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I teach ESL to adult learners, pretty much all of whom are refugees, although our classes are open to everyone. This week, I introduced the concept of Show & Tell. Sure it’s a kindergarten concept, but I knew my students would not bring in stuffed animals. It was supposed to get them to speak English uninterrupted, express their thoughts, use idioms and practice fluency. And I think it was a success. I was careful to explain the things didn’t have to be emotionally weighty, because I didn’t want my students to feel coerced. I used as an example a ticket stub from a play we went to with friends a few weeks ago* But everyone brought in things from their original home. And to see what things refugees have carried with them on their long journeys to safety is, I think, a privilege.
Student #1: H slowly unfolded a scarf and held it up for everyone to see. It rippled in many colors–shades of brown and pink arranged geometrically. “This scarf belonged to my mother,” she said, and kissed it. “She used to wear it when she lived in the village.” H draped it around her own black hair. Then she took it off and held it up to her face. She has never washed it, she told the class, and it still smells of her mother. Everyone passed it around reverentially. Mothers are highly esteemed in Arab culture, and of course the bond between older mother and adult daughter is universal. At the next class, she brought in a picture of her mother, her hair tied back in a scarf. H is from a Christian background, so her mother wore the scarf differently than Muslim women do and I had had a hard time picturing it. She also brought in baby pictures of herself with her sisters. Again, she kissed their faces.
Student #2: S took out of her purse a plain brown envelope, the kind that official documents come in, but it was empty and held no interesting marks. “This envelope changed my life!” she announced dramatically, waving it in the air. S is from Iran, and 5 years ago her husband won the lottery for a green card, and brought her and her youngest daughter to America. The announcement arrived in this very plain brown envelope.
They first lived in Texas, she told us. A fellow immigrant told them they needed to go to the Social Security office, so they looked the address up online but ended up at a building that looked like a house to them, but was flying a big American flag. That confused them. Many people from other countries don’t understand Americans’ propensity to fly flags at all times from all types of buildings, not to mention turn them into jewelry, t-shirts, hats, bumperstickers. etc. The flag, plus the fact that the address on the house matched that of Google maps…this had to be the place, right? So they went up to the door. They were greeted with the sound of a deep, throaty barking. Why would Social Security have a large dog? They stepped back in alarm. The door opened, and a woman appeared. They showed her the piece of paper on which they had scribbled the address and tried to explain what they were looking for, but it was too late–she had already called the police, alarmed by the mere presence of a middle-aged couple on her front walkway.
S started to cry when the policeman questioned her. He was very gentle, she tells us now, but he told her not to walk up to private people’s houses. I think this is terrible advice. What kind of world do we live in? When I lived overseas, I only had to look sort of lost and people would help me find my way. (Sure they might expect payment, but they didn’t threaten me) I told her that I was glad she had found her way to Oregon, and to my class in particular.
Student #3: A brings his marriage license, showing he’s been married to his wife for 37 years. We talk a little bit about marriages. I’ve been to a few Iraqi weddings now, here in the US, and they can be summed up best in one word: LOUD. So loud. We compare Iraqi wedding customs to Mauritanian ones. As always, I’m amazed at how many similarities there are between the 2, separated by thousands of miles and in many ways very different.
*in part because I forgot to bring anything even though it was on my lesson plans, and I found that stub in my purse. The best teachers are good at improv, right?
Mona is very pregnant. (I know, one is either pregnant or not, but she is right at the end and it’s the first thing you notice about her) She called me the other night with exciting news. “I am feeling pleasure in my tummy,” she told me.
“Uh, good. I guess,” I said. I thought about it. “Do you mean contractions?”
“Yes,” she said.
But it wasn’t quite contractions, since she wasn’t in labour. Donn was the one who figured it out. She meant pressure.
Nonetheless, I am calling contractions “pleasures” from now on.
