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Well this was the year I basically let the blog die. I only posted 5 times all year, and the last time was in April!
Blogging is basically dead as an art form. Few read, fewer comment. It seems the only ones still going are some sort of niche. But I’ve decided that I’d like to revive the old girl (my blog is a girl. Yours?) after all, and post sporadically about whatever I feel like. So let’s start with me getting you all caught up about last year chez the Nomad family.
2015 was a good year with lots going on. So much, in fact, that I’m going to put this into two posts. See? 2 posts in the first week. I’m off to a great start! In the meantime, here is Jan-Aug.
January: we come home from an afternoon out to find ourselves banned from the kitchen. Ilsa is applying to art schools, and one requires that she draw a bike. Since we live in Oregon where it’s cold and dark by 5, she has put the bike in the kitchen and is lying on the floor, drawing and drinking tea. We are not allowed to bump the bike. We manage to get out cheese and crackers for dinner.
She got in! This was for her first choice, RISD (riz-de), officially known as the Rhode Island School of Design. We’ll get to the implications of this in September.
January also saw a friend from Mauritania visit. It was his first time visiting a Western country. A lot of things were new to him. For example, he had hoped to meet with some local officials, but really didn’t understand how far out he would have needed to schedule something like that. Seat belts were also very new to him. He was a good sport, although I know this had to be like another planet to him.
February is lost to the mists of time, which keep growing thicker with my advancing age. Seriously, I suppose we did something?
March: The twins turned 18. Ilsa always chooses cinnamon rolls for her birthday breakfast. I accidentally doubled the recipe–which makes tons even normally–so we had a million or so cinnamon rolls. The neighbours, random Iraqi friends, and of course the twins were very happy. I use the Pioneer Woman’s recipe, modified to not kill us quite so quickly (i.e. 1% milk instead of whole, half the amount of butter, etc), and with cream cheese frosting instead of that nasty muck she puts on hers.
April, May…I dunno. Life. Stuff. Hiking, visits from people. Oh I dyed my hair red! I’ve always wanted to be a redhead. As I’d suspected, I looked good, but it quickly faded to orange, which didn’t look good. Also I went to Memphis as part of a blog tour for St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. It was a really cool time and I only managed to blog half of it, as is my wont.
June: This is where it gets interesting, as we began the Summer of The Visitors. Seriously, we had out-of-town guests almost nonstop from June through mid-August.
First of all, the twins graduated from high school.
Donn’s family came for graduation, and his parents stayed for a week, which is always a bit like having Archie and Edith from All in the Family to stay. Happily we didn’t have to go camping this time. Donn’s sister Kris, who reads this blog, and her husband came for the first week and then decided to stay for an extra two weeks. They stay in a hotel, so they are very easy visitors. We went down the gorge, ate giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw, ate fresh berries, and did other summery, family-type things, like going to Powells.
Elliot came home for 2 days and then left for a summer in Jordan, where he spent the summer in an intensive language program. This was a government-sponsored scholarship, starting with a day of orientation in DC. When his 6 a.m. flight was cancelled, we waited in line for several hours only to have the airline clerk tell him they couldn’t fly him out till midnight that night, which would mean he’d miss orientation. We agreed, and were leaving the airport while he called the program to let them know. “Unacceptable, soldier!” they told him. (Not really. That is just a line from a Bourne movie.) And they put him on a flight leaving at noon. How? The person working for the airline couldn’t do it. Only the government. (Cue creepy Twilight music here).
I told Elliot that someone had probably gotten bumped. He was thrilled when they actually paged a “John M Caine” while he was waiting to board. Oh, we watched the Bourne movies too often when he was younger.
This picture was taken after his flight was cancelled and he was put on another one 5 hours later, so we took him out for breakfast. It’s still very early in the morning, which is probably why he looks so bleary.
He had a great time in Jordan. He lived with a host family and took classes and went on cultural excursions and saw ancient ruins and was tired and busy and hot and actually missed us.
July: For most of July, a friend from Morocco was here. (She’s Moroccan, but I first knew her and her family in Mauritania) We had a great time. We went hiking down the gorge, went to the coast, went downtown and ate giant ice cream cones at Salt and Straw, went to the Rose Garden and Powells, and just generally had a good time. It was her first time in America. We have now seen each other in 3 countries, and we are wondering where we’ll meet up next. Any ideas?
It was the hottest summer ever. It was terrible. We had a dry winter, a normal spring (wet and cool), and then a hot, dry summer. Sumi and I went to a lavender festival in Hood River on a day when it was over 100 degrees. Even though we lived in the Sahara desert together, we both agreed that we hated the heat.
This may not look like drought to you, but nonetheless it was a bad year. Lakes and rivers were really low, and several Oregon counties had to declare emergencies.
