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I remember one of my first evenings in my friend Aicha’s home. She’d invited a small group over and they all stared at me curiously—this pale American, pale eyes, pale hair, wearing her blue muluffa awkwardly. Americans were a rarity in Nouakchott then, and they had plenty of questions for me. I had questions for them, too, and Aicha smiled and brought tea and did her best to introduce me, her new friend, to the world of Mauritanian culture.

That was years ago and half the globe away. But I have never forgotten the kindness with which she helped me enter her world.

There were times, especially the first few years living in Africa, when homesickness would rise in waves. I would worry about my mother. I would miss bookstores and supermarkets and coffee shops. I would look out my windows at the dun, tan, and beige shades of the world, the brazen sky, the strange colours and textures of my new home, and I would long for the greens and greys of Oregon. There were times when I was sick of being stared at as I walked down the street, sick of being cheated in the market, sick of my students arguing with me and my superiors not taking my side, and I would long for a place where everyday life wasn’t so hard. Ironically, the best way to deal with this kind of homesickness is not what you might think. It’s not hunkering inside under a fan with a cup of iced coffee and a good book, although sometimes that’s what you need. But the best way to deal with how alien my new home felt was to get out into it, enjoy its oddities. The best way was to go visit Aicha’s family, or the Moh. Sayeed family, or Hyati or Zainab or Selma. The best thing to do was to get out of the house.

And so now, thinking of that, I decide to take my new Iraqi friend Susi to Starbucks.*  Last week, when I was visiting her, she mentioned how much she misses her family. Her sisters, living in Bagdad, are still dealing with war in their every day life. I ask about her mother. “If she was still alive, we wouldn’t have left, no matter what,” she tells me. Her father died when she was a child.

How do Americans treat their friends? What is the best way I can bring her into this culture? I think. And the answer seems obvious. So I call her up and invite her. “Have you ever been to Starbucks?” I ask her, and she says no. I get out the personalized gift card my wonderful sister-in-law sent me for Christmas (which has a drawing of a curly-haired woman with a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other) and I pick Susi up at her apartment. Both of our kids are in school still.

We have a nice time. The Starbucks is quite busy, as all of them always, always are. We sit at the counter at first, on hard wooden stools, but soon enough two cushy armchairs open up, with a view out a plate-glass window at people walking by. It’s a cold, crisp day, the sky pale blue, Mount Hood visible in the distance enrobed with snow.

Susi tells me she doesn’t like coffee and avoids caffeine in general. We look at the teas, and she is excited at the word “chai,” which is also the Iraqi word for tea. They make it with cardamom or cinnamon though, and as I read off the ingredients of the Tazo version she tells me she doesn’t like ginger. So she orders a green tea, and I have a chai latte, because I’ve never had one and I want to try it. It’s good although a little too sweet for me. She adds sugar to her tea and claims to enjoy it; she drinks the whole large cup while we sit and chat. Afterwards we wander a nearby sort of mall, and continue chatting. We discuss children, life in Iraq, life in Morocco, husbands, tax structures. Then I drop her off at her apartment and head home across the city.

It’s a small thing, just like the evening at Aicha’s was. And yet, as I know from my own experience, it’s small things like this that can help make a foreign place begin to feel a little more like a place where you might want to be.

*Susi isn’t her real name. Actually, Aicha is not Aicha’s real name either. I like to have my friends’ permission before mentioning them by name on the internet, and without it, I am either vague or I make up a name. I’m hoping my burgeoning friendship with Susi will continue to develop, so I’m giving her an actual name so we don’t all get too confused.

I seem to be already failing at my self-imposed posting goal, but I suppose that was inevitable. The amazing thing was that I made it two weeks. How am I doing it? I’m not rereading my stuff or thinking about it overnight. Can you tell? I was afraid so.

