books. I remember visiting a friend’s house and watching Little House on TV. I was shocked. “That wasn’t in the book! That’s not right!” I kept saying, until they finally sent me home. I reacted similarly to Disney’s movies; their Pooh was bumbly and dorky, their dwarves in Snow White without dignity.
I also have not reacted well to Disney’s usurpation of other people’s perfectly good tales. They take other people’s creative impulses and squeeze them into yet another one-size-fits-all bumbly, dorky, talking-animal, curvy heroine, oversized-chest male, happy ending movie. They messed up Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Anderson’s dark moralistic tale. In the original, the prince marries the other girl, and the little mermaid dies of a broken heart—but is rewarded with a soul, so she gets to go to heaven, which is about as happy as Anderson gets. And whatever possessed them to decide to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a children’s movie? It’s not like Disney is hurting for money. Why can’t they hire people to come up with original stories? Ok I’ll stop now; I could go on for pages. (Maybe it’s not surprising Debbie knew my real feelings?)
Donn, of course, grew up in Southern California. They had a TV in every room. His parents love Disney and Disneyland, and took him to the park all the time. One time he went on Space Mountain 11 times in the same day. That’s the kind of legendary figure he forms in our family.
3 years ago, my inlaws took all of us to Disneyland. I went under protest. I find the whole enterprise amazingly cynical. It costs $63 to get in if you are over 10. A Belle dress, for your 4 year old to play dress up in, costs $60. Yet they bill themselves as “the happiest place on earth.” For who? Just people with disposable income? Just people who speak English? Just people who LIKE Disney? It’s so cynical.
“It’s just an advertising slogan,” groaned Donn, rolling his eyes at me. “Get over it.”
My mother-in-law’s favorite “ride” is that one which in kindness to your mental processes I will not name; the one in which animated figures shriek that same annoying song over and over at you, until it’s stuck in your head for days. Far from promoting world peace, that “ride” seems to ignite hatred and homicidal tendencies.
At least I think so.
Last year, we went again. Donn’s parents had a harder time keeping up with us, but at least Ilsa was finally tall enough to go on all the rides—that was a sore spot during her first visit, when her twin was deemed tall enough but she wasn’t.
But I’ve made my peace with the House of the Mouse. This year, the in-laws couldn’t come, said they just don’t have the stamina anymore, but they sent us. Everyone else was excited, so I put on my happy face (sarcasm) and off we went.
And while I still wouldn’t call it the happiest place on earth, even grumpy cantankerous moi had a great day. (Wouldn’t this make a heart-warming family movie?)
Going with older kids makes a difference. We didn’t even see any giant cartoon characters. Instead, we rushed from ride to ride; Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, the Matterhorn. (Do you think Disney’s in a rut?) We would get our Fast Passes for the future, then hang out in those long lines—the happiest lines on earth!—until we could experience our 2 minutes of pure joy. Fortunately we all love roller coasters.
We went on most rides twice, but we went on Thunder Mountain four times! That’s because we went on rides instead of joining the enormous claustrophobia-inducing crowd watching the light-and-smoke show about the history of Disney. We would stagger off the roller coaster, run round, and ride again. It was awesome. We discovered that for this ride, which has a long train, it’s best to sit in the very back, where you get whipped around. For Space Mountain and Splash Mountain, you should sit in the very front row.
I like sitting next to Ilsa on rides. She’s so tiny, and she shrieks and puts her arms up and has so much fun that it intensifies the experience for me. Even the biggest rides that Disney can offer hold no fear for her.
We haven’t been back in the States all that long, so we’re still getting our cues about ways things have changed since our last time home by watching our fellow-Americans. It was interesting to see that, even in this affluent nation of ours, many people apparently can’t afford full-length mirrors. It’s sad.
Last year, we couldn’t go on the Pirates of the Caribbean because it was closed for remodeling, so we were excited to try it this year. We tend to view Pirates 2 & 3 as basically theme-ride movies anyway, considering their serious lack of a comprehensible plot. We patiently waited in the long line, excitedly boarded the boat, and then sat, bored, for the next few minutes. It’s the exact same ride as before, except they have changed the dialogue to add in a few ‘Capt. Jack Sparrow’s’ and ‘Davy Jones’.” Pitiful. We all hated it.
We endured those terrible animated animals on Splash Mountain for those few microseconds of pure, unadulterated terror when you come out on top of the mountain, get that breathtaking view of the park, and plunge down, down, down that 50-foot drop. It’s so cool. It’s worth it. I love that ride. (except for those annoying animals, which no one likes.)
The fireworks show was incredible; it turned night into day. We went on Thunder Mountain one last time while craning our necks upward; the booms and sparkles were a fitting expression of our own exuberance.
By the end, we were limping in exhaustion, beyond hungry. (We had cleverly outwitted the infamous Disney greed by eating RIGHT before coming in and bringing enough snacks to keep us all going all day; we hate paying $30 for a pizza worth about $5) It was after 11 p.m. We staggered towards the gate, foregoing one last time the joys of Space Mountain when we saw the after-fireworks crowd all standing in line. We drove around Anaheim, looking for an open restaurant, ended up eating cheap tacos from Jack in the Box in the car. Ilsa fell asleep between each and every bite.