At the end of July, another friend came to see Sumi. We were all in Mauritania at the same time. Michelle now lives in Kansas, from which it’s easier to fly to Oregon than Morocco. We had a whirlwind few days of it, including eating giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw. This was a theme of the summer. Actually, it’s kind a theme anyway. Come visit! We are used to people visiting and will eat ice cream anytime of year. The lines are shorter in winter.
August: Sumi left, then Michelle left, then the next day we got a visit from some French friends of ours, a family we knew in Morocco. It was blazing hot during their visit, so hot that we couldn’t enjoy being outside, even though we took them for giant ice cream cones. We went down the Gorge to Hood River on a Friday and it was 104 degrees. The next day we went to the beach and it was 65, and so foggy we couldn’t see the water while actually standing on the beach. Obviously, Oregon hates them. I don’t know why, as they are actually very nice.
Also, we saw a seal! Seal in French is “phoque” and if you exclaim that word excitedly to children on a public beach in America, you will get some side glances.
Elliot also came back mid-August from Jordan and was actually home for 2 entire weeks. Donn and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, although we waited to celebrate properly till November. More on that later. Ilsa got all 4 of her wisdom teeth out at once and was really funny while coming out of anesthesia. Also really difficult. Pain Med Ilsa is not very nice.
Tintype (taken with app on my phone) of restaurant where we ate on actual 25th wedding anniversary. We are officially old now, although according to Ilsa, we have been for years. Oddly comforting, in a way.
If you had told my grandmother, born around 1900, that her grand-daughter would circumnavigate half of the globe not in 80 days, not in 80 hours, but in 28 hours, she would have been amazed. So I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that really, this is kind of cool. But at the same time, it is rather hard on the body.
I’m typing this in my Portland living room. The place is a wreck–obviously the twins’ definition of “cleaning the house” differs more radically from my own than I had realized. (They did great overall but I will share with you that about a week ago, when we said, “What are you going to do today?” they replied “Dishes.”) Add to their peculiar sense of what is implied by “organized” our 4 cases spewing their contents onto the floor, and you can imagine the state of affairs. I am in a daze of jet-lag and travel exhaustion so I’m working at it slowly, with frequent breaks. So far I’ve cleaned out the fridge, gotten the kitchen to the point where one can see the countertops, and started the mountain of laundry. As the Mauritanian proverb goes, “Guttruh, guttruh, i-seel i-waad.” (Drop by drop, the valley fills with water.)
We left our friends’ house in Rabat at 4, driven 100 kilometres to Casablanca by Annie, who went far above and beyond the normal requirements of friendship and hospitality. She dropped us off at the airport, and we were in ample time to commiserate with some traveling Canadians about the Moroccans cutting the line, and buy bottles of water for our flight. We had 2 layovers; one in Paris and one in New York. Both layovers were short–the one at JFK short enough to be stressful, although we made our gate with 5 minutes to spare. The flights were long and boring, enlivened only by seatmates who were also expats. On our last flight, Donn sat next to a woman who’d been in Mauritania for 2 years in the mid-80s with Peace Corps. Truly it is a small world. (I’ll pause while tiny voices start shrieking in your head “…after all! It’s a small world after all!!” You’re welcome)
We arrived in Portland just before 10 local time, which is of course nearly 6 a.m. Moroccan time. We came home starving, as that last 6 hour flight had given us nothing more than tiny packets of pretzels or peanuts. We stayed up another 2 hours chatting with the twins and ravenously scarfing down the dinner Ilsa had made us (all together now: awwwww) and cruelly giving them only half of their presents, because it’s so close to Christmas.
I’m at the point where someone can speak to me in English and I’ll answer in French or vice versa, but this won’t last. We slept 7 hours and then couldn’t, although I lay in bed another hour with my eyes glued shut with tiredness, my mind restlessly lashing back and forth with strange memories of cramped medinas and haggling shopkeepers and open desert skies. I’m off to take a nap soon but thought I’d say hi, and warn you of many more posts lurking in my head.
Well I didn’t really catch TB but it was touch and go there for a bit. There was a man, probably very nice and kind in everyday life (or possibly not. I mean, you can’t really know), who was hacking and coughing non stop as we settled in at our gate a mere 90 minutes or so before take-off. Donn and I exchanged looks of horror. Seriously, we were going to be on an airplane with this man? He was really sick. We are not uptight about germs in general, and we are seasoned travelers and don’t turn hairs normally at screeching children or sniveling adults. But this man was something special. You could hear him attempting to displace his lungs 3 gates over! We took to calling him Monsieur TB (taybay in French), and we were happy to be seated across the giant plane and several rows back from him. However, all that air is recycled.
Add to that a visit to Mauritania, where the wind whips tiny particles of very dirty sand up your nose. Seriously, it’s best not to think about where that sand has been.
