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…parting is not always such sweet sorrow.

Our friends have been back to visit us and are again gone, but things were a bit slower this time round. For one, it’s not the twins’ birthday. We have actually managed to get both of them feted and fed with cake (well not Ilsa, but at least she had baked apple French toast with strawberries and fake maple syrup last Saturday) and they’ve had the friends over and we’re done. At least till July, when Elliot has his birthday. I’m impressed that we managed all this within 2 weeks of their actual birthday. Believe me, this is not a normal occurrence.

Also, kids are back in school. It’s spring; the evenings stay light; the yards and gardens and roadways are green and filled with wildflowers.  Abel and I are sneezing up a storm.

In between our friends’ first visit and their second, they spent a couple of weeks in Nouakchott closing up the house where they’d lived for years. It’s the end of an era for them. They were there before we arrived in 2001, and they stayed on after we left.

Mauritanians are an unusual people. I don’t want to generalize, but there are certain tendencies that outsiders who live there notice. And so, the difficulties they faced are in many ways typical.

For example, their landlord. They had a standard contract, renewable yearly. They gave 3 months notice. He waited til their last evening, then announced they owed him a year’s rent. “It’s in the contract,” he claimed. He threatened to surround the house with policemen, effectively holding their stuff hostage. He also pointed to tile damage obviously caused by the ground resettling after unusually heavy rains, and claimed that, although they’ve been gone for 6 months, they must have dropped something heavy. “Like an elephant?” they quipped.

This is, sadly, not unusual behaviour. The thinking goes something like this: These are rich Americans. I wanted Americans for tenants, and these have lived up to expectations:  They have been good tenants, paid on time every month, paid more than a local would have paid PLUS taken good care of the place. But they’re leaving now. This is my last chance to get as much money out of them as I can!

And so he pushed and pushed and pushed, keeping them from their supper for hours, continuing on with emails after they left.

We could relate. The same thing happened to us once. Our landlady had always been nice, until we gave notice. Then she sent in her sister, a lady that would make the Harpies seem like reasonable and kind elderly ladies. The sister brought with her someone who was viewing the house, and proceeded to insult us up and down (You’ve never cleaned these toilets in the two years you’ve been living here! And, like all Americans, you’re stupid with languages! etc. It was actually much worse, but I’ll keep it family friendly.) We were shocked, angered, and embarrassed. I’ll say the potential renter was also embarrassed. We were very hurt too—after all we’re good renters, who pay on time and who clean the toilets regularly. Also, and ironically, if you’ve ever visited a house recently vacated by Mauritanians, you will know where she got the idea that some people never clean toilets.

Our friends sighed a bit as they told us the story of their landlord, the story of the final electric bill that was $500 when it should have been about $40, other stories of acquaintances trying to squeeze a last bit of money out of them. They had good stories too, but their landlord’s tricks on their last evening left them with a bitter taste in their mouths.

It’s hurtful to be viewed as just a resource, just someone to be exploited, to be judged on the colour of your skin instead of the contents of your heart, to paraphrase someone who approached the problem from the opposite end. But, I told them, in some ways it makes it easier to leave.

The twins are writing letters to their future selves. “To be opened when I’m 15 or more,” says Abel’s. “To my future self from your former self,” says Ilsa’s. They plan to tuck money in these envelopes, 5 dirhams here and there, so that they will be surprised in the future with an unexpected windfall.

I tell them they need to wait at least until they’re 20, but I know that’s not really long enough. I have kept diaries sporadically for most of my life. The journal from my junior high years was a masterpiece. It throbbed with deep emotion, as I’m sure all junior high girls’ journals do, but what made mine special was that every few months I’d reread it and write snide mocking little notes in the margins.

I found this journal when I was about 25, and I was mortified. I could not believe what an idiot I’d been. Even my snide notes held hints of melodrama and self-pity. I was so appalled at myself that I burned it, and was depressed for days, filled with self-loathing.

Of course now I wish I hadn’t. Now I can see it for the treasure trove of good clean fun it was. And now I have the perspective to know that everyone is melodramatic and angst-ridden and despairing, humorously so, in junior high. So I’m hoping to be able to get my hands on these letters, and tuck them away till I’m sure the Future Twins will treasure them. Also I can always use small change.

