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Ok I am going to finish my year. It wasn’t all that eventful, really, just that I am verbose. Very very verbose. How did I handle not blogging?

October: or possibly late September. Finally it cools down. It even rains a little bit. We take newly-arrived family to Hood River to visit the orchards. There are tons of them—growing myriad varieties of apples, pears, pumpkins, fantastically-shaped gourds. It’s very beautiful, and they love it. I mean, who wouldn’t?

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We all bought some and decorated our houses.

 

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This pumpkin shell is like lace, isn’t it?

We did other things. ESL classes started up again. Every year we get more organized. This is only impressive when you realize that I started the program and that I have no organizational skills whatsoever. I know six year olds who are more organized than I am! However, we have muddled along and now have 4 levels and around 40 students, plus about 30 volunteers driving our students to and from class, watching their children so they can study, greeting them with coffee, teaching or tutoring them. Our students include a group of women in their 50s and 60s who have never really gone to school before. They grew up in the countryside, in villages where education was for boys, and they married young and raised children and grandchildren. Now they are students themselves with notebooks and pens, and very proud of themselves! Their progress is slow, as one would expect, but they view each incremental gain with great satisfaction and never tire of practicing their short sentences on me, and bringing me large platters of dolma and briyani. (I don’t teach their level but they all know me) Last summer, Donn and I ran into an Iraqi man at Fred Meyer’s who told me that my class is “number one for women with PTSD.” I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that our little school has a very homey atmosphere, and these students are thriving, each in her own way. On the other end, we have lawyers and professors and pharmacists who come to our classes as well.

October: Donn and I went to Thailand. I’ll pause and let you imagine all the exclamation points. Thailand has been a place I’ve wanted to go for years and years and years now. We had to go to an international conference and since we were there, we stayed an extra week. It was blissful.

Thailand was therrific! (What is wrong with me?) Just as cool as you think it’s going to be. I consciously decided not to blog it, because I have a bad habit of going into way too much detail and saving the best stories for last and then never finishing the series. Seriously, our last two trips to Mauritania have included many cool things that I never got around to recording.

I was just glancing through my pictures and it’s evident I’m going to stretch this out even further. So let’s take a few moments and just enjoy some of the amusing signs. And this isn’t all. I never did manage to get a picture of the restaurant called “Egg Slut.”

IMG_6069I know I agree, and so far my cholesterol isn’t bad…

We didn’t eat here, but it was sort of a McDonald’s knock-off, featuring (among other items) the MookMuffin.

IMG_6115Donn had a great avocado bubble tea here. I was tempted to try a “white mall” smoothie but just wasn’t sure. Would it contain actual grit from a Nordstrom’s floor? 

IMG_6137Frankly, Satan’s coffee seemed a better bet.

IMG_6095Who are they calling drunk? 

IMG_6094Saw a lot of ads for this whitening cream. I understand the concept, but feel the marketing really fell down on this one. A friend told me the tv ads for this feature an actual snail crawling across a woman’s face, leaving it sparkly (slimy) white!

Sadly, all these pictures are of places (or items) I didn’t try. Which would you go for? Tell us in comments.

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Two years ago we moved into this house. This morning, as I was drinking coffee, I realized this and thought it would make a good blog post. All sorts of ideas and connections ran through my mind.

They’re all gone now.

It was a long day. Ilsa was home sick, and I came home to check on her and somehow took about 3 hours off this afternoon and was sick with her. After a nap, I find myself feeling better. The headache is mostly gone. I guess rest is actually good for us after all! This is a brilliant concept and one I find myself hoping to explore more.

They say, these experts on international moves and third-culture-kids and people like that, that is takes 2 full years to really adjust and settle. They’re right. The first year everything is new; the second year you look for patterns. After that, you’re okay.

I spent the summer picking berries as often as possible, although the selection in our freezer is still paltry as we head into winter. I adore fresh berries–especially blueberry, raspberry, and any form of blackberry (i.e. marionberry, loganberry, etc) We live in the boring suburbs in a cookie-cutter house, but thanks to the brilliance of Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary, we live about 10 minutes from rural farmland, acres and acres of farms stretching out along the contours of the rolling hills to the west of us, blue with distance and sun. I would snatch a free hour, run out to a farm, come back with 5 pounds of raspberries for jam, or blueberries for cobbler, always with the idea of freezing for winter, but somehow not always achieving that goal.

