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Today is Black Friday but you can’t tell round here. We all slept in; no one has any shopping plans, not even online. Ilsa has a friend over and they made hot chocolate from scratch and it boiled all over the stove, so the house smells warm and burnt-chocolately, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. We get the paper on holidays and weekends and yesterday’s was ENORMOUS, less than half news and commentary and comics and sports, most of it full-colour glossy ads screaming about great deals. At first it was tempting—I need a winter coat and I’m eyeing one at Macy’s, watching the price drop lower and lower and hoping they don’t run out of my size—but I was soon overwhelmed. I put most in the recycling without even glancing at it. What you don’t know exists, you don’t know you need.

People decry, rightfully, American consumerism. But I think it’s deeper than that. I think people are the same the world over. So in our culture, it shows itself in people willing to sleep outside in freezing temps and trample each other in their rush to get to the best deal. But in other cultures, it shows itself in other ways—in the ways prices double in the ancient medinas of Morocco or Mauritania right before a feast day, when culture pretty much obligates everyone to buy gifts for loved ones; in the ways that foreigners need to take extra precautions to avoid being robbed to subsidize this gift-giving. In Nouakchott, even those who lived in the poorest of tents and shacks, without a dream of running water or electricity, would nonetheless have TV powered off car batteries, and satellite disks propped outside, surrounded by goats.

We had a quiet day yesterday. In the morning, I made a pumpkin pie and the mince and coconut pies I make every year at this time. ( In the afternoon, we headed over to Donn’s cousin’s house for the big meal. Turns out he’s had family in the area for YEARS and we didn’t realize it. This cousin and I became friends on Facebook, and realized, after we moved into our new house, that we live less than a mile apart.

We enjoyed a delicious meal at her house yesterday. It was a nice size gathering, with 4 couples plus kids. (His cousin’s daughters are grown and came with their own spouses and children) A time of getting acquainted, figuring out memories, learning some fun family history (aside: Donn’s family, especially his parents’ generation, are extremely colourful). Ilsa regaled us with school stories; Abel played legos with the grandkids; Elliot watched football. Nothing too exciting, but certainly a change from recent celebrations in our family’s life.

Ilsa and I stayed up late watching “Julie and Julia,” which was pretty fun and made me feel slightly better about how much I like to eat good food. It was a good Thanksgiving movie.

So what did you do? And for what are you thankful this year? I’m looking for something small in the grand scheme of things, something like good coffee, or being able to open a can of pumpkin and make a perfect pie, instead of having to cook it from scratch and agonizing over the difficulty of getting the texture right. Life’s easy here.

in process…

I got a henna a few days before we left Morocco. The woman who did it got a small smudge of orange goo on the bottom of the nail on my ring finger while swirling arabesques and paisleys and diamond shapes onto the back of my hands. The henna, one of the prettiest I have had, was woefully short lived—by the time we were in Portland, it was already fading. But the nail smudge remained, and I have watched it slowly growing out along with the nail. It’s nearly gone now, entirely on the white tip.


In the time it takes to grow a nail, my whole life has changed. Now where I live, it’s getting dark by 4 p.m. The world wears colours of rust and grey and, always, the indifferent green of the pines and firs in the background. Christmas things have been for sale since September and now, mid-November, a lot of places are already decorated.

Aside: everyone I know complains about this. “Shocking!” we agree. And yet, someone must be buying this stuff or they wouldn’t put it out. They’re not stupid, these multi-million-dollar corporations. They know how to make money. I’m bitter though. They have stolen Thanksgiving, relegated fall decorations to cut-price racks by early November. It has been swallowed in the rush to Christmas. This means, of course, that Christmas will finish early—people will be sick of their dead trees and incessant carols by mid-December, and then what?

We have missed both major eids—the end of Ramadan and the Eid Adha. No one is grilling sheeps’ heads on street corners, filling the air with the scent of charred flesh. No one is sending up plates of liver (which is good) or inviting us for steaming platters of grilled meat.

But last Thursday, I sat in an overheated apartment while Arabic women shouted at each other. “Is it getting too much?” one asked me. “Are you getting a headache? Are you ready for some advil?” I grinned at her and shook my head. I felt quite at home.

