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1. We have found a house we like but we haven’t yet worked out a deal with the people living there. They have a price in mind. We have a price in mind. The two prices are not the same, and unlike the fine merchants of the Rabat medina, these people don’t seem to want to haggle. I had thought maybe we’d pay a little extra and they’d accept a little less and we could work it out. It’s early days yet though. I’ll let you know.

And I really want to tell you all about the house. Original hardwoods! Enormous garden! Funky retro/vintage bathrooms! Only one block and a half from the twins’ potential new school! Only 4 blocks to our nearest Powells!  But I won’t, because what if we don’t get it, and you are stuck with all that in your head for no reason? But if it does work out, trust me, you will get sick of that house. People in email or phone contact with me are already sick of this house.


2. How long does it take you to visit all your favorite restaurants when you’re back in town but on a budget? We’re taking our time. Oh sure, we hit Vincente’s our first night back in town, but that was because all we’d had to eat all day was a few bites of cold apple pie and some tiny bags of pretzels. That is, we didn’t eat the actual bags, although I think Elliot was tempted. Teenage boy, you know.

One night, Donn and I had a date. All the children were gone. We wandered all over Hawthorne, stopping in Powells, in Fred Meyer’s. We had planned Thai but then we walked past a new Indian place, and it smelled so good that we ate there instead. So we still haven’t made it to our favorite Thai place. We also celebrated our wedding anniversary last week—20 years. We debated going to our favorite “celebration/once-a-year” place, Wildwood, and decided we should. We can’t remember exactly how many anniversaries we’ve celebrated there, but we think the first time was our 8th anniversary.  And even though one website didn’t even include it on its list of Portland’s Top 20 Restaurants, we still had a great time and the experience was very good. I am physically incapable of writing mushy stuff about my husband for public view, so you’ll just have to assume that in our family, sarcasm is our love-language (also food), so if I’m snide about him you can get that warm feeling deep down. It’s almost as good as another by-the-numbers romcom.


3. Friends had a baby. It’s fun to hold him. He makes snuffly, newborn noises. We take Thai food and come to visit; later in the afternoon we go with him (in a carrier) and his big brothers to pick blueberries. I have never seen bushes as laden as these; blueberries hang like clusters of grapes. We accidentally pick about 12 pounds and bring them all to the house where we’re staying. Some go in the freezer; many more go immediately into open mouths. Obviously we need to go again. We are stocking up for winter.

Part Three 1/2: Most Official Paperwork, Most Officious Friends.

Part Three was just getting too long. It’s summer; people are busy. Plus, you may recall, there was the whole how-much-detail-to-include debacle. Also, I am in a mood where I am swinging wildly between first and second person, sometimes even in the same sentence. This is frowned upon by all real writers. I do apologize.

Ok, back to our story, back to second person meaning first person,  back to spelling mistakes not caught because I’m typing on a different computer and it just messes me up.

We left our spunky heroine, “you,” at the language center where she had just finally gotten a piece of paper stating that she used to work there, no longer worked there, had been paid a total of X dirhams, had paid X in taxes to the Moroccan government, and had been signed and stamped. (The paper, not “you.”) (And what? Now we’re in third person? This blogger seriously needs an editor.)

On receiving this paper in her hot little hands, “you” heads back downtown where she waits about 15 minutes for the woman to come back from lunch. Wait–this is sliding into the too-much-detail error. We’ll skip to the bit where she returns to the office, with Ismail and Donn, at about 2:30 in the afternoon.  Our 3 friends are sent upstairs (this is symbolic, I’m pretty sure) to meet with the Chief of the First Subdivision of Moral People (chef de 1ere subdivision des personnes morales). I love this title and am hoping to incorporate it into my personal life at some point. They don’t just have a Moral Majority, for those of you who became aware of American politics in the 80s, they have their Moral Majority subdivided.And we, as tax-paying people who are hoping to leave, are in the very first division. I feel a little proud.

Before we go back into the third person, I would like to explain a teensy bit of French-influenced North African culture to you. Lunch time is sacred, and is taken properly and not skimped. The idea of a sandwich eaten at a desk is nightmarish, rather like a typical American might feel on being informed that lunch today will be a tiny bag of pretzels and a Diet Coke. Oh wait–that’s the airlines. Lunches are minimum 2 hours and involve 3 courses and, for the French themselves, a bottle or 2 of wine. (per familial group that is) And then one lingers over a tiny cup of espresso, while solving the problems of the world. One stretches, possibly goes for a short invigorating walk, then goes back to the office round 2:30 or 3. Many businesses don’t re-open till 4 or so. But the lady thought, and we thought, that the Chief of the Moral People (1st subdivision) might be back about 2. So we went about 2:30, just to give him some time.

