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Tonight at about 8 we went over to visit an Iraqi couple. They’re in their mid-70s and they are just awesome–they might take lots of pills and afternoon naps, but they are adventuresome. They go for drives, stop at farmer’s markets to chat with people, take food to the fire station next door. “You know, they are there sometimes 2 or 3 nights, away from their home,” they tell us. “So we take them food. They love Iraqi food!” One of their neighbours helped the woman bring in groceries from the car, so they took them a big platter of food too. And I realize, talking about this, that I’ve forgotten once again to bring back the plate from the last time she brought me food.

They are the ones who tell me they wish they’d moved to America 20 years ago. But they were afraid to come, expecting all America to be as represented by Hollywood. “We thought people crashed cars every day, there were chases, U-turns, crazy,” they tell us. “But the driving here is very safe.” And they tell me of a shortcut they take to a mutual friend’s house, over a small mountain, the road curvy and windy and dark at night but still safe, cars slowing down for the turn, not like back home.

We arrive about 8 and they say, “Tea or coffee?” Coffee, I tell them. For some reason, those tiny cups of sweet Turkish coffee don’t keep me up as much as the cups of strong black tea. They give me a little boost of energy, but I can usually sleep by midnight or one. In fact, I have noticed that I seem to sleep better after Turkish coffee.

But the woman decides to make tea first. So we have it, delicately scented and lightly sweetened, because she lets me add my own sugar. They tend to fill the cup halfway with sugar and then saturate it with tea. I don’t stir tea like that, and I can feel my teeth growing furry as I drink it. I don’t like very sweet drinks. But when Iraqi chai is done right, it is a delightful drink. They use black tea and add cardamom.

I drink my tea and turn down the cakes I’m being offered. Since this couple is elderly she doesn’t do a lot of baking, and these are generic Twinkies wrapped in plastic. I claim fullness, murmur about my diet. They shrug and let it go.

About an hour later, she notices me stifle a yawn and asks her husband to go make coffee. This is the one thing he can do in the kitchen, he tells us. I send Donn with him to learn. The coffee is exquisite–again made with cardamom. I have learned to make decent Turkish coffee, but I learn anew how far I still have to go to be a true master. Mistress. Mistress of Turkish Coffee. A title I could live with.

Now it’s 11 and we’re home but pretty wide awake. Tea AND coffee, all in the space of a 2 hour visit. I’m still tired from a white night on Friday and a long day on Saturday that involved a birthday party for 2 Iraqi women, mother and (grown) daughter, both good friends. That party started with cake and Mountain Dew served in crystal wine glasses, and ended up at Hometown Buffet which is one of those restaurants where you serve yourself from an enormous variety of dishes. They were surprised when I didn’t have more Coke or dessert. “It’s included in the price,” they assure me, but I point out that I’d already HAD dessert. Life may be short, but I prefer my dessert later or not at all.

This is Turkish coffee that I (remember, I the Mistress of Turkish coffee) made, served in cheap cups bought in Morocco. The tablecloth is from Mauritania. Picture by my friend Sheri.

Do you like Turkish coffee? What’s the latest you can drink it and be asleep by midnight?

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On Friday, one of my friends had a baby and another had a miscarriage. I wasn’t there for either of them. I was across town with another family, who were being presented with their new home from Habitat for Humanity. There was a ceremony, and a lot of Iraqi food, and a hot wind blowing around the yard.

It was a long day.

We spoke on the phone with both of them. A couple of days earlier, I’d spoken to the new father-to-be. “It’s happy for my wife, but a funeral for me,” he said. I laughed. “I don’t believe you at all,” I told him. “I know you’re really happy and you’re going to love that new baby daughter of yours so much!”

When he called, I didn’t hear my phone so he left a message. “You are right–I’m so happy,” he told me. We saw the baby the next day and she is gorgeous; tiny and perfect and welcomed by her grandmother, who recently arrived from Iraq, as well as aunts and big brothers and friends. I sat and held her while her big brothers and some of their friends tried on the enormous (on them) bright blue gloves left so temptingly in reach in those full boxes on the wall. I cringed as I saw a small child take off the gloves and thoughtfully put them back in the box.

The previous evening, we spoke to our other friends on the phone. They’d just gotten released from the hospital and were home, resting. Although we know Arab culture says you go then and there, we suggested that we come the next day. The husband agreed. “She is finally resting,” he said, relief in his voice. Sometimes the habits of your own culture are hard; this is true no matter what culture you come from.