I wonder at what point we lose this anticipation of the future. I smile at the twins, at their starry-eyed imaginings of what they’ll be like in a few years, taller and deeper-voiced and famous artists and Jedi masters yet still excited to find a few odd coins. “I’ll ALWAYS have long hair,” Ilsa has taken to announcing. “I will NEVER cut it. Even when I’m OLD.” We’ll see, I tell her, but she is certain that she’s always be as she is now, only better.

The beginning of a new year is traditionally a time for introspection, a good time for writing letters to a future self. Maybe instead of resolutions, or goals as everyone’s calling them this year, we should write letters, picturing our futures.

Dear Future Self, I could say,

I hope you managed to lose all that weight! I hope you were more patient with the children. Did you ever finish that book on Mauritania?

I imagine you finally tall enough to be in the second row of the choir, and finally managing to keep closets and drawers organized and be prompt with thank you notes, email responses, and recipe requests. I picture you finally living in a house with enough bookshelves! And maybe curtains too, because your neighbours don’t love you as much as you think they do.

Love,

Your Former Self

There. Now I just need to recopy it on special paper and decorate the edges.

To be honest, I have given up hope that I will ever be truly organized, and I know I’m not really going to get any taller. I’m even wondering if I’ll ever lose any weight or finish my book. It seems doubtful.

One of the side effects of growing up is a loss not just of anticipation but of hope, of expectancy, of belief that anything’s possible. Because it isn’t. I’m not going to grow any taller. Donn is going to go bald*. With this comes acceptance but also cynicism, and it’s only bad if I stop trying to at least send thank you emails, stop trying to be more patient, and stop setting goals for my writing.

Tonight our tree is gone and Christmas decorations put away. I would probably have procrastinated on this a couple more days had Elliot not accidentally knocked the tree over last night. Amazingly enough, very few ornaments shattered on our tile floor. Abel’s hand-painted-when-he-was-one black bell broke in two, but was able to be glued.

The house always looks so bare, so bereft, the first few days after decorations are packed away.  Outside the rain slams the windows, rattles the doors, turns the handles. It opened Ilsa’s windows earlier today and deposited a puddle on her floor, soaking one of the millions of glittery drawings of fairies that decorate every surface of her room. But at least it spared the poem she just finished titled “The Joy of Paper.” I have always wanted a daughter who would write poems to paper. I just wish I’d thought to mention that in my letters to my future, now current, self.

* that’s a little humour for those who know us in real life, since he started going bald at 18 and for years has sported the fringe look. We’re the same age and when we were 21 or so and dating, we used to get dirty looks in restaurants, because he looked 30 and I looked 14.

On Saturday we went down to the rocks to photograph and I forgot my camera. Typical. “Remind me next time,” I said bitterly to Elliot, who wasn’t listening.

Drive just south of the city, past the Oudayas at the mouth of the river with the huge cemetery running down to the sea, past the lighthouse and the surf school, past the bicycle market. To your left are line upon line of apartment buildings and to your right is the Atlantic, in deep green today, and the setting sun is sometimes in your eyes as you follow the curves of the road.

Here you are: you are getting to the part where the cliff face falls down into rocky shelves and tide pools, where fisherman stand on the very edge of the sea and get soaked in the spray and as always, you worry about them being swept away. (I don’t know if it happens or not…is this part of a fatalistic view of life where preventative measures are not taken, or is it just not really all that dangerous? Some day I will find out and tell you.)

We swerve across oncoming traffic and park in a tiny spot in front of what looks to be an empty apartment building, newly built. Taking our lives into our hands, we commend our souls to God and cross the street, where we find ourselves at the top of a cliff. This area has an enormous shelf at the bottom, complete with tide pools, casual boulders scattered about, and a sandy bit where boys are playing soccer and turning cartwheels and flips.

