As my head finally hit the pillow at 1 a.m. last night, I thought to myself, “I wish I could open the window. This room stinks.”

But I’m starting at the end of my story.

Last night, a former student from Mauritania was in Portland, Oregon (where we live now) on a tour with the State Department. We hadn’t seen him in 4 years. Donn went to his downtown hotel to pick him up, and I got a phone call. “The people he’s traveling with are really nice. There are about 6 women that I think you’d love. Shall I bring them all back with me?”

I had a lamb tagine simmering on the stove, and I’d made two kinds of samosas, but there was no way this would be enough. The house wasn’t clean enough yet either; I’d had a busy day of teaching and had been gone since early morning. There was an enormous pile of clean laundry on the couch.
But…what could I say? Of course I said yes. I turned down the stove, asked Elliot to vacuum, and threw the clean clothes onto my bed.

I had to drive downtown as well since we couldn’t fit everyone into the one car. (We have two Volvo sedans, both black, both given to us. Yeah, it helps to know the right kind of people) By the time I got there, the group of invitees had dwindled to 5. Ok then. I took the 3 women in my car; Donn took 2 men and Abel.

One woman was from Morocco! I shared with her that I was insecure about serving her lamb tagine, which I was pretty sure would be nothing like her grandmother makes. She laughed and kissed me on both cheeks. The other two were from Sri Lanka and Bahrain. Donn was with our Mauritanian friend as well as an Algerian man who proved to have a great sense of humour. He kept telling jokes and had the kids in stitches.

First, though, we took them shopping. They wanted more luggage, so we went to Ross, then to Best Buy as one wanted a new laptop. They raved about Oregon, its greenness, kind people, and the free transportation. They loved our lack of a sales tax, and complained about high prices in Washington D.C., which was their first stop. They claimed not to mind that it had poured, bucketed rain most of the time they were here, including while they were on their river cruise. “There are mountains here, behind the clouds,” I told them, and they laughed. “Come back in summer,” I urged, and they all murmured “insha’allah!” (if God wills)

After much time shopping and at a time when it was raining sideways thanks to a ferocious wind, we drove them to our house. Donn promptly departed to get more food but one of America’s downfalls is that culturally we think we are children—we eat at 5:30 and go to bed at 9. So if you want to get some rotisserie chicken at Safeway at 8:45, you are out of luck. We had several frantic phone calls back and forth and then he bought some frozen pizza (which was much nicer than you might expect) and peanuts and more Coke.

We put out peanuts and olives, passed around the samosas. We sat around on the floor and laughed and chatted like old friends. We took pictures in all possible variations. The kids chatted in French with the North Africans. They all presented us with gifts, no mean feat considering that they didn’t know they’d be visiting us until right before they came. (Aside: I kind of hate this. One woman gave me a plate I know she’d bought for herself. She obviously loved it, but I don’t really like it much. I wish there was a way she could have kept it)

The Moroccan woman said our house was more Moroccan than hers is. “This is just what I needed; I was feeling very homesick yesterday,” she said. The woman from Bahrain urged me over and over again to visit her, all of us, and stay with her, and her husband and 6 children. “When it is calm again, insha’allah,” she said. She is quietly frantic about the fate of her family while she is halfway round the world and they deal with a state of emergency and the army firing shots into the population.

I heated up the pizza and we passed round small squares, along with glasses of Coke and Fanta Orange. Salim and Elliot discussed North African history. We spread a cloth on the floor, since our table isn’t big enough and we knew this would work for most of the cultures represented in our living room. I brought in an enormous platter of tagine and a big basket of bread and we sat round and ate, dipping our bread in the sauce (which was too saucy—I don’t know what I did wrong.)

It was after 10 by this point. We sent the kids to bed and Donn made tea. The Moroccan woman was very impressed. “Tea made by the hands of men is very special,” she told us. It was good. We discussed variations of tea in all the different countries.

Suddenly the fire alarms started going off, at the same moment as a large black cloud billowed into the room. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Everyone was alarmed. In their countries, noises like this might be less innocuous. We opened the back door and spent some time trying to get the alarms to stop beeping.

You know how when you’re frantically cooking for 5 unexpected guests and you leave a cookie sheet and a pan containing sugar stickiness left over from boiling prunes and apricots in sugar water on top of a burner? And then your husband accidentally turns on that burner instead of the one he meant to? And then the sugar attaches itself permanently to the one pan with a lid that you have and your cookie sheet ends up with a hole burned into it? That’s what happened to me.

The good news is that I have wanted a new cookie sheet for a while. This one was at least 10 years old. I remember taking it to Mauritania with me.

The bad news was the smell and the acrid smoke.

We got the situation calmed and sent the kids back to bed. Then we drove them back to their hotel, where we said goodbye with much profession of friendship and goodwill and promises to keep in touch on Facebook and offers of places to stay.

It was a great evening.

But when we got up this morning (I slept through my alarm and the kids were nearly late for the bus. Abel had to wake me up), the house still stank, a strange mixture of acrid metal and lamb. We lit candles and opened windows and baked muffins and now it’s back to normal. Except for a burned spot on the floor and my former cookie sheet.

front of  cookie sheet

back of cookie sheet

cookie sheet reincarnated as modern art

me: Donn, where are the bits that fell off the cookie sheet into the burner?

Donn: in my study. I want to photograph them.

me: let me see them.

Donn: be careful!

me: It’s my cookie sheet.

Donn:  it’s my artwork.

EDITED TO ADD: I found them later in Ilsa’s room! Guess I’m beset with artistic types who see beauty and potential in bits of molten metal.

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