So I have a sinus infection now. I knew I had jet lag plus a cold plus a truly nasty headache, but at least I was sleeping lots. A doctor’s visit today confirmed my suspicions and garnered me 3 prescriptions. It was almost like being in France again!
I’ll be back again soon with actual stories from the trip. In the meantime, you should check out Donn’s Tumblr blog. He’s been posting up a storm. Also I love his Tumblr blog because it’s so random, a mix of chronology and geology that means one day you’ll see a picture of Abel drawing on the sidewalk when he was 3 (i.e. 2000), followed by a picture from Hawaii taken in the early 90s, followed by a picture he took yesterday in downtown Portland followed by one of Mauritania circa 2006. It’s fun!
Check it out here: Donn Jones
Monday night found me sitting once more at a desk listening to my child’s teachers tell me things while my eyes glazed over. This time it was for Elliot, Class 3 Grade 8. (There are 6 classes per grade level) I arrived a teensy bit late, found Salle 9, smiled apologetically round the room. Up front, a math teacher was mumbling about something. He read quietly and rapidly from a sheet in front of him, making no eye contact with the group of parents. Young, dark-haired, and fumbling with his collar, he looked nervous. His fears were justified, as a mother in a tight turquoise sweater who arrived later than me had lots of questions.
The professeur mentioned the January parent-teacher meetings, which are one on one about specific students rather than the class as a whole. Up popped Turquoise Mother’s hand. “Do you really get to know our children?” she demanded. “Last year at the January meetings, one of the professors had to look at a photo to make sure which child we were talking about!” She sat back, as if glaringly requesting that he defend THAT.
The teacher fumbled with his collar, turned a light pink, and mumbled something about how maybe it was the art teacher and they only have art an hour a week and 30 students a class so it can be hard to get to know everyone… Turquoise Woman cut him off. “I’m sure it was the French or Math teacher!” (They have those subjects 5 hours a week)
I refrained from pointing out that she had only 13 teachers to remember, so couldn’t really fault this mythical teacher who couldn’t place one of 180. I don’t talk at these things. Other parents raise their hands, ask questions with wild abandon, but me, I slouch down, not making eye contact so I’m not called on. I have lost none of the skills acquired so painfully in junior high. And while it’s doubtful that they would call on me, given the nature of these meetings, I just like to be sure.
Also I didn’t really believe Turquoise Woman. I am quite sure that any child with a mother like that is well known throughout the school. I myself am well known, but not for my obnoxiousness—no, it’s my accent that sets me apart. In a school where Yassin is Moroccan but spent 5 years in Korea and Diego is Spanish but spent 4 years in New York and Amir is half-Moroccan, half-Norwegian, we still manage to be exotic. We’re the only Americans in the entire school, and everyone knows who we are.
Then began the parade of teachers. The French teacher glared round, bestowed a thin-lipped smile upon us, and announced that this year she was expecting the homework to be profound, not superficial. I’m transliterating a bit, but you get the point. Turquoise Mother asked a question about the brevet, which is this big test they take at the end of Grade 9 in order to get into high school. “Give them a break!” I thought quietly to myself in English. One thing I don’t like about the French system is its extreme hours, its week-long tests for 14 year olds, the stress and seriousness put on young kids. Next year is soon enough to worry about the brevet in my opinion. But I was in the minority; everyone was nodding.
The technology teacher, a short woman as broad as she is wide, told us they ALWAYS have homework. Always. She glared round as if daring us to say they didn’t. I carefully kept my gaze middle-distance and sort of frozen.
It was at this point that I began to be a little stressed. Was I in the right room? Didn’t Elliot have a male technology teacher? I thought he’d referred to him with the masculine pronoun. And was the math teacher his prof principal (homeroom teacher) or was it the PE teacher? Perhaps I was in the wrong salle, meeting teachers from classe 2 or 4. I debated asking the woman in front of me, or even Turquoise Mom behind me, but in the end decided to just sit it out. It got worse—the English teacher was not Elliot’s English teacher! The Arabic teacher was wrong too. But then Physics/Chemistry teacher said, was this Classe 3? And everyone nodded, and I relaxed. After that, Elliot’s English teacher came in. So it all worked out.
The PE teacher said they get to do rock-climbing soon. Up shot Turquoise Mother’s hand. Were the children SAFE? Because she couldn’t imagine that they could be safe. We all turned around at that point, reassuring her. I even joined in, although I contented myself with smiling and nodding, adding sotto voce, that they “have a belt (ceinture)” and then being quiet again. I don’t mind talking to people, but hate to show off my funny accent in front of a group. “Well I can only hope the school will take responsibility if there’s an accident!” she announced, making the bad-smell-under-nose face that we were all coming to know and love.
The music teacher announced that they would be doing “humanistic music” this year. With recorders? I have no idea what she meant. It’s possible she was talking about something else entirely, as by that point my eyes were glazing over.
