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I’m feeling a bit Disney here today, although I’ve never been overly fond of their goofy, dorky, bumbling dwarves.

It all started at 3 a.m., when Donn called to let me know he was 15 minutes out and could I possibly start a pot a coffee?

He called me again 5 minutes later, knowing that I had lain down and gone right back to sleep.

By 3:15, they had arrived. I heard the screech of the brakes as the truck pulled up outside our garage. Yawning desperately, I stumbled down the stairs. The drivers were adamant that they be permitted to leave again immediately, so we had no choice; we had to get our stuff out.

The next 2 hours were a blur of carrying boxes up and down stairs, taking mugs of sweet, milky coffee out to the two drivers and our local street guardian, who came to help, staggering under heavy loads, getting more and more tired. We were finished 2 hours later, and no one on our residential street had shouted as us. I doubt Ismail and his family really slept through it, but they were very gracious this morning and claimed they did.

Donn and I finally went to bed about 6 and got up at 10, so we haven’t been our sparkly best throughout the day. We have made progress though. The house has resounded with cries of, “Oh look!” “Here’s the (fill in blank)!!” “Yaay!” etc. It’s still an absolute wreck.

Suddenly our house isn’t so echo-y.  What it is, is dusty. Donn seems to have brought a lot of Mauritania with him. Boxes left in a garage anywhere for 2 years will be dusty, but Nouakchott has its own special kind of dust. The motto could be: Dust Is Us. Mauritanian dust permeates even the smallest crevice and crack, where it grows, it shawls, it expands. It is sand of the desert beaten to a fine powder by the incessant winds. You are thinking of crevices in a house, and it’s true that they fill up with this sand, but I am talking about even smaller crevices—those in the fabric of your suitcase, for example, or between the pages of your books. The fact that these things were transported on an open truck through the desert only added to it. We stored our rugs, and one came unrolled on the floor of our bedroom here. We spread it out and rolled it back up, and then I swept up a small sand-dune from the tile floor.

But don’t think I’m complaining. I’m Happy. It’s been a fun day. I love opening a box labelled “books” and seeing the faces of familiar loved volumes staring up back at me. I’m excited to have my favorite coffee cups again. And, finally, Ilsa will stop complaining that she has nothing to read. She might have already read the books in the 3 or 4 boxes bound for her room (once we find the hardware to put up her bookshelves), but at least she hasn’t read them in 2 years, and she’s ecstatic. Familiar pictures are leaning up against the walls, we’ve put together the hand-carved Senegalese chairs, and we’ve hooked up the stereo. Life’s good.

The two young women kept going back to the US, stopping only in the transit lounge of Airport Mohammed V in Casablanca, where the chairs are hard yellow plastic but the coffee’s not bad. I don’t know if they have their luggage or not. They are not the best communicators, but at least they’re fine and not my responsibility.

elliot sleeps


asleep in Casa


Pics of my kids asleep on those chairs after one of those middle-of-the-night flights. How I envy them their ability to sleep anywhere. This was two years ago, on our trip from Nouakchott to Oregon.

Our friend’s family return to the US tonight. Thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers for them. Don’t stop now!

Donn. He caught one of the twice-a-week flights to Dakla on Monday, planned to spend Tuesday hanging out at the one hotel in this small desert town and then, on Wednesday, catch a bush taxi to the border, about a 4-5 hour drive, to meet Tim and the truck, complete with boxes of our stuff…the hand-decorated glasses we bought each other for Christmas that year in France; six years’ worth of kids’ artwork, including the priceless The Cid and the Spie “graphic novel” that Ilsa wrote when she was 7; the “reward” from my students at the university; the heavy wooden Senegalese chairs bought on vacation; the cord that will allow me to once again load music onto my MP3 player.

Donn could not get a phone call through to our friends in Nouakchott, so he would call or text me and I would contact them. I spent the day, hazy from lack of sleep (oh like you don’t stay up till the wee hours when your husband travels…there’s just no reason to not go ahead and finish the whole book!), emailing and skyping and texting and generally feeling like His Girl Friday.

