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The trip to California went well. We didn’t actually lose any of our curriculum at the in-laws, which was a great relief, and we had a good time visiting with family we hadn’t seen in years.

On Thanksgiving Day, in the early afternoon (after a big breakfast), we washed all the china. My mother-in-law’s aunt was secretary to Gen. MacArthur in Japan during WWII, and she bought an entire set of Noritake china with gold rims. It’s beautiful stuff. My in-laws got it as a wedding present. They used it a few times, then packed it up–over 30 years ago! They hadn’t used it since. I suggested they follow my philosophy, which is simple. Stuff is fun, but it’s just stuff. What is the good of having something just to have it? They dug it out of storage and Donn and his dad spent a day unpacking it.
When I moved overseas, I had two choices: I could pack my china (Doulton) and leave it in my brother’s garage, where it would be “safe” unless there was a fire, flood, or earthquake, or even a theft. Or I could take it and use it. It might get broken, sure, but then, it might get broken in storage too.
What’s the good of having stuff if you never enjoy it? I took it.

Cooking a big dinner for 16 was divided between me, my mother-in-law, and my brother-in-law. It worked out perfectly; no one felt they had too much to do. Everyone was there; from grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles from all over the US, cousins and nieces and nephews, and even the newest, our 10-month-old great-niece. We set the tables, made fresh cranberry sauce and spinach salad, etc. There was an incredible variety of food. I really enjoyed it; it’s been 7 years since I ate a proper Thanksgiving meal. So I was thankful.

How was yours?

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Youtube; where those with no time to post take refuge. I love this clip. Language learning is tough; I’m reminded of that as I “help” Elliot with his Arabic four times a week, not to mention the fact that sometimes, when they call me for help with school, I still have to look up French words. Fortunately they usually understand the French themselves 🙂

Today my friend Sheri and I went to Starbucks. We decided to go to the farther Starbucks because it has more cushy chairs, and we’re all about sitting in overstuffed chairs with our feet up and talking for hours. We don’t see each other all that often. But I forgot that the further Starbucks is right next to the mall. It’s a small mall, but I don’t go anywhere near anything even remotely retail (coffee is different) on the appropriately named Black Friday. Neither does Sheri. So we drove back to the closer Starbucks, because we are in America, where it seems logical to the Powers That Be to put Starbucks upon Starbucks upon Starbucks, so that you never have to go more than 3 blocks without having access to a double shot of espresso or a froufrou faux-coffee sugary drink. I hate Starbucks marketing but I just can’t hate Starbucks–it smells so good in there, like espresso. You might be getting the idea that I like coffee. I do, a bit. (I don’t mainline it though–that is just rumor)
We had fun driving around this small town in the California desert, mocking the names of various stores. Like Smart & Final! What would this store sell? Presumably, no returns either.
Another one is called Big Lots! I can hear the marketing strategy now…Americans like things big, and they like lots of ‘em! Let’s call it Big Lots! Uh, yeah.
There’s also Fresh & Easy. I’m not even going to start.
I just want to take a moment to whine about America, and I’ll begin by telling you a little story.
When I was in college, I got a job at a Hallmark store in Tacoma Mall. I worked there summers and holidays, including Christmas break.
I hated working in a mall over Christmas. I can imagine no quicker way to squelch whatever joie d’espirit might have existed. I remember two women fighting over a place in line. “Where’s your holiday spirit?“ one shot at the other. “Well, where’s yours?“ the other shot back. I was glad neither was armed–it could have gotten really ugly. Plus, I had to wear an apron that said, “Santa’s Helper.” Once, a woman asked me if I worked there, and I said, “Would I be wearing this apron if I didn’t?” I refused to wear the hat.
The worst of all was December 26th. I begged not to have to work, but didn’t have a choice. On December 26th, all Hallmark Christmas merchandise goes on sale for 50% off. Why? Because Hallmark doesn’t want to have to store all that clutter for a whole entire year. Soulless corporation they may be, but at least they have some sense.
I was never so ashamed to be a woman as I was at 8 a.m. on those Boxing Days. There, lined up in the mall outside the store, would be hundreds of women, all women, no men. (The men were home asleep. Sorry to say it, but the men had some sense) These women would be crowding each other, pushing up against the metal barrier, clutching enormous black garbage bags. I would think, “Go home. Be with your families. Enjoy watching the kids play with their toys, make a big breakfast. Relax.” But no. With crazed eyes roaming back and forth, sizing each other up, they would wait till the metal barrier began to creak up, then they would duck under it and run to the Christmas section, elbows out, pushing the hapless out of the way.
I would hide behind the counter till the manager saw me and made me come out and ring up sales.
It seems to have only gotten worse since those long-ago days. I understand the thinking behind Black Friday. It’s the official opening of the Christmas shopping season. I get it. But what I don’t get is things like Midnight Madness, or the Come at 5 a.m. For Special Deals. It seems really sadistic on the part of the store owners, who presumably are home in bed dreaming of money. The poor workers don’t want to be there. The shoppers don’t really, deep down, want to be there. Why not just have the same sales from, for example, 10 a.m. to noon? Or, catch people off guard, from 1:45 to 2:57?
I was also mystified by all those stores now open on Thanksgiving. Ok, food stores being open for a couple of hours makes sense, but more and more stores are beginning to stay open for the holiday, in order to…you got it…start on the Christmas shopping season. Again, it doesn’t really make sense. Why not just wait a day? Who is going to go Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day?
I know you all agree with me, and yet I’m wondering…if we all agree, why does it keep getting worse? How can we stop this madness?
Me, I’m going back to Africa, but what can you do? Tell me if you’ve got any ideas.

