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Several of my friends posted this on facebook, and I wanted to share it with you. Honestly, this is a tame example of Rabati traffic. There are big spaces between those cars. No one is shouting. But it’s still pretty fun to watch.

Also, it really has made a huge difference in our daily stress levels not to have to deal with this on a daily basis.

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I got up at 6:30 this morning, in the dark and cold, and turned on my computer to check. Sure enough, school was cancelled. Everyone went back to bed for between 2 (adults) and 4 (teens) hours.

Snow days are very rare in the Portland area, and we over-react to the first few swirling flakes. We seriously over react. But that’s okay—mock us as you like. Oregonians don’t know how to drive in the snow and the roads get crazy fast; it’s best if everyone stays inside. I grew up in Canada, on the prairies, where we had ample snow for months on end, but we left when I was 12 so I never learned to drive in it myself. Also, if we did not cancel school for half an inch of snow, we would never get to cancel school.

We love snow! But we can’t deal with it. So everything got cancelled last night and tonight, and my very busy day packed full of plans changed into a day spent lying round the house in my sweats, making jam tarts with Ilsa and having extra cups of tea. I’ve been having nasty headaches lingering from the cold I had last week, so it felt good to rest and recover.

In other news, we’ve had another round of nail infections, which naturally caused me to wonder: Why? I mean, I have gone my entire life with intact nails, as have many of my friends. The obvious answer is that Donn must have faulty genes. Seriously, on my side, we have very healthy nails.

This time it was Elliot’s turn. He had an infected fingernail so we treated it with the Moroccan version of Neosporin (we had plenty left over from Ilsa’s toe saga) and band-aids. It didn’t improve. Suddenly, Ilsa had 2 infected nails. (She’s always been pretty competitive so this didn’t surprise me) Hers weren’t as bad, but also weren’t really improving, so last week we went into Urgent Care one evening after school.

The nurse practitioner noticed that Elliot’s nail was loose. “I’ll just take it off,” she decided. Sure, why not? I said. It’s what we do. Elliot was very brave (well he’d have to be, wouldn’t he, with Ilsa right in the same room?) even when the nail stuck to the nail bed and she had to really yank on it. Then she bandaged his middle finger in an enormous white bandage and sent him off to school like that.

She said the nail wasn’t acting as she would have expected. There should be pus, she felt, and there wasn’t. Ilsa had the same problem, although since hers weren’t as bad she kept her nails, for a change. The NP cultured the infections, and called us 2 days later with the news—it was strep.

Only my kids would get this instead of having normal strep throats like everyone else. Who know how many people they infected while we were in blissful ignorance thinking it was an infected hangnail?

Amazingly, everyone else is healthy so far. Abel (who physically is most like my side of the family—coincidence? I don’t think so!) has lovely nails and his throat is fine too.

I looked it up on Google and sure enough, strep is common all over your skin. Isn’t that a pleasant thought? I’ll wait here while you go scrub down with bleach.

Hopefully our freezing temps will kill some of these germs. We are supposed to get more snow tonight, but my hopes aren’t high. I’m not complaining—there are still plenty of jam tarts left, in case we get another snow day tomorrow.

Answer: dust. A Moroccan lantern. A picture of my Mum. A box of kleenex. Oh, and some books.

I’ve just signed up to start reviewing books over at 5 Minutes for Books, and I’m really excited. Living overseas, it was tremendously difficult to get books in English, and Ilsa and I are both omnivorous readers. I discovered 5MFB a few years ago. The site not only kept me informed as to some of the millions of new books coming out every year, but also gave me opportunity to win free books! (I would put my friend Heather’s address and she would keep them for me, or sometimes someone would be mailing me a parcel. Just in case those of you overseas are getting overly excited. Sorry. No int’l giveaways) Plus, the managing editor, Jennifer, has become a friend.

Now, as a reviewer, I suspect I’ll be up to my ears in new books. What fun! I’ll tell you all about them, don’t worry.