We were really impressed with the husband, so thoughtful and caring, worrying only about how his wife was doing, willing to do whatever necessary to help her no matter how uncomfortable it made him, putting her needs above his own. We weren’t surprised; it fits what we know of them. But it was beautiful to see.

They were having such a difficult time. No one knew what to do, including us. None of us had faced this situation before and America is far more regulated than Iraq, where cemeteries are basically free according to our friend. They called the mosque, which initially said they couldn’t help because the fetus wasn’t viable–she was only 12 weeks along but had seen the baby on an ultrasound, heard the heartbeat, wanted a small spot of earth where she could visit. We called around too, quickly found a church willing to help but needing to check legality before definitively saying yes. Eventually someone from the mosque called back and agreed to help.

We visited them after leaving the hospital to see the newborn, stopping on our way for a picnic with two other families. That is, the original plan had been to have a picnic, but the baby (2 months old) was sick, so instead we spent a gorgeous fall day crowded into a small apartment, feasting. Our hostess had managed to out-do herself yet again. It’s okay though–it was both lunch and dinner, so my calorie intake didn’t climb through the roof, unless we want to think about the log-shaped baklava. Let’s not. It was really good.

We left the picnic a little early so we could go visit the friends who’d had the miscarriage. I didn’t tell them why we were leaving early, pinning the blame on Elliot who has college application essays to write and Ilsa who is taking AP classes. It took some nudging to get Elliot to fuss about his homework. But I didn’t know if the couple wanted everyone to know just yet.

Later, I asked her about it. “That was so thoughtful!” exclaimed her younger sister. Arab culture tends to be rife with gossip, but I didn’t think people minded because they’re so open with me. I’m finding out that they don’t want me to share certain things though. (Question: so is this blog lame? I do change names and some details, and for this particular post am being pretty darn vague. On the other hand, I am sharing other people’s lives with you. Discuss in comments.) It turned out I’d made the right decision not the share the events with the families at the picnic, even though they are all friends. Whew! It doesn’t always happen like this. So often I make the wrong decision, it seems.

She’s doing okay. Obviously she’s still grieving, but she has other things in her life to look forward to. We talked privately with her husband, and we all agreed that her life has had so much turmoil and sorrow already that something like this would hit her especially hard. You tend to think “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (and yes, I know you’ll be hearing that ear worm for the rest of the day–you’re welcome) and while that can be true, it’s also true that you get weary of being battered by life. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you simply weakens you for the next thing. She’s surrounded by people who love and care for her though, and she’s in a safe place. I have high hopes.

On the last weekend of summer, we took an Iraqi family camping for their first time. It was their idea. In July, Donn and the boys went with a friend of his and his son on a “man-cation,” which is basically an all-male camping trip involving a lot of bacon and red meat, no vegetables, and, I imagine, a lot of jokes about bodily functions (just guessing here). I was telling Maude about it, while Donn showed Harold his photos, and she said, “Maybe we can go camping with you.” They wanted a vacation, and what better way to introduce them to American life? (Well, maybe Disneyland…)

Before we moved overseas, Donn and I were backpackers. We didn’t do much car camping, as we called it, which is where you drive someplace and set up your tent. I only remember a few times–near Balanced Rocks in the wilderness, with Donn’s parents once on Orcas Island, at Ollalie Lake when Elliot was 6 weeks old.

When we lived in Mauritania, we did lots of desert camping, which is basically when you drive into the desert, stop when you feel like it, and set up a tent. After a while, a shepherd will come by. “Is this all right?” you will ask, and he will nod slowly.

A few minutes later, he will say, “Is there anything you need?” “No, no,” you will assure him.

A few minutes later, he will ask, “Do you have anything you don’t need?” Sometimes he will ask for specifics–our friends traveled with a mini-pharmacy, and found that something as basic as tylenol was much appreciated and sought after.

(Want more? Posts here and here and here and here.)

But Harold and Maude are from Baghdad, which before the infrastructure was destroyed was a modern city. Even now, without electricity and clean water, houses are still tiled, filled with beautiful rugs and fine furniture. I would have picked a camping site with electricity, flush toilets, even showers. Donn wasn’t thinking that way. His friend told him of the beauties of the Metolius River in Central Oregon, its clean, clear fast-flowing waters, only a couple of hours drive away. So off we went.

