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When I was about 19 or so, I remember coming to the realization that certain character faults, areas I knew I needed to work on, were shared by my own parents. This was discouraging. A friend of mine smiled and said, “How nice! You know you’re not alone.” But he didn’t get it. This meant I couldn’t assume that I would grow out of things; there was no guarantee that I would reach my 30s or 40s and get to be the mature adult and smirk happily at all the immature teenagers, knowing that I was So Over their issues. (Um, actually, that part did happen after all, at least in many areas. Smirk! Love it!)

I was thinking about this recently, watching Abel deal with some conflict. Abel is a kind boy. When the Evil Fairies visited our children’s cribs (oh right, like your kids don’t have some element of their personalities that couldn’t have come from anywhere else), the gift they left him to make him think, “I’m not like anyone else in this family” was just a sort of cartoon goofiness that he’ll either outgrow or use to become a junior high teacher or camp counselor. No biggie.

There’s a boy at school that’s been tormenting him lately. Perhaps that is too strong a word. They started out being friends, and this boy has even had Abel over to play a couple of times. But then he started to harass Abel. It became a problem.  

That evening, the boy called to invite Abel to play. Donn and I were amazed. Then we heard Abel say, “Hang on, let me ask my parents” and turn to us. Our mouths dropped open. Because this boy is MEAN to Abel. And now he was asking us if he could go play with him?

Donn is still puzzling about this, but I think I realize what’s going on. Abel has inherited my debilitating form of conflict avoidance. In order to not have to confront this boy, he is ready to go along with anything.
It’s depressing. I can already see the long road ahead of him as he agonizes over talking to anyone about anything, even when he is in the right.

I remember one of my college roommates, who always borrowed my clothes, and left them dirty on the floor. That was weird and obnoxious. But could I talk to her about it? No. I borrowed a black t-shirt one time and she talked to me about it, told me maybe it’d be best if we didn’t borrow each others’ clothes. Grr.

I know this boy‘s mother. I‘ve spoken to her several times. But when Donn suggested we talk to her, I shrank. Confront her with her son‘s behaviour? I didn‘t want to do it at all. Guess I still haven‘t outgrown this issue.

Poor Abel. I don’t want him to be like me. I want him to be take-charge and stride-forth, while maintaining that basic kindness and consideration that comes so naturally to him. I don’t want him to get taken advantage of. I wish we could choose which parts of our make-up get passed down to our offspring. (And would we choose to pass on what they would choose to receive?)

And I hate not being able to blame those evil fairies once again!

What aspects of your character would you choose to pass on, or have you passed on?

Me: Honey, there’s a cockroach in the cupboard.

Donn: Which cupboard?

Me: Uh, the one I just emptied out? The one with the spices and tea and coffee all below it?

Donn, rummaging: I don’t see the cockroach.

Me: Guess what? I’m readjusting to Africa! Not only did I not scream, but I resisted spraying Mortein (deadly bug killer) all over our spices and utensils!

Donn: Excellent!

“Morocco is a cool country with a hot sun,” someone said to me a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure your reaction to this statement is similar to mine–WHA??

A few weeks later, I’m starting to understand. When clouds cover the sun, it is cool; I need a sweater, inside the house we shiver. But as soon as the sun comes out, it becomes instantly hot. I grope for my sunglasses.
I’m not used to living at this latitude. I can handle the Pacific NW where it‘s cool by now, the sunlight getting thinner and thinner each day. I can handle Mauritania, where it’s basically just hot all the time, and sometimes even hotter.

Morocco combines the two. At night we shiver under the thin blankets provided in this furnished apartment, even though it’s still October, still a hot month in that country just south of here. If a day is sunny, the kids can head off to school in shorts and t-shirts and know they’ll be comfortable. The hibiscus and bougainvillea shout their colours against a brilliant blue sky. But I make oatmeal in the mornings to help the kids warm up, and for lunch the other day I made this soup. They’d been caught in a downpour on the way and arrived home drenched and shivering, Elliot‘s wild curls wilder than ever. It’s a weird mix but one I’m enjoying.