I’m still not what you’d call a Disney fan, but Disneyland’s all right. If you like all that happiness, that is.
Yesterday, I woke up to a strange noise. What was it? It sounded vaguely familiar, like a vacuum being operated several stories away. It would go for a while, then stop, then, several minutes later, start again.
It nagged away at my semi-consciousness. Also, the room was getting hot. I couldn’t sleep. I got up, and realized that the sound was caused by hot air blowing out of a vent. My friend had turned the heat on.
Indoor heating. Now there’s a concept we haven’t had to think about in a while. The weather today is gorgeous—deep blue autumnal sky, leaves started to change colour and fall, twisting, from their parent trees. But even in the sunshine, we’re comfortable in long pants or a long-sleeved t-shirt.
Several days this week were cool and cloudy. It’s started raining, just a little bit. “You’re going to learn a whole new vocabulary,” I told Ilsa the other day. It wasn’t really raining—it was sprinkling, or misting, or just sort of moist outside. Oregonians have as many words for precipitation as the Inuit have for snow, or the Maures have for camels.
A friend asked me the other day how I’m doing with my reverse culture shock. The answer is that I’m doing great. I’m really happy to be here. I love autumn, and I’ve missed it deeply. Also, we’ve been taking advantage of the fact that our lives are still sort of on hold. In other words, we’re not really working yet. We’re sort of homeschooling, doing some English workbooks (The kids are so happy with how easy English conjugation is!), but we haven’t officially started CNED yet. We’ve found a really cute house and signed the lease, but we won’t move into it for another week or so, and we’re still living in one room in the basement. Andersons live halfway to the Columbia River Gorge. Why not go hiking?
On Tuesday afternoon, we set off with our 3 plus two of the Anderson kids. We decided to do a hike called Angel’s Rest. That name should have been a clue. Angels would come down from heaven, right, so they would rest on a pinnacle of rock or someplace high up. We didn’t think it through, just looked at the distance (2.5 miles) and set off. Soon, as Abel put it, “We started to need to take a lot of breaks.” We would string out along the edge of the trail, so when other hikers came along they could get by. It was early enough in the afternoon that we got a couple of odd looks but, much to my disappointment, no one asked me why the kids weren’t in school. (I’ve got my answer all ready: “Me an’ Bubba just learns ‘em at home. Werks real good!” This would have been even better with a couple of extra kids thrown in the mix!)
The trail comes out at the edge of a cliff with a great view east and west along the Columbia. It also has a really impressive drop off. One little slip, and that would be the end. I tend to have a somewhat morbid imagination, and was running through the phone call to Heather if something happened, especially to one of her kids. It wasn’t enjoyable. They managed to stay back from the edge, and when we were scrambling up some rocks only one fell and she even managed to fall towards the bushes rather than towards the cliff side. Phew!
If hiking with 3 kids is fun, hiking with 5 kids is doubly cool. Make that triple. First comes the whining. “I’m tired; my legs hurt; when are we gonna get there; is he (Donn) taking ANOTHER picture?; why, why why.” There’s the bickering. There’s the being too tired to walk, yet having energy to duel with sticks the minute we stop for a break. There’s the singing of annoying songs. There’s the noise. There’s the top-of-the-lungs comments on the other hikers—“ooh! Her dog’s not on a leash! She’s breaking the law! She’s a lawbreaker! Lawbreaker! Do you think that’s a pit bull? What kind of dog do you think it is? It sure is big. It’s cute! No it’s not.”
Me (red-faced): Hi!
Lawbreaking dog-owner: (nods. Looks askance at children)
(Aside: They were actually right, although it was a little embarrassing. Donn asked, and it was half pit bull, not on a leash although it’s clearly stated that all dogs must be on leashes. Over half the dogs we’ve met on these trails are not on leashes. This particular owner insisted that her half-pitbull breed was, exceptionally, a harmless individual who literally wouldn’t hurt a flea and simply adored children. Whatever. I’m not overly worried, but it bugs me that they think they don’t have to obey the rules)
Mariah (Ilsa’s friend, age 11) somehow got us all eating pine needles. She claimed to notice subtle differences. I expect she’ll be a wine expert as an adult. “This one is sweet, and this one has a spicy mint flavor,” she told me, offering me two needles. “You chew them and then spit them out.” I tried them. They tasted exactly like you’d expect—pine!—but perhaps I haven’t developed the sensitive palate you need for this. She and Ilsa collected fallen branches and later brewed them up in a kind of tea. You add a dash of cinnamon, a hint of vanilla, and several spoonfuls of sugar and then, they claim, it’s delicious. They cut and sew tea bags out of coffee filters, label them with Sharpies (not approved by the FDA), and sell them for 10 cents each. I hope this gets me off the hook for college tuition. What do you think?
I think we’re living in one of the prettiest places on earth. I’m happy to be here for now. Even with the kids along for the ride.
