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Since I have such a bad habit of never finishing my accounts of our travel, I’ve decided to do this one backwards. How will that help? you ask. Because we’ve gone to Morocco and Mauritania 3 times now in the past 6 years, and I’ve never finished an account of a trip yet. In fact, I never told you the two funniest parts of the 2013 trip. Maybe I will do so now.
Funniest Thing #1: Moh is in many ways a typical Mauritanian man; generous to a fault, proud yet insecure about his country. No matter what we said, he tried to out-do it. We were telling him about how we now live in Oregon, which is known for its tree-huggers. We know, of course, that this is a metaphor. Oregonians don’t typically actually hug trees. But he was not to be outdone. “I love trees so much, I kiss them!” he announced, going up and kissing a tree.
Funniest Thing #2: We had just finished tea on the dunes with Aicha and were heading back into town. It was after 11. Elections were coming up, and we began to see the familiar tents and men in voluminous white and pale blue robes gathering in them. (Here is a post about Mauritanian elections) We turned onto another road and found ourselves behind a truck with a loudspeaker. As we drove, the people in the truck turned on the loudspeaker and began to broadcast a song extolling their candidate’s virtues. Frustrated, Aicha glanced at the clock. “It’s only 11:30,” she fumed. “Elections don’t open until midnight! They don’t have the right to disturb people until after midnight!”
On this most recent trip, we went once again to the dunes to drink tea. The weather was pleasant, even a little cool at midnight as we stumbled in the moonlight to the top of a small dune at the edge of town. Here’s a picture of the herd of camels who were right next to us, silent shapes in the gloaming, until the headlights of a car turning around caught them in its beam.
We’ve been back 2 weeks now. We’re over jet lag, and we’re mostly recovered from traveling for an entire month. We visited friends in 3 countries, were served everything from exquisite cheeses to couscous in rancid butter, wine in stemware to camel’s milk in wooden bowls. In many ways, the month flew by. In each country, the time was too short to see everyone we wanted to see. But it’s good to be home.
So yes, this is still happening. This is the last day of that trip we took to Thailand, oh, 7 months ago or so. I have a bad habit of never finishing my little travelogues. The sad fact is, the only way for me to finish this is to allow myself 7 months. But you don’t care, right? My one day in Korea was in November and I’m writing it up in June, yes, but what difference does it make on the internet whether it’s October or January or November or June? none. None at all.
Warning: I have way too many pictures!
We left Chiang Mai, Thailand, at midnight at Saturday and arrived in Seoul for a long layover at about 7-something Sunday morning, Korean time.We flew out at about 5:45 or so Sunday night, had an 8 hour flight, landed in Vancouver BC, had a 2 hour layover, flew down to Portland, and got in about 4 on Sunday afternoon.
It messed with my mind. And that’s the joy of crossing the International Date Line.
With a 10 hour layover, we knew we had to go into the city, although I do want to take a moment to rave about their airport. They have free showers and nap options, a museum of Korean history, a place to do Korean-themed crafts for free, plus live music to entertain you. When we were on our way to Thailand, it was a string quartet playing Bach. On our way home, it was a boy band in white suits, crooning away. I tried to get pictures but Donn was in Capt Stress mode and wouldn’t let me even pause, so the pictures are too blurry to post. More on Capt Stress’ appearance later. But that airport is fantastic! OH and free 5G wifi.
Donn googled “what to do with a long layover in Seoul” while we were still in Thailand so we were prepared. Then we found that the airport offers a free bus (I know! Amazing! WHY must American airports suck so?) that went to all the sites we were planning to see. However, being us, we opted instead to buy two $10 tickets for the hour-long bus ride downtown and just be on our own. We don’t like tours. We like to explore on our own, although this inevitably means we miss some things and are usually in a rush at the end.
It had been hot and humid in Thailand, but Korea felt like Oregon on a mild November day. Of course we hadn’t brought warm clothes. I was wearing sandals and 3/4 length leggings under a cotton dress, and Donn was wearing jeans and a cotton shirt. I did have a scarf. It was spitting rain and freezing as we wandered through downtown Seoul, stopping at a cafe for a hot drink in a desperate attempt to warm up.
Although admittedly I have a very limited acquaintance with it, I have to say I loved South Korea and hope someday to go back for longer.
Our first stop was the Gyeongbokgung Palace (linked to wiki and including lots of information which I won’t go into here except to mention it was originally built in 1394 and it is right smack in the middle of a very modern city, which makes it even cooler). First we admired the funny hats of the people outside the gate.
Then we watched the changing of the guard. More really great outfits!
We walked into the first courtyard. The palace is built with 3 very grand entrances. One thing I learned on this trip was how very little I actually know about Asian art, architecture, religion, and culture in general. But I guess the Korean palace was purposely designed to be simpler than others throughout the region. There was still a lot going on though. We passed through three very impressive gates into enormous stone courtyards, ending up at the third peering into the throne room.
