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This afternoon, the kids and I went to Goodwill to work on their Halloween costumes.
You may think that the afternoon of a holiday is a bit late to be planning, but some people function best under pressure and with an external deadline, rather than an arbitrary inner one. Also, I’ve always found that if you wait late enough, you avoid those really long lines. My last excuse is that we’re still adjusting back to this Very Expensive place we call home, and end-of-the-month holidays aren‘t always easy.
“Aha!” you’re thinking. “Ms Nomad is getting greedy and materialistic, now that she’s back in the land of Retail Therapy.”
Well you’re wrong. First of all, I was always greedy and materialistic. Secondly, it is a special situation. We’ve just changed climates in a rather dramatic way. We were a family of shorts and t-shirts and sandals. This morning, instead of it being 40 degrees Celsius (about 104 F) it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit–a tad chilly for us Saharans.
I’m not crafty, as you may already know. I don’t sew, as I may have mentioned. So, with a fine exhibition of foresight and organizational skills, we headed off to our local Goodwill two hours before costumes were needed, where I experienced something new–sticker shock. I was envisioning picking up a vest for Abel’s pirate costume for 50 cents, maybe an entire ninja outfit for $2. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Vests were $4; velvet pants (for squires/pirates/Elizabethan gentleman) were $5. Yikes!
I did find a burgundy velvet fitted jacket with many gold buttons and a kicky little back pleat. It’s the sort of thing other people, ones you see on downtown streets or in films of old Bob Dylan concerts, find at Goodwill, so I was quite happy with it. It instantly transformed Abel into a sort of gentleman-pirate. $1.50 got us an eyepatch and large gold clip-on earring. Elliot kept saying, “From the back, Abel looks like a businessman.” On what planet? I wondered to myself.
Ilsa was easy. (I know this won’t last) She wanted to be a spy. All she needed was face-paint to blacken her cheeks and some black tights, which cost, of course, $5.
Elliot was, naturally, the hardest. He’s in Jr. Hi now, so it comes with the territory. He wanted to be a knight, but the only armour we could find was made for a five-year-old. Elliot is 12. We put him in a tunic, bought him black velvet pants (they’re girls but shhh!! Don’t let on! He doesn’t realize it yet) and strapped on the sword. He was supposed to be a medieval squire, but I think several mistook him for a pirate. Oh well.
It was the kids’ first time trick-or-treating. The last time we were in a place that celebrated Halloween, the twins were 3. I think we took them next door, but that was about it, and they certainly didn’t remember it. The French have Carnival in February, where the kids get to dress up but don’t get candy.
We set out in the cool evening air, carrying Starbucks bags. At first the kids were shy and felt silly, and fought about who had to ring the door bell. That soon changed. They loved the house where the woman was dressed as the Grim Reaper and clawed at the air near their faces. Her husband slumped as a scarecrow that didn’t move even when poked until suddenly, he sat up!
They couldn’t believe all the candy. And really, they’re right to be astonished. What other day exists anywhere when, by the simple act of dressing up and knocking on strangers’ doors, do they get huge smiles, compliments, and armloads of really fun American candy? They would say Thank You and Happy Halloween and then scamper down the driveways, unable to contain their glee, pulling open their bags and comparing. They would give me this look of mischievous disbelief, as if they had really pulled one over on the neighbors and managed to trick them into this unexpected benevolence.
Tomorrow is Toussaint, All Saints’ Day, and a holiday in France. In fact, French kids are on holiday all week, a fact which is helping us get caught up here. We are still in our first week of school, but are finding we can double up some days and still get it all done and have time to visit Goodwill and daub faces with black paint and make my favorite pumpkin cookies and go for walks in the invigorating air, scuffling through the leaves.
Pictures tomorrow!

All the kids’ curriculum has arrived. (And there was much rejoicing. Yaay) It’s like a 3-ring circus dealing with them. More on this later.
But I was reminded of why I care about my kids’ education on Saturday morning. We like to do big breakfasts on Saturday, just because we can. I decided to attempt a Dutch Baby, which I realize sounds disgusting (and cannibalistic) but which is nothing more than an oven-baked pancake. Anyone know the etymology behind that? Although I‘m not sure I want to.
I had to google the recipe, and I found a very nice one. However, the instructions at the top were just a little mystifying.
It said: When baking Dutch babies, fluff up like a soufflé.
I don’t know about you, but fluffing up is a bit beyond me. I’m not as flexible as I once was. I can bloat, but that’s about it.

