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Happy Leap Day. If it wasn’t leap year, the twins would already be 11; as it is, they are counting down the hours till the auspicious day itself. Ilsa is planning on having breakfast in bed, if you please.

Abel: “I don’t need breakfast in bed. Mom and Dad have enough to do tomorrow!”

Ilsa: “Abel, that’s sweet, but one word: Our Birthday!”

Abel: “That’s actually THREE words, really.”

I am still putting the finishing touches in place for their party (ok, in real life? The first cake is in the oven, and I’ve finished and sent out all the invitations. So perhaps not exactly finishing touches. I’ve got hours, though). This party has been stressing me out, because there’s a lot of weight riding on it, their only American birthday in memory, and likely their last until they’re university age and won’t be as excited to go to Build-a-Bear (hopefully, although given Abel’s attachment to stuffed animals I’m a little worried…) or the Lego Store or another of America’s riches.

Part of my stress comes from their friends, these American children whom I barely know. I read the news, I follow the trends, and I know that in choosing to raise my children overseas, I have placed on them a burden of being not quite like their peers. In many ways, the twins are mature for nearly-11: for example, if they meet an elderly Mauritanian man wearing filthy, baggy pants and a long robe, raised under the wide skies of the desert and still living in a tent, they can shake his hand and greet him with composure in their mangled Hassiniya; in the same way, they can kiss the cheeks of a American woman that they don’t actually remember, and chat with her. They are decent at navigating strange airports, and don’t complain much when forced to stay up all night to catch flights departing at 3:30 a.m.

On the other hand, they are young in their entertainment values and in much of their outlook on life. I see the local kids and their cell phones and iPods and working knowledge of R-rated movies, girls with manicures and lipgloss at 10. And I think of Abel, who seems to spend most of his time in character; life with him is like living in a Looney Tunes cartoon; and Ilsa, who still proclaims at least that boys are yucky and still doesn’t care if she gets her ears pierced, much less anything else. They are nowhere near bored or cynical; they only roll their eyes at us when they know we’re teasing them; they get excited about hand-me-down clothes or flowers blooming or going out to lunch.

I’m no doubt exaggerating my worries: after all, although I don’t know all the kids, at least half of the invitees are the kids of our friends. But I really don’t know what’s cool in the tween set, where it seems the majority of parties take place someplace a little more fun than my house—at a water park or a bowling alley or ice-skating rink. How do I combine all these elements into a party that will be enjoyed by all without going into debt? Complicated by the fact that I’m not doing back-to-back parties, so I’m combining boys and girls, ranging in age from 8 to 12, 15 in all (counting my 3).

I don’t really care, one way or the other, what these American kids with potentially supercilious stares think of me, but I don’t want my kids to suffer from my own cluelessness.

So I went online, of course. I asked the redoubtable Beck, who instantly shot back many good suggestions, and I also found a great site called BirthdayPartyGamesLady, who does all the work for you but charges (as she should). I borrowed and combined ideas, not wanting to plagiarize, and this is the invitation we sent out:

First, a plain brown envelope with the words TOP SECRET printed in red on the front, and on the back, the words: AGENT (name of child): FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, which made me sing that song for the next day and a half.

Inside, on plain paper, the following:

Our intelligence reports suggest that the notorious international jewel thief Diamant Rouge has infiltrated our plans for Abel and Ilsa’s 11th birthday party.

Your mission is to come to xxxx in xxx (zip code: xxxxx) to help them search their house and surrounding areas for clues leading to the arrest of this renowned criminal.

We expect you to arrive by 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 1st, and leave by 5:00.

You will have to blend in with children at a birthday party; we suggest you wear casual comfortable clothing and smile.

To accept this mission: call Agent J at HQ 503-xxx-xxxx.

So what do you think? Will this work for modern tweens? Or will they roll their eyes?

It’s too late to change anything of course—I’m up to my elbows in writing clues and I still need to make the second cake (twins compromise a lot—I don’t make them compromise on cake flavour, so I’ve made two since they turned 5). I also need to make them Welsh cakes, which is a tradition since they were born on St David’s Day, who is to the Welsh what St Patrick is to the Irish. So it’ll be a late night, and I should get back to work.

