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So I recently spent a week in Philadelphia. Now I’ve traveled a fair bit in my time, but not extensively in the US. I mostly only know the West Coast. Philly is like a whole different country.

Here are some random thoughts:

1. Styrofoam what??? Isn’t it illegal? I thought only barbarians were still using it, but we were served by perfectly nice people who seemed to think it was okay. It’s not okay, Philly. Not okay.

2. Coffee WHA???? People people people. Folgers is not coffee. Dunkin’ Donuts is not only grammatically egregious, (do they mean dunking doughnuts? Why name a business a gerund?) but their coffee, um, sucks. Good coffee is hard to find in this city of brotherly love. Maybe they feel caffeine would ruin things, but I find it hard to love my fellow man without some decent brew sloshing about inside me. And bad coffee served in Styrofoam? Ouch. It was hard not to take it personally, like they were telling me to take my European coffee and snort it up my nose.

3. Ok, all the old brick buildings are super cool. And the murals? Yes. The murals are super super cool.

4. LOVE the old stone churches, although seriously, you’ve got a LOT. I feel like every time they gathered 3 or more people together, they decided they needed to put up another large stone ediface. Literally ever other block seemed to have one.

5. Speaking of people, Philadelphians in general live up to their city’s name. They are friendly and full of advice. Another thing, everybody has a favorite deli, and if you are wondering what it is, just ask. One man explained that the deli where we were all waiting for our sandwiches was where he came for his deli sandwiches, but, he muttered behind his hand, there was another deli where you should go for your cheesesteaks. He was a large black man who barely fit in the deli’s one chair, where he was waiting. He told us about the best Philly cheesesteak sandwich in the city. “Now you are your wife should share one,” he told Donn. “I can eat a whole one, but that’s not a skill you want to acquire.” The train conductor had a completely different place he recommended for cheesesteaks. We did our best, but there is a limited number of large sandwiches one couple can eat. Perhaps if we’d split up?

6. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seemed perhaps a lot of people had acquired the skills necessary to eat the entire cheesesteak sandwich.

7. All the old rowhomes are pretty cool too. The neighbourhoods have a lot of character.

8. There is a palace downtown. I never did figure out what it was being used for. Do we have royalty here? Maybe it’s where visiting royalty stay? They were doing some sort of renovation. I did look for signs.


9. Of course the historical part is fascinating, although since we were in meetings all day, the best we could do was go downtown via subway once we got out and wander round looking at the outsides of things, since places were closed. I didn’t mind. We did visit once before, years ago, and got to go inside places.


10. Ethnic restaurants. I thought Portland was pretty good, but no, we are a cultural wasteland. We ate Punjabi food and Moroccan food and, best of all, Senegalese food. I was excited and kept texting the kids, who requested that I bring them some in my suitcase. Um, no. The Yassa Poulet (pictured below) was super-oily, just like it should be. They also had great bissop (a sort of tea made from steeping dried hibiscus flowers) AND really yummy spicy ginger juice, just like Howa used to make it.

I haven’t had Senegalese food since we left Mauritania in 2007. That’s a long time without good Yassa. We even met a Mauritanian man in the restaurant! (Aside: for newer readers, we lived in Mauritania which is just north of Senegal, and they share a lot of the same cuisine, and we vacationed in Senegal where we would buy Yassa from women cooking in on the beach in the evenings.) But, of course, mostly we ate hoagies. They get their own post, coming soon.


(Insert usual whining about lack of actual camera and limitations of iPhone, which really I am super thankful for. I love my smart phone)

I’m pretty sure I have more thoughts, but that’s all I can remember right now. Have you ever been to Philly? What did you think? Where was your favorite deli? Did you have a different favorite deli for hoagies and for cheesesteaks? Can you eat an entire sandwich? Don’t worry; we won’t judge.


I cooked all day and at the end, realized that I’d really only produced what would be an average amount of food for an Arab household, inviting us over on any given Saturday. In fact, less. That’s a discouraging thought.