It was a gorgeous summer–the days long and light-filled. We haven’t had rain for months now, very unusual for the Portland area. Fall has been filled with hot afternoons and crisp mornings and nights that are downright cold, so that it’s pretty much impossible to dress appropriately.

My Iraqi friends call this “Mountain Hood.” Locals say Mt. Hood.

If you are wondering, these are the things that help me adjust to a place. I need to know the patterns of afternoon sunlight in a room, or where the maples glow on sunny days, or the way to take to the mechanic that takes me through farmland and green hills and vines stretching up them into the distance. I need a riot of sunflowers and dahlias planted by the road, or the tangle of roses at all the freeway exits. I need the feel of the rain, of the heat, of the clattering moths outside a front door or the glow of a firepit giving a rather ugly and neglected backyard a certain allure. The place I had the hardest time adjusting to was Mauritania, because it took me years to see the beauty of it. Even now, I feel that if they could just turn the sun down by about 20%, it would be so much nicer.

I grew daffs and tulips and roses and cosmos. I planted a dogwood.

We bought that vase in France. It’s been all over with us. It’s very unsteady and I’m happy it’s survived.

Elliot had a deadline for the outline for his Extended Essay (I put it in caps cuz that’s how he refers to it. It’s a 4000-word essay that he’s doing on the Battle of Stalingrad. I think he’s already smarter than I am, but don’t tell him. It’d go right to his head) and needed to go to the big library, the one downtown that takes up a city block. I didn’t let myself even go in because I knew I would see a few books that I really really wanted to read and frankly, I already have a stack I need to read for 5 Minutes for Books. Instead I dropped him off, parked the car, and sat in the Park Blocks for a lovely, lonely hour. The Park Blocks are a block wide and run right through the center of downtown, from Portland State on the heights down past Burnside at the bottom of a long sloping hill. They are planted with elms and lined with benches and statues to various notable people, and when I was a student I used to do most of my reading homework out there (except when it was raining. This is Portland). I was utterly content, sitting in the sun with the occasional golden leaf dropping like a gift, reading a very good book. I turned off my phone and enjoyed it.

 this phone camera has no depth of field….

Two years ago, I had no idea I would be in this place. But here I am. I’m doing fine. How are you doing where you’re at? Is it at all what you pictured? I’m guessing no, because it never is.

When I opened the laptop to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm’s site and showed the women photos of stripes of brilliant colours, following the contours of the hills to the horizon, they literally shouted! For a whole year, ever since last year when I went with just one woman and her daughter, I have been telling them about the tulip fields, promising them that we’d go, describing them. My words didn’t have the power of pictures, though.

Saturday was the day. 5 carloads of people, representing 6 families, were to meet up at an apartment complex. As was to be expected this proved to be complicated. First there were 3 cars, then one couple commented that they hadn’t brought food and could they just stop by Safeway, then off they went, then another car went to get gas, then the last car showed up but the couple weren’t back from Safeway, then we all met in the Safeway parking lot.

I remembered where the tulip farm was, basically, so I led.  You take the Woodburn exit off I-5 and turn left. Last year traffic was horrible. This year, given that it was a cool and cloudy Saturday, traffic was slow but not horrible. I was pretty sure I was going the right way. Behind me, strung out, were 2 Camrys in various states of disrepair, a small SUV, and a mini-van driven by Donn. I was in another mini-van. Both belong to our church and we’d borrowed them for the day and pretty much filled them with people who don’t have cars.

I took the exit, checked to see that everyone was following me. One of the Camry drivers is a young single man, about 26 or 28, who lives with his parents. (This is normal and right in their culture) His mother has confided in me that its time for him to get married; his sister in Baghdad has found a nice girl from a good family for him. He drives like young men do, and he likes to lead, so at least half the time he was in front. I found this amusing, since he didn’t know where he was going.