“The Metolius?” said all our friends doubtfully. “On Labour Day weekend? You’ll never get a spot.”

But we did. In fact, we found 2 spots. The first was in a campground off the beaten track, with only one other family there, away amongst the trees. We found an enormous double spot, situated in a corner where a creek joined the river. It was lovely and lonely. But too lonely for our friends. “The children will not be able to sleep here,” proclaimed Harold. I must admit we wondered if it was the children who wouldn’t be able to sleep or someone else, but we agreed to look for another campground.

We found another one, and snagged a spot right on the river on a site surrounded by tents. Even though we had ample room to set up two tents, I noticed our friends pitched theirs right next to ours. Privacy is so much less important in some cultures than in others.

The Metolius really is gorgeous–clear and deep, full of browns and greens with the occasional bright glimpse of a silvery fish twisting through the depths. It’s surrounded by Ponderosa pines, their red trunks and green needles providing a pleasant contrast and scenting the air.

There was a slight problem. Our campground didn’t have water. You had to load the empty jerry-can into the car and drive a couple of miles to the next campground and fill it. It really wasn’t bad–we both had brought bottled water, and there was the river, rushing swift and cold and glittering under the full moon.

The first night, Maude and I went to the toilet at dusk. It was a fine toilet–a pit toilet, yes, but spacious and cleaned daily. When we came out, she said, “It’s very dark here.” “That’s because there’s no electricity,” I pointed out.

“Oh.” She thought about it for a minute. “Maybe next year,” she said philosophically.

America–it’s just not as developed as you think it’s going to be before you move here!

I explained the lack of electricity was a choice, that we wanted places where we could get back to nature, with no wires slicing the sky. She agreed but I’m not sure it was whole-hearted.

Her kids like s’mores okay, but much preferred the joys of roasting marshmallows. (I’m the same way myself)

We cooked tikka–what we would call kebobs–over the open fire each night, then roasted marshmallows. The moon was full and bright. Our camping neighbours were nice. The nights were freezing cold, the afternoons were burning. The river was icy but there was a spot on a point where the kids and Donn could plunge in and plunge right back out again. Maude got in too, fully clothed, but I didn’t as I hadn’t brought enough changes of clothes; instead I stepped in bravely to a shallow part, and stepped out just as bravely after about 2 minutes. Abel stayed in the longest and his legs turned brilliant red. Elliot sliced his foot open on an underground root and bled, most dramatically, a large puddle onto the grass, but I decided he’d be fine without stitches and he was. I sacrificed a towel to bind it up and the stain came right out in the wash. Naturally, as I didn’t care if that towel was stained.

Overall, I think the trip was a success. We’ve heard from other Iraqi friends that it was a bit too primitive and rough for our friends, but at the same time, they liked it. Sort of. I think next year, we’ll try it again–maybe at a campground with flush toilets and showers and electricity.

(Sorry for lack of pictures, but as you may remember, I no longer have a camera. Instead, here is one of Donn’s, a long exposure taken by moonlight, with the firelight making the trees look especially red.)

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.

 

It’s been nearly a month since I posted. That’s hardly an auspicious way to begin a post, but I don’t know yet where I’m going with this. I started one about Ramadan, but then I remembered I already told you about how I’m staying up late eating too much and drinking Turkish coffee at midnight and having a terrible time getting going in the mornings.

Yesterday was the Eid al-Fitr, the feast day that celebrates the end of Ramadan. (In many countries it is a 3 day feast) We spent the day visiting people, taking round platters of goodies, eating lots and admiring everyone’s new clothes.

Other things have happened. Some very good friends of ours (people we worked with in Mauritania who’ve become more like family) spent a measly 6 days with us. The time flew by. We took them to do Portland things…the Rose Garden, the waterfront, Powells, hiking down the Columbia River Gorge, etc. We also got together with 2 other families in the area who also used to live in Mauritania. It was great to see them again. One couple were childless when we knew them and now have 3 adorable kids! I know–you’d never even heard of the place before, and here are scads of people just in the Portland area who used to live there. Don’t you feel left out?

(random picture from nicest part of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Also, I saturated the colours a bit; Mauritania tends to have everything covered in a patina of dust and sand)

My editor from 5 Minutes for Books came to town with her family! It was great fun to finally meet her in person. We met at our favorite Thai restaurant, and both families got along splendidly.