 

 

This is the post I wrote a year ago, on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a picture taken outside our old house, a view of our neighbour’s tree (my kids were usually up in the top of it), and a tent family living in front of a new house unfortunately painted Pepto-Bismal pink.

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Well, here we are in sunny Southern California. We are east of where the fires burned so savagely last month, but driving through we saw a few traces of burned hillsides. The in-laws are in fine style; as I type this, my father-in-law is refusing to partner with one of my kids for Taboo in case he loses. He is only partly joking.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. I read Angels of a Lower Flight, about a former playboy playmate, abused as a child, who now spends her life in meeting unspeakable challenges in heartbreaking conditions in Haiti. Then I read Those Who Save Us, a novel about Germany in WWII.
I highly recommend that you read both of them, preferably this week. Neither of them are easy books, but both are excellent. This is the perfect week to immerse yourself in the very real sufferings of those around us. I would come out of the world of these books blinking, bemused, staring around me at my perfect family and nice surroundings, and being just so very glad that I’m not leaving my children starving to death in Haiti as I die of AIDS or am stabbed in the streets, or watching them gunned down in front of me by heartless Nazis, or having to make impossible choices to keep them alive.
It’s just a good reminder that, even though some people already have their Christmas lights up, the founders of this particular place where we live wanted their descendants to take some time to remember, to thank God, to be a people who are thankful for all that we enjoy. I always wondered why Thanksgiving was so late in the year–so far after harvest time. I found out last year, doing research to explain to my Mauritanian ESL class, that it was moved from September to November–I forget why, I forget when. Google it if you want. It doesn’t really matter. I’m just so glad that I get to celebrate it.
So I’m grateful, sitting here listening to my kids trying to play Taboo. Thankful that I’m not playing. Thankful that I finally got a chance to get on my computer after all these days. Thankful for my whole comfortable, crazy life.
(And I’m planning to do a more in-depth review of these books tomorrow. Possibly later)