We make our way down. Ilsa climbs an enormous rock and pulls out her sketching book and pencil case from school—the one I just had to replace because the first one got stolen. She drops a brand new pencil sharpener in the sand and I stoop and put it in my purse with a sigh. Boys come to show off, climbing behind her on rock, doing flips down the side, glancing sideways to see if she’s noticed their antics. They faux fight, they race. Ilsa sketches on, unmoved. The wind blows her long blonde hair behind her as she bends over her paper, concentrating on the silvery mermaid she is drawing. “I like to be the only one on the rock,” she tells me.

Later she decides to go rock climbing herself. The boys follow to where my daughter is scrambling up, her hair a golden curtain. It’s obvious to me what’s going on but Ilsa is oblivious still, disdainfully scorning a proffered hand when coming down, appalled at the offer of help which she interprets as doubt in her ability. She is a mystery to them, in her black leggings and tennis shoes and long hair, clambering all over the rocks. She fancies herself a tomboy and mocks the “Barbies” at her school, but she’s really quite feminine in many ways.

The boys continue to approach in a sort of dance. They don’t come too close, they take turns; there are definite rules to this. I think that I could map this out, the way they circle shyly, the way they punch each other and vie for who can throw his body into the air the highest. We are near a shelf of rock covered in tide pools. The boys strip to their underwear, run across the rocks, and suddenly dive into the one deep pool in all these tiny ones. I catch my breath because it looks so improbable, like they’ve somehow found a tiny stretch in the space-time continuum, a baggy part, where they can splash and play. It’s still dangerous, but it’s fun too, like watching those scooters weave through traffic—there’s freedom there.

A lot of this is done with sideway glances at Ilsa, who continues totally unaware. I’m glad for it, but part of me wishes she could see her power without being damaged by it, and that this knowledge could be a pool unexpectedly deep enough for diving set in the rocky shoals of the upcoming years. We leave them, still splashing, and set our faces towards the cliff that is our way home.

Today I got up at a normal time and already, at only 10:45, I’m caught up on blogs and facebook. It feels good, but strange. I have many things that need to get done, but I need a slow day, a day to recover from my week of training and child sickness and the splitting headache I woke up with. I’m not going to get this elusive slow day—today includes my first attempt at doing an English Club at the French junior high. But at least I get a slow morning.

Yesterday was an upsetting day.

First of all, I was reading the little free newspaper available at the train station—au fait, it’s called. I was turning the pages and came to a news item about Mauritania—how suspected al Qaeda members were being released. The picture caption said it was taken outside the French Embassy after the suicide bombing this summer (yes the same French Embassy where my children went to school, albeit the other side of it), but it wasn’t. In the picture was the body of our friend who was shot and killed by suspected al Qaeda militants this summer, although not the ones who were just released.

Nothing like idly turning a page and dealing with that.

In the taxi coming home from the train station on my last day of training, I see a commotion in the street ahead—I crane my neck and see a crowd of men and policemen standing in the middle of a 6 lane street, arguing. As we come closer, I gasp in dismay. There is a woman lying in the middle of the street. She’s on her side, and she’s not moving at all. I think she is dead. In front of her are two tangled motos, on their sides. It’s a common sight to see women on the back of scooters, clinging to their husband or brother who’s driving. Less common are two women, but you do see that. It’s also common to see accidents involving scooters since they tend to be in various states of disrepair and yet cut off large swiftly-moving vehicles with a sort of wild abandon that is almost poetic in its disregard of safety and common sense.

This woman is wearing a djellaba and headscarf. She’s probably middle aged, I guess, from her clothing and even body type. Her shoe has been knocked off; I stare at her bare foot with a terrible sense of sadness and waste. She lies there, unmoving, while overhead men shout and gesticulate, and round her on either side the cars and trucks and bicycles and scooters and vans whiz by, parting briefly around her like a river around a stone. She lies like a stone. I am sure she’s dead. My taxi driver is upset too and begins to pray, all mutters and “bismillahs.”

Donn doesn’t think she’s dead, when I tell him about it later to explain why I’m in such a bad mood. “I saw a dead woman lying in the road,” I shout at him. But he asks for details and points out that she was lying on her side, with a bag tucked under her head. “Was her head covered?” he asks me. It wasn’t, at least I don’t think it was. He’s seen that; a scooter driver laid out flat, jacket drawn respectfully over his face.