The males in our family went on a “man-cation.” This involved a lot of steak and bacon and pancakes cooked in bacon grease and catching fish and, apparently, a tent that no woman could tolerate even for a second. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, obviously.

(I love this picture of Elliot, taken by Donn)

We’ve had some super-hot weather! All the Iraqis are complaining about how hot it is. I find this ironic. It’s been really hot, but I can deal with it from living in the Sahara, where it isn’t as hot as Baghdad.

On the hottest day, with temps over 102 (which is very rare and brutally hot for Portland), we went with some friends to a local winery at dusk to watch a Shakespeare play–Much Ado About Nothing. It was idyllic. The setting was gorgeous, with a sweep of hills, vine-covered, large trees surrounding a lawn. And at the end of the evening, they gave us a car. Admittedly it’s as old as the twins, but it has everything I wanted in a car–AC, a working radio, and cup-holders!

We’ve now seen the latest Batman twice, and the boys have seen it three times. Several local movies have $5 movies on Tuesdays. An older Iraqi couple have told us several times that they love movies, so one night we went with them to watch it again. We couldn’t help but wonder how much they enjoyed it, but they claimed to. Afterwards, we went back to their apartment for Turkish coffee at midnight, which the kids drank as well. We’re raising them right! We are going to see the new Bourne movie this Tuesday with the same couple.

Also, on these cheap movie nights, you can get an enormous bucket of popcorn for $4–seriously, it was so huge that 6 of us couldn’t finish it, even though we hadn’t eaten supper. I’m not really sure of the point of such a large bucket–I mean, what a waste of food!–but it was cheap and fattening and, at first at least, strangely delicious. Our kids went with a friend to see the movie again, and 4 teens managed to finish the entire bucket–and they’d had supper.

What else? Wedding anniversary, discovered a great new way to cook green beans so that even Donn will eat them, lovely summer weather, lots of very late nights with friends during Ramadan…in short, a lovely, pleasant, month.

What about you? What have you been up to?

 

Elliot’s birthday was last week. He’s 17 now, so I suppose I should update my “about” page. On the day of his birthday, I made tacos, his current fav. (We deep-fry corn tortillas and grill meat (usually chicken) and I make guacamole and we put out tons of fresh toppings and they’re actually really, really good). I made cupcakes, a half-recipe of his favorite cake (recipe here although I never move beyond the ganache to whatever that white frosting stuff is), since it was only our family that evening. He was pretty happy with them anyway, esp since I forgot to halve the chocolate, so they were quite decadent.

At 10:30 p.m., we left for the airport. We have an Iraqi friend I’ll call Abou. He’s kind and generous, and is the one who first gave Elliot the name by which he’s known throughout the Iraqi community–Abu Kafashir, which means “father of too much hair.” Abou also gave Elliot a leather jacket, which Elliot adores.

Sometimes when I’m writing about my friends, I’m unsure how much of their stories to tell. After all, their lives are their own. Is it right to tell too much? I change names, hide details. Abou’s story in particular is really dramatic–full of tragedy and woe. His family has had to bear a lot, suffered many losses, but their story is not mine to tell on the internet. From the first time I met them, I could see this was a family shaped around grief and loss, and I will say that they stand out even in a community bearing scars of experiences far beyond the experience of a typical American.

Many of our Iraqi friends here worked with the US military or US companies, and as a result become targets themselves of the insurgents. One family had their house bombed and lost children; another’s small boys bear scars on their heads from a car bomb left just outside their place that threw them and their mother against the wall but mercifully didn’t kill them; another’s teenage boy was kidnapped and tortured, although he was later able to escape using his wits. If a family is targeted, that means the whole family–extended family as well–is targeted, and sometimes extended family resents this. Such was the case with Abou and his oldest daughter, whose husband was badly and permanently injured. She refused to speak to her father for several years.

So when Abou told Donn and I that this daughter, now wanting to reconcile and move here, would be arriving late on the night of Elliot’s birthday, and he invited us to join him in welcoming her at the airport, there was no hesitation–we would be honoured, and we said so.

But how would Abu Kafashir himself feel? After all, it was his birthday, and at first we didn’t know when they’d arrive. We talked to Elliot, and he was unequivocal in his response–of course we would go to the airport. He knew enough of Abou’s story to get why this was particularly important and meaningful. Also, I know I’m his mother but no grain of salt is needed–he’s really a great kid. I don’t even take credit; I’ve made tons of mistakes and dragged him all over the world and I spend far too much time reading or on my computer. I wasn’t anything like him at 17. It’s grace.