By the time I was a mile or two down the road, I got a call from Donn. The young man’s car had broken down; could I come back to the gas station just at the freeway exit? It took me a good 5 minutes to be able to turn around in that traffic, but eventually I made it back. We squeezed the occupants of that car into the remaining 4 vehicles and drove the rest of the way, me hoping I was on the right track the entire time. WHY do I always forget to check directions before I leave? Frankly, because I’m right most of the time, as (phew!) I was this time, but it does add to my stress.

We parked in various spots, met up briefly, and scattered. Two Kurdish women were dressed to the nines in their traditional costumes for pictures, with jeans and flats stuffed in bags to change into later. Ilsa sighed longingly over one outfit, which consisted of red satin harem pants with a black lace overlay. “Picture that on me, in emerald green…” she said.

Eventually, hours later, we met up for a picnic. I had told the women not to cook. “Just sandwiches,” I explained. “You won’t be able to cook.” This is because I have gone on several “picnics” now that involve barbecues and shish kebobs made on site and small electric fans brought along to ensure that the coals glow red-hot. “Just sandwiches,” however, proved to involve stacks of home-made hamburgers (picnics are easier if you don’t sweat food storage) and pizza, entire chickens, meat-filled pastries, and salads made and dressed right there on the table. There was tons of food, and people were constantly passing me platefuls of it. Several people brought thermoses of tea as well. We garnered a few glances from passers-by; we were quite a crowd, chattering in Arabic, with lots and lots of food. I will say, however, that the tulip fields are as multi-national a place as any I have ever seen. I heard more languages that day–Russian (presumably), Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Tagalog, and more.

Everyone took millions of pictures of themselves. At one point, I found myself wondering, grumpily (I was getting tired), just how many pictures of herself in the tulips one person needed! But the day was a success. The people in my car wanted to stop at the outlet malls by the freeway on the way home, but I quickly realized what a nightmare that would be, between the men, not in shopping mode, and the children, so prone to getting whiny when dragged around the shops.

Getting everyone coordinated and packed up took almost as long as leaving in the morning had. By the time we left it was about 3 hours later than I’d expected we would, as the fields were closing down for the day. We met up again at the gas station, where we managed to get the Camry running, but the rest of the young man’s family opted to ride in other cars anyway, just in case. My van was full again, and we listened to pop music loudly, danced in place, and raced the other cars on the way home. The single man won again, cruising triumphantly across 3 lanes of traffic to take the lead, trailing clouds of glory smoke in his wake.

The last two times we’ve visited Harold and Maude’s (why not?*), we’ve watched home movies. Theirs. It’s kind of surreal. On the first disc, we saw their son get circumcised, and then we watched them go swimming—Maude fully clothed head to toe, Harold in Speedos. It was quite the evening for us. Neither of them can swim, I should clarify, but in the pool they went nonetheless. The two events took place years apart, but all was compressed onto a shiny DVD and spun in the computer’s drive and revealed to us, years later and thousands of miles away, in a brand-new culture and place.

Harold and Maude are lots of fun. I really really like them. Plus, they just make me laugh. When we went with a group of Iraqi friends to the waterfalls last summer, there wasn’t room for Harold to make the left hand turn out of the gas station into lane behind us all, waiting to turn left onto a divided highway. He pulled up beside us. “No problem, I wait you,” he said. How? we wondered. The other lane was right-turn-only. We watched in bemusement, okay and amusement too, as he totally cut in front of everyone in the left turn lane and triumphantly turned left from the right hand lane. It was totally Arab. No one even honked; I suspect because they were too stunned.

Last time we were there, we watched their wedding video. To American eyes anyway (Ooh! I just had a fun idea. Please leave a comment with your nationality. I’d love to know who actually reads this thing! Please? I’ll remind you at the end), Arab-style is awfully cheesy. Harold and Maude personify this a bit with their apartment decorations as it is—photos of themselves made into clocks, or holograms that show two different family pictures depending on where you are in the room. Their wedding video begins with a montage—Harold looking thoughtfully at the camera as Maude’s face, stern and almost sulky, floats in a sky filled with puffy white clouds. A red heart grows from the center of the screen, enveloping them both. The music swells. There are red roses with fake droplets of water. It is wonderful.