The women, all of whom had arrived from Iraq sometime within the past couple of years, were welcoming and friendly. I had given one of them a ride home from an event, and she’d invited me in. It was 9:15 when we arrived at the overheated apartment and shed our coats and shoes, settling into chairs, being proffered bowls of candy. Anyone who said ‘no’ was still firmly handed several pieces. “It’s still the feast,” they explained to me. “We have to eat and celebrate.”

When tea was going round, I noticed that several women said “no sugar” so I did too. Hooray! I didn’t realize that was an option. Iraqi tea is black tea with cardamom, and without an inch of sugar in the tiny glass it is delightful. I resigned myself to my fate and accepted several small cookies and a slice of chocolate marble cake. Soon, we’d moved on to the inky black coffee served Turkish style in doll-sized cups. This coffee is perfection, a glimpse of paradise on earth, worth any amount of sleepless nights. Zeineb smiled at my praise and promised she’d teach me how to make it. And it didn’t keep me up, proving my theory that if you have a little caffeine, it will keep you up, but if you seriously overindulge, it won’t. Either that or Arab coffee/tea is practically decaffeinated, as it doesn’t keep me up but American tea/coffee will.

Ilsa having her henna done

It snowed last night. The kids and I went out at 10 p.m. to throw snowballs and shriek and generally annoy the neighbours. Ilsa stomped an enormous heart around the word SNOW all over the street. Then we stayed up drinking hot chocolate (Trader Joe’s peppermint hot chocolate with actual chunks of bittersweet chocolate in it…soo good) and being silly. Good thing school was cancelled today.

This week is our feast, here in America. I’m planning on making some sort of pumpkin dessert that can be eaten by hand (i.e. not pie) and handing it round to my new friends. I suspect we’re all in the same boat; thinking of faraway places, listening to echoes from past feasts, enjoying celebrations both new and familiar.

I really don’t want to eat a plateful of salty, greasy fried eggs with my hands at 10:00 in the morning, not that long after I had a bowl of healthy cereal and a large cup of really strong coffee (black). But I do. I dig in, tearing off bits of thin wheat flatbread and segments of American cheese (known in our house as plastic cheese, because of both its wrapping and flavour).  I sip at sweet black tea, a tiny glass brimming with hot tea with about 4 teaspoons of sugar stirred in. It is so over-the-top that I start an instant sugar headache.

I’m not losing any weight these days.

What I am doing is working with an organization that assists newly arrived Iraqi refugees. Who knew there were so many of them in the Portland area? Within about 3 miles of my house, there are over 30 families in various stages of culture shock, possession of the English language,  and basic, overall adjustment. And I need to respect them, and their culture. I am helping them and they are returning the favor as best they can, by feeding me. I am their guest, so they must feed me. I know the rules, unspoken but binding, and so I eat eggs and cheese even though I’m not in the least bit hungry.

I am sitting in a spotless but mostly empty apartment. This family has only beds, one couch, a table and some mismatched chairs to their names, yet every day that carpet is vacuumed when I arrive. The 13 year old son goes out in a t-shirt, and his father tells me he’s always hot—the truth is he doesn’t have a coat yet. The 12 year old daughter wears sandals through the sodden puddles of a bitter November day.

I have been helping them get their kids registered in school, a process made more complicated by the fact that they don’t speak English or French, and my Arabic is minimal and from a completely different part of the world. The first day, we registered the 15 year old and the 13 year old at a middle school, but the next day the school phones me and asks to set up an appointment with an interpreter; they are going to put the 15 year old in high school, and move the 12 year old up to middle school. When I tell the children this, they get incredulous grins. “Me…high school?” says the boy. When I say yes, he gives me a huge smile then asks again, just to make sure he got it right.

So on Wednesday, we all set off—6 kids, 2 parents, and me—and arrived only 20 minutes late for our appointment, which I considered a job well done.