Then we sort of turned to the left and went through a little wooden doorway and found ourselves in a magic kingdom. Ok not exactly. For one, there were still lots of tourists, and we were still walking on pavement, but the farther we went, the more beautiful the views.
The detailing was fantastic!
There were lots of beautiful wooden buildings, set over water that reflected the autumnal trees, leaves drifting down to add to the palette of various tones on the still grey water.
Eventually, regretfully, we reached the end of the palace, and came out the opposite end.
We asked the guards for directions to our next destination–a neighborhood of art galleries and trendy boutiques tucked amongst ancient alleyways. They gave us directions to a certain point and said, “And then one more ask,” which I found an adorable way of telling me I’d have to find someone else to question at that point.
We wandered past entrancing shops, stopping for the best Bulgogi (a sweet pork dish. I’ve always had it with beef in the US. Seriously amazing) I’ve ever had in the tiny, hole-in-the-wall down-that-ally round-a-corner restaurant, a place with quilts on the back of the chairs and only room for about 20.
Entrance to restaurant. I don’t know if we could even find it again, but it was great! I recommend it, if you’re ever in Seoul. And this is one reason why we don’t like tours; we like to at least have the opportunity to find places like this on our own. Sure you don’t always, but it’s worth a shot.
We came down into an area that reminded me of Chinatown in San Francisco–lots of outside shops selling cheap knick-knacks. I bought socks with the Gangham-style guy for the twins, and a fancy bookmark for a friend of mine who loves Korean culture.
We still had HOURS to get back to the airport, but Donn, rather like Bruce Banner under stress, began to transform before my eyes into his super alter-ego, Captain Stress. Captain Stress looks like Donn, but he possesses incredible powers of Worry and Fuss. He appears at times involving airports, the birth of our firstborn, and car breakdowns in the desert. The problem was, we had to find a bus going to the airport and buy tickets to get on it, and we didn’t have much Korean money and didn’t really want to change as who knows if we’ll ever even go there again? We walked fast, and he refused to let me stop and photograph anything. We still had hours to get back, I pointed out reasonably. We walked through a gorgeous hotel lobby, decorated for Christmas, in hopes of changing money. I used the fanciest toilet in the world. It had push buttons for everything imaginable that you might want from a toilet.
Meanwhile, Capt. Stress was continuing to manifest. We talked to a bus driver but…I forget why, but his bus wasn’t an option. We found our way to a subway station, where there were trains going to the airport, but we were short the equivalent of 25 cents in Korean money. Remember that it was Sunday, and everything was closed. A very kind young man with a black umbrella tried to help us, and practice his English at the same time. I will skip how very complicated everything was, and how we ended up taking a taxi to another subway station where there were actual people working, and how we bought tickets and ran to catch the fast train and made it back to the airport just barely in time, sigh, so he was right, sigh, which was just so lame.
We rushed past the boy band and made it to our gate with enough time to wander round the folk museum. Our flight to Vancouver was not full and we EACH got an entire row in which to stretch out and sleep, which made me wonder if in addition to crossing the International Date Line, we might have crossed the Planetary Time Travel Line and were actually enjoying a bit of 1985. Seriously, planes are always full nowadays. Can you remember the last time you got extra room?
We had two hours in Vancouver, enough time for coffee, and got home at 4 p.m. the same day we left. It took me two full weeks to get over jet lag. And with this very long post, I have finished a travelogue.
Ok I am going to finish my year. It wasn’t all that eventful, really, just that I am verbose. Very very verbose. How did I handle not blogging?
October: or possibly late September. Finally it cools down. It even rains a little bit. We take newly-arrived family to Hood River to visit the orchards. There are tons of them—growing myriad varieties of apples, pears, pumpkins, fantastically-shaped gourds. It’s very beautiful, and they love it. I mean, who wouldn’t?
We all bought some and decorated our houses.
This pumpkin shell is like lace, isn’t it?
We did other things. ESL classes started up again. Every year we get more organized. This is only impressive when you realize that I started the program and that I have no organizational skills whatsoever. I know six year olds who are more organized than I am! However, we have muddled along and now have 4 levels and around 40 students, plus about 30 volunteers driving our students to and from class, watching their children so they can study, greeting them with coffee, teaching or tutoring them. Our students include a group of women in their 50s and 60s who have never really gone to school before. They grew up in the countryside, in villages where education was for boys, and they married young and raised children and grandchildren. Now they are students themselves with notebooks and pens, and very proud of themselves! Their progress is slow, as one would expect, but they view each incremental gain with great satisfaction and never tire of practicing their short sentences on me, and bringing me large platters of dolma and briyani. (I don’t teach their level but they all know me) Last summer, Donn and I ran into an Iraqi man at Fred Meyer’s who told me that my class is “number one for women with PTSD.” I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that our little school has a very homey atmosphere, and these students are thriving, each in her own way. On the other end, we have lawyers and professors and pharmacists who come to our classes as well.
