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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

It wasn’t that last week was so incredibly busy, although it was. It was more that when I did have time, I just didn’t feel like posting. So I didn’t.

Here are some fragments on our week, none quite long enough for a post, yet when taken together really far too long…

LAST Monday:

Eid Sayeed, on the odd chance I have any Muslim readers. Happy Feast! it means. It is traditional to say Moubarak, or congratulations, on this day, Eid al Fitr, or Feast of the Break-fast.

We started off in style. Ismail knocked on the door about 9, resplendent in a cream, floor-length djellaba, yellow babouches (Moroccan leather slippers), and red fez. (I am buying Donn the same outfit for his birthday; don’t tell him) He brought us a tray of fresh hot Moroccan crepes, two different kinds (one like a crumpet, one in layers), a little pot of honey mixed with melted butter, and a pot of pale, steaming mint tea—all made by his mother.

Elliot had a friend over. Today was supposed to be our first day to sleep in since school started. I had a plan wherein the sun woke me up as normal about 6:30 but I slipped on the eyeshade from Air France and went back to sleep till 9 or so. This plan was thwarted by the free concert put on by the mosque. I have heard such long songs sung the first day of Ramadan, but never before on the first day of the Eid. It wasn’t really a concert, of course, just a long song (as in an hour long), but it was different from any other I’ve heard—there were definitely two parts, and a sort of response to the first. It was very melodic.

We spent the day relaxing, hanging out. In the afternoon, Donn and I stopped by the Tour de Hassan. The Tour de Hassan is an odd place. It always gets mentioned among Rabat’s tourist attractions, but I personally find it a bit boring. It was intended to be a match for the tallest mosque in the world, but it was only half finished. Now it’s a large tower fronted by a pretty garden, with a pavement scattered with columns in various phases of construction. It’s guarded by guards…hmmm…surely I can say this better. Yes. Men on horseback in colourful costumes guard each entrance. Right next to it is a working mosque and the Mausoleum where Mohamed V and Hassan II, the current king’s grandfather and father, are buried. It’s worth a visit as it is extremely ornate and vibrant.

(I will post pics tomorrow because my connection is tempermental and does not WANT to post pics right now.)

While we’d visited before, we had no idea that it is apparently the place to go on a holiday. As we drove up, we noted stands piled high with oranges, with young men eager to squeeze you a glassful of fresh juice. There were vendors selling popcorn and candy and enormous balloons. Rabat was out in its finery. Families were strolling about. Children were clamouring all over the pillars, posing for photos, playing hide and seek. The atmosphere was party-like. Everyone was in a good mood, calling out to each other, celebrating the end of a long hard month.

Thursday:

Today I learned the Dareja word for earring.

I had to run an errand this morning, but it was in my neighbourhood, and I walked over. I clearly remember at one point thinking a fly had flown in my ear and batting at it. So later, when I got home and realized I had lost an earring, one of a really pretty set I got in Wales this summer, I was sure I had batted it away thinking it was a fly.

There was nothing for it but to go back. So back I went, eyes on the ground, garnering a lot of attention as I wandered slowly up the street. When I got to the place I thought I’d lost it, a school was just getting out and the street was full of children. I appealed to them for help and was soon surrounded. They called to each other, and bent down to help, searching piles of trash that were weeks old, scuffling through the tiny patches of dirt and weeds around each street light. They were fun, generous with their efforts, surrounding me and chattering away in Dareja and demanding over and over again to see my remaining earring. I tried to communicate, in my mangled mix of Dareja and French, where I lived, just in case they found it later, but I had no very high hopes. It was gone.

Friday:

Friday night was the parent teachers meetings for the twins. What better way to start the weekend? We sat in desks while teachers paraded in and out, announcing their names and subjects taught and demands made. (There are a lot of demands, actually) One thing was clear: as Jack Black puts it in School of Rock, the kids are learning everything we’d want them to know. Math, science…math…French…math…it’s all covered. So that was a relief.

I woke up early this morning, 2 hours before I needed to. The wind was picking up. I could hear through my open window the leaves tossing, rain beginning to splatter. Before I knew it, we were in for a full-fledged thunderstorm. Lightning flashed in the pre-dawn sky; thunder crashed louder than the Ramadan drummer.