Now I’m going to back up a minute. You might remember how, here and here, and kind of here, I was sort of griping about the American schools. I haven’t become their biggest fan, but I’m definitely doing better. I was impressed, at parent-teacher conferences several weeks ago, how well the teachers actually knew my kids, and how much they are doing to push them in the right direction. (Sorry, my diction is off. I meant “how much they are encouraging them to reach their full potential.” Now wouldn’t that sound better on a website?)

But this meeting. There’s the refugee family and the interpreter and me and the counselor and  ESL coordinator, all in a windowless room with brightly-coloured posters and industrial table and chairs. The counselor starts off. He gestures widely. “Please tell them,” he says to the interpreter, “how very happy we are that they are here. We hope they will feel welcome. They are safe here. We want to help each of them succeed at learning and becoming who they want to be.”

The whole meeting has this tone. It comes out that the children haven’t really ever gone to school, except the 15 year old who only went to grades 1 and 2. With the war, it just wasn’t safe. The parents were worried about roadside bombs, shootings, kidnappings, and kept their kids home. Every night their sleep was disturbed. Every day the father was threatened because he worked security for an American company.

The interpreter is an Arabic woman who lived in France for several years, and you can tell from her outlook. “So they know nothing,” she tells the counselor, somewhat dismissively. “They can’t even read and write in Arabic. They will have to start at the beginning.” I suppress a tiny grin at this. I know my cultures a bit, and this way of expressing things reflects her background perfectly. I suppress another grin as the school counselor tells the kids, “It will be overwhelming at first but don’t worry—soon you’ll get it and we will make it as fun as possible.” I doubt that “having fun at school” is a concept they’ve been introduced to before.

Throughout the whole (long) meeting, the school expresses hope, that learning can happen and that it can be fun. The kids are all given new backpacks stuffed with school supplies, and the 6 year old just freezes onto her backpack, too overwhelmed to even smile. “Does she like it?” asks the school secretary, and I assure her. I doubt this child has ever had anything like this pink Disney princess backpack to call her own before, much less the brand-new packs of crayons and pencils inside it.

Everyone is welcoming and reassuring. It can’t be easy, taking in older children who don’t read or write English and don’t know math or science or history and hoping to get them through high school in a semi-timely manner, but you wouldn’t know it from how they smile, how they effuse, how they make comments like “You can just tell they are bright kids.” They have researched their files to find other students who speak Arabic, who can help the kids adjust. They are pulling in all the resources they can to help with ESL and math tutoring and everything that will be needed.

And in my cantankerous grumpy old heart, I’m glad. Oh sure, one can complain at the excess of self-esteem classes, and I do and will continue to do so. But the belief that each child can succeed is going to go a long way with this family.

When we were in Morocco, we bought a door.

Our goal was to paint it and hang in on the wall, but what with one thing and another (moving, stress, in-law visit, stress, etc), we mostly just leaned it against the wall. Everyone who came to visit admired it, and everyone said not to paint it.

You can buy these old doors in the medina. They come in a variety of sizes and ages–in fact, some are modern, just made, sold at high prices to tourists. Others are ancient, weather-beaten and bug-eaten. We opted for the latter.

We put it in the container and when it got to Oregon, we announced our intention to paint it. In the meantime, we leaned it against a wall. Everyone said, “It’s so beautiful. Don’t paint it.”

But we did anyway.

In our defense, Moroccan doors are often painted, and you can see where this one had been painted at some point in its previous life as a door, rather than a wall hanging.

You can see how this is an authentically old door.

It’s less than 4 feet high, but Moroccan doors are often that small. I don’t know why. Moroccans are not an especially short people. This door comes from a village in the mountains, and perhaps doors and windows are kept small to keep as much heat in as possible.

Donn and I had a discussion as to the shade of blue we wanted. We looked at our pictures from various Moroccan towns and argued as to the precise amount of green permissable. Then we went to a Miller Paint store, coincidentally the closest paint store to our house. We started telling the manager about it and he got into it and recommended we try a stain rather than a paint, in order to preserve the details of the wood. (Which reminds me, we promised him a picture of the finished product.)

I think it worked out great, personally.


And now we have a door on our wall.

November 2010

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