We sit. We sit some more. We sit even more.  Ismail chats animatedly to a woman in tight jean capris with a henna up her leg, and ends up exchanging phone numbers. I read a book. We sit some more. Ismail exclaims over a very modest outfit and hijab worn by another woman. “That’s how women should dress,” he tells us, but he doesn’t talk to her. We sit some more. Finally a secretary arrives. She introduces us to the sub-chef, who fusses because I didn’t have a “bulletin de salaire.” I point out the sheaf of papers, all officially stamped and signed, which details my salary in minutiae, but they were viewed as sadly inadequate.

Finally, with much rejoicing, came the arrival of the great man himself. Ismail is happy. “I know him!” he tells us. “His family are our neighbours! I’ve even met him before. This is really good.” I am happy too. The chef wears a striped suit, striped shirt and striped tie, all in varying colours and stripe-widths and patterns, yet all dark, muted shades. The effect is sort of numbing, which I’m sure was intentional—kind of like the red “power” tie in America.

We are shown into the office. Ismail shakes the Chef’s hand, reminds him of their connection, tells him what wonderful people we are and that he hopes the Chef will do all he can to help us. The chef frowns over my sheaf of papers. He asks me a few questions. Then he makes a pronouncement: if I can produce a copy of my contract with the language center, that will be enough.

This had actually occurred to us a couple of days earlier, but then we found we’d packed it. So back out to the language center we go. They love me there.

Next morning, we are back in the waiting chairs by about 10. The Chef isn’t in yet. Nor is his secretary. We discuss how when the cat’s away the mice will play. Ismail likes that one. I remodel the waiting room in my mind. It’s a huge room, empty but for 3 chairs in one corner, the attached kind you find in airports. I imagine it with a carpet, paint, a fake plant in a corner, fun Moroccan lanterns. Inviting, comfortable. It helps pass the time.

Eventually the guy shows up about 11 or so. The Big Man, wearing the same all-stripes-all-the-time outfit, looks over the contract and reads it and finally, after some deliberation, agrees it is fine. Back we go to the sub-chef who is now out of the office. Eventually he shows up (aside: he was really working) and prepares an attestation or signs it or something, then he takes it back across to Monsieur Stripes, who actually stamps it. Then it goes back to Stripes Jr, who breathes on it or something, then it goes to the secretary, who records it, then it is placed gently into a snow-white folder and handed reverently to us. It was a big moment for us. We looked, and all it was was the paper from the language center, but now with two (TWO!) additional signatures and stamps. “Is this right?” we queried, but the secretary assured us it was, all the etrangers get this paper. And sure enough, later we give the paper to our shipping agent and it is accepted as right.

Ismail was very proud of himself. “I really helped you,” he pointed out. “Without me, you wouldn’t have gotten very far.” We agreed. We thanked him profusely, from our hearts. He was absolutely right. But he wasn’t done. “If I charged you for my time,” he said, “It’d be a lot of money.” We were puzzled. We were pretty sure, even given our relative lack of  cultural understanding, that we weren’t supposed to pay him. We’re friends. He’s our landlord, but we hang out. We discuss the world. Elliot watched most of the World Cup with him. But then he laughs. “Of course I’m kidding,” he says. We laugh too, uneasily. We’re not sure what he’s trying to tell us. And he doesn’t let it drop. For the next several days he tells us how much we owe him, tells us he’s joking, but seriously we wouldn’t have gotten far if he hadn’t come along. And it kind of spoils it for us. We’d planned to do something really nice for him as a thank you, but he takes the wind out of our sails.

Coming soon: Part Four (really 5 but who’s counting): The Container Arrives!

Part Three: Most Official Paperwork; Most Officious Friends.

At this point, the conscientious chronicler faces a dilemma–how much detail do readers want? If I tell you how many trips I made to the tax office, how many trips out to the school where I taught, and the hours and hours I spent sitting around, you will be bored. On the other hand, I want to be accurate. We’ll see how well I manage to find the balance.

Also, for background, you can read parts one and two.

In order to ship your things from Morocco, you will need a piece of paper from the tax office stating you don’t owe any taxes in Morocco. This may sound simple. “It is simple,” says your shipping agent dismissively. “It will take 5 minutes. You have an office in your nigh-bourhood.” You don’t believe him. Oh sure, there may be a neighbourhood office, you’re willing to allow that. But you have heard horror stories about this piece of paper, of it taking over a month, and innumerable trips to the tax office.

Ismail offers to go with you, but you’re not sure if you want that. You start off at the neighbourhood office, where you are given a number and sit, in prickly Rabat summer  heat and humidity, watching an old woman who is bent nearly in half shuffle her way to a window. She drops something but picking it up is no problem, since she is already near the floor. You want to help her down the steps but a child (her grandson?) is there before you, holding her arm, guiding her.