We end up quoting Bob Dylan…how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Because these accidents and deaths are totally unnecessary. Just a minor consideration for simple rules of the road would spare so many people, not to mention cars and animals. And I think of my own wild taxi rides this past week, and I am grateful because this could so easily have concerned me. I think of the scooter who missed us by centimeters on a foggy morning. We were just past the big mosque and the orange trees. He had a red light but had opted not to stop, and these scooters are ancient things, not much faster than walking. The driver wasn’t young and impervious, but middle aged, with grey in his beard, wearing a padded jacket against the cold. Why didn’t he stop?

In the evening, Donn has to go out. I make hearty curried lentil soup and cheese drop biscuits for dinner. Elliot complains of a really bad headache and falls asleep on the couch. He is sluggish and I have a hard time getting him to bed. I make the mistake of googling symptoms, and end up reading all about meningitis. Sigh. Never google symptoms—this should be tattooed on all newborn foreheads for their poor over-reactive mothers. I managed to get him out of bed by making these cheese drop biscuits for the first time (I added a soupçon of garlic and herbes de provence and a cup of grated Edam cheese, which is the cheapest and most available cheese round here. I modified Antique Mommy’s recipe, since hers called for impossible items like baking mix, and it was easier to make it from scratch than make a baking mix). He got up, ate a tiny supper, went back to bed, and was fine in the morning. Still, it added to my day.

The twins spent the evening bickering about their music book. They share a book, and Abel has lost it. (They are in separate classes). Ilsa was convinced she’d get in trouble, which is likely. Abel was convinced she was nagging him—also likely.

Ilsa told me she was going to bed, and would most likely be grumpy in the morning. I folded her into a big hug. “I love you even when you’re grumpy,” I told her. And then, thinking realistically about my own state, I said, “Do you love me even when I’m grumpy?”

She scrunched up her face, considering. “I do,” she conceded. “But I don’t recognize it as love when you’re grumpy.”

And on that note, we went to bed.

Although both were settled by people related to each other and both have the root “Moor” in their names, there are many differences between the two neighboring countries in Africa where I have lived. This is part two of a semi-regular series in which I will choose a topic at random and natter on about it for hours.  Today’s topic: Driving (read part one: Sharks here)

Did I mention we got a car? We did, finally. I feel like an adult again, because I have keys; house keys, car keys, keys to things that I own.

Our car is brand-spanking new, and a beautiful dove-grey, so we’re sort of nervous about it. A friend of ours told us, that very first day, to just go ahead and take a hammer to it and put the first ding in ourselves. “It’s easier that way,” he advised. We couldn’t do it.

The kids don’t like the smell. “It smells like when you throw up in the car and it’s all icky,” they tell me. “What? Are you crazy?” I respond. “People LOVE this smell. You can buy air-freshener that claims to replicate it.” They just roll their eyes.

Our new car is supposedly four-wheel drive, but it is “légère,” light, not heavy-duty. It’s basically for suburbanites who like to pretend they need a 4WD. This is a little sad for us. In Mauritania, you need a real 4WD to go just about anywhere. When we arrived in 2001, only about 4 roads were actually paved, and even when we left in 2007, it was still possible to need to put your car into four wheel drive after getting stuck in soft sand while dropping off a friend, for example. No residential streets were paved.

After Nouakchott, Rabat initially feels like Europe. Everything’s paved, and there are enormous roads, 3 lanes in each direction–theoretically, according to painted white lines. Although you can go most places in Morocco and find paved roads, things are rough enough in the countryside that Donn wanted a Land Rover, as his job takes him off road fairly often. But I wanted something smaller for round town, and we had our budget to think of, so we went for our beautiful, dove-grey compromise.

But in one way, the two cities are alike–the habits of their drivers.

I had never seen, never even imagined, anything like the Mauritanian drivers. They sit at red lights with their hands trembling on their horns, like Jeopardy contestants, so that the split-second the light turns, they can begin to honk. Before you can physically move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal, the cacophony has started up. Not content with that, they drive up into the lane intended for oncoming traffic, so that when the light turns green, they are up front, blocking every body else so that they can go.