He found a bush taxi no problem, but the taxi driver insisted on leaving at 6 a.m. Donn complied; what else could he do? The result was that, in spite of a break down, he arrived at the border itself about 1:00, and settled down for a long afternoon. The earliest he could expect Tim would be about 5. But then came the email; the truck would not arrive before the next day. Donn retreated to a “rest area” (I don’t know what he means by this) about 40 minutes north of the border itself, where he spent his evening hanging out with, among others, policemen who work at the border. He even shared a goat tagine with the guy who stamps the passports.

This morning he went down at 8, hoping to soon see Tim and the truck. He watched as truck after truck made it through Moroccan customs and headed down the dusty, rocky no-man’s-land between the two countries. Finally he heard from Tim about 10:15; they were just opening the Mauritanian side of things. They got through about 11:30.

6 hours later, that’s the last I’ve heard.

In the meantime, our neighbours have bought a karaoke machine and several very large speakers. We’re being regaled with off-key mispronounced versions of “Best of Both Worlds” and “No Woman No Cry” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Hi-ho, let’s go! At least we’re eclectic.

One thing I’ve always said about living overseas, it’s not for the faint-hearted. At least we’re never bored, I say. And so it is today.

“Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”  Inigo Montoya to the mostly-dead Westley on the castle wall.

  • My husband is stuck in a desert town in southern Morocco, waiting for a phone call. He’s supposed to meet our friend Tim at the border tomorrow. Tim will be in the company of a Moroccan driver and a fruit truck full of all our stuff. They will trade off, and then Donn will climb into the cab and travel back 3 days with a fruit truck driver, with whom he may or may not be able to communicate, and with our stuff, arriving here safe and sound. Insha’allah, as they say round here, which highlights the element of uncertainty inherent in the whole endeavor.
  • Two young women who were supposed to arrive in Nouakchott to do an internship at our old English center never got visas. They were turned away in the Mauritanian airport and flown back to Morocco, where they have apparently disappeared. I mean, I assume they’re somewhere, but no one has heard from them since last night. When they were put on the flight, the airline claimed there was no room for their carry-on luggage and kept it. Wha??? As a result, we think they may not have their computers, which would explain why they haven‘t been in contact with anyone all day. I suspect they crashed at a hotel; I know that potent mix of uncertainty and jet lag on top of two sleepless nights in a row. The thing is, I am supposed to be taking care of them while they’re stuck here, but how can I do that when I don’t know where they are?
  • Horrible horrible news this morning. The guy was a friend; his kids were friends with our kids and were supposed to be coming for a visit this summer.
  • And yes, as a result of that last item, it’s entirely possible that Tim and the truck full o’ stuff won’t make that meeting tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon, we went to the beach. The surfing wasn’t very good, and the tide was low, but it was so very hot in our apartment that we felt it would be enjoyable. Also, since I’ve spent most of the week sitting around reading under the fan, it was felt it would do me good to get off the couch. And it seems to have done me some good. I don’t know if it was the Vitamin D/sunshine, the chemicals from my sunscreen seeping into my skin, or the fact that I’ve been back a week now and jet lag can be considered officially over, but as of this morning, I feel human again.

We went to our regular beach, which has a name (Oued Yqem) but we just call it “The Normal One” as a nod to our insane creativity. It has a river emptying into the ocean, which sometimes means a little too much trash floating around. How much is too much? Not much. I was less than thrilled, as I hopped my way over the burning sands to the cool water’s edge, to see broken glass shining in the sunlight. This beach is popular with all ages, and it’s only a matter of time before someone (I hope it’s not one of us) gets a really nasty cut.

You can rent umbrellas at this beach, I realized yesterday. Always before I’ve wondered why that insane woman wearing a baseball cap under her headscarf was yelling at me. Finally, yesterday, she gestured up at a beach umbrella. Ah, ok. And then a man came up to me and offered to rent me one. I will definitely do that next time.

Yesterday also marked the first time I saw Moroccan lifeguards. No sitting, bored, with white noses in little white towers, nor skimming up and down the beach in snazzy 4WDs for these guys! Wearing the brightest neon yellow caps and shorts, a colour so bright that light seemed to fall into it, they spent their time striding up and down and blowing their whistles. I think that was all they did–blow whistles–but they did it well. Up and down the beach they went, blowing their whistles, herding swimmers into a certain area of the water where, according to the kids, there was the most seaweed. It seemed really random. I could not figure out why certain people were whistled at and others weren’t, but thankfully they ignored me.