5MFB does a monthly feature called “What’s On Your Nightstand?” The idea is to share with other readers what you’ve been enjoying lately, and what you’re planning to read. Although I haven’t started getting my stack of free books (I know!! Squee!! I am so excited about this), I do have a stack of library books I’m working through. Here’s what I’m currently reading:

 

  1. The War That Killed Achilles This book about the Iliad is basically literary criticism, but it looks beyond it to reflect on war in general, and shows from the text how Homer’s attitude towards the Trojan War is perhaps more complicated than has often been assumed. It’s well written. I’m really enjoying it.
  2. Anywhere But Here A novel I got at the library. It’s the story of a mother/daughter and the mother’s desperate attempts to better themselves. I’m not that far into it, but it’s good so far.
  3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being I’m rereading this book, which has been in storage for the past 9 years. This is ostensibly a novel, but it’s also a book of philosophy, all set around two main characters, many satellite characters, and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  I love his reflections on life, his philosophies, his musings on obsession, possession, and the ways people use love to control each other. I enjoy watching him explore how the same words in the same language can be understood completely differently by two individuals, and how events that shape our times are interpreted differently by those who experience them first hand and those who read about them in the news. It’s a great book, but I will warn that it’s not for everyone.
  4. The Dwarves. This is Elliot’s book and he says it rocks. He wants me to read it. I read about 30 pages of it several months ago and it is still on my nightstand, literally. It’s fine, but I have to be in the mood for fantasy, and I haven’t been.

 

This past month, I read several books by Ngaio Marsh, a classic mystery writer. (I love classic mysteries, especially when I am sick and can curl up in bed with a cup of tea) Also, someone gave me One Thousand Gifts, which many people are raving about, but I haven’t started it yet. It looks good though.

The woman’s faces, half-formed, seem to swim in the pictures below several layers, interposed with cuttings from newspapers ads. Many pictures contain arrows, pointing off stage, out of the picture. They make me think of ways out, escapes and exits. The women lean back against each other, or lie, posed, on their sides, their bodies little more than grey outlines against twisting textures and colours.

Ilsa, Donn and I are visiting an Iraqi couple. Their apartment is like many others we’ve been in; it’s small and a little dank, but spotless, decorated in other’s discarded furniture but neat, lots of oak and glass and, always, an arrangement of silk flowers. The wife brings us glasses of juice, cups of strong Turkish-style coffee (which I love passionately, a la folie), chocolates, two slices each of a chocolate and vanilla layer cake decorated with elaborate swirls of frosting. “Eat! Eat!” she urges us.

Her husband was an artist. Is an artist. It’s his paintings we’re looking at, stacks of them, all done in the 10 or so months he’s been here. We ask him to explain them to us but he smiles slyly and shakes his head. “I don’t like to say,” he explains slowly. “If I say, then you only see what I say.”

It’s easy enough to apply the little I know of his story to his paintings and collages. In one, the red doesn’t seem like a vivid but neutral colour but instead like blood, soaking into a woman’s arms. In another, done in shades of grey and brown, there’s part of a clipping. GET OUT it shouts across one corner. An arrow, a picture from a street sign, points the way.

He was well-known in his home country but here, he doesn’t expect much. He smiles shyly, that secret happy smile that one tries to hide when one is complimented, as we admire and enthuse over his work. He is very, very talented in a variety of styles. I have never learned to write about artwork so I can’t really describe it to you; I know a few terms, like acrylic vs. oils, but I don’t know how to describe his work of folk lore and patterns vs. the extreme realism in paintings of birds vs. the more abstract work he’s doing now, here, in exile. But he is extremely versatile.

She was an art director in Iraq. She designed sets for plays, and made several films. She speaks Italian but very little English, and she doesn’t expect much of life in America. “You know,” she said to me once, “there we had furniture, rugs. Many things. We just left them. Here, we have nothing.”

I mention this to someone else. “Does she regret leaving?” the person asks me. No, I say. I don’t get that impression. Regret is the wrong word. But she is grieving. I understand this grief, of things. Life is more precious than things. A man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. Having escaped with family, you are happy, grateful. That is the main thing.

But, having had, you remember. And sometimes, you ache with it, as you stare out small streaked windows into the grey skies and uninspired parking lots of your new home.