It’s fun watching the wedding. Maude doesn’t smile through most of it. I ask her about it—in Mauritania, it’s considered shameful for the bride to be happy—and she tells me she was happy but tired. Harold’s family dances exuberantly. “They’re all married now,” he tells me, smudging the screen as he points to various children and teens. Maude’s family sit in chairs, eat cake. There is an enormous candle, tall as a person, which Harold tells me will burn continuously throughout the first week. (I think, anyway. His English isn’t great yet and the music was loud) They open their presents on the 7th day, I think it was. It’s fascinating to see their families, people they talk about. I peer eagerly at the computer screen, to see their mothers, their sisters and brothers, their friends.

There’s even a slow dance for the happy couple. Also, everyone shoots silly string. Maude looks annoyed as she picks it out of her hair, but I don’t blame her. Silly string? Really? Bubbles or rice are much nicer, except if you’re a bird.

Arab weddings (now that I know 3 Arab cultures at least a little, I feel qualified to make such sweeping generalizations) don’t have a ceremony. The two families sign the contract and then there’s a party. In Mauritania, the bride wore a black muluffa (or possibly it was deep purple). Maude is dressed in an elaborate white gown, stiff with layer upon layer of lace. In Morocco, the bride has 7 to 9 outfits that she changes into throughout the evening. One is a white gown, Western-style, and the rest are fancy Moroccan caftans, embroidered and highly decorated. In all 3, brides wear geisha-amounts of make-up, and resemble nothing more than old-fashioned dolls.

 

***

Maude wants to learn to drive. She asks my friend to teach her. “I can’t,” whispers my friend to me. “What if I don’t do a good job?” I point out to her Harold’s breezing through the intersection, leaving a long line of cars in his dust. “Can you do worse?” I ask, and she laughs. Tomorrow I will drive Maude to her second driving lesson. I’m just glad it’s not me. I can do ESL classes, but I’m already grey enough without adding in driver’s ed.

 

*not their real names. In case you were wondering.

OH! Don’t forget to leave a comment that includes your nationality!

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau

Saturday we decided to go for a hike down the Columbia River Gorge, home to thousands of carelessly occurring, unnamed waterfalls scattered about in abundance, as if there were not places in the world where the wind blows only sand. We went with friends who are constantly active and have been known to bike 60 miles, just for fun. We let them pick the hike. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake.

unnamed waterfall, no biggie, just one of many

We started off by parking a half mile from the trailhead, just for fun. Actually just because Saturday down the gorge is now packed with people! Who knew? We hefted our water and lunches onto our back. Ok I will be precise. Elliot carried the backpack full of camera and lenses, Donn his tripod, and Abel the lunch/water backpack. He and Ilsa and I took turns. You other mothers out there already know that meant Abel carried it with joy for the first half-mile, Ilsa whined for about ¼ mile, and I ended up carrying it most of the time.

We started up near Wahkeena Falls and endured the switchbacks with much stoicism and dry humour. Sort of, that is. We reached the top and the first lookout with great joy, as we remembered that after that, it got a lot easier. I was shocked to discover that the strict regime I’ve been under, where I sit around on my butt and eat Arab pastries (the artist’s wife told me “3 cups flour, 1 cup oil and 1 cup butter” but surely she was wrong) did little to prepare me for a six-mile hike, most of which was uphill. (Seriously, four of the six miles were uphill) We have done part of this hike before and I’ve even blogged about it.

But this time, we hardly stopped at all at Fairy Falls (although I did park my butt on a bench there till I’d caught my breath a bit) before heading on further, onward and upward! Ed opted to turn left instead of right, and so we kept going up. Up and up and up. Finally in the middle of steep hillside, we mutinied and stopped for lunch.