TM’s hand was in the air again when the math teacher returned, this time as the math teacher rather than the homeroom teacher. Were children allowed to use calculators? Surely not! Many parents spoke up at this point. Everyone agreed with TM. Children should not use calculators, or they would end up unable to do math. The teacher, happy to agree with them for once, announced that they’re not allowed to use them on exams but can check their homework on them. “But the children are using them to DO their homework!” announced TM.
I was tempted to put my hand up and say, in a thick accent and bad French, that I was managing just fine without the ability to do simple math in my head, but I thought it might not come across exactly in a way to prove the use of calculators. I was not really tempted to point out to TM that surely it was HER responsibility to make sure her child did his or her homework, rather than the teacher’s. By this point I was slouching down and avoiding her eye as well!
The math teacher muttered on, with me catching one word out of 10. Elliot told me later that he doesn’t usually mumble and that he’s the nicest math teacher. “Maybe he was nervous?” he suggested. Maybe, I agreed.
I know I was.
And, somehow, I have agreed to join this merry band of teachers. Sort of. I am going to do an English Club, for 8th and 9th graders only, once a week during lunch time. I am petrified, but please don’t tell THEM. Elliot assures me they will not mock me in French slang, which I don’t follow. (you should see it written. It’s like txt spch but in French) But is he right? I am very open to suggestions for keeping them amused. And I will permit the use of calculators.
*This is what the math teacher said, I swear
We’ve had two Moroccan kids to play at our house in the last week. One, a friend of Ilsa’s, is a tall, quiet girl with a really sweet smile. She lives in the same apartment building where we lived on our first arrival in Rabat. Her parents didn’t know where our new place was, so we arranged to meet in front of the school. I was worried because I was a little late–about 5 minutes. But we waited 45 minutes for Hiba to show up. Her parents told me they’d pick her up at 6:30, but it was closer to 8 when they arrived. This didn’t bother me.
On Wednesday, Abel invited Yusef to play. (They have Wednesday afternoons off) Same arrangement; in front of the school. Again, I was about 5 minutes late, and got a phone call from Yusef’s dad wondering where I was. Which just goes to show you–you shouldn’t make generalizations.
In spite of this fair warning I’d received, I was none-the-less late for the strike on Thursday morning. They stated, they being the Parents’ Association of which I am a bona-fide dues-paying member, that the manifestation would go from 7:45 to 9:00 a.m. I assumed it would be entirely outside of the kids’ school, a junior high in our neighbourhood. Donn and I showed up about 8:15 to find the tiny parking lot deserted except for a few posters. We popped into the café across the street, where we ordered coffees and I called my friend Irena, who soon joined us for coffee. She explained that the plan was to march on the high school, and that the banners and armbands were off doing that. We’d missed it!
At first I was disappointed, especially about missing the armbands, but she reassured me. The important thing was to keep the children home from school, she said. She herself was showing solidarity by watching the children of a mother who worked; she invited Ilsa to play and me for coffee that afternoon.
I was exhausted. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, finally drifting off around 2 a.m. to get in a solid two hours before Abel, who never does this anymore, crawled in with me around 4 a.m., thereby killing sleep for the rest of the night. (He was very restless, although very cuddly) I figured I’d drop Ilsa off, have a quick cup of Irena’s excellent coffee, and then head home for a nap. Instead, I stayed at Irena’s for 4 hours, while we chatted about everything from embarrassing faux pas made in languages not our own (she had the funniest stories!), to the ways our husbands deal with life’s trials, to her dreams of opening her own shop. I realized, as I yawned my way home, that we have transitioned from her being kind to me and my limited language skills, to the give-and-take of real friendship.
And, while I was eating gelato she’d made herself from the ripe, juicy fresh local strawberries we’ve been eating so many of lately, the cashier at the French high school turned up to pick up his kids! Yes, he’d kept Day of the Dead School, while going to work for The Man himself. We chatted briefly, and he said the school had agreed to talk to the parents about the explosive price increases (12% this year; prices doubled within the next 6 years. And we have 3 kids in the system!). I hope they do something. If not, I’m willing to keep the kids home another day, and to sleep in again if necessary. I’m a true revolutionary at heart.
I’m going on strike on Thursday.
I walked down to pick up the twins at 5:15 today, arriving just as the bell rang for the end of classes. (Elliot finished at 3:30. I LOVE living so close to school–a 2 min walk) As we left, twins straggling behind chatting with their friends, I saw my Italian friend. We greeted, kissed. “Are you going to participate in the greve?” she asked me. “Everyone I’ve talked to is going to.”
I am, I told her. I didn’t know parents could go on strike, but I’m up for it. This afternoon, I got an email explaining it. We show up at 7:45, and premade banners and armbands are envisioned. I’m kind of excited. I’ve never gotten an armband before.