When I was about 8, I remember making a list of “signs of spring” on a drive I took with my parents. I remember this because they were highly amused at my list, which in addition to items like pussywillows and crocuses, included a dead skunk. I don’t know why I thought this was a sign of spring and they didn’t either, but it passed into family lore.

Early spring has arrived here in the NW. The weather is gorgeous–the sun is actually warm, and the wind cool and clear.  Everyone is outside as much as possible. Yesterday on my walk home from the gym, I smelled daphne’s sharp, astringent scent and saw azaleas beginning to bloom. Trees are ringed in purple and white crocuses.

Donn also took a walk yesterday. For those of you still stuck in winter, you might enjoy a little vicarious trip through Portland in late February, here.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I have ideas for blog posts, but I just don’t get them written. It’s not the weather–I’ve got a post half-written about the incredible spring weather we’ve been having lately, that I expect I’ll finish eventually. But I just can’t get motivated. There are other things going on; friends going through a crisis, a training conference we went to all weekend, my mother breaking her hip and having to have emergency hip replacement surgery and the worry about her immediate future. Maybe that’s my problem–too much real life, not enough virtual life.
I did want to write about the eclipse last week. Did you see it? It was the best one I’ve seen. The brilliance of the slivering moon, the rust hue of the shadow left behind,a rock in the sky unlit by sunlight. Of course, it reminded me of last year’s eclipse, which we watched in Mauritania. That was a decent post, as I recall, and many of you are new here with me. So here it is, in case you missed it the first time around or feel inclined to revisit the past.

I woke up this morning to the gentle sound of water. “Maybe the flood came!” I announced happily to Donn.

For weeks now, we’ve been hearing rumours from locals of a big flood headed our way. Too much sand has been taken from the dunes near the port, so the government recently announced that no more could be taken. But the Equinox marked an unusually high tide, and soon everyone was sure that without those dunes, nothing would stop the water from inundating Nouakchott.

Due to these rumours, many people left town and moved temporarily to inland villages, on the other side of the next big range of dunes. Boutilimit, a town about 100 km from here, was considered far enough to be safe. People asked me if I was worried. “Well, no,” I had to reply. I’m not trying to be arrogant here, but between all the wild rumours I hear, the conspiracy theories (Starbucks gives all its profits to support Israeli offenses! Kellogg’s had some children’s cereal that was toxic so they sent it to the Arab world so be careful!) and the urban myths, I’m not too credulous these days.

It didn’t flood after all, although oddly enough, this morning it rained a teensy-tiny little bit, hardly enough to qualify as a sprinkle. This simply never happens in March, but it’s very welcome. After those weeks of early heat, we’re enjoying some wintry weather here—and I do mean enjoying! We love it when it gets cold enough to wear long-sleeved t-shirts ALL DAY LONG and need a blanket at night (of course the windows are still open—this isn’t exactly the Artic. The desert can get really cold, but we’re on the coast) Also, it didn’t flood but we did get enough city water to actually fill our little reservoir, which means I can get caught up on the laundry and take proper showers again. Life is good.

On March 3rd, we experienced a lunar eclipse. We took the kids out on the roof to watch it. At the moment when the eclipse was total, all around the city the mosques began chanting, reassuring their listeners that all was well and all would be well.


In spite of satellite dishes that make thousands of miles seem like the world next door, or the fact that the eggs I buy here were laid by chickens in Brazil, globalization and all its attendant joys and horrors has not erased what might be the most fundamental difference of all—how people interpret the world around them.

Friday, I had my teeth cleaned and my body fat measured. No cavities; significant weight loss needed, in case you were curious.
I was thinking about how much maintenance is required to be an average American female, middle-aged I guess (hate that term). Why is that? We must hide our grey, sweat regularly in a forced “work-out” that wouldn’t otherwise be part of everyday life, visit doctor and dentist semi-regularly, watch our salt and sugar intake, avoid too much processed food. I’m all about these things (except salt–salt is wonderful and good, especially when included with processed foods like dill pickles and salt and vinegar flavoured Kettle chips and Moroccan olives), but I do occasionally wonder how fun it might be just let it all go. How bad would I look? I’m not really even tempted to find out.
Coincidentally, ABC News recently did a story about Mauritanian views of beauty. Go read it and watch the video: I’ll wait here. Don’t forget to come back!

