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On Saturday, along with pretty much everyone else in Oregon, I decided to go to the tulip fields. Ok this isn’t entirely accurate. For weeks now, I’ve been telling Beka about them. “We will go in two cars,” I tell her. “One for all the men and one for all the women. We’ll take a picnic! You won’t believe your eyes—a whole field of flowers!” I gesture broadly. “Purple! Pink! Yellow! White! Red!” She smiles but I can tell she doesn’t picture it.

After several weeks of her being sick, or me having plans, not to mention how SOPPING WET our “spring” has been, finally Saturday was the day. We had reduced the two cars to one, and invited the artist’s wife, who cancelled at the last minute. So on the first bright hot sunny weekend in a very long time, Ilsa and I and Beka and Hana drove off.

We got onto the freeway and parked. Did I mention that everyone in all of Portland had decided that nothing would be better than to spend their rare and beautiful sunny afternoon polluting the air and driving at $4/gallon? Apparently. Traffic was horrific. Eventually the freeway cleared out, but about 3 miles before our exit I thought there was another accident. As I drove on and on, past stopped car after stopped car, I realized that no, it was just that All! These! Cars! were exiting to go see the tulips.

I executed a fine move, cutting right in at the last moment and proving that yes, I did learn some mad skillz during all those years driving in Morocco and Mauritania. No one even honked. We joined the long line of cars driving through Woodburn, and eventually made it out of town, although not before I had to cut back in to a long line of cars I had cut. (It was an honest mistake! I thought I was in the right lane, although I did wonder why it was so empty)

As we neared the tulip fields, we passed fields edged with multi-coloured blooms. “WOW!” exclaimed Beka. “Oh that’s nothing; just wait,” I told her.

We wandered around and admired the flowers and ate our picnic lunch and posed and took about a million pictures, which I will spare you. Just a few then…

 

Ilsa

I have to admit that there are few things more beautiful than the western Oregon countryside on a sunny April day. The earth was clothed in vivid greens and deep chocolate browns, with splashes of pink, purple and white on trees and bushes; the sky was piled with clouds in grey and white and deep deep blue. Beka has been unhappy here, stuck day after day in a maze of culture shock, in a drab apartment under drab grey skies throughout the long winter, and she gasped in amazement at the colourful world I was driving her through. “I love this,” she said as we passed an old farm with ancient oaks and thick grass. “What is the name here?”

It was the day before Easter. I still had to boil and decorate eggs, make hot cross buns (the second batch), make pastry for the strawberry-rhubarb crumble pie we were planning to share with friends next day. When I dropped them off, it was after 6:00 and I didn’t even go in for tea, just got out and kissed them goodbye, and raced home to put my tulips in water (I bought a bunch) and tell everyone to fend for themselves for supper. (My kids love it when I do this.)  Ilsa decorated her hands and legs with henna in celebration. I had the brilliant idea of decorating eggs in henna patterns, but it didn’t work as planned, so we decorated our eggs with food colouring and crayons, like we always did overseas. They were beautiful, but I didn’t photograph them. You can’t always be photographing. Now most of them are eaten.

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You will be pleased to know that The Dwarves is no longer on my nightstand. It’s on my friend’s nightstand. Or, at least, somewhere in her house. Yes, I’ve passed it on. Someday I will finish it, and Elliot will be happy.

Mostly what I’m reading these days is stuff for review. I have an enormous pile. I just finished the YA novel The Survivors and the post-apocalyptic The Third, and the reviews for both will be up soon. I’m currently reading, and enjoying, My New American Life: A Novel.

Here are some sample titles from my “excited to read and review” pile:

The Civilized World: A Novel in Stories. Set in a beauty parlour in Ghana, this novel follows the stories of women from Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi, the USA, and Ethiopia. It looks fascinating! The author, Susi Wyss, grew up in the US and Cote d’Ivoire plus she’s lived in Africa for 20 years as an adult, so I suspect she knows whereof she speaks.

Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within. After the birth of her first child, Turkish writer Elif Shafak plunged into a post-partum depression. Writing her way out of it, Shafak comes to terms with motherhood, creativity, career, and the different personalities hosted within each and every person (she calls them her “inner harem” which amuses me). She also looks at how other mothers and writers have dealt with it. I know! Envy me all you want: I get to read it.

The Last Time I Saw Paris. I love the cover even as I despise it for being cheap, a romanticized American view of WW2-era Paris, a sepia-tone view of a couple kissing with the Eiffel Tower looming prominently in the background. I don’t care. I like it. Sometimes clichés just work, you know?
It’s supposed to be dramatic, romantic and suspenseful. Claire, an American woman fleeing a “glamourous Manhatten life built on lies” (whatever that means), ends up helping the French Resistance and exploring Paris in the company of a mysterious Englishman! (from the back cover; I haven’t started it yet) I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a cold soon since it seems all the Iraqi families I visit have sick kids. If I do get sick, I’m going to spend a lovely afternoon in bed sneezing my way through this book. Perfect! It almost (almost!) makes me want to get a cold.

How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Because he did, of course. I believe this. The author promises a colourful look at the pervasive yet hidden influence of the Bard on our modern culture.

Look for my reviews on these coming this month over at 5 Minutes for Books!

10 a.m.

I am drinking Iraqi chai without sugar and we are discussing W’s recent diagnosis of diabetes and my desire to lose weight. She has already stood on the scale for me, and then invited me to do the same. (I declined) She has also placed a homemade macaroon in my hand and later will attempt to force another one into my hands, although I manage to decline the next time round.

In spite of this long discussion on losing weight, by the time tea is made and I sit down to drink it, W has heated up 4 samosas and placed them be fore me. Despite my diet vows, I capitulate and eat one, more for her sake than for mine. It’s delicious, but that was a given.

W’s husband, Mohammed, is sick. They tell me of how he had to go to the emergency room because he was shivering with a very high fever. Today he’s much better, and we all watch “The Price Is Right” while I explain the rules, how if you go over at all you lose, how my mother loved this show. “Why haven’t you and Donn been on the show?” they ask. You can see their minds spinning at the thought. Here in America, all you have to do is go on a show and you will get a boat, a car, a trip to Ireland.

Noon

I am racing across town to get to the Souri’s apt. I was supposed to BE there by noon. The appointment is supposed to be about 20-30 minutes. They are moving, only partly voluntarily. Their apt story has not been a success, and a month ago I found myself arguing with their manager that the black mold forming along all their exterior walls was NOT their fault. The manager said that it was because they didn’t keep their windows open to air things out, but I pointed out that I didn’t either and that my house was mold-free. That it’s better built was obvious. They’ve had other arguments. I know that this family in particular has some issues; for example, they didn’t understand the concept of recycling and even after it was explained to them kept putting their trash in the wrong place. I also know that this apt has taken advantage; trying to charge them for mold till we stepped in, charging them to replace a very old and broken stove before we knew about it.

They want a friend there for the pre-inspection. I arrive as the asst mgr is walking through the place, writing things down on a clipboard. My friends follow her, concern writ large across their faces. She and I chat. She claims to be on their side, although I notice she words things carefully. According to her, they could and even should get at least part of their deposit back. I smile and agree that we will leave the place spotless (cleaning party next week! You’re invited!) but I have heard many stories of nicer apartments managing to keep all the deposits and my hopes aren’t high. I hide my doubts and reassure the family. I also waste my breath trying to persuade them not to use a bleach dilution on the mold stains. They are worried, but the manager warned me to be careful of bleach spots on the carpet.

I watch the two youngest children sit on a towel spread on the balcony and eat peanut butter with their fingers, dipping it out of the jar, eating bread as an accompaniment, and I laugh. It just seems such an Arab way to eat this new-to-them food!