We invited an Iraqi family over. I’ve mentioned them before–Harold and Maude, the people we went camping with, the people who showed us home movies both of their child’s circumcision and their time at an Egyptian resort, Maude pretty much fully covered head to toe, Harold in Speedos. They arrived pretty much exactly on time. Usually, they’re an hour or more late when they come to us, but if we’re more than 15 minutes late going to them, they call to see where we are. Today, we said come at 3 and they came at 3:15.

Things were going swimmingly in the kitchen. An hour earlier, we’d gotten a phone call that another friend was stopping by. I took it in stride. There was a time this would have thrown me for a loop, but I’ve been in strict training for a couple of years now. Someone stopping by, who will expect to be served something to eat and drink, an hour before another family is coming for Thanksgiving when things are at their height in the kitchen? No problem! I ran upstairs to apply my make-up, talking to my brother on the phone, and then pulled appetizers from Trader Joe’s from the freezer and popped them into the oven, underneath the turkey. These frozen appetizers are a lifesaver. I recommend the Mushroom Turnovers and whatever else you can find that looks good that doesn’t have pork or alcohol in it. Keep in your freezer, practice continually saying “No you can’t have those” to your kids (they love those mushroom things, and they won’t even eat mushrooms) and you, too, can react calmly to unexpected guests. The house was even already clean! We were way ahead of the game.

I served out cranberry-pomegranate juice and the mushroom things and these sort of Indian things that came with coconut chutney, frozen in a little packet. Our friend ate and drank a little, and gave us gifts. That’s why he’d come. His wife recently traveled, and she brought us dates, and large  jewelry for Ilsa and I, but she was too tired to come in person. He didn’t stay long, which was good as I wanted to set the table before they arrived. He left a small mound of salt on the couch, from all the nuts he ate.

I had a fresh turkey that dry-brined for 3 days in the fridge (well, 2 1/2) with fresh herbs. I had massive amounts of mashed potatoes since I usually don’t have enough, given that the twins adore mashed potatoes and I hardly ever make them. I had 3 veg and gravy and home-made cranberry and dressing and all that good stuff, just like you. I made fancy-schmancy individual salads with fresh mozzarella and home-made smoky tomato vinaigrette, and turkey bacon, just because.  We got out the china that Donn’s great-aunt bought in Japan during WW2, when she was there with General MacArthur. We were ready.

Maude walked in carrying an enormous dish of food for me. “You don’t need to bring food on Thanksgiving!” I told her, but she said, “No, no! Just a little something, because you invite me to your house.” Sigh. I squeezed things aside in the fridge to make room. Later I check, and she’s brought me turkey and rice! A LOT of turkey and rice! She’s an excellent cook, so I know it will be delicious. But in addition to my own Thanksgiving leftovers and Maude’s offerings, I also have leftovers from last night, when another Iraqi friend sent us an enormous amount of food, just because. My fridge is so full right now, you guys. Please come over and want leftovers instead of Trader Joe’s appetizers.

I really wondered if people would like the food. On the one hand, I didn’t care. We’d invited them for an American Thanksgiving, and that’s what they were going to experience, like it or not! But I also didn’t want to waste food, especially when everything turned out so well. I needn’t have worried. The kids didn’t really like much, but Harold and Maude managed to find plenty of things they liked, from the brussel sprouts cooked with turkey bacon and onion, to the butternut squash roasted with butter and brown sugar. They were very unsure about cranberry sauce–sweet sauce with meat? Was I sure?–but ended up liking it, or at least liking it okay. But it was a very strange moment when I looked at my table, groaning with food, and realized I had probably made less food than Maude had made last time we were over there.

We had dessert. Their daughter felt comfortable eating the whipped cream straight from the bowl with her finger, but that’s the beautiful thing about being 5. Most people liked the pumpkin pie, and the American coffee (decaf) served in china cups. We had coconut pies too (really tarts), and chocolate-filled pralines.  There was a lot of food. At one point, Harold said, “I feel I gained 5 pounds!” We assured him that was the proper American thing to do.

I am going to start out by telling you that I have no pictures, although just glancing with your eyes up and down this page could probably have told you that. At first I was having fun exploring the limitations of the iPhone camera, but I’m currently going through a stage of “this camera isn’t really a camera and wow, those are some limiting limitations.” Also, does anyone know how to get hipstamatic prints to anywhere else other than the app? I suppose I could google or ask my sister-in-law (basically the same thing). But I am lazy.