Today, Friday, the kids are home from school. It’s a Teacher Work Day, which means no students. This has to do with budget cuts, in an inexplicable way that I don’t even bother to try to understand, since I prefer my own theories. I had a very amusing exchange on Facebook with one of Elliot’s French teachers from last year. (Actually he was the math teacher; French teachers don’t do comedy. They are, to a woman, grim-faced and thin-lipped.) He said, in effect, wasn’t the work of the teachers non-existent without the students? I said grading, admin stuff, etc, but he wasn’t convinced.

I celebrated Teacher’s Work Day by visiting a chocolate shop in downtown Portland with a friend. I had a “shot” of drinking chocolate, made with 72% cocoa and cayenne pepper and ginger. It was incredible. I don’t usually like hot sweet drinks, but this wasn’t too sweet, and was more like drinking dark chocolate than anything else.

Ilsa is celebrating by cleaning her room. This wasn’t exactly her idea. One might say it was imposed from above by people who long above all to see her floor–people who are obsessed with being able to see the floor, although it is in no way an exciting or interesting floor. Needless to say, few things are more horrible than having to clean your room on a 3 day weekend. Especially because we’re visiting an Iraqi family at noon tomorrow which means she can’t sleep in. The injustice in her life is staggering.

We had an exhausting weekend which I won’t bore you with except to mention the part where I made great Moroccan food at last! This is exciting because I have been attempting to make it ever since we got back, and each time our guests have looked on in amazement as Donn and I and the kids say, “It’s just not right; it’s close but not really good enough.” So, I’m wondering, do you discuss dishes as a family, looking for ways to improve? We don’t always, but we do when I’m trying to recreate something we’ve had somewhere else.

The good news is that I can now make really good chicken-olive-lemon tagine and zaalouk, the cooked eggplant salad. Yaay for me. Come for dinner.

We heard on Sunday afternoon that Donn’s sister, in her mid-40s, had had a stroke. Then we heard they weren’t sure if it was a stroke. She’s diabetic and has been having seizures, and apparently had a stroke in the middle of one. No, it was an insulin overdose. No, it was a bad reaction to two different kinds of medication. No it was…no one knew. No one knows yet. I spent hours trying to call her room, always getting a busy signal or, once, her doctor. Finally today I was able to talk to her myself (Donn had managed to get through before) and we had a nice long chat. She is doing better. We are cautiously optimistic for a full recovery.

On MLK Day, we did not do all that we had planned, but we did do something we hadn’t. “Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested to Elliot. “Okay. I’ll take you to Starbucks,” he said.

Well all right then! Even though what I’d had in mind was more athletic and less sitting-at-a-table-consuming-calories, I agreed with alacrity! Plus, I need to ingest more calcium. Win-win.

This is the second time he’s done this now. I know that I had many dreams for him when he was first born, but I never imagined that my 15 year old son would take me out for coffee, and sit and chat with me while we drank it.

Elliot has always liked to talk. When he was about 6 or 7, his favorite time to settle down for a real heart-to-heart about all that was going on at school was bedtime. It took me a while to wise up—what parent DOESN’T want her child opening up to her?—and realize that these times were carefully planned to delay the inevitable lights out. Donn and I started taking our kids, at random, on “special times” as we called them. There weren’t a ton of options in Nouakchott, but one or the other would take a child to a café for a shwarma and fries, or to the town’s one ice-cream shop that lasted about 2-3 years. (Aside: Donn stopped going after he took Abel there one time. Abel ordered, and the girl scooped out his ice-cream. Then, while she was waiting for Donn to decide, she licked the scoop, and then used it for Donn’s ice-cream. Life in these developing countries!) These times ensured that we heard what the kids had to say, and enabled us to keep bedtime a little closer to the ideal. We’ve mostly dropped the habit now although it still happens sporadically.