Long ago and far away (ok, January 5th to be precise), I opened up the ol’ blog for questions. Ask me your questions and I will answer, I promised. And then I didn’t, as if I was a politician or something. Oh sure, I had good intentions, but I was sort of saving them for a rainy day when I couldn’t think of a topic.

Coincidentally, it’s raining today. I have a cold, too, which came on very suddenly. I woke up yesterday and I was fine, and then I sneezed about 8 times in a row and was sick. It was very weird. I am handling this with aplomb and grace and of course I’m not moaning about it and yelling “I hate being sick!” every time I sneeze. I wouldn’t do that. Nope. Not me.

Jennifer at Under the Ponderosas asked several very good questions and today I am going to answer some of them. At least one will turn into a blog post in its own right, so today I’m going to tackle the easier ones.

Jennifer asked: Did you see any leopards when you were in Senegal? (My son wants to know.)

The answer is no. I don’t even know if there are leopards in Senegal. Your son probably knows more than I do. The only wildlife we saw in Senegal were warthogs, a large snake, and tons and tons of birds, all different kinds and colours and sizes.

Do you hope your children live a traveler’s life when they grow up, like you have? I do, actually. They are bi-lingual, and it would seem a shame to waste that. Right now, they love the experiences they’ve had, and want to continue to see more of the world. We will see if they maintain this into adulthood. I suspect whoever they marry, assuming they marry, will have a lot to do with this. Also, if Donn and I end up overseas again ourselves, we would want them to visit. A lot. Or live next door, whichever’s easier.

Do you love or hate “The Sheltering Sky”? I read the book a couple of years ago. I believe there’s a movie but I haven’t seen it. I liked it—Bowles is a terrific writer—but I didn’t love it. He presented Morocco as very much “other” and practically unknowable by “civilized people.” That certainly wasn’t my experience. I felt the main character brought so much baggage to her travels that she couldn’t get a real view of the culture she claimed to want to know. Bowles does a good job of making you feel you’re in the scene though; just remembering reading it, I feel the Saharan heat.

There’s a scene in Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits which has a young man trying to get tourists to hire him as a guide by asking them if they’ve read it or his other works, if he was the attraction that has drawn them to Tangiers. I found that amusing. I tend to think that nowadays, most people haven’t read his stuff. Maybe they’ve seen the movie? What about you? Have you read the book/seen the movie? If so, what did you think?

And now I’m off to take a nap. Donn is delivering pictures we took of a family I’ve mentioned a few times, but I cried off because of sickness. I have other things I can’t cancel, so I’ve got to get my rest in now.

Also, goal of posting three times/week? FAIL.

I am talking with a group of friends in late November. “I can’t believe how early Americans start celebrating Christmas,” I say. One of them blinks at me. Later it comes out that all of them already have their trees, have already started baking, have houses coated in red and green and wreathed in carols.

A different day, a different informal group of women. One is talking about her phobia of germs. Without thinking, I start talking about how surprised I was at the griminess of the children’s hands in Mauritania. They all wanted to shake hands, and afterwards my primary thought was to wash hands, although I hated myself for this. But the silty sand combined with the stickiness, the dirt, and the thought of the children’s living conditions… I finish my story and everyone is silent. I kick myself. I did not mean to emphasize how “different” I am, just because I’ve lived somewhere else.

Culture shock is understandable—naturally everything’s different to this poor ex-pat who doesn’t know that she’s supposed to cook a sheep’s head for the Eid, or that it’s rude to lean back against the cushions when there are men present.

Culture shock is eminently forgivable. People make allowances, more easily, for the stranger than the neighbour. But as an American-looking American-sounding woman of indeterminate age, there is no excuse for me to be feeling out of things here. This is my home, my native land, right? Reverse culture shock is offensive because it implies criticism. What right do I have to say when people should start celebrating Christmas, or to be critical that everyone’s got such a germ phobia that they carry hand-sanitizer everywhere?

So we tamp it down, we the hidden outsiders. We fake, pretend we know the cultural reference, just like we faked it overseas, when everyone knew we didn’t.

