The plan was this: I would drive with Maude and her kids (she still has her permit but is doing well and should have her license soon), and Donn would come with our kids and another couple who don’t drive. We, along with many, many others, would meet at AS’ new house, which is far away–nearly to Washington State!–around noon. We would admire the new house, present them with a housewarming gift, and then we would all head, en masse, to Blue Lake park for an enormous picnic. We were supposed to be out at Blue Lake by 1:30. Blue Lake is far away too–far from our homes in the suburbs on the west side of Portland, far from AS’ new house in the north. And traffic round here around noon on Friday, on a bright summer day towards the end of August, well…

Maude was running so late that I wondered if we should just skip the first part and go directly to the park. By the time she’d changed twice and finally decided on a long, dark pink ensemble augmented with gold earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, and topped with a fancy pink hijab with fabric roses from Egypt, I was reconsidering my jeans and sandals.  Her daughter was wearing a tutu and butterfly wings. We had to drive through the neighbourhood to collect her son from a friend’s and wait for him to take his bike apart and fit it in the trunk. Now I know that American ideals of timeliness don’t transfer to very many countries, and that suits me just fine. I am habitually very late by American standards. In spite of this, I still thought we were really pushing it by this point.

We found the new house no problem, after I sped through traffic. And, of course, we were the first to arrive, even beating Donn. Maude pointed this out and we laughed about it–she’s always a good sport. We admired the house, which is adorable and nicely decorated in a sort of leopard-print and Swarovski crystal theme, as interpreted by “Ross Dress for Less.” AS’ wife kissed us enthusiastically and gave us a tour  and then served us tea and cake. She was wearing jeans, it’s true, but she was also wearing an ensemble–blue and leopard-print and white, with high heels and floating shirt and thick eye makeup. As others began to arrive, I noticed a theme. The men and boys were in shorts and t-shirts. The women and girls were in layers of finery, with armfuls of bangles and bracelets and millions of sparkles. Maxi dresses were definitely popular, in multi-colours of blue and pink and turquoise and orange. Everyone looked their best. Except me, the representative American. Oh sure, I had a few sparkles on my grey t-shirt, and I was wearing eyeliner and Ilsa had even put a little sparkly gold on my eyelids. But it really wasn’t the look  for a picnic at a state park. You would have thought I’d have known that!

After the cake, we headed out to Blue Lake, where we would help reserve a large picnic area for everyone else. By the time most people had arrived, there were probably close to 60 people there. If I was hosting a party that big, I would do a potluck or hire a caterer. Not AS and family. They didn’t show up till about 4:30, and then it was time for the party to begin.

We had naturally segregated by gender. There was an enormous picnic area, with the women sitting round one group of picnic tables and the men round another. Someone commented on “how Arab” that was, but I pointed out that Americans do this too, although to a lesser extent. “Really?” they said skeptically, but it’s true. And at barbecues for both cultures, the men do the work.

There was an enormous bucket of meat. One man dumped in onion and parsley chopped in teeny-tiny bits ahead of time, and plunged in his hands to mix it up. Other men shaped it into kebobs, which are formed around flat skewers and cooked quickly over a very hot fire. There was also something new (to me anyway)–hawoshi (I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting the actual name. There was another name, something like ariez), which was meat with green pepper and tomato spread very thinly in the middle of a piece of Arabic bread and then fried or barbecued or something. It was so good–the bread thin and crispy, the meat savory and flavorful. I suspect there was extra oil involved–why is oil so delicious? It’s gross by itself. No this wasn’t health food, but it was awfully good. I was handed a hawoshi and another piece of bread filled with kabobs and salad. Afterwards there was more tea and more cake. There was so much food that the men were cooking until nearly 7:00, which was okay as more people arrived.

It was a perfect afternoon. You know how the light gets in late August, heavy and golden and almost saturated? The trees were glowing in it, and the lake sparkling. After we ate, I took a walk and sat under a tree with one girl, comfortable, in silence when we wanted to be and talking about real topics when we felt like speaking, as if we were old friends. Donn and I walked around the lake in the sunset. The boys played soccer; Ilsa strolled with various friends, learning Arabic phrases that she proudly showed off later to the women, who called her “Habibti” (my love) and kissed her.

When the sun was nearly down, we gathered everything together again and drove  home in the pink afterglow of sunset.