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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.

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.)

I feel that I am getting to know Spanish public transportation. I’ve now been to Spain twice, neither time with a car, although I would like to point out that the entry paperwork I was required to fill out at the Madrid airport included a lot of information about what vehicles I was or was not bringing with me. I found that bizarre. Do a lot of people fly their cars into Spain for the weekend? Or ever? And don’t tell me that Americans have long been famous for their love affair with the automobile–everyone had to fill these out, not just Americans.

Back to the public transportation. Overall, I would have to say that it’s quite impressive. Buses are big, with plushy, comfortable seats, and high, like Greyhound buses in America. There’s a digital display of the time and outside temperature, and a “fasten seatbelt” sign that flashes most of the time, although I didn’t see anyone who complied.

And then there’s the music. Oddly enough, it’s 80s music; all 80s music. “Thriller,” “Maniac,” “Because the Night Belongs to Lovers.” I find myself, as each new song starts, thinking, “Ok I recognize this…it’s…uh…” and then my brain starts singing along. All these songs from jr high and high school, burning their way inexorably into my brain. “We are the world  (we are the world); we are the children (we are the children),” I found myself humming today, 3 days later. Spanish scenery rolls past the window to the sounds of Madonna and Michael Jackson and George Michael and Blondie. It’s odd to think of the soundtrack of my adolescence playing itself out, endlessly, as the Spanish buses roll round and round their assigned routes and my life goes on in quite another direction.

We took buses a lot this weekend. We also discovered the Madrid subway system. Again, impressive. All was clean and bright and punctual, including our fellow passengers. No one was drunk, or swearing, or muttering, or had open sores. (I used to take Portland public transportation a lot, in case in you can’t tell. I did wonder what a Spanish person’s reaction would be to Tri-Met bus #19, Division St., which Donn and I took last year, on which we saw some scary people. Donn said to me, “It makes you wonder about democracy when you realize that these people can vote!” Luckily for the future of the free world, chances are good they forgot their medication on election day.)

We even discovered the elusive “every half hour” bus that we‘ve been told about on both visits. Apparently it is ready and willing to be caught Mondays through Fridays, or “lunes” through “viernes” as they like to put it. (It‘s like those Spanish have a different word for EVERYTHING.) (stolen and adapted from Steve Martin).

Our guesthouse was in a place called, I believe, Zarazuela. We didn’t realize that it needed to be lisped, just like “thinco” and “Barthelona.”  As a result, although we KNEW we needed bus 224, the driver was convinced that we didn’t. No, he didn’t go to Zarazuela, he was sure of it. If only we’d realized that we wanted to go to TharaThwala, we could have spent less time sitting, bereft and depressed, and of course cold, by the side of the freeway. (More on this later)

We took several Moroccan trains too. I have written before of the Moroccan trains, and the curious fact that they have not seen fit to adequately label their stations. I think they feel that everyone already knows this is Ain Sebaa, or Sidi Kacem not Sidi Yahyia, so why bother put up a big sign? Perhaps they feel that would be showing off. So when the train stops at Ain Sebaa, and actually cuts the engine, the only people left on the upper level of the second class car are the Nomad family and 2 other Americans, all of us looking at each other and saying, “Do you think this is it?” It must be, I pointed out. All the Moroccans have already de-trained. The only ones left are foreigners.

Sitting backwards, I startle as the ground falls away in front of me. I see a cliff face looming downwards towards a gorge by the time my brain has registered the fact that we are halfway across a narrow bridge. I watch, slightly nauseated, as sheep and cows and green fields and buildings appear and instantly dwindle to nothing. Around me people sleep and chat and stare into space. From a passing food trolley, I buy a packet of chips for Elliot , whom I happen to be sitting next to on this leg of the trip. It’s 3:30 by this point (4:30 Spanish time), and we haven’t had lunch.

We left on a cold rainy Saturday and returned on Monday afternoon to brilliant sunlight and warm air, which have continued through today. When we come from the train, we walk a block to one of our favorite chwarma restaurants. Even though it’s 5 p.m., we enjoy a late lunch in the crisp afternoon air. It feels like spring.