We opted not to do the highest loop to Devil’s Rest (which is higher than Angel’s Rest…go figure) and finally, finally, started going downhill. Donn kept stopping to photograph, as usual, and the younger kids had scampered on ahead, so for quite a while I found myself walking with Elliot. He’d put his earphones in and the silence of the woods—full of small noises of water and wind and leaves—was infiltrated by earphone noise. “You should listen to the forest,” I told him. “I have,” he said. “You should read Thoreau,” I told him. “I have,’ he said. “I went into the woods…” I began. “I know,” he said. Stupid AP US history/Amer Lit class he’s taking! I resorted to mumbling Yeats at him underneath my breath, but he remained unmoved, although we did have a nice chat about the essay he’s writing on “Night” before the headphones went back in.

this is a tiny waterfall over mossy rocks by the side of the trail


By this time, we were on a trail I hadn’t hiked before, and we came down by the prettiest little falls. There was a plaque, and this falls is named something like Weizendanger, which totally sounds like a name Donn would make up.

Abel and his friend Van scampered everywhere.

At the time this didn’t bother me at all but I woke up in the middle of the night and had nightmares about this. What if he’d fallen? This river is about to fall 627 feet onto sharp rocks. I had to get up and hug Abel.

We came eventually to the top of Multnomah Falls, which is the biggest and most famous of all the falls. My very earliest memory is of these falls; I have a vague memory of walking a small part of the trail and what I really remember is that my Mum bought a cup of hot tea (she was addicted) and spilled it on my arm in the car and burned me. That is my earliest memory—beauty and pain. I’m pretty sure that explains something but I don’t know what. Any psychologists out there?

Donn and Ed refused to believe I came up there at the age of 2, in spite of the myriad toddlers and babies that were there, in backpacks and strollers and exhausted parents’ arms.

So we stood at the top (see the parking lot far below? And remember, we’ve already come about a mile downhill at this point) and admired the view, then we staggered down another 11 switchbacks to the bottom, where there was a toilet. Thankfully.

Most of the first part of the falls

view from the bottom showing both parts of Multnomah Falls

I could barely walk the next day.

So we’re going back next Saturday.

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.

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.

“She has no friends at school,” says Beka* sadly, speaking of her daughter. They’ve been in the US for 4 months now, and her daughter is turning 18. I’ve met her several times, and she’s a delightful girl—smiling and friendly, kind. But I’ve heard a similar refrain from several Iraqi mothers and children. It’s hard to make friends at school—in part because they spend most of their time in ESL classes, with other immigrants. Beka’s son tells of turning out for the soccer team, being asked if he was Mexican, and being told there was no room when he said he wasn’t.

“All the players and the coach were Mexican,” he says. I have no idea how accurate his perception is, but I do know that these refugee kids feel isolated.

It’s Beka’s daughter’s birthday today. I’ve been wanting to introduce our children to each other—I am particularly interested in getting Elliot together with her son, who’s about the same age—and today there was no school, because it’s the end of the trimester.

So I told Beka we’d be stopping by. Ok, she said. Come about one and stay one hour. I told her we’d bring a cake for her daughter’s birthday and I’d bring my kids.

We got there about 1:30 (yeah. Don’t ask. It wasn’t pretty). We had no cake because the cake had not turned out, at all. It tasted okay but was just a mess, half of it still stuck in the pan. I stopped by the store on the way there to pick her up a small gift, which I didn’t wrap, just left in the bag.

As soon as I walked in the door, I knew it was a party. There were the platters of cookies and candy, and a chocolate bakery cake. (Aside: a lot of their food comes from food banks, so a frequent treat is day-old baked goods.) I was so glad I hadn’t brought a cake! I was so glad I’d brought a present! I had clearly told Beka I’d bring a cake; had she not understood? Had I not understood her response? Life is just an adventure when you’re crossing languages like this.

We went in and I handed Hana* the bag with her present. (I’d chosen a necklace and earring set, in case you care to know) We introduced all the kids to each other.

Soon we were called back to the kitchen and seated round the table with its chairs held together with duct tape, and we were presented with a feast. There was biryani and qua’boo (or something like that. They are like samosas with a curried meat filling and the exterior is rice and potatoes and saffron and they’re deep fried. They are exceptionally tasty and have become my new favorites) and samosas and salads and yogurt (leban) and olives and pickled cauliflower and several other dishes, including meat in a tomato and garbanzo bean sauce. We all ate and were satisfied, and then the doorbell rang and it was my friend Susi’s 3 daughters, all of whom are much younger than Hana. Another woman and her 11-year-old daughter were there; she and Beka are related.