October: Donn and I went to Thailand. I’ll pause and let you imagine all the exclamation points. Thailand has been a place I’ve wanted to go for years and years and years now. We had to go to an international conference and since we were there, we stayed an extra week. It was blissful.
Thailand was therrific! (What is wrong with me?) Just as cool as you think it’s going to be. I consciously decided not to blog it, because I have a bad habit of going into way too much detail and saving the best stories for last and then never finishing the series. Seriously, our last two trips to Mauritania have included many cool things that I never got around to recording.
I was just glancing through my pictures and it’s evident I’m going to stretch this out even further. So let’s take a few moments and just enjoy some of the amusing signs. And this isn’t all. I never did manage to get a picture of the restaurant called “Egg Slut.”
We didn’t eat here, but it was sort of a McDonald’s knock-off, featuring (among other items) the MookMuffin.
Saw a lot of ads for this whitening cream. I understand the concept, but feel the marketing really fell down on this one. A friend told me the tv ads for this feature an actual snail crawling across a woman’s face, leaving it sparkly (slimy) white!
Sadly, all these pictures are of places (or items) I didn’t try. Which would you go for? Tell us in comments.
Well this was the year I basically let the blog die. I only posted 5 times all year, and the last time was in April!
Blogging is basically dead as an art form. Few read, fewer comment. It seems the only ones still going are some sort of niche. But I’ve decided that I’d like to revive the old girl (my blog is a girl. Yours?) after all, and post sporadically about whatever I feel like. So let’s start with me getting you all caught up about last year chez the Nomad family.
2015 was a good year with lots going on. So much, in fact, that I’m going to put this into two posts. See? 2 posts in the first week. I’m off to a great start! In the meantime, here is Jan-Aug.
January: we come home from an afternoon out to find ourselves banned from the kitchen. Ilsa is applying to art schools, and one requires that she draw a bike. Since we live in Oregon where it’s cold and dark by 5, she has put the bike in the kitchen and is lying on the floor, drawing and drinking tea. We are not allowed to bump the bike. We manage to get out cheese and crackers for dinner.
She got in! This was for her first choice, RISD (riz-de), officially known as the Rhode Island School of Design. We’ll get to the implications of this in September.
January also saw a friend from Mauritania visit. It was his first time visiting a Western country. A lot of things were new to him. For example, he had hoped to meet with some local officials, but really didn’t understand how far out he would have needed to schedule something like that. Seat belts were also very new to him. He was a good sport, although I know this had to be like another planet to him.
February is lost to the mists of time, which keep growing thicker with my advancing age. Seriously, I suppose we did something?
March: The twins turned 18. Ilsa always chooses cinnamon rolls for her birthday breakfast. I accidentally doubled the recipe–which makes tons even normally–so we had a million or so cinnamon rolls. The neighbours, random Iraqi friends, and of course the twins were very happy. I use the Pioneer Woman’s recipe, modified to not kill us quite so quickly (i.e. 1% milk instead of whole, half the amount of butter, etc), and with cream cheese frosting instead of that nasty muck she puts on hers.
April, May…I dunno. Life. Stuff. Hiking, visits from people. Oh I dyed my hair red! I’ve always wanted to be a redhead. As I’d suspected, I looked good, but it quickly faded to orange, which didn’t look good. Also I went to Memphis as part of a blog tour for St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. It was a really cool time and I only managed to blog half of it, as is my wont.
June: This is where it gets interesting, as we began the Summer of The Visitors. Seriously, we had out-of-town guests almost nonstop from June through mid-August.
First of all, the twins graduated from high school.
Donn’s family came for graduation, and his parents stayed for a week, which is always a bit like having Archie and Edith from All in the Family to stay. Happily we didn’t have to go camping this time. Donn’s sister Kris, who reads this blog, and her husband came for the first week and then decided to stay for an extra two weeks. They stay in a hotel, so they are very easy visitors. We went down the gorge, ate giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw, ate fresh berries, and did other summery, family-type things, like going to Powells.
Elliot came home for 2 days and then left for a summer in Jordan, where he spent the summer in an intensive language program. This was a government-sponsored scholarship, starting with a day of orientation in DC. When his 6 a.m. flight was cancelled, we waited in line for several hours only to have the airline clerk tell him they couldn’t fly him out till midnight that night, which would mean he’d miss orientation. We agreed, and were leaving the airport while he called the program to let them know. “Unacceptable, soldier!” they told him. (Not really. That is just a line from a Bourne movie.) And they put him on a flight leaving at noon. How? The person working for the airline couldn’t do it. Only the government. (Cue creepy Twilight music here).
I told Elliot that someone had probably gotten bumped. He was thrilled when they actually paged a “John M Caine” while he was waiting to board. Oh, we watched the Bourne movies too often when he was younger.
This picture was taken after his flight was cancelled and he was put on another one 5 hours later, so we took him out for breakfast. It’s still very early in the morning, which is probably why he looks so bleary.
He had a great time in Jordan. He lived with a host family and took classes and went on cultural excursions and saw ancient ruins and was tired and busy and hot and actually missed us.