There was quite a crowd at the airport–Abou’s family is well-known in the community. Coincidently, all the women were wearing black and purple. We lined up to watch the airplane empty out. Hundreds of people streamed past us as we all watched eagerly. The crowd slowed to a trickle; still no sign. The airline personnel began to appear, dragging their small cases behind them. This was a very bad sign. “Excuse me; is anyone still left on the plane?” one of the men asked the pilot. “Yes, there’s still a family back there. They don’t speak English. They have small children who are crying,” he responded.

That’s them! We all smiled at each other. Small children crying–no wonder, after a 2 day journey and a handicapped dad who probably couldn’t help much. (I often feel like crying after 2 days on a plane/in airports myself!) We couldn’t go past where we were, but soon we heard the unmistakable sound of wailing and suddenly, they appeared.

Abou’s wife is someone who is always polite but never joyful. Like I said, this family is shaped by loss. So it was incredible to watch her sweep her grandson into her arms, to see her fully engaged, fully in the moment, and full of joy. I started crying. I certainly wasn’t the only one wiping away tears; Abou himself was openly weeping. It was a wonderful time.

Elliot thought his birthday was actually pretty special. And we celebrated even more this week, when I once again made tacos, this time for a multitude, and made an entire birthday cake, and we all went to the opening of the new Batman movie. I loved the movie, which I didn’t expect to, and I loved again being part of a cultural phenomenon, seeing people in costume, listening to the cheers and boos, watching the people around me. At one point a woman came in and yelled at some guy who was smoking: “If you do that again, we will have to evacuate the theatre and you will not see the movie.” A group of guys stood up and pointed at the one who’d been smoking. People yelled random things at random times. It wasn’t till the following morning that I saw the news of the shooting at the same movie opening in Colorado.

I don’t know how to end this post, how to pull together tragedy and joy in Abou’s family, and joy in ours (celebrating Elliot) and tragedy in others, those in Colorado. Maybe there’s some symmetry in this post, but real life is messy; such things seem to be disproportionate from one family to another. It’s wonderful to see, in the life of my friends, sorrow turned to joy, and mourning to dancing. I pray the same for those affected by the events in Colorado; I know it will take years, but I believe it can happen.

As promised in my last post, I did have car trouble. It could have been so much worse. Elliot was driving, and Donn was standing on the sidewalk and happened to notice that one of the tires was about to blow. There was a huge gap in the rubber, through which a metal sort of mesh could be seen. This wasn’t good. We’d all just been visiting an Iraqi family, and had stopped at Fred Meyer’s to pick up a few items since we had friends coming for home-made pizza. Luckily Donn noticed it–you know I wouldn’t have.

We called our guests and told them we’d be late. Then we embarked on an exciting time of buying a jack and one of those funky four-part wrenches (lug? possibly), returning the jack because it was too big, buying a new jack, discovering the spare was shredded, basically, putting the old scary tire back on, and returning the second jack because it didn’t work on my car. I called Les Schwab (are they universal or just in OR?) and they stayed open a few extra minutes till we got there, and then even longer to get us two new tires.

We ate at 9 p.m. Par for the course round here.

And then of course the clutch started to go out. Which is why you shouldn’t let your teen learn to drive in your 25-year-old car, I guess.

***

This all happened last week, but who has time to update the blog? My own computer is still out of commission, although Donn continues to feel confident that he can fix it. We’ll see. In the meantime I am doing a poor job of modeling selflessness for my children, and instead pulling rank whenever I want to check my mail. Yes, we’re back to sharing a laptop between the 4 of us, although at least they don’t have homework these days.

This week was Mona’s baby shower, for her adorable little newborn. The concept of a baby shower was new to her and to the other Iraqis. Mona asked me about 5 months ago what a baby shower was, and then announced, “Ok. I will have one.” She intended to throw the party herself. No, no, I’ll do it, I told her.

There was another mix-up. Maude thought it was at her house. This cracked me up. In May, Maude’s daughter turned 5. The child loves icing, so I decided to have a small party (mostly the girls from 2 families) at my house. I made heart-shaped sugar cookies and several bowls of pastel-coloured icings (pink, purple, turquoise) and put out tons of sprinkles. I’d asked Mona to bring Maude and her daughter to my house, along with her twin daughters.