The thing is, Mauritanian women care as much about beauty as western women; they just go about it differently. (I’ve posted on this topic before: here and here if you are interested) As is evidenced in the video, they go to great lengths–even drinking fat until they vomit–to get those jiggly, fleshy upper arms so seductive to a nomadic man, who knows there’s room on his camel for such a prize. (Not that he’ll really SEE those arms until they’re married, but that’s a different post)
I got a free 7-day trial at 24 Hour Fitness last week at the urging of a friend, and went over to check them out. I like working out; love the adrenaline rush and the hours spent searching the mirror for those infinitesimal signs of progress. I was prepared for the hard sell; my friend had gone the day before, and been subjected to a very rude body-salesman. He asked her what her purpose in coming to the gym was, and when she said fitness, he looked her up and down and said, “You don’t want to lose weight?” This is not only unforgivably rude, but also ridiculous, as she is not at all fat.
So I was prepared. Forewarned is forearmed. I was all ready to riposte, “You must be a lot of fun at parties!” if they implied so bluntly what is true: that I should lose more than a few pounds.
Of course I got a different guy, one that was really nice and not really as pressuring. He did manage to talk me into joining, but only because of this incredible deal blah blah no initiation month to month blah blah etc.
And so a few days later I had my body fat measured, which in so many ways is worse than going to the dr. At least, the dr wears a white coat and everything is conducted in a hushed, professional manner, rather than in an atmosphere with music blaring in the background and thin women with weighty eyelashes sashaying by in the background.
After all my humiliating statistics were recorded and we both agreed by nodding silently how grim they were, I went to work out. And since I have never before actually BELONGED to an American gym, only ever gone for free trial months or the many many free visits when Heather worked for years at the Willamette Athletic Club, I’m enjoying it. But as I climb onto the elliptical machine (is that right? I really have no idea what things are called), or alter the weights down to some more sensible number, I can’t help flashing back to my last experience with exercise–at the Power Gym, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
In Mauritania, there are women’s hours and men’s hours. Women show up swathed head to toe in colourful veils called mulaffas, and even the Western women are generally well-covered when they arrive at the gym. Stephanie had to post signs explaining that women were not allowed to work out in their street clothes–that the long gauzy cloths could catch on bits of machinery–and she had to reassure and reassure that no man would dare darken even the door during women’s hours. If the male guard had a question for Stephanie, he would send his wife, who also used the gym’s fridge, which sold cold water (scorned by locals, who know that drinking cold water when you’re hot ensures you’ll get a cold yourself) to store her meat for the evening’s meal.
It’s a little different at 24 Hour Fitness, where I can go whenever I like, a fact I appreciate, as women’s hours always seemed to be at inconvenient times. No longer am I startlingly thin in comparison to my fellow sufferers; no longer am I the only one red-faced and puffing on the exercise bikes. I used to work really hard at the gym in Nouakchott and get my heart rate up while jamming out to U2 on my headphones; afterwards, the girl at the front desk told Stephanie that she was worried about me and what if I really hurt myself? Now, no one is worried, as long as I carry my own towel (mine came free in a cereal box) to wipe up my sweat.
24 Hour Fitness is, to put it mildly, bigger and better stocked than Power Gym. You could fit 3 or 4 Power Gyms into it. The temperature is controlled. One entire wall is windows (looking out on a parking lot where other gym members arrive and depart), a change from a place where we had to keep the curtains drawn and windows closed even upstairs, in case passing men caught a glimpse of glories unknown and squashed into a too-small pair of sweatpants. And I like this 24 Hour Fitness where, in addition to young, toned and stylish people, there are plenty who look like me–who are working hard just to maintain.

Today’s post was written by Ilsa, age 10 and 11.5/12ths.