So, Halloween. Last year, 2 families came to my house and I took their children trick-or-treating in my neighbourhood. I mentioned one family who left the following day. They’ve just returned (YAAY!!!!) and are trying to settle in again, this time for good.

This year, the two original families assumed this year would be a repeat. Ok then! I ended up inviting 2 more families, so that no one would feel left out. One showed up with their 4 month old as the cutest Snow White ever–chubby cheeks, enormous black eyes with lashes out past her eyebrows, and all. Her mother found the outfit for $2 at Value Village, and makes jokes about how she’s really Snow Beige, and takes pictures of her with an enormous red apple. I want to post these pictures for you very badly, but I won’t cuz she’s not my kid. Just picture the cutest baby ever in a Snow White costume.

4 families meant 20 extra people to feed. I planned to race home from class, which ends at 1, but I ended up having to borrow a van, take 6 people home, take one woman for coffee because she was sick and had an appointment at 2 and I felt terrible leaving her at the dr’s office to waste 45 minutes, and then return the van. So I got home at 2:20, in plenty of time to make pizza and white chili, both from scratch, by 5, right? Or maybe not so much. Truly my organizational skills leave much to be desired. I started the beans using the Quick Method found in my handy “More with Less” cookbook (total aside: I love this cookbook. Some of the recipes are weird, but where else will you find poems to bread?), where you bring the beans to a boil, cook them for 2 minutes, let them soak an hour, and then cook them for 2 hours until they’re done. (See? Plenty of time. And my friend Debbie thought I couldn’t do it!) I got them soaking, ate my lunch, started the pizza dough, went out to borrow costumes for little ones from my friend with the costumes, came back, kept cooking. The kitchen looked like a flour bomb had gone off in it. I make the dough from scratch and the sauce from scratch, because I got in the habit of doing this in Morocco where I needed to do this, and now we all like the taste so much better and I’m so used to it that it really doesn’t take all that long. One family only eats hallal meat (that is, meat slaughtered the Muslim way and sold at special stores) so I had to wait till Donn got home with the hallal chicken before I could finish making the chili. Luckily everyone was late.

In fact, everyone was so late that I decided to go trick-or-treating first. We had 3 parties. Ilsa went with the older girls and some of her friends from school, Abel went with the older boys. I went with 4 moms and 5 kids aged 1 to 5. We had 3 princesses, a Spiderman, and an Indian. They were all pretty darn cute. We set off, leaving the men to sit around the living room and sample the candy instead of passing it out to the kids. Donn had to run out and buy more! In the meantime, the 3 older kids (5, 5 and 3), all of whom had experienced Halloween the year before, remembered that this was fun and meant candy. They began to race from house to house, occasionally tripping over their costumes, competing as to who would get there first, shrieking with laughter. It was pretty awesome to watch. Soon the other 3 year-old, who was shy at first and hanging back with his mother and refusing to try to say trick-or-treat or thank-you, was shouting THANK YOU and racing with the others.

At first, my heart was warmed. They raced ahead of us, and we followed more slowly, the one year old princess toddling with us. Then, I realized they were all ringing the doorbells, each as many times as possible. The formerly-shy 3 year old had discovered that he could open people’s doors and walk right into their houses! He didn’t go far, but each time he was getting a little bolder. “This is great!” you could see him thinking. I did my best to disabuse him of the notion, as did his mother, but in fact from then on I had to run along and keep up (in my boots with their 3-inch heels) and when necessary hold his hand to prevent him from continuing this combination of trick AND treat!

We returned about 8:30, even the mothers dragging with exhaustion. I realized that in spite of the huge pot of chili and stacks of pizza and cornbread I’d made, I probably didn’t have enough food. “So! How’s that candy?!” I urged the children, hoping they’d fill up and then go home and be hyper with their parents, not me. We started serving soup, putting pizza on plates, urging cornbread on people (they were suspicious, as they’d never tried it before). The soup was too salty but was nonetheless a hit with most people. The pizza slowly disappeared. I had a brilliant idea and made pizza bread with a loaf of bread I had in the freezer, and told my kids to fill up on that and cornbread. We had just enough food. It wasn’t totally Arab (where you have massive amounts of leftovers) but it was okay.