So Elliot and I walked over to Starbucks, where he bought me a grande cappuccino with his own money. The place was packed, as it always is, so we sat outside, warm enough from our walk, and talked about everything from the possibility of the historical existence of giants to colleges to marriage—he’d overheard part of a phone conversation about a Moroccan friend of mine who’s getting divorced. We chatted for about half an hour, double-checked that the library was, in fact, closed (I told him!), and then headed home.


Today, after school, Ilsa and I head out the door into the purples and pinks of a winter sunset. We climb the steep hill behind our house—so steep and grand that it’s called a mountain. From the top, other mountains are visible, and the long wide valley of the Willamette, where Portland is nestled. Don’t you feel it only right that any city located in a long wide valley be nestled? These are the rules, people. I don’t make them up.

We climb up past palatial houses, where I once saw a deer, discussing how those decorative rocks are arranged like fish scales, and how those cedar trees remind us of the ones in the hills behind Volubilus.

Ilsa and I are trying to lose our tummies. We discuss this on the way up—at least once we are more than halfway, as the first half is brutally steep and not so inducive to discussion. “Isn’t there a pill you can take to lose weight?” she asks, so I tell her about pills that raise your heart beat or cause you to expel all fat violently from your body. “Why would someone want to take a pill like that?” she asks. “Why do you think?” I reply. So we chat a bit, about body image and health and other deep topics.

We spend most of the way down discussing Ilsa’s dream house, which is set on some acreage and includes wild woods and horses and a house with a tower and a circular staircase since, naturally, every dream house must include a circular staircase. We discuss stone paths and wells and birch glades for moonlit dancing and a glass hill—not a big one, more of a glass hump—just because.

If you want to live in Fairie when you grow up, I highly recommend letting Ilsa design it for you.

Today the sun shone through the misty pearl clouds and the weather was crisp but not cold. I bought tulips on sale yesterday and filled vases with them, and they make the house feel like the earth has turned, that spring is coming. And though I thought that our walk might provide me a blog post, it didn’t quite. It was nice, but our discussions were not especially deep or meaningful, just part of our ongoing conversations about the life we find ourselves in. And that’s enough, for now.

It rained and it rained and it rained. “Maybe they’ll cancel school,” said Abel hopefully, but I told him, “Not in Oregon.” If this was snow, now, they would. Although the bus stop is less than a block away, they burst into the house dripping wet, Ilsa’s hair in wild curls.

The twins shouted at me to come see the river, but I had already seen it—rushing, swollen and turgid, down the small street in front of our house. This house is on a tiny street, sort of private drive—there are 3 houses on it, going up a small hill, all of us at the bottom of a much larger hill which blocks our sunlight as effectively as the tall stately evergreens growing on it. We’re the middle house, and I’d already been alerted to the rain by the darkening sky at mid-day and the sound of an ocean crashing down over the roof—well not quite, but it is seriously raining today.

While I was content to simply admire the way the water had formed a sort of enchanting waterfall over the curb—a Niagara-falls type effect, about 5 feet wide—my neighbour seemed more inclined to action, going out with a shovel and digging round ineffectually under the fence, from which issued forth the pouring stream of muddy water. By now, it was forming a small lake at the bottom of our little road, where it meets the bigger street. It gurgled interestingly. He managed to dig some leaves out of the drain, but it didn’t seem to help. The city sent a truck, whose driver promised to inspect the stream that started all this—he suspected something clogging its normal waterway.

There isn’t an exciting conclusion to this—at least not yet. The rain has let up but there are lots of small floods all over town. You can still drive in them though. This isn’t nearly as eventful as much smaller rains in Nouakchott, where there’d be real problems, people’s cooking pots floating off and the sewers overflowing into the streets. But it’s enough to get a few paragraphs out of, at least. Today, the paper said yesterday’s rainfall was record-setting. But the river is gone, along with the tiny gurgling lake.

I was thinking of George Macdonald’s fairy tale “The Light Princess” the other day. The entire story is a pun about the two meanings of lightness; the princess floats and laughs, and only learns to sink and walk the earth when she experiences sadness, heaviness of spirit, for the first time.