Do you ever think that perhaps, unbeknownst to you, the fairies did visit your child at christening (or maybe it was that time he had the flu?) and bestow some odd gift that now, watching said child develop, leaves you wondering, “Where on earth did s/he get THAT personality quirk?”
This happens to me a fair amount. This is also my take on the age-old nature/nurture debate.
For example, Elliot. The Evil Fairy gave him the Gift of Obnoxious Punctuality, knowing that he’d been born into a family of perpetually late people. If you don’t believe in fairies, I ask you, where else would he have gotten this? He hates to be late. I remember the year he was 8, which coincided with the year we lived in France. We had this charming (read drafty) 250-year-old apartment that was a 30-min walk across town from their school, and we had no car. Every morning, he’d come into the bathroom where I’d be frantically applying makeup/drinking coffee/braiding Ilsa’s hair and say, “It’s 8:11; we need to leave in 9 minutes.” “It’s 8:12; we need to leave in 8 minutes now.” And of course, inevitably, “MO-OM! We’re LATE! I told you! It’s 8:30! We’ll never make it!” And then we would all thunder down the stairs and out into the cold grey mornings, speed walking our way through the cobbled streets, hair still damp.
So what if he was late? Their teachers adored them. We were their favorite American family.
Then there’s Ilsa. She’s my girl all right; book always in hand, soaking up books, devouring them. She takes books to restaurants and in cars.
Actual Ilsa quotes: “But Mom, I need to take 3 books because I’ve almost finished this one and it’s a long car ride.” (It was literally a 5 minute car ride to a friend’s dance concert.)
And, standing in front of the door with a plate of scraps for the rabbit in one hand and a book in the other, “Can someone open the door?” Me, “Ilsa, put down the book for just a minute and open the door yourself.”
Oh sure, I gripe, but I actually LOVE this. Because it’s me. I spent my childhood nose-deep in books, my adolescence, my young adulthood–ok, shut up. I get a lot of other things done these days. Like blogging.
But why did the Crafty Fairy have to visit her? How on earth did I get a daughter who likes to sew, to knit, to crochet, to make things? I absolutely hate doing crafts. The mere thought of scrap booking makes me break out in hives. (Seriously, they’re not zits) I’ve learned to knit at least 5 different times, I add and drop stitches with wild abandon and have huge gaping holes in my handicrafts. Why on earth would someone want to do stuff like that when they could be reading?
Do you know where crafts come from? Satan. I’m not making that up. I’m going to quote an actual verse here, from Genesis. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast.” Yep. THAT serpent, the one that tempted Eve. So I feel quite justified in my feelings.
Ilsa saw a huge, multi-page ad for JoAnn’s Craft and Fabric Store in the Sunday paper, and begged and begged me to take her there. Finally I agreed. I knew it was a mistake the minute I stepped inside. I didn’t belong there. I have adjusted very well, I think, to being in stores here in America (remember in August when I was freaking out in Safeway? Now I go to Fred Meyer‘s practically every DAY it seems) but JoAnn’s took me right back to some strange and terrible phantom world. Right there in Satan’s Den were rows of buttons. There were rows of yarn. There were rows of fabric. All things could be made. All things could be cute. All things could be quilted. I started to hyperventilate, right there next to the Christmas decorations.
I stuck it out though, because I am a Good Mother and I was not about to let the Evil Fairy get the better of me.
Ilsa wants to make everyone in the family Christmas stockings, since we left ours in Mauritania. She gets these ideas. I thought, she’s old enough to actually make decent ones, not just “look what my kid did…aww” ones, let’s get her a pattern. Because she’s actually quite talented, which proves my point about it not being an inherited trait. (And Donn, while he sews buttons on better than I do, isn’t exactly quilting a wreath for the front door or anything) I kind of want a pretty stocking, kind of elegant, in burgundy velvet with gold trim. We even have a fireplace this year!
I had to go all over the store again looking for a pattern. I found the patterns, after asking someone, but there were no stocking patterns, just huge books of impossible dresses and pajamas and things. I told Ilsa we would have to leave before I curled up on the floor in the fetal position and started sucking my thumb. She was very sad. So, on the way out, I mentioned our quest to the check-out woman.
Did you know that each of those huge books of patterns has a section called crafts? There were no helpful signs telling you this; apparently the Evil Fairy just whispers that information in people’s ears. We had to go back. We had to page through books. We had to choose.
I explained to the woman a little of my perspective, trying not to sound too bitter or defensive. “I don’t belong here,” I started out. “You workers of iniquity may trap innocent girls with your candy-corn-shaped buttons and spools of gold ribbon and rick-rack but not me!” She took it quite well, and pointed out where it says, right on the pattern, what kinds of fabric you need.
Apparently, you need batting. Batting? What? Batty is more like it. I told Ilsa no way are you bringing batty into my house, missy! When you have your own house, I explained, you can fill whole rooms with it, but not now.
Actually we read this out in the rain, where I had fled to clear my poor, aching head.
We’re home safe now, with the pattern, a mini sewing kit, and several things I picked up in the $1 bin that I’m thrilled to have (a magnetic dry-erase board for the fridge, for example. You can write things on it. Or draw things. It’s fun).
And I love the girl, she can have batting if she really wants it. Whatever it may be.
But so help me, if I ever catch that Evil Fairy!
What about you? What gifts did the Evil Fairy give your kids?