When I got up, the storm continued. I went in to get the kids up; they were all awake listening to the rain. Last night, I made cinnamon rolls, so I heated them and boiled eggs and dug out the fun striped egg cups they got last Easter. I’m a good mother, unlike that woman here last week giving her kids cold cereal and telling them to stop their whining about the long-life milk already. In the meantime, the clouds burst open and the deeps poured forth. Roads turned into rivers. Lightning and thunder collided right overhead. We watched the long grey uninterrupted lines of rain. Electricity flickered on and off; the internet didn’t work. I called Maroc Telecom and got put on hold.

Our house is a two-minute walk from the kids’ school. It’s quicker to walk than to drive, by the time you get the car out of the complicated garage we share with our landlord, his brother, and their 3 cars. But they couldn’t walk. The rain was incessant. I had the window open in the living room, and spray blew in as if from a waterfall.

Donn dropped them off and we had coffee and cinnamon rolls ourselves. Still the rain continued, unabated, insistent.

About an hour and a half later, when it had finally slackened, then slowed to a drizzle, I got a phone call from Ilsa. “Mom!” she gasped. “Come get us! The school is being evacuated!” “Because of the rain?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. In the background was a cacophony of junior high voices. I could barely hear her.

She came back on. “Mom! Come to the small door, okay?”

“Are you serious, Ilsa?” I asked her. It just seemed strange to receive such a call from your child. Shouldn’t it be more official, from the school secretary or nurse or another parent? “I’m DEAD serious,” she announced, and hung up.

So we headed down to the school. Apparently several classrooms had flooded, and the electricity was out. The rain had mostly stopped by this point. The roads were filled with stalled vehicles and puddles a foot or two deep. Friends told of journeys interrupted, of it taking an hour to travel a stretch of road that normally takes 10 minute, of a small pool, six feet deep, in the middle of an underpass.

The school was a madhouse. All the students were standing in the courtyard, which is reached by a small staircase. Parents jostled their way to the front of the stairs, where they would stand, eyes scanning the crowd, looking for their own particular child. Teachers stood at the top of the stairs, asking parents which class their child was in. Then they would descend into the melée, emerging eventually with a student in tow.

I eventually collected my 3 and we headed out the door. There were still hundreds of bedraggled students huddled under the trees and awnings of the school. The teachers wielded enormous umbrellas.

I asked one if there would be school tomorrow. “Who knows?” he shrugged. “Check the school web site.” That is, when the internet is back up, I thought.

The kids were thrilled. Abel is missing a history test today. Ilsa is missing TWO tests. They ate their sandwiches in the car on the way home, “second breakfasts,” and are already clamouring for lunch. They are all watching a movie and drinking hot chocolate in their pajamas, changed out of wet jeans and hoodies. Meanwhile, outside, the last drops of rain fall from the hibiscus hedge under a weak and watery sun, but I hear thunder in the distance, rumbling ominously.

La rentree

The twins couldn’t sleep last night. Elliot woke up two hours early. They tossed and turned, heads filled with things exciting and worrisome. Did they have everything they needed? Would they get nice teachers or mean ones? Would they be with their friends?

I had my own sleepless moments. Had I managed to actually get everything this year? Would they get nice teachers or mean ones? Would they be with their friends?

It’s funny how little our worrying changes over the years.

The first day back was nice and slow, easing us into the stress that is the French educational system. They went for two hours, where they were assigned their classes, found out their teachers, and then came home. They did get some nice teachers, and some unknown but with a reputation for strictness. They are not with their friends.

L’emploi du temps, or You Have PE WHEN???

We were worried about Elliot’s schedule for this year, because he has to start attending English class. Last year, he only had to go if they were having a test, because his English is at least as good as his teacher’s. But this year, they are starting grammar, and he needs to go learn what a participle phrase is, for example, and other things you don’t naturally pick up from an obsessive re-reading of Tolkein. I know the book they’re using—I’ve taught it before.

Elliot is interested in languages, so he’s taking Arabic and Spanish. (He needs to take one but not both) I was worried—would I see him at all? But his schedule is not too bad. He’ll be busy, but not overwhelmed. I have only one problem with it:

Saturdays, at 8 a.m., he has to be at the high school downtown for PE.

Yes, Saturdays. That just killed any lingering romance you felt for the French, didn’t it?

For some reason, they have Wednesday afternoons off and school on Saturdays. It varies within the system. The year we lived in France, when they were in Grades 1 and 2, they had school most Saturdays and no school at all on Wednesdays. In Mauritania, they had weekends off, although the weekend was Friday-Saturday instead of Saturday-Sunday. Last year, they had Wed. afternoons and a normal weekend. But from now on, at least one of my children has Saturday school.

