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The view out my apartment window is urban and Arabic, all angles and flat roofs piled on top of each other up to the skyline, with contrasting circles of satellite dishes, in shades of yellow and grey and tan and dirty white. Beneath is a busy street full of buses, taxis, millions of mopeds, and pedestrians. The twins have gone to get bread for lunch, across this street to a tiny storefront where a friendly Berber man sells bread and water and laundry soap and deodorant and newspapers and candy bars and gas bottles for your stove and just about anything you might need on a daily basis. Like Mauritania, these little shops are everywhere, about one a block. Unlike Mauritania, the dust seems to be under control.
This is Rabat. We are staying in a 2-bedroom furnished apartment in a Moroccan neighbourhood full of apartment buildings. We arrived, safe and sound and with all our luggage, on Tuesday just before noon, after a hair-raising 75-mile ride from Casablanca in two taxis. (Donn: It is not often given to man to know how he will die, but I suspect I will die in a traffic accident if I take many of these taxis.) A man named Jack met us, gave us apartment keys, and spent his afternoon acclimating us a bit to our surroundings–showing us grocery stores, where the French school is from our apt, etc.
Whoever invented jet-lag was crazy. It’s so illogical. Say, for example, that I stayed up all night in Portland. The following afternoon, I would be exhausted, and I would fall asleep no problem. But with jet-lag, even though I’m exhausted, my body won’t sleep just because it thinks it’s 5 p.m. or whatever. Our first night, we slept great (and slept in, till 10!). Our second night, we were all up till about 4:30 a.m. That was the morning we had to get up at 7 in order to be at the French school by 8. We stayed up most of the following day, except for the bit where we let the twins stay home while we ran an errand, and they put the deadbolt on and then fell asleep under a fan, so no amount of pounding or ringing would stir them.
We’re supposed to get internet at the apartment tomorrow (Saturday). In the meantime, most of our time and stress has been focused on the getting the kids enrolled in school. Although we applied online in March and sent in their dossiers in May, there is still much more paperwork that must be done. (Meredith is smiling and nodding right now. I love the French, but there is ALWAYS more paperwork that must be done) We managed to get the twins taken care of fairly easily, but Elliot’s case is complicated by that extension we got him so he could finish his Arabic. That means he hasn’t gotten his report card yet. We’ve called and emailed France asking them to write the school here and explain, but so far haven’t gotten a response. School starts Tuesday.
We are learning what can be found here and what can’t. For example, yesterday I made spaghetti. I found tomato paste and puree, but no tinned tomatoes; I found spices piled in pyramids of reds, oranges, and deep yellows–cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, saffron, but no basil, oregano, or thyme. I did find fresh cilantro. Olives are plentiful, cheap, and marvellous. Produce is local and fresh, and they had cheese from France and even a charcuterie section.
I was shopping in a modern sort of supermarket, much bigger than anything in Nouakchott. I found L’Oreal make-up, but only in shades for Arab skin. (I’m fair-skinned) However, we haven’t explored all the possibilities yet. There are even more modern shops in this city. Apparently there are Pizza Huts and McDonalds, and near the high school there’s a TGI Friday’s. I mention this because it amazes me; Mauritania had no foreign chain stores aside from gas stations and one Senegalese chain. The kids want to go, but I tell them, “We don’t eat at McDonalds in the US; why would eat there in Morocco?” I want to eat tagines and couscous and harira soup. But I’m sure the time will come when I’ll welcome a bit of familiarity.
We spent an afternoon at a local market. It reminded me somewhat the Mauritanian markets in Sixieme and Capital, even selling many of the same goods, although it was smaller and much cleaner. Donn got a pair of pants hemmed for $2, and we bought lots of fruit. We looked at plastic sandals for the twins but didn’t buy any. We walked past the pyramid piles of spices and dried fruit, and live chickens for sale, and a man making thin thin crepes, and a cat feeding its newborn kittens in a corner, and women selling a kind of bread that looks like an English crumpet, and is delicious for breakfast with bread and jam.