I’m not a very good blogger. I post sporadically. I am terrible at memes. I got tagged for 2 great memes this summer (ok, one was impossible–10 things I like about myself–but the other was funny) and I meant to do them but didn’t. Yet. I still might.
So why on earth would I start doing Thursday 13s?
For you non-bloggers out there, Thursday 13s are a way to find something to blog about on Thursdays. You pick a topic–places you’ve camped, ways to handle your husband being out of town, reasons you should support the fired janitors–and you list 13 things about it. They’re fun to read and often really clever, and the short paragraphs are easy to read. Don’t you regular readers think I should try that?
My real-life friend, WackyMommy herself, is one of the Thursday Thirteeners, which sounds like an obscure political group from the 1700s to me. She’s coming for coffee tomorrow, to see my charming house and charming local Starbucks. She’s always pestering me to join The Thirteeners. In her honour, I’m going to try it just this once.

Was I supposed to post this morning? I’ve never been very good at time, and living in Africa only made it worse.
So without further ado,

13 Things About WackyMommy

  1. We met at Portland State University. We both worked at the student newspaper, the Vanguard. She was tall and talkative, with curly red hair, and had a certain presence. I was short and blond and a little shy at first. Yet we really hit it off.
  2. Talkative is sort of an understatement. Steamroller might be more accurate. But in a nice way, you understand.
  3. Was I supposed to get 4 points out of that first paragraph? I’m really not good at this.
  4. Soon, we figured out that we were neighbours–her apartment (in a 4-plex) was right next-but-one to my apartment building, and her sister lived right down the hall from me with a very fat cat named Chelsea, despite the fact that the building technically did not allow pets. I had a kitten myself at the time, Oscar (so named because he was Wilde). I did not at the time know the rule. By the time I found out, I had learned that the manager (who also worked at the Vanguard) had a cat himself.
  5. WM was the person to know. She knew the hairstylist who needed a model for a seminar and would give me a free cut and style worth $50 (and this was years ago!) She got us free tickets (to review things of course!) to see big names like Ray Charles, or to chocolate-themed fundraising extravaganzas.
  6. I left the apartment and worked for a time as a sort of nanny for friends; it saved me rent and allowed them, both medical personnel, to be on call at night. Then I got married. She went off to do a writing internship in NY. WM and I lost touch.
  7. Although not right away. I remember her coming to my wedding and I remember her visiting us in our first apartment. We just didn’t hang out that much.
  8. I remember her once coming over unexpectedly, choking with laughter, to show us a wire copy of a Dave Barry column. It was hysterically funny. She was working for the Oregonian, and Barry wrote a column in which he sort of mocked the paper. (True fans will have memorized this column. It was the one after the Beano controversy, dealing with men who were angry at having been circumcised as babies. It was a highlight) The O didn’t run it, but thanks to WM, we and our friends all read it.
  9. Why did we lose touch? How? I vaguely remember she and her sister sending me a pair of Baby Gap overalls after Elliot was born, but I don’t remember seeing her for years. How would she have known I was pregnant?
  10. Years later, my friend Leslie was in a writer’s group. With WM! They figured out their common connection (me!). I remember her coming over to see me and my infant twins and bringing us cake! Yum. We had coffee at my kitchen table. We stayed in touch mostly through phone and email, but not that often. I didn’t go to her wedding; I wasn’t invited. We weren’t in touch at that point. But I do remember seeing her shortly after the birth of her first child.
  11. Soon after that, we were off overseas. But ironically, we stayed in better touch than we had when we were in the same city. This isn’t as unusual as you might think.
  12. AUGH! I have to finish this by the next one!
  13. Hers was the first blog I read. Before I read her, I had no idea of what a blog even was. Oh sure I’d read about the phenomena sweeping the internet, blah blah, but I didn’t see how they worked or think I wanted one.