That was last week. She had a c-section scheduled for Sunday morning at 8 a.m. at a hospital clear across town. She had to be there by 5, and she asked me if I’d bring her mother and her 12 y/o twins to the hospital a little before 8. So I did. We were there all day, till after 7.
Mona told me about her previous c-sections, in Baghdad, where they made her “sleepover”–in other words, gave her a full anesthesia. She was scared to experience the American version, where they only knock you out from the waist down and put up a curtain to block your view. But, she told me later, relieved and happy, that the American version was “too much better, too much easier.” (Her English is excellent, overall, and her few mistakes charming)
The baby is adorable. She has a cleft chin, a dimple, and enormous black eyes like her father’s and older sisters’. She has a lovely round head and tons of silky black hair. I got to hold her a lot in the afternoon, and she gave me lots of those squinty suspicious looks newborns give you, where they squinch their eyes barely open and look at you sideways, obviously thinking, “Who are you and where are we?” I love babies, especially when I don’t have to sleep in the same room as they’re in.
At one point they shooed us all out of the room. Mona’s mum is elderly and has knee pain and a hard time walking and getting out of chairs. I carried a bunch of stuff and herded us all down the hall. We spent some time in a family waiting area before heading down to the cafeteria for some coffee. Again, between the elevator and several long hallways, this took some time. And then I realized I’d inadvertently left my purse in the waiting area.
I called security and they told me they had it, brought it to me. It didn’t take me long to realize my iTouch was gone. It took me longer to realize my camera was gone (I thought I’d left it in the room). It took me till the next morning to realize that the tickets to the midnight opening of the new Batman movie, Elliot’s birthday present, were also gone.
I called security and reported these things missing. I called the police and made a report. I described my things, both to the security guard and the policewoman. “My iTouch is silver, no case, and it has an inscription,” I told them. “What does it say?” they both asked.
Why do husbands always seem to enjoy doing things that will embarrass their wives? You can’t tell me men ever really grow up! I’m sure many of us have our own stories, which I’m looking forward to reading in comments. Just tonight, I was telling a friend of mine, who is an elementary school principal, about this. She told me what her iTouch says. “TW is HOT!” (Her initials are TW. Although it has her full name, which I don’t feel like sharing with all of you. Nothing personal.)
My (former) iTouch says, on the back, “Wild Thing.” We can’t remember if it goes on to say “I love you” or “You move me.” I told this to the security guard. “Uh, let’s just assume that’s from Maurice Sendak’s children’s book,” she said drily. When I told the policewoman, I was better prepared. “Husband’s a Hendrix fan,” I muttered shame-facedly. “Ah,” she said noncommittally.
Mona’s family was very sorry about my loss (as am I!). Donn went ahead and cancelled all our credit cards anyway, even though they weren’t missing, since each item taken was in a different area of the purse and the thief obviously took his/her time going through it, deciding what was of interest. Maybe s/he wrote down the numbers and left the actual card, hoping to surprise us later, Donn thought. (He’s naturally suspicious and often right) So we have no credit or debit cards for 10 days.
That was Sunday. On Monday, my computer went out. Donn’s hopeful that he can fix it, but it won’t even give me the tiniest little blue light to show me it’s trying. I’m typing on the kids’ laptop, which someone recently gave us. He built it himself. It runs Linix. I am not complaining in any way; I am very thankful for it, although if I was going to complain I would point out that the mouse pad is very squirrelly and I am recomposing this post, after it lost it even though I had saved it. But I miss my laptop. No I hadn’t done a back-up recently. Even more photos will be gone.
I am expecting my car to break down tomorrow or possibly the day after. I’ll let you know.
Although I don’t expect to replace these things anytime soon, I am doing okay. After all, in the larger scheme of things, these are infinitesimal. The iTouch was already, in this strange world we live in, practically obsolete, although I liked it just fine. The camera had pictures on it that I’m sad to lose, but I’ve lost pictures before and I know I’ll forget about them soon. The baby is healthy and lovely, and her mother was back in full hostess mode by Monday afternoon, telling ME to sit down when I first walked into the room. (Me: No, you sit down. You’re the one recovering from major abdominal surgery!)