A man with a cardboard box wrapped heavily in duct tape strapped to his back walked up and down the sands, yelling, “Ice-cream! Ice-cream!” What a good idea, I thought. We were with my friend Shannon and her boys, and when all the kids got out of the water and were standing there, the ice-cream man came right over and stood there, hopefully shouting at us, but we ignored him. Who knew a Moroccan beach would have so many opportunities for cash?

The kids didn’t care. After the beach, we usually stop for an ice-cream bar at a little shop called “Hanuty,” which means “My Hanut.” It has a cute logo and is cleaner and better stocked than most hanuts–really more like an American convenience store. It tends to have floating prices; last time the ice-cream bars were 17dh, this time 18dh. The younger the worker, the higher the prices. We sit around on a little patio and eat our ice-cream, then we say goodbye to Shannon and her boys, get back in our own car, and head home–about a 20 minute drive.

Welcome to summer.

Meals my Family Ate While I Was Gone:

  1. Eggs
  2. Eggs & Potatoes
  3. Fried Eggs
  4. Omelettes with Cheese
  5. Omelettes with Turkey Ham and Cheese
  6. Ice Cream Sundaes
  7. Pizza Hut

Things I Did In America:

  1. Missed my niece’s graduation
  2. Made it to my niece’s graduation party
  3. Ate Ben & Jerry’s (Dublin Mudslide! Mmmm…)
  4. Talked to the kids on Skype
  5. Told my mother funny things about my kids. Sample. I’d been gone about 2 hours when Elliot, who is 13, came to Donn with a list. “Someone’s got to keep this family running,” he said. She always loved funny grandkid stories, and Elliot provided plenty of them.

Things My Family Did While I was Gone:

  1. Surfing!
  2. Sunburn!
  3. Bought me flowers. Cuz I love flowers.
  4. Bought new vases for the flowers to go into, since last time we had to use a plastic sort of bucket our cheap silverware came in.
  5. Were late to school…twice. “This is unacceptable,” the monitor raged at Elliot. Morocco started Daylight Savings Time at midnight on Sunday, May 31st. Donn forgot about it, so the kids were late on Monday. Then he changed the time on his computer, but forgot to change his cell phone, which he uses as an alarm. The kids were late on Tuesday.
  6. Missed me!

Books I’ve Read in the Last Two Weeks (yes I read to deal with stress/jet-lag/boredom while traveling/etc):

  1. Diplomatic Baggage
  2. My Cleaner
  3. Miss Fortune
  4. Things I Want My Daughters To Know
  5. Miss Match
  6. Jewel

(None were horrible; some were excellent)

Jet lag is one of the most illogical things on the planet. If I was here in Rabat, living away happily, uneventfully, and one night I couldn’t sleep and next day I was tired, I would have no problem going to sleep at 4:00 in the afternoon. So why, just because my body thinks it’s 4 p.m. when it’s really midnight, can’t I sleep? Does not compute.

Right now, it’s not midnight. It’s 12 hours later. I am still in my jet-lag daze, day two. They say it takes a day for every hour you change. I’m hoping that, since I barely got over jet lag during my less-than-two-week trip, I’ll be able to adjust more quickly back to Moroccan time.

Here are a few travel tips from my recent trip:

1. If you are flying to visit your dying mother, don’t watch “The Changeling” on the airplane. It is a very sad movie. It will make you cry, and you will be embarrassed, seated between two young strangers, snuffling and speaking bad French.

2. In spite of the recent air disaster, fly Air France if at all possible. Their spinach lasagna was actually really good–had it been served on a normal plate and properly heated, you would never think airline food. They have complimentary champagne, which is a very nice idea. AND, you can walk to the back anytime and get yourself a Haagen-Dazs bar. I am not making this up! Kind of makes you disgusted with all these American airlines fussing on and on about how they can’t let mothers feed their babies and how they need to charge you extra for toilet paper now, or whatever the latest is.