July: For most of July, a friend from Morocco was here. (She’s Moroccan, but I first knew her and her family in Mauritania) We had a great time. We went hiking down the gorge, went to the coast, went downtown and ate giant ice cream cones at Salt and Straw, went to the Rose Garden and Powells, and just generally had a good time. It was her first time in America. We have now seen each other in 3 countries, and we are wondering where we’ll meet up next. Any ideas?
It was the hottest summer ever. It was terrible. We had a dry winter, a normal spring (wet and cool), and then a hot, dry summer. Sumi and I went to a lavender festival in Hood River on a day when it was over 100 degrees. Even though we lived in the Sahara desert together, we both agreed that we hated the heat.
This may not look like drought to you, but nonetheless it was a bad year. Lakes and rivers were really low, and several Oregon counties had to declare emergencies.
At the end of July, another friend came to see Sumi. We were all in Mauritania at the same time. Michelle now lives in Kansas, from which it’s easier to fly to Oregon than Morocco. We had a whirlwind few days of it, including eating giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw. This was a theme of the summer. Actually, it’s kind a theme anyway. Come visit! We are used to people visiting and will eat ice cream anytime of year. The lines are shorter in winter.
August: Sumi left, then Michelle left, then the next day we got a visit from some French friends of ours, a family we knew in Morocco. It was blazing hot during their visit, so hot that we couldn’t enjoy being outside, even though we took them for giant ice cream cones. We went down the Gorge to Hood River on a Friday and it was 104 degrees. The next day we went to the beach and it was 65, and so foggy we couldn’t see the water while actually standing on the beach. Obviously, Oregon hates them. I don’t know why, as they are actually very nice.
Also, we saw a seal! Seal in French is “phoque” and if you exclaim that word excitedly to children on a public beach in America, you will get some side glances.
Elliot also came back mid-August from Jordan and was actually home for 2 entire weeks. Donn and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, although we waited to celebrate properly till November. More on that later. Ilsa got all 4 of her wisdom teeth out at once and was really funny while coming out of anesthesia. Also really difficult. Pain Med Ilsa is not very nice.
Tintype (taken with app on my phone) of restaurant where we ate on actual 25th wedding anniversary. We are officially old now, although according to Ilsa, we have been for years. Oddly comforting, in a way.
The jet lag, it is wicked. Pervasive. Illogical.
How can jet lag be a thing? How can I lie in bed with my eyes glued shut, feeling like my body is metal and there’s a magnet under the bed holding it down, pulling it fast, and yet not sleep? How can I crave sleep with all of my soul and yet find it so elusive?
We left Tuesday but didn’t get to Nouakchott until Thursday at midnight. Friday, we were up till 3, then we got up about 11, which seemed right. We’re staying at a guesthouse and we’re the only ones here so there’s nothing to wake us and no one else to worry about. We’ve been having slow mornings, with coffee and pain au chocolat.
Saturday, we decided to really fight it. In the early evening we went to the beach with some other expatriates, and has that experience changed! When we lived here, a large group of us would head out every Saturday, to a location about 15 kilometres north of town. We’d bring a large tent and set it up for shade, and everyone would gather underneath it and share snacks, hang out, and chat while a large group of kids boogie-boarded and chased each other through the dunes. We were always the only ones there, except for the rare occasion when a fisherman passed by or an SUV drove down the beach.
Now there are businesses there, about 10 kilometres out, and that’s where everybody goes. There are little straw huts, open-air restaurants, and strangest of all, local people. In an extremely modest culture where locals are covered head to toe even at the beach, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to be running around even in a modest maillot. Regardless, we had a lovely time, catching up with people, swimming in the warm, salty Atlantic, and eating fresh grilled fish at the little restaurant.
We got home about 9 p.m. and arranged to meet a Mauritanian friend called Mohammed for coffee. He picked us up and we drove around, finally settling on a place that was here when we lived here. They used to be the only place in the city you could get whole wheat bread. We ordered coffee and sat and chatted for a while. Then he had a suggestion. Did we want to join him and his friends to drink tea on the dunes? We would leave around midnight. Sure, we said. After all, we weren’t sleeping till 3 anyway. And who’s going to pass up a chance like that?
We had a lovely time. Nouakchott is very hot this year–temps have been around 104 every day, with a dry hot wind, and my hair looks like straw by noon. But the nights are lovely, with temps around 80 and pleasant breezes. We walked a short distance through the sand and sat on a rug spread with cushions and met several faceless people, all of whom seemed really nice. It was very dark. I watched in some bemusement as one of the women built a small fire on the sand and starting fanning it with a bit of cardboard. “This is going to take forever,” I thought. That is a thought I often have in Mauritania, where life moves more slowly. I remember arriving for lunch once and watching the men take away a goat to slaughter for our meal.