When oil was discovered near the coast of Mauritania and it was announced that Woodside, an Australian company, would be moving several families to Nouakchott in the process of developing it, all the homeowners in the area got dollar signs in their eyes. Houses that had been renting for 100,000 ouguiya per month (approx $400) had their rents raised overnight to $600, or $800. People announced prices of 2000 euros, for a house in Nouakchott, where the streets aren’t paved and you have to keep the door in the wall locked or a herd of goats will come in and eat your garden, where electricity and water work most of the time and even bad housekeepers dust daily because the dust is so bad.
We pointed this out to our friend, who had started working as a housing agent. “These prices are RIDICULOUS!” we griped. “After all, this is Nouakchott, not New York.”
He thought about this for a while. Next time we saw him, he told us, “Nouakchott is the New York of Mauritania.”
Of course he’s right, in a way. Nouakchott is the closest thing to a city in the country; it’s the capital, and just got its very first ATM machines, and DSL, so modernity is right round the corner. Also sometimes they water the palm trees planted in a line down the main streets, although sometimes they just uproot all the dead dry stalks and start over.
But if Nouakchott is the New York of Mauritania, it is also the Tunbridge Wells of Mauritania, or the Kuala Lampur of Mauritania, or the Tokyo. You get the idea. It’s not really anything like any of these other cities, but it’s more like them than the dusty villages of the desert.
We got an email the other day from Tim, who just got back to Nouakchott after a summer in the US. It was a painful reminder of what it’s often like when you first get back: they arrived at 3:30 a.m. but didn’t get into their house till about 5, at which point they discovered the power was out and the phone had been cut and their car wouldn’t start. Life’s like that in the teeming metropolis that is Nouakchott.
After I read the email, I experienced a strong sense of contentment that I wasn’t in Nouakchott right now. September is basically the worst month there—your skin prickles with heat and humidity, the nights are heavy and still, and the electricity fluctuates with wild abandon, always going out on the hottest nights when you really need AC if you are going to get any sleep. I know that my friends there have several such nights in store for them in the upcoming weeks, if they haven’t had one yet already. And then there are the many people who live in houses without electricity.
This is not to say that I don’t miss things about Mauritania. Donn and I were talking about it last night, over a late-night snack that’s not going to help me fit into all these new clothes I’ve had to buy. (Funny how my thin cotton skirts and sandals aren’t so comfortable anymore now that it’s started raining and the temperature has dropped to the level we get in Nouakchott on a January night)
Donn misses the lack of rules and regulation in everyday life. People have more time in Mauritania. He’d stop by the gas station and chat with the men working there, who’d become his friends over the years. They would teach him phrases in Pulaar, and he’d ask about their families and friends. The lack of regulation has its downsides—for example, a man might be smoking as he pumped our gas, a practice frowned upon in the US. But it’s strange to go from there to here, where the kids can’t rollerblade without a helmet and we have to read a whole manual practically before we can go for a car ride, to learn who can sit where and if they should still technically have booster seats.
Me, I miss the people. I miss my friends. I miss Aisha, who’s going to give birth any day now. I miss Ghalouiya, who just decided not to become someone’s second wife, and whose mother makes the best harira soup I’ve ever had. I miss all the people I was just getting to know, in the way that relationships always seem to develop, to open out into possibilities, right when you’re leaving. I miss Michelle, and Tim and Debbie, and Jeremy and Steph, and so many more. I miss my life there.
It’s Ramadan, which isn’t my favorite time of year—people are tired during the day and out-of-sorts, it’s impossible to get things done because everyone takes time off to sleep. The mosques put new batteries in their loudspeakers, so that normal conversation (or sleep) is impossible during the broadcasts. But at nightfall, for the breaking of the fast, we “infidels” are sometimes invited to people’s homes, where we eat dates and crème fraiche, harira soup (made with lamb and garbanzo beans and lemon and spices—delicious), bread. We drink tea and recline on matlas and talk about our days. People have time. We miss that.
I wrote this yesterday, but didn’t get it posted till today. Life’s like that sometimes.
Six years ago today, an event happened that changed the way Americans view themselves and the world. Who knew that one event could be so defining, so world-shaking to so many people? I certainly had no idea.
I was in Mauritania; it was afternoon. I think someone called, or maybe we went online and saw a headline. Anyway, we turned on the TV. Our TV at that point got two stations: the Mauritanian television station (MTV; no really), and a German station that showed all its programs twice—once in English, once in German. We were in time to see the second plane hit. We watched it several times, although I don’t think the impact on us was the same as it was on people in the US at the time.
Soon afterwards, the phone started ringing. It was our Mauritanian friends and acquaintances, calling to see if we had family affected by the tragedy. They were all worried about us, sharing their horror at the events. We went on a road trip to a Pulaar village in the south of the country that weekend. At police checkpoints, when the gendarme ascertained our nationalities, he saluted, apologized for the tragedy, and waved us on quickly, no hassles. The German TV station did a special program detailing all that America had done for the German people in the 50+ years since the end of WWII. At that point, early on, the world together mourned; divisions were put aside, temporarily ignored, as everyone all together grieved the loss of life.