Below is something I started in the airport at JFK:

En Transit

I’m typing this in New York, at JFK airport, where signs claim that there is free wi-fi but, in fact, there is no free wi-fi.
So far, so good. Last night I went to bed about 1 a.m. Our last day in Portland was pleasant. It was muggy and then started to rain, very apropos for a good-bye to this rain-washed small city nestled amongst green hills. We ran some last minute errands, watched people run to and fro between cars and shops with their faces scrunched up against the wet.
We dropped off the van that someone had loaned us, free of charge, for the entire year. The afternoon was spent saying good-bye to various people, friends who will be missed. I got to see baby Guinevere, who looks already so much like her siblings.
On the way home in Heather’s little car, we got a flat tire. We all stood by the side of Hwy 26 as cars roared by, no longer feeling quite so nostalgic about the rain as we got steadily and thoroughly soaked. I believe firmly in traditional male/female roles when it comes to changing tires on the freeway in the rain, so I watched Donn do all the work while I commiserated with the children.
We were late so we picked up Thai food for one last time, and took it back to Heather and Paul’s. We stayed up late, doing one last weigh of all the suitcases, which necessitated frantically pulling things (mostly books) out of cases and stuffing them in my carry-on.
I went to bed about 1, and couldn’t sleep. Adrenaline, worry about waking up in time, concerns for the future swirled in my mind, jerking me awake from my light dozes. (This is normal for me on the night before a major flight)
I fell into a deep sleep about 2:30, just in time for the alarm clock at 3 a.m. We made it to the airport by 4:30 no problem. Check in was easy, although long and involved, and included getting to put all those books back into checked luggage. We even came in about 3 pounds underweight, total for 10 cases. Think of all the stuff we could have brought!
So far, so good.

I do not have time to post. I only have time to stress.
This is what I have done this week:

  • Ordered new glasses and sunglasses (prescription). Yes I had all year, theoretically, to do this. No I didn’t do it until Sunday afternoon, so that there is a small possibility that they won’t be in before we leave. Sigh.
  • Still not gotten my ring sized. It is a size and a half too big. I have already lost 2 wedding rings in the 18 years we’ve been married; wouldn’t a wise woman get this one to fit? You would think.
  • Spent a fair amount of time drinking Heather’s coffee while we snatch moments to talk; being late to places as a result.
  • Gone to a going-away party for myself. Sorry you weren’t invited. It was fun though.
  • Bought new tennis-shoes for the twins
  • Decided, after much time looking, that surely we can just get them new sandals in Morocco
  • Decided, after much stressing, that I guess we can take out some books and pack school clothes instead. Who wants to send me books? (Shameless, I know)
  • Bought new t-shirts for all the children. Several. Also, one pair of shorts for Elliot, who has managed to ruin the only other 2 pairs he has with chlorine bleach. Sigh.
  • Checked temperature averages for Rabat, again. I just can’t believe it, after Nouakchott. Doesn’t it seem freakishly cool to you? Me too. Maybe all my shopping is wrong.
  • Gotten stressful emails. The people who were going to meet us and our 10 suitcases plus many, many carry-ons just wrote and told us, guess what, they can’t. Maybe we can get several taxis to take us between cities, it was suggested. There is no way we can take the train with this much luggage. But taxis are small and we are large (I mean, us with all our cases) and it is another wrinkle. At least we’re never bored.
  • Stayed up late pretty much every night, talking to Heather and Paul. We love them so much.
  • Gone to see “The Dark Knight.” It was fun. Not bad. Dark, yes. I told Elliot, who counted the days till it was released and then was disappointed when we said not now, that it is basically an R movie and he can see it when he’s 17. Which I thought was nice of me.

Our to-do list is getting shorter. It includes some fun things like going to see a new baby, delivered by my friend Maggie on Tuesday and weighing 10 pounds! That’s as big as both my twins put together, so I can’t even imagine producing that at one time. I can’t wait to meet her.
In other happy news, I got an award! Laurel at Mamasphere (who I have only just discovered and this is why you should leave me comments, people! How can I know about your blog if you don’t tell me?) kindly awarded me this award. Thank you! I can’t tell what it is; can you? But I’m very honoured, even though I have no intention at this point in my life of passing it on. Eventually, insha’allah, as they say where we’re going in just a few days now.
Please continue to tell me what you would do if you had only a couple of days left before you moved.