They come home tomorrow. Today I took grape leaves to Fiona, who lives in the same apartment complex, so that she could cook them dolma to celebrate their first day home, to give Mona a break. “You come here at 1 to pick up your dolma,” she told me. I don’t know why I’m getting dolma too, but I do know it will be a great addition to the all-American hot dogs and hamburgers we’ll be eating with friends tomorrow evening.
In speaking with someone who is learning English, it is not necessary to speak their native tongue–but sometimes, it’s helpful. In a related note, did you know that in Arabic, they use the same word for “want” and “need?” We did know this, but we’d forgotten. So last night. Donn said to his friend, “I’ll be home Tuesday afternoon if you want to stop by” and the friend said, “Do you need me?” and Donn said, “No.” He saw an unmistakeable hurt flash across his friend’s face. And then, fortunately, he remembered his Arabic. “I don’t need you, but I want you to come,” he explained, going on about “need” vs. “want.” His friend smiled in relief.
Can you imagine? “Do you want me to come?” “No.” It’s funny and sad at the same time.
Today I went to visit my friend W with a pan of cinnamon rolls. I had made Pioneer Woman’s recipe for the twins’ birthday (only modified. She seems like a nice woman but I believe she wants to kill us all, with her “use whole milk or better yet, full cream” and “pour the melted butter on…use a whole cup.” Yeah. I use skim milk and about 1/3 cup of butter and they are still wickedly indulgent and everyone loves them. Also I don’t like her icing…waay to sweet. But I digress, rather long-windedly. Let’s start this post over.)
Today I went to visit my friend W with a pan of still-warm cinnamon rolls. “No! You have made yourself tired; why?” she scolded me. I ignore this, recognizing it as polite protestation, and kiss her in greeting as she takes my coat, sits me down on the couch, and embarks on a long explanation of why she has to go somewhere. It’s a wild journey into the perils of pronoun abuse; I’m told about my husband’s car and how my husband is too busy and my friends will come. No, his friends. She means her friends and her husband. It gets really confusing when she introduces a third party to the conversation, but I hang in there, mentally substituting the pronoun I think she means for the one she says. I manage to work out that her husband is going for his driver’s test today and that her friend is coming to pick her up and take her to meet him there. “How is my family?” she asks me. “Fine, fine,” I tell her. I know what she means. I do help her with English, but this is a social visit and ends up being very short, and I also try not to overwhelm, working on a few things at once.
I sometimes love pronoun trouble because it’s so cute. Donn helped another Iraqi man get his driver’s license a couple of months ago, and afterwards he sat and drank tea in his home. His wife was curious about me. “Is my wife American? Is my wife at home?” she asked Donn.
I have written before of Arab hospitality, and how hard it is, as a fairly hospitable American, to keep up. Several weeks ago, we invited W and her husband and 3 kids for dinner. I tried to go all out; I made tagine and zaalouk and samosas and salad; I served good bread and put out fruit and cookies. We started with a sweet orange drink, and afterwards made tea.
They responded well. “Yummy!” their 9 year old kept announcing! (He is very proud of his English and shows it off whenever possible) W stuck her fork in the salad. “Spanish?” she asked, and it took me a moment but then I nodded. It was a spinach salad. She gave her daughter a bite and then stuck her fork in again to spear an egg slice for herself. They were a relaxed combination of single-serving plates and communal eating, not hesitating to stick their forks in the serving bowls, but mostly eating individually. They ate heartily and seemed to enjoy everything.
