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Once again, I’m late with this post, which is supposed to go up on the 4th Tuesday of the month. It’s Wednesday today, and Elliot is already on his way home from college for the first time since he left. I’m being all calm and casual, as you would expect, and am not rushing round yelling at Abel to clean their bathroom (since Ilsa has so conveniently disappeared, claiming Chelsea is “depressed” and “needs her.”) nor cooking up a storm of mince pies and coconut pies. Not me. I’m having a second cup of tea and typing, and will get to all that later.

So this month I went to Africa, for those of you who are here just for the nightstand post and don’t normally read this blog. (Assuming there are any of you, which is doubtful as I’m so late, but if you’re here, please say hi) And since that trip involved SO MUCH travel time, I read up a storm. I took 5 books with me plus my Kindle, because I have a deep-seated and irrational fear of being stuck somewhere without a book. This caused a small amount of marital friction but it wasn’t my fault that Donn bought a 5m-square tent that took up most of one entire suitcase, which meant no room/weight for books. We solved this by having me cleverly carry all my books in a grocery bag contributed by my friend Annie, which technically meant I had 3 carry-ons (purse, actual carry-on, and sack) but no one fussed and I safely brought them all home again. (Oh, and in spite of all my careful plans, I still managed to find myself stuck with nothing to read on the flight from Nouakchott to Casablanca. My kindle died, although it shouldn’t have, and I had packed all my books. I was stuck with the stupid in-flight magazine and “Just So Stories” which I had on my phone. My Kindle app wouldn’t work on my phone either. It was terrible, and proved how justified I was in bringing all those hardcover books!)

And I read some FANTASTIC books this month! Seriously, lots to recommend. I’ll start with:

A Guide for the Perplexed: That’s linked to my review at 5MFB. Go there right now and enter to win a free copy. I loved this book and gave it 5 stars. It’s the sort of book that end up in lit classes but that you actually like. It has everything–reflections on memory and how recording events can influence how you remember them, a retelling of the biblical story of Joseph combined with a look at lots of sibling relationships, medieval scholarship, a kidnapping in modern post-revolutionary Egypt, and more. Really really good.

Someone Else’s Love Story: You can also win a copy of this one! Also really really good. Although it’s written in a light-hearted style that had me chuckling several times, the story deals with serious issues and tackles them head-on; date rape, car accidents, divorced and dueling parents, single motherhood, religious differences that divide. But it’s not at all a depressing book. This is a book that ends on a note of hope, of redemption, but neither of these things is cheapened by being given too easily–they cost people something. Seriously–a really good story.

I Am Malala: You knew I was going to read this one! And it’s also really really good and you can also win a copy. Do I sound like a broken record? You know the basic story already–Malala is a teenaged activist who was shot by the Taliban in her remote village in Pakistan, because she would not keep quiet about the importance of girl’s education. And she’s right. She’s brave and sweet and competitive and an avid reader and in many ways a typical teenaged girl, and in many ways anything but typical. You’ll love learning more about her and her story.  The giveaway is open till Sat.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy: A fun and worthy follow-up to the Bridget Jones books. Bridget is once again single, after the incomparable Mark Darcy was killed in Sudan while fighting for human rights. (I know! We’re all sad about this) Bridget now deals with single motherhood and counts twitter followers instead of calories. It’s good, but it’s a lot darker than the original stories, as Bridget is still mourning Mark. It’s also not nearly as funny. I reread the first Bridget Jones’ Diary and still snorted with laughter several times.  Still, if you’re a fan, you’ll definitely want to read it!

Bridget Jones’s Diary: Still so funny, after all these years. And brutally realistic.

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope: I love her writing and her stories, so I was interested to read her retelling of Austen’s book set in modern times. And I did enjoy it. I am not a huge fan of Jane Austen–I like her stuff, and I adore P & P, but I’m not a purist. It was amusing to see the Dashwood sisters listening to music on iPods and watch scandal spreading through texts and Youtube. The estate left to John Dashwood wasn’t entailed–the problem is that Henry never married Belle, just lived with her in bohemian splendour and produced 3 daughters. This is a very accessible version of the classic and I enjoyed it, but it won’t satisfy true Austen-ites.

Death of a Nightingale: Another really good read. This is a mystery of sorts, or I guess you’d call it a thriller, with violence and threats lurking in the shadows, but it also gives, in flashbacks,  a fascinating look at life under communism in Ukraine in 1934, when a famine devastated the area and left a family reeling under its effects. Nina Borg is a nurse who works in a crisis centre in Denmark that houses illegal immigrants; Natasha is a Ukrainian woman who escaped an abusive relationship. Now that boyfriend has been found dead and Natasha’s implicated. She escapes custody to search for her daughter. Tying strands together are these memories from 1934, but it’s not till the end that you find out the connection. It’s a really good book, hard to put down. (Perfect for long flights!)