The twins are gaining weight too. I see it in their eyes, in how they walk. Abel in particular has studied two very heavy issues in school this year; slavery and the Holocaust. He’s reading a horrific autobiography, written by a Polish man who survived 5 different death camps, heard about his father’s brutal murder from an eyewitness he met in one of those camps. The man is still alive and lives locally; he’s supposed to visit the class at the end of this unit. Abel is very excited about this.

It’s not that it’s new to them, this weight of the world we live in. They had picture books of Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman (I know; sounds horrible to me too, but they were very well done). They have grown up in a country where, walking out the door in the morning, they were confronted by a large family living in a tent, no electricity or running water. The family used to ring our doorbell and present us with an enormous bucket, which we would fill from our tap, and then watch them lug it across the open sandy space separating our tiled and shaded home from their ragged-edge living quarters. The twins had Mauritanian friends from school whose families still had slaves, although they were euphemistically called “sisters” and “brothers.” We would visit and watch the dark-skinned “sister” hanging out the laundry and bringing us drinks while the lighter-skinned “sister” took Ilsa to her room to play. I don’t know how much of this they realized at the time, however.

The twins have experienced two deaths of people close to them; one the father of their friends who was shot in the street, one a woman they called “aunt” who taught them French, who was brutally murdered by a man whom, up until that time, they had called “uncle.” On top of that, they lost their grandmother, my mother, 18 months ago. They have said multiple goodbyes to friends and places, experienced civil unrest and a parent struggling with depression. These things have added gravitas, weight, to their lives. But I watched them tuck these things away with the resilience of childhood. Events may shape our lives and characters, but sometimes they are buried deep.

Part of maturing is realizing that these things happen to everyone, around the world. Knowing that people are dying in Brazilian landslides and Haitian cholera, that your good friend is missing a week of school because there is rioting near his home in Tunis, that a friend’s 17 year-old sister just lost all her hair to chemotherapy. Wondering how the family continues to cope without their father; it’s been a year and a half now.

Of course I want my children to be aware of the suffering that goes on in the world, to be sympathetic and concerned and do what they can to help. Being able to articulate your own experiences helps with this, I think, and that comes with age. Being aware of others is part of why we chose to raise them overseas. We wanted them to have a broader view of the world. (There’s a partial answer for those of you who asked why we moved initially. I have not forgotten those questions. I’m just saving them up for when I can’t think of anything else to write about)

But it’s interesting to watch them, in this transition from childhood to adolescence, young adulthood. They’re 13 ½. Maybe it’s just the accumulated weight, and their age is coincidence, but I think that it’s more, that it’s burgeoning maturity, adding weight to their eyes, to their knowledge of the world.

Last week, I accidentally bumped Ilsa’s foot and she shrieked. At first I thought she was simply being melodramatic, not that that would be normal or anything for a 13 year old girl. But when she said her toe hurt, my heart sank within me like the proverbial stone.

It was just red at first, but by the next day there was a bubble of yellow green pus already forming. I will spare you further details. Suffice it to say I quickly got online and then couldn’t manage to access my super-secret private insurance page and had to wait to call and then had to wait for the customer service to get approval from my husband before they could talk to me. Am I in Morocco still? I asked myself. Just kidding, but it did strike me as awfully silly since the account clearly showed me as being on it. Sigh.

Then I spent hours trying to make sure I didn’t need a referral to go straight to a podiatrist. I also found a podiatrist nearby and made an appointment. I wasn’t waiting around this time. Never again will I have a doctor purse her lips at me and say snootily, “You have waited too long, madame.”