Then they had us over. We had olives and leban (yogurt) and biryani (rice and vegetable dish)and kefta (spiced ground beef) and salad and samosas (hers were much prettier than mine) and chicken and pickled cauliflower and grilled vegetables and 2 kinds of bread; homemade Middle Eastern flat bread, and whole wheat pita bread. The table practically groaned under the weight of it all. Then we had home-made baklava, called baklowi in the Iraqi dialect, with pistachios and a hint of rose water, sooo good. I used to not like it too much because it’s too sweet, but the home-made Iraqi version has changed my mind and it’s become something I can’t resist. Plus tea, made with cardamom and schwaia min sucre, a small amount of sugar, and freshly-squeezed orange juice, and other things I’m forgetting. I’m sure it took them all day to prepare it. When we were leaving, they pressed gifts upon us—we came home with baklowi (yeah like I needed that temptation round the place) and other foods.
I should have sent them home with gifts.
I should have shrieked in protest at their hard work, instead of smiling and saying things like, “Wow!”
I should have cooked more.
But I think it’s okay. When the woman I’m teaching English to (the artist’s wife) presses a brand-new package of Najjar coffee into my hand, after I’ve admired the coffee she makes me, it’s a way of paying me for class. I might feel awkward that I’ve brought her nothing but I forget—yes, I have. I have brought my expertise, my teaching experience, my lesson prep.
I do still worry a bit though. Do you think that, behind our backs, they talk about how stingy and ungenerous the Americans are?
Earlier this week, I took some Iraqi friends to a public health clinic. This is the family I mentioned in an earlier post, the ones who don’t speak English.
Only the parents had appointments, but they brought the 2 year old as a matter of course. The 6 year old sat in the apartment and cried big silent tears because her mother was leaving. “She can come,” I told them, “but she’ll have to sit with me in the waiting room.”
And so, as I sat flipping through an old New Yorker (but new to me! And who knew that public health had better reading material than most doctor’s offices?) while the adults were in the back with a translator, I kept an eye on the two girls. They were playing with those toys they have at doctor’s offices, the kind where you push the wooden beads on wires shaped into corkscrews and loops and squirls. I don’t know what they’re called but I’m sure you’ll enlighten me.
I realized that the 6 year old was teaching her sister English. “Ready set go!” she said. Actually, it was more “rad, sit, goo” and it took me a moment to recognize what she was saying. “Ready, set, go!” I repeated for her, reinforcing her pronunciation because of the whole once-a-teacher-always-a-teacher thing, and she rewarded me with a brilliant smile. Later, she ran in a circle around the small table and hit her sister on the head. “Duck, duck, goose!” she shouted. I attempted to stop her hitting her sister on the head—what must they think of these violent American games?—but I soon relaxed, as the toddler laughed and laughed and obviously wasn’t hurt.
This, too, is how my kids learned language—first on the playground, then in the classroom. There was probably some head-bashing involved too, considering that I have 2 boys close in age. When we first lived in Mauritania, they’d come home and play cache-cache loup (hide ‘n seek) or sing silly little songs. It took them a while to catch up in the classroom, in spite of what everyone said about how quickly kids learn new languages. My experience is: they do, yes, but at the same time, it takes them a while to get thoroughly comfortable and truly fluent. They lag behind their peers, because they are double-learning in the classroom—learning French vocab AND science or math or whatever the subject is. Even now, I would say my kids have gaps in their French, caused simply because they don’t hear the adult version, since Donn and I speak English in the house.
Language is a funny thing. All the nuances of communication can be lost even between two native speakers—how much more where one or more is communicating as one swims for the first time in deep water, floundering, getting much but missing more, unable to relax. Small words change meaning completely. When I speak with this family, we communicate (I should put this in quotes) in a funny mish-mash of Arabic, English, and gesture. Mostly gesture.
For example, arranging this appointment. I spoke with the receptionist at the clinic on the phone, and she told me how happy she was that I was there for her to talk with. We arranged a time, and then I was able to tell them, in Arabic, “Tuesday at 4:30.” I repeated this about 14 times, because such is the level of our communication.