Saturday the kids were invited to a Fall party at an American family’s home. The mom described to me the lengths to which she’d gone to find whole pumpkins, since here they are sold in bits, a hunk that weighs a kilo for example, wrapped and sitting next to a hunk that weighs ½ a kilo. She doesn’t speak French or Arabic, so described entire pumpkins with sign language and lots of expressive pointing. The fruit seller turned up next day with a 45-pound pumpkin for her, which necessitated lots more gesturing as she tried to communicate that she wanted small, round, pumpkins.

She found some, let the kids divide themselves (they were all junior high age, so the divide was strictly along gender lines), and go at it.

Ilsa and her 2 girl friends made a happy pumpkin.

Abel and his friends tried to make Anakin. Abel had to add several scars.

The kids played games and ate apple cakes and baked apples and tiny American candy bars. Ilsa even shared hers with me.

Halloween is coming but it’s not celebrated here; on Friday the boys are going to a birthday party and Ilsa has plans to make papier-mache masks with me. In the evening the sky fills with storks, wings pink-tipped in the fading light, graceful in flight but unwieldy as they crowd into large trees. The blend here between a northern and southern location shows up in unlikely places, but it’s always beautiful.

Dear Skype,

Congratulations on being a huge global entity. I mean, everyone everywhere skypes. Your company name has entered the language and even become a verb! You‘ve made it!

I’m just a wee bit curious about one thing though: your payment structure. I mean, it seems that really big, global, company-name-turned-verb companies have figured that out before they get so huge. Take amazon for instance. Or eBay. Or, a fine example, Etsy shops, which while they are not as big as you are, still have made it possible for a women in the Midwest to sell home-made aprons from her kitchen on the internet.

Which makes it seem odd, at least to me, that I can’t simply buy credit from you in Morocco. I could buy a surfboard from California on the internet, I could buy jewellery from Paris, I could buy books (but I won’t, Donn, relax) but I can’t buy $6 worth of credit so I can call my mother, who doesn’t have a computer.

Not to be rude or anything, but what is up with that? I mean, how hard could it be? Oh it would be hard for me to set it up from scratch, I admit, but then I couldn’t have come up with the whole skype concept on my own either. You’re the techie genius in this relationship; I think we can both agree on that.

[For the rest of you listening in here, let me explain. Skype is free for computer-to-computer calls; they are famous for this and they rock at it. They also offer cheap computer-to-phone calls. You sign up and they send you to this site called “moneybookers,” located in the UK, and boy do they take themselves seriously.
First you pick a password and get an account. No problem. You enter a little hidden number. Easy-peasy. Then they try to talk you into doing a bank transfer, but I’m smarter than that. Bank transfers are complicated, involve time and fees and the sharing of much information over their oh-so-secure little weblink. No, instead I enter all my credit card information.

Then I enter a cell phone number. There is not even an inkling of suspicion in money bookers’ minds that you won’t have a cell phone. We are all techie now, apparently. And it’s valid, but there are people who don’t have cell phones. Me for instance, although I hope to have one soon. I enter Donn’s number.

They tell me they have ALREADY SENT me an SMS with a code. But  they are being less than accurate here. The SMS does not come.

We do this over and over and over again. It is even more boring to do than to read about it. Finally, I file a formal complaint. That’s their idea. You can’t just drop them an email to be read by a real-life person. No, first they try to scare you with their formality. They promise to take it seriously. Oh good.

And after all that? Guess what? I needed to enter a US cell phone number, not the one we got here in Morocco.

Oooookay. And that is global how? And what if I don’t have a US cell phone number, which I don‘t? And couldn’t they have mentioned that earlier on? And doesn‘t that seem a teensy bit racist? We‘re not all Americans, I don‘t know if you‘ve noticed.]

So Skype, with best regards and all that, I don’t think I’ll be purchasing credit from you after all. I will continue to use your free service, I admit, because it is really fun to chat with Heather in Portland (Happy Birthday btw!) or Karen in Nouakchott, and the kids are thrilled to be able to talk with their friends, although all they seem to do is send each other emoticons and talk about you tube videos they like. But that’s all we’ll be doing together, me and you.

I’m just a little surprised, what with you being all trendy and modern and all, that you haven’t figured out how to let people purchase credit with a credit card online. I don’t know if you have ever tried to buy something off, but I recommend you try it. You might pick up some good ideas.