I have a kind of love/hate relationship with the French school. On the one hand, I feel my children are getting an excellent education, heavy on the arts but also solid in math and science. I love that they are not only bi-lingual, but will have the chance to learn a third or fourth language. I love that they are learning a broader view of the world, that their history lessons begin long before 200 years ago in Valley Forge, that their friends come from Lebanon, Switzerland, Spain, Cote d‘Ivoire. On the other hand, the French invented bureaucracy and it is near and dear to their hearts. The hours are ridiculously long, and they even have school on Saturdays which is just plain wrong. And also, rumour has it that in order to become a teacher of French in a French school, one is put through a rigorous testing process that ensures one has no sense of humour or proportion. I hear they tell you jokes for an hour and a half, and if you even crack a smile, you have to teach music or history.
Still, I knew the positive side of French school would win when I attended a “Welcome New Parents” orientation at the primary school in the small Alpine town of Chambery. We walked onto the playground of the elementary school at 11:00 on a Saturday morning and they were serving wine. This does not happen at elementary schools in America.
Striking is near and dear to the French heart. The year we were in France, we were amazed at all the strikes. The French joke that it’s their national sport, and the season for strikes is spring. Even the unemployed went on strike, a fact which amused us so much that I bring it up from time to time, as you may have noticed. They filled the streets with banners, effectively bringing a once-mighty nation to its knees–just kidding! Sadly, the strike of the unemployed had no effect on things functioning as a whole, which I’m sure only added to their frustration.
French teachers go on strike all the time. The teachers all belong to different unions, who decide the strikes, which usually last a day. Last Thursday, for example, was a massive one. Donn and I had things going all morning, so we made all 3 kids go till noon, but they spent hours sitting in permanence, or Study Hall. The boys were free for the afternoon, and Ilsa only had one hour of Sports. (Poor Ilsa ended up having no classes for the morning, but since school starts at 8 and they didn’t list absentee teachers until 10, she was stuck.) (For you new readers, the French school has a nice long 2-hour lunch, during which the children return home. This was traditionally to allow the parents time to polish off a bottle or two.)
Now it’s the parents’ turn. We are organized; we are coming. We are calling it “Journee de L’École Morte” or Day of the Dead School. Isn‘t that the best name? We are protesting (with armbands! Did I mention the armbands?) the proposed enormous price increases, which if carried through will take the school out of range for a lot of families. We’re demonstrating outside the school from 7:45 till 9 (although, knowing the Moroccans, I’m guessing from 8:55 to 10:00 for a lot of them) and I believe I already mentioned the armbands. We are also keeping the kids home for the day, which I imagine will really break the school. Those poor teachers! I picture them wandering aimlessly around, forced by lack of actual students to insult each other. (Note: in the interests of fairness I should mention that there are excellent teachers as well; kind, affirming, patient, and not nearly as much fun to mock.)
Best of all, we can’t be replaced by scabs.
Welcome, new readers. I’m now a part of Travel Blogs.com, and I’ve got a post up at the Women’s Colony too. It’s an old one, but who doesn’t want to relive being served a goat’s head? Good memories never die…even when we may want them to.
Another way that the French differ from the Americans is in how they celebrate Valentine’s Day. Americans may gripe about it, but they celebrate. Kids take mass-produced Valentine’s to school and eat cupcakes and heart-shaped sugar cookies decorated in pink and red; adults in a relationship are pretty much obligated either to do something to celebrate or to announce that they are not doing anything, and explain why, with “We don’t do Hallmark holidays” being the most common followed by “We couldn‘t get childcare.”
In France, there is Valentine’s Day of course, but it is pretty much for young lovers. A couple with 3 kids and 15 years of marriage under their belts probably won’t do much, except maybe buy flowers, but then they do that anyway.
But we’re American. We always celebrate, Donn and I, usually by going out to dinner. (I’ve been trying to introduce the concept of diamond earrings into the mix, but so far unsuccessfully)
The year we were in France, a family we were getting to know invited us over. I was really happy to accept. They had young kids also and lived out in the countryside, and invited us to spend the entire day. Then I realized it was Valentine’s Day, and we actually had free childcare in the form of a young single friend at language school. I called and asked if we could reschedule. The woman was very polite and formal on the phone, agreed we could reschedule, and pretty much didn’t talk to us after that. It was evident that we’d made a major faux pas, although it was too late to do anything about it.
So when the mother of a kid in Abel’s class called to invite us to lunch on Valentine’s Day, I agreed instantly. We can go out to dinner anytime; the kids no longer need childcare. And so on Valentine’s Day, the flowers were not for me.