Sometimes someone will call me on it. “This must all be so weird to you,” they’ll say. And I usually smile gratefully (someone gets me!) and nod, and then, being me, start talking again about my life overseas. Boring people. Because no one really wants to hear all about it all over again. (Aside: actually I met someone the other day who did. She kept asking me question after question about life at the University of Nouakchott in the mid-00s (aside aside: does that work as a way to describe the last decade?) and gave off NONE of the “I’m-secretly-so-bored-WHEN-will-this-woman-shut-up” signals. I even changed the subj and she brought it back. She was fascinated!)

But I am torn, and as ragged-edged as that metaphor implies. Because I want, simultaneously, to fit in and to be different. I like who I am; I like the experiences I’ve had that have contributed to my current outlook on life. Sometimes I embrace the criticism of my own culture; I mean what I am implying. But sometimes, I just want to be like everybody else. I forget that no one is just like everybody else, that every single woman in that circle is feeling out of it in one way or another.

And now I want to hear from you. I know many of my readers have dealt with this.

Among other things I’ve done this week, I helped Susi apply for a job online. It’s just a simple job, retail associate they call it now, at one of the large chain stores America specializes in. I had to explain what a retail associate was to her. “It’s a very American thing, making a simple job sound complex and important,” I told her.

It was quite the lesson in American culture for the poor woman. I had to stress the importance of time and time management—not that she doesn’t do that anyway, she is organized and her apartment is always spotless, but because it would not occur to her to play up that aspect of her personality.

The application was a new experience for both of us. Last time I applied for this sort of job, I filled out a two-page application with 3 references and a list of work experience and my name, address, and SSN. This time, we started with that, but then we went on to a 90-question “test.”

We had to choose from a range of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” for most of the questions, which were obviously written not only to discover an applicant’s personality (Sample: Sometimes I misplace things. Or: Sometimes I get impatient) but an applicant’s knowledge of English. (Sample: I don’t always misplace things. Even I had to think about that one) A lot of the questions were after the same information, just reworded to trap the unwary. The most popular question had to do with how self-motivated you were. Do you have to be told to do everything or do you look around and see what needs to be done? This question, in various guises, was asked nearly 10 times.

Then came the word problems. These presented a situation and 5 potential responses; you had to choose which was the best and which was the worst. 2 employees are rude to each other. Do you intervene? Tell a supervisor? Talk to them privately? Ignore them? I had no idea. I would personally ignore them, and Susi would too. I suspect we were wrong and we were supposed to talk to them privately. But since when do you have to be an expert in managing humans to work retail?

Say you’ve been working at the store for a while and you know the ropes. There’s a new guy who doesn’t know the ropes. Do you teach him the ropes? During your shift or after hours? Or do you tell your supervisor?

This, naturally, brought up the simple question: Ropes? What ropes? There were lots of idiomatic expressions used. Susi’s English is at a solid intermediate level, I would say, and has plenty of gaps. I explained what it means to “know the ropes” and “teach someone the ropes” and also other expressions, like “to see something through.”

I also brought up the importance of saying what you mean—i.e. to not promise something that you have no intention of doing just to be polite. “This is hard for Arabs; you will feel you are being rude if you tell someone no,” I explained. “But it is worse, in our culture, if you say you will be somewhere and you don’t come.” Crossing cultures is so difficult. There are so many unspoken things, taken for granted by members of one culture, so basic that they can’t even explain them to someone new.

I hope she gets the job. One of the hardest things refugees face is money problems. They are given enough money to cover rent, plus food stamps, for their first 8 months, and by the end of that time they’re expected to know English, be working and self-sufficient, and have somehow managed to pay electric and utility bills, purchase a car and pay for insurance, etc, from the approximately $20/month left over after paying rent. Seem impossible? It is, actually. The more we learn of their situations, the bleaker things look.

But Susi is optimistic. We hit “send” and smiled at each other. I hope she gets the job, because even though her English is not yet perfect, she would be a hard worker and yet kind. I’m worried that when they call her and talk to her on the phone (always more difficult than face-to-face communication for language learners), they will know she had help with the application and will automatically dismiss her, without taking the time to see all that she has to offer.

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