Good luck figuring it all out!

By the time I was 2, I had traversed the globe and been in 6 countries. My children had flown halfway across the Pacific by the time they were 6 months old. Since then, we’ve been all over, although so far not Asia or Eastern Europe. So if anyone is qualified to talk about travel, you’d think it’d be me.
Today, Tina at Antique Mommy is hosting the first edition of Terrific Travel Tips. I personally think Tina would be a really fun person to meet for coffee when you’ve got a 6 hour layover, or indeed any time, although after reading her travel tips I’m not so sure we’d be perfect traveling companions. She doesn’t check luggage! I mean, how freakishly organized can you get?
Here are some tips on travel from my point of view.
1. Arrive at the airport in plenty of time and schedule enough time between flights to get to your gate with ease. It’s just easier if you don’t have to sprint through the airport gasping for breath while lugging an infant seat complete with infant, a diaper bag, and your own purse which has 2 books stuffed in it. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything, but I do recommend wearing comfortable shoes for this part if at all possible.
Also, if you don’t allow enough time, there is a chance the airline may not seat your family together. This may be all right for you, but the people who were unwilling to move to let you sit next to your toddler may end up regretting it. Of course, they deserve it.
Note: this does not apply to you Time Freaks out there (cough*my father-in-law*cough) who think you should get to the airport 3 hours early and allow twice as much time as necessary to get there in the first place. If you are a Time Freak, you should practice deep breathing, throw your watch in the swimming pool, and perhaps seek therapy.
2.  Do not necessarily trust the word of airline personnel. They are not personally affected if you miss your next flight, and so they really don’t care. Case in point: the time one directed me to the wrong gate causing me, my husband, our 2 year old, and our 4 month old twins to miss our flight. They boarded us first on the next flight just when it was time for the twins to eat and Elliot to nap, so that everyone else on the flight could stare at us in horror as they saw us with 3 howling little ones just when they were getting on.
3. Of course it’s fine to check luggage, Tina. We always check luggage. For one, our lives are hectic enough without trying to add even more to our already oversized carry-ons. However, if you are moving internationally with 12 suitcases, I don’t recommend the now-defunct Air Afrique (emphasis on FREAK). They lost all our luggage when we moved to Mauritania in 2001; they managed to find 9 pieces of it eventually. We like to imagine Donn’s large format camera being used as a bucket in a dusty Saharan village somewhere.
4. Bring plenty of reading material. Do NOT assume that you will be able to find something to read at the airport, or that your toddler won’t sleep, or that the in-flight magazine will last you the entire trip. Pack at least 2 or 3 full books per 8 hours of travel time. Because perhaps your plane may sit on the runway for 3 hours while they deal with some trifling electrical problem, causing you to miss your connecting flight, or perhaps you will assume you can buy a New Yorker magazine at JFK airport, which is, after all, in New York, but you will turn out to be wrong. You just don’t know. Be prepared. Also, if you bring an empty water bottle, you can refill it at the fountain after you get through security, but that’s only for you frugal people out there.
5. Don’t stress. It’ll all work out. If they lose your luggage, they will probably find it, and if they don’t, life will go on. The plane won’t crash. The airline personnel will be kind. Relax. Travel is broadening, after all, and I don’t just mean the fact that if you cross even one time zone, you can totally justify second breakfasts or even just an extra double cappuccino, as eating helps you reset your body clock. Dark chocolate also helps. I think that’s true.