What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife?: A Memoir: David Harris-Gershon and his wife were American students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem when one day, while his wife was studying in the cafeteria with friends, a terrorist bomb ripped their lives apart. His wife, Jamie, survives because she was reaching under the table to get out a book; her friends are killed. David is plunged into a maelstrom of emotion, and this book recounts how he found his way out. And yes, it does involved studying the Israeli-Palestinian question with fresh eyes and it does involve a meeting with the bomber’s family. Very good and thought-provoking.

Bellman & Black: Remember 13th Tale and how fun that was? This is author Diane Setterfield’s second novel. It’s also set in Victorian times, and it supposed to be noir and gothic and creepy, but sadly, it is really isn’t. It’s actually a little boring at times, and it falls short of her first novel. I hope she keeps writing though, with less pressure, and produces something really good next time. She’s still a really good writer.

Right now I’m rereading:

Possession. Still so good. Bellman and Black put me in the mood for this complex tale spanning modern literary researchers and departmental politics and Victorian writers and their love-lives. It combines a literary mystery with a modern romance and a literary romance with a modern mystery. If you haven’t read it, you should. (Fun aside: I haven’t read it since Mauritania, and my copy had bits of sand along the spine.)

To read:

The old shelf is pretty light at the moment. I don’t have anything that publishes before January. I’ll tell you about those next month.

What about you? Do you share a deep-seated fear bordering on irrational panic at the thought of a long flight with nothing to read? Please share in comments.

One of the adventuresome things about traveling in the Arab world is learning how different the dialects of neighbouring countries can be. How hard can it be? you think at first. Say, for example, you have been working on Hassiniya, the Mauritanian dialect. Surely Dareja, the Moroccan dialect, will be similar, since they share a border and were divided up by those pesky French in the 60s, which really wasn’t all that long ago. You will be wrong though. And one of the fun differences is that in Mauritania, 2 is “ethnane” and in Morocco it is “juge.”

Of course this isn’t just the Arab world. We lived in the town of Chambery, France, for a year. Chambery is located so close to the border of Italy that it was at one point part of Italy, and the last king and queen of Italy are buried by the shores of a lake not too far away. I figured when we went to Italy, my French would work better than my English, but I was wrong. Also in Spain, English will get you further than French or Arabic will.

But today, our topic is Morocco. IMG_0926

I loved living in Morocco, and I cried like a baby, only more bitterly, when we had to leave. But living anyplace is…well, just life. There are bills, and you have to go to work, and kids have problems at school, and housing is hard impossible to find, and sometimes the taxi drivers are surly and you get a cold and it’s so damp that your books mould. Visiting Morocco, however, is just wonderful, plain and simple.

We spent a lot of our time in Morocco playing tourist. Oh sure we visited people, and it was wonderful to see them. We had lunch with old colleagues and ate chicken and olive tagines for about $4 in a basic area of the city, and we met a friend for ice-cream in the expensive European part of the city and it costs $7 for 3 little boules (scoops), but mostly we just wandered around happily. I got a pedicure. I love getting pedicures but I never do, as they are expensive. In Rabat, you can go to the European section and visit a spa and still pay $12 for a very nice, very long pedicure. My nails are still a delightful red, although of course now I’m wearing socks and no one can see them. But I know they’re there.

IMG_0885

No you don’t want a pic of my toes. You want cool arches!

We took a lot of taxis and it was fun to watch Donn plunge right back into Darija, chatting away to the taxi drivers, who are always impressed and happy if you speak even a smattering of Arabic with them.

When we lived there, I made friends with an Italian woman with a Moroccan husband, whose daughter was in Ilsa’s class at school. Irina’s dream was to open a small store selling organic produce and her own home-made jams, jellies, and sauces. She was an incredible cook. We’d lost touch, and I wanted to find her. We walked to her old home and rang the bell several times. No one was home. A Moroccan man came up to see what we wanted. “The Italian woman?” we asked. He shook his head, but went to talk to someone else who was coming up to see what we wanted. (This is common.) Oh yes, he knew her, and pointed to a house across the street.

When we pushed open the door, we saw mounds of gourds, enormous pumpkins and squashes, piles of pomegranates and peppers, and more. The small garage was filled with parsley, lettuce and other greens, and behind a table with a cash register on it was a shelf groaning with jars of jellies and sauces, all prettily labeled in Irina’s own hand. And there was Irina herself, in a white coat, chatting with a French woman who had obviously just come to pick up her order, and was loading it all into an enormous straw basket.

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This would prove to be a theme of our trip–finding people with whom we’d lost contact, and finding them doing really well, succeeding at what they’d hoped to do. I was thrilled to see Irina, and to see how busy she was. She had people stopping by nonstop to pick up their orders. She asked us to come back on Monday afternoon for coffee, which we did, and had a great time catching up on the news. I took her card and gave it to all my friends, hoping to drum up even more business for her. I hope next time we go, she has her own shop.