I made tea. I put out a dessert that one of the moms had brought (I hadn’t made one, as I figured there would be enough candy in the air to suffice). One of the children spat out the marshmallow-type candy she was eating, as it wasn’t hallal (gelatin has pork products in it. No kidding). Her mother sorted through the rest of her candy.

Elliot, age 17, had afro’ed his hair (he can do an impressive afro. I will post a picture. Here he is), stuck drumsticks in it, put on a leather coat and sunglasses, and gone out to collect cans of food for a food drive that Ilsa’s class is doing. She gets extra credit, but wanted to collect candy for herself, so he volunteered to help. Then later that night, while I was serving tea, he went into that disaster area of a kitchen and cleaned the whole thing himself, leaving it with shining, spotless countertop and a gleaming floor. I told him that he was my favorite child and he was on no account to leave for college next year. Seriously. I need him and it’s not at all creepy to keep your child from leaving home and growing up and becoming his own person, just so he can do your dishes.

Everyone left by about 10, given that it was a school night. I can’t imagine how lovely the children were next day; I know my 3 teens were exhausted. I know I was exhausted, come to that. Nonetheless, I feel we have established a tradition. I’ll let you know how next year goes. If we double again, that’ll be 8 families. What are the chances of me actually making enough food?

How was your Halloween?

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.

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.)

Donn and Elliot were recently looking through old photos and he posted this one to facebook. Looking at it, I was unprepared for the flood of memories it produced. I had all the normal “my BABY is now a stinky hairy man!” emotions of a mother of a soon-to-be 17 year old male, but mostly I remembered the circumstances in which that photo was taken.

We’d just arrived in Mauritania. Elliot was 5. Colleagues met us at the airport—we’d been traveling 2 days at that point, and Ilsa was covered in airline food (she was barely 4, poor thing), and I still remember that hot dry air sucking the breath from my lungs as I stepped to the open plane door and went down the steps, and I wondered, “Can I do this? Am I going to make it?” It was only April, 10 p.m., the air filled with dust and smoke and still hotter than Portland usually gets in August.

None of our suitcases arrived with us. Colleagues met us at the airport, all smiles, sweeping the twins into their arms. They took us first to their house, where they fed us spaghetti, and then to the apartment where we’d stay while we looked for our own house. The apt had been rented by a single male who’d come for a year-long internship and would be leaving soon. He was the type of single male who is clean and neat and just does things a little differently than your typical woman, like lining the bedroom with wires to dry your clothes on. Since none of our luggage had come, we ran the washing machine (located in the kitchen) and it flooded the kitchen, the soapy water full of little dead bugs. We squee-geed it right out the back door onto the balcony, which seemed very strange to me. Who knew you did it like that? In my American kitchen, that was not how you cleaned the floor.

When our clothes were clean, we hung them round our bed (weird). We stirred briefly at the dawn call to prayer, unused as yet to the loudspeakers near our windows, then slept deeply till noon, when our new friend knocked at the door to take us to lunch. He’d brought us clothes to borrow from various people, including a family with small girls who live near us now in Oregon and are good friends, though at this point we hadn’t met them.

But our own clothes were bone dry, another mystery. How could they have dried in the NIGHT like that? It was a good introduction to the Sahara, where clothes hung on the line at 8 will be dry by 10.

We began to settle in, adjust. Donn and Dave spent a lot of time at the airport, where eventually most of our luggage showed up. We began to learn where we could buy what, and I realized that I could feed my family on what was available there. Every morning Donn would walk to a tiny storefront in a garage of a house nearby and buy bread, and we’d eat bread and jam and coffee for breakfast. The kids loved the mango juice in small bottles. We all hated the milk.

Donn and Elliot went to the market together on our 2nd or 3rd day, ostensibly to buy things for the house. They returned with a tea set, a large Senegalese drum, and a robe (dra:a) for Elliot. Not my idea of necessities, although that tea set got a lot of use. Elliot had a Coke and came home wearing his robe, saying “Salaam A’lauykoum, Mom!” as he walked in the door. We were so excited to be there, and so scared and overwhelmed at the same time. Mostly excited though. There’s nothing like your first overseas move.