The implications are obvious. No more sleeping in. No more special Saturday breakfasts. No more sleepovers with friends, except during school holidays. No more weekend trips.

And so, I ask the universe, WHY couldn’t they have school on Wednesday afternoons instead? Isn’t that more logical? This is a holdover from a different time. It reminds me of a boarding school schedule, when everybody is there all the time anyway so it sort of doesn’t matter when you have class.

Grrr.

He will definitely be eating cold cereal on Saturday mornings. We can have pancakes when he gets home. I suspect I won’t be up to see him off, at least not every week.

Les fournitures scolaire

I spent hours earlier in the week searching for and buying their books and school supplies, but I’m not done yet. Certain teachers prefer a grand cahier (large notebook) to a classeur (binder), and so we wait until after the first day of class to go shopping. And the papeterie did not have grand cahiers spirale for the twins’ Latin class so we need to go somewhere else.

Shopping for books is an interesting experience. For a start, those who feel claustrophobic in crowds should just stay home, maybe order them from amazon.fr and pay exhorbitant shipping fees. For the rest of us, armed with a list from our particular school, it’s a day filled with elbows and dashed expectations.

The bookstores have set up extra wooden countertops down the middle of the shop, barricading their workers behind it and removing space where customers might typically stand. Depending on the country you were raised in, you either elbow your way impatiently to the front of a fluid “line” or wait, mostly patiently, until the guy behind the counter says, “Madame?” You hand him your list. He disappears for a time, to emerge with perhaps 3 of the 10 books you need per child.

The third bookstore we went to was different. They had tables set up, one for 6eme (6th grade), one for 5eme (7th grade), one for 4eme (8th), etc. You could approach each table on your own to choose your books. It wasn’t too crowded, and a woman came to help me. Together we searched the 5eme table for the twins’ books.

It’s not easy. You may find a Science book for 5eme, but it may be Hachette when you need Hatier or Belin when you need Breal. It may be the right publisher but not the right edition. Careful attention must be paid, or you will find yourself out $30 and the bookstores, in general, don’t do returns. The kids’ school seems to like books that no one else is using, and they are hard to find. We are still missing a couple.

Buying school supplies is a great exercise in vocabulary. When you learn another language in school, you may learn basic words like pen and pencil and glue, but you usually don’t learn it to the level where you can distinguish a binder with plastic pockets from a flexible folder with plastic pockets. We don’t even have words in English for some of these things! And so, our family speaks a blend of French and English known as Franglais. As in: “Where are my intercalaires?”

School Hours

During Ramadan, school gets out at 4 instead of 5. Lunch time is only one hour instead of 2, and the kids are obliged to take a cold lunch with them and are not allowed to leave the campus. For the first day, I did great! I remembered to buy bread ahead of time for sandwiches, and I even made chocolate chip cookies and bought apples. Phew! We’ll see how long this lasts, although given my history I don’t expect much. In fact, what are they going to do for tomorrow? I need to go…

We’ve had two Moroccan kids to play at our house in the last week. One, a friend of Ilsa’s, is a tall, quiet girl with a really sweet smile. She lives in the same apartment building where we lived on our first arrival in Rabat. Her parents didn’t know where our new place was, so we arranged to meet in front of the school. I was worried because I was a little late–about 5 minutes. But we waited 45 minutes for Hiba to show up. Her parents told me they’d pick her up at 6:30, but it was closer to 8 when they arrived. This didn’t bother me.

On Wednesday, Abel invited Yusef to play. (They have Wednesday afternoons off) Same arrangement; in front of the school. Again, I was about 5 minutes late, and got a phone call from Yusef’s dad wondering where I was. Which just goes to show you–you shouldn’t make generalizations.

In spite of this fair warning I’d received, I was none-the-less late for the strike on Thursday morning. They stated, they being the Parents’ Association of which I am a bona-fide dues-paying member, that the manifestation would go from 7:45 to 9:00 a.m. I assumed it would be entirely outside of the kids’ school, a junior high in our neighbourhood. Donn and I showed up about 8:15 to find the tiny parking lot deserted except for a few posters. We popped into the café across the street, where we ordered coffees and I called my friend Irena, who soon joined us for coffee. She explained that the plan was to march on the high school, and that the banners and armbands were off doing that. We’d missed it!

At first I was disappointed, especially about missing the armbands, but she reassured me. The important thing was to keep the children home from school, she said. She herself was showing solidarity by watching the children of a mother who worked; she invited Ilsa to play and me for coffee that afternoon.