I’m getting to the pictures…

A bomb exploded in Madrid on Monday morning. I have never been in the same city at the same time as a bomb before, and I have to say the experience was profoundly peripheral. I wouldn’t even have known about the bomb if I hadn’t been sitting, shortly after 9 a.m., eating bacon and eggs in a little café in the suburb of Torrejon, staring at a wall TV and wondering if “una bomba” meant bomb or something else, something more boring everyday, possibly to do with firefighting. (I had just learned “bombero” the previous day when a fire-engine wailed by). It kept scrolling along the bottom of the screen, “estella una bomba” or something like that, “blah blah blah Juan Carlos I.” I didn’t even have a phrase book with me.

Perhaps I shouldn’t begin my story at the end. “Begin at the beginning,” the King tells Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “go to the end. Then stop.” So I should perhaps go back a bit, to a rainy Saturday morning in Rabat. The kids are grumpy at not being allowed to sleep in, and I’m already regretting my decision to wear light-colored pants as I notice a mud splatter on the back of my calves. The children are shocked and amazed at how light we are packing, but we are flying the misnamed “easy jet” (heretofore to be known as Complicated Jet…I’ll get to that), and they only allow you one carry-on per person. Since we are planning to do a fair amount of shopping in Spain, we take one change of clothing, our toothbrushes, and not much else. Ilsa is stunned to be told she can only bring one book; she brings a 750 page book and frets the entire time that she is nearly finished, although she isn’t.

Have you got the picture now? Are you in mode, to follow the Nomad family on yet another trip? A friend kindly drops us off at the station, and we take the train to Casablanca, scattering ourselves throughout a crowded car so only two of us are sitting next to each other.

At the airport, everything is fine. We’ve arrived in good time. The train station is located at the airport, which I think is brilliant–it’s so convenient. We buy sandwiches in an airport café but the kids are still hungry.

Boarding the plane presents no problem. At first I like “easy” jet. The plane is new and clean and orange and white, with average leg room. I don’t mind them not providing any snacks because they have low prices; you can fly Casa to Madrid for less than 30 euros, for example.

“I hope the plane lands and then bounces and then lands again,” announced Abel, but he was sadly disappointed. It was a quick, uneventful flight. We made our way through the Madrid airport. We had arranged to stay in a guesthouse on the outskirts of Madrid–a suburb called Torrejon–and we knew we needed to take a bus. It took us a while to find the bus stop, and then we bought and devoured a pastry so that we’d have change for the bus. Eventually we went out and settled ourselves at the bus stop.

It was 8 degrees celcius.

Last time we were in Spain, we heard of the elusive “every half hour bus.” This time, yet again, we were told by the lady at the guesthouse of a bus that left every 30 minutes. But it was Saturday. The bus comes once an hour on Saturdays, it turns out. Of course we’d just missed it! You know us by now! We sat there on the cold concrete bench for 55 minutes before that nice warm plushy bus arrived. Meanwhile, a slew of other buses, going other places, came every 5 minutes…

…to be continued.

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!