“Sorry! I forgot YOU were the king and these roads were created for YOU!” I used to shout in annoyance. Or I would whip off my glasses and hold them out… “Obviously you need these more than I do!” This was on my good days, the days I’m telling you about. You don’t need to know how I responded on my bad days, when the children weren’t in the car.

On the “highway,” which I put in quotes because it is divided by a sand ditch that cars turn around in and bordered by wide sand shoulders so that you can just drive up the wrong side of the road, sometimes donkey carts in the right lane would suddenly turn left, just in front of me. I would slam on the brakes and, well, let’s just draw a curtain of seemliness across the ensuing scene.

I’m kidding. I’m a paragon of patience. I just want to make the rest of you feel better for losing patience with the jerk who cut you off, when you really have no idea.

Mauritanian drivers are, seriously, beyond what you can imagine if you have not traveled in Africa. (It’s not just me, others have said the same) Please don’t leave me a comment about how someone double-parked once in front of your office, unless you don’t mind being mocked behind your back. Because we dream of simple double-parking, when we’re stuck in one of those pointless traffic jams caused because everyone tried to go through the round-point at exactly the same time, where no one will let anyone else go first. If you can inch forward a mere centimeter, you do it, and the cars stick every which way. It’s like driving with a lot of 5 year olds who have not been taught to share. And who pick their noses without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. And who know bad words in Arabic.

Since Rabat feels so much more like Europe, I had this fantasy that driving would be more like Rome, for instance, where the drivers are fabled but it is possible to have an undinged car. But instead, it’s Mauritania all over again, paved so that you can’t drive onto the wide sand shoulders, and with six times the number of cars. It’s beyond crazy. It’s like 5 year olds with car keys AND whiskey.

Then there’s the motorized scooters whizzing in and out, sounding exactly like mosquitoes, diving RIGHT in front of you and then stopping suddenly. It is a sadly common sight to see one of them downed, their drone quieted. While I can never be unmoved by the sight of a car accident, at the same time it can be hard to summon up a lot of pity for someone who drives like the road is empty and always, only, all for him, when in real life the road is packed with larger vehicles, all of whom feel the road is all for them.

I mentioned the roads with the theoretical 3 lanes in each direction. In practice, there are 6-8 lanes in each direction. This makes it especially fun when the road funnels into an arched portal carved into the meter-thick ancient city walls, one-lane-wide only. All the cars have to be patient and let others go first sometimes. This works out great, and it’s heartwarming to see the politeness of the drivers, pausing to let the overstuffed bus go first, smoothly letting the taxis in, etc. It brightens my morning, yes it does!

Ahem. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Elliot got hit by a car yesterday. It was just outside the school, where people seem to view the children crossing the road as an opportunity to rack up points! How many little ones hit today? Only 4? I got 6. This is in spite of a painted crosswalk (What do those stripes on the road mean? Nothing. They’re decorative, just ignore them.) and a policeman, stationed next to the guy selling candy so they can chat.

It was a very light bump that didn’t even knock him over. I don’t even know if he’s bruised. But still. I hoped we could get through a year without one of us being hit by a car; instead we only made it 8 months.

To sum up: In Mauritania, the drivers are bad; in Morocco, they are worse.

Even along the auto route in Morocco they do not have, as yet, the endless blur of strip malls and traffic lights. Here is a field of poppies, sheep, a man in a faded blue hat to shelter him from the sun; there is the road, and on the other side the apartment buildings rise up sharply, line upon line, twelve stories high, their roofs bristling with satellite dishes and antennae.

In the fields, people are working. Men and women, dressed in djellabas with pointed hoods or with bright scarves tied around their waists and their heads, bent double. They work with pointed hooks, scythes, sweeping and cutting the field by hand. They gather fistfuls of hay and pile them on donkeys or carts or on their own backs, where they carry them. They are doing an honest day’s work, earning their bread by the sweat of their brow. I ponder this as we whiz by; I showered this morning and am still drinking coffee from my travel mug. The window is open and a fresh morning breeze blows in. If I think about it I can smell my perfume and the mousse to tame curly hair that I use. I could be a princess, visiting royalty, so different is my life. It is rare these days, in the West at least, to see manual labour like this. We put in an hour or two gardening and feel good. Even someone working as a landscape architect is on an entirely different level than these people with their stooped bodies and dignified faces.