Today we went to the Foot Clinic or whatever it was called. I told our saga over and over…the removal 13 months ago, the reinfection that wouldn’t go away, the Good Doctor and the Bad Doctor, the perky blonde who took care of it in August at the amusingly-named Zoom Care. I explained all this over the phone when I made the appointment, then again to the nurse, then again to the doctor. Ilsa added in moans and groans and appalling little stories about how the Moroccan surgeon did not let her toe numb completely before he pulled out the nail. It was a great time and we were just warming up our act when the doctor got out his needle.

Now I will say that Ilsa is actually a very tough girl, but this toe thing has worn her out and she is done. She no longer handles needles. Her entire body tensed and, as is her wont, she expressed her emotions freely, using all of her vocal cords. The doctor and I kept trying to get her to lie down and relax. I attempted to cheer her right up by explaining how I had given birth to her and her twin brother without pain medicine, simply by relaxing, but the story did not have the desired effect.

Eventually the novacaine took effect, and she was able to stoically view her injured toe with both sides of the nail removed and huge wooden Q-tips sticking out of it. The doctor decided to definitively take care of the problem by putting poison, a type of acid, on the sides of the nail, so it will never grow out again. The acid turned her skin a deep blackish purple and the nail in between looked sort of green. “You love purple,” I said encouragingly to Ilsa, but she wasn’t convinced. “You could paint a picture of it and people would say you had the colours wrong,” I continued, but she still wasn’t cheering up. Some people are a hard sell.

It was very exhausting watching my daughter suffer. I asked the doctor if he’d consider something a bit stronger than Tylenol 3, for me, for my recovery, but he declined.

We headed over to the pharmacy for the ointment, the antibiotic, and the Tylenol 3 for Ilsa. I left Ilsa in the car, per her request, as her toe was beginning to hurt a little bit, and went into the store. It’s a large store, and there was a large line to match. I turned in the 3 papers. “Give us at least 40 minutes,” said the pharmacist. I groaned, and she took pity on me. “Try in 35,” she urged.

I figured I might as well do my grocery shopping, so I raced around the store. I had just joined the still-long line for pharmacy pick-up when Ilsa appeared, moaning in pain. The novacaine had worn off, she’d been sitting in a freezing car for nearly an hour, and she had completely lost any perspective she might once have had, which, seeing as she’s a 13 year old girl, wasn’t much. We drove home through freezing rain, which crackled and tinkled against the windows like we were driving through icicles. I must admit that I do love freezing rain, although it’s a bit disappointing after we were promised snow. Ilsa continued to emote on the drive home. Once home, I gave her Tylenol 3 with a big glass of milk, and then we got to enjoy hours of her giggling to herself. The pain relief was supposed to last 6 hours but only lasted 3. (although I have to say that I myself have never found Tylenol 3 all that effective. I gave her some advil too, and sent her to bed. I am expecting to be gotten up about 2 a.m.)

The doctor said that even with only half of a nail left, she could still get an ingrown toenail. “But she’s starting with a clean slate,” he assured me, as he got a glimpse of my expression. “She shouldn’t get one.” I hope not. Like Ilsa, I am pretty much done with this.

Although I wanted to mark the Feast of the 3 Kings with some celebratory almond paste and flaky pastry (aka Galette des Rois; visit Meredith to see pics), I wasn’t able to. There was a combination of reasons. One, I am technically trying to cut down on my intake of buttery, flaky pastry as part of my cunning plan to lose, oh, many many pounds this year and amaze everyone with my stunning amounts of will power. (How am I doing so far? Um… poorly. Let’s leave it at that.) Two, we went to a meeting about alternative high schools in our school district.

These are exciting times. Although Ilsa is dancing about the place at the thought of going to an art school for high school. Could anything be more cool?

Yesterday we went to Powells and then Donn went out photographing. He’s trying to get the definitive photo of this one building on Burnside Street, where a street goes off at an angle and the building is shaped like a wedge of cheese or a pizza slice. So far that’s involved going downtown on a bitter, freezing night and on a rainy dull grey afternoon. Today was dry and clear and even showed glimpses of blue sky but it was very cold, so I managed to stay inside the bookstore, where I had promised Donn I wouldn’t buy anything. This was made easier by the fact that while I was buying books for people at Christmas I accidentally bought myself 2 or 3. Well 4.