Number of fountain pens bought, so far, for 3 children, each of whom need one: 8
Number of t-shirts with ink stains, so far: 3
Number of trips downtown made to bookstore to buy “La Momie Bavarde”: 4
Number of times the owner has told me to come back tomorrow and she‘ll have it: 4
Number of other bookstores visited: 4
Amount of time spent waiting fruitlessly for an empty taxi downtown on Friday, just before Friday prayers and just after leaving the bookstore: 30 minutes
Time it takes to dry jeans inside, since both laundry lines broke: 3 days
Time it takes to dry towels: 3 ½ days
Number of trips to the car dealerships in the past week: 4
Number of car dealerships visited: 10
Number of cars narrowed down to: 2
Approximate number of taxis taken over last week by various family members: 25+
Number of friends the kids had over this weekend: 4
Price of glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice: usually about $1.00
Price for 100 grams of kalamata olives: about 25 cents
Price for 3/4 kilo of light brown sugar ‘cassonade’ (i.e. it won‘t pack): about $6
Number of light sockets that have broken when we were trying to replace a light bulb: 2
Price of light sockets: about $2
Number of printers bought so children could complete school assignments: 1
Number of USB cords included with printer: 0
Number of USB cords found by hunting through all 10 suitcases: 0
Different types of Moroccan tagines I have learned to make: 5
Number that Donn has enjoyed: 4 (he didn’t really like the one with red peppers and sweet potatoes)
Number that the children like: 0
Number of days Abel had the key to his locker before he lost it: 1
Amount of times I can’t get onto my own blog or any wordpress blog: approximately half
Amount of times I can’t get onto other web pages: basically never

Sorry I haven’t been around much. Got some horrible news about a tragedy in the lives of some good friends, and haven’t felt like posting. I’ll be back later.

We’re sitting in a taxi heading downtown when the taxi has to basically stop because there are so many children in the road. There are 2 schools that face each other at this particular point, and it’s obviously lunchtime as each school has opened its gates and spilled forth its inhabitants. I can tell at a glance which child goes to which school; the one on the right has white jackets worn as uniforms over regular clothes, and the one on the left pale blue.

The children are laughing and talking, hitting and chasing, flirting and kicking, as children do. They look to be mostly junior high aged kids. And yet they seem to have no idea of staying out of a busy street. Instead, they have swarmed into the road, exactly like those pictures you see of herds of sheep and bemused drivers, surrounded by white woolly backs and honking futile horns.

This particular road has a couple of speed bumps, and we are slowed behind one of those when I see the kid on roller blades swooping happily between the cars, spinning round in arabesques like a leaf twirling, falling slowly from a tree. He gets out of the way just in time as a large black sedan moves towards him, the driver obviously not taken by happy similes about leaves. He looks more like he’s considering ridding the gene pool of this particular bit of overconfidence.

Donn and the taxi driver look at each other and laugh in amazement at the audacity of these children, who have no thought of risks taken on this sunny autumn afternoon.

Later that day, Donn and I sit in a little restaurant downtown. On Mondays our children all have a short lunch break, so they take sandwiches to school and stay all day. It makes it a long day, 8 to 5, but that bothers me more than it does them. They are quite happy to stay. And we’ve been taking advantage of this by going out for lunch on those days, especially since we usually seem to be out and about anyway.

The restaurant has sidewalk seating, all taken, but we get a table by the window, where we can eye passing people with subtlety. Downtown Rabat is a fun place to people watch. There are people dressed very fashionably, yet interspersed with them are plenty in traditional dress. This doesn’t seem a barrier to friendship, as it’s not uncommon to see a covered girl strolling arm-in-arm with a girl in a mini skirt and knee-high black boots.

I’ve written before of traffic here, and how drivers don’t slow down for you but they will swerve. So when I see a woman wheeling her chair slowly into an intersection, I catch my breath a bit, wondering what will happen. I’m picturing cars piling up one after another, as they all swerve and crash. But I’m wrong. The cars slow to a stop, and she makes it safely across, wheels herself up onto the sidewalk, and then out of my line of vision.

Later again, in another taxi with my boys, I tense as I see two small children, about 7 or 8, holding hands and looking one way on the busy street but not watching to see us advancing on them. The driver honks, they turn and look, but instead of stopping, they run! I close my eyes, dreading what must surely be an inevitable thump, but the taxi swerves in time and they make it safely to the other side.