I explained this all to Maude over the phone, and thought we were clear. But some things got crossed. She thought I had planned a party for her daughter at HER house, and invited some friends. She was cool with this. She made briyani. When they finally all showed up at my place, she brought me a large platter of it. This made me happy. She makes the best briyani. I put it in the fridge and we all decorated cookies. I meant to blog this and post pictures at the time. Consider it done! (The pics are on my old computer…)

Obviously, she thought I was up to my old tricks. Invite a lot of people to her house and make her do all the work! But she figured it out pretty quickly, and showed up with a present for Mona instead of the platters of food I was half-expecting.Truly this crossing cultures thing is not for the faint of heart.

The shower was a success. A friend of mine (an American) hosted it and made cupcakes and pink-frosted flower-shaped shortbread cookies and lots of coffee, most of which I managed to down because my need was the greatest. There was other food–bruschetta (possibly; what does this word mean to you? It was some sort of tomato thingy and you ate it on bread and it was delish), humous plate with real cornichons, etc. Compared to an Arab gathering, there was basically nothing to eat, but we managed to hold body and soul together for a few hours.

I’d had a hectic morning, sleeping in because we were at the airport till 1 the night before and I didn’t go to bed till 2 and then I couldn’t sleep, because I’d foolishly had two shots of espresso at midnight. (Oh but it was worth it. There’s a Jim & Patty’s Coffee People at the airport. Did you know? Their coffee is sooooo good, and it’s years since I’d had it.) Then we had to pick my car up from the mechanic, but thanks to construction that took an extra hour. I still had some shopping to do. Long story short–I was nearly on time, my car full of Iraqi women bearing gifts, but I’d had neither breakfast or lunch and only one small cup of coffee. So I ate a lot of shower food, drank a lot of coffee, and was delightful all evening with my nearest and dearest. Or something like that.

And in other exciting news, Elliot sort of won a scholarship! I have so many thoughts about scholarships and colleges and things that I will have to write a different post, but he only sort of won because the scholarship, it turns out, is only for certain specific schools, none of which he was interested in. Still. Encouraging!

Mona is very pregnant. (I know, one is either pregnant or not, but she is right at the end and it’s the first thing you notice about her) She called me the other night with exciting news. “I am feeling pleasure in my tummy,” she told me.

“Uh, good. I guess,” I said. I thought about it. “Do you mean contractions?”

“Yes,” she said.

But it wasn’t quite contractions, since she wasn’t in labour. Donn was the one who figured it out. She meant pressure.

Nonetheless, I am calling contractions “pleasures” from now on.

***

That was last week. She had a c-section scheduled for Sunday morning at 8 a.m. at a hospital clear across town. She had to be there by 5, and she asked me if I’d bring her mother and her 12 y/o twins to the hospital a little before 8. So I did. We were there all day, till after 7.

Mona told me about her previous c-sections, in Baghdad, where they made her “sleepover”–in other words, gave her a full anesthesia. She was scared to experience the American version, where they only knock you out from the waist down and put up a curtain to block your view. But, she told me later, relieved and happy, that the American version was “too much better, too much easier.” (Her English is excellent, overall, and her few mistakes charming)

The baby is adorable. She has a cleft chin, a dimple, and enormous black eyes like her father’s and older sisters’. She has a lovely round head and tons of silky black hair. I got to hold her a lot in the afternoon, and she gave me lots of those squinty suspicious looks newborns give you, where they squinch their eyes barely open and look at you sideways, obviously thinking, “Who are you and where are we?” I love babies, especially when I don’t have to sleep in the same room as they’re in.

At one point they shooed us all out of the room. Mona’s mum is elderly and has knee pain and a hard time walking and getting out of chairs. I carried a bunch of stuff and herded us all down the hall. We spent some time in a family waiting area before heading down to the cafeteria for some coffee. Again, between the elevator and several long hallways, this took some time. And then I realized I’d inadvertently left my purse in the waiting area.

I called security and they told me they had it, brought it to me. It didn’t take me long to realize my iTouch was gone. It took me longer to realize my camera was gone (I thought I’d left it in the room). It took me till the next morning to realize that the tickets to the midnight opening of the new Batman movie, Elliot’s birthday present, were also gone.

I called security and reported these things missing. I called the police and made a report. I described my things, both to the security guard and the policewoman. “My  iTouch is silver, no case, and it has an inscription,” I told them. “What does it say?” they both asked.