This is what I miss about Mauritania:
  • The good old Sahara heat!
  • Not wearing seat belts.
  • Going to the beach every week, and the water actually being warm.
  • My friends! (Hi Bethany and Haley and Aidan and Esther and Matthew and Erik, etc)
  • My school–I miss my nice teacher from last year especially
  • Throwing sand-balls at the boys
  • Weston, our dog

What I don’t miss about Mauritania:

  • I do not miss the jellyfish at the beach
  • I don’t miss the boys throwing jellyfish at me while I’m trying to eat my sandwich. Also dead fish and fish bones. We took revenge, though.

What I like about being in America this year:

  • There’s delicious candy
  • Halloween.
  • Christmas presents that don’t break the second you touch them
  • my friends here
  • there are better puppies and kittens here; cuter and different kinds
  • good old air-conditioning!
  • And now, heat.
  • Fireplaces!
  • Hot chocolate w/o skin!

Here is a still life I drew with my pastels. I used a creamer and sugar from the 60s with a really fun shape, and I added fruit and drew a frame with patterns copied off the china. My dad scanned it:


Edited to add: In wordpress, this shows with a complete frame. I can’t figure out why the blog itself shows it cut off. *frustrated sigh* 

Since my last post mentioned my amazing skills in elbow use, today I am going to tell you about when I first learned to use them. It wasn’t easy, but as I mentioned before, it definitely comes in handy.

I wrote the following in December 2001, 8 months after we moved to Mauritania. It was my first experience paying the phone bill…


Our phone bill came late to the post office box this month, and we only had two days to pay it. Here, bills are all paid in person. We tend to pay our bills as soon as we get them regardless of when they are due, as the number of people also paying bills at the same time will be less.

Donn usually pays our bills, but today he came to get me. “The line is so long today; it would have taken me at least half an hour,” he says. “Can you do it? Women don’t have to wait in line.”

When we arrive, the lobby is packed. Various semi-formed lines straggle throughout the area, and degenerate into tightly-packed groups of people. We spot the women’s line; it stretches across the room. I join what appears to be the end, behind two women who are sitting on the floor. I greet them and they respond with a smile and invite me to join them on the floor, which may have been cleaned in the last month, or may have not. I decline.

I find out that if there are only men, women don’t have to wait in line, but since there are so many women, we have formed our own line. I stand patiently, leaning against a pillar. After 10 minutes, only one woman has finished her transaction and left the front of the line. This isn’t good; there are 15 women in front of me!

I watch two women come in; one in a purple muluffa and the other in shiny black. The black muluffa joins me at the end of the line, and the purple bravely goes to the front.

I remember that I read, in books on crossing cultures, how frustrating standing in these liquid lines can be for Westerners. The books urged me to use this time to get to know people and practice my language. Ok, I think. I rack my brains for words about waiting, about the weather. She responds briefly but prefers to be alone with her thoughts, which seem to amuse her. After about half an hour, the purple one gestures for her friend to join her, next to the front of the line. Off she goes. An argument ensues between the shiny black muluffa and a blue boubou who has been standing in line. They gesture towards me; the blue is obviously telling the black where she belongs. But the black, with the louder voice, triumphantly asserts that her friend in purple was saving her place! She is merely joining her friend. The blue is defeated. Of course, the purple one cut too, but it doesn’t seem my place to join in, especially as my Hassiniya isn’t strong enough for an argument. Now I understand a little of her secret thoughts.

I see other women cut through our line to join another, shorter line. I want to do that, too, but I am unsure. Perhaps that is not the correct line, and I would lose my place. Also, why would all these women wait hours if they didn’t need to? I attempt to ask the woman in front of me, who has finally stood up for a while. Perhaps she sensed my frustration, as she prefers to be comfortable than to keep the line formed and impenetrable to people who want to cut in. She is in a brown muluffa, and reminds me of one of my favorite English professors from Portland State.

She tells me in detail about the shorter line, which I don’t follow, but ends with “Mou zayna.” I know that; it means “not good.” Ok. I cling to that. The other line is not good, or maybe those other women are not good. I dunno. I stay where I am.

Now the woman behind me is young and nicely dressed; probably from the south of the country although she is not dressed as a Pulaar. She speaks French and has an attractive, intelligent face. She is also friendly. She explains the other line to me; it is for people who need to pick up their bills, not people who have come to pay them. Oh.