We showed up at 2, left after 6, and were still full the following morning. It was a real feast, starting with salads and Moroccan samosas, continuing with roast beef and vegetables and fried fingerling potatoes, which Abel is still talking about, continuing on with cheese, then fruit, then chocolate-raspberry pastries, then coffee. It was all beautifully served and presented, and we had a wonderful time. But this was the first time in years that we’d had to speak French for that long a time, and afterwards we were both exhausted. Fortunately the dad speaks English quite well. It was nice; whenever we absolutely couldn’t think of how to phrase something in French, he could usually figure it out from our English.
He told us he’d lived in Iowa. Iowa??? We said in amazement. Most people we meet who’ve been to the US have either been to New York or Washington DC, with a small but solid majority having been to Disney World in Florida. Turns out he was an exchange student in Iowa City. “What did you think?” we asked, and he laughed. Not much at the time, he admitted. Years later, he worked in New York for a couple of years.
This week, we went out again, this time to the house of a girl in Ilsa’s class. This is my Italian friend that I mentioned before; she invited us for pizza. I don’t know about you, but when an Italian woman invites me for Italian food, I tend to accept with alacrity.
This time the invitation was for 7 p.m. We showed up with a boxful of cakes from the local bakery (which is directly opposite the kids’ school and single-handedly responsible for about two inches round my hips). I had actually spent the afternoon making chocolate chip cookies but they were all either undercooked or burned. I have avoided nattering on and on about how much I hate the oven in this house, which has only two temperatures–125 degrees and 500 degrees. Nothing in between. I know I often exaggerate for comic effect, but this is actually true, and there’s an oven thermometer to back me up. And yet I don’t give up, I keep baking.
We had a super evening. She was very welcoming and casual, inviting us into her kitchen to chat with her while she finished putting the pizzas in the oven. It felt very strange to us, because North Africans tend to be much more formal (not to mention they usually have household help), and we’re no longer used to sitting down in a warm, bright kitchen and watching our hostess, wearing an apron, bustle round preparing supper.
We enjoyed snacking on olives (she’d prepared them herself) and kefta (Moroccan meatballs) and watching her make vinaigrette from lemons from her tree and olive oil pressed by her husband. Again we had a great time. She said at one point, “I’m talking so much!” I felt a little sorry for her. Donn and I, verbose in English, are quieter in French (and I’m very close-lipped in Arabic). But we so appreciate those who are willing to spend an evening being patient with our language skills and getting to know us. And I can’t wait to return the favor, once I’m in a home of my own.
And it was an educational evening in more than just learning to understand an Italian woman speaking rapid French. Did you know that green, red and black olives all come from the same tree? Yes. The colour comes from how long they are ripened. Then they are soaked in brine with spices and garlic and other things that give them their wonderful flavour. (Unless you are thinking of the American ones in cans, which is not what I am talking about. Ew.)
Thursday was the day of a giant greve, or strike. Apparently in France, all was shut down. Here in this former French colony, life wasn’t nearly so exciting. Donn and I happened to be downtown and we saw a group of people chanting, singing and waving signs in front of some ministry whose signs were all in Arabic, so I don’t know which it was. Also, over half of the kids’ teachers were absent. Ilsa actually had no school, but the poor thing spent 2 hours there this afternoon (and the library was closed) because the teachers didn’t see fit to post their absence ahead of time.
I have had a week filled with French, a week in which I was told, “You speak French very well!” by an actual French person, and a week in which a different French person asked if I even spoke the language a little bit. So Donn and I have decided to ameliorate our francais a little bit. (Aside: ameliorate is too an English word. Go check.) Was this prompted by my performance at the kids’ parent-teacher conferences, also this week? I’m not sayin’. As an English teacher, I can go days where I don’t use my French all that much, and as a result, my French has gotten a bit rusty over the years since we lived there. And, to be honest, it was never what you’d call parfait or super to start with. I never got to the point where people were surprised to discover I was an etranger.
We headed downtown to the Institut Francais. We actually visited this august institution a couple of weeks ago, but were too early to sign up for the next session. My heart sank as we walked in. The place was crowded, in the way that places don’t get crowded in cultures that understand the concept of standing in line.
But we’re old pros at this now. While I must admit I’m still not very good at cutting other people, I am pleased to say that I am continuing to improve in the area of not being cut. We took a deep breath and plunged right into the crowd, pushing our way with relative ease up to a woman with an official-looking badge and a clipboard, who said we were supposed to be on the OTHER side of the no-possible-glimpse-of-the-floor crowded room.
Once we had gained the other side, we took a number, like the instructions said to. The lighted sign said 943 and the number we took said 15, which worried us a bit. “That CAN’T be right,” I said to Donn. We asked a man standing nearby, who said, “Oh you don’t need to wait at all–talk to the receptionist there!” Unable to believe our good luck, but certainly not going to question it, we hopped over a small barrier and spoke to the woman behind the desk, who sent us off to take a placement exam. Great!
