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From one pile, tiny infant twins grin gummy smiles at the camera. Abel is slightly blurry in most of his baby photos; he was never still.
Next to it is a pile of my beloved books from college: Keats, Irish mythology, Penguin copies of medieval women’s writings. Also, there’s the missing third of the Earthsea trilogy!
On the table I’ve set hand-painted tiles of the twins’ handprints, and a mug painted by Elliot for Donn, Christmas ‘97.
There’s my first passport, from when I was 8, and my report card from Grade 4. It’s all A’s except for PE, and yet I remember worrying if I would pass. There’s a copy of my parent’s wedding invitation, and a newspaper clipping about their world-tour honeymoon, from the small town in Kansas where they visited so that my dad’s family could meet his new bride.
This box has my grandmother’s Royal Doulton china, over 100 years old now, and the mugs my mother bought my kids on one of her visits to Wales.
I must stop this because you are bored. But I’m not. I’m endlessly fascinated by these leftovers of my own life. My baby book! (first tooth—7 months) Donn’s baby book! (kinda boring, frankly. Who cares that he had extreme separation anxiety and wouldn’t take a bottle?)
We made great progress after the container came. Within 2-3 days, we were unpacked and moved in. Then we started collecting boxes from our friends.
When we went overseas 10 years ago, we got rid of everything, it felt like. We just left a few things in Heather and Paul’s attic and in the closet of Janean’s spare bedroom and under Dave and Sally’s stairs. But apparently these boxes have grown and multiplied. I’m a bit chagrined at how many there seem to be. And still they come! I’d forgotten about the stuff Amy’s parents took, not to mention that Kevin mentioned we’d left boxes at their place. We did? I still don’t remember. Perhaps we gave them the boxes and they misunderstood.
And yet these things mean something to me. Unpacking has been a bit like Christmas. The antique postcards, sent by Donn’s great-great grandmother to his grandmother in 1907, the address nothing more than her name and town—no street, no zip code, nothing more. The pictures painted by my father. My first wedding ring (I’ve had one husband but 3 rings). Things I’d thought were lost.
For years, I’ve thought of myself as someone who could just pack up and go at a moment’s notice, but I look around at my full closets and realize I have weighted myself once more. I have hung memories on myself like necklaces; I have accumulated to myself once again this untidy heap of pictures and mugs and old wooden carvings and important papers. They pull me into this place; I am anchored. Anchors aren’t much thought of these days; we travel around the world in a day, our bodies dragging time zones behind. But they provide the opportunity to stay awhile, to sleep without worrying about crashing into rocks or losing your way. Anchors give you a chance to rest.
So I’m enjoying sorting, finding places for, and repacking my father’s old books, the Scottish doll I got for my second birthday, the photocopy of my grandfather’s naturalization certificate. Things that ground me in this place, ways to put down an anchor and stay for a while.
On the day our container was supposed to arrive at our house in Rabat, on a date which I’ve already lost to the mists of time but was sometime towards the end of July, we had been clearly warned that it would have to LEAVE Rabat, fully loaded, by 1:00. The shipping agent originally wanted it to arrive at 9, but we were worried that our helpers (university students, four future doctors, from Ghana) wouldn’t make it that early, so we negotiated 10.
By 10, we had our 4 future doctors, a young American couple, and a couple of other friends there, just ready to go. There was no sign of the container. Donn called the agent in Casa. “Ah yes,” he said. “It will leave soon.”
“I thought we were supposed to have finished loading it by 1?” asked Donn.
“Yes, yes,” agreed the agent. Since it takes about an hour and a half to drive the distance between Casa and Rabat, this was going to be a problem.
We decided to have everyone move all the boxes and furniture downstairs and outside, so as to get the job halfway done. It was a lovely day, sunny but not too hot, and everyone set to work. By the time we’d finished, it was about 11:30 and the street remained empty and quiet. Donn called the shipping agent again. “It’s just left Casablanca,” he promised us.
We ordered a lot of pizza (style americain but no pork products of course) and sent the kids to the hanut for cold drinks. We had plenty of time to sit around and digest afterwards, so we relaxed on the empty, dusty tile floor of the living room and chatted.
At 2:40, to great excitement and fanfare, the container arrived!