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?)

Although it’s commonly believed that newly-arrived immigrants or refugees will cluster together, this doesn’t always bear out. Take Harold and Maude, for instance. When they arrived, their caseworker put them in an enormous apartment complex where there were several other Iraqi families. Overall this was not just fine, but downright positive. They made some good friends. But one family in particular had a boy about the same age as their oldest. The two quickly, naturally, became friends, but Harold and Maude were not happy with the boy’s influence on their son, especially after he managed to get them both in trouble.  They decided to move as soon as their lease was up.  They found an apartment complex with few children and no other Iraqis, signed a new lease, and gave notice to the first apartment complex. We helped them move one rainy Saturday at the end of January, and I went back the following week to help them clean the old place.

“You know you won’t get your deposit back,” I told them. “No one does.” It’s actually quite common for families to move to a new apartment after their lease is up, usually either 6 months or a year. Their reasons differ; usually they are looking for cheaper rent, or they want to be closer to friends, or they have finally been given section 8 (subsidized housing). None of these families have ever gotten their deposits back; in fact, a few have accrued extra charges. One family got sent a bill for another $1000 after their child spilled tumeric on the carpet on moving day.

But I have never seen anyone clean like Maude. They moved the fridge, the washing machine, the stove, and scoured underneath them. They washed all the walls. They steam-cleaned the carpet. We picked up every single tiny piece of trash. The place was sparkling when we left that day, after a picnic lunch of fried chicken and jo-jos from Winco, proudly produced by Harold from the trunk of his car, bought several hours earlier. (No I didn’t get sick. People worry too much)

That particular apartment was a fine apartment, not like some I’ve seen refugees put into. (One friend recently lost heat for days, and her landlord never returned her calls. They finally fixed the heat themselves) But even though it was perfectly adequate, it’s obvious that the builders didn’t choose to use quality materials. The blind slats, the paint, the era of stove and washing machine made it clear. But that was okay, since they have to know that, right? You can’t put a family in an apartment for a year and not have some wear and tear. That’s why they charge $850/month for a two-bedroom apartment, to cover any damages.

But apparently the owners don’t want to have to spend even a penny of their gains. Because Maude didn’t get any of her deposit back. I went with her to the office, where a platinum blonde with dark eyebrows said defensively, “I walked through that one myself. There were stains on the counter so we had to spray, I remember.” I explained “stains” to Maude, but she was not impressed. “This is false, this is lies,” she said bitterly, reading the list of repairs, which conveniently happened to total the amount of the deposit.

I kind of agree with her. I’m sure they had to paint a couple of walls, maybe spray the counters like the woman said. But I am also sure that the large corporation which owns the complex could afford to do that with the money they made off the rent. Certainly they could afford it a lot better than a refugee family. The woman promised to look into it again and call back, but she didn’t.

It’s a small injustice in the larger scheme of things. Call it a moving-out fee instead of a deposit, and maybe that makes it easier. But it still makes me mad, because I saw the tears in the corner of Maude’s eyes that she tried to hide, and I know how badly that family needs the money. I see how hard her husband works at a job that only gives him 39 hours a week so they don’t have to pay benefits. I see how much they worry about their kids, how important things like education and good manners are to them. And I don’t see why even small injustices in the name of greed are acceptable, why we all shrug and say, “That’s just how it is in this imperfect world.”

Sometimes, you wish you had stayed out of the kitchen so you could eat in blissful ignorance.

I thought this Wednesday. After class, Bea announced that we were all staying for lunch at her place–that would be me, the teacher/driver, Maude and her 4 year old daughter, and Fiona. We were in the car when Bea announced it, and I realized that I had foolishly said “next time” on Monday, when she’d also invited me in.

I don’t know why, but I am always exhausted after class. It takes about an hour to pick up everybody, and then I teach for 2 hours, then everyone chats in the hall for at least half an hour, then another hour of driving. Total: 4 1/2 hours, and that’s not counting extra things that often come up. Not that long. But by that point, I just want to come home and chill for half an hour or so before I get going on something else.