They are already mostly moved out, and they insist I follow them to the new place so I’ll know where it is. It looks like a much nicer place and even has a playground and a pool. When we get there, their older kids are standing outside, upset. Turns out the oldest just had an altercation. It takes at least 20 minutes for me to figure out what happened, although his English has really improved since I first met him. Someone came up and cursed at him and shoved him down, made clear his issue was racial (he was Hispanic himself), then leapt into a car and drove off. He had the foresight to write down part of the license plate.

I go off and meet the new manager. He is helpful, and encourages me to make a police report so they’ll have a record. In an amazing coincidence, the city was there that morning tagging cars parked illegally and they tagged the same car. He’s able to supply the rest of the license plate. I have a long phone conversation in which I describe the incident and then we all traipse off to see the new place. The boy is very quiet, obviously still very upset.

I am finally about ready to leave when my phone rings and it’s a police woman. We all go down to meet her and describe again what happened. She is brusque and efficient. The manager comes back and it turns out he has figured out who the perpetrator is. A. describes him as 17 or 18, but it turns out he’s only 11, but carrying an adult-sized chip on his shoulder. He not only lives in the same very large complex, but he’s a near neighbour. The manager of the neighbouring complex called police on him today too; she found him wandering around trying doors to see which ones were locked. Sigh.

2:30

Since the Souri’s new place is right near Suzi’s apartment, I decide to drop in. I haven’t seen her in over a month. Every time we’ve tried, something has come up. Like many of these refugee families, they have gone to using something called a Magic Jack which is like skype but plugs into an actual phone. Since it uses the computer to make phone calls, it is free, but if the computer is not on it doesn’t work. I call and call but there’s never any answer.

She is thrilled to see me and thanks me profusely for coming over. I keep the visit short but we set up another time to get together soon. She tells me how she’s been and I teach her the word “depressed,” which pretty much sums it up. She tells me her husband has about 30 applications out, and they are both frustrated and worried at his lack of work.

As I’m leaving, I see one of the women from my English class watching me out of her window. I wave and we chat for a minute as curtains stir around the courtyard. My visits are very public.

3:30

I’m home with a raging headache in time for a cup of tea. Ilsa needs to be somewhere by 6 so I have to get her fed.

7:00

We have another appointment! And on it goes…

The other night, walking in downtown Portland wearing my winter coat although it’s April, leaving an art gallery and staring up at the deep blue twilight sky and the sliver of new moon glowing silver amongst the still bare branches, I experienced a deep moment of happiness. You know what I’m talking about—those moments of profound and utter contentment that swell up unexpectedly at odd moments, when to the core of your being you know, “This is where I want to be.”

I haven’t had one in a while. In fact, I think the last one was in Morocco. That’s why I noticed it.

What triggers these moments? They can’t be planned. They are a gift.

But I also wonder, does it mean that I’m finally feeling more settled? The last week hasn’t felt that way. It’s been filled with stabs of memory of a place left behind—a sudden memory of bougainvillea against a blue sky, of sunlight through an arch, of Annie’s bookshelves and red curtains, of the tiled columns at the entrance to our salon and the light in the hall. I cook dinner in Portland and flash on making tortillas from scratch, rolling them out on the low countertop, my tiny gas stove in the corner. These memories are seemingly prompted by nothing. This last week has also been unusually busy. I left a meeting that went twice as long as I thought it would (it was discussing our work with refugees) to go give an English lesson but instead of English, surprise!, I took the whole family to a clothes closet. That took an extra hour and a half which meant I was an hour late to my next appointment. And so it goes, on and on, and some days don’t end till after midnight.

But back to my first paragraph. We went to First Thursday (when the art galleries stay open late, till 9 p.m., which is only late in America) with the artist couple. We told them we’d pick them up at 5:30 so we could be downtown and parked by 6, but since they didn’t really understand what we were inviting them to, they weren’t ready to go till 7:30. We went anyway, and managed to make 4 galleries. We saw enormous prints, laser, digital, like Donn is making now, selling for $5000, which made us a little jealous. It’s true art is subjective, but I like Donn’s art hanging on my walls better than the $5000 prints. In fact, my advice for any young women starting out today (or young men for that matter) is to marry an artist. That way, you’ve always got something beautiful to hang on your walls. Also someone who can do paperwork. I think that one’s pretty self-explanatory.