I watched the future doctors toss each other the light boxes marked FRAGILE!! I might have squeaked a bit. We’d sat and looked at all the stuff spread out on the lawn and wondered how on earth it was all going to fit, but it did. In fact, there was extra space at the end—about 10-15 percent maybe. I will check this with Donn, who was actually up in the sauna-container, sweating profusely and cramming stuff in. That meant the stuff towards the end was packed quite loosely, and would potentially shift in transit. We put a clay pot (the one that had held our Christmas tree) in at the end, no padding around it, and assumed the next time we saw it, it would be in 3 or more pieces.
By the time it was ready to leave Rabat, it was about 4. Donn talked to the agent, who told us that it was too late for us to come to Casa, and to be there by 9:30 the following morning. We were exhausted, but we made it in good time, only to be met by an empty office. We took ourselves to a café for coffee and bread spread with long-life cheese, and eventually he arrived and we were able to visit the port, which involved mostly standing around various offices for several hours and then signing one piece of paper.
“Your container will arrive in Seattle in about 4 weeks, maybe 5,” said our shipping agent.
A couple of weeks later, we come back to America. At first we stay with our friends, then we move into a small 2 bedroom temporary situation while we househunt. Soon we get an email from the shipping agent, letting us know the contact info for the company that will be receiving the container in Seattle. And so begins another round-about…
Don’t you hate it when you are living in your new house and you don’t have internet yet so you start what promises to be a nice long blog post, all about the final adventures of your container, and it’s kicking right along and you’re being witty and pithy and all these other good things, and then you hand the computer to your son to do his homework and he closes your document without saving? Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m compulsive about hitting Ctrl S. Um, mostly, that is.
So, nearly a week in the new house. It’s a lovely house, really. We moved in last Thursday, the day the container arrived (spoiler!), but we still don’t have internet. I guess 3rd time’s the charm, even in these modern times. We ordered it last Thursday, ordered it again on Saturday, and ordered it again today (Wednesday). They’re promising we’ll have it tomorrow. If you’re reading this, you’ll know they eventually came through. Ironically, it was easier and quicker to get wireless internet in Morocco than it is in America; there, we went in to the office, requested it, paid a deposit, and had it that evening. I feel there is a lesson in this, although I’m not totally sure what it is—especially since these same people (Maroc Telecom) just sent us another bill, in spite of the fact that when Donn closed down the account they made extra sure we didn’t owe them anything before they gave us back our deposit.
As you may have noticed from my last several blog posts, I’ve been struggling a bit with being back in the US, but something good has come of it. We are the proud owners of a new house! Ok, the house was actually built around the time I was giving birth to my firstborn (I feel that is metaphorical; can you see it?), but it is new to us. It comes complete with a man-cave (Donn’s garage-office; our friend Tiffany came up with the name and it fits) and a lot more wall to wall carpeting than we are used to. I am hoping this means we slow down our average of broken glasses. We are rapidly making it a home and it feels good. We received the keys to it on my birthday, rather a fun detail.
In some ways, this was a relatively easy move. We’ve never shipped a container before, but this is the way to go. No more agonizing over what to keep, what to store, what to give away, what to sell, etc. Just bung everything in. And the result is that we seem to have a lot of stuff. I don’t know. We move a lot; we’re not pack rats. We get rid of things pretty easily. How can we still have so much?
In spite of feeling this way, I’ve moved into Stage Two of the Expat Returning from Africa Reverse Culture Shock (ERARCS for short. What do you mean it’s not a good acronym?) Stage One is where you go into a Target or Fred Meyer’s and are completely overwhelmed. Sometimes you feel nauseated; once, returning from Mauritania, I stood in front of a wall of hand lotion and started crying. I was used to Nivea, original or almond, and I could not handle an entire wall of choice.
Stage Two is where you walk through the stores and you want one of everything. Soap dispensers for the new bathroom! New hand towels—the old ones are kinda disgusting now. New tea towels too! And wouldn’t that shelf be cute on the wall above the table? Oh, look, cute bedding too! Curtains! And look at those pots and pans—you’ve always wanted one of those tall ones with a colander in it! What about a fall wreath for the door?