That didn’t last, as you know. It seems that the divisions are deeper now than they were before that moment. We saw it overseas, where sometimes as Americans we needed to keep a low profile during moments of international tension. When Bush was first talking of bombing Iraq in spring 2003, one of my university students told me not to come to class if he did. “Don’t worry—we’ll protect you if something happens, but it would just be better if you didn’t come,” he told me earnestly. This last year, I taught a conversation class where the students had to give regular 5-minute speeches, and I had one student who chose the quagmire in Iraq as his topic EVERY SINGLE TIME. He took my class all year, and so I spent a lot of time squirming in my seat and wondering how he’d like it if I decided to talk about the residual slavery and racism in Mauritania every chance I got.
We see it when we come home too. We have friends from all over the political spectrum, which is yet another reason for me not to discuss politics on my blog. It seems that in the last 6 years, people have become more polarized, less likely to have anything to say to each other, less willing to listen. Things are viewed in shades of black and white. I believe in absolutes, but not when it comes to politics.
This world is imperfect, and as thinking human beings we are going to differ at one point or another. I have nothing very profound to say here, just a reminder that it’s good to talk to people who aren’t exactly like us, who view the world differently; to have friends who cover their heads in black scarves and bow to Mecca five times a day, and friends who wear tiny spaghetti-strap black tank tops and do Pilates; friends whose bumper stickers say “We support our troops” and friends whose bumper stickers say “Impeach Bush.” It’s good to remember that everybody mourns the loss of loved ones.
On the evening of the first Thursday of every month, all the art galleries in downtown Portland begin a new month with a new show with a different artist, and stay open late into the evening. They serve glasses of wine and cubes of cheese, if you’re lucky. Many people go downtown where they fight over parking spots. Then they wander from gallery to gallery, viewing shows, stopping for a bite to eat, and Appreciating Art. And on Thursday, we became one of this crowd, because we are cool like this. Yep, this is how we roll. Can I use that phrase or does it sound self-conscious? Hmmm.
I dressed head-to-toe in black (no longer de rigueur, but I’m still building a Western-style wardrobe) and we were off. We met friends for a fashionable Bite to Eat at a cute little Italian-type place in the Pearl, a district of Portland that in recent memory was all industrial and now is all million-dollar condos and cute trendy little boutiques and Italian, Thai or Fusion restaurants. It’s a fun area, if you like that sort of thing, which I do, actually. The restaurant had a tree on the inside, and brick walls, meant to feel like you were sitting outside in an Italian street. Outside, on the Portland sidewalk, they had tables with yellow umbrellas. It seemed to me that whoever came up with that had been sampling the wine a little heavily (inside out! outside in!), but it works; it’s a fun place with fantastic gelato.
We sauntered past two outdoor concerts, several fountains and parks, and a Farmer’s Market. I wanted to buy lots of fresh produce but Donn felt that he would look conspicuous carrying boxes of blueberries and big wavy fronds of carrot through all the galleries. So we didn’t. And when we went back, they were closed.
We had a great evening viewing art, hanging out with friends, and window shopping. We started out at the Charles A. Hartman Fine Art gallery, which was featuring an artist named Dan Robinson. His images of grain elevators, loading docks, industrial and rural scenes were gorgeous—full of slanted sunset light and shadows. We really enjoyed them, although they lost Donn’s attention when he spotted an original Ansel Adams on a back wall, tucked away in a sort of office. Donn is a huge Adams fans; he told me all about when and where the photo was taken and the history of its printing. He does other party tricks too.
Friday & Saturday:
On Friday afternoon, we packed a backpack with changes of clothes and toothbrushes and headed over to some friends for the night. Hali, the oldest of the family we’re staying with, was having a birthday and a slumber party, and the basement was going to be invaded by approximately 10 or possibly 40 female teenagers, all of them no doubt giggling. Giggling makes me cross, so we decided to leave.
We ate Thai food and hung out and talked late into the night. Next morning was clear and blue; we ate a huge breakfast, piled into one car, and drove down the Columbia River Gorge for a hike. The kids scrambled over rocks in a clear brown river, crossed logs, plunged into the icy water up to their waists, cried, struggled on, and in general had a blast.
After about a mile, we were rewarded with a view of a pure-white waterfall cascading down a high cliff. “Whoa! Look at that!” shouted Abel. (I love him) The kids were, as always, amazed to see all that water, just pouring and pouring down the cliff. Where does it come from, with its inexhaustible supply? Where does it go? Although my kids are native Oregonians, they’ve forgotten their roots, and water in any large amount is surprising and fascinating to them—they’ve become like children of the desert.
But even for me, the waterfall was amazing. We hiked down to feel the spray on our faces, scrambled down thunk stones into the deep, clear brown pools, and eventually worked our way back. We drove home through the late afternoon light sparkling on the river and accentuating the crenellated rocks that line the Columbia. We bought French cheeses (good, but disappointingly different from cheese actually bought in France; the lait cru is the issue) and barbecued hamburgers, a nice mix of cultures.