Phew! That wasn’t too hard. But was it interesting to anyone else? Please tell me. Also, it wasn’t really about WM was it? It was really about the history of our friendship. I will have to work on it.

Yesterday, we took advantage of a break in the rain to go out to Hood River with a friend who was visiting from LA. Hood River is a place of orchards, located along a river (guess its name!) that runs from the snowy slopes of Mount Hood, which rises up just beyond the road, looming close enough to touch. Donn didn’t come so no photos. (Don’t bug me–my camera’s been broken for months. I think sand got in its sensitive bits)
We visited 3 farms, went on a hayride and through a corn maze, and bought pounds and pounds of delicious, cheap apples and pears. Honeycrisp apples are $2.49/lb at Albertsons but 99 cents a pound when selected from huge boxes in a barn open to the crisp fall air and serving samples of spicy apple cidar, kept warm in a crockpot. Bosc pears, outside, had to be picked through and were 15 cents a pound. We sampled varieties of apples and pears found only out on these farms, family-owned with houses visible through the trees, run by children and cousins and friends through this busy season. Through it all the mountain, covered in fresh white snow, hovered in the background, only its lower slopes visible through the grey wooly clouds.
Of course today is gorgeous, sunny and clear. Today would have been the perfect day to go, instead of being filled with figuring out how to send in Elliot’s first devoir, filling out forms in French and looking up words in the dictionary, and taking the Dread Family Photo. Even though in photoshop all the heads can be switched from photo to photo, this still takes hours of “My smile was bad in that one.” “I was slouching.” “Elliot, no more farting jokes.” “No bunny ears! Be serious.” “I had my eyes closed.” “Just one more.” “Ok one more; I had my mouth open.” “I had my mouth open again!” So sadly, it was spent mostly indoors, except for a dash across the river to take Heather out for coffee for her birthday.
I have been enjoying this season: the fringed edge of a fir tree against a sunset sky; the trees glowing with a cold flame; or the leaves falling through the honey-thick sunlight like bright copper pennies. Is this fall more beautiful because of the ones I’ve left behind in the desert?

Today is Olive’s birthday. She’s 108 and considered the world’s oldest blogger. Well why not? I suppose at that point you’d have plenty to say about life.

My mother came down to visit last week to celebrate her 84th birthday with us. She’s had Parkinsons now for 7 years and has gotten quite frail, so she can’t take the train by herself anymore. Elliot and I drove up to get her. She slept in Ilsa’s room, and didn’t fall on the stairs, although I was careful to always walk behind her.
On the day of her birthday, we took her to a nearby British import store. She’s Welsh, and even after all these years in America (37, to be precise), she still misses proper tea and things like Marmite, Branston, HP, ginger marmalade, Horlicks and chocolate digestives.
So, we drove through rain and the bright fallen leaves to the store. She told each grandchild to pick out a candy.
“I like being spoiled,” said Ilsa, “and I like spoiling people. I’m going to like being a grandmother.”
“Maybe you can be a grandma in heaven,” volunteered Elliot.
“Yeah…” Ilsa wasn’t so impressed. “I don’t think I’d like to spoil people in heaven. You’d get them like this really cool candy or Lego set and they’d be like, ‘Well. Thanks. I already have one, but thanks.’”