Spanish drivers are among the most courteous in the world. I’m pretty sure this is true and not just a reaction to learning to survive the chaotic Moroccan streets. In Tarifa, as soon as we got anywhere near a crosswalk, they would skid to a halt and wait until our feet were back on the pavement on the other side before moving. It was very bizarre, and it took us some time to get used to it. Cars would slow down as we stood at the crosswalk, but we didn’t dare step into the street until they had come to a complete stop and were impatiently waving at us to get on with it.
Now that we are back in Rabat,  we realize we’ve lost a bit of our hard-won edge. We’re not quite as quick at crossing as we were; we have reverted to expecting people to honor crosswalks at least a little bit. It’s not good. I came within inches of being hit by a car the other day.
Other than that, Spain is receding rapidly into the distance, barely visible even in the rear-view mirror of the mind. It was relaxing while it lasted. But dealing with stories of workers who don’t even bother to show up for days, delaying the time I can emerge again above ground and unpack at least a few more suitcases, hasn’t done much for my mood. I suppose I should be happy I don’t have to deal with the workers myself.
The original date to move out of the basement was last Friday. Then it got moved to Monday. Now it’s, maybe, next Friday. Insha’allah, as they say in these parts. In the meantime, we’re eating very well and feeling very stressed. In my dreams we are always, constantly, travelling, drinking coffee in restaurants while glancing at our watches, rising to go, surrounded by luggage. In my dreams, my feet ache.
One of the things I love about living overseas is how international the world becomes. Although in this era of easy global travel and headlines from around the world we know our world in shrinking, it’s still easy in our home countries at least to surround ourselves with those that look, sound, and relate to the world just as we do. In fact, you have to work at it in order to avoid this. That is obviously impossible for Americans living in Morocco, where your taxi-driver will want to discuss the recent election and you can get onto topics ranging from abortion rights to the Iraq War to the Israeli-Palestinian tension in the time it takes to get to the store. Ilsa’s two closest friends so far are a Moroccan girl and a German girl. Elliot has a Spanish boy in his class who spent the last 5 years in New York and a Moroccan friend who just moved back here from Korea.
On our way to Spain, we stopped in to see some friends who are Canadian-Korean. Ilsa spent the night in their daughter’s room.
“She’s only 8, and she can already read in FOUR languages,” said Ilsa to me in hushed, admiring tones. “I’m 11 and I can only read two.” I nodded, thinking of my own monolingual childhood.
We are currently living with a Korean family; Korean-Korean, as they say, as opposed to Korean-Canadian or Korean-American. English is their third language. “Tank you papa,” says their six-year-old sweetly as he pours her juice; it‘s one of her few English phrases. For lunch today, we wrapped purple rice in thin strips of salty seaweed, and crunched down tiny whole fish that were crispy, sweet and spicy all at once. They were so good that you didn’t think about the eyes and heads, just about how the sesame seeds and sugar and soy and hot peppers were mingling and dancing on your tongue.
We can’t offer them money in exchange for more than doubling their family size for more than a week, we’ve learned. That would insult them, make them very angry. I imagine it being as if I invited some friends over for supper and they tried to pay me for my efforts. But it’s hard negotiating the unspoken lines between cultures. Donn was helping our hostess with some prep work she needed to do for her art (she’s an artist). “You can go and relax; I‘ll do it,” he told her. “I don’t know how to relax,” she replied, in total seriousness. In the meantime, I spend far too much of my time lying on my bed in this little room, hiding out, reading and typing, my way of staving off depression. (I also house-hunt and visit people and do laundry; I’m not actually a vegetable) She and I drink coffee together and talk; we are learning each other’s pasts. The twins have begun taek-won-do class with her husband.
We’re surviving, here in the basement. We enjoy our hosts; we love their food and their gracious hospitality even as we struggle with guilt for all the extra work we are giving them.
But oh, how we long for this waiting to be over, for the cases to be unpacked, for the feet to stop aching.

I’m wondering if I should ever post again. The longer I go without posting, the more comments I get on my last post. My comment number is now impressively high for me (and yes, I realize it isn’t for most of you. Whatever). The comments are also long and thoughtful, and I am planning a follow-up post that incorporates a lot of them.
I have been working on my book this week, the one I was going to write this year and haven’t actually gotten around to, although I have a few chapters now. (The title of this post is actually the title of the chapter I just finished. It’s about my experiences at the University, as I’m sure long-time readers have already guessed.)
This is the worst possible time to work on it, of course. We are hoping to celebrate Donn’s parents 50th anniversary in California this summer, and the best time to go is the first two weeks of June. That means that we have 2 ½  weeks to finish school, and about 5 weeks worth of school to finish in that time (more in Spanish and Arabic). So we’re a little stressed.
Ok make that a lot stressed. The kids are really looking forward to doing school on Saturdays, as am I, but insha’allah this will pay off when we are FINISHED. Oh how I want to be finished with this correspondence course. I will never do this again. I am in awe of all of you who home school. It sure hasn’t worked for us. I suspect that I am the reason for this; I’m thinking of adding “Failed Homeschooler” to my resume. I keep praying that maybe it could be April again, and that I could just have another, extra month to do everything in. Wouldn’t that be helpful? It would for me; I don’t know about you.
It was a busy week in other ways as well. All our friends are kicking into the “wait! You’re leaving soon!” mode and inviting us out for dinner, so I would like to ask all of you to please quit posting about dieting and losing weight. It depresses me.
I took Abel to see the doctor this week. He’s not sick, although he has had this rash for a while now. It didn’t seem like anything to me, so it was a bit disturbing when the doctor said it was a bacterial infection and put him on antibiotics. The main reason we were there was so that the doctor could sign a health form, required for their new school. Of course the form was in French, which I obligingly translated. He wasn’t thrilled, but he agreed to sign it.
Life is going to be crazy for a while. I’m trying to figure out another trip to see my mother, but am worried as I don’t see how I take any time off with the kids’ school. Evenings are booked, although I’m willing to cancel here and there if it means I can go see her. But the problem is, of course, CNED. So don’t worry if you hear from me only sporadically.
And of course, I may be stressed, but some people have real problems. I can’t believe the news out of Burma (or Myanmar, depending on your news source) and China.  Keeps it all in perspective for me. We may weep real tears over Arabic (Question: Why is Arabic the language of heaven? Answer: Because it takes an eternity to learn), but it’s a much nicer problem to have than losing your family and everything you possess to the overwhelming waters.