I was exhausted. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, finally drifting off around 2 a.m. to get in a solid two hours before Abel, who never does this anymore, crawled in with me around 4 a.m., thereby killing sleep for the rest of the night. (He was very restless, although very cuddly) I figured I’d drop Ilsa off, have a quick cup of Irena’s excellent coffee, and then head home for a nap. Instead, I stayed at Irena’s for 4 hours, while we chatted about everything from embarrassing faux pas made in languages not our own (she had the funniest stories!), to the ways our husbands deal with life’s trials, to her dreams of opening her own shop. I realized, as I yawned my way home, that we have transitioned from her being kind to me and my limited language skills, to the give-and-take of real friendship.

And, while I was eating gelato she’d made herself from the ripe, juicy fresh local strawberries we’ve been eating so many of lately, the cashier at the French high school turned up to pick up his kids! Yes, he’d kept Day of the Dead School, while going to work for The Man himself. We chatted briefly, and he said the school had agreed to talk to the parents about the explosive price increases (12% this year; prices doubled within the next 6 years. And we have 3 kids in the system!). I hope they do something. If not, I’m willing to keep the kids home another day, and to sleep in again if necessary. I’m a true revolutionary at heart.

I’m going on strike on Thursday.

I walked down to pick up the twins at 5:15 today, arriving just as the bell rang for the end of classes. (Elliot finished at 3:30. I LOVE living so close to school–a 2 min walk) As we left, twins straggling behind chatting with their friends, I saw my Italian friend. We greeted, kissed. “Are you going to participate in the greve?” she asked me. “Everyone I’ve talked to is going to.”

I am, I told her. I didn’t know parents could go on strike, but I’m up for it. This afternoon, I got an email explaining it. We show up at 7:45, and premade banners and armbands are envisioned. I’m kind of excited. I’ve never gotten an armband before.

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with the French school. On the one hand, I feel my children are getting an excellent education, heavy on the arts but also solid in math and science. I love that they are not only bi-lingual, but will have the chance to learn a third or fourth language. I love that they are learning a broader view of the world, that their history lessons begin long before 200 years ago in Valley Forge, that their friends come from Lebanon, Switzerland, Spain, Cote d‘Ivoire. On the other hand, the French invented bureaucracy and it is near and dear to their hearts. The hours are ridiculously long, and they even have school on Saturdays which is just plain wrong. And also, rumour has it that in order to become a teacher of French in a French school, one is put through a rigorous testing process that ensures one has no sense of humour or proportion. I hear they tell you jokes for an hour and a half, and if you even crack a smile, you have to teach music or history.

Still, I knew the positive side of French school would win when I attended a “Welcome New Parents” orientation at the primary school in the small Alpine town of Chambery. We walked onto the playground of the elementary school at 11:00 on a Saturday morning and they were serving wine. This does not happen at elementary schools in America.

Striking is near and dear to the French heart. The year we were in France, we were amazed at all the strikes. The French joke that it’s their national sport, and the season for strikes is spring. Even the unemployed went on strike, a fact which amused us so much that I bring it up from time to time, as you may have noticed. They filled the streets with banners, effectively bringing a once-mighty nation to its knees–just kidding! Sadly, the strike of the unemployed had no effect on things functioning as a whole, which I’m sure only added to their frustration.

French teachers go on strike all the time. The teachers all belong to different unions, who decide the strikes, which usually last a day. Last Thursday, for example, was a massive one. Donn and I had things going all morning, so we made all 3 kids go till noon, but they spent hours sitting in permanence, or Study Hall. The boys were free for the afternoon, and Ilsa only had one hour of Sports. (Poor Ilsa ended up having no classes for the morning, but since school starts at 8 and they didn’t list absentee teachers until 10, she was stuck.) (For you new readers, the French school has a nice long 2-hour lunch, during which the children return home. This was traditionally to allow the parents time to polish off a bottle or two.)

Now it’s the parents’ turn. We are organized; we are coming. We are calling it “Journee de L’École Morte” or Day of the Dead School. Isn‘t that the best name? We are protesting (with armbands! Did I mention the armbands?) the proposed enormous price increases, which if carried through will take the school out of range for a lot of families. We’re demonstrating outside the school from 7:45 till 9 (although, knowing the Moroccans, I’m guessing from 8:55 to 10:00 for a lot of them) and I believe I already mentioned the armbands. We are also keeping the kids home for the day, which I imagine will really break the school. Those poor teachers! I picture them wandering aimlessly around, forced by lack of actual students to insult each other. (Note: in the interests of fairness I should mention that there are excellent teachers as well; kind, affirming, patient, and not nearly as much fun to mock.)