But I had said, “Next time,” not meaning it, meaning “at some vague undetermined time when I have more energy.” And Bea had made dolma, which takes a while…I know because I have helped others make it. You mix rice and ground lamb and parsley and tomato paste and spices, and you roll and stuff grape leaves and onions and zucchini and peppers and tomatoes and put them all in a large pot and boil them for a while. So I looked around the car. Everyone agreed; we would eat at Bea’s. We stopped at a grocery store for her to run in and get a few items (i.e. 3 bags of stuff) and then went to her house. I was pushed onto a couch with Fiona, not allowed in the kitchen to help, which is unfair. Fiona is the oldest so she is supposed to sit and watch, but I am younger than Bea. I think it’s my status as teacher and giver of rides, not to mention American, that relegates me to the couch. Fiona prays; I watch Iraqi satellite TV. They are advertising a sort of American Idol type show that looks delightful! The 3 contestants, all young males, are hilarious to me. One has caterpillar eyebrows that move alarmingly; my favorite is heavy-set and wearing a grey and black suit and wailing away as he contorts his face. They flash the number and I’m tempted to vote, although I resist because I know it would be expensive.

After a while, though, I wander back to the kitchen. This is about 4 steps. Their apartment is small–two bedrooms, 3 adult children, I’m not quite sure how they do it. Bea and Maude are making salads. Maude is making one that I usually love–plain yogurt, grated cucumber, garlic, dried mint. (It’s like that Greek one called something that starts with T, and like the Indian riata or riada or whatever it is). I watch in dismay as she makes the salad using sour cream, full fat, instead of yogurt. Ouch! That is going to be rather hard on the waistline.

Bea is proudly showing off the panini-maker she found for $5 at Goodwill. My Iraqi friends love thrift stores, and are constantly parading before me a collection of candle-holders, figurines, and chunky china they have found. They are avidly looking forward to the start of garage sale season!

Bea has found that the panini-maker means her 17 year-old daughter, her youngest, finally has something she’ll eat after school. She cooks up lamb and parsley and onion and freezes it in small portions. Then she thaws a bit, spreads it on the bread, adds olives and cheese and spicy peppers, and melts it into a sandwich. She makes several for us to try and they are tasty. I mention that Elliot would also like it if I made him sandwiches after school and so later, I leave with a plateful of sandwiches for him to try. (And I am right. He eats the entire plateful after school that day, and still manages a hearty supper about 2 hours later.)

The salad, sadly, is delicious. Who knew straight sour cream could taste so good? I try to not eat too much. I fill up on the other salads, a little bread, and of course dolma and sandwiches. Everything is great. Afterwards, Maude suddenly remembers she has to be home by 2:36, when her kids get off the bus. It’s 2:10. “We need to leave right now then,” I say, but we haven’t had tea yet. We have tea. She and I drink quickly, casting agonizing looks at Fiona, who’s oblivious to the need for hurry and is chatting away, sipping her hot tea. We leave at 2:25 and I drive like the wind, which worries Maude a bit. We get back to her place only about 5 minutes late, and wave happily to her boys, who are waiting outside her apartment. She wants me to run more errands with her at that point, adding her boys to the mix, but I decline without regrets.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep:

1. Go to Mona’s about 5. Hang out. Eat a quba, just because.

2. Eat heartily at about 7:30. Eat more than you should, because they are just so insistent.

3. Have a mug of strong Iraqi tea (black tea with cardamon and sugar) about 8:30.

4. Have a cup of Turkish coffee at 10.

5. In bed by midnight!

Surprisingly, I did sleep well. Caffeine 24/7 is my motto, after all. I dreamed that I’d parked wrong and gotten our car towed AND forgotten Donn’s birthday, which I have never done because it’s only 3 days before mine. I don’t feel that stressed, but this is a real stress dream. He wouldn’t care if I forgot his birthday, but Donn would kill me if I got our car towed!

Sleep in General:

We stopped by Harold and Maude’s at about 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, unannounced. Harold was still in his pyjamas, so we averted our eyes but he wasn’t embarrassed and welcomed us in. They were very happy to see us. “We were going to call you this afternoon,” they told us, “but we were waiting till after 2 in case you were sleeping.”

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