It didn’t take forever, but it wasn’t fast either. That was good. It was pleasant to sit under the stars, enjoying the breeze and listening to the women chatter, joining in occasionally. I hadn’t met any of them before but they were really welcoming.There were about 12 of us there, and I was amazed at how much tea the woman was able to produce from the tiny pot. As is typical here, we stayed for 3 rounds of sweet, minty green tea served in small glasses. We got back to our guesthouse at about 2 a.m. I was tired, but didn’t sleep till 4.
This high quality photo was taken with my phone (the camera sucks) in the dark, with a flashlight from another phone shining on it. I really shouldn’t even post it, but I’m going to anyway. I wanted you to see that tiny teapot on the fire on the sand. The cushion is to block the wind, and you can see a blurry hand waving cardboard at the tiny fire.
And somehow, this has become a habit. Every night, we meet Moh for coffee. Last night it was Turkish coffee at 12:30. Tonight was early–espresso and steamed milk at 10:45. It’s barely past midnight and we’re home.
And so I think we’ve got the jet lag licked. The caffeine addiction/wakefulness? Not so much. Of course, who can tell the difference?
Waking up that first morning back in Nouakchott was strange. I had slept surprisingly well on my solid-as-a-rock mattress. But I was unprepared for the sight that met my eyes, as I rubbed sleep from them and stared out the front window.
Puddles and puddles and puddles! What was up? I well remember, in fact it is seared into my memory, how hot and dry Nouakchott was. Located where the sands of the Sahara meet the Atlantic Ocean, built on some salt flats by the French who decided on a relatively-neutral spot to build a new capital city for a new country in 1960, Nouakchott was the exact opposite of Portland. It rained 4-6 times a year, always harsh and sudden and preceded by a wind that whipped the reddish sand straight up into a wall that was then slammed down hard by the rain, rendering anything outside, like clean clothes on your washline, covered with reddish mud. Rainstorms lasted anywhere from 10-30 minutes, then they were over. They left lots of puddles, that disappeared within a day or so as the hot thirsty air drank all moisture available and the sand eventually absorbed what was left. It only rained between July and September. I remember one year in which it really didn’t rain at all.
This was different. Since we left in 2007, the sea has risen, so that now there are actually permanent ponds, almost lakes, in this desert city. There are rushes, and ducks and egrets. I can not emphasize strongly enough to you how strange this is. It would be like leaving Portland for 6 years and returning to find a barren wasteland that no one had thought to mention to me.
We arrived very late on a Wed. night, around midnight. Thursday was normal weather-wise, but the Friday and Saturday of that week it rained all day. It was bizarre. In spite of huge changes in the amount of paved roads, most of Nouakchott remains sand instead of pavement, and the sand turned instantly to mud. I was wearing very long skirts (well, long skirts on a short person) that dragged in the mud.
After 2 days of rain, the place was truly flooded. Several large intersections were impassable. When I went to visit Aicha, we had to park a long ways away and walk to her house over a trail made of sandbags, cement blocks and other debris. We heard stories of people in the poorer sections of town who lost everything, of children drowned in houses. Tim and Debbie’s old house was unreachable without wading through deep water.
It rained for 2 days and was pleasant, temperature-wise, although unpleasant to walk around in. But then the weather cleared. The sky was actually blue! (In Nouakchott, it’s usually white with dust and haze) And it was hot. It was around 100 degrees for the rest of the time we were there. The heat slowly shrank the puddles and the wind whipped up the drying sand. It achieved a state I would previously have thought impossible–it managed to be muddy and dusty at the same time.
I wrote the kids long emails that I would send when we had internet access, which wasn’t very often. (Ilsa: “Your letters are so long. You’re not going to have anything left to tell us.” It’s like she doesn’t even know me. She complained often about the length of my emails, which made me feel great about her interest level in me, but she did read them.) I told them over and over about all the water. Donn did too. And yet, when we were back and Abel was looking at my phone pics while in a doctor’s waiting room, he shouted, “WHAT??? WHAT IS ALL THAT WATER???” Everyone looked. I tried to explain, sort of. It was awkward.
Seeing all that green was nice. Donn and I are hoping that the city learns to deal with its new water, and that it ends up being a good thing. In the meantime, the water is brackish and not really anything you’d want to get too near.
The Sunday before graduation was Elliot’s party. Here is a copy of the invitation with our address whited out, since I’m the one writing this blog not Abel. (Sigh. I don’t mind having these conversations about internet safety with my children; what I mind is how often I have them)
I invited everyone I could think of, and managed to forget several important people I’ve thought of since. My problem is that the people I know and love are scattered, not all gathered about around one location (for example, a home town or a home church), but here and there from our nomadic existence.
I spent the weeks ahead of time stressing. I imagined people judging me for my back yard (with some excuse, I will admit) or for the fact that you can sort of tell at a glance that although I can clean my house, I own far too many books to be a really good housekeeper.
The nice thing about moving every 2 years or so is that you never have to reorganize closets or move the fridge on a regular basis. We’ve been in this house nearly 3 years, and our housekeeping habits are starting to show. In short, we did need to move the fridge. It was disgusting back there. I mean, really nasty. (I suspect I need to clean out my cupboards too. Darn it.) I scrubbed it clean, and I also scrubbed floors and counter-tops and made dozens of Welsh cakes which didn’t turn out well at all, due to my using baking soda instead of baking powder, like an idiot.