And here’s the award:

The rules are:

1. To accept and show the distinct image

2. Show the link to the blog from which you were given the award

3. Choose 15 blogs to give the Darts Award (Premio Dardos) yeah right….


Sunlight filters down through shades of green; pine, birch, maple, fern. I’m sitting on the couch looking out the window, next to my friend Mary, who’s feeding her baby. Round us the children swirl, demanding trips to the park, to the woods, picnics and lake visits. We’ve spent the last week traveling, last-minute visits to family and friends. We saw my brother, took my mother on picnics and to the mall to people-watch, stayed up late night after night just chatting and catching up.

We leave this country soon. It’s been very strange, returning for a year and knowing it was temporary, to this place that in spite of our travels we still call “home”. We tried not to settle in, not to put down roots, but to a certain extent it was unavoidable. And so this feels a bit of a wrench, this move. Everyone feels a variety of conflicting emotions–excitement, concern, apprehension, sadness, joy.

We live out of suitcases, knowing for certain where nothing is, only that it’s there in one of those cases. We say goodbye to forests and trees and houses and people. Right now, we’re visiting friends in Bellingham, meeting their new baby and getting reacquainted with their child. Earlier we stayed with a family of 3 kids living far out in the country, a peaceful place guarded by tall firs, passing boats on Puget Sound still audible although not visible.

I love visiting families. One boy showed us his room. “It’s not as clean as it should be,” he informed us. The twins love babies; at one house, Abel puts the baby in her little swing and reads to her earnestly in French. Elliot carries a 5-year-old across the little stream in the woods behind the house.

We’ve been without internet all week, until today. Tomorrow we head back down to Portland, stop by to see my mother one last time, before we fly across the world.

If you had one week left in America before you moved back to Africa, what would you do?

Donn and I have been spending quite a bit of time at Barnes & Noble lately. He was given a $25 gift card as a thank you for some work he did, and for some reason wouldn’t give it to me.

I have explained to him that I’m sure the nice people at the airlines won’t mind if our suitcases are overweight. Airlines are casual about these things, I tell him. But he won’t be convinced, and is really adamant about No More Books.

While we were there, he was perusing photo books he wanted and didn’t get (he’s nothing if not consistent), and music CD s that were too expensive, and I was browsing and adding titles to the mental list I keep yet always manage to forget if I‘m in a library or actually have money in a bookstore. I came across a book called My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou…An Auto-Misadventure Across the Sahara” Fascinated, I picked it up. I flipped through, found the chapter on Senegal (called “All Africans are Cheats”), went back a bit knowing the previous chapter would be on Mauritania which borders Senegal to the north, and sure enough, found it in the chapter titled “Heart of Darkness.”

This guy HATED Mauritania (in case the chapter headings weren’t clues). I can’t quote him exactly, but he went on and on about how dusty and ugly and backward Nouakchott was, and how terrible the driving was. (Actual quote: Drivers there fear neither God nor man.) Considering that this guy drove from Europe all the way down to Benin or Togo, through many African countries, and that he singled out Mauritania for traffic comments, makes me feel somewhat vindicated in my own complaints. Now do you believe me when I said you had to experience it to be able to even imagine it?

Mauritania can be hard to love, with the exception of those remarkable individuals who thrive on sandstorms and being cheated by random strangers. I have added this new book to my list of things written about Mauritania in English, mostly travel books by people who visited most of the North African and Saharan countries, all of them negative reviews. That’s one of the reasons why I want to write a book about our experiences there.

Yes, there are a lot of things to dislike; the dust, the desert, the trash, the habit the general populace has of viewing the streets as their toilet, and squatting down right in public wherever or whenever they feel the need. But there’s a lot more to the country; there are treasures lying just below the surface for those who take the time and interest to find them. The warmth and hospitality of the people; the pace of life where a friend takes precedence over anything; the determination of my students to succeed in spite of the odds stacked against them; the fascination of having a glimpse into a culture that has changed very little since the time of Abraham–all these things are there and available to discover.