Ok, so I haven’t really written 512 posts about my adjustments back to my home culture. Sometimes it might feel that way, but I haven’t. No really. Go check.
Yesterday, the kids and I walked down to the little local park. It’s a charming walk, obviously well thought out, lined with trees in all shades of red and yellow and rusty orange, decorative grasses, charming sculptures of a fish, a turtle, and the Lock Ness Monster (I think) that the twins play leapfrog over, and finally, the play structure. It’s not really a park, but we call it that. Nouakchott just, within the past 6 months, got play structures and they are privately owned and cost money. They’re also mostly jumpy, ball-filled flimsy structures aimed at younger children than mine, although I certainly appreciate the idea. So we still get pretty excited about slides and monkey bars and the possibilities of playing pirate ships between two vaguely fort-like structures.
There were 2 girls already there, cute girls who looked about Ilsa’s age. Ilsa, however, does not look her age, which is 10, because she is tiny–a fairy, my friend Nancy called her the other day. It sort of fits. They ignored Ilsa because they were too busy photographing themselves on a cell phone. Soon it rang, and the blond, in jeans and Abercrombie sweatshirt, began to chat in a deeply bored tone.
It was just strange. I have no profound thoughts to offer; yes I think it’s weird to see 10 year olds with cell phones, but I view it as neutral, not a negative thing, not a sign of the End Times. I’m sure the girl’s parents worry about her safety, or want her to fit in. It’s just strange, after becoming accustomed to seeing children so proud to get my kids’ faded, holey clothes, to see a family thrilled to take a broken water heater and use it as a table.
I could see in the eyes of those two girls that they did not for a minute consider Ilsa as someone that might make a suitable friend for them. She was running around playing with Abel, whipping down the slides, capturing a pirate ship, being just generally happy, and showing it. I don’t blame them–like I said, Ilsa’s short, and people usually guess her age as 7 or 8. But in many ways she is unusually mature for her age. She is thoughtful, and looks for ways to include others and not hurt people’s feelings. If I give her a treat, she’ll save part of it for her brothers. She’s an asset when traveling, helping negotiate around unfamiliar airports, passing easily into French if necessary, carrying her own load.
The twins are in many ways not typical American 10 year olds, and one way is that they are still unabashedly enthusiastic about everyday things–I suppose because those things are not everyday for them, just like a visiting Oregonian might rave about camels walking down the Nouakchott streets.
Later in the day, we walked down to Albertsons to buy hot chocolate and marshmallows for these cool October nights. Abel still opens automatic doors with a dramatic Jedi gesture. They still shout, “LOOK! MARSHMALLOWS! LOOK! CHOCOLATE CHIPS! LOOK! THEY HAVE FRUIT LOOPS AT THIS STORE!” at the tops of their very-healthy lungs, causing me to mutter, “Every store has Fruit Loops. We’re still not going to get them.”
Ilsa, her long blonde hair flying above her fitted jean jacket, and her twin, his needs-a-haircut strawberry blonde hair flopping in his face, ran about on the way home collecting the prettiest leaves. “Mom!” shouted Ilsa. “Look at this leaf! It looks as if it were painted!” It did–the edges were burgundy, the rest flame-red. They squelched through the thin grass-covered mud and came home triumphantly with their arms full. “Look at this one Dad!”
We watched “Out of Africa” the other night for the first time in years and years. The children found it painfully boring. We enjoyed it. Africa is beautiful, and the film shows it. I was struck, however, with how clean it was. That’s not the Africa I know, and I doubt it was the Africa known by Isak Dinesen. There’s a scene where the coffee crop catches on fire and burns up. Meryl Streep goes out to watch, in despair, and a small child comes up to her and she hugs him.
I know what that child was like in real life. I know how grimy his hand was, how sandy and dirty his hair. I know what the area underneath his nose looked like, this village child raised in an era and place without disposable Kleenex and taps full of clean water throughout the house. But this child looked nothing like that; he was freshly-bathed and his clothes were simple but clean.
Ramadan ended last week. I know that the children of the tent family across from my old house appeared in new clothes the first day, freshly scrubbed with braids redone and gleaming, and that every day since they have worn the same clothes until now, a week later, they are already looking dingy and worn.
That’s why these clean, beautiful girls posing with their new cell phone just struck me as odd. Which is real? Both are, obviously. How can that be? How can one world be so diverse? Shouldn’t it really be like another planet?