The office can’t help you. You do have to go downtown, just like Ismail said. Donn says, “let’s just bring him,” so you do. And are you glad you did! For a start, he knows where to find parking. Then he waltzes past the entrance you thought was right, straight through another door and up a flight of stairs, where he engages a young man in conversation. In the time that it would have taken you just to find a place to leave your car, you find yourself in a back office talking with an efficient young woman.

She starts an uncontrollable giggle when you tell her, “I need a paper saying I don’t need to pay taxes.” (I meant to say “owe taxes” but it came out wrong.) “You don’t?” she begins faux-seriously, but you explain what you mean. Ah yes. She gives you a piece of paper that you need to fill out and get notarized that proves you are physically present in Morocco, because apparently she can’t believe her eyes. She also tells you that you will need two papers from the language school where you’ve been teaching, one stating your salary and what taxes were paid, and the other stating that you no longer work there.

You call the school and talk to the mercurial secretary, who blows hot and cold, helpful and friendly one day, annoyed and put out the next. It’s not one of her good days. “I will have the boss do this, and it will be ready for you on Friday,” she tells you. This isn’t good, since today is Tuesday, but oh well. You go to the mocatah, the place to get the paper notarized, and you stand in a long line that moves on average one person every 20 minutes. See, there is only one man who can stamp things, and he is in the zone, the zen zone that is, existing in his own world, impervious to the long line of sighing people crowded closely together and peering down at him from behind the high counter.

It only takes a couple of hours for it to be our turn. He peers at my id card, stamps the paper, has me sign a ledger, accepts my 2 dirhams payment, and we’re done, released out for a late lunch.

Friday afternoon, the secretary gives you one piece of paper and tells you that since you were paid hourly and worked part time, you can’t have the other. You try to argue the point but it’s no good–the boss is not there anyway. You take the one paper. It’s no use heading downtown to the tax office at this point–Friday is the Muslim holy day, and people tend not to go back to work after lunch-time prayers at the mosque.

However, you do have your monthly pay receipts, showing each month what your pay was and what taxes were taken from it. You realize you are missing two months, so you email the secretary and ask her to prepare them.

Monday morning, you go back out to the school. The secretary says she can’t print out the two receipts till the boss is there. He isn’t there. So you go back that afternoon. You ask the boss to sign and stamp the entire sheaf of papers–you are learning the Arab love of things that are officially stamped and initialed. You can even do it yourself now, although you secretly think it silly most of the time.

Tuesday, you, Donn and Ismail get back into your car and head downtown. Ismail is in fine mode, turning off the AC and explaining you don’t need it, telling you which lane to get into. But once inside, you are again very grateful for him. Thanks to him, the courier guy who stands in the corridor is on your side, helping you get in to see the official the next level up. She purses her lips at the one paper from the school and says you’ll need both. She says the receipts of payment are “nothing.” “But they’re all signed and stamped,” you point out helpfully. She also says she’ll need copies of your passport, local ID card, and rental contract. You leave and get all those things, then go back, but by this time it’s lunch time. You wait 30 minutes for her, and then she appears, briefly, to tell you she has no idea when her superior will be back.

Next day you’re there early, but not too early–being too early does not pay either. The 3 of you line up and you give the lady your sweet hopeful smile, the one that doesn’t assume too much and isn’t too big or teeth-baring. It seems to help. She takes all your papers and goes to “present” them to the next level up, then she comes back and tell us that ALL WE NEED is one more line on the paper from the school, stating my total salary over the months and the total amount of taxes paid. This can’t just be them adding up the receipts–the school needs to do this, sign and stamp it (I knew that was important!), and then it must be presented again.

I call my boss. “No problem,” he says. We drop off Ismail and head right over. The secretary, meanwhile, calls to tell me to come in tomorrow. Uh no, I tell her. We’re coming in right now. I am very polite but firm. So I go in and wait while, with much sighing and eye-rolling, she slowly types the new paper. I get it signed and stamped, then cheerfully wave goodbye to the secretary, who deigns to look up from her cell phone to give you a distant smile.

…this is getting very long. Part 3 1/2 coming soon.

So I’m working on part 3 of the shipping news, as it were, but the house we’re staying in has internet issues, so it’s taking me a while. In the meantime, we are settling back, re-adjusting. I notice everytime I return to the US I deal with something different. For example, I no longer forget that dryers and dishwashers exist, like I did the first time, when my mother-in-law asked me in surprise why I was washing the dishes  by hand when she had a machine to do that for me. But I keep forgetting that the flush for a toilet is on the side, not on top. We can’t get used to the quiet of the streets, without constant horns. We can’t get used to cars stopping slowly, carefully, as we put our toes on the very edge of a crosswalk.