We went up two flights of stairs and found a charming place of empty classrooms. All the signs of recent occupation were there, except for a professor to administer our tests. We considered plunging back into the melee, but who would we ask? We wandered round for a while till the tapping of heels announced the arrival of our professor, and then took our test.
This took place between my conferences for Elliot on Monday, and my conferences for the twins on Tuesday. This is how the conferences were set up. Each child brought home a piece of paper with a graph on it which divided the period from 4:30 to 9:05 into 5 minute slots. At the bottom, in teeny tiny letters, were the names of all your child’s teachers and potential teachers. You were supposed to underline the names of the teachers you wanted to see. Then, your child would show the piece of paper to those teachers, who would write their name in one of the slots. You were allotted five minutes with each teacher, which they felt was enough time to cover the basics. They urged us not to go over, as that would throw off the entire evening of appointments. You can imagine how well that went.
By some minor miracle, I didn’t end up overbooked. I expected the twins, with their usual flair for making my life complicated, would manage to schedule me at the same times with their respective teachers, but they didn’t. I did, however, end up with long spaces, an hour and 40 minutes between appointments. Fortunately I ran into some of my friends, who also had a long time between conferences. There were a couple of mishaps, such as when I went home for dinner during a two hour break and came back for a meeting with Elliot’s French teacher. My appointment was 7:40; I arrived at 7:38 by my cell phone, but she’d already left. Fortunately she saw me and came back, showing me her phone, which said 7:45. It’s amazing that the kids are never late.
At the beginning of the evening, 4:30, Abel’s French teacher told me I spoke excellent French. By the end of the evening, his science teacher asked if I spoke French. This is why I need a class; to even things out a little bit.
My French has always been better than Donn’s because I took it in university, where in spite of myself, a tiny bit managed to seep into my brain. His Arabic is better than mine, so it works out. When we were in Mauritania, I dealt with the kids’ teachers, he dealt with the policeman. A nice division of labour, I felt.
But it really disconcerted the Institut Francais. “You’re not at the same level,” they keep telling us, different people—the cashier, the woman typing up our student ID cards, the woman doing scheduling. “You’re higher,” they say in amazement. The teacher who gave me the placement exam asked if we were the same level, and when I said no, assumed Donn would have the higher level. I’m level 4 and he’s level 2, and they nearly moved me down to 3, just so we could be closer. It’s interesting to me, how it seems to bother them. It doesn’t bother us.
Classes start tomorrow. Tomorrow is also another moving day. On y va! Here we go!
I’m sitting here trying not to listen to Alvin and the Chipmunks, which the kids are watching. I have a low tolerance for squeaky voices, which makes my adoration of my daughter all the more remarkable since she was very squeaky for a number of years. But that’s beside the point.
Yesterday, I made a new friend. “Will you be my best friend?” I asked her. No, just kidding; I was channelling my 8 year old self there for a minute. It’s the voices, the voices. Not to mention the spunky beat. Augh.
We do not own this movie. We will never own this movie.
When we lived in France, I made friends with an Italian woman named Angela. She had a son in Abel’s class. “I speak American,” she told me the first time we met, just outside the elementary school. “I used to live in Chicago.” She pronounced it with a hard CH, CHick-AH-go.
Depending on my schedule, which varied daily, I used to sometimes follow her home from dropping off our children. Her house had pictures of saints and her mother in her coffin. Her sons were named things like Anthony and Joseph; they wore gold jewellery and leather jackets and rode fast motorcycles and they would ask her for more money. “But I already gave-a you da money!” she would shout at them, gesticulating with her arms. “But I need-a more-a!” Anthony or Joseph or Giovanni (I forget his real name but it was just as Italian) would shout back, arms just as active. I would stare, bemused. Wasn’t this behaviour just a cheap American stereotype of Italians? Apparently not. We saw this when we visited Italy and couldn’t find our hotel. “It’s-a no-a far-a!” said the Italians we asked, gesticulating helpfully down the street. “Are you for real?” said Donn.
It was in Angela’s kitchen that I really learned to love Italian coffee. Living in France, I learned to drink café noir, just a shot of espresso in a demitasse cup, black, sipped slowly and made to last for hours while you chat with a friend. I had thought that was strong. The Italians use the same amount of coffee and the same size cups, but half the water so that the coffee is twice as strong. You can get this coffee anywhere in Italy, even in the roadside stops next to gas stations. It will ruin you for American coffee; especially the frou-frou kind.
The other day (ok the other month but then I got sick and then I got busy), I met one of my new neighbours. She is Italian, married to a Moroccan, and has a daughter in Ilsa’s class at school. “Drop by any time,” she urged me. So on Sunday afternoon, I took a plate of my home-made fudge and did just that.