So. Our first day in Morocco, we walked by the kids’ old school and took pictures, visited Irina, and went downtown and wandered round the Oudayas until sunset, at which point we went back to our friends’ house, where we spent a thoroughly delightful evening eating and talking till late. Sunday we went to church with them, where we saw many old friends and attempted to cram 3 years into 10 minutes. Then we had lunch with former colleagues. Then we had expensive ice-cream with a Moroccan friend, then another late evening just talking with our hosts. We sat round a table in their garden, staring out at trees and sometimes with a fire warming our backs from the small fireplace on the patio, ate good food, drank good wine, and shared good conversation. Life doesn’t get much better than that, right?

IMG_0872Gate in Oudayas

IMG_0867Door in Oudayas, where most everything is blue and white except for the cats and the bougainvillea.

Isn’t THAT an exciting title? I knew you’d be impressed.

So we set off from our Portland home on Oct. 24th. Our flight was nonstop to Amsterdam, then we had an hour and a half layover and then another non-stop to Casablanca, where we planned to take the train to Rabat, our former home. And already, when you read the words “we planned,” your heart did a double-thump because you knew the best laid plans of international travelers gang aft agley.

Actually it really wasn’t too bad. The flight from PDX was 15 minutes late or as we call it “totally on time, dude” and we landed just fine in Amsterdam some 10 or 11 hours later, having learned that the new comedies are so stupid one can’t sit through the whole thing, and having read the entire new Bridget Jones book and a lot of classic Sherlock Holmes in which I pictured Holmes and Watson as Cumberbatch and Freeman, which was actually kind of fun. Try it on your next long trip.

We landed and taxied for so long we were wondering if perhaps we hadn’t inadvertently landed in Germany and were driving to Holland. We rushed off the plane to our other gate, where there was an enormous incoherent line for no apparent reason, which we joined. It didn’t budge at all. Time ticked on, the people around us weren’t speaking Dareja (the Arabic dialect of Morocco) so I couldn’t see how much I remembered, and we stood and stood and said, “At least our bags will make it.”

Finally, about 30 minutes after the flight was to have left, we reached the front. They scanned Donn’s boarding pass and got an ominous beep. We smiled feebly at the impatient passengers behind us while the flight attendants peered anxiously at a computer. “Your bags didn’t make it so you can’t board for security reasons,” they announced.

This does not make sense. If you have a bomb in your bags then you would want your bags on board, not you. Right? We have told this story to many people and they have all agreed–this was something new, thought up by KLM and illogical to mere mortals.

We had to leave the line, argue with the lady at the KLM counter that if they sent us to Rome at 5:30 which had us arriving in Casa at midnight, we wouldn’t be able to go up to Rabat that night as the trains stop at 10. Finally she put us on a Royal Air Maroc flight leaving Amsterdam at 4:30 that afternoon. We had landed at 9:30, which gave us a whole day at the airport. She gave us vouchers for 10 euros each for lunch, which got us a small plate each and nothing to drink at a pizza place. We had to collect our bags which meant we had to leave the airport but we couldn’t check in again till 3. We spent several hours in the boring part of the airport, napping on hard chairs with dividers digging into our ribs, until we were able to splurge on desperately-overpriced instant coffee, check our bags, and wait another two hours at the gate. IMG_1723 The place we napped had rows and rows of empty slightly-padded black chairs, joined with metal armrests as dividers, with a table every 2 or 3 seats. We stretched out so our hips were on the table (which was very firm, I must say) and dozed off. At one point, a group of Brits came up and sat right next to us, ignoring the rows and rows of empty chairs around us. All 4 of them began to talk about past holidays, and it was nearly exactly like this sketch:

Monty Python sketch that won’t load

start it at about the 2 minute mark. The accent was the same, but they were going on and on about Prague and King Wenceslas Square and darling, the crowds! and they didn’t once mention Watney’s Red Barrel.

Eventually we made it to Casa, landing about 9:15 which just gave us time to rush through the airport, change money, collect our bags, buy our tickets, and make the 10:00 train to Rabat. We got to our friends’ house after midnight, having been unable to phone and tell them we’d be 9 hours late. It didn’t matter. In the morning I opened the shutters and looked out on white walls, bougainvillea in magenta and scarlet, spiky palm trees, and a blue sky, and felt I’d come home again.

Well I didn’t really catch TB but it was touch and go there for a bit. There was a man, probably very nice and kind in everyday life (or possibly not. I mean, you can’t really know), who was hacking and coughing non stop as we settled in at our gate a mere 90 minutes or so before take-off. Donn and I exchanged looks of horror. Seriously, we were going to be on an airplane with this man? He was really sick. We are not uptight about germs in general, and we are seasoned travelers and don’t turn hairs normally at screeching children or sniveling adults. But this man was something special. You could hear him attempting to displace his lungs 3 gates over! We took to calling him Monsieur TB (taybay in French), and we were happy to be seated across the giant plane and several rows back from him. However, all that air is recycled.