Some people have a pathological fear of boredom.
I wouldn’t think I was one of those people. I like quiet: calm rooms with soft light; books and journals; the clicking of computer keys; extra cups of coffee; rain on the windows. In university, when they told me, “The life not contemplated is not worth living,” I believed them wholeheartedly.
Then I had 3 kids in 2 years. Then I took them all to the Sahara Desert, where on any given day you might or might not have electricity or be able to buy butter or be served goat intestines boiled without salt. So one might wonder if I don’t have some issues myself.
Given the chance to have a quiet year back in America, I leaped at it. I envisioned spending my mornings curled up on the couch staring out at those golden leaves and watching the rain fall while I wrote the Great American Travel Book.
Instead, we ended up home schooling. For those of you who have never tried it, it’s crazy and time-consuming. It takes up huge chunks of time. I sit next to Elliot and “teach” him Arabic (really we’re both learning; I speak some Hassiniya but this is classical Arabic, and we’re learning to read it too). Meanwhile, the twins, impatient with their questions, write them on paper airplanes and bombard me from the open upstairs hallway. We are barely into a semi-routine. We are behind in education musicale and arts plastiques. The twins have tests coming up in 8 subjects plus Spanish. (Yes, I’m teaching Spanish too. That’s even funnier than me teaching Arabic–at least I know a little Arabic. Before this, my only Spanish was casa, manana, and hasta la vista, baby! And I don‘t even know what that last bit means.)
So we decided to go to California for Thanksgiving, leave early so that this could be an extended visit with eager grandparents, and do school there. We can’t afford to take this time off, since we started our school year late.
Am I certifiable? I mean, what am I thinking?
My in-laws are great people, generous to a fault, welcoming, never ever taking my husband’s side over mine or making me feel less than a true daughter. But their house tends to be cluttered, in the sense that the pope tends to be Catholic. (Also, if I could ever manage to faithfully reproduce their interactions, I could make a million selling it as a screenplay. No one would believe they were for real. But that’s another story) There is no clear “workspace“ for the kids. My father-in-law watches TV from about 8 a.m. to about 9 p.m.–covering most prime school time hours. My children are very distracted by TV, in the sense that teenage boys are distracted by the presence of a supermodel.
Their curriculum is complete and extensive. Each subject has at least 2 workbooks, plus a cahier de broullion (notebook for them to do extra work in), plus a folder of the tests, plus they have to take oral exams and record their answers on audio cassette. It’s complicated, and you have do everything exactly so.
Nonetheless, we’re loading up the mini-van and taking off for sunnier climes. We’re packing roller blades and scooters for EPS (Physical Ed), swimsuits in a forlorn hope that we‘ll be able to use them (the in-laws don’t heat the pool), and, of course, stacks and stacks of French curriculum. In back-packs. With STRICT instructions NOT to spread it out all over the floor and lose bits of it under the tottering piles of old magazines and papers.
Yes, the chances of us leaving an absolutely essential workbook, say for Maths or Science De La Vie et De La Terre, underneath a chair are absolutely astronomical.
No the chances of finding said workbook left under a chair before, oh, April or May, are not good.
Yes I apparently do have a pathological fear of boredom.
And, another long car trip?
Yep. Another long car trip.
I thrive on stress.