On Thursday afternoon, Elliot had only one hour for lunch. Since each taxi will only take 3 people at one time and since we don’t yet have a car, we gave the kids some money in the morning and told them to catch a taxi home. By 12:20, they still weren’t home and I was really starting to worry. They didn’t get home till 12:25, which meant Elliot had to shovel down his lunch as quickly as possible and catch a taxi in order to be back for Latin class at 1.
It was a start of what would be an unusual afternoon. We took the twins back at 2 and then Donn and I walked over to look at a house. We’d heard, via a friend’s guard, that it would be available soon. The man there said that yes, it would be available, maybe this month, maybe next. He shrugged expressively.
This didn’t frustrate us as much as you might expect, as it’s amazing what we‘ve become accustomed to over the years. We were about to leave, when he told us of another house in the area for rent. “Turn right then left, then right, then left; the road will end, turn right,” he said. “It’s either the third or fourth house down, possibly the fifth. Or the sixth.” We set off and found ourselves in what we believed to be the right street, but when we asked a man getting into his car if any of the houses on the block were for rent, he shook his head. We walked down anyway, and came to a house on which we’d noticed a for sale sign a few days earlier. It was still for sale. Maybe he’d misunderstood our desires.
Drooping a little, we trudged off homewards. We walked most of the way home, then turned to take our regular shortcut through these little alleyways that cut through an area filled with traditional Moroccan houses. We love this area; it’s charming. It’s a bit like the Oudayas, except it’s not painted blue and white, it’s right near our apartment, and it’s not a bit touristy. We passed a house where some work was being done and asked if by any chance the house was available. The workman didn’t speak French but he got the owner to come out, so we chatted with him for a few moments. Next thing we knew, he’d invited us in and was showing us around his house.
We entered a courtyard lined with traditional Moroccan tile centered around a small garden space with a fountain and tall trees, banana and palm, reaching up to the second story of the house. He took us all over, explaining how he’d built this room and added that room, telling us about his kids. The house had that organic sense of being added to as a family grows, with rooms sprouting out of rooms, several different levels, and some quirks, including an upstairs hallway with windows that looked directly down into a bathroom. Uh, yeah. That part wasn’t so charming.
Our host then invited us into his main salon, sat us down, and served us refreshments. We chatted away for about an hour, at the end of which he announced that his house was our house (I wish!) and invited us to bring the kids back some time. We exchanged phone numbers and went on our way, much cheered by this encounter with Moroccan hospitality and feeling we’d made a new friend. He also promised to keep a look-out for any rentals for us.
Since we were early to get the kids, we wandered into another neighbourhood next to their school and a guard pointed out another house for rent! We went ahead and got our hopes up, only to have them dashed the next day by a rather rude rental agent who announced that the landlord would only rent to diplomats because he was hoping to get an exorbitant price paid by someone who wouldn’t notice. He didn’t put it exactly like that, but it was close.
So we’re not actually any closer to having a house of our own to live in, but at least we’re meeting people.