I have never taken a Spanish class or studied it. When I realized I would be teaching it to the twins this year I figured I might pick up a little myself along the way. And I have! What I didn’t realize is what musical careers it would open up to me.
I understood every word of this. Which isn’t remarkable, considering I’ve had about the equivalent of one semester myself, but it did make me happy.
Truly, language opens up a whole new world.

I did write Starbucks, and complain. So far, no response. I’ll let you know what happens.

And, for those of you who wrote that I looked nothing like how you’d pictured me, don’t feel bad. I don’t look like how I would picture myself either. Thin, dark, angular face–that is how I feel. But my blonde Dutch-German father and love of chocolate pretty much took care of that.

Yes, that is a word. English is a live language, and as such is continually growing and changing. Take it up with the Oxford English Dictionary if you must.

Today’s topic was inspired by Veronica, who posted on ways she is a snob. I could relate to her post, but I cringed at her number 5, about people who use foreign expressions when an English one would do. Because that is my life.
It’s not my fault. That is to say, nobody forced me to move overseas and have to start trying to think in another language, but I’m not TRYING to be pretentious and impress people. I can’t help it. Sometimes I just can’t think of the English word.
Several weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about CNED (the kids’ schooling). “We finally got Elliot’s…uh…etiquettes,” I told her. I couldn’t think of the English word for etiquette. She tried to help me. Behaviour? Etiquette?
No, no, I waved my hands. “They’re…sticky things…”
“Stickers? Like for work well done?”
This made me laugh. The French don’t do stickers. I kept trying, and finally came up with the word “LABELS.” He had gotten his labels, that he puts on the work he sends back.
She was very patient and I think realized I was being a dork, rather than a schmuck. But it wasn’t so apparent the night Donn and I celebrated our anniversary several years ago.
We’d just come back from spending 10 months in France, and we went out to a nice restaurant for a special treat. The waiter was very helpful, answering questions with “A lot of people are saying the salmon is nice tonight,” or “Several have mentioned they especially enjoyed the crème brulee.” We ordered an appetizer that promised a French cheese. This was before we learned the sad truth that once you have lived or even been to France and eaten the cheese there, all other cheese will ever after be a sad letdown, a mere whisper of what a cheese might have been, and you will move through life discontent, groping for happiness, bemused, like men kissed by goddesses in dreams. And, since this was a once-a-year-if-then restaurant, the appetizer cost something ridiculous like $10 and we split it. And the cheese was rubbery. (I know now that it’s always rubbery, outside of France)
So when the waiter asked how was everything, I felt compelled to actually tell him. I usually don’t do this sort of thing, but I said, “I’ve noticed how often you’ve told me about other’s reactions to things, and it seems you really want feedback.” Lest I seemed to be setting myself up as some sort of pretentious cheese expert, I explained that we’d just been living in France, where we’d eaten rather a lot of cheese, not to mention pastries. I was trying to add colour, to show, not just tell, like they tell you to.
Soon, he came back. He said, “I always tell the chef people’s comments, and he usually rolls his eyes and says they’re wrong, but he tasted the cheese and said you were right. So I took it off your bill.”
Donn said, “Quick! Say something negative about the salmon!”
Then it came time to pay. Donn handed the waiter a credit card, then called him back. “Oh I forgot! I just put our plane tickets to Africa on that one–use this one!” Then I think we both blushed.
Could we have been any more obnoxious? It’s hard to think how. No, we were schmucks, even though we didn’t mean to be. It doesn’t help that it’s all true, not in a yuppie jet-setting sort of way, just in a normal work overseas sort of way.
So yesterday morning, when I was telling Nancy about The Candy Shop in Nouakchott and I said, “And they even have…uh…barbe a papa…what is that?” and Elliot looked up from his work and said, “Cotton candy,” I knew I was being a schmuck. I couldn’t help it.
My name is Nomad; I am a schmuck.
But what is English for goudron again?