There’s that same numbness, when you drive through forests and forests of green, ivy draped like a blanket from tree to tree. The richness, the prodigal beauty everywhere for the taking, the freeway edges overflowing with pink and white roses and glowing purple foxgloves, somehow escapes your grasp. On some level you know this is yours; this is for you. It’s your heritage, your true home, in a way that sand-coloured stones and enticing arches are not. But at the same time it seems beyond you.

The wooly grey clouds soothe you.  You eat at your favorite restaurants. You drive through your old neighbourhoods. And still, at some level, you are lost.  And then suddenly, without knowing why, you adjust. You have both lost and gained a world.

When we left Rabat a week ago, our flight from Paris to Boston was delayed by 3 hours, so we missed our connection to Portland. Air France put us up in the airport Hilton. It was a fine way to start reverse culture shock. We had a voucher to eat supper at the restaurant–$25 each. Imagine our shock when we found that would only buy us hamburgers and sandwiches, and a couple of desserts to share. The food was tasty, the portions too large (as always in American restaurants), and we felt that mix of judgement and enjoyment that comes with a return to a more affluent culture. The towels were about four inches thick, and the pillows nothing more than layers of softness. I didn’t sleep much, but as I woke throughout the night I would swim my legs down in the cool crisp sheets and feel utterly comfortable and content.

In the morning, we ate cold leftover apple pie and bread pudding for breakfast, since they hadn’t given us breakfast vouchers. The day was extra long–they couldn’t get us on a nonstop flight, so we had a layover in Minneapolis, where we made lists of books we wanted at a bookstore, had our first Starbucks, and munched on peanuts and pretzels I’d bought at Marjane in Rabat in case they didn’t feed us. Which they didn’t. By the time we’d arrived in Portland, it was evening by our body clocks and all we’d eaten was a few bites of dessert and some tiny bags of pretzels and peanuts. Yum.

Friends met us at the airport, which was pretty awesome. Makes you feel loved. Apparently some more people came the night before and met the flight we were supposed to be on, but we didn’t find that out till later.

Houses, cars, schools–we need them. We’re searching. But today, the sky is blue, and we’re going to take a hike down the Columbia River Gorge.

I hope this will be the last episode of the ongoing adventures of Toe Girl, aka my daughter Ilsa and her amazing, never-ending toe infection.

Our last week in Morocco, we went to for one last time to our new-and-improved Dr. Two. (not her real name, which I’ve forgotten. The second dr, the better one) She said the infection was “mastered,” which meant it wasn’t gone but wasn’t getting worse, and told us we’d need to see a doctor in America upon arrival. She stressed the importance of this, saying that if it got worse again and went into the bone, Ilsa could end up losing her toe.

This concerned Ilsa. She fretted and worried. “Would they give me a fake toe?” she asked. Donn had fun with this. Yes, a bionic toe, he told her. You’ll be a super-hero with your amazing power to kick the bad guys, and they’ll call you Toe Girl! And he started a cheer. “Toe Girl! Toe Girl!”

For days, whenever she was worried, we would call her Toe Girl, and she would giggle.

Our first full day in the US, we took  her to a place called Zoom care. I am not making that up. Everything is sort of pastel purple, and all the staff, nurses and doctors are young and blonde and very, very nice. I wonder how they screen for that.

Our nurse-practitioner purses her lips at Ilsa’s toe and decides to scrape out the pus. Good job! Ilsa, however, does not take kindly to the idea. “Last time I had a couple of days to prepare myself,” she tells me in an anguished whisper. And apparently last time was more traumatic than we knew at the time. The surgeon didn’t give the novacaine (or whatever they use) enough time to throroughly “take” and she felt more than just pressure, although she was very brave. This time, although the NP waits and flicks her toe to make sure it’s numb, Ilsa is panicky.

We get through it. Donn lets her squeeze his hand bloodless and promises her a new book of her choice at Powells, which has a branch just down the street. This cheers her up no end. We regale the NP with stories of last time, how they wouldn’t let us go back into the room with Ilsa (her jaw drops open in disbelief), about the two dead babies in the waiting room (her jaw sags even wider).

Afterwards, when the NP has taken off the two sides of Ilsa’s nail, painted the entire toe brown, and wrapped it in really fun bright red tape, Ilsa is resigned. We set off with much better prescriptions than last time, when all she got was Tylenol. The nurse gives us the bucket they used to soak her foot, since they can’t resuse them, which mystifies us. It’s made of hard teal-coloured plastic–how could it not be reuseable? America is just so weird.

She gave us the name of a podiatrist, just in case, but said she’s about 55% sure this will take care of the problem altogether. I hope so. Toe Girl may be the cutest new superhero on the block, but I prefer just plain Ilsa.

August 2010

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