For the entire 8 hour drive we will see people working the fields, long after we have left the auto route behind in a blur of flashing windscreens and toll booths. On steep mountain slopes, we will see sheep grazing and catch sight of their shepherd tucked into the shade of a small overhanging rock. Gazing down into steep rocky valleys, we will see brown rivers, and women scrubbing clothes in reds, yellows, brilliant blues and greens. Up steep paths zigzag donkeys barely visible under the pile of green stuff piled onto their backs and sides. Often I see women similarly laden, and once a young woman with a child on her back and over the child the pile of sticks and green plants, his tiny face and feet incongruous amongst the mass.

I don’t have pictures of these people. For one, we didn’t stop the car. For two, they don’t want to be photographed by me, my car throwing up a plume of dust as we skid to the roadside, me popping out with a digital camera, my children in the back seat playing Nintendo or listening to their MP3 players. It feels a bit too condescending to them, too “here we are on display for the rich white foreigners.” So although my intentions are good, I don’t photograph people much. Maybe someday, I’ll get a camera with a long lens, or I’ll spend some time in these mountain villages where the flat-roofed houses seem to rise naturally out of the rock’s strata, and be able to photograph my new friends. In this fantasy I have learned to speak Berber, which I think we all know is unlikely at best, and I have been accepted as an equal, also unlikely. In the meantime, I paint word pictures, and you will have to imagine their patient dignified faces carved by exposure to sun, wind and stars.

bluewoman1

This is a tourist route. The road is made dangerous by the enormous buses, by the aggressive drivers of 4x4s who are used to conveying Germans and French and Italian tourists on their wild adventure to see an actual sand dune, meet an actual nomad, sip sweet mint tea under a tent. What fascinates me is the way the local people use it. I’m sure it is a godsend to them; that where before a hemorrhaging woman would have died, where before children had no chance to learn to read and write and have a chance at a life beyond a tiny hamlet of 10 houses, now the villages are all connected to Marrakesh, which is rapidly becoming quite a large city.

Also, the road brings commerce. At every hairpin turn a tiny shop is set up, perilously built out over a sheer cliff. Each tiny shop sells exactly the same things; a selection of couscous platters, shards of alabaster, and quartz geodes in amazing, sparkly, reds and whites and purples and golds and greens. If by chance there is a hairpin bend without a shop set up, there will be a man standing, his hands full of a big geode that he opens like a watermelon to show the deep red flesh. As you slow to navigate the turn, he will shout “20 dirhams!” at you and will often begin to run towards your car, so eager is he to make a sale. (Note: if you stop he will claim to have shouted “220 dirhams!” but you can bargain him down. We got small ones for 20 and one big one, for our bookshelf, for 40).

mountainshopone

wares

geodes

We don’t stop at all on the way in but we do on the way home. We tend to stop at places with miniscule, turn-out sized “parking lots” on the mountain side of the road (as opposed to cliff-side), so I don’t have pictures of the ones that overhang  the precipices. But don’t worry; I will. One thing emerged clearly from this weekend: We want to go back.

christmasvalley

ruined-tower

Although both were settled by people related to each other and both have the root “Moor” in their names, there are many differences between the two neighboring countries in Africa where I have lived. This is part one of a semi-regular series in which I will choose a topic at random and natter on about it for hours.  Today’s topic: Sharks

Mauritania is an isolated, conservative country. I have never seen a Mauritanian woman in public who wasn’t wearing a muluffa–never once, in 6 years. Mauritanians don’t really go to the beach, and when they do, it’s a treat to see them fully clothed, dipping just one toe in the water, reminiscent of photos of Victorian-era Americans strolling on the beach in button-up boots. Once, at a beach close to town, Donn spotted a Frenchman in a Speedo chatting with two Mauritanian men whose long, pale blue robes swept to the sand. Another time, we were on vacation in Senegal. Some Senegalese sported swimsuits; those who couldn‘t afford them simply stripped down to their underwear and plunged into the waves. We spotted two Mauritanian women in mulaffas on the beach, who had rolled up their mulaffas to their shoulders and obviously felt very bold and near-nude, showing off their upper arms like that!