Mitch and Tiff’s idea of celebrating a five-year-old’s birthday is grilling a huge salmon and making a variety of salads and inviting whole families over to eat, hang out, and play with Hot Wheels and Legos. So we did. Our kids did the playing and we did a lot of the eating. Best of all, we might have found a house—right near to their’s! How fun. I’ll let you know if it works out.
When we arrived in Nouakchott in April 2001, we spoke virtually no French. I had taken years of it in high school and college, and had managed to forget nearly all of it. 6 hours of studying completely wasted! I could communicate with taxi drivers and read simple instructions, but that was about it. Nonetheless, after we looked around at the various educational options, we chose the French school for our children.
The decision was unrequited, at least at first. It turned out that we weren’t the only ones choosing the French school. (Its official name is the Lycée Theodore Monod, so I properly should call it LTM, just to keep it clear). Many many families wanted to put their kids in that school, oh probably because it was almost affordable and the best educational option in the country. Mauritania isn’t exactly swimming in good choices for kids’ schooling. There are the local schools, where the teachers may or may not show up to instruct 70+ kids per room, said instruction done partly through rote memorization, partly through shouting, and partly with a large stick. Then there’s the American school, at the American Embassy. They wanted my children, because they are so short on native English speakers that their classes spend a lot of time doing remedial work. They go through Grade 8, and cost a mere $12,000 per year per child. Gulp. Not a typo, a real number. And my kids would basically be helping the teacher?
Then there’s LTM. It’s an official French International School, and as such is subsidized by the French government. Located on the grounds of the French Embassy, it runs from pre-K (moyenne section, for you Frenchies out there) through the Bac, and 6 years ago was about $1200 a year per kid. (It has gone up every year since) It offers a really good education for your child. There’s just one thing: in order to get in, you have to deal with French bureaucracy multiplied by African influence. You are really beneath their notice; it’s good to recognize that from the outset. Your attitude should be humble and willing to do anything demanded, no manner how ridiculous.
The first thing they demanded from my 4 year-olds was that they speak French. How to determine this? Easy—they just swept them away, one by one, into a strange room with a woman they’d never seen before, who fired rapid questions at them in French. I wasn’t allowed to come into the room with them. Abel, shy at 4, stuck his thumb in his mouth and looked sadly at her. Two minutes later, she swept out and told me, “He won’t talk.” Needless to say, the twins were not admitted that first year. Elliot was put on the waiting list but in the first spot for Kindergarten (grande section); although he was nearly 6 and ready for Grade 1 in English, the fact that he did not speak French made him ineligible, in their eyes, to begin to learn to read in French. Sigh. Never mind. We “redshirted” him (I just learned that term yesterday; it means holding your child back a year) and it’s certainly worked out—he’s by no means the tallest in his class, and he’s bi-lingual, which has to count for something.
Getting the twins into LTM was something else. We put them in a jardin d’enfants, a preschool, run by a French woman. Their teacher was Algerian and they were the only westerners in their class. (It’s easy to pick them out in school pictures) I remember their first day. At the time, Abel was the shyer of the two, Ilsa more out-going. But when we entered the sandy courtyard, filled with dusty toys, Ilsa hung back and clung to me, while Abel began to do a funny dance and sing “Veggie Tales” in his husky little voice, and went off to play on the low slide without a backward glance.
The next year, armed with their report cards full of A’s and their ability to rattle off colours bleu, jaune, rouge, rose, vert and numbers un, deux, trois, quartre, cinq, we tried again for LTM. Neither succeeded. We were told that the school was letting the bulk of the applicants into CP, or Grade 1. So they continued at le jardin for another year. In the meantime, LTM got a new proviseur, or principal. So, when the twins tried for CP the next year, the school was letting the bulk of applicants into Kindergarten, and there were 60 kids trying for 5 CP spots. Needless to say, my two American kids didn’t make the cut.
So we went to France for a year! There was more involved, of course, but we ended up spending the next year in a charming town in the French Alps, which solved everybody’s school problems. I remember the first day of school, seeing Ilsa, standing alone and lost, in the courtyard full of French children running and shouting, a shaft of sunlight picking out her blonde head, and then seeing her again at lunch, happy, already with a new friend. We bought éclairs at a local patisserie for a treat that first day, fancifully shaped like mice and hedgehogs, beautifully wrapped up for instant consumption on the cobbled alleyway just outside. All 3 had excellent teachers, and our family loved that little school. After that it was easy; when we returned to Mauritania, they simply transferred to LTM, who had to accept them because they were transferring in from a French school.
Once you’re in the system, you’re in the system.