“Mauritanians don’t speak Arabic,” the father tells us as we stumble around with our limited Hassiniya, which is the Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania. We try out a proverb that we know in both Hassiniya and Dareja, the Moroccan dialect, but they don’t understand either, so we give up and go back to discussing days of the week and numbers, which are the same in all 3 dialects.
I really don’t want to eat a plateful of salty, greasy fried eggs with my hands at 10:00 in the morning, not that long after I had a bowl of healthy cereal and a large cup of really strong coffee (black). But I do. I dig in, tearing off bits of thin wheat flatbread and segments of American cheese (known in our house as plastic cheese, because of both its wrapping and flavour). I sip at sweet black tea, a tiny glass brimming with hot tea with about 4 teaspoons of sugar stirred in. It is so over-the-top that I start an instant sugar headache.
I’m not losing any weight these days.
What I am doing is working with an organization that assists newly arrived Iraqi refugees. Who knew there were so many of them in the Portland area? Within about 3 miles of my house, there are over 30 families in various stages of culture shock, possession of the English language, and basic, overall adjustment. And I need to respect them, and their culture. I am helping them and they are returning the favor as best they can, by feeding me. I am their guest, so they must feed me. I know the rules, unspoken but binding, and so I eat eggs and cheese even though I’m not in the least bit hungry.
I am sitting in a spotless but mostly empty apartment. This family has only beds, one couch, a table and some mismatched chairs to their names, yet every day that carpet is vacuumed when I arrive. The 13 year old son goes out in a t-shirt, and his father tells me he’s always hot—the truth is he doesn’t have a coat yet. The 12 year old daughter wears sandals through the sodden puddles of a bitter November day.
I have been helping them get their kids registered in school, a process made more complicated by the fact that they don’t speak English or French, and my Arabic is minimal and from a completely different part of the world. The first day, we registered the 15 year old and the 13 year old at a middle school, but the next day the school phones me and asks to set up an appointment with an interpreter; they are going to put the 15 year old in high school, and move the 12 year old up to middle school. When I tell the children this, they get incredulous grins. “Me…high school?” says the boy. When I say yes, he gives me a huge smile then asks again, just to make sure he got it right.
So on Wednesday, we all set off—6 kids, 2 parents, and me—and arrived only 20 minutes late for our appointment, which I considered a job well done.
Now I’m going to back up a minute. You might remember how, here and here, and kind of here, I was sort of griping about the American schools. I haven’t become their biggest fan, but I’m definitely doing better. I was impressed, at parent-teacher conferences several weeks ago, how well the teachers actually knew my kids, and how much they are doing to push them in the right direction. (Sorry, my diction is off. I meant “how much they are encouraging them to reach their full potential.” Now wouldn’t that sound better on a website?)
But this meeting. There’s the refugee family and the interpreter and me and the counselor and ESL coordinator, all in a windowless room with brightly-coloured posters and industrial table and chairs. The counselor starts off. He gestures widely. “Please tell them,” he says to the interpreter, “how very happy we are that they are here. We hope they will feel welcome. They are safe here. We want to help each of them succeed at learning and becoming who they want to be.”
The whole meeting has this tone. It comes out that the children haven’t really ever gone to school, except the 15 year old who only went to grades 1 and 2. With the war, it just wasn’t safe. The parents were worried about roadside bombs, shootings, kidnappings, and kept their kids home. Every night their sleep was disturbed. Every day the father was threatened because he worked security for an American company.
The interpreter is an Arabic woman who lived in France for several years, and you can tell from her outlook. “So they know nothing,” she tells the counselor, somewhat dismissively. “They can’t even read and write in Arabic. They will have to start at the beginning.” I suppress a tiny grin at this. I know my cultures a bit, and this way of expressing things reflects her background perfectly. I suppress another grin as the school counselor tells the kids, “It will be overwhelming at first but don’t worry—soon you’ll get it and we will make it as fun as possible.” I doubt that “having fun at school” is a concept they’ve been introduced to before.