An unusual chance to actually use my own computer during the day–a power outage! Elliot can’t do his schoolwork as we can’t get online, so I’m snatching a moment to type before the battery dies.
The house is dark and cold, except for near the gas fire. It’s not exactly quiet–Abel is asking me a question and Elliot and I are doing Arabic, which requires only the CD player on the computer rather than the internet. Right now, he’s listening to a list of 10 words, deciding where the (hamza) occurs; at the beginning or in the middle.
Even though CNED (our French home school/correspondence course) continues to stress and challenge us, I do have to admit it’s very well organized–just what I would expect from the French, actually.
The twins are in CM2 this year, which roughly corresponds to Grade 5. I paid 101 euros each (approximately $150) for the entire year, and that includes all their books. For each subject, and there are 8 of them (French, Math, Science, History-Geography, Art, Music, Spanish, and Civic Education), they got a workbook, a teacher’s book which includes corrections, and a folder of exams. Each course has a certain number of units which are further divided into a day’s work, so that each day they will do, for example, Unit 3 day 1. They do anywhere from 1 to 4 pages of exercises, then they correct them. At the end of each unit, they take a test, which is sent to France. A teacher there corrects it, adds comments, and sends it back.
They have CD’s for Spanish and French and Music, and they have to take oral exams, record them on audio cassettes, and send them back as well.
Elliot’s course is online, but he still has books. He follows the same idea; he does 10 days of work, then takes a test which he sends back. Turn around time is about 2-3 weeks. He can also call or email questions, and there’s an online forum of questions already asked. In Math he’s measuring angles; in Music he’s doing the Romantic period; in History and French they’re studying the Greco-Roman period and he’s reading the Odyssey this year.
Their books are full color and attractive, full of little cartoon illustrations, including lines from Asterix. Elliot’s French book is full of art–photos of works of Bernini’s sculptures, Chagall’s and Waterhouse’s paintings, etc. It’s very well done.
It also continues to consume hours and hours of my time. Our learning curve continues to be steep. We’ve learned that Abel needs supervision and prodding; left to do his work at his yellow student desk in his own room, he tends to stare at the poster of General Grievous, or watch the rain falling on the street outside, rather than actually work. We’ve moved him downstairs. Ilsa flies through her work so that she can read, but needs to slow down and work more carefully. Elliot is an oldest child who wants to be a history professor; of course he is very motivated, serious, but he gets frustrated because he likes to have a teacher to explain things in detail, and he misses working with his friends. I’m sure their regular teachers already knew this about them; in fact, I already knew this about them, but I’m used to only dealing with it on a level of evening homework, not daily work.
We have a deadline in June. If we miss it, we lose the whole year. We started 6 weeks late, and we’ve already made up 2 weeks. Hopefully by Christmas we‘ll be just 2 weeks behind. It’ll mean a busy couple of weeks, and the power outage today didn’t help, but I think we can do it. We’ll get all caught up by the end of February, when French kids get a 2 week vacation we won’t take.
Now the power’s back on. It’s been raining nonstop since Saturday afternoon, and there‘s a brand-new baby river at the bottom of our hill. The nearby field has become a swamp. The wind is ferocious, downing trees with weakened roots in the saturated ground. It was a lovely day to stay inside and wonder if we shouldn’t go buy some candles (we didn’t), and then, later, to venture out in hoods and scarves to the local library. We’re set now for a hundred storms, as long as we have light to read by.
Except that we have no time! *#@#$ home school!

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