This weekend, some friends had an international party. People were supposed to dress up, should they feel so inclined and have the clothes for it, and bring something to eat, preferably from another country, along with the recipe.
Against my better judgment, I let Donn talk me into donning a mulaffa for the first time since that wedding. I don’t mind wearing them in Mauritania, where at least I sort of blend in. But here, on a freezing Portland November night, a woman in high-heeled sandals, no stockings, wearing a thin tie-dyed head-to-toe covering tends to stand out a bit.
At least I wasn’t wearing pointy white shoes and a belt to my ankles, like Donn was.
We would have won Weirdest Costume if anyone had been giving out prizes. Mauritanian clothes are just bizarre. The dra:ah (long wide men’s robe) is meant to double as a tent, should you ever be stuck out in the desert, but it doesn’t quite work as an umbrella. Compared to us, the woman in Indian costume and the man in jeans with a pot of borscht seemed quite normal.
It was strange to once again wrap myself in a mulaffa. I did it right; I went all out. I began by coordinating my clothes for underneath. Mulaffas are often thin and fluttery, and glimpses of the underneath clothes can be seen. This particular mulaffa is light green and dark blue, with white dots tie-dyed into it, so I put on a blue skirt and a black shirt, and wore my highest black heels. I put a silver and blue bracelet on one wrist, and a purple and blue bracelet on the other. I put on tons of makeup and wrapped my mulaffa tightly round my face so my hair didn’t show, as if I were a devout woman who refused to show my hair.
Of course it fell off. Even Mauritanian women, who wear these things daily from age 13 or so and never appear in public without one on, are constantly readjusting their mulaffas. For me, with my finer hair which I wash daily, mulaffas constantly slip off. I spent the evening adjusting and readjusting and getting cross with it. I even, shameless hussy that I am, took it halfway off to redo it. Even though they are completely covered underneath, a Maure woman would NEVER dream of doing this in public. I don‘t think my American friends were shocked to see me in a t-shirt, though.
As I carried my chicken-olive tagine carefully out to the car, I wondered what the neighbours would think of us. Fortunately it gets dark by about noon these days, it seems anyway. (No we’re not in Alaska–we’re adjusting, remember?) Everyone was inside, windows lit against the darkness, as we drove away into the night. I fastened my seat belt over the layers of gauzy fabric and felt strange and bulky. We rarely wore seatbelts in Mauritania, which I know is horrible and feel free to slam me in comments should you choose.
Later, home again with squished hair and aching calves, our conversation turned naturally to our old home. (Let me qualify that Donn’s hair was not squished nor were his calves aching. That part was me)
Lately, we’ve been a bit homesick. Go ahead and splutter and spew your coffee. I wasn’t sorry to leave; I mean, I was, but at the same time, I was so excited to be here, to enjoy fall, and to experience Morocco next year. None of those emotions have changed. I’m so happy to be here! I talk to my mother on the phone several times a week; I see Heather frequently; I am, as you may have noticed, enjoying the beauty around me to the fullest. I’m so excited to have a proper Thanksgiving complete with actual turkey instead of chicken, and real cranberry sauce. I can’t wait for Christmas; this one will once again be cold and crisp, and I’ll be surrounded by people who are celebrating too. We’ll get a real tree for the first time in years!
At the exact same time, I miss Mauritania. I think of streets, of markets, of the university, and it seems inconceivable to me that I will never see them again. I imagine our garden, our little “corner of Paradise,“ is dead by now. I look at pictures of the desert, of wind-carved rock and barren shrub, of suspicious people swathed to the eyebrows looking askance at my photographer husband. I don’t want to be there, but I want to be there.
It is like I am two people. These places, Oregon and Nouakchott, are the exact opposite. That’s why I named my blog “Planet Nomad”–I meant that Mauritania was like another planet, one that celebrates nomads. So how can one person want to be in two places at once? I am totally content to be here; I snuggle under a blanket on the couch and stare out at the last few golden leaves falling in a frenzy under the lashing of the wind, I drift into Starbucks just to inhale the aroma of coffee. The kids and I joined the library and checked out armloads of books, laughing gleefully, feeling as if we were getting away with something, as we walked out to the car with our booty. They miss their friends; they even miss their school. Mauritania was home to them.
My henna is nearly gone now. There are the tiniest smudges of orange on the very tips of my fingers, and about a centimeter on my thumbs. (Toes are a different matter, but at least I wear socks most days so don’t have to deal with it) It looks a little odd, but I usually cover it with nail polish. Even when I don’t, most people don’t look all that closely at your finger nails. But my swirling, conflicted emotions remain, from that July afternoon when I walked through the dust of the marketplace with plastic bags on my feet and smudges of henna between my toes and fingertips, excited to leave but dreading it at the same time.