Best of all, we can’t be replaced by scabs.

Welcome, new readers. I’m now a part of Travel Blogs.com, and I’ve got a post up at the Women’s Colony too. It’s an old one, but who doesn’t want to relive being served a goat’s head? Good memories never die…even when we may want them to.

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!

When I was about 19 or so, I remember coming to the realization that certain character faults, areas I knew I needed to work on, were shared by my own parents. This was discouraging. A friend of mine smiled and said, “How nice! You know you’re not alone.” But he didn’t get it. This meant I couldn’t assume that I would grow out of things; there was no guarantee that I would reach my 30s or 40s and get to be the mature adult and smirk happily at all the immature teenagers, knowing that I was So Over their issues. (Um, actually, that part did happen after all, at least in many areas. Smirk! Love it!)

I was thinking about this recently, watching Abel deal with some conflict. Abel is a kind boy. When the Evil Fairies visited our children’s cribs (oh right, like your kids don’t have some element of their personalities that couldn’t have come from anywhere else), the gift they left him to make him think, “I’m not like anyone else in this family” was just a sort of cartoon goofiness that he’ll either outgrow or use to become a junior high teacher or camp counselor. No biggie.

There’s a boy at school that’s been tormenting him lately. Perhaps that is too strong a word. They started out being friends, and this boy has even had Abel over to play a couple of times. But then he started to harass Abel. It became a problem.  

That evening, the boy called to invite Abel to play. Donn and I were amazed. Then we heard Abel say, “Hang on, let me ask my parents” and turn to us. Our mouths dropped open. Because this boy is MEAN to Abel. And now he was asking us if he could go play with him?

Donn is still puzzling about this, but I think I realize what’s going on. Abel has inherited my debilitating form of conflict avoidance. In order to not have to confront this boy, he is ready to go along with anything.
It’s depressing. I can already see the long road ahead of him as he agonizes over talking to anyone about anything, even when he is in the right.

I remember one of my college roommates, who always borrowed my clothes, and left them dirty on the floor. That was weird and obnoxious. But could I talk to her about it? No. I borrowed a black t-shirt one time and she talked to me about it, told me maybe it’d be best if we didn’t borrow each others’ clothes. Grr.

I know this boy‘s mother. I‘ve spoken to her several times. But when Donn suggested we talk to her, I shrank. Confront her with her son‘s behaviour? I didn‘t want to do it at all. Guess I still haven‘t outgrown this issue.

Poor Abel. I don’t want him to be like me. I want him to be take-charge and stride-forth, while maintaining that basic kindness and consideration that comes so naturally to him. I don’t want him to get taken advantage of. I wish we could choose which parts of our make-up get passed down to our offspring. (And would we choose to pass on what they would choose to receive?)

And I hate not being able to blame those evil fairies once again!

What aspects of your character would you choose to pass on, or have you passed on?

I woke up this morning to the sound of rain falling, splashing in puddles, sliding off awnings, pattering on the paved sidewalk. Cars swished their way up and down our street through suddenly deep puddles.
This wasn’t our first rain here. It’s rained several times, usually at night. About 4 or 5, clouds will begin to pile up, forming untidy heaps spilling over the horizon. Then, the thunder begins, and the lightening, which goes on and on like a naughty child playing with a light switch. Hours later, the rain buckets down.
Everyone keeps saying how unusual this is. Usually, according to my sources, September is bone dry. The rains aren’t supposed to start till November.
Normally we walk the kids to school in the morning, and by “we” I mean Donn. I go back to bed when they leave for a little cat-nap. When I’m well rested, the whole family is happier. But with the rain and mud, and the lack of enough umbrellas, we decided to get them a ride.
I called a taxi driver to see if he would come pick up the kids. “7:30,” I told him. “It’s not possible,” he replied. I’d obviously woken him up. We agreed he would come at 7:40, but he was 10 minutes late and the kids and I were frantically looking for another taxi when he finally appeared, looking a little bleary-eyed and fuzzy round the edges.
He drove like the wind, according to them, and they arrived just as the school was shutting the second gate. They hurled themselves in, safe, with seconds to spare before a detention. (I didn’t go as the law only allows 3 people per taxi) Ramadan is still going on but will end soon, tomorrow or the day after, and people sleep late. A man with a very loud drum and a hat with a red tassel walks up and down our street at about 3 every morning; he is considerately waking people up so that they can eat a hearty meal before the dawn call to prayer. Afterwards, if they can, people go back to bed for a few hours before the days’ work begins. During the days, the drummer wanders around the area and collects money for his services, but I must admit that I don’t appreciate him as much as my neighbours do, and I refrain from giving him my odd coins.
With evening rains, the nights are cool but the days following tend to be heavy and humid. Today stayed pretty cool and grey all day. The kids set off in jeans and sweatshirts, hoods up, splattering mud up the backs of their pants as they scurried along the street towards the waiting taxi. It feels like fall, albeit a southern fall. Here in Rabat, we are at the same latitude as LA, and I can see the similarities.
The rain has intensified all the greens, of spiky palm and hibiscus hedge and grass and eucalyptus. It has brought out the flowers, red and pink hibiscus, white and purple and fuchsia bougainvillea; the honeysuckle drips scent.  I love it, even though the following humidity isn’t to my taste. I’m hoping for a cold winter. But I realized today that the only shoes I own are open-toed sandals. Darn–more shopping is in my future.