It is endless and sometimes nauseating too, and don’t worry—I’m not acting on these impulses. I’m still working on getting my kitchen stocked. And pictures hung. And getting rid of all these boxes!
On Thursday, I went to Back-to-School night for the twins. It was hard to find parking within 4 blocks in all directions of the junior high. Hundreds of parents shuffled their way through hallways and crammed into desks and around tables to hear their children’s teachers present the year to them. “This isn’t about your individual child,” the note home had warned. Instead, we went in groups to hear the teachers explain how This is the Year that would get Our Children Ready for High School!! We were also told that they always have home work, but I didn’t believe them because they just don’t always have homework.
I was inevitably reminded of back-to-school nights in Mauritania and Morocco, although this was bigger and less intimidating, since I understood every word. Donn and I split the load, as usual; he went to Abel’s teachers and I went to Ilsa’s; we saw each other in the gym for electives and in the cafeteria for a word from the principal (who is a giant, but genial).
Posters in the room trumpeted the importance of diversity, acceptance, and respect. Pictures of ice-cream cones illustrated the concept of “Proficient,” “Novice,” “Working towards Proficiency,” etc. We’ve had numerous notes home explaining that this is the new grading system. The “Novice” poster showed an enormous cone with one scoop—I couldn’t see that as an incentive to try for Proficiency, which had 8 scoops, syrup, and chocolate sprinkles and was in no way edible without making a huge mess. But I was beginning to suspect my attitude by that point. I just wasn’t feeling the group enthusiasm. In fact, I was downright grumpy, mixed in with a little smug.
All the teachers went on and on about what a Great Enormous Privilege and Honor it was that we were entrusting them with our precious darlings for hours on end every day. And I had another mental eye roll. Because, come on. I know many teachers love what they do (all they need are minds to mould!) and all that, and I know the pay is crummy and yet they persevere and spend their own money on Kleenex and extra pencils, but come on. It’s their JOB and they do it to pay the bills. I love teaching ESL and I have loved most of my students, although I did have a really hard time with the young Mauritanian man who would stick his pen up his nose during class. But I didn’t view it as a Great Honor. I suppose you have to tell yourself something to make yourself enter a junior high school every morning.
The math teacher explained that each test can be retaken once with no penalties at any point between now and the end of the year. “That way, the child can be sure that he or she really has learned the concepts,” she explained.
The social studies teacher explained that basically, you can’t read enough. I actually rolled my eyes at that and I think she saw me. This is ironic because I am a voracious reader, an omnivorous reader, someone who always has a book tucked in her purse or in the car door, just in case. For a long time, I bought into the myth that you can never read too much. I felt very virtuous. I not only read to my children—I modeled reading to them. No matter my other failings, I was doing that right. Then I realized that, uh, yes you can read too much, as I glanced round at my neglected house and family. And Ilsa can read too much—she who packs 16 books for a 3-day weekend, who has at least 2 books on her at all times in case she finishes one, who embarrasses her brothers when it takes 4 of us to get her library books out to the car. So we don’t have to worry about her reading enough, is what I’m saying.
I chatted with this teacher later. She knew my daughter right off. “She reads in class,” she told me. “What?” I gasped. “Oh it’s okay!” She patted my arm. “I told her as long as she can pay attention to what’s going on, she can read.”
Ironically, this woman is not Ilsa’s favorite teacher. Ilsa feels her class is undisciplined.
I walked down the hall towards the gym, where I would meet the choir and art and P.E. teachers, and I ran into some friends of mine, a couple who also have an 8th-grade daughter. We chatted a bit about the last meeting. I commented on how amazing it is that they can retake tests. “Wish I could have done that!” I joked.
“Isn’t it great?” enthused the dad (inner eye roll from me). “After all,” he went on, “the point is that they learn the concepts, not the grade. This way, they really get it.”
Oh yeah. Guess that is the point.
So I had to change my grumpy attitude and stop rolling my eyes. And, considering that the Nomad family as a whole is extremely math-challenged (except for Donn, who can add things in his head), I have a suspicion we might be availing ourselves of this do-over option several times this year.
And, after the rigor and stress of the French system, I think that at least one of my children is relaxing and expanding in the warm-bath atmosphere of the American school.
Because it’s not about the grade! It’s about the giant ice cream cones. And I can live with that.