Swimming is not something that has arrived in this desert land, and I’ve heard of kids growing up along the Atlantic coast or on the banks of the Senegal River who never learn, and who have fallen in and drowned. This seems incredible to me but I have it on good evidence.

In the 6 years we lived in Mauritania, we went to the beach nearly weekly. We would drive about 15 km out of town, north of the fishing village, and far enough out for privacy. There are no laws in Mauritania that would prohibit a Western woman wearing a swimsuit at the beach, but I don’t know many women who enjoy the feeling of being on display. Sometimes, fishermen would come across our little bathing party, and they were usually fascinated. Once, two young men sat down on a dune with huge smiles on their faces and stared at us. You could see them thinking that this was even better than television! We sent Donn to send them away.

But I’m getting off my topic, which is sharks.

Mauritania was until recently home to the world’s richest fishing grounds, although they’re being over-fished at a startling rate. Nonetheless, it’s not unusual to walk along the beach and see squid, dolphin, sting-rays, blowfish, cuttlefish, and more–washed up on shore, or flung out as useless from some local fisherman’s net.

We didn’t see too many sharks on all those beach visits, and for that I was thankful. I don’t like sharks in the water with me, because their teeth are sharper than mine, for one, and their eyesight is better. I feel at a disadvantage in spite of my superior intelligence and ability to type very quickly and play Pathwords on Facebook. But one memorable day, we did see, and photograph, a shark. It was very small and quite dead. And, my sister-in-law reassured me that this kind eat crabs, not people, which wasn’t as comforting as she apparently felt it to be–according to Donn’s research, most sharks chomp an arm or leg to see what you are, then spit you out. You then either bleed to death or your blood incites them to a frenzy and they eat you anyway. Yeah.

Here in Rabat, those weekly beach visits haven’t happened. First of all, we don’t have a car yet. Second of all, this winter was cold and rainy, enough to discourage even my fanatical husband (he grew up in California and Hawaii, which explains a lot, actually). We have only been to the beach as a family one time in the past 8 months, although he’s made several surfing trips with friends. It was a beautiful beach, complete with out-of-control horses and prickly dark purple sea urchins, their dried shells fun to crunch underneath a sandaled foot but live ones not so fun for Donn, who managed to get a few prickles embedded in his feet.

I saw my first Moroccan shark the other day at Marjane, carefully arranged on ice. Marjane is another difference between these two countries. Mauritania has nothing even close to Marjane, which is this enormous “hypermarche”–a store that sells groceries, toys, clothes, appliances, and dishes. Like France’s Carrefour, Marjane is always located with a little mini-mall, and, at least in Rabat, always has a Pizza Hut near it. Mmmm, Pizza Hut. I hadn’t eaten at one since high school until we moved to Morocco, and I’ve eaten at one here 3 times in the past 8 months. Obviously my resistance to fast food, or whiny children, is weakening. Also, in my own defense, we don’t have Vincente’s or Flying Pie here, and non-American pizza seems to come only with a cardstock-thin crust.

Mauritania has no chain stores at all unless you count Orca, which I believe also has a location in Dakar. A place with no copyright laws, it boasts a “McDonalds”–a basic hole-in-the-wall storefront in one of Nouakchott’s slums, which I’m betting is the world’s only McDonald’s that serves chebojen (fish and rice) but no hamburgers. It also has a “Pizza Hot” and several other knock-offs, my personal favorite being the Michelin man.

Rabat, especially, is like a different world than Nouakchott. (Although, to be honest, it’s Nouakchott that’s the different world. That’s where the name of my blog comes from) Here, streets are paved, there are green spaces, and it is possible to acquire power and water at your house on the same day they were requested (that is not urban myth. It happened to us). In Nouakchott, I hear that more and more streets are being paved, but it wasn’t unusual for the phone company to perform a pre-emptive strike and cut off power before our bill was even due.

I miss our beach visits, but I prefer my sharks on ice.

shark
Also, whatever these appetizing things are.

mmmfish

And these.

redfishpeacockeyes

Bon appetit!