Throughout the whole (long) meeting, the school expresses hope, that learning can happen and that it can be fun. The kids are all given new backpacks stuffed with school supplies, and the 6 year old just freezes onto her backpack, too overwhelmed to even smile. “Does she like it?” asks the school secretary, and I assure her. I doubt this child has ever had anything like this pink Disney princess backpack to call her own before, much less the brand-new packs of crayons and pencils inside it.
Everyone is welcoming and reassuring. It can’t be easy, taking in older children who don’t read or write English and don’t know math or science or history and hoping to get them through high school in a semi-timely manner, but you wouldn’t know it from how they smile, how they effuse, how they make comments like “You can just tell they are bright kids.” They have researched their files to find other students who speak Arabic, who can help the kids adjust. They are pulling in all the resources they can to help with ESL and math tutoring and everything that will be needed.
And in my cantankerous grumpy old heart, I’m glad. Oh sure, one can complain at the excess of self-esteem classes, and I do and will continue to do so. But the belief that each child can succeed is going to go a long way with this family.
Part Two: Choosing a Port
Aside: read part one here, should you feel so inclined.
At our first meeting, our shipping agent leans in confidingly. “I counsel you not to put hashish in your container,” he tells us. We agree not to, after sharing a highly amused glance. “Good advice,” says Donn seriously. Then we talk about ports.
Now one thing that is quite intuitive about a city named Portland is that it has a port. It is not a misnomer. Port-land has a fine port, right downtown and a little north.
But, says the agent, he can’t ship to Portland. You give him a zip code, which originally was all he needed, he said, but he takes you to his computer and shows you on a map—there are no little stars in Portland, and he can’t ship there. He suggests Seattle.
You don’t want Seattle. For one, the container will then have to be trucked to Portland. Your shipping agent says it will have to be tracked, and it takes you ages to figure out what he means. When speaking another language, it’s always the vowels that will do you in. You agree to Seattle eventually, but keep pushing Portland. And that’s where matters rest until you go in with all your Most Official paperwork and things have to move beyond the theoretical.
You sit in the empty office with the high chair and the interesting mold patches spread across an entire empty wall, and the agent shows you a copy of an email quoting a price to have the container shipping to New York and then trucked across the entire United States. “But we don’t want New York,” you comment.
No, he agrees. And that price is no good, he tells you. The price for the trucking (“tracking”) is more than getting it across the ocean from Casa to New York. “Much too expensive,” he says. He purses his lips and shakes his head.
“White,” he says, so you do. You wait. Eventually he returns with a printed Google map of the Western United States. There are little marks by Seattle, Oakland and Long Beach. “But we can’t do Seattle,” he tells you.
Why not, you whine, although you have promised yourself you will not whine, even when you keep covering the same ground over and over again. There is no reason. They just can’t. He suggests New York again. In fact, one might say, he pushes New York.
You do not agree to New York. New York is very far from Portland, you explain. You use hand gestures. You talk in kilometers. He agrees. “No, no, that’s no good for you,” he says. He disappears again. You “white.”
After a while he comes back. “So, about New York,” he begins.
Eventually you leave. You have agreed that the container will be shipped to Seattle. Demoralized, you have entirely given up on the idea of Portland. Seattle is fine. Fine. So much better than the East Coast, or even California.
In the morning, you have an email waiting for you from the shipping agent, telling you that the container will need to go to New York after all. It’s not his fault—he can’t find anyone who can ship things to the West Coast. “Or Norfolk, Virginia,” he suggests, but Virginia is as bad as New York.
“I don’t think he’s ever shipped anywhere else,” you groan.
Your husband calls him. “Seattle!” he insists. “Or at least Oakland.” You reach a new agreement, which lasts until the day the container is actually on its way from Casa to your house in Rabat. “It’s going to New York,” says the shipping agent on the phone. “Right,” says Donn. “Just cancel it. Forget it.”