Several people have asked me what we’re doing with the kids this year for school, and I’m sure you will now understand why we’re keeping them in the French system. There is absolutely no way I’d risk going through all that again, next year, in another new country at another new French International school. I’m no glutton for punishment. (Although I could definitely handle another year in the French Alps…)
The French gov’t has a correspondence option, available for French people or those, like us, who’ve had their kids in French schools for more than 2 years. It’s intended for those living abroad where there are no French schools (if you can imagine such a wilderness with no civilization!), or for kids with extended periods of illness who have to do school at home. The idea of homeschooling is foreign to the French mind, and is met with incredulity.
This system is called CNED and it is what we’ll be doing this year. When I told Elliot I’d be basically homeschooling him in French, his face was a study in disbelief and horror. “You?” he squeaked. I could see his point, since he’s fluent and can pass for a French kid, whereas I still stumble along and forget my verb tenses and spell like a 6 year old. (When we were in France, in public people would hear the kids and think we were a French family, until Donn or I opened our mouths and spoiled the illusion)
I would like to put them into an American school for a year. The American and the French systems are really different, and since they plan on going to university here, it’d be nice for them to have some idea of what to expect, some common ground with their future classmates. But there’s no way I’m risking taking them out of the French system. CNED keeps us in, keeps us current. Next year, they’ll simply transfer to a school in Morocco.
We’re still waiting to get it set up; that’s another topic, a painful one. I’d hoped to have it all done by now but unfortunately it’s still in process. But I’ll let you know how it goes, when the teacher knows less than the pupils and the mom knows less than the kids. Should be a fun year!
An ironic post title, since we have no home. We have stuff in four homes on two continents, but are once again presuming on the kindness of friends to provide beds to sleep in at night. Portland’s not really home anymore, but then where is?
Note to self: do not write posts after yet another fruitless afternoon spent trying to find someone who will rent a decent house for a decent price to really good renters, stable people who like to garden and who take good care of property, a family who will be here for 10 months. 10 months is good. It is wrong to think that renters have to sign up for a whole year, or to say that if the good, stable renters leave after 10 months you will make them pay $2000 that they really don’t have.
Last time I posted, we were in Crescent City, California—near to the Oregon border. It was Saturday night. In the morning, we got up bright and early. Breakfast wasn’t provided, so we needed to leave the hotel earlier than usual in order to make it on the road by our usual 10 a.m. Donn was secretly determined to make it even earlier, but he was defeated.
You may wonder why we never seem to make it any earlier. Part of the problem is the trunk. A family of 5 went to California for 2 weeks in a Dodge Intrepid. We had 2 suitcases, a camera bag, a baseball bat and ball, a bag of books, jackets, a bag of toiletries, damp swimsuits in a plastic bag, a very full backpack with books, paper for art, paper for airplanes, coloured pencils, and a scarf for dressup, and misc other small things. Donn, who is talented at jigsaw packing, had to redo the trunk every morning, not to mention re-strapping his surfboard on top. It took probably 20 minutes every morning just to do the trunk.
Once the trunk was packed and I had gone through the hotel room two extra times, just to make extra sure that we hadn’t left anything tangled in the sheets or behind the bathroom door, we set off to find breakfast. We went to a place where the typical omelette had 4 eggs, but they allowed you to order a “petite” serving. I went with that option, and had a yummy two-egg omelette with ham, green chilis, swiss cheese and salsa. It was plenty of food—I couldn’t quite finish everything.
I asked the waitress if people in general, normal plump good-healthy-appetite people like me, actually manage to eat 4-egg omelettes with hashbrowns and toast and a wedge of cantaloupe, and she said yes, and they finish everything. That’s one thing I’m still in shock about—the size of the portions in American restaurants. Friday night, when we ate in a trendy coastal town while searching for a vacancy, I ordered a “small” size of pasta, and it was more than ample—I could barely finish it. No one has ever accused me of having a small appetite, except Mauritanians who are being polite. But I can’t finish my plate at most American restaurants—or more accurately, I do then wish I hadn’t. Why are the portions so big? My theory is so that people feel they’re getting their money’s worth. Any other ideas? Anyway, I’m not complaining—the twins have healthy appetites and they split a normal-sized plate and were full.
So yes, it was 10 a.m. when we hit the road, tummies full and trunk perfectly packed, heading into Oregon. Finally, we could get Ilsa to stop asking when we were going to get to Oregon! We triumphantly pointed the sign announcing this milepost.
The Oregon coast looks like what I think a coast should look like. There are rocky crags and sandy cliffs and wind-carved cypress and cedar; the nearby hills are coated with fir and pine and the ground is thick with ferns and brambles. And it was a perfect late-summer day to enjoy it. The water was a perfect blue, crashing white around the black seagull-covered rocks. I wanted more than anything to walk along the edge, filling my toes with sand and wetting my ankles in the surf, but it wasn’t possible, so we continued to drive north.
Heceta Head Lighthouse. Can you see this picture? I can’t, but I’m hoping you can.
When we got to Lincoln City, we hit traffic. We stopped for black-walnut ice-cream cones and popped into a surfboard shop to browse their end-of-summer sale, but the traffic didn’t abate. We turned off the coast highway at that point and headed towards Portland, over the Coast Range of forested mountains, a road whose every inch is familiar because we have driven it so often in years past. We got to Portland about 9 p.m. that night, thankfully emptied out the trunk one last time, and moved, once again, into our friends’ basement, where we remain while we search for a house. Anyone got any leads?