Why do husbands always seem to enjoy doing things that will embarrass their wives? You can’t tell me men ever really grow up! I’m sure many of us have our own stories, which I’m looking forward to reading in comments. Just tonight, I was telling a friend of mine, who is an elementary school principal, about this. She told me what her iTouch says. “TW is HOT!” (Her initials are TW. Although it has her full name, which I don’t feel like sharing with all of you. Nothing personal.)

My  (former) iTouch says, on the back, “Wild Thing.” We can’t remember if it goes on to say “I love you” or “You move me.” I told this to the security guard. “Uh, let’s just assume that’s from Maurice Sendak’s children’s book,” she said drily. When I told the policewoman, I was better prepared. “Husband’s a Hendrix fan,” I muttered shame-facedly. “Ah,” she said noncommittally.

Mona’s family was very sorry about my loss (as am I!). Donn went ahead and cancelled all our credit cards anyway, even though they weren’t missing, since each item taken was in a different area of the purse and the thief obviously took his/her time going through it, deciding what was of interest. Maybe s/he wrote down the numbers and left the actual card, hoping to surprise us later, Donn thought. (He’s naturally suspicious and often right) So we have no credit or debit cards for 10 days.

That was Sunday. On Monday, my computer went out. Donn’s hopeful that he can fix it, but it won’t even give me the tiniest little blue light to show me it’s trying. I’m typing on the kids’ laptop, which someone recently gave us. He built it himself. It runs Linix. I am not complaining in any way; I am very thankful for it, although if I was going to complain I would point out that the mouse pad is very squirrelly and I am recomposing this post, after it lost it even though I had saved it. But I miss my laptop. No I hadn’t done a back-up recently. Even more photos will be gone.

I am expecting my car to break down tomorrow or possibly the day after. I’ll let you know.

Although I don’t expect to replace these things anytime soon, I am doing okay. After all, in the larger scheme of things, these are infinitesimal. The iTouch was already, in this strange world we live in, practically obsolete, although I liked it just fine. The camera had pictures on it that I’m sad to lose, but I’ve lost pictures before and I know I’ll forget about them soon. The baby is healthy and lovely, and her mother was back in full hostess mode by Monday afternoon, telling ME to sit down when I first walked into the room. (Me: No, you sit down. You’re the one recovering from major abdominal surgery!)

They come home tomorrow. Today I took grape leaves to Fiona, who lives in the same apartment complex, so that she could cook them dolma to celebrate their first day home, to give Mona a break. “You come here at 1 to pick up your dolma,” she told me. I don’t know why I’m getting dolma too, but I do know it will be a great addition to the all-American hot dogs and hamburgers we’ll be eating with friends tomorrow evening.

Donn: (showing F online proof of the reason for his traffic ticket) See, here it shows that you didn’t stop at all for the red light. You just turned right without stopping.

F: But no cars were coming.

Donn: That’s not the point. You always have to stop for a red light.

F: (thinking) But this is my first ticket.

Donn: Well not all intersections have cameras.

F: So I just have to learn which intersections have cameras.

Donn: NO! You have to stop for a red light.

F: Which intersections have cameras?

Donn: Besides, if a cop sees you, he’ll pull you over and give you a ticket, whether or not there’s a camera.

F: So I have to be really careful and look.

Donn: NO! You have to stop for all red lights!

F: But if I’m really careful…

Donn: Just stop for red lights.

********

Me: (helping a young woman transfer from one community college to another. She has missed the deadline. I have ordered her transcript, applied online, created passwords and recorded her SSN, etc.) So, tomorrow we just need to call this number and see if they have room in the classes. They’re willing to let you in if the teachers agree.

L: Will you come with me?

Me: Well we just need to call. I can call but they might want to talk to you to get an idea of your English level. So we should be together. We need to call between 8 and 4. I can come over and we can call. What time is good?

L: Noon?

Me: Ok. Maybe a little earlier would be better. But I know you’re not up in the morning. (Aside: we have learned that, when visiting this family, it’s best not to show up before 2 p.m.)

L: You can come at 8, or 9, and I will get up and let you in.

Me: Ok. Why don’t we just do 11. You can still sleep in, but we’ll catch her before she goes to lunch.