3. Fly Air France FROM France. You will get camembert cheese and food that is better than typical airline fare. However, when you fly from America, your food will be typical, and you will get a tiny rectangle of rubbery Monterey jack cheese, which will be a disappointment. How can America expect to be a world leader when our cheese has the consistency of rubber and we only have 3 kinds? Surely we are fooling ourselves. Disney isn’t going to cut it.

4. Don’t let your husband have a drink of your coffee on the way to the airport. He will, in trying to figure out the handy top of the travel mug, somehow spill a tiny bit, which will drip on your pants when you take a drink next. Nothing like starting out with a coffee stain on the front of your tan pants (trousers to you Brits out there) before a long flight in which you will snuffle (see Tip #1) and speak with a thick American accent. You will be extra-glad to exit that plane and never see your seat-mates again!

5. When doing your last grocery shopping before leaving for two weeks, you may realize that no one else in your family is capable of making a salad, so you skip buying lettuce and green peppers, for example, but you buy two kilos of carrots and leave notes encouraging people with how easy it is to eat a carrot (just wash and cut off the ends! No need to peel!). If you do this, prepare yourself:  on your return, you will find two kilos of carrots sitting in the crisper.

6. If you’re sitting in a nursing home holding your mother’s hand and you overhear an aide say, “I nearly didn’t come in today! Weatherman says it’s supposed to be 90 degrees and to stay home if you can!”, it’s okay to smirk. After all, you can remember when 90 degrees freaked you out too. But seriously, folks, 90 degrees? Northwesterners are spoiled, spoiled, spoiled! We lived in a desert village once for the month of July, and 90 degrees was the night-time low.

Also, thank you all for your condolences and prayers and sympathy on my mother‘s death. Individual emails coming soon. Although I’m sad and it’s just beginning to sink in how much I will miss her, it was so evidently her time that for her sake, I really can’t wish her back. We’re never ready to lose a parent, but Mum had been slipping away for the last couple of years. I know she is so much happier now, having left her frail and broken body behind and entered into life.

Death Be Not Proud

by John Donne

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

In memory of Lilian Jeanne

October 10,  1923 – June 5, 2009

I’m in Seattle, sitting at my mother’s bedside. It’s an image made familiar from centuries of art and literature, the family gathered round from, in our own modern twist, the globe entire. I’m not going to describe this process, of me holding her hand and talking brightly, of her slipping in and out of sleep and a vague, non-communicative consciousness, of lack of fluid and food stretching her sallow skin tight across her bones. I doubt this is an experience you want to live along with me in full Technicolor. It’s enough for me to be here.

And I am actually fiercely happy to be here, to hold her hand, to whisper brightly in her ear. “I love you Mum!” “I’m here!” Sometimes I get a flicker of an eyelid or a twitch of a smile in response. Sometimes I get nothing, but I’m pretty sure that none-the-less, I am heard and appreciated.

Instead, I’m going to republish something I wrote about my mother a couple of years ago. You’ll see where I got this travel bug from. I come by it honestly, having had two parents who traversed the globe back in the days when that meant taking ocean liners (yes, I’m totally jealous too!). Oddly enough, out of 3 children, I’m the only one who really got it. The other two are willing to travel a bit, but they like their lives in the US. I’m working on my nieces and nephews though.

The following was originally published in July, 2006

By the time my mother was 30, she’d left her native town of Swansea, Wales. She was working as a midwife in London when she decided to move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, she worked as a midwife and even delivered the grandchildren of the then-emperor, Haile Selassie. She also met a young American who was there teaching English. They got married, traveled the world on their honeymoon. Since in those days, airplane rides were shorter, not to mention that the Ethiopian government was paying, they went everywhere—Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Britain (to meet her parents), America (to meet his), Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, India, and back to Ethiopia.

By the time they returned, she was already pregnant. They had 2 boys in rapid succession; the first born in hospital in Addis, the second born at home in the high green hills of the Gondor region, which are now part of Eritrea. They traversed the entire coast of Africa, went round the whole continent on a tramp steamer because it was cheaper, and spent much of the trip successfully preventing my brothers from falling through the railing into the water far below.