But no. No, no, no. He will do his best for you. He understands that New York is not good for you. You are not opening a business; you are just shipping your household items. He will work on it.
Seattle. We have chosen Seattle. The ship is going to Seattle. Our stuff is going to Seattle.
Apparently the ship “siyled” a couple of days ago. We called and emailed Wednesday with our intention to go down today to get the bill of lading. (Note to those who have not shipped things internationally: you need this to get your stuff out of port at the other end.) He wrote back. “Ok! Come tomorrow (Thursday)!” We wrote back. “We’ll be there at 9:30,” we said.
So at 9:40, we arrived. He wasn’t there. The secretary called him and handed us the phone. “Have you had breakfast yet?” he said hopefully, obviously wanted us to go sit in a café for half an hour and not rush him. “Yes,” we said.
He arrived a little after 10. After much evasiveness, we established that the bill of lading was not ready yet but we could come back on Saturday. No, we can’t, we said. This was supposed to be our last trip to Casa. We have other things we need to get done.
Finally, he agreed that we could come back at 2. “Ok, we’ll see you at 2 to get the bill of lading,” we confirmed. “Maybe call me ahead of time,” he said. “Or we’ll just come at 2 to get the bill of lading,” we said. It was 11 a.m. at this point—just 3 short hours from the appointed time.
You already know what’s coming. I’ll cut it short. The agent came back, relaxed after a leisurely lunch and still chewing, at 2:30, and then he started to get the bill of lading ready. Donn emerged, triumphant, with 3 copies of it, just a little before 4:00
But it’s going to Seattle. And that bill of lading states the contents, and number one is: books.
Coming soon: Part Three, Fun With Bureaucracy
Hi. My name is Ms. Nomad and I’ll be your guide on this trip through the twisted bowels and darkest depths that comprise shipping your things and moving from Morocco.
Part One: Your Shipping Agent and You
Begin by choosing your shipping agent. You can do this by asking a friend who moved a year ago for a name and number. This will land you with a young man in jeans and tight shirts who speaks English less well than he believes, who will nonetheless want to conduct all your interactions in English (which, fair play, is his 4th language), and you will be in for a merry-go-round of failed communication.
The agent will begin by telling you what papers you will need. We will cover these in part three, so let’s just assume you’ve already lost a couple weeks of your life and have the papers now. It’s time to go back to his office, just outside Casa, one Monday morning. He’ll put you in an empty office with a really really tall chair that collapses down when you wriggle and sort of hop up into it. There you will begin the various rounds of negotiations about things you thought were settled on the last visit, when you sat interminably in the same office.
You might say, for example, “We’d like the container to come the 27th.”
“Ok,” he will agree. “Whenever you like.”
You will think, surely this is not right. Surely he should now say, ‘Well there’s a ship this day and this day so choose.” But instead, he smiles and nods and agrees. You move on. 20 minutes later, he asks you what date you want. “Well, the 27th, we said…” you flounder.
“Sure, sure,” he agrees. “White just a minute.” He disappears. You sit. You sit some more. You wonder why so few Moroccan offices have air conditioning. You ponder the irony of how so many Oregonians have air-conditioning while living in a temperate climate, and so few Moroccans and Mauritanians, living in heat and humidity, do. You sit some more. You have fun staring at the pattern of mold patches on the wall, seeing continents and islands and oceans as yet unmapped. You sit some more. After a while, you give up on keeping your husband amused and pull out a book, feeling a bit rude, but not much.
Eventually he returns, with a piece of paper with two dates on it. Neither is the 27th. “You have to choose,” he says, jabbing his finger at it. “What about the 27th? Like you said?” you begin, but you are waved aside. These are actual boats, actual sailing dates, so we choose one, and he gently but firmly guides us towards the other. “Choice” apparently has a slightly different meaning when English is your 4th language. This means that instead of having the 8 days we’d thought we had to pack our house, we have 2. Fortunately “Captain Stress,” as Donn is affectionately known in our family, has started packing far too early—or right on time as it turns out. I’ll never hear the end of this.