Add to that a visit to Mauritania, where the wind whips tiny particles of very dirty sand up your nose. Seriously, it’s best not to think about where that sand has been.

So I have a sinus infection now. I knew I had jet lag plus a cold plus a truly nasty headache, but at least I was sleeping lots. A doctor’s visit today confirmed my suspicions and garnered me 3 prescriptions. It was almost like being in France again!

I’ll be back again soon with actual stories from the trip. In the meantime, you should check out Donn’s Tumblr blog. He’s been posting up a storm. Also I love his Tumblr blog because it’s so random, a mix of chronology and geology that means one day you’ll see a picture of Abel drawing on the sidewalk when he was 3 (i.e. 2000), followed by a picture from Hawaii taken in the early 90s, followed by a picture he took yesterday in downtown Portland followed by one of Mauritania circa 2006. It’s fun!

Check it out here: Donn Jones

Ugh. I love traveling, but the two days either end of a big trip are always horrible. I am sitting in my own living room, typing on my own computer, in a dazy sort of cotton-filled fog. To make matters worse, I seem to have a cold. Over the last few weeks, I ate literally kilos of fresh Moroccan oranges, so if anyone’s body should be overflowing with enough Vitamin C to head off any sort of illness, it’s mine. Is everything we’ve been taught a lie?

To add insult to injury, I have had old Simon and Garfunkel songs stuck in my head for days now. Ever since we left Mauritania on Sunday at 8:15 a.m., a mere hour after we were scheduled to leave (Aside: this is good. Donn once spent 15 hours in that airport waiting for an overdue flight), and the words “well we’re homeward bound” popped into my head unbidden, I have had to listen to warbling tenors going on and on about “Home! where my music’s playin’ Home! where my love-life’s waiting silently for me.” And then my mind mixed it up with the one about the boxer (he remembered ever blow that laid him low or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame (pain?) that he’s leaving) and really, it’s not pretty. I sincerely hope that I haven’t now doomed you to a similar fate (let me know!) and also that soon I can listen to a different tune in my head. Not Bob Dylan though. That would not be an improvement.

So. Nothing like beginning at the end. I had hoped to blog this trip as it was happening, but we only brought one iPad to share between us and you know how well that goes. Also internet was far from being easily accessible. So I have brought back a lot of pictures and memories, and I’m going to share them with you! Aren’t you lucky? (Don’t answer that) We left OR on Oct. 24th, spent an unplanned day in the Amsterdam airport and arrived in Morocco on Oct. 25th. We went down to Mauritania, to visit our old home in Nouakchott, on Oct. 30th. We left Mauritania on Nov. 10th, had nearly 2 days in Morocco again, and left Jack and Annie’s Rabat home at 5 a.m. on Nov. 12th. We arrived home on Nov. 13th at about 1 p.m. (9 p.m. Moroccan time), having been traveling 39 hours at that point. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I am in a total fog today. If any words in here are off, this is why.

We left the twins mostly home alone, although there was an adult friend who slept here most nights and was a sort of consultant for them. Ilsa told me before we left that she would cook, so I bought enough food for 3 weeks worth of meals–some easy stuff that I never buy like canned soup, hotdogs and frozen pizza, but also ingredients for Thai peanut pasta, homemade sausage spaghetti, taco bowls made with grilled chicken, black beans and brown rice. My friend Sarita offered to host them any evening they didn’t want to cook, and various Iraqi friends promised food. Ilsa loves mashed potatoes so we bought a big bag of potatoes for her and talked about various things they could be served with, like sausage and peas, or chicken breast and green beans and salad.

We returned to a full fridge and freezer. As near as we can tell, they didn’t eat anything but yogurt and mashed potatoes. Even the hotdogs and the frozen pizza are still there. They went to Sarita’s one night, and Iraqi friends a couple of nights, but we were gone for 20 days. What did they eat? There’s lots of cereal in the cupboard and there are even still some granola bars. It is a mystery. Abel says he made Kraft mac n’ cheese some nights, and Ilsa says she made a lot of mashed potatoes. We are hoping to gradually reintroduce coloured foods–fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, crunchy non-processed fresh items–into their diets. One new food a day to see if they’re allergic, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?

We had a fantastic trip. I took lots of photos and collected lots of stories and bought presents for pretty much everyone in my life but you, sorry, cuz we ran out of money and storage space in the suitcases, mostly because Donn bought a large Mauritanian tent since he’s regretted not keeping ours for years now. More to come very soon. How much detail do you want?

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