By now I have been standing here an hour, and have moved only about a meter’s-length forward. Donn appears in the back of the room with all 3 kids; he’s just picked them up from school. We wave at each other.
I am close enough now to see part of the reason this line moves so millimetrically. The long men’s line joins ours at the window. As near as I can see, there is no rhyme or reason to this, and there is another men’s line converging in from the other side. 3 lines to one window! No wonder it is taking so long.

There are only 6 women in front of me now, but the brown muluffa urges an orange muluffa to come in front of her. My patience is beginning to desert me. “Alesh?” I demand. (Why?) She tries to tell me that the other woman was there first, but I know she wasn’t. Maybe she left for an hour and a half and came back. There’s nothing I can do, so I try to at least appear mollified.

Now we are up to where the men’s line begins to converge. It is getting harder and harder for me to remember my strict upbringing which taught me to be kind, considerate and respectful to others. I am especially annoyed as I realize that the men’s line has been moving faster than the women’s! Brown Muluffa in front of me lets another woman, in pink, cut in. I control my fury with an effort. This is obviously the social event of her day, but I have many things I need to get done, and the kids are sitting outside and haven’t had lunch.

The men in the third line begin to talk to me, and I realize another reason for our glacial speed. They are trying to hand me their bills, folded around a stack of ougiyas (Mauritanian money), so that I can pay for them and they won’t have to stand in line so long! Oh; so everyone is paying for all their friends and complete strangers. I am in no mood for this! “No! Hanin!” (wait) I hiss at them through clenched teeth!

I am into a completely new personality now; I haven’t felt this way since grade school. I am entering the rugby scrum stage of the line, with people shoving against me from every side, and I put my elbows out. Good thing I’m not claustrophobic, because this is an entirely new experience for me. It is only by maintaining a grip on my last vestiges of self-control that I manage to not start “accidentally” trampling toes. Showing a skill in elbow use I didn’t realize I possessed, I do a fine job of keeping myself in front of a man with a red head-dress, but I am defeated by Brown Muluffa. She is just not in a hurry! She is unconcernedly paging through her ougiyas, taking another bill to be paid from a man standing nearby, letting two men go to the window instead of one, letting pink muluffa collect friend’s bills from the end of the line.

I remember my decision to get to know people and practice language. “Anna hone lowi,” I say firmly to the young man in line next to me. He looks at me in surprise. I have no idea if I am grammatically correct, but these words mean “I (am) here first.” I repeat it again, if possible even more firmly. At the back of my mind, I wonder how I am coming across. Am I possibly looking a little desperate? I can feel that my eyes have narrowed and my expression is grim.

It is Brown Muluffa’s turn but she doesn’t seem to care. I have lost it. I take her firmly by the shoulders and maneuver her in front of the window. Pink muluffa is shuffled off to the side. I keep the young man in place with my eyes, daring him to take one step forward. He probably thinks this American has lost her mind. As soon as Brown Muluffa reluctantly finishes and moves off to the side, I’m there, planted firmly in front of the window. I will not be moved!

The man behind the glass glances up and announces that it is supposed to be a man next, since he just helped a woman. But I’m not moving. I stare at him innocently out of my blue eyes, framed by my white skin and fair hair; surely this foreign woman can’t speak Hassiniya! Anyway there is no way I am moving now. He glances to the side and the young man, who probably only wants me out of there before I spontaneously explode or call the UN or something, nods. I hand him my bill and he takes it. I pay. I get change. I stuff it in my pocket, forget to say goodbye or thank you, and stumble over the crowds of people surging behind me. I feel a little shaky. It has taken over 2 hours to pay this bill, during which I have completely lost my mind and my self-respect.

Friday night, we went to a concert, because we are cool like that. (No really. The opening act guy looked RIGHT at my half of the room and said we were cool. Even though I didn’t know what a “merc table” was. But, and this is the important thing, I figured it out) (Merchandise table)

We went to see Rodrigo y Gabriela (with Bonus DVD), and they are amazing. You need to buy their album, if you haven’t already. They play acoustic guitars that are plugged in (if you have questions, call our friend Mark, who was there, and he can explain it), but that doesn’t really begin to describe it. Their style is called “Flamenco nuevo” which, if you are like me means nothing to you. Their fingers fly over the guitar strings; their hands beat out intricate rhythms on the guitar bodies; their music is fantastic. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before, so I can’t really compare it to anything.
We heard them on the radio, and liked them so much we looked them up and bought the CD. It comes with a little concert DVD, so we already had an idea of how incredibly fast their fingers are, but live was so much better.