We were finally ready. The house looked fantastic, the yard looked almost as good as the day we moved in, and we were ready. I woke up Sunday morning and showered, and was making the bed when suddenly my lower back seized up with excruciating pain. I hobbled downstairs and sat down, only to find I couldn’t stand up again.
This was a problem. I still had things to do. Two of my Iraqi friends had gone far beyond ordinary friendship and spent their Saturdays cooking up a storm–I had 80 chicken schwarmas (I cut them into 3 pieces each), and mounds of homemade falafel and dolma, not to mention about a gallon of homemade humus. I needed to cut up Arabic bread to go with the humus and heat things and stuff like that. But I could barely move. I swallowed ridiculous amounts of ibuprofen and texted my friend to pray for me, forgetting that her husband is a doctor. He came to the party and talked to me and prescribed muscle relaxants. I found that as long as I didn’t sit down, I could function. But I dropped something on the ground, and it took me 5 minutes to pick it up. Not exaggerating! (well maybe a little. But not much)
The party was a huge success none-the-less, thanks mostly to other people. Ilsa did the fruit platters and Donn and Elliot took care of putting ice in the cooler, putting pop cans in the ice, carrying the large water thing with ice and lime and mint, and all those sort of things. Friends carried large platters to the table and took care of refilling things.
The party was supposed to go 3-5, but it was 10:30 before everyone had gone. By that point, I’d taken scary amounts of ibuprofen and was still pretty miserable. I took a muscle relaxant and went to sleep. In the morning, it took me about 5 minutes (not an exaggeration) to get out of bed. I’ve never had anything like this before. Of course Donn’s parents were arriving about noon.
I had about 3 days of excruciating pain, and then we settled into a routine of 4 ibuprofen every 4 hours, which isn’t so good for the liver but made life possible. All Donn’s family were here, which meant cooking for 11 people. It really wasn’t an ideal time but we managed. I wondered a lot about the all-extended-family camping trip planned for that Friday though. How on earth was I going to handle camping?
Oh you want to hear about camping? All right. Next post.
A few weeks ago, I was making lunch. I took up a roma tomato to slice, and noticed it had a bad spot at one end. I cut off about a third, cut 3 or 4 slices, and had an equal amount left. I tossed the bad bit in the trash and then realized I’d accidentally thrown the good bit away. It was sitting right on top of the trash can, atop a pile of perfectly clean papers that Donn had cleaned out of his car and should have put in the recycling. So I rescued it. I heard a sort of strangled sound and looked up to see two of Elliot’s friends, two teenaged boys, staring at me in abject horror. “You just took food out of the trash can?” one of them almost whispered.
I was gentle. I didn’t mock them (to their faces). I didn’t tell them about people who dumpster dive. Instead, I washed off the offending bit, just to appease them, although they were definitely unappeased, even when I ate it myself so they wouldn’t have to worry about getting it served to them. I explained, but to no avail. Apparently if their mothers threw away a perfectly good third of a tomato by mistake, there it would lie, undisturbed, even if it landed in a nest of clean receipts from gas stations.
The other day, I had to buy a new mop. I was looking at those Swisher mops and wondering if they were any good. I asked the girl working at Target. “Yeah it works great. I used to have one, but I didn’t like it,” she told me. When I asked why, she said, “After you mop the floor, you have to take off the towel, and you have to touch it, and it’s really gross.”
I know you’re thinking, but these are young people, who have never raised children, changed diapers, dealt with toddlers who have no concept of trying to make it to the bathroom before anything unfortunate happens. And you are right. But I think this is symptomatic of something larger. I wrote once, years ago now, about a time I saw a mother who wouldn’t let her daughter drink from a drinking fountain because it was “dirty.” Even before I lived overseas I wasn’t too uptight, but living in the desert definitely stretched me, to where I am more worried about wasting food than I am about possible germs that might be on perfectly clean paper. Years of drinking three rounds of sweet mint tea from tiny glasses that aren’t washed between rounds, only rinsed, or shaking hands with children who live in tents with no running water and very little daily hygiene, changes your perspective. The concept of double-dipping just isn’t going to gross out the person who’s bought fly-covered meat with the hoof still attached from an outdoor vendor who’s sitting in the baking sun, or taken a large bite out of a sandwich only to find half a locust baked into it. (I’m still grossed out by goat intestines though, just so you know)
That said, there are times when even I want to whisper in a strangled voice, “Please tell me you didn’t just do that.” There was the time I watched L dressing a salad. She sprinkled on lemon juice and olive oil and salt, then plunged her unwashed hands in to mix it. (No problems) Then she lifted out a strip of lettuce, touched it to her tongue, nodded, and dropped it back in the bowl.