In other news, Wednesday I got my hair cut. I really ought to have had it done before we left America, but I didn’t get around to it. It was longish but looked acceptable. Then we arrived back in Africa, where it tends to be hotter than Oregon, and suddenly it was just too long. But I still put off getting it cut. After all, we had only just arrived. How was I to know where would be a good place, clean, competent, used to Westerners and our hair? I spent a lot of time eyeing the two coiffeuses between our apt and the school, and when we were downtown, I would look at salons I passed.
Learning a new country involves more than just learning if you can find peanut butter or which store carries fresh milk instead of long-life milk; it also involves keeping your eyes open and trying to interpret what you see around you. I don’t know many Moroccans yet. So as we walk around, I watch other women out of the corners of my eyes, trying to figure out what is normal here, trying to discern if the woman I am eyeing is one I would want to imitate.
We Americans are individuals and we have the concept of individual style. If you dye your hair pink it may or may not mean anything beyond a simple urge you had. But this is something I learned in my years in Mauritania: Arab societies aren’t like that; they are much more tightly bound together. (Which, to just rant against Disney again for a minute, is something that bothers me so much about Aladdin. Jasmine, an Arabian princess, simply wouldn’t take matters into her own hands and ignore her father like that! Grrrr.) You communicate the kind of person you are by how you present yourself, and the rules are strict. I know the Mauritanian rules much better than Moroccan. Respectable women don’t show their calves, for example, and they wear sleeves. If you are taking a taxi alone, you should sit in the back.
Doing this sort of thing changes the way people react to you. This is something that is difficult for Americans; we demand that people accept us for who we are, and it’s a message that is drummed into us from childhood. Arabs, in general, aren’t this way. You dress a certain way because that is how it’s done. Period. If you wear your turban a certain way or grow a beard, it signifies your religious leanings. Of course styles come and go, but there is more of a rigidity, more of a sense of obligation to how one is viewed by the world. And as a guest to this culture, I want to be clued in. I don’t expect or even want to become Moroccan, but I want to be viewed as someone you would want to be friends with, rather than a wild unpredictable foreigner.
Morocco is much more flexible than Mauritania. I see women in everything from head-to-toe djellaba and hijab scarf, to tight jeans and midriff-baring tshirts, whereas I have never seen a Mauritanian woman in public in Mauritania who wasn‘t wearing a muluffa. Everyone here is wearing nice shoes though. No flip-flops or comfortable, manly sandals. Also, there seems to be a real difference depending on age. Like in America, it’s the teenagers who are wearing the skimpiest styles.
This is what I’ve noticed so far: older, respectable women wear a variety of styles but they are always modest, always dressed nicely, always have great shoes, and always have short hair or tie their hair back (although the majority cover it).
I realized my hair was too long to wear loose. I noticed I got a lot of attention when I walked down the street with blonde curls flowing down my back–much more than when I tied it back. So I tied it back, every day, but reluctantly, and I knew I wanted to get it cut.
I decided to try one of the salons I pass daily. It has a dark window and door that says, “Haute Coiffure pour Dames” in French and Arabic (presumably, that is. For all I know it could say “Live Chickens Plucked Here“). I poked my head round the door on Tuesday afternoon and met a nice woman who spoke no French, but who managed to communicate I should come back in the evening, which I did, and managed to make an appointment for the following morning.
I was right on time, but the coiffeuse wasn’t. She was 20 minutes late. I’m used to that from Mauritania. I looked around the salon. It was nice; small and clean, with diplomas from “Ecole Parisienne” on the wall. I didn’t look closer to see where this school is actually located, in Paris or perhaps right here in Rabat; still, I was impressed by the diplomas, which I suppose is the point. The posters of models with extreme hair weren’t sun faded, a good sign. The Arab-speaking woman handed me some catalogues to browse through. This was encouraging right there, because in Mauritania I would have to page through 2 year old versions of news magazines, looking for someone with hair remotely like mine.
Madame appeared eventually, full of apologies for being late. “This usually never happens,” she told me, but I really didn’t care. This is my 7th year in Africa, and if I was going to worry over people being late to appointments I’d never have made it this far.  I showed her the picture I liked, without much faith that she’d be able to reproduce it. I was just happy I’d remembered the word for layers.
So I was surprised when she did it. She had all the tools of a modern American salon (only probably not sterilized nearly as often, but if I was going to worry about that, etc etc). I have thick, heavy, curly hair and I’d selected a picture with a lot of layers in it, expecting that meant I’d get a couple. She had thinning scissors and everything. The result is shorter than I’d have liked, but it will grow.
After she cut it, she shampooed it, which I found an interesting switch to the normal order. Then, it was time for the “brossing.” I usually just sort of push my hair into shape and go; I never blow dry it or attempt a style. But it was a cool morning and I really didn‘t want to go out with wet hair, and I have a reader’s love of letting scenes develop to see what happens, so I agreed to have it styled.
It took ages. Madame would curl a bit with a brush and her assistant would blow dry it. It was very involved. The result was a sort of flip, with a straight top part and curly ends. It’s hard to describe, but it looked like it has never looked before. Also, I apparently have bangs for the first time in about 15 years! Surprise.  My family freaked a bit, and Elliot thought I looked like I was wearing a wig, but today I washed it again and it looks fine, or rather it will in a couple of days, when the curl dies down a bit. (It sproings a bit after a cut, because of the weight it’s lost, if that makes sense. Today it‘s a bit like Attack of the Curls)
I know you want pictures. I just hate pictures of myself, because the camera always adds about 10 pounds to my face. (Question: How many cameras were on you?) Couldn’t you just imagine it? I did have Donn take pics but I hate them.

Ok: Before. I’m the one with the curls

With the flip style

Attack of the CURLS!

Your opinions. Cute and sassy? Or hopelessly retro-80s, not in the good sense?

Also, I forgot to say that you can read about my last Mauritanian hair cut here.

October 2008

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