She made me coffee (swoon!), thereby cementing our friendship, at least from my side. She liked the fudge a lot too, so I could see this being mutually beneficial. I don’t know what the magic is. She uses Lavazza coffee; I use Lavazza coffee. She uses a stove-top machine, as did Angela. I have 2 or 3 stove-top machines in Mauritania and I have used them plenty, but it’s never as good. I believe Italian women are blessed at birth by the coffee fairy (or maybe at their first communion? I‘m not Catholic so I don‘t know), while the rest of us have to labour and strive and make mistakes along the long hard path to coffee nirvana. I can make French coffee, which is very good, but Italian coffee continues to elude me.
She sent me home with samples of herbs from their land, located just outside the city, and half a dozen roses, red and yellow and pink. Their scent fills the room as I type; they are full-blown today and beginning to droop. “It’s not really the season for roses,” she told me, but the blooms are still beautiful.
Some might think I take coffee too seriously, which I don’t. But I’m not as bad as some! I’ve been very amused by this interaction lately. First, read this NY Times article, which scooped this very funny post by Wacky Mommy’s husband. It was picked up by Starbucks themselves, and then mocked mercilessly by a French blogger! It has had me in stitches. Enjoy!
EDITED TO ADD:
Here is a rough translation of the first two paragraphs of the French blogger.
“It’s happening already, just as we predicted. First they kept giving their
coffees names that were more and more complicated and they came up with
fantastic combos (the vanilla caramel frappucino double shot soy latte with
tomato soup to go…who’s it for?). Now the coffee sellers have surpassed
Whoever wants to become a “barista” (the new glamourous name for the guys
behind the espresso machines) must pass an entrance test for NASA in order
to get a 5th-grade job.”
…the rest just explains it…
Snapshot #1: FOOD
We had a great visit with our friends. Highlights included Dean cooking raclette on Christmas Eve. What is raclette, you ask? Merely a quick way to die happy.
First you make mashed potatoes with lots of garlic, cream and black pepper.
Then you put a bit of olive oil in a frying pan, and add slices of raclette, which is a type of French cheese. I suppose it is somewhat similar to a brie. You let it melt. Then you pour it over the potatoes. Eat it with some kind of pork product, and a green salad to cut the richness of it.
It is sooo good.
THEN, just to keep the good French customs going, we had a buche de Noel. For those of you poor people who have never been able to sample this wonder, it is incredible. Ours was “fort en chocolat,” made of a layer of cake, chocolate mousse filling, dark chocolate ganache, I don’t know. I wish I could accurately describe it to you. Imagine creamy dark chocolate melting on your tongue. Incredible.
Christmas morning, we came back to American traditions and had baked French toast with fresh local strawberries. Oh wait–guess that part’s not traditional. Sure was good though!
Snapshot #2: HOMELESS
The story of the first Christmas includes some homeless people, seeking for a place to stay, giving birth in a stable. This year, we decided to emulate them. Well, not in EVERY detail. But we heard just before Christmas that this place we’re living would be even more temporary than we were hoping–we need to be out January 20th. That put a bit of a spin on our moods, as you can imagine. But in the week since we got this news, we’ve seen a couple of possibilities. One was on the beach–can you imagine how nice that would be? It’s in budget too. Of course it would take us at least 40 minutes to get the kids home from school…
Snapshot #3: CHRISTMAS EVE SERVICE
Ilsa and I and her little friend decided to go to the Christmas Eve service. We were on time, which meant we got roped into participating. We trooped up front to light the Advent Wreath, and Ilsa and I both did readings. Hers was in French. Mine, thankfully, was not.
She and another girl walked down the aisle lighting candles, and I loved watching her stop at each pew, her face intent in the light of the tiny flame, framed by her long hair, as she leaned her little candle towards theirs. We sang Silent Night like this: verse 1 in English, 2 in French, 3 in German, 4 in Spanish, 5 in Arabic, and 6 in English again. Phew!
Snapshot #4: LES CADEAUX
Our guests left before noon, and as soon as they were gone we started opening presents. Shopping was a bit challenging this year. They say you can find anything in Rabat, and they are almost right. You can find name brands; Cartier, LaCoste, Estee Lauder, Guess. You can find cheap Chinese knock-offs, and a staggering variety of colourful, locally-made goods. What is missing is the in-between, the level of Old Navy and Target.
We got Elliot a black leather jacket, locally made lambskin, soft as butter. He looks very cool, and he wanted it, but not as much as a drum set. On the other hand, homeless people in general don’t buy drum sets–especially not those who might end up in an apartment. Although this might be a good way to meet the neighbours.
Snapshot #4: CHOCOLATE
Knowing we had guests coming, we bought a box of truffles. Then a friend gave us a purple heart filled with chocolates. Then my Moroccan friend brought us boxes of Lindt and Ferrero-Rocher. Then my children bought me chocolate.
So why did I still make fudge?