We moved away from the table and they all sat down and ate.

And then it was time for the party! Elliot, Abel and Beka’s son went off to his room which left the woman free to dance. Hana was wearing a tight, bright pink shirt and a long swishy black skirt that was sheer below her knees. (Ilsa adored this outfit) Her long black hair reaches her hips and she is gorgeous. She tied a black scarf with coins round her waist, cranked up the arab pop music, and began to dance while her mother ululated with joy. “We do this at birthdays and weddings,” she told me. “I know but I can’t make that sound,” I replied (although I have tried a few times in the shower. I sound like a weasel being strangled)

The party lasted several hours. All the girls and women danced; the males were secluded and not allowed even a glimpse of the festivities. And as I let my afternoon’s plans slip away and just relaxed and enjoyed myself, I realized: it’s like I’m not even in America. I am in Iraq right now, and I feel like I’m in Mauritania in Rana’s living room, watching her and her sisters and friends dance to the same music. For this short time, the incessant rain and the alien trees, the mold-stained ceilings and broken chairs, were gone:  this was a time to celebrate. Everyone danced together and it was beautiful.

*not her real name

On MLK Day, we did not do all that we had planned, but we did do something we hadn’t. “Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested to Elliot. “Okay. I’ll take you to Starbucks,” he said.

Well all right then! Even though what I’d had in mind was more athletic and less sitting-at-a-table-consuming-calories, I agreed with alacrity! Plus, I need to ingest more calcium. Win-win.

This is the second time he’s done this now. I know that I had many dreams for him when he was first born, but I never imagined that my 15 year old son would take me out for coffee, and sit and chat with me while we drank it.

Elliot has always liked to talk. When he was about 6 or 7, his favorite time to settle down for a real heart-to-heart about all that was going on at school was bedtime. It took me a while to wise up—what parent DOESN’T want her child opening up to her?—and realize that these times were carefully planned to delay the inevitable lights out. Donn and I started taking our kids, at random, on “special times” as we called them. There weren’t a ton of options in Nouakchott, but one or the other would take a child to a café for a shwarma and fries, or to the town’s one ice-cream shop that lasted about 2-3 years. (Aside: Donn stopped going after he took Abel there one time. Abel ordered, and the girl scooped out his ice-cream. Then, while she was waiting for Donn to decide, she licked the scoop, and then used it for Donn’s ice-cream. Life in these developing countries!) These times ensured that we heard what the kids had to say, and enabled us to keep bedtime a little closer to the ideal. We’ve mostly dropped the habit now although it still happens sporadically.

So Elliot and I walked over to Starbucks, where he bought me a grande cappuccino with his own money. The place was packed, as it always is, so we sat outside, warm enough from our walk, and talked about everything from the possibility of the historical existence of giants to colleges to marriage—he’d overheard part of a phone conversation about a Moroccan friend of mine who’s getting divorced. We chatted for about half an hour, double-checked that the library was, in fact, closed (I told him!), and then headed home.

***

Today, after school, Ilsa and I head out the door into the purples and pinks of a winter sunset. We climb the steep hill behind our house—so steep and grand that it’s called a mountain. From the top, other mountains are visible, and the long wide valley of the Willamette, where Portland is nestled. Don’t you feel it only right that any city located in a long wide valley be nestled? These are the rules, people. I don’t make them up.

We climb up past palatial houses, where I once saw a deer, discussing how those decorative rocks are arranged like fish scales, and how those cedar trees remind us of the ones in the hills behind Volubilus.

Ilsa and I are trying to lose our tummies. We discuss this on the way up—at least once we are more than halfway, as the first half is brutally steep and not so inducive to discussion. “Isn’t there a pill you can take to lose weight?” she asks, so I tell her about pills that raise your heart beat or cause you to expel all fat violently from your body. “Why would someone want to take a pill like that?” she asks. “Why do you think?” I reply. So we chat a bit, about body image and health and other deep topics.