Mauritania has been in the news this week. There was another coup, and the country’s first democratically-elected president was deposed in favor of another military junta. Coups seem to be a habit in Mauritania; in our 6 years there, we experienced several coup attempts and one other successful one. I have written of this here and here. Now, the “Purple Rap Candidate” is gone and there’s yet another stern-faced guy in camouflage taking his place, promising elections, promising transparency and proclaiming that this was necessary for the good of the country.
According to reports, the streets are calm. One article mentioned people joking in the airport, which made me smile as we made many of our own jokes during various coups and coup attempts. We’ve heard from friends, who report that their lives are continuing as normal under the wide and desolate desert skies.

When you lived for a while in a place, it will always hold a place in your heart if for no other reason than the place it holds in your own personal history. The patina of time adds a luminescence to even the intensely negative times, times that were fiercely experienced yet reluctantly lived through. Our memories of Mauritania hold plenty of those times; the murder of a close friend, the uncertainty that permeated our lives during the first few weeks of the Iraq war. The 3 weeks of sandstorms, triple-digit heat, intestinal parasites and camel hump dinners we endured one summer in a desolate desert village. The locust plague. The constant dishonesty and corruption we encountered. But there are many good memories too; beach barbecues, cool evenings in our gazebo, desert camping trips lit by a million distant stars. Times with friends when we made connections that transcended barriers of nationality, religion, worldview. Connections made over newborn babies, over feasts, over shared language trials.

There’s a lot more to Mauritania than frequent coups, sand-filled meals, suspicious strangers. There are friends there, and for their sake, I wish this country peace, safety and prosperity.

Question: Can one typical American family of 5 fit everything they might need to live in another country, minus the stuff they keep leaving in friend’s garages all over the world, in 10 suitcases?
Please discuss and offer suggestions.
I’ll give you a hint. Before you attempt to answer this question, find out if any of the above-mentioned family like to read. Or like Legos. Or like heavy photographic equipment. These will all make a difference.
Me, I want to be a 13 year old boy. NO! I didn’t say that! I would hate it, in most ways. I’m just a little envious of Elliot, who on Tuesday packed one suitcase, got it in under 50 pounds, and is done. It has his board games, his books, a couple cool little items. He doesn’t care if I bring any of his clothes. He will buy a new soccer ball there. Abel’s carrying the GameCube in his carry-on. Life is simple, and he doesn’t quite understand the agony and sweatiness of the grown-up part of the family.
On the other extreme are the avid readers, the Sick Ones, the ones who think they need to bring 6 different books in their new laptop case/tote bag so that they can decide what to read based on their mood at the time, although a practical person could pretty much know ahead of time what sort of mood she was likely to be in at 3 a.m. Also, the Sick One realizes that the more books in the carry-on, the more books make it to Morocco. I’m not stupid. Ilsa, on the other hand, wants to not only bring piles of notebooks with only half the pages blank, but wants to bring the notebooks she made herself out of scrap paper. Also the painting of the horse that she did at art camp, although our recycling is full of horse paintings, and this one is, in my eyes, nothing exceptional. The realities of an international move continue to elude her. And don’t even get me started on the twins’ stuffed animals!
In brighter news, we did manage to get through all those berries. I made pies, Ilsa made muffins, we ate berries on cereal and ice-cream and by the handful, and we powered through. In spite of how I look after helping to eat all those pies, I am ecstatic to report that, according to a borrowed scale, I’m down to 113 pounds. Of course that same scale also tagged me at 168 pounds, but that was earlier. If I’m to be completely transparent here, I must say that the scale never gives the same reading twice, which should make things interesting when we lug our 10 suitcases up to the airline counter to check them all in. But I like living on the edge. My case is either 22 or 67 pounds, and we’re allowed 50 so we should be okay.
We have even gotten someone who has agreed to take all our stuff–couches, TV, beds, dressers, etc. Apparently, a friend of a friend knows someone who just moved here from Australia with 10 suitcases and they want our furniture. I’m not making this up!
The furniture starts going out tomorrow, and Monday we’ll move most suitcases to my friend Heather’s, where we’ll stay for the last couple of weeks. Tuesday we clean (want to help?) and say our last goodbyes to this house and neighbourhood. It’s been fun, but I knew going in that it wasn’t going to last.

August 2008

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