With great effort, by 10 a.m. Friday morning we were walking briskly down a seaside boardwalk, a full 15 minutes north of our hotel, on our way to view elephant seals, or possibly sea lions. We had pulled over to the side of the road and piled out of our car to stare out at the seagull-covered rocks, but Elliot’s sharp eyes first spotted the moving lumps far down on the beach. We ran for a closer look. The elephant seals lay on the beach as dead, occasionally taking a huge deep breath, or flipping sand up on their backs. The children turned into a flock of seagulls themselves: Dad! Dad! Look! Look! It’s moving! It’s putting sand on its back! Take a picture! Take a picture! Dad! Dad! Loo-ook!
In the water, two seals frolicked. We could see their sleek black heads appearing and reappearing over the clear green water. Ilsa and I thought they looked like they were kissing; Elliot and Abel thought they looked like they were wrestling. Who knows?
We drove on up the coast. The weather was strange; hot sun on our backs, cold sea wind on our faces. Unfortunately, this weather pattern created a lot of sea fog. We were driving along the coast, but could only see the ocean directly below us. We’d stop at vista points, and from that vantage point could look back to see the fog rolling into inlets, but looking westward was like looking from an airplane. It was a little disappointing, and it didn’t really help us make any better time, since we still kept stopping and looking.
It was fascinating, though, watching the fog rise from the water. The clouds would appear dense, deep grey or thick white, from a small distance, but as one approached, they would wisp away, soar above us, ephemeral.
Highway One is not for those wishing to make excellent time, even for the many (many) retirees in their sleek little convertibles, whizzing round the curves. It winds. It hugs cliffs. It makes huge hairpin bends round little sea coves and inlets. All this takes time to traverse. We left bright and early (after a very nice continental breakfast with cinnamon rolls and coffee that claimed to be Douwe Egberts and probably was, only with a lot of extra water added), but we did not make good time.
We stopped for espresso at the Ragged Point Resort Espresso Bar, where the kid apparently felt no need to change to coffee grounds between making my double espresso and making Donn’s. Too bad, eh? Just a little bit of effort could have made it worth close to the $3 he charged Donn for the swill he served him. I mention this because, if you are ever driving up 1, I recommend you avoid Ragged Point espresso bar, and if they ask you why, TELL THEM! Donn compared it to the reason why he couldn’t get film processed in Mauritania, which was because they kept on using the chemicals long after their usefulness had expired. But in a trendy, expensive little resort, you might expect something better. You wouldn’t get it, though.
Eventually, we made it to Carmel-by-the-Sea. It was nearly 2 by this point, so we pulled into the mall just off the road to look at lunch options. Carmel is a lovely area, and it’s a lovely mall. It’s the sort of place where just driving into the parking lot makes your clothes suddenly fade, wrinkle, and go out of fashion, but other than that it’s lovely. We bought picnic things (bread, fruit, cheese) at Safeway and went looking for the town of Carmel proper. A couple of wrong turns later, we drove down its charming streets, and ate our lunch leaning against a huge cypress tree on the beach. The weather was clear and warm (well it would be! Those folks would not tolerate fog!) and we had a delightful time. Then we visited Photography West, a famous gallery, where we viewed original prints by people like Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Paul Capinegro, Morley Baer, Christopher Burkett and Imogen Cunningham—whose portrait of Frida Kahlo was stunning, intensive and thought-provoking. I nearly bought a small copy of it, but when you’re looking at the original, a notecard just won’t cut it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve viewed photographs by someone other than my husband, and Donn and I both enjoyed the opportunity to experience a slice of life beautifully re-created through someone else’s eye. We wanted to visit the Weston Gallery, and spend time looking at other types of art as well. Carmel-by-the-Sea is full of galleries. But it was already well past 3; we needed to move on.
This part of California smells soo good. The air is spicy with the scents of juniper, cypress, cedar, wild sage, and eucalyptus. The coastline is rugged and rocky, the water is shades of aqua, turquoise, and indigo, and the hills are covered in…some kind of plant…in shades of rust and tan and a vivid deep green.
By the time we were driving through the towns just south of San Francisco, it was just before 6 p.m. Too soon to stop. We drove on through the town and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Disappointingly, the fog was so thick you couldn’t even see the top of the bridge itself, much less anything of the bay. We planned to stop just out of ‘Frisco to the north. This was a grave error on our part. You may have already noticed that it’s Labour Day Weekend, but we’ve been living out of suitcases since mid-July and haven’t readjusted completely to life in the US, and we’re fuzzy on dates most days.