It was my first American concert in a very long time, with the exception of some summer outdoor concerts that were very casual. We arrived before the doors opened and stood in a very orderly line. There were no seats inside, which was new, (even in Africa, there was seating) so we had to stand. We were early enough that we were in the second line of people. However, I am somewhat height challenged, so even with that I was worried about being able to see.

The opening act was okay, not great, but he gave me time to take stock of the people around me. Directly in front of me, a frisky lesbian couple rubbed each other’s necks and backs, constantly, urgently. Next to them, a 60ish hippy couple, he with long grey ponytail and she in jeans, Felt the music very Deeply, in their Souls. They grooved in time, together, to the beat; they were Profoundly Moved and shook their heads Intently.

After the opening act, nothing happened for a long time. My feet began to ache; I felt the mermaid in the fairy tale who gets legs but with every step it feels like she’s walking on knives. I subtly tried to shake some feeling back into them and discovered a little ledge, about three inches high, attached to the barrier in front. I was able to gradually insinuate myself onto this ledge, along with the frisky couple, the hippy couple, and others who were squeezed alongside them. This helped a lot, especially as I was a bit down from the frisky couple, who had the habit of putting their noses together while I glared at the backs of their heads which completely cut off my view. (I just didn’t get it. Am I not romantic? This music was not slow mushy music, nor was it Deeply Felt music. It was fun, dance music)
Finally, what seemed like hours later, Rodrigo y Gabriela took the stage. They played a great concert. Everybody got into it. I had managed a spot on the far side of the frisky couple, where I could basically see (except when they moved, which they did a lot).

Suddenly, a woman who will henceforth be known as Drunk Kitty Cat arrived. I call her this because a. she was drunk and b. she was wearing black sequinned cat ears in her long blonde hair. I don’t know why. Possibly she doesn’t either.

She had already pushed her way past Mark and Christie and landed right near me. Now, here is the thing. I could have moved over. There was a tiny bit of room. But that would have put me right back where I couldn’t see again. And I saw no reason why I should move. So I used this little trick I learned from all those hours at Mauritel, standing in line to pay my bill. I put my elbow out, just the tiniest bit, so that it dug into her ribs.
“I’m here!” she announced, swaying.

“I’m here too,” I told her.

She swayed into me. I stood quietly with that elbow out, just a little bit. After a few minutes, she disappeared back from whence she came.

“Amateur,” I thought. Any Mauritanian worth his or her salt could have easily gotten me to move. That’s the thing these days–I see people trying things, trying to stop me from cutting in a long line of cars, for example, or getting drunk at a concert and trying to squeeze me out of my rightful place, and I almost feel sorry for them. I have lived in Africa. I know how to use my elbows, how to drive on a sidewalk, and many other useful skills. I didn’t realize how useful my new and improved personality would be here in the States, but it just goes to show we never know what skills we’ll end up needing in life.

Here are Rodrigo y Gabriela in concert. Pay attention to the blurriness which is her hand. Isn’t she amazing?

Today one of my close friends is getting married. She’s half-Sudanese, half-Moroccan, and her wedding reflects both sides of her heritage. I’m happy for her, but I’m sad for me–I can’t believe this is happening when I’m not there to see it. I can’t believe she won’t be in Morocco next year when we arrive, helping me learn a new culture and introducing me to her extended family.
Sumaia is beautiful. She has almond-shaped dark eyes and an oval face framed, always, by a hijab, the Muslim head scarf. Her eyes are sensitive and kind; she is often smiling. She dresses attractively yet modestly, in teals and turquoises and navy blue; tailored tunics that come down to her hips and long pants or skirts, all coordinated with shoes and handbag and scarf. She and her sister are thoughtful, articulate and intelligent, serious yet always ready to chat and laugh. They are motivated and hard working. They are the sort of girls you’d be proud to call your friends or your daughters.
I first got to know them when they joined my conversation group. That first group of women, who came to my house every Thursday evening for nearly 3 years, gave me my best and deepest relationships in my new country. (Subsequent groups gave me other friends, but not like these)