Next Morning. I am late, because (long story) Donn is taking F to traffic court and we are sharing a car because my brother is in town (YAAY!) and has borrowed mine for the day. I knock on L’s family’s door at 11:15. No answer. All is still. I knock again. The third time produce’s L’s mother, in her nightgown, hastily adjusting her headscarf as she opens the door. “L?” I say. “Come in,” she says, waves me to a couch, and goes to L’s room.

I sit. She comes back, makes me tea, does her ablutions, prays towards Mecca. She brings her breakfast (bread dipped in date paste and cream) over to me on a tray and we both sit on the floor while she eats, since I’m not hungry. I sit some more.

L appears at noon.

I call, but the woman is at lunch. I leave a long message. “She may call us back at 12:30,” I say, so the 3 of us sit, the only ones awake in the house (there are 3 more asleep), in the drafty, spotless living room. We sit there till just after one, watching an Arabic cooking show on youtube, chatting occasionally about their neighbours (they recently moved), the school, the classes I’m going to give L if she doesn’t manage to get into summer term at the community college. No one calls us. Eventually I leave.

The woman never does call us back. I left her both our phone numbers, so she could choose who she wanted to talk to. Nothing. Which means she’s all set for fall, right?

*****

M: I had something happen the other day. Some Jews came by with a Torah in a box to talk to me about their religion.

Me: Are you sure? Jews don’t usually go door-to-door.

M: I think so. They had a Torah in a box. They were from Syria and they spoke Arabic and they knew our names. They said, “Are you M?”

Me: Hmmmm. (It is niggling in my mind; I should be able to figure this out. It didn’t sound like Mormons. Have you already figured it out?)

M: They came in and I gave them tea.

Me: You don’t have to let them in. I know that is rude in your culture, but here, if someone you don’t know comes to your door, wanting you to buy something or wanting to convince you of something, you can just be polite and say “no thank you” and close the door. It is not rude.

M: Really?

Me: Yes.

M: They had papers for me. They wanted to talk about their religion.

Me: I’m really sure they were not Jewish.

M: They had a Torah.

Me: Oh I know–Jehovah’s Witnesses! That’s who they were!

(Did you figure it out?)

So we went to the rhododendron gardens with an Iraqi couple. The sun was shining. We wandered round for a while. Here are some photos:

Even though it was getting a little late in the season, there were still plenty of blooms, although it was probably even better two weeks earlier.

So I’ve lived in Portland a long time (total), and yet this was my first visit to the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Gardens. I knew where they were; we used to live not that far away. But for some reason, I never went. Rhodies aren’t my favorite flower, and that probably prejudiced me. But of course, there’s so much more. Lakes and ponds and waterfalls (this is Oregon; we don’t lack water), not to mention bridges and decorative trees and lots of birds, from geese to songbirds spiraling high into the sky.

I really enjoy the couple we were with. They’re older–both mid-70s–but they have a great sense of adventure and style. They are unabashedly enthusiastic about their new home. “We wish we had come here years ago!” they told us. They’ve admitted they were afraid to come. Huge movie enthusiasts, they learned of American culture from Hollywood, and they pictured us as a land where everyone is packing heat, a place where one must pay attention walking down a sidewalk in case of car chases spreading over the curb, cities where buildings explode daily, in slow motion. They didn’t know what to expect!

I actually kind of love this. There’s so much misinformation going both ways between Americans and Arabs. Americans see a woman wearing a headscarf walking down their suburban street and they’re afraid she might spontaneously explode. Arabs are afraid to come here because they worry that life will reflect our movies, that we’re violent and dangerous or that their kids will turn into super-obnoxious brats who never listen to their parents. (Although, that’s really a case of the pot calling the kettle black…just sayin’)

Afterwards they insisted on taking us for a late lunch. They insisted on paying. Donn tried to sneak the waitress some cash, but they caught him out and scolded the waitress–they’d already told her they were paying! She was amused.

When they were younger, they traveled all over, took long car trips from Iraq to Europe, camped out and drove round France and Germany and Italy. They collected souvenirs from their trips, all of which they had to leave behind. But they don’t complain; instead they buy things at Goodwill and garage sales and proudly show me their new finds with each visit.

We sat outside and ate sandwiches and pickles, and they looked around at the trees lining the street. “It’s so clean here,” they said, and I laughed. We were just coming off several days of rain. “That’s because we are constantly washing it,” I joked. They talked of days-on-end of sandstorms, how their son in Iraq tells them on skype of how bad things are. I’m sure they miss him, but they smile at me, happy to be here, to be enjoying another new adventure.

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