Two weeks ago, I was visiting L and her 2 year-old niece, an adorable child with enormous eyes and a head of tangled curls. The child had a cold, complete with husky voice and nasty cough. We were sitting in L’s room, eating Doritos from the enormous stack she keeps underneath her bed, when the toddler pointed to a bright shiny pink lip gloss. “She loves it,” explained L, applying it to the child’s lips. The child then pointed at me, and before I could stop her, L had put the same lip gloss on me. I didn’t say anything, but in my head I was staring at her in abject horror. I knew I was going down, and sure enough a few days later I woke up croaky myself. That was also the visit where the child wanted gum so L just gave her half of what she already had in her mouth. Ew.
But I sometimes have a hard time straddling the two worlds. It’s not uncommon for my Iraqi friends to eat from a serving bowl with the same spoon they are using for their own private plates. I don’t care–I’ve had years of training–but the scary thing is that I may be getting too relaxed. Surely it’s only a matter of time before I move from grossing out the sensitive teens to grossing out my friends, to where I forget and plunge my own personal spoon into the guacamole, and double and triple dip my chips.
(I made a Mauritanian dish the other night and we all ate on the floor, with our hands, for old times’ sake)
So where do you fall on the germaphobe scale? Do you freak out if other people double-dip, or take a drink from your glass? Or does it require something more like sharing lip gloss with a 2 year old to bother you? Have I ever grossed you out?
On Friday, one of my friends had a baby and another had a miscarriage. I wasn’t there for either of them. I was across town with another family, who were being presented with their new home from Habitat for Humanity. There was a ceremony, and a lot of Iraqi food, and a hot wind blowing around the yard.
It was a long day.
We spoke on the phone with both of them. A couple of days earlier, I’d spoken to the new father-to-be. “It’s happy for my wife, but a funeral for me,” he said. I laughed. “I don’t believe you at all,” I told him. “I know you’re really happy and you’re going to love that new baby daughter of yours so much!”
When he called, I didn’t hear my phone so he left a message. “You are right–I’m so happy,” he told me. We saw the baby the next day and she is gorgeous; tiny and perfect and welcomed by her grandmother, who recently arrived from Iraq, as well as aunts and big brothers and friends. I sat and held her while her big brothers and some of their friends tried on the enormous (on them) bright blue gloves left so temptingly in reach in those full boxes on the wall. I cringed as I saw a small child take off the gloves and thoughtfully put them back in the box.
The previous evening, we spoke to our other friends on the phone. They’d just gotten released from the hospital and were home, resting. Although we know Arab culture says you go then and there, we suggested that we come the next day. The husband agreed. “She is finally resting,” he said, relief in his voice. Sometimes the habits of your own culture are hard; this is true no matter what culture you come from.
We were really impressed with the husband, so thoughtful and caring, worrying only about how his wife was doing, willing to do whatever necessary to help her no matter how uncomfortable it made him, putting her needs above his own. We weren’t surprised; it fits what we know of them. But it was beautiful to see.
They were having such a difficult time. No one knew what to do, including us. None of us had faced this situation before and America is far more regulated than Iraq, where cemeteries are basically free according to our friend. They called the mosque, which initially said they couldn’t help because the fetus wasn’t viable–she was only 12 weeks along but had seen the baby on an ultrasound, heard the heartbeat, wanted a small spot of earth where she could visit. We called around too, quickly found a church willing to help but needing to check legality before definitively saying yes. Eventually someone from the mosque called back and agreed to help.
We visited them after leaving the hospital to see the newborn, stopping on our way for a picnic with two other families. That is, the original plan had been to have a picnic, but the baby (2 months old) was sick, so instead we spent a gorgeous fall day crowded into a small apartment, feasting. Our hostess had managed to out-do herself yet again. It’s okay though–it was both lunch and dinner, so my calorie intake didn’t climb through the roof, unless we want to think about the log-shaped baklava. Let’s not. It was really good.
We left the picnic a little early so we could go visit the friends who’d had the miscarriage. I didn’t tell them why we were leaving early, pinning the blame on Elliot who has college application essays to write and Ilsa who is taking AP classes. It took some nudging to get Elliot to fuss about his homework. But I didn’t know if the couple wanted everyone to know just yet.
Later, I asked her about it. “That was so thoughtful!” exclaimed her younger sister. Arab culture tends to be rife with gossip, but I didn’t think people minded because they’re so open with me. I’m finding out that they don’t want me to share certain things though. (Question: so is this blog lame? I do change names and some details, and for this particular post am being pretty darn vague. On the other hand, I am sharing other people’s lives with you. Discuss in comments.) It turned out I’d made the right decision not the share the events with the families at the picnic, even though they are all friends. Whew! It doesn’t always happen like this. So often I make the wrong decision, it seems.
She’s doing okay. Obviously she’s still grieving, but she has other things in her life to look forward to. We talked privately with her husband, and we all agreed that her life has had so much turmoil and sorrow already that something like this would hit her especially hard. You tend to think “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (and yes, I know you’ll be hearing that ear worm for the rest of the day–you’re welcome) and while that can be true, it’s also true that you get weary of being battered by life. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you simply weakens you for the next thing. She’s surrounded by people who love and care for her though, and she’s in a safe place. I have high hopes.