Now Michelle calls me from Nouakchott at 8 in the morning my time, when I am emptying the dryer looking for clean underwear for Ilsa. She tells me about the contract signing last night; how Sumaia had her hair straightened and a manicure done after the henna patterns had set (Moroccan hennas don’t include the nails like Mauritanian ones do). She appeared to her all-female guests first in a traditional Moroccan dress; then in a traditional Sudanese one.
Michelle tells me that our Palestinian friends were there, along with many other Arab women. Knowing this, I can picture the party. Everyone arrives swathed head to toe in fabric, then behind closed doors strips down to tiny t-shirts and sparkling high heels. Arab pop music pumps through the house, and the women dance with each other, gyrating to the rhythmic beat, with twirling raised arms and seductive hips. Closed and shuttered windows and doors guarantee stifling temperatures. Around the edges sit the older women, still fully covered, chatting and drinking tea and watching. I’ve heard that they eye the girls for suitable brides for their sons. These all-female parties are strange to the Western outsider. The young women are beautiful, but all this beauty can be revealed only to other women or to their husbands, brothers, or fathers–no other male can catch even a glimpse of it. So they express their pent-up sensuality in all-female groups, although it is not intended for any other female.
After the dancing, the women ate cakes and pastries, drank sweet mint tea, and talked excitedly. Around midnight, they began to leave the bride’s house.

The contract has been signed, and tomorrow is the wedding. I can’t describe it for you; I can’t picture it, and our international phone connection was so bad that Michelle and I got cut off multiple times and finally had to give up. Moroccan weddings are totally different than Mauritanian ones. The bride wears a white wedding dress, then changes into a Moroccan dress, then changes again–as many as 9 times. The groom is there too, and friends carry the two around in special chairs. (I’ve seen these chairs in the marketplaces; elaborate silver creations worthy of Disney to my mind, yet I don’t doubt that in context they seem lovely and ornate) I don’t know how much of this they will pull off in Mauritania, where perhaps the Moroccan embassy would have a chair they could borrow but perhaps not, and where Sumaia didn’t want to do all 9 changes of clothes anyway.
Then, the groom will leave for Sudan, and the bride will continue to live in her parents’ house. This is not normal, but it is part of their specific marriage contract–they are legally married but will not touch for at least several months. Sumaia has spent the past 3 years living in Morocco, at first with her mother’s family and then in student housing, working on her Masters’ degree. She has not yet finished and defended her thesis, and her parents won’t allow her to be fully married until that is finished. When it is, she’ll join her husband in Sudan.
Her sister, also my good friend, sent me an email announcing the good news. I already knew–Sumaia and I often instant-message across the miles, and she and I chatted for a couple of hours last week. I’ve followed the ups and downs of this thoroughly-modern Arab couple, who met and developed a friendship first and then approached her father, who has the final say in whether or not a marriage will exist.
Today, it is raining here in Portland. Drops slide down the windowpane; during the short sunbreaks, squirrels flash their tails up and down the branches in the tiny woods out back, and birds fly in and out of our little barbecue, dipping tiny beaks into some collected rainwater. We’ve had the gas-fire on all day, trying to dry out Abel’s only pair of shoes, which he soaked in the small creek out back 3 days ago. (He’s been wearing sandals with socks; a definite fashion risk) I’m a world away from that hot room in a desert city, where today my friends are celebrating the start of their lives together, even though those lives won’t start quite yet.
I wish for them a long and happy marriage; children that adore them; a determination and love that will carry them through the rough times and difficult spots that are inevitable. But I also wish that their travels and ours will coincide often; that I will get to spend extended time once again with this young wife who is so dear to me.