So, to sum up: In Mauritania, we saw sharks on the beach. Here, we see sharks on ice. Viva la difference!

I’m over at travel blogs today, nattering on about how to help kids adjust to life overseas. Please go say hi.

Today I am over at the Women’s Colony, reflecting on living rich in a poor part of the world. It’s an old post, but a good one. Go say hi!

Is it possible to traverse the world finding mothers who blog in 80 clicks? Do mothers raising children in different places have different perspectives? Catherine at Her Bad Mother teamed up with her friend David to find out. She listed 5 things she enjoys about motherhood, linked to 5 other mom-blogs, and threw out the challenge.

I have now been tagged twice for this meme, once from Robin in Israel, and once from Nan in Trinidad, so I guess I’d better get on it! (Aside: I’m terrible at responding to memes and awards. I always mean to. There’s enough of the junior-higher still in me to be thrilled when I’m chosen. But then I forget, and it seems silly to mention an award you got two months ago. So if you gave me an award and I didn’t mention it or pass it on, thank you very much, I really did appreciate it and it made my day, and I’m ever so sorry for being such a flake!) (Donn is telling you, “Welcome to my world…”)

Right then. On to 5 things I love about being a mother. This is ridiculously hard for me. How can I distill something so grand into 5 little bullet points? Since the reason I got tagged was because I’m an expat, nomadic mother, I’m going to list 5 things I like about raising my children overseas. Question: can I do this without sounding sentimental or like I’m bragging? Possibly not. Just tell yourself over and over again: it’s just a meme, it’s just a meme.

  1. I love how flexible the kids have become. They can deal with layovers, sudden changes of plans, weird food, and things not turning out how anyone would have envisioned. Do they still whine? Well yes, they’re normal. But I’m proud of how adaptable they are. And I still whine too (see many many posts about my poorly-stocked kitchen and frequent moves).
  2. I love having older kids. While I miss the kissable round cheeks and cuddly bodies of babies and toddlers, I am really enjoying having near teens and teens. They’re fun to talk to. They think about things and have good questions. They’re fun to hang out with, and I miss them when they’re gone. (I can’t believe I admitted that) Plus, I can still kiss their cheeks–just that Elliot’s are now all hairy and spotty! The teen years have hit him hard.
  3. Dragging them all over the world has given them a broader perspective on life. When we read of wars in the Middle East, they have friends on both sides. We’re placed so that they hear news from around the world, not just around the country, and even though they’re young, they are beginning to see that there are many perspectives (sample: learning the history of WW2 in a French school. You hear a different side, rather than just the “Here we come to save the day“ Mighty Mouse American version). Having friends from all over goes a long way to cutting down on racism or prejudice as well. In fact, after we’d been in the US for about 3 months last year, Elliot confided in me that he felt strange being around so many white people all the time.
  4. I love it when I see them growing as people. When Elliot spends hours figuring out what to get the twins for their birthday, and spends all of his own money to do so. When Abel goes, unasked, into the kitchen at a friend’s to do dishes, or volunteers to spend his Saturday planting trees at an orphanage. When Ilsa spends hours making special cards for someone she knows is sad.
  5. I love how comfortable they are with people. Admittedly, I have social kids, but they have also had to hone this natural tendency. When you meet a French or Moroccan parent, kiss them on both cheeks and don’t pull a face. When you meet an American parent, don’t kiss them or they’ll think you’re weird. Abel in particular can be in any place for 5 minutes before he’s made a friend. The other two are a little more self-conscious, but they don’t have any problems reaching out to other kids either, although usually in a context of a longer-term relationship.

Phew! Are we glad that’s over? Now I get to tag people. So I tag Nancy and Veronica and Karen (sorry I never did the Honest Scrap!) from the US and Beck from Canada (technically a nation) and Mary, whose blog I adore and who is an ESL teacher in Turkey. She’s a fantastic writer and you should be reading her if you’re not. And Beck, I was totally kidding about Canada. You know that right? I spent 5 of my formative years in Alberta, and people often think I’m Canadian because I pronounce “been” as it should be pronounced and not as “bin.”

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