My mother’s health was suffering though, so the family decided to return to the West. They lived in England for 4 years before the traveling bug bit again, and they moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Again, my dad taught English, but this time my mother stayed home with the boys. In her mid-40s by this point, she found herself expecting again. I was born in
Beirut. It was the late 60s by this point, and war was looming. Before I was even 1, the family was evacuated.

For various reasons, they decided not to return. Initially we lived with my grandparents in Swansea, but my dad decided to further his education, so we ended up in Oregon by the time I was 3. We moved quite a few times, including up to Canada at one point, so that I have childhood memories of cycling home to avoid thunderstorms, prairie sunsets, summer camping in the Rockies near Banff.

Although she was of course older than most of my friends’ parents, she always seemed young for her age. People never guessed her age right. She said I kept her young, and there was truth in that—seeing me, they’d take 10 years off her age. I remember when I was 5 or so, I asked how old she was. Knowing I was certain to share with the world her answer (I was always rather vocal), she told me, “29.” I believed her—why would my own mother lie to me?!—and on her next birthday, I assumed she was 30.

She also messed with my budding theological knowledge. I begged and begged for a baby sister. “Why don’t you pray and ask Jesus?” she told me, declining to mention that she’d had a hysterectomy by that point. When as a young adult I confronted her with this, she giggled guiltily. And now, I do the same thing to my daughter, telling her if God wants her to have a sister he’ll give her one, not mentioning the birth control.

When I was eight, her mother had a stroke, and Mum and I went to Wales to nurse her. We were gone nearly 3 months. I went to the local school, suffered the humiliation of those curious underpants they called gym uniform, ate tasteless-but-hot school dinners, learned Welsh phrases in Welsh class. I still remember what the Welsh teacher looked like. They didn’t make me buy the uniform since I was only temporary, but secretly I longed to wear the grey-and-burgundy school tie. I thought it was cool.

My father died suddenly when I was 15, and my mother had to be both parents to me, the only child left at home. My brothers were both finished with college by that point. One of them moved back home (Seattle at that point) to help look after us. Over the next few years, we had more than our share of fights—she wanted to keep me home more; I was ready to move on. But she was always a huge presence in my life.

When my kids were born, she was living in Portland and helped out a lot. When Elliot was a baby, I had a job that required me to go into the office one day a week. It was great—I just dropped him off at Grandma’s, where he was thoroughly spoiled. When the twins came along, I quit my job and went freelance, and Mum came over every day to hold a baby, distract a toddler, fold laundry, and generally help. She was in her 70s at this point, but always seemed younger—full of energy, looking in her early 60s, etc.

In the fall of 2000, she visited her brother in Wales. He’s a doctor. He called my brother in Seattle to tell him that he suspected she had Parkinson’s. It wasn’t a huge shock—we’d already begun to notice some shakiness. My brothers and I debated back and forth over whether he should tell her then—advantages: in person, disadvantages: she could obsess about it during the whole long, lone plane ride—or wait till she was home. We finally told him to wait. He called her during Thanksgiving, when we were all with her. She talked to him, hung up the phone, and didn’t tell mention it to any of us.

She was officially diagnosed just before we left for Mauritania. By the time we came home for our first visit, my brothers had already moved her into assisted living. That was 2 years ago.

I saw her last week for the first time since we came home this time, and was shocked at how much ground she had lost in the last 2 years. She can’t get out of chairs on her own anymore; needs a cane for steadiness; tires easily. When we visit together, instead of both chatting non-stop, we just sit there, stare out of windows.

I help her take a shower, and remember that time when she nursed her own mother. I wonder if she’s thinking about it, if at that time she imagined this, and of course I think of my own daughter and wonder if, someday, she will need to help me like this. “I never thought I’d be so helpless,” my mother says to me, a little shakily. “You’re not helpless, you just need some help,” I tell her. I’m angry that she doesn’t fight the disease harder—I suspect she spends a lot of time just sitting in her room, watching TV. On the other hand, her family is far-flung now—one brother moved to Iowa, me in
Africa. I think she’s depressed, but I don’t know how to help in the long run.

We go back in September. I love her. Already, I miss her.

June 2009

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