Aicha came early to women’s conversation group one night. This was several years ago now; I was just getting to know her, and we’d only been in Mauritania a few months at that point.
I was still getting ready for the group, so I brought out refreshments and drinks, and Aicha and I settled down together on the low matlas that lined the wall, leaning back against our blue and gold patterned cushions.
“You’re not like other mothers,” she began, tucking her mulaffa back behind one ear. “You don’t curse your children.”
I didn’t get it at first, so she went on;  “You don’t say to them, ‘May God shorten your life.’”
Shocked, I fumbled, “What on earth do you mean?”
Aicha explained that Mauritanian mothers all curse their children, even for what I would consider the minor annoyances of life. “Say you had a plate of cookies ready for guests and your child ate them,” she said, “Or you put new clothes on your child and he ran outside and got them dirty. You would say, ‘May God shorten your life.’”
This was my first introduction to Mauritanian parenting philosophy, and I was appalled. I’m not superstitious, but I do believe words have power. And no matter how angry I’ve ever been at my children, I’ve never even for a moment wanted their lives to be shorter.
I had other glimpses from my conversation group, those women who came each week to practice English and ended up becoming my closest friends and guides to the new culture.
“Which of your children is your favorite?” Hyati asked me one week.
Again, appalled. “I don’t have a favorite!” I protested. “How could I? I love them each as much as the others.”
It was their turn to be shocked! They all had favorites among my children. Aicha liked Elliot’s funny adult speeches best but Hyati preferred Abel’s charm and silky blonde hair; all the women adored Ilsa as they all hoped to have daughters someday. (I kept shushing them, afraid my kids would overhear) Not only that, they went on to tell me who the favorites were amongst themselves and their siblings. Aicha was her father’s favorite. Both of Hyati’s parents had favorites among her brothers. This was accepted as a way of life.
I opened my mouth and delivered a lecture. I didn’t want to put them down, but I think favoritism in parenting is a bad idea–especially favoritism at a level that everyone in the family knows about and openly acknowledges. I didn’t say so, but it explains a lot about certain dynamics in friendships. Moorish women tend to be very jealous and manipulative, pitting one friend against another and gossiping about everyone, and before this I’d chalked it up to the lack of power that women have in a male-dominated society. That evening’s conversation gave me a new glimpse into a life lived in someone else’s shadow–unable to be unconditionally loved by your own parents, a favored brother or sister always and forever preferred above you. It reminded me of the story of Joseph and his many-colored coat, gave me a hint of the misery of his brothers. So later when Khadi was bitter and cynical, twisting her mouth as she denounced the possibility of romance or happiness, it helped me see where she was coming from.
Yet I also thought of some wise advice I was once given, years before when we were still in Portland. I was hugely pregnant with the twins, and I had to go for non-stress tests weekly at the local hospital for about two months. I loved those times. I would lie back while the nurses attached little monitors to my extended stomach, then I’d relax in the quiet dusk of the room, the only sound the thub-thub-thub of the twins’ little heartbeats. After about half an hour, a nurse would come back and look at the readings. It was a tiny little oasis of calm and quiet, where I didn’t have to do anything but relax and ponder how much my life was about to change.
Usually the nurses would chat away while they were hooking me up. One, a mother of 4 herself, took it upon herself to talk about parenting more than one child; something I worried about. Elliot, then 20 months, and I were so close. How would we both respond to the addition of two tiny babies to the mix?
I’ll always remember something she said to me. “You will have favorites and that’s ok,” she said, “As long as that favorite changes. If it sticks, you and all the family are in trouble. But it’s normal to have times when you are closer to one child.”
Then she bustled out, leaving me to think over her words. I assumed they would come true. But they haven’t, not really.
I’ve never been good at picking favorites. Ask me my favorite colour, coffee drink, season…I’m at a loss. It depends; on my mood, on what season it is actually right now, on if you mean what colour flower or what colour t-shirt. And so I’ve found that I’ve always appreciated each child for the different things they bring to our family and to my life. I could never pick one because that would mean leaving out the others.
Aicha has two boys of her own now, and I wonder if she remembers anything of my long-ago lecture on the perils of favoritism. I know how much she adores them, but I wonder if she still opens her mouth and curses them when they annoy her.
I wonder how our friendship changed her. I know it changed me.
She’s kind of my favorite.

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This is our living room from the upstairs. Ilsa is reading, as always, and knitting, her latest craft interest. Abel has covered the Moroccan leather poofe with his precious blanket and stuffed animals.

…the fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot!

I was thinking about Halloween’s origins, about dark druidic plots on young virgin’s lives, or medieval morality plays where people dressed as skeletons and the Grim Reaper to remind watchers of their own mortality, a call for them to get right with God. Remainders of these practices, like Toussaint in France or Mexico’s Day of the Dead, still keep the focus on one’s own personal dead; those fathers and grandfathers and friends who have already passed away.
But, I thought to myself, only in America could we take this holiday and turn it into just a candy-fest. Oh sure, people dress up like skeletons and Grim Reapers nowadays too, but it’s just so frothy. And I felt a little smug about my home culture. Only in America would more people care about Britney Spear’s lip-injections or clothes budget than the fact that General Musharraf has just declared martial law in Pakistan.
It’s not that I don’t like everything to be fun, but I like to think that other people are being serious, being the adults for me, while I fritter away my time reading the comics section instead of the Business news (bo-ring!). I weighed American culture in the scales of Halloween and I found us wanting.
But then I remembered that it’s November 5,  Guy Fawkes Day. Who else but the English could take a serious threat to national security and turn it into a day of bonfires, fireworks, and children going door-to-door collecting small change.
I guess we’re not so bad after all.
Go Britney Spears! And, penny for the guy?

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