I moved to Portland when I was 18 and stayed 16 years; I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. I came to go to college and met a boy and just stayed, going to another college, working, having kids, buying a house. I remember practically living at Powells when I was a student. This was before they added some of the extra storeys. Even then you could get lost for hours. My friend Tom worked there, and always gave me great deals on books, which you could do back in the day before every single thing was computerized. A typical used book cost $2; now they’re $8. Only an old woman would think to mention this, I do realize. And there are still marvelous deals to be found; for example a like-new hardcover of a fascinating book called “Educating Alice” for only $6.

It’s strange to wander round that part of downtown, once so familiar and grungy, now full of  trendy boutiques and large-windowed, linen-tabled restaurants pumping enticing smells into the frosty air. Some things haven’t changed but many have, and we pause on a corner, straining our memories for what used to be there, arguing whether or not this was the corner where that one art gallery used to be, now a store selling overpriced clothes in neutral shades for thin women, or a Pilates studio.

Memory plays tricks. Things rise in the mind’s eye, half-formed and misty-edged, and I grasp at them, not sure if I am remembering something from 3 years ago or 20, all of these street corner reincarnations layered one on top of the other like posters stapled to a light pole. Was this place a Thai restaurant when we were students, or was it the place we took Elliot when he was 2 and we couldn’t believe all the spicy food he’d eat? Or was that another corner, another hole-in-the-wall ethnic food experience? I’m not sure. My life is fragmented; childhood in Canada, high school in Seattle, adult years in Africa or Europe. I remember when things happened by what house I was living in at the time.

Donn takes a picture of a recently repainted sign, edges and lettering crisp, and remembers taking a picture from an empty parking garage on Christmas Day in 1989 with his first professional camera. The sign then was muted and faded, left over from years previous. This much is clear in our heads. But Donn can’t find that old negative, made before digital was even thought of. How can we be that old?

When we drive home, up Burnside through the west hills and past the big cemetery, it’s foggy and still. Snow is forecast but there’s no sign of it so far. I make enchiladas for dinner. We’re planning to watch a movie as family, huddled round Donn’s computer because we still don’t have a television. A quiet weekend.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

by T.S. Eliot. To hear him reading it, go here.

So, wordpress, my blogging home of choice, is doing a challenge for 2011—post every day, or every week, and they will give you prompts. Hmmm. First of all, there is no way I’m going to post every day, so those of you who subscribe in readers can relax. Phew, you’re thinking, that’s a relief. There isn’t time in the day for you to read me nattering on about where I’d travel in a time machine, or 3 favorite songs that are overplayed that I love anyway (these are actual prompts—why am I even considering this?) On the other hand, I do sort of vaguely want to post more often, even if I am the worst blogger ever when it comes to writing people back and commenting on people’s comments. I mean to, but I forget. So I’m not committing to anything, but I am saying I might be showing up in your feed reader a little more often this year. Say, oh, 3 times a week? Or not. Time will tell. On va voir.

So, to kick things off, why don’t I put you to work and ask YOU for prompts? Topics? Questions? I don’t guarantee I’ll answer them, because I’m ornery like that and WILL not share my recipe for eggplant, spinach, and lentil casserole, which is an imaginary dish I taunt my children with when they ask what’s for dinner. Seriously, why is that question so infuriating? Don’t answer that.

Want to hear about my ancestry? (another prompt. Who comes up with these things?) More tales from Mauritania? Cute stories from when the kids were little? Secrets to decorating YOUR house in college-student-chic with knick-knacks from around the world? Ask me something.

random pic of the twins from Halloween. Maybe I should resolve to post pictures in a more timely fashion?

January 2011

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