In my new persona as a business entrepreneur (please pronounce that with the proper awe), I’ve got a HAWT idea to share with you.
It came to me while I was listening to “The Splendid Table” on NPR last night. Host Lynne Kasper was interviewing food author Deborah Krasner on the idea of culinary vacations, where you go to a country and take classes and cook with local chefs (this was big with her). She said, “Doing this provides you a real entree into the culture,” with no sense of irony that I could detect, although I was cracking up. Entrée? Cooking? Get it? Ha.
They should hire me to do these shows.
Anyway, I immediately had a brilliant idea about how to modify this to the Mauritanian market. Food tourism meets a nomadic culture. Gain an entrée into this romantic desert culture; see the symbiotic relationship between oasis and table floor; follow the process of an organic free-range goat from street to pot to delicious meal; see how these people honour the animal by using ALL of it, instead of wasting parts of it.
How’s this for a basic itinerary?
Day One:
Tour the local markets and hone your bargaining skills; learn the derogatory words for “tourist” and “white foreigner.” Learn how to deal graciously with getting what you think is a good price, only to have your Mauritanian guide collapse in laughter, tears streaming down his face, as you learn you have set a new record for getting cheated.
In the evening, feed your new purchase some fruit. Warm to the way it eats from your hand, nuzzles it even.
Day Two:
Learn the basics of slaughter the Islamic way. Learn how to eat sitting on the floor and using only your right hand. Learn that rancid goat butter actually adds a pungent flavour to the couscous.
Day Three:
Tea ceremony time! Today you get to try making it, and see how steadily you can manage to pour the tea back and forth, back and forth, in the little glasses, until you get some real foam.
Deborah Krasner was going on and on about passionate local chefs. We’ve got them, too. In fact, our special treat, the thing that really sets us apart from all those poncy culinary vacations in Italy and Japan and France, is this: actual nomads who will milk a camel for you! Yes, in order to truly experience desert hospitality you must drink fresh, warm camel’s milk from a large wooden bowl. The experience will not be authentic if there are not a few camel’s hairs floating in it.
I haven’t worked out all the details yet (Debbie, email me, K?) but I am pretty sure this is going to be immensely popular with the Organic crowd. You can’t get much more back-to-nature than life lived in the desert, on the land as it were.
Go ahead and send me your money right now to reserve your spot. I’ll let you know dates and costs when I have it all figured out.

We’re all still here. Still alive, still breathing. No one got hurt.
Just wanted to let you know that before I started telling you about my morning.
For background, I’ll tell you that the coffee maker (donated by nameless someone) died shortly before Christmas. But my friend Heather came through and loaned us her decrepit espresso maker, the one she uses only for iced mochas in the summertime. (She doesn’t share my view that coffee and chocolate should be NEXT to each other, not sharing each other’s space)
I love Heather, and I love espresso, but I don’t love her espresso machine. It is funky. It spits, it howls, it produces much steam, and it makes bitter coffee. But, in spite of how it sounds, I’m not complaining. After all, I’m still getting my daily shot of caffeine. (Ok twice daily) (Ok, it depends on the day)
This morning, Donn left early to go out for breakfast with a friend, and I couldn’t get the top off the machine to add the water. I taunted Elliot, who’s been doing push-ups, to try to motivate him to be able to open it, but to no avail. Why won’t taunting, shame and derision work with my kids?
No coffee. I took a deep breath and considered my options. I called Donn to ask him to bring me some home with him, and he said he could but had to run a few errands first.
So Ilsa and I started on her music exam, the part we didn’t finish yesterday. It involved playing, over and over and over again, a French folk song (J’entends le loup) while she shook her little Macarena-thingy and never, ever, contrary to the law of averages, got on beat.
It was only about 9 or so and I hadn’t had any coffee. And she kept shaking it, off beat, in my ears, and that stupid woman on the CD kept going on, in her sprightly way, about the horse who ate all the hay and then repented of it in the winter. Sigh.
And yet we’re all still here.
Even though Donn forgot to bring me coffee (which would have been Starbucks, even though we’re boycotting until they assuage my anger by giving me free coffee; no response yet). He did make me some when he arrived and with his superior man-strength (don’t choke, Steph!), was able to open the espresso machine.
First he made me decaf, by mistake. Then, he laughed at my despair. Then he made me a triple-strength Americano in an enormous mug.
Ilsa is fine, although still off-beat.

February 2008

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