Elliot’s birthday was last week. He’s 17 now, so I suppose I should update my “about” page. On the day of his birthday, I made tacos, his current fav. (We deep-fry corn tortillas and grill meat (usually chicken) and I make guacamole and we put out tons of fresh toppings and they’re actually really, really good). I made cupcakes, a half-recipe of his favorite cake (recipe here although I never move beyond the ganache to whatever that white frosting stuff is), since it was only our family that evening. He was pretty happy with them anyway, esp since I forgot to halve the chocolate, so they were quite decadent.
At 10:30 p.m., we left for the airport. We have an Iraqi friend I’ll call Abou. He’s kind and generous, and is the one who first gave Elliot the name by which he’s known throughout the Iraqi community–Abu Kafashir, which means “father of too much hair.” Abou also gave Elliot a leather jacket, which Elliot adores.
Sometimes when I’m writing about my friends, I’m unsure how much of their stories to tell. After all, their lives are their own. Is it right to tell too much? I change names, hide details. Abou’s story in particular is really dramatic–full of tragedy and woe. His family has had to bear a lot, suffered many losses, but their story is not mine to tell on the internet. From the first time I met them, I could see this was a family shaped around grief and loss, and I will say that they stand out even in a community bearing scars of experiences far beyond the experience of a typical American.
Many of our Iraqi friends here worked with the US military or US companies, and as a result become targets themselves of the insurgents. One family had their house bombed and lost children; another’s small boys bear scars on their heads from a car bomb left just outside their place that threw them and their mother against the wall but mercifully didn’t kill them; another’s teenage boy was kidnapped and tortured, although he was later able to escape using his wits. If a family is targeted, that means the whole family–extended family as well–is targeted, and sometimes extended family resents this. Such was the case with Abou and his oldest daughter, whose husband was badly and permanently injured. She refused to speak to her father for several years.
So when Abou told Donn and I that this daughter, now wanting to reconcile and move here, would be arriving late on the night of Elliot’s birthday, and he invited us to join him in welcoming her at the airport, there was no hesitation–we would be honoured, and we said so.
But how would Abu Kafashir himself feel? After all, it was his birthday, and at first we didn’t know when they’d arrive. We talked to Elliot, and he was unequivocal in his response–of course we would go to the airport. He knew enough of Abou’s story to get why this was particularly important and meaningful. Also, I know I’m his mother but no grain of salt is needed–he’s really a great kid. I don’t even take credit; I’ve made tons of mistakes and dragged him all over the world and I spend far too much time reading or on my computer. I wasn’t anything like him at 17. It’s grace.
There was quite a crowd at the airport–Abou’s family is well-known in the community. Coincidently, all the women were wearing black and purple. We lined up to watch the airplane empty out. Hundreds of people streamed past us as we all watched eagerly. The crowd slowed to a trickle; still no sign. The airline personnel began to appear, dragging their small cases behind them. This was a very bad sign. “Excuse me; is anyone still left on the plane?” one of the men asked the pilot. “Yes, there’s still a family back there. They don’t speak English. They have small children who are crying,” he responded.
That’s them! We all smiled at each other. Small children crying–no wonder, after a 2 day journey and a handicapped dad who probably couldn’t help much. (I often feel like crying after 2 days on a plane/in airports myself!) We couldn’t go past where we were, but soon we heard the unmistakable sound of wailing and suddenly, they appeared.
Abou’s wife is someone who is always polite but never joyful. Like I said, this family is shaped by loss. So it was incredible to watch her sweep her grandson into her arms, to see her fully engaged, fully in the moment, and full of joy. I started crying. I certainly wasn’t the only one wiping away tears; Abou himself was openly weeping. It was a wonderful time.
Elliot thought his birthday was actually pretty special. And we celebrated even more this week, when I once again made tacos, this time for a multitude, and made an entire birthday cake, and we all went to the opening of the new Batman movie. I loved the movie, which I didn’t expect to, and I loved again being part of a cultural phenomenon, seeing people in costume, listening to the cheers and boos, watching the people around me. At one point a woman came in and yelled at some guy who was smoking: “If you do that again, we will have to evacuate the theatre and you will not see the movie.” A group of guys stood up and pointed at the one who’d been smoking. People yelled random things at random times. It wasn’t till the following morning that I saw the news of the shooting at the same movie opening in Colorado.
I don’t know how to end this post, how to pull together tragedy and joy in Abou’s family, and joy in ours (celebrating Elliot) and tragedy in others, those in Colorado. Maybe there’s some symmetry in this post, but real life is messy; such things seem to be disproportionate from one family to another. It’s wonderful to see, in the life of my friends, sorrow turned to joy, and mourning to dancing. I pray the same for those affected by the events in Colorado; I know it will take years, but I believe it can happen.