Our friends enjoyed visiting the galleries and I did too. There’s something about walking around in silence, looking at other people’s attempts to interpret the world around them, that speaks to the soul. We wandered in and out in an icy wind in spite of pink trees and daffodils, from gallery to gallery, enjoying the shows and speaking to the galleries about possibly getting our Iraqi friend a show. He’s really good, and we got a couple of good leads so we were all pretty excited by the time we headed home.

Spring.

I am wearing flavored lip gloss today for the first time in…oh…probably 25 years. Yes, I let Ilsa talk me into letting her do my make-up today. “You need sparkles and a lighter colour to make your lips look fuller,” she tells me, daubing lip gloss onto my mouth. Then she sweeps an actual paint brush over my face. She uses this instead of make-up brushes, basically because it’s what she had. It tickles excessively, but she frowns melodramatically when I laugh. “This colour makes your eyes look turquoise! Fantastic!” she exclaims at one point.

When I leave the house later, I do look a bit like I let a 14 year old do my make-up. It’s dramatic, certainly, and if you come close I smell faintly of sugar; I believe the flavor is strawberry. Ilsa even tucks her lipgloss into my hand, so I can do touch-ups as necessary.

I have been neglecting my blog sorely as of late, but I have a good excuse. Several, in fact. First of all, there’s my work with Iraqi refugees, which is only getting more time-consuming. Secondly, there’s that stack of books, sent free for me to review, but I have to admit they burden me a bit. Every bit of free time I can snatch, I fill now with reading, skimming, or working on reviews. I tell myself firmly, “I will accept no new books until I make a real dent in this stack,” but you already know how hopeless that is, how much self-control I actually have. I have been addicted to reading since I was about 8, and any free book that looks even remotely fascinating will have a sway over me. “I’ll take it if no one else wants it,” I try, and then, “Oh this one looks great!” and then “YES PLEASE!” and sure enough…I’ve got about 10 books now. Possibly more. 15? Not counting the ones already read. And they all look So! Good! I’m really excited to read them. I will try to take a picture so you can share my joy.

But today I have a couple of hours free. The kids, all 3, were invited to the same birthday party, held clear across town. Donn is out all day, so I dropped them off and I’m taking advantage of free wi-fi at Starbucks and a precious couple of hours to myself. Ideally the place would be deserted and I could curl up for a nap, but life is rarely perfect and chances are decent I wouldn’t sleep after a couple of shots of espresso anyway.

This Starbucks is near my old college and I think I saw a woman I went to school with. I can’t remember her name—possibly Kim? Many women my age are named Kim or Jennifer—and I can’t remember really anything about her, but she hasn’t really changed. I don’t strike up a conversation. I tend to leave my past in my past. I think, “How strange to think she might have lived in this same small quadrant of town for 20 years.” Then I realize, if she had recognized me, she would probably have had the same thought about me. Aside from the fact that today I am wearing a necklace of Mauritanian desert beads (old pottery beads found in the sands), there is nothing to mark me as having been gone. My boots and bracelet are from Morocco, but they could easily have been bought at Target or an import store.

Since I last wrote we’ve had Spring Break, and celebrated Abel’s birthday 3 weeks after the fact, with a party that was much more low-key than his twin sister’s. And yes, this is typical. We’ve had good evenings with friends and long afternoons spent drinking Turkish coffee in Iraqi homes. One of my students in particular is making good progress in English, which is encouraging. Yesterday we had our first day of real sunshine since about October, it feels like, and I actually got a little sunburned—proof I am again a true Oregonian, and all those years of having a base tan are gone. Life is going on. So I thought I’d say hi. What’s been up with you?

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