Friday of Labour Day Weekend, in a trendy vacation spot, looking for lodging in the small coastal resort towns of Marin County, one of the nation’s more exclusive areas. Picture the Nomad family in their borrowed Dodge Intrepid with a surfboard strapped on top, slowly driving from town to town. In Stinson Beach there were no vacancies to be had at all. (I wanted to ask about the stables, but Donn wouldn’t let me) In Olema, there was one—a mere $150 for a room with two whole twin beds. It was dark of course, and here we were in an area of incredible scenic beauty, driving blind, seeing the occasional deer and a beautiful moonrise, but missing everything else. In Tomales, the Continental Inn (Providing Rest for Weary Travelers since 1889) had a sign saying they had vacancies and please ring for service, but no one came. In desperation, we finally did what we should have done all along—we turned around and headed over to Petaluma and from there up the 101—a bigger highway, more populated, and not nearly so trendy. We stayed in a wonderful, heavenly Best Western with two queen beds in Rohnert Park, checking in just before midnight, and crawling thankfully into our beds with nary a thought of writing a long blog post.
The so-called continental breakfast was like nothing I ever had in France—it included make-your-own waffles, toast, boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, cereal, muffins, and juice. There was even a bottle of Knott’s Boysenberry Syrup. We all chose different options according to taste, and everyone left happy—even the grown-ups, who still stopped by Starbucks for double espressos.
Today was gorgeous; sunny, warm, the sky that intense blue that presages the hue of autumnal skies. It felt like the first of September, actually. The weather was warm, but there was that hint of heaviness, that slant, to the light, and the vineyards we drove through, full of rich purple grape clusters, were beginning to show hints of red and yellow in their leaves. We went wine-tasting, bought fresh strawberries (that were every bit as good as Oregon berries, I must admit; they were super!) and ate them very quickly because they were so good, and continued up the 101.
We had initially planned to cut back over to the 1, but if we had, we’d probably still be just a few miles north of San Francisco. The 1 is gorgeous, if you don’t get fog, but it is very slow and windy. If your kids get car sick, forget it. Mine don’t, but even they were beginning to complain of tummy-aches. Instead, we headed north up 101, which heads through the Redwood Forest over to the coast, where it joins the 1 anyway.
And really, the 101 is very nice and we’ve decided to never-ever do the I-5 route again. Our road wound through vineyards and up into hills covered in magnificent oak trees, with glimpses of green rivers at the base of rocky valleys. By lunch time, we’d arrived in Willets, self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Redwoods.” We’d enjoyed our picnic in Carmel so much we decided to do a repeat today in the Redwoods; we couldn’t find a picnic table (we could have if we’d kept going, but we were hungry) so we stopped in a turnout in the forest and picnicked quite happily amongst the trees.
The redwoods were terrific; all they were supposed to be. We didn’t do all the touristy things, but you should if you come this way (drive through a tree trunk, visit the Confusion Room where apparently gravity doesn’t work); we just need to return this car at some point fairly soon, so we didn’t take time. That was okay though. The real point of the Redwoods is the trees themselves.
I asked Donn to take this picture to send to my friends in Mauritania. They won’t believe it! And this isn’t the biggest or anything; just a fairly typical Giant Redwood, one of the oldest living things on the planet.
We drove down Avenue of the Giants, stopping frequently to get out and admire the mammoth, ancient, enormous, add more adjectives here, trees. The air was fresh and spicy with ferns and redwood; the kids climbed on fallen logs and yanked their heads up to try and see the lacy tops stretching far above us.
Traveling for days in a car with your nearest and dearest can be a stretching time, especially when said family keeps buying lots of fruit. I personally feel that I have heard enough jokes about gas, cow herds, methane production, etc. to last more than a lifetime, although I have a feeling I haven’t fulfilled my quota just yet. Overall, our kids are great travelers—which is just as well, since they all took extended plane rides before they were 6 months old, and haven’t stopped for very long since. Donn and I are very sensitive parents. “Look! This is beautiful! Stop reading! Turn off your Game-Boys,” we told them. “Enjoy this! Yes, you have to!” And they did, some of the time anyway.
We arrived at the coast and I saw a herd of elk feeding in a marsh just below us. We stopped but it was too late for anyone else to see them, so we drove on. Suddenly we saw another herd, this one close to the road, near a sign that said “Elk Viewing.” I suppose they must salt the lawn there or something, because the herd was definitely wild and yet used enough to people to not panic when a small child near us slammed the car door and started yelling at his father. We were much more circumspect, and joined the other snapping photos. At first, the leader, he of the biggest antlers, hung out in the background, but then he apparently decided it was time for his photoshoot because he ordered the herd off to the side, then slowly stalked the lawn, turning his head left and right. It was very amusing, and I guess a sign that even here in the north, we’re still in California. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”
We drove through Humboldt County and on up the coast, planning to stop for the night in Crescent City—nearly to Oregon. We got into town just before 8, and drove in dismay past motel after motel displaying “Sorry” and “We’re full” and, often, simply “No.” Finally, we found a small, unexciting hotel with one room left—two double beds. We took it. We’re glad. Abel is sleeping on the floor, his bed made out of two bedspreads, but we don’t care. We went out for some adequate Thai food and everyone else is already asleep. Tomorrow, insha’allah, we should make it back to Portland. The kids will be happy.