He disappears again, only to reappear to rehash the date—the one we’ve settled twice now.
Next he turns to your packing list. “It’s good, it’s fine,” he says. “But, what are CDs?” You explain. “And all these boxes of books?” Um yeah. Between Ilsa and I, not to mention everybody else, we have boxes and boxes and boxes of books. Like, um, over 40 or so. But, let me hasten to add, that these are small boxes, since books are heavy, and also that many of them are Donn’s big photo books. Many, I tell you.
But the agent is mystified. Why do so many lines of the list say, simply, “livres”? What are these livres? Is it normal to have so many? He doesn’t seem to think so.
The book in my purse helps. “I like to read,” I say. “We all do.” I pull out the book and wave it at him. “Ah, romans,” he says (novels). “Ok ok. I told the guy at the port you were nice people. No problems.”
Coming soon: Part Two, Choosing a Port
Over the past, oh 20 years or so, I’ve fallen into the habit of getting my hair cut only about twice a year, sometimes less. At first I like it, then I get sick of it, then I decide to grow it out, then I decide I look frumpy, then I get it cut again. That’s because no matter what I do to it, by the end of the day it looks the same. It will always be curly. It looks best medium length, with some layers. It’s boring. I buy mousse and shampoos marketed at curly hair, and I believe they make a difference although my husband, who is bald, is not convinced.
My last visit to the coiffeuse was in June, so my hair had gotten quite long. And by long I mean past my shoulders by a few inches. Remember, curly. Yeah. But since it was a grow-out of a shorter cut, it needed to be shaped and trimmed, I felt.
I pondered my hair at odd times. I was in a taxi on my way downtown, sitting next to the taxi driver, “When I Need You” playing on the radio station that plays obscure English songs. Incredibly, the taxi driver started singing along.
Should I go back to Madame and her little local salon, where it’s less expensive but seems somewhat limited? Or should I splurge and go to a more Westernized place, in hope of getting something different than the standard cut? “Wen I neeeeed luf! I just close mi EEEYYYYYEEESSS…” warbles the taxi driver, like he’s trying to be the Rabat version of a Venetian gondolier. I decide to try the more Westernized salon, for a change.
Since I go so rarely, I tend to forget the vocabulary, so I spent some time doing research ahead of time. I reminded myself of the word for layers, and how to explain how much my hair shrinks when dry, and how to explain that if my hair is all one length it will form a sort of tangled triangle.
I show up on time, and the woman looks vague but then remembers my appointment. “Madame Jeness?” she says. I nod. One of the fun things about taking a common name like Jones overseas is that it becomes exotic. My kids used to be so amazed, reading books, when the lady down the street was named Mrs. Jones. “Like us!” they used to exclaim in excitement, while I would roll my eyes.
I had specifically asked for just a shampoo and cut, declining to pay extra for the dubious pleasure of having my hair styled and sprayed into a stiff bouffant version of its former self that would only last till the next day anyway. I carefully explained what I wanted, using all my new-found vocabulary strength.
She shampooed my hair, settled me in a chair and away she went! About half way through, I knew that this was not what I had asked for. Moments like this leave me puzzled. Is it that my French is just not understandable? Was I having an off day? Or did she not really listen? Or, even, was this just her version of the standard cut?
At the end, she re-shampooed my hair (not sure why) and blew it dry so that I wouldn’t have to catch my death of pneumonia by daring to walk outside on a 70-degree day with damp hair. It was kind of her. I liked her. She added a bit of gel to give the curls a bit of definition, and we were done.
She did a good job, I’ll give her that. And it’s not the same cut that Madame does, I’ll give her that too. It was professionally done, nicely thinned, the shrinkage of the curl allowed for. I even like it. It looks fine.
But it’s not what I asked for.
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