The good news is that Elliot has started the school year. He’s in Sixieme this year, which roughly corresponds to 6th grade.  He’s doing Ancient Greece and Rome again for History, starting Arabic, and in other ways being a typical 12-year-old.

The bad news is that his course is online, which means I don’t get to use the computer unless I get up very early in the morning.

All the people that know me in real life can go ahead and laugh heartily here at the very thought of me getting up early.

The twins haven’t started yet, but the good news is that they are officially accepted and we didn’t have to pay the extra $1200, which was rather a big relief. I haven’t been blogging about it all, but it has been a long and complicated journey, one that involved desperate faxes sent to government offices where they were promptly lost. Government offices are the same around the world, I think. Eventually, things were put right, and now we are just waiting for all their stuff to show up.

How will homeschooling go? I have no idea. We have several workbooks, in English and French, that they’ve been doing, but it’s all been a teensy bit chaotic and unorganized–two qualities that the best schools tend to downplay. So we’ll see. In the meantime, it was a gorgeous weekend and the internet is well established chez nous at last.

I’ve written several posts in my head in past few weeks, but they seem to have evaporated. If they turn up again I’ll let you know.

At last! Internet again.

We’ve settled into our new home, unpacked, met the neighbours—at least, the under-12 set. Leonard the Betta Fish is happy and producing frothy bubbles round the edge of his fishbowl/vase as proof. The twins already have scrapes and scratches to prove the efficaciousness, or not, of their garage-sale bike’s brakes; Ilsa knows the only other 2 girls on the cul-de-sac and has already had them over to play. I’m growing accustomed, in an appreciative manner, to living in a window-filled house that looks over a small forested area; a place of pine and cedar and oak and poplar, full of autumn colours and smells and the calls of birds.

Our house is a duplex on a small cul-de-sac, backing onto a “greenspace,” built on a hill which means the trees fill the windows top to bottom. Our dining room looks out onto a path for biking or hiking or rollerblading or skateboarding, which runs alongside a tiny creek and has a park at one end and an Albertsons at the other.

Unpacking this time was more of an adventure than normal. We don’t own furniture at the moment—we have a few things in storage in Mauritania, but nothing here except an old chest of drawers. Our church sent out an email to the entire congregation with a list of everything we’d need to set up a house—beds, sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, wooden spoons, pots and pans, cleaning supplies, microwave…everything! And we got almost all of it, in an amazing outpouring of generosity on behalf of these unknown givers. This made unpacking a combination of moving and Christmas, as I had no idea of what would be in each box. I got brightly-coloured spatulas and a white container-thing to keep them in, a red tea kettle, a Cuisinart blender in stainless steel and black, fun comforters for the kids, a duvet cover and oversized cushions for our bed, and so much more.

The duplicates provide almost an embarrassment of riches. We got given 5 couches plus a love seat and chair (we only kept one); I got 8 spatulas, some plastic and some metal. Many kitchen items were “gently used”, but others were brand-new, meaning that someone went out and bought me brand-new kitchen gadgets, muffin tins, and other things.

We unpacked our things from Mauritania, mostly clothes and few odds-and-ends, such as the bright blue tie-dyed tablecloth to add a touch of colour to a cold Oregon winter, or the goat-skin candle-holder painted with henna designs from Morocco. It feels wonderful to be out of suitcases at last.

So how does all this look? I’m sure you’re picturing a look best described as College Student Eclectic. There’s an element of that, of course, but the extreme generousness made it possible to pick and choose, so that we’re actually quite coordinated. Besides, once you’ve lived overseas you’re always going to be a bit eclectic.

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