Edited to add–I guess the Eid begins tomorrow in Mali at least. Check out Kash’s account of the preparations at her office.

Thanks to modern technology, we received the list of the kids’ school needs before we even left America. We knew which books were needed for each child, and how many binders, what kind of paper, and what colour ink for the fountain pens would be necessary.
We waited to get it all till we got here, which was a logical choice. The kind of papers and specific books wouldn’t even be available in Portland. But we’d still been in America long enough to picture ourselves going to a bookstore, handing over the list, and buying all the books.
I’ll pause here while you laugh heartily. I don’t know why I thought that. Surely I’m a bit old for such dewy-eyed naivety?
Donn and I have spent literally hours of our lives tramping around Agdal, the section where the bookstores are, looking for these books. We have found most of them. In fact, we’re really only missing two; one for Elliot, one for Abel. But those two books are nowhere to be found, and the teachers are getting surly.
Most bookstores are typical. You walk in, there’s a counter. You speak to someone behind the counter, or you hand them your list, and they go off and look through their merchandise and bring what they have to you. You pay, you leave. But Donn and I right off wandered into a used bookstore, a bouquiniste, where we seemed to enter another world.
It looked nothing from the outside, just a normal, house-sized door opening into a building on a busy street full of shops selling imported French clothing and shoes and tantalizingly-named restaurants*, closed for Ramadan.

We turned and entered, and gasped in amazement.
I have a picture for you, but first I have to describe it in words, so that you will look at the picture properly. Book were piled haphazardly from floor to ceiling. The walls were lined with shelves which were all crammed with books, and then in front of the shelves were more piles with more books. It was amazing. I have never seen so many books in such a small area before. We joined a straggly queue without having a choice; the narrow walkway between the stacks only allowed for passage of one person at a time.
The books were an unusual mix. They had everything; politics, religion, travel, biographies of obscure people, novels ancient and modern, and lots of lots of schoolbooks. I was absolutely fascinated. How on earth could it work? What if you spotted a book you wanted at the bottom of a 7-foot high stack? Would you just have to live with the slight satisfaction of knowing the book you wanted existed in the city and was safe and sound at the bouquiniste? Or what?
Donn claimed to be worried for his health. “One day, people will die here,” he warned darkly, imagining stacks of books starting to slide, people buried under the weight of other men’s words and gasping for breath. But I was unperturbed. “What a way to go!” I replied.
Scattered here and there were even a few books in English, although I didn’t really see any that appealed. I saw “Mood Poetry For Everyone in an Age of Rap”, which while I’m sure would be very inspiring, somehow didn’t really grab me. I saw “Human Development: Is There An Alternative?” and a lot of jokes sprang instantly to mind. (Feel free to make your own in comments) There was an outdated version of “Lonely Planet: Morocco,” and a paperback version, 70s era, of a knock-off Nancy Drew series. There were French versions of books by people like Ken Follett (likely) and Shirley MacLaine (unlikely).


The owner stood on a sort of raised platform, which was filled with its own piles of paperbacks, and we stood on tiptoe to pass him our list. He disappeared like a rabbit and returned some time later, with some but not all of the books, which he handed down for us to inspect. Used they certainly were; some were even torn. I wondered again at the mystery of the system. Why were the books we wanted hidden in the back, instead of out front? How could he know where they were? Did he know? Could he possibly have scanned all the shelves in the back in a relatively short time? Are there elves back there, helping?
Truly, I have much to learn about my new home.

*tantalizingly named restaurant. Don’t you want to try it?

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