We spend most of the way down discussing Ilsa’s dream house, which is set on some acreage and includes wild woods and horses and a house with a tower and a circular staircase since, naturally, every dream house must include a circular staircase. We discuss stone paths and wells and birch glades for moonlit dancing and a glass hill—not a big one, more of a glass hump—just because.

If you want to live in Fairie when you grow up, I highly recommend letting Ilsa design it for you.

Today the sun shone through the misty pearl clouds and the weather was crisp but not cold. I bought tulips on sale yesterday and filled vases with them, and they make the house feel like the earth has turned, that spring is coming. And though I thought that our walk might provide me a blog post, it didn’t quite. It was nice, but our discussions were not especially deep or meaningful, just part of our ongoing conversations about the life we find ourselves in. And that’s enough, for now.

Although I wanted to mark the Feast of the 3 Kings with some celebratory almond paste and flaky pastry (aka Galette des Rois; visit Meredith to see pics), I wasn’t able to. There was a combination of reasons. One, I am technically trying to cut down on my intake of buttery, flaky pastry as part of my cunning plan to lose, oh, many many pounds this year and amaze everyone with my stunning amounts of will power. (How am I doing so far? Um… poorly. Let’s leave it at that.) Two, we went to a meeting about alternative high schools in our school district.

These are exciting times. Although Ilsa is dancing about the place at the thought of going to an art school for high school. Could anything be more cool?

Yesterday we went to Powells and then Donn went out photographing. He’s trying to get the definitive photo of this one building on Burnside Street, where a street goes off at an angle and the building is shaped like a wedge of cheese or a pizza slice. So far that’s involved going downtown on a bitter, freezing night and on a rainy dull grey afternoon. Today was dry and clear and even showed glimpses of blue sky but it was very cold, so I managed to stay inside the bookstore, where I had promised Donn I wouldn’t buy anything. This was made easier by the fact that while I was buying books for people at Christmas I accidentally bought myself 2 or 3. Well 4.

I moved to Portland when I was 18 and stayed 16 years; I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. I came to go to college and met a boy and just stayed, going to another college, working, having kids, buying a house. I remember practically living at Powells when I was a student. This was before they added some of the extra storeys. Even then you could get lost for hours. My friend Tom worked there, and always gave me great deals on books, which you could do back in the day before every single thing was computerized. A typical used book cost $2; now they’re $8. Only an old woman would think to mention this, I do realize. And there are still marvelous deals to be found; for example a like-new hardcover of a fascinating book called “Educating Alice” for only $6.

It’s strange to wander round that part of downtown, once so familiar and grungy, now full of  trendy boutiques and large-windowed, linen-tabled restaurants pumping enticing smells into the frosty air. Some things haven’t changed but many have, and we pause on a corner, straining our memories for what used to be there, arguing whether or not this was the corner where that one art gallery used to be, now a store selling overpriced clothes in neutral shades for thin women, or a Pilates studio.

Memory plays tricks. Things rise in the mind’s eye, half-formed and misty-edged, and I grasp at them, not sure if I am remembering something from 3 years ago or 20, all of these street corner reincarnations layered one on top of the other like posters stapled to a light pole. Was this place a Thai restaurant when we were students, or was it the place we took Elliot when he was 2 and we couldn’t believe all the spicy food he’d eat? Or was that another corner, another hole-in-the-wall ethnic food experience? I’m not sure. My life is fragmented; childhood in Canada, high school in Seattle, adult years in Africa or Europe. I remember when things happened by what house I was living in at the time.

Donn takes a picture of a recently repainted sign, edges and lettering crisp, and remembers taking a picture from an empty parking garage on Christmas Day in 1989 with his first professional camera. The sign then was muted and faded, left over from years previous. This much is clear in our heads. But Donn can’t find that old negative, made before digital was even thought of. How can we be that old?

When we drive home, up Burnside through the west hills and past the big cemetery, it’s foggy and still. Snow is forecast but there’s no sign of it so far. I make enchiladas for dinner. We’re planning to watch a movie as family, huddled round Donn’